Marcus had done this job before, so many times it had become routine now. The weekly parade of rebels and criminals up to the hill to give the locals a warning the futility of defying the rule of caesar. To defy Rome is to defy civilisation itself, to defy inevitability the quaestor was fond of saying. Back when he’d first joined the legion those words seemed as sure as the sword in his hand. After a few years in this land though and he wasn’t so sure about those words and it seemed that many of the locals were eager to prove that there was nothing inevitable about Roman civilisation. He comforted himself with the thought that he was at least hunting the fanatics out in the wilderness. He’d already lost too many friends to them and their deaths had not been swift.
“Man of peace? Fuck that!”
The decurion was holding racucous court over at the mess bar.
“I was there! That fucker made his threats. Remember what he said, he said he’d bring a sword, not peace. Remember that! Well where was his sword when the fifteenth got him!”
Marcus wasn’t sure. Unlike the other men in his unit he’d lived his entire life in this land. The rule of the empire did not sit easily here despite the local leaders bending the knee to the emperor. But in the market places, the back street bars and in quiet conversations at the synagogues revolts were talked of. Out in the deserts the rebels themselves grew more bold and now with the arrest of the man who some called “the prophet” and others as the son of god himself.
When they’d come for him he had gone with them without even a word of defiance. He simply said it was his fate and yet immediately a feeling a tension had settled over the whole unit.
The decurion and his cronies were belting out their usual chants, louder than usual though.
“WHO FIGHTS LIKE US?”
“WHO KILLS LIKE US!”
“WHO KILLS LIKE US”
“WHO ARE WE?”
Marcus joined with the others and downed his wine. They were all drunk now and were egging each other on.
“Take his fuckin’ skin off! That’s would I’d do!”
“I hope he goes slow!”
“He’ll beg us to end it!”
“Piss on their god!”
Marcus slipped away, he felt nauseous, there was a tension in his whole body. The night closed in as lurched back to the barracks and the air was heavy around him. He said prayers to his fathers gods and passed out.
He awoke feeling far worse. There was a thunder storm going on his head. How was that possible? He’d barely drank last night.
“On your feet!”
The Decurions stormed and began turning men out of their beds, bellowing instructions. The room jumped to attention, men hurled themselves into their armour, made their beds, presented ready for the centurion. Marcus looked at the others, they all looked queasy, tense. There was no bantering complaints of hangovers and loud boasts of how much wine they’d downed. Only silence.
“Legionaries! Present Arms!”
The centurion strode in and began his inspection. He examined each mans kit before turning to address the unit.
“Soldiers of Rome. What we do today we do in the name of law, in the name of Roman justice. This is not about vengeance, we are demonstrating today that no man is above the law, no one can defy the law. This is about civilisation and we are honoured to carry out Roman justice”
“Positions!” yelled the Decurion
The centurion was a big man, an old gaul who’d served the legion for more than thirty years. He’d campaigned all the way across Africa and Germania, worked his way up from the legion ranks and killed every kind of enemy. He looked awkward today though, as if he was feeling the same unspoken mood as his men.
Outside there were shouts and yells from a huge, unruly crowd. Traditionalists shoved and pushed a smaller group of the one they called the prophets family and followers. Fights broke out, stones were hurled and as the legionaries filed out either side of the prisoners an immense roar went up. The prophet himself was a terrible sight, his white robes caked in blood, his face showing signs of a savage beating. The crowd was going wild now and the two sides began surging towards the prophet. The local militia men did nothing to hold them back, in fact they seemed to have joined in. One of the militia leaders danced up to the prophet and placed a ring of thorns on his head, laughing manically as he did so.
“Crown for the king!” he giggled. The prophet said nothing.
The centurion was yelling at the militia commander who was smirking. “You either get your men under control or I will put you all down!”. The commander was still smirking “The people are angry centurion, they want blood”. The centurion drew his sword “I’ve killed men for far less than that. You will bring your men to order or I you will be the next to grace the cross with your presence”. The local commander swallowed, grimaced and turned to his men. “Alright, alright that’s enough, you lot get these scum back I want to be done with this shit!”
They formed a wall and pushed through the crowds towards the city gates. The noise was now was almost unbearable, screams, wails, shouts all merged into one swirling mess.
The prisoners had shouldered their crosses now and they began, unbearably slowly, their march to the hill.
The sky was so grey Marcus could barely see the sun. His armour felt like a dead weight on him, it was if the very earth itself was trying to pull him down them all down into hades itself.
The mob had been forced back now as they laboured up the hill. As they reached the top the sky over them had turned black. Was this a storm coming? Nobody spoke. Silence held them in place for a moment before the centurion snapped out of it and signalled for the crosses to go up.
As the crosses were planted Marcus noticed two women staring at the prophet, huddled and weeping. He couldn’t take his eyes off them and his nausea became almost unbearable.
Finally they came to the prophet. He made no sound as they nails pierced flesh and bone. As the cross went up Marcus felt as if his whole body was rebelling against him. He could barely stand and there was a swirling feeling in his head.
The cross was up now. The prophets face was one of pure pain. The feeling in his head was now a noise, voices? Voices talking over each other in languages he couldn’t understand. Marcus was no longer aware of his surroundings. He just stared at the prophets face.
The voices became clear. One word. One word repeated over and over.
He met the prophets gaze. He was no longer Marcus. Had he ever been? He was both on the ground and staring back at the form that was Marcus. His arm moved. He lurched out of formation and said in the language of his father “I will end this. I must”
He took his pilum and with one powerful thrust he pierced the prophets body. Blood showered him. Marcus collapsed to his knees the blood seeping into his eyes. He was talking but he didn’t know why.
“You will witness”
That was all he could hear as hands pulled him back. Lightning struck and the sky around them roared as he was pulled away.
“Witness” he murmured
“I will witness”