Friday, January 13, 2017

Prester John, Chapter 11

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Chapter 11
            Over the next few days, the scattered pieces of that long night came together in Lucius’ mind. Ariston had set up the whole scheme well in advance—that much was clear—all to revenge himself on Lucius for being evicted from the little church outside the city. Ariston must have told the magistrates about Lucius’ true identity, and somehow convinced them that the fugitive from Rome had threatened to rob his father’s house. Probably, Lucius decided, Ariston had done all this just shortly before the whole fiasco took shape, or else he would have been arrested long in advance. But Ariston had seized on the possibility of taking care of two of his goals in one swift program of violence and deceit: to revenge himself on Lucius and to get his father out of the way. The brigands had merely been an extra flourish on his scheme, to make Lucius look more of a criminal through his association with them. So now Lucius was known to the magistrates—a fugitive once again, and this time suspected for two murders instead of one.
            But he had managed to escape once again. He kept company with the brigands on their flight back into the hills. With a sense of sympathy between them for all having been betrayed by Ariston, the brigands accepted him readily, and he accompanied them back to the system of caves that they had made their home.
            The hideout was poised on a rocky, narrow turn of road high up in the hills, where the main thoroughfare from Smyrna up into the highlands cut across the steep face of a hillside. On one side of the road was a fierce declension that one could almost call a precipice; on the other side the wall of the slope rose up in a nearly vertical thrust. Cut into this rock face was the broad entrance to the brigands’ cave, wide enough to command the turn of the road, but filled with enough rough rubble so as to be defensible if a troop of soldiers happened to try to seize it.
            The caves themselves were deep and circuitous, growing gradually narrower and shallower the further one went in, but providing more than enough room for each of the brigands to have his own little niche within the space. Lucius, too, was afforded a niche of his own, smaller than all the others and covered in the bumps and serrations of smashed stone and stalagmites. He didn’t have any possessions there with him, though, so the space was more than adequate. It gave him a place to brood, reflect, and plan for revenge.
            A few of the brigands had managed to hold onto some of the treasure from Ariston’s house, so though they still felt angry and betrayed by the wily young man, most of them seemed content to count it as a successful raid and to let it lie in the past.
            But not Lucius.
            There was a fire burning in the furnace of his heart, and he felt its heat now more than ever. Cruel fate had already stolen one life away from him—the life of a nobleman in Rome, esteemed and cultured, well-regarded by all society. One moment of drunken forgetfulness, one insult more than he could bear, and that life was lost to him forever. But then he had found a second life—poorer, yes, but in some ways richer than the first. He had felt loved, accepted, and inspired by his new Christian family. He had felt loved by God. But now that second life had been torn away from him, just as the first one had. How could he go back to Justus and Polycarp now, with all the town knowing the truth that he was a murderer—and not just a murderer, but the man who had murdered the son of one of their dearest Christian martyrs, Flavius Clemens of Rome? How could he return, when the word in Smyrna was that he had murdered again, and when Polycarp himself had seen him slink away into the dark the very night of the murder?
More than any of those things, though, he felt keenly that he couldn’t go back to the Christians because he had lied to them. The murder of Flavius Domitian, perhaps, they could understand and forgive, because that had happened before Lucius came to the faith. As for the murder of Ariston the Elder, maybe they could be persuaded of the truth—that it was Ariston the Younger, and not Lucius, who had done the act. But even still, the fact would remain: Lucius had lied to them the whole time he had known them. In order to preserve his pride, he had let them believe that he was Lucius Tiro, a freedman’s son, and even when they were sharing their hearts and homes with him in the sincerest, most open way possible, still he did not confess his lie.
            Now, he thought, there was no going back. They would feel betrayed, and they would reject him. He was certain of that. So his second life was gone, just as surely as the first one had been laid in the dust of death.
            But there was one crucial difference: his first life had perished because of tragic fate, a silly and stupid string of coincidences, for which he could blame no one but himself. But his second life had been seized from him, had been murdered by Ariston in the same moment that Ariston had slain his own father. This death gave Lucius an object for his hatred, a criminal to bring to the fire of impartial justice. Lucius would have his revenge on Ariston. It wouldn’t bring back his second life, but it would at least see justice done.
            Over the next few weeks, living in the brigands’ cave, Lucius turned over all these things in his mind. And slowly, as the threads of sorrow and hatred were pulled together into a single weave on the loom of his heart, a plan began to form. He didn’t know what this third life would bring for him, but at this point he didn’t much care. All he knew was that justice had to be done against Ariston—that that wretched young man, who had already despoiled so many lives in his reckless wake, had to be stopped. There must be a just atonement for his crimes, and only blood could cover an atonement such as that. Ariston must die.
            Over the course of those lonely weeks in the rugged hills, Lucius worked his way into the daily life of the brigands’ community. They were all misfits and rejects from civilization, men thrown out by the world for being too violent, or too stupid, or who had simply been dealt a poor hand by fate. But together they forged a rough sort of camaraderie, a partnership whereby they protected each other and were able to wreak punishing vengeance on the society that had rejected them. There were a few of the brigands that appeared to have chosen that life simply because they hated the rules of society and loved to inspire fear with their power to cause pain; but on the whole, these were few in number compared to the honest castoffs who just had nowhere else to go.
Their living was made by the plainest of means: if someone came along the road, they would be held up at sword-point and looted for goods. Occasionally, in the case of an impoverished traveler, the brigands allowed passage without extracting payment, but such exceptions were rare. If a traveler tried to fight back, they were usually left fractured and bloodied in a ditch, but still alive enough to feel their pain. And on the rare occasions when travelers would try to circumvent the road by taking other nearby footpaths, or when a troop of Roman soldiers happened by, the brigands knew the network of paths so well in those hills that they could easily hunt down their terrified prey, or escape to a secondary hideout, using whichever route was occasioned by necessity. Most of the loot they stole, in fact, was hidden well away from the road, just in case a band of soldiers was able to invade and seize their main cave.
            Lucius took to these activities with a measure of hesitancy—he was, after all, a nobleman of the Caelius line, not to mention a baptized Christian, and so the acts of thieving and bloodying innocent travelers held little appeal for him. But he needed these brigands if he was to pull off his plan against Ariston, and so, by joining in the rough camaraderie of their band, and by showing his worth as a leader and planner, he gradually felt that they saw him as being of value to them. He let them carry out the violent bits of their work, but he was not above the necessary duties of hunting, cooking, fetching water, and acting as a lookout to support the group’s common life.
            He got to know the other brigands fairly well, living in that cave with them—there were a dozen of them there, most from Smyrna and its outlying towns, but the majority of the group’s decisions seemed to be handled by just three men—Audax, physically the strongest; Kreon, who most often took the role of leader; and Diocles, the one who most unnerved Lucius with his natural taste for violence. The others—Gallus, Mikon, Mecistes, Tisias, Phokas, Sabyllos, Icarion, Eutychus, and Alexandros—largely seemed content to follow the instructions of their leaders. Lucius began by playing the role of a compliant follower, but it was his goal to rise to the level of the first group, the leaders.
            It was slow work, ingratiating oneself into such a society, but Lucius was virile, friendly, and cunning enough to know how to bear himself in such company. And, truth be told, he really liked some of the brigands. And they liked him, especially because his quick thinking and leadership had gotten them out of Ariston’s trap without being arrested.
            It was the announcement of his plan that marked his full passage into the leadership of the brigand band. One day, while loitering near the mouth of the cave with Kreon and Audax, he began to spin his plot.
            “We should find a way to get back at Ariston for what he did for us.”
            Kreon grunted approvingly. “It would be pleasant, yes—but perhaps a bit beyond our reach.”
            “Not necessarily,” said Lucius. “Every time Ariston has gotten the better of me, it has been a trick. I think we could use the same sort of tactics against him.”
            “What do you mean?”
            “Well, he’s now established as the head of his household in Smyrna. But don’t you think it grates at him a little bit that we managed to get away—and, more than that, that we managed to get away with a portion of his family treasury?”
            Audax chuckled. “I believe it would gnaw at him, wouldn’t it?”
            “I think that if we found the right motivation,” Lucius continued, “we could induce Ariston to make a misstep, if he thought he could tie up his loose ends with us—to see me arrested and his family treasury fully restored. But we have to do it in a way that Ariston won’t suspect a trap—we have to make him believe that he’s the one outwitting us.”
            “And how do we do that?” asked Kreon.
            “I think a well-placed informant might do the trick. Someone who can suggest to him inside knowledge of our plan to raid his house on a particular night. If Ariston believes it, I think he’ll get the magistrates down to his house to arrest us, but I also think that he might not be able to pass up the opportunity to come out here and retrieve his family treasure from our hideout while he thinks we’re away in the city. Of course, we wouldn’t be in the city raiding his house; we’d be here waiting for him.”
            Kreon raised a skeptical brow. “You think he’d respond to it like that?”
            “Well…given the right incentive, spoken by the right informant…yes, I think he would.”
            “So who’s the right informant?” asked Audax.
            “For that,” said Lucius, leaning back and crossing his arms leisurely across his chest, “we must wait until the right man crosses our path.”

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