Bring Out the GIMP (Girls in Merciless Peril)
Stories


AELIA

By King Diocletian


Aelia sank back against the rock. She was exhausted but exhilarated. She ran a hand through her dark hair, still a little damp with sweat. It had been their most daring raid yet, and brilliantly successful. It was astonishing how arrogant the Romans were, as if they still couldn't quite get into their heads the possibility that they might be attacked. It had been almost too simple: a broken wheel on a wagon to block the road, a woman sobbing in supposed fear and then, when they'd broken rank to investigate, a swift assault from both sides of the valley: three dozen bandits overwhelming the party. Two soldiers killed, another dozen or so injured and, most importantly, a bag of gold and some jewelry stolen.

Not that the loot was really the point of it all. They needed it to survive, to finance the small settlement they'd established in the hills above Jerusalem, and taking it from the Romans helped maintain morale, a sense that they were plucking their noses. And after what had happened to her, she was keen enough to do that. Her father had been a Roman, high-born, a patrician, an official in the imperial command of Judea. Her mother had been a local noblewoman, a cousin of the puppet king. They'd lived in a fine house just outside the city but then, when she was 13, her father had died, killed by bandits on the road to Jericho. Given how things had turned out, she wondered now whether they really had been bandits.

Her mother had tried to maintain the family in the style it was used to, but she had no influence. For two years she suffered humiliation after humiliation as the Romans first ignored her and then began to exploit her. Her own people were suspicious of her, thinking her a Roman pawn. The priests were the worst, constantly demanding donations as if they were an easy touch. Creditors appeared claiming her father had owed them money. Aelia saw their avaricious glances, the way they looked at the house and the grounds, at her mother, who was still a beautiful woman, and even at her. Her father's old steward, Grumio, who had taught her to ride and to handle a sword, treating her like the son neither he nor her father had ever had, tried to disguise how grave things had become, but she'd known something very serious was going on.

And then, when she'd been 16, they'd come to repossess the house. Soldiers and bailiffs and that despicable official Lepidus, crashing through the gardens, smashing statues. Grumio had grabbed her and fled with half a dozen slaves, riding out into the hills. Her mother hadn't made it. It wasn't entirely clear what had happened to her but it seemed she'd committed suicide by eating hot coals after being raped. The family's property had been confiscated and a bounty placed on Aelia's head. The authorities set about rounding up their slaves and other staff. Some were sold to other masters, some were flogged, some were tortured to see if they knew where Grumio might have taken her. Understandably, those who evaded Lepidus also fled into the hills.

So their community grew. At first they'd lived in caves but now they'd built small huts. They hunted and gather what meager provisions the dusty landscape offered, but they had to steal from farms – and then, from Romans on the roads. Occasionally the Romans sent soldiers to try to flush them out, but the settlement was well hidden and easy to defend, and with the Jews in the city always querulous, they weren't really a priority.

Grumio had been killed when Aelia was 21, cut down by a Roman as he defended one of the narrow passes up the mountain. She had assumed the leadership of the community. She was lean and tough, a fine horsewoman and excellent with a sword. Slowly the community grew as the disaffected left Jerusalem. They launched more raids. As rumors of her royal blood circulated, she began to be known as the Bandit Queen. The name tickled her, but she knew they had to be careful. Provoke the Romans too much and they might send an entire legion, and there was no way they could fight against that, not even in the narrow pathways of the mountains. But today's raid had been perfect: big enough to earn much-needed resources, not big enough – she hoped - to make her more of a threat than the Judean fundamentalists. She wished they hadn't had to kill two of them, but they suffered worse losses all the time. And, a spy in the command told her, the army was reluctant to acknowledge a band led by a woman was causing such problems. The raid would, she hoped, be put down to unspecified bandits.

Aelia had been in command for four years now and, during that time, the community had swelled. It wasn't just her family's household now: there were others. Friends and relatives, of her own, of Grumio and other people who had served her mother, and then the discontented, those attracted by the thought of a new life without the hierarchies that existed in the city. She had to be careful, she knew, and she was careful to expel anybody she had doubts about, but their settlement now numbered almost 200. What she was building, slowly and far from steadily, was a better world.

*

The governor looked at Mommius and breathed out noisily through his nose. A classic example, he thought, of somebody who had risen because of who their family rather than their talent. "You're telling me," he said to his military advisor, "that the might of Rome can't take out a girl and her bandits?"

"Rustius says that they're high in the hills, sir," Mommius said, his hand nervously straightening his toga. "He fears a head on assault may lead to a large number of casualties."

"Then draw her out," the governor said. "I won't be made a fool of by a girl."

"Yes, sir."

"Bribe her men, set a trap," he said. "I don't care how you get her, just get her. I want this Aelia alive and in chains by the end of the month and then we will show the people what happens to those who defy Rome."

Mommius promised to discuss the matter with Rustius and backed obsequiously out of the room. They were hopeless, the governor reflected: Mommius too sniveling, Rustius too direct, unable to think his way round a problem, always intent on using brute force. This girl had gone too far. Aelia? Aelia? He thought he vaguely remembered her. A tall girl, a teenager when he'd last seen her, thin and gawky. He remembered her mother, certainly, a local beauty her father had been stupid enough to marry rather than keeping as his mistress. Well, whatever her connections he wasn't going to have her killing his men.

*

Quintus was hot and he was frustrated. He hadn't had a woman in a month, and even that had been a whore in the lea of the city walls. And it was so hot. There were times when he hated it up here in the hills. There were times – and this was one of them – when he would have killed to be back in the city, bathing with the other sons of wealthy families, enjoying the cool shadows of the fine houses. Aelia walked by, a waft of sandalwood following her. "Good night," she said over her shoulder as she made for her hut. As he watched her go, dark hair shimmering in the moonlight, he reflected that there were times when he would have killed to have her beckon for him to follow.

But she never did. There was a coldness about her he found disturbing. She was so focused, so determined. It was, he supposed, what made her such a good leader, but that didn't stop him desiring her. She was the main reason he'd come up here, five years ago, when she was Grumio's second in command. Her and his idiot father and his dull older brother who would inherit everything. He'd heard stories about her beauty and her ideals and then, one day, she'd robbed him. Or rather, robbed his father as he sat and gawped.

He'd never seen a woman so beautiful, tough and in command. Her eyes had flashed with fury, her teeth had gleamed a perfect white, and he could have watched those long smooth legs, bare beneath her leather-plated skirt for ever. Within a fortnight he'd made contact with a member of the group and a week after that, he'd been led blindfolded to their camp, where she'd questioned him, taken the silver he'd brought as a gift and set him off to rob three priests. * Mommius wiped the sweat from his brow. The first raid had been a disaster, seven soldiers killed in a narrow cleft between two cliffs, picked off by archers as they panicked in the face of a rudimentary barricade. And now Rustius was talking about sending in troops, about dispatching the legion to crush her, but that was always his response. Brute force and nothing else.

"In the narrow passes it would be a massacre," he said, wearily. "And the governor wants her alive."

Rustius breathed out heavily, clearly exasperated.

"Your men must want her alive," Mommius continued. "Take some revenge on her." It seemed a light went on in Rustius's eyes.

"The governor would give her to us? To punish her our way?"

"I'm sure something could be arranged."

They agreed to come up with a plan.

*

Aelia squinted down the path. It was a ferociously hot, sultry day and even riding down the track in her light leather armor she was sweating. Quintus, effectively her deputy, trotted in front of her, two of her men just behind. Roman troops, he said, were massing outside the city and he feared they were planning an assault. Before setting off, she'd begun to put in place the traps, just in case it was true. She liked Quintus, a handsome man with curls that glinted in the sun, and a fine warrior. In other circumstances she wondered if they might have got together, but she denied herself any man; petty jealousies, she knew, could destroy their community. Certainly he'd given enough hints that he would have been keen.

They approached the brow of the hill and dismounted, tying their horses to the gnarled branch of an ancient olive tree. Aelia and Quintus dropped to the ground and edged forwards until they were peering over the rock face. Sure enough, she could see a number of soldiers – perhaps a century – massing outside the gates of the city. It wasn't immediately clear to her what they were doing; certainly they seemed not to be forming any marching formation. "There were more earlier," Quintus said, before raising a goatskin water-pouch to his lips. A little spilled and dribbled down his chin. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and passed the pouch to her. She glanced behind her at the two men standing guard and took a deep swig, grateful for the cool liquid on a hot day.

"There's plenty more," Quintus said, smiling. "Have as much as you want."

She drank more and turned back to the scene outside the city, handing the pouch back to Quintus. She couldn't work out what the troops were doing as they scurried back and forth. There was something odd about the scene. Her instincts told her something was wrong but she couldn't think what it was. In fact, she couldn't think at all. She blinked. It felt like there was some sort of cloud slipping over her brain. She had a flash of blinding clarity: Quintus hadn't drunk from the goatskin: he'd lifted it but she hadn't seen him swallow. But surely… she half turned to him, but even as she did so she knew she was slipping into unconsciousness.

*

Something was wrong, very wrong. Clemens had sensed it that morning, but had forced his concerns to the back of his mind. But that evening, when she hadn't returned, he'd felt the worm gnawing in the pit of his stomach. Quintus hadn't come back either. Perhaps they were together – not that even that thought was much comfort. Clemens was in love with Aelia, of course he was: most of the men in the camp were. He'd seen the way Quintus looked at her, and he'd long felt it was inevitable that they'd get together. Quintus was older than him, closer in age to Aelia, much better looking and a better warrior and everything else.

He knew everybody else was worried too. The older men talked in the shadows but shut up suddenly if they saw him close. He went to bed but he couldn't sleep. Something terrible had happened, he was sure of it. He tossed and turned, brief passages of sleep nagged by thoughts of her fallen from a cliff or savaged by wild beasts or fucking Quintus. But he knew she wasn't fucking Quintus. She was too smart for that. She knew the damage that could be done to morale if she started fucking one of them. She had, he was fairly certain, preserved her virginity for the cause – an extraordinary sacrifice given every man she'd met since the age of 16 must have wanted her. If she had been fucking him, she would have done it subtly. No, something had gone very, very wrong.

At dawn, Clemens rose and made his way down to the city.

*

The cart pulled into the fortress. Mommius, standing back in the shadows, was intrigued. Six brawny men dressed in the ragged tunics of local peasants, stood up in the back and lifted between then a long crate, handing it down to soldiers in uniform. They carried it inside. He followed as they carried it down some steps and into the cellars. They passed the store-rooms until they came to the area at the back of the basement that served as a prison. They lay the crate down and stepped back. There were a dozen soldiers in the room, but Mommius and Rustius who had a look of intense satisfaction. He signaled to a solider, who carefully locked the door behind them.

Carefully, two soldiers unfastened the lid of the crate and lifted it off. Four others stepped forwards and roughly lifted out the contents: Aelia, the bandit queen. She was conscious, but seemed dazed. The soldiers made her stand and stepped back at Rustius's command. Mommius was transfixed. He had never seen a woman so beautiful. They'd loaded her with heavy chains, thick iron cuffs fastened around her bare ankles, wrists and neck. The effort of standing upright under them, almost cradling the chains on her arms was clearly great, but even in her half-doped state she managed it with a degree of grace. Her legs seemed to go on forever, to a skirt of leather armor that stopped four or five inches above her knees. She wore leather on her top half as well, made of interlocking brown strips that just gave a hint of the swell of her breast. Her arms, tautly muscled, were largely bare - just hint of calico visible at her shoulders, hinting at the tunic she wore beneath the armor.

Rustius walked around her, looking her up and down in clear admiration. Halfway through his second circuit he lifted his foot and gave her a sharp kick with the sole of his foot. She lurched forwards and fell, the chains clattering on the stone floor.

"Get up!" he shouted.

Slowly, pulling the chains with clear effort, she moved from a sprawling to kneeling and then, with a great effort dragged herself to her feet. Rustius stood in front of her. He was an inch or two shorter, but pulled himself up to look her straight in the eyes. "So you dare to take on Rome?" he spat.

She said nothing, just looked at him coldly. Mommius was impressed. Rustius raised his hand as though to slap her but slowed his hand as it approached her face. She hadn't flinched. He stroked her cheek, ran his fingers along her jawbone. He pinched her nose and twisted. She looked on as though unconcerned. He had his hand down her front, over the leather-clad rise of her chest. "We'll enjoy breaking you," he said.

*

Rustius took a swig of wine from his goblet. "What does the governor want to do with her?" he asked.

"He wants her to be tried according to the law," Mommius replied.

"Then what?"

"Well, there seems some debate as to whether she is a citizen."

"Bullshit," Rustius spluttered. "She goes to the cross."

"I think we can agree that would be preferable, yes," Mommius replied, thinking of those long limbs splayed on a frame, of her hanging naked by her wrists. "But everything must be done according to the law."

"My men want her now," Rustius said. "They're owed that."

"That was not the deal."

"I know, but I'm not sure I can keep them off. If it was up to them she'd already have been fucked half to death."

"Then command them not to."

"Can we do anything to her? Flog her? Give them something."

"I would imagine the governor would like to see her unmarked. She promises to be quite a sight."

"And my boys want to see it."

"Can you punish her in a way that won't damage her?"

"I'm sure we can come up with something."

*

Why had he done it? Why had Quintus betrayed her? Aelia lay uncomfortably on the cold floor of her cell. What would happen to her community now? And what would they do to her? She shifted awkwardly, the chains meaning there was no possibility of respite. It was dark. She had no idea what time it was. Would they torture her? She heard footsteps. Three, maybe four men. This was it, then: the first part of whatever was in store for her. She drew up her knees and sat to face the door. The bolts were shot back and they came in. Two walked over to her and grabbed her arms, pulling her to her feet, saying nothing. They shoved her forwards and she was led, shuffling in her fetters, out into the corridor and then up into a small courtyard. It was bright and warm, probably mid-to-late afternoon, she thought. How long had she been here?

She was shoved roughly and she stumbled as they marched her through an archway into what she recognized as a parade ground behind the barracks. There were soldiers everywhere, milling about on the sand below the slightly raised, paved area on which she stood. They dragged her to the top of a flight of four steps and then halted. She tried to stay calm, to keep her breathing measured, but she could sense the excitement of the soldiers and she knew her suffering was about to begin. She saw approaching her the bearded officer who'd fondled her when she'd arrived, and a thin, balding man in a toga just behind.

Mommius drank in her beauty, intensified by the sense of defiance she projected. "Aelia," he said, and she held his gaze. He could sense Rustius's impatience alongside him, and knew the men just wanted to get on with the business of punishing her, but he was determined to do this by the book. "You will be examined by the governor on charges of treason, murder, robbery, kidnap and sedition in the morning," he said. "But first you will be punished here by the legion for having resisted arrest and disrespected prison rules." The charges were ludicrous, he knew, but it was a way of legitimizing what was about to happen.

He nodded at Rustius. "Form the gauntlet," he commanded. The legion had drawn lots, selecting forty men. They split into two staggered lines about fifty yards long and six feet apart. Each selected soldier held a length of leather, perhaps two inches across and four feet long. Rustius had wanted them to be armed with rods, but Mommius wanted as far as possible to avoid breaking the skin. The governor wouldn't want a bleeding wreck; the straps were a compromise. They would hurt and sting, but hopefully would do nothing worse than bruising.

"Remove her chains," Rustius ordered, and the soldiers either side of her hastened to unlock her, starting at her feet, then removing the collar before finally releasing her hands. The chains fell with a heavy clank, and she slowly stood up straight.

For Aelia, the relief was momentary. The release of the weight was welcome, and she stretched, pushing her shoulders back, but she could feel the eyes of dozens of men on her and she knew she was about to be beaten. She glanced at the gauntlet: first the soldier to the right would strike her, then she'd stumble on four or five feet and be lashed from the left, then four or five feet more and a blow from the right. Everybody knew the stories; everybody had heard of legionaries who'd stepped out of line being beaten like this with rods; every knew about those who'd ended up being flogged to death by over-zealous comrades. She saw the straps and knew this wouldn't be that severe, but she also knew what that meant: they were saving her for some greater punishment, and she was horrified by what that might mean.

"Strip her," Rustius ordered. Mommius felt a stirring: could she really be as glorious as she appeared? Two soldiers stepped up to her and began unbuckling the armor. She stood, seemingly impassive, as her leather jerkin was removed, revealing a pale tunic beneath. They began on her skirt, and Aelia felt a wave of nausea as their fingers brushed her lower belly. She kept staring at the bearded one – Rustius, the commander, she assumed – determined not to show any weakness. They pulled the skirt away and she stood, arms bare, legs bare from mid-thigh. Mommius could hardly breathe. He thought she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, and there was something about her pride, her defiance, that enhanced her attractiveness. Well, they'd soon beat that out of her.

The soldiers pushed her to her knees, yanking her arms up. She didn't resist as they pulled the tunic up. There was a moment when it bunched awkwardly and then it slid up and Mommius saw her long slender thighs, and a flash of dark hair between her legs. Another tug and her slender waist and flat, smooth stomach was revealed. And then, in a rush, the tunic came off, there was a mass of dark hair falling over her face and her breasts were there, visible to all, round and high and gorgeous, pert on her toned form. She stood defiantly, not bothering to cover herself, and Mommius knew that breaking her would be difficult and enjoyable.

A soldier shoved her and she stumbled forwards, her hair falling over her face. She stood, brushing it back, and stared at the bearded officer. "You will run the gauntlet," he said, and gestured to the soldiers behind her. They seized her arms and manhandled her to the steps down into the yard. She was a wondrous sight, the black hair falling midway down her spine, her back smooth and tanned, her buttocks round and taut, the muscles seeming almost to shimmer as she walked. Her thighs were long and slim, the calves sleek and powerful. There was a tremendous sense of expectation in the yard, other soldiers gathering to watch her punishment, careful not to get too close and risk being struck by those chosen to lash her.

The soldiers held her arms as she waited at the end of the tunnel. Aelia tried to remain calm, to control her breathing. Fifty yards. She could sprint that in what, six or seven seconds? She would dodge left and right to put off their aim. She would not let them defeat her. She drew her shoulders back, desperate to make it look as though she didn't care she was naked, but the truth was she was burning inside with shame, all their lascivious eyes on her.

Rustius stared at the smooth expanse of her back, taut and tightly muscled. In a few seconds it would be streaked with red and they'd see what she was really made of. He raised his hand then lowered it. The soldiers threw her forwards. She bent slightly, allowing the first flogger to lash downwards. There was an almighty slap and for a moment it looked as though she might fall as she tottered forwards. The second blow landed, delivered with an awkward backhand by a right-hander on the wrong side – he'd get her properly on the way back. That respite was enough. She straightened and began to run.

Mommius allowed himself a half-smile. What an impressive creature she was, ducking and weaving at high pace, knees kicking high, seemingly barely feeling the lashes. After that first blow, the slaps had been far quieter as her dodging frustrated the soldiers, a number of strokes barely seeming to make contact at all. She reached the end, where half a dozen soldiers blocked her path. They grabbed her, spun around, and sent her back again. What a sight! Her breasts, firm as they were, bounced and swayed as she sprinted, arms pumping, hair streaming behind her as the lashes glanced off her.

The soldiers grabbed her arms again. Her back was stinging – two or three lashes had caught her hard – but she was fine. She panted, as her muscles begged for oxygen, and she felt a dampness on her brow as the sweat began to collect, but she'd done it. She'd run the gantlet and she felt fine. Then they turned her round and shoved her forwards again. A second round! The bastards! But there was no time to protest. A strap struck her hard across her buttocks as she careered forwards. Another slashed across her shoulders, knocking her further off balance. She pitched forwards and was hit hard just above the waist. For a moment she thought she might fall, but she shifted her momentum to her right so the next blow just caught her upper arm, and then she was away, sprinting hard towards the end, knees and arms pumping. She knew her breasts were bouncing, presumably entertaining those watching, but rather that than going slower and letting them whip her.

Rustius couldn't take his eyes off her chest. Her breasts were sensational, jigging as she ran, seemingly as fresh as when she'd begun, back towards him. Her strength was impressive as well: she might not have been taking the blows as directly as she would have done if they'd tied her down, but she was still taking regular hits, and seemed able to run through them. The soldiers at the end caught hold of her, spun her around and sent her off again. This time she was expecting it and didn't stumble but he could see a number of pink streaks on her back as she sprinted away from him a third time: she would weaken soon enough, he was sure.

They turned her and shoved her back. This was the worst bit, as she struggled to find her rhythm. Her heart was pounding now, and she could feel her legs beginning to tire. If she'd only known they were going to make her do more than one run, if she only knew how many times they'd make her go up and down she could pace it. A strap clattered hard into her buttocks and she felt the breath knocked out of her. She stuttered and another blow landed across the top of her shoulders. She felt her balance going but with a skip she regained her poise even as another blow cracked into the center of her back.

As she reached the end, she was breathing hard, her legs beginning to tie up. She prayed there would be no more, but they turned her again. This time it seemed they deliberately sent her sideways, as though to knock her off balance. She skidded to her left and almost fell. Looking up she saw the face of the next soldier in line, eyes staring, teeth bared somewhere between a grin and a sneer. A strap cuffed her from the right but what hurt more was the sense of humiliation: they were enjoying this.

She was struggling. Rustius had said five times up and down and Mommius could see he'd been right. She'd slowed down, still running hard, but the straps were landing harder now, the welts more obvious on her back and buttocks. As they turned her to come back again, she almost fell, feet sliding and body lurching. She stayed up, but as she approached, he could see the grimace on her face, see how each blow hurt, how she was fighting to keep going. There was great relish from the soldiers, winding up and crashing the straps down, seeing her jerk and flinch, seeing her breasts bounce as her body bucked.

The soldiers at the end seized her arms, span her round and shoved her, and as they did so, one stuck out his foot. She tripped and sprawled on the sand, landing heavily on her outstretched arms. The first soldier could barely believe his luck. He took aim and smacked his strap down across her buttocks. She tried to push herself up, but as she did so, he hit her again, this time across her shoulders.

Aelia fell again, breasts banging painfully against the ground. She could hear laughter. She lay for a second, recovering her strength, and the strap slashed into the back of her thighs. She had to get up. She dragged herself to her knees and the strap whipped across her shoulder blades. She gave a sharp yelp, but she was set and she sprinted away, legs pounding, arms pumping, hair streaming out behind her, breasts bouncing. She felt other straps flicking at her but once she was moving the pain was far less severe. She didn't know, though, how much longer she could keep running.

Then one of them caught her, hard, on the buttocks, the pace just right, the tip of the strap bouncing down and flicking the back of her knee. She yelled, stumbled and fell, skidding painfully on her shoulder. Suddenly the blows were pounding down, not well-aimed, not especially powerful, but rapid. She struggled to get up, the strap hitting again and again. As she pushed herself onto her side, it hit her ribs, then, painfully, the side of her breast. Uncertainly, she got to her feet and trotted the final ten yards or so to the end, back stinging now, shoulder and knees grazed.

They grabbed her and, not giving her a second to catch her breath, shoved her back again. She told herself to stay calm, to keep a steady pace, not to panic, but her legs were tired now and the soldiers seemed to see her weakness. There were shouts and jeers, the blows better aimed, each one hurting. A lash struck hard across her shoulder blades and she pitched forwards. The next slashed into her buttocks and she fell, sprawling on the sand. She paused for a moment, gathering her strength, and the soldier struck her again. She yelped, and sprang forwards, only to fall a few feet further on as another well-aimed blow across her shoulders knocked her off balance again. She forced herself not to panic, even as frenzied flows were delivered to her back, the smart worsening with each stroke. She crouched, one leg straight out behind her, one leg bent up to her chest and suddenly burst forwards, charging for the end. She nearly got there but the third last blow caught her around her waist, the tip of the strap biting into the soft flesh below her ribs.

The pain came as a shock, the motion of the strap turning her slightly so she lost her footing and skidded on her right side. The straps hammered down as she scrambled through the sand, which struck to her sweat-damp body, before finally reaching the two soldiers at the end.

It was obvious how exhausted she was, panting and sweating, as the soldiers pulled her to her feet. They turned to face Rustius who looked at Mommius. "One more length, I think," Rustius said. Mommius looked down at the naked girl, her splendid breasts heaving, her face flushed, and nodded. They'd said five, but a sixth would make sure she was properly subdued. He saw a look of resignation cross her face as the soldiers turned her. The back of her body was pink from neck to mid-thigh, vivid scarlet in places with the odd streak of purple.

Aelia summoned her strength. She looked down the tunnel of soldiers. She was tough enough, she told herself, but she also knew she was fatigued. She couldn't sprint, at least not on the way down. She waited. They shoved her and she was away. She tried to run with control, but the slightest touch from a strap was painful now and the ones delivered well were agony. She was aware of her breasts, firm as they were, bouncing painfully, but she forced herself on, blow after blow slapping into her back and buttocks. She reached the end and was grabbed in the familiar way by the two soldiers. They spun her around and pushed her, but seemed deliberately to shove her to the right. Off balance, she stumbled and fell, landing painfully on her right side.

A strap crashed into her ribs and, winded, she instinctively pulled up her knees. Another blow landed, on her hip this time. She had to get up, but her back was horrendously stiff. She forced herself to roll onto her knees, but the strap slashed across her shoulder-blades, awakening a line of fire on the tender skin. As she pushed herself up, the strap landed again, across her shoulders this time, and sent her sprawling forwards. There was laughter and she knew this was what they'd wanted: her exhausted, unable to get to her feet. The strap thumped into her buttocks.

She took a deep breath, winced as another blow hit her back, then rose to her knees. She pushed off her arms and, as another stroke flicked her buttocks, set off. It was only 40 yards, she could do this. But her back was bruised and her balance was affected. She'd gone no more than a dozen paces when another sharp blow sent her clattering to the ground again.

*

Mommius wondered if they'd gone too far. The orders had been clear: leave her fit enough for whatever the governor wanted to do with her. He watched as she dragged herself forwards on her knees, the soldiers gleefully flogging her. On the first couple of lengths she had barely seemed to feel the blows; now she yelped and winced at each touch of the leather. Slowly, with clear effort, she hauled herself up and began to jog, breasts bouncing deliciously, her distress obvious. When, at last, she reached the two soldiers at the end, she sank to her knees, panting. The sand and the dust had stuck to her sweaty body, and grazes were apparent on her right shoulder and hip.

"Bring her here," Rustius commanded.

The soldiers seized her arms and pulled her to her feet. She seemed unsteady as they forced her to walk over the sand up the steps to Mommius. Her head was bowed, hair hanging over her face. How many lashes had she taken? Forty men each lashing her there and back on six circuits: 480 lashes plus the additional ones she taken when she fell. So over 500. True, few of them were full force, and half would have been delivered either backhand or with the wrong hand but no wonder she seemed exhausted. She stood, sweat dripping from her, rolling over her magnificent body, her chest heaving as she gulped in air. For the first time, Mommius sensed fear in her. He suspected that if the two soldiers hadn't been holding her, she might not have been able to stand. Rustius stepped up to her and, without warning, punched her hard in the pit of her stomach. The soldiers let go and she collapsed, falling to her knees and retching. "Get up!" Rustius shouted and, when she didn't move, he nodded to the soldiers who grabbed her arms again and lifted her. Rustius punched her again and again she collapsed, falling to lie on the stone slabs, coughing and heaving, arms spread before her.

Mommius stared at the beaten back, a vivid scarlet from neck to knees, purple welts raised in places. "Get her up!" Rustius shouted and the soldiers again hauled her to her feet. "Let me see her face." One of the soldiers grabbed her hair and made her look at Rustius. As she panted she set her jaw at him, making a show of defiance. She was still a magnificent creature, Mommius thought, her breasts so pert, so firm on the strong torso, beads of sweat tracing their way over her chest and into the valley between them.

Rustius grabbed her, a thumb on one cheek, his fingers the other. "You have a friend to entertain," he said. "Have a good night. We'll see you in the morning."

*

A friend? What had he meant by that? Aelia lay naked in a small cell. The soldiers had brought her here and fastened her in chains fixed to the floor, so she was spread in an X-shape, not taut, but not loose enough to be comfortable either. She felt weak and thirsty, the back of her body a dull ache. She knew what she'd gone through was a preliminary, no more; she expected the worst. She would protest she was a citizen but she knew they would argue she had forfeited that right when she'd left the city. And the beating they'd already given her suggested they weren't minded to show mercy. Their plan was to put her to death on the cross, of that she had no doubt. Unless she could work out a way to escape. But first, it seemed, they intended to rape her: why else would she be bound like this?

The dark was impenetrable. She wondered what she could do. There wasn't enough give in the chains to try to defend herself. She had to just take it and then hope she might somehow be able to persuade them to unfasten her. Pretending she was hurt worse than she was, she thought, was probably the best option, although she was pretty badly hurt. She didn't know how severe the bruising was but she knew her back and thighs would be even stiffer and sorer the following day.

The door opened. Somebody carrying at least one flaming torch, maybe more. She looked up. Shadows danced on the ceiling. The face was hidden behind the flames, but she knew who it was. She should have realized earlier.

*

Quintus examined her body in the flickering light. She was every bit as beautiful as he'd imagined. Those long, lean legs were no secret, of course, and nor was the flat taut stomach. But what he'd imagined for years he now saw just as perfect as he could have hoped: smooth, round breasts, pert even as she lay on her back. He'd watched from afar as they'd stripped her and made her run the gauntlet, but now he got to enjoy them close up. This was his prize for betraying her, and he intended to enjoy it.

He walked round her, admiring her. She followed him with her eyes. What a body she had: not an ounce of spare fat: firm, toned muscle everywhere. He fixed the torch in a bracket by the door and approached. He stood between her legs and dropped to his knees. He leaned forward and with the lightest of touches caressed the outside of her left breast. It was a wondrous thing, so light yet so firm, the skin silken. He found he was holding his breath. He ran his fingers over the nipple, then cupped the breast from beneath. He closed his hand over the breast, feeling its springiness. "If you're going to rape me," she said, "get on with it."

Her voice jolted him from his reverie. He squeezed, gently, kneading the breast, admiring its resistance. "No," he said. "I have all night with you."

"Was that your price?" she spat. "You betrayed me because you wanted to fuck me?"

"You should watch your tongue," he said. "Look at the position you're in… I can do what I want to you."

"What a big man you are," she taunted. "If you want to fuck a girl you get a Roman legion to strip her, beat her and tie her down for you?"

He stuck three fingers inside her. She grunted. He began caressing her nipple with his right hand, softly probing her cunt with his left. "I'd enjoy this, if I were you," he said. "Because trust me, when I'm finished, it's going to get a lot worse."

*

Rustius paced up and down. How long was this fool Quintus taking? He wanted his turn but Quintus had already been with her over an hour. They hadn't set a time limit, but he'd assumed one quick flurry and he'd have been done. He was worried, as well; Quintus had betrayed her, but he didn't quite trust him.

He'd have her. Mommius could have her if he wanted and then they'd send her to the governor, who could do what he wanted with her. Realistically, though, Rustius expected to have her back in a couple of days with an order to scourge her and crucify her. The men could have her then. There'd be plenty wanted her as well: he couldn't remember the last woman that beautiful he'd seen, let alone had in his power. Those legs were absurd, so long and powerfully slender, the breasts round and full, flattened slightly by her prone position. And she deserved her punishment. She'd killed men. He looked forward to seeing her cringe on the post as they beat the shit out of her. She was an arrogant bitch and strong. They'd have to come up with something special, some way of humiliating her, making it clear she was broken. But then, when they hung her bloody body above the city, it would be pretty obvious she'd lost.

He went to the door of the cell and hammered on it. "Are you done yet?" he shouted. "There's others want a go."

There was silence and then, finally, a voice. "She's mine all night," Quintus said. "That was the deal."

Rustius was furious but Quintus was right. "At dawn she's mine," he spat at last, and walked away.

*

Quickly, Aelia had conceived a plan. Quintus, she realized, wasn't raping her to assert his power over her. He wasn't looking to humiliate her. He was being gentle, stroking and licking, exploring her battered body. He'd even stripped. As he said, rather him than the other oafs, who would pound and squeeze away. For him, this was a perversion of a night of love, not violence. She could play on that. It was repulsive, of course, having him touch her and nibble on her breasts, feeling him entering her, painfully breaking her hymen and unloading inside her, then lying, deadweight on top of her as though he'd completed some great task, before eventually recovering himself to go again, but she played along, feigning reluctant pleasure before finally pretending to let herself go. As he flopped spent a second time, she goaded him. "Come on," she said. "Let's go again."

He grunted. "From behind, this time?" she suggested. "Take me from behind, where I'm really tight. You've had my virginity once, now have it again."

He looked up and she could see the desire burn in his eyes. "Unfasten me and turn me over and put balm on me and I'm yours," she breathed. He kissed her chest, and ran his face down between her breasts. "Take me, Quintus," she said. "I want you." He looked at her sharply. Had she gone too far?

"Why?" he said. "Why did you never want me before?"

"I did, Quintus," she said. "I did. I lusted after you but I didn't dare risk the togetherness of the camp. I had to be separate. Don't you see? But I thought about you at night. I thought about your arms and your strong chest."

"Prove you want me," he said. "Prove it."

She didn't have to ask how. He pushed himself up her body until his balls hung over her face. She reached up and, ignoring the pain in her back and her sense of revulsion, she licked them, doing all she could not to gag on the taste of sweat and the public hairs that were left on her tongue. He lowered himself and she got to work, kissing and sucking, probing and teasing, working his balls and his cock breathlessly until, finally, he thrust hard into her, the tip of his penis reaching deep into her throat. As he came, she gulped down his semen, thankful he'd already left so much inside her.

She was revolted but this was her only hope. He rolled off her, panting. "I need time to recover," he said.

"Please," she said. "Get me some balm. My back is in agony. You can put it on while you recover your strength. And then…"

Quintus pushed himself up on one arm. He nodded.

*

Rustius saw the door open. What was going on? Quintus walked out. He didn't look shifty, but he was definitely leaving. He locked the door behind himself, holding a torch in one hand. As soon as he'd gone, Rustius, carrying his own lantern, went in. She lay there, illuminated by two torches and his lamp, gorgeous in the flickering light. She looked up in surprise as he entered.

"Your lover's gone," he said. "And now it's my turn."

He knelt between her legs, admiring the long, lean thighs. He saw blood. Had she been a virgin? Surely not? He ran his coarse, callused hands over them and up, over her rib cage. Her skin was extraordinarily smooth. He seized her breasts, squeezing their round magnificence, stunned by the firmness. He'd never seen a woman so toned. She wasn't muscular exactly – he'd seen plenty of slaves with muscles – but there was no excess on her: no wobble. He could sense her discomfort and reveled in it. He began slapping her breasts, gently at first then more and more firmly, enjoying the tremor as they slapped into each other. He was growing hard. He rucked up his tunic and freed his penis. He dropped down between her legs, parted her labia with rough fingers and thrust inside. She grunted and he felt her tense. She was marvelously tight. He took hold of her tits again, squeezed them, eased out and thrust again, as hard and deep as he could. He pushed himself up, his weight on her breasts and began to ease in and out. He spat in her face. "Is this how you thought it would end, your rebellion?" he said. She stared impassively at the ceiling, his spittle draped over her nose and left cheek. He was overwhelmed by an urge to hurt her, to break her resolve, but her knew he had to let the governor have her in decent shape, so he contented himself with pawing at her breasts as he unloaded inside her.

*

The commander had been gone a couple of minutes when Quintus returned, a small pot in his hand. Aelia was trembling in fury and disgust. Of course she'd known when she'd been captured that rape was likely but the truth of somebody fucking her with the express purpose of degrading her hadn't occurred to her. Just to feel him touch her was repulsive but the sense of him pounding inside her while mauling her breasts had been awful. And now his spittle lay over her face, his come dribbling from between her legs.

"What happened?" Quintus asked, seemingly horrified.

"The oaf Rustius just raped me," she said.

"Are you OK?"

She snorted derisively. He clearly saw a difference between what he'd done to her and Rustius.

"I'm sorry," Quintus said.

"Can you put the balm on me?" she asked softly. "Then you can get on with helping me forget him."

"Of course," he nodded.

With some effort, he forced out the pin that held shut the metal cuff around her right wrist. Slowly, she lifted her arm, the relief from her bondage momentarily overwhelmed by the pain as the blood began circulating freely again. He freed the other wrist and she sat up, rotating her shoulders. He turned and unfastened the cuff around her right ankle. It would be easy now, she thought, to overpower him, but she would bide her time. She moved close to him, resting her head on the back of his shoulder. When she was free, she kissed him firmly, then wiped away Rustius's spittle. With a slight giggle, she turned onto her front and lay. "First the balm," she said.

Gently he massaged the balm into her back. The relief was extraordinary, an immediate cooling sensation on skin that had become unpleasantly warm. He smoother it gently into her shoulders, moving slowly down her back and then working her buttocks and thighs. He began stroking the insides of her thighs, sweeping up to let his fingers play over her labia. And then, laying the pot down, he began kneading her buttocks. He parted them and she felt him lowering himself to enter her. Sharply she spun, crashing her left elbow into the side of his head. She felt a crunch and then she was on him, kneeling on his chest, her thumbs pressed to his throat. She tried not to look at him. This was a man she'd fought alongside but there was no alternative but to kill him. He grabbed hopelessly at her arms, but she was too strong. She felt the life leave him but pressed for a few seconds more just to be certain. Hastily, she pulled the tunic off his dead body and put it on her own. She dragged his naked form and spread it out where she'd been chained so anybody glancing in might be deceived. His boots would be too big for her, and she didn't want the encumbrance of his robes. She checked them, though, hoping for a knife, but there was nothing.

She made her way cautiously to the door. Would they have set a guard? If they had, would they have reacted to the noise of the fight? But maybe they'd have thought he was just roughing her up. She waited by the door, listening. She could hear nothing. She placed her hand on her handle and turned slowly. Still nothing. She opened the door and, glancing both ways, stepped out. Her back was stiff but she could move reasonably well. It was very dark, the moon barely lighting the parade ground where they'd flogged her, but she stayed back, close to the building. Where was the exit? She knew the way they'd brought her from her cell, but that seemed likely to take her back into the fort. She edged along the building to what was clearly the perimeter wall. It was high – too high to haul herself over without help, so pressing her back against it, she edged along it, listening intently for a footstep that might announce an approaching guard.

*

Rustius hammered on the door. Had Quintus left her altogether? What was he thinking? After raping Aelia, Rustius had returned to his chamber but she'd remained on his mind. He wanted more. He wanted to feel that soft smooth skin against his own again, to feel the resistance of her firm breasts to his hands, to stroke those long, powerful legs. He'd squeezed her thighs, but her claves fascinated him. He loved a good firm calf yet he'd neglected hers. Why was there no sound? With a mounting sense of unease, he opened the door.

He saw the pale body spread out there in the flickering light and for a moment he was relieved. But almost instantly he knew something wasn't right. He took two paces forward and realized it wasn't her. He hastened up, saw the unnatural angle of Quintus head and knew he was dead. The bitch! The fool! He kicked at the dead body and then turned and ran. Within a minute of him finding the body, the giant bell above the gate was ringing the alarm.

*

Aelia heard the bell and knew what it meant. She cursed. What should she do? In the darkness she knew it was possible she could remain undetected, but she had no idea how to get out. And when dawn came, she was fucked. She remained in the shadows by the wall and kept edging along, desperately hoping she would find an exit. She saw the flames of torches spearing across the yard, heard the boots of dozens of soldiers on the ground. She heard shouts, saw them organizing, the flames beginning to sweep in rows across the open area where they'd made her run the gauntlet. She had to be quick. She sprinted through the shadow, keeping the wall to her right.

She saw, too late, something projecting from the wall. She couldn't stop, and banged her knee hard on it, stumbling and then falling. Her first thought was the pain in her right knee. Her second was to wonder how loud she'd been. She lay still for a moment, waiting for the initial ain to recede. Then she looked up. The flames were approaching. Shit! Shit! Shit! She pushed herself up and started to run, but it was no good. She was limping, barely able to bend her right leg, and they were upon her.

A blow to the back of her knee sent her down. There were six of them, all on top of her, holding her arms down, pinning her legs. She tried to fight back, but it was hopeless. There were too many of them and she was weakened by the flogging. One of them punched her hard in the stomach, once, twice, a third time. She coughed, gasping for air, as they spun her over onto her front. Her arms were twisted up behind her. One of them kicked her in the ribs and as she gasped in pain, she felt a loop of cord being tightened over her wrists. When she was bound, then pulled her to her feet. There was another punch to the lower belly, and then she was dragged across the yard.

Rustius was waiting for her at the door to her cell. The soldiers held her facing him. He smiled, walked up to her and slapped her hard across the face. Her head fell and she could taste blood as he grabbed at the neck of the shift and ripped it. As the soldiers pulled at it, it soon lay it tatters around her feet. When she was naked, he punched her again, in her belly. She doubled over, held up only by the grip of the soldiers. Rustius opened the door to her cell. "Fasten her down," he said.

Aelia tried to remain calm. Her knee was throbbing and she was struggled to get her breath. She remained bent over, trying to recover, trying to think as they tossed Quintus's body aside. She couldn't resist as they slammed her down and fastened the cuffs again, drawing her out, so her body was stretched in an X-shape. She would be raped again, she knew. Rustius sent the soldiers from the room.

"Stupid bitch," he said, and kicked her, hard, between her legs. Then he was on her, slapping and pawing, squeezing her breasts painfully, before he raped her. When he'd done, he wiped his penis on her face. She thought of biting at him, but realized it was not the time to anger him any further. He opened the door and the six soldiers trooped in. They seemed euphoric, laughing and joking, drawing lots to decide the order before each of them raped her in turn. She stared at the ceiling, trying to ignore their rough hands on her, the frenzied thrusting inside her. She wouldn't break. She wouldn't let them see how this shamed her, how she hated being powerless against men she could have destroyed in single combat.

When it was over, they kicked her a couple of times and then there was a sudden burst of laughter. She could feel their cum oozing out of her, still feel the pressure of their fingers on her breasts. Spittle dotted her chest where they'd sucked at her breasts and spat on her. What were they doing?<.p> She soon found out. They dropped Quintus body onto her, positioning his mouth between her legs. She suddenly understood what was happening. She jerked at her bonds but to no avail. One of the soldiers pinched her nose. A punch in the pit of her stomach forced her mouth open against he will. It was brief, but it was long enough. They pushed Quintus's cock and balls into her mouth. Her teeth closed around him, his cock pushing to her throat. She gagged, but coughing couldn't dislodge him. They stepped back and laughed, their enemy, stripped, beaten, humiliated, raped and now forced to simulate a sex act with the corpse of the deputy who had betrayed her.

She tried to push Quintus's body away, but her bonds were too tight. His corpse was cool, beginning to stiffen, and she knew she was trapped. She turned her head, but it was no good: the combination of penis and scrotum was too big, his weight too much. And the more she struggled, the more it looked as though she were fellating him. "Corpse-fucker!" shouted one of the soldiers and there was raucous laughter. Another grabbed Quintus's head and moved it up and down as though he were pleasuring her. There was more laughter.

"Keep a guard on her," said Rustius finally. "Make sure she sucks him till morning."

*

Shit! They had her. Clemens stood back but in the morning rush he was discreet enough. He'd waited outside the fortress all night, terrified of what might be going on inside, terrified of being recognized – although who would recognize him, a scrawny 16-year-old kid? Already she seemed smaller somehow, shoulders hunched, dressed in just a brief tunic as she sat in a cage on the back of a cart that carried her from the fortress. There were welts on her legs and grazes on her knees suggesting she'd been beaten. A group of eight soldier kept taunting her, poking her through the bars. He had no doubt she'd been raped.

*

The governor looked at the prisoner before him. It was the Aelia he remembered, but she'd blossomed into a beautiful woman, limbs long and golden, breasts pressing against her tunic. She was, perhaps, even more beautiful than her mother had been. He was no fool. He knew she'd been beaten and raped and that they'd given her a cursory wash to make her presentable, but she was still a formidable presence, even standing head-bowed, weighed down by the heaviest chains.

"Aelia," he said. "Look at me."

She raised her head and he saw her defiant brown eyes. "You have committed untold acts of murder, theft and banditry. Do you deny that?"

"No," she said. Her refusal to be intimidated irritated him.

"Have you a defense?" the governor asked.

She looked at him sullenly. "No," she said calmly.

The governor was momentarily taken aback, but he retained his calm. "Do you have anything to say in your defense?" he said, trying to inject a note of menace into his voice. She stood unmoved. A soldier clipped her round the back of the head. She barely flinched.

"Is this how you treat a defendant?" she asked, pulling down at her tunic so it covered a little more of her thighs. "You beat her, you put her in chains, you abuse her?"

"You have murdered my men. You have wreaked a campaign of violence and banditry. You don't deny your guilt, do you?"

‘You murdered my father. You raped my mother. You plundered my home. You don't deny your guilt, do you?"

The governor let his tongue flick along his upper lip. He began a long slow circuit around her. He searched his memory. When had it been? Ten years ago, perhaps. He remembered her mother, Mariam, tall, dark and elegant. He remembered Lepidus lusting after her. Had he raped her? He hadn't realized that. And he knew that her father, Septimus, had been murdered on the road though the hills. Bandits, they said. Could that have been Lepidus? Perhaps it could. Her buttocks were astonishing, pushing against the tunic, her thighs strong and toned. What a woman she was! She'd clearly been beaten severely with flat straps, her back showing red and bruised through tears in the tunic, streaks on her legs. Mariam had committed suicide but there'd been a scandal with fees owed to the priests, hadn't there? Lepidus was dead; there would be no answers there. He feared he needed to speak to the priests.

He came to stand in front of her again. Her breasts strained at the smock. "I will give you a final chance to offer a defense," he said.

"When you are the law, there is no law," she said.

"Then you are guilty. Multiple murders, robbery, sedition, banditry. The sentence is death."

She didn't move, still standing hunched, weighed down by her chains.

"The only question is how you are executed. I understand there's some debate as to whether you are a citizen or not.

He turned to Mommius. "Bring her back to me tomorrow," he said. "I will consider the sentence over night. Take her away."

The soldiers closed on her. He turned to Mommius. "See if you can avoid beating or raping her before then," he said.

*

Mommius had seen Aelia locked up beneath the governor's residence, still in her heavy chains. Rustius, having been briefed by Quintus, was preparing an assault on the bandit camp, but he'd been summoned back to the governor to go over the thorny business of whether she were a citizen or not. If they decided she was, she would be beheaded. If not, then she would be crucified. Mommius didn't really understand the problem: there were arguments both ways but given the arguments for crucifixion were overwhelming, why would they not decide she was not a citizen? He'd pointed that out to the governor. The legion wanted her crucified. The people had to see how Rome treated rebels. At the moment there may be some who sympathized with her, but hanging her on the cross would emphasize her defeat. Other would be scared off from similar acts. And, unpalatable as it may be to admit it, there were few acts more likely to bring support behind a governor than stripping a beautiful woman naked and putting her on display in public.

But the governor seemed reluctant. "I fear we may have done her and her family a grave wrong," he said.

Before Mommius had had a chance to ask what the governor meant by that, a delegation of priests turned up. Mommius loathed them, with their fawning, their insidiousness, and he suspected the governor only tolerated them because not to do so risked public disorder. He'd assumed they wished to speak on Aelia's behalf – the priests would always protect their own, which was the main reason they were so popular in their own community, and when they demanded Aelia be handed over to them, it seemed to confirm what he'd suspected. But when the governor wearily asked why, it turned out they wanted to try her themselves – and not simply to acquit her.

"Whatever crimes she has committed against your law," Caiaphas, the chief priest, "said she must also answer to our law."

"To which of your laws are you referring?" asked the governor with what seemed to Mommius a slightly ironic tone.

"You may remember, sir, nine years ago, she fled with her family owing the temple significant sums,"

"Her family's property was seized and the temple was handsomely recompensed, Caiaphas."

"Yes, sir, it was. But this is not merely about money. She blasphemed and must pay the penalty."

"She blasphemed? She was a girl at the time. Fifteen, sixteen?"

"Old enough. There must be expiation."

"What would you do to her?"

"The courts cannot be pre-empted, sir, but flogging would be usual. And then we would hand her back for you to try her as you desire."

The governor nodded and promised him an answer by nightfall. Mommius couldn't see what the problem was: let the priests flog her, then crucify her. This was even better. The locals always sided with the priests. Everybody would come together to punish a public menace.

"She is a murderer and a bandit," Mommius replied.

*

Aelia had been kept in a cell at the governor's residence all day. She'd sat on the filthy floor of a dark cell in her chains, the heat almost unbearable. She'd heard rats scurrying away and had grown used to the flies that settled on her and she'd even managed some sleep. At some point a woman had come, given her water and bread and soothed her beaten back, buttocks and legs with balm. She spent two days there. The chains were exhausting, but the balm was a tremendous release and the gentleness of the woman almost brought her to tears. And at least she wasn't being raped.

Just as night was falling on the third day, the soldiers came for her, taunting her and shoving her about as they led her to see the governor again. "Corpse-fucker," one said as his hand slid under her tunic. She was too weak to throw him off.

She knew the governor remembered her. She wondered if there was any way she could seduce him, but even as the thought formed, it was quelled by a greater part of her that was revolted. It was over and she would die as best she could. She stood shackled before him, head bowed, arms and shoulders exhausted. His face was grim, but what really alarmed her was the presence of three of the high priests.

"Aelia," he said. She looked up, trying to ignore the pains in her neck from the collar she wore. "It seems your crimes are religious as well as secular." He nodded to Caiaphas, the most senior of the high priests.

There was no point fighting. She wanted to scream abuse at him. She remembered him, his obsequiousness, his demands for money. She hated him but he had won. "Aelia," he said. "When you fled justice nine years ago, you were tried in absentia by the priests. You owed taxes and, although these have been seized from your property, the disrespect you showed must be punished. You are sentenced to 39 lashes to be administered in the temple yard tomorrow. We will then hand you back to the temporal authorities."

The governor took on the sentencing. She knew what it would be. "It has been determined that whatever claim you may have had to citizenship was forfeit when you fled justice and that therefore you will feel the full anger of the law. Sentence is death by crucifixion to be administered, in deference to local custom, on the day after their Sabbath, that is, three days from now."

Her head fell, but she said nothing. She had nothing to say.

They returned her to the fort. She expected more punishment and probably rape. Still in her chains, she slept fitfully, but it was at least sleep, even if she did dream of herself stripped before a crowd, pictured herself hanging high on a cross. It was only when she woke and saw a shaft of sunlight piercing the gloom of her cell that she realized why the fort might be quiet.

She just hoped her people had had the sense to flee.

*

Mommius followed the procession at a safe distance. He'd thought she should have been transported to the temple in the sealed carriage, as she had been taken to the governor's residence, but the priests had insisted she be paraded. And so, wrists bound behind her, she was marched by the temple guard through the streets. Four legionaries followed them, just in case. Mommius wished he could have offered more men, but the majority of them were up in the hills, finishing off her rebellion. And he needn't have worried. The temple guard were brusque with her, the people either indifferent or mocking. The priests had clearly done their work in blackening her name. And she was a spectacular sight, long, strong legs bare from mid-thigh, breasts swelling against her tunic, small expanses of golden skin visible through the odd tear, her face, framed by hair that now hung lank and dusty, still defiantly beautiful. By the time they got her to the temple, a small crowd was following.

"The Bandit Queen!"

"They've caught the Bandit Queen!"

"She deserves the cross," somebody said and Clemens knew that was what would happen. But not yet: why were they taking her away from the fortress? He heard the lustful taunts of the crowd. There was no thought of her as a savour: there was some sympathy, perhaps, but most spoke of how her crimes deserved death. And there were those, of course, who thought of what crucifixion meant: watching a beautiful woman die naked in agony in front of them. Clemens couldn't bear to hear it, the bastards who ogled her and then cheerily discussed what her breasts would look like as she hung naked before them.

In the square outside the temple gates, there was already a mob, taking their positions around the platform on which she would be flogged. Mommius looked at the frame on which she would be beaten: a simple bench from which hung leather straps that would be raised at 45 degrees so the crowds could see her buttocks as the rods landed. There was still more than an hour before the sentence was scheduled to be executed. The crowds jeered as she was led past them. She didn't even glance at the frame.

She was taken to the back of the courtyard, where a staircase led down into the vaults beneath the temple. They buffeted her as they dragged her down there, cuffing her and taunting, making the noise of the canes that would be used upon her. The high priests had gathered in a small hall there, and she was thrown down at their feet, landing heavily on her knees and tipping over onto one shoulder before she righted herself. Caiaphas shook his head as he looked at her. "You are a disgraceful creature," he said. "Crucifixion is the least you deserve."

Mommius didn't really understand what followed. Some kind of ceremony, designed to cleanse her, he thought. Then the priests left to take their places by the platform and she was left to the temple guard. They slapped her around and spat on her, then they showed her the rods, whippy white canes, perhaps six feet long and as broad as a man's thumb. They flexed them, demonstrating how they cut through the air. She knelt, head bowed, trying to ignore them. Finally, the signal came.

*

Remain calm, Aelia told herself. What they were about to do to her would hurt dreadfully but if she could accept the pain and humiliation, they couldn't win. She would be stoic, and that would inspire others. They dragged her out of the temple and up onto the platform. There were people everywhere. The temple guard had to fight their way through as hands grasped at her, pawing at her breasts and backside. She was spat at and abused. "Strip the whore!" "Make the traitor bleed!" "Bitch!" No sympathy from her own people. She saw the fury and the lust and the pleasure in their eyes and she had a crushing sense that she had lost.

Half pushed, half-pulled she climbed the steps. The square was packed, people everywhere. They sat of roofs, leaned from windows. There were children sitting on their fathers' shoulders. The priests sat under a canopy with a couple of Roman leaders on a dais outside the temple. And they all stared at her. She saw the frame to which she'd be secured: two uprights linked by a cross bar about four feet off the ground and before it a long bench to which she'd be fastened before the end was lifted and fastened to the crossbar. She was pushed to her knees. She took deep breaths.

"For public indecency and blasphemy," Caiaphas announced to whistles and jeers, "the prisoner before you, Aelia, has been sentenced to 39 lashes." The crowd roared their approval. "The secular authorities have also tried her, for multiple acts of murder, robbery, banditry, kidnapping and sedition. She will be crucified on Sunday." There were great whoops and cheers. Why did the people hate her? She was pulled to her feet and the bonds removed, although the guards maintained their grip.

Clemens looked on, appalled. 39 lashes? The maximum possible under the law. And the crowd, so hostile. How could they not understand what she had been trying to do? These weren't Romans: they were locals. Why did they hate her? Because she had Roman blood? Because they liked the authorities? Because they believed the priests? Because she was a woman? Because she had taken a role women weren't meant to take? Because they wanted to watch her beauty and dignity being destroyed?

"Strip her!" came the order.

There was a cheer. Clemens suddenly understood that he would see her naked. How often had he dreamed of that? But it wasn't supposed to be like this. Aelia looked as discomforted as he'd ever seen her as two of the temple guard approached her. She was held by two guards but he wondered if she might break free.

There was no chance. In an instant they'd pulled her tunic up and over her head and she was naked, every bit as gorgeous as he'd imagined. Her skin was bruised, the marks on her thighs showing clearly she'd been raped, but she was radiant still, body slender and powerful, breasts high and full. There was a gasp from the crowd, but even as they were taking in the full extent of her charms, the guards were escorting her to the bench. She walked slowly, unresisting, not humiliated exactly, but smaller, weaker for being naked.

Clemens saw her back, the red marks, the welts, and realized just how severely they'd already beaten her. And he saw her buttocks, just as firm as he'd always imagined they would be when he'd walked behind her. He hated himself for appreciating her sexuality, for lusting after her like the rest of the mob, but he didn't mean to. He wanted to save her – but even as that thought occurred to him he realized how hopeless it was and also how behind the hope there was the thought of reward: if he saved her, would that make her love him?

He couldn't believe she'd just accept it but she lay on the bench, reaching out her arms towards the ropes. Her wrists and ankles were fastened. Clemens couldn't take it in. This was going to happen. She was stretched out. They lifted the bench and he saw her breasts pushed against the wood. They clipped it to the bar and she was ready, stretched out at 45 degrees, buttocks exposed.

Mommius folded his arms with satisfaction. This was the beginning of it, the formal start of her execution. The two temple guards charged with thrashing her stepped forward, flexing their canes. There was relish in their actions and the crowd clearly appreciated it. They whipped them through the air, a terrifying sound although Aelia seemed unmoved as through crowds oohed and aahed. Then the first of them caressed her with it, running the cane down her back to her buttocks. He tapped them, then took three paces back and swept in. The lash was impossibly hard, the cane a blur as it cut deep into the firm flesh. She gave a twitch and a sight gasp. "One," said Caiaphas, a look of smug cruelty on his face.

The left-hander struck, low on the curve of her buttocks. She yelped. It was worse than she'd expected it to be, far worse than running the gauntlet. She was a static target and the canes, obviously, hurt far more than the straps. She willed herself to remain calm. She would not give them the satisfaction of seeing she was suffering. She had to retain her dignity, then perhaps she could inspire others to defy Rome and the priests. The third landed square across her shoulders and drove the breath from her in a heavy grunt. Already, she could feel the sweat beading on her brow and her upper lip. She would remain calm.

The fourth whipped high on her buttocks, thudding against her pelvis. She heard the roar of the mob as the pain resounded through her. They were enjoying this. They saw her as trouble. She could be as stoical as she liked and they would still just see an uppity woman getting her comeuppance – and one with Roman blood, too. Both sides could come together in celebrating her torment. But she pushed such thoughts away. She had to endure. There was nothing else.

Clemens was struggling not to weep. He'd never felt so powerless. There she was, his leader, his beloved, being flogged, and he could do nothing. He wanted to turn away but he was transfixed by the horror, her long, lean frame stretched out on the frame, defenseless against the brutal strokes of the rod. He saw the stripes vivid across the smooth skin, eight of them now, from her thighs to her shoulders. A ninth landed across her shoulder-blades and she grunted. The crowd cheered as the tenth stroke crashed into her upper thighs. What was wrong with them? Why could they not see what she could have done? He looked at them. Two old women pointing and jeering. A group of teenage boys laughing, making lewd comments. A father with his young son, shaking his head sadly. A fat, toothless old man openly salivating at the sight of a naked woman. The soldiers, cold-faced. Three women in their thirties howling for them to lash her harder. A slightly older couple watching with approving nods. A group of youngish women giggling and making the noise of the cane. Why did they hate her? Was it for the threat she had posed? Did they love the Romans? Did they love the priests? Or was it just the sight of a beautiful girl, stripped and abused like this, a lust for her body, a lust for cruelty.

Mommius wiped the sweat from his brow. This was going better than he'd ever expected. He'd feared support for her but getting the priests to condemn her had been a masterstroke. This crowd hated her. If they could only make her scream it would be even better. She needed to be seen to be broken. But what a woman she was. He watched the cane smash into her buttocks. He heard her grunt. He saw the flesh flatten, then return to its pert roundness. He saw the pale line slowly growing a deeper red. Fifteen, came the call. And still she didn't scream. But this was only the beginning. She had two nights and a day at the fortress even before she was scourged and led out to die on the cross. The stronger she was the better. The sixteenth landed and still they hadn't got her howling, even though her body was streaked with red and brown and purple.

Her body was on fire. Aelia gritted her teeth and pushed her forehead into the bench. The pain was awful. The lash landed low on her thighs, just above the knees. Her legs jerked involuntarily, ankles kicking against the cuffs. She grunted, it taking all her strength not to shout out. Her eyes were watering. Sweat was coursing off her. She clenched her fists. And yet even as she prepared to absorb another blow she knew that the more lashes that were inflicted on her here, the less time she'd exist last on the cross. She was on the journey into death.

Clemens could barely look and yet some grim fascination kept him watching. The guards inflicting the beating were tough men, lashing with all their might. She was strong and brave but she was naked and defenseless, her skin now ravaged with bruises and welts. As a lash cut low across her back, a little above her waist, she gave an agonized gasp of pain. Twenty-four. She twitched, body shaking and the other flogger, cold-faced, struck hard into her shoulders. She gave a roar, bellowing through gritted teeth, fists clenched, head lifting slightly so he could see that noble profile, sweat dripping from it. The crowd hooted in glee.

At last, though Mommius. He'd worried she was so tough she'd take the beating without showing she was suffering and the whole point of this public punishment was to show her weakness, to humiliate her, to make clear that when you took on Rome you lost, and the consequences were severe. She absorbed a couple more, but the twenty-seventh, smashed into her thighs brought a shriek of pain. She controlled it, swallowing the shout, but her suffering was clear. He didn't really understand the local custom of capping floggings at 39 lashes. She could clearly have taken several times that before death might have become an issue, but he understood it played to their favor here. It was severe, would hurt her, but it wouldn't weaken her unduly. They could scourge her and she'd still last several hours on the cross, and that was vital. She had to hang in pain as long as possible, her shame and degradation were essential. He would have a physician look in on her that night, let her recover a little before she was handed over to the legion.

She was sweating so much her body was slithering on the bench, increasing the strain on her arms. The whole of the back of her body was on fire. A lash slapped just below her shoulder blades. She felt faint, a nausea sweeping over her. "Thirty," came the call. Just nine more. She could do nine more. She clenched her fists. She could take this. But another voice in her head shouted back that what was to come was worse. The next blow clipped hard into her shoulders and, despite herself, she screamed, head flying back, spraying sweat. She heard the roar of appreciation from the crowd.

Clemens but his lower lip. He couldn't be seen crying but this was awful. His heroine humiliated and howling as they flogged her, the mob cheering her agony. He'd had faith in her. He remembered raids when they'd seemed in trouble and she'd suddenly killed a man and the balance of the fight had changed. He'd listened to her calm speeches outlining their strategy. He'd believed she could do anything. But they'd won. Now she was naked and screaming, as helpless as anyone else. He saw the relish on the guard's face as he lashed her hard across her buttocks. She bucked, legs and shoulders lifting and gave a desperate grunt of pain. He saw her face above her arm momentarily, flushed and twisted in pain, damp with sweat and tears, snot hanging from her nostrils. Thirty-three.

It occurred to Mommius quite abruptly that he could fuck her. Why not? Why let the soldiers have all the fun? His wife would never know. What he wouldn't give to have those long legs wrapped around him. His wife tended merely to lie there to accept him as though it was her duty when he wanted something a little more stimulating and this one, he suspected, like that whore in Caesarea all those years ago, was capable of wildness. She shrieked again, blood oozing from the left side of her back where the latest lash had opened a welt. She wouldn't be wild that night, he knew, and besides he would probably have to have her chained down but still, to possess that string body, to feel those breasts flattened against his chest, he would do it. The thirty-seventh lash bit into the flesh above her waist and she gave an agonized groan. He'd watched plenty of thrashings before and he knew she was bearing up well. It was when they stopped screaming that you began to worry, when they bodies became a carcass absorbing the blows. But this one had plenty of fight left in her.

The sweat stung her eyes. It dripped form her forehead and nose. She could feel the layer of damp between her body and the bench. Just two more. But it was agony. Her back, buttocks and thighs burned. She lay her right cheek against the bench and waited. She could feel blood trickling in a couple of places down her back. Her shoulders and wrists ached from the strain of holding her. She was acutely aware of the crowd, their breathing, their excitement, their smell. She heard the whoosh of the cane, felt the impact drove the breath from her. She squawked and then the familiar swell of pain began, shock becoming agony building and building as the mob cheered their approval and then slowly ebbing again. She shuddered. She felt sick.

Clemens watched as the flogger prepared to administer the final lash. He could almost see the thought process. Where would he put it? On the finely muscled back, now bruised and torn? On those sumptuous buttocks, streaked and bloodied? Or on those long lissome thighs, striped with purples and browns? He went low, just above the knees. She jerked savagely, holding back a scream so it was an agonized gargle, then falling back onto the bench, torso heaving. Clemens felt a terrible dryness in his throat, a pain that extended from his chest to his eyes. They were killing her brutally and there was no hope.

*

Mommius approached her cell. What state would she be in? He thought of how she'd looked as they'd unfastened her from the bench. Without the support of the guards, she'd have fallen. As it was, she seemed pitifully weak as they'd hauled her to the front of the platform, a guard grasping each arm, her legs trailing limp on the stone. Another had pulled her head up by the hair, making her take in the sight of the mob jeering her nakedness, now fully exposed to them. Then they'd turned her so the beaten back of her body was visible. From neck to knee the skin was bruised and torn, blood oozing in perhaps a dozen places. The crowd roared their approval. And then they'd dragged her limp form back into the temple compound.

He'd stayed a little way away, watching as the priests taunted her. She lay naked on the ground, beaten into semi-consciousness, but that didn't stop them, circling her, prodding her, telling her how disgusting she was to have defied them. Caiaphas had her pulled to a kneeling position. Her head flopped forward until a guard, grabbing a hank of hair, forced her to look at him. He'd said something, Mommius couldn't tell what, and then he'd slapped her hard across the face. The guards had released their grip and she'd fallen back into the dirt as the priests had walked away, Caiaphas spitting on her prone form as he'd gone.

Only then had Mommius approached, directing the guards to dress her. They'd made sure every part of her was fondled and groped as they pulled the tunic over her head. They'd fastened her in full chains again and he'd directed them to take her not to the fort but to the governor's residence. There, he could protect her a little, have his way with her before he sent her back to the fort. All the while she'd been unresisting, seeming only vaguely conscious of what was going on. Two soldiers guarded her cell. They unlocked the door, threw back the bolts and he entered.

She was sprawled on the hard earth, lying on her right shoulder, legs half-tucked beneath her. She glanced up at his entrance but seemed too exhausted to move, weighed down by the chains. Her tunic had ridden up so her legs were almost completely bare and was badly stained in placed by blood. "Get her up," Mommius ordered, and the soldiers pulled her to her feet. She was just about strong enough to stand, but she bent under the chains. He walked over to her and lifted her chin. Her eyes glinted with sullen defiance. He ran his thumb over the bruise by the side of her mouth where Caiaphas had slapped her. He turned back to the soldiers and made for the door. "Clean her up," he said. "Get a physician to put something on those wounds. We can't have her dying before the main event."

He walked out. "And when you're done," he said, "prepare her for me. I'll be back in two hours."

Mommius found himself strangely agitated. He paced about, couldn't settle. He'd thought he'd have a nice dinner before fucking her, but he was too eager to get on with it. He had a couple of mouthfuls of wine – not too much; he had to function – and tried to settle to some admin work but he couldn't get the thought of her out of his head: the long powerful legs, the slender waist, the high, proud breasts. He went back a little early.

She was prepared just as he'd ordered. They'd placed two flaming torches in brackets just inside the door, and the smell of herbs and unguent was evidence that some sort of balm had been applied. Her tunic lay in the corner, while she was naked on the floor, wrists bound to a patibulum, legs gently bent. He could see the strain on her arms, the muscles taut, emphasizing her power. He walked around her, admiringly. Her breasts were slightly flattened but admirably pert. Her body was grazed and scratched in places, the odd welt apparent on her ribs and the side of her buttocks, but her front had largely escaped damage. He could feel his cock rising already.

He looked down at her exhausted face. She gazed back at him, her dark eyes expressing sadness and resentment but little fear. He kicked her gently on the shoulder. She barely flickered. He took her legs and parted them, rucked up his toga and fell on her.

Would they all rape her before this was done? Aelia lay unresisting as he groped and nibbled at her and then, mercifully quickly, parted her labia and inserted himself. She was too weak to resist as he lifted her legs either side of his head, resting her calves on his shoulders. What was he, the eighth man to rape her? Could she kick him? Smack her heels together on his skull? But what was the point? They'd just find some other way to make this worse. He was relatively gentle at least. He seemed to be doing it for his own enjoyment rather than to hurt her or to punish her which was something. Untied, even after the flogging, she could have crushed him but bound as she was she was helpless. She knew she would be taken back to the fort before her death and she knew she would suffer terribly there even before the crucifixion. How many would fuck her? Ten, twenty? Maybe Rustius would keep her for himself.

When would he finish? He was kissing her inexpertly, dribbling on her face and her breasts, his cock twitching inside her. This was nowhere near as painful as the other rapes. Maybe his penis was tiny. "I've bound you like this," he said, "so that when you're up there you'll remember me. You'll hand on the cross and feel the strain on your arms and you will think of me." He suddenly grabbed at her waist and shuddered and she understood he was coming. She felt the warm spurt inside her and was revolted. He clawed a final time at her breasts and then left with an order to clean her up and let her sleep.

*

It had been an extraordinary triumph. The bandit camp had fallen with barely a fight. Many, Rustius suspected, had already deserted, but he wasn't going to let that detract from the glory he derived from it. They'd slaughtered perhaps 40 and taken a little more than 100 prisoners, men, women and children. Shackled or roped together, they now huddled against the wall of the fort, directly across from where the body of Quintus now hung by its feet. Some would be executed, but most would be sold into slavery, but before that there was fun to be had. He already had his eye on a pretty dark-haired girl of perhaps 19 or 20 who would sit on his cock that night after he'd had another go at Aelia.

The legion had come out en masse, and packed the yard. There were those on duty who guarded the prisoners, although they seemed a miserable defeated bunch now, but many, many others there to have their sport with the bandits.

Aelia was dragged from her cell, barely able to haul along the chains. She'd been brought from the governor's residence earlier that afternoon and it had been all he'd been able to do not to fuck her there and then. When she saw her people in the light of a vast array of torches, she gave a cry of pain. This was her defeat. Rustius was looking forward to this. This would be her humiliation and then he would have her again, feel that firm body under his, the soft roundness of her breasts, the tight warmth of her pussy. "Here she is," he said mockingly, "the Bandit Queen. Hail her!"

She set her mouth tight and stared at the ground as they made her stand before her people. A murmur passed among them shocked by the sight of their leader disheveled and in chains. "But let us dress her," he said, "more like a queen."

Four soldiers hastened forward and removed her chains. He was a little wary, but he doubted she posed any real danger now. She straightened slowly, stretching her back, rubbing her wrists where the irons had chafed. One punched her, needlessly, in the belly and, as she staggered forward, the other three pulled the tunic off her. She was naked again, smoothly luscious in the flickering light. She glanced awkwardly at her people and he realized being naked in front of her friends shamed her perhaps more than being naked in front of her enemies. The soldiers shoved her to her knees and then came the moment he'd been waiting for since a young centurion had suggested the refinement on their way back from the hills.

The centurion, a slightly plump southerner by the name of Sextus, walked proudly forward, carrying before him a circle of thorny desert vine, twisted together to form a crown. It was larger than Rustius had expected when Sextus had explained it too him, a length twisted round perhaps six times, long thorns protruding cruelly. "Let us crown the Bandit Queen," Rustius boomed.

*

Aelia felt exhausted. Everything hurt. Her wrists and ankles bled. Her knee was bruised from her attempt to escape. Her back and buttocks were still stiff and sore from the beating and she still felt a dreadful pain inside her from the rapes. And the chains had been horribly heavy. Every muscle ached. Seeing her people like that was the final straw. She was defeated. Her enemies would have their revenge and she would suffer awfully. Then to be stripped in front of them, for them to see her shame and abjection, that was the worst of all. There was no hope.

She knelt on the coarse sand, a soldier holding each arm so her back was straight, her breasts pushed out. She looked up to see a centurion approaching, holding something in his hands. It took her a while to work out what it was – a wreath, perhaps, but then she saw the spikes and understood. He stopped in front of her and raised the crown high. There were hoots of mocking laughter from the soldiers, gasps of horror from her people. He rammed it down. She shouted as the thorns lacerated her scalp and forehead. Some broke off and fell gently to earth, but many more dug in. He stepped back, grinning at his handiwork, then stepped forward again and twisted. She could feel the thorns dragging on her skin, feel the tears. Another soldier approached with a staff and began tapping at the crown, driving the spikes in deeper. Blood began to roll from her forehead and scalp, dripping drown her face, onto her bare shoulders and the ground.

She stared down, watching the red drops fall into the sand. Shame encompassed her. She heard more laughter and saw a guard approaching holding a tattered red cloth. It was wet, dripping with water. What new torment was this? "Your robe, my queen," he said, and there was another gale of laughter. They draped it over her shoulders and as they knotted it at her neck, she understood why it was wet. They'd soaked it in salt-water. Her wounds began to burn. There were roars of glee as they saw the realization dawn on her, the pain getting worse and worse. The cloth was probably long enough to reach to mid-thigh. It bunched on the ground around her, clinging to her, a sheath of agony. She stared at the ground and willed herself not to weep.

Another soldier approached. Was there more? He carried a cane out before him. Were they going to thrash her again? But he placed it in her hands and she saw blood upon it. Her blood? Was this one of the rods they'd lashed with? "Your scepter, my queen," he said, and there was more laughter.

*

Sextus took center-stage again. "The bandit queen will now sit in judgement over her people," he said. Rustius was enjoying this. The boy had a flair for humiliation. He clearly had further plans. A table had been set behind the whipping post and on it lay a pair of straps, a pair of canes, a pair of bullwhips and a pair of scourges. Aelia looked broken beside him, ridiculous in her costume and clearly in pain, in full view of both the legion and the people she had led. Two male prisoners were dragged in front of her. Both were bound, both young and muscular.

"Choose one to be flogged, great queen," said Sextus. "Point with your scepter at the one you want punished."

Aelia didn't even look up. Joseph and Daniel were two of her best warriors. She wasn't going to choose between them. "Choose, queen," said Sextus. "If you do not, we will scourge both of them and then take the youngest two prisoners here and scourge them as well."

She was paralyzed with indecision. She just looked down. "Flog me!" shouted Daniel. ‘I'll bear the wounds with pride." Even as Joseph began protest and volunteer, she nodded. Daniel was older, stronger, better equipped to survive. If it had to be one of them it was better it was him.

"Point at the one you wish beaten," Sextus insisted and slowly, reluctantly, she gestured at Daniel. Soldiers grabbed him, and dragged him to a column on the dais where Rustius stood that they used as a whipping post. They stripped him roughly and fastened his wrists in iron coughs to he hugged the stone.

"Now," said Sextus, "the sentence."

Rustius leaned forward. Sextus held out a cloth bag towards her. "In here," Sextus said, "are four tiles, marked with a I, a II, a III and a IV. Each number represents a multiple of five. How many lashes does the condemned deserve?"

She had no wish to participate in this. She would have done anything to avoid it but she knew if she disobeyed them they would do something terrible. There were kids of seven or eight among the prisoners: she couldn't let them be scourged.

"I'm sorry," she said, hopelessly. She reached into the bag and drew out a tile. Sextus took it from her. "Ten lashes," he said.

"Daniel," he called. "You're lucky."

He offered her another bag. "Now choose the implement," he said. "A strap, a rod, a bullwhip or a scourge?"

Aelia turned away but reached into the bag with her hand. "A rod," Sextus called. "Announce the sentence, great queen."

She looked at him with fury in her eyes. A lash struck across the wet cloak on her shoulders and she yelled. "Ten lashes with the rod," she muttered.

Two lictors immediately set to work thrashing the man at the post, who took his punishment stoically enough before being released from the post, bound again and sent back naked into massed huddle of prisoners.

‘Our second case," Sextus announced. Rustius watched with renewed interest as two women were hustled forward. Both looked to be in their late thirties or perhaps early forties. One was elegant and slender, of medium height with raven hair and a sweet face; the other was slightly taller, her hair a mid brown and her skin a little paler. Both had clearly been picked for their looks. Rustius licked his lips. He'd watch one flogged and he might enjoy the other one later.

Aelia was appalled. She looked from Judith to Esther and back again. Both looked terrified. Watching Daniel caned had been bad enough, however bravely he'd taken it. These weren't women who could take a beating. "Pick one," the centurion hissed. Aelia shook her head. The centurion turned and gave an order. Aelia saw two soldiers making for a small boy amid the throng of prisoners. Tears began to well in her eyes. She raised her scepter and pointed at Esther. She was slightly younger, perhaps slightly tougher. They dragged Judith back and threw her down, laughing. Then they marched Esther over to the post.

The taller one with the lighter hair. Rustius could see the panic in her as they approached. They stripped her with casual brutality. He saw round, heavy breasts before they fastened her up to be beaten. Aelia drew out the tiles and then, with a glance at the boy they'd threatened, read out the punishment. "Fifteen lashes with the strap." That meant somebody was going to get twenty with either the bullwhip or the scourge. Rustius would enjoy this flogging but he had high hopes Sextus had even better lined up.

Aelia could hardly see Esther's flogging through a mixture of tears and blood. She just heard the sound of leather on flesh, heard the screams, heard the jeers and the jokes as her friend was thrashed. Only as they brought two more victims forward did she blink sufficiently to see Esther, naked, wrists bound with cord, back and buttocks red and bruised, being flung down among the other prisoners.

It got worse. The next two were both young. There was Shena, a beautiful girl of mixed race, 19 years old, her skin the color of cinnamon, her hair a dark frizz that stood up from a smooth serious face. She was tough, a fighter. Hand her over or Ruth, a slender girl of about the same age who understood herbs like nobody she'd ever met. There was no question. Shena nodded to her long before she'd gestured with the cane.

This one was stunning, thought Rustius as they ripped the shift from her. High, pert breasts, a stomach with clearly defined muscles, firm skin of a deep bronze. He would have her if she wasn't too badly damaged by this flogging. She was a fighter, you could tell, and the soldiers knocked her around a little as they fastened her on the post. Aelia took the tiles and, her voice barely more than a whisper, read out the sentence. "Twenty lashes with the bullwhip."

There was clear relish on the part of lictors as they picked up the heavy bullwhips, each perhaps six feet long. He wouldn't be fucking her, Rustius thought, but he would take please from watching her suffer. He saw her adjust her feet, shuffling in the dust, the muscles flexing in her powerful calves as she set herself. She kept her forehead pressed against the stone, resisting the temptation to look at her tormentors. A strong girl, but you could only be so strong against whips like those. It's true they had longer whips that would have sliced her apart, but the bullwhips were fearsome and they were wielded with great force and skill. From the first lash they raised deep brown welts upon her skin, first on her back, then on her buttocks and thighs and then across her back again. After five the lashes were drawing screams. By 10 there was blood running from a number of tears. By 15 she was weakening and by 20 she was bloody and sobbing. But as they cut her down Rustius saw her breasts were unblemished, her belly still flat and pure – and he was sure her tigerish energy would return soon enough. There were so many choices.

Aelia felt defeated. It wasn't just the pain of the beating and the salt and the crown, or the shame of her nudity and being dressed up like this, it was the horror of sending her own people to be flogged. The last two, she wasn't surprised to see, were attractive women in their late twenties. There was Rachel, lean and strong with her sun-kissed hair, or there was Naomi, shorter, dark haired, with a sweet smile and large, soft breasts. Rachel, Aelia suspected, was tougher, but her son and daughter were among the crowd. She couldn't let them see their mother stripped and savaged. "Naomi," she whispered. They gave her the bag, but they all knew what tiles remained. "Five with the scourge," she said.

Rustius was delighted: the tits on this one. Five with the scourge was plenty. It would tear lumps of flesh from its victim and give Aelia a foresight of what awaited her. The eagerness of the soldiers was animalistic. They ripped her tunic away, their glee as her breasts bounced loose obvious. She fought them, but they dragged her to the post and fastened her. She was short enough that her arms were raised above her head, meaning her tits, which just protruded beyond her torso, were prime targets. The lictors took up the scourges, awful whips of three thongs of perhaps three feet in length, shards of bone knotted along their length and vicious hooks fixed at their ends. They shook them, letting the bone and the metal jangle together, taunting their victim, and ran them mockingly over her face.

Aelia knew this was what she'd have to take. Poor Naomi, smooth back slightly stretched, ready to be ravaged. She'd known it would be awful, but Aelia was still horrified by the effect of the first lash. It smashed across Naomi's shoulders and then was dragged. She gave a gasp, her head went back, the muscles in her neck stood out, and then she shrieked. First there was a streak of deep red and then blood bubbled within it, particularly thick where the hooks had bitten. She kept shrieking, fingers reaching up in terror. The soldiers laughed. The second lash was worse, thrown around her waist so the hooks caught in the soft skin below her rib cage. Naomi was part-turned as the lictor dragged the lash, tearing three deep furrows in the skin. Aelia averted her eyes, but she couldn't escape Naomi's screams.

Rustius knew exactly where the next one was going, the right-hander aiming his hooks over her slim back towards the outside of her right breast. The hooks fell a little short, but gouged chunks of flesh from under her armpit. Her howls of pain reached a new pitch. The left-hander, though, did make contact with her breast, the claws leaving blood dripping freely down her ribs. The fifth and final lash was delivered into the heart of her back, raked downwards to leave her a bloody mess. She was shaking violently as they loosed her seemingly in a state of shock as they shoved her back into the mass of prisoners.

Sextus ordered Aelia to her feet. She got up, enveloped in horror. The centurion spat in her face. She felt again the eyes of her people on her and understood the magnitude of her failure. They made her parade up and down, mockingly bowing before her. Her face was covered in blood, her shoulders and back burning. She felt weak with shame. They made her stand with the rod clasped before her, resting on her right shoulder, and then began an awful process of sorting her people. She understood all too well what was happening: men and children and old women to one side, anything fuckable to the other. She saw Shena, bent over, struggling, naked, in pain, being pulled from the line at Rustius's order. He walked up and down and then pointed at Leah, Naomi's younger sister. There was little doubt what would happen to them as they were placed in chains and led away. The others were lined up and groups of soldiers formed around them as they took their pick. The centurion who'd arranged her humiliation walked slowly between them, making his choice.

Eventually he walked up to Ruth, poor delicate Ruth, and stripped her. She stood in terror, arms loosed clasped in front of her and he knocked her to the ground with a kick to the back of her knee. Then he was upon her and the rapes began. Aelia looked away but the sounds were bad enough, a mass wailing as her women were brutalized before their husbands, their brothers, their fathers ,their children and her. They made her endure it for perhaps half an hour, and then her cloak was removed, yanked painfully away from the open wounds where it had stuck. They carefully lifted the crown from her head, struck her a couple of times with the rod, and led her away to be fastened out in the cell where she'd sent her first nights of captivity.

*

There'd been a lottery. Just five winning tiles: Rustius didn't want her ruined. He would go first of course, that was a given. And then he had a night with the other two he'd chosen: the mixed race one who'd been bullwhipped and the one with the pretty eyes he'd noticed when they'd first arrived. A tiger and a lamb, he suspected. He'd have fun. Right now they were naked and in chains in his room. But first Aelia. He would have her, then the five lottery winners and then he'd arranged for her to be drugged so she'd sleep. They needed her strong for the following day. She'd be taken out at dawn and scourged, then she'd carry her cross out to Golgotha where she'd be crucified. Mommius had been clear: she had to last at least a day, although that might have been easier if they hadn't let the priests flog her. Still, she was strong and with a proper sedile she'd last. He looked down at her naked body in the torchlight, so long, so smooth. He prodded her in the cunt with his boot. She barely moved. He knelt over her trim waist, took a breast and squeezed. She moaned.

Good. She could still feel pain, then. He placed his hands on her cheekbones and lifted her a little. Her face was caked in dried blood. "We've won," he said softly. He saw the defeat in her dark eyes, pain and sadness and shame. He ran his thumbs down the shallow grooves that led from her nose to the edges of her lips. "You could have been anything," he said. "You could have married an official from Rome. You could have been a merchant's wife. You could have been one of our whores. But instead you chose this." He kissed her, hard, feeling the pure teeth against his tongue. "If you think what we've done to you so far is bad, wait till tomorrow."

He jabbed two fingers inside her, parting her lips. He jabbed at her clitoris, seeing her pain and humiliation. "You die on the cross," he said. "You die naked and in agony. And your people are sold into slavery. You did that to them. You killed them. You stripped them. You flogged them. You raped them." He traced the outline of her areola with his other hand. "You did that. You lost."

He began to lick her breasts, grasping at the firm muscles of her buttocks as he did so, feeling the welts where she'd been caned. He dug his fingers into her firm flesh, relishing her gasp of pain, and her revulsion as he entered her. He thrust and paused, taking her bloodied head in his hands. "You killed my men," he said, "and now you pay." And then he surrendered himself to her tight warmth, hands grasping her narrow waist as he pounded himself to climax. When he was done, he wiped his cock on her face. "I'll enjoy watching you die," he said.

*

Aelia was woken by a sharp kick between her legs. There were soldiers unfastening her limbs. She felt groggy, head aching, back sore, a pain inside her. This was the day she died – if she was lucky. There was a stickiness on her thighs and she remembered the rapes, the five soldiers who'd won the lottery hammering away, abusing her and shouting the names of the men she'd killed. There'd be no mercy. She could only hope their hatred made them kill her quicker. She'd been made to drink something. She had no idea what it was, some kind of herbal concoction, but it had knocked her out and her gut now churned. They abused her even then as they dragged her outside into the grey light of dawn, probably the last she'd ever see. They threw buckets of cold water over her, sluicing off the blood and the sweat and the cum, then put her, dripping wet, in heavy chains and locked her in another cell. She was going to die. She was going to die terribly. She wondered if they'd kill any of her people but she suspected they had too much value as slaves for that.

Eventually they came for her again. The sun was up and the parade ground gleamed in the early morning light. The legion had been assembled, standing in ranks around the whipping column beside which two lictors stood, the terrible scourges, the ones they'd used on poor Naomi, already in their hands. Naked, bent under the weight of the chains, she was led forward. She saw Mommius and a few other officials in togas seated in front of the soldiers and beside them, standing, a number of senior priests. They were all here to watch her suffering. From the street outside she could hear a hubbub. The people had turned out then, to watch her death. They brought her to the post where Rustius, the only man to have raped her on two separate occasions, announced the sentence. Thirty lashes. Was that good or bad? She no longer had the power to work it out. The more blood she lost, she knew, the quicker it would be over.

They removed the chains. She straightened, slowly. She was stiff and sore. She felt terrible already. There was a moment of stillness and silence and then, as she rubbed her wrists, two soldiers seized her arms. She saw the leer on the face of one of them as he slammed her into the stone pillar. The breath was knocked out of her body but she wouldn't have had the strength to resist anyway as her wrists were fastened in the chains behind the post, leaving her hugging the stone, back taut, almost immobile for the whips. Her breasts pressed against the cool stone. She bit her lower lip. She wouldn't let them see how scared she was.

The lictors came forward, the bones of the whips clinking together. One of them grabbed her hair and tipped her head back and the other draped the scourge over her face, drawing the shards and the hooks across her soft cheeks. She clenched her teeth. She would not show fear. They moved into position behind her. A soldier twisted her wet hair into a rough pony-tail and pushed over her shoulder, running his hand over her breast as he did so. She pushed her forehead, pocked with scars and dried blood, against the stone. She would not show she was humiliated.

What a woman she was, Rustius reflected. There was a nobility about her as she stood waiting to be ripped apart. Her forehead was covered in scratches and small scars from the crown. Her skin was bruised and marked by welts, broken in a number of places and yet there was still an alluring smoothness about it, the firm muscles of her back and buttocks set in relief by the low sun. The scourge would savage her but even after a third beating in a little over a week he suspected her death would not be quick. He wished he could have fucked her again. She had a remarkable body, so firm and yet so soft. But nobody would ever fuck her again. He nodded to the centurion and he gave the order for the flogging to begin.

Aelia lowered her head. She felt surprisingly calm, as though her body had lost the capacity for fear. She heard the hooks and the bones tinkle as the left-handed flogger measured his stroke. She blew out, trying to stay calm. She heard his boots on the sand, two steps, a slight grunt of effort. She heard the whistle of the whip and then the crash as it landed on her shoulders. For a moment she felt only shock. Her head had flown back, her mouth was open and the breath wouldn't come. Then the pain arrive and it was terrible. The cane had been awful but this was much, much worse. When her breath returned it was in a series of short, sharp gasps. "One," called the centurion. She blinked repeatedly, staring at the stone before her. There was a band of fire across her shoulders, dotted with more intense conflagrations. There was a long wait. Agony and the prospect of more agony. It came from her left, and landed across the middle of her back. The ends, weighted by the hooks, reached around to claw at her ribs.

There was something vaguely disgusting about the spectacle, Mommius thought. The girl was a menace, obviously, but did anyone deserve this? She was naked in front of her enemies, had already been beaten twice and now was taking a third flogging, once that would tear the skin from her back. The third lash landed just above her waist. Blood began to bubble immediately. The first two lashes already throbbed pink, gouges two of three inches long where the hooks had scored her skin, blood dribbling from rents left by the shards of bone. It was astonishing she hadn't cried out.

The fourth brought more reaction. It was whipped low across her buttocks and the hooks bit deep. She shouted, her legs leaving the ground and briefly straddling the post. Almost instantly, blood began to dribble down her right leg. She gave a shudder and Mommius instantly felt a sense of concern. How long would she last on the cross? The orders had been clear: a day at least. He knew the human body was resilient and he knew she was tough but the abuse she'd taken had been severe. He watched her helplessness as the whipping went on, slow and meticulous. He thought of the feel of her body under his hands, the slippery muscularity beneath the soft skin. She would keep resisting, keep fighting.

* Clemens hadn't slept. He waited outside the fortress, hopelessly. He'd heard shouts and screams all night and then, just before dawn, the great gates had opened and a group of prisoners had been led out. They all wore iron collars linked to the next prisoner by a yard of chain, their wrists bound behind them. He'd hidden his face away at first, concerned somebody might show some sign of recognition, but he realized they were all too broken for that and so he'd stood back in the shadows, watching as his people were led away to the slave traders. Some were in tears, some limped, all walked with head-down weariness. What had happened in there?

] He'd seen Naomi, face a mask of horror, had hated himself for watching how her breasts swayed beneath her tattered shift, then saw how her back was stained with blood. Had they whipped her as well? And then he'd seen Ruth, shuffling along, sobbing constantly. And most shocking of all was Shena. So tough, so brave, and now a bedraggled sight in her bloodied shift, defiance knocked out of her.

And then he'd waited some more, on the verge of tears himself, before he heard what he'd been dreading. First there was shout, the hoots and jeers, then screams. Horrible, horrible screams.

*

The pain was far worse than anything she'd imagined possible. She stared up at the cloudless sky, mouth open, gasping for breath in between her howls of pain. Any attempt at dignity had gone. She was shaking, spots danced before her eyes and her back was a white hot sheet of pain. It felt as though she had no skin left. Another lash thumped into her and she felt the tear as the hooks ripped into her skin. There was a moment when she thought her heart had stopped and she was paralyzed, frozen in agony, before the shock eased and the pain grew. She could hear their taunts, sense their enjoyment. Their revenge was brutal. She had no idea how many she'd taken: it was just a world of pain.

The whips were heavy with blood. A fine spray was sent up as the thongs were drawn back and thrown through the air. Her back was a battered mess, the skin shredded. Blood ran from open wounds, dripped to the sand. The lash landed, clawing at her ribs. A spatter of blood leapt from her back. She gave an anguished gasp and then roared with pain. Her whole body shuddered. Her head lolled back, damp tendrils of hair clinging to her bloodied shoulders. "Twenty," came the call. She was shaking, feet shuffling limply. Rustius looked on with satisfaction. This was what a punishment should be.

He watched the left-hander shake his whip, blood falling from it, measure his run and then thrash her, dragging the scourge from the upper left past of her back down and to the center. A fine spray of blood was thrown up, there was the slap of the lash on her finely muscled form and then the tear as the bone-shards and the hooks ripped into the flesh. Her scream rasped in her throat. She thrust her head forward so her forehead pushed against the stone, and then she seemed to subside, legs slowly giving way so she slid down the column to hang, knees slightly bent, upper arms straining.

Mommius looked at the priests. How he hated them, standing there in their little huddle, faces so judgmental, hypocrites who would preach purity but were clearly relishing the torture of a beautiful naked woman. Another lash landed, another spray of blood went up, there was more wailing, more cheers from the men, but Caiaphas simply turned up his nose, pursing his lips and shaking his head at the priest next to him. He patted at his upper lip with a cloth, but his gaze was soon fixed on her again. Mommius had come to quite admire the girl. She was screaming now, hanging limp on the post, but she was far braver than anyone else he'd ever watched being flogged and she'd taken astonishing punishment before her legs had given way. And she was a great fuck. He remembered the feel of that powerful core, the strength of her thighs, the tightness of her cunt. And the sense of her resigned fury as he'd had his way. Her world was just pain now, constant fire in her back onto which was overlaid new white hot agony every 30 seconds or so. She could feel the blood running down over her buttocks, sense it dripping into the sand. Tears and mucus leaked from her face, falling onto her chest. The stone was rough against her breasts. Her arms felt dreadfully tried and she was aware beyond the terrible pain of her back that her wrists were aching. She heard the whoosh, felt the impact and the tear and the pain rose up again. Shapes danced in front of her eyes. Her heart was pounding. "Twenty-nine," she heard. Was that right? Just one more. She could survive this. But for what? To die more publicly, in even worse pain. For her people, for her ideals, she would endure. The final lash ripped across her skin and it was over. She retched, tasting bile. Her head fell back.

*

They loosed her right wrist and she fell to hand by her left, her body swinging so she faced her tormentors. After the red of her back, the front of her body was shockingly pale, smoothly pure. Her head lolled back, legs tucked underneath her. They unfastened her left wrist and she fell awkwardly onto her side. A boot to the belly just caused her to grunt and shifted her a couple on inches. She ignored an order to stand. Rustius signaled to the execution squad and they pulled her up by the arms and the hair, hurling abuse at her as she moaned in pain. They dragged her before him and threw her down. She sprawled on all fours, then finally looked up at him. Her back was ravaged, covered in blood. Tendrils of sweat-damp hair clung to her face and to the open wounds of her back. Her breasts hung down deliciously. They forced her into a kneeling position and he looked into her exhausted brown eyes, saw the perfect whiteness of her front teeth between her lips as she panted.

"Salt!" he ordered and she closed her eyes in terrified resignation.

They let her lie in her humiliation for a couple of minutes, as the next implements of her disgrace were brought out. They tipped two buckets of water over her, bringing her back from the semi-consciousness into which she had slumped and sluicing away much of the blood, sand and salt. They pulled her to her knees and smoothed her wet hair back from her forehead. Rustius saw the weariness in her as they pulled her hair to yank her head up. Sextus advanced with the crown, still showing the blood from the previous night. Her weariness was clear as the centurion slowly advanced with the crown. He rolled it over her chest to general hilarity as the thorns teased her nipples, then raised the crown and lowered it onto her head, twisting cruelly so the thorns dug in. "Hail the bandit queen!" he shouted and there was a mixture of laughter and shouts of "Hail!"

Rustius heard a new burst of laughter. What was this? Two soldiers dragged the naked corpse of Quintus over to her. "Say goodbye," Sextus taunted. They shoved her face into his crotch, pushing his penis between her lips, a blow to the back of her head causing a shout of pain that opened her teeth far enough for them to force his cock briefly insider her mouth. Then they draped him over her in a mockery of an embrace. "Such love," Sextus said, then gave the signal for them to bring the patibulum.

By the gate, other soldiers scattered shards of broken pottery, a final cruelty before she left the fortress. Rustius wanted to ensure she didn't walk with any dignity to her death and had thought about beating her feet or slicing the soles with a knife. But Sextus's idea was better. Make her inflict the damage on herself. Make her understand their ingenuity when it came to hurting her. Make her suffer as they hosannahed her out of the gate on the road to Golgotha. *

Clemens had never seen so many people gathered in one place. Everybody there to watch her march to Golgotha, to see the Bandit Queen shamed and executed. The street had filled up around him so much he'd been forced to stand to avoid being trampled on. And he wanted to see her. He had to let her see him so she knew she wasn't alone. The mob, he was aware, would turn on any victim. It was just sport for them, especially if the victim was a beautiful young woman.

The huge gates to the fortress began to open. His stomach lurched. The hubbub died away as the crowd realized what was happening. A dozen legionaries marched out, clearing space as the crowd backed off. They bore staves in case the crowd grew unruly, swords at their waists. Then another two soldiers and behind them, there she was, bent under the crossbeam over which her arms had been wrapped, another group of soldiers behind her. His first impression was of her nakedness, her olive skin unadorned by anything other than blood, breasts bobbing as she staggered under the weight. She seemed somehow so insubstantial, this great woman in whom he'd invested so much hope.

The crowd immediately erupted into shouts and jeers. She looked up in his direction but he suspected she understood nothing, such was the mask of hurt. And perhaps anyway she couldn't see through the blood ran from her forehead over her face. The crown was a touch of evil, designed just to hurt and humiliate. The mob, of course, loved it. "Hail the Bandit Queen!" came the shout and there was laughter. Clemens could barely hold back the tears. "Look at her royal tits!" "Why don't you steal some clothes, Bandit Queen?"

The soldiers pushed through the mob and she turned to her right to make her shameful procession through the crowded streets and out of the city to the hill where she would die. Clemens saw the pale side of her breast, hating the way his body still responded to her, and then he saw her back. It had been bad enough after her caning but this was something else, the skin torn away so from neck to waist she was a mass of red. Their revenge on her was terrible. He felt sick. He looked away but his eyes were drawn inexorably back to the wounds, the deep grooves, the tears, the rents, the bruises. He thought in places he could see her vertebrae but it was hard to be sure of anything as she staggered forwards under the weight of the beam, the crowds milling around her, jeering and laughing. Why? Why did they hate her? Why couldn't they understand what she'd tried to do? A group of young women, giggling, barged past him. Clemens felt overwhelmed. It suddenly seemed very hot, the air oppressive. People flowed past him, trying to get closer to Aelia, pushing against the soldiers who held them back. He watched her unsteady progress and saw her turn down a narrower street to the right, a soldier flicking a strap at her to guide her. He thought he heard her shout above the hubbub but he felt so faint by then he couldn't be sure. He needed water, then he would catch up with her on the hill.

*

Aelia could barely see. Sweat and blood stung her eyes but when she blinked away the tears and the sting for long enough, all she saw was a mass of faces. Some were twisted in hate, some were laughing, some were spitting, but they were all united in their hostility to her. The patibulum was heavy. Even fresh and fit it would have been a challenge and she was far from that. Her back burned with an intensity she could never have imagined, the muscles ruined. Her forehead and scalp throbbed with pain, her feet were in agony and every muscle resented the onward plod. Her heart thumped. And she was naked. Each sway of her breasts was a reminder of her defeat.

It was hot, terribly hot. She could barely breathe. The soldiers surrounded her, pushing through the crowd, holding them back with staves, but that did nothing to halt the shower of spittle. A man of about 40 burst through her guard. "Whore!" he shouted and spat in her face before the soldiers bundled him away. Perhaps one of them might kill her, she thought. Each step was agony, her feet lacerated by the shards of pottery, her legs aching with the strain. She was drenched with sweat and spittle, her thighs slipping against each other when she stumbled. She saw something moving in her peripheral vision but couldn't get out of the way. She felt a blow to her right cheek, damp and foul and saw for a moment the head of a rotting fish as it slithered down her body and was gone. As she hesitated, a guard lashed her, his strap smacking against her thigh. No matter how much agony she was in, there was still scope for more pain. And this was only the beginning.

*

There was no point getting caught up in the crush, so Rustius waited several minutes, had a drink and only then mounted his horse and rode out into the street. Her trail was clear. Spots of blood, drying spittle, all manner of filth: rotting vegetables, fish and meat, various types of shit. It really hadn't taken much to turn the mob against her. He rode on, soon catching up with the procession. He watched from a distance, a huge press of people, the soldiers struggling to hold them back, and there, at the center of it all, Aelia, bent under the weight of the patibulum, back vividly red, buttocks a mix of blacks and purples, legs still that delicious gold.

The mood, he saw, was as he'd have hoped. There was always the danger with a rebel leader that the crowd would rally behind them, but if Aelia had ever had any real hold in the city, it had gone now. The priests had done their job of blackening her name, and nobody would rally behind such a broken, defeated figure, no matter how charismatic or brave. Those close to her seemed to hate her, or at least to relish to the opportunity to abuse a woman of such beauty and class. He thought again of fucking her. What a body she had, the skin so smooth, the muscles so firm, the breasts so soft. Those shoulders… Those shoulders… powerful but feminine. The thought of those alone would make a hundred whores disappoint him.

He had no wish to get too close to the mob, so he turned back and went down a side alley, making for one of the other gates of the city. There were plenty of people there was well, making their way out towards Golgotha. Her death was becoming one of the year's great social events. He saw Mommius walking with another administrator and greeted him. He'd thought him an idiot a week ago but these last days had brought them together. He suspected he'd fucked her as well, the old goat. Their alliance could be useful.

Mommius watched Rustius ride on. Not such a brute as he had seemed. "A friend of yours?" his companion, a grey-haired civil servant by the name of Ligarius asked teasingly.

"A good soldier," he replied. "Men like him are vital to the Republic."

"And did he arrange this spectacle today?" Ligarius's distaste was clear in his tone.

"The governor sentenced her to the cross."

"There are plenty have been crucified without being paraded naked round the streets wearing a crown of thorns."

"You didn't enjoy the sight?"

"I knew her father. I knew her as a child."

"She's a criminal. She threatened the Republic. She deserves this." He didn't like being forced to justify this. Had it gone too far? He didn't know. What was too far? She had to die and the legion wanted its revenge.

"She's been brutalized. She's been severely beaten, scourged, humiliated. They've raped her. They've been playing with her for days. And now they kill her by dragging her naked through the streets so the worst kind of humanity can laugh at her and nailing her up to hang in agony for hours. You think she deserves this?"

"Yes," said Mommius, deciding to shock the sanctimonious fool. "I raped her."

Ligarius looked incredulous for a moment then laughed. "You?"

"Yes. After the priests had flogged her. And it felt good."

Ligarius shook his head. "I bet it did," he said sourly.

"The people must see that rebellion will be crushed."

*

Clemens waited outside the gate. After the tightly-packed alleys it was a relief to have space. He'd drunk some water but the heat was still terrible beneath an increasingly clouded sky.

"They say she's a beauty," he heard a well-dressed man next to him say to his companion. Merchants, by the look of them.

"Apparently so, and they've stripped her quite naked. Great tits, I'm told."

Clemens moved away but every conversation stung him.

"No better than a whore."

"Fucked a dozen men a night to keep them loyal."

"Screamed like a child as soon as they showed her the whip."

"The longest legs you've ever seen."

"Flogged her three times, scourged her half to death."

"She used to sleep with corpses."

"I saw her beaten by the temple. Best ass you ever saw."

"A common slut with ideas above her station."

Everywhere he went, the voices hammered into his soul.

*

Aelia took another step forward. Her foot hurt as she set it down. The jarring sent waves of pain through her back. Her shoulders ached from the weight of the beam, which had rubbed the skin raw where it rested across her neck. She was almost blind with sweat and blood and spittle. Her head screamed. Every muscle moaned. She tried to set the other foot forward but something was wrong. The muscles of her leg were numb. She stumbled, tried to recover, but the weight was too much. She tipped forward and landed painfully on her left knee. The shock sent spasms of agony flowing from her back. She felt nauseous and faint. She blinked her way to sight. The left end of the beam rested on the road. She had to get up. A lash struck across her ribcage on right, stinging surprising sharply..

"Get up, you lazy whore!" a soldier shouted.

Another blow hit her, this time across the bloodied heart of her back. Her vision went black and she retched. Another lash, and another. Even as vomit rose in her throat she summoned the energy to stand. A shove set her toppling forward but her legs responded and, as the crowd laughed, she trotted on. Her heart was pounding. She took great gulps of air. Everything was a daze. Faces, taunting, pointing everywhere, her muscles like lead. Onward she pushed.

The walk felt eternal. Every now and again she would lose herself and would take four or five paces in a numb haze, but then an insult would penetrate to her consciousness and she would feel shame again, or a loose stone or a lash or a heavy step would spark a new wave of pain. She was naked, breasts swaying, buttocks and everything else exposed. They'd won. All she could do was walk on, endure this march of shame and pain to something much worse.

She fell, legs buckling beneath her, but the pressure of the mob prevented her going down heavily. Instead she collapsed to her knees and slowly subsided to lie face down in the dirt, the beam an impossible weight. The crown pushed harder into her forehead, stones dug into her breasts. Maybe she could just lie there and wait for death. But they began to beat her again, blow after blow until she began to struggle, and then hands helped her up. She was filthy, grime and dust clinging to her sweat-drenched body, mingling with the filth they'd thrown at her and the spittle. They lashed her again, on the inside of her left thigh and she was moving, blood seeping from her knees.

She trudged on, head down, seeing nothing but the dusty road. Blood and sweat dripped from her. Still they pelted her with shit and rotting food. Still they jostled to add their own insult and their own spittle. Were these the people she'd thought she could save? Life was nothing but pain. One foot in front of the other, breasts jogging, back screaming, heat and exhaustion. A hand touched her shoulder and she paused. She looked up. She was at the gate, leaving Jerusalem for the final time. She felt a ball of sadness rise in her throat. A soldier held a goatskin to her lips and she drank. She hadn't realized how thirsty she was. Some sort of bitter herb had been added to the liquid. She didn't care. A painkiller, maybe? But they wouldn't be so merciful. Something to keep her strength up, probably. She drank and drank, water dribbling down her chin, splashing on her breasts and then it was removed from her lips and a kick to her backside began the procession again.

*

Mommius had wondered whether they should keep a couple of her people back to help her with the patibulum. It was common enough for prisoners to collapse on the way to Golgotha, women especially, and there weren't many who'd been abused quite as badly as Aelia had been. But Rustius had been clear. She had to be alone. She had to know she was alone. If the soldiers had to drag her, then they would. There could be no comfort for her. Shame, isolation, pain: that was her punishment. When Mommius saw her again, he knew Rustius had been right.

She was strong enough. She would make it up the hill. She was suffering, her body gleaming with sweat, her hair wet, her face anguished, the dignity with which she had once moved gone. She was covered in filth and streaked with sweat, her shoulders and chest spattered with blood, her back a raw mass of wounds. The soldiers were pitiless, flicking at her with their straps. The mob had thinned out a little, but there were still dozens surrounding her, jeering and spitting.

"Why do they hate her so much?" he asked Ligarius, who stared in fascination at her breasts as they bounced and swung as she struggled towards them.

"I thought that was what you wanted?" he said without averting his gaze.

"Oh, it is. It is. But she's one of them. She tried to oppose us."

"She's also one of us," Ligarus said. "And she opposed their priests. We may see this as Rome putting down a local insurgency, but they see her as a Roman and this is their chance to assert themselves."

"They see her as Roman?" Mommius was startled but he could see the logic.

"Of course. Her father was a fine man. Just married with his cock not his brain."

"But these are Roman soldiers executing her in the Roman way. The sentence of a Roman governor."

"And also of the local priests. To them she's a stuck-up Roman bitch. That's what the priests have told them."

Mommius felt a stab of pity for her. By being of both societies she belonged to neither. She stumbled again and fell to her knees. They lashed her, three, four, five times across the bloody mess of her back. She barely reacted, her eyes closed, her face blank. They pulled her up and pushed her on.

It had taken her almost an hour to reach the gate, a journey she could normally have done in ten minutes. It would be at least another half hour, he thought, before they reached the site of execution.

*

Clemens had taken a position midway up the hillside. The road was lined with people three or four deep, all of them from what he could make out, gleefully looking forward to seeing a beautiful girl naked, to watching a rebel die. He saw her come through the gate, bent over, shuffling, still surrounded by the mob and followed by a crowd that must have numbered in the hundreds. He felt an ache in his throat, a dull sense of horror. Her approach was agonizingly slow, each step a great effort, the soldiers goading her with their straps.

"She's wearing a crown," somebody shouted as she came closer.

"Hail the bandit queen!" There was laughter. Clemens was disgusted. He wanted to shout at them that they weren't clever, that people had been shouting that all day, but a profound fatigue had seized him. Briefly the press around her parted and he was granted a clear sight of her. She was bent over at perhaps 45 degrees form the waist so her breasts dangled free, swinging as she staggered on. Her beauty still had the capacity to shock him, even then, the round cheeks, the sweetly upturned nose, the gentle power of her shoulders. But her face now had a haggard aspect. She looked exhausted, numb to the taunts of the mob, barely feeling the slaps of the strap.

"Look at that arse," a soldier standing near him said to another. "What I'd have given to fuck her."

"You know Caius offered Publius a week's salary to take his place?"

"Did he? Don't blame him. Fucking Publius. I'd have put money on his tile coming out. Lucky fucking prick."

"Tight as anything, he said. Just lay there and took it. Fuck, those tits."

The words were like a punch to Clemens's kidneys. "What you looking at?" the first soldier said, and he realized he'd been staring at him.

"There was a lottery to rape her?" he croaked, although he could barely say the word "rape".

"Yes, just Rustius and five lucky souls," the second soldier said. "Perk of the job. We all got as much as we wanted last night, mind. Plenty of good cunt there. You should sign up, son. Look like you could do with some." He laughed and the pair followed the procession.

*

Rustius had seen her at the gate and, satisfied, rode on. She would die near the top of the hill, where as many as possible could see her. It was a grim place, dotted with old crosses, many with decomposing corpses still pinned to them, bones littered among the rocks. Crows circled constantly. Flies buzzed. Rustius had ordered a tall stipes, partly so she could be seen and partly because he wanted to make sure she was out of reach of the mob. It wouldn't do for one of her people to end her suffering too soon with a merciful knife, or for some over-enthusiastic mockery to finish her. Fifteen feet long, it lay by the shaft, three feet deep, that they'd dug for it.

"All good?" he asked of the carnifex, whose name he could never remember. The legion would help, but this man was the expert.

"Yes, sir. We're ready."

There were buckets of water there to throw over her. Rustius wanted her nudity seen. He didn't want her hiding her shame behind whatever crap they'd thrown at her. And there were goatskins filled with herb-infused water. It would clear her head, make sure she felt what they were doing to her. The crowd had been gathering since dawn and now numbered three or four thousand. A few dozen soldiers guarded the site along with the carnifex and his four assistants. Many soldiers had just come to watch. And there was Marcus, a strange expression on his face. He was a good, honest soldier, a brave man and a widower. Both his sons had been killed by Aelia. Everybody had agreed that he should take on the job of holding her down as they nailed her to the patibulum.

Rustius heard the procession approaching and turned. They were still a couple of hundred yards away. He'd been right to increase the security. His men were everywhere. There were too many people. He felt instinctively nervous. But the mood seemed largely jovial. There were still those spitting at Aelia, mocking her, but for most people, this was a holiday.

He mopped at his brow. It was disgustingly hot and humid. He glanced at the sky: clouds as far as the horizon. He wondered if it would rain. That would kill the mood. Although it might keep her alive longer. But the governor was supposed to be coming later on, which might be good for his career, might get him away from this shithole. He didn't want rain keeping the governor at home.

A voice greeted him. Caiaphas, surrounded as ever by his coterie of priests. He nodded at him. Of course he was here early to get a good position to watch her agonies. Of course he was. He hated him. He hoped Caiaphas didn't think they were friends, just because they'd collaborated in Aelia's execution. Did Caiaphas have any idea how brave she was? He hated her. She had to die and die in agony, but he had some respect for her courage. He hated Caiaphas more.

*

This was it, then. She'd passed half a dozen crosses on the way up the hill. She saw the bodies hanging there. She saw the flies and the crows. She knew how she'd end. She also knew that whatever those herbs had been they were taking effect, unless it was just the process of rehydration. When had she last eaten? She had no idea. They'd given her water after raping her but it must be 24 hours since she'd eaten. Would that hasten the end? Or was it just so she didn't shit herself up there? She saw the stipes and the carnfices, saw the hole and the nails, saw the spot where she'd die. She stumbled on to stand beside them. They pushed her to her knees and removed the beam.

There was a moment of relief as the weight was taken from her, but then the blood began to flow again and a wave of pain swept through her shoulders and her arms. She lowered her hands slowly, moaning softly as she did so. A goatskin was held to her lips and she drank greedily. It had been infused with herbs and honey and she gulped it down. The sense of relief on her raw throat was incredible. Then rough hands were on her, pulling her to her feet. She saw them fixing the beam to the upright. She shouldn't have drunk, she realized. It would keep her alive longer. She was suddenly acutely conscious of her nakedness. The soldiers stepped away and, as she brought up an arm to cover her breasts and moved her hand over her cunt, she was struck by water. She shouted in shock and stumbled and then another bucket was thrown at her and another. She stayed on her feet. In the extreme heat the cool was almost a blessing. The worst of the filth was sluiced from her. Another bucket was tipped over her. The water stung the open wounds. The pain was terrible, but somehow it was good pain, cleansing pain. She heard the noise of a hammer. Another bucket was thrown over her. She stood, shoulders hunched, water dripping from her, horribly naked before the crowds.

"See how the whore covers herself at last!" shouted somebody, horribly loud. There was laughter. She bit her lower lip. She could feel tears. She would not cry. She would not cry. When had she last worn clothes? When had she last not been naked? Two soldiers seized her arms and pulled them behind her, fastening her wrists with a cord. Could they not allow her even that dignity?

They dragged her to where Rustius stood next to Mommius. "Aelia," Rustius said, the mob falling silent as his voice boomed across the hilltop. She looked up, determined to act with honor. She looked above the mob, at the hot grey sky. "The sentence is death by crucifixion."

She gave the slightest of nods. "A final drink," Rustius commanded and the goatskin was held to her lips again. Despite herself, she drank. And then they hustled her over to the cross, a bleak T on the dusty ground.

*

Mommius had never actually watched a crucifixion close-up before. He'd ridden past the crosses, of course, and he'd gone, in his younger days especially, to see notorious cases, but the precise details of this stage were unknown to him. With a man or a less beautiful woman, he knew, they wouldn't have made such a point of exposing them. They'd pushed her down onto the cross, unfastened her wrists and then bound her in position with cords around her wrists, her elbows, her waist, her knees and her ankles, immobilizing her. She'd closed her eyes and her teeth were gritted but the pain when her whipped back was pushed onto the coarse wood was clear. A grey-haired soldier, face grim, approached and knelt beside her. He punched her, hard, in the gut. She gave a grunt of pain and bucked, pulling fruitlessly at the cords, eyes and mouth suddenly wide open. The soldier straddled her, sitting on her firm belly, hands pushing on her breasts.

Mommius pushed closer. He heard Ligarius's chuckle, but the older man remained by his side. "You killed my sons," the soldier said, his fingers teasing her nipples. "You deserve all this and more."

A carnifex approached, holding two nails. He ran the points gently over her face, laughing as she squirmed. "You like this?" the soldier asked, circling the areole with his fingers. "Are you a fucking whore? Is this how you spent you days, on your back with your arms outspread?"

Her eyes were closed, head tipped awkwardly back to the crowd dug in. The soldier spat. "You fuck corpses," he said. "Did you fuck my sons? Is that what you fucking did? Killed my sons then fucked them?"

The carnifex placed the point of the nail on her wrist. The soldier grabbed her face, his fingers pushing into the soft cheeks. "Watch!" he said. "Watch the nail go in!"

*

Don't cry. Don't cry. Don't cry. Aelia looked along her arm, bound to the cross. She wanted to close her eyes, but she couldn't not look. The nail was pushed against her wrist. The carnifex touched the head with his hammer, raised it, and in a blur brought it down. The pain was instantaneous. A flash of white agony burned through her. Her head snapped clear of the soldier's hand. Her back arched and her stomach pushed against his weight. His hands suddenly were on her breasts pushing her down. She was shrieking, mad, short bursts as her tensed body refused to take in air. She heard the chink of the hammer on the nail again, felt the reverberation along her arm, felt a new burst of pain. She'd banged her head on the beam and she could feel fresh damp where the wounds in her scalp had been reopened. The hammered came down again. She bucked and retched, awful animalistic sounds rasping from her throat and when her eyes opened again, she saw him, the soldier, grinning.

Two more blows and it was done, her left wrist pinned forever to the wood. She looked disbelievingly along the wood to her hand, hooked into a claw, the head of the nail protruding. The pain was like nothing she'd ever felt. She was shaking. She mustn't cry, yet it seemed as though she had no control. Pain was in charge of her body now. She felt the fingers circling her nipples again, the endless taunting and she felt anger. Anger might get her through. She clenched her teeth. Her breathing was so hard that she was blowing out small gobbets of spittle. She could feel them landing on her face. Should she spit on him? But even as she thought that, she felt the second nail pushed against her right wrist, and all thoughts of bravery or resistance disappeared.

*

The nails always told you a lot. That she was screaming like that was a good sign, Rustius knew. Some prisoners were so exhausted they just lay there. She still had strength to howl. He'd seen Caiaphas turn away as though sickened as they'd hammered in the first nail, but he was back watching the second, hand held delicately to mouth as though appalled by the brutality of it all, the hypocritical prick.

And she was an alluring sight, the smooth softness of her skin stretched out on the hard roughness of the cross, back arching, thrusting up as though in the throes of ecstasy. It wasn't compensation for losing his sons, of course, but Marcus would remember this for a long time, that long body, that slender waist, pushing up against him, writhing beneath him as he fiddled with her tits. He'd never execute another one like this, Rustius knew. Clemens didn't know why he was putting himself through this, but he felt as though, if she could see him, maybe it wouldn't be quite so bad. He pushed closer. The crowds had left a rough circle about five yards in radius around the cross, the soldiers with their staves making sure nobody got too close before it was erected. Or nobody apart from the priests, the officers and a couple of administrators. Her howls of pain cut through him. His brave Aelia. His love. The soldier who was sitting on her stood and he saw her, stretched out, golden skin pale against the dark wood, breasts proud on her heaving chest. The soldier squatted over her again, facing her feet this time and sat, heavily. Her grunt of pain, the fading murmur of a half-scream as the pain radiated out from her back, was clear in the still air.

It was still ferociously hot, her body damp with sweat. A carnifex snipped the cord binding her ankles and the one binding her knees. They took her feet, the soles black with blood and dust, and, bending her knees at 45 degrees, placed them flat on the cross. There was some discussion and they shuffled them up a little. Two of them gripped her left leg below the knee as the one with the hammer placed the nail in position. At the last, Clemens turned away. The sound was bad enough. The clink of metal on metal followed by Aelia's roar.

Her legs were implausibly long. Mommius wasn't surprised there'd been a disagreement over exactly where to nail her. He couldn't remember the exact theory but he remembered a carnifex telling him once back in Rome that you wanted the feet high enough that they could push up and take the strain on their legs to spare the arms, but that if they were too high the body would hang too far forward off the cross, negating the effect of any sedile.

"You fucked her?" Ligarius asked. "You actually fucked her?"

"Yes," he said. He wasn't sure now he should have mentioned it.

"I remember her mother," Ligarius said, admiringly. "A beauty, but too dark-skinned for me. But this one… Those legs…"

Mommius waited for her shrieks to subside as they nailed her right foot. "Amazing," he said. "I tied her to a beam like this and wrapped her legs around me. The skin inside her thighs – like silk. But she's strong. She'll last."

The hammer sounded again. The soldiers seemed to be struggling to hold her as she thrashed in agony, her skin slippery with sweat. Marcus placed his hand on her mons and pushed down.

"I think she was a virgin when we caught her, you know?" Mommius went on.

"A virgin? I thought she was such a whore she fucked corpses?"

The air was rent again by her screams. "She was betrayed for a fuck," Mommius said. "Then she killed him and the soldiers for a joke lay them together"

The hammer struck for the final time. Her squeal sounded exhausted.

"You've made her suffer this week," Ligarius said.

"Don't take on Rome and lose."

*

Aelia stared up at the relentlessly grey sky, head resting on the thorns. The pain was astonishing. Worse than anything she could have imagined. The soldier stuck two fingers inside her and jabbed as he got to his feet. He turned and looked down at her. "I hope you last a week," he said, and spat. She flinched instinctively and suffered new spasms of pain. The spittle landed on her left cheek, just below her eye. Another soldier put a hand on his shoulder and led him away. She would not cry. The pain was so bad she could barely breathe. She would not cry. She knew she needed to relax, but how was that possible?

Hands touched her knees and pulled her legs apart. What was this? What new torment? She felt a wave of despair wash over her. Tears pricked at her eyes. A knot of sorrow balled in her throat. She heard the hammer. Where was the nail? Where was the new pain coming? The stipes shook and the fires in her back burned again. But where was the nail? With great effort she lifted her head. She peered between her breasts and saw them hammering it into the wood between her thighs. "Little seat for you," said the carnifex and smiled. She told herself she wouldn't use it. She told herself it would just keep her alive for longer. But she'd told herself she wouldn't drink and when they held the goatskin to her lips again, she drank, feeling the sweet relief of the cool liquid on a throat ravaged by screaming.

A centurion handed a titulum to a carnifex. He held it for her to see, smirking. "REBEL. MURDERER. THIEF. NECROPHILIAC WHORE," it said. Of course, there would be no dignity there. There was only about six inches from the top of her head to the end of the cross, but that was enough. Placing the board so the top extended above the edge of the cross, they attached it with two nails, the hammering shaking the frame, causing her yet more anguish. The four executioners and four soldiers lifted the cross. She felt a strange weightlessness, a sense of panic. She would not cry. They carried it the five or six feet so the bottom end was above the hole. They lowered that end, and she felt her wrists begin to take the strain. She gasped with the pain. This was even worse. How could anything be worse? She was whimpering. She told herself to be brave. She would not cry. The base of the cross banged on the ground as they positioned it. She shrieked, eyes widening in terror. Slowly they raised the patibulum. The pain in her wrists got worse. She slid, suddenly, down the stipes, the rough wood tearing at her back, and then her perineum hit the sedile. Her mouth opened wide but she couldn't scream. The pain was overwhelming. Up and up the patibulum went. She got higher and higher. The crowds, denied a sight of her for long, cheered as she came into view and she saw them, and Jerusalem and the hills beyond. At last a sickly rasping gurgle came from her throat. Every muscle was taut. Every inch of her was in agony. The cross was almost vertical. She was high in the air, her lovely tortured body naked and exposed and visible for miles around. Don't cry.

*

Rustius saw how the muscles in her arms took the weight. He saw her terror. On horseback, he was almost at eye-level with her. Her chest was heaving, her breasts quivering. The stipes slipped neatly into the shaft they'd dug. The cross dropped, suddenly, and hit the bottom with a thump. She was thrown forward, off the sedile, so she hung with most of her weight taken by her arms. A spray of sweat and blood was flung from her body, splashing Caiaphas, who had – of course – got himself into the front row. Rustius caught Mommius's eye and they smiled at the priest's startled disgust.

Aelia screeched desperately, back arched, thigh muscles tight, great pressure on her knees, teeth bared. She pushed herself up in a panic, roaring with pain and effort and found some comfort on the sedile. But a rusted length of metal four inches long between your legs is no real comfort. She panted, breathing through gritted teeth, eyes bulging.

They hammered wedges into the shaft, shaking the cross, torturing her further, then packed the earth tight around it. A little before noon, the carnifices had completed their task and all that was left was to wait for her to die.

She pushed her head back and for a minute or two she was still, long arms inclined at perhaps 30 degrees, legs bent so her knees were only just above the level of her toes. But then she began the familiar dance of the crucified, the endless search for relief. She dragged herself up so her head almost reached the patibulum. She drew two deep breaths, but then her strength failed her and she fell, sedile just flicking her buttocks so she hung by her wrists, long arms straining, breasts thrust out in a most provocative way.

There was horror written across her face. She understood now what crucifixion was. Rustius had seen it before, each stage worse than the last, the victim never quite understanding how bad it could get until this point. Weight on the nails in your wrists or weight on the nails in your feet? It was a hideous choice, even with the sedile to take some of the pressure. Rustius looked on, pitiless. Brave she may be, but she'd brought this on herself. He'd executed slaves guilty of tiny infractions: she deserved it. He'd executed men, and fat women and old women and ugly women, staring at their unappealing nakedness as the life slowly drained from them. He was going to make the most of this one: her, he could watch forever, even in this infernal heat.

The strange thing was, Mommius reflected, that from the front, there didn't look that much wrong with her. There was the crown, of course, and the nails, and the skin had been torn from her knees, but her breasts and her belly and her thighs were all as glorious as they'd been when they'd first stripped her a week earlier. Only when you moved to the side and saw the marks of the rods and the scourges was it obvious how she'd been abused. And her teeth. She had the most perfect white teeth, which now she was gritting, her lips pulled back in agony. She would perch for a time on the sedile and then, when the strain on her arms and her chest and the pressure in that most intimate of areas was too much, she'd push herself up. The effort and the pain was clear, her thighs trembling, raw back scraping on the wood, and then she'd lower herself again, sometimes losing control and sliding, jarring hideously as her fall was broken by the nails. Her screams already were less frequent, but her agony was obvious.

*

For a few seconds, Aelia was able to sink into numbness. It hurt, it still hurt horrendously, in her arms, her legs, her wrists, her feet, her head, her back, her shoulders, her chest, between her legs, but it was a numb pain, a pain that threatened to submerge her. And then she'd be dragged back to full awareness of her situation. How long had gone? How near was she to death? The clouded sky offered no clues. She could feel a band tightening around her chest. She would have to pull herself up soon to breathe. She should hang. She should let death take her. But the urge was too great. She had to do it in one clean movement, pull herself up, take air in. She pushed with her feet, against the nails, pain shooting through her. She pulled on her wrists and the agony ripped up her arms. There was a moment of blackness and then she was up, the pressure off her cunt. She took a breath, a glorious breath even as stars exploded in her head. She took another breath and then she fell. The jolt through her shoulders brought a white light through her head and she heaved, the spasms shuddering through her. But her mouth was dry, so dry she couldn't even spit. She hung forwards, face taut with agony, eyes wide. She had to get back, had to get to the sedile but she had no strength and the nails burned in her wrists and her shoulders howled and the mob laughed.

The mob laughed. She saw them pointing and staring and jeering and she realized from their gestures that her breasts had jiggled on her chest and she was aware of her nakedness and she was ashamed. She saw Caiaphas, fucking Caiaphas, smiling to one of the other priests and Rustius on his horse, face grimly set like this was some great battle won, and Mommius who'd raped her chuckling to another man in a toga, and she saw the soldiers and she saw the crowd and she had to get back onto the sedile and ease this torture. Summoning all her energy, all her strength, she pulled and dragged herself up. The sedile dragged on her spine and poked her painfully in the arse and then she was on it, feeling its familiar firmness on the ravaged skin of her perineum. She took a deep breath and tried, in this world of slightly lesser pain, to compose herself and then she saw Clemens and her world collapsed.

She knew how he'd adored her. She'd seen him moping around after her. He was a kid. She hadn't bothered to discourage him. He would grow out of it. He was an innocent. And he was brave and decent and reliable. He shouldn't have to see this. She was humiliated by her nakedness in front of him. Great sobs racked her body. She tipped her head back and looked at the sky by she couldn't stop the tears. She'd caught him often staring at her legs or gazing at the swell of her chest beneath her leather armor. She knew he must have imagined her naked. And now in the most degrading way he was seeing her nude. Like the whole world. She was naked to everybody: friend and foe, man and woman, priest and soldier. Stripped to die, stripped of her clothes, stripped of her dignity. She had lost and she had brought others down with her.

Shudders of grief and shame tormented her. Each movement sent pain exploding from her wrists and her feet, from her whipped back and her raw cunt. They had broken her utterly. Don't cry, she told herself, but she was powerless. She'd cried after they'd rubbed salt onto her back but this was worse. These were sobs from the depths of her soul, tears that spoke of the scale of her defeat. She thought of being stripped before them and running the gauntlet. She thought of being stripped and caned before the temple. She thought of being raped by Quintus and his betrayal. She thought of last night, of kneeling there naked in her crown and her robe, she thought how bad that had been, of choosing which of her friends they flogged, of being made to watch as they raped her people, of Esther and Naomi and Ruth and Shena, of all of them, held down, shouting, bare limbs thrashing beneath laughing soldiers – and yet this was worse. She'd been scourged, paraded, mocked and all that had just been foreplay for this, this shame, this disgrace, this agony. She prayed for death.

*

Rustius looked on with grim satisfaction. This was his triumph. There was nowhere lower for her to go. He had broken her physically, emotionally and morally. All that was left now was for her long slow descent into unconsciousness and death. He wondered what had caused that final crack, what thought had passed through her head? Slowly, exhaustion got the better of sorrow and she fell still, slumped low on the cross, weight taken uncomfortably by the sedile, head bowed. He gestured at a soldier to give her drink and was watching as he soaked a sponge in the herb-infused water when he saw Mommius approach.

"Hail the queen!" he shouted cheerily.

"Hail her!" Mommius replied.

"Quite a show she's putting on."

"Couldn't be better," Mommius replied, glancing at her sweat-soaked nakedness. "If only it weren't so infernally hot."

Rustius thought he could stare at those breasts all day, the gentle sweep from firm shoulder into their round softness. Imagine to rest your head there, rather than just pushing down their with your hands as you pounded away. He adjusted the kerchief he wore to prevent his armor chafing. It was damp with sweat and the humidity of the day.

"Could I have a word?" Mommius asked.

"Of course," Rustius said. An alliance, perhaps. Or had he thought of some refinement to intensify her torment?

"A quiet word," Mommius said.

Rustius looked at him and at the crowd and at the cross and decided there was nothing to fear. He leapt from his horse.

"Did you see what sparked her tears?"

"No," Rustius admitted reluctantly.

"She was looking at the crowd and she had that sort of blank expression, you know, trying to avoid the fact that they're all staring at her tits and she saw somebody, somebody she recognized. She turned away and started crying so I tried to work out who it was. There was only one person in the front couple of rows who was paying her attention who wasn't pointing at her or shouting insults or laughing." He turned and pointed at a runtish lad in a ragged tunic who was staring at her with an expression of profound sadness.

Rustius began weighing up possibilities. "Should we arrest him?" he said. "Make her see we have him? If there's some bond between them. Crush her spirit even more? Flog him at the base of her cross?"

"We should have him followed. If there are any more of them he might lead us to them."

Mommius was right. It was a shame. Rustius would have liked to have augmented her distress, but following him was the right thing to do. And perhaps they'd pick up more women. He wanted another fuck. He should have kept a couple back for tonight. He didn't want to have to queue at the whorehouse. It would be busy tonight, he knew. It always was after a woman had been crucified. What he really wanted was her, of course. He feared no other woman would ever quite match up.

*

The governor wearily rode up out of the city gates. His was a duty he had to perform, but it filled him only with reluctance. And it was unbearably hot. He looked up the road and saw the high cross on the top of the hill, Aelia pinned out upon it. And beyond that, the dark grey of an approaching storm. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people surrounding her. Even from half a mile or so away, he could hear the hubbub. He had no great desire to witness this but he knew he had to be seen to inspect her, in part to legitimize the process and in part to ensure the possibility he would visit hung over every crucifixion so they would execute them properly. He still had to decide what to do with her body. He would leave it for a while, of course, as an example to others but he felt he owed her father more than leaving her to rot. His guards cleared a path for him. People fell back as he rode up. More and more he felt regret that this had been necessary but really, there was no other way. Rustius ride over to greet him. "How long has she been up here?' he asked. "Just over two hours, sir." "How long left, do you think?" "A while yet, sir. Her shoulders haven't even dislocated yet and she's got a sedile." "So we're talking tomorrow sometime?" "Probably, sir. If we keep her well-watered." "Yes," the governor said. "Do that." He could have ordered them to break her legs and she'd have been finished in an hour or so but he couldn't seem weak. Together they approached the cross, passing Caiaphas and the other priests. What ghouls they were, taking such obvious pleasure in her death nine years after some absurd assumed offence. The governor paused seven or eight feet from her. Her body, gleaming with sweat, trembled with the strain, her long arms taut, the muscles in her thighs standing out like ropes. He saw how they'd humiliated her with the crown and the claim she was a corpse-fucker, saw the savage marks of the whips on her ribs, saw how the cross was stained red with her blood. He saw the blood on the inside of her thighs from where the sedile had chafed, he saw the magnificence of her breasts and the hollow smoothness of her belly. Nobody should have to go through this. Slowly, with great effort, she raised her head to look at him and the beauty of her face pierced him. She had her mother's eyes but she had none of her spark. Not any more. All there was here was pain and sorrow and resentment, the fresh cheeks grey and haggard. Her dark hair, lank and damp, matted with sweat and blood, framed her face, gathering at the shoulder where loose tendrils interlaced the marks of the lash. He wished he'd known her in another life. At Rustius's instruction a soldier held up a sponge on a spear for her to drink. Cruelly, he held it six inches from her face, the water dripping just out of reach. She strained for it, the pain obvious and the soldier drew it further away. Her eyes closed in resignation and then, to widespread laughter, the sponge was shoved into her face so she coughed, water spilling over her chin and dripping on her breasts. She drank, eyes closed, as though that could hide her degradation. "Good," the governor said, nodding and turned his horse away. "Keep her going." He didn't look back as he rode away. He couldn't bear to see any more. *

Aelia had been on the cross about four hours when the storm broke. The mob had slowly tired of taunting her and gawping at her nakedness. For minutes at a time, she hung almost still, only the fluttering of her chest and the occasional agonized moan showing she was still alive. But then she would drag herself up, face contorting with pain and effort, long legs straining, to draw in a breath. Sometimes she managed to control her slide, perching uncomfortably on the sedile, other times she fell, jerking painfully as the nails stopped her descent before hanging grotesquely, tipping forward, all her weight on her slender arms until she could summon enough strength to drag herself back onto the sedile. The crowds would cheer her movement, laughing at the sudden jerks when she fell, relishing the dance of her breasts, the exposure of her most intimate areas. By the time the rain came there were only a few hundred left to watch her slow descent into death.

First there was a breeze, then some large spots of rain, then a great rumble of thunder. The crowd began to scatter. Mommius decided he'd seen enough and left with Ligarius. But Rustius stayed and the priests stayed and Clemens stayed with a group of perhaps three dozen others, most of them taking advantage of the disappearing crowd to get closer to the dying girl. Lightning flashed and the rain hammered down. The temperature dropped and the wind got up, shaking the cross and lashing Aelia's naked body with sheets of rain. Whatever numbness she'd slipped into was over. She roared in pain as the rain woke her and delivered her into fresh agony. She pulled herself up, desperate for breath, and then fell, heavily. There was a pop and a tear and a surge of fire though her shoulder.

Rustius saw the dislocation and her knew her other arm would soon go. There was no way back for her now. The rain pummeled her for about half an hour, the constant rattling of the cross drawing regular screams. As the rain eased and the wind dropped, she was left shivering, mouth open as she gulped in air, eyes radiating anguish. Her skin was covered in goosebumps, drops of water glistening on her naked body as the sun, at last, emerged. Her nipples stood erect in the cool air. Urine dribbled between her legs. "See!" Caipahas gloated. "See how she thought she could control the city when she can't even control her bladder." His priests laughed. The small group of young men, with which his suspect had now merged, jeered. A couple threw small pieces of gravel at her but soldiers moved in to calm them down. She had to die the official way.

Rustius still thought she had several hours left. He was surprised the priests had stayed, but they hadn't moved throughout the rain, Caiaphas gazing up at his victim as the weather added to her torment. Was this just seeing a naked woman tortured, he wondered, or was there ore to it? Had there been something between Caiaphas and her mother? Why was he so determined to watch her suffer?

*

Aelia watched night falling over the city. Her head hung limp. Her mouth sagged open. She was exhausted. She couldn't remember what life was like without agony, constant, everywhere. They teased her with a sponge, holding it just out of reach and then thrusting it into her face, but she drank when she could. She knew it would prolong her suffering but the instinct was animalistic: she was thirsty so she drank. Flies crawled on her, feasting on her blood and her sweat. She was too tired to shake them off. Crows circled, waiting their time. She'd all but lost control of her muscles. They felt numb, indifferent to her brain's instructions. Every now and again, cramps would overwhelm her and great shudders would pass through her. Still, at times, she forced herself up, using her legs mostly now, pushing against the nails in her feet, her arms as good as useless, but mostly she just sat, a nail digging in to her tenderest flesh.

Her strength had been her greatest asset. It had overcome soldiers and inspired her people. But now it was just prolonging the torture. She'd ever given death much thought. What was it? Whatever it was, it couldn't be worse than this. They began building a fire near the base of the cross. Was this more torture? She'd almost welcome it if it ended her life sooner. But they were just building it to keep warm. Rustius rode up to her. When he stood in his stirrups, his head came level with her breasts. He reached out and weighed her right breast in his left hand, teasing the nipple with his thumb. He smiled at her. "They were lovely," he said. "What a whore you'd have made." She barely had the strength to lift her head. She wanted to spit at him, but her mouth was dry. She wanted to say something but her brain was empty and she wasn't even sure she'd have had the strength even if she had thought of something clever. He rolled the nipple between thumb and forefinger. "If my men had had their way," he said, "we'd have taken you down a couple of hours ago, tidied you up, let them all fuck you and then crucified you again in a month. That's what you deserve."

She gazed at him resentfully. He slapped her breast with a smirk. "Defeat carries a terrible price," he said. "And by the way, we know your boy is in the crowd. We'll have him followed and catch any survivors of your little rebellion. And they'll be whipped and sold into slavery. Fucked if they're pretty enough."

Not Clemens. She wanted to warn him, but how could she even if she had the strength, even if she could get her mouth moist enough to speak, they would hear her and they would do something terrible to him. "You've lost, Aelia," he said. "Your people are at the slave traders because of you. They've been whipped because of you. They've been raped because of you. Because you failed."

It was true. She looked at him with blank eyes, but she felt despair. She wanted to cry, but she hadn't the energy.

"Good night, your highness," he said. "I'll see you in the morning."

*

Mommius slept badly. He wanted a fuck but his wife had seemed plain and lumpen when compared with Aelia. He wanted again to feel the firmness of her breasts pushing back against his chest, to trace the wiry muscles of her thighs. It wasn't an hour after dawn when he arrived back at the summit of Golgotha. Rustius was already there and so too was Caiaphas and his priests. She was still alive, that was the main thing, but she was weakened terribly. Smoke drifted from a dying fire nearby, where the soldiers had kept themselves warm overnight. Mommius drank in her nakedness, the smooth skin, the long legs, the beautiful round breasts, tendrils of her damp hair just playing across the tops of them. But her breathing was shallow and she seemed barely able to lift her head. The round cheeks that had once been such a part of her appeal now seemed sunken and grey. Flies gorged on the dried blood around the crown.

"Hail," shouted Rustius. "Here to see our queen's final hours."

"Hail," he replied. "Much longer?"

"A few hours, I'd say. She's a tough one."

There were only 30 or 40 spectators there on the hill-top, a handful who looked to have stayed overnight: friends, perhaps, or just those determined to witness every second of her execution, a few Mommius had seen on the road just after dawn, and a small party of merchants who looked as though they'd taken the long way round to catch a glimpse of the fabled Bandit Queen.

Rustius turned to the night guard, who were preparing to be relieved. "Give it a shake," he said. "Wake her up for her friends."

Two soldiers wandered slowly over to the cross. They looked tired and keen to get home. Mommius saw her eyes flick down. She was still aware, then, of what was happening to her. He fancied he saw a slight tightening of the curl of her fingers, a tremor of the legs as she prepared for this new assault. One soldier stood to her left, the other to her right. They set themselves against the stipes and shook, back and forth, back and forth. Her head rolled back, her eyes wide with pain. The flies that had settled on her rose up and buzzed around the top of the cross. She gave a low rasping moan that went on long after they'd stopped shaking.

"Good," Rustius shouted. "You're still awake and alert. Breakfast?"

The sponge was raised on the spear again, but the soldier this time decided there was more fun to be had. He poked first at her breasts and then between her legs, thrusting it into her blood-stained crotch. By the time he lifted the sponge, still dripping with water, one side was stained red with her blood. And yet she drank. The soldier pulled the sponge away, making her stretch for it. "See how she lusts for the juice of her own cunt," he shouted, the rammed the sponge into her face, knocking her head back against the cross, driving the thorns into her scalp.

*

The sun was still a couple of hours from its zenith. Aelia felt its warmth but it couldn't reach the chill inside. She hung still, too weak even to raise her head, which fell forward so her chin brushed her collar bone, the spikes of the crown pressing into her armpit. Her lips were dry and cracked, her eyes crusted. Flies crawled over her face and she lacked the will to shake them off. She waited for death, for an end to her suffering, but it remained cruelly distant.

She was vaguely aware of the sponge being soaked again and loaded on the spear. It was raised three or four inches from her face but she couldn't move towards it. The soldier lowered it and shoved it against her cunt. She felt the pain as raw flesh was scraped on the sedile but she couldn't react. It flicked her breasts and drew laughter from a crowd that now numbered perhaps a hundred again, and then was pushed into her face. Her head rolled back painfully but she sucked. She couldn't swallow but at least it wet her parched mouth. She shuddered. A crow handed on the cross, just above her left elbow, squawked and flew off again. Soon she would be food for birds as she was already food for the flies.

Was the pain lessening? Had she grown used to its constant nag? Or was this death, taking her slowly, shutting down her systems? She pulled on her useless arms and pushed with her legs. Another breath, maybe, to ease the sickening pressure on her chest? There was pain, but in her agony she couldn't calibrate it, and mainly there was weakness. She couldn't move.

Rustius knew she didn't have long left, not while she could still understand what was going on. Her body was almost motionless now, hanging limp. What, he wondered, would it be like to fuck her now, half-dead, shoulders dislocated? Would she still have the firmness, the vitality she had had before?

Clemens felt faint. At some point during the night, he'd been left alone. Even teenagers eventually tired of gawping at a naked woman. One man, wild-eyed and deranged, had kept up a barrage of constant abuse before he too had finally returned to the city. But Clemens had remained, silent in the moonlight. It had been a cool night and he'd thought a few times of joining the soldiers by the fire, but he knew that would have raised questions and he was conspicuous enough as it was. Eventually, exhausted, he'd fallen into a fitful sleep in the lea of a rock, his dreams haunted by ghostly images of crucified corpses. By dawn there'd been a new crowd, laughing, enjoying her nakedness and her shame. He'd hidden himself among them, but each word they uttered, each comment about her long legs or her beautiful breasts, cut through him. Couldn't they see what they'd done?

He'd moved closer to her, away from the mob, and she'd seen him, he knew. He gazed up at her, trying to see the smooth cheeks, the fresh white teeth, the laughing eyes, the gloriously toned shoulders, the pure golden skin that had once characterized her, but seeing instead her exhausted grey face, eyes red-rimmed, naked body broken and bloodied. And her legs, those long muscular legs that once he'd gawped at as he followed them on long treks, now twisted cruelly beneath her, knotted by cramps.

So he'd stood in silent grief, waiting for the end.

*

Mommius wondered how much longer he should wait. It was noon and very hot. He wanted to see the end but this was dragging. She still responded when they pushed the sponge into her face, still moaned occasionally, but otherwise hung lifelessly. A couple of hundred people still lingered, but the viciousness had gone out of them. They were just watching now, waiting.

But then there came a commotion. He could see a party traveling up the road from the city. As they drew closer, he saw the temple guard and, surrounded by them, wrists bound behind them, linked by chains fastened around their necks, four young women, each clad in just a shift. A small crowd followed them. There was ribaldry and joking, the odd shout of fear from one of the prisoners. The temple guard dragged them before Caiaphas.

Rustius looked on in surprise. He had no idea what the priests had planned. The four he recognized as prisoners held sent to the slave market the previous morning. There was the feisty mixed race one with the rippling stomach muscles whom he'd fucked after they'd whipped her. And there was the slight one Sextus had chosen. Had Caiaphas bought them?

Clemens, of course, knew them instantly: Shena, Ruth, Rachel and Rebecca, all women of the community, although Rebecca was barely more than girl. The sense that this was about to get even worse sickened him. He avoided eye contact, but looked up at Aelia. She was near death, but he saw fresh horror on her face.

Caiaphas ordered the first of them brought before him: Shena, tough, a fighter, but weakened by her flogging. She was thrown at his feet, wrists still bound, and looked up, furiously. "Aelia," Caiaphas called. "This woman is charged with blasphemy. Have you anything to say in her defense?"

Mommius stared. Would she say anything? Could she say anything? Aelia's head moved. An inch, no more. She understood what was going on. Her lips twitched, but she could saying nothing. "A word form you, great queen, and I will pardon her."

He waited. "Nothing?" he shouted. "Then I find her guilty." He paused and smirked at the young woman at his feet. "39 lashes in public tomorrow and then service in the temple."

As Shena was pulled up he looked her up and down with an obvious lasciviousness. "Your queen would not save you," he said. "Perhaps the discipline of temple life can.

The other three followed. The same process. Ruth, pale, thin and terrified. Rachel, strong, tanned and bristling. Rebecca, young, dark and delicate. All thrown down before the cross. All offered mercy if Aelia could but speak. All sentenced to 39 lashes and a lifetime of serving in the temple, with the implicit promise of further indignities and beatings to come.

Mommius was stunned by the cruelty, but he knew he would go to witness the floggings. He saw Aelia's head bob. He saw her lips flutter. Her eyes opened wide and her jaw thrust slightly forward, but then her head fell again and she gave an agonized groan.

"Strip the blasphemers," Caiaphas ordered. To Rustius the relish in his voice was obvious. This was about his power, not about Rome's. The temple guard ripped away their shifts and to hoots and jeers from the crowd the four were left naked. The lash marks on Shena's back stood livid against the cinnamon skin as she glared furiously at those who leered at her. Rachel stood silent, hers a mother's body hardened by the life she had lived, but the two younger women cowered in fear and humiliation. Virgins until the legion had got hold of them, Rustius suspected.

Caiaphas had his slaves coffled together again, then paraded them round the cross. He made them kneel before Aelia. "Bow before your queen," he commanded. The temple guard forced even Shena comply, shoving her beaten body into a position of prostration, naked on the flinty earth. Eventually, when Caiaphas had had his fun, he sent them back down to the city.

Clemens blinked back the tears to look once again at Aelia's tortured body, his throat aching with sorrow. How could they do this? How could they take one so young, so bright, so adorable and strip her naked and flog her and humiliate her like this? How could they torment four of his friends to hurt his love? How could the public watch with relish an agonizing execution that lasted over a day? How could they do this to his Aelia, his beautiful Aelia?

Rustius, feeling he had to reassert himself, ordered the cross shaken again, but Caiaphas again took center stage. "Your doing," he said. "You Aelia, a whore like your mother, did this to them."

But Aelia didn't feel the pain or hear the taunt. Her head lolled on her chest. Death had taken her at last.




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