Julius stood at the edge of the river. As he looked across the water’s edge, he could see the golden rays of the sun slowly sinking behind the clouds. The last sunset, he thought. And such a sunset!
He stooped down. Straining his muscles, he lifted the heavyweight and cradled it in his arms. The blackness seemed to close on his soul again. I am getting what I deserve. Even if it is by my own hand, I am getting just what I deserve.
Without a sound, he slipped the rough rope around his neck. He pulled at the knot again to see that it was secure. As the events of the last few months relived themselves in his mind, he realized now, more than he ever had before that his life had been wasted. Slowly, he stepped into the river. The black water rushing past his legs seemed to chill him to the core. He had remembered that feeling. The cold hand of fear crushing its fingers around his heart; as it had done on the first day that he had heard of the plan.
“You are my friend Julius” Nero’s voice was smooth and persuasive. Almost caring.
Julius looked hard at the man who held most of the known world in his tight fist; the man who could order a dozen executions at the snap of his fingers; the man who had let Rome burn. A shiver ran down his spine. He had no desire to become Nero’s next victim at the games. He knew the danger of being a “friend” of the emperor. Nero was fickle and untrustworthy. Anything that Julius did that would cross his will and, well, Julius did not like to think what would happen then.
Nero places his hand on Julius’s shoulder. “You are a centurion. You do not fear bloodshed. Why then do you draw back from this order? Is there a reason you are repulsed by it?” He lowered his voice to a menacing hiss. “Or perhaps, you have also become a follower of this Christus.”
Julius raised his steel blue eyes to Nero’s cool, cunning ones. “I have not.” He said decisively. Almost as if he was trying to convince himself of the fact. “I have no love for these people or their religion.” But as Julius made this bold denial, he saw at once before his eyes, the face of a girl. More beautiful than the morning sun. With a smile that radiated light to all, she turned to. And a little boy, whose sparkling eyes matched the joy and peace in his sister’s.
Julius smiled inwardly at the thought. His attention, however, was still held by the man who now held him by an unwelcome demand.
“Julius, I know that you are trustworthy. That is why I have commissioned you for this task. The Christians are traitors to Rome. You should be grateful that I have given this responsibility to you.”
Julius sighed. He did not like arresting innocent people for what they believed. Yet what choice did he have? If he did not obey, he might find himself in the arena with those same people. He squared his shoulders. “How should I go about this task? And how many men will I have at my disposal?”
Nero gave a crafty smile. “Ah, Julius. You are faithfulness itself. But we will have to do this quietly so as not to arouse the people… Here is what you must do. You are to go into the streets dressed as a citizen. Odious as this will be to you, you must pretend that you are interested in learning about the religion of these people. They will, as it is their nature, be very glad to teach you all they know and it will be your duty to find all the information about the leaders of this movement. You will have a secret group of soldiers following you at all times to help you arrest all whom you may find. And of course, the more prisoners you bring, the greater will be your reward. Have I made myself clear?”
Julius drew in his breath sharply. Arresting the followers of Christus as a soldier was one matter, but going about as a betrayer and a base informer for this man, this emperor who controlled his life, it was barbarous! He tried to decline, to ask for an alternative, anything but outrightly refuse, but to no avail. Nero had made his mind.
With a cold terror in his heart, Julius left the audience chamber.
The evening seemed never to end. Julius tossed and turned on his bed, his mind filled with the instructions he had been given. How could he do it? How could he send these innocent people to a violent death? A dark hatred grew in his heart. He wanted to kill Nero. If it was in his power, he would do it without hesitation. But what was he to do now? He knew the real reason that he would be accompanied by guards. Nero doubted his fidelity and Julius knew that the men sent to help him would not hesitate to put his name on the list of the convicted.
As dawn broke over the red clay roofs of the city, he stood in his doorway with the knowledge that he was about to commit one of the vilest crimes in the history of mankind.
As weeks wore on, each day wore away a little of the feeling in Julius’s heart and replaced it with the hard numbing feeling of disregard. As each victim fell, Julius was showered with gold and riches. His life was on the road to comfort and prosperity. Until one day.
Julius was wandering down a back ally looking for a person that one of the Christians had recommended he should meet. Ahead of him, a little boy was sitting in a doorway drawing in the dust with a stick. He looked up as he saw Julius approaching. Julius stopped; rooted to the ground by the horror, the dread, the terror of the face he saw, looking trustingly into his own, smiling. No. No! There must be a mistake. There must be a way out! He could not. He would not. How could he betray his friend?
He started to turn back, only to be met by the solid gaze of one of his soldiers. He looked the other way to meet the same sight. He was trapped. He now held life and death in his hands. Either he could give the order to have his friends killed, or he could give the order for himself to die with them. His mind went blank. Shutting his eyes, he raised his hand. The guards waited. With his entire body trembling, Julius gave the signal.
Julius kept his face turned away. He could hear the sounds of the struggle. He had to get away. He could not bear to hear the cries, the anger, and grief. He stumbled away from the scene. A scream rent through his heart. He looked back. The young boy, his friend, was looking at him. His face full of pain and sorrow. With a groan, Julius ran with all his might. As if trying to run away from himself. Always running, yet never moving.
As Julius gazed at his reflection in the stormy waters, he wondered how such a man as he could have been born. How could a human being betray his own friends? The face the young boy remained etched in his memory forever. Perhaps it would haunt him even in the grave. And his sister, Attica, the beautiful one, she had been spared! That was the one thought that shone a glimmer of light on his dark mind. But was it better that way? Had he not left her alone and unprotected, to a fate worse than death?
He faced the river. He must do it. Now. With a sharp gasp, he jumped in. The water pounded in his temples and crushed against his chest. His natural desire for life struggled against him as he tried to rise to the surface. Slowly, he felt the blackness closing in. Something snapped again his neck. He felt himself rising, out of the water. A strong hand pulled him onto the bank. Opening his eyes, he saw the faces of a middle-aged man and a young girl.
“Who are you?” He gasped out
The man smiled. I am a friend. We are here to help you. Come Attica, take his head.
The girl smiled at his unspoken question. “Yes Julius, you are to come with us. We will have to live in secret. It is not safe for us any longer. The old life is gone. It is time for the new.
“How can I have a new life?” He asked
Attica’s face radiated with joy. “In time, He makes all things new.”