“To Him Who Overcomes” by Laura Juve

Excerpt from He Who Testifies

Pressure shifting against Prinneira’s legs awoke her. She hadn’t meant to sleep, she realized, as her eyes flew open. She carefully maneuvered till she sat upright, managing not to disturb the little girl who slept sprawled across her shins. In the dim light she strained to make out her husband’s face as she anxiously cradled him in her arms.

“James,” she whispered hopefully, pushing a few of her loose golden locks behind her ear.

She cast her eyes around their murky cell, taking in the cramped proportions, the lumpy heaps of moldy-smelling straw that littered the floor here and there, the shadowy iron bars that coldly confined her small family, and the one tiny window that let in a small rectangle of light and showed her the world at the level of the moonlit street. Prinneira drew a quiet breath and coughed softly, trying to cleanse her lungs of the dull, rusty odor of the bars, and the musty smell of damp rock.

“James. Please wake up.” Her pale, slender fingers gently sought out the knot a Lathantien club had left above his temple. “Darling?”

James stirred under her hand, a painful breath exhaling from his mouth.  Prinneira’s heart leaped hopefully.  She supported him with her left arm, cupping her right hand against his face.

“James, my love, are you awake?”

Slowly, his dark head nodded.

“Thank God!” she exclaimed softly. “You scared the wits out of me.  Do you think you can sit up?”

She felt his shoulders shrug stiffly.

“Well, don’t try just yet. Do you remember what happened?” Prinneira stroked her husband’s dark hair. “We’re in prison. The soldiers came, remember? They found our meeting right after Philip’s baptism.  They captured the three of us. I don’t know whether all the others escaped, though.”

James found her wrist and gripped it.

“Yes, James,” Prinneira affirmed reluctantly. Her voice trembled a little. “They took Faith, too. She’s here with us.” She sat silently for a moment, and then bent to kiss James on the forehead. “I am almost certain Rugel and Tegwyn are safe, though. I thank God for that.”

James nodded, bringing her hand to his face and kissing it. He squeezed it a little tighter.

“I’m not hurt,” she assured him. “I don’t think Faith is, either. She was screaming and fighting like mad when they threw us in here. Yes, can you imagine – our sweet little Faith?” She smiled, and took another survey of their cell. “I don’t know how long we’ve been in here.  Since midday yesterday, of course, but I don’t know what time it is now. I fell asleep after several hours. Faith is sleeping, too; back to her quiet, peaceful self.”
James moved to push himself up.

“Careful,” Prinneira cautioned, helping steady him while trying not to disturb Faith’s slumber. “Are you sure you should be sitting already?”  James pressed her hand, leaning beside her against the rough, cold, stone wall. Prinneira rested against his shoulder, his arm around her, for several silent, contented moments.

“I started praying as soon as they put us in here,” she told James finally. “Will you keep praying with me?” James took her other hand, and they bent their heads together.

*  *  *

“We pray, if it be in accordance with Your will, that You deliver them, Father.  Please. Preserve the lives of our friends. They are your children, and our brother and sisters. Spare them, Father, please.”

“Amen. Amen!” Tegwyn fervently agreed as the two knelt secretly together in the moonlight. “Do not let the enemy triumph!”

“The enemy will not triumph,” Rugel told his Thendaren wife with certainty, raising his head. “The Lord God will be victorious. He always is.”

“His children have been put to death throughout the ages,” Tegwyn contended agitatedly, swallowing hard and clenching her hands into fists to keep them from shaking.

“That does not mean victory for Satan’s kingdom.” Rugel pulled her to her feet and put his arms around her as tears rose in her eyes. She bit her lip hard, half fearful and half angry. “You know that the deaths of Christ-followers can be used to glorify God,” he reminded her steadily.  “They send a powerful testimony the enemy can never destroy.”

“I know God in Heaven will have victory,” Tegwyn fiercely whispered, trying to will the tears to stop. She gripped a handful of Rugel’s sleeve till she felt her nails against her palm through the fabric. “But I want them to live!” She stopped fighting herself and sobbed.

“I know, Tegwyn,” Rugel quietly replied. He smoothed his wife’s blond hair gently, sheltering her in his arms. “But we must trust the Father to do what is best for His own. You know we cannot demand our will in this – only that God does what will bring Him glory, and further the Kingdom.”

*  *  *

Prinneira and James watched the orange stain of the sunrise steal across the hostile floor of their cell, warming and brightening it. Faith stirred and frowned as light crept over her closed eyes.

“If I had not come to Lathantium to help spread the Word,” Prinneira whispered fondly, grasping her husband’s fingers, “I would never have met you. Do you ever think about that? When I realize all the wonderful things I would have missed, I often wonder how miserable and lonely my life would be right now if I had listened to my father and all my family who forbade me to leave home.”

In the glow of the dawn, James pulled forward the wax-covered tablet that hung around his neck, and took the wooden stylus that dangled from it by a cord. But if you had not . . . he began to etch.

“Don’t even think that,” Prinneira rebuked, taking the tablet from him and smudging out the words with her thumb. “Don’t tell me I would be safe and happy now if I had stayed, instead of in prison. I am happy now. I would be happy to be anywhere with you.” She nestled her head against his shoulder. “I only wish Faith were not in here, too,” she whispered. James leaned his head against hers.

Nothing can happen to her that God in Heaven does not know, he wrote in the wax. After squinting to make out the words, Prinneira smiled a little.

“You’re right.” She sighed quietly. “She’s just so young. She’s only ten.” Then she straightened. “But I am so thankful she is the Lord’s.  I’m thankful to have found her, and you. And you know what else?”  James shook his head. “If your throat hadn’t been cut when you were a boy, you would still have your voice. And then, having words to communicate with, you might not have had such a beautiful smile and expressive face, through which I saw the light and love of God shining.  Then, who knows?  I might not have fallen in love with you – or, at least not so quickly.” She smiled as James kissed the top of her head. “God has directed us faithfully all our lives. I trust Him now to guide our circumstances to whatever end.”

Even to – James stopped writing as Faith finally woke with a small groan, and sat up, rubbing sleep from her eyes.

“Ouch,” she remarked, looking around at the walls of their prison.  “Are we still in here, Mother?”

Prinneira rose stiffly to her knees on the cold, hard floor and leaned forward to hug Faith.

“Yes, darling. But Father is awake now.”

“Father!” Faith scrambled to throw her arms around James’ neck in glee. “We were worried about you. Those soldiers hit you with a big club. It must have hurt!”

Grinning, James scooted gingerly into the beam of light in the center of the floor, Faith crawling after him. When they could see clearly, he wrote on his tablet: Not until I woke up!

“Aww,” Faith exclaimed sympathetically.

The dark-haired Lathantien child very carefully and gently kissed the purple lump on her adopted father’s head. “Better?”

Perfect!

“I wonder if they’ll feed us in here?” Prinneira mused. Out of curiosity, she went to the window and stood on tiptoe to see out. Only a few feet and wheels moved, those of the early street vendors and their carts.  She turned away and rejoined her family in the warm streak of light, kneeling and cupping her elbows in her cold hands. “What do you think will happen to us?”

* * *

“We need to do something to help them!” Tegwyn entreated the hidden assembly.

“How can we help?” Fleer asked, as serious and civil as Tegwyn had ever seen the girl.

“I don’t know; but, thanks to Samuel, we know what cell they are in.  It’s the second from the left end, following the prison wall along the street—”

“What is there to do?” Moriah interrupted critically. “Do you seriously believe we could break them out of a Lathantien prison?  Or maybe kneel in the street pushing bread through their little barred window, while perhaps soldiers gather around, wondering what we’re doing and how we’re connected to the prisoners?  This is not a light situation, and it is made worse by the fact that Prinneira is Thendaren!” She folded her arms, frowning.

“But we cannot abandon them,” Rugel stated with a firmness that left no room for dissention. “That much I agree with.  If there is no way to smuggle them out of captivity, then we can surely send encouragement to them secretly – write a message of hope. Let them know they are not forgotten. They will not be forgotten.”

“I want to go,” Tegwyn begged her husband.

“Absolutely not,” Rugel forbade her, shaking his head with finality.  “You are not to be seen anywhere. Nor am I,” he added more softly.  “Nor is Philip.”

“I will go,” Samuel volunteered. “I can get it to them the same way I found their cell.”

“Samuel,” said Rugel gravely, “I know that Herrick is your brother, and that is a powerful bond. But is he also a soldier of Lathantium, and that, too, is a strong loyalty. I don’t want you to take a risk you shouldn’t.”

“I know Herrick is not yet one of us,” Samuel pressed on earnestly, “but he is searching, Rugel. I believe he is close. I can’t think that he would betray us. Please let me take the message. If he does, as you fear, choose the government over me, then there will be no one lost but myself.  But I do not believe that will happen. Please let me go, Rugel.”

Rugel stared wordlessly at the ground for several moments. “I can’t stop you,” he finally allowed. “May God go with you, my brother.”

Tegwyn took her husband’s arm. “May I at least write to them?” she pled.
“Of course, my Tegwyn. I think they would appreciate that most of all.” Rugel grasped her hand warmly. “Just be sure not to put your name to it.  Remember. None of our names.”

* * *

“Look, Mother!” Faith whispered loudly, eyes fixed on the distorted shadow of a person making its wavering way across the torchlit stones toward their cell. “Is it a soldier?”

Her father took her in his arms, and the family turned to face their barred door. She heard her mother’s voice breathing words steadily, but couldn’t make out the meaning. A tall man stopped at their cell and studied them for a moment, his face cast partly into shadow by the small torch he held in his right hand. The half that the light illumined stared at them gravely with a dark eye, crooked nose, grim mouth, and cleft jaw. The man wore a red and gray tunic, marked on the chest with a black ram’s head – just like the uniforms of the men who had attacked at Philip’s baptism. Faith felt a faint shudder touch her stomach, but the peace and strength of her parents seemed to wash over onto her and soak warmly into her soul.

“You’re friends of my brother, aren’t you?” the man whispered hoarsely, still watching. “He joined your party, and took another name.  A foreign name.”
“Samuel,” Mother replied softly. “Yes. He took a name from the Word at his baptism, as many of the believers do for their protection.”

“I don’t know everything about this sect of yours,” the man muttered, taking a step closer, “but I know it isn’t worth losing your lives over. For my brother’s sake I want to help you. Listen. You must give up this belief of yours. Or, if you won’t, you only have to say you do.  When you come before the magistrate, just pretend to renounce your faith in this Jesus. They will release you, and none of you need to be hurt. That’s all I can do for you. Take my advice and do this. Save your lives.” He peered sharply through the iron bars. “Your God doesn’t want you to die, does He?”

“Have you ever read any of the Word, Herrick?” Mother asked. The man impassively shook his head. Father had taken his wooden stick and inscribed something on his wax tablet. Mother read it in the muted light, and smiled. “The book of Romans, in the fourteenth chapter, the seventh and eighth verses, says, ‘For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.’” Faith’s heart burned at the words of God, spoken in her mother’s calm voice.

“So keep on living for your Lord,” the man urged, a little impatiently. “I’m offering you your way out!”

“We cannot accept it,” Mother decisively answered for them all.  “We cannot deny our Savior and Lord for anything this world may offer.  Our help comes from the living God.”

Father wrote another reference.

“The sixty-eighth Psalm,” Mother went on, “the nineteenth and twentieth verses, says, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears our burden, The God who is our salvation. God is to us a God of deliverances; And to GOD the Lord belong escapes from death.’” Mother gazed steadily at the soldier. “If our God should desire us to live, He will bring it about without allowing His name to be betrayed, or His witness to be put to shame.”

“But what if that’s the way He brings about your deliverance?” the soldier insisted. He pushed his torch into an iron ring next to the cell door. “What if you are ignoring the escape He offers?”

“That will never be the way of God,” Mother stated unwaveringly.  Father gripped her hand proudly.  She quoted Daniel 3:17–18 without even a prompt from him. “‘If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” The man knit his thick, black brows.  “Those words were spoken by three servants of God who faced death by fire for refusing to compromise their faith,” Mother explained peacefully. “We, likewise, cannot even consider such a thing.”

The man thought for several moments.  “Did the three burn?”

“No. God delivered them from death,” Mother told him.

“And you expect the same?”

Mother smiled softly. Faith drew glowing comfort from watching the gentle face, half in shadow and half in torchlight, radiating the glory of God.
“We expect God’s will to be done. That is all we ask for.” Her arm encircled Faith’s thin shoulders. “If He wishes us to live, then we will live for Christ.  If He wishes to bring us home to Him, then it shall be our gain.”

The man stared at them in bewilderment for one moment longer.  “Do what you like then,” he finally muttered gruffly. “I can’t force you to listen to sense.”

“Thank you for your concern for us,” Mother said quietly.

The man turned and strode out of the light.

* * *

James opened his eyes to look toward the door as Faith finished her simple, sweet prayer. Samuel’s brother Herrick stood there once again.

“Not supposed to do this,” the soldier whispered, thrusting a loaf between the bars. “Don’t leave any crumbs.”

“Thank you so much!” Prinneira gratefully whispered as James accepted the bread and brought it back to his family. “God bless you, Herrick!”

“It’s for my brother,” Herrick mumbled. “Not you. You’re a crazy lot.”
“We thank you all the same.” Prinneira tore a quarter from the round loaf and gave it to Faith. James watched contentedly as the hungry child cheerfully filled her stomach.

“And I’m really not supposed to do this,” the soldier spoke up again, in a voice James could barely make out. “But, like I said, it’s for my brother.” He tossed a small roll of paper onto the floor of their cell and quickly left. Prinneira retrieved the note and brought it to her husband.

“It’s from the brothers,” she whispered in excitement. She squinted at the paper, holding it close to the barred door to catch the light from the torch Herrick had left for them earlier. “It’s written very small, and there isn’t much.” Her family gathered at her sides. “It says, ‘All our love and prayers are with you. Be faithful until death, and He will give you the crown of life.’ Then here it says, ‘1 Peter 2:14-15.’ And then, ‘Isaiah 12:2.’ And under that is ‘Hebrews 13:6.’ Then they write, ‘He who testifies . . .’ oh, James, it’s Revelation 22:20! It’s our verse!  Tegwyn wrote this. I know she did!”

James laid a warning hand on Prinneira’s shoulder. The three froze, listening closely, and then scrambled back to sit against the wall.  James slipped the tiny, precious note from Prinneira’s fingers, pushed it into his mouth, chewed it until he could taste the sooty ink running, and then removed the mangled scrap and hid it beneath a clump of straw.  A soldier stopped before their cell – a soldier who was not Herrick.  With a clanking bunch of keys he unlocked the barred door, jerking it open with a screech of rusted iron.

“Get out,” he roughly commanded.

James led the way, gripping his wife’s hand. Faith clung to Prinneira’s other hand, trailing along behind them.

“Up the stairs. Move it!” their guard barked. He herded them out into the bright sunlight, past throngs of Lathantiens, all staring – some curious, most hostile, and several jeering.  A few spit in their direction.  James pulled Prinneira close, and she in turn tried to shelter Faith. A withered apple flew past them.

As the three ascended the bleached, splintered wooden steps leading to the magistrate’s seat, 2 Corinthians 4:17 ran through his mind:  For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison . . .

* * *

Samuel dragged at Rugel’s elbow as the man and his Thendaren wife hurried down the street, their faces hidden beneath shadowy hoods.

“Neither of you should be here!” he hissed anxiously. “Please, Rugel, you need to leave!”

“No one will spot us in the crowd,” Rugel replied quietly, not breaking his gait. Tegwyn determinedly trotted by his side. “Their full attention is elsewhere. And we must see our brother and sisters.”

* * *

The black-robed magistrate glared sternly at the three “believers” – a pathetic lot. A mute man, his foreign wife, and their skinny little surrogate daughter. They all claimed the new, unlawful faith, according to the case open before him. Ridiculous, foreign tripe – fit only for traitors, outcasts, and fools.

“You stand accused of high treason against the sovereign state of Lathantium, by virtue of your propagation of a most vile and false heresy,” he snapped impatiently. “However, I am authorized to grant you amnesty, on the condition that you recant your misguided faith in this fictitious God, and renounce anything to do with His Son.” He glared at the three offenders. “Turn around, and declare to the world that you have no part or share in this Christ – and we will be merciful.”

The scrawny, dumb man had all this while been scratching a wooden stick over a thin slab of wood that hung from his neck.

“‘We cannot, and we will not, for anything you offer us,’” the woman read it aloud, when he had finished. “‘We must refuse your conditions.’”

“Then you all will die!” the magistrate shouted. The three regarded him serenely, hardly blinking. “You will choose to die?” he asked in a more moderate tone. Perhaps they had misunderstood. Witless trash.

The man nodded his head without hesitation. His wife answered, “Yes, rather than abandon our Lord, who gave everything for us.”

The magistrate gaped at them for a moment. “You are fools!” he finally blurted.

“Yes,” the foreign woman agreed, smiling a little. “Fools for Christ’s sake; the scum of the world, and the dregs of all things, as the Word says.”

“And what other folly does this Word contain?” he baited her.

“Wisdom, sir. Truth and comfort. As it says in 1 Timothy, the first chapter, twelfth verse, ‘For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.’”

The woman regarded him steadily as she spoke, her voice so soft, but so strong. The magistrate quickly glanced away from her penetrating blue gaze, only to find the dark eyes of the man and the child upon him as well. A strange, queasy feeling touched his stomach, but he forced it away angrily. How dare these people defy him like this?

“You will cling to this belief, even if you give your lives for it?” he clarified one more time.

“The eighth chapter of Romans, the eighteenth verse, says that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us,’” the woman declared in reply. “And Proverbs fourteen, the thirty-second verse, says, ‘The wicked is thrust down by his wrongdoing, But the righteous has a refuge when he dies.’  Oh, my friend,” she begged suddenly, looking with genuine, earnest love at their judge, “won’t you please listen? Will you not share our refuge – the blood of our Lord, which covers all our sins?  The blood of Jesus Christ?”

A piercing chill seized the magistrate’s spine. He smashed his fist against his desktop violently, jumping to his feet in rage.

“How dare you try to proselytize me? You all will die! Take them away!” he screamed, unable to even look at the three. Some strange, horrible power emanated from them. He couldn’t stand another moment of it. “Get them out of my sight!  Kill them!”

Execution drums slowly began to pound and the escort laid hold of the criminals, dragging them roughly across the wooden platform and down the steps, leaving the magistrate standing, shuddering.

* * *

“It’s the archers for them,” Samuel whispered, pale-faced. “Oh, no.  Not Herrick.”

* * *

Herrick stared in dismay at the three prisoners as he and two other archers marched to fulfill their duty. How had it come to this? He could scarcely meet the eyes of the young woman in the middle, though he stood directly across from her – the yellow-haired, soft-voiced woman who had spoken so tranquilly to him in prison.

Sorry, he mouthed wretchedly. I’m sorry.

“It’s all right.” She spoke aloud, addressing all three of the executioners. A serene resolve shone from her eyes. “We forgive you. We love you.”

* * *

“Rugel, can’t we do something?” Tegwyn whispered desperately, heart burning wildly.

“Not now,” he soberly told her. He held her against him with both arms. “Only God can work now.”

* * *

Inexplicable joy flooded Faith’s heart and soul as she stood waiting, listening to the throbbing of the drums pick up speed.

“Mother,” she cried, clasping her mother’s hand with both her own.  “Why do they call it ‘death’s door’?”  Eyes shining bright with wonder, she squeezed her hand even more tightly as a shiver of excitement ran through her. “Oh, Mother, no. We are at the gates of Heaven!”

* * *

The youngest archer, about to carry out his first execution, licked his dry lips and eyed the short, thin little girl opposite him. Guilt and horror burdened his heart till he felt he almost couldn’t keep hold of his crossbow. The little child, though, gazed eagerly back at him through dark, twinkling eyes. An irrepressible smile spread across her face, and he heard a gleeful giggle escape her mouth.

“Oh, Jesus!” she cried in ecstasy. “Make him know Your joy, too!”

The young man quaked at her words.

* * *

Prinneira’s heartbeat seemed to accelerate with the tone of the drums.  She could hardly stand the wait. She gripped James’ hand as tightly as she could. “I love you so much,” she whispered. He leaned down to kissed her head soundly. With his free hand, he jerked on his tablet, snapping the string around his neck. Flashing a grin of freedom at his wife, James let the token of his earthly body fall from his hand and clatter emptily to the cobbled street.

“Raise bows!” shouted the captain, who stood off to the side.

“Oh, my Father,” Prinneira sighed, watching the short row of dark crossbows slowly level and take aim, “Thank You! Thank You.” Her heart felt like bursting from the overwhelming bliss. Thinking once more of Tegwyn, she tipped back her head and shouted their verse to the world.

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming quickly.’  Amen! COME, LORD JESUS!”

* * *

Her cry stole the blood from Herrick’s heart.

“Fire!”

* * *

The arrows flew.  Tegwyn hid her face against her husband’s shoulder.

* * *

Rugel held her tightly, his intent eyes never leaving the scene. The crowd had fallen deathly silent. “Lord Jesus, receive them,” he reverently prayed.

* * *

Herrick stared at what his hands had done, in both dread and wonder. He could not tear his eyes from the three peaceful, still-smiling faces. Light lingered in their countenances, undying. Herrick felt his knees shake under him. The woman’s victorious words rang still in his head.

“Glory to God,” he whispered in awe.

Copyright 2010 Laura Juve

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