Volume 31, Number 1

Escape the Legion

Sarah M. Prindle

AD 70
Alexandria, Egypt

Six-year-old Leah peered over the ship’s railing and looked out into the bay, enjoying the salty spray. She’d finally arrived in Alexandria, where her aunt and uncle lived. Her parents had often talked about joining them there, but that was not to be. Leah’s parents were dead, killed when soldiers of the Roman Legion took over Jerusalem.

She could still remember that night, the glow of fires in the distance and people shouting that the temple had been destroyed. Mostly, she remembered the screams, far more terrifying than the soldiers themselves.

Leah vividly recalled their front door thudding as the Romans tried to get in. Her mother had gripped her arm and shoved her behind a huge pile of linens and tunics she’d intended to wash that day. “Stay hidden, Leah!” she had whispered, as she threw more clothes over her daughter. “Don’t make a sound!”

From the pile of clothes, Leah had seen the soldiers break in. Her father had drawn a blade and killed one of the soldiers before he too, was stabbed. Her mother ran forward and shoved one of the soldiers—more to keep him away from Leah’s hiding place than to hurt him. There’d been the flash of steel, and her mother had fallen too.

“The Romans are barbarians,” her parents and neighbors had often said. She knew the people of Judea were at war with them, though she wasn’t clear on why.

“We’re here.” Leah looked over at the young man beside her. He had dark hair, tanned skin and wrinkles around his eyes that made him look older than seventeen. He patted her head gently. “We’ll be safe here.

This man had saved her during the fighting. He had come running into her house, sobbing at the sight of the deaths of so many innocent people. He’d heard her crying as she hid in the pile of clothes, knelt over her and coaxed her to come out. Taking her hand, he’d led Leah past the bodies of her parents and into the dark night. Ducking from street to street, house to house, they stealthily escaped Jerusalem.

Romans were their enemies. But then why had Maximus, a young Roman conscript, been the one to save her? How was it an enemy had paid for their journey to Alexandria and now stood with her on the deck, grateful to have escaped the legion?

Leah looked up at him curiously. She didn’t know much about Maximus. All he’d told her was that he was deserting the legion and would help her escape.

“Do you know where you aunt and uncle live, exactly?” Maximus now asked.

“No. Just Alexandria.” Though she couldn’t pronounce it quite right, and it came out as “Alec-sand-ah.”

“What are their names again?”

“Uncle Elijah and Aunt Orpah. Mama said they live in a small house.” But there would be many small houses, and it’d be hard to find out which one they lived in.

As the ship docked, Maximus took a deep breath. He was nervous, and he always looked younger when he was nervous. Seventeen was old to Leah, but at moments like this he seemed more like a child than a man.

Leah took his hand and looked up at him with her wide gray eyes. “Is it safe here?”

He sighed. “Safer than where you were before. Come on. Once we get off we’ll ask around and try to find where your relatives are living.”

“Will they let us stay with them?”

“They’ll probably let you stay with them,” Maximus looked up at the sky, as though searching for guidance. “Not me, though.”

“Maybe they will.”

“I hope so.” But he didn’t sound very hopeful.

When the gangplank was lowered, the two walked down and out into the port. A huge crowd seemed to push at them from all sides. Leah became nervous—everyone was yelling out, trying to sell various things at market stalls: fish, silk, gems. People called out questions about which boat was arriving, sailors and dockworkers hurried back and forth, lugging crates and baskets.

There were so many languages! She heard some Hebrew here and there—likely from other Jewish refugees fleeing Rome’s assault in Judea. She recognized Arabic, and she was pretty sure there were other languages being spoken. And it was all so loud!

Leah shrank closer to Maximus. At least he spoke Hebrew well enough to talk with her.

Maximus put a protective arm over Leah’s shoulders and led her through the crowd to a merchant selling spices. As they approached, Leah could smell sweet and spicy herbs that reminded her of Mama’s cooking at home.

Would her parents truly never awaken again? They’d looked like they were sleeping, but the knives in their bodies had been ugly looking. She’d had the sinking feeling, even before Maximus had told her, that those knives prevented her parents from waking up again.

“Excuse me,” Maximus asked in halting Hebrew. “Do you know where Elijah and his wife Orpah live?”

The man stared blankly and asked something in another language. Leah tugged on Maximus’s tunic. “I think he’s speaking Arabic.”

“I can’t speak Arabic. Can you?”

Leah swallowed hard and tried. “Where… Elijah… and wife… live?” Her sentence was halting, but it got the message across. Leah was glad her mother’s parents had been from Egypt and had taught their daughter to speak Arabic. Mama had then taught Leah some, though she hadn’t had a chance to learn very much.

The man shook his head, giving them a look of pity. He must have guessed they’d fled somewhere else in a hurry. He pointed down a road and spoke very slowly. Leah was able to understand some of the words: houses… Jewish… many people… Was he saying many other Jewish people lived nearby?

“Where?” she asked in Arabic.

The kindly merchant pointed to the left, and then mimed eating. He pointed again, and Maximus peered over the heads of the crowd. “Wait, I think I see it. There’s a sign over there with bread drawn on it.” He looked at the merchant. “The baker is Jewish?”

Leah repeated the question as best she could in Arabic, also using her hands to pretend to bake bread. The merchant nodded and smiled wide, relieved they’d finally gotten his meaning.

“Good, we’ll go ask. Can you tell him thank you?” Maximus asked.

Leah did so, and the merchant smiled and patted her shoulder. He said something that Leah couldn’t understand, but from the tone of voice, it sounded like a blessing of some sort.

As they walked toward the bakery, a small building nestled between two larger shops, Maximus took several deep breaths, trying to calm himself down.

“Are you all right?” Leah looked up at him, concerned.

“Yes. I just hope your relatives won’t kill me on sight.” He said it as a joke, but Leah suspected that was a real fear for him.

“I’ll tell them you saved me.” Leah assured him. She paused as they reached the bakery. “Can I ask you something?”

Maximus looked a bit hesitant about that, but he nodded.

“I was taught that Romans were our enemies. They hurt people in Jerusalem. Hurt my parents. But you didn’t do that. You helped me. Why?”

Maximus let out a deep sigh and ran a hand through his hair. “I come from a small fishing village in Italy. My parents died a few years ago from an epidemic, and I had nowhere to go. One day a man came to the village and announced they needed soldiers for the legion. They would provide food, money, and the soldiers would be like my new family. Or so I hoped.”

Leah listened, amazed to think of the Romans having villages and fishers and orphans, just like her people did.

“When I was assigned to Judea, I thought we would be fighting armies, or vicious groups like the Sicarii. When I followed my fellow soldiers into Jerusalem, I thought that we were killing dangerous zealots who were trying to kill us. I didn’t know innocent people would die. And then…” Maximus’s eyes clouded over with memory. “I saw my fellow soldiers doing horrible things. They weren’t fighting religious zealots. They were killing unarmed men and women and children.” Maximus broke off and took a shuddering breath. “I saw them killing innocent people. I was so horrified. I ran into the nearest house to hide. I think I was crying.”

He had been, but Leah decided not to remind him of it. Her father had hated to be seen crying, she guessed it must be a thing with men.

“Then I saw the bodies… your parents… on the ground, and it was as if there was no way I could escape that hell. Then I heard you make a noise.” Maximus cleared his throat and wiped at his eye. “I saw you hiding. And I was so ashamed to be wearing the legion’s armor, to be among people who’d stabbed innocent women and children to death. And I realized if they found you there, they’d most likely kill you too. I couldn’t let that happen. So, as you know, I got you out of there and asked where you might have relatives. And here we are.” He gestured around Alexandria, a crowded but beautiful city on the sea. “I’m now called a ‘deserter.’ If they ever find me, I could be killed or imprisoned as a gladiator.”

“What’s a gladiator?”

“Uh… I really don’t want to tell you about that. You’ve seen enough horrors.”

There was a lot Leah didn’t understand. She didn’t know why Judea was at war with Rome, why the soldiers had killed her parents, why Maximus had been the only one to do the right thing. She didn’t understand what gladiators were, or why knives put people to sleep forever. All she knew right now was Maximus had saved her life, at risk to his own. As young as she was, she vowed to help him somehow.

“Let’s check the bakery,” Maximus abruptly changed the subject and led Leah through an open doorway and into the warmth of the bakery. Leah immediately fell in love with the smell of bread baking and the sights of finished loaves cooling on a shelf. A tall, plump man and a black-haired woman with oval eyes were kneading dough. The woman looked up as they came in and smiled. “Hello. What can I get for you, little one?”

Relieved that she spoke Hebrew, Leah blurted, “I’m looking for my uncle and aunt. Elijah and his wife, Orpah.”

The woman’s eyes nearly popped out of her head. She stared in shock at Leah, then rushed over to her and hugged her tight. “Leah! Oh, thank Adonai, you’re alive!”

“Aunt Orpah?” Leah pulled back. Now that she studied the woman closer, she could see she had the same gray eyes as Mama and herself. “Aunt Orpah!”

“We heard Jerusalem had fallen,” Aunt Orpah whispered. She put a hand over her mouth. “We thought you were all dead.”

Leah nodded grimly. That was true as far as her parents were concerned.

Uncle Elijah came to stand by his wife, regarding their niece with sympathy and confusion. “How did you manage to survive?”

Leah looked at the seventeen-year-old standing next to her. “Maximus saved me.”

“Maximus… that’s a Roman name!” Aunt Orpah stood straight, whirled on Maximus and swept her niece behind her. “How dare you show your face!” she shouted at him. “How could you? How could you kill my sister? How could you kill this girl’s parents?”

Maximus’s eyes widened with panic, especially when he noticed Uncle Elijah grabbing a large knife they used to cut bread loaves.

“No!” Leah squirmed away from her aunt and hugged Maximus’s leg. “Don’t hurt him! Didn’t you hear me, he saved me! He saved me!”

Aunt Orpah’s eyes were teary and filled with a horrible mix of grief and rage. How could Leah convince her Maximus was good? She was just a child.

Child or not, she was the only one who could save Maximus now. Somehow Leah found the courage to keep talking. “He didn’t kill my parents. It was other soldiers who did! He saved me, he got me out before the bad soldiers could find me.”

Aunt Orpah’s eyes went from Leah to Maximus, clearly skeptical about what to believe. Finally, she asked Maximus directly, “Why did you go to Jerusalem? Didn’t you know what the soldiers were going to do? How could you be part of that?”

Maximus swallowed hard. “When I was sent to Judea, they told me we would be fighting rebels, that they were very dangerous. I had no idea what was going to happen. I marched into Jerusalem expecting to fight armed zealots. But then I saw soldiers killing unarmed men and women and children. It was horrible. I shouted for them to stop, but there were too many, and it was too loud for them to hear me. They wouldn’t have stopped even if they had heard me. I panicked and ran into a house to hide….” He blushed. “And found little Leah hiding there. She looked at me with those innocent, frightened gray eyes, and I couldn’t let anything happen to her.”

Aunt Orpah still looked upset, but her eyes were a little less guarded now. She looked over at Leah, who nodded vigorously to support his story.

“Are you sure he wasn’t one of the men who killed your parents?”

“I’m sure.” Leah would well remember the faces of the men who had broken into their home, and Maximus’s face was not one of them.

Those soldiers had been filled with hatred for Jews, for people they didn’t even know. They’d been filled with the power they had, the power to do whatever they wanted to anyone they wanted. They’d been a cruel and guiltless mob.

Maximus might be Roman, but everything Leah had seen verified that he was more like her than he was like the Roman soldiers.

“If I had known they would murder innocent people, I’d never have joined the legion.” Maximus said softly. “Listen, now that I’ve brought your niece to you, I’ll leave. You’ll never have to see me again.”

“No!” Leah clutched his leg still harder and looked pleadingly at her aunt and uncle. “Can’t he stay too?”

Uncle Elijah put down the knife, but he narrowed his eyes at Maximus. “Let a Roman stay with us?”

He saved me.” Leah repeated.

Uncle Elijah turned to Aunt Orpah and raised an eyebrow. It had been her sister and brother-in-law who’d been killed. He was deferring to her on this.

Aunt Orpah was silent for a long, long time, studying both Leah and Maximus. All sorts of emotions flew across her face: grief, anger, and confusion.

Leah wished there was a way she could show her aunt how kind Maximus had been all this time, how he’d hidden her as they escaped Jerusalem, the tears in his eyes when he spoke of the massacre he’d witnessed. She met her aunt’s eyes, hoping, somehow, Aunt Orpah would be able to tell what she was thinking.

Leah’s aunt finally let out a breath and turned her tired eyes to Maximus. “There’s been enough death and misery. I don’t wish to create more. Because you saved my niece, you may stay with us…for now.

The unspoken message was clear: she didn’t fully trust him yet and would keep a close watch. But at least she was giving him a chance. Maximus smiled gratefully at the little girl who had interceded on his behalf.

Leah went over and hugged her aunt. “Thank you.”

Maximus nodded his thanks too. “I’ll help you with whatever chores need doing.”

It would take time for Maximus to be accepted by Leah’s relatives; they both knew that. But Leah had no doubt he’d win them over eventually.

The war between the Romans and Judeans promised to be a long and bloody conflict. Yet a small Jewish girl and a Roman soldier had saved each other’s lives, so perhaps there was still hope for peace. Someday.