As they reached Andalusia between the Guadalquivir and Guadalete rivers, the soil turned chalk-white, the humidity soared and the mostly treeless landscape undulated gently. The Romans were near the ocean, in wine country, where the Phoenicians had first brought the fruit of the vine nearly a thousand years before. With its gentle dews, hot summers and alkaline clay capable of holding vast volumes of water, this region was the perfect place to grow grapes. Not just any grapes, but white Palomino grapes, which Tartessians turned into the first wine. These cherished grapes hung plump and heavy on the vine. They were currency for the Romans, as valuable as sheep’s wool and olives.
Roman slaves, mostly natives of this conquered land, toiled between the rows, carefully clipping clusters of the fruit and gently setting them in baskets, then hauling the baskets to winepresses where more slaves, five or six at a time, barefoot and grasping hanging ropes to keep their balance, stomped on the grapes. The juice collected in vats, then drained into casks where it would ferment, its sugars transformed into alcohol that would preserve the wine for decades.
The September sun was scorching, enough to dehydrate a man in a few hours.
“It’s jobs like this that make me wish I’d studied law,” Didius said as he rode alongside his friend Catus, a junior captain. “I should be making laws, not enforcing them for the emperor.”
“Lawyers,” Catus snorted. “The empire’s got too many of them already.”
“At least I could be in Rome spending my nights with Justina.”
Catus and Didius, the latter mounted on a black Andalusian horse, led a contingent of ten foot soldiers in tunics, mail breastplates and helmets, each equipped with swords and daggers.
“Ha! You know you love a good fight as much as the next Roman, Didius. March for glory—isn’t that your personal creed?”
“This won’t even be a skirmish, and it’s a tale likely to ruin my career—yours too. Can you imagine our report to the Senate? They’ll laugh us out of the room.”
“I know, I know,” Catus sighed. “Don’t we have better things to look out for? It’ll die just like Christianity, perhaps with a little help from the lions. What I would give for a day at the Coliseum!”
“Rome never gives up when there’s a deserter. Especially when the story is so sensational.”
Catus patted the Andalusian’s neck, admiring the sheen in his black coat. “Agreed, but this guy disappeared more than a hundred years ago. No Roman has ever lived that long. Nobody’s ever lived that long. His bones are already bleached, if they haven’t disappeared altogether.”
“Unconfirmed reports by our chroniclers say otherwise. Fools! They’re just trying to spark sensation, and in the process they’re binding me to my fate.”
“True, Captain. Rome loves a good story. That’s all the Senate needed to follow this legend. And you and I get shoveled the dirty work of proving it false.”
“We can’t win this one. The fellow’s dead and gone. And even if we were to find someone who fits the description, as soon as we haul him back to Rome, our reputations will be as good as your horse’s stinking manure. We’ll be mocked all the way to Mongolia.”
Catus hesitated. “But what if the rumor is true? What if there is someone who has lived more than one hundred and fifty years?’’
“Come on, Catus, a glass of wine isn’t going to make you live a century and a half!” Didius’s horse was plodding; he swatted the animal’s rear to get him to pick up his pace. “You know how many glasses my father had before he left for the gods?”
“That’s not what the Christians believe,” Catus said. “Two days before their Jewish Messiah was crucified, he gave his twelve followers wine—a very magical wine, they say. And if you believe the tale, that wine made it possible for them to live forever.”
“Obviously it didn’t work,” Didius said. “We know for sure that at least nine are already dead—and the others are most likely dead. One of them even killed himself.”
“Yeah … what was his name?”
“Judas. Hung himself from a tree for a measly thirty pieces of silver! No wine will stop death from a good hanging, no matter what the vintage.”
“Or from being crucified upside down.”
Didius swatted a fly from his horse’s mane. “But if nobody intentionally kills them and they don’t kill themselves, then what? Will the wine save them—make them live forever?”
“If so I’d like to get my hands on it. Anything for a few more years of revelry back in Rome!”
“I believe our Roman deserter had the same idea. You know, they say Jason bought the fermentation secret from Judas himself.”
“I thought Judas was paid to betray Jesus with a kiss.”
“He was and he did,” Didius said. “But Judas also sold the magical grape seeds, along with the secret winemaking process—both necessary to make this alleged elixir.”
“How do you know that?”
“Common knowledge. Even the soldiers who were at the crucifixion knew about it. To mock him, they doused a sponge with vinegar—wine gone bad—and gave it to Jesus on the cross. ‘See if this’ll make you live forever!’ they said. ‘Is this the new wine you’re going to drink with your apostles?’ ”
“But then the rumors of a resurrection—”
“Uh-huh, spread like wildfire,” Didius said. “And Jason was foolish enough to believe it. Jason knew Jesus personally and was a follower. After the crucifixion, it was rumored, he fled as far as a stowaway could sail—here to Iberia. Unfortunately for him, in Iberia he was still under Roman rule.”
Didius jerked up on the reins, breathing deeply. “I can smell it from here—a good vintage. There, up on that hill. See the house and the vines with no grapes left? Looks like a winepress off to the right. I’ll bet twenty denarii that it’s full of half-crushed grapes.” He spun his horse around to face his men.
“Soldiers, your orders: Take your prisoners alive, at all costs. First, tie them up, then chain them together. Do not destroy any property or parchments. If they try to escape, do all you can to protect them. Rome is watching us carefully on this one. Don’t disappoint our emperor.”
Catus pulled a script from his saddlebag, unrolled it and passed it to the first footman. “His name is Jason. Here’s what we think he looks like. Note the scar across his left cheek—and he’s missing the third finger on his left hand. If he’s here, it’ll be impossible to miss him.” The parchment was passed among the men, each studying it in turn. “We want him alive.”
They nodded in unison.
“Forward!” Didius prodded his horse.
The soldiers turned up the hillside toward a single-room stone-walled structure with a roof of rough-hewn logs. There was a window covered by a brown cloth that flapped in the breeze, and a heavily sun-bleached wooden door. Wisps of smoke purled up from the stone chimney. Moving single file between two rows of recently stripped grape vines, their sandals sinking into the alkaline soil, the men strode forward, first double time, then triple, just short of a run.
As the company reached the end of the row, Didius motioned them forward. Instantly the ten fanned out, five flanking each side of the abode. Except for a few brown leaves from a lone oak tree scooting across the dirt, the yard was barren. Didius and Catus dismounted and approached the only door.
A few steps away when he heard a creaking sound, Didius halted and grabbed his dagger. A gust of wind moved the door on its rusty hinges. The captain looked to his left and then right, making sure his men had the area secured. Then with a nod to the others, he delivered a swift kick to the door. It flew from its hinges, crashing to the floor and kicking up a cloud of dust. The first thing he saw inside was a woman with long black hair streaked with gray, a large baby at her breast. She cowered behind a small wooden table strewn with bowls. “Where is he, woman?” Catus demanded. Not waiting for an answer, he lunged forward, flung the table on its side and pointed his sword at the crying child’s head. “You want your baby alive?”
She whimpered, clutching the child. Her bony frame was shaking and sweat glistened on her wrinkled skin.
Catus leaned forward, the tip of his blade only a few inches from the baby’s throat. “Now!”
“Please, I don’t know who you’re talking about,” she said with a lisp, through her missing front tooth.
Didius spat on the floor. He strode over to the fire and tipped a black kettle with his dagger, sending a stream of liquid onto the embers. “I swear I don’t know what you’re talking about! Please, I beg you, don’t hurt my baby.”
Didius gritted his teeth. “That’s it. Baby stew.” Then he took two steps and reached out for the child.
She held the child tighter, but that didn’t stop Didius from wrestling the baby from her. With the squawking child dangling from one arm, Didius walked over to the cauldron.
With a hysterical scream, the woman dropped to her knees and began scampering toward the fire on all fours, her progress hampered by her long dress. “Please, I beg you, don’t kill my baby!”
Catus, coming up behind her, stepped on her hem and halted her advance. Didius suspended the baby over the boiling water and started lowering it head first until he was just a few inches above the rising steam.
“He’s under the floor,” she sobbed with outstretched arms.
“That’s more like it,” Didius said, handing the screaming child back to its mother, who clutched him against her chest and bent over him, sobbing.
Catus shoved his sword back in its sheath, grinning.
“Works every time,” Didius said dryly, studying the wooden planks with a focused gaze. It was his Roman discipline—he would not allow himself to be distracted.
Catus joined him, kicking away the ragged blankets and testing the floor with his sandal, running it over the wooden planks until his toe caught a raised edge.
He crouched down, dusted the boards with his hand, stuck his finger into a knothole and, looking up at Didius, winked. “Not so clever.” With a single jerk he popped loose a trapdoor, barely wide enough for an adult to slip through.
Catus reached down and helped him slide it aside. “Out!” he shouted into the darkness.
The man who emerged looked not a day older than twenty, half the age of his wife. He had curly dark hair and a bushy beard that only half-covered a scar jetting out of the facial hair and up the left temple.
“Hands in the air!” Didius snapped. “We have orders to arrest one Jason, follower of Jesus. Are you that man?”
A loud thud came from behind them and Catus turned to find the woman collapsed like a rag doll onto the floor, the screaming child now furiously wiggling to free himself from her clinging arms.
The man refused to speak.
“They say you are one hundred and forty-seven years old,” Catus said. “Hmm, that would make her … wife number four? That must be hard when they get old—and you still so young. Maybe it’s a good thing to die.” Catus turned to his fellow Roman. “Can you imagine getting nagged for a hundred years by four different women, Didius?”
For the first time, Didius flashed a thin smile. “You know death is the penalty for desertion,” he said to the captive.
Though he kept his hands in the air, the man refused to acknowledge this threat.
“So that’s how it’s going to be?” Catus stepped toward him, grabbed the back of his coarse woolen shirt and yanked so hard that the man lost his balance and stumbled. Still clutching his garment, the Roman pulled him out the front door and across the dirt to the oak tree.
Five soldiers appeared from behind the hovel, soon followed by the others. A man with broad shoulders and a bulky chest approached Didius.
“No prisoners, Captain. The wine vat is full of must. And we found a cellar,” the soldier said, pointing toward the back of the abode. “Here, we brought you a bottle.”
Catus flung the prisoner to the ground and plucked the bottle from the soldier’s outstretched arm.
“How many?” Catus asked.
“Two full racks. Four hundred bottles?”
“One for every day of the year—with a few to spare,” Catus said, nodding to Didius. “Eternal life from wine. Now we shall see.” He popped the cork and raised the bottle to his nose, inhaling the rich bouquet. “Not like last night’s. This one is magical!” he said in a sarcastic tone.
“No!” the man on the ground cried, breaking his silence and gazing up at the Romans with imploring eyes. “I command you not to partake of that wine. It’s sacred.”
“Command, Jason? I didn’t know you had a commission,” Catus chortled. “Get me a cup.”
A soldier strode forward, earthen cup in one hand and a bottle in the other. Catus grabbed the cup and let the soldier fill it with a blood-red wine. “To Jupiter!” he cried, raising the vessel high to cheers from his men.
“And Bacchus!” another cried.
“Drink, and condemn yourself!” the winemaker exclaimed. “As God is my witness—”
A soldier stepped forward and spat in the man’s face. “That is what we think of your god.”
The prisoner stood silent as the spittle slid down his cheek, slipping over his scar and nesting in his beard. Grunting, Catus brought the cup to his lips and took a long draft. He smacked his lips and cocked his head, judging the taste. “Almost as good as the wine in Rome, maybe even better.” He turned to his men. “Tonight we celebrate! Tomorrow, we bring it all with us. To Rome with the prisoner!”
The men erupted in dance and song, calling out for the bottles and kicking up clouds of white alkaline dust with their sandals. But before Catus had time to join the celebration, his breath turned short and beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. He went down to one knee in an attempt to maintain his balance, to stop the world from spinning. “Ahhhhhh!” he screamed, clutching his throat. “The bastard poisoned me!”
The Roman captain toppled over, face-first into the white dust, writhing in pain, tearing at his throat while the boisterous crowd fell silent and gathered ’round. As trained Roman soldiers, they stood at attention until Didius, the next in command, gave them their orders.
“I warned you,” the prisoner said, staggering to his feet. “Did you think this was the wine of our Lord? The wine from the Tree of Life that makes one immortal? Oh fools. It is the forbidden fruit, the blood of the grape of which our first father, Adam, was commanded not to partake.”
“You dog—you lie!” Didius punched the man in the nose, drawing blood that flowed down into his mouth and stained his front teeth red. “Tell me what he drank, before it’s too late.”
The prisoner spat a mouthful of blood onto the parched soil. An arm’s length away, Catus had gone into spasms, jumping and twitching, his fingers, contorted like an arthritic’s, clawing at his neck, a gurgling sound emanating from his throat. Revolted by the sight, a few men turned their heads; one stepped aside, vomiting. In the final throes of death, arms and legs quivered, then the breathing stopped. Though his eyes were still wide open, Catus was dead.
Didius knelt to pay his last respects, lifting his captain’s head and sweeping the curly locks from his forehead.
“Christ is the true vine,” the winemaker murmured, looking down at Catus.
Didius rose to his knees and grabbed the fallen cup. “What is this shit—hemlock?” he cried, shaking it at the zealot.
“Sweet to the taste, but a bitter wine indeed. The same our Lord had to drink when he partook of the cup.”
Didius stood up and flung the cup at the man’s feet. “Speak plainly, not in these riddles, or else you die too!”
“You can do nothing worse to me than you did to my Lord.’’
“Bring me the rope—yes, we can do worse. We’ll treat you like the German barbarians do to their captured. Unless you confess your secret, we’ll hang you until you rot, then let the buzzards eat your flesh.”
“I’m not afraid. I have accepted Christ and drunk his wine. My journey has come to an end.”
“Yes it has. Let the torture begin,” Didius said, motioning to his soldiers.
Two of his men took the rope they had hoped to use in leading their prisoner back to Rome and began fastening a makeshift noose. When finished, they held it up for inspection—a large loop secured with a granny knot. “Who cares if the knot comes apart?” one of them commented to the other. “He’ll fall and we’ll get to do it again.”
His companion grabbed the winemaker’s hands and jerked them behind his back, then bound them with another length of rope. “We’ll keep your legs free. You can kick all you want. We like to watch the struggle.”
With that, the noose was thrown over a large limb on the oak tree and the free end tied to Catus’s saddle. The soldier inspected each of the four saddle horns—those used to hold the rider in place while keeping his hands free to hold his oval shield and sword or javelin—then selected one of the front horns to secure the rope. He wrapped it around several times before tying it off.
“Proceed,” he instructed his companion.
Promptly the other soldier tossed the noose over the winemaker’s head, pulled until it squeezed his neck and tugged to test the knot. Then he hoisted himself up into the saddle, eyes focused on Didius, who was waiting for a confession. When it didn’t come, he raised his hand and brought it down in a slashing motion. The mounted soldier kicked the stallion gently and it took a few steps, lifting the winemaker nearly a foot off the ground. He kicked once as he left the ground and his body went into a slow spin. The soldiers watched in silence. Didius waited nearly a minute, then raised his hand again. This time the rider maneuvered the horse to his starting position and the winemaker’s feet touched back down on the ground.
As the rope loosened, the prisoner gasped then began to cough uncontrollably. Didius approached him and spat in his face. “Are you ready to speak? Where is the wine we seek? The seeds, the formula that you purchased from Judas Iscariot.”
The coughing subsided, but still he refused to speak.
Swiftly, Didius punched him in the stomach. The winemaker bent at the waist until the rope arrested further movement. The coughing started again, and this time blood oozed from his mouth.
“The wine I drank was not purchased with blood money,” the winemaker whispered, his voice raspy, his words labored. He straightened up.
“Tell me the secret!” Didius demanded. “Which of these vines?!”
The winemaker swallowed and blinked. Beads of sweat covered his forehead. “I cannot cast my Lord’s pearls before swine,” he said slowly.
Didius took two steps back, swung his leg back and brought it forward like a pendulum, kicking a cloud of dust into the winemaker’s face. “Again!” he ordered the rider, repeating the slashing motion.
Again the horse stepped forward, slowly lifting the winemaker into the air, where he remained for another minute, twisting, gagging, his mouth dripping with blood and his eyeballs bulging from their sockets.
“Enough,” Didius called.
The horse backed up, lowering the prisoner. As the rope loosened and he struggled for breath, the coughing resumed.
“This true wine, the one the Christians claim will transform your blood so that you can live forever—how is it made?’’ the captain demanded.
“We know the seeds and the secret process were purchased from Judas—with Caesar’s silver—and you have it.”
The winemaker looked down at the body of Catus, his eyes still open, baking in the sun. “To drink and live, you must first pay a price, and not with Roman silver.”
“We will give you your life in return for the secret.”
“That I cannot do. I have taken an oath in blood that I would never reveal it.”
“Who administered this oath? The brotherhood of the twelve are dead.”
“There is still one—John. He has not yet tasted death. He made me swear.” The soldiers hung on the winemaker’s every word. “Why are you so stubborn in your hearts? Listen to me. Accept your Lord, follow his ways, worship the one true and living God. Keep His commandments, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, give alms to the poor, repent of your iniquities and be baptized—then, and only then, can you someday drink of this wine without dying.”
“Enough of this rambling!” Didius said. “You are like the fools we feed to the lions. We’ll let Roman justice decide your fate. To Rome.”
A massive shuffle ensued as the soldiers fell into their ranks. In the melee nobody noticed the child, now freed from his mother’s grip, his screams silenced with newfound curiosity. He had crawled out of the abode and was making his way toward his father when Catus’s horse caught his attention and he altered his course. A fur-lined leg—to a baby, nothing more than a pole to climb. The mother emerged from the house, where she had been cowering, and flew after her baby, but it was too late. As he attempted to pull himself up on the animal’s hind leg, the horse spooked, and with a loud whinny flung the child back with a powerful kick.
“No!” the mother cried, charging toward her child. The horse reared back, and as soon as his front feet hit the ground again he went galloping forward, snapping the rope taut and whisking the winemaker into the air. His head whipped back and his spine snapped.
Didius, accustomed to such violence, watched as the lifeless body swung, its feet still twitching. He was glad the winemaker was dead, though questioning from the Senate would be brutal. “People said Jesus died on the cross,” he said, unsheathing his sword. “True, but some say that what really killed him wasn’t the nails, but the sword that the Roman soldier thrust into his side to spill his blood to the earth.”
Shrieking, the woman rushed to the side of her child, thrown several feet by the horse’s hoof. Two soldiers stood to block her way. One grabbed her gray hair and flung her onto the dirt. Another kicked her crumpled figure.
Didius waited as the limp carcass swung away. On the return he raised his sword and thrust it forward, plunging the blade through the winemaker’s middle. “Drink that wine if you can!”
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