The dark, stagnant air was thick with the familiar smells of leather, metal, and men.
He sat quietly on the hardwood bunk, his tunic-clad body hunched over with elbows on knees. The other seven men in The 8 On 12 had succumbed to sleep.
Just another morning. Yet he knew something had changed, was changing. Something important.
The folded fabric in his hands was rotated slowly, almost reverently. His eyes stared at the floor as his mind tried to see what was coming.
Blinking, he turned towards the whispered greeting. The perpetual grinning face of Lucius winked back from the next bunk.
"Couldn't sleep, big guy?"
Gaius looked down at the blood-stained tunic in his hands.
"No. Rough night."
Lucius rolled out, over, and sat down lightly next to his large friend in a smooth quick motion.
Gaius had to smile. Lucius "The Cat" was quick and deadly even when half-asleep.
Lucius nodded toward the cloth, his voice soft and muted.
"Who'd ya get that off of"?"
The quiet grunt of a laugh escaped The Bull's craggy face.
"All those years of gambling with you idiots and I finally win...this. A dead man's tunic."
Lucius held out his hand as he asked, "The Golgotha detail? I lucked out. Got to come back here for racktime."
Gaius gently gave him the cloth. Lucius opened it up and studied it.
"Nice material. Someone put some work into that. So, who was this guy?"
Gaius leaned back, his eyes staring ahead, reliving it. He shrugged.
"I dunno. Some Jew, I guess. The Old Man had me nail the judgment sign on the cross."
Lucius leaned forward to give the fabric back.
"What'd he do to win a rooftop view of Golgotha?"
No response. The big man was staring ahead, lost in memories. Lucius slowly slid away then quickly poked him. Gaius' body instantly jerked up and away as his big hand slashed the air where Lucius had just been sitting. Lucius grinned at his awakened friend.
"So why'd we kill 'im? What was on the judgment sign?"
Gaius shrugged again.
"Jesus. King of the Jews,", The Bull chuckled as he remembered, "The Old Man loved that. Really ticked off the fat cats."
Then he shook his head.
"Dunno why the Governor is playin' footsie with those idiots. It's not like they're Romans."
Understanding dawned on Lucius' face.
"He's the guy at the Praetorium they beat to a pulp?"
A look of disgust hit Gaius.
"Yeah. That's the guy. Glad the Old Man kept us outta that. Let the newbies and wannabes feel all tough and bad poundin' on a helpless man. That's not fighting. That's not war."
Lucius glided over and sat on his bunk. He looked the big man in the eyes.
"Gaius. What is it?"
The Bull's eyes were troubled, his whisper fierce and angry.
"We killed an innocent man, Lucius. The guy was no criminal. We...", he swallowed hard, "We murdered an innocent man."
The two men sat in silence amid the soft, sleeping noises. Lucius broke the silence.
"We don't judge 'em, Bull, we just carry out the judgments. We're not decision-makers. We're order-takers. Besides - ", The Cat stood and stretched his battle-scarred body," how do ya know he was innocent?"
Gaius slowly got to his feet., setting the tunic gently on his bunk before looking down on his small friend.
"His eyes, Lucius. The love in his eyes. He forgave us."
The two men moved silently down the hallway to the courtyard. Stepping out into the dawn, they felt the prelude of another searing day in a dusty land.
Lucius stopped and turned.
"Wait. He forgave you?"
Gaius recalled the event, eyes locked forward as the memory played out before him.
"The fat cats were mocking him. The scumbags hanging on either side were swearing at him. The mob was screaming at him. He looked at them all. And then he looked at me.", Gaius looked up as if reliving the moment, "That's when he said it..."Father, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing.""
Lucius nodded matter-of-factly and continued down the early morning street.
"So his dad was there. That had to suck."
"No, Lucius, that's just it. He...he was talking to God."
Lucius shot a sideways glance at his companion.
"Well. Crucifixion'll do that to ya."
"A lotta people get religion at the end, Bull. It's human nature."
"I'm thinkin' he was right."
"Right 'bout what?"
"That his father was - is - God."
Lucius tugged Gaius' arm, stopping him before they turned into the mess hall.
"You're sayin' he was a Son of God, like the Greeks' Hercules story?"
Gaius nodded in realization.
"Yeah. I guess I am. All the things that happened. The dark at midday. The earthquake when he died. And I think the Old Man feels the same way."
"Wait-wait-wait. You're tellin' me he died that afternoon. That's not even a quarter of a day! Nobody dies that quick on a cross."
"The fat cats had some big religious thing comin' up so they wanted everyone dead before they got all holy. We were to break legs so they'd suffocate. I was handed the club. I did the other two first, but when I got to him, he was already dead. The fat cats were yelling for the Old Man to make sure.", the big man shook his head, "But he knew. And I knew."
Lucius moved closer to look him in the eye.
"And then what?"
Gaius straightened up and sighed.
"The Old Man handed me his short spear and nodded. I did a cross thrust, up and through. Water and blood. But, Lucius, he was long dead before I touched that spear."
"Bull, almost nobody dies that fast from a crucifixion!"
Gaius locked The Cat in a vice-like gaze.
"He died on a cross - but that wasn't what killed him."
Immediate recognition caused both men to instantaneously turn and snap to attention.
Centurion Flavius Longuis strode toward them, still in full armour, years of disciplined service honing his movements into precision and efficiency.
The Bull and The Cat barked in unison.
The Old Man's leathered face softened as he approached his men, his thoughts going to The 8 On 12.
12 on the sundial cast the shadow directly behind the gnomon, behind its back. The 8 always had his back. No enemy had every gotten through. The dead were numbered in the hundreds that were unlucky enough to be opposite The 8 On 12 in battle formation.
He liked that they called him The Old Man behind his back but never to his face. Their loyalty was without question, their bravery and prowess unequaled in the Cohorte.
The Centurion was tired but managed a smile for two of his best. He stepped forward and clasped Gaius on the shoulder then Lucius.
"You, Bull, will be in charge of The 8 On 12 until I return. Cat, you are my witness to his charge."
The question was already in Gaius' eyes as he spoke.
"May I ask, Sir, where you're going? And why you don't take us?"
The Centurion sighed, letting his hands drop as he gave them a wry smile.
"I have been asked by the Governor himself to oversee a guard detail for a dead man. It seems that Jew we crucified has the Jewish hierarchy all upset."
His smile disappeared as The Old Man's eyes locked onto Gaius.
"They said he told people he would rise from the dead in three days time. And the Jewish leaders think his followers will steal the body to make it appear so."
The Old Man and The Bull shared a look, confirming what they had seen. Confirming what they were now beginning to believe.
The Centurion looked over at The Cat.
"But I don't think that will be the case."
Lucius' curiosity made him speak.
"But sir, if there's gonna be trouble, we oughta be there."
Another smile, this one a bit grimer, briefly flickered across The Centurion's face.
"There are new recruits that need experience and it would be best to get that against unskilled foes. So get some chow, get some rest, and have that barracks spotless when I get back."
The Bull and The Cat stiffened to attention.
The Old Man moved past them as they turned into the mess hall door. The Centurion spoke over his shoulder as he strode away.
"Besides, gentlemen, if this King of the Jews is who I believe he is, we could take the entire Legion ... and it wouldn't matter."
The Centurion strode down the deserted street as he began to believe what he had witnessed and heard just hours before. Smiling, he shrugged his shoulders, whispering to no one in particular.
"And if death can't stop him..."