Physically exhausted, pride bruised, Atretes had had enough. His patience was at an end.
As soon as Hadassah had told him his son was alive and that the apostle John knew where to find him, he had begun making plans. Because the mob adored him, he couldn't enter the city of Ephesus at will, but had to wait for the cover of darkness. And so he had. Finding the apostle's house hadn't been too difficult-Hadassah had given good directions-but even in the dead of night the man of God had been about his business, comforting a sick child and then hearing someone's deathbed confession.
Atretes had waited for John and then been told after hours of doing so that the apostle had sent word he was going directly to a dawn worship service along the riverbank. Angry, Atretes had pursued him, arriving just after a great crowd had gathered to hear John speak of Jesus Christ, their risen God. A carpenter from Galilee? A god? Atretes had closed his ears to the words being proclaimed and retired to a quiet place beneath a terebinth tree, resolved to wait.
Now, however, he would wait no longer! Dawn had come and gone, and still these worshipers sang praises to their heavenly king and told their stories of personal deliverance from disease, heartbreak, habits, and even demons! He was sick of listening to them. Some, fully clothed, were now being dunked in the river! Had they all gone mad?
Getting up, Atretes walked down to the back of the crowds and prodded a man. "How long do these meetings go on?"
"As long as the Spirit moves us," the man said, giving him a cursory look before singing again.
The spirit? What did that mean? Atretes was used to the discipline of training schedules and regimes, to dealing with solid fact; the man's answer was incomprehensible.
"Is this your first time hearing-"
"And my last," Atretes cut the man off, eager to be gone.
The man glanced back at him, and the smile fixed on his face. His eyes widened. "You're Atretes!"
A jolt of adrenaline flooded Atretes, stiffening his muscles. He could flee or fight. Mouth set, he stood his ground. The first choice went against his grain; the long night of waiting had made him ready for the latter.
Fool! he berated himself. He should have kept silent and waited unobtrusively beneath the shade of a tree rather than draw attention to himself. But it was too late now.
He made excuses for his mistake. How could he guess people would still remember him? It had been eight months since he left the arena. He had thought he would have been forgotten by now.
Apparently, Ephesians had a long memory.
Others turned at the mention of his name. A woman gasped and swung around, whispering to those near her. News of his pre-sence spread like a wind riffling dry leaves. People glanced back to see what the stir was about and spotted him, head above the rest, his accursed blonde hair serving as a beacon for their attention.
He swore under his breath.
"It is Atretes," someone said, and the hair on the back of his neck rose. He knew it would be wise to leave as quickly as possible, but stubbornness and the fiercer part of his nature took control. He was no longer a slave of Rome, no longer a gladiator fighting in the arena. His life should belong to him again! What was the difference between the walls of a luxurious villa and those of the ludus? Both imprisoned him.
The time has come! he thought in frustrated anger. He would find out what he needed to know and leave. Any man who tried to stop him would have grave cause to regret it.
Shoving the still-gaping man aside, he began pressing his way forward through the crowd.
Excited whispers rippled through the sea of people as he moved through it.
"Make room! It's Atretes. He's going forward!" someone called out, and those at the front stopped singing praises to turn and stare.
"Praise the Lord!"
Atretes' mouth set as the buzz of excitement surrounded him. Even after ten years of fighting in the arena, the German had never become accustomed to the furor his presence inevitably brought to any gathering.
Sertes, editor of the Ephesian games and the man who had bought him from the Great Ludus of Rome, had reveled in the mob's reaction to his prized gladiator and exploited Atretes at every opportunity, gleaning gold for himself. The Ephesian had accepted bribes from wealthy patrons and brought him to feasts to be pampered and petted. Other gladiators enjoyed such royal treatment, taking whatever pleasures were offered, relishing their last hours before they faced death in the arena. Atretes ate and drank sparingly. He intended to survive. He had always stood aloof, ignoring his hosts, glaring at the guests with such ferocity and contemptuous disdain that they had walked a wide circle around him.
"You behave like a beast in a cage!" Sertes had complained once.
"As you and the rest have made me."
The memory of that time only fueled his anger now as he forced his way through the crowd beside the river. Hadassah had told him to go to John the apostle. These gaping, mumbling fools were no longer going to stop him from doing just that.
The drone of excited voices grew. Despite his greater height, the warrior still felt the crowd pressing in on him. People touched him as he pushed his way forward. He tensed instinctively, pushing them back. He waited for them to grab or tear at him like the amoratae who had often pursued him through the streets of Rome, but these people, excited at his presence, only laid hands on him to urge him forward.
"Praise the Lord ..."
"He was a gladiator ..."
"... saw him fight once before I became a Christian ..."
The people closed in on him from behind, and his heart began to drum heavily. Cold sweat broke out on his forehead. He didn't like having anyone behind him.
"Make way," a man said. "Let him through!"
"John! John! Atretes is coming forward!"
Did they already know why he had come to this meeting of the Way? Had Hadassah somehow sent word ahead?
"Another! Another for the Lord!"
Someone started singing again, and the swell of sound rose around him, raising gooseflesh down his back. A passage opened before him. He didn't wait to wonder why, but strode the remaining short distance to the riverbank.
Several men and women were standing in the water. One was being dunked. Another, sopping wet, was throwing water into the air and crying and laughing at the same time while others waded in to embrace him.
An old man dressed in a woven tunic and striped sash helped another person rise from the water, saying as he did so, "You've been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb." The singing grew louder and more joyful. The man waded quickly toward friends. One embraced him, weeping, and the others surrounded him.
Atretes wanted desperately to be gone from this place, to be far away from this gathering of crazed men and women. "You there!" he shouted at the man who wore the striped sash. "Are you John? The one they call 'the apostle'?"
"I am he."
Atretes waded into the river, wondering at the eruption of excitement behind him. Sertes had once said John the apostle was a greater threat to the Roman Empire than all the frontier rebellions put together, but measuring the man standing before him, Atretes saw nothing to fear. In fact, John seemed singularly unremarkable.
However, Atretes had learned never to assume that things were what they appeared; grim experience had taught him never to underestimate any man. A coward sometimes had more deadly cunning than a man with courage, and even someone who was seemingly defenseless could inflict wounds too deep to heal. Hadn't Julia ripped his heart from him with her treachery and lies?
This man held one weapon against him, a weapon Atretes meant to take from him. He planted his feet firmly, his face and tone hard as stone.
"You have my son. Hadassah brought him to you about four months ago. I want him back."
"Hadassah," John said, his expression softening. "I was concerned about her. We have not seen our little sister in several months."
"Nor will you. She's among the condemned in the dungeons below the arena."
John let out his breath as though he had taken a blow and then murmured softly under his breath.
"She said you gave my son to a widow named Rizpah," Atretes said. "Where do I find her?"
"Rizpah lives in the city."
John came forward and put his hand on Atretes' arm. "Come. We will talk."
He shrugged the man's hand away. "Just tell me where to find the woman who has my son."
John faced him again. "When Hadassah came to me with the child, she said she had been commanded to place him on the rocks to die."
"I gave no such command."
"She told me the father didn't want the child."
Heat poured into Atretes' face. His mouth set. "The child is mine. That's all you have to know."
John frowned. "Is it because she brought the child to me that Hadassah now stands condemned?"
"No." Hadassah's act of disobedience in not placing the baby on the rocks would have been enough to condemn her, but it hadn't been for that reason that Julia had sent her to die. Atretes was sure of it. As far as he knew, Julia wasn't even aware that her child still lived. But then, Julia could have condemned Hadassah for any whim that struck her fancy. He only knew one fact regarding what had happened to Hadassah.
"One of the servants told me Hadassah was commanded to burn incense in honor of the emperor. She refused and proclaimed your Christ the only true god."
John's eyes shone. "Praise God."
"She was a fool."
"A fool for Christ."
"You are pleased?" Atretes said in disbelief. "She will die for those few words."
"No, Atretes. Whosoever believes in Jesus shall not perish, but will have eternal life."
Atretes grew impatient. "I didn't come to discuss your gods or your belief in life after death. I came for my son. If it's proof you want that I fathered him, would the word of his harlot mother satisfy you? I'll drag Julia Valerian here and put her on her knees before you to make her confession. Will that suffice? You can drown her, then, if you want, for the harlot she is. I might even help you."
John met the barbarian's wrath with gentleness. "I don't doubt you are the father. I was thinking of the child's needs, Atretes. This is not a situation without grave consequences. What of Rizpah?"
"What needs has a babe but to be fed and kept warm? As for the woman, give her another child. Someone else's. She has no right to mine."
"The Lord intervened on your son's behalf. If not-"
"It was no coincidence that she brought the child to me at the moment she did."
"Hadassah said herself that had she known I wanted the child, she would have brought him to me!"
"Why didn't she know?"
Atretes clenched his teeth. If not for the crowd watching, he would have used force to get the information he wanted. "Where is he?"
"He's safe. Hadassah thought the only course to save your son was to give him to me."
Atretes' eyes narrowed coldly. A muscle jerked in his jaw as heat poured into his face. He tried to hide his shame behind a wall of anger, but knew he had failed. Only one person had ever looked at him as though she saw beneath his skin, into his very heart and mind: Hadassah. Until now, that is. For now this man did the same.
Memories flooded Atretes' mind. When the slave girl had come to him and told him that the child Julia carried was his, he'd said he didn't care. What assurance did he have that the child was even his own? Despite Hadassah's assurances, Atretes had been raw from Julia's betrayal with another man and too angry to think clearly. He had told Hadassah that if Julia Valerian laid the baby at his feet, he would walk away and never look back. He would never forget the sorrow his words had brought to the slave girl's face ... nor the regret that had flooded him even as she left. But he was Atretes! He would not call her back.
How could he have expected any woman to be so unfeeling about her child as Julia had been? No German woman would think of commanding that her baby be abandoned on the rocks to die. No German. Only a civilized Roman woman would carry d out such a deed.
If not for Hadassah's intervention, his son would be dead.
Once again he focused on the present, on the man standing so patiently before him. "The child is mine. Whatever I may or may not have said before no longer matters. Hadassah sent me here, and I will have my son."
John nodded. "I'll send for Rizpah and speak with her. Tell me where you reside, and I'll bring your son to you."
"Tell me where she is, and I'll go for him myself."
John frowned. "Atretes, this will be very difficult. Rizpah loves the child as her own. It won't be easy for her to give him up."
"All the more reason I go. It'd hardly be wise to allow you to warn this woman of my intentions ahead of time so she can leave the city."
"Neither I nor Rizpah will keep your son from you."
"I've only your word on that, and who are you to me but a stranger? And a mad one, at that!" he said with a telling glance at the worshipers. "I have no reason to trust you." He gave a sneering laugh. "And even less reason to trust any woman."
"You trusted Hadassah."
His face darkened.
John studied him for a moment, then told him how to find Rizpah. "I pray your heart will be moved by the compassion and mercy God has shown you by sparing your son's life. Rizpah is a woman of tried faith."
"She has endured many tragedies in her young life."
"This one is not of my doing."
"No, but I ask that you lay no blame upon her for what has happened."
"The fault was with his mother. I lay no blame upon Hadassah or you or this widow," Atretes said, relenting now that he had the information for which he had come. "Besides," he added with a wry smile, "I've no doubt this widow of yours will feel much better when she is generously recompensed for her trouble." He ignored John's wince at his words. Turning away, he saw the crowd had grown quiet. "What are they waiting for?"
"They thought you came to be baptized."
With a sneering laugh, Atretes strode up the hill, not sparing another glance at those who gathered at the river.
* * *
Atretes returned to his villa by way of the outer road and waited again. It would be safer to enter the city after dark, and there were other matters that, in his haste, he had neglected to consider.
"Lagos!" His booming voice echoed up the marble staircase. "Lagos!"
A man ran along the upper corridor. "My lord!"
"Go to the slave market and buy me a wet nurse."
Lagos hurried down the stairs. "A ... wet nurse, my lord?"
"Make sure she's German." He strode through the courtyard toward the baths.
Lagos followed, distressed. He had had several masters, and this one had by far been the most mercurial. Lagos had been greatly honored to be counted among the slaves belonging to Atretes, the foremost gladiator in all of the Roman Empire, but he'd never expected the man to be on the verge of madness. During the first week he'd spent in this villa, Atretes had smashed all the furnishings, set fire to his bedroom, then disappeared. After a month, Silus and Appelles, two gladiators Atretes had purchased from Sertes as guards, had gone out looking for him.
"He's living in the hill caves," Silus reported upon their return.
"You must bring him back!"
"And risk getting killed? Forget it! You go, old man. Not me. I value my life."
"He's eating the flesh of animals he hunts down with one of those bloody framea Germans use," Appelles informed him. "He's gone feri again."
"Shouldn't we do something?" Saturnina said. The slave girl was clearly distressed that her master had reverted to a barbarian savage and was living like a wild beast.
"What would you suggest we do, sweeting? Send you into his cave to improve his mood? You'd have better luck with me." Silus said, pinching her cheek. She slapped his hand away and he laughed. "You know you're secretly happy the Lady Julia spurned your master. If he ever regains his mind and comes back, you'll be waiting in the doorway."
While Silus and Appelles lolled around, drinking and talking about old battles in the arena, Lagos had taken charge of the household. All was kept in order and readiness should the master regain his mind and return.