Prologue

5 BC

Julia left the sheep herd with Essie, the one-eyed sheepdog, and the half-wit twin brothers that other kids in Jazzar like to tease and call idiots. She rode her exhausted grey mare out of the Gilead forest past sharp ridges and down mountain trails guided by a half moon as if death was as close as her shadow. For the most wonderful man she had ever met, it was. Her heart felt as if it would beat out of her chest. Bile came into her mouth, and she tried to spit it out, but it stuck to the back of her throat. She reached the main road connecting Jericho and Heshbon and led her horse that was covered in white sweat into the Jordan river. The hot air tasted like flint or fire, and they dipped their faces neck deep into the cool swirling waters quenching their thirst. She filled three water skins and tied them to her saddlebag next to her shepherd’s staff. Her horse climbed out of the western bank of the river, and she made her way to the road past the gates of Jericho up the incline toward the city of Jerusalem. Her stomach in knots, she pushed her horse harder. The closer she got to the city of God the more ominous the smell of evil grew. The sky turned from grey to black and soon rain would fall. Rain barrels and water pots were being rolled into the open, and then, she looked ahead with a sinking feeling that the main crossroad from north to south and east to west was blocked by oppressive Roman soldiers. There was no place for her to turn or run. Her horse was already fatigued. If she tried, mounted Roman warhorses would run her down in a flash, and she knew it. She felt increasing desperation.

As a fugitive slave, there was a reward for her capture. If someone recognized her, they would press her hard, retain her, and she had no time to be delayed. Jerusalem was too close. She must get to the crucifixion. She muttered to herself, “I hate Jerusalem. I hate King Herod, and I hate the Romans. One day I will kill Haman and send him to Hell where he belongs.” The soldiers moved into the road and stood in front of her. She felt her bowels loosen. A lone female on a horse was noticeable, an easy target for bandits. The Roman saw the fear in her young eyes and snapped his words sardonically, “Where are we going, little girl?” She was thirteen, the age of marriage. She did not think of herself as a little girl. She intentionally delayed her answer to the man whose battle-scarred face was marked by dozens of skirmishes. Still, she looked into his eyes and noticed the terrible strength in the man. Another soldier commanded icily, “Remove your head cover, show your face, and answer the question.”

     She felt the force of his gaze and would never forget his evil face. She tried to swallow, but her mouth went dry. She thought, “The spawn of Satan himself,” and she remembered the gutless coward. She remembered his pudding face unmarked by scars or disease and his straw-colored hair. She would never forget or forgive his iniquity toward her, and most certainly, he would remember her. Her slave master Haman had forced her to entertain the secret pleasures of numerous men, and she was made to service this evil beast only a few months ago. In boiling rage, she tried to bite his nipple off before he punched her repeatedly blacking both of her eyes and giving her a head ringing concussion.

     Then she recalled her homeland of Armenia so far away. She was nine when the Romans came. She remembered the screams of agony when they charged with fire arrows and everyone tried to hide the livestock and lock away all the young girls. But it was too late. They plundered her village, flogged her dad, and raped her mother before her innocent eyes. Then, she watched the brutes nail both of them, the village elders, and others to crosses that lined the road. She reminisced, “Hundreds of crosses.”

     She was placed in a slave cage for thirty days and transported to Damascus where she was stripped naked and made to stand on a block where potential buyers examined her tiny, shaking, body, and Satan himself, a Jewish pig named Haman, an aristocratic member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, paid thirty pieces of silver and brought her back to Jerusalem as his legal and binding property. Then she remembered the sharp howl of protest at the unexpected pain of burning metal seared into her flesh marking her as his slave. The past three years had been a daily hell, and she would never ever forget or forgive every face that had abused, tortured, and molested her from every corner of the world including the vicious Roman pedophile with yellow hair holding her mare’s bridle.

     Julia unsheathed her strapped knife, shakily hiding it under her robe. She silently prayed, “He who abides in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. Be my refuge, my fortress, my shield. Deliver me, I pray.” She fantasized that if he touched her again she would cut off his manhood first, and then slice his belly open and spill his intestines across the road. She would take pleasure in watching him scream like a gelded pig as he bled to death. But then her strength diminished. What courage she had summoned quickly evaporated. She trembled and shook uncontrollably and could not hold back the tears. They were wolves and could smell fear miles away. They pressed in to pull her off the saddle. If the soldier removed her headscarf, he would know who she was, place her in irons, and send her back to wicked Haman. Sweat poured in lines down her back. Her stomach became nauseous, and then, she lost her bladder. The urine ran down the saddle and formed a puddle at the soldier’s feet. They pushed back and laughed in mockery.

     Then a miracle occurred. Everything froze, and the world stood still. There was silence, and a gentle breeze began to blow. It was as if God Himself opened the heavens, stepped down, and came to earth. All at once, everyone turned and gazed in awe at the young, elegant peasant girl riding a small and ragged donkey. She was great with child and led by a bearded man. They appeared to come from nowhere. Her angel face radiated as if she herself had been in the holy of holies beholding the Shekinah glory of God. They were travelling south, and all twelve soldiers fell into a death trance of fear and trepidation, retreating backwards away from the profound terror of which they saw. Julia breathed a sigh of relief and gently kicked her mare which trotted forward. She glanced back at the soldiers who had fallen face down, buried in the dust, paralyzed by an invisible force unseen by the natural eye. The young couple peacefully passed by, no questions asked, as the angels of God went before, around, and behind them.

      Julia pushed ahead at a ragged pace arriving east of Jerusalem at the bottom of the Mt. of Olives only to notice the ominous sign of ravens and vultures circling the sky on the outskirts of the city. She paid a young boy two quadrants to hold her horse and covered her head and face again. She fast walked to the back of the wolfish crowd and studied the bloody and beaten faces of the dying men who hung on each cross. The stabbing pain returned, and her stomach moved into her throat. On the last cross was Marcus. The one who had rescued her from the bull faced bandit welcomed her into his family and gave her a chance at redemption and freedom. Her eyelids instantly filled with tears. Her heart broke into pieces. The sad thought raced through her mind, “How many piled up disappointments and let downs could life bring to one person?”

      It was the ninth hour of a Friday, three hours before sundown, and the start of the Sabbath. The crowd had dispersed. Everyone had left except the fifteen dispatched soldiers who had just finished their dice gambling beneath the cross. One soldier grabbed a giant sledgehammer and placed a stool at the foot of the first cross. His massive arms swung the hammer snapping both legs at one time. The prisoner staggered lower, losing his ability to push up, and his scream seemed to go on and on until, at last, it stopped. The Roman stepped down and moved to the second cross to repeat the same action.

      Then there was a high-pitched scream, and everyone turned to look at Julia who feebly sank to her knees. The Romans shrank from her in fear and she prayed aloud, “While some trust in chariots and others in horses, I trust in the name of the Lord my God!” She opened her misty green eyes to six new strangers, and then she spotted Marcus’ son, Gideon, thirty paces away. He hid behind a giant bolder preparing a shaft for his bow.

      The corpse cart pulled by an ox stopped fifteen paces short of the first cross to collect the limp bodies being thrown to the ground. The soldier motioned his hand for the cart to pull forward, but the driver ignored him. Then she noticed that the cart was not pulled by an ox, but by ole Solly, Marcus’ warhorse. And the cart was not driven by a Roman servant, but Marcus’ brother Stephen, his face expressionless. It all came together for her at once. Julia jumped with exhilaration and sprinted up the hill at lightning speed to retrieve her grey mare. One soldier let loose a string of profanities and blasphemed, using God’s name in vain. He and the rest of the soldiers watched the undignified flight of the girl in disgust, dismissing her as a lunatic. The second prisoner gasped as his legs were shattered in two and the last of the blood drained from his face. As she ran past the cart the first arrow hissed through the air. She ran up and over the hill and catapulted onto her mare, prepared her staff, and rode straight into the savage and vicious melee.