When history goes off course, can it be nudged back? Many believed that the second coming of Jesus Christ would occur around 1000 AD, but Armageddon failed to happen as scheduled.
For in 1000 AD, the long-lived, Amaranthine thirteenth apostle (chosen to replace Judas), set off on a perilous journey across Europe with a priceless and powerful treasure—twelve parchment scrolls inscribed by the twelve apostles. Matthias knows that if the scrolls can be read at the proper time at Glastonbury Tor in England, their powers will be initiated. History will be rewritten and the world would be restored to the glorious state originally envisioned by his Lord and God.
But Matthias is not the only one who knows what the power of the scrolls can do—nor is he the only ancient being with an agenda. All of the Amaranthine clans know that if the scrolls are ever put to use, they and their primordial families will disappear, as if they had never existed…
What is the price they—and the rest of humanity—will pay for postponing Armageddon?
Postponing Armageddon was a finalist in the 2011 Anywhere But Here, Anywhen But Now contest for aspiring Fantasy debut novelists, sponsored by Sir Terry Pratchett and Transworld Publishers.
“A most unusual and intriguing story which engages the reader like the very best fast-paced murder mysteries, with a new twist that slightly alters biblical and natural history in order to make a good fantasy. First rate entertainment!” — Carol Marrs Phipps, Carol & Tom Phipps Fantasy Blog and on Goodreads
“Set against a rich, seamless backdrop of history, fantasy, and hidden agendas, Adele Abbot takes you on a fantastic journey in this well-crafted, relentless page-turner that will leave you questioning the nature of fate and faith. Well done!” — Clint Talbert, author, The Last Stand of Daronwy
“A taut tale woven from rumors of Christ’s Apostles, lost biblical manuscripts, ancient beings and plenty of action as the journey unfolds. Abbot uses a crisp writing style replete with compact scenes, well-defined characters, and a compelling plot that elicits curiosity about her alternate history. It kept me reading, that’s for sure!” — Phillip Tomasso, author, Sounds of Silence
We left the barracks and began walking down to the gate. The auxiliaries were already there when we arrived, as well as the regulars making up our maniple. Max and I, and his men, had enlisted in the Roman Legions some years before. Max considered joining forces a far better strategy than fighting and resisting this implacable military empire.
There was much for all of us to learn.
We waited for them to bring the prisoner out—and waited, and waited. It’s what all soldiers have done since the beginning of time; we’ve become quite good at it.
“I’m not looking forward to this, Max,” I said to him quietly. “Too many of the population think he’s a God.”
Max made a rude noise and bent to adjust a boot lace. “Too many gods around, too many.”
“You know them personally?”
“Some,” he said, and stopped in the middle of tying a knot, thinking his great slow thoughts.
Max for short, Maximus was his chosen name—Latin for Big. Max was built like a Roman bath house and had been around since before I was born. As far as I knew, no one had any idea where he came from or perhaps nobody was telling. He looked primitive, as though he had been built by a God who was working on his skills.
Max had overheard my thoughts, a habit that I occasionally found disturbing.
“Where you think we from?” he asked suddenly.
“You? Or all of us?”
I shrugged and buckled my belt. “Some god molded you from clay, perhaps. Then he breathed life into what he’d fashioned. Must have taken a very big puff.” I grinned.
Max snorted and shook his head, draining the last of his cup of water. “We come from beyond Egypt. Beyond Nubia. Like your kind, only before. Many, many gen’rations before you.” He stopped and frowned, great brow ridges folding up like a plowed field. “Don’t think a god made us; I never saw any at beginning. Seen enough since… big ones, small ones.”
“Gods or people?”
“So all of us came from Africa?”
He nodded slowly. “We come, not many, very few—twenty hun’red maybe. Like you,” he tapped me hard on the chest and left his finger there, in contact with my flesh; suddenly he sounded clearer, better words. “Like you, Gerard, we do not die except through accident.”
“You just walked out of Africa? A whole tribe?”
Max nodded. “Remember journey. Ver’ long.”
“Why? Why leave Africa?”
Max looked round at me. “Too hot. For us, big, growing too hot. We all came, whole nation, no seen brothers for many cent’ry. Maybe all dead now.”
Max lifted his shoulders and let them fall, his big mail shoulder plates rising and falling with a ringing sound, then nodded. “Listen me.” He put fingers on the back of my hand and he spoke to me, mind to mind, again. “Your kind came later, first a few then many thousand. You multiplied, you covered the world. And we… mix us together.”
Clearly, Max was not satisfied with his choice of words.
“We put ourselves into you. We made the Families We chose the finest of you and gave you our best gift.”
“Ah!” I said, a long, drawn-out breath.
He moved his hand. “For us, too few children. So we give your kind a gift, long lives like us… us Amaranthines. Why you call me Uncle?” he asked suddenly.
I shook my head. “Everybody does.”
“No. Your Family only, Ger’d, just yours. Reason is, I your uncle, for real. We make many families. I make yours.” He frowned.” Held out a hand. “Ten hands.”
“Fifty? You made fifty men?”
Max nodded. “Men and women. Live all over. Some die, others grow big, make more.” He put his hand back on mine so I could understand his thoughts. “We make you, understand? We make new children, to start the Families. Different from the rest.”
There was movement at the front of the Praetorium and the fellow was brought out.
“Here we go, Max. Put half your numeri ahead, the rest of us will follow. Any trouble…”
Max smacked his scabbard with a hard hand.
* * *
We marched towards the western gate; the sun was just rising above the Temple walls. Its red beams threw our shadows, dark and long, before us, and curls of steam lifted from the damp pavements. It was going to be a long, hot day. There was a suggestion of stink from the drain down the center of the street, too.
Bedding and covers were hanging over the balconies of higher buildings and people leaned on them to watch us passing below. Others regarded us from the windows of lower stories, from doorways and alley ways.
A group of legionaries led by one of my decuriones was stationed just in front of the condemned man; I was a couple of dozen paces behind the squad and strung out behind me were another fifty or so men. Both groups covered each side of the street, eyes peeled for any sign of trouble.
Everywhere sounded voices; some strident, some low; muttering—complaining, arguing: a many-throated beast which might lie supine or suddenly snarl and harass without warning. I was ready for anything, from pushing and rough behavior to a hail of stones to a coordinated attack. The anarchist had a following across Jerusalem and well beyond the city. However, there was nothing more than a bunch of citizens keeping pace with us. A few women, weeping and wailing—one of them even gave him her veil to wipe his forehead. It was a depressing sight but there was no rioting, not even a mass swooning or a rush to embrace him. Somewhere along the way, someone—probably one of my legionaries—had made a circlet of thorn twigs and pushed it on his head: a crown of thorns. He bled now from his scalp as well as from the scourging he’d received.
We were a quarter mile from the gate when he stumbled and the burden he carried went crashing down onto the feet of the on-lookers who were pressed too closely about him. I ran up the street and grabbed one of those who was keeping pace with him.
“Back, back, all of you. And you—” I shook the arm of the young man I had seized, “—take up the cross and carry it for him.” The fellow obeyed without question, looking at me first then trying to lift the heavy thing from the other’s back. He wasn’t going to manage it.
I tapped another couple on their shoulders with my vine-staff. “You two, give him a hand.” And again, it was as though my order had been foreordained or perhaps—for once—I looked the part of a centurion. I was often accused of being too young to exercise that sort of authority but I had grown my beard and even thinned out my hair to give me a semblance of maturity. It could be hard work being one of the Amaranthines.
We went on with no more pause than that—as long as it takes to draw a handful of breaths.
My Uncle Max had a century of his own men at the gate itself—Max and his men were officially part of the Roman Army and therefore under my control here. They came from tribes that lived up in the Alpine mountains—Max’s Little Legion was well known and respected. He made a sign to me, a drinking motion and pointed to the sweating Nazarene. I nodded to Max and he dipped a cup in the fountain and offered it to the prisoner.
There was a moment’s surprise before the cup was taken, a pause as the water was drunk and then, “Thank you, friend.” The voice was low and courteous, a little slow and tired, perhaps.
We reached the place of execution without incident. They called it Golgotha because, so it was said, it had the look of a skull. That needed more imagination than I had; to me, it just looked like an unpleasant stretch of bare hillside, well suited to its purpose: a place of execution.
The bearers laid down the cross. One of the legionaries wrote a sign and nailed it to the top of the crucifix while the criminal was stripped of jewelry and clothing and as tools were made ready.
I looked at it: Jesus of Nazareth—King of the Jews. “Very droll, Aulus. Didn’t know you could write.”
The legionary looked up and checked my expression. He saw I was not going to bawl him out and grinned. “Just practicing, Sir.”
The man was stretched out on the crucifix, and in short order his wrists and ankles were nailed down. Unlikely though it seems, he did not cry out, not a sound beyond an in-drawn gasp for breath. The willpower he showed was remarkable; I was astounded. The same, too, when they lofted the cross upright and his full weight came onto his wrists, not a sound and silent still while they jockeyed it around and dropped it into one of the holes bored into the limestone rock.
* * *
The rest of the day went as these things do, though extraordinarily quickly. The legionaries had a bit of cruel fun with the dying men and they auctioned off their clothes and possessions. In fact, the one they mischievously named “the King” had a particularly fine cloak—they placed wagers for the garment, not wanting to tear it into smaller parts for sale.
By mid-afternoon—around the ninth hour, the would-be Messiah was dead. I was not convinced and got one of my men to poke him in the ribs with a spear before I sent word to the Governor. Life had definitely fled. The same legionary went to let Pilate know.
Our orders were to stay on until the twelfth hour. One of the Sanhedrin, a Joseph of Harimathea, has permission to take possession of the body. We were to stay until he was done.
* * *
Heavy cloud hid the sky most of that afternoon and as the hour grew later, it became darker still and cooler. I had a brazier lit to dispel the gloom and sent most of my legionaries back to barracks. Max was still with us, but I had dismissed his men some time before.
The other two condemned were still alive and groaning; the noise did not put me in a charitable mood. And when, eventually, a small group of people arrived with a ladder and a pry bar and were making more noise than was strictly necessary. I was rather curt with them. Joseph identified himself to me: he was a wealthy Jew and a follower of the dead man. I told him to get on with his business.
Manhandling a corpse from a ladder in the darkness is not the easiest of tasks to perform, especially when nails have to be pulled out and too many eager hands are trying to assist. An accident was almost inevitable and Joseph slipped off the ladder and sprained his ankle. Maybe he had broken it, I wasn’t sure and I didn’t care much either.
Max, on the other hand, who wasn’t normally sympathetic toward others, helped him stand. He pulled a branch from a nearby bush and with his thick, calloused fingers, stripped it of twigs and thorns and thrust it into the older man’s hand. Joseph smiled and thanked him, patted Maximus’s arm and hobbled carefully off to his friends.
“Succ’ro le’ma… he’p them,” said Max in mangled Latin.
He tried again in Germanic. “I help them lift. Has tomb for dead one.”
“Fine, Max, fine.”
Speech was one of Max’s stumbling blocks. His mouth had not been made for language. Nevertheless, he persisted and could usually make himself understood in one language or another.
* * *
Max and I got back to the garrison about midnight. We warmed a measure of vinegary wine to help the dry bread go down and sat close to the fire still guttering in the hearth.
“What have you there, Max?”
He showed me. “Spec’lum. One of dead man’s frien’s gave me. Frien’ like you.”
I wasn’t certain what he meant by that. He liked me? He was like me? A fellow centurion?
Max passed it to me. It was a mirror, two pieces hinged together. Both sides were cloudy when I looked at them, as though I’d breathed over the two halves. “From the Families,” he added.
That surprised me and I wondered who he meant until I looked at the mirror and forgot his last remark. As I looked at it, the left hand side cleared; it showed Max as I was thinking of him; shaggy, bulging brows, and teeth like temple altars. Then the right hand side came into focus. It was Max again; but a very different Max. He could have passed as a senator: noble brow, tightly curled hair, well-barbered beard; scheming and duplicity written in every crease and furrow.
“Keep,” he said. “No good to Max.”
“Know already.” Max winked slowly and went to his bunk, while his urbane image faded slowly from the polished bronze.
He had been playing with my head.