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Blood in the Desert
You Left in Me the Faith - Book One
by C. Douglas Gordon

Chapter One
Banishment

I
                                                           Rasafa, Syria 293 AD

In full battle regalia, the Roman officer Quintus Flavius Scipio, a Supernumerarius in the Roman Legion of the Caesar Galerius Maximianus, reveled in parading through crucifixion sites on a large Persian stallion that was given to him as a reward for his brutal efficiency. The Supernumerarii were elite officers who served the cavalry, military intelligence and other special assignments as determined by Regional Governors. He distinguished himself in the Legion’s Cavalry in campaigns against the Persian invasions of Roman Mesopotamia.
Apart from his razor sharp Roman sword, the horse was his prize possession. Quintus had named his mount Narseh, after the Persian General who fought Galerius to a standstill after eight years of ruthless conflict. His black-eyed equine trophy was stark white, except for its black chin, lips and proud nostrils. His long flowing mane and tail glistened silver-white in the bright sun. The stallion served as a perfect extension of the rider’s equally imposing figure, clad in a brightly polished breastplate and a helmet with a long, flowing crimson mane. With nostrils flaring, both horse and rider trotted past the tortured victims. Eye to eye with the crucified, the officer taunted and berated his prey. Onlookers cowered beneath his imposing gaze. Others fled at their first sight of his arrival. This brazen ceremonial ritual was a reminder to the entire local population of the Emperor’s resolve to punish the empire’s declared enemies, those who persisted stubbornly in the futile worship of an inferior Man-God deemed by those who were then in power to be of little to no consequence, Yesua.

On this day, Quintus came upon a woman who was on her knees praying beneath the wretched figure of a crucified man. The Supernumerarius approached her at a quick trot. Upon reaching her, he halted and raised his steed’s imposing head, holding it outstretched above the head of the cloaked woman whose eyes remained closed, hands clasped, steadfast in prayer. Both Quintus and Narseh drew themselves up self-importantly, as if the woman’s public and devout display were far beneath the dignity of either. Angered by her seeming indifference and presumed effrontery, Quintus dismounted, drawing his sword.

“Impudent woman! Is this man known to you? Answer me!”

“He is my son,” she said softly. Her eyes fixed on the tortured figure of her only son, who slumped, dying before her.

Mocking her, he asked, “And what is it you are praying for? Is it for his miraculous salvation, or perhaps for his resurrection after certain death?”

“Neither. I am praying that he forgives you,” she replied. This blatant act of disrespect further enraged him. Quintus spun about to face the dying man, then thrust his sword deep into the man’s chest and pierced clean through his aorta, releasing a copious fountain of vivid crimson blood upon both his horse and the lowly peasant woman.

Still she prayed, unfazed by the carnage and brutal sacrifice of her son.

“Woman! Do you not know that your son can forgive no one? In your so-called god’s own words, ‘Give thee unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.’ Your son is dead only because he refuses to give Caesar his due, the allegiance Caesar’s worth demands!”

Undaunted, the woman spoke, quoting the Gospel of Thomas, “Yesua says give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, give to God what is God’s and give to me what is mine. Those are His words.”

“Why precisely ought I to consider yours, ignorant woman? Your son is dead. All that you have left to give is that which I just exacted from him, your own paltry life. I suppose that you expect that I should spare that, as well?”

“No. Mine is the power to forgive, and I forgive you for what you have done, as well as for what you are now about to do,” she said, her voice soft, yet unwavering in its conviction.

“Enough of this insolence!” he cried as his sword fell upon her, violently severing her head from its frail, slender neck. Spurting blood splashed across Quintus’ now immobile form, soaking his legs, cloak, sandals and feet. Relishing the tactile sensation of spilt blood, the unmistakable scent of its coppery tang, Quintus drew himself up, his strong jaw jutting forward, as if to better please his absent Roman audience. Only the gleam of his ice-blue eyes betrayed the otherwise seeming indifference of his chiseled visage. The woman’s now pallid body fell forward, nearly exsanguinated and altogether lifeless. Quintus stood triumphantly, posing as a victor, indifferent to the motionless corpse of the woman, now joined in death with the suspended form of her tortured son, completing the gruesome tableau of twisted loathing and decimation he had fashioned.

Quintus relished the cacophony of battle and of death. Success depended on an instinctive command of his senses. Spiritual renewal, he felt, is born of survival. While the chaos of battle accelerated time, the rituals of beheading, torture and crucifixion slowed its pace, heightening the experience. Beheadings, in particular, he savored as enjoyable sensory affairs. The sound of his Roman sword sliding from it sheath, its weight and the almost buttery ease with which it sliced through the neck, all were intensified, underscored by the sound of the head as it hit the ground. As it rolled to a stop, there befell a brief silence followed by the dull, but certain thump of the decapitated body as it struck the ground.

Diocletian’s junior emperor, Galerius, handpicked Quintus not for his valor in battle, but for the cold dispatch with which he executed his assignments. Even his spiritual being was defined by a brutally callous and god-like dominance. Quintus Flavius Scipio was the perfect instrument for conducting the ruthless persecution of stubbornly devoted, pious Christian believers. From his Imperial seat in Antioch, Galerius appointed Quintus as the chief persecutor of Christians in Syria.

Quintus’ memories of his “special assignment” were replete with corporeal predilections. Mass crucifixions were laden with the stench of decaying bodies and the sounds of death. The screams and moans of dying men, a chorus orchestrated by demons, were punctuated by the occasional squabbles of feeding vultures and the wailings of roadside women. The sight of foaming mouths paled in comparison to the guttural gasps of victims drowning as fluids accumulated in their lungs. Habitually, he would close his eyes, not in an effort to shield himself from the sights of slaughter, but to better attune and enhance his other senses, particularly to the symphony of death and torture and death again, which he conducted with the supreme effectiveness of a maestro.

Quintus’ loyalty was generously rewarded. In addition to his glorious steed, his accumulation of wealth included vast tracts of land and a lavish villa, complete with slaves. Among these was a particularly treasured possession, the daughter of an Egyptian Christian leader whose family was sold into slavery after her father’s brutal, attenuated torture and eventual beheading. Quintus had acquired the girl three years previously, when she had just turned thirteen. She was a gift from the Roman governor of Syria, a reward for Quintus’ efficient persecution of Christians. Her father had been martyred when she was only ten; she was taken east by a Roman official who was reassigned to Syria and had subsequently fallen from the governor’s grace.

As her nascent beauty unfolded, her petite, feminine frame softened, her smooth, olive skin seemed to glow and her delicate hands were slender and soft. Her golden-brown skin was accentuated by long, straight, ebony hair, which fell, glinting blue in the sun. Her physical comeliness radiated an aura of purity apt for a service which Quintus reserved for her alone. After returning from his “special assignments,” the girl was required to perform a thorough purification ritual. First, she bathed him. Afterward, she massaged his body with oils and groomed both his hair and his beard. He preferred to remain standing throughout, although her small stature required him to be seated so that she could best serve him. Her perceived innocence made her, he thought, the perfect choice for this ceremony.

Although he suspected that she had been sexually violated by her previous owner, Quintus regarded her as untouchable, and he intended to keep her that way, not out of any sense of honor, but instead, as a tempting luxury he reserved only for himself. He compelled her to strip bare before she was allowed to perform the cleansing ritual. Lusting for her succulent body intensified his purification ritual, as did the touch of her skin and the smell of her hair. For three years, now, he had watched her body mature, her breasts gradually budding, her womanly shape evolving. The longer he refrained from enjoying her as any master would have long ago, the more he stoked his prurient delight.

Never once did he think to ask her name, an oversight that satisfied her, for it was all she had left of her father who had chosen her name, Miriam. When she administered to him, he would stroke her thighs and the backs of her arms, tracing his fingers over her shoulders and across her breasts. He would gather her hair in his hands, smelling her sweet fragrance. His taunting strokes made the girl tense with fear, which she strove to stem through silent, yet fervent prayers.

Somehow, this day, this ritual, would be different. As Quintus journeyed toward home, his yearning for the slave’s touch, his yearning to touch her, would vanish, for the peaceful tone of the beheaded woman’s voice haunted him as he traveled toward his lands, his villa, his household. Upon his arrival, Quintus dismissed his livery servants. Uncharacteristically, he personally cleaned his body armor and groomed his horse. The blood was exceptionally difficult to remove; it tinged the legs of his white horse with stains that, against all reason, he feared might prove permanent. His gore-encrusted garments disgusted him. He burned them. The blood’s unusual tenaciousness delayed his arrival for the cleansing ritual. For her, the wait generated even more anxiety than usual. The silent, cool surroundings chilled her naked body, and goose flesh raised the soft hairs on her arms and legs. Her body was tensed more so than ever before; she dreaded his beastly toying even more. When he entered the room, she could sense an uneasiness in him that was quite unfamiliar. His ordinarily palpable air of dominance seemed to have diminished, a loss of puissant authority that he sensed as well. She sensed his reticence, yet discerned that he wanted something from her, that he longed for a gesture, perhaps … something more, surely, than the ritual performance. But why? What could this mean? Tangled uncertainty gripped them both.

Normally, she would begin by bathing his head, then his shoulders, working her way down his torso toward his feet, which she reserved for last, just as he’d insisted time and time again. Noticing that both his legs and feet were stained with blood, she silently retrieved a bucket of clean warm water, dropped to her knees and began to wash his legs. Her strokes were gentle and soothing. The blood dissolved with her touch.

His uneasiness waned. He touched her hair. Its softness eased him further. He stepped back from her and gently pulled her to him. Face to face with her, she averted her gaze as he lingered over her features, which seemed, he thought, to have been sculpted by the gods, replete with a perfectly proportioned aquiline nose, thin lips and a gently pointed chin. Thin, charcoal black eyebrows and high cheekbones framed her most striking feature, deep-set hazel eyes that glinted celadon green. Curious, he thought, until this day, it seemed he’d long assumed they were merely brown, ubiquitous brown and universal. Mysterious, reflective and unsettlingly haunting, her eyes simultaneously spoke volumes, yet revealed nothing at all. Cupping her face in his hands, he pulled her closer as they breathed the air in unison. He stared into her eyes, his dominance giving way to submission, which discomfited him deeply. She stared into his soul, seeking his spirit, sensing his desolation.

Sensing a need to speak, she said, “God’s love will save you. Yesua says, ‘Ask for forgiveness and you shall receive.’” Her words startled him; Quintus suddenly recalled the image of the woman whom he had desecrated earlier that day. Miriam’s words commingled with those of the slain mother, her face with that of the beheaded woman’s; voices and visages converged, fusing into one. Overwhelmed and alarmed by his mind’s deceptions, he exploded with rage, grabbed her, shoved her violently to the wet floor, caught up a fistful of black hair, and plunged her head into the bucket of blood-stained water. He wanted to drown her, drown the mother, drown them both, so as to silence forever their impudent and uncannily similar words. No need to rush, he thought, he could do better than that. The experience had, in fact, he realized, brought him to a state of full arousal.

He yanked at her, assuring himself he had not lost the upper hand at all. Raising her hips with his hands, he plunged into her from behind. Blinded with pain, she instinctively struggled, grasping to right herself, but the bucket overturned, spilling its contents. His dominance reasserted, he grabbed her hair and, as if clinging to the mane of a fine Persian charger, reined her back forcefully. Once satisfied, he released her hair, and then brutally forced her to the blood soaked floor, where he pinned and held her with his foot. His moment of domineering pleasure had been, for her, an eternity of pain and blindness. And silence. She had not cried out. She would not. She lay sprawled across the floor, motionless; she gasped as he drew his foot back, only to ram it back down onto her face, his last corporeal insult to her as he strode off to his quarters, summoning another slave to attend him. Although Quintus never touched Miriam again, nor she him, he continued to govern her in a manner even more peculiar than he had done previously.

Quintus replaced Miriam’s role in the cleansing ritual with a young adolescent boy just entering puberty. The boy’s looks were striking, thought Quintus, as handsome as she was beautiful, yet still pure and unblemished. From that moment on, she was forced to stand and watch the ritual. Miriam’s cheek now bore a permanent crescent-shaped scar that she incurred when, in the force of his rage, Quintus had slammed her face to the coarse stone floor and then held it there against the chilled floor beneath the ruthless weight of his foot, where it had remained until she bled upon its stones. In her new role as observer, he ordered that she be fully clothed in a dark tunic and veil that exposed only her eyes, which made her virtually indistinguishable from the devout mother as he had first seen her before decapitating her on that same, fateful day that he had raped Miriam. As she watched, Quintus played out with the young boy the same sort of sensual performance that she had endured. She could see the fear in the boy eyes, as well as the sadistic gleam in her much loathed master’s.

Quintus’ moment of weakness and his subsequent violent assault against Miriam resulted in the inception of a child. From the moment of conception on, she was forced to endure the cruel purification ritual as if she were but a living statue, her immobility a perpetual reminder of the dead, beheaded woman Quintus had slain while patrolling.

Throughout her pregnancy, Miriam feared that the child she carried would one day be forced to perform the same ritual with its demon father that she had borne and which the boy, Marduk, now suffered to endure. As she watched, she prayed that her child would never experience the horror of Quintus’ touch or the evil of his domineering gaze. Ten moons after his conception, Miriam gave birth to a blind son. Her motherly instincts could not ascertain whether the blindness was due to the trauma endured at his conception, or as a response to her constant prayers for his protection from Quintus.

After his son’s birth, Quintus compelled the boy to accompany the mother to the cleansing ritual. She was allowed to speak to her son in his father’s presence only if it were in praise of his father. Because of his blindness, or perhaps because of her prayers, the boy could never see or feel the fear what Quintus provoked in others. Miriam had named the boy Philip, an apostle of Yesua’s who preached in Greece, Phrygia and Syria. The boy cultivated an odd attraction toward Quintus. Bright and inquisitive, the blind boy was adroit in using all of his other senses, which blessed him with keen insight and perception, an aptitude that he may well have obtained from his sire. Despite this, none of Philip’s other five senses ever discerned the miasma of evil surrounding his biological father, an aura Miriam never failed to detect. In fact, however, Quintus never allowed the child to come near or to touch him. In fact, as with the child’s mother, he never asked, nor cared to know the boy’s name.

Often the boy questioned Quintus about his military armor and weapons. As time passed, Quintus altered his ritual and disrobed in the room, allowing the boy to clean his blood-stained sword and armor. For the boy, it was a treat filled with tactile delights. He gently touched the cold metal and razor sharp edges of the sword. His fingers traced the decorations on Quintus’ breast plate armor. He savored the feel and the scent of its wet leather straps.

Although Miriam lived in dread of the ritual, Philip waited in anticipation for his father’s return. Although he had grown vaguely fond of the boy, Quintus’ deliberately avoided contact with Philip at any time, save for the ritual cleansing ceremony. Ultimately, the child served as a reminder of that day when his mother’s touch had momentarily pierced through his spiritual armor. Quintus never allowed either himself, or Miriam, to forget that moment of frailty.

II

From the moment she discovered his blindness, the mother was riddled with questions. “How do I explain what a rainbow is to my blind son? What about the blue sky, puffy white clouds or stars sparkling in the inky black night? How will he know the difference between a sunset and a sunrise?” She was determined that the boy would live an active life in spite of his blindness. Instantly, she recognized the challenge of communication between them without the benefit of eye contact. She studied his body language, noting corollaries to feelings like exploration, excitement, and anticipation. She discovered that the boy expressed a wide range of moods, interests, and emotions that were nowhere evident on his face. His hands and arms flailed wildly with excitement when he was pleased. When happiest, his feet and legs joined in, a response that the scent of his mother, or the sound of her voice never failed to elicit. Curiosity produced a slow wandering of his hands. When exposed to the warm sun, he would gently touch his skin with his fingertips.

Throughout his infancy, she allowed her soft, long black hair to dangle against Philip’s face while he was feeding. He often suckled with one hand grasping and kneading her silken hair, as the other stroked her face, and always, his fingers would gravitate toward the Banishment - 31 scar on her cheek, studying its terrain. The infant Philip radiated a palpable sense of contentment to Miriam. During his waking hours, she would frequently blindfold herself so that she could learn how Philip, sightless, would perceive and experience his surroundings. As his motor skills developed further, she introduced tactile objects to him, which they both learned to recognize in blindness. She burned fragrant candles to encourage and stimulate his sense of smell; he enjoyed both the touch and the perfume of the various aromatic flowers native to their region, and above all, she relished sharing with her son in the unique scents, touch and glorious tastes of the many fruits Miriam herself most favored.

Before sharing each object, she kissed and cuddled him as she hummed a sweet melody. He could feel her happiness. As he learned to mimic sounds, she said the object’s name while placing his hands on her mouth as she spoke the word. They shared the same bed. On stormy nights, he would fall asleep in the safety of her arms. Holding him close, she could smell his sweet scent and hear the steady thumping of his tiny heart. She taught him about the world not as she saw it, but as they experienced it, together. He taught her how to love again, to love without the pain of loss.

As he learned to speak, expressing thoughts and ideas, she taught him about life and a love that transcended the love that they two alone shared. “There is a spirit that is in you, which is also in me,” she would tell him. “It is the spirit of God, the creator who birthed us. The spirit is all around us. It has always been and will always be. We are one with the spirit.”

Her faith was an oral tradition passed down through eight generations of her family. Her first Christian ancestor was baptized as an adult by Mark the Evangelist. Because of her banishment to a life of slavery, her knowledge of Christianity had not progressed beyond what she had learned as a child. Her youthful understanding thus consisted of the Yesua’s sayings, the story of his life and the wonder of his miracles. Although somewhat convoluted by local traditions about creation and the nature of good and evil, her faith was simple and pure.

Three times daily, each day of his life, together they prayed to Yesua. Invariably, this daily routine generated questions from the gentle, but naturally inquisitive blind boy. She never attempted to answer his questions directly. Instead, she would recite the stories of Yesua, the words of Yesua, which she herself had learned as a child, choosing carefully, so as to tell Philip truths that would lead the boy to the answers he sought. The nature of good and evil was particularly troublesome to the child. Responding to his queries, she would thoughtfully and carefully retell the very creation stories told to her by her parents. She had little concern for the theological issues spawned by complex explanations of good and evil. When the discussion became too deep, she would redirect him to the words of Yesua. The boy loved the story of Yesua’s life, death and resurrection. He revered how Yesua forgave his murderers at the hour of his death. When he was not yet quite eight years old, Philip told his mother, “only Yesua can love like that.” “To love is to forgive,” she replied. “To forgive is to love.”

One day, they were sitting arm in arm at the villa’s open gate, waiting for Quintus’ return from an “assignment.” It was a cool day with a fresh breeze. Philip huddled near Miriam, stroking her hair and anticipating the rumble of hooves raising clouds of dust that he could feel, smell – even taste, the dust a harbinger of the aroma of lathered horses, hooves pounding his way. He softly traced his fingers across his mother’s face, touching her lips, nose and eyelids. She closed her eyes, embracing the cool breeze and his gentle touch. His fingers paused as he once more examined her scar.

He raised his head and asked the question she’d been dreading since his birth. “Mother, why is this cheek uneven, not as smooth as your other?”

She hesitated. “Ah, my son. When I was your age, both of my cheeks were equally soft and smooth.”

What a curious answer, he thought. “How then did one change, but not the other, Mama?”

Again, she hesitated. Some day he must know the truth. “Your father was angry with me and he pushed me down. My cheek hit the floor, which split open my skin.”

“Like when I fall and scrape my knees?” The boy asked.

“Yes, but much worse,” she answered softly.

He could feel her anxiety. “Why did he push you so hard?” Her speech shifted to a slower, more deliberate pace. “He grew angry because he did not want to hear the words that I spoke to him.”
“What words could have been so awful, Mama?” The boy felt he must know, if only so as to avoid inadvertently speaking them himself.

“The Truth.” Her gaze was blank as if she was reliving that moment.

He could not see her face, but he could hear her disgust, her agony. “The Truth?” he asked.

“I told him, God’s love will save you. Yesua says, ‘Ask for forgiveness and you will receive,’” she whispered to her son.

The thundering commotion of the returning cavalry ended their conversation abruptly. Both mother and son scurried off to the bathing chamber. Miriam assumed her statue-like position in the corner of the room, and Philip located the wash buckets needed to clean Quintus’ armor. Silently, they waited, each preoccupied with words unspoken.

Quintus entered the chamber and disrobed before the boy, who began cleaning each piece of armor as it was discarded. The young slave, Marduk, entered the chamber for his part in the ritual. Both master and slave were nude. In the past, the blind boy had questioned Quintus about his armor hundreds of times. The officer’s responses were curt, devoid of detail, and stopped abruptly the moment the cleansing rite commenced. Quintus felt the boy’s questions corrupted the sacred realm of the purification process. The chamber’s silence was interrupted only by the sound of water trickling down the far west wall and seeping slowly out, across the floor. So it was this day. Miriam watched from her corner as the terrified boy Marduk bathed their officious master and as in utter silence, Philip attended to his father’s armor.

The silence was broken unexpectedly by the blind bastard son who had sliced his finger on the sword’s razor-sharp blade.

Perturbed by the outburst, Quintus shouted, “Silence boy! Stop! You squeal like a frightened girl!”

His words stung the boy, whose emotions were still raw from what he had learned from his mother’s admission earlier, before Quintus had returned to the villa. Angered, the boy snapped back, “Why must this sword be so sharp?”

“To better slice off the heads of obstinate Christians, Christians who squeal like little girls. Now be quiet and go about your business.” Quintus was impatient to return to his meditative state.

For once, please listen to your father, Miriam prayed silently.

Moments passed. Quintus’ trance resumed; the anguished mother waited for what she hoped would be a calm dismissal.

The boy’s anger subsided as he thought about the tortured, bloodied Yesua on his cross, just moments from death. “Father, forgive them.” Thoughts of Yesua soothed his angst.

The boy spoke. “Father?”

“Silence!” The second interruption exasperated Quintus.

The mother was thankful that the boy could not see his father’s rage. She prayed that her son would not feel his fury.

“Father?” The boy’s voice was calm as he repeated the words his mother had spoken earlier. “God’s love will save you. Yesua says, ‘Ask for forgiveness and you shall receive.’”

Instantly enraged, Quintus exploded with fury, pushing aside Marduk, whose dark eyes opened wide, his mouth forming a perfect O of astonishment and fear. Quintus was already crossing the room, knocking over both Marduk and buckets of water as he dove toward Philip. He grasped the boy’s slender, tan arm, and dragged him toward his mother, who had stepped as far back into the corner as she was able. Quintus slung the boy toward her, roughly dashing the boy’s head against the dripping wall. Philip’s blood now mingled with the water and began, slowly at first, to join the rivulets’ inevitable trek across the floor and toward the gurgle and glug of the drain.

“Get out! Slut! Sorceress! Go! Go and take your bastard son with you!” He spat the words at Miriam, and then pulled Philip up from the floor, the boy’s feet dangling and flailing helplessly in mid-air, where the brutal Quintus held him fast; clutching the boy and consumed with disgust, he spit first upon one blind eye and then the other. After spewing his hot, angry saliva into the boy’s eyes, Quintus pulled his helpless form still closer, roaring, “And you! You little freak bastard, another outburst like that and it shall be your neck that my sword next severs,” he growled, first shaking the stunned boy, then dropping him abruptly onto the floor, where he landed pitifully and painfully, tears springing loose.

Addressing Marduk, who had wisely risen and whose face now bore a slave’s mask of benign subjection, Quintus ordered, “We are finished here now. Bring me my riding clothes, and report here instantly when I return.”

Quintus strode swiftly to the stable and ordered the liveryman to saddle his horse. “I must spend some time with the only living creature who understands me,” Quintus declared, grasping the readied reins, then wordlessly mounted Narseh and vanished in clouds of dust and clattering hooves.

III

It was a fateful day in 303 AD that would change all of their lives forever. A servant summoned Quintus to the front gate of the villa, which faced south at the northern edge of the town forum. A small band of Roman soldiers had arrived at Rasafa. They were waiting for him in the square that fronted the villa’s gate. It was clear that they had been traveling for many days. With them was a sorely battered prisoner who was shackled and chained. His feet were caked with dirt and blood. One could not distinguish one soldier from another. Looking more closely, Quintus felt that the man looked oddly familiar, that he resembled an older version of a courageous and distinguished Roman officer with whom he had once served in battle.

The commanding centurion inquired, “Sir, are you Quintus Flavius Scipio, Supernumerarius in the Legions of Caesar Galerius Maximianus?”

“I am,” Quintus responded.

“Sir, I have been ordered to deliver this prisoner to you by Antiochus, the military commander of Caesar’s legions in Barbalisso.”

Quintus circled the man, examining him. His eyes, lips and nose were crusted with dried blood and severely swollen, as well. Quintus stared intently at the battered face, struggling to recognize the man beneath the telltale evidence of hardship and brutality. At long last, he spoke, Banishment - 37 addressing the prisoner with but one word, “Sergius?”

The man nodded. Quintus turned and addressed the centurion, “I know this man. He is a Roman citizen, as well as a high-ranking officer, valiant and loyal.”

“This man is a traitor and a Christian, one who stubbornly refuses to sacrifice to the gods,” the centurion replied. “Tales were reported to Galerius Maximianus, Caesar of the Eastern Empire that his legions, and more specifically, his officers, were secretly practicing Christian beliefs. Two officers, Sergius and Bacchus, in particular were suspected to be secret practitioners. Galerius set a trap for the two by assigning them to the ranks of his personal guards. He then arranged for an extravagant sacrifice at the Temple of Jupiter, honoring the great god. When the entourage entered the Temple, Sergius and Bacchus remained outside its edifice; they did not cross its threshold. Pressed by the other guards, the two both refused to enter the temple. It was thus their secret was laid bare. When confronted with threats of torture and death, they both, each of them, refused to renounce their Man-God, the Nazarene, Yesua.”

Quintus moved closer to Sergius. An icy stare brought them eye to eye. Without losing his gaze, Quintus asked the centurion, “Why have you brought me just this one? Where is the other, the traitor Bacchus?”

The centurion continued, “The men were stripped of their military garments and dressed as women. They were then paraded throughout the town, but despite such indignities, it seems their popularity amongst the troops, who revere them as fearless and dedicated leaders, caused great unrest within the Legions. Therefore, Galerius sent them to Mesopotamia, to be tried by Antiochus, a close friend of Sergius and the military commander of Barbalisso. In spite of Antiochus’ persuasions, both officers remained resolute in their loyalty to this Yesua. They were sentenced to be tortured – to death. Both were flogged and beaten. Bacchus could not endure the lash Banishment - 37 38 - Blood in the Desert and the beatings. Sergius lived. Nails were driven into the soles of his sandals and just so, through his feet. Orders were given to march him here to Rasafa. If fate allowed him to survive such a march, we were ordered to deliver him here, to you. You are to finish his sentence. We have marched for three days, now, yet he refuses to die. There is sorcery at work here. I am glad to be rid of him. He is yours to do with as you wish.”

Again, Quintus’s gaze was met by Sergius’, whom Quintus addressed, “look carefully into my eyes and know my resolve, man.”

In a weak, but steady voice, Sergius replied, “Yesua says, whoever has ears should hear. There is a light within a person and it shines on the whole world. If it does not shine, it is dark.”

Raising his voice, Quintus roared, “I say whoever has ears should hear! Look into my eyes, traitor, and learn now my resolve!”

“I have,” said Sergius. “I see only darkness.”

A substantial crowd was gathering. Quintus turned to his servant and ordered, “Bring the slave girl and her blind son, so that they may see and hear what must now come to pass.”

When the mother and child arrived, he positioned them both facing toward the prisoner. Stepping back into the center of the crowd, Quintus addressed the gathering. “Let it be known to all here, and especially to those of you who worship the Nazarene called Yesua, that it is great folly to worship this false god!”

The boy tensed as he heard the familiar sound of his father’s sword being slid out of its leather sheath. Using the flat side of his sword, Quintus struck Sergius across his back, driving him face down to the roadway’s surface. The boy clung to his mother when he heard the metal strike the chains as the man fell helplessly to the stone pavement.

Addressing the pair, Quintus commanded, “You two! Stop standing idle! Lift him to his knees. Now!”

The mother then knelt, and gently lifted Sergius’ bloody head and whispered, “Yesua is with you.”

Sergius replied, “and also with you kind woman. Tell Quintus that I forgive him.”

“Do as I command! Do it now!” Quintus railed.

Each grasped a shoulder burnt red by the sun, battered and slick with sweat. With great effort and great care, for fear of injuring him further, they hoisted Sergius to his knees, steadied him, and then stepped back. Quintus swung his sword again, this time blade to bone, decapitating the man. The head rolled to the boy’s feet, blood jetted from the severed flesh, splattering Philip’s face as the lifeless body fell forward to the ground for the last time. Miriam clutched her son and wiped the blood from his eyes.

Quintus stood above them and placed the tip of his sword under her chin, forcing her head upwards. “Look at me.”

Then he shouted, “Look at me!! What did he say to you?”

Calmly, she answered, “He told me to tell you that he forgives you.”

Slowly, he lowered his sword. Then, grasping its handle with both hands, he raised his outstretched arms above his head, determined to rid himself of the endless nuisance of this woman.

Suddenly, the boy ran to Quintus, shouting “Father! Father...... I can see!”

The crowd was deathly still. Quintus lowered his sword. He looked into his son’s eyes. It was true. The boy ran back to his mother. Quintus paced quietly around the body of the fallen martyr. Slowly, he walked counterclockwise along the perimeter of the crowd, returning to stand before the woman and her boy.

What kind of sorcery is this? he wondered. Whatever it was, he was more determined than ever to put an end to it. He whispered instructions to his nearest body servant and sent him back to the villa. The servant returned with a scribe and a small, brown sack of denarii, which jingled just slightly when the slave came to a halt.

Quintus turned, addressing the crowd, “Is there a traveling merchant here?” A man stepped forward.

“What is your destination?”

“Egypt,” the merchant replied.

Quintus had neither the will to murder the mother, nor did he wish to harm the boy, for deep within, his sinister mind reasoned that he would suffer retribution through whatever dark magic protected this witch and her child. At the same time, he seized upon the ideal solution to his problems, a fate worse than death for both of them. He would separate them, forever.

He dictated a note to the scribe, sealed the note and instructed the merchant to take the boy to the military commander of the Roman Garrison in Alexandria. “Here are 50 denarii for your trouble. This note bears instructions to give you another 100 denarii when you deliver this boy. The commander is a friend of mine. He knows my seal. He will honor my word.”

“Does the boy have a name?” the merchant inquired.

Quintus neither knew nor cared to know. “Tell him your name boy. Now!” he barked.

The boy replied with bold aplomb, “It is Philip.”

Then Quintus turned to the centurion, “Are you returning to Antiochus’ garrison in Mesopotamia? “

“No. We have been redeployed to Aelia Capitolina in Syria Palestina.”

“Fine,” Quintus muttered, gruffly. “Take this creature with you and leave her there. Do not look at her. Do not talk to her. Do not listen to her. Do not touch her. Let her find her Nazarene god there if she can,” he declared smugly.

He addressed Miriam, “You will never see your son again. My Roman brethren in Aelia Capitolina will be far less tolerant than I have been.”

“What is her name?” asked the centurion. Again, Quintus neither knew nor cared.

“My name is Miriam,” the girl replied. Addressing the crowd, Quintus shouted, “Depart this place….all of you....and leave the body of this traitor for the dogs and wild beasts.”

........................

Miraculously, the dogs and wild beasts did come, but they never disturbed the body. Instead, they guarded it until Sergius’ fellow Christian brethren arrived, so as to remove his remains for proper burial.

Over the years, the legends of St. Sergius and St. Bacchus grew in popularity and veneration. In 425 AD, a shrine was constructed in Rasafa. Later, the city of Rasafa became a bishop’s diocese and was renamed Sergiopolis. The shrine in Sergiopolis became the site of eastern Christian pilgrimages, until Islam spread through the region three centuries later. Sergius became an enormously admired saint in Syria and Christian Arabia and remains now the Patron Saint of desert nomads.

Excerpted from Blood in the Desert, copyright 2017 by C. Douglas Gordon

To learn the fates of young Philip, his mother Miriam, and the harsh Roman soldiee Quintus,
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