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The Judean War

First Book of the Colossus

by David Blixt

Dramatis Personae


MATTHAIS – Matthais ben Matthais, mason

JUDAH - Judah ben Matthais, apprentice mason, twin to Asher

ASHER - Asher ben Matthais, student, twin to Judah

DEBORAH – Judah’s love

PHANNIUS - Phannius ben Samuel, Deborah’s brother

EUODIAS – Mother to Deborah and Phannius

ANANUS – Ananus ben Ananus, High Priest of the Sanhedrin, leader of Jerusalem

JOSHUA - Joshua ben Gamala, Priest of Jerusalem

YOSEF - Yosef ben Matityahu, later Titus Flavius Josephus, Priest of Jerusalem

ELEAZAR ben SIMON – Idumean leader of the Judean Rebellion

SIMON bar GIORA – a leader of the Judean Rebellion, Priest of Acrabatane

YOHANAN of GISCHALA – Yohanan me-Gush Halav, Galilean leader of the Judean Rebellion

KING AGRIPPA – Marcus Julius Agrippa, great-grandson of Herod the Great, Rome’s client king of Judea

QUEEN BERENICE – Berenice of Cilicia, Agrippa’s sister, lover of Titus

TIBERIUS – Tiberius Julius Alexander, Apostate Jew turned Roman knight, Governor of Aegypt, brother-in-law to Berenice

LEVI – Levi ben Patroclus, professional bodyguard


VESPASIAN – Titus Flavius Vespasianus Senior, his brother, Senator, general of the war in Judea

TITUS – Titus Flavius Vespasianus Junior, elder son of Vespasian

CERIALIS - Quintus Petilius Cerialis Caesius Rufus, Senator, Vespasian’s son-in-law

CAENIS – Antonia Caenis, mistress of Vespasian

TRAJAN - Marcus Ulpius Trajanus Senior, Senator, commander of the 10th Legion

SEXTUS - Sextus Vetullenus Cerialis, Senator, commander of the 5th Legion

PLACIDUS - Gnaeus Tertullus Placidus, Senator, military tribune in Vespasian’s army

BARBARUS - Gaius Sacidius Barbarus, Roman centurion of the Fifteenth Legion

THORIUS - Gnaeus Thorius, Roman Optio of the Fifteenth Legion

CURTUS – Appius Curtus, Roman legionary in the Fifteenth Legion


Azotus, Judea

31 May, 61 AD

“Matthais? Is she..?”

“She’s alive, my lord. Seth is following, with my sons. They have her. ”

Releasing a long-held breath, Symeon sagged, placing his hand through his long beard to rest on his racing heart. Days of prayer had left his knees raw and aching, but he fell to them once again to offer up his thanks.

Finished, he looked back to the bearer of these glad tidings. “Matthais, thank you. I can only say…” He noted the curious look on the other man’s face. “What is it? Was she—?”

“She was not molested, my lord.”

Symeon did not care for the title of lord. I’m no noble. He was a simple fisherman, son of a fisherman, turned into fisher of men. That old joke still made him smile.

But there was no smiling now. Three days ago his daughter had been taken from him, kidnapped by a rich old man who found her beauty irresistable. First he had tried to buy her, but Symeon had turned down the match. But the miser Elkanah was unused to being refused. Just as he would have stolen an excellent horse or goat, he had sent his men to abduct Symeon’s only daughter to be his bride.

There was no recourse at law. As a regular visitor to the cells of Fort Mariamne and Fort Phasael in Jerusalem, Symeon had no standing. The new Kohen Gadol, Ananus ben Ananus, was a bitter foe, and the enmity of the high priest put all Jerusalem against you. If he’d dared bring this complaint, the Sanhedrin would like as not lock him up, not Elkanah.

And there was no turning to Roman law for Justice. Not for a Jew.

So Symeon had turned to prayer. A prayer of deliverance. A prayer for salvation. A prayer for the iron hand of the Lord to reach out and protect Symeon’s little girl.

His friends had more forceful solutions. Seth, loyal Seth of the Scars, insisted on bringing her back, and Matthais the Mason had offered to help. Despite his fifty years, the stonemason was strong and vigorous, with arms like clubs. He’d taken his two young sons with him. Though not yet men, their father’s yard had made the twins stronger than any children Symeon had ever known.

Returned now on a lathered horse, the normally empassioned Matthais was being maddeningly reserved. “What is it, then? Is she injured? Has she gone mad?”

“Your daughter – they said she prayed all the way to Elkanah’s holdings. It’s a day’s ride. The moment they reached the walls and dragged her in, she was felled by some kind of fit. Writhing and sputtering nonsense, they said. That bastard Elkanah thought she was faking and tried to shake her, but she broke his nose with her forehead. He lost two teeth.” Matthais’ grin was fleeting, gone as soon as it appeared. “The fit lasted an hour, and when it was over everyone was afraid to go near her. Someone put her in a bed, and when she woke the next morning—” Matthais paused, clearly at a loss for words.

Symeon’s vivid imagination usually served him well. At this moment, it was a curse. “What? What is it?”

Matthais voice was like one of his stones, hard and blunt. “The left side of her face is slack. Lifeless. Looks like she’s had a stroke. But what thirteen year-old girl has a stroke? They’re saying, at Elkanah’s hold, they’re saying that she was touched. Marked, by the Lord. Elkanah, the coward, ran back to the city just an hour before we arrived. His men said something about a sacrifice, penance. When we got there, Elkanah’s men were more than happy to hand her over. They’re afraid. As they should be, the bastards. I hope the Lord shrivels their cocks and splits their shins.”

“Be careful what you pray for, my friend,” said Symeon slowly, trying to imagine his daughter’s beautiful face as a Greek tragedian’s mask, half smiling, half mourning. “The Lord may answer you in kind.”

I prayed for deliverance, salvation. For the Hand of the Lord to reach out to protect her. And He answered my prayer in every particular. “Praise to the Lord,” he added. “Where are they?”

“A few miles behind me. She’s tired, naturally. Seth wouldn’t leave her, so he sent me ahead. Said you’d want to arrange passage to wherever you’re heading next.”

“He was correct.” They had to leave. If this story spread around Jerusalem, that would be just one more excuse to lock him up, stop his work. Perhaps even murder him. Already they had executed so many of his friends. From the old days, only Seth and Matthais were left. And Saul. But Saul had always traveled his own road.

“Where will you go, my lord?”

“Where they can’t touch us,” answered Symeon. “We’ll go to the center of the world. We’ll go to Rome.”

* * * * * *

The girl was half-asleep in her saddle when they arrived, an hour before dawn. They’d ridden all night. Seth, good Seth, suspicious Seth, he understood the danger they were all in.

Matthais’ twins hopped off their mounts at once, stretching their sores. “Horses!” groaned one. “We would have done better to walk.”

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,” said the other. That had to be Asher, the boy prodigy. It was said he could perfectly quote any part of Scripture from memory. Which meant the other was Judah, the brawler. Always getting into fights, or so his father claimed. Of the two, Matthais was prouder of Judah.

Ignoring the twins, Symeon raced to his daughter’s side, pulled her down from horseback, and enfolded her in his arms. “Perel! Perel! My pearl…” He had no other words, nothing to say beyond her name.

Drowsy, she blinked at him. “Father. I’m fine, father. Truly.” And she smiled up at him.

That smile broke his heart. The right side of her face was life, joy, a flower in full bloom. But the left – a mawkish imitation, waxen, limp and lifeless. Tears flooded his eyes as he reached out to touch her slack cheek. “Does it hurt?”

“Not at all.” She was trying to sound chirpy, the way she’d always answered him. But she had to speak carefully, for her lips were only half in use. “I’m sorry for all the trouble.” The sorry was a little slurred.

“No trouble, no trouble,” murmured her father, pressing his lips into her hair. Over her head his gaze fixed on Seth. “No trouble?”

“Not yet.” Sliding down from his saddle, Seth looked as he always did – hideous. Wounded as a youth, a puckered and shiny scar ran from his nose across all the way to his left ear. It made the sinister side of his face even moreso, pinching the flesh under one eye and giving him a grotesque leer. Not even a neat, trim beard could help. My friend and my daughter are now a matched pair.

Still hugging his daughter, Symeon heard the stonemason greet his sons. “Boys. Made yourselves useful, I hope.”

Seth answered. “They did. Judah got a deer with his sling. Asher kept us awake with his stories.”

“Stories,” sneered Matthais. “At least your brother does something useful. You’re not a priestling, boy, and doubtful ever will be, no matter what they tell you at your beth hasefer. Seems to me you ought to learning to be a man before you give it all up for stories.”

Asher was red in the face and silent. It was his twin who answered, flexing his fists. “He kept our minds off our saddlesores and hunger. Pretty useful, I’d say.”

Matthais owned a deep and volcanic temper. “You’d best say less, boy.”

Side by side, the twins faced their father. Half past eleven years, their mother had died bearing them, and they seemed the Castor and Pollux of Judea. So alike in form, so different in spirit. Yet inseperable, even in the face of their father’s anger.

Symeon released his daughter and put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Matthais, I haven’t yet thanked your sons. Judah, Asher, I owe you both a debt I can never repay.”

The boys had only met him a handful of times, so his debt likely didn’t matter much to them. They had gone after Perel as an adventure, as a boon for their father. Their father had never explained the bond between himself and Symeon. Doubtful he ever would. Matthais was a man of Jerusalem, and in the White City a link to Symeon meant death.

Still, he owed the boys something more. He didn’t have an inkling what to do for the rough-and-tumble Judah. In Asher, however, he knew just what offer would serve. “If you ever want a teacher, Asher, come to me. I’ll treat you as my own son. You can be a priest, even if it’s in exile in Rome.”

The boy’s eyes widened. “Rome?”

Perel’s eyes had similarly turned into saucers. “Is that where we’re going?”

“We sail in an hour. Best we get our things aboard.”

Seth moved to obey. Symeon took one more look at his daughter’s face, feeling he had best say something. Softly in her ear he said, “He has marked you as His own. It is an honor.”

Perel dropped her eyes, leaning her slack cheek against his bearded chin. “I know, father.”

Symeon gathered his band of followers and made for one of Azotus’ three quays, Nebi Yunis. Their passage was on a Greek merchantman called the Crest Dancer, its V-shaped hull making extra room for amphorae of oils and perfumes. It would call at Ptolmais, Tyre, Paphos on Cyprus, Rhodes, then the long run to Athens. From there the small band would have to find their own way to the City of the Seven Hills. And there were many cities, towns, and hamlets on the way to preach in, and fish for more men.

Watching his daughter board the Dancer, Symeon was glad to be quitting this port city, which had once belonged to a dancing princess called Salome, a woman who had arranged the beheading of one of Symeon’s friends. So much death. And so much of it is Jew shedding the blood of his brother’s blood. Cain has much to answer for.

Matthais and his sons helped them shift their possessions aboard, then returned to the quay. Symeon said, “You’re certain you will not come?”

Matthais shook his head. “Jerusalem’s walls have too much of my blood in them. It’d be like leaving behind a brother. Besides, masoning is all I know. And a mason needs a city as much as the city needs him.”

Symeon understood. Unlike him, Matthais was in no danger. He had never been a true convert. Only a friend. But if there was ever a man to be fished… “Rome is always building. There’s never a shortage of work.”

“Like as not I’d be carving false idols, then, and new Towers of Babel. No, thank you. I’ll see you when you return.”

Symeon frowned. Return? When will that be? He had always assumed that he would die in Judea. But now he had the strangest feeling that this was his last moment on Judean soil.

Embracing Matthais, he said farewell to the twins and climbed aboard. As the oarsmen shoved them off and wafted them around, he noticed his daughter looking back at the twins, still standing on the quay. One of them waved, and she waved back, with her sad half-smile clear as day. He wondered which of them had become her friend until she said, “Do you think he will come and study?”

So it was Asher, the prodigy. Naturally. His daughter favored the exceptional. “Perhaps, when he’s old enough.”

Hugging his daughter tight, Symeon watched his native land grow smaller and smaller. He had left it many times, but always to return. Something told him that this time, it was not to be. This was the last farewell.

The rising sun was just cresting the horizon, dazzling him. His last impression was of the handsome twins on the quay, wrestling and playing as boys will, trying to topple each other into the water. So much of Judea in them. Or rather, of Israel. Intelligence and strength. A questing mind, and a strong will. Those were the rocks of Judaism.

All at once one brother hooked the other’s foot, sending him over backwards. The falling twin kept hold of the other’s wrist, and they fell together into the water, much to their father’s disgust. Symeon laughed, squinting at the sun glinting off the water.

When he was unable to stare into the bright sunlight any longer, Symeon escorted his daughter below, then asked the ship’s captain if there was a fishing net about. “I like to be useful.”

Part One

Eagles and Vultures


Beth Horon, Judea

3 November, 66 AD

As if obedient to Joshua’s famous command, the moon hung over the plain of Ajalon like a lamp. A threatening lamp, close, cold – taunting, just out of reach. Full of promise. Full of menace.

The name meant the Place of Deer, and just now the deer and gazelles were skittishly returning after a fright. The terrible stamping thunder had shook the earth, driving them far afield. Venturing back now, their hackles were up, their nerves jittery. So at the first sign of another influx of hunters, they fled again in silence – unlike the birds hiding in the grove of apricot trees, who screamed their outrage as they took flight. It was night, they protested. No time for hunter’s games.

They needn’t have feared. This night the hunters were after different prey.

Among the hunters was Judah ben Matthais. At seventeen, the mason’s son was more Goliath than David, his expansive chest built by years of hewing stone. But unlike Goliath, he had an almost embarrassing comeliness – lush black hair, strong brow, and a body sculpted by years of hard work. Shirtless, barefoot, running in just his kilted cloth, his overall appearance was almost Greek – not the Greeks he rubbed elbows with every day, but the statuary, the beautiful figures of Hellenic myth and song that had invaded Judean culture. Yet his face, from the strong chin to the slight curve of his nose, was pure Hebrew.

The hard planes of his muscles moved like a machine, or a wild animal. He moved with a lithe step, almost weightless, and he ran as if he were one of the deer, leaping and barely touching the earth.

There was one difference. Deer didn’t carry spears.

Judah shifted the weapon in his grip. From sawing stone to swinging a stick, he had capable hands, strong and large. He didn’t have his brother’s way with books or words, nor his father’s sarcastic streak. He didn’t have his grandfather’s fabled patience, nor his dead mother’s sweetness. Judah was just an angry man who was good with his hands.

Passing the grove of apricots trees, he remembered bringing Deborah here in the summer months. It had been sweet smelling then, but in the time between the fruits had all been stolen and the trees stood denuded as if by locust. These trees were lucky. The larger trees of Ajalon had all been ravaged, knocked down for the invaders’ fort or made into siege engines.

Thinking of Deborah made him angry. He pushed thoughts of her from his mind and ran on.

Past a small village, Judah and the rest arrived at the great ancient highroad, new-covered with paving stones. This same road had brought the Canaanites, Israelites, Philistines, Aegyptians, and Syrians. It was the road of pilgrimage, and the road of invasion. But unlike all other invaders, the Romans had not only used it, but made it their own, repaving it as they marched. They put their mark on everything they touched, like some hideous nation of Cain.

Breathing hard, Judah ignored the road. Instead he scrambled up the ancient goat-paths on the southern hill ridge. He’d spent countless hours among these hills with his brother, quarrying stone for their father. Normally he might fear a panther or a wolf lurking in a shallow cave. He remembered a nasty fright as a boy when he’d encountered a lone hyena. But tonight the noise from the road had driven all such beasts away.

Behind him hundreds of men followed as fast as their feet could carry them. Others crossed the road to ascend the northern slope, racing to get ahead of their prey in the valley below.

The Valley of Beth-Horon.

It was here that another Judah, son of another Matthias, had led a revolt against foreign overlords. He had been called the Makkabi – the Hammer of the Lord. Whimsically, Judah wished he had one of his father’s stone-working hammers. He liked symmetry.

Across the ridge ahead Judah heard the deafening, uniform stamp of hobnail boots, the clatter of hooves, and the creak of wagons and siege machines. The sound of a Roman army.

Racing and stumbling over the rocks, his free hand groping up the rest of the slope, Judah clutched the spear haft. Apart from this lone spear he’d plucked from a dead man, Judah’s only weapon was a sling. Traditional, almost poetic. He didn’t even have a sword, and there’d been no time to go home and take his father’s. Things had happened so fast! One moment the Romans were attacking the Temple, the next they were pulling up their stakes and marching smartly back the way they’d come. And the whole city, it seemed, had given chase.

Judah was no rebel. He paid his taxes. He’s had no part in the riots, the kidnappings, the murders. Those had been the agitators, the Zelotes and Sicarii. Even when word came of the massacre in Alexandria and the death of his twin brother, Judah hadn’t taken to the streets. But the anger, seething and boiling, had built. And built.

Then, this morning, the Romans had attacked the heart of his faith, the most sacred site in all the world. In answer, the common men of Jerusalem, men like Judah, had poured into the streets. No shouts, no cries. They were more fearsome for their silence. After a few brief skirmishes, the wary Romans had retreated, and the Jews had followed. As fast as the Romans ran, the Jews ran faster. Without shield, without helm, without armour of any kind. Nothing but their rightous rage.

Judah started among them, then suddenly he was ahead of them, leading them out of the city after the fleeing Roman legion. Anger gave him inexhaustible strength to run, his lungs filling and collapsing like the bellows under the brick-furnace in his father’s yard. The spear in his grip weighed almost nothing. It was crimson, still covered in the lifeblood of his neightbor Jocha. Poor Jocha, so eager, so slow. The short Roman pilum had pierced his throat and knocked him from the rooftop before he could loose his first slingstone. Kneeling beside him, Judah had plucked the spear forth, and a welter of blood had pulsed out behind it, speeding Jocha to his death.

“Fool,” his father had said, closing the dying man’s eyes. “Brave idiot. Now who’ll look after your mother and son?”

“I will,” said Judah, clutching the spear so hard his knuckles turned white.

His father had laughed. “Which means me, since I look after you. You’re awfully free with my largesse. Now come inside before some Roman makes us pin-cushions as well. They’ll be gone soon enough, then we can bury our dead.”

“No.” Judah had stood and headed for where the fighting was.

“Where are you going? Judah! Judah, no…!” The old man’s voice had been lost to the thunder of voices crying for vengence, the thunder of Roman boots and trumpets, the thunder hammering in Judah’s ears.

Forgive me, father. I can’t be anything but what I am.

Now, under the heavy and pregnant moon, he scrambled to be first to launch his weapon into the Roman ranks. But that honor went to another. The short man wore a priest’s robes and looked wild as a desert jackal. His hair and beard were all disordered, and spittle was on his lips. This man had led the charge out of the city, and barely stopped for breath the whole way. Reaching the top of the ridge just three steps ahead of Judah, he screamed like a lunatic and threw his spear blindly into the disordered Romans below.

Judah took pause to aim. He’d seen them thrown, but he’d never handled a spear himself. Planting his feet wide, Judah raised his weapon to his ear. Taking a huge breath, he stepped into the throw and heaved. The spear vanished into the shadowy depths below. For a moment there was nothing. Then he heard a cry from below, followed by the crisp orders of the centurions. “Testudo! Testudo!” The Romans were forming their tortoise, using their shields to build a wall overhead and along their flanks.

Judah was already unwrapping the sling from his waist. Unable to carry knives in the streets, the young men of the city had improvised. Wearing the wide leather band as a belt kept the Romans from noticing it if they stopped you. And the sling was a holy weapon, the choice weapon of kings and shepherds alike.

As more Judeans clambered up to launch their spears, Judah knelt and found a rock no bigger than his palm. He nocked it into the leather sling and started the weapon spinning.

“For Jerusalem!” shouted the wild man, throwing a second spear. “For Israel!”

“For Asher,” murmured Judah. Three months ago his twin brother had vanished in the riots at Alexandria, when a Roman legion massacred the entire Jewish district. Shaking, Judah sent his stone hurtling down into the Roman ranks. Recovering his balance, he found a film over his eyes. He blinked it away and bent down, feeling around for his next missile.

The next time he cast his sling loose, his bullet was joined by dozens more, raining down a ragged but deadly volley into the disordered Twelfth Legion below.

The Valley of Beth-Horon was a legendary place in Hebrew history, a place of revolution, of the casting off of tyranny and oppression, conjuring visions of heroic deeds and noble causes.

Judah’s cause this night was avenging his brother. Blood thundering in his ears, he reached down for the next stone.

* * * * * *

In the valley below, down among the Romans, a woman called Cleopatra screamed. Dressed in a gown more fit for feasting than flight, the Roman woman buried her head under a goose-feather pillow and spit curses at the invisible Jews above, employing the only Aramaic she had bothered to learn in her three years here. “Raca! Adhadda kedhabhra!”

Her husband, Gessius Florus, dismounted and dragged her out of her litter. Pushing her head down, he made her kneel down behind a dozen stout Roman shields, far better protection than goose feathers.

It was a full moon, and by the light leaking through the chinks in the upheld shields Cleopatra saw she was crouching by the foot of King Agrippa, titular ruler of Judea. The king stood upright and unflinching under the patter of stones on the shields.

“Typical Judeans,” spat Cleopatra, “assaulting their own king. And typical of a Jewish king, to be so ineffectual! Aah!” Another volley of rattling stones made her throw her hands over her head.

On her other side, Florus patted her shoulder. “Now now, Cleopatra. Just keep your head down.” He shot a grin at the king, who was ignoring Roman couple.

All around them the Twelfth Legion struggled with an invisible foe, known only by the rattle of stones and the screams of wounded legionaries. A second shower of stones had started from the other side of the valley as well – the Judean rebels now held the high ground on both sides and were decimating the legion with their slings.

Having run out of Aramaic curses, the Roman lady switched to her native Latin. “Cunni! Mentulae! Fellatores!”

“Quiet woman!” snarled King Agrippa, unable to contain himself any longer. “Florus, control your wife!”

But Gessius Florus, Roman knight and Procurator of Judea, ignored the king’s order. Despite the danger, the plump governor was improbably gleeful. Under a hail of slingstones, he was thinking, O, thank you, Jews! Thank you! You have saved me!

Florus had spent the last three years raping this land. He’d hated the Judeans from first sight of them, having dealt with enough Hebrews in Rome. From the moment he’d arrived he had set out to enrich himself at their expense. He’d raked in taxes and bribes in unheard-of quantities. Those Jews who could not pay were tortured and crucified.

Early on, the complaints had been easy enough to ignore. But eventually even the Hebrew priests had expressed their displeasure, opening up an avalanche of complaints and accusations that had gone all the way to Rome. If it had gone on any longer, Nero Caesar would finally have taken notice, threatening the grand fortune Florus had stolen from these heathen Hebrews.

The only way for Florus to hide his deeds (and his gold!) was to start a war. Not that he could declare one himself – he was only a knight, not a senator. But what he could do was bait these silly Jews into starting one. For decades there had been fear of a revolution in Judea. All he had to do was fan those flames.

He began by adding more taxes. The Jews bent, but did not break. Then he demanded the gold from their great Temple. Even that insult hadn’t been enough to move these dullards. So he had struck them where they were most sensitive – their lonely god. Noting their reaction to any sacrilige, he had placed the image of Nero inside their precious Temple, to be worshipped alongside their god.

Predictably, the citizens of Jerusalem had gone wild, sacking the Roman garrison there, and burning King Agrippa’s palace. Best of all, they burned all the contracts and deeds lodged in the governor’s palace, thus removing all proof of his chicanery. The uprising provided Florus with a pretext to demand reinforcements. The governor of Syria had dutifully marched on the city, and now the Judeans were responding just as Florus had hoped. When news of this attack reached Rome, Nero would wage all-out war. And Florus’ gold would be safe.

Noting the cold stare of the Judean king, Florus said, “Invigorating, is it not, your majesty?”

Agrippa turned away. Florus grinned until he noted the look on the face of the king’s bodyguard. A thin man, taller than any Roman, he was a fearsome sight. Unlike the king, this man eschewed Western dress, and grew his beard in the old Hebrew way, long and neatly squared. But his head was shaved, and the moonlight reflected off a deep scar along one side of his scalp just above the ear. He carried an enormous sword, half as tall as himself and as wide as an outstretched hand, but crooked halfway down the blade. Not a soldier’s blade. A gladiator’s blade. A barbarian’s blade.

This fearsome monster, so foreign and other, was staring down at him with undisguised scorn. Like any coward, Florus felt a burning resentment and consoled himself with thoughts of revenge. I can’t kill your king, but I can have you killed easily enough, my friend. In fact… “My dear king, should not your man here be helping? Such a fierce warrior should be in the thick of things, not hiding with women and old men!”

“Levi is my bodyguard,” replied Agrippa. “He does not need to be fighting his brothers, my own people.”

“Even when they’re calling for your royal blood?” asked Florus lightly. Beside him, Cleopatra hissed, “Cowards, all of them.”

Disgusted, Agrippa stalked away to find a horse. The bodyguard Levi lingered a moment more, gazing down at Florus. Then he followed his master. Watching them go, the governor of Judea stifled a laugh. Romans bowed to no king, and especially not a client king who needed Rome’s protection against his own people. Thinking of all the insults he’d heaped upon the king and his sister-queen, Florus laughed outright.

The laugh died in his throat as one of the slingstones punched through the edge of a Roman shield and struck the paved road just inches away. Florus reached out and felt the pit in the road it had made, and imagined what that would have done to his flesh. He called up to the Syrian governor, still astride his horse. “Gallus! Get us out of here!”

From his saddle, Gaius Cestius Gallus scowled at the squat, pudgy knight. A consular senator and general, it was inconceivable to him that a Roman man should cower with women and foreigners.

He had Florus’ measure, to be sure. But duty to Rome had compelled him to bring the Twelfth Legion to Judea and patch up whatever crisis Florus had caused.

However, he had misjudged the situation entirely. The resistance he had encountered in Jerusalem was fierce and bitter. This wasn’t the anger at a few years of abuse. This was the boiling resentment of generations.

Even this retreat was going poorly. Already he had lost dozens of men, including his entire cavalry. These damn Judean sling-stones were usually no more than a nuisance, but his men were exhausted, thirsty, and on uncertain terrain. And the Judeans had their blood up.

Gallus issued crisp orders to his senior legate. “Find five centuries to push up the slopes and guard our retreat. Four hundred men should have room to deploy. They’re to drive them back, buy the rest of us time to make an orderly retreat up the valley.”

Mid-note, the bugler issuing the order was struck by a hail of stones, destroying his instrument along with his life. The five centurions had to be given their task by word of mouth. Obediently they started their men up the rise to meet the enemy, with the good lady Cleopatra still spitting curses behind them.

The Twelfth Legion had a proud history. They had fought with Caesar against the Nervii, had made history at the siege of Alesia, and defeated Pompey the Great at Pharsalus. They would not fall to a pack of Judean rabble throwing stones.

* * * * * *

Judah was scrabbling for another stone when the whizzing sound of the slings stopped. Looking down the slope he saw legionaries climbing to meet them. “That’s right, bastards,” said someone nearby. “Come on.”

A sword scraped from its wooden sheath, and Judah turned to stare enviously. The blade was held by an Idumean, to judge by the dark skin and long hair. The hairline was receeding, making this man an incongruously comic figure. But his voice was all angry defiance. “For Israel!”

On Judah’s other side, the wild priest Simon bar Giora beat his chest with his hands. “For Israel!”

Israel!!” Howling and keening, the Judeans surged down to engage the Romans.

Adding his voice to the battle cry, Judah leapt down the slope, thrilling. This wasn’t like the fighting he had done in the stews of Jerusalem, brawling with friends and neighbors, clouting the occasional priestly snob. This was man’s work. This was the Lord’s work.

A Roman soldier lunged at him, the wicked point of the blade angling up towards his bare ribs. Judah didn’t even flinch. He slapped it aside with the flat of his hand and punched the Roman full in the face, knocking the man off his feet to tumble into his fellows.

A second Roman stabbed at this handsome fool of a Judean. Judah threw himself back from this blade and lost his footing. Worse, the angle of the slope was so steep that his fall had him skidding and slipping down into the Roman ranks. His feet struck a legionary’s ankles and brought him crashing down on top of Judah. Suddenly the two men were rolling, careening into other men, a mass of limbs. Romans leapt out of the way, cursing in Latin as the two combatants hurtled through the ranks, down towards the road.

Judah was taking the worst of it, crushed and buffeted by the Roamn’s breastplate, shield, and greaves. But he ignored the pain as they continued to tumble, struggling for dominance. The sword! Judah stopped fighting to be on top, and instead used all his strength to grasp the legionary’s wrist. As they slid, he held the hand against the rocks, knocking the weapon free.

The Roman answered by bashing at Judah with his shield and kicking with a nailed boot. The stinging pain made Judah gasp – his back was already bloody from the fall, and now his left leg was awash with blood. But the ground was evening out, slowing their descent. Judah twisted around, still kicking and elbowing. His hands grasped one of the Roman’s legs at the knee. He twisted, hard. The Roman screamed, crying out in some gutteral Latin dialect for some distant god. Using his hands to slither to a halt, Judah cursed at him and shoved him away.

He put a hand out to rise and discovered it wasn’t earth under his hand, nor rocky outcroppings of jagged stone. This stone was flat and smooth and even. He had fallen all the way down to the road. Alone, among a whole Roman legion.

I’m a dead man.

Somewhere higher on the hill behind him the balding Judean leader released a ferel shout. “Israel! Death to Rome!”

Death. The Roman’s sword was lost, but his shield was still on his arm. Kneeling over the groaning man, Judah knocked the Roman flat, wrenched the shield, raised it high and drove the edge of it like a massive spade down into the gap between helmet and armour. The Roman’s head parted from his body, sending spurts of blood onto the stones all around.

Judah staggered to his feet, looking frantically around him. He’d fallen clean through the ranks of one century, and was now between the horses of the vanguard and the tortoise of the legion. Weaponless, bloodied, naked – even his kilted loincloth had ripped away – he was sure that death was coming for him at any moment. I’m going to die a fool’s death.

But so far no one was seeing him. The soldiers to the south were huddled behind their shields, and the horsemen were galloping north for the mouth of the valley, and escape. Every heartbeat brought more Judeans down towards the road. If Judah could survive just one minute more, he’d be among his fellows again.

There were Romans in the road, dead or dying from spears and slingstones. Clutching the bloody shield, Judah ran to the closest, a groaning man in a silver helm whose chest was spurting irregular gouts of blood through a hole in his breastplate. Judah bent low and plucked the man’s sword from its hard scabbard.

Fellator,” gasped the dying Roman. Judah wondered if it had been his stone that had caught this man.

He heard a clatter of hooves behind him and turned. A mounted man had glanced back, seen him, and was now reining about to cut him down. The moonlight reflected off a bald pate and huge Judean sword. “No! I’m a brother!” Judah opened his arms, refusing to fight another Jew.

The horse came racing at Judah, the massive sword held high. Judah lifted his own blade to parry it—

The clang of metal on metal sounded like it was inside his head. But it came from just behind him. Judah ducked and glanced back. The horse was already past him. Lying on the ground Judah saw the injured Roman whose sword he had stolen, a long knife in his hand. He had no face. His helm had been split, and there was blood pooling all around him.

Judah glanced up at his rescuer. Much older than Judah, wiry and very tall. Deep-set eyes, bristling brow, and a neatly-squared beard. He’d killed the Roman with a huge version of the traditional Judean sword, long blade angled forward at the midpoint like a crooked finger.

It was less than fifteen seconds since he’d landed on the road. Now the Roman centuries on the slopes were falling back under the crush of the thousands of Judeans racing down from above. Boulders bounced down into the ranks of the tortoises, breaking the Roman ranks. The Romans themselves were abandoning their tortoise shell to draw their swords and attack their besiegers.

The lone horseman looked back the way he had come. A rabble of Judeans had come down onto the road, chasing the other riders. He was cut off from his companions.

“Thank you,” called Judah.

The tall man gave Judah a disdainful glare. “Gratitude later. Fight now!” With a grimace that was part snarl, part grin, he leapt down from his saddle and waded into the ranks of the scattering Romans, leaving Judah behind.

Clever, thought Judah. Cut off, his only chance now is to change sides and fight with us.

But he was cut off because he rescued me. I owe him my life. Judah followed the bearded turncoat onto the valley floor where the forces or Rome and Judea were meeting to become a roiling mass of men, blood, and steel.

* * * * * *

Roman legates were shouting orders. “Forget the siege engines! Leave the baggage! Kill the mules!” The stones had started again, this time from the front of the valley – some clever Judeans had climbed the crests to harass the Roman escape route.

A stone struck a glancing blow to Cestius Gallus’ breastplate, rocking him back in the saddle. “Cacat!” The Roman general clenched his knees on the saddle’s horns, but the weight of his armour threatened to topple him.

A hand shot out to steady him. King Agrippa was leaning sideways in his own saddle. “Gratias.”

“If the general were to fall, Caesar’s wrath would be all the greater. Besides,” added Agrippa with a ghost of a smile, “my sister likes you.” His Latin bore no trace of foreignness or rusticality. A client king, Agrippa had been raised in Rome, and was in spirit far more Roman than Jew.

“Thanks,” repeated Gallus.

Glancing back, the king scowled. “Though I confess, I might risk Nero’s fury to see Florus fall.” Just behind them, Florus was refusing to get back into his saddle, choosing instead to climb into a covered wagon with his wife.

Though he ferverently agreed, Gallus had no time for a chat. The emboldened Judeans were coming ever faster. If the Twelfth Legion and all its reinforcing cohorts did not escape this valley at once, they would die to the last man. He shouted to every man that could hear: “Fly fly fly!”

As Agrippa shook his reins and galloped off with the Roman officers, he realized in passing that he had lost his bodyguard.

* * * * * *

Judah chased his tall savior through the thick of the fighting. A silent challenge had been issued, and Judah had never backed away from a challenge in his life.

But if the goal was to kill more Romans than his opponent, Judah was clearly out-classed. The gaunt moonlit figure bested two legionaries with contemptuous ease, killing one and slicing out the other’s eyes with a single stroke. The man was clearly well-trained, a merchant of death, purchasing one life after another. Every flick of his wrist drew Roman blood.

Lacking training, Judah fought by instinct, relying on his size and strength to see him through. He was used to shifting stones, and now he employed his strong arms to haul Romans off-balance and stab them or, more often, punch them with the hard wide pommel at the sword’s other end.

More and more Judans were joining them down on the road, and it was pure confusion. Screams and shouts and the occasional sparks of steel on steel. The smell in the air was earthy and electric – blood and sweat and shit and fear.

Judah still held the shield, but it was getting in his way. It slowed him too much, and he was not interested in defense. This was the moment to attack! What did it matter if he fell here? This would be a fine place to die, and in a fine cause.

This would be a good death. Though I wish I weren’t naked

Embracing the inevitable, Judah threw his shield aside. At once a Roman lunged, seizing the opening. Judah caught the man’s arm in his free hand and brought his sword down hard. The Roman screamed, blood gysering out of the stump at his elbow. Judah twisted the severed arm and stabbed the Roman with his own blade. The lifeless fingers fell away from the grip, and Judah waded into the enemy ranks with a blade in each hand. That’s better, he thought.

He wasn’t aware he was laughing until a voice said, “What are you giggling at?” The question came from another Judean fighting beside him. Phannius, another mason. Where did he come from? Phannius was a lout, and fought like it, clubbing as many friends as foes, the idiot. His family considered itself above Judah’s, because it had a drop of priestly blood. Judah hoped the fool was cut down. Would serve him right.

Judah’s bile was very personal. Last month, after almost a year of courting, Judah had asked for Phannius’ sister’s hand in marriage. He’d been refused. Not good enough.

Deborah. She’d smiled at him with such eyes—

Judah gasped as a Roman spear was knocked away from his nose. He hadn’t seen it at all, not until the tall bald turncoat had beat it aside. “Pay attention! I didn’t save you for nothing!”

Almost sheepishly, Judah redoubled his efforts. He was covered in blood, a fair amount of it his own. Despite his strong lungs he was panting now. Worse, his mind was beginning to fog. The hardest part of sword-work, he was finding, was the shock of the blows. That, and pulling the sword out of flesh – though it went in easy enough.

He saw a sword coming down to cleave his skull, and he brought up both his blades in a cross to catch it. He was about to shoulder his attacker away when a reflection of moonlight caught his eye. The lamp-like orb was shining down upon a pair of golden wings, bobbing high above the roiling swords and spears. It was a shaft of illumination just for him. The V of his swords overhead made a perfect frame for the large eagle perched high atop a pole. The Roman Aquila, symbol of Roman might and majesty. The eagle...

Binding the Roman’s sword away with one blade and stabbing with the other, Judah was seized with an insane notion. To his protector he shouted, “Tell me your name!”

The fearsome turncoat was driving back three legionaries. “Levi!”

“Levi, I’m going for that eagle! You can come or not.”

Levi barked out a short. “Oh, can I?”

But Judah was already moving. The thing was just a dozen paces away. Not good enough? I’ll show them how good I am. How good we both are, Asher. I’ll die a hero of Israel.

He moved without thought, without fear. He felt only an angry confidence, as if his sword was being guided. The Lord is my sword, and my sword is His. I am that I am. “Come on, you bastards! Come on!”

Suddenly Levi was by his side, and Judah grinned in spite of himself. I’m not the only fool. They fought furiously, heaving, shoving, slashing, hacking, stabbing, Judah with twin Roman blades, Levi cleaving with his massive crooked one. They called out taunts and curses in every tongue they knew as they moved inexorably towards the eagle.

Sensing the danger to their standard, the Romans closed ranks, creating a solid wall around the aquilifer. Dressed in glittering silver armour and the skin of a desert lion, he was a man chosen for his absolute fearlessness. The aquilifer would give his life before he let his eagle fall.

The Roman shield wall was bristling with spears. Dodging a spearthrust to his face, Levi grabbed a nearby legionary by the chin-strap and hauled him around onto the sword of his neighbor. Hacking down with his massive sword on the other side, he created a momentary gap in the thin line. “Go!”

Judah leapt at once, diving and stabbing out with both swords. One blade drove through the leather skirts into a thigh, the other one up under a Roman’s chin, exiting through the top of his skull.

Both swords were torn from Judah’s grip. He let them go and roared as he shouldered through the ranks. Barking his knee on a breastplate, careening off another armored shoulder, he touched the road with one foot and launched himself at the aquilifer.

The aquilifer’s silver armor gave him an almost ghostlike presence in the moonlight. But he was quick. He lifted the staff in his hands and thrust the butt end of it at Judah’s face. Judah’s hands clamped down just before it struck him, diverting it to one side. He landed badly, but held on to the staff, wrestling for control of it, the eagle at the far end dancing jerkily.

This was more like the fighting Judah knew, the rough and tumble battles of Jerusalem’s stews, where elbows, knees, and teeth came into play. There were swords around him, but he yanked the staff hard the way he had come, where the Romans were too busy with Levi and the others to waste precious seconds ending his life.

The lion’s head fell askew and Judah butted the aquilifer’s nose with his forehead. Blood erupted, misting the air between them. Some entered Judah’s nose and mouth as he breathed in, and for a moment he choked on Roman blood. “Bastard!”

Cunnus!” snarled the Roman. “Fellator!” Enraged, the aquilifer tripped Judah and they tumbled together to the hard road, just missing a spearthrust aimed sidelong at Judah’s back.

Landing on top, the Roman straddled Judah’s chest and pressed the staff hard against Judah’s throat. “Irrumator!”

Gripping the staff tightly, Judah ground his teeth and focused his strength. Slowly, incredibly, the hearty oak shaft began to bend. Oak was a wood beloved of Mars, Judah had heard. Stupid foreign gods, with their stupid pagan loves and idiot superstitions! He heaved harder, and harder, grinding his teeth so hard they felt like they might shatter.

It was the oak that shattered, bursting in a shower of splinters right in the aquilifer’s face. Taking advantage of the Roman’s surprise, Judah drove the two splintered ends of the staff upwards. One gouged a deep furrow in the Roman’s cheek while the other tore away most of the man’s left ear.

The aquilifer was damnably well-trained. Even as he twisted away in agony, he drew his dagger and stabbed blindly down. Judah used the broken stave to block the blow and jabbed up again. This time the wooden shaft deflected harmlessly off the hard Roman breastplate.

Smearing blood from his face with one forearm, the aquilifer pinned one of Judah’s wrists with his knee. He stabbed down, and Judah barely got the broken haft in his free hand between him and the dagger’s wicked point.

The aquilifer put all his weight down. Slowly, inexorably, the dagger inched towards Judah’s throat.

Is this how Asher died? At the end of a Roman knife?

Surging with rage, Judah heaved the aquilifer sideways and clubbed the Roman hard on the side of his head with the golden eagle, cracking his skull. The aquilifer fell to the dirt under a spray of blood.

“For you, Asher! That’s for you!” Shoving the limp Roman off him, Judah struggled to his feet, a nightmarish figure, naked, howling, drenched in blood. “You hear me! That’s for my brother!” Swinging the broken Roman standard around his head, he dived into the Roman ranks and beat at them with their own symbol. Behind him Levi came fast, sweeping his massive blade to protect Judah’s back. But Judah was past caring about safety. He had the eagle, and with it in his grip he was fearless, unstoppable.

“The eagle! The eagle!” Judean cheers spread like wildfire. The whole world knew the significance of the Roman aquila. Touched by the hand of Nero himself, it was a piece of Rome itself. Taking it was nothing less than a miracle, a sign from the Lord!

The massed Judeans surged forward and began literally tearing the legionaries to pieces.

* * * * * *

At the mouth of the valley, governor Florus saw the eagle fall and chortled. Now they’ve done it. These Judeans have doomed themselves for certain.

Not far off, King Agrippa shared the pride of his people’s great deed, yet felt sick at heart. Today his countrymen had touched off a self-immolating inferno, building their funeral pyre on a tower of bravery. The definition of a Pyrrhic victory. He saw the massive croocked blade among the Roman ranks, slicing and maiming. O Levi – what have you done?

General Gallus reacted practically. “Ride! Now, while they’re cheering! Ride!”

The two governors, the king, and a handful of Roman nobles and officers escaped into the night, leaving behind more than four thousand Roman soldiers dead or dying. A few hundred struggled on, fighting for their personal share of honor, hoping their gods looked on them with favor.

* * * * * *

Judah was in the thick of it, a prodidgious figure of death. One Roman he approached was his own age, but thin and unmartial – an officer sent from Rome, probably some scion of a famous house. The fellow dropped his sword and knelt before Judah, hands clasped and eyes streaming. “Pax! Pax! Elision!”

Judah didn’t know the last word, but the meaning was clear – mercy. Picturing his twin brother doing the same before some Roman, Judah stabbed the young officer in the throat and moved on, looking for his next foe.

But there was no one left to kill. The Legio XII Fulminata – Wielders of the Thunderbolt, conquerors of the Nervii, victors of Alesia and Pharsalus – were no more.


The celebrations lasted straight through the night. Word of the victory had gone back to Jerusalem and the city’s women, children, and elderly had poured out to bring their men food and water. Dead Jews were lovingly returned to the city. Pyres for the Roman dead were made from broken wagons and siege engines. Around the huge fires there was dancing and singing, and many prayers of thanksgiving.

Dawn found Judah walking aimlessly among the jubilant Judeans, the eagle still clutched in his hand. He had been carousing all night, and now exhaustion and spirits made him feel muddled and stupid. But still, whether cavorting with the crowds or searching the dead for loot, every fighting man stopped to shout acclaim for the hero of the hour.

It wasn’t pride that kept Judah holding the standard. The damned thing was glued to his hand by gore, and he was too tired to pry it free. Seen up close, it was a homely image. Crude, not at all magnificent. The likeness of Nero Caesar was laughable, worse even than the one on coins. The eagle’s wings were lopsided – no, that was from where Judah had crushed the aquilifer’s skull. The golden talons clutched the engraved Roman numerals XII.

It might not have been much to look at, but a lost eagle was a grave blow to Rome’s immortality. Only a handful had ever been taken, and Rome had proved it would do anything to reclaim them. Famously, Augustus had negotiated a humiliating peace with Parthia in order to recover the eagles of Crassus, dressing it up as a Roman military victory. What would the Romans not give to get this eagle back? Judea’s freedom was a small price for Roman honor.

He’d pulled a long tunic over his head at some point to cover his nakedness. Blood and offal made the garment clung to him in a most ill way. He was sticky all over, his leg was throbbing where the hobnails had torn him, and he had countless scrapes, cuts, and bruises. There was a gash along his chest where a Roman sword had nearly laid him open.

Dazed, he belatedly noticed that some men were picking through Roman corpses looking for arms and armour. I should do that. He attempted to pull the staff out of his hand, but his left hand became lodged in the sticky mass of gristle and hair as well. Laughing at the absurdity of it, he was shaking at his hands when a quiet voice said, “Step on the haft.”

Levi. The tall man seemed to be Judah’s own shadow. Obediently, Judah bent over and used his foot to wrench the broken staff from his grip.

Hands free, Judah made a proper introduction. “Judah ben Matthais. Thanks for saving my life.”

“Levi ben Patroclus. You’re a young fool, and brave. Such men need protection.”

“I’ve never seen anyone fight like you.”

I did not take the eagle.”

“Are you a soldier..?”

“A bodyguard.” Levi grimaced. “Though after last night I’ll need a new employer.”

Judah was wondering if he should apologize when someone shouted his name. “Judah!” The harsh voice made Levi’s hand drop to his sword. But Judah knew the voice – that idiot Phannius. “I’ve been looking for you!”

Judah had been looking for Phannius, too. Not for the pleasure of his company, but for vindication. If anything might have earned him the right to marry Deborah…

He wondered if she had come from the city, and for a moment his heart leapt. But there was no sign of Deborah, just her loutish brother, riding awkwardly on a Roman horse beside two other men. Built wider than Judah, he was older and far less handsome. Yet the drop of priestly blood in his veins gave him a pugnacious superiority that made Judah’s skin crawl. Thankfully Deborah hadn’t inherited her brother’s pretentions.

“They tell me you took the eagle! You! I can’t believe it!” The fool was grinning, and when he dismounted he clapped Judah on the shoulder as if they were best friends. “Well done, brother! Well done!”

Brother? Your family refused me that title. Now my only brother is dead. Aloud he said, “Praise means so much when it comes from such an elevated person.”

Phannius wasn’t sure if it was sincere or a jab. Before he could decide, the two men riding with him introduced themselves. One was the ferel priest who had thrown the first spear. He gave his name as Simon bar Giora – an odd name, as Giora meant The Stranger. The other was the balding Idumean who had been calling out Israel. His name was Eleazar ben Simon. Like Phannius, they now rode captured horses, and had been looking for Judah.

“Where is it?” demanded Simon bar Giora, dropping from his saddle. His face was a bristle of beard, eyebrows, and crooked teeth. “Where’s the eagle?”

Arms too tired to move, Judah jerked his chin at the dented and blood-stained object at his feet. Instantly both Eleazar and Simon lunged. Eleazar came up with it and leapt at once upon his horse’s back, the symbol of Rome’s pride in his hands. Simon cursed loudly as he flung himself back in the saddle to chase Eleazar, galloping away with the eagle high aloft.

Phannius laughed. “Serves them right – the Romans, I mean. Graven images! Hah! You know where we are?”

“Beth Horon.”

“An auspicious place to start a war,” observed Levi.

Phannius was scornful. “Win one you mean! A shame Asher isn’t here, eh Judah?”

Judah bit back his answer. Asher had been meant for better things.

Phannius clambered back into his saddle, which took him three tries – he’d clearly been drinking. “Good show, Judah. I’ll tell my sister – you’re a hero.” He kicked his heels until the mount trotted off after the leaders of this revolution.

The thought of Deborah warmed him. But Judah didn’t feel like a hero. He’d thought killing Romans would fill the hole left by his brother’s death. In the moment of battle, it had. Now, surrounded by thousands of dead men, he felt empty, spent. He recalled the man who had begged for mercy, and was ashamed.

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