The foot crashed into his stomach once again and Bartimaeus was knocked over onto his back in the dusty courtyard. His body was a mass of cuts, bruises, and other assorted injuries. His right eye was swollen shut and his left was barely functioning.
He was hoping for a moment to catch his breath when the shadow of a solider covered his form. “Get up, dog.” Rough hands grabbed Bartimaeus by his hair and pulled him up to his knees with his body wilting around him like a flower in the heat of the sun.
He could hear the grunts and cries of anguish from the other two prisoners with him. Reuben, Bartimaeus’s friend, was being held up by two soldiers as a third beat him. A third man, one Bartimaeus had never seen before, was tied to a stump and was being flogged with a whip while others soldiers stood laughing and mocking him.
Bartimaeus heard a loud curse and turned his head just in time to see the guard that had been beating Reuben wipe the spit from his face. Bartimaeus couldn’t see it but could imagine his friend’s arrogant smile.
Reuben was barely a man in his twenties and possessed his full share of the stupidity of youth. It had been his plan to rob the merchant’s house. The plan had appeared sound for it was supposed to be empty except for some guards stationed outside. They hadn’t known the merchant’s son would be there.
When the boy had surprised them in his parent’s bedroom, Bartimaeus moved to escape through the nearby window but Reuben…young, stupid Reuben…had charged the child. The boy had fled and fallen down the stairs to the floor below. He’d been seriously injured and his cries as he fell alerted the guards. Bartimaeus and Reuben had been captured before they’d gotten a few blocks away.
Their luck continued on its downward spiral when they found out the merchant’s cousin was the Regional Governor. That caused the simple burglary to be treated as an assault on the family of one of the most powerful men in the city and had led to their ordered executions.
Bartimaeus had begged for forgiveness and was truly heartsick for the boy. Reuben, on the other hand, had cursed his luck and openly told Bartimaeus that he wished he’d killed the “whelp”. Reuben had never shown the slightest sign of remorse for his actions and had been defiant with everyone, including the guards.
In light of this, his spitting in the face of the guard wasn’t all that surprising. When the shock wore off, a vicious backhand blow was delivered to Reuben’s cheek that sent him crashing to the ground. All three guards then proceeded to mercilessly stomp him until they were stopped by their sergeant, Arcturus.
He didn’t intervene because he was concerned for Reuben’s well-being. They were free to beat and punish the prisoners as much as they wished but they could not kill them. They were to die but only in the approved fashion. To take their lives prematurely would deny the court its justice and that simply was not allowed.
Arcturus gestured to Reuben and then pointed towards Bartimaeus. The guards lifted Reuben from the ground and carried him to where Bartimaeus knelt. Reuben fell to his back beside him and all but Arcturus then walked over to where the third man was being untied from the stump.
Bartimaeus looked down at Reuben and saw that his eyes had rolled back into his head but he was still breathing through cracked and swollen lips. Despite being unconscious, there still remained the hint of a sneer on his face. Bartimaeus cursed the day he’d met the man and desperately wished he hadn’t wasted his life so foolishly.
“You should feel privileged.” Bartimaeus looked up at Arcturus with his swollen eye. He was every inch the Roman soldier in his shining breastplate and polished greaves.
He managed to croak out a question. “Why is that, sir?”
Arcturus knelt down into Bartimaeus’s face and pointed to the third man in the courtyard. The man was now lying on his back and struggling for air through cracked and broken ribs. On his naked form, the only colors that were distinguishable were the red of his blood mixed with the dark brown from the grime smeared all over him.
“Today,” Arcturus smiled, “you’ll be crucified with the King of the Jews.”
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