An alternate "Little Britches" Universe
Author's Notes: This story takes place in ancient Rome. It borrows greedily from the 1935 movie The Last Days of Pompeii. Presumably, anyone associated with that film who might have copyright issues is by now either dead or too old to care, but if not, I gladly give them all the credit (even though they played fast and loose with the historical timeline). I also borrowed a little snip of plot from the HBO series Rome. This is an actual Christmas story, and therefore addresses some specific beliefs. I hope no one is offended, as that is certainly not my intent.
Just for the sake of making it easy to read, I kept the conventional spelling of all the names, even though some of them are, I realize, anachronistic, and I pretty much ignore surnames - just couldn't make most of them fit.
As you read this, please keep in mind that some cultural practices which we find objectionable today were commonplace and acceptable in that time, so please don't call the PC police. LOL
Thanx to Marnie for beta-reading, and for coming up with some good ideas.
This one is for Joy. Don't know what I'd do without you, Pard. ;-D
Buck winced -- not sure at what. Maybe it was at the thunderous roar of the blood-thirsty arena crowd, or at the vicious >CLANK< of sword on shield. Or maybe it was at the sight of his best friend - his brother, more like - drenched in sweat and blood.
The Gladiator Cresencius - his best friend, Chris - was a crowd favorite. He had yet to be bested in the arena, although his skill stemmed not from a desire to win, but from a burning need to vent his rage. Chris had not always been a gladiator. Just three years before, he had been a merchant , a horse trader, having had his fill of service in the Legion upon meeting his wife Sarah, who had soon after given him a son, Adam. Sarah's Hebrew parents, and Chris's own Patrician father, had disavowed the union, but that did little to stand in the way of their happiness. Chris was a hard man, a man not easy to love, or for that matter, to even like, but Sarah had brought out all that was good in him.
Then, one warm April day, Chris had been discussing the sale of a horse with a nobleman who intended the animal as a gift for his 12-year-old son. Chris had misgivings - the animal was large and powerful and the boy spoiled and overconfident of his own ability. As Chris tried to talk the father into a more suitable animal, the boy had climbed onto the horse and in an effort to get the big animal moving, had kicked viciously at its flanks. Unused to such harsh treatment, the horse had bolted.
Sarah had been preparing the mid-day meal outdoors that day, stirring a pot of rich porridge while Adam played in the dirt with his menagerie of animals, lovingly carved by Chris's own hand.
Neither of them saw the horse running at them.
Little Adam was trampled and died instantly, his small chest and head crushed by powerful hooves. Sarah lived for a few hours, never being told that her son was already dead.
The tragedy had not ended there. Chris had pulled the noble's son from the horse in a rage and thrown him into the dirt. It did not matter that the boy was not badly injured, nor did it matter that his act of arrogant stupidity had cost Chris his wife and son - the nobleman was not about to suffer such an insult. Within days, he'd had everything Chris owned seized for payment of debts and taxes that Chris didn't owe.
All Chris had left was a friend unable to ease the hurt, and a blood rage that demanded to be satisfied.
Chris's first fight as a gladiator had been so brutal that even the regulars at the arena were left stunned. The gladiator opposing him was a favorite of the nobility. Chris had dismembered, disemboweled and decapitated him.
It was lucky for the young man who fought Chris this day that the gladiator's pain had dulled over time, and his rage had ebbed to a methodic ritual of thrusts and parries. Chris was not an especially large man, as gladiators went, but he was deceptively strong, and his speed was stunning.
A small fear nagged at Buck that maybe his friend had met his match this time, though. The gladiator he fought was called "The Wolf" although his real name was Vincencius Taenaeris. He was slightly smaller than Chris, but not enough to be at a disadvantage. He matched Chris for strength, and what he lacked in speed, he made up for in skill. He had an uncanny ability to strike at the unprotected areas of his opponent's body - not with enough force to kill, but surely causing pain and fatigue.
Chris had thus far been unable to take him down.
The crowd was loving every minute of it, but it was making Buck's stomach churn.
He was suddenly aware of the small hand tugging at his tunic. He looked down at his adopted son, who was making short work of the bag of figs Buck had purchased from a street vendor. The boy's small hand left a sticky print on his tunic.
"Chris is getting all bloody," the little boy said, his brow furrowed with concern.
Buck stood and lifted the boy as he did. "How about we go wait for him down below?"
He forced a smile, but the boy suspected nothing. Buck never let him witness the kill at the arena. The child was sweet and tenderhearted and it seemed wrong somehow to let him watch a man die for sport. That would be especially true if that man were Chris...
The tunnels beneath the arena were a foreboding place, dark and filled with the sounds and smells of caged men and animals. Chris was one of the rare breed of gladiator who invested himself willingly in the sport, and who earned a sizable income in gold coins and other gifts from his appreciative following. He cared for none of that, though. He fought because physical pain numbed the pain in his soul, and, Buck suspected, because he didn't really care if he died.
The man he fought today bore a Roman name, but he was a Gaul, a barbarian descendant of slaves. He had been trained well, though. He was likely doing it for money, too, since such men rarely sought fame and glory. Buck never quite understood what drew men to the arena. He'd seen his share of brutality in war, and considered himself blessed by the gods to have survived. His chest bore a long, deep scar from a Germanic battle axe, a wound that should have killed him. He had no desire to tempt fate just to prove he could fight.
After following the maze of tunnels, they arrived at the staging area reserved for Chris and the small handful of other gladiators who were free men - some even of noble birth. Buck set his son down and the child immediately spotted another boy, a bit older than he was. Not one to be shy, he went to the youngster and offered him the bag of figs, now almost depleted.
The other boy wore a threadbare tunic that he had almost outgrown, and he was thin and dirty. Even in the dim torch light, it was easy to see that he was pale, perhaps even ill. Buck considered separating the two boys, lest the other child be afflicted with some pestilence that could be visited upon his own son. Instead, he watched the little boy tentatively reach into the bag, as if he were afraid it contained something other than figs, or as if he expected the offered treat to be withdrawn at the last moment.
The frail boy took a fig and nodded slightly, but said not a word. His silence didn't matter, though - Buck's own son could talk enough for three boys.
"I'm Januarius Damasippus Donatus Buccianus," he introduced himself. The other boy's eyes widened - probably thinking the very thing that Buck and Chris often joked about - that the little boy's name was bigger than he was. "But they call me 'JD'," he added.
The two boys wandered off to a corner, JD chatting happily. With a pang of sadness, Buck recalled how he'd bought JD's mother at the slave market for a mere pittance - more out of pity for her feeble condition and that of her son than need for a servant. The Nubian healer, Nathan, had diagnosed the young woman with ill humors of the blood and chest, and as he predicted, she had not lived long. JD was small for his age, and tired easily - except when it came to talking. While it was never spoken of, the men suspected the boy might be similarly afflicted. That aside, Buck had no use for such a tiny slave, so what else could he do but adopt the boy?
He'd gone to the merchant Ezra to borrow the money to purchase JD's freedom. Ezra's reply had been, "When the souls of my departed ancestors sail back across the River Styx and greet me at my front door, I'll start doling out cash."
But as luck would have it, moments later, Ezra was accosted by street bandits who were after the ample purse he was known to carry. If Buck had not been there, Ezra would have lost more than his money. And so it was that in due course, the adoption was finalized and Buck's own name, Buccio, was added to JD's already impressive appellation.
Chris had been slow to warm to the boy, perhaps thinking of his own lost son. He'd also doubted Buck's ability to care for a child . The ex-soldier had been raised in the brothels of Pompeii - he had no family, no real home, and he gladly and promptly offered whatever money he came across to the gods of wanton debauchery. Chris had told him flat out that he would not care for the boy should anything happen to him.
Of course, Buck didn't believe that, but as it had turned out, he was a changed man because of JD. Oh, he still enjoyed a good feast with wine and women occasionally, but he'd purchased a small house and had actually managed to save a little of the money he earned breaking horses for Caesar's ever-expanding army. He'd even paid Ezra back.
Buck was shaken from his memories as the heavy wooden door slammed open and two arena guards ushered Chris into the room.
Chris had purchased the Nubian, Nathan, specifically for his healing skills. Nathan had a clever technique of sealing sword wounds with boiled thread, which would then shrink upon drying and thereby seal the wound more tightly. He also knew how to set bones straight, or prepare a poultice for torn muscles. Chris treated him well, and in return, Nathan was loyal and attentive. He rushed to Chris's side and took him from the guards, gently moving him to the table where he would minister to his wounds.
Buck held his breath as Nathan worked. Chris's shield arm was gashed to the bone, and his pale flesh was marred by numerous smaller cuts. It did not look good.
Buck suspected that 'The Wolf' was dead - he would have been returned with Chris if he were still alive.
Chris looked up at him, ignoring the pain Nathan was causing as he cleaned, stitched and dressed his wounds. "He almost killed me, Buck. Never have I met such a fighter."
Nathan frowned as he gently flexed Chris's injured limb, and then told him what the gladiator already suspected. "You will use this arm again... but never with the strength and swiftness needed for the arena. You have fought your last battle."
That was it. The glory days of the Gladiator Cresencius were done. Buck was inwardly relieved. While he had not blamed Chris for venting his fury and grief at the death of his wife and small son, he did not wish his friend's death to be a public spectacle.
Buck helped Chris to his feet. "Come on, you old war dog... We'll get some food and wine into you and then find a nice soft bed with a pretty slave girl who will..."
"He needs to rest," Nathan huffed.
"Well, that's what I'm talking about," Buck grinned. "We'll head over to the..."
"Aren't you forgetting you're a family man now?" Chris nodded towards the corner where JD had fallen asleep on a pile of straw.
Buck winced. He had forgotten all about JD. He handed Chris over to Nathan and then went and picked up his sleepy little bundle.
JD opened his big eyes and yawned. "We need more figs," he said, holding up the empty bag.
"No more figs," Nathan admonished, snatching the sack. "They will loosen his bowels and you will be up all night."
Buck had to admit that idea was unappealing. "We'll get some good bread and some cheese," he told JD, hoisting the little boy up onto his shoulders.
"What about him?" JD asked, pointing to a small mound of rags in the corner. Their departure would leave the little boy all alone with the arena attendants - some of whom were men of dubious nature.
Nathan walked over to the child and shook him gently. He sat up rubbing the sleep from his eyes and looked around, bewildered. "Where is my father?" he asked.
"Whose son are you?" Buck asked him.
The little boy struggled to his feet. It was only when he was standing that the men realized he was lame. His spine twisted oddly so that one leg seemed shorter than the other, although it was difficult to tell if it actually was.
"I am Gaius Vincencius Taenaeris, son of Vincencius Taenaeris." The words were spoken softly, but with pride.
"His name is Vin. His father is a gladiator, too," JD provided.
The small boy nodded and then picked up a wooden sword and small shield with a wolf painted on it. "I will be a gladiator, too, one day."
Chris recognized the shield. The man who had almost killed him had carried one with the same image upon it. "Where is your mother?" he asked the little boy.
The child's shoulders sagged slightly. "My mother has gone on the journey across the River Styx."
"Have you no other family?" Buck asked.
The boy shook his head. "Just my father."
Chris knelt in front of the little boy, wincing at the pain the movement caused. "I'm sorry, little one," his voice cracked as he stroked the boy's soft curls, "but your father has crossed the River Styx, too."
He waited to see if the boy would understand what he'd just said. "My father is dead?" he finally spoke, his voice barely more than a whisper.
Chris put a hand on the small, slumped shoulder. "He was a brave gladiator. He fought and died well."
The boy stood perfectly still for a long moment, as the reality of the words were absorbed. He then looked at Chris defiantly.
"If you think I am going to cry, I'm not," he sniffed, his lower lip trembling. "My father told me not to be sad if he went across the River, because he would be with my mother and my baby sister again." Tears brimmed in his large blue eyes.
Chris drew him close, and despite the boy's brave vow, his little shoulders were soon heaving with soft sobs. Chris looked up at Buck, his eyes full of guilt and pain. The child in his arms probably had little hope for any sort of future even when his father was alive, poor and lame as he was. Now, his future would be to beg in the streets until he either died or was killed, and it was Chris who could be thanked for that.
"What are we going to do, Buck?" he asked softly. "We can't just leave him here." His voice was choked with emotion.
Buck gently laid a hand on Chris's shoulder. He'd take the boy with him if he had to, but somehow, seeing the guilt and sorrow in his friend's eyes, he knew that wasn't going to be necessary.
Chris stood, releasing his hold on the child as he leaned heavily on Nathan for support. He gently tilted the little boy's head upwards so he looked him in the eye. "Vin? Is that what they call you?"
The boy nodded.
"Witness all of you!" Chris said in a strong voice that betrayed none of his physical weakness. "From this day forth, Gaius Vincencius Taenaeris - Vin - is my son and heir..." He looked down at the little boy."If he so chooses."
Vin nodded and smiled faintly through his tears.
Buck tickled JD's tummy lightly. "Looks like you have a cousin!" he laughed.
While Chris did not regret his decision, the actual realities of having a son again quickly crept up on him. There was nowhere for the boy to sleep, save the floor of the gladiator's small stone dwelling. There was no thought of giving up his own bed - his abused, pain-wracked body refused to allow him to even consider it. Instead, he sent Nathan to gather blankets and straw, which were then used to make a soft place for the boy to sleep. As Vin settled into the makeshift bed with a weary sigh, Chris suspected the small boy had slept in places that were far worse.
Chris was not up to moving about for the next couple of days. Vin's presence was barely noticeable as the quiet little boy did what he was told and never spoke as he grieved for his lost father. Chris was many times tempted to hold him and comfort him, but he could not bear the thought of getting close to another child. Vin would be his son in name and social position, but Adam was still the son of his heart.
On the third day, Chris was awakened by stones pelting the front door.
"What in the pits of Hades...?" he muttered, crawling out of bed. As he opened the door, a stone whizzed past his head.
The sound of childish laughter followed it. "Chris! I want to play with Vin!" JD shouted from across the narrow street.
Chris raked his fingers though his hair and yawned. Buck's house was just a short distance down the way, but JD was not allowed to cross the busy thoroughfare by himself. The kid had damn good aim with a rock, though.
Chris looked at Vin, who was sitting quietly at the table, drawing a horse with a piece of charcoal he'd taken from the fireplace. At least, Chris thought it was a horse. The boy's talents clearly laid in skills other than art.
JD was dressed in a reasonably clean tunic and his face had been recently washed. Sturdy sandals protected his little feet from the filth of the pavement. Vin was barefoot, still wearing the dirty, threadbare tunic they'd found him in, and he badly needed a bath. "Go get Buck," Chris shouted to JD. "Tell him we're going to the marketplace, then the baths."
"I don't wanna baff," JD shook his head.
Chris was not about to argue with a 5-year-old. "GO! Do as you're told!" he commanded the boy.
Pouting, JD turned and trotted off in the direction of home. Chris turned around to see Vin staring at him with fearful eyes. He smiled at him to show he wasn't angry. "What do you say we go find some breakfast?" He held his hand out to the boy, and after some hesitation, Vin allowed himself to be led out the door.
There was a small cafe between his house and Buck's, and Chris decided that would be a good place for breakfast, since Buck could spot them easily. Chris tried to ignore the stares cast by the cafe's other patrons at the limping, dirty little urchin at his side. Vin noticed though, and when Chris sat him down at a table, he hung his head in shame.
Chris filled a plate with bread and fruit and returned to sit down beside Vin. He lifted the boy's chin. "Pay them no mind," he told him. "You are the son of a gladiator... and you are my son... carry yourself proudly before these soft, pompous ... horse hinds."
Chris was rewarded with a small smile. He pulled the knife he wore from its scabbard and cut an apple into four pieces, removing the seeds and stem. He gave it to Vin along with a chunk of bread. Nathan had recommended that the boy have goat's milk to build his strength, but the cafe had only wine. Perhaps they would find a goat at the market.
JD came running up with Buck close behind. "Easy there, Little Bit," Buck cautioned, and with good reason. JD began to cough, trying to catch his breath.
Buck picked him up until the fit passed. He then hoisted the little boy onto his shoulders. JD laughed. "I'm BIG!" he giggled, stretching his arms out as he balanced precariously.
Chris noticed Vin looking at JD longingly. He wondered if Vin's own father had carried him that way. He knew he'd done it with Adam.
"Ready to go to the market?" he asked Vin. The boy nodded hesitantly.
"Can we get a pom'granid?" JD asked.
Buck laughed. "Only if you promise to keep the juice in your mouth."
The marketplace was not far, and it was early enough that most of the goods had not been picked over. Chris found three small tunics that he thought would fit Vin, and had the sandal maker measure his feet. The craftsman assured him that the sandals would be ready should they return in two hours.
Children were normally not allowed at the baths, but Chris's celebrity as a gladiator often earned him privileges not accorded to lesser mortals. No one protested when they entered with Vin and JD in tow
Despite his earlier protests, as soon as they were in view of the enormous bathing pool, JD eagerly peeled off his clothing and headed for the steaming water. Slaves tended a large furnace beneath the pool, but JD didn't know that, and marveled that the hot water seemed appear as if by magic. He jumped in, sending a spray in the direction of a couple of annoyed bathers.
Vin seemed hesitant to undress. Chris wondered if he'd ever been to the baths before. "Let's get these old clothes off," he said, and then lifted the boy's tunic over his head.
His breath caught in his throat when he saw that the child's back was criss-crossed with scars. It was no wonder that he did not stand or walk straight.
Buck was caught by surprise, too... "By the gods..." he gasped.
Chris touched Vin's back, and even though his touch was light, the boy cringed. "How did this happen?" he asked the boy.
Vin shrugged. "Got beat."
"What in the name of the gods for?" Chris could not imagine a child so small having done something so terrible as to deserve what had been done to this boy.
"I ran in front of a lady getting carried in a chair... and one of the carriers tripped on me. The lady said to beat us both." Vin hung his head. "Was my fault."
"What lady? Do you know who she is?" Chris asked. He was at that moment of a mind to hunt her down and take a rod to her lazy, fat backside.
But Vin shook his head. "Just a lady. She had lots of curls in her hair. It was a long time ago."
Chris swallowed the rage in his voice. "How old were you?"
"Four, I think," Vin said. "Maybe three."
Buck knelt down beside the boy. "Well, first chance we get, we're going to find us a witch and have her cursed!"
Chris did not share Buck's beliefs in the far-ranging powers of the gods, but Vin actually grinned at that suggestion, so, he added, "Make that two witches, and double the curse."
"TWO WITCHES!" JD hollered, splashing happily. No one else had been listening to their conversation, so a few of the bath's patrons turned and stared at JD, wondering if he might be vexed.
Chris removed and discarded the bandages that had been covering his wounds while Buck eased Vin into the water. Once he became accustomed to the heat, and realized its soothing properties, he joined JD at playing, splashing, and generally being a nuisance. In just a few minutes, the four of them had the pool all to themselves.
Chris sighed appreciatively as the hot water eased the soreness that still remained in his battered body. Buck leaned back against a head rest. "You think it was that beating that crippled that boy?" he asked Chris.
"That would be my guess." He had taken a switch to Adam a couple of times, but had been careful to stay his hand so that the blows stung but did not injure the boy. There was a line between discipline and cruelty. Had that woman beaten Adam like that, he would have killed her.
Buck knew his thoughts. "Woe betide that bitch should Vin ever recognize her and point her out."
"Woe betide anyone who hurts either of them," Chris said coldly. At that moment, he vowed to himself he would never strike Vin, or allow anyone to hurt him like that again. He had killed the child's father... and had caused him pain enough.
Scrubbed, combed and dressed in a clean tunic and his new sandals, Vin was a strikingly comely child. His hair hung in loose, dark blond curls and the dirt had hidden a scattering of freckles across his small, straight nose. His eyes were a remarkable shade of blue, the color of deep water. The knowledgeable sandal maker had shaped one sandal slightly different so that he walked with a less noticeable limp. No one at the marketplace would have recognized him for the bedraggled waif who had been there earlier.
JD loved the marketplace. He vowed that one day, he would be rich and buy it all.
Chris and Buck were not wealthy men, but they could easily afford to indulge the boys a little and so they did. JD got his pomegranate while Vin opted for some small cakes made of crushed nuts, dates, and honey. After some searching, they found a nanny goat for sale, and Chris told the seller he would send a slave to fetch it. Buck's house, though small, had a courtyard where the animal could be kept. JD was delighted with the idea of having a goat. moreso than Buck when Chris informed him where the animal would be staying.
After a lunch of bread, fish and olives, they decided to head to the stables where Buck trained horses. Chris had not handled horses since Adam and Sarah had died, but now, he was in need of a new way to make a living, and he'd need steady income if he was to care for Vin. When Buck had suggested it, he had balked, at first, but had later realized how much he missed his former trade.
The path to the stables lead through the slave market. Buck instinctively picked JD up and held him close. The boy still had nightmares of being locked in a cage while people pawed at him. Truth be told, Buck didn't think much of the place either. It just didn't seem right to do that to a man - or woman or child, for that matter - even if they were barbarians or foreigners.
"Ah, gentlemen!" a slave trader accosted their group. "I see that you have boys of tender years and that no servant accompanies you..."
It was the beginning of a sales pitch, Chris and Buck both knew, but the man was blocking the path so they were forced to listen. Normally, Chris would have just heaved him out of the way, but in his weakened condition, that wasn't an option, and he didn't want to disrupt the boys' day by instigating a brawl.
"I have just what a household with young children needs.... a slave who is strong and loyal... and... " he beamed.... "educated. He can care for your household, mind that these precious little ones come to no harm, and teach them, as well."
He swept his arms in the direction of a wooden cell in which sat an absolute giant of a man, with rugged, feral features. He looked more likely to frighten children than to teach them.
But Vin and JD walked up to him eagerly. "I'm Januarius Damasippus Donatus Buccianus," JD introduced himself. "And this is Vin."
The slave smiled. "Just 'Vin'?" he asked.
"I'm Gaius Vincencius Taenaeris.... " he looked at Chris, who nodded. "Cresencianus."
The adoption had yet to be made legal, but the name rolled off Vin's tongue as if he had been practicing it.
"Everybody calls me JD," the younger boy offered.
The slave trader continued. "This slave would be perfect for your obviously bright children," he gushed. "He knows Greek, Hebrew and the language of the Pharaohs. He can teach them to read and write those languages, plus their own Roman tongue. He can also teach poetry, oration, the legends of the Gods, both Greek and Roman, and mathematics. He also cooks."
That last part got Buck's attention. "Does he like goats?"
The slave trader frowned, but the slave laughed - something slaves rarely did, so Buck was impressed .
"I like all animals," the slave spoke up.
"Even snakes?" JD asked.
"And spiders?" Vin put in.
The big man winked one of his bright blue eyes. "Not as much as I like goats."
Buck pulled Chris aside to confer with him. There were some basic truths to be dealt with. While they were both working at the stable, someone would have to be tending the boys. Buck often left JD in the company of one of his female acquaintances, but many of them were prostitutes and Chris was pretty certain that wasn't a good idea. If they had a slave to tend to everyday tasks, Nathan would be free to practice his healing arts and thereby increase the income of Chris's household. And, the boys did need a tutor. JD had a bright, inquisitive mind, but he was a sickly child, and Buck had not yet seriously considered school for him. Vin was bright, too, but he did not possess any of the basic fundamentals of knowledge that most boys his age had mastered.
"How much?" Chris asked.
"Forget it!" Buck scoffed. He reached for JD's hand, but the little boy clung fast to the bars of the cell.
"Do you know any stories?" he asked the slave.
"More than will fit into your head," the slave laughed.
Chris noted that the man seemed calm and confident, which was unusual enough to pique his interest. "How did you come to be here?" he asked.
The man's face betrayed little emotion as he explained, "My family had debts, so when I was seventeen, I was sold to repay them... It was meant that my freedom would be bought back when the money could be saved, but my parents died before that happened."
"Your parents sold you?" Vin asked, nervously glancing at Chris.
Seeing his story had upset the boy, the slave was quick to say, "No, I sold myself." Chris and Buck wondered if that was the truth, but seeing Vin's obvious relief at his reply, they made no comment.
"Four hundred is more than we have," Buck explained.
The slave trader, seeing he had baited his hook well, rubbed his hands together eagerly and asked, "Well, how much do you have?"
Chris and Buck conferred again, pooling their resources and determining exactly how much they could spare.
"Two hundred eight-seven," Buck answered finally.
The slave trader's face clouded. "You insult me! Be gone!"
Chris and Buck traded shrugs and Buck snatched JD up and said, "Time to go, boys."
The slave trader saw his opportunity slipping away. "Wait! Three hundred and fifty!"
Buck shook his head. "Two eighty-seven is all we got."
"Three twenty-five, and that is robbery!" the slave trader countered.
"Ah.... Just the gentlemen I have been looking for!" a new voice spoke from behind.
"Well, hey, there, Ezra," Buck said cordially, eyeing the fat purse tied to the merchant's waist.
"I have a business proposition for the two of you," Ezra got to the point. It was common knowledge by now that Chris would no longer fight in the arena.
"And what would that be?" Buck asked suspiciously.
"A.... contact... of mine in Syria has procured a number of horses suitable for breeding stock, which he will sell to me and which I, in turn, hope to sell to Caesar for a tidy profit."
"But...?" Buck always knew there was a 'but' where Ezra was concerned.
"Well, as a gentlemen does not debase himself by engaging in menial labor...." he began, and then finished bluntly, "I need someone to get them here from Syria. Without killing them or stealing them."
"And just who did you have in mind for the job?" Buck grinned.
Ezra was not amused. "It was my presumption that you two are available."
Buck set JD down, and the boy immediately went back to his interrogation of the slave. Vin stood close to Chris. Ezra, in his fancy toga and embroidered cloak clearly did not inspire trust in the boy.
The two men conferred again. If they were to make the trip, they would most certainly need someone trustworthy to stay with the boys. Nathan would have to accompany them - such a journey was fraught with potential danger - so he was out of the question.
Buck finally turned back to Ezra. "Okay, we'll do it. But it's going to cost you. In advance."
Ezra frowned. "How much?"
Buck pretended to cipher on his fingers. "Oh..... I'd say 38 dinari..."
"I say make it an even 50," Chris smirked.
"Payable now," Buck added.
"That's absurd!" Ezra protested.
"Well, sorry you feel that way, Ez.... I hope you can find someone to get them horses for you."
Ezra's eyes narrowed to angry little slits. "If I didn't owe you my life, Buccio..."
"But, you do," Buck grinned. "And you know we can get the job done. Just think of how those coins will jingle in your purse when we parade those horses into Caesar's stable."
"A pox upon you both!" Ezra grumbled as he loosened his purse strings. Grudgingly, he handed over the money. "I have already arranged for our transportation."
"You're coming with us?" Buck frowned.
"Only in an advisory capacity, I assure you. I find myself forced to make a trip to the place of my birth in order to be counted in this accursed census our noble Caesar has decreed." There was a distinct hint of annoyance in the merchant's voice, though no one would fault him for it. The census was turning out to be more than an inconvenience, especially for those Romans who were born in far off lands. Ezra had alleged proof of his Roman parentage, but he'd been born in an eastern province, and whose son he really was had long been the subject of much gossip - never mind that 'Ezra' was a Hebrew name. "You have 2 months to make preparations."
"I guess that's that, then," Buck said, hefting the coins Ezra had given him as the merchant walked away.
He combined the coins with his and Chris's money and handed 325 dinari over to the slave trader, who promptly opened the cage and released their newly-purchased slave. When the man rose to his feet, he was even bigger than he had first seemed. He grinned broadly as he stretched out his arms, seeming to embrace his relative freedom. He then reached down and swooped up a giggling boy in each arm.
"What are you called?" Chris asked him.
"Josiah the Greek," came the reply.
Buck frowned. "Josiah's not a Greek name..."
The slave offered no explanation. He just laughed and said, "No, it's not. And just plain Josiah is fine with me!"
The next few weeks brought changes, good and bad.
Ezra negotiated the trade of the small houses owned by Chris and Buck for a larger apartment that had room for both men and their boys as well as for Nathan and Josiah. The apartment was in the same building as Ezra's, although not as well-furnished, and it was easily accessible to the slaves who came, or were sent, to Nathan for treatment of their injuries and maladies. As word of his healing skills were taken back to the owners of those slaves, some of them soon began to seek the Nubian out, also. It turned a tidy profit for the household, some of which Chris gave to Nathan. He owed the healer his life, after all.
The apartment was on the ground floor, and had a yard for the goat - who had been honored with a naming ceremony at JD's insistence, and who would have slept in the house had it been up to the boys. "Julia" was conscripted to participate in the boys ' play, patiently allowing herself to be dragged about the street by a rope halter. JD had even tried to ride her, with predictable results. Fortunately, she was a good-natured animal, and kept them well supplied with milk.
In the days following his final arena battle, Chris had returned to the gladiator pens and had searched for The Wolf's armor. Armor was often re-used, but occasionally, a gladiator - even a dead one - was held in such high regard that no other man dared deem himself worthy of wearing it. Chris had found the shield with the image of the wolf on it, and had fastened it to the wall near Vin's bed. He knew the day would come when Vin would learn the truth about how his father had died, and Chris hoped that honoring him in death would help to ease the blow when it came.
Having learned that Ezra's contract involved almost 400 horses, Chris and Buck selected twenty men, most whom they had known from their Legion days. For their effort, they would be paid a fair wage or be allowed to keep one of the horses.
As the time for their departure drew close, however, a difficult decision had to be made. While Vin was thriving now that he had suitable food and his other basic needs were being met, little JD seemed to grow weaker with each day that passed. The boy was prone to fits of coughing, during which his skin would take on an unnatural blue color. The episodes always subsided, and afterwards he would seem fine and be his usual exuberant self, but still Buck worried. Chris knew that he was reluctant to leave the child, even in Josiah's capable hands, especially with Nathan gone.
He was not, however, expecting Buck to suggest that they bring the boys with them, which was what he did.
"Absolutely not!" was Chris's initial response.
"It will take us a month just to get there... another to herd the horses and drive them to Antioch..." Buck's voice trailed off. "What if he's... not here... when I get back?" he said softly.
"Buck... the trip alone could kill him..." Although as he searched his mind for reasons, he was forced to come to the conclusion that it would be a relatively safe journey. The ship would sail during a time of year when there was little chance of stormy weather. The trail to Damascus was one well-travelled, and protected by Caesar's troops, so it was not as though they would be riding through open, hostile territory. Driving a herd of horses was hard work, but only for those actually riding the herd. The servants would follow along in a caravan of wagons, and it was a certainty that Ezra would not be without the basic luxuries.
"He'll sail on a ship, and see Alexandria and Damascus and Antioch... and maybe learn to ride a horse..." Buck added.
Chris knew what Buck was thinking . If JD's life was to be short, he should not be denied what experiences it might have to offer, and if he were to die on the journey, it would be in Buck's arms, and not alone, cared for by servants. It was a certainty he'd be happier going with 'my Buck' than staying behind in Rome, no matter what his future held.
"Fine," he said. "But Josiah goes with us. Vin finds excuse enough not to study as it is."
+ + + + + + +
Their ship would sail at first light, so a messenger was paid to awaken the household at the third hour past midnight. After ensuring that everything was packed and ready, they had eaten a simple breakfast of bread and pears and then had gone to the temple to offer sacrifice to Neptune and ask his blessing on their journey.
Dawn came none too soon for the two little boys who were beside themselves with excitement as they neared the anchorage of the ship that would take them to Alexandria. Ezra supervised as crate after crate was loaded onto the vessel. Had it just been Chris and Buck going, they would have probably just strolled on board with a few weapons, some blankets, and maybe an extra set of clothing - nothing more than they could carry. But Ezra was bringing along twenty slaves and servants, cooking utensils, spices, bedding, and what appeared to be his entire sizable wardrobe. There was a trunk which contained extra clothing for the boys, and assorted scrolls, counting beads, and wax tablets for their schoolwork. Vin helpfully carried a bag with the boys' toys and games, while JD lead Julia. The animal followed him complacently until she got to the unfamiliar gangplank, where she balked at going any further. JD lovingly patted her head and spoke to her soothingly, and somehow, convinced her to board the ship.
Soon, oars were put to the water and the ship began to ease away from the docks. Both boys jumped at the sudden "pop" when the colorful sails unfurled and filled with wind.
"We're moving!" JD exclaimed happily. "We're going to Alasandria! We're going to Alasandria!" he chanted loudly.
Vin rolled his eyes. "JD, everybody knows where the ship is going."
"They gots a lighthouse there that's a thousand million feet tall." He stretched out his arms, apparently unconcerned that he was demonstrating width rather than height.
"Yeah...." Vin smiled. "With a magic mirror that you can see from far, far away." He couldn't wait to see the lighthouse.
Buck and Chris called to them and went over the rules that had been drilled into their head for the past fortnight: No going on deck without a grown up. No bothering the sailors with questions. Don't go near the rails. Don't touch anything unless a grown up gives permission.
That last rule was going to be hard, because there were all kinds of interesting things on the deck. Vin had seen a man climb waaaaay up to the top of the sails on a ladder rope. He bet he could do that, too, even if everyone thought he couldn't because his back was hurt. He could show them, if they'd let him.
"Boys, come here!" Josiah called, pointing over the railing at the bow of the ship.
They hurried to see what he was looking at, but both boys were too short to see over the rails. Josiah lifted JD up and the little boy's mouth quickly formed into an O of surprise.
"What? I want to see!" Vin said, and began to climb up onto the railing.
In an instant Chris was behind him, catching him around the waist and snatching him away from the rails. "Looks like somebody already forgot the rules," he admonished him. But when he saw what Josiah and JD were looking at, he lifted Vin into his arms so that he could see, too.
A school of dolphins was playfully racing the ship, leaping happily in and out of the water. "Jumping fish!" Vin exclaimed.
Chris laughed softly. "They're dolphins, Vin. They're a good omen. It means our voyage will be safe and profitable."
"If it doesn't kill me, first," Ezra moaned, leaning heavily on the rail.
"You look a little green there, Ez," Buck observed.
"Thank you. You appear as your customary oafish, drooling self," the merchant retorted. "I hate ships."
"Maybe Nathan has a potion for your... affliction," Josiah offered.
"I assure you, the gold coins that will dance across my palm when we return to Rome will be remedy enough."
While the voyage from Rome to Alexandria had been a necessary nuisance for the adults, for the boys it had been a grand adventure. Josiah had used the opportunity to teach them about ocean and wind currents, celestial navigation, and the creatures of the sea. From Ezra they had learned the rudiments of commerce and the importance of the trade routes that linked Rome with the rest of the world. Of course, none of this had held their interest nearly as readily as the tall tales told by the sailors, of sirens and sea monsters and rocks that clapped together and crushed ships between them. It was the stuff of nightmares, but the boys ate it up.
The sailors, for the most part, tolerated the two inquisitive little boys, some even enjoying the break in their mundane routine. Chris and Buck were standing at the ship's bow discussing how they would green break 400 hundred horses when Chris spotted Vin hurrying across the deck. The boy was not able to actually run, but when he was excited, he was able to move with unexpected speed. Chris smiled as he approached, knowing the little boy was excited about something.
He held up a knot with rope hanging from both ends. "Look, Chris!" he beamed. "It's a puzzle. Quintus Marius made it for me!" he referred to the ship's boatswain. "See? The ends disappear in the knot. Quintus Marius said if I can untie it, he will make me a boat!"
Chris took the knot from the boy and examined it thoughtfully. He'd seen puzzle knots before, and had never had much success with them. "Alexander the Great was once given a puzzle like this. Do you know how he solved it?"
Vin's eyes lit up. "How?"
"He cut the knot in half with his sword," Chris laughed.
Vin put his hands on his hips, the picture of indignation. "That's not fair! You're s'posed to untie it!"
Chris ruffled Vin's curls. "Well, I don't suppose too many people were ready to tell Alexander that."
JD had joined them. He had been cautioned not to run, as it sometimes made him short of breath, but he walked as fast as his little legs would carry him. He, too, had a trophy from the indulgent Quintus Marius. It was a tiny keg, with four pegs inserted into one side. The bung hole was on the top, and into that a cork had been placed. The entire keg had then been covered with a scrap of lamb's wool. With eyes painted on the cork and hooves painted on the four pegs, it vaguely resembled a sheep.
JD waved it in Vin's face. "Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.... baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa..." he laughed.
Vin batted it away. "That 's dumb, JD," he said, irritated. "It's a baby toy."
Whereupon, JD whacked him in the head with it.
"Hey, none of that, Little Bit," Buck said, taking the sheep and admiring it appreciatively. "I think it's a fine sheep."
JD took his toy back and held it close. "His name is Julius," JD proclaimed. Then, he added, "Vin wants to ask you something, Chris."
"Do not!" was Vin's embarrassed reply.
Chris smiled. "What is it, son?"
Vin cast his eyes downward and then said as quickly as possible, "Quintus Marius said I could climb up the sail if you went with me."
Chris eyed the rope ladder that lead to the top of the mainsail. "He did, huh?"
Vin nodded, still looking down.
Chris had seen Vin eying that ladder ever since they had boarded the ship. He didn't have the heart to say no to the boy, but the fact was, he was pretty sure Vin couldn't make it to the top. His back and legs were too weak for such an effort. With his help, though, it might be possible.
"Go get 'em, stud," Buck whispered in his ear. "Unless you're too old, of course."
Chris smacked him in the gut with Vin's knot. "I'll show you old!" He looked at Vin. "Let's do it!"
As Chris had feared, climbing the rope ladder was a struggle for Vin. His right leg would not extend to its full length, and both legs lacked the strength to support his weight alone. But he was determined to make it to the top, doing most of the work with his thin arms. Chris used his own body to create a cage around the little boy and occasionally, Vin would pause and rest against Chris's strong chest. It pained Chris to see how difficult a simple thing like climbing a ladder was for his son, but he knew that the accomplishment would be all that more important for Vin.
When they had reached the top, they could see for miles in every direction, and there was nothing but the vast expanse of ocean surrounding them. Vin said nothing - he just rested against Chris's chest and marveled it the wonder of it all.
Below them, JD had sat down on the deck to play with "Julius." Normally, the little boy followed Vin like a shadow and tried to do everything he did, but Chris wondered if JD realized he didn't have the stamina to make the climb. The little boy seemed blissfully unaware of how concerned Buck and Nathan were for his health, but sometimes, children knew more than adults credited them for.
+ + + + + + +
Shortly before they arrived in Egypt, the Fates frowned upon them and JD was seized by a fever. Although it passed in a matter of days, he was left weak and pale. His cough became persistent, and it seemed that much of the time he was struggling for breath.
Nathan had told Buck what he already knew - that JD would probably not live to see the turn of another season. It was Buck's hope that he would survive long enough to die in Rome, because he could not bear the thought of burying the child he loved as his own beside the road in a strange land. There were times when he regretted his decision not to leave the little boy behind, but when JD's big eyes opened wide with wonder at the Alexandria lighthouse, towering in the air taller than anything ever built by the hands of man, he knew he'd done the right thing.
And so they set out on the road to Damascus, where they would collect the 400 horses that they would then drive north to Antioch. Along the way, they had stopped in the city of Ezra's birth, so that he could be counted in the census. That task completed, they had set out on the road again, but less than two days later, JD was again stricken, this time with a severe, wracking cough that denied him rest and further weakened his already frail body.
Noting that the chill desert night air seemed to make the boy's symptoms more extreme, Nathan recommended that they leave the caravan encamped and find indoor accommodations for the night if possible - a tall order considering that the roads were packed with travelers heading home for the census and rooms were at a premium.
After several attempts, they had found lodgings at a small inn. It was already crowded, but Ezra had convinced the proprietor to give up his own living quarters, rewarding him handsomely for sleeping on the floor in the main room with several other lodgers. Their accommodations consisted of one small room, but it was reasonably clean and had a small hearth. They settled in for a meal of bread, vegetables and a roasted hen - courtesy of the innkeeper who was obviously hoping for further compensation for his generosity.
As Josiah portioned out the food, Vin stood at the tiny slit of window, taking in the fresh evening air. Chris found it odd that it was Vin who was not fond of closed in spaces, considering it was JD who had spent time caged like an animal. He wondered what things there were in Vin's past that he did not know about.
JD joined his cousin, just barely able to see over the window sill.
"Who are those people, Vin?" he asked.
Vin shrugged. "Just some travelers. I guess they wanted to stay here, but there's no more room."
"'Cause we gots the last one!" JD proclaimed. "Are they gonna sleep outside?" he frowned. Vin didn't mind sleeping outdoors, but thanks to an informative little playmate named Cassandra, JD was afraid scorpions would crawl in his blankets.
"Dunno," Vin said. "I guess so."
"Food's ready, boys," Josiah announced, drawing their attention away from the window.
JD sat down wearily. Normally, the boy loved to eat, but his appetite had waned of late. As he nibbled at his meal, he occasionally offered a morsel of food to Julius, and then ate it for him. Josiah had added small coils of rope to either side of its head so that Julius was now officially a ram, albeit a three-legged one. Julia had seen fit to sample the fourth leg, and a small river of tears was shed before JD forgave the goat her transgression. "Julius wants to hear a story, Josiah," JD said.
Vin sighed. "JD, Julius isn't real. He doesn't want anything... 'cept maybe a new leg," he teased.
JD picked up the broken toy defensively. "Now you hurt his feelings, Vin." He planted a kiss on the little cork face, and then laughed when Vin shook his head at the antics of his silly cousin.
Buck pulled JD into his arms and gave him a hug, not for any special reason, but because he so dearly loved the little boy. He was pale and thin, and his words came in wheezy breaths, but his smile never seemed to dim. He was going to miss his sweet son terribly.
After their meal, they placed the little boys nearest the fire, and Ezra, who was footing the bill, staked out his own spot there as well. Buck slept near JD, in case the boy awoke and needed him during the night. Chris, Josiah and Nathan stretched out against the room's three walls. Josiah's rich, timbered voice could be heard by all as he recited the story of Prometheus - one of the boy's favorites. Soon, everyone slept soundly.
JD awoke when he heard the sound in his head. He blinked in confusion. It sounded like music... except... it wasn't. He'd never heard anything like it before. The sound was not in his ears, but it was all over inside him somehow.
Clutching his beloved Julius, he threw off his covers and went to the window, and there, he saw something that he had never, ever, seen before. He hurried over to Vin and shook him hard to wake him up. "Vin! Come and look!"
"Go 'way," Vin muttered sleepily.
JD grabbed his hand. "Can't you hear it, Vin? You gotta come and see!"
And suddenly, Vin was wide awake. JD knew he could hear that strange music, too. JD took Vin's arm to help him up, so that his back wouldn't hurt so much, but Vin was quickly on his feet heading towards the window.
When he saw what JD had been looking at, he grabbed the smaller boy's hand. "Let's go outside so we can see it better!" he said excitedly. They found their cloaks and pulled them on without making a sound. They didn't want to wake the adults up, because they would probably tell them they couldn't go outside.
They easily maneuvered around the sleeping bodies of their fathers and then past the lodgers scattered on the floor in the inn's main room.
Once they were outside they had a better view of amazing sight that had drawn them out into the night. JD gasped in awe. "Vin, what is that?"
Vin was as astonished as JD. "I don't know... It's so.... It's so.... I don't know what it is...."
In the sky above them, a giant star shimmered in the black desert sky. It pulsed and twinkled, displaying brilliant colors at random - red, green, blue, purple, gold and silver. A long stream of shimmering light descended from it, seeming almost to drop down to the ground at their very feet.
They stood watching it for a long time, watching the colors shift and shimmer and feeling its song in their hearts. Truly, it was the most wonderful thing either boy had ever seen.
Then, they heard a baby's cries coming from the stable. They looked at each other, and without words passing between them, they decided that this, too, must be investigated!
+ + + + + + +
Buck startled awake. A strange sensation came over him, which he first mistook for dread, when he realized that he could no longer hear JD's noisy, labored breathing. With his heart pounding, he searched in the dark for the little boy, only to find a pile of empty blankets. Vin was gone, too.
"JD!" he called out, which abruptly woke the others.
"What is it?" Chris called to him.
"The boys! They aren't here!"
Everyone, including Ezra, was quickly on his feet. Buck and Chris grabbed weapons. It was not like the boys to wander off, especially in the middle of the night.
Several of the inn's patrons roused and cursed them as they were nudged aside as the five men hurried though the main room, but no one followed.
"What in the name of all the gods...." Chris exclaimed, stopping dead in his tracks. The sky above was awash with colored lights, all seeming to emanate from a strange and brilliant star.
Buck, Ezra and Nathan were struck speechless by the awesome site. but Josiah managed to mutter, "Surely this is a portent... a sign of some sort..."
So mesmerizing was the sight that for a long moment, their search was forgotten, until the sound of a child's laughter brought them out of their reverie. It sounded like JD.
"The stable..." Buck pointed his sword in the direction of the simple structure.
What they found when they entered surprised them. The stable was warm - even though there was no fire. And though it was filled with animals, in place of the stench one would normally expect, the air carried only the aroma of fresh hay.
The most unexpected sight, though, was that of a tiny newborn infant who had been placed in one of the mangers. Its Hebrew parents rested nearby, the young mother nestled in a soft pile of hay, while the father watched over them both.
And there, softly cooing to the baby was JD. A quick glance upward revealed Vin high in the hayloft, lying on his stomach with his head resting on his hands, surveying the peaceful scene below him.
Buck's first instinct was to holler at JD to come away from the baby, but somehow, it seemed like the wrong thing to do.
Instead, the five men slowly and calmly approached. Buck and Chris lay down their swords. They were not needed here.
"Buck! Look!" JD said, his voice excited but uncharacteristically soft. "It's a cute little baby, just borned!"
The men moved closer, knowing that they should have felt as though they were intruding. Somehow, though, they didn't. They felt welcome, as though this was how it should be.
The innkeeper, having been awakened by the commotion of the men heading out to search for the boys, had entered the stable behind them.
As Buck got closer to the baby, he realized it was newly swaddled - in Vin's cloak. Not only was the baby a newborn, it had been born this very night, right here in this stable.
Incensed, he glared at the innkeeper. "You would put a woman in labor with the animals?" he accused.
"There was no more room in the inn...."
"Had you but told us, they could have had the room you gave us!"
"But.... you are Roman citizens," the innkeeper offered by way of an explanation.
Buck felt a pang of guilt at that comment. Would he and Chris have given up the comfort and warmth of the inn had they known? He liked to think so.
Their voices had awakened the young mother.
Both Chris and Buck had seen women who had just given birth before. They often looked tired, relieved, some at peace, some pained by uncertainty or sorrow. But this woman - her face was so very different, although in what way, neither man could describe. There was more there than just a mother's joy at bringing a live and healthy baby into the world.
To the surprise of everyone, Ezra removed his expensive embroidered cloak and gently settled it over her. She smiled at him and a radiance seemed to emanate from her, as if she glowed from a light deep within her being.
The baby's father sat calmly, whittling away at a small piece of wood with a carpenter's knife. He appeared to be a simple man, but although the sensation was not as pronounced, he, too, seemed almost to glow.
Something strange was happening here - all of the men sensed it, though none spoke. It was not a fearful kind of strange, but a powerful sensation of wonder and awe that defied explanation.
The men dared to approach the baby and the infant looked directly at them and smiled. JD was delighted with the response, but the men glanced uneasily at one another. JD was too young to realize that newborns did not focus their eyes, nor did they smile.
For all of them, the sense that they were in the presence of something truly remarkable intensified to the point where it became overwhelming. Something radiated from this child, filling the space around it with a calm and joy that was almost palpable in its intensity.
And then they knew - this child was like no other.
Josiah went down on one knee before the manger and put out his hand to stroke the baby's head, but stopped short. The aura of purity and power that flowed from the tiny being before him was such that he dared not tarnish it with his touch.
JD, though, had no such qualms. He leaned down and kissed the baby on the forehead, and then began to sing an off-key lullaby.
Chris motioned to Vin in the hayloft. "Come down from there, Vin," he said. The boy quickly obeyed, skipping down the wooden ladder two rungs at a time. Chris lifted him up when he was close enough. The sight of the infant before him had filled him with memories of Adam's birth, but instead of making him melancholy, it had somehow renewed him. He held his living, breathing, chosen son close to his heart, and knew that his place there was secure.
"I gave the baby my cloak," Vin said, as though he thought he might be in trouble for his generosity.
And the truth was that ordinarily, the admission might have annoyed Chris. But not this night. This night, Vin's gift seemed so utterly and completely right.
"We'll get you a new one," he assured the little boy. Then he looked at the Hebrew couple and their newborn child. "We have a long journey tomorrow. Our little ones must rest," he said with a respectful nod.
The baby's father smiled and handed something to JD. It was his little ram, who once again had four legs.
"Thank you for fixing Julius," JD told the man, who smiled at him and gently tousled his hair. JD turned back and kissed the baby again. "Bye, baby. I love you."
He then ran to Buck's waiting arms. "Did you see the star, Buck?"
"Yes, I did, Little Bit."
"Isn't it pretty?"
"That it truly is."
JD paused thoughtfully, and then said, "This is a happy night, isn't it?"
Buck smiled. JD was right, it was a happy night. An aura of peace and joy flowed through all of them like a crystal pure stream. "That it is, Little Bit, that it is!"
They bid their farewells and then left the new family in peace.
Once they were outside, Ezra rubbed his bare, cloakless arms, - which strangely, were not the least bit chilled. His voice was a mixture of wonder and confusion when he voiced the question that was in all of their minds, "What... just happened here?"
Nathan's answer was to spread his arms wide and laugh.
"What's so funny, brother Nathan?" Josiah asked.
"Don't you feel it?" he said softly so that only the other slave could hear. "We are but slaves, yet our hearts, this night, are set free."
Nathan's words were odd ones, but, strangely, they made perfect sense to Josiah.
Vin had fallen asleep in Chris's arms, and he gently rubbed the boy's back. Only now did he realize that Vin had to have climbed into the hayloft by himself. How was that possible?
"Do you hear it, Buck?" JD asked drowsily, his eyelids fluttering closed.
"Hear what, Little Bit?"
The tiny boy yawned contently as his eyes closed completely. "The sky is singing."
Buck smiled. The little boy was already dreaming and he wasn't even asleep yet. Then again, maybe the song was one that only the purest of heart could hear.
Buck looked down at the peaceful face of the child in his arms, and he had no words for the sudden warmth that rushed through his being. Accompanying it was the certainty that although JD would die, as all mortal men must, now was not his time. Somehow, he knew beyond doubt that JD would grow up strong, and that he'd live to grow old. In his last hours, he would be surrounded by his children, and their children, and perhaps even their children...
And with each one of them, he would have shared the story of the night a magnificent star was sent by the gods, and a baby was born in a stable, in a little town called Bethlehem.
End note: "Julius" was on display a few years back at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, made by loving hands for a cherished child, over two thousand years ago.