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Friday, February 10, 2017

Prester John, Chapter 13 (Part 1)

* Please note: This work is the intellectual property of Matthew Burden, protected under US copyright law, and is not to be removed, altered, or reproduced in any way. 

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Chapter 13 (Part 1)
 
His legs burned with unspeakable fire. His feet kicked up a column of dust above the road into the hills. The sun’s yellow haze filled the air around him, filled his lungs with blistering, raging heat.
But still he ran on.
He felt like he was going mad. There was no sense to the world anymore. He had been torn out of his life as a privileged scion of a noble house through the bleakest of mischances; out of the ashes of that demise he had found another life, another family in the Christian church. But that too had been ripped away from him with savage suddenness. Now, just a few hours away from attaining the only goal left to him in his new life as a brigand, the demons of those dead lives were back to hunt him down.
Hunting, yes, that’s what it felt like. There was something out there that was pursuing him, chasing him down until he submitted to the horizonless fate that had been his destiny all along. He had avoided that fate once with his escape from Rome, and avoided it again in his flight from Smyrna, but now it was on his trail one more time, ready to beat him into the ground. Now he was facing the anger and revenge of the Flavius house, here in his old flame Flavia, seeking to bury him with all the fury of imperial justice; now he was facing the humiliation and recriminations that would spew from the mouth of Elder John, should Lucius be found out and forced to look on all his failures.
And for all this to happen in one day? Perhaps his old Stoic teacher had been right, and the God who ruled all things operated in the simple purity of blind Fate—Lucius had upset the balance of the universe by evading his proper end in Rome, and now all the forces in all of creation were piling down towards him, seeking to re-balance the Fate that ruled all things.
All this effluxion of frantic philosophy coursed past his mind’s eye like the foaming surge of a flood. And all the while, his feet pounded down on the upward trail toward the brigands’ lair, the last refuge he had in the world.
It was mid-afternoon when he fell gasping at the mouth of the cave. The other brigands huddled around him, lifted him up, and brought a flask of bitter wine to his lips.
“What’s wrong?” asked Kreon, furrowing his brow.
Lucius clenched his jaw and shook his head. “Nothing. It’s nothing, I think. Just…I saw someone down in the city that I didn’t expect to see.”
“Will it endanger our plans?” asked Diocles.
“No. I, um…no, I don’t think so.”
Lucius struggled to clear the corners of his mind. He drew a deep breath and sat down again, the muscles in his thighs still quivering from their long run.
“Let me think for a moment. No, I didn’t see anything amiss in the city, not when it comes to Ariston or the magistrates or anything like that. If Alexander was true to his word, then we should still expect Ariston out here tonight, right in the center of our trap.”
“Then why were you running like there was a legion on your tail?” grinned Kreon.
Lucius heaved a sigh. “Personal matters. Nothing to do with you. There was someone down in the city that I didn’t want to see, so I ran back out here.”
Just then, Audax cleared his throat and pointed back down the road in the direction of Smyrna.
“Hey, someone’s coming.”
Lucius tried to stand so that he could look, but his legs buckled under him. Kreon peered down the road and gave a little click of his tongue.
“On horseback. Old man. Doesn’t look like he’ll have much in the way of money, but we could nick the horse off him, anyway.”
Lucius grabbed frantically at Diocles’ shoulder, and used it to haul himself to his feet. He looked down at where they were pointing, and all the rush of anxious fear poured back over him.
It was Elder John, riding hard, his bony old frame bouncing against the back of a gray stallion.
Lucius scrambled away from the mouth of the cave, up the slope that rose sharply above the roadway. The horse wouldn’t be able to follow a climb like that, so Lucius tore up the flinty hillside with all the sheer desperation of a prey animal knowing that it has been cornered. John was one of the last people he wanted to see—it would mean a confrontation with his own failure, of the depths to which he had fallen after lying about himself to every single one of his Christian friends. It would mean falling under the judgment of that strange, ancient man, who carried about him such a powerful sense of authority.
But it wasn’t just his own failures that he was running from; he knew that. He was running because he loved that old man, loved him with a fire that defied explanation. If there had been one person in the whole world that he wished could speak admiringly of him, he would have chosen Elder John, the man with a quick, beautiful laugh and an unquenchable fire in his eyes. But his failures would leave John heartbroken and angry, and he couldn’t face that now.
“Wait!” he heard John’s voice ring out over the hillside.
He looked back over his shoulder to see that John had left his horse in the hands of the brigands, who were watching him with wondering eyes as he began to climb. Using his hands and feet, he scrambled his way up after Lucius, his centenarian limbs straining against the loose rocks of the slope.
Lucius was certain of it now—God’s blind Fate was determined to see him fall, once and for all. He watched with astonishment as John continued his agonizing climb up the hillside. Blood was running off the old man’s hands, elbows, and kneecaps, but it didn’t slow him down.
Lucius tried to keep running, but his legs were giving way.
“Stop!” came John’s voice again. “Lucius, stop! Wait, my son!”
The last words fell like a thunderbolt across Lucius’ mind. He looked down again at the old apostle, heaving for breath, his face covered in sweat and dust, his sandals soaked in the blood from his toes. And what he saw in that old man’s eyes was not judgment. And it wasn’t condemnation. And it wasn’t anger or heartbreak or pain.
It was love.
Lucius fell to his back on the broken shale of the hillside, and from the depths of his being a sob burst out.
John, breathing raggedly, came up beside him and looked down into his eyes. Lucius’ tears of anguish were matched in the pooling brightness of John’s own tears, which curved down his wrinkled face in rounded trails, out and around his beaming smile.
“Oh, my son Lucius. It’s time to come home.”

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