Well I have somehow deluded myself into thinking that I can write a novel. Time will tell I guess.
Below is an excerpt from a chapter in my manuscript (historical fiction no less - whatever was I thinking?) that I have been plodding along with for over a year. Have a read, but go easy on the newbie writer!
He stood a short distance from the cross where a young man hung dying. He did not know his name, but knew that he had been found guilty of treason and therefore was summarily sentenced to death. It was all too easy to be charged with treason in Roman occupied territory. Ridiculously easy; and Judea was no less so than in Rome itself.
As First Javelin Designate, Darius Vitus Tacitus was the Chief Centurion under the banner of Caesar Agustus’ 1st Imperial Calvary; arguably the most battle hardened Legion in all of the Roman Empire. Initially Darius thought the deployment of an entire compliment of 6000 seasoned troops to this backwoods piece of land was overkill; but time spent here had proven otherwise. Almost three years ago, he had received orders from Rome to march from Caesarea, their headquarters on the Mediterranean coast, to Judea; ostensibly to maintain law and order, due to rampant insurrections within the Judean borders.
The additional responsibility for carrying out the decrees of punishment for convicted criminals also rested with his detachment. It was unpleasant business; not that he was in any way squeamish. He had risen through the ranks of the Legionnaires as a lowly foot soldier, surviving countless brutal and bloody campaigns on diverse fronts to get to his current position as an Imperial Roman Officer. No, the distaste he felt was borne out of the fact that he was trained as a warrior. His skills were wasted as an executioner. Where was the honour in that? He had lost count a long time ago of how many crucifixions he had overseen. Since being assigned to the Garrison at Jerusalem these past three years, Pontius Pilate had kept them busy by greasing his unchecked lust for power and dominance with the blood of these people.
He had just given permission for the convicted man’s family, consisting of an older woman, and one young man, to stand close by for his last moments. He looked up at the man on the cross, more of a boy than a man, thought Darius, and felt a mixture of sorrow, and no small amount of anger. Sorrow at the loss of another wasted young life. Anger because for the life of him, he could not see how he could make a lasting difference in this wretched land. A land whose people, against all reason, he had grudgingly begun to love.
As he gazed up at the dying boy, Darius came to a decision. Later in retrospect, he would likely consider his action rash, but watching the grieving family members suffering while a loved one died in such a horrible manner before them, prompted him to act. He walked over to the man and woman, gesturing for them to follow him a few paces beyond the hearing of the guards he had stationed around the cross.
They followed him tentatively. The look of misery etched on their faces, compounded by the constant undercurrent of fear most of the local population had for the occupying Romans. He easily read the questioning suspicion on their faces as he turned to face them.
“I know you will not like what I am about to say,” Darius said bluntly, getting straight to the point. He was not one to quibble. “But I feel compelled to at least offer an option to you. The boy may die shortly, or linger for hours. I know it will soon be the start of your people’s Sabbath, but I would rather not order his legs broken to hasten his death. You do not want to witness what he will go through if it comes to that.”
He paused, and continued in a softer tone;
“If you wish, I can offer him a quick end to his suffering, but I would prefer you not be a witness to that either.”
Their haunted expressions spoke volumes and he did not think their faces could become any more stricken. He looked up and noticed his men furtively watching him from where they stood. Why am I doing this? This may not have been one of my better ideas.
“You are a Roman soldier,” responded the old woman with tears streaming down her face. “What prompted you to suggest such a thing to us? What profit is there in this for you?”
Darius blinked in surprise at the old woman’s quiet directness. Truthfully, he was not altogether sure himself what moved him to make such an offer. He had seen numerous scenarios of families watching loved ones executed. Looking into her face, he uncharacteristically felt only heightened respect for her; even more unexpectedly, he thought he felt the same, from her in return; albeit in a limited fashion. He glanced at the younger man beside her; who although obviously nervous, summoned enough fire in his eyes to radiate hatred at him. Despite the circumstances, Darius appreciated the man’s courage. He had known very few with the fortitude to attempt to stare down a Roman Centurion. Looking back at the old woman, he saw no such acrimony in her expression; just unbearable heartache.
“I am a soldier, yes, but my offer was not for any ulterior gain, although I understand why you would feel that way. I have no way of proving this to you, and in as much as I am able to, my goal was to lessen the boy's suffering and in doing so, hopefully offer some semblance of the same for yourselves.”
The old woman’s eye’s grew wide at this last remark. The younger man momentarily exchanged a look with her; his body posture still emanating suspicion.
Darius, was not only a veteran of military campaigns; he had also been forced to become adept at navigating the tortuous roads of political intrigues and nuances that went along with his position as a high ranking Roman officer. He had caught the brief look between them, and recognized unspoken communication when he saw it. The countenance of the woman subtly changed and in spite of the tears, her eyes took on an even more intense shine.
“Are you of the Way?” she asked simply.
The Way? “I am afraid I am not familiar with that term.” Darius replied with a puzzled expression.
The old woman looked searchingly at the Centurion’s face for few moments longer. Darius was about to ask her to explain what she meant, when one of his sub-lieutenants started walking toward them. He turned to face the approaching soldier and immediately surmised the reason why. He looked beyond the soldier to the boy on the cross and noted that he was now too weak and in too much pain to push up on his nailed feet to facilitate breathing properly. It will not be long now.
Part of him was relieved that he did not have to carry out what he had offered the family. Dying by crucifixion is as much about suffocation as it was about pain, blood loss and trauma. Surely his method would have spared the boy the lingering, excruciating pain. He was not particularly proud of the fact that Rome had always been creative in the production and implementation of instruments of torture and death. He wondered if things would be so different if soldiers made the rules instead of politicians.
He heard the woman’s sharp intake of breath behind him and turned to see the young man supporting her. She had collapsed into his arms when she caught sight of the boy’s condition on the cross. There was not really anything left for him to say, so he turned to the soldier who had by now stopped in front of him with salute.
“Commander, the criminal should be expiring soon,” reported the soldier in a clipped tone.
Knowing that the boy’s family could hear him clearly, the sub-lieutenant demonstrated no hint of remorse in his voice. Darius shook his head slightly.
The old woman behind him began to sob uncontrollably. Darius turned again and glanced at the duo in time to see the eyes of the young man lock onto his with a slightly puzzled look, but still projecting wariness. He turned back to the soldier and said to him;
“Prepare your men and ensure he is dead before you take him down; but whatever you do, do not break his legs!”.
The soldier seemed surprised at this last remark.
“But… ?” the soldier began with uncertainty.
“That is an order sub-lieutenant! I am not accustomed to repeating myself; and when you take the body down, handle it with respect when you hand it over to the family. Is that understood?”
“Yes Commander!” responded the soldier standing rigidly at attention.
“Good! I am leaving you in charge of the take down and clean up. You and your men report back to me at the Garrison when you are finished.” I have had enough senseless bloodletting for one day.
Darius turned, not waiting for a response, confident his orders would be carried out to the letter. He started in the direction of his tethered horse when he heard a faint, hoarse whisper from the old woman;
That momentarily brought him up short in mid-stride, but he did not turn towards her. He continued walking again, thinking about the twenty years of slogging through foreign fields of battle which he had survived through hard training, cunning and no small measure of good fortune. In all that time he had never been as unsure of himself as now.
What was it about this place that pulls a man inside out? What makes this patch of arid land so different? I am hated for who and what I am. By Diana, I probably would hate me as well if I were a subjugated people. Yet I am falling in love with this hellish place and Caesar help me, I am starting to care for the people as well! What is going on? I must be going soft, or getting old...or both!
He reached his horse, grabbed the reins and climbed into the saddle and took one last look at the scene before him. The man and woman were now at the foot of the cross and his sub-lieutenant and another soldier were already up on ladders leaning against the cross, preparing to remove the retraining ropes and the nails from the boys hands and feet. By normal standards the boy had passed on quickly. It had been just over four hours. These things sometimes took too long for his taste.
I hope you found peace with whoever your God is lad. Peace seems to be in short supply for those of us that remain alive in this desolate place.
Darius looked away and let his horse have the reins. His horse, also intimately familiar with blood and death through war, seemed just as eager to leave this place behind.