The Centurion trampled across the great plain that passed south of Nazareth, with three horsemen under his command.
The prisoner was dragged behind them, stumbling along through the sand. He had been bound about the wrists with the other end of the rope tied around a horse’s neck. He was a young man–Ezra of the house of Ben-Geber.
He was off to Jerusalem to be sentenced, but he did not intend to let that happen. He was looking for his dog.
The Romans dragged him on, stumbling through desert, for the latter part of the day. The path was treacherous, turning from sand to rock to green bracken minute by minute. Uphill and downhill they dragged him.
At one point as they descended a hill of grass and rocks, Ezra fell, dragged and bruised. He pulled on the rope that bound him in a clumsy attempt to find his footing. The horse reared and the Centurion reached for his sword.
But one of the horsemen–a boy, almost of an age with Ezra, shouted to his Centurion. “He’s fallen!”
“Let him be dragged,” the Centurion said.
“He cannot be tried for his crime if he is dead,” the lad protested. “He is a citizen of Rome, he must be sentenced. We aren’t barbarians.”
“Hold your tongue!” The Centurion snapped, but with a grunt, he signaled his retainers to halt their progression. “Help the Jew to his feet, if you’re so keen to aid him. But speak to me in such manner again and you’ll be walking beside him.”
That night, they camped amidst tall grass and a dry wind that bent it toward their progression. Ezra was shuffled away from the fire, and the boy was made to watch him.
“Look at you,” the Roman boy scoffed. “The house of Ben-Geber was once one of King Solomon’s twelve district governors. How low you’ve been brought.”
Ezra looked up. “You know of King Solomon?”
“I read,” The Roman shrugged and bit back a smile. “There are few ways to pass time when all you do is guard an outpost.”
“Why did you help me?”
“Because a Roman does not kill a defenseless man—not a subject of the Empire, at least.”
Ezra looked away and whispered a quiet, “Thank you.”
“I saw your dog,” the Roman boy said. “That day, when the consul came by in Gilead.”
“You know the truth, then?” If the Romans were to be believed, Ezra’s dog, Caleb, had attacked a noble consul as he marched through the street. He and Caleb had fled to Jezreel after the incident, where they had caught him.
The boy shook his head. “It happened too fast. It is true, the consul was armed, but I couldn’t tell if your dog attacked because the consul swung, or if the consul swung because he was attacked.”
“I know my dog was attacked,” Ezra said.
“I just—I just know. The same way I know he’s following me.”
The boy knitted his brow at this. “He couldn’t follow you through all this. You can’t know that.”
“But I do—I sense it. Perhaps It is Elohim telling me this. Perhaps not. I am bonded to Caleb, I think. I can’t quite say how. But he is nearby. I know it.”
“Why do you care so much for it? Caleb, you named it?” The boy asked, “It is a dog—I’ve yet to see another such as you show any respect to such creatures.”
“One such as me?” Ezra laughed. “You mean a Jew, yes? But you won’t say the word—why is that?”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“All right,” Ezra acquiesced, “Yes, my people think such animals lower carrion crows. But Caleb—I found him in an alley injured one day. His fur was crusted with dried blood. I could see his skull…he looked such a pitiful thing. I passed him by. He was a dog, after all.
“But the next day I saw him in that same alley, still whimpering, still looking up at me with those pitiful eyes. I saw him the third time when I came home from market that day. I decided I couldn’t let him rot there, so I healed him. And ever since then, we’ve been one.”
“One?” The Roman echoed. His eyes went wide.
“Not like that,” Ezra laughed. “Don’t let your Centurion fool you. We don’t lie with our dogs. It’s stranger than that. I can tell what he’s thinking…” He groped for the right words. “I can sense when he’s close. Sometimes I dream of him on the hunt and wake up with the taste of raw chicken and blood in my mouth.”
“Can you tell where he is now?”
“Close,” Ezra said.
He allowed himself a smile. “Close,” he said again.
That night, while the Roman boy was busy with his meal, Ezra heard a whine off in the distance. He jerked about, looking for the direction it had come from.
It sounded again, a tiny squeak of a noise. He pulled on his rope, careful to notice when it had gone taut. And when it had, he peered into the dense grass–but he could see nothing, save the fat black flies that swarmed about his head. He resisted the urge to swat them away. He had to know the source of the whine.
So the boy took a deep breath and closed his eyes. The flies settled in his hair and on his face, though he did not seem to notice them. In his mind’s eye, he saw himself, sprawled on the ground, and the Centurion with his three Roman horsemen greedily eating their rations. A primal place within him told him to go toward the camp. Attack the Romans and cut himself free.
But another part of his mind told him that would be suicide. He was unarmed and any assistance would be easily cut down.
He opened his eyes and shook the flies from his head. Through the grass he saw a hound with mottled gray fur. He could see his reflection in its eyes. He said nothing, but mouthed the words ‘I’m sorry.’
The hound nodded, seeming to understand.
“You!” It was the Centurion’s voice. “Jew!”
He looked at the Centurion marching toward him, and then toward the dog. “Go,” he whispered.
“Trying to sneak away?” the Centurion growled.
Ezra’s hands closed around a large rock. “Go,” he whispered again. But the dog had not moved.
A callused hand sifted through his hair and squeezed. He craned back, yowling. “You’re still to be sentenced, Ben-Geber!”
His knuckles went white around the rock. “Go!” He swung it, and it struck the Centurion about the temple. Red ran down the Roman’s cheek as he stumbled back and landed heavily against a stone with a sickening crunch.
Ezra was distantly aware dimly aware that Caleb was bounding for the camp. The Romans were reaching for their weapons. He scrambled to the Centurion and, twisting awkwardly, managed to unsheathe his gladius and cut his bonds.
He locked eyes with the Roman boy for a moment, who sat frozen, watching him.
But he could not hold his attention for long. One of the three horsemen was closing in on Caleb, who had already felled another horseman.
Ezra flung himself upon the Roman, hacking wildly with the Centurion’s sword, until he and the Roman both fell in a tangle of limbs.
When he regained his composure, he saw Caleb bounding toward the boy, who was still frozen from where he had watched Ezra. “Caleb!” He called. “Amode!”
The dog skidded to a halt, growling. The boy looked from the dog to Ezra and back again. “What did you tell him?”
“I told him to stop,” Ezra said as he stripped a fallen soldier of his cloak and tunic. “He only takes commands in Hebrew.” He buckled a gladius about his waist. “It seems smart choice, in foresight.”
“You killed them,” the boy said.
“Would you have done differently in my position? Do you think I had a chance of being cleared of my charge?”
The boy shook his head. “But why did you spare me?”
“Because you saved my life.” He offered his hand. “Your sword, please.”
The Roman boy clasped his hand around the hilt of the gladius, but did not draw it. “I can’t.”
“If I give it to you, you’ll kill me.”
Caleb growled. Ezra drank in his dog’s anger. He had spared the boy. Could he be so ignorant? “Come now. We are not barbarians.”
The boy stood, but still did not hand Ezra his sword. “Where are we going?”
“Away,” Ezra said. “Gilead, perhaps. We passed Nazareth on our way here.”
The boy’s knuckles went white around his gladius. “Nazareth is under the sway of Judas of Gamala who urges insurrection against my folk. Their welcome will be fatal.”
“So you don’t think me a proper Roman, then?” Ezra asked. The dog walked forward, sniffing at the boy’s ankles.
“What do you mean?” the boy asked.
“You said Judas of Gamala despises your folk. Meaning Romans. But this morning you called me a Roman.”
“It saved your life, did it not?”
Ezra decided to let the matter go. “I still need your sword.”
“No!” The boy barked. For half a moment, his sword-arm tensed, but before he could clear his weapon of its scabbard, Ezra had raised the Centurion’s sword, and his dog leapt on top of the boy, sending him to the ground. The dog let out a long, steady growl as it stood over the Roman boy.
Ezra paced the makeshift camp and seemed to remember the three corpses for the first time. “Tell me truly–if I spare your life, will you tell your officers about what happened here?”
The boy looked at the dog, his great jaws slavering, and then to Ezra. “I…it is my duty, Ben-Geber.”
Ezra spat. “I hate you.” To his own surprise, he laughed. “You spared my life. You’ve shown me what little kindness you can in your position. Yet you would undo all that for your sense of honor and duty. You would bring a legion down on my head.”
“I don’t have a choice.”
Ezra raised his eyebrows. “I’ve heard that before.” Caleb licked the boy’s throat and Ezra tasted salt in his mouth. “Caleb’s heard it, too.” He scratched his dog behind the ear. “Shev, Caleb.”
The dog sat.
The Roman boy brought himself shakily to his feet. “If I give my blade and follow you, I will be killed upon sight. Your people have no love of me–”
“My people?” Ezra seized the boy by the collar. The dog war barking, nipping up at the two of them. “My people have spent generations stooped under the lash that changes hands. First Pharaoh, now Caesar. Elohim alone knows who will take up the lash after you. Our backs have been bloodied for centuries. And yet you speak as if you deserve the love of my people?” He tossed him to the ground. “You’re mad.”
Ezra turned away, and heard: “Are you going to kill me, Ben-Geber?”
The boy asked the question with confidence, not fear. Ezra respected that. But under the weight of such a direct question, he lapsed into silence and thought.
So the boy filled the silence. “You can’t return to your house in Gilead. Your life is forever changed. You know this. It is futile to bargain with a man who has nothing to lose. So I ask again: are you going to kill me?”
“Yes.” Ezra hadn’t expected the answer to come so quickly. But the Roman boy nodded and said nothing. Ezra wondered if he had accepted this fate. “What is your name?”
“Domitus,” the boy said. “Why?”
“Because I want to remember you, Domitus. And because I’m sorry.” He closed his eyes and saw through Caleb’s eyes. Domitus was kneeling and waiting. He was distantly aware he was growling–or was the Caleb? He saw himself, standing with his back to the camp. Then he turned his attention back to Domitus and remember the taste of salt in his mouth.
Caleb hurtled toward the boy’s neck, jaws open wide; Ezra returned to himself before the jaws shut, tasting blood that wasn’t in his mouth and grinding his teeth.
Ezra whispered to the beginning of the Kaddish–the prayer of mourning for the dead. “May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified…” He turned, his cloak a crescent in the wind, and the knelt beside Domitus’ body and spoke the words in Hebrew. “Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba…”
He finished the prayer, traded the Centurion’s gladius for the boy’s, then wrapped his cloak about himself, his dog bounding after him.