Claudia adjusted her toga as she approached the garrison. Maybe she would see him today. She absently fingered her new coif and hoped that the hairdresser had woven the cords tightly around her cluster of curls. She had to look her best for Vitus. She had scarcely believed her good fortune when he showed an interest in her. Though her father was an up and coming senator with his eyes on Rome, she had never been as glamorous as her older sister. To have the attentions of the dashing young had been most thrilling.
Almost as exciting as the events shaking up the province—insurrections, arrests, crucifixions. Claudia abhorred violence; the crosses made her sick to her stomach, but she was a daughter of a Roman family. She had grown accustomed to her nation’s ways.
She hoped Vitus hadn’t been involved in the recent executions. It always made him so depressed. She feared he might take in too much wine afterward; that’s what all the soldiers did to lessen the experience of hearing the tortured cries and watching the brutal deaths of the accused.
The sun was finally out. It had been so dark the last couple days. And, of course, the earthquake had damaged quite a few buildings around the city. She had seen several crews carrying off the refuse and repairing walls . It was one thing her father took great satisfaction in—the organization of Roman influence, the pinnacle of the world’s achievement.
Claudia glanced behind her to make sure her servant was still there, then looked toward the citadel. He wasn’t there. On Sunday, he usually found some reason to be outside when she passed by. At times, he had even been standing guard when she came. Though he was never free to acknowledge her, he would salute her with a look in his eyes that accelerated her heart rate. As for Claudia, just the chance to see him in full dress regalia, muscled, taut, and proud, made the day brighter.
She sighed. Not today. She turned toward her servant escort. “Let’s go home, Drusus.”
The streets of Jerusalem were so dusty; she’d have to visit the baths again before evening. Claudia turned down the street toward her home, which first passed by the Jews’ temple. She had never quite understood their religion. They were certainly a passionate people, quite different from the apathetic Romans who only paid homage to their many gods to keep them pacified. But the Jews always had some sort of riot going with their worship. Her father had often complained about their attempts to drag the government into their disputes. Much as they claimed to love God, they were forever wanting to stone someone who committed some wrongdoing.
In fact, there was a crowd around the temple now. It wasn’t the angry mob of last week dragging some poor man to trial, but a group of their religious leaders, men who look strangled in their holy robes and tight turbans. She had never seen one smile—must be a horridly miserable faith.
The group parted slightly and several Roman soldiers walked out. She gasped. One of them was Vitus. He looked up into her startled eyes. Claudia pushed Drusus gently. “Tell him to meet me tonight.”
The fountain was gurgling under a wedge of moon as Claudia waited for Vitus to arrive. The atrium was pleasant this time of year with the fig trees beginning to bloom and the sweet smell of spring blooms masking the stench of the city. She adjusted the tray of olives and cheese. The outer door creaked and she saw the servant let him in.
Vitus had shed his breastplate, leg coverings, and helmet. In his woven tunic, he cast a less imposing shadow, though he towered above her.
He moved toward her and took her hand, drawing her down to sit beside him. He spoke softly. “Claudia, I have had the most unusual experience.” His eyes scanned the shadows. “Something has happened today to Jerusalem, to Rome, to the world. I have no explanation for it. In all of my years in the legion, I have never had a weekend like this one.”
“Tell me. Vitus. I want to hear about it.” She stroked his hand, feeling the raw strength, the hardness, the small scar where he had been punctured once in a gladius duel.
“You heard about the crucifixion on Friday?”
Claudia nodded. “Were you there?”
“I had sentry duty under the crosses. It was partly a Jewish affair, another religious rebel, and a couple of thieves. It was a pretty basic execution until the end. The guy in the middle just sort-of hung his head and died, even before Marcus gouged him with his gladius. And then, there was the earthquake and blackness. The guys playing cards nearby started cursing and left. I was standing there trying to keep the rain out of my face, and I heard Marcus mumble something about the Son of God. I didn’t really care at that point, just thought it was a lousy time for a storm. His blood mixed with the rain in dark puddles beside me.”
Vitus stared off into the still night. “Like I said, the Jews were all furious about this guy and demanded that the legion guard his tomb. I was one of the soldiers chosen for duty.” He turned toward her. “I saw them, Claudia. I watched them close the tomb, with the governor’s own seal. The stone they heaved in front of the opening was massive, as large as your front gate. Then they left us, the Jewish leaders smiling and happy.”
Vitus stood up and paced a few steps. “We talked and joked to keep awake and walked around to ward off the chill. But what happened next is what I have to tell you.” He sat down again and took her by the shoulders. “Have you ever been paralyzed? Unable to move, in a trance? I was, Claudia. Just as the first slash of dawn shone, I remember feeling glad it was going to warm up and then I just froze. There was a blinding light and this tremendous power, like an underground presence that just burst forth. The stone started rolling away on its own, and I couldn’t do anything. I looked over at Antonius, and his eyes were fixed in a stare. He couldn’t move either. It was like we were dead while we were still standing.” Vitus shook his head and dropped his hands.
“What do you think happened?” Claudia had never seen Vitus shaken. He was Roman, powerful, in control, confident. Yet, he didn’t seem weak or mentally disturbed now; it was more of a new realization sweeping over him.
Vitus rubbed the side of his face. “I don’t know. But he was gone.”
“The man inside.”
“The dead man?”
Maybe he did need to see the physician after all. Vitus nodded. “The wrappings were there, but he wasn’t. And when we told them at the Temple, they paid us off. Made us promise to say we fell asleep; then they fixed it up with the centurion.”
“What will you do now?” Claudia searched his dark eyes.
“Find the truth. If they knew I’d told you, I’d be severely punished, probably executed. But, Claudia, in my heart, I know they’re wrong. Whatever happened in that tomb was good. There was hope there, light, promise. Help me find out what it is.”
Claudia placed her hand over his. “Vitus, isn’t this dangerous?”
“Probably. But, all my life, I have lived in the shadow of death, violence and hate. I can’t explain why, but I know that man was different, maybe even God. And I think I know where to start searching. There’s a guy named John Mark whose mother has an upstairs room we raided last week…” – VQ