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An Echo in the Darkness

By´╝ÜFrancine Rivers


Alexander Democedes Amandinus stood at the Door of Death waiting for the chance to learn more about life. Never having enjoyed the games, he had come reluctantly. Yet now he was transfixed by what he was witnessing, amazed into his very marrow. He stared at the fallen girl and felt an inexplicable triumph.

The mad intensity of the mob had always filled him with an unrest. His father had said some found release in watching violence done to others, and Alexander had thought of this when he had seen, on occasion, an almost sick relief in faces among the crowd. In Rome. In Corinth. Here, in Ephesus. Perhaps those who beheld the horrors were thankful to the gods that it was not they who faced the lions or a trained gladiator or some other more grotesque and obscene manner of death.

It was as though thousands came to find a catharsis in the bloodletting, that this embracing of planned mayhem protected each of them from the growing chaos of an increasingly corrupt and arbitrary world. No one seemed to notice that the stench of blood was no less strong than the stench of lust and fear permeating the very air they breathed.

Amandinus’ hands gripped the iron bars as he looked out upon the sand where the young woman now lay. She had come out from among the other victims—those who walked to their deaths—calm and strangely joyful. He could not look away from her, for he had seen in her something extraordinary, something that defied description. She had sung and, for the briefest moment, her sweet voice had drifted on the air.

The mob had overwhelmed that sweet sound, rising en masse as she had continued forward, walking across the sand serenely, straight toward Alexander. His heart had pounded harder with each step she took. She had been rather plain in appearance, and yet there had been a radiance about her, an aura of light surrounding her. Or had it just been his imagination? When the lioness had hit her, Alexander had felt the blow himself.

Now, two lions fought over her body. He winced as one beast sank its fangs deeply into her thigh and began to drag her away. The other lioness sprang, and the two rolled and clawed at one another.

A little girl in a ragged, soiled tunic ran screaming past the iron-gridded gate. Alexander gritted his teeth, trying to harden himself against the sound of those terrified cries. In trying to protect the girl, the child’s mother was taken down by a jewel-collared lioness. Alexander’s hands whitened on the iron-grated door as another lioness raced after the child. Run, girl. Run!

The sight of so much suffering and death assaulted and nauseated him. He pressed his forehead against the bars, his heart pounding.

He had heard all the arguments in favor of the games. The people sent to the arena were criminals, deserving of death. Those now before him belonged to a religion that encouraged the overthrow of Rome. Yet he couldn’t help but wonder if a society that murdered helpless children did not deserve to be undone.

The screams of the child sent a chill through Alexander’s body. He was almost grateful when the lioness’ jaws closed upon that small throat, extinguishing the sound. He let out his breath, hardly aware he had been holding it, and heard the guard behind him laugh harshly.

“Hardly a mouthful in that little one.”

A muscle jerked in Alexander’s jaw. He wanted to shut his eyes to the carnage before him, but the guard was watching now. He could feel the cold glitter of those hard dark eyes shining through the visor of the polished helmet. Watching him. He would not humiliate himself by showing weakness. If he was to become a good physician, he had to overcome his sensibilities and aversions. Hadn’t his teacher, Phlegon, warned him often enough?

“You have to harden yourself against those tender feelings if you are to succeed,” he’d said more than once, his tone ringing with disdain. “After all, seeing death is part of a physician’s lot in life.”

Alexander knew the older man was right. And he knew that, without these games, he would have no opportunity to further his studies of the human anatomy. He had gone as far as he could by studying drawings and writings. Only by performing vivisection could he learn more. Phlegon had been well aware of his aversion to the practice, but the old physician had been adamant, closing him in a trap of reason.

“You say you want to be a physician?” he had challenged. “Then tell me, good student, would you have a physician perform surgeries without firsthand knowledge of human anatomy? Charts and drawing are not the same as working on a human being. Be thankful the games give you such opportunity!”

Thankful. Alexander watched as, one by one, the victims went down until the horrific sounds of terror and pain were deadened by the relative quietude of feeding lions. Thankful? He shook his head. No, that was one thing he would never feel regarding the games.