The dank smell of must assailed his senses and he stumbled in the dimness. Aside from several torches on the wall that cast an ominous orange flicker across the floor, the hall was dark. The guard behind him shoved him roughly.
“Move!” Sergio didn’t respond, but shuffled along as he was ordered to do. He looked up. Above him he was sure he could hear the rumble of chariots, the pounding of hooves, the voices raised in screams of mortal pain. Not everyone knew about the maze of halls and cells beneath the wooden floor of the enormous arena that stretched overhead. The Coliseum. An amphitheater for the amusement of Rome’s citizens. Sergio shivered. An execution chamber. The cool air seemed to press in around him with the oppressive weight of fear and death. This was to be his new home for…how long? Until it was his turn to stand on the yellow sands of the Coliseum and give his own life as a source of entertainment.
He kept moving, but bowed his head as tears stung his eyes. His life had been good. Simple. A blacksmith by trade. A wonderful wife. And his son…emotion clogged his throat. Antonio. The boy’s face, his voice, his life flooded Sergio’s mind, coursed through the very core of his being. That boy and his mother had been Sergio’s entire world. Then he met God. Christianity had been trickling through their society since the time of the man, Paul. When Sergio had first heard of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice he had been overcome. A commitment to Christ, even an acknowledgement had been nearly outlawed since the time of the Great Fire when Nero had blamed the Christians for the burning. Now a refusal to renounce Christ often lead here.
Sergio stumbled to a halt in front of another guard…the one that was to have charge over him for the duration of his time in the cells. Sergio’s eyes swept up from his armor clad legs and torso, rested on his face. The young man stared at him with guarded eyes and his detached expression brought a lump to Sergio’s throat. He dropped his gaze and let a tear roll down his nose. If only the boy knew. He looked back up. The young man’s expression had not changed.
“There’s still time, old man.” Sergio slowly shook his head.
“I cannot betray my Lord.”
“Your Lord has betrayed you…unto death!”
“My Lord is greater than death, and even the fear of it cannot begin to overpower my love for Him.” The young guard’s eyes flashed with anger.
“Fool!” He grabbed Sergio’s arm and violently yanked him to a cell. “Perhaps a few days in my world will give you a clearer perspective.”
For days – he knew not how many – Sergio slept on the wet floor, dreamt of his wife and son, and spent his waking hours praying for his family. Each day the young guard brought him dirty water, stale bread, and promised him freedom if he would only renounce his fanatic religious ways.
“Turn your life over to Him, and you will find a freedom that no earthly imprisonment can take away.”
“But you will die! As a feast for the lions or at the end of a criminal’s sword!” For the first time Sergio noted a hint of desperation in the boy’s face, a plea rather than a demand.
“Then I will see a greater life than this mere existence.”
Four other guards accompanied the boy on the day. The young guard refused to meet Sergio’s gaze as they led him towards the upper level. Sergio blinked in the brilliance of the sunlight. The smell of heat and blood swirled in his head. The growl of hungry lions was muted by the roar of the crowd that had come to view his death for pleasure. Sergio stood beside the boy and watched as the other guards prepared the pole to which he would be tied for the lions.
“I am sorry,” the young guard whispered. Sergio gazed at his profile, noting the tears that glistened on his cheek. He stepped in front of the young man, reached up and placed his hand gently on the side of the boy’s face.
“Remember that God is greater than any of these, and the life He gives can never be taken away.” The other guards grabbed his wrists, began to lead him into the arena, but not before he whispered,
“I love you, Antonio.”
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