Atticus watched as Horatius dismounted his horse. The Centurion repositioned his armor and gave Atticus a wink, a smile. As if to say this would be something important, another one of his life lessons, so pay attention and learn. Atticus nodded.
The crowd of Jews reluctantly parted--some with looks of disgust on their faces, others with seething hatred in their eyes--as Horatius stepped into the shadow of the portico. He stopped in front of a group of men and stared at them. A few moments ago, bursts of angry voices could be heard from a distance, but now only the hiss of a summer breeze, snaking through the columns, graced Atticus’s ears.
Horatius said, “What is the meaning of this?” his voice harsh and commanding.
The men glanced at one another, clearly unsure who would speak on their behalf. Finally, one of them stepped forward.
Horatius gripped the hilt of his sword. “Did I say you could approach me?”
The man jumped back and glanced away. Several women in the crowd gasped; a few whimpered. Atticus smiled. The tone of the leader’s voice projected his contempt for these filthy creatures, and it was something to behold as the anger in their faces was quickly replaced with fear. Now that, Atticus thought, is a good lesson. Show them the might of your word, the strength of your spirit, and they will cower like dogs.
“Forgive me,” the man said. “I have forgotten my place.”
“Indeed you have,” Horatius said.
Atticus’s smile deepened.
Horatius waited a moment longer before saying, “Why were you shouting? Do you not know the law forbids demonstrations like this?”
“We were not shouting against Caesar,” another man said.
“We were arguing who should be first into the pool.” The man pointed down. “This man, or that woman.”
Atticus leaned forward in the saddle for a better view. Two elderly people, their bodies crippled, were dressed in rags and lying on the floor near the pool. The man had wisps of snow white hair and an unkempt beard. His flesh was covered in sores. His bones threatened to pierce the skin. The woman was covered from head to ankles, but still it was clear that something was wrong. Craziness filled her eyes; her mouth babbled on unintelligently.
“Why should it matter?” Horatius said. He pointed toward the pool. “There is enough water for both of them.”
“But sir,” the first man said, “only the first person will be healed.”
Horatius looked from one man to the other. “The first person?”
The man nodded. “When the waters are stirred by the angel of God.”
Horatius stood quiet for a moment. Finally, he said, “Indeed,” and glanced over his shoulder. His eyes narrowed.
Atticus shrugged. Trying to understand these Jews--their strange customs and beliefs--was an act of mindless futility. Like the slaughter of innocent animals, supposedly to cleanse people of their sins, and then cooking the meat into charred remains on an open fire. What a waste. With so many women and children starving, these people would rather oblige a senseless ritual than silence the clamor of hungry lips. Still, it gave many in the ranks something to talk about, and he guessed there would be a lively conversation around the fire pit tonight.
Horatius gave Atticus a smile. Then, to the men, he said, “Well, by all means, let’s make sure at least one of them receives his heavenly blessing.”
The man’s frail body hung limply as Horatius reached down and picked him up. Horatius then walked over, stepped into the edge of the pool, and threw the man into the water. There was a splash, followed by a collective groan from the crowd. A couple of the men scurried forward, arms outstretched.
“Stay out of the pool,” Horatius shouted. He drew his sword. “Unless you want this water to be full of blood, too.”
Atticus stood in the stirrups, straining for a better view. The water rippled momentarily before the surface settled down. People gathered around, all eyes fixed on the pool. Some used their hands to cover their mouths; others balled them into fists. Everyone waited, but the old man never surfaced. Then, the wailing began, starting with a young woman before it spread throughout the crowd.
A moment later, Horatius walked out. He stopped in front of his horse, turned and shouted, “It seems the waters don’t heal after all,” and then spun around. Looking up at Atticus, a smile on his face, he said, “These idiots and their worthless god.”
He reached for the reigns of his horse, but the animal shook its head at him; its mane whipped back and forth. The muscles in it hind quarters bulged, and the horse rose up, towering over Horatius, its front legs pawing at the air. Atticus reached out, trying to snatch the reigns, but creature shrieked and lurched forward. Atticus heard Horatius scream and then a dull crack as the animal bore its weight down. It rose up and came down again, and then a third time, before it stomped away.
Atticus jumped down to help, but knew as soon as he did there was nothing else to do. The soldier lay in a pile of torn flesh and blood. How would he report this to his superiors? Even worse, what would he say to the man’s wife or his children?
As he knelt there, a shadow covered the ground and Atticus glanced up. A man with wiry legs and sores on his arms stood beside him. Water dripped from the man’s hair, his beard, and his ragged clothes were completely soaked. He shook his head, his eyes filled with sadness.
Then, he walked away.