I stare up at the gray clouds with a realization daunting as a sea storm, I am about to be humiliated and die brutally in front of thousands of people. The pungent smell of blood rises from the sand beneath my feet, it soaks into my sandals. The roar of the massive crowd echoes across the arena, drowning the snarls of the caged lions to my right. Two gatekeepers stand near the barrier keeping the giant cats from entering the arena.
A scruffy legionary unsheathes a dagger and tilts it down, at my neck.
“This way. Move.” As I step closer to the Emperor’s stand I glance up at the crowds. Their mouths twist grotesquely, a thirst for death evident in their eyes. Their thunderous cries are repetitious, cruel and terrifying as they chant, “kill her, kill her.” The dark clouds move closer, the smell of a storm hangs in the air.
The soldier grabs my long braid and pulls me to the ground. Pain shoots up my knees, tears and sand sting my eyes. I glance up to see the Emperor, draped in purple and gold. His rings glint as he waves to the crowd. He stares down at me as he sinks into his seat. The man’s strong body, sharp jaw and deep eyes are famous for their ability to grab the hearts of the Romans, even a few Jewish women fell beneath his spell. I now see why. The Emperor, only a few years older than me, truly is beautiful.
The soldier slaps the back of my head, making me bite my tongue. “Don’t look at him until he asks you to.” Sand cakes my lips and mixes with the blood in my mouth. I look down at the dirt, humiliated, knowing my life is at the mercy of the Emperor.
The Emperor’s loud voice booms across the sands and into the stands. “Girl, you claim to follow the Way? This is your crime?”
I look up to match his gaze. “Yes.” Boos and hisses erupt from the crowd. A piece of rotten fruit is tossed at my head. It meets its target. The juice stings my eyes. I squeeze them shut. The soldier slaps my head again and tilts my chin up.
“Pay respect to your Emperor.” I force my eyes open.
The Emperor’s dark eyes casually study my tomato stained face, shredded tunic and bruised limbs. “Brutus, if you dare touch her once more I’ll feed you to the ravenous hippos.”
The legionary backed away from me. “Yes, my Lord.”
The Emperor’s eyes meet mine. “Beautiful girl, I have a proposition to make of you.” The sounds of the people grow quiet. I’ve never been in an arena such as this one but from the reaction of the crowd, I assume this doesn’t happen often.
I steady my rapidly increasing breaths. “Deny your faith and you will be granted the riches of my house, the pleasures of living with the Emperor of Rome. Who could deny such a generous proposition?” He makes a sweeping motion with his arm and the crowd roars to life.
His white teeth flash as he studies the crowd, still addressing me. “Just deny your ridiculous faith and it’s all yours.”
“Ketura! Ketura!” I search for the strained voice calling my name and see my older sister in the stands just below the Emperor. She leans over the seat in front of her, a terrified grimace plastered onto her chalked face. Another girl, dressed in Roman garb stands next to her, smirking.
“Choose him! Choose him! Don’t lose your life, gain it back!” I stare at my sister, her long hair twisted into a Roman knot, decorated so beautifully by the slaves of her powerful friend. She had been drawn away from the Way long ago when I first started taking interest in the legacy of the man-God named Yeshua.
I look at the top of my hands then study my palms. They have been crafted, not by rulers and their incentives but by a God who laid the patterns of the stars. The same God who gave His life for me. The same God who required the same from me.
The Emperor’s deep voice commands my attention, this time with less volume. “Look at me.”
“Your God asks too much of you. Come, be with me. I will ask much less and give so much more. My only objective is your delight.” I ignore my sister’s excited screams and study the elaborate, gold embroidery on his tunic, his strong arms and the golden crown nestled in his dark hair. He is a picture of health and beauty, a quintessential symbol of the all-powerful Rome. The arena is silent. Women and men alike lean over the sides of the railings, waiting for my answer.
“I… I can’t.”
His eyes darken. “You think you can deny god what is already his?”
I swallow the blood and dust in my mouth. “I serve only one God and you are not him.” The Emperor looks at me with those deep eyes, shaking his head. He rises to address the crowd.
“What should be done to her?”
The stunned silence quickly morphs into hissing, booing and spitting. More throw rotten fruit and vegetables are thrown from the stands. The same death sentence once screamed over me returns with great fervor, “kill her, kill her, kill her!”
The Emperor feigns pity. “Well, my beauty. What a waste. The people have spoken. Guards, release the beasts.”
“You’re as stupid as they come.” The soldier standing beside me snarls before jogging to an exit nearby. The gatekeepers unlatch the iron bars keeping the animals at bay. The cats scramble onto the sand, one lioness’s eyes scan the arena then lock on me. Screams of approval erupt from the crowd. My knees lock, drops of rain splatter onto my exposed shoulders. I stand slowly and lift my arms into the air. The cat approaches me, licking its lips. I look at the Emperor, on his face is a sardonic grin.
My sister’s excited screams have turned into wailing. “Ketura! No!” I turn to face her, taking one last look.
“Sister, choose life! Remember what Abba used to teach us. You have to die so you can live.” A piercing pain overtakes my shoulder. I scream as the beast pulls me onto my back. Hot, wet breath hovers over me, the smell of hell itself.
As I scream to the heavens, water fills my nose and mouth. “Elohim! Your will be done.”
Another stab of pain takes over my leg, then the other leg, then my neck. I fade from the darkness, the pain and mud into the most brilliant of lights. Bright, shining beams of light that reverberate through my skin and into the air around me. All is still. Singing. Melodious and joyful sounds surround me. Warmth spreads through my stomach and into my heart. There is no more pain, no more suffering. I laugh. I start to sing. The warmth deepens and spreads through my entire body. I feel someone approaching my right and turn.
A figure, dressed in white robes emerges from the light. In his hand is a crown, bright and brilliant. It is more beautiful than anything worn by the prestigious of Rome. The tall man places it on my head and holds my face with strong hands. His eyes hold galaxies. I collapse in his embrace and weep as he holds me.
“Well done my girl, well done. Your life has just begun.”