“Where have you been?” someone passing by shouted. “What kind of sons leave their elderly father to die alone?”
As the chest vibrated with increasing intensity, the brothers stepped back with shock on their faces. But Decimus looked fascinated, his face shining with excitement.
“Look! Look! The chest is literally brimming with incredible powers! I only need to know how to harness the forces within it, and I will be even more powerful!”
Decimus pointed at the door. “Now get out of here and find someone who can solve the mystery!”
The brothers left with slumped shoulders and bowed heads.
“It’s over.” Albanus mounted his horse outside of the palace as the brothers mounted their steeds. “There’s no one who knows anything of value. We’ve exhausted all of our options, and now we will die tomorrow. What a pity, to die over such a matter. All because a wretched man wants answers to a puzzle no one in the world can solve.”
“If we’re going to be dying tomorrow, I think there’s one last thing we all ought to do,” suggested one of the brothers.
“What’s that? Go home and weep?”
“No, we should go to the one person we’ve been neglecting for the past several days. Have you all forgotten about our dear father? Ever since Decimus gave us this impossible task, we’ve completely neglected our duties as dedicated sons. Our father is probably dead, for all we know. Sitting alone without anyone who cares for him, with no one who will put a morsel of food in his mouth.”
“You’re right.” Albanus sighed. “I suppose we have completely forgotten about him. If he is still alive after us neglecting him for so long, perhaps we should go and wish him farewell.”
“No, we shouldn’t tell him anything,” the two other brothers protested. “He’ll die from heartbreak, and what good will that do for anyone? It would be better to simply care for his needs one last time and then leave without saying anything. He’ll find out eventually that we’ve all been killed, but why should we have to watch him suffer with our own eyes?”
“Fine. Let’s go.”
The brothers galloped through Rome until they arrived at the part of the city that housed the poorest residents. Animals roamed the streets, mingling with the people rushing about and beggars with outstretched palms. An unpleasant stench hung over the dirty streets. They stopped their horses outside a small building, ignoring the stares of passersby.
“Where have you been?” Someone passing by shouted. “What kind of sons leave their elderly father to die alone?”
“Well, not yet. But no thanks to you. He’s been kept alive by the goodwill of some kind neighbors. Where have you all been?”
“None of your business, and watch your tongue or I’ll do away with it.” Albanus glared, his hand straying to his sword. “Keep walking!”
The passerby glanced at the sword and slunk away into the crowd.
The brothers entered their father’s quarters, wrinkling their noses at the smell of mildew and neglect.
Sitting on the floor beside a small table was their father. He looked ancient, and indeed he was. Likely one of the oldest residents of Rome, his exact age not known. His eyes were sunken in his bony face, wrinkles deeply etched across his skin. A few morsels of bread lay on the table beside him.
“Look who shows up at long last…” Their father’s voice was hoarse and crackly, like crumbling parchment.
“Father, we have a good reason.”
“Save your excuses, you lazy boys. You left your father for dead, didn’t you? You decided it was too much of a burden to keep visiting me and caring for me, so you left my fate to end in death from hunger.”
“No, not at all. We’ve been on a mission for Decimus, the new emperor.”
“I’m not impressed.” Their father snorted. “I’ve seen them come and go many times. Don’t get too enamored with your new ruler. He’ll likely be assassinated in a week and replaced with someone else equally unworthy. And so it goes here in Rome…”
“We’re not enamored with him at all.” Albanus bent down and together with the other brothers, sat before their father. “In fact, quite the opposite. He’s charged us with an impossible mission and he… threatened us if we were not successful.”
“No, we failed the mission, and he’s going to punish us.”
The father surveyed the brothers through watery eyes and grunted.
“Did you bring me anything to eat?”
“We, uh, actually completely forgot to bring anything at all.”
“Worthless.” The father growled. “I’ll just eat my own table, then.”
“Wait a moment, who’s been feeding you until now? We see there’re bread crumbs on the table.”
“The Jewish family from the Jewish quarter. I’ve been pleading with passerby for days to feed me something before I starve, hanging out the window and calling out to anyone who might listen. These two children, Jewish ones, were the only ones who heeded my pleas. They’ve been bringing me food for quite some time now.”
The room descended into silence.
“They probably think they’ll get something for their good deed,” one of the brothers said at last. “Perhaps they think if they care for you, they’ll get something in return. They think you’re secretly wealthy or something like that…”
“Maybe.” Their father shrugged. “Look out the window, here they come now.”
The brothers looked out the window and saw two Jewish boys, around eight years old, coming into the building. A moment later they appeared in the room with a quarter loaf of bread.
“Oh!” The brothers looked startled and frightened to find the old man with visitors, soldiers no less. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. You’re more important to me than these three buffoons right now. Set the bread on the table.”
The boys placed the bread on the table and fled.
Suddenly, Albanus had an idea.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 906)
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