by James L. Cambias
A beautiful girl in trouble draws Joshua bar-Joseph into a deadly plot!
It is night in Alexandria, but the great metropolis never sleeps. Down by the waterfront, inns and taverns are filled with publicans and sinners. After dark the city vigiles only go there in groups. The worst dive of all is known as the Cross, and the grim joke is that all the customers will wind up on one sooner or later.
In his customary seat in the rear of the inn, half-hidden between two great pottery jars of wine, sits bar-Abbas the Jew, boss of half the city's crime and vice. The table before him is piled with gold and jewels, the loot from a goldsmith's shop robbed earlier that evening. The four men who did the job stand humbly before the table as bar-Abbas sorts the pile into five shares -- one for each of them and one for him.
Suddenly the door bursts open, nearly kicked off its hinges. A hooded figure in a gray cloak strides in. The publicans and sinners shrink back, opening a path toward the table by the jars.
"Bar-Abbas!" The voice from inside the hood is harsh. "Your boys left Isaac the goldsmith dead in his shop. You know my rule: All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." The intruder flings back his cloak to reveal a gray tunic with a bright purple emblem which strikes terror into the hearts of all who behold it -- the sign of the Phoenix!
"Get him," is bar-Abbas's only reply.
With the speed of a striking serpent the Phoenix slams a cestus-clad fist into the jaw of one robber, ducks the sword swing of a second and whirls his cloak into the face of a third.
Bar-Abbas smiles as he sees one of his men in the crowd draw his own gladius, preparing to fall upon the intruder by surprise. But the smile turns to a look of consternation when one of the bystanders clouts the man over the head with a stool and joins the battle. He can see others in the crowd produce hidden shortswords and slings. So, the Phoenix had his own backup.
The gray-clad man dodges a sword thrust from the last of the robbers and stuns him with a nose-flattening blow. He advances to stand before bar-Abbas. "The hour is come."
Bar-Abbas draws his own blade, which has claimed the lives of dozens from Antioch to Cyrenacia. He lunges across the table, but with inhuman speed the Phoenix dodges aside. He grabs the off-balance bar-Abbas by the neck and pins him to the table, wrenching the blade from his grip. "It is finished."
Dawn is coloring the eastern sky, and carts are rumbling into the city's markets. In the baths, slaves are stoking the furnaces to heat water for another day's customers.
And in a secret chamber in the catacombs beneath the Jewish quarter, a gray-clad man strips off his concealing hood and cloak.
"Good thing we were there, eh, boss?" says Simon bar-Jonah. "Maybe you could take bar-Abbas and his boys, but not a whole tavern full of tough guys."
"Oh ye of little faith." Joshua bar-Joseph smiles wryly. "Of course, I wouldn't have gone in there without some of you as backup. Are you all right? I thought I saw someone stick a knife in your ribs."
"Yep -- that greasy little Tyrian. When his jaw heals up he's going to have to go buy a new blade." Simon fingers the rent in his garment made by the knife as it glanced off the remarkably tough skin which gives him his nickname. Cephas, they call him -- the rock.
"Come on up," says Joshua. "We'll see if my mother can sew that up for you before you go out."
They climb the ladder up a shaft hewn through the silty soil and emerge finally from an ordinary-seeming chest in the storeroom of a humble woodworking shop. Over a simple meal of bread and wine, Joshua and Simon trade marketplace gossip. Miriam, Joshua's gray-haired mother, listens while stitching Simon's tunic.
When she's done she holds it up to inspect, but shakes her head sadly. "To think of two grown men like the two of you out at night going to wine shops and getting into fights. It's disgraceful."
"We weren't -- " Joshua begins, but she cuts him off.
"I know a wine stain when I see one," she says, holding up the purple-spattered sleeve of Simon's garment.
"Don't worry, Mother," says Joshua. She is unaware of his secret life as the Phoenix, and he means to keep it that way. "We were just doing a little cleaning when it happened."
"Doesn't your wife worry about you, Simon? Maybe if Joshua had a wife he would stay home more."
Joshua blushes while Simon struggles to keep from laughing out loud. Finally he says "Well, I must get going. Thank you for fixing my tunic." He waves cheerily as he goes out into the growing heat of the day. Outside he drops a coin before a beggar. He doesn't notice as the ragged figure gets to its feet and hurries away as soon as Simon is past.
Joshua hammers the final peg into the chair and steps back to look at it. Good, solid work. He enjoys making things. A shadow darkens the doorway of the workshop, and he looks up quickly.
A woman is standing there. Even with her heavy wool draperies she's got a tempting figure, and she's looking at him with eyes like a pair of ballistae loaded with flaming arrows.
"May I help you?"
"I'm not sure," she says. "A friend told me to come here -- she said you help people when they have nowhere else to go." In the sawdust on his worktable her finger traces a simple fish outline, then she quickly erases it.
"I can help," he says, closing the curtain into the house. "What's the matter?"
"My sister," she says. "Miriam. She's disappeared. I'm afraid something terrible has happened to her."
"Why can't the vigiles help you?"
"She -- " the woman hesitates, then takes a deep breath. "She's been in trouble before. Miriam used to be concubine to a man named Marcus, a Roman citizen. To get money she'd seduce a man, or let him think he'd seduced her. Rich Jews, usually, in town without their wives. Just as they were alone together -- "
"Let me guess: then Marcus shows up and claims she's his wife. The mark has to pay them to avoid a scandal."
"Yes. You knew them?"
"No, but it's a very old game. This Marcus being a Roman makes it better, because a Jew knows a Roman magistrate would decide in favor of a citizen." Joshua shakes his head. "You say she used to do that. Why'd they stop?"
"About a year ago they tried it on a merchant from Lebanon, only he turned out to be a crook himself, masquerading as part of some big scheme. He stabbed Marcus in the throat, and gave Miriam a beating. Since then she has done washing and mending to get enough to eat."
"A wise decision. But now you say she has disappeared?"
"I went to her lodging, but nobody there has seen her for a week."
"Is there anyone else who might know where she is?"
The woman pauses. "Yes. A man named Saul."
"From Tarsus? A tentmaker?"
"Yes, that's the one. Is this some old con game, too?"
"No, I've met him before. Your sister likes dangerous company."
"Can you find her? I'm so afraid something terrible has happened to her."
"Don't worry. But I do need to know your name, and where I can find you."
"My name's Susannah."
"By your accent I'd say you're from Magdala or someplace nearby."
She gives him a wary look, then relaxes. "Yes. My sister and I grew up there. You know the place?"
"I've been there once or twice. Where are you staying here in Alexandria?"
"I have rented a room near the tanneries. Upstairs from a glovemaker's shop run by a man named Levi."
"I know the place. Don't worry about your sister; I'm sure I can locate her."
She thanks him again and leaves. Joshua watches her go and spends a moment in thought. Then he puts away his tools and heads for the harbor.
The customs house is at the shore end of the great mole leading to the Pharos. As usual, the place is busy to the point of chaos. The only calm people in the place are the Roman soldiers standing like statues by the entrance. Only their eyes move, watching for signs of trouble. Everybody else is shouting -- merchants shouting at customs clerks, ship captains shouting at slaves, traders shouting at each other trying to sell their goods, wine vendors shouting for customers, and officials shouting for quiet.
Beyond the main hall, among the stuffy little offices with thin wood walls like cattle pens, it's hardly quieter. The corridor is lined with petitioners, and the sound of pleas and arguments from a dozen rooms mingles with their chatter. Joshua takes a place in line and waits, just one more humble Jew hoping to catch the ear of the Empire.
It's past midday when he finally gets in. Matthias the son of Alphaeus is a busy man, but when he sees Joshua he can hardly conceal his excitement. "All right, you. Inside. Shut that door and let's hear what you've got to say."
As soon as the door is shut Matthias opens a chest in the corner and takes out a wine jar. "You must be dying of thirst. This stuff's almost vinegar already, but the soldiers all say that's best when you're parched." He pours equal measures of water and wine, then hands Joshua a cup.
"Thank you. I've come for some information."
"About a woman."
"Now that's something new. Pray continue."
Joshua feels his ears burning again. "She's named Miriam, and comes from Magdala. Her sister Susannah came to me and said she's disappeared. She also told me something interesting: apparently this Miriam used to run a badger game with a Roman called Marcus, until he got killed a year or so ago. Susannah's scared to go to the vigiles because she's afraid they might still be looking for Miriam."
"You want me to find out if she's got any charges against her?"
"Not just that. If she was part of a blackmail scheme she might have made some enemies. Can you find out if she's on anyone's unofficial hit list?"
"I'll ask around. The freedmen at the law courts are wonderful gossips. Are we going to be hearing of the Phoenix again soon?" Matthias asks, almost wistful.
"You'll be there when it happens," Joshua assures him. "As soon as you find something, let me know."
"Certainly. Time to go now," says Matthias, and raises his voice. "You haven't got any of the proper seals or permits! This is completely irregular! Get out and stop wasting my time!" He opens the door and lets Joshua out, scowling. The other petitioners in the hall are chuckling over the poor fellow whose bribe wasn't big enough. Joshua lets himself look chastened until he passes the two soldiers by the entrance.
Not far away, in a handsome house near the basilica where the criminal court meets, a burly Roman is reading reports from his spies. Gaius Furius Draco is the Prefect of the City, in charge of Alexandria's force of vigiles.
The police are shockingly corrupt here, worse even than in Rome. Draco has vowed to clean up his department, but it's a hard job. Right now he's trying to set up a system of bonus pay for men who report fires promptly, to end the practice of vigiles demanding bribes from householders while the blaze goes unchecked. But Draco knows a reward is likely to make his men start setting fires to get the money. It has gotten so bad that Draco must have spies within the force, men he can trust.
He stuffs the latest depressing report into a scroll case and draws out a locked casket. This is his collection of reports on the mysterious man known as the Phoenix. Draco's been gathering information about Phoenix for five years. There are a lot of reports, but not many facts.
He's obviously a Jew, that much is clear. Half the reports in Draco's collection deal with crimes in the Jewish Quarter of Alexandria, or crimes committed against Jews, or by Jews. That last bit is the most puzzling. Draco has served in half a dozen cities in the East, and one thing he knows is that all the little tribes and nations out here protect their own. Which is why it's puzzling that a Jew like Phoenix would take down Jewish criminals like bar-Abbas the thief, or Shadrach the usurer.
Of course, there are also a good many reports of Phoenix attacking Roman officials -- tax collectors, vigiles, bailiffs and the like. Draco knows there's much more to those cases than the reports tell. Hippias the tax collector, for instance. Just doing his job and suddenly gets attacked for no reason? Draco snorts his disbelief as he reads over the report again. More likely he was shaking down some poor Jew. Serves him right to get a broken nose from Phoenix.
There's a knock on the door. Draco rolls up the report and jams it back into the box before saying "Come in." Never let underlings see anything important.
It's his secretary, Quintilian. "There is a person here to see you, sir. He says it's urgent."
"Well, who is it?"
"A Hebrew gentleman from Tarsus, named Saul. He says he has corresponded with you."
"Send him in." Draco remembers the man's letter. This Saul certainly makes big claims.
When the man comes in, Draco is disappointed. He'd expected a hard-muscled fighter, or at least a quick and deadly-looking assassin. This is just a Jewish tentmaker in early middle age. But then Saul's eyes meet Draco's, and the Prefect is shocked at the intensity of his gaze.
"Your note said you could bring in the man called the Phoenix."
"That is correct."
"The bounty's the same if you just tell us where to find him and let my men handle it."
"I cannot do that. It must be this way."
No point in arguing. Draco can hear the note of absolute certainty in the man's voice. "As you wish. The price on his head is currently forty denarii."
Saul looks disdainful. "I care nothing for the money. The man himself is wicked. He has defied the priests a dozen times. He must be stopped."
Draco shrugs. He knows better than to get involved in some Eastern sectarian feud. Too many gods out here. He rubs the sealskin ring he wears to ward off lightning as he speaks. "Why should I let you do this? What can you do that my men can't?"
"I am a Jew. He is a Jew."
"Bah. Macro the throat-cutter's a Roman and I can't sniff him out, even though I was born beside the Tiber itself."
"I have been seeking this Phoenix for years now," says Saul. "I have spoken with hundreds of people -- those he has fought and those he has helped. I have learned to think as he does. I know how to trap him."
"And what will you do if I send you away, then? Tell you I'm not interested?"
"I will find him all the same."
Draco keeps himself from laughing aloud. All these easterners are as stubborn as camels. "Very well," he tells the tentmaker. "Bring me the Phoenix and the reward is yours. I'm not giving you any official sanction, you understand. Break any laws while hunting for this man and you'll suffer the same as anyone else."
"A truly excellent law. Shalom," says Saul, turning to go.
"Would you ask my secretary to step in as you leave?" asks Draco politely. It isn't actually necessary, of course -- Quintilian's been listening just outside, and steps into the room as soon as Saul clears the doorway. Draco beckons him close and whispers. "Put somebody on him." Quintilian nods and hurries after the Jew.
That evening Joshua has locked up the shop and is waiting for his mother to go to bed so he can go out on his nightly patrol. He has often considered letting her in on his secret, but his brother Jacob advises against it. Women's tongues do wag, and his mother's is not last among them.
There is a knock at the door, in the secret pattern of three sets of three raps. Joshua opens it at once, and Matthias slips inside. He's wearing a hood and has a cloth wrapped around the lower part of his face.
"You look like a robber," says Joshua.
"I didn't want to be seen. After you left I went around to the basilica to chat with the court clerks. One of them remembered the woman Miriam you asked about. Apparently she's quite a beauty."
"Her sister is, too."
"I'll bet. Anyway, nobody there knew about any current charges against her."
"What about unofficial problems?"
"Nothing. But I did learn something you should know. Saul's in town."
"Saul of Tarsus?"
"The same. I saw him myself, coming out of the Prefect's house."
"You're sure it was him?"
"Of course. Nobody else can glare like that."
"Was there a woman with him?"
Matthias raises an eyebrow. "None that I saw. Is this just idle curiosity, or is something going on I should know about?"
"Susannah mentioned that Saul knew her sister. Contact the others -- tell them to find Saul of Tarsus. It's time he got a visit from the Phoenix."
Word passes. On his way home Matthias visits Philip of Bethsaida at his lodgings, then goes on to speak with his own brother Jacob. Philip passes the message on to Andros, Simon Cephas, and Nathaniel bar-Tolmai. From them it spreads to the two sons of Zebedee, Jacob and Yohanan, Simon the Zealot, and Didymus. They scatter across the city, asking a casual question here, watching a doorway there. Each has his own set of informants, and soon a web is spread across Alexandria, the threads leading back to Joshua bar-Joseph's humble woodworking shop.
It is just past midday when Didymus comes in. At first Joshua doesn't know it's him, of course. They call Didymus "the twin" because of his uncanny skill at changing his appearance to look like another. With just a few smears of kohl or rouge, a swipe of the comb, and a minor adjustment to his clothing, Didymus can become another man so perfectly he's even fooled close friends and family members. Some say even wives, though since he joined Joshua's band Didymus has abandoned those ways.
Today he looks like an up-country Egyptian cattle trader; Joshua can even catch a faint whiff of manure from his sandals. It is only when Didymus speaks in his ordinary voice that Joshua recognizes him.
"I've found him. Saul of Tarsus is hiding out in a slaughterhouse run by a butcher named Abraham bar-Samuel."
"That's down by the tanneries, isn't it?"
"That's strange. Susannah said she was staying in that part of town, too."
"Well, the rent's certainly cheap. If you don't mind the flies and the smell of dead cows."
"Perhaps. Thank you, Didymus. I'll take it from here."
"As you wish." He resumes his Theban accent and goes out into the street.
Draco's having a light meal at sunset. It's too damned hot in Egypt for serious eating. A bowl of olives, some bread, and a bunch of grapes are all he wants. He's drinking cheap wine mixed with lemon and spices.
Quintilian coughs politely at the curtain.
"Well, come on, then."
His secretary approaches. "A message from the Jew, sir." He passes Draco a note scrawled on a bit of linen which still smells of burial spices. Mummy wrappings. The note reads I HAVE FOUND PHOENIX. YOU WILL HAVE HIM TOMORROW.
Draco gazes off over the rooftops to the great lighthouse. They're just kindling the beacon on top. A smile spreads across his face. Time to show this braggart Jew why it's the Romans who rule the world. "Quintilian! I'm going out tonight. Get my sword and lay out some old clothes."
The light from the harbor casts odd shadows as Joshua runs silently across the rooftops of Alexandria. On warm nights it can be crowded up here -- many take to the tiles when it's too stuffy inside, even though the flies are merciless. He leaps across an alley and finds he has landed next to a sleeping couple. By the time the young husband's eyes open, Joshua is gone.
He moves more slowly as he nears the tanneries. Even with the sea breeze the stench is terrible. For a moment he pauses atop a date palm, surveying the streets below, then drops to the ground and conceals himself in shadow.
Levi the glovemaker's shop is locked tight, but the wall is rough enough for Joshua to find handholds and climb up. It's a three-story building; it's most likely the upper floor is the one Levi rents out. He pauses by a shuttered window on the second story and listens. Definitely a man's snore. He continues up the wall.
On the third floor there is a faint light shining through the half-open shutter. He pauses for a moment, then in a single fluid motion swings himself up and into the room. The woman is there, wide-eyed with fear, and in her hand a dagger gleams in the lamplight.
"Peace, sister," says Joshua. "I will not harm you."
"Have -- have you found Miriam yet?" she says, relaxing only a tiny bit.
"Yes," he says. She raises the dagger again. "But I meant what I said. I will not harm you, Miriam. I just want to know the truth. Why did Saul send you to me?"
"How did you know?"
"Two things. You were a little too matter-of-fact when you described the racket you and Marcus ran, and your hands are too soft and well-kept. Those are a courtesan's hands, not those of a simple countrywoman from Magdala."
She glances at her own hands for a moment with a flicker of amusement. "Most men don't look at my hands first."
"Now tell me why. What's Saul of Tarsus up to?"
"I don't know. He doesn't tell me anything." She looks away from him, gazing into the lamp flame. "I'm just a fallen woman, after all."
"Where can I find him?"
"I'll take you there," she says, putting away the dagger. "It isn't far."
"There may be trouble," he warns, but she isn't listening. When she has her mantle on she blows out the lamp. The two of them stand for a moment in the darkened room, then she turns and leads the way downstairs.
Draco walks through the streets of Alexandria, keeping his pace slow and steady, like a weary man heading for home. His tunic is covered by a robe of coarse wool, and a dingy hood conceals his short hair. Decades in the east have browned him as dark as any Egyptian.
Quintilian's man followed this Saul character to a slaughterhouse on the river bank. It's a funny place for a Jew to visit -- this isn't one of those places where Jewish butchers follow their complicated rules. It's a nasty, cheap place run by a couple of Greeks who buy old worn-out oxen and sell boiled beef to traders sailing to Arabia and beyond.
The slaughterhouse is surrounded by a high wall of mud brick. Draco ignores the main gate and follows the wall, looking for another way in. He turns a corner into an alley and finds a little door.
With a quick look to see if anyone is watching -- it would be ironic if his vigiles caught him breaking and entering -- Draco draws his gladius and slips the point between the edge of the door and the frame, then works it up to undo the latch. He opens the door slowly, then slips inside.
The stench is unbearable inside the walls. Even though it's close to midnight the drone of the flies on the offal-heaps is loud enough to drown out his footsteps.
As the bag comes down over his head and strong arms grab him, Draco realizes the buzzing was loud enough to hide someone else's footsteps, too.
Miriam knocks on the main gate of the slaughterhouse. When nobody answers she knocks again, louder. This time a surly voice calls from the other side. "Who's there?"
"It's Miriam. I need to speak with Saul."
There's a fumbling with the latch and the gate opens. The Greek leers at Miriam. "Why such a hurry to see him? I've got a jar of Rhodian wine in my room -- how about you and me share some of it?"
Before she can answer Joshua swings down from his hiding place over the gateway and plants a sandaled foot solidly in the Greek's face. The man goes down without any noise.
"This way," she says, leading Joshua toward a large brick shed which stretches along one side of the compound. "Be very quiet."
She peers into the doorway, then beckons for him to follow. He moves from shadow to shadow, making no sound. She starts to go in, but he holds her back and slips through the door.
Suddenly, a net falls over him! It's a barbed gladiator's net and before Joshua can free himself half a dozen men are piling on, kicking and punching. He flattens one man's nose with an elbow jab, and sends two more sprawling with a Cilician wrestling throw, but then a weighted club comes crashing down on his head and sends him into darkness.
Joshua wakes to find himself tied to a heavy beam supported by posts, his arms outstretched along the timber, his bound feet hanging. It's hard to breathe, but he can manage for a while at least. To his left is another man, a heavyset fellow with short hair and a stain of dried blood below his Roman nose. To his right, Miriam hangs limp, her head bent forward.
Through the windows just under the roof he can see it's still night, but the stars are beginning to fade.
Joshua begins to swing his feet back and forth, trying to get them up to the level of his head. He keeps a sharp little blade in the sole of his left sandal, as protection for just this kind of situation. If he can just get that foot up to his mouth . . .
"Don't bother, Joshua," says a voice. "We searched you very carefully." Two men are coming into the room. One is Saul, and the other is a tall, lean man in a long leather coat.
"Judah," croaks Joshua. Judah of Kerioth. His most deadly enemy. Now everything makes sense -- too late.
"So, Joshua bar-Joseph, we meet again! But this time it seems the advantage is mine," says Judah.
"Who is this man?" Joshua nods awkwardly to his left.
"That is the esteemed " -- Judah makes the word a sneer -- "Gaius Furius Draco. Prefect of the city, centurion, a member of the Equestrian order, and probably someday Senator and Consul. He came blundering in here shortly before you arrived, just as I planned." He nudges Saul, who leaves the room. "Sadly, he never will sit in the Senate because he'll be dead by sunrise. You will be his murderer."
"Never? I'm afraid I know you too well. When the time comes, you will kill him."
"This is foolish, Judah! The death of one Roman -- even a prefect -- won't accomplish anything."
"Oh, but it will! It will! Rome is notoriously harsh with those who harm her citizens. Especially high officials like Draco here. You will be executed -- the Cross, I imagine -- and your followers hunted down and butchered."
"If you want me dead, just kill me!"
"Don't you see? It has to be the Romans who kill you. Otherwise the Jews will not rise up in revolt."
For a moment Joshua has trouble understanding what Judah means. Then the full horror of what he is saying finally penetrates his brain. "A general uprising?"
"Of course! The death of a popular hero like yourself, coupled with harsh measures in all the cities under Roman rule will persuade our people that the time has come. Especially with Saul and others like him preaching revolt in a dozen places. So you can comfort yourself with the thought that you will be avenged a thousandfold."
"Judah, this is madness! The Romans have eight legions in the Levant and Egypt alone! They have dozens more across the Empire! Our people will be slaughtered to the last man!"
"You have so little faith, Joshua. We are the chosen of God, remember? He will not let us be destroyed. God will smite the Romans. It is inevitable." Judah speaks calmly and confidently, like a Greek at the Museum explaining a theorem in geometry.
"That isn't faith, Judah! It's insanity! You are trying to bend God to your will!"
"Just as I will bend you to my will. Ah, I see we can begin."
Saul and half a dozen fierce-looking men come into the room. Joshua recognizes them as Zealots. They attach a thick rope to the beam Miriam is tied to, toss the free end over a rafter, then haul her up until she's suspended fifteen cubits above the floor. Four of the Zealots go out and come back pushing a huge cauldron on rollers. It's big enough to boil a whole steer, and the water is still steaming. They pile kindling and firewood around the base of the pot. Miriam stirs as the smoke thickens.
"Now, pay attention, Joshua. We will begin to lower this woman into the pot of boiling water. I will untie you and give you back your sword. If you waste time dithering or refuse to cooperate, she goes into the water -- slowly, so you can hear her pitiful howls. If you do anything but kill the Roman, my men will drop her into the water. Naturally, if you attack the men holding the rope, they will defend themselves or run away -- and she winds up in the water again. The only way to save her is to kill Draco quickly."
Miriam is coming around now, as the smoke and steam swirl around her. "Judah!" She struggles. "Let me down!"
Judah glances at her, then his eye meets Joshua's and he shrugs.
"Judah, please!" cries Miriam. "I did what you told me!"
Judah raises his voice to cut through her shrieks. "A fallen woman. Boiling or stoning, does it really matter how you die?"
"Saul! You can't let him do this!"
Saul just scowls up at her. "You were concubine to a Roman. You dishonor our people!"
"Enough. Stop crying, Miriam, or we'll put you in the pot. It looks hot enough; I think we're ready to begin." Judah approaches Joshua, stopping just out of reach. "You're fast," he says, "and I know you're clever. Here, do it yourself." He drives the sword into the beam just above Joshua's right arm. "Lower away!" he calls to the men with the rope.
Miriam drops a span or two and lets out a shriek. Judah looks up at her and shrugs again, then turns his back and walks to where Saul and the Zealots are standing.
Joshua looks up at Miriam, then over at the sword in the beam. He wriggles his bound arm toward him until the rope is touching the blade, then begins rubbing it up and down. The thick rope frays with agonizing slowness. Miriam is two yards closer to the boiling water when the rope is finally thin enough for him to snap it by pulling.
With one hand free he dangles awkwardly from his left forearm. It's painful, but now he can work. He pulls the gladius out of the beam with his right hand, slits the ropes binding his feet first, then hacks through the binding on his left hand and drops to the floor.
Judah gives a little ironic applause, then gestures with his thumb, thrusting it forward like a spectator at a gladiatorial combat. "Excellent, now finish the job."
Joshua stands for a moment uncertain of what to do. The Zealots let Miriam drop another couple of spans. Her toes are only a yard above the boiling water now. She has very nice ankles.
A flicker of movement behind Judah catches his eye. One of the Zealots has picked up a piece of firewood, and winks at Joshua as he hits Saul over the head with the log. Saul collapses.
Joshua sprints forward, sword raised. Judah shakes his head sadly and draws his own blade. "Cook her," he says to the men behind him, unaware of the struggle that has broken out.
The Zealot with the firewood has wrapped the rope around his left arm three or four times and is holding off the others with the chunk of wood. Miriam drops a couple of spans as they let go, and the lone Zealot holding the rope grimaces with effort.
"Hang on, Didymus!" cries Joshua. He swings at Judah, but the leather-clad man parries and ducks aside, trying to draw Joshua away from the fight for the rope.
One of the Zealots has pulled a knife and is trying to cut the cord while the others struggle with Didymus. Joshua stabs at the man's kidneys and he goes down, but Judah takes the opportunity to make a lunge which nearly pierces Joshua's side.
Didymus is down on his knees now, shielding himself as four Zealots kick and pummel him, trying to get the rope loose from his arm. He's slowly being pulled forward, and Miriam's toes are less than a cubit above the steaming water.
"I should have listened to Saul," says Judah, circling and feinting, trying to draw Joshua out again. "He said just kill you right away, fake it all up somehow. I thought it would be better if you were alive and could confess, but we can do it his way just as well." He stabs at Joshua's face; Joshua knocks the blade aside with his own sword, then jumps back to avoid Judah's slash at his belly. On the wall behind them, the light from the fire under the cauldron casts huge shadows, like giants fighting.
"Joshua," gasps Didymus. "Help -- can't hold it anymore." Joshua risks a look. Didymus has laid out two of the Zealots, but one of them is now feinting and jabbing at him with a knife while the other has gone to work on the rope again. Miriam is pulling her knees up to her chest, holding her feet out of the boiling water, but the hem of her gown is brushing the surface. From outside comes the sound of shouting and running footsteps.
"Ha!" Judah lunges at Joshua and this time he can't dodge the blow. The sharp point sinks into his left side just below the ribs, and he feels his tunic getting sticky with blood and water.
Judah's grinning now, and starts to come in for a final deadly thrust when a brawny arm wraps around his neck from behind, hurling him to the ground. "If you want a fight, I'll give it to you," says Simon Cephas. Judah sneers and lunges up at Simon's belly, his expression turning to surprise as the point touches his flesh and slides off.
Jacob and Yohanan, the two Sons of Thunder, are wading into the remaining Zealots, their fists striking like lightning bolts. Young Jacob and Matthias grab the rope and begin hauling Miriam up, as the exhausted Didymus collapses, his left hand purple and bleeding where the rope has cut into his wrist. Philip of Bethsaida kneels at his side and winces himself as he starts to unwind the cord.
Judah gets to his feet and sees there's no way to win now. He turns and hurls his sword straight at Draco's heart. Joshua sees what he's about to do and throws his own blade. The two swords crash together in midair, and fall together to the floor in front of the captive Roman.
With a final sneer, Judah runs for the door. Simon tries to stop him, but the leather-clad man is too fast for the burly fisherman, and the last they see of Judah is the tail of his leather coat flapping in the dust of the street outside.
Nathaniel bar-Tolmai helps Joshua to his feet. "You're hurt!"
"It will heal," says Joshua. "How is she?"
Matthias and Jacob have lowered Miriam to the floor and are cutting the ropes binding her to the beam. "She'll be fine," says Matthias.
Back in the catacombs, Simon finishes bandaging Joshua's side. "That should do it," he says. "Try to take it easy for a few days. I know you heal quickly, but this is a very nasty wound."
"I will be careful, Simon. Thank you. I don't think I could have managed without you and Didymus."
The Rock grins, and maybe he blushes a little. To change the subject he asks, "Do you think we've seen the last of Judah?"
"I don't know. We've stopped his plans for now, that much is sure."
Simon is quiet for a moment, then asks, "Would it have worked? Could he have started a revolt?"
"Probably. There are many who wish to be free of Roman rule. I wish it myself. But trying to solve all the world's problems with one big act of defiance is a child's answer. A man knows he can do more good by helping others day in and day out."
"That reminds me -- it's nearly noon by now. I have to be going."
"As do I. Thank you again." As he climbs slowly up the ladder to his workshop, Joshua wonders what will become of Miriam, now that Saul is on his way to a Roman galley oar and Judah is gone. He is a little surprised to find himself hoping she stays in Alexandria.