Rome, 65 A.D.
Marcus woke up to a dull throbbing in his head. It wasn't a burning sensation, and it wasn't unbearable either. His temples pounded in rhythm with his heart, like the steady beat of a drum. In reality, it was more annoying than painful. He knew he was in some form of room, sitting on the ground, but he couldn't tell where. As his eyes grew more adjusted to the surrounding darkness that enveloped him, he was able to discern more about the room.
It was a stone box, dank and dark. Some light filtered through a barred window in the wall, illuminating a patch of floor right in front of Marcus. Water dripped from a crack in the ceiling, forming a small puddle and creating a monotonous succession of plunks as the drops fell, the only other sound Marcus could hear besides his own breathing. Another sound was added now and again by the skittering of small paws, confirming to Marcus that rats were inhabitants of this place.
His head gave a great throb, and he groaned aloud, clutching his temple. It was then he saw the shackles around his wrists, connected to chains. His eyes followed them to the wall, where the ends of the chains were hooked around iron rings. The same went for his ankles.
The young man leaned his head back against the wall, closing his eyes and allowing himself to breathe as the full reality of where he was dawned on him.
He was in a Roman prison. Most likely awaiting execution. And, when it came to Emperor Nero, no execution was going to end peacefully or humanely.
Marcus shivered as he recollected stories he had heard, gossip from those who had been to the Coliseum and had seen Christians, some as young as he was and even younger, get mauled by wild animals and killed by brutal gladiators. Nero reveled in these games, his sick fascination only rivaled by his absolute loathing for followers of Christ, whom he adamantly blamed for setting fire to Rome months ago.
"If you're going to take a drink," came another voice, "you might as well do it soon. You won't be here much longer."
Opening his eyes, Marcus looked in the direction of the voice. A man, his wrists and ankles shackled as well, sat against a wall, his burly arms folded. He glanced at Marcus with green eyes, eyes full of strength. He had brown hair that flowed down his back, and a beard covered his chin. Like Marcus, he was dressed in a white robe and had sandals on his feet.
Marcus smiled at the sight of him. "Tyrreus. I would say that it was nice to see you, and it is. It's just that the circumstances are not the most favorable."
"Indeed, they are not. I see they finally caught up with you, despite my assistance."
"Yes. Yet I thank you for your help nevertheless."
Tyrreus waved his hand, dismissing the young man's words. "Let us not dwell on our failures. There is a real question we must ask ourselves now." His eyes fixed on Marcus, gaining a steely look. "Do we give into the will of man or to the will of God?"
Marcus frowned. He was able to comprehend what his friend was implying. The Romans would come sooner or later, and they would ask him if he would disown his God or not. If he gave up his faith, he would be set free. If he didn't...he would die.
Marcus, a newcomer to the Christian religion, was a muscular young man with black hair and blue eyes. Being new to the faith, he didn't feel that his belief was very strong. He understood very well the sacrifice Jesus had made for him, but he just wasn't sure if he was willing to sacrifice his own life. Death had never troubled him. He had been a soldier; he had seen war, bloodshed, and death. Yet the thought of passing away still had a grip on him for some reason. Maybe it was that, because he knew what came after dying, he didn't feel ready. Or maybe it was the pain he knew would be involved. Nero was a tyrant. He had a reputation for cruelty. No death at his command would be painless.
Tyrreus broke through his thoughts with another question. "How did you get here? I saw you run away, but what happened after that?"
Images instantly flashed through Marcus' mind of the night previous, when he had been captured. He remembered how it happened. Tyrreus knew part of it, because he had been there. But he hadn't seen it all...
The night was calm as Marcus shuffled down the deserted Roman streets. The moon shown down on him, like a giant eye, its gaze unhindered by clouds, for there were none. By Marcus' side were three men, all about his height, hooded and silent, like he was. These were the men who had invited him to the meeting at Crea's house.
Crea was the type of man who was everyone's friend. Round as a ball, Crea, like Marcus, had seen war. Unlike Marcus, Crea had been injured. An arrow had taken his eye during a battle, though Crea was thankful for it. The medic who had tended to him had told him of Christ, and Crea had accepted the faith. With only half his worldly sight, Crea joked that his spiritual sight was much better.
He called a worship meeting at his house once a month, knowing full-well the penalty if his invitation was ever discovered by the Romans. But no matter what punishment he was liable to receive if his secret was discovered, he kept on having meetings. Marcus had never gone before, but after a good friend had asked him to attend, he had relented and decided to come along tonight. Yet, deep inside, he wondered if he would regret it.
They arrived at Crea's house on time, and were welcomed warmly by their portly host, who shook their hands jovially. Upon shaking Marcus' hand, he gave a great smile and whispered into his ear, "New you may be to our faith, but you are not weak. A heart of gold lies within you. May you use that strength for the glory of our Savior. Welcome, brother."
Once inside, Marcus was startled to meet an old friend, a fellow soldier from his days of war.
"Tyrreus!" he cried, grasping the large man in a firm embrace. "Since when did you accept the faith?"
"I have been one of Christ's followers since I was a child," Tyrreus responded. "Oh, Marcus, I am overjoyed to see that you have embraced our faith as well. There were so many times I could have preached to you, but I was frightened. Now, I can stand for my faith. I hope you can as well."
The meeting was conducted by Crea as soon as everyone arrived. After they all sang a few songs, Crea gave newcomers a chance to stand up and share their testimonies. Marcus fidgeted uncomfortably as the man's single eye fell on him, as if it pierced his flesh and stared into his very heart, urging him to come forward and talk in front of all. Marcus found it amusing that, while he had felt no fear in the embrace of battle, he was now unnerved by the mere prospect of speaking before his fellow believers.
He toyed with the idea of standing and speaking but before he could decide, there came the sound of splintering wood, followed swiftly by a crash.
The door to the house had been broken down, and Roman soldiers, dressed in the livery of the empire, swarmed inside the house, swords drawn and javelins raised, shouting for them to surrender.
Marcus was bombarded with various noises as the Christians drew their own blades and charged the soldiers, Crea in the lead. There were some who fell to the floor and cowered, and still more surrendered peacefully.
Marcus was overwhelmed, unsure of what to do. He had brought a sword, and he had been a soldier, but was he really about to kill some of his fellow countrymen? Suddenly, he was torn between duty to his faith and duty to his country. He was so confused that he hardly noticed a soldier charging him from behind.
The voice caused him to whirl and spot the soldier. He ducked as a sword swung over him, then threw his elbow into the man's stomach. The soldier toppled into a shelf, which collapsed on him.
Marcus couldn't help but stare. He had injured and possibly killed a fellow Roman. A feeling of guilt welled up inside, but he pushed it away. It had been for his faith. Crea had said he had a heart of gold. Here was his chance to prove it.
Tyrreus, very suddenly, appeared by his side. "Good to see you unhurt, Marcus," he said. "Nice job handling that brute. But we can't stick around. We've got to go. Fast!"
"I have a sword," Marcus objected. "Can I not fight for my faith?"
"We have no need for heroes. In fact, I'd consider Crea a fool for drawing his blade. There is no need to fight. Come. We must flee."
"But you just told me how much you wanted to stand for your faith!"
"Faith is useless if we are dead."
Spotting an avenue of escape amongst all the carnage, Tyrreus broke into a run, followed swiftly by Marcus. They leapt over the body of a fallen soldier as they plunged headlong into the night air. Marcus looked back just in time to see Crea fall, mortally wounded by a Roman sword.
Their escape, however, was not unnoticed. Five soldiers burst from the house. Marcus was faster than Tyrreus and quickly outran him. He heard shouting and a grunt, shooting a glance behind him just in time to see two of the soldiers tackling his friend to the ground. That left three soldiers to chase him.
Marcus scurried down the streets. They weren't crowded, but a few people still roamed here and there. Lit troches flashed by as he pushed his way past a sentry, knocking the man to the ground in his haste. Not stopping to apologize, he kept on.
He knew the soldiers were still following. He could hear their frantic calls ordering him to halt. Like he had any intention of doing so.
Still, he felt like a coward for running. Heart of gold indeed, he thought to himself with a snort. Marcus, don't be a fool. Despite your training in combat, you have no courage when it comes to spiritual matters! Look at you now! You could face these men, but you run! Such are the ramifications of the fear that the emperor has spread.
Out of his periphery, he saw one of the many temples in the city. This one was dedicated to Poseidon, and Marcus could see a statue of the sea god in a niche. For a second, he thought of all the deities he had believed in before his conversion. In those days, he didn't have to fear persecution. However, with him being a believer in this monistic religion, there was much to fear. The fear of persecution. The fear of being hunted. The fear of being found.
Rounding a corner, he slammed into a woman, causing both of them to fall. He quickly leapt to his feet, ignoring the burn in the palms of his hands from where he'd just scraped them. The woman gave a cry of alarm, and Marcus nearly cursed. As a soldier, he would have. Yet he held his tongue now.
A peddler pushed his cart in front of him, forcing Marcus to dive over it. Rolling on the ground, he got to his feet and charged into a shop that lay directly ahead. It sold birds, so Marcus began shoving over cages. Some cages broke as they hit the ground, sending their contents in the air with flapping wings and wild calls. The storeowner yelled at him and cursed him by the gods, but Marcus paid no attention and sprinted away as the soldiers swiped at the birds in anger.
Laughing at his little obstacle, Marcus' good feeling soon ended as he rounded another corner...and stopped.
A brick wall lay in front of him, a flat surface. Marcus wouldn't be able to climb over it. He was stuck.
Footsteps made him turn. The three soldiers stood there, swords drawn.
"Come quietly," one began, "and we won't hurt you."
It was a threat. No, it was a dare. They wanted him to retaliate. They wanted to hurt him.
Marcus drew his blade, unwilling to give them the satisfaction of seeing him surrender. He knew his chances of defeating all three were slim. They were equally as trained as he was. They knew how to fight, like he did. And there were three of them. Outnumbered, Marcus knew he would have to rely on his faith.
He charged, swinging at the nearest man, who blocked him. He swung back, connecting with a second man. The soldier grunted, punching him.
The young man's head swam. He felt disoriented. Then someone struck him on the back of head...and the world went dark.
Now, in the shadows of prison, he was able to recite the rest of the tale to his friend. Tyrreus had turned his head so Marcus could only see his profile. But what he saw was stern and unrelenting. Tyrreus would never give up his faith, Marcus knew, not even in the face of death.
And Marcus had run away.
But so had Tyrreus. Did that make him a coward? Marcus was puzzled. Tyrreus was certainly not the type of man to be considered a recreant, so why had he run?
There came the sound of the door opening, breaking through his thoughts, and making him look up.
A man stood there, the prison guard. He was fat, his stomach as wide as a wine barrel. His nose was bulbous and red, like he had a cold. His face was covered with disfiguring sores, squinty eyes and scars that ran across his cheeks. When he smiled, teeth were missing, and whatever teeth remained were yellow. "You've been given a chance, you dog," he hissed, his breath acrid, his voice grating. "The Emperor's been kind enough to give you an offer. Either you give up your faith and disown your God...or you face death in the arena. It's a pretty simple offer. I know you Christians love your God, but you can't really love Him enough to die, can you?"
The ugly man had worded the question that had been floating through Marcus' mind ever since he had awakened. It was a difficult question, one that placed the young man in a dilemma. What could he do? He called himself a Christian, but had he only succeeded in emulating the role? Was his piety true? Or was it just a farce?
Marcus set his jaw firm. He couldn't deny his Savior. If Christ had died to save his spiritual life, what more could he offer but his own mortal existence in return?
"I can," he responded, glaring at the guard. "I can die for Christ. Can you say the same?"
The guard opened his mouth, quickly shutting it. With a snort, he grabbed Marcus by the hair and roughly lifted him off the ground. Taking out a key, he took off the shackles that bound the young man's wrists and ankles, and, pushing him roughly and quickly, started to lead him through a series of halls lit by torches that lined the walls, their flames glowing brightly.
"Today you fight in the arena, before many of the citizens," the man explained in his gruff tone as he shoved Marcus into a small room. At the end lay a gate, which could be raised or lowered. Beyond stood the imposing Coliseum. The sandy floored arena could house many spectators, who all sat in the seats surrounding the pit where combatants brawled and animals fought men. Marcus could see the decorated box where the emperor would sit. It was occupied.
"Your opponent is Leren," the guard continued as he showed Marcus the armor he would wear. "Feisty little man from Carthage. Not the biggest or strongest looking of men, but he's good with the sword. You will fight him, blade-to-blade. The fate of whoever is defeated first by his enemy will be decided by the emperor. I need not remind you that the emperor is hardly a gracious man."
No, you need not, Marcus thought with a scowl.
The armor Marcus put on covered his chest, left arm, and both legs. This left both his right arm and head vulnerable to his enemy's attacks. He hoped his opponent would be vulnerable as well.
He had heard of gladiators. Some of them were better known than others. Some were legendary. The name of Leren had reached Marcus' ears on more than one occasion. Marcus had never been to the games, nor did he have any grand interest in them. Having seen blood and death in combat, he was resolved to not see any more. That was what stopped him from attending. He found it rather ironic that he would have to now partake in them.
Outside, two men were engaged in a sword fight. Those gathered in the stands yelled each man's name, hoping their champion would be the victor. The crowd let out a raucous roar as one man was felled. They gave an even wilder cry as Nero gave his judgment. A thumbs down. That meant death. The emperor was ordering the winner to kill the loser, and the crowd could not contain its enthusiasm as the victorious man struck down. Marcus shivered. Nero seemed cold and unrelenting. The young man knew that one man, either he or Leren, would not leave the arena alive.
"Your turn," the guard grunted, taking a sword and handing it to Marcus. "May the gods be with you."
Marcus snorted. "May my God be with me."
The guard shrugged, a half-hearted attempt at pointing out that both of them were probably right.
The gate was slowly raised, and Marcus stepped out. He could see a man on the other side of the arena. He was dressed in armor similar to Marcus', but he was protected in the areas Marcus wasn't.
They stood before the emperor's box. Leren raised his sword. "We who are about to die salute you," he called up to Nero.
Instead of saying the same oath, Marcus stared into the emperor's eyes. He examined Nero. He was blue-eyed, like Marcus, and had blond hair. He wore a white toga with a purple sash. He had a thick neck, slender legs, and there was no way anyone could have said he was starving.
Leren faced Marcus, sword at the ready. The other man did likewise. Leren charged, swinging wildly. Every time the gladiator fiercely attacked with his sword, Marcus either blocked his strikes or stepped aside.
There was a ferocity inside the gladiator that Marcus had seen before, during his days of war. The men he had fought and killed each had the same hungry, animalistic look in their eyes. It wasn't just a look expressing a desire to kill. It was a look that showed just how much Leren wanted to survive. He looked like a beast on the verge on starvation, hunting its prey to stave off hunger and death. He wasn't fighting just to win. He was fighting so he could live.
Marcus blocked another strike, pushing with all his might and making the gladiator stumble back. He pressed the attack, swiftly raining blow upon blow down on Leren, who was forced to block just as quickly. The gladiator was being pushed back, slowly, but surely.
There came a growl from Leren's lips. Marcus could see his eyes through the slits of his helmet. Eyes full of malice and hate. Leren seemed more like a caged animal than a man, an animal that had just been released.
The gladiator swung quickly, the edge of his sword coming inches from Marcus' chest. Marcus swore he would have been killed if he hadn't moved back. He struck back, his sword reverberating off of Leren's blade.
Then, the gladiator made a cheap move. His sandaled foot kicked up sand, spraying it into Marcus' eyes. Eyes stinging, Marcus stumbled back, swinging out blindly with a ferocious cry of anger and pain.
There came another cry, this one from the gathered crowd. It was a unanimous sound of surprise, and possibly horror. Blinking away the sting in his eyes, Marcus looked down.
Leren lay on the ground, clutching at his chest. Marcus had injured him. He'd...hurt him! During the entire fight, there had been a sense of fear and panic in Marcus's chest, as if he knew he would not win.
Thank You, God, he prayed in his head. Thank You. To You be the victory.
He glanced up, looking Nero straight in the eye. The emperor stared back, seemingly pleased with his performance. Nero stretched out his hand...
...and stuck his thumb down.
A new sense of fear washed over Marcus. He looked at the defeated gladiator on the ground. He'd wounded him, yes, but it was a wound the man would most likely survive. Nero wanted him to deliver a fatal blow, the killing stroke. Marcus felt torn. His head struggled against itself.
Do I kill him and face freedom? Or do I not and face punishment?
The eager roaring of the crowd buzzing in his ears only made him more confused. They had gone eerily silent when he had struck Leren down. This newcomer had beaten a champion. It was unbelievable. But, they put their disbelief to rest as Nero gave his judgment. The crowd lived for the bloodshed. If they had their way, someone would die.
Leren, lying on the ground, glared at him intently. He opened his mouth and uttered a single command, his voice hoarse, his words barely heard above the frenetic cry of the throng.
The proud gladiator was surrendering.
Marcus fingered the sword hilt. It would be so easy. A quick strike, and it would be over. In the blink of an eye, a heartbeat. And God would forgive him. Marcus knew he was forgiven for all the death he had caused on the battlefield. Those deaths had been necessary for him to survive, just like this one. This situation was no different than being out on the field of battle.
And in those days, he had killed without remorse. Death was a part of life. What if some were to die sooner? Yet, after becoming a Christian, he'd at first felt a heavy burden knowing what he had done, the deaths he had caused. Knowing God had forgiven him had lifted that burden. He knew that there were times where he had to kill. He was willing to do it only the previous night.
He gazed back at the emperor, the cruel tyrant who persecuted Christians. He was like Satan in human flesh. Marcus would never make a deal with the devil. Why do so now?
Something inside him spoke to him, a tiny voice urging him to not kill Leren, telling him no. It whispered softly, assuring Marcus that, even if he didn't kill the gladiator, all would be well. Marcus listened, and made his decision.
He threw away the sword.
"NO!" he yelled. "No, I will NOT kill him! My faith will not allow it. I don't care if you torture me or kill me, I will not give in."
He faced the crowd. "I am a Christian. I believe that your emperor is just a man, a man of flesh and blood, just like us. I refuse to believe he is a god. But I do believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of the one, true God, and what He did for me. I will not follow Nero like he is some deity. I will not kill, no matter if I must die for it. If I die, I die for my faith. I die for my God."
The crowd had gone silent again. Marcus now expected them to explode in roars of rage and blasphemy. He calmly stood his ground, the rage inside having been vented, expecting the worst possible response. The shouts. The hisses. The screams.
But the crowd didn't shout, or scream, or hiss. In fact, they didn't say anything at all. They simply sat in stunned silence.
Marcus turned back to look at Nero, who was red-faced. The emperor leaned forward from his box and hissed five words, all of them wrapped in malicious venom.
"You will die at dawn."
Tyrreus watched as Marcus was pushed back into the cell. As the door slammed shut, he cried, "Praise God! You're alive!"
"Not for long," Marcus groaned. "Nero has ordered my death. I will be burned at the stake hence the rising of the sun."
"Yet you live again with the rising of the Son." Tyrreus smiled.
Marcus couldn't help but grin back. He went on to tell Tyrreus of the happenings in the arena, the defeat of Leren, and Marcus' proclamation of his faith.
When he was finished, Tyrreus nodded, but it was a sad nod. He smiled proudly at Marcus' accomplishment, but there was sorrow in his gaze. "I have just been told that I will die as well," the man explained upon seeing Marcus' look of confusion. "You and I will be burned together, as brothers in the family of Christ. We will see death, yet we shall pass through the shadow into light. Martyrs for God. This is the highest calling we have now."
"You and I were soldiers," Marcus replied, sliding down the stone wall until he sat. "We faced death numerous times. And we always cheated it, always escaped it. Death has been waiting a long time to get its hands on us. Fitting that there is nothing we can do to escape now."
"Don't despair, my friend."
"I'm not. I just wished I knew what would come out of this."
"Our deaths may cause a fire to burn brighter for Christ. It may give some hope; it may show them that we were not defeated by the world. For we are not surrendering, we are not giving in to the world."
Marcus sighed and nodded. He leaned his head back and tried to sleep, but there was something that still bothered him.
"As soldiers," he began, gaining Tyrreus' attention, "we were ordered never to run. Fleeing the field of battle made us cowards. But, last night, you told me to run instead of stand and fight. Why would you do that?"
"If you are asking just so you can judge your bravery, I suggest you continue not to speak." Tyrreus tipped his head down, staring at Marcus. "Just because you may run from a fight doesn't mean that you aren't brave, Marcus. You have bravery within you, I know it. The way you confronted the guard... you stood your ground and defended your faith. You survived the arena, defeated a gladiator, and spoke out to a throng about your faith, right in front of an emperor whose name I'm certain will by synonymous with death and malice. You can't say that isn't bravery.
"Marcus," he continued, "you don't always run because you're not brave. You run because God has other plans for you. Examine yourself. You ran, but you were caught and tossed into the arena, where hundreds heard you speak. Through your fleeing God allowed a chance for those people, Nero included, to be ministered to. You have done well, Marcus. But what I'm most proud of is how you stood for your faith, even when faced with death. That, my friend, is to be greatly commended."
The young man smiled at this, nodding at his friend's encouragement. He closed his eyes and was able to drift off to sleep.
At dawn, the cell door swung open, waking Marcus. Two guards entered, unshackled Tyrreus, and ordered Marcus to stand. He rose slowly, following them out of the cell and down a long hall.
As they walked, Marcus and Tyrreus sang songs of worship. Marcus found that it lifted his spirit considerably. Despite the fact that they were going towards their deaths, they sang happily. Marcus also prayed. He prayed for many people. He asked God to save his family, his friends who weren't Christians. He asked that his fellow believers who weren't in captivity would remain free. He even prayed for the guards and for Nero.
"Remember this, dear Marcus," Tyrreus whispered to him, "that death is not the end. It is a beginning, a gateway to a new life. Death leads to life."
They came to a courtyard, where two stakes stood, surrounded by a pile of wood. A man stood nearby, holding a burning torch. He stepped forward after Marcus and Tyrreus were securely tied, throwing the torch upon the wood pile. Marcus closed his eyes as the flames began to consume the wood and rise. He took a long breath. In that moment, that breath, a feeling of serene peace washed over his whole body, like water, even as the heat rose. Somehow, Marcus knew that everything was going to be okay. Something touched his heart, whispered to him. It was going to be alright.
With that, an overpowering sense of darkness washed over him, and he felt no more.
Marcus woke to a feeling of life. He had felt death and seen darkness. Now, he felt alive and was surrounded by light. He wore shimmering clothes of pure white. He drew in his breath in amazement, in awe at the beauty that surrounded him. It was an unexplainable paradise.
Tyrreus was there as well, standing next to him. The man wore a smile on his face, like he was the happiest man in the world. He, too, wore white clothes that gave off wondrous light.
Before them was a third man. He was walking towards them, His entire presence giving off love, beauty, mercy, and warmth. He stepped close, holding out His hands towards them. Marcus could see two holes in His palms. There were similar holes in His feet.
Next to Him were men and women, and, though Marcus had never met them, he instantly knew who they were. They were fellow martyrs, like Tyrreus and him. They were Christians who had suffered horrible deaths for their faith and now lived in a paradise where they were free and alive. The martyrs smiled at him, warm, welcoming smiles. Like Marcus and Tyrreus, they wore glowing robes of white.
Then He spoke, the man with the holes in His hands and feet. And when He did, it was the noblest sound Marcus ever heard.
"Well done, good and faithful servants," He said, speaking like a proud father to his children. "Well done."