Fire

Smyrna, Aegean Coast, Asia Minor

Late Autumn - 155 AD

Prologue

The faggots of wood they rushed to gather were selected so that they wouldn't burn too quickly; the mob hadn't been as entertained like this for ages - everyone wanted this fun to last!

 

When the pile was ready and dismissing any aid, he gently tried to lay aside his garments. After unloosing his girdle, he tried his best to unbind his sandals too, but his leg was so severely wounded from being thrown from the chariot that he only managed it by sitting down against the stake driven into the centre of the pyre. Finally, the guards jumped onto the pyre and bound him to the stake in the centre of the Arena, a hush fell upon the whole place, until the only sound was the constant whip-cracking of the banners in the wind.

 

Four men with wind-racked torches were positioned around the pyre, their eyes fixed on the Governor seated up high in his podium. He looked down at the men and raised his hand to signify his acceptance. Each of the men stepped forward and lit his assigned section of the pyre. 

 

Within a few minutes, the acrid wind-driven smoke had almost obscured the man on the stake from all view. After 15 minutes, he couldn't open his eyes anymore and even though his thoughts were racing ahead to what he would have to go through, time itself seemed to be slowing right down. His concentration became so acute and alert to the sounds around him that even the crackling twigs bursting beneath his feet were like tiny explosions of corn on a skillet.

 

He tensed himself for the pain but felt as if he was being held in a cocoon. He suddenly became aware that even in this bubble of chaos, something else was trying to get his attention. He let go of the pain in his body and focussed all he had and there - just above the noise, he fancied he could hear a pounding drum beat. As he attempted to focus his concentration, he heard the beat getting steadier, getting faster. Perhaps it was just his own heart, he thought, which by now was pumping hard enough to burst, but then came the tune. The melody hung and fell in the raging wind-swept air as if teasing him, trying to keep him focused.

 

Every nerve in his body seemed to strain to determine the tune, and he was just at the point of 'knowing what it was when a spasm of pain shuddered through his body. He tried to take the opportunity to relieve his position, but his swollen wrists were too well bound to the pole set behind him. Attempting to move, only succeeded in sending more drops of blood hissing onto the wood that was burning fiercely a few branches beneath him.

 

He was finding it hard to breathe, but the thought came to him that it couldn't end like this - indeed, he had to at least try to say something. But the smoke was so thick that every time he opened his mouth to take in enough air to speak, the only thing that came out was his racking coughs! 

 

"Please …," he finally managed to mumble as if in prayer, “Please don't let me fall now! Please let me know your strength in this hour of testing." And then, as if a light dawned in his mind, he wryly smiled and concluded, "I'm petrified Áppha, please come near and help me!"

 

As if on command, the raging smoke suddenly shot outwards on all sides and then gently came together to form into a hollow ring of a perfect circle over his head.  As the crowd watched in amazement, the hollow cloud then slowly moved down to hover just below his feet. The rising flames suddenly dropped down below the cloud, and even the popping logs quietened. 

 

A hush fell on the great Arena as the old man bound to the stake became clearly visible for everyone to see. He slowly lifted his head and after a bout of coughing, began rapidly blinking his eyes to clear his vision. Finally, he managed to keep them open - such eyes! They seemed to glow intently and appeared to take on everyone in the Arena at once. A gasp arose from the crowd, and many of them began shuffling backwards, making the signs against evil. 

 

A strange half-smile lit up his face, and now that he could breathe, the crowd managed to hear something from him other than his racking coughs.”

 

I ... want to ... forgive you," he managed to spurt out as he took in huge gulps of breath. At the sound of this, a burly giant of a man tried to rush forward as if to help. The man at the stake saw the giant and shouted out “NO!” The Archers also saw the movement and notching their weapons, looked to the Governor for the signal to fire.  

 

The Governor was puzzled by the giant; although he could have easily shrugged off the few feeble men and women attempting to restrain him, he obeyed the man at the stake and stayed his ground. In fact, he just bowed his head as if in final acceptance and fell to his knees sobbing. Two small boys ran to his side, and he gathered them to his chest.  

 

All those around the giant bowed their heads. Slowly moving lips and tear-filled eyes said it all. 

 

The Governor gave the signal for the Archers to stand down, and then as if at some unseen command, the cloud exploded upwards as licking flames suddenly erupted up like frenzied serpents. Each flaming strand seemingly frantically trying to find its way through the labyrinth of branches, sniffing for the body securely held to the stake, eager to dispel their burning venom.

 

Instead of the expected excruciating pain of burning, sudden joy flooded his very being. Gentleness replacing the cacophony of sounds, stillness replacing the smoky turbulence and crackling light ... peace.

 

Whether it was his God who answered him or his God's messenger who came — his prayer indeed received prompt attention. No wind blew, yet the volcanic flames gently parted all around him on all four sides, forming four huge columns.  

 

Later that evening, as people gathered together in their local taverns, each would seek to relive and voice their opinion about the events of the day over their cups of brackish wine or sweet Syrian beer. Each one of them offering to piece together something of what had happened. Each one trying somehow to take the floor with their particular version of what they had actually seen.

 

Over the coming weeks, many versions were circulated, with each one grander than the last. But one thing was strangely consistent — one thing they would all agree on. At the point where the flames found their way again through the smoke and began their frenzied dance upwards, 'something' had pushed its way right through the crowd and the soldiers surrounding the pyre, knocking many of them out of the way. This 'something' then went straight up to the platform and wrapped itself around him, protecting him from the raging flames and actually doused them!

*excerpt from KARP - Adventures and Angels - Book 1 ©

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