All about them were skulls and bones piled to the roof of the cavern. The circle of morning light that filtered into the hypogeum reflected on a thousand bodies.
“Great Mother!” declared Redbeard, “I swear I’m dead and buried! What is this place?”
“It is a temple!” said Miri.
“Sure and it seems just like home!” said Redbeard, glaring at the bodies as if at any moment, they might decide to reanimate.
Akivai picked up a goblet from the offering table, and peered inside.
“Don’t drink that!” cried Miri in alarm.
He looked at her as if she had gone mad. He had no intention of drinking it.
He set it down beside some dried bread.
“I don’t like this place!”
“Look! A lamp!” cried Sarai, and ran to a stand. “Can we light it?”
They had no flint, or wadding to start a fire. “Perhaps we should find some tinder,” suggested Eleazar.
They all decided more light was a good idea despite the rather macabre surroundings, Eleazar and Akivai climbed up to the ruins of the ground level temple, and searched for lichens and wood to begin a fire. Martha left to join them for she felt she could not breathe underground. Sarai, Miri and Redbeard remained underground to explore the rooms. After a few minutes, Sarai called out.
“Look Mama!” she cried, “Steps!”
Miri joined her and they stared into the black space beyond the stairs.
Sarai smiled up at her mother. “Maybe there’s treasure!”
Miri laughed, but they was a chance that the temple did indeed hold a treasure. But chances were any treasure there would had already have been plundered despite its sacred nature. Miri already felt at peace in the hypogeum, and the hole seemed to beckon her. The darkness called to her and she imagined the Great Mother herself had whispered her name in Miri’s ear. But she had no time to give herself to the call of the divine.
Eleazar, Martha, and Akivai dropped violently through the hole in the ceiling and landed in a cloud of dust on the hypogeum floor. Eleazar stood up immediately.
“Romans!” he cried out.
And at that moment the sound of baying hounds echoed inside the temple.
“We’re trapped!” cried Eleazar.
“The hole!” cried Sarai.
“Quickly!” Miri ushered the others down the steps in the newly discovered hole. Eleazar went first and as he stepped off the seventh step, he cried out and lost his balance, there was only empty blackness beneath his outstretched foot, and he felt himself falling. Redbeard, immediately behind him, bumped him, and tipped Eleazar over the ledge, but in the twinkle of an eye, his great brawny arms reached out and caught Eli, and pulled him back. The sounds of the dogs were at the entrance to the ruins, halted at the peripheral columns, and their handlers held them back while the Roman garrison decided upon a course of action. There was a strong taboo of entering the sacred grove, Especially one given over to demons.
Maximinus was overcome with anger. He was a Praetorian, and he was frustrated with the lack of bravado of the local contubernium he had been assigned by the governor.
“What are you stopping for?” he demanded.
“This place is cursed!” said the Decurion in charge of the Fifth Contibernium. “We will have to make an offering before we proceeed!”
“An offering?” screamed Maximinus. He stared them down but no one shifted.
Finally he gave up. “Is there another entrance?” he asked.
The men exchanged glances and shrugged. They knew nothing about the temple. It was haunted. No one in their right mind would go in there.
He unsheathed his gladius and went in without them.
“This way!” whispered Sarai. She had found a ledge to the left of the stairs and in the dark they inched their way down into the lower cavern.
Maximinus searched the temple complex. Shamed by their own cowardice the local men joined him in the search. Their dogs, large mastiffs led them directly to the hole in the ruins. Maximinus had missed the entrance to the underground complex.
“We need a torch!” said Maximinus, but the dogs balked at the entrance, and that put the men into a quandary. They trusted that if a dog was not willing to go down a hole, then it would be folly for a man to descend into that hole.
“We should make an offering!” suggested the Decurion, and all the heads behind him nodded.
“We need more men!” said another.
Maximinus would have descended without them, but in the dark, the huge Celt could easily spot and kill him. He decided discretion to be the better part of valour. He didn’t relish the idea of facing an unseen adversary in an unknown tunnel. He asked the men to wait, told them to guard the entrance and that he would return with more men and some torches.
“And an offering!” suggested the Decurion as Maximinus marched angrily back down the road to Marsaxlokk. He would return with his own men from the Hera.
Miri and her companions inched their way through a maze of rooms and passages, but Yusef called them to halt their exploration.
“We cannot proceed without torches!” he said, “For all we know, we could be passing over the same ground, or missing an exit.
“I have a lamp!” said Martha, “I took it from the stand! And we have some moss and wood!”
She immediately took out two pieces of wood and began rubbing the point of one along a groove in another wider section of pine. The scratching of the wood filled the hypogeum, and soon the smell of burning wood curled about them, and one by one, small points of sparks glowed in the wood filings and suddenly the moss and shavings on the end of the larger stick popped into flame. Martha was ready and passed the the flame over the wick in the oil lamp and it caught fire. The flickering flame almost faded, but flickered and Martha adjusted the wick, and their faces reflected its glow.
The room about them was filled with large jars, some intact, but many broken open, and their contents, bones and copious quantities of red powder.
“EEEuuww!” said Akivai, as he examined one of the broken pots. He stuck a finger into the red powder. He held up his hand. “Is that dried flesh?” he asked as he displayed his reddened finger.
“It’s clay!” said Redbeard, “From where I come, we rub it on the dead to give them the redness of the blood of the womb.”
“The womb?” asked Akivai, “They are reborn?”
“It is so!” said redbeard, “But in another body! I myself, my family says, the spitting image of my great uncle! My sister, her grandmother.”
“You have a sister?” asked Akivai.
“Sure, and why wouldn’t I?” asked Redbeard.
Akivai stepped back a pace. “I can’t imagine it!” he said innocently, “Your beard hides your features! And you are so big! It is hard to see a resemblance between a grown man and a woman!”
“Well, wee laddie, my beard is my only feature! And my sister is a fine brae lass with twinkling green eyes and hair as red as your finger!”
“And is she as big as you?” asked Akivai.
“Bigger!” said Redbeard, with glee “And with great big…”
“We had better think about escape!” interrupted Martha. “I cannot imagine Maximinus will give up the chase!”
“Aye, and you’re right there!” said Redbeard. He looked about the gloom. The temple extended in all directions, and the smooth carved walls were perforated by black portals in every direction. “We’ll need more than one lamp!”
“Well, we have only one!” said Martha. “There is no sense wishing for the world to be other than it is!”
“Then, lead on, Good lady!” said Redbeard, “And I’ll watch your rear!”
Martha harumped at his comment, and set to examining the openings about them. “This way!” she announced and holding on to each other, the group followed behind the lady with the lamp. They entered a large hall that descended toward the left, and came to an opening that dropped away from them. They climbed into the room. The ceiling was decorated with hundreds of red spirals.
“Someone’s coming!” said Sarai.
Without speaking they all scrambled into the spiral covered chamber and scrambled through another opening into a smaller room.
“Cover the lamp!” whispered Redbeard. Miri held her shawl over it and the room turned black.
“Hello?” came a voice. Akivai, nearest the opening to the main chamber caught a flash of light in the far hallway. It was not coming near, but moving away. Suddenly, the voice gained volume and echoed inside the cavern.
She recognized the voice.
“Sidonius!” she whispered to the others.
“I am alone!” came the voice, “The others have gone!”
“The Romans would not give up that easily!” whispered Yusef, “He’s trying to bring us into the open!”
“Stay still!” whispered Redbeard.
Sidonius moved from chamber to chamber, but Miri and her companions remained hidden. He moved away from them for some time, and then actually entered the spiral chamber.
“Hello?” he called. Akivai ducked down to avoid being seen as Sidonius swung his torch about the outer chamber. Sidonius heard the scuffle of Akivai shrinking down, and turned his torch to the opening to the room in which the company was hiding.
“I am alone!” he said nervously, “I have food and drink for you!”
He advanced on the small opening, torch first, and as his hand bearing the flame poked into the small room, Redbeard yanked him by the arm and instantly wrapped a hand about Cednoius’ mouth. Sarai squealed at the sudden violence, and Miri instantly wrapped her own hand around Sarai’s mouth to keep her daughter quiet. Everyone had jumped one way or another and they were in a terrible tangle of flailing arms and legs, and everyone scrambled to avoid the flaming torch that seemed to have decided to attack everyone in the room. Finally their struggle subsided.
“Shhh!” whispered Miri, and they all held their breaths to listen for any other sounds in the cave.
“I told you, I’m alone!” protested Sidonius.
”Shhh!” said everyone at once.
The silence of the cavern reflected only echoes of their own breathing and everyone relaxed.
“How did you get in here?” asked Redbeard.
“Through the temple!” replied Sidonius, “There is only one way in!”
“What about the guards?” asked Yusef.
“I told them Paulus had sent me to negotiate with you!”
“And they let you in?” asked Miri.
“Of course, why wouldn’t they?” asked Sidonius, “They all know me!”
“And why didn’t they come in with you?” asked Redbeard.
“They are afraid of the dead!” replied Sidonius, “They think that this place is the entrance to Tartarus!”
“Hades?” asked Miri.
“The dogs will not enter,” said Sidonius, “They can sense the spirits of the dead!”
“There are no spirits here!” said Miri.
“Perhaps it’s the long drop through the hole!” replied Sidonius, “Dogs are not as oblivious to height as cats!”
“Thank goodness!” said Yusef.
“What did you bring to eat?” asked Sarai, peering over Sidonius’ shoulder.
“Bread, melons, some raisins, cheese! Perhaps we should go into the other room to eat!”
“I will go first!” growled Redbeard, clutching the torch, “Wait here!”
He stepped into the spiral chamber and peered down the hallway to the entrance. He waved to the others and they poured into the spiral chamber, and Sidonius opened his pack, and everyone ate their fill.
“Why are there spirals on the roof?” asked Sarai.
“Have you ever watched a reaper in the field?” asked Sidonius, “He starts to sweep about him, and lays the grain down, and then moves outward, and as he moves outward, the stalks are laid down behind him, and as he travels in a line, ever outwards, the grain lies in a spiral until the women gather it in sheaves to be taken to the winnowing stones! The spirals are drawn on the ceiling in the womb of the Great Mother so that Mother Earth has the seed of the farmer’s spiral of grain is at the heart of his prayers.”
“But grain is planted in straight rows!” said Akivai.
“Of course it is!” said Sidonius, “But only for farmers who have a plough, and oxen to pull them! But there are still palces on Earth that have never been ploughed, and in those places the grain is sown and harvested from the centre outwards. In ancient times, there were paces that would yield to a plough, and at first, a farmer would put two animals to the yoke, one faster and stronger than the other, so that the furrows would mimic the sacred spiral!”
“An ox and an ass!” whispered Martha.
“Exactly!” said Sidonius. His eyes flickered. “Only a team cannot plough the centre of the spiral, and an ox and a donkey are hard to manage! So, when, two of one kind are fastened to the plough, the lines became straight, and once the lines were straightened, the Great Mother’s circles were abandoned to straight lines!”
“And men scratched straight lines into Mother Earth, and thought themselves above her, and considered themselves her master, and the old ways were forgotten!”
The echoes of his words filled and died in the recesses the underground complex..
“What is this place?” asked Akivai.
“A temple, a necropolis, an ossuarium! Every generation has added a chamber or decoration. It is the womb of the Great Mother, and many generations have come here to worship and commune with Madonna. Women come to dream and prophecy! It is the Sybilline Sanctuary of the ancients, and here we are given the secrets of the Great Mother!”
“Secrets?” asked Akivai, “What secrets?”
Sidonius touched his nose. “If I told you, it would no longer be a secret,” he said mischievously. “But I can show you one secret!”
Sarai and Akivai were excited by the announcement and danced to their feet.
Sidonius entered the small room where Miri and her companions had hidden, and stepped inside. “Hello, children!” said Sidonius as he pocked his head from the hole to the other room. Amazingly, his voice echoed throughout the cavern.
“Let me try!” cried Akivai.
“And me!” said Sarai.
Excitedly they scrambled into the room and called out, but their voices did not echo. They were terribly disappointed.
“Why doesn’t it work?” grumbled Sarai.
“For some reason,” explained Sidonius, “Only a man’s voice is carried about, and not a woman’s!”
“That’s typical!” grumbled Martha, but no one paid any attention to her.
They finished their meal, and Sidonius told them he would return the following day.
“How will you explain yourself?” asked Yusef.
“I’ll tell them I couldn’t find you, and that I think you may have been swallowed by Cerberus!”
“Swallowed?” asked Saria in alarm, clutching her mother, “What’s a Cerberus?”
“The watchdog of Hades,” said Miri, “But don’t worry, he’s not here!” She turned to Sidonius. “Do you think they’ll believe you?”
Sidonius shrugged. “It’ll make them think twice about coming down here!”
“Won’t they ask you why you weren’t eaten?” asked Sarai.
“Well,” said Sidonius, digging into his pack, “The only thing that will keep Cerberus from eating you, is…” He unwrapped a linen bundle. “Honeycakes!”
Sarai squealed in delight and everyone shushed her.
She took the honey cake from Sidonius and he distributed the cakes amongst the refugees.
“I had better go!” he said, and ripped his tunic between his hands as he stood up.
“Dramatic effect!” he explained. He crumbled a single honeycake into his linen bundle, and gathered the edges in. “I had better show you another place to hide!” he said and he led them from the spiral chamber across the hall they had already come, between two columns and across into an amazing chamber carved from the pink limestone. It was a round hall and all the walls were pierced by dark portals. They passed across the hall and stepped into an amazing room carved with trilithic stone pillars and lintels, and a domed roof, stepped in concentric circles.
“There is another chamber beyond that door,” announced Sidonius. “You can rest here!” He handed the torch to Eleazar. “My the Great Mother keep you safe!”
“And peace be with you!” said Eleazar.
In an instant, Sidonius disappeared back down the hallway beyond, and they were alone.
“Now what?” asked Sarai and sat down in a niche in the wall.
Sidonius poked his head through the hole and was faced with a ring of spears.
Maximinus stood above him, his hands on his hips.
“What, in the name of Jove are you doing here?” demanded Maximinus.
“Making an offering to Ceres!” said Sidonius amiably. “Help me up!”
Maximinus didn’t move, but two soldiers offered their hands to Sidonius and helped him up. They were extremely deferential, and their obsequiousness seemed to irritate Maximinus.
“Well,” said Maximinus, “The rabbit comes out from his hole! Where are the others?”
“Others?” asked Sidonius, “ What others?”
Maximinus took a menacing step towards Sidonius. “Don’t play with me, Sidonius! My captives went down that hole!”
“I didn’t see them!” stuttered Sidonius, but he was not a good liar and the bravado he had intended to display completely eluded him. “They…” he frowned as he tried to gather his thoughts, “They were eaten by a …” Maximinus slapped him viciously across the face, and grasped him by his tunic.
“I have no time for games!” he said, “The ship is sailing!”
Maximinus turned on the soldiers standing awkwardly about. “We’re taking him in with us!” he told them. Light the torches!”
No one moved.
“Light the torches!” shouted Maximinus.
“We, uh..” said the Decurion apologetically, “We haven’t performed a sacrifice!”
“Sacrifice?” demanded Maximinus, “Sacrifice? We have no time for sacrifice!” He was clearly frustrated and though they feared his authority, it was apparent the soldiers were not going into the womb of Mother Earth without first making an offering.
“What if I pay you?” asked Maximinus. He grappled with his purse at his belt, and poured silver coins into his open palm. Ten denarii each! How about that? I’ll give you enough to make an offering in the temple of your choice!”
There was some movement, but it was primarily shuffling of feet, and no one stepped forward. He held his hand out. “Anyone? Anyone at all?”
Finally a weasel of a man squeezed between his fellows, “I’ll go!”
“Fine! Ten denarii!” said Maximinus dropping ten coins into the weasel’s palm.
“For twelve denarii!” said the weasel looking down at his coins and back to Maximinus’ purse.
“That’s ridiculous!” growled Maximinus.
“Eleven!” countered the weasel.
Having no taste at that moment for haggling, Maximinus dropped another coin into the weasel’s hand, and the weasel secreted his bribe in his own wallet.
“Anyone else?” asked Maximinus.
Realizing he would be the only soldier going after the fugitives, and he could actually be called upon to engage in open combat, the weasel called out to a large soldier amongst his contiburnium.
“Fidelius!” he called out, “Fidelius! Surely you will not abandon your old friend, Mustellus? Come forward! Ten denarii! Think of your mother! Surely she would be glad of money!”
Fidelius, obviously not one to make decisions of his own looked to his comrades to keep him from falling under Mustellus’ spell, but they all averted their eyes.
“Come!” urged Mustellus, and Fidelius was drawn forward by Mustellus’ call. “Come!” Once Fidelius was in place, four others found it in their hearts to join the party. Maximinus drained his purse, and those who for whom he had no financing, he set to guard the entrance.
“Well, we have a quorum!” said Maximinus sarcastically. The contiburnium had brought nets with them to throw and entangle the runaways. They were game nets but served quite well for snaring a fugitive on the run. Maximinus gave two of his recruits nets.
“Light the torches!” he ordered.
This time the men sprang into action and each of the hunters was handed a torch.
Maximinus drew his sword and poked at Sidonius.
Sidonius took a deep breath and descended into the underground labyrinth. Once the last of the search party disappeared, a net was spread over the openeing so that should the fugitives elude the search party, they would be caught in the net when they climbed from the hole.
Once inside, the men huddled together. Their lances were of no use to them in the confined spaces, and tended to scrape the walls, and the sound of metal on limestone grated on Sidonius’ teeth.
“Where are they?” asked Maximinus.
“I told you, I didn’t see them!” said Sidonius.
The men behind them were very nervous, and would not have been the best of soldiers to assign to digging tunnels under siege towers. Sidonius made sure they searched every corner of the upper level, and studiously avoided revealing the entrance to the lower level, but Maximinus spotted it on his own.
‘What’s down here?” he asked.
“Nothing, just some a storeroom!” replied Sidonius, but it was apparent Maximinus was able to divine truth from lie even before the words left Sidonius’ mouth.
“Who has nets?” Maximinus asked.
“You stay here!” the Praetorian ordered the first soldier who answered in the affirmative, “Set you net after we are inside!”
The soldier accepted the guard duty gladly, for he had no desire to descend any further. Maximinua pushed Sidonius into the opening and followed him down and the others followed reluctantly. The guard left behind, having secured the net across the opening by driving iron nails threaded through a wooden stop into the limestone, suddenly felt the absence of his fellows. He nervously set his back firmly against a wall, looked nervously about, turning his torch this way and that, and hoping nothing in the darkness would move.
Below him, the others began a search of the underground complex. There were no right angle in the temple, and the warren about them was confusing and disorienting. “It is just like the Labyrith of the Minator!” whispered Mustellus.
“Shhh!” said Maximinus, as he considered mentioning a flesh eating monster as they were exploring the cave to be counter productive to his goal.
“What’s a Minator?” asked one of the lesser educated members of their group.
“Well, in the days of the Greeks…” began Mustellus.
“Be quiet!” ordered Maximinus, “This is not the time and place..”
At that very moment an inhuman cry of pain and anger filled the cavern, and echoed inside every chamber.
There was an audible clash of metal as the men clutched at each other for protection.
“For the love of…”
Another tortured moan rang through the cavern and the men panicked. They scrambled back the way they came, and the coins they had taken as payment fell rained noisily onto the stone floor, their blood money abandoned as payment to the spirits of the Underworld. Unfortunately they ran into the net set at the entrance and caught in a giant spider’s web, they screamed terribly at their fate as they struggled with the ropes that had ensnared the. The guard set at the door bolted instantly from his post, and became emsnared in the net set at ground level in the temple ruins, and his fellows there, lolling about the temple grounds, instead of converging on their netted comrade, fled without even ascertaining whether the creature in the net was friend or foe.
Incensed at the cowardice of his soldiers, Maximinus roared at them to come back, but none listened to his commands. Sidonius, sensing the time to strike had come, with no weapons cast his robe over Maximinus, and attempted to bundle the Praetorian in the cloth, but, with reflexes borne of years of brutal combat, Maximinus sidestepped the attack, and, by reflex stabbed at Sidonius with his torch. The burning end of the torch smashed into Sidonius’ face and the harbourmaster’s assistant screamed in agony and fell clutching his face.
A sudden rush of wind turned him, but he was too late, and Redbeard disarmed him with a single blow and his knees gave out beneath him. He saw a single flash of his own gladius raised above him but Miri’s cry stopped it before it thrust downwards.
His vision clouded and the light poor, but her face appeared before him, and he was suddenly smitten. “We shall need him!” she said to someone. He could make no sense of his surroundings but she seemed an angel of mercy. He reached out to her and promptly blacked out.
Sidonius was badly burned. His flesh had taken on some oil from the torch, and his eyes were seared. Miri cleaned his wounds with a strip of cloth torn from her dress and some wine. Martha took a strip of cloth from the sleeve of her own garment, and they bandaged his eyes. They took refuge in the domed chamber.
Maximinus, was tied, hands behind his back, with strips of his own tunic
“You’ll never get away with this!” he warned.
“We already have!” replied Redbeard. “You’re our hostage. And I doubt there’s a soul on this island prepared to ransom you from us! Your men have turned tail and headed for Marsaxlokk and no doubt, they’ll weave a tale of monsters that will make the Greek yarn of the Minator pale in comparison! As far as the outside world is concerned, you’re a dead man!”
Maximinus considered the last sentence a threat from the great Celt.
But Redbeard was not as filled with confidence as his words to the Praetorian. But the outcome to their predicament was not important to him. If they escaped, he would live another day, and if not, then he would die fighting. His world was as it should be and he was content with it. He was at home inside the womb of the Great Mother, for there were places, as old as the hills, in the land of his birth. In that moment he decided it was time to return to his birthplace, and he had the sense that remaining with these Jews would lead him back. So far, he was almost halfway home, and the direction made sense.
He approached Miri and Lazarus.
“We should go as soon as it is dark!”
“It’s dark now!” piped up Akivai.
“Aye it is, lad!” replied Redbeard, “But outside, if my reckoning is right, it’s still daylight!”
“I miss the sun!” said Akivai.
“Then, if it’s alright with your mother, perhaps we can go and sit and watch the light!”
“Can I go mama?” asked Akivai.
Miri’s first inclination was to say no, but she was confident Redbeard would defend her son with his life, and nodded.
“Can I have a sword?” asked Akivai excitedly.
“No!” replied everyone at once.
Full and bright, the moon was high in the sky, and nd turned the stones silver. The roof of the temple had collapsed sometime in the distant past, but under the moon, it seemed as though its builders had designed the building to become the ruin it was. The place was imbued with a sense of rightness, and that all had unfolded by divine design. As Miri and her companions emerged from the Earth, they had a sense they were entering a different world than the one they had left. And in a direct way it had.
Maximinus was now their prisoner. Sidonius had thrown his hand with Miri, and could no longer return to his post as assistant harbourmaster. Nor could he remain in his past life on the island.
“We need a ship!” said Miri.
Redbeard and Eleazar exchanged glances, and the Celt frowned.
“Aye, we do!” said Redbeard, “We’ll have to get to the harbour, and search for passage!”
“Where can we go?” asked Eleazar.
“You can’t hide from Rome!” said Maximinus, “The legions reach all four corners of the world! There is no where you can hide!”
“Parthia!” said Eleazar.
“Tuatha dan Tara!”
Maximinus’ definitive statement of the ubiquitous omnipresence of Rome had created a flurry of places where Romans feared to tread, and laughter at the explosion of safe havens for them to flee.
“I was born in the Tuatha of Tara,” said Redbeard, “There are no Romans there, and never will be!” His feeling he was homeward bound took hold of him, and alternatives began to sprout from his brain, over his tongue and out through his mouth. “We can reach the island by sailing around Iberia! Or through Marsala, and up the Rhone through Gaul.”
“You’ll never make it!” sneered Maximinus, “You have no passport!”
“He will betray us!” said Martha, “But how can we let him go?”
“We will set him adrift once we get a ship,” said Miri.
“Let’s put him in the hole!” said Akivai brightly.
“He will die in there, sweetie!”
Her son’s face dropped, for he had not thought of the consequences, and he remained silent.
“The best thing you could do would be to turn yourself in!” said Maximinus.
“And become slaves to the Empire?” demanded Redbeard, “Why would we do that?”
“As long as you are alive, there is hope, but none once you are dead,” said Maximinus. “If you surrender to me, I am sworn under orders of the Emperor to take you to court alive!”
“And afterward?” asked Eleazar.
Maximinus had talked himself into a corner.
“We can do nothing with him alive!” growled Redbeard.
“No!” said Miri vehemently, “No more killing! I have had enough!”
“Then what can we do?” asked Eleazar.
“I will go into Marsaxlokk, and find a ship!” said Sidonius. “No one is looking for me! I will tell everyone Ursus Maximinus was killed!”
“But you’re blind!” protested Martha. “How will you find your way there?”
“I will go with him!” said Yusef, “No one will remember me. I have been inside a cage for the whole voyage!”
“A blind man and a cripple!” said Maximinus snidely. “Not much to defy the Legions of Rome!”
Redbeard stunned the Praetorian with a right cross. Maximinus spit blood onto the stones at his feet, and looked up at the Celt and smiled, quite proud that the massive punch had not knocked him unconscious a second time.
“That’s not necessary!” snapped Miri.
“My hand slipped!”
Yusef and Sidonius readied to leave. Eleazar offered to go in his grandfather’s place, but acquiesced to his grandfather’s need to feel useful. He found a large branch and stripped it down to make a walking stick, and presented it to the old man.
“Ah!”” declared Yusef gratefully, “And now, like Moses, I shall strike this rock and part the sea!” He brought the staff smartly down upon the stone upon which he stood. “Nothing!” he declared. “I’ll have to work on it!”
As no one relished the idea of descending below ground to wait, they all set to find an above ground hiding place. As they looked about, Miri was drawn to a trilith in the centre of the ruined basilica. She recognized it immediately as an altar. For some reason, it had not been cast down, and she approached it slowly.
The flagstones about the altar were littered with grain and flowers and other litter that told her it was still used as an offering table, and the touched the stone lightly with her hand. The stone was still warm from the sun, and radiated a gentle heat, and she placed both hands firmly on the surface. Thus connected to the sacred stone, she was overcome by a need to clean it off and she swept away the old remnants of sacral ceremonies. She cast about the circle of stones, and recognized the place immediately. She was in the sacred circle of her childhood dreams, and as she turned about the stone circle, partially enclosed and joined by a stone wall, flowers and plants grew instantly beneath her gaze.
The vision filled her with an unexpected ecstasy, and as she finished turning the circle in full, a crystal chalice materialized upon the sacral stone. She reached out, and as she touched the chalice, it filled with water that swelled upward to meet her touch and overflowed the rim. At first, she held it out at arm’s length to avoid spilling water on her clothes, but the urge to drink from the cup was too great and she brought the chalice to her mouth, and drank deeply of its waters. The living waters flowed over and into her, and she was enveloped in a grand feeling of belonging and beneficence, and for a brief moment thought she had never before felt so complete, but in the same instant, she remembered Yeshua, and his wordless spirit echoed inside her, and she was taken aback by his presence, and in that instant also realized she had lost him somewhere along the way.
He eyes were opened, and within the circle stood Eleazar and Martha, Akivai and Sarai, and even the bound Maximinus. And they were as amazed as she at the transformation for they saw her standing in a great white light as she held the chalice, and at her right hand stood her husband Yeshua. And she beckoned to them, and they approached one by one, first Akivai, Eleazar and Sarai, and Martha and Maximinus, still bound. Last were Yusef and the Celt, followed by the blind Sidonius. And to each she offered a drink of the everlasting waters, and each drank in their turn. And as Maximinus drank of her cup, his bonds fell away, and at the last, Sidonius, she lifted his bandages and poured the water over his forehead, and the water washed away the burns and the blisters, and he could see once again. And each one she kissed, and as they passed by, Yeshua’s spirit reached out and held them fast, and they fell into a deep sleep, each one, amongst the flowers and grasses of the sacred circle, and Miri, being drained, lay her head upon the altar and closed her eyes.
They were surrounded.
A bristling hedge of spears hemmed them in, and they had no choice but to surrender to the Roman legion. The centurion who commanded the cohort was a short stocky son of the earth. He saluted Maximinus as the Praetorian groggily awoke.
“We hear you might be in a spot of trouble, Ursus!”
“Caius?” asked Maximinus in surprise. “I must be dreaming! I thought I had left you for dead!”
“Apparently not!” replied Caius with a grin, “The physicians did all they could, but an old woman fed me herbs and lamb stew and brought me back to the land of the living!” He surveyed the awakening prisoners. “Anyway, when I heard you may have been killed by this brigand band, I thought to come to exact revenge! And here you are sleeping like one big happy family!”
The memories of the appearance of Yeshua flitted across his eyes for a moment, and he pushed the vision away.
“I think we must have swallowed some drug!” said Maximinus, “It was a strange night!”
“Still, all is well, that ends well!” replied Caius heartily. He motioned to his men and they clapped Miri and her followers into irons. The sound of the clanking chains seemed to clear his brain. “Not the old man!” he said, and caught a glance from Miri as she was bound. “The children will follow their mother!” he said and took the chains destined for Akivai and Sarai, and slung them over his shoulder.
Miri was in a similar daze as Maximinus. She knew they had all seen the same vision, and though being chained once again after their brief taste of freedom was doubly galling, the after effects of her union with Yeshua and the others did not allow her to fall completely into the depths of despair. As they came over the rise and caught sight of the south harbour of Marasxlokk, Maximinus cried out.
The Hera was gone!
“Where is my ship?” he wailed.
“Ah!” said Caius, “When they heard you had been killed, they heard the winds were favourable for passage north, and they set sail! If I had known they were about to leave, I would have prevented it, there’s no doubt!”
“There is another!” said Eleazar, spying a small corsair in the harbour.
The Romans eyed him with disdain. They were not about to take advice from a prisoner, and in most circumstances it would have gained him a cuff across the ear for insubordination. Eleazar’s mouth snapped shut.
But the seed had been laid.
At the docks, Maximinus received a sum of money against his Imperial warrant from the priests of Juno, and booked passage with the first mate on the small ship for Ostia. As well as his prisoners, which now included the Celt and the young Nabatean, the captain of the Hera had deposited Sobek, still in his cage, on the docks before leaving. Maximinus was in great spirits, and was excited as the crew of the corsair loaded his cargo amidships.
As Miri and her companions were brought aboard, Maximinus asked to be presented to the captain. “Ah!” replied the first mate, “Sh…The captain’s indisposed for the moment,” he said, “A bit too much of the hair of the dog, if you know what I mean!”
“You mean your captain is a drunkard?” asked Maximinus indignantly, “Perhaps I should wait for another ship!”
“Not at all! Not at all!” protested the first mate, “The captain is the finest navigator on the open sea. I’m sure the sea air will clear her pretty little head!”
“Her?” asked Maximinus.
“Ah!” replied the first mate, “Did I say her? It is a manner of speech in my country to mix a fine captain with the ship!”
“And what is the name of this ship?” asked Maximinus.
“The Magdalena!” said the first mate proudly. The name immediately caught Miri’s attention. “This ship has the greatest heart of any on any water!”
His captives stowed and chained, Maximinus took a place at the prow of the ship as the crew bent to their oars to spin her about, and slowly, for the crew was not bound to as strict a discipline as the roman slave galleys, the Magdelena turned her high prow to the open sea. As they passed the promontory, Maximinus happened to glance down at the stowed sprit sail.
“Red!” he said in alarm, and bent to examine the cloth more closely, and as he grasped the sail cloth, he muttered “Pirates!” But before he could form any further opinion, he was knocked unconscious by a well-placed belaying pin.
Within moments, the crew unchained Miri and her companions with the keys from the Praetorian’s belt. Amongst the legs about them, Miri noticed one smoother and more gracefully formed, and as she followed the lines upward, she came face to face with Drusilla.
“Drew!” she cried, and leapt to her feet. The two women embraced, and Miri held Drusilla out at arms length.
“Look at you!” she said admiring the young woman before her. “I can’t believe it’s you!” Drusilla was dressed in a man’s tunic and cloak, though it did not hide her well-formed legs and feminine feet.
“None other!” said Drusilla happily. “I think of you every day, Miriam!”
“And I you!” replied Miri.
“And this must be Akivai!” said Drusilla, “You were just a tot when I saw you last!” She tousled his hair and pinched his cheek, and he was instantly smitten. In that single moment, Drusilla became Akivai’s first true love.
“And Sarai!” said Drusilla, squeezing Sarai’s hand. “You’re beautiful!”
Greetings aside, Drusilla was drawn away to oversee the setting of the sails. Akivai followed behind her, careful not to get in the way of the crew, and remained a respectful ten paces behind Drusilla as she moved about the ship. If there was even a mote of his being held in reserve in admiration of the captain, it was completely removed, when, she climbed through the rigging as easily as a monkey through the trees to free a snarled line. She dropped to the deck like an angel from heaven, and noticed him staring at her. Her hands on her hips she smiled at him and waved. She was already gone to another task before his hand rose in a stunned attempt to wave back.
A huge hand tousled his hair.
“She’s a fine woman, isn’t she laddie?” said Redbeard, “You could do a lot worse than marry the likes of her!”
Akivai had not really thought past his overwhelming crush on Drusilla, nor the difference in ages between them, and Redbeard’s comment made him feel smaller, though it did not diminish the overwhelming spell Drusilla now cast over him. A sudden shout alerted the entire crew, and all eyes turned east. Three huge white sails were bearing across the starboard bow, and it was apparent they were heading to intercept the Magdalena.
Their only hope was to turn as close to the wind as the Magdalena’s sails could hold, as the lateen sail could bring a tighter edge to the sails than the square rigged Roman ships, and that meant heading north.
“Prepare to come about!” cried Drusilla, and her crew, to a man moved in perfect unison, all instantly understanding their captain’s plan. Once they were in place at the lines, Drusilla called for the helmsman to come about, and the boat heeled sharply, and crashed through the waves as they pounded her broadside. But in a few heartbeats she was charging almost straight into the oncoming waves. Once committed, Drusilla knew the other ships, if they were pirate hunters, would turn toward them, but they had no choice but to run. Romans were as determined as their mastiffs once they were on the trail of quarry. And turn they did.
“Sail ahoy!” cried the lookout, and the Roman trireme that had accompanied the Hera to Marsaxlokk, all three banks of oars flashing in the sun, was heading toward them from the island at full speed. The three ships behind the Magalena were spreading apart, three prongs of Neptune’s Fork to spear the tiny Magdalena. Drusilla ordered her crew to turn the Magdalena west, and the little ship, tacking across the wind began to put sea between her pursuers, but the breeze suddenly died, and the sea calmed, and the Magdalena slowed and was taken by the slight current that now carried them northwest of the three islands, Gozo, Comino and Malta.
The crew rushed to drop the yardarms, and lock their oars in place, but they rarely had to resort to rowing as most of the time the little ship could maneuver quite well under sail. But this time, their lives and freedom depended upon their backs, and fear impelled in a chaotic scramble to find their stations. Miri gathered her family together to avoid getting in the way, and called Akivai back to the fold. He reluctantly returned to her, but he sensed he needed to get out from underfoot, and climbed into the huddle of his family. Miri squeezed him tight, and he pushed into her embrace.
Both Redbeard and Eleazar leapt up and found a place at the oars, and at the call to positions, the crew lifted the oars and on the oarmaster’s shout dropped the oars into the water and pulled hard on his command to heave!
By the stern Drusilla called on Rabbat Tanit.
“Mother of the Seas, hear your daughter! Preserve us this day and deliver us from our enemies! Ignore our sins, and when the time comes we shall give our fullest thanks, for you know in our hearts, we honour thee always! Give us this day, in our hour of need, the strength to remain free and escape the fetters of our oppressors! And take from them the will to harm us!”
“Amen!” declared the helmsman.
“Keep her steady, Pelagius!” she said firmly.
“Aye! Steady she is!” replied Pelagius.
She grabbed his head and playfully kissed his bald pate.
“You’re my lucky charm. Helmsman!”
“And you mine, Captain!”
Their pleasantries were cut short as an iron bolt shot across the deck, pierced the starboard sheer strake, and into the sea, thankfully missing the man rowing, but the strike threw his stroke off and the oars tangle on the starboard side, and the ship lurched suddenly to the damaged side. Spare crew rushed in to sort out the tangled oars, and the port oarsmen lifted their oars from the water. Pelagius was lifted from the deck as he tried to compensate for the sudden swerve, but he let the helm go to avoid snapping the rudder, as he recognized the creak as weakening wood, and fell to the deck. Just as a seconfd ballista bolt whistled past his ear. The second missile crashed into the deck almost at his feet and disappeared into the hole it had punctured in the deck.
“That’ll be in the hull, Mistress!” he called to Drusilla.
“See to it Pelagius!” ordered Drusilla, “I’ll take the helm!”
Though he was stronger and more experienced at the helm than the captain, he obeyed without question.
“Miri!” cried Drusilla, “To the helm!”
Miri was instantly on her feet, “Stay here!” she shouted to the twins as she raced to help Drusilla with the rudder.
They managed to bring the haft of the rudder down and straighten the ship. The starboard team had cleared away the broken oars and regained their coordination.
“Oars up!” cried the Oarsmaster. “Oars down!”
The oars dropped with a great splash.
The oarsmen rowed with a greater intensity, spurred by the desire to escape the range of the Roman ballista.
The Oarsmaster ran between the oarsmen and added her voice to the Oarsmaster’s, and every man aboard began to join her cries as it helped establish their rhythm. Another bolt splashed astern and Drusilla called out to Pelagius.
“She’s breached!” he called from below, “We’ll need to bail and stitch it closed!”
“Is she taking water?” asked Drusilla.
“Aye, you could say that!” replied Pelagius. He was soaked to the skin and the water sprayed in at him at a rate he knew would soon fill the hold and sink the ship. Above deck, a breath of wind lifted Drusilla’s hair.
“Thank you Mother!” she whispered, and shouted to the crew. “Belay the oars and hoist sail!”
The wind blew from the southwest, and they had no advantage, and only a quick response would put them out of reach of the Roman galleys. They would need all the speed they could get. They were far shorter than the galleys, and might lose against the longer keels of the larger ships. It was all about hoisting as much sail as quickly as possible. The main lateen was fitted quickly and hoisted aloft. The foresail was added and finally a topgallant rigged. Astern, the Romans still rowed toward them, but they were readying sail. It was obvious, the galleys were moving to the starboard of the Magdalena to prevent her from reaching the African coast, and they were attempting to drive her toward the Sicilian shores.
“Ahoy Southeast!” cried the lookout, and all eyes swept to the starboard. Dark clouds were approaching. A storm, a big one, was bearing down on them. “Full sail!” Drusilla. “Aphrodite has answered our prayers!”
She glanced quickly at Miri. “The Romans will turn tail and run for harbour!”
Sure enough, as the angry clouds billowed toward them, the sails dropped on the Roman galleys, and they turned about, and headed toward the safety of the harbours of Malta.