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Authors: Kathleen O'Neal Gear

The Betrayal (6 page)

BOOK: The Betrayal
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Around the sixth hour, as they were nearing the mountaintop, a strange sound penetrated the storm, like distant thunder, only different in a way he could not define. Yosef sat up straighter on his horse and strained to hear over the roar of the downpour that battered the pine boughs.
“What is it?” Titus asked in a low voice. “Why did you stop, Master?”
“Do you hear it?”
No one spoke for several heartbeats.
Finally, Mattias said, “All I hear is the storm.”
Titus still had not responded. Yosef blinked the rain from his eyes and searched the darkness to his left, where he knew Titus sat his horse. He saw a vague outline of a man, a darker spot against the charcoal background. “Titus?” he softly called.
A lightning bolt slashed the inky sky, and he saw his servant surrounded by swirling veils of rain. “It's more than the storm,” Titus whispered. “It's …” He cocked his head, listening.
The sound grew sharper.
In a shaking voice, Yosef finished the sentence. “ … horses, pounding toward us.”
“Dear God,” the Dawn Bather cried. “Someone betrayed us! They've come for us!”
Yosef ordered, “Give me those reins!”
He rode over, jerked the packhorse's reins from the Dawn Bather's hand, and yelled, “Quickly! Both of you hide! I'll make a run for—”
Before he could finish his sentence the first horses burst through the forest and rode down upon them like a frothing midnight wave. Yosef saw the glint of burnished shields and armor, and the silver flashes of raised swords.
One of the centurions yelled in Greek, “Take the packhorse! Kill the riders!”
A silver-silk flash of light cut the rain and Yosef was knocked backward off his horse. He hit the ground hard. The arrow had pinned his cloak to his shoulder. In an enraged voice, he shouted, “Titus! Take the horse and ride!” He lifted the reins.
Titus kicked his horse and it leaped forward, its hooves slashing across the mud to Yosef, where Titus grabbed the reins of the packhorse and charged away into the night.
Yosef lunged to his feet and careened down the slope through the forest, with the Dawn Bather close behind him. There was a moment of confusion among the Romans. They shouted at each other, asking which direction the packhorse had gone, and had anyone seen the “priests.” Then most of the horses thundered after Titus.
Yosef slid and staggered through the mud on the steep mountainside, trying to pick a path the remaining horses could not follow. Behind him, he could hear the Dawn Bather weeping, his voice like a man suffocating.
Roman calls echoed up the hill, but in the storm he could not make out any of the words.
Finally, bleeding badly, unable to go farther, he worked his way into a head-high pile of deadfall along a near vertical cliff and collapsed.
Mattias followed him, scrambling into the deadfall on his belly.
An eerie web of lightning crackled across the sky and thunder roared. High up the slope, Yosef caught glimpses of soldiers fighting to control their frightened horses.
Mattias choked out the words, “This is madness! Can't we do something? Are we to be nothing but witnesses?”
Yosef watched the Romans' horses struggling to stay upright in the soggy mountain mud as they trotted along at the edge of the trees. The centurions shouted at each other, trying to find Yosef's trail—almost impossible in the darkness and rain.
Yosef sank back against a fallen log. His shoulder had begun to ache as though on fire. In a tormented voice, he answered, “We are not witnesses. Yeshua said there would only be three who would bear witness: the spirit and the water and the blood.”
24
Mattias began to weep again.
A mournful gust of wind ravaged the slope, battering them with old leaves.
Through gritted teeth, Yosef whispered, “Stop that and help me pull this arrow out. We must be gone long before the storm passes.”
Cyrus had lit one single oil lamp when they'd entered the library crypt. It cast a weak, flickering glow over the coffins stacked five high along the walls and the piles of codices, scrolls, and papyri that littered the tables. Many more scrolls peeked from hundreds of holes in the walls. The crypt, which stretched ten fathoms across, resembled a giant honeycomb.
Zarathan looked up. The rounded ceiling soared four times his height to the trapdoor that led into the oratory, the prayer chamber. Massive stone stairs, hewn from the native rock walls, led to the trapdoor.
“This must have been a cave first, then it was enlarged to serve as a crypt,” Zarathan whispered, and his voice echoed in the gloom. “I wonder if Abba Pachomius chose to build his basilica on this spot because of this cavern?”
“Possibly,” Cyrus said as he dipped his calamus and wrote a line on the parchment before him. “Many of these coffins look centuries old.”
Zarathan's nose wrinkled. The musty smell of dry decaying corpses and ancient manuscripts pervaded everything. He draped his white sleeve over his nose to filter the odor.
“Why has no one ever mentioned that this really is a crypt?” Zarathan complained.
Cyrus, who bent over the forbidden manuscript, replied, “Very few men have seen this crypt, and those who have, never speak of it. You
should count yourself fortunate. As a result of a dropped pot, you have become one of the chosen.”
Cyrus dipped his calamus in the inkwell again and carefully wrote another line, repeating it softly in Greek. “Do you wish to know what this says, Zarathan?”
“Certainly not! If anyone asks, I can truly say I have never read a forbidden book.”
A faint smile turned Cyrus' lips. “You wouldn't be reading it. I would. It's about our Lord's death. Are you sure you don't want to hear it?”
Zarathan hesitated. “Is it different from the approved gospels?”
“Some of it. Don't you at least want to know the name of the centurion who stood guard at our Lord's tomb after the crucifixion?”
Zarathan's eyes widened. “The
real
centurion's name?”
Cyrus whispered, “Petronius.”
Petronius,
Zarathan mouthed the forbidden name, then said, “Cyrus, are you sure they won't put me to death for knowing this?”
“I suppose they'd want to, but I'm not sure they could. The order only relates to the reading and copying of heretical books. They appear not to have condemned the ‘hearing' of such forbidden teachings. Probably because they know it's difficult to prove.”
Zarathan swallowed hard. “What else does it say?”
Cyrus replied, “The elders went to Pilatos and asked him for soldiers to guard the crypt for three days to make sure the disciples didn't steal the body. They were afraid that if it vanished people would assume our Lord had been raised from the dead, which would prove he was the messiah.”
“But we know most of that already. What else?”
Cyrus read the document with his brow furrowed. “Two bright shining men came down from heaven and the stone rolled away by itself. They entered the tomb, and three men came out, followed by the cross.”
“The cross?” Zarathan said suspiciously. “What was it doing in the tomb?”
“The cross was not dead, but alive. God's voice came down from heaven and asked, ‘Have you preached to those who are asleep?' The cross told Him yes.”
Zarathan blinked. “I don't understand. What does it mean?”
Cyrus shrugged. He had his eyes glued to the leaf, reading. “I don't know, but Pilatos ordered Petronius not to say anything about what he'd seen.”
“No wonder. If Petronius had revealed the truth, our Lord's followers would have torn the Romans and the high priests to pieces. But …” He tilted his head, thinking while his gaze drifted over the coffins stacked around the cave. “I still don't understand how the cross got into the tomb.”
“Think of it as poetry, brother.”
“Poetry?”
Outside, the dinner bell clanged, calling the monks in from the fields. Zarathan started to rise. His belly had been growling for over an hour.
“Where are you going?” Cyrus asked.
“Didn't you hear the bell? We should be assembling with the others for supper.”
Cyrus leaned back on the bench and smiled. “You and I, brother, are to fast for three days. We can't join them.”
Zarathan had forgotten. He sighed and slumped to the bench again. “Three days,” he whispered in agony. “I'm going to starve to death.”
Cyrus bent over his work. “Look about you, brother. This is a place for reflection and patience. Think of the dead over there. They probably fasted for half their lives in the hopes of gaining one tiny glimpse of the Kingdom of God. If you meditate on that, the dead can teach you many things.”
Two beautifully tooled gazelle leather bags rested on top of one of the coffins, and on top of the bags were four magnificently bound parchment books. It looked as though someone had just taken the books from the leather bags and forgotten to put them back.
Zarathan pointed. “It must have taken forty goats to produce those books alone, never mind all the other books in this crypt.”
Parchment was made by removing the hair from sheep- or goatskin, then processing the hides with lime to produce smooth and extremely fine leather.
“Yes, they're very beautiful, aren't they?”
Cyrus rose from the bench and walked across the crypt. He carefully lifted the book on top and opened it.
Zarathan watched him read for a time, before asking, “What is that?”

The Exposition of the Lord's Logia:
sayings by Papias. There are supposed to be five divisions, or five books, in this volume.” Cyrus tilted the book sideways to read something. “There's a handwritten note in the margin, in Greek, which says that Papias was the bishop of the community of Hieropo-lis in Asia Minor, and lived about thirty years after our Lord's death.”
25
Cyrus flipped through the leaves for a time, reading, until he found something that obviously caught his attention. In awe, he whispered, “I didn't know that.”
“Know what?”
“Papias says that Markos served as Petros' interpreter,
hermeneutes,
and that he wrote down everything he heard Petros say about the words of our Lord.”
“Is he referring to the Gospel of Markos?”
“According to Papias, he didn't like written sources. He only recorded the words of living people. He claims to have spoken directly to the presbyter Ioannes, and someone named Aristion, as well as ‘those who actually attended the presbyters.' Which means he got his information from the disciples second- or thirdhand.” Cyrus scrutinized something and murmured, “Really?” as though surprised.
“What did you find now?”
“Have you ever heard the names of the two thieves who were crucified on either side of our Lord?”
“No,” Zarathan whispered in awe. “Who were they?”
“Dysmas and Gestas.
26
Except this says they were Zealots, not thieves. Hmm.” He squinted. “There's another editorial note that refers the reader to a passage in division four.”
“Look it up.”
Cyrus glanced at him, smiled, and flipped through the parchment leaves. As he read, he whispered, “Are you sure you want to hear it? It's
definitely
heretical.”
Zarathan wet his dry lips. “You won't tell anyone, will you?”
“Of course not. I'm your brother in Christos.”
“Then I'm not afraid. Read it to me.”
Cyrus read for a few heartbeats, and his eyes narrowed. He whispered, “I wonder what this is?”
“What?”
“It looks like some sort of substitution cipher, using Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew letters.”
Excited, Zarathan said, “You mean it's a secret saying?”
As Cyrus continued reading, his green eyes grew shiny, then he gently closed the book, placed it back on top of the gazelle leather bags, and sank down on the bench.
Zarathan's heart began to pound. “What's wrong? What did it say? Why aren't you telling me?”
Cyrus stared at the far side of the crypt. “Have you ever heard a story about Ioses of Arimathaia—”
“And the cup of Christos? Of course. It's said that he—”
“No, not the grail legends. This is a story about Ioses fleeing Jerusalem the night after he placed our Lord's body in his garden tomb.”
27
Riveted by the expression on Cyrus' face, Zarathan's voice grew hushed. “No, I've never heard that story.”
Cyrus seemed to be gazing into eternity. “I'm not sure I understood correctly. Most of the passage is in cipher, and a good deal is so faded I can't make it out. But …” He turned to Zarathan. Their gazes locked. “Papias said he heard this story from the grandson of a centurion who had been ordered to ride hard to catch Ioses of Arimathaia and his band of thieves.”
“Thieves? What had they stolen?”
Cyrus shook his head. “I don't know. The only words I can definitely translate are about the Pearl. Then there's something cryptic about ‘a headless demon whom the winds obey,' and ‘the son of Pantera.'”
“A headless demon?” Zarathan rubbed his arms, feeling cold to the bone. It must have been getting dark outside, and the temperature of the desert falling.
The cavern had turned cold and haunted, as though the spirits locked in the coffins had risen and begun their nightly walks, circumambulating the narrow confines of the crypt.
Zarathan lurched to his feet. “Even if we can't eat, I'm thirsty. Let's go to the kitchen and get a cup of water.”
Cyrus rose. For several moments, he just stared at Papias' book.
“What's the matter?”
“I don't know, I …” Cyrus shook his head. “I have the feeling that book may be gone by the time we get back.”
“We're just going for a cup of water, Cyrus. It'll take no more than a quarter hour.”
Zarathan walked up the gray stone steps to the trapdoor in the ceiling and heaved it open. A flood of river-scented air blew around him.
Cyrus, carrying the small oil lamp, climbed out behind him and closed the trapdoor. As he inserted the key into the lock and turned it, the lamp's flame spluttered and went out.
Zarathan frowned. The door that led from the oratory out into the garden was wide open. Even stranger, the oratory was empty. Ordinarily after dinner, monks came here to pray before the evening rituals.
“Perhaps dinner is not yet over,” Zarathan said and started to stride for the kitchen.
Cyrus' hard hand caught his shoulder, forcing him to stop.
“Wait, brother,” he whispered.
Cyrus' gaze swept the oratory, missing nothing—the open door, the wind fluttering the cloths on the altar. Then he cocked his head to listen.
And Zarathan noticed it, too.
Absolute quiet.
Though they were instructed not to speak during dinner, there were always sounds: plates being shifted, footsteps across the floor, cups thudding on the long wooden tables.
Tonight, there was nothing.
Just above a whisper, Cyrus said, “Brother Zarathan, I want you to walk behind me. Do not speak. Do you understand?”
Cyrus' tone made the hair at the nape of Zarathan's neck stand out. He jerked a nod and kept pace behind Cyrus as he quietly moved across the oratory toward the heavy door that led to the kitchen.
BOOK: The Betrayal
2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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