It was the year 303. It was the 24th day in February. Emperor Deocletian has issued his first Edict against the Christians. The Great Persecution has begun.
Thirsty for crimson were the crowds, a gathering of thousands of all ages and statures, in the grand colosseum a few miles north of Aventine Hill, where cowardice and barbarity collide to fill every inch, every crevice, of the arena with the grimy smell of copper and death. The stone walls towered over the hundreds and thousands of people, who came from the city and the outskirts on Rome, to witness another long-awaited execution of whom they call "Christians," the scum of the earth they spat on, the weak-hearted fools they say. With their attention no longer held by gladiatorial entertainment, the ruthless plethora sought after the humiliation of death, the glorification of victor.
It was, indeed, a sight to see, a sight they relished.
Wealth, prestige, education, and class were put aside for this day as the people of Rome united under this vile passion. Plebeians and patricians, who despise one another, were seated at arm's length, roaring to witness a spectacle of life being swallowed up by death, much like a solar eclipse that had been stretched on to infinity.
Damnatio ad bestias is what it was called. Condemnation to beasts. Panthers and tigers were among the common slayers of Christ-believing martyrs. The king of the beasts, however, had to be imported from East Africa, and therefore only given the privilege of executing the ones who was deemed to possess the most threat. Such were passionate, self-forsaking Christians who have boldly proclaimed the name of Christ in the face of the one who might as well be death himself, the Emperor. A mere swipe of its claw, a bite that sinks through bone and marrow, could surely rip out a thousand lives at once.
But despite the majesty that is so pronounced in the savage beasts, they were still certainly subdued to mere jesters in front of a vicious kind, that is humanity. There is no astonishment in what Rome had been reduced to. For at the height of its reign, its heart is nothing but a pile of ashes waiting to be swept off the ground.
Now in the midst of ringing chaos, a Roman soldier marched to the center of the amphitheater, head held up with a gaze so intently fixed upon the crowd indistinguishable. He stood erect and did not so move even the slightest flinch, causing a wave of silence to spread throughout the amphitheater, to which his mere response was his exit. A slow march that hinted for what was to come right after.
As the soldier's shadow slowly faded into the gates of entry, with the masses' attention focused towards the epicenter of the colossal space, a man of frail old age was thrust and shoved onto the ground. For a moment's glimpse, he seemed almost lifeless as he lay still in the middle for a few passes. Suddenly, as if a jolt of youth surged through his veins, he steadily rose to his feet and stood without a hint of fear in his eyes. He was incontestably beaten and scourged, suffering under the hands of callous soldiers. Still, he was without a faint heart.
He was overcome by this stillness, much like the calm before a storm or the whitewash that remains after the sea breaks into the shore. However, the people took no pity on him, for he was a detestable Christian, a man who taught the Scriptures and preached the Gospel without relent or tremor.
The man began to speak, in a voice that overflowed with much meekness yet his courage, unlike any other, appeared supernatural, divine.
"Romans, I am here before you, at the mercy of your feet. Yet I shall not plead to anyone for my freedom for I have received it and eternally I have been made free through the blood of Christ, the Lamb that was slain for the world and for its iniquities. I humbly accept this yoke that was given to me, for He has carried it all for me on the cross."
He took a pause and breathed out a silent prayer before looking upward to the sky and saying:
"May my life be poured out for His sake, for the furthering of the Kingdom of Christ, to the glory of the Most High who will forever reign. Amen."
He began to sing a solemn hymn, a psalm that created dissonance within the crowd, turbulence in the atmosphere that reeks of nothing but blood than runs thin. He did not tremble and neither did he stumble for words as he rendered:
"But I will hope continually,
And will praise You yet more and more.
My mouth shall tell of Your righteousness
And Your salvation all the day,
For I do not know their limits.
I will go in the strength of the Lord GOD;
I will make mention of Your righteousness, of Yours only."
Soon, his melody was overcome by jeers that echoed as far as the outskirts of the surrounding perimeter. No mercy he sought, no mercy was shown. He would die as a martyr, which according to the Romans, the most humiliating death man could ever go through. Humility had no place in the Empire and neither did mercy.
"Release the beasts! We want the beasts! Release the beasts!"
The impatience of the crowd was growing thin and it was immediately satisfied as two black panthers were released from the vivarium. The black, slick cats cautiously surveyed their surroundings before they spotted the frail old man, who held captive their gaze.
Before long, the two beasts ripped the man to shreds, with blood red dripping from the panther's fangs, the only stain of color that contrasted their dark pelts.
However, the gathering was hungry for more. As if the slaying of the old man were not enough to fill their lust for bloodshed. A few more Christians were tossed into the arena who, like their predecessor, would face the same fate and die the same death. This time, a single tiger was released and instantly leapt upon them as they joined hands and knelt on the sandy ground, soon splattered with a flowing of their spilled blood.
But today was no ordinary day of execution, the Romans knew, for Emperor Deocletian had discretely seated himself inside a raised chamber that looked down upon the intermingling of sadism and debauchery. His face had sheer anticipation written all over, though he attempted to maintain a stoic demeanor.
His venerable presence would have been otherwise a rare sight, more so his participation with the Roman commoners. The people, therefore, concluded that a grandeur execution would be taking place, with the king of the beasts demanding all the rights to carry it forth, and rightfully so. He was a male lion called Aelius.
Aelius the Unconquerable.
A symbol of ferocity, strength, and valor all wrapped up in a single animal, lions would be imported from the savannas of Africa solely for the purpose of carrying out executions. But Aelius was no mere lion.
He bore a beautiful mane that glittered a reflection of each particle of sunlight that would strike the strands of golden hair. With the capacity of twenty men, he weighed as much as a couple tigers. But for his enormity and incredulous size, he was a graceful being and pride carried him through that it could almost outmatch the emperor's own vain conceit. Having slain close to a hundred Christians, Aelius was the veteran of the arena and no man could tame him. He had also participated in gladiatorial battles, slaughtering countless gladiators who tried to cut even the slightest bit of his mane. Scores of soldiers who tried to control his prowess so magnificent and mighty were only subdued, some even killed.
Unconquerable he was.
Aelius was, indeed, feared, even by the most courageous centurion. But the people worshipped him like a god, though he was still more of an entertainer than anything else.
And for the soldiers to give Aelius the privilege of execution, it meant they had to have captured a person who was regarded as the scum of the earth, a dangerous criminal or one who had committed treason against the state. To the Romans, however, it was the Christian whose passion and compassion stirred the multitudes that posed as a threat to the emperor himself. Such the iconoclast deserved the wrath of the lion.
With the soil was still tainted by the mingled blood of the martyred Christians earlier, a man and a woman were led out to the center of the amphitheater, as if to mock them with the spotlight. Never had there been a couple brought out to be executed. As chatters erupted in the stands, so did the tears from the man's face as he saw his daughter standing among the seated towards the center, a girl about fifteen years of age, with long wavy brown hair and a face filled with despondent hope. She was mouthing something, inaudible, yet somehow he understood and nodded his head with a renewed sense of faith and fortitude.
The man's name was Cassius, the woman's Iunia. They were moments away from seeing the beast Aelius face to face, certain of death but even more certain of life. They had been arrested for delivering food to the catacombs which at that time had become the hiding place for the community of believers in Rome.
As Christ followers themselves, they did not fight the arrest, to the soldiers' disgust. Their meekness agitated the prison guards and their songs of praise in their cells soon became unbearable. They were whipped and tortured but they would continue to praise their Savior, the One whom they proclaim to be sovereign above all creation, above all kings on the earth.
Wounds covered them yet their eyes beamed of healing, of a longing to experience the fullness of being with Christ for eternity. Not one could convince them that life on earth ought to be pleaded for, for they remained immovable towards their goal and the prize that is Heaven-bound in Christ Jesus.
Brought in front of the emperor a few days prior, they faced him without a hint of guilt in life or fear in death, that is the power that Christ bestows upon His faithful servants. He mocked their faith, their compassion and good works towards people, labeling them foolish and weak for choosing to stoop so low as to serve even the dirtiest plebeians on the street. For, to the Romans, kindness is equated to weakness, compassion to frailty. Yet their confident boasting in Christ shook the pompous Deocletian, bruising his hauteur with their meek boldness, their reassurance of life in Jesus Christ.
This, therefore, prompted the emperor to sentence them to damnatio ad bestias, with the savage lion as the one who would sever their souls from their bodies.
Gaius, a Roman soldier of high ranking, had been there on the arrest of Cassius and Iunia. They were dragged out of their homes in chains with metal hooks that pierced through their skin like a piece of meat being hung on a rod to dry. Initially, he felt not the slightest hint of remorse or pity; however, upon seeing a young girl hiding in the darkened corner of the house, a flood of despair coursed through his body. The other soldiers had not seen the frightened lass, otherwise she would have been forced upon the same fate as her mother and father.
The troubled soldier sought to push aside the thought of her, the girl who would soon become an orphan.
"Must this world be so cruel, so harsh as to bestow her with this fate? If only her mother and father had renounced the name of Christ, for the sake of their child, dear life so reliant upon them. What now remains of her?" he pondered.
"Loneliness may have overcome her. Despair. Terror. Tragedy is the only prize this Christ has given to these people. Blind fools!"
So desperately he wanted to remain hardened to the sufferings of the Christians, yet a pity arose from his chest as he wondered, more so about the girl, walking through the thick of the crowd.
And, as if the red string of fate had intertwined their paths in a knot, there she was. Face to face with him.
He turned pale, almost ghastly, at the sight of her. Her eyes were swollen, reddened, yet full of tenacity and conviction. Gaius was certain she had recognized him, yet this girl, almost as if transformed, no longer bore a face transpired by fear. She looked at him, a gaze filled with a blazing passion, and that alone caused his heart to be entangled in unease, for there was no anger or bitterness illumating from her eye; only peace, bewildering peace.
He lingered away from the girl, who then focused her attention towards the arena with full knowledge of the impending conclusion, moments ticking away from the suffering she was about to witness. A pain that Gaius could not possibly imagine, let alone bear upon his own shoulders. Yet he understood and realized that this girl would be hauling the weight of the world upon her delicate, youthful frame.
However, his thoughts were soon drowned by the sudden roaring of the crowds, who anticipated that the lion would soon be let loose. He turned his head, hoping to see a reaction from her but like a thief in the night, she vanished into the mob of people wanting nothing but to savor the sight of the Christians' demise.
The vivarium gates soon opened, its rusty hinges screeched as if to let the audience know of what was to come hither. Out of the shadows, a figure prodded.
There he was. Aelius the Unconquerable.
All focus was on him, and then to Cassius and Iulia, who exhaled their final words, a departure to and from suffering.
"My dear countrymen. Romans, my brothers," he alluded.
"Why dare you not see or understand? It is Christ that is the everlasting reward. This life on earth, even with my precious wife and daughter, I consider it all rubbish because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ, whom neither death of life could ever separate from my soul. It is to my gain, to our gain, that I lay my life."
"For to live is Christ, truly and always. And to die, even this death that will never repay the slightest of what He has done for me in Golgotha's darkest, is to gain. To gain Him forevermore. To gain Him is to gain everything. And to lose this world is to taste the final victor in my Savior's arms."
Iulia embraced her husband, filled with the Spirit and a fiery joy that overcame her anguish. She began to sing a hymn, a sweet serene melody, as Cassius joined her, holding her hand, looking towards the heavens as if the sky were already welcoming them as they await to be taken away.
"O God, You are my God;
Early will I seek You;
My soul thirsts for You;
My flesh longs for You
In a dry and thirsty land
Where there is no water.
So I have looked for You in the sanctuary,
To see Your power and Your glory.
Because Your lovingkindness is better than life,
My lips shall praise You.
Thus I will bless You while I live;
I will lift up my hands in Your name.
My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness,
And my mouth shall praise You with joyful lips."
Aelius, the beast, circled them who continued to sing praises to the Lord without fear of sinking fangs or ravishing claws. Their faces radiated with the peace of Jesus Christ, a knowledge and an assurance that the world will never understand.
Gaius, for a moment, imagined them to be angels. Their serenity mirrored what he had seen in the girl, though after all she was their daughter. Nevertheless, he fought to understand the forces that overcame their fear.
Hardened by disbelief and frustration, he turned away as Aelius then leapt upon the weary and longing souls, to the crowd's further satisfaction, and tore them apart just as he had done to countless others until they were reduced to nothing but flesh and bones and spilled organ, a horrific sight to bear. The savage was smeared in the blood of the martyrs and he let out a billowing roar that drew an ovation, a thunderous cheer unlike any other Gaius has ever heard. The stoic he was, he remained a rock, tossing aside the memory of the martyrs' daughter to the innermost cavern of his disillusioned mind.
Aelius remained unconquerable in the sight of the Romans, for no man could survive his fury. The emperor, drawn to his feet, was finally filled with a smug satisfaction, further fueling his hatred towards the believers of Christ; regardless of a man's fervor spirit, a woman's tenderness, or a child's innocence. Such discrimination was now slated away and replaced with a decree than no Christian, neither man, woman, or child, would be spared regardless of their age, occupation, prestige, or plea.
As the minutes passed, as the sun began to wane behind the clouds, trinkles of water started to pour out from the sky. Then, a wave of rain swept through the entire province of Rome, causing the people to leave the colosseum in a rush. The soldiers had also gathered Aelius and locked him back in the vivarium with the other animals. The blood of the martyrs were left to soak in the ground but their bodies were taken and thrown into a pit of fire in an enclosed furnace in the emporium.
The water kept falling, as if the heavens were mourning with those whom Cassius and Iulia had left behind; their brothers and sisters in Christ hiding in the catacombs, the people they have reached out to in their lifetime of service and love, and most of all their daughter, who remained alone in the stands.
Seeing that every single body had exited the amphitheater, she made her way into the center of the arena and knelt down on the ground, soiled with rain water, blood, and dirt. As brave-hearted as she was, the girl was unable to hold back her sorrow. Every last ounce of her strength had faded. Hope had momentarily eluded her. And she wept.
Her tears melted with the falling raindrops, mingling with the sorrow of the darkened firmament. She was no longer a daughter. She was no longer her mother or father's child.
She was just... alone now.
Covered in a tincture of dirt and maroon, she allowed the rain to wash away the stains, and the pain.
"God..." she whispered.
But in a loud earnest cry, she declared, "You are still sovereign."
And behind the exit in the left-wing of the colosseum, there was Gaius peering through the shadows. He had not left. Despite his determination to erase his memory of her, he found that he could not and was driven by pity towards this girl, this fragile creature he saw her as.
Yet witnessing her relentless display of faith had caught him off-guard, for he was certain she would have cursed her Lord. Yet in her grief, she praised Him all the more. How perplexing is her devotion, how baffling is her hope! Still, he wanted nothing to do with her faith, with the Christ she worships. In fact, he detested her religion to this Iesu Christo.
But he felt for her, this strange compassion, a feeling he never had once experienced until this moment. It bothered him greatly, though he was fixed upon his stance as he continued to watch her in her solitude, listening intently to her words. Despite her youth, he acknowledged that there was a wisdom in her that could not compare to the children of her age.
It was a grave understanding of her own fate, her own loneliness, her own longing.
Because now she belonged to no one, he realized, for Aelius the Unconquerable had taken everything away from her.
She was called Cassia.
Named after Cassius her father, she was a wide-eyed girl of fifteen years. Her name meant "hollow, empty," but surely it was a misnomer, for she was nothing but a cup overflowing with grace, kindness, and gaiety. She was the sunshine and she was the sky. She had long, brown hair that flowed like the gentle current of the sea and though she had the pure blood of the Romans running through her, she looked almost Greek, with tawny sun-kissed skin and eyes like two marbles of olive green.
Cassia had the radiance of a thousand stars in the sky and she was a girl filled with wonder, compassion, and delight in life. Curiosity often beset her but she was very wise for her young age, gentle yet robust in her speech, and her actions betrayed her gracious and humble character. Her face had adventure written all over it, full of purpose and meaning. Precious in the sight of her mother and father was she; and so in the Lord's.
Raised in the slums of the outskirts of the city in Aventine Hill, she grew up having fear of the Lord and great trust in Him despite their poverty, bearing both her father's relentless faith and her mother's kind heart. Having a boldness of her own, she was a light to the children in town, who had nothing but to each the lives in the palm of their weary little hands. Often times, she would go with her father to deliver food, along with the Word, to the homes in need and under to the catacombs, despite her father's persistent plea for her to stay home. Just as she was stubborn, her compassion also became her edge and her cheerful spirit proved to be contagious among the people she surrounded herself with. Men, women, and children delighted in her and were blessed by her presence in their lives.
She was a ray of light, indeed, and her parents had taught her the way to see in the dark.
To have hope in the reigning Christ, that is what she has seen in her lifetime embodied through her parents. For even when she visited them in prison, even when she has seen their wounds from a long day's torture, even when she saw them go through the harshest sufferings, even in their deaths, her mother and father sought to praise God all the more and to live and die for Him alone.
Now in one of the darkest hours of the twilight, she cradled nothing but a flickering light of hope, a flame that burned through the blur of the rain.
And so she began her soliloquy:
"In the dark, I stumble through and search for a wall that I can lead on. And for the longest time I had tried to rely solely in the power and might of the Savior, who loved me long before I looked past the horizon and into the great beyond. But now I grapple with the brutal truth, with the shadows that seek to swallow me whole, the darkness that consumes every speck of light and hope within me. And it seems that I am running into a endless tunnel that is caving in on me slowly and all at once, as I feel the rocks bruise every inch of my skin exposed.
Sorrow had accumulated within the spaces of my ribcage and I struggle to breathe through each pore and each open wound that left me dry. This grief I cannot explain, unfathomable, as if I am free-falling into an abyss in the treacherous deep sea, without a way to see or hear or feel or breathe.
The lion that pierced my beloved ones has pierced a gaping wound that refuses to close and how I wish, how I wish to stitch it shut! To stitch every inch of pain and morose that begs to tear through my heart, my organs, my skin. If I am a laceration that bleeds until each drop of blood turns pink, can I be healed? Hope has seemed to have evaded me for a while, though I know that this violent anguish will not last the break of the dawn, to which I am relieved.
There may be pain now, in this darkest, in the darkest; but joy always rises with the morning sun, a brightness that dissolves the dark.
My dear father, my dear mother, both whom the life inside of me weeps bitterly for, have fought the great fight indeed. I will no longer be able to hold them, embrace them, until I see them face to face when my time finally arrives for me, whenever it may be. I miss them dearly, with all my heart. No amount of pleasure on this earth will ever replace the simple, abiding love they have given me; a love so strong it could move the mountains and carve the valleys. For since I was a child, they have graced me with the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, to which I am indebted to them. My love for them will be etched in my heart always.
And I long to have been taken with them, to the Lord's embrace, to eternal splendor with the Father we loved even greater than our own lives, far greater than their own.
To be able to dance in the streets of gold that reflect the light of Christ, an everlasting beacon that shines far greater than even a thousand suns in the sky. To have been perfectly sanctified, having my glorified body no longer being in the bondage of the flesh, I would be able to think pure thoughts and feel serenity with every heartbeat, without the burden of the yoke of sin and evil.
To be surrounded by the "cloud of witnesses" my father had been telling me about since I was a child, the men and women of faith I have looked up to and sought to model my life and my heart after; Abraham, Noah, Moses, Ruth, David, Esther, Daniel, Paul, Peter, and all of them; all those I long to even speak with, the plethora of believers all coming together to worship the King of all kings. To be able to bask in the glory, in the presence of Christ, in God almighty, and be filled with a joy never-ending that only He and He alone can provide, I will be forever satisfied in Him; no longer will I be wanting, no longer will I be needing.
But alas, why have I remained? This thought has plagued me so. The soldier, the man who had been trained up in the valor of war, spared my life, all in accordance to the will of God almighty. What had possessed him to keep knowledge of my existence a secret, I may never know nor shall I be bothered with. Though a wealth of gratitude has overwhelmed me, this extended chance to breathe in these abundant skies.
But what is this life which I must now carry alone?
An instrument of mercy and grace I am, so greater than any plan or diagram I could conceive or dream for my own life, for my own soul. Because I have been imparted with mercy and grace myself, perhaps now I can be used as a vessel to share what I have received, to give more than I have taken or so take my life. All the more, now I long to be a bottomless well that overflows with the springs of Living Water.
I can choose to bear an indignation, I can choose to let the sorrow swallow me tonight; but I shall choose to love and serve all the more. Oh, how You can use this life of mine, Father, that which can be poured for Your sake! And in their final breath, the hymn that resonates within my soul I can now sing wholeheartedly and reassuringly the verse: "Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise You." For who am I but a mere, wretched sinner saved by Your grace, Lord Jesus? It is to You that I owe my life, my allegiance, my soul, my convulsing heart, every breathe that holds in my lungs. O death, you have no grip on my life, your sting has lost its poison, and because of Christ I live.
Your love is better than life, indeed!
As I kneel, as the rain pours, washing the tears I have cried, I am overwhelmed with joy. Yes, joy! For I have seen and tasted the suffering of one who belongs to Christ. And we must suffer for His sake, because the world hated Him and all the more so will they. This may be the beginning of the end, the grand execution that leads to countless more.
And the Romans, they do not understand. They do not seek what is good and true and pure and kind. How my heart grieves for them, for their souls eternal. There is nothing but a barbaric wickedness in the Empire, which has spread like wildfires in coniferous forests. I fear for my Christian brothers and sisters who hid in the catacombs, who are suffering as this very sentence is uttered, who are being tortured and executed for their undying faith and devotion to Christ.
It has been a full two years since the edict has been issued and God only knows how much longer this persecution will persist upon. And it be a long time, may we be imparted with the boldness and filled with the forbearance of the Spirit, that we may endure each whip, each flog, each thorn, and perhaps even the fangs of the beasts.
But I know that Christ will overcome, for He had already done so on the cross. And I shall overcome!
To no one, I now belong. But surely, truly, I belong to Christ. Forevermore He will reign and all glory belongs to Him and Him alone, Amen."
And thus, she ended her soliloquy in joy and a renewed flame, a hope that kept alive through the night. And all the while, Gaius had been watching, more astounded than he had ever been.
Now Gaius was a centurion, a captain of high ranking in the Roman imperial army. Having fought more than a dozen wars, both large and miniscule, in his lifetime, those under him have look to him in much reverence. He was Roman by blood but was born in Greece, where he spent his childhood training in the art and philosophies, thus he was well-versed in literature as well as mathematics. He traveled back to Rome when he reached twenty years of age, where he spent the rest of his days as a soldier to the emperor.
Now at thirty and seven years, he remains lofty and well-built, with a tanned complexion and a diagonal scar on his right cheek from being in battle. He had chocolate brown hair, kept neat and trim, that match his eyes of the equivalent color. His appearance, as he was a dashing man, never drew in a wife for him, for he remained solely focused in his service to Emperor Deocletian, who regards him as one of the finest men in the regime. He held a sober and strict demeanor, never flinching and sociability had never been keen with him.
Rarely did he feel, for he knew and understood as he had been trained, that emotion is the equivalent of weakness. Thus, he scorned the Christians for their meekness and the so-called love and compassion they display. He never understood why those Christ followers would allow themselves to be enslaved to their Christ, only to be conquered by the snare of the lion and in the hands of men. He did not want to understand, more so, how and why they are so bold, so audacious, in the face of death; for even he would cower if the great beast Aelius were to be in the arena with him.
Still, pity does not engulf him for he knew that once it seeps into his mind, it will be the end of him.
"But what is this?" he asked himself, "This feeling of curiosity, of burden, for the girl I see before him?"
And he continued to question himself, to question all that he had placed his beliefs in; in philosophy, in Platanism, in stoicism, in the valor of war, in the brutality of life, in the Roman gods.
"What is there about this God of hers that makes Him so desirable? How foolish she is! Blame it all to her Christ for the suffering her mother and father had gone through. If He were genuinely Lord, why did they suffer, why had they been weak if she cries out He is sovereign over all?"
This continued to plunder his soul as the rain began to stop, giving way to the birth of the twilight.
He turned around and focused his glimpse back on her, the girl who had been bathed in the blood of her own parents and in the rain water that had failed to wash her clean. She was slumped on the ground and did not move, for she fell into a deep slumber. Out of exhaustion, out of weariness, out of sorrow, out of heaviness.
"How then could she go back to her home, if she even could?" he wondered.
Gaius, the cautious man he was, had surveyed the colosseum to make sure no one had also been there watching. In reluctance, he walked to where the unconscious girl was laying, and gently picked her up.
"Perhaps I will be seen, perhaps someone will take notice, but I shall not leave her here to freeze."
He began to walk home with the girl in his arms, asleep and shivering, as if the cold air had began to flock on her delicate frame. The weary soldier looked up and he saw the moon beaming her light, and suddenly he felt so small and weak though he refused to absorb that within his mind. He had always been the strong one, the one who carried the weight of his fellow soldiers, the one who had rescued his people in the face of harm. Gaius, trying to keep his composure, shrugged the thought off.
He did not reach his destination, until a few hours had passed by, for Gaius wanted to make sure he walk unnoticed, that nobody had been watching or following. When he reached his home, at the edge of Aventine Hill, a rather peaceful and isolated village, he immediately lay the girl down on his own bed though she was still covered in dirt, rainwater, and blood.
He sighed to himself, "This must mean I shall be taking the floor tonight." Noticing his own exhaustion, he took off his helm and breastplate and lay it by the frame of his bed.
Because he was a grown man, having wanted nothing to do with tearing away the innocence of a child and let alone feast his eyes on her, he closed his eyes and averted his gaze as he changed her soaking garments with one of his own and attempted to wash her clean. He then changed his own garments, almost forgetting that he too had been met with a long day and consequently had been met with vicious fate. Gaius looked at her intently, without realizing that his eyes screamed of pity and compassion, and wondered who she even was.
Here she was asleep on his own bed, under his roof, nameless and fatherless. Yet in his mind, he concocted up what she might be like. After all, he had listened to her pour her entire being out, her heart and her soul, in the tragedy she had become entangled in.
"Sunshine," he pondered. "Could she be as bright as sunshine? Or could the happenings have created a soberness within her? Now I must await until she wakes, for I do not even know what she is called."
And now, because he rescued her, had become entangled in it too. She now has no family, no one at all. Who could afford to take care of her, watch her, defend her? He could not send her back in the slums, for the soldiers may come back and see her. Even in the safety of the people she had been around, what would happen to her? The only viable solution was to let her stay under his wing, as hesitant as he was and ever had been in his entire life. After much contemplation, he had decided that it would be so. She would stay with him. He had no idea what had possessed him nor did he want to know, especially in the peak of the night where his thoughts most wrestled with his feelings. But she will.
"What is this that has been brought to me? This crossroads I now must travel. This secret I now must keep. This girl I now must care for."
And as she remained fast asleep, so had he drifted into his own.
Cassia opened her eyes as the first rays of sun light peaked through the window adjacent to where she was, though it had still been quite dark and the dawn had been hardly composed.
"Window?" she wondered, almost certain she had fallen asleep in the colosseum as uncertainty rose within her. But instead, she felt a cushion underneath her head. Everything had been momentarily a blur and rubbing her eyes as she adjusted to the light, she realized that she is in a home. Beneath her, she saw a golden helm and pieces of armor; a centurion's, certainly. Fear began to well in the pit of her stomach, though she also felt a strange assurance.
"Where am I? Whose house am I in?"
And then he spoke.
"You are finally awake."
She was startled to see Gaius, the man whose fate had been tangled bitterly with hers. The soldier who had been at her parents' arrest,who had seen her in her fear and kept silent, who had met her eye to eye at the colosseum. Cassia struggled to regain her composure, feeling a wave of ache all over her body. Noticing that she was clean and was wearing a different garment from the previous day, a little loose though comfortable, she looked at the towering man in front of her; though it was not out of suspicion but more or less curiosity.
"Why?" she began to ask, as she surveyed her surroundings.
"My name is Gaius. I am a centurion that reports personally to the emperor. You are in my home. Do not fret, you are safe here."
"...why?" A whisper drew from Cassia's lips.
"Truth be told, I could not dig through my own mind for an answer. I know not who you are. I only know you belonged to your parents before the execution. Please, tell me your name, that I may stop wondering."
"You are named after your father."
"It is not fitting for you to be called Cassia, neither does your father be Cassius."
"So I have been told."
She paused and for a brief moment, the silence was suspended in mid air before she continued:
"You have taken pity upon me. You, a Roman soldier. A man who has seen war and tasted it more than I may ever know. I am indebt to you."
"Cassia, do not mistake this for pity. I pity no one. I know not what it is but a display of weakness."
"Then you must be weak, Gaius," she retorted, though there was not a hint of malice in her tone but more of sarcasm, a levity that caused the grim man to let out a laugh, one that he had not done so in quite a long time. Gaius, quite baffled, quickly regained his sense of self.
"Weakness is not my kin, girl."
"Then why have you taken me to your home? Even washing me and dressing me in clean garments?"
He did not answer her question and instead uttered, "Cassia, you must be hungry. I have prepared a meal for you. Please eat, for you would want to regain back your strength."
She smiled and gratefully accepted the meal, which to her had proven to be delightful and satisfying, for she had never had a full meal in weeks. The famished girl turned red after noticing she had eaten hurridly, to which Gaius did not seem to mind. At the same time, her mind was filled with a wealth of questions to ask the soldier and likewise, he had the exact premonitions.
"Gaius," she implored, as they both looked each other in the eye. "Tell me about yourself, please."
"As I have said earlier, I am a centurion of a high rank. I have fought in several wars, often in the brink of death but the gods have spared me so. Because of my rank, I have been personally requested to report directly to the emperor. I have much to carry on my shoulders as one who leads a battalion. I am alone, much like you."
"What about your family? Brothers or sisters? Father or mother?"
"My father and mother have both deceased. I am without a brother or a sister."
"I certainly assume you are Roman."
"Yes, by blood. Though I am Greek by birth, for I have spent a great length of my childhood in Athens as a scholar before I had traveled to my homeland and become a soldier. Cassia, you most certainly look of Grecian descent. Is this true of you?"
"Nay, sir. I am pure Roman, though I have been mistaken for one of the Greeks countless times. Perhaps it is due to my complexion and the color of my eyes."
There was a pause, almost as if Gaius had struggled to come out and say what he had intended.
"Cassia, would you consider telling me about yourself then?"
As if she had never been reluctant to and to his surprise, she gave him a quick nod and proceeded:
"I have lived my whole life in the slums with my parents before..." she composed herself, "...before the execution. Please do not worry about me. I shall continue. I have been devoted to caring for the people who are much more in need than I am. Under my parents' care, I have received a meal a day. But the children around me have none. My father has worked not only to provide for my mother and I but to our neighbors who have nothing. We have spent our lives serving others, especially my father and mother. But more than giving to satisfy hungry stomachs, we have sought to give them what they truly needed."
Cassia paused, hesitant and searching for words, but alas she went straight through. "They were thirsty and we gave them water. They were hungry and we gave them food. But what they truly needed we have sought to give with our entire being; and that is the knowledge of Christ, our Savior and Lord. My father has also delivered goods and help to the Christians in the catacombs."
Suddenly, she stopped talking as if she had uttered a mistake.
"Carry on," Gaius interrupted. "I may be a soldier but I am one of honor and integrity. The information you give me shall not be used against you."
"The location of the catacombs is one I will not disclose. But I will gladly share what the Lord has done through my father. He has been an encouragement to our brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus who are hiding, who have lost their loved ones, who have suffered and toiled long. I have been with him countless times. He bore a faith that could move mountains, that could light up the dark. My father was a humble and kind-hearted man, and my mother like-wise. She was a gentle soul as she cared for the orphans and women who could not work to feed themselves. I long to be of the same light and hope as they were, to bear the same boldness and compassion, to have remarkable faith in Christ."
Gaius listened to her keenly, though he did not seek to ask her of her Christian faith.
"Now we know about and of each other," he remarked.
Cassia nodded her head and silence filled the gaps in between seconds of time that ticked away.
"Thank you. You do not truly understand how grateful I am. I am humbled to be allowed into your home. I do not wish to burden you with my presence, more so because I am a Christian. What would happen if somebody had taken notice and brought it up to your superiors, more so to the emperor?"
"Alas, you are filled with so many questions, lass. I shall take care of it. You need not worry. Do not be more so burdened, for this was a choice I had willingly made. You shall remain with me and you shall be safe as long as you are under me."