Authors: Sigmund Brouwer
Vitas knew from experience that passengers would not be hidden below decks. The only quarters there belonged to the captain. They’d be on the deck, in or near tents that their servants pitched and maintained for them.
He frowned again, looking more closely at the carpenter and his assistants. It appeared to Vitas that they were lashing together the two beams, forming the shape of a cross.
This was confirmed moments later when all three men strained to set the cross upright. They leaned it against the spar of the mainsail. All the rest of the crew stopped work. The exchanged glances among them were obvious.
“As a Jew, I’m sure you are aware of the Roman method of ruling the provinces,” Damian told his captive in the hillside olive grove.
Damian sat on the edge of the lower half of the olive press, his feet dangling just above the ground. This half was a huge horizontal disk of stone, flat on the ground, like a wheel on its side. It was fully three paces in diameter, and the top surface was the height of a man’s waist. A wide and shallow trough had been carved between the center of the disk and its outer edge, going the entire circumference of the disk. This wide groove was filled with freshly harvested olives.
“Caesar grants privileges and citizenship to those who cooperate,” Damian continued, “and ruthlessly destroys those who do not.”
The bound wrists of Damian’s captive were tied to an upright axle in the center of the olive press. His arms were stretched across the trough of the press, just above the olives that filled it. The rest of his body hung down over the edge of the press, and he stood awkwardly, his belly pressing into the stone.
“You may recall my first words to you,” Damian said. “I invited you to eat and drink. I promised to give you comfort in exchange for answers.” Damian shrugged. “You should not be surprised, then, that when you refused to speak, your food and drink were removed. That, however, is only the beginning of what you face for refusing to cooperate.”
Damian pushed himself off the edge of the olive press. He felt his hatred for Nero and Helius coiling in his belly, and he used it to lash out at this prisoner. Damian needed the hate—he was not capable of torture without it.
Damian spoke to the giant slave who had been standing silently to the side. “Let’s show him what we have in mind.”
A half hour earlier, Damian had instructed other slaves to deliver several wooden beams to be left near the press. These beams were the height of a man and the thickness of Damian’s arm.
Damian picked up the end of one beam. Because of the fierceness of his hangover, his vision seemed to explode in small dots as blood rushed to his head. He fought the urge to vomit again and pretended nonchalance as he laid the beam across the olive press, several feet down from the captive’s arms and parallel to them.
This beam now rested halfway between the captive’s arms and the upper portion of the olive press, which was a second disk of stone that sat upright and fit snugly within the shallow walls of the trough of the lower disk. Like a wheel too, it had a wooden axle protruding horizontally, with a ring at the end that fit over the vertical axle in the center. This heavy wheel of stone was designed with the protruding horizontal axle to be pushed by three men walking around the outer edge of the olive press, so that the disk could be rolled continuously within the trough of the lower disk, its tremendous weight squeezing oil from olives that drained from the trough into a catch basin.
“Begin,” Damian said, holding the outer end of the beam. He’d instructed Jerome on what to do next.
Jerome moved to the axle of the upper disk and grabbed it with both hands in front of his chest. He set his weight against the axle. His head was shaved, and the layers of muscle between the bottom of his skull and the top of his neck bulged as he leaned into the axle.
Although it normally took three men to move the stone disk, Jerome shoved it forward with little sign of strain. Olives in front of the round upright stone disappeared beneath it, becoming pulp as the disk passed over. Two steps later, moving around the outside of the lower disk, Jerome reached Damian and stopped with the upper disk resting against the beam across the trough.
Damian looked at the captive farther down, whose eyes were fixed on the beam. Damian nodded. “Jerome.”
Jerome pushed the upper wheel forward another step as Damian held the beam in place so that it would not slip. The disk rolled over it, snapping it like kindling.
“I believe the sound of your arm breaking would not be much different than that. If we could hear it over your screams.” Damian grabbed another beam and laid it across the olive press a few feet closer to the captive, allowing Jerome to roll the disk over it, too, with the same splintering results. “To refresh your memory, I am a slave hunter. A man of great power has hired me to capture you. But before I deliver you to him, I want to know more about your vision, the one that is in a letter circulating among followers of the Christos.”
After all, if this was something Helius wanted badly, it would have value for Damian.
“Talk to me about your vision,” Damian continued.
He watched the face of the captive closely. A muscle twitched along the man’s jaw. But there was no other sign that the captive would respond.
“Jerome,” Damian said, “this man needs more persuasion.”
The giant slave began pushing again, until the massive wheel touched the captive’s nearest arm. A quarter turn more and his arm would be pulverized.
Damian spoke to the captive in a conversational tone. “Perhaps now you’ll answer my questions?”
“Well?” Helius demanded of Tigellinus as soon as they were alone in the courtyard. “Whose head is it?”
“I don’t like your tone,” Tigellinus said casually and just as casually placed a hand on Helius’s shoulder. “I searched among the bodies myself because I recognized the need for secrecy. But it doesn’t mean you can speak to me like I’m one of your slaves.”
Tigellinus smiled as he spoke but squeezed hard with his powerful fingers, digging into the meat of Helius’s shoulder.
After all their years together in close service to Nero, Tigellinus had a rough affection for Helius. Tigellinus was brawn to Helius’s elegance, crudeness to his effeminacy. As a devious man himself, Tigellinus admired Helius for the same quality. Yet Tigellinus knew that Helius would seize on the first sign of weakness, and he was ever vigilant to squash any signs of imperiousness.
“You do want to apologize, don’t you?” Tigellinus said, smile still in place.
“Of course,” Helius said, his grimace plain. “I forgot myself simply because of my distress at this situation.”
Tigellinus eased the pressure and stepped back.
“Was it Vitas?” Helius asked more respectfully.
“See for yourself.” Tigellinus hid a grin as he lifted the sack and extended it to Helius.
Tigellinus was aware of Helius’s squeamishness, aware that Helius had flicked a glance at his blood-crusted fingernails and swallowed back revulsion. But, because they were always involved in a subtle power struggle, Tigellinus enjoyed the chance to expose weakness in Helius. A true Roman like Tigellinus had no compunctions about the blood that flowed when hacking apart another man’s body.
“That’s not necessary,” Helius said. “I’ve done my part.”
“By sending me at dawn into the pile of bodies outside the arena?”
“You agreed with me,” Helius insisted. “Vitas was a soldier. He would not have strapped the shield on his right arm.”
Tigellinus nodded at that. Soldiers—even left-handed soldiers—were trained to handle a sword with their right hand and strap the shield to the left arm. This way, an entire line of soldiers, each guarding the next, presented an unbroken row of shields to the enemy. It was inconceivable that Vitas would have fought the retiarius with a sword in his left hand. And that could only mean something else just as inconceivable: it had not been Vitas in the arena, but a left-handed man unfamiliar with military training.
“As you promised, the face was bruised badly, almost beyond recognition,” Tigellinus said. “That’s how I was able to identify the body.”
“Does the head belong to Vitas?”
“Check the teeth first,” Tigellinus said, holding the sack open and peering inside. “Vitas came from wealth. You’d expect the teeth to show that. And you’ll also see that without blood to fill the bruises, the bone structure of the face gives a semblance of recognition.”
“Please!” Helius stamped his foot, much to the enjoyment of Tigellinus. “You’ve already seen the head. Why do I need to do so?”
Tigellinus gave a wolflike smile. “For the same reason you asked me to bring it here.”
Helius became still.
“After all,” Tigellinus said, “you could have simply asked me to look closely at the body and report back to you.”
Silence from Helius.
“Why then did you insist I bring the head here?”
“Enough games,” Helius snapped. “Because I trust no one and you trust no one.”
“You wanted the head here, in this courtyard, in case you did not like my answer. In case I told you it was Vitas. Because you are as suspicious in nature as I am. You are wondering who might have arranged for Vitas to escape, and it has occurred to you that I am one of the few with that power. You fear that Vitas and I might band together against you.”
“Does the head belong to Vitas?”
“Yes,” Tigellinus said.
Silence again from Helius.
Tigellinus waited, guessing the thoughts going through Helius’s mind.
Tigellinus shrugged, turned, and began to walk out of the courtyard.
“Where are you going?” Helius asked.
“To whatever business I had intended for the day before you begged me to scavenge carcasses. Since it was Vitas who died in the arena, you have nothing to fear.”
Tigellinus made a bet with himself. That he wouldn’t be able to reach the arch at the edge of the courtyard before . . .
“Stop,” Helius said.
“I need to see that head!” Helius called to his back.
Tigellinus grinned in self-satisfaction. The arch was still three steps ahead.
“Certainly,” Tigellinus said. He turned and waited.
Helius approached. “Yes, yes,” he said, irritated. “You are proving yourself correct, and I’m forced to admit it. I have to see the head for myself.”
“Because . . . ” Tigellinus wanted this conversation to remind Helius that, brawny as Tigellinus might be, he was still as astute as Helius. It was a way to prevent Helius from ever attempting any betrayal of any kind against him. Such were the politics of those who served Nero.
“Because,” Helius said after some hesitation, “if you helped Vitas escape, you would tell me it was his head in the bag and let me believe he was dead.” He sighed. “Are you pleased with yourself?”
“Very.” Tigellinus let his answer settle on Helius, emphasizing that he was still too smart for Helius to ever attempt to cross him.
With reluctance, Helius reached for the sack containing the head.
Tigellinus relented. “Don’t bother. I can save you the effort of looking. It is not Vitas. That tells you two things. I was not—and am not—part of the plot to aid his escape.”
“The obvious. Vitas is still alive.”