The sheriff smiled. His plan was working perfectly. There, on the other side of the courtroom, in the dock, stood Katerina, the governor’s daughter, her head now bowed as the realisation sunk in that her trial was not the farce she had clearly presumed it to be. Nor should it be; he had put a lot of effort into this. It had, the sheriff reflected, been a moment of inspiration from his deputy.
They had been sitting in the upper room of the tavern when he had suggested it – the sheriff, his deputy, and three members of the town council. After the fire, something had to be done. A whole quarter of the town had burned to the ground, and that only a dozen had been killed was a matter of considerable fortune. The people were restless and wanted answers, and, concerned by the threat of public disorder, the governor was becoming increasingly demanding. The answer, it seemed apparent to the sheriff, was simply too many poor houses built too close together out of things that were likely to catch fire. It had been a disaster waiting to happen. Yet clearly he couldn’t say that to the governor.
It was Lucius, a wealthy merchant, who had first put forward the idea of a scapegoat, although they had all been thinking of it, somebody on whom the mob could vent its frustration. And if somebody could be blamed, the sense of danger would ease – it would be easier for the people to ignore the fact that they all lived in death-traps. If they blamed somebody, though, there would have to be punishment. But as Lucius said, that was a good thing. Drag somebody into the market-place, flog them, pillory them, maybe even hang them and the crowd would be sated. There were problems, though: the people would be instantly suspicious if they hauled some local vagabond up there. The wine had continued to flow, and the discussions had become more fraught. What they needed, the sheriff’s deputy had said, was something so outrageous nobody would believe they had dared to set it up. They needed somebody who seemed beyond reproach, somebody nobody would believe guilty of such a crime, somebody the public would believe they had only put up there if they had no choice, if they were convinced of his guilt. Maybe, they reasoned, an execution would be best – not a pleb to be whipped and hanged, but somebody of stature to be beheaded. Not a local but a Roman.
Then the only question was who. It had to be somebody the crowds could hate. A few names were bandied about – a misanthropic ship’s captain, the rat-catcher, the tax-collector, a landowner despised for his arrogance – but none quite hit the mark. Then the deputy said it: why not a woman? At which Gallus said instantly: Katerina.
The sheriff knew Gallus’s reasons were probably personal. It was, after all, fairly common knowledge that Katerina had rejected his advances. But nonetheless he was right. What would the mob love more than to see a beautiful, virginal young Roman hauled before them and executed? And besides, she was becoming increasingly troublesome with her complaints about the way the jailors treat the whores in the local jail. And so the wheels were set in motion.
They effected a total assassination of her character. It began with rumours of her dalliances with menfolk, letters were faked and circulated; the purest woman in the county, it began to be believed, was practically a whore. Then they interfered with her fund to help educate the poorest children; made it appear that the money she’d collected, worked so hard to get, had been used for her own benefit, to cover her rapacious spending. Within a few weeks rumours, carefully spread, had transformed public opinion. And because she’d once been so popular, the hatred of her was that much greater. She was seen not just as an arrogant Roman, but as one who had hoodwinked them, cheated them.
And then they placed her in the right part of town on the night in question. Made up stories of an assignation with one of her lovers. Produced letters to back her claims, a fragment of burned handkerchief with her initial embroidered on the corner. They had had an argument, the witnesses said, and she, furious at her supposed lover had torched his house. They even paid one of the local whores – and let her off a whipping - to say she had seen her throw the brand.
Two months after the fire, the outcry had grown to such an extent that the governor had been forced to order the arrest of his daughter. And now she stood, bewildered and terrified in the dock, as the evidence, irrefutable, was laid before the court.
Katerina was well aware there was a plot against her. She had heard the rumours circulating, she knew the women whom once she had helped now shunned her. She had even sent her ladies-in-waiting to try to refute the stories, but that now was being used in evidence against her. Why, after all, would she send her tutor to the charred ruins of the burnt-out quarter if not to try to cover up the evidence.
Still, it had come as a shock when her father had called her to his study. She had stood before his desk as she had not since she was a small child to be scolded, only this time his guards had been in the room. Never before in her 21 years, not even when her mother had died, had she seen him so distressed. His hair was awry, his clothes unkempt and his skin an ashen grey.
“Katerina,” he had said. “Katerina, I cannot believe this of you, but they are saying you started the fire.”
“Who are saying this, father?”
“The people. The people are demanding you be put on trial for it. They will riot if I do not submit.”
“But father, this is ridiculous-”
And he had slammed his hand down on the desk. “No more lies,” he’d hissed. “I have seen the evidence. I know of your harlotry, your scheming. You are not the daughter I once knew. If I have failed in my parenting, may the gods forgive me.”
At that, the guards had taken her arms, had led gently her to her room, and there she had remained under house arrest. It had taken a week for a judge to be summoned from the capital, and from then, each day she had be taken at nine from her room to the great hall, where the trial was convened. At first she had assumed her innocence would win out, but for eight days now, she had been forced to stand and listen to the lies they spouted, witness after witness damning her. She’d soon realised there was no chance, that she was too naive, too honest for these games, that the conspiracy was too good, that no amount of pleading could save her. The mob was against her, and she would be condemned. She wondered whether she might escape with a sentence of exile, but she knew, in her heart of hearts, that she was the scapegoat, the one who would die to balance the deaths of the 12 in the fire. She could not win, and so, numb, she barely fought. She refused the chance to cross-examine witnesses, refused to call witnesses of her own, simply stood there in the dock, her head down, listening to her own destruction.
Finally they called her to the stand. She walked, slowly, from the dock to the stand, a soldier flanking her on either side. Dressed in the purest white, she stood in the box, and took the oath.
This, the sheriff knew, was the final hurdle. Unless she produced something dramatic here, she was doomed. He still felt a sense of anxiety, for she was a beautiful creature, ebony-haired an apple-cheeked and blessed with an innocence that if only she’d chosen to exploit it, might have swayed the jury. She looked defeated, though, crushed, as if she barely had the energy to speak.
“You deny the charge of murder?” the lawyer, brought from the capital at great expense – thank you Gallus – asked.
“Yes,” she replied, her voice barely more than a whisper.
“So how do you explain you presence in the burned out quarter on the night in question?”
“I was not there.”
This was fascinating, the sheriff though, to see her, usually so assured, reduced to this, her soft pink lips trembling, her mouth so dry she could barely speak.
“Oh, and where were you?” the lawyer continued.
“I was with Mistress Carney, the baker’s widow.”
A murmur went around the hall. The sheriff saw the governor-of-the-manner hold his head in his hands: Mistress Carney, encouraged by a gold coin, had already testified that Katerina had abandoned her regular charitable visits several weeks before the fire.
“Yet she denies it, and 17 witnesses saw you in that quarter that night. One even saw you set a house alight. Is that not strange?”
“It is strange.” Tears were welling in her soft dark eyes.
“And can you explain that strangeness?”
“No, I cannot.”
Another gasp around the hall. The judge had to call for order. The sheriff knew she was finished now.
“And arson – is that not a terrible crime? To take away all that the poorest have, to burn their every last possession, the things they have worked all their lives to afford? To burn, to destroy, even, to murder – for the sake of petty revenge. Would that not be terrible?”
“Yes.” Her voice was barely more than a croak now.
“And such an arsonist, such a person of wilful evil, what should happen to him – or her?”
“He should be punished most severely.”
“Punished most severely-” the lawyer echoed, turning with a smile to the judge. “By her own lips is she condemned.”
Katerina stood in the dock, her dark eyes fixed on the flagstones at her feet. Barely an hour had passed since the judge had sent the jury away, an hour she had spent locked in a small chamber off the great hall. She knew they would convict her. Based on what they had been told, she would have pronounced herself guilty.
The guards knew it too. They had done nothing, said nothing, but she could feel their deference had slipped. Their hands on her arms were firmer than before, they led her rather than escorting her, and she knew they were talking about her, wondering what the sentence should be.
The judge entered and the court rose. Katerina looked up as he banged his gavel and silence fell.
“Foreman of the jury, have you reached a verdict?”
The foreman, a bearded and hard-hearted merchant, stood. “Yes, your honour,” he said, casting a glance at the noblewoman in the dock. From his look she knew she was done for.
“On the twelve counts of murder, how do you find the prisoner?”
He paused. “Guilty, your honour,” he said. A gasp ran around the hall. Katerina’s head dropped.
Such was the uproar, the judge could hardly be heard as he cycled through the other charges. For each, the foreman replied with the same word. In the eyes of the law, she was a mass-murderer, an arsonist, a wilful destroyer of property, an embezzler, a whore and even a perjurer.
The sheriff smiled a tight-lipped smile. The judge could not but sentence her to death, and would surely have her whipped first, Roman or not. And she looked broken already, standing there with her head hanging, sobbing softly but audibly.
The judge hammered his gavel. Gradually the hubbub died away. “Katerina, daughter of Julius of Brindisium,” he said. She didn’t move. “Katerina,” he said again, louder this time. “Look at me.”
She looked up, her face twisted in the effort not to cry. “Katerina, daughter of Julius of Brindisium, the crimes of which you have been convicted are of a magnitude greater than any with which I have dealt before. You have systematically abused the trust of this community, and you will pay the full price. I will consider my sentence overnight.”
He turned to the sheriff. “Have her brought to me tomorrow morning at my quarters,” he said, before turning back to her. “In the meantime, I strip you of your citizenship, and order you be held in the castle dungeon.”
Even as he stood and left, the soldiers were upon her. Her arms were seized, and another guard gave her a sharp shove in the back so she lurched forward, and as she did so, heavy manacles were snapped over her wrists. A wave of panic swept over her, and she twisted violently, but the guards holding her arms only tightened their grip.
A guard knelt down in front of her, and unfastened her sandals. The sheriff ordered her to lift first her left foot then her right, and she was left barefoot. Her lips clamped together in an effort to hold back the tears, she glanced up, but all she could see was a horde of faces staring, clearly enjoying her discomfort.
And then with a push she was off, marched barefoot through the hall to the dungeon.
They got to the huge heavy door that led to the prison. She had been there before, of course, in her work with the prostitutes, trying to help them, to get them to see the error of their ways, but never through this door. This was the prisoners’ entrance, the way that led directly to the cells and the torture chambers. She knew what happened in here, knew what happened to the whores, how they were raped and beaten, and she was terrified.
The door clanged shut behind her. She was so nervous she started, and the guards laughed. She felt oddly aware of the coarseness of the ground beneath her feet, the clammy dampness of the stones now they had entered the dungeon. They hustled her along the corridor to a large desk, behind which the head jailer sat. Katerina hated him. She had always hated him, hated how the long strands of lank hair dripping from his balding head, hated his foul-breathed insolence, his refusal to acknowledge the indecencies perpetrated in his dungeon. And now she was utterly in his power.
The manacles were removed and she stood before his desk, flanked on either side by a guard. She massaged her wrists, which even in the relatively short walk from the hall had become chafed and grazed. The jailer, slowly, reached for a quill, and begin to write. He looked up at her, scratched his jaw slowly, and asked with a leer, “Name?”
“You know my name perfectly well,” she snapped.
“I asked your name,” he said, smiling so she got the full benefit of his crumbling brown teeth. “If your attitude does not improve, it may have to be corrected with a few strokes of the birch across your bare arse. Now, your name?”
“Katerina, daughter of Julius of Brindisium,” she said.
“I think, Kate,” he smirked, “that you’ll find you’ve been stripped of your noble status. And you will call me ‘sir’. Do respect your betters.”
She seethed, but there was nothing she could do. “Is that clear?” he asked.
“Yes, sir.” She could not but sound ironic, and she feared for a moment her would order her flogged.
“And without sarcasm?”
“Good.” And on he went, painstakingly filling out the scroll.
When he was finished, he rolled the scroll and bound it. “Right,” he said. “I think you know that prisoners are permitted only one garment. Strip to your shift.”
She looked at him in horror. She hadn’t thought he’d dare go that far. She swallowed, and, biting her upper lip to try to maintain some dignity, began with numb fingers to unlace the cords on her bodice. She could feel the eyes of the guards on her, enjoying her humiliation.
“Whenever you’re ready,” the jailer said mockingly.
She could feel the tears burning at the back of her eyes. Her fingers, shaking now, finally undid the bow, and she loosed the laces, before pulling her bodice off. She held it out, pathetically, unsure what to do with it. A guard snatched it from her, and she became aware suddenly of just how many mocking faces there were in there.
Slowly, awkward, she removed her shirt, and then her hand went uncertainly to the drawstring of her skirt, and in one clumsy movement, she unfastened the bow. For a moment her skirt held, defying gravity, before slowly slipping down to fall about her ankles. She stepped out of it, and stood back as a guard seized it up. She felt vaguely nauseous, clad now in only her fine linen shift, which hung loosely around her, leaving her bare from the knees down, and with a sensation of dreadful vulnerability.
“Take her to a cell,” the jailer ordered, and she was seized again.
The judge was a worried man. Sleep would not come. He knew this was the biggest decision of his time at the bench. She was, despite his action in the court-room that afternoon, a Roman, and therefore entitled to death by decapitation, yet he had sensed the mood of the crowd. They wanted her to suffer. He also sensed the truth of the matter. Everything was too pat, too perfect; he had realised fairly early in proceedings that she was probably a scapegoat, but what could he do? The jury had found her guilty, and she had to be punished accordingly – and that, given the nature and extent of her supposed crimes, meant a savage death.
He had had two visits earlier that evening. The first came from the sheriff, who, ostensibly, was asking about the likely punishment so he could begin his preparations. The judge, though, suspected he was checking whether the conspiracy was working.
“What will you do with her?” the sheriff had asked.
“She must die,” the judge had replied.
“And the method?”
“She is a Roman, and Romans have a right to be beheaded.”
“But she is a murderer, an arsonist, an embezzler and a whore, and you stripped her of her status.”
“Quite. I was thinking perhaps she merited worse punishment.”
“Romans have been burned before.”
“And will you have her whipped?”
“It would be highly unorthodox to sentence a Roman to be flogged.”
“But she is, by your own command, no longer a Roman.”
“Which allows me to consider it.”
And with that he’d managed to see the sheriff off. An hour or so later, though, the governor had turned up. He’d ummed and ahhed for a while, about not wanting to place pressure on the judiciary, or tell anybody how to do their jobs, then finally got to the point.
“Look, I want you to forget she’s my daughter,” he’d said. “Show her no sympathy on that score. If you think she should be whipped before you execute her, then have her whipped. What she has done deserves nothing but suffering. Do you understand me?”
“You are telling me to sentence your daughter to be flogged?”
So that was decided. He would have her whipped as a prelude to her execution. Now it was simply a matter of deciding how to put her to death.
A hammer on the door interrupted his contemplation. He flopped back on his bed, and hoped whoever it was would go away, but the rap came again, more insistent this time. With a heavy sigh the judge forced himself out of bed, wrapped a robe around him, and went to the door. The ladies-in-waiting, he reflected, really ought to be able to stop intrusions such as this.
He opened the door, and in strode Gallus. “I’m sorry to barge in on you like this,” he said, walking over to a seat by the window and sitting down, “but justice troubles me.”
“How so?” asked the judge, wearily perching himself on the edge of his bed.
“How will you have her executed?”
“I have not decided, and even had I, it is not something to be discussed before I have announced my verdict.”
“Quite, your honour. But you stripped her of her citizenship, which suggests you are planning rather more than a beheading – as, indeed, her crimes deserve.”
“I have left my options open.”
“Your honour, the people will not be happy unless she is seen to pay for her crimes.”
“She is a young Roman. I have no desire to be barbaric, but I will have her whipped before she dies.”
“Then I’ll cut to the chase. The people want her crucified.”
“Crucified?” The judge was bewildered.
“They believe she must pay a heavy price.”
“She has committed terrible crimes.”
“And surely to be whipped and hanged is adequate penalty.”
“We would not want the people to riot.”
The judge realised what a dangerous game he was playing. He realised Gallus was effectively threatening him, that Gallus had primed provocateurs to stir up the crowd. He realised also that there was some deeper motive here, that Gallus wanted Katerina publicly tortured, degraded, made to suffer.
“Perhaps she should then be burned. Suffer the death she inflicted on the dozen.”
“The people want her crucified.”
“I cannot order a crucifixion. No woman has been crucified in the territory for 20 years.”
“On the contrary, the law is quite clear: a judge is not bound by convention. The public have been wronged; give them the vengeance they desire. If the people call for her crucifixion, no one would blame you were you to listen to them, particularly if by so doing you avert a riot.”
The judge’s head was swimming He thought of her beautiful form pinned out on a cross, writhing in pain, and was appalled. Gallus stood. “Anyway, your honour,” he said, “I’ll let you sleep again. But before I go, let me just leave a token of our town’s appreciation of your efforts.”
As he left, he threw a money bag down on the bed.
Katerina stood before the judge, her head bowed, her wrists bound in front of her. It was, at least warmer here, after the cold of the dungeon, but that was little comfort as she waited to find out how they would kill her. They had been noticeably rough with her last night, shoving her carelessly into the cell so she banged her shoulder painfully against the door-jamb, tearing her shift. Soiled from a night of lying sleepless on the filthy floor of the cell, it slipped now down her arm, leaving her grazed left shoulder bare. She wanted to drag it up, to try to preserve her modesty, but with her hands bound, she was helpless, and that only humiliated her the more. It was bad enough being made to walk barefoot, feeling the rough stone beneath her soft feet, but to be effectively half-naked amid these brutes was another category of discomfort altogether.
“Look at me,” the judge ordered.
She raised her head, and, taking a breath to try to preserve her calm, met his gaze. Where yesterday he had seemed in control, almost bored by the whole event, there was a brittleness to him today, and that frightened her. She had felt that in this madness he at least would maintain his reason, a sense of proportion, but now she was not so sure.
“I have considered your punishment long and hard,” he said, “and it must be most severe.”
She could hear outside the murmurings of a large crowd. The mob, she knew, would love to tear her apart: for all her goodness, all she had done to improve their lot, she knew they needed a scapegoat, and she knew that was the role she would be forced to play. She knew, also, that as a Roman, it would not take much to turn them against her. She was, after all, part of the occupying power.
“Have you anything to say? Any remorse for your crimes?”
She just looked at him, sitting behind his desk in this opulent room. What could she say? They had found her guilty. The judge saw in her silence a hint of reproach, and felt a surge of anger within himself. “Then you will be put to death,” he said, and gestured for the soldiers to take her out onto the balcony.
She had known what was coming, expected the sentence, but to have it confirmed was still a blow to the depth of her being. As the nausea welled in her stomach, though, she held his gaze, until the soldiers had dragged her away.
The sheriff followed her out onto the balcony watching her bare calves with unconcealed interest, noting the way he shift swayed around her slim buttocks. As the crowd caught sight of her, there was a huge roar, a cacophony of boos and jeers. He walked out and stood to one side. The street below was packed, hundreds of people squeezed in to learn of the fate of the Roman noblewoman. The sheriff had never seen so many people in one place, had never witnessed such a volatile force, a crowd so consumed by the desire for blood. He hoped fervently that the judge would not let him down.
He heard shouts, cries of murderess ringing out from the mob, and looked at her. Half-naked as she was, she seemed remarkably calm, standing with her head erect, he gaze apparently fixed on some point in the middle distance. He was suddenly aware of just how extraordinarily beautiful she was, even after a night in the dungeon. Her ebony hair was awry, and yet the contrast with the pale skin of her naked shoulder was maddeningly alluring. He thought of her, stripped for the post, cowering, and prayed he would have the opportunity to see it for himself.
The judge stepped out, raised his hands, and the crowd fell silent. The sheriff was amazed by his self-assurance, the way he naturally commanded. “The prisoner before you,” he intoned, indicating Katerina with an outstretched hand, “has been convicted of a series of heinous crimes, and so will be punished accordingly.”
The soldiers tightened their grips on her arms, shoving her as they did so, as if to emphasise just how completely she was in their power. A look of irritation crossed her face, but soon passed and again the sheriff marvelled at her self-control. The crowd howled, the voices within it indecipherable, but the demand for vengeance manifest.
“She will pay with her life-” The mob roared its approval. “She will pay with her life, but simple execution is no recompense for her crimes. Therefore, I sentence Katerina, daughter of Julius of Brindisium, to be flogged before she is put to death.”
The sheriff felt his heart leap. The crowd went wild, and she, she closed her eyes and swallowed as if his words only confirmed what she had already suspected. The sheriff’s mind was already playing out the possibilities: if she was to be whipped in the prison, he could probably insist on her being naked to the waist; in public the judge might allow her to retain some dignity.
“I have thought long and hard about the manner of her execution,” the judge continued. “I considered beheading-” - a great swell of boos cut him off momentarily - “but I deemed it too lenient, and, besides, she is no longer a citizen.” Cheers.
Katerina glanced at him, then allowed her eyes to fall to the floor. “Hanging-” – boos – “I also considered inadequate for her crimes.” Cheers, and the odd shout, the sheriff thought he heard, of “Crucify her.”
“Then I thought burning might be appropriate, given the nature of her crimes.” There were a few cheers of approval, but the chant was clear now: “Crucify her. Crucify her.” It grew louder and louder, an unstoppable irresistible wave.
The sheriff saw Katerina look up, saw the terror in her eyes, as the judge continued. “But then I realised that only one mode of execution could sufficiently scarify her soul, could lead her to face the horrors of her crimes, could tell the people of the world that this community will not accept crime, that we will punish with full force malefactors, no matter what their rank.”
Disbelievingly, the sheriff realised it was going to happen; the judge was going to sentence her to crucifixion. Approval grew in a great crescendo from the streets, the judge’s every word applauded. “Katerina,” he said, turning to her, “the sentence of this court is that you be flogged and put to death by crucifixion.” She slumped as though struck, and only retained her feet because the soldiers pushed her forward and up until she was at the front of the balcony. The mob, pointing and jeering, danced in celebration.
The judge raised his hands, and silence fell again. “Katerina, you will be taken from the prison tomorrow at dawn,” he said. “You will carry your crossbeam to the market place, and there you will be flogged with three dozen lashes. You will then carry the beam outside the city walls to the place of execution, and there you shall be nailed to a frame and hung till you be dead. It has been customary for felons undergoing crucifixion to be drugged, or to have their legs broken as an act of mercy to quicken death. This court will permit you no such mercies. For the good of your soul and the good of this community, you will suffer the full penalty for your crimes.”
The sheriff was stunned by the noise from the street, stunned by the depth of hate being directed at his scapegoat, stunned too by the almost casual cruelty of the judge, denying her the traditional mercies. He looked at her; she was visibly trembling, held up only by the guards on either side of her, her mouth opening and closing in horror. As the soldiers took her away, it was as though her legs were numb, and they virtually dragged her back down into the dungeon.
Katerina had no idea how long she’d been back in her cell when the soldiers came for her. For a long time she’d lain where she’d fallen when they shoved her back into the cell, sprawled out on the cold floor, her wrists still fastened together in front of her. In her mind she ran through the sentence over and over. Public flogging and crucifixion. How? How could it be possible? How could a civilised society inflict that upon anybody, never mind her, a girl of 21 whose only crime had been to reject the advances of a local landowner?
She’d tried to imagine would it would be like, tried rationally to think it through to try to work out how she could handle it, but all she could think of was how cold she felt. She tried to focus on the whipping, thought of the tough men she’d seen broken by the lash, left begging for mercy. She thought of the whores they birched in the jail, how she’d rubbed balm into their raw shoulders. Would they birch her? Surely they wouldn’t take a cat to her. The cat on her back? Surely not. How many lashes did the whores take? Ten? A dozen? Three dozen was something else. She remembered a soldier given two dozen with the cat for desertion, how the skin had hung in ribbons from his back. Not the cat for her, surely? It was beyond her comprehension, and the thought of being hung from a cross was beyond even that. She caught a glimpse of herself stretched against the frame, her shift tattered and soaked with blood, and then it dawned on her they’d probably strip her. Somehow that seemed the worst torment of all.
Eventually she’d hauled herself over to a corner and sat, with her knees up to her chin. She wondered if she could perhaps kill herself by dashing her head against the wall, but when she’d tried to do it, she found herself incapable, and she’d determined the best way was simply to try to die with dignity, to take the agony and the humiliation, and hope she would have her reward in the next life.
But then they’d come for her again.
“On your feet, slut,” one of them shouted, and the other dragged her up by her hair. She gave a sharp shriek of pain, and she closed her eyes, biting her lower lip in an effort to force herself to remain in control. She didn’t resist as they led her out of the dungeon, up into parade yard at the back of the prison. She tried to remain calm, but her heart was thumping as they threw her down the four steps that led down from the dungeon gate. She sprawled forward onto the sand, grazing her bound hands painfully as she tried to break her fall.
A boot smashed into her belly, and as she squirmed, momentarily stunned by the blow, she fell onto her back. As she looked up, she realised she was surrounded by around two dozen soldiers. “Get up,” came the order, and as she hesitated, hands swiftly hauled her to her feet.
“Now,” said the centurion, a man she’d clashed with repeatedly over his treatment of the prison’s prostitutes, “you will entertain us.”
Her wrists were unfastened, and the soldiers edged back, forming a circle around her. “Dance,” the centurion ordered. She felt physically sick; she’d heard what they did to whores, and she suspected what would happen to her would be far worse. She stood uncertainly, clasping her hands in front of her, massaging her wrists.
“I said dance,” the centurion shouted. “Didn’t daddy pay for expensive lessons?” There was laughter, and then suddenly a bullwhip cracked into the sand by her feet. She leapt involuntarily and gave a soft yelp. “Come on,” he continued. “Don’t make me encourage you.”
She wished she had the courage to face him down, but, almost against her will, she began to hop. The guards began to clap rhythmically. “Kick higher,” the centurion demanded, and she obeyed, prancing for them, flicking her feet out, even as her face burned with shame. “Higher,” he insisted, and as the whip swooshed out again, she obeyed. She was horribly aware of how her breasts were bobbing beneath her shift, aware of their comments and jeers, aware of how much leg she was showing.
“Higher,” he said again, and again the whip cracked at her feet. She was kicking so high now that she knew they must be able to see flashes of her buttocks and more, but she dared not stop. On and on it went, her legs growing tired at the unfamiliar movement, until finally, he told her she could rest. The centurion looked at her, as she stood before him, her face red from the exertion, her breasts heaving as she panted for breath.
“Perhaps your dress was getting in the way,” he said, as though the thought had just occurred to him. She looked up sharply, anger flashing briefly in her dark eyes. “No,” she said.
“So you deliberately danced badly? That calls for a whipping.”
She stared at him. “No,” she said.
“Then strip.” He was surprised by how excited the prospect made him. He had had fun with whores before, had made them dance in front of him, but this was different. This was about power, about humiliating somebody who had once given him orders.
She looked at him, looked at the soldiers who surrounded her, looked at the ground. Her mouth tightened, she closed her eyes, and then her hands went to her shoulders. Slowly, she pulled up her shift. The centurion watched as her slim smooth legs were revealed, her taut, slender thighs. With her shift bunched around her midriff she paused and glanced up at him, as if she thought there could be some respite, but he simply said again: “Strip.”
She blinked, and let the shift fall back over her legs. She stood, hugging herself, tears welling in her eyes, shaking her head. “Strip her,” the centurion ordered, and in an instant his men were upon her. Her arms were yanked forwards, and a soldier wrenched up her shift, pulling it roughly over her head. The soldiers backed away, leaving her standing, huddled in humiliation, one arm hooked across her breasts, the other clamped down over her pudenda, bending half forward in her shame. The centurion paused a moment, enjoying the spectacle of this beautiful young aristocrat cowering before him. “Stand up straight,” he snapped. “Arms by your sides.”
The degradation, though, was too much for her, and she maintained her pose, crossing her legs desperately against their gaze. The centurion nodded, and his soldiers seized her, laughing and taunting as they pulled her arms back, forcing her chest out. He walked up to her and stood in front of her, looking her up and down. She tried to back away from him, but the soldiers’ grip was too firm. He reached out and lifted her right breast, cupping it in his left hand. She was shaking, now, and gave a whimper as he squeezed it. “You call this a tit?” he said. He could hear her breathing, short, uneven gasps. “Well?” he said, giving it a tug.
“That is my breast,” she sobbed.
“It’s pathetic. Your children would have starved. I’ve new recruits with bigger tits than that.” There was laughter from his men. He dropped it and turned his attentions to her other breast. “How many men did they say you slept with?”
She just stared at the ground. “Well?” He squeezed and she gave a slight shriek. “You’re a slut and a whore,” they said, “but it amazes me why a man would look at your runtish form twice.” There were tears pouring down her face now and she could hardly catch a breath. He lifted her head by the chin, and looked into her dark eyes. She tried hold his gaze but it was impossible and she looked away, hating him and hating herself. Without warning, he punched her hard in the pit of her stomach. She jerked forwards, gasping for breath, but the soldiers held her firm. “Slut, that is for not dancing properly.”
He slapped her, right handed, across her face, and, as her head fell to the right, he slapped her back again with his left. “That is for refusing to strip.” A red print had appeared on either cheek. “Although I can see why you were embarrassed, given that you have the body of a boy.”
Then he punched her again, nodding this time for the soldiers to let her fall. She collapsed onto the coarse sand, winded, crouching on all fours as she tried to get the air back into her lungs. “See,” the centurion said, prodding her in the ribs with the toe of his right boot, “how she naturally takes the position of the bitch that she is.”
As the guards laughed, he ordered her to bark.
The sheriff, frankly, was concerned by what might happen the following day. He sat at his desk, papers scattered before him, trying to work out how he could best guard against public disorder. He had never seen the mob so inflamed as they had been earlier, and that worried him. He suspected that the sight of a beautiful Roman girl being tortured naked before them would be enough to keep Katerina safe – there was hardly any point in attacking her when they could hardly inflict upon her worse than the law was going to, but he knew there was a danger in the marketplace, where the local dignitaries had already insisted upon having seats laid out so they could properly watch the flogging. He had ordered reinforcements for the militia be brought in from neighbouring towns and villages, but the cost meant he couldn’t bring in anywhere near as many as he wanted.
A knock at the door interrupted him. Gallus entered, clutching in his hand three velvet bags. He walked to the chair that stood in front of the desk and sat down.
“Yes?” said the sheriff, hoping Gallus would notice the mild sarcasm in his voice.
“I know you are busy,” Gallus said, “so I will be quick.”
The sheriff looked down and adjusted some papers. “The jailer will let you see her tonight,” he said, barely able to hide a smirk.
Unabashed, Gallus went on. “That is not my desire,” he said. “I was wondering what whip you were planning to use.”
“What whip?” The sheriff had not given the matter any thought. “The cat, I suppose.” The thought of her writhing under the knotted lash diverted him. “You think that’s too harsh?”
“On the contrary, not harsh enough. She is to be crucified, and therefore I believe she should be scourged.”
“I have taken the liberty of preparing two whips that I believe would be appropriate,” Gallus said, opening the drawstring on one of his bags and emptying its contents onto the sheriff’s desk. Two whips, their thongs entwined, fell out onto the table.
The sheriff picked one of them up, shaking it loose of the other, weighed it in his hand. There was a wooden handle, perhaps six inches long, to which were attached six long strands of rawhide, knotted along their length. Towards the end of each, though, perhaps two and half inches apart were six small lead balls, each filed into the shape of diamonds. “It will flay her,” he said, almost admiringly. “Tear the skin from her back.”
“I know,” said Gallus, throwing a small bag of coins onto the desk.
The sheriff swung the whip through the air. It whistled, handled nicely, despite its weight. “Let me test it this evening, then I will let you know,” he said. He didn’t, after all, want her to die on the post.
Gallus knew the guards were playing with her in the yard, and as soon as he had handed the scourges over to the sheriff, he went down to see what indignities they were inflicting upon her. He watched, for a while, as they made her crawl like a dog, kicking her and making her bark, and he had, he admitted, enjoyed their brutality, and her very evident shame.
After a few minutes he walked out across the rough sand, and joined the group that surrounded her. The guards, suddenly worried they may have overdone it, pulled back, and she, realising the taunts had stopped, looked up. When she saw him, she flushed, her humiliation renewed, falling back onto her knees, her arms clamped across her breasts.
“Stand up,” he said.
She rose, hesitantly, the dark eyes that had once maddened him now fixed on him. How once he would have craved that attention from her; now he was just amused that she was looking to him with hope, wondering if he might be about to put a stop to her ordeal. She cowered still, ridiculous, bent forwards, her hands clasped about her, spittle hanging in her hair, streaking her naked skin.
“Arms down, stand up straight,” he said, savouring every moment of his triumph. Slowly, she obeyed, her face and upper body flushing as she did so. Arms folded, Gallus, the remaining velvet bag fixed to his belt, gazed at her as, trembling, she stood before him. Her head was bowed, her eyes fixed firmly on the ground, her arms loose by her sides. He began at her feet, forcing himself to take in every detail of her nakedness, the long slim legs, the dark triangle, the pale skin, her slender waist, the flat white stomach, the shadows of her ribs, and then the breasts, not huge, but gloriously round and firm, the pink nipples giving them a perky look. He felt a pang of desire, but he knew that while most other atrocities could be justified, raping her could not – and she was, after all, the governor’s daughter.
“You must be enjoying this,” he said, after a suitable period for reflection. “Displaying yourself naked to men is apparently what you do best.”
She said nothing, but he could see her lower lip tightening, as if tears were close. “So, is this fun?”
She looked at Gallus, her hatred for him welling, but he only smiled, his tongue flicking out as he looked her up and down, seeing the bruises and the grazes, the sputum of a dozen men speckling her pale form. She was amazed by how much her stomach hurt, amazed by how scared she felt. She should have just refused to pretend to be a dog, but she was terrified of the bullwhip, which was ridiculous given what faced her tomorrow. Part of her said she should encourage them to hurt her, to weaken her and shorten her ordeal, but she knew she could not.
He walked over to her, and delivered an almighty slap to her face. She heard the crack almost before she saw his hand, her head flying to her left. She staggered slightly, but stayed on her feet, and then he slapped her with his left hand. She felt dazed, could taste blood in her mouth. “You will call me sir,” he said, then spat in her face.
She looked, disbelieving at him. “Now, get down and bark, you bitch,” he said, and, unthinking, she dropped to her knees and obeyed, tears rolling down her cheeks. Gallus bent and patted her head, marvelling at the softness of her dark hair. “Good dog,” he said. There was laughter and she hated him, recoiling at his touch, but what could she do?
“Now beg,” he said. “Be a good dog and beg.”
Shaking, she sat back on her heels and lifted her hands in front of her, cocking her wrists to simulate a dog’s paws. She even hung her tongue from her mouth, panting. He walked round her, enjoying her shame. “I can’t hear,” he said. “What do you want?”
“Please sir,” she said, struggling to control her breathing, “please end this.”
“Let me put my clothes on. Let me stop pretending to be a dog.” She was almost howling. “Don’t crucify me. Please.”
“But you are a bitch. And you enjoy frolicking naked with men. Beg.”
And so she continued to squat there, hands pathetically raised before her breasts. “Please,” she sobbed. “Please spare me this.”
“Clean my boots with your tongue,” he said, and almost laughed in delight as she immediately dropped her face to his boots and began licking them. He stared down at her, at the dark curls of her hair, her long pale back, that pert little arse sticking up in the air. She licked and licked, working round the leather, never daring to look up, and he wanted more than anything to thrash her there and then, to stripe her white skin with red wheals and make her beg for mercy. He knew, though, that he could only go so far – she had still to put on a show tomorrow, and anyway, she was begging already.
“Sir,” she said, looking up at last. “Your boots are clean.”
He smiled down at her beautiful face. “Good,” he said. “Would you like to service me in some other way?”
“A shame; I’m told you’re excellent at it.”
She flushed. “No sir,” she said, as the soldiers laughed.
“Then clean the boots of the centurion.”
She crawled to the centurion, and began to lick his boots. Gallus drew his cane from his belt; it was almost too tempting, seeing her there, bent over, her buttocks in the air. He swished the cane twice through the air, watching as she flinched at the sound. The soldiers surrounded her, laughing and jeering, taunting this aristocrat reduced to licking the boots of a common soldier.
When she was done, Gallus had them haul her to her feet. They held her by the arms, pushing her forwards as he walked towards her. He smashed his fist into her belly, and then, as she slumped, placed his hands on her ribs, lifting her, running his fingers over her smooth skin. He placed a finger on her navel, prodding and probing, then dragged his finger down into the curls of her hair. He felt her stiffen, but then, skimming her flat belly, moved his hands to her breasts, cupping them as he’d desired to do for years, admiring their warmth, their softness. He squeezed and kneaded, and then, realising he was in danger of losing control, slapped her again.
“Slut,” he hissed.
She looked at him, a baleful, reproving look, and to his horror he realised he felt admonished. He hated her for that, hated her for how she still somehow held control, wanted to rip her apart. He wanted to thrash her till she howled. He put his hand to her cheek, enjoying her slight flinch, and stroked his hand up into her hair. It was still soft and silky, and he grabbed a hank, and twisting cruelly, pulled her towards him, forcing her down. When she was kneeling, her face close to his groin, he let go. He could see her shaking, clearly wondering if he were about to force her to perform fellatio upon him, but he stepped back.
“Tie your hair up,” he said. “It is important your back is completely bare for the flogging.” She winced even at the term, but obediently swept her hair together and tied it in a loose knot, so only the odd tendril hung down to caress the smooth skin of her neck. She knelt, waiting, her arms again across her chest.
Gallus pulled on a pair of leather gauntlets and removed the bag from his belt. He unfastened the drawstring, and, aware that she was staring at him, slowly, theatrically, withdrew the final implement in her humiliation: a rough crown fashioned of three intertwined rose briars. He saw her catch her breath, and stepped forwards. “Your crown,” he said, “Oh great noble one.” The soldiers laughed as he gently hooked the back of the crown over her rough pony-tail, trapping the hair, and then pulled it forwards, pushing down until the thorns pressed into the tender skin of her forehead. He saw the blood rising, small beads at first, growing and growing. He saw the fury and pain in her face, and pressed harder, twisting slightly, hearing in her breath her struggle to remain calm. He slapped her, both sides of her head at the same time, ramming the thorns deeper, then smacked the heel of his gloved hand into her forehead and again into the back of her scalp. The blood was running freely now, slender traces running down her face and dripping onto her naked chest and shoulders. “Stand,” Gallus ordered, and she did, tears rolling from her eyes.
“Hail her ladyship,” he said mockingly, and bowed before her. One of the soldiers thrust a cane into her hands and made her hold it like a sceptre, and as they prostrated themselves, she was made to parade up and down between them. Gallus could barely contain himself. This girl who had rejected him, reduced to this, a naked, bleeding toy for the men. He saw the centurion, laughing uproariously, whisper to one of the men, who dashed off, and wondered idly what the order might have been, but then he rejoined the mockery, kneeling in the sand, and kissing her feet.
“Look kindly upon me, your ladyship,” he said, clutching at her knee as though in supplication. He looked up at her, seeing from below her nudity, and realising again just how beautiful she was, even defiled, like this. She was flushed pink, so degraded she was barely able to raise her head, her eyes closed, as though she could shut out the shame. Again they made her walk up and down between them, bowing and jeering, mockingly beseeching preferment. She seemed even to have trouble putting one foot in front of the other, so totally had her system closed down.
The guard returned with a bucket, and handed it to the centurion, who looked across at Gallus. “A queen,” he said, “should be anointed, don’t you agree?” Gallus, realising suddenly what the bucket was, nodded with a smile. They forced Katerina to her knees, and the centurion stepped forwards, holding aloft the bucket. “May the gods bless you,” he said sarcastically, and then tipped. First urine dribbled over her head, and then, as she realised in horror what was happening and raised her arms to protect herself, faeces. Gallus laughed delightedly, seeing her there, kneeling, soaked in smeared with her own piss and shit, the urine dripping from her hair. He spat upon her again, and kicked her in the stomach, sending her falling forwards, coughing. “Take her back to her cell,” he ordered.
The sheriff yawned, drained the last of his wine and picked up the bag that contained the scourges. He really wasn’t sure about this, but for that much money, well, he was prepared to be persuaded. And, anyway, this would satisfy, surely the bloodlust of the mob.
He walked down to the guard-room and summoned the two floggers. They were both huge men, well over six feet in height, lean and muscular. It felt almost ridiculous putting these weapons in their hands, for he knew that they could have destroyed Katerina with a length of string. He gave them each a scourge, and followed them out into the yard. It was lit now only by flaming brands, but that was light enough for what he wanted.
In one corner of the yard was a stone pillar, used as a whipping post for internal discipline – both those guards who had transgressed, and prisoners who for whatever reason were to be spared the indignity of a public flogging. The sheriff had had a pillow brought from Katerina’s own quarters, and had had it fastened to the post at the height of a felon’s back. The floggers, he was aware, found this testing slightly odd, yet both seemed fascinated by the new whip, eager to try it out.
They took their positions, one to either side. The sheriff imagined her there, Katerina’s naked skin exposed rather than simply her linen. “Lay on one hard each,” he said. The right-handed guard raised the scourge, and smashed it down. There was a low whistle, then a tremendous whump, and immediately a small storm of pale feathers sprang up. Down came the whip of the left-hander, and the pillow slid from its moorings. The sheriff stepped forward and picked it up. It was shredded, covered in rents and tears where the weights had done their damage. Six strands, each with six balls – 36 spiked weights crashing into her back, 36 times. He wondered again whether she would survive to be crucified.
The sheriff dismissed them, rejecting their calls to test the whip on a human guinea-pig, and went to see Katerina. The thought of her, bound at the post, he found oddly alluring, and wanted to fix it in his mind.
He was aware of an edginess about the two guards who stood by the cell door, and he wondered instantly what they had done to her. It was only natural, he thought, for the guards to have their fun, but he was worried that they may have weakened her. It was essential that she should endure a while on the cross.
They shot the bolts back and flung the door open. The sheriff felt his heart constrict at what he saw. She looked up, exhausted, reproachful, but he barely looked at her eyes. Pale in the darkness of the cell, she was naked, sat on a low stool, her wrists bound behind her. He saw the band of rose-thorns rammed tight on her head, her saw the lines of blood that streaked her face, dripping onto her shoulders and chest, and he saw the stains of excrement, the pieces of shit still sitting in her hair, and yet she was still beautiful. The sheriff walked over, scarcely able to draw his eyes from her breasts. She was as perfect as he had imagined, her skin reddened and bruised in places, yet still smooth and flawless, the breasts pert and round. He lifted her chin with his finger, gazed at her. Her lower lip, he saw, was swollen and bruised.
He let his hands fall to her shoulders, feeling on her skin the stickiness of the spittle and whatever else they’d tipped over her, noting again the graze that had so attracted him as he’d stood on the balcony. She didn’t resist, didn’t move, and he realised just how they’d broken her spirit. He wanted to take her breasts, but something within him, some sense of propriety stopped him, and he moved behind her, looking at the long white expanse of her back, thinking of how it would look torn by those whips. He ran his finger down her spine. He let his fingers play in the downy hair on her nape, and then, slowly, consciously, forced himself to leave.
As he passed the guards at the door, he ordered them to clean her up.
Time had ceased to have any meaning for her. She didn’t know how long it was after the sheriff had left that they came for her again. She knew nothing but her own shame as they hauled her to her feet, their hands straying to her most intimate areas.
“Come on, your majesty,” they taunted, slapping her buttocks and thighs as they dragged her out of the cell.
She felt sickened, exhausted, degraded, her nakedness still shameful. She heard their jokes, their mockery of her breasts, their glee at the agony she was about to endure, and for all she tried to shut it out, it hurt. They hurled her down by the pump in the yard, and she yelped as she skidded on the rough stone, unable to check her fall with hers hands bound behind her.
She felt cold too, in the thin grey light, and then she suffered another wave of humiliation as she saw them push two of her ladies-in-waiting towards her. Both had been stripped to their shifts. Somehow that these women, women who had worked with her, helped her, been her friends, should see her like this raised her embarrassment to a new pitch.
“Wash her,” one of the guards ordered.
The taller of the two ladies-in-waiting, Melissa, a tall, stately woman from the north with flowing red hair, reached out, helped her to her feet, and as she slipped slightly, causing her breasts to bounce, she heard the guffaw of laughter, and realised just how many guards were standing there. They were surrounded by maybe two dozen, all jeering as the other lady-in-waiting, Metella, a slighter blonde figure, worked the pump.
Cold, cold water flowed over her, and for a moment she felt relief as the patina of blood, shit, sweat and spittle began to flow from her.
“Come on,” shouted a guard. “Scrub her.”
There was more laughter as Melissa took a cloth and began to wipe at her body, and great hoots and jeers as, inevitably, she came to her breasts, particularly as her nipples stood hard and erect in the chill. Again and again they encouraged her to scrub harder, urging Melissa to concentrate on her breasts and her genitals, enjoying their jokes about the lesbian romps they must have enjoyed. And the water was cold. Cold enough to take her through pain to numbness, to make her skin feel rubbery as they washed her.
Then, finally, it was over, and her wrists were briefly unfastened as they returned her shift, her shirt, her bodice and her skirt. Hope flared in her heart that perhaps the nudity was over, that she would be permitted to die with some dignity. And then, with deliberate cruelty, they showed her the whips. She pulled her clothes over her wet body, grateful for their warmth and the momentary cover they provided, but she knew her suffering overnight was hardly even a fraction of what lay ahead.
The centurion could sense the excitement about the town that morning as he hurried to the prison shortly before dawn. He had never known the place so busy. There were street-traders everywhere, setting up their stalls; there were young gallants struggling for the best positions; and in the market place a small stand had been erected by the platform to house the dignitaries. The inns, he knew, had been full, and there were blankets laid down on street-corners, as people came from all around to watch the famed Katerina being put to death. He heard them talking, heard the discussions about how long it would take her to die, listened to the chatter about the technique of crucifixion, the rumours that they’d invented a new whip to tear her apart. Some said they’d strangle her before nailing her up and save her pain, other claimed she’d received a royal pardon; they debated whether she’d be stripped, and there was much salacious talk about what she’d look like naked. Some even spoke of justice. And the whole way, the centurion knew that he’d seen her naked. He’d felt her breasts, run his hands between her legs, made her grovel nude before him. He’d humiliated her, spat on her, watched them put a crown on her. He thought of the look on her face as they’d tipped the shit over her. He’d seen everything, and yet he wanted to see her again. Whether she was guilty or not didn’t bother him; he just wanted to watch her squirm and scream.
She was clothed again when he next saw her, being dragged from her cell, her wrists shackled behind her. She looked almost numb, stupid to the taunts that the guards still rained down upon her. They’d washed her, clearly, but she still wore the crown, dried blood matting where the thorns dug in. The centurion walked over to her, and the guards pushed her towards him, holding her upper arms, forcing her to look at him. He raised his staff, and with calculated cruelty, tapped her with it on the side of her head, first left, then right, driving the thorns deeper. As fresh blood began to roll down her face, it was joined by tears.
She was taken up through the prison, jostled and buffeted, mocked and fondled, and then led through the judge’s chambers. The sun was just rising over the temple, beginning to burn through the dawn mists that lent the air a chilly bite. That, as much as fear, the centurion thought, accounted for her shivering. Cruelly, he ran his hand over her chest as they led her onto the balcony – her nipples, as he’d hoped, stood erect beneath the cloth, something he immediately pointed out. She seemed not to hear the new barrage of insults, though, as she saw the crowd. It had grown even since the centurion had arrived, people everywhere, a huge colourful carpet packing the square and beyond. A look of horror crossed her face, and she tried to back away, only for the soldiers to hustle her forwards. As the crowd saw her, it erupted into a furious booing. Cries of ‘murderer’ sprang up, and the centurion remembered again what she was there for. It seemed so incongruous that this beautiful frail creature could have committed such crimes.
The sheriff walked forwards, a look of nervousness on his face. The centurion watched as he raised his hands, and the crowd, recognising his authority over proceedings they were desperate to begin, fell to a hush.
“Unchain her,” he ordered, and as her wrists were released, she was pushed forwards to stand alongside him at the front of the balcony. Clearly shaking, she stood alongside him, clutching her wrists in front of her, rubbing at the red marks where the irons had chafed.
He turned to the crowd. “Katerina, daughter of Julius of Brindisium, murderer,” he said, before a roar cut him off. “Arsonist.” Another roar. “Destroyer of property.” Roar. “Embezzler.” Roar. “Perjurer.” Roar. “And whore...” A great screech of wolf-whistles. “…will today suffer the wages of her sins.” He paused, and the centurion could see how much he was loving having them in his power. “She will be flogged, and crucified.” Another cheer. “But first, she will walk before you, the people she has wronged, will parade to the marketplace so that she may know your anger and learn the great wrong she has done. I urge you, though, to throw no rocks, to resist the temptation to hurt her. She will learn true agony today at the post and on the cross, and it would be most unfortunate if the law were unable for any reason to execute full sentence.”
The sheriff looked at her, a grim smile crossing his face. “It has been decided,” he said, and the crowd fell silent again, “that to emphasise her submission before the law, she should walk naked to her punishment.” The crowd exploded, hysterical volleys of taunts and jeers being aimed at her. The centurion was stunned. He had been unsure even whether they would strip her fully for her flogging; this was a cruelty he had never dreamed of. A man, he knew, would have been allowed to retain his dignity, at least to the post. Occasionally he had seen slave girls taken to be whipped exposed as they walked through the crowds, but this was something else – to consciously humiliate her like that.
“Prepare yourself,” the sheriff said, looking at her, but she just stared at him, open-mouthed, backing away into the press of the soldiers.
There was, she knew, no escape. As the sheriff had begun his speech, she had half-known what he was about to say, had known that they would take every opportunity to pile on humiliation and agony, and yet still when he said it, it had come as a horrific shock. She looked down at the crowds, and the thousands of people packed into the street, all waiting to revel in her pain. She wanted to back away, but she could feel the soldiers behind her, and she knew the only thing she had left was her dignity – what little hadn’t been shredded by the mockery of the night before.
“Strip,” the sheriff snapped, and with a sense of unreality her hands went to the laces of her bodice. If she could calmly take off her clothes, part of her brain reasoned, if she could accept her nakedness, then how could they degrade her? Her fingers, though, seemed to belong to someone else. They were stiff and sluggish, and responded reluctantly. How often had she taken off her bodice? How often had she performed this action? And yet here, it was as though she were being asked to take apart a particularly elaborate clock.
The crowd fell silent, watching expectantly, and slowly the bows came undone. She loosened the bodice, removed it, and stood holding it, wondering pathetically what she should do with it. A soldier seized it from her, and hurled it over the balcony. She watched as it drifted down into the crowd, and saw people grabbing at it. They were fighting over her clothes, she realised, clothes she would never need again, and a sense of reality came back to her, tears bubbling behind her eyes as she tried to unfasten the buttons of her shirt.
Huw, the tailor’s assistant, couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He stood in the midst of the crowd transfixed. He lived at the other end of town to the fire and so wasn’t as angry as some of the men he knew – he had no desire for vengeance - but this was like a dream for him. He had lusted after her, had tried to find an excuse to be near when she came to the poorer areas, had imagined her naked, and now he was about to see her stripped, degraded. And although he wasn’t a vicious man, didn’t hate the Romans like some, who didn’t warm to the thought of one of them at last undergoing some of what they called justice.
On the balcony, a soldier prodded Katerina with the butt of his spear. “Get a move on, you bitch,” he hissed. “The people want to see you as bare-assed as you were last night.”
Each button took a great effort of will, each one a new agony, and yet as reached the fourth and last one, she wished there had been more. She closed her eyes and swallowed, and then shrugged it over her head. There was a huge cheer as she handed it to a soldier, and she told herself that these people had seen her in her shift just yesterday. Yet somehow, this was far worse. The soldier scrunched her shirt into a ball then threw it. She followed its course as it unrolled, and floated, cruciform, down into the mob. Her hands went to the drawstring of her skirt, and soon that lay at her feet.
“Give me it, then,” the soldier said, slapping her firmly across her backside, and she was forced to bend and pick it up from the floor, and hand it to him, so he could launch that too down into the crowd. This, then, was it. She wanted above all to remain calm, to tell herself that nudity was perfectly natural, but as she looked down into the sea of expectant faces, she knew it was not. She would be the only one naked there, pathetically alone - naked, that is apart from the crown, the pain of which had eased to a dull ache, but which served to emphasise her vulnerability. She tried even to tell herself that being naked was nothing to what else awaited her that day, but at that moment she felt that nothing could be worse than having to strip off her shift. Even the thought that she had been naked for most of the night could not ease the sense of horror she felt at exposing herself.
Yet somehow she forced her hands to act. She lifted the hem, pulled it up and, unlike the night before, in one sharp movement, yanked it over her head tearing it as it caught on the thorns of her crown. Suddenly she was naked, and she heard the roar of the crowd. In an act of defiance, she threw the shift herself, and as it slithered over the balcony rail, she briefly considered following it, but then the guards hands were upon her, pulling her arms back and chaining her hands behind her. Their hands rough upon her, they pushed her forwards, deliberately shaking her so her breasts wobbled on her chest, and then, at the sheriff’s command, they led her back, away from the balcony, and down to begin the march to her death.
In the upper room of the tavern across the square, Lucius drained his glass. He did not think himself a cruel man, and he had made his suggestion of a scapegoat for political reasons. Yet watching her strip, seeing her white form revealed, delicate and helpless among the soldiers, gave him a warm glow. He would enjoy seeing her whipped, even though he knew she was innocent. He watched admiringly as her long pale body disappeared into the judge’s quarters, and ordered another carafe of wine.
The judge felt sick. He looked at the bag of money, then he looked down into the yard, and he wondered how he could ever live with what he had done. For that, for a few gold coins, he had sent an innocent girl to be humiliated and tortured until she was dead. Hearing the crowds, their hysteria as she was forced to strip before them, he had actually retched. And now, he could see her, beautiful and naked, pathetically slight as the soldiers buffeted her in the yard.
They forced her to her knees, and he could imagine the taunts as their hands went over every inch of her body. One of them approached her with a length of rope looped into a rough noose. They jerked her head up, and slotted it over her head, deliberately flicking the crown. Even from his window, the judge could see fresh rivulets of blood beginning to drip from her scalp, spotting her ivory shoulders with specks of red. They pulled the noose tight, and jerked it a couple of times, laughing as she fell forwards, helpless.
Two of them emerged from the prison, carrying between them the cross-beam. It looked heavy even for them, and the judge wondered how on earth she could cope. He wanted to look away, but his gaze was held by the tableau, by her. They walked behind her, one either side, and then lowered the beam onto her shoulders. Others unfastened her wrists, and pulled her arms up, fastening leather thongs tightly around her wrists, her elbows and her shoulders. Through it all, she just knelt, numb, unresisting, like a rag-doll.
And then it was fixed, and the two soldiers released their grip, she tottered backwards as though the weight were going to make her fall, and it seemed as though she were offering those perky breasts up to him, but then she regained her equilibrium, and tipped forwards, taking the weight across her shoulders as her chest pressed down onto her knees.
A guard yanked the rope, and another kicked at her backside, and she lurched forwards. For a moment it seemed she had to collapse, but slowly her legs straightened until she stood, bent almost at 90 degrees under the beam, her breasts dangling, cruelly exposed. The huge prison gates began to open, and the guard holding the rope pulled. She staggered forwards, each pace a clear effort, and they formed into a line: six soldiers first, to break a path through the crowd, then the guard with the rope, leading her, two soldiers to either side of her, and behind two more, each armed with a birch cane, with they swished gleefully through the air, anticipating encouraging her with blows to her pale pure buttocks. And behind them more soldiers, and her two ladies-in-waiting, stripped to their shifts, wrists bound and heads bowed. Slowly, the procession made its way through the gates and out of the judge’s eyeline.
On horseback, Gallus followed at a distance, enjoying the spectacle. Every step, he could see, was an ordeal. The beam was too heavy for her and she staggered constantly, urged on only by yanks at the rope around her neck, and the prods of the guards with the canes. The crowds were vast, packing in around her, held back only by the soldiers, and their taunts were constant. Of her, he could see merely the back, but he knew she must be in a rictus of humiliation.
He pushed his horse on through the crowds, and as he got closer to her, he could hear the jeers. Some remember why she was there, calling her a murderess and an arsonist; others were simply caught up in the bloodlust of the thing. He saw a woman dart forward and spit at her, screaming incoherently about her three dead children, but then there was another, older woman who mocked the size of her breasts. Some bowed before her, taunting her status. “Hail her ladyship,” they said before covering her in more spittle.
As Gallus drew his horse alongside her, Katerina turned and looked at him. Her face was a picture of shame, flushed red, tears rolling from her eyes. She looked in agony, staggering under the weight of the beam, the ropes digging cruelly into the soft skin of her arms. Her body, the breasts hanging teasingly as she bent under the weight of the cross, was pink, streaked with sweat, drips of blood from her forehead and the spittle of the mob. Her dark eyes looked at him, and he saw the defiance gone. There was no rebuke this time, merely degradation. The guard leading her jerked on the rope and she lunged forwards again, her feet peddling desperately as she attempted to stay on her feet.
“Hurry along, now,” Gallus said, mockingly. At his command, one of the soldiers behind her raised his switch and smacked it down sharply into the soft flesh of her buttocks. She yelped and tottered on, and Gallus saw an angry welt appear across the white. The guard to the other side copied the gesture, and she gave a little hop, the bounce of her breasts giving rise to a new wave of laughter and taunts as a second stripe was added to her buttocks.
“Enjoy the rest of your journey,” Gallus said, before hastening on to make sure of his place to watch her flogging.
Katerina stumbled and fell, landing heavily onto her left knee. She tipped over to her left side, the beam banging into the ground. She half-knelt, propped up by the wood, too exhausted to move. Her body was soaked, lathered in a pale pink wash of sweat and blood and spittle. So much spittle. So much hatred. Her eyes stung, sweat, tears and the constant drips of blood from her forehead rendering her almost blind. How far had she gone? How far had she to go? This journey seemed an endless torment, and although she knew what awaited her at its end, she was desperate for it to be over. She heard the swish of a switch and felt it bite into her thighs. She lurched forward with a cry, wondering if she would ever become accustomed to such pain. She tried to stand, summoning all her strength to avoid another stroke, but straining for all she was worth she did little more than look up. Another lash landed, and this time she fell fully forwards, face down into the dirt, the weight of the beam crushing her into the road. She felt the pain of a hundred tiny stones jamming into her breasts and her belly, and tried desperately to stand, but all she succeeded in doing was scraping her already raw knees on the ground. They struck her again and again, four, five, six more blows stinging her buttocks as she lay immobile, just her legs kicking pathetically, and she heard their laughter, the jeers at her helplessness. Could she, perhaps, she wondered, just die there?
One of the soldiers jerked the cord at her neck and she twitched, her body dragged an inch or two along the rough ground. ‘Come on you bitch,’ he said, and jerked again. She whimpered, fury mixing with terror as the crowd laughed at his jibe and she remembered her humiliation of the night before. Finally two soldiers lifted her, steadied her, and then she was struck again as they forced her to continue her agonised way. Every step was a dreadful effort. The soles of her feet were bloodied and sore, her buttocks rang with pain, and the worst thing was she knew this was only the beginning.
Huw pressed up close, anxious to get as good a view as possible. The swirl and press of the crowd was constant and he kept losing sight of the procession, then suddenly he’d catch a glimpse of pale skin and his heart would leap. Frustrated, he ran along a side route, then veered back into the route he knew the procession must take. The crowds were a little thinner here and he wondered if he’d done the right thing. But then the noise of the mob rose and he saw a mass of people and the soldiers forcing their way through. One of the guards shoved him roughly, and he stumbled away, but the mass of bodies behind him held him upright and suddenly he was there, no more than three yards from her. He caught a glimpse he’d never forget of white skin, those delicious breasts hanging from her bent form, and her beautiful face twisted with discomfort, her brow furrowed, jaw set. There were people everywhere, insults and jeers. One woman, walking rapidly backwards, yelled “Whore!” repeatedly in her face, until the swell carried her away. A huge fat man, after a great hawk from his throat, unleashed the biggest ball of phlegm Huw had ever seen upon her, and it hung briefly on her bare shoulder before falling into the dust. Children darted around her, pointing and laughing. As she passed him, he realised how heavily she was breathing, saw the effort of carrying the beam. A guard flicked his switch against her streaked buttocks; Huw heard the impact, heard her shout, saw the criss-cross of stripes and for a moment he understood a little of her pain and empathised, and then as she went by, he rushed to the square to find a good place for the flogging.
Every now and again Katerina would slump into a blissful numbness and amass six, even seven steps without a thought, but then a sharp stone or another bitter insult would drag her back to the horrifying reality. She fell again and again, more and more frequently. Her shoulders and back were screaming from the exertion of carrying the beam, the skin had long ago been torn from her knees, and her chest was beginning to show scratches and wheals where she had scraped along the rough ground. She longed for oblivion, and then, as she fell for perhaps the dozenth time, she suffered a new and sickening torment.
As she looked up, the sweat pouring from her, panting, from her position kneeling in the road, she saw Tom, the miller’s son, a boy of around nine she had taught and helped look after following the death of his mother. He stood with his father, a coarse, brutish man, his mouth open in glee, pointing at her. ‘Look at her tits, dad,’ he said. ‘Look at them dance.’ She closed her eyes, trying to shut them out. Here she was, naked for the sport of children. ‘It’s what the Roman whore deserves, son,’ his father said. If a family she had financially supported were here to enjoy her pain, she knew there was no hope. The switches landed again, one, two across her buttocks, and with a tremendous effort of will she forced herself to her feet and staggered on. How far now? She saw through the crowds the clock-tower in the distance. Another 400 yards maybe. 400 yards before the real torture began.
The sheriff looked towards the commotion at the edge of the square. He saw the soldiers pushing a path through the crowd, and then saw behind them the unsteady figure of Katerina. She hobbled forwards, bent almost double under the beam, three, four wobbling steps, and then paused, exhausted. He saw a soldier behind raise his switch, and then with awful deliberation, smack it down onto her buttocks. Even at that distance, he heard her yelp of pain, heard the laughter of the crowd as she lurched forwards again, stumbling, off-balance, before finally falling. He saw the mob close in, heard them taunting her, abusing her, saw the soldiers lash her, three, four times, heard her groans as they finally lifted her, steadied her and pushed her on again, repeating the same sad pantomime.
The sheriff looked at the clock. It was almost half-past nine. Her journey from the prison was little more than a mile, and yet it had taken nearly an hour and a half. Even those last thirty or forty yards across the packed square had taken almost ten minutes.
She reached at last the steps leading up onto the stone platform at the centre of the square. The soldiers half-dragged her up them, and then, when she reached the top, they pushed her to her knees, removed the cord from around her neck and unfastened the beam. The sheriff ordered her to stand, and, unsteadily, she did. Naked before him, before them all, she stood. She had been naked most of the night, and then for the last two hours, and yet still, she clasped a slender arm across her breasts, half bending, knees pressed together and her other hand over her pudenda. How, the sheriff wondered, could she still feel shame? Her shoulders, her elbows and her wrists were marked with ugly wheals where the ropes had dug in. Her knees were raw and bleeding, blood ran from the crown around her forehead, her breasts and her stomach were scratched and her thighs were streaked with the marks of the switches, and yet still she was beautiful.
The sheriff walked up to her cowering figure and slapped her arms down. Reluctantly, she allowed them to fall, and her full nudity was exposed again. She was wet, soaked with sweat, her skin flushed, her hair poking damply between the strands of the crown. Her legs were marked with dust, while small pieces of gravel stuck to her damp skin where she’d fallen. Her breast heaved as she drank in air.
“Water,” he called, and a bucket was flung over her. Her hands instinctively rose to protect herself, and she gasped at the sudden shock, but her arms dropped immediately, and she was doused again, washing off the worst of the dirt. She shuddered, though whether from cold or horror he couldn’t tell.
“Put her on the post,” the sheriff ordered. The soldiers grabbed her arms, yanking her forwards so she stumbled, her breasts leaping on her chest. The skin of the top of her back, the sheriff saw as they hauled her past him, had been rubbed through by the crossbeam, while her buttocks, so smooth as they had stripped her on the balcony, were now a mass of purple stripes, showing the odd bubble of blood where the switches had bitten trough the skin.
They pushed her wrists down onto the iron rings on top of the stone post, which stood towards one edge of the platform, about four feet high and eighteen inches in diameter. They snapped the manacles over, but it was immediately apparent that her wrists were too thin to be restrained by them, that if she jerked back, she could pull herself free. The guards discussed the issue briefly, and then fastened the handcuffs on her again, so that, although her arms were loose in the manacles, she could not move from the post.
Lucius stifled a belch. He had one of the best seats there and he could admire her nakedness at his leisure. He had known her since she had been a small child, had seen her grow her into the gorgeous young woman she was now. He had, if he was being honest, thought about her when he’d been in bed with his wife, Portia, imagined her taut slender waist between his arms, and here she was, naked and willowy, as pure as he’d imagined. Even shamed as she was, she was graceful, superior somehow. He squeezed the hand of his daughter, Diana, who sat between him and his wife, and tried to tear his eyes away from Katerina’s slim body.
The sheriff walked over to her. There had been a low hubbub about the crowd as they watched the preparations, but now they fell silent. Katerina was hunched, shivering, bent over the post pushing her beasts down into her arms in her modesty, her pale back arched in the sunlight. Her eyes were tight shut, but had she opened them, she would have been looking directly at the low wooden stand on which the local dignitaries sat, no more than five yards from her. A space had been left for her father, but apart from that it was full – men and women in their finery, there to watch her agony. The sheriff saw Gallus point at her, a gesture with his hands as he laughed with a friend clearly showing he was making a joke about her breasts, and understood just how humiliating this must be for her, even before the pain.
The sheriff placed a hand on her clammy back, realising he would be the last man to feel that silky smoothness, that in a matter of seconds it would be ripped apart. She flinched at his touch. “The sentence,” the sheriff announced, “is thirty-six lashes.” He realised she was praying to herself, muttering softly. He checked her bonds, taking the opportunity to caress her breasts once again as he did so, and then adjusted her crown fractionally, drawing a low whimper.
He stepped back. “Proceed,” he said, and the two soldiers charged with flogging her stepped forwards. Katerina turned sharply as she heard the lead balls in the scourges chink together. The sheriff saw a spasm pass through her, heard a low moan of terror. Then he heard a hissing sound and, after a moment of confusion, realised she was pissing herself. It took the crowd a couple of seconds to realise what was going on, but when they did, the abuse and the laughter began anew. The sheriff held up a hand, and the soldiers paused. She shook, pressing her knees together as though that would somehow hide her disgrace, but the urine still came splashing out, soaking the post, darkening the stone platform around. The sheriff wondered if there could be any greater humiliation than this, to be stripped naked, paraded around the town, and then reduced to a state of such fear that you lost control of your bladder. There was no call for mercy from the crowd, though; if anything her helplessness just raised them to greater savagery.
From the middle of the crowd it hadn’t immediately clear to Huw what was going on, but then he heard the shouts. “She’s pissed herself!” “Mi’lady’s pissing!” From his position all he could make out was the pale hunched form bent over the post and he wished he could get closer to see her just one more time before the lashes ripped her apart. It was impossible, though; the crowd was too thick, and everybody had the same idea as him. “Make her lick it up!” someone shouted, and there was a burst of laughter and shouts of encouragement.
The sheriff waited until she had finished, waited until the crowd had again fallen quiet, waited even for her to glance back over her shoulder at him, as though wondering what was keeping him. Then he brought down his hand. “Thirty-six lashes,” he said. “Proceed.”
The square was silent, the thousands of people packed in there all focused on her. The sense of anticipation was almost tangible. Gallus could feel a tight band across his chest; this was what he’d waited for. Lucius’s tongue flicked across his lips in anticipation. Huw strained for a better view. Diana glanced at her mother, saw her fixed stare and tried to adjust her expression accordingly.
The right-hander raised his whip, drawing oohs and ahhs from the crowd. He laid it across Katerina’s back, its touch causing another tremor to pass through her. The sheriff was struck suddenly by how small she seemed, how tiny was the target area. The bicep of one the soldiers, he thought, must almost have been almost as thick as her waist. The soldier stepped back. One pace, two paces, three paces. Then he lunged forwards, the whip whooshed through the air, and struck her back with a mighty crash. In the silence of the square, it seemed unfeasibly loud, but after the initial impact, the sheriff also heard the tearing sound as the sharpened points tore into her flesh. Her head flew back. On her skin, instantly, a flash of deep brown sprang up, stretching in a band about three inches thick from the tip of her right shoulder on a shallow diagonal across her back to a point just below her left armpit. Within it, immediately, there were spots and specks of blood. She remained silent, still for a moment, holding a pose as though she were howling at the moon, and the she slumped back onto the post, hunched again, protecting her breasts. “One,” called the sheriff, seeing the blood begin to rise in the rents in her skin as he walked to take a side-on view.
The left-hander marked his run, and crashed the second lash a little lower. Again her head leapt back, her breasts popping from between her arms to quiver provocatively, and the sheriff saw her face, suffused, it seemed, in disbelief, her mouth opening and closing silently as she gulped air. “Two,” he called, deliberately slowing the process, drawing it out so that she should feel the whole agony of each lash, should anticipate and dread the next one. This wasn’t about destroying her; it was about making her feel the pain, making the crowds appreciate how absolutely the horror of the fire was being paid for.
The sheriff continued his walk so he had a view from about 45 degrees – he couldn’t, of course, obstruct the view of the dignitaries. She was shaking, he saw, her eyes closed and her lips fluttering as though in prayer. The wait went on, but, just as she opened her eyes, the third lash landed, low on her back, the lead balls clawing round her waist. Her knees half-buckled as her torso was flung back, and she staggered slightly to her left under the force of the blow. As she regained her balance, lurching to hang to the top of the post, her whole body heaved, and she retched noisily. “Three,” said the sheriff.
The left-hander waited until the spasms had passed, and then delivered the fourth lash, hitting the space between the second and third. The boom as the lead struck her ribs was tremendous, and for the first time there was a scream. First there was an agonised gasp, drawn deep from within her and then, as the pain welled through her and she understood how tiny a fraction of her sentence she had taken, came roars of terror.
On the dais, Gallus could hardly contain himself. She seemed to stare straight at him, eyes bulging, trickles of blood running from her forehead still, the muscles in her neck taut as she howled. The fifth lash struck low, smacking her already bruised backside, and she leapt, both feet lifting off the ground. Gallus saw her pert breasts jump between her arms, saw them quiver and fall still as she fell over the post, retching as the sixth too smacked into her buttocks. Great heaves convulsed her body.
The seventh lash was delivered almost downward, so hunched was she, thudding horribly into her back, producing a clear tearing noise as the soldier dragged it over her. Her mouth opened, her eyes staring emptily, and she began retching again, spitting as a little fluid gathered in her mouth, but still she clung on. It was the eighth that knocked her from her feet, striking low on her waist, wrapping its teeth around into her stomach. She slumped to her knees, arms stretched out, head resting against the stone, pushing the thorns of the crown deeper into her brow, and then fell onto her right side.
Diana felt ill. She hadn’t particularly liked Katerina, had considered her a little earnest, too wrapped up in her good works to be any fun. She had been, if she was honest, a little jealous of her beauty, and part of her had been amused to see her humiliated. Being paraded naked through the streets would stop her being so condescending in the future. But now the reality of what was happening had dawned on her. Katerina wouldn’t be condescending in the future because she’d be dead. And not just dead, but dead by the most hideous means imaginable. She looked at her as she lay, stretched out on the stone, her left side utterly unprotected, that breast shockingly exposed, blood seeping from her back. Somebody should stop this; it wasn’t right. Whatever Katerina had done – and Diana couldn’t believe the charges against her – nobody deserved this savagery.
The sheriff allowed two more lashes to smash into her left flank before he intervened. He walked over to her, looked down at her pathetic panting figure. Her head was resting now on her right arm, driving the thorns onto the soft bicep. Her breaths came in deep, agonised gulps, and in her eyes was simply terror. “Please,” she sobbed. “stop this.”
“Get up,” the sheriff said mercilessly, looking at how the scourges had scored grooves into her flesh. When she didn’t move, he kicked the back of her thigh. She twitched and then, visibly gritting her teeth, rolled back onto her knees. Slowly, uncertainly, forcing herself through the pain, she stood and, her hands shaking violently, grasped the chains that held them, bowing again over the post. “Continue,” he said, aware how silent the square remained. “No mercy.”
There were roars and cheers at his words, and calls for the floggers to thrash her harder, but the sheriff knew they were pitiless. He knew she was broken, knew just how agonising this was. The eleventh lash was high again, ripping across the already raw skin of her shoulders. Her howl was horrific, dragged from deep inside her as the teeth of the whips curled over her shoulder, biting into the hollow above her collar bone. Somehow she stayed on her feet, but the twelfth, delivered low to her thighs, had her collapse again, kneeling, hanging on to the post as another spasm of retching past over her.
Mistress Carney could bear it no more. She pushed her way through the crowd, making for the edge of the square, nauseated by their roars and by the screams that rose above them. Katerina had been with her that night; she wasn’t guilty. She might be a Roman, but she was a good-hearted woman, the last person who deserved this. She knew her late husband would have had no sympathy. He hated the Romans with a vengeance and would have revelled in seeing one so tortured, but she could stand it no longer. She wondered if she could withdraw her testimony, say she’d made a mistake, but she felt the passion of the crowd and knew that nothing could save Katerina. And she - she – had made this happen. As the full horror of her guilt dawned on her, she began to weep.
The right-hander struck low again, ripping the whip across the top of Katerina’s buttocks, scoring deep lines into the flesh. She slumped, head pushing now against the stone, driving the thorns deeper into her scalp. The fourteenth was aimed to almost the same spot, targeting the soft flesh. Her howls were hoarse now, her throat dry from her screams.
Gallus was enjoying this more than he had imagined possible. He would have liked her stood so he could see those breasts bouncing as the lashes landed, but this was a more than adequate alternative, seeing her curled now into a ball, cringing and bawling. He watched as the right hander raised the scourge again, and smashed it down – the arc almost entirely vertical now as she slumped. This one was cruelly oblique to her back, flicking over the already open wounds before smacking into her thighs. Her head flew back again, and a high-pitched scream rang out, slowly subsiding to her constant raw sobs. As the left-hander raised his whip, she looked back at him, slithering in her own blood as she tried to avoid the lash. It caught her left hip with a loud boom of lead on bone and ripped down across the side of her buttocks. “Sixteen,” the sheriff called.
She twisted again, heedless as the thorns from her crown scratched her arms, and had managed to assume a kneeling position when the seventeenth cut into the centre of her back. A fine spray of blood flew up and Katerina slumped, torso pressed to thighs, arms stretched above her. The eighteenth was high, one of the lashes clipping the top of her shoulder and biting into the side of her neck. The scream was more of a gargle, and she fell again, exhausted.
The sheriff raised a hand to stop the flogging. Halfway there. He walked over to her, and signalled for the guards to lift her. She was twitching and didn’t resist as the soldiers dragged her up by her arms. Her feet struggled to find purchase on the blood-soaked stone, but eventually she was propped again over the post in something approaching a standing position.
He seized a handful, of her hair, drenched now with sweat where it bunched below the crown, and twisted her so she faced him. Her breath quavered, shock and pain apparently making even the most basic human activity an almighty task. Sweat, tears, blood and mucus coated her faced, hung in skeins from her nose and mouth, and yet in her dark eyes he saw not merely terror, but a glimmer resistance. He nodded at a soldier, who brought over a pail of water, and tipped it over her. She flinched, gasping in fresh pain as her senses were reawakened and the water played over her raw flesh. Another pail was brought, and thrown over her back. This time she let out a checked scream, and as the blood was momentarily washed the sheriff saw the deep scratches and grooves the scourges had left across her skin.
He walked back away from her, then called out, “Proceed.”
The right-hander, spreading out the lash, unpicked from it small morsels of her flesh, and with the same merciless power delivered the blow to the bloodied mess of her back. She stood for a moment, head back, teeth clenched, eyes wide, and then, with a piercing shriek, slipped again to her knees. The sheriff watched her breathing, the deep unsteady breaths, realised the immaculate cruelty of the left-hander, as he waited, letting her anticipate the lash. Her head raised fractionally, and she glanced to her right. She saw the lash coming, but her flinch was too late as the teeth ripped diagonally down her back. She slumped further, retching violently. “Twenty,” he called.
Huw was torn. Part of him felt sorry for her, wanted to protect her. He’d never seen a whipping so severe, such brutality used on one so delicate. She was a fine lady, and even dragging her through the streets seemed impossibly harsh. He’d never seen a whip with teeth, not even used on rapists or murderers, and even the cat was rarely used on women. But then he remembered she was a murderer, that she’d done terrible things and tricked them all, that impossibly harsh as this seemed, it was what she deserved. And besides, he was enjoying it.
Katerina squatted on her knees, back arched, arms stretched up, the muscles tensed with the strain. The twenty-first lash came almost vertically downward, smashing into her with a fearful whump, her torso, pressed already against her thighs, trapped into receiving the full force of the blow. A shower of blood leapt up, and the whip for a moment stayed still, seemingly having to be yanked out of her body. Again there was the pause, as she shivered, helpless. Number twenty-two was aimed high, dragged across the tops of her shoulders to tear long grooves across the pale flesh.
Portia felt no sympathy. She knew her husband desired Katerina, had seen it in his eyes, in the way he would stare after her when she left a room. He tried to hide it, but she was no fool. She doubted he’d ever acted on his feelings – he was too insecure for that – and until two days ago she’d have doubted Katerina would ever have said yes. But the revelations confirmed what she’d suspected; there was something bad about that girl, with her apple cheeks and her flawless skin, and she deserved her comeuppance. Even now her husband seemed captivated by her, staring silently at her naked body as the whips destroyed it. Well, let him watch: this was what the whore deserved, to suffer in front of the lustful eyes of the whole town. And at least her husband was silent, unlike that oaf Gallus who was making a spectacle of himself with his lewd jokes. She wasn’t impressed either by those young friends of Diana, the two sisters, Claudia and Julia, and their boyfriends sitting on the edge of the dais giggling away as though this were some kind of game.
Katerina’s breath came in sobbing moans, her body seemingly no longer even trying to avoid the lash but simply intent on absorbing the punishment as best it could. The right hander let his next blow arch over, booming against her flank, as the tips cut into her thigh. The left-hander copied his style, reaching out for new flesh to torment. “Twenty-four,” the sheriff called, his voice almost drowned out as a fresh scream was unleashed.
“St-st-stopplleaas-” he heard her whisper as the right-hander cut low, sweeping up to smack into her already ravaged buttocks, the knots and barbs seeming to reach into her crack. Again the left-hander followed, succeeding in his aim of shifting her, almost lifting her off the ground with the force of the blow, and tearing more skin from her biceps as her crowned head jumped up above the level of her arms. “Twenty-six.”
“Harder,” screeched Claudia. “Whip her harder!” Secundus, her boyfriend, at 16 a year older than her, gripped her hand tighter. She was intoxicated by this, desperate for reasons she didn’t understand to see that stuck-up bitch suffer. Part of her knew that the pain Katerina was in was intolerable, but by far the larger part of her went with the crowd – and besides, that left-handed flogger with the beard, well, she would. She didn’t much care where Katerina had started the fire or how many locals had been killed; she was just enjoying the sight of a helpless victim being raised to greater and greater pitches of agony. It was a little like when she and Secundus had caught that rabbit in a trap a couple of months ago. She’d known it was wrong to poke that needle into it, and yet something had driven her to do it. Now she wondered what she could to add to Katerina’s torment.
Katerina fingers clung to the chains that held her wrists to the post, and she pulled her legs in over the bloody stone, trying to protect her buttocks. Down came the twenty-seventh lash, streaking from just under her right armpit down on a shallow diagonal. A great flash of blood flew up, and her scream was perhaps the loudest yet, and went on and on as thought it would never stop, even after the sheriff had called a halt.
Three-quarters of the way there, Gallus realised, wondering why the sheriff had stopped it then. He watched as the physician was called forward and waved smelling salts under her nose, saw the pain well in her anew. She was lifted, limp now, and draped over the post. Part of him couldn’t believe the sheriff would allow the flogging to continue, and yet he saw him give the nod, saw the left hander take three paces forward and swing the scourge down again across the middle of her back. Gallus heard the flesh tear, thought he even heard the noise of lead on bone, saw the spray of blood and heard her howl again.
She stayed, somehow, loosely held against the post, as the right-hander swung again. He hit low, so Gallus couldn’t see the impact, but he heard her shriek, saw her body lifted, saw again those pale soft breasts he had caressed the night before. She fell, holding desperately to the chains, her screams long and loud and barely human any longer. Her face was taut with pain. “Twenty-eight.”
The pain was beyond anything she could have imagined, and as she’d sat in her cell that morning, she had imagined something terrible. She had thought the pain would stop getting worse, that her body would shut down and leave a numbness, but each new lash added fresh agony. It was coming from the left this time and, clinging to the chains, her nails digging into her palms, she glanced over her shoulder. She saw him, that huge, merciless man, a half-smile on his face, step forward, and with a full swing of his arm, hurl the scourge down with all his might. She flinched, turning her eyes away, and the blow struck just above her right hip, in the fleshy part beneath her ribs. The teeth reached round, ripping at her skin, and as the lash withdrew, she felt the barbs bite, felt herself lifted and turned a fraction. She had jumped again she knew, for she felt the judder in her knee as she landed, and across her lower back a new fire of anguish. She realised too that she was howling hoarsely, still holding the chains, as though they could provide any relief.
Slowly, she took control of her breathing again. Her heart was pounding, she was racked by involuntary shakes, and she felt violently nauseous, but once the scream had subsided, she was able to return to soft whimpering. “Twenty-nine,” came the call, and she sunk back again, pressing herself down and into the post, ridiculously hiding her breasts, trying to make herself small for the seven lashes that remained. From her right, this time, stretched high over her already ravaged shoulders, booming off the shoulder blade, and spinning her so she was almost on her back. In the explosion of anguish she scrabbled in her own blood, trying to turn onto her knees again.
The hands of two soldiers seized her, and lifted her, forcing her into a semi-standing position. She clung still to the chains, draped on the post, and made the mistake of raising her head. Her eyes immediately met those of Gallus, and she felt horribly her nakedness. Even as her sense of shame overwhelmed her, she was aware of how preposterous it was, feeling embarrassed by her breasts as the skin was being torn from her back.
The thirty-first was swept upwards, ripping into her buttocks, making her leap, and she fell again. The sheriff looked on and knew the sentence had been judged just right. She was in agony, gulping in air, shaking, but she was still fighting. The next struck down across her ribs, the teeth biting into her exposed belly, blood springing immediately from the white flesh. “Thirty-two,” he called, then ordered she be set straight again.
This time the guards didn’t bother lifting her, but simply hauled her so she lay face down, held up only by the chains, her head hanging limp, almost touching the ground. Sweat dripped from her face, mingling with the blood, stinging the open wounds. Gallus stood for a better view, and saw the next lash sweep into the soft flesh beneath her ribs. For a moment the barbs seemed to lodge in the skin, and there was a slight pause as the whip was withdrawn. Thirty four struck the same place on the other side, the lowest strands catching the hip, prompting a higher-pitched squeal, and an involuntary flinch. The sheriff paused again, and had her lifted for the final two.
Her legs unsteady, she stood, propped against the post, and Gallus watched the right hander take his two-pace run up, raise the whip and, with noticeable effort, bring it down across the centre of her back, dragging it deliberately. There was a sickening whump, a fountain of blood, and then a howl, fresh and piercing even from her ravaged throat. She sank slowly to her knees, only to be lifted again. The left hander finished with a drag across her buttocks, and she fell, sobbing and twitching, moaning and whimpering, her body from neck to knees a mass of red.
The sheriff had almost forgotten the crowd, so silent had they fallen during the scourging, but they responded to the end with a hum of conversation. He let her lie for a couple of minutes, then ordered the soldiers to unfasten her. She was limp, silent now but for a wavering sigh as she breathed. They lifted her by the arms and she hung between them, lacking the strength to stand. The soldiers turned her to face him, and he saw how stray thongs had reached round to leave welts on her stomach and the sides of her breasts, how her entire body was pinkened by a sheen of sweat and blood. He walked over to her, and lifted her chin, looking into her eyes. She was blank, seemingly more dead than alive, and he feared again they may have gone too far, but a sharp slap to her cheek generated a flicker in her eyes, and he knew there was strength left.
The soldiers led her to the stand where the dignitaries sat, and pushed her to her knees, holding her arms out on either side. Her head fell forward, sweat and blood dripping onto the stone in front of her. Gallus drank in the vision; his nemesis humiliated and in agony before him. He watched as the centurion stepped forward; he hadn’t even had to pay for this refinement, but it had been his idea.
Two buckets were placed behind Katerina, each filled with brine. The centurion dipped in his hand, then flicked the liquid at her back. Only a few drops land, but it was enough to make her jolt upright and force a new scream from her lips. The teenagers laughed uproariously and applauded. Claudia thought it hilarious something so seemingly insignificant could cause such pain.
Katerina was tensed, the muscles in her neck pulsing, her breasts pointed upwards as her head snapped back. Lucius suspected he wasn’t the only one imagining her in that pose in a very different context. Only as she began to relax did the centurion flick more brine on her. She howled, and in her spasming almost pulled free her arm from one soldier. He grabbed her again, and this time the centurion allowed a little more water to dribbled form his fingers down her raw back. She twitched and bucked, the noise she made inhuman. The centurion tipped a little over her head, and as the salt burned into the wounds on her scalp, she thrashed between the soldiers, her breasts dancing on her chest.
The pain was worse than anything she’d felt until then, echoing along her nerves. At least with the whips, once the blow had been taken and the pain had welled, it slowly subsided. With the salt the pain remained, intense for what felt like hours. What was worse, she knew this was a private show for Gallus. She heard the centurion pick up the bucket, and she braced herself for more agony. But he waited and when she glanced around to find out what was happening, she saw him holding it over her, poised about to tip, playing to the crowd. Huw wished more than ever he was a noble, that he could watch this from close quarter. As it was all he really had to go on was the noise, her screams, but he cheered with the rest of them as the centurion played his games.
She heard the mob roar, and she flinched, and then came nothing but laughter from the crowd. She opened her eyes again and as she did so she saw those in the stand laughing and pointing. A friend of her father’s made an obvious gesture with his hands, clearly making a joke about how her breasts wobbled. Then it came in a terrible rush. First the cold of the water, and then the sting. In her head, in her eyes, but most of all on her back. She wrenched her arms free, so violent was her reaction, and fell forward, her fingers clawing at the stone as the salt burned through her soul.
For a time she could see nothing, and was aware only of the pain. But then their hands were on her again and she was lifted back into the kneeling position. The brine was dripping from her hair, each droplet causing a new explosion of agony. She blinked and blinked and slowly, through the haze, objects began to crystallise again and she saw Gallus’s leering face. Then the second bucket was tipped over her. The soldiers held on this time, and she thrashed between them, shrieking and twisting until slowly she slumped again, her heart pounding, her body twitching as droplets of brine from her hair ran onto her raw back and caused new spasms of agony. The centurion looked down and the hundreds of cuts the water had exposed, and wondered if he had perhaps gone too far. He had never thought he could feel pity for one of these nobles, but this was an extraordinary penalty.
It took perhaps three minutes for her to fall calm, slumped between the guards, her breath uneven, her body still twitching, shivering with pain. Two soldiers carried the beam over and lowered it onto her torn shoulders. At the touch of the rough wood, she shrieked again, but they held her still, and bound her arms once more to the beam with the bands of leather. The sheriff watched, seeing her in a daze, uncomprehending as her limp arms were fastened. The noose was fitted again over her head, and one of the guards jerked it so she looked up, held upright by the soldiers at each end of the beam.
“Stand,” came the order, but it was impossible. Even without the patibulum she probably wouldn’t have been able to make it; with it she had no chance. A guard slashed his birch across her back, and was rewarded with a retch of agony. He hit her again, at which the sheriff stepped in, and ordered Katerina’s ladies-in-waiting to help her.
Gallus rode a little behind the procession. Katerina hung from the beam, her feet dragging on the ground, barely even attempting to walk. Her head flopped limply onto her chest as her two ladies-in-waiting carried her. Under normal circumstances to see either of them, stripped to their underclothes, sweating and straining in the street, would have been a remarkable sight, but today there was only one attraction.
He couldn’t quite believe the continued savagery of the mob, their delight in Katerina’s pain and humiliation, the way they still surged closer to spit on her or add their insult. If the ladies-in-waiting slowed, the guards would still lash her, and as she screamed, the crowds roared their approval. She was so broken now, though, that even her screams seemed weak, her energy sapped, her throat hoarse from shouting in pain. Her back was a mass of red, barely a strip of skin remaining between neck and waist, the odd flash of white showing where she’d been cut to the bone. Her buttocks were streaked with black and purple wheals, the occasional deep red slash showing where the scourges had cut low. He had wanted her destroyed, and he had had his wish.
Claudia encouraged the others to hurry with her to intercept Katerina before she was dragged out of the town. They were young, but they were Romans, and so the crowd reluctantly parted to let them through. The four of them waited in the middle of the road, and when the procession drew near, they darted past the lead soldiers. Claudia was a little taken aback by Katerina. She looked exhausted, her eyes barely open, seeming not to focus on the four of them as they ran up, her forehead caked in blood, loose tendrils of hair hanging damp over her face. But Claudia put her doubt aside, put her face close to Katerina’s and spat. Julia, just behind her, had gathered a handful of gravel, and threw it in Katerina’s face. She flinched instinctively, and banged her head back against the beam, driving in the rose-thorns yet deeper. The crowds laughed, delighted to see Romans abusing one of their own. The Segundus ran up, and squeezed her breasts briefly, drawing great cheers, before he ducked into the mob as the soldiers shooed him away. Claudia caught once last glimpse of Katerina’s face, and saw only tiredness.
They moved on, though the huge gate at the edge of town, on to the rougher road outside. Had Katerina been capable of walking, had her feet been doing anything other than dragging on the ground as she was carried, that would have been a new torture; as it was, she seemed oblivious to the discomfort the two ladies-in-waiting were undergoing. The beggars and vagabonds who lived in the shadow of the walls came to add their derision, filthy creatures throwing rotting scraps of food at her.
The sheriff, riding a little way in front of her, looked back, saw her horror, and was delighted that she was not so numb she had ceased to feel shame; she would, at least, put up some kind of performance on the cross. This had been a day that would live in the memory of the town for ever, the beautiful patrician stripped, humiliated and scourged before them, but it would not do to end in anti-climax; her death on the cross had fully to sate the bloodlust of the mob.
On the procession crawled, the two ladies-in-waiting tiring and growing ever slower, still clearly upset for their lady, but unable to hurry on to save her further lashes. Finally, with the sun almost at its zenith, they reached the open area where she was to die.
Katerina was dropped to her knees, and the beam was unfastened. Where the thongs had held her to it her skin was red raw, a further source of pain. As the soldiers carried the patibulum off to fix it to the stipes, Katerina was left, kneeling, uncertainly drawing her stiff arms across her chest. The sheriff had the guards stand her up, and further buckets of water were flung over her, washing off the filth of her journey. A water-bottle was held to her lips, and she drank greedily. The liquid, the sheriff knew, would soothe her throat after her screaming, but it would also condemn her to additional minutes of agony, keep her alive.
She stood, slightly hunched, her eyes fixed on the work of the carpenters as they made her cross. She was still, even after everything, the sheriff thought, a beautiful woman, pale and stately, her breasts delicate and round even as further blood dripped from her scalp. Her back was ravaged, of course, ripped by the flogging, her buttocks and thighs destroyed by the switches. But from the front, she was still attractive, even if her knees were torn, her arms striped by the bonds that had held her to the patibulum, her torso scratched and her flanks streaked with lashes that had in places reached further to cut her chest and her belly. In that place, surrounded by soldiers and people, naked and anguished as she was, she should have seemed ridiculous, but she still had a weird authority.
A slight breeze blew and she shuddered at the movement of air across her wounds. The sheriff wondered how many lashes had landed. Not just the 36 lashes of the scourge – 216 individual stripes, a total of 1296 teeth – but the switches to encourage her. Her journey had taken in total, what, about two-and-a-half hours, and she probably been hit at least once a minute. So 150, maybe 200 blows, in addition to the formal flogging. It was, he thought, remarkable she still had the strength to stand.
He walked over to her, saw in her dark eyes a horror, both shame and pain and a knowledge of what was to come. His hands wanted to go to those breasts, to caress them and to weigh them, but instead, he took the noose, and pulled her towards the cross, now complete on the ground. The mob pressed closer, the solders struggling to hold them back. The sheriff saw Gallus there on his horse, waiting expectantly for the next phase of the punishment. He handed the noose to a soldier, and he yanked her forward so she stumbled into a group of four other guards. They pushed her among them, jeering her and dragging her to the cross, finally tripping her with a kick to the back of the knees so she fell heavily in the dust alongside the frame.
The noose was removed, and she was hauled onto the stipes, the pain of her raw back being dragged over the rough wood prompting further dry heaves. Ropes were fitted over her wrists and she was stretched out, her arms reaching along the patibulum. A soldier stepped forward, the others making way for him, a couple patting him on the back. The sheriff recognised Caius, a short, scrawny man from the west, and realised he must have won a lottery. Caius sat, dropping deliberately firmly, on her belly, and her legs snapped up involuntarily, one knee catching him in the back. He slapped her hard, his left hand cracking into her right cheek and, while she was still dazed, he grabbed her jaw with his right hand – fingers on one side thumb on the other, and forced her to look across and down the length of her right arm, the action pushing the crown yet deeper into the back of her scalp. He held her there, making her watch as another soldier placed a nail, maybe six inches long, upon the heel of her hand. The sheriff couldn’t help by impressed by the wilful cruelty.
The crowd, realising what was to come, even if few of them could see it, fell silent. The hammer was raised, and then crashed down. There was a metallic click as it struck the head of the nail, and Katerina bucked, her pelvis thrusting up. This, the sheriff knew, was what Caius had wanted. After a brief pause, as though it took time for her brain to process the information, there came a horrified, high-pitch scream. Her head had slipped from Caius’s grasp, but as she shuddered, he seized her again, and forced her to look along her arm at the nail that had penetrated half an inch or so into her wrist. The hammered landed again, and her whimpering broke into another howl. Her head again snapped out of Caius’s hand, but this time he didn’t bother to take hold of it again, instead letting his hands fall to her breasts, fondling them and making little secret of his pleasure as she spasmed beneath him.
The centurion was not a sympathetic man, but he felt a little sickened by what he was watching. It had taken seven blows to nail her right hand to the cross, seven blows that he each provoked screams that turned his stomach. He had watched men crucified before, of course, but this was different. For one thing, there was the overt sexuality of it all, for another the fact that she was such a delicate thing, the head of the nail almost as wide as her wrist.
He couldn’t stop it, of course, and his men remorselessly dragged out her left arm, and again made her watch as they drove the nail through the base of her thin hand. When he’d seen this done before, the victim had been either drugged or in such a state of shock that they were almost comatose; Katerina, though, seemed fully alert, her howls of anguish cutting through him. He thought of what he’d done to her the night before, of the way he’d degraded her, enjoyed exposing her beautiful body, thought of tipping the brine over her, and felt shame. He didn’t believe she was guilty, and even if she was, he wasn’t sure she deserved this, to send her last day on earth naked and in agony, humiliated and tortured.
Caius at last stood up, and the milky whiteness of her body was revealed again. stretched out on the dark wood of the cross, scarlet blood running down her arms. Her knees were skinless and her ribs and breasts bore the old welt, but essentially from the front she was the living sculpture she had seemed the night before, flushed with exertion and pain, but still almost ethereally pale.
Two soldiers pulled her legs apart, to hoots of derision and more lewd comments. A nail was placed a few inches below her buttocks and hammered in to the stipes until only around three inches protruded. Katerina whimpered, seemingly both puzzled and relieved that, for a few moments at least, no new pain was being inflicted. This, the centurion knew, though, was just agony deferred; the support would keep her alive for probably two or three additional hours, as well as rubbing painfully on the tender skin between her legs.
Her legs were then yanked down. One soldier held her right foot flat against the stipes, her knee gently bent; another positioned her left foot on top of it. Caius sat on her again, facing the other way this time, holding her thighs. Others clustered round, pressing on her legs, keeping her steady as the final nail was hammered in, passing between the big and second toe on each foot. This, the centurion knew, was the hardest nail to position, but she seemed too weak now to thrash, even as she screamed above the hubbub of the crowd.
The soldiers backed away, and he saw her, pinned out, naked and defenceless, lying with her arms spread, her head tipped back almost as though on a bed to entice him. Except that her fingers were clenched in a half-fist – something he knew from experience had something to do with the nerve in the wrist being severed – and there was blood running from her hands and feet, and still oozing from beneath the crown that he had helped fit. She was still, almost silent now, only the rapid breathing suggesting the pain she was in.
Slowly, the cross was raised. The sheriff had dreaded this, imagining the embarrassment if the nails were somehow to work themselves loose, but as the patibulum got higher and higher and she came nearer to the vertical, it became clear she was fixed firmly. Lucius watched in fascination; he’d never really paid much attention to crucifixions before, but it was impossible not to stare as her beautiful exposed body was lifted up so everybody could see. He knew she must be in agony, but all he could think of was her nudity, the fact her breasts and that wonderful slim waist would be up there, fully visible, for hours.
Her chest rose and fell with increasing ferocity as her wrists and ankles began to take her weight, her neck still arched back so her head hung over the top of the T-frame. As the cross passed 45 degrees she began to slide, and her eyes opened, her raw back ripping further as it scraped on the rough beam. Her buttocks hit the support, and she gave a slight yelp, but the gritted her teeth again. Her nostrils were flared, her eyes bulging wider and wider as she neared the perpendicular, and then, abruptly, the stipes dropped in the hole they had dug for its base.
The cross fell a couple of feet, jolting her and causing her to fall forwards with a mighty scream, her body help up by just the three nails. For a couple of seconds she thrashed pathetically, dragging herself up to perch on the nail beneath her perineum. She was panting and sweating, a new look of terror on her face as she realised just what crucifixion meant. The sheriff wondered if she still felt shame at her nakedness, spread out as she was, her feet eight feet off the ground, visible to the thousands who had come to see her die.
The soldiers removed the ropes they used to haul the cross upright, and as they filled in the hole it stood in, packing in earth hammering in wedges to keep the stipes steady, each shudder sent a new tremor of agony passing over her. She hung with her arms at about 30 degrees to the horizontal, her head bowed, body leaning towards the crowd so her breasts hung fractionally out from her chest. Her knees were clamped together, jutting out from the cross until, every few seconds, she sought to drag herself up onto the perch, and then they’d splay as she pushed up.
Finally, the soldiers completed their work, and backed away to take bets on how long she would survive. The sheriff looked on with a sense of pride. This was his tableau, the pale beautiful girl nailed up against the dark T, hanging in agony so the people could move on from the fire and forget the deaths. The screaming had stopped and only those within the first few feet of the crowd could hear her laboured breathing, the grunts as she pulled herself up to take a breath. The hostility of the crowd remained, though, and as they milled round at her feet, the barrage of insults continued. All the sheriff had to do now was to sell those two ladies-in-waiting into slavery. Part of him wondered if they too should be whipped, but he knew their greatest price would be as whores and that meant they should be unmarked.
Portia walked alongside her husband, as he insisted they get a closer look. She knew he just wanted to drink in her nakedness again, but she wanted to see her pain close up and so barely raised an objection. Diana, she knew, was horrified, had worn a dazed expression since the whipping, but it would do her good to see what happened to girls who let their eye be distracted by every passing man. They stood at the foot of the cross, listening to the insults, a litany of filth. “Katerina,” Portia shouted. “Katerina.” Her head moved a fraction to listen. “You are a disgrace to your family,” Portia went on. “You have shamed your mother. You deserve this.” Diana, ashen-faced, pulled her away.
Gallus wondered if he would ever get bored. He had watched now for approaching three hours, and he could barely take his eyes from her. Even when they’d auctioned off those two ladies-in-waiting, he’d watched her, seem her shame at their shame. There’d be queues at the whorehouse that night, he knew, but they held no interest to him. All he was concerned about was her, beautiful and pale and in agony.
As time had gone by, her movements had become less violent, and the flush on her body had begun to fade. Her pale breasts were still the most desirable things he’d ever seen. Blood had begun to seep from between her legs where the nail dug in, hers arms were streaked with blood and her face was haggard with pain, but there was still part of him wondered if he could pay the sheriff to take her down early so he could have her.
The crowds, he realised, were becoming restive, their fury abating. As some began to drift away, he rode closer. She saw him as he pushed through the crowds, averting her eyes too late. He smiled; let him be the last thing she saw. She was trembling, he saw, her muscles knotted as she pulled herself up for each breath, and close too he could hear the rasps of her breathing and, even better, hear the mocking of the crowds. Two boys, he guessed around nine or ten, stood beneath her, looking up with arms outstretched, mimicking her torments. A slightly older one explained the intricacies of her labia and vulva to them each time her legs spread open. A handful of drunk men discussed loudly what they’d have done to her if only she’d been sold to the brothel, and two women told her again and again that her pain wasn’t enough for what she’d done. Others just kept up a torrent of abuse. And she just hung, lifting herself every now and again, moaning occasionally, her eyes set in the distance as though trying to block out everything around her.
“Katerina,” he shouted. “Kate.” She couldn’t help but look at him as the crowds nearby fell quite. “Having fun?” he asked.
She turned away. He shouted again, and she still ignored him. He rode closer, drew his crop from his belt, and slashed it against her foot. She shrieked and spasmed as she jerked against the nail. “You bastard,” she croaked through parched lips.
From his horse his eyes were approximately level with her waist. He looked up at her, unable to keep the smile from his face. Broken, she looked back, barely able to lift her head, her dark eyes peering through wet tendrils of hair. He had always loved the way wisps of hair curled down in front of her ears, and he made a point of looking there now. The hair was still fell in the same way, seductively dark on her soft pale cheek, but now it was heavy, soaked with sweat and blood.
He looked at her white skin, the expanse of her flat belly, covered in a multitude of small scratches, at the horrific scars on her ribs, the wheal that cut across her collarbone and stretched back over her slender neck. And her breasts, round and high, grazed and lovely, the nipples half-erect, a delicious coral. She pulled herself up again, and he stared between her legs, at the prize that should have been his, and then as she slid down the cross again, feeling suddenly overwhelmed, he struck her again, on her knee this time, and rode his horse away.
“They were the softest things I’ve ever touched,” Secundus said again, proudly recounting the story of how he’d fondled her breasts. But then he turned to the cross. “Your tits are shit,” he shouted to laughter. “Like bee-stings.” Claudia, though, wasn’t taken in. She knew how desirable Katerina was, and she worried Segundus might become dissatisfied with her. “Katerina,” she shouted. “Katerina.” Katerina’s eyes flicked in her direction and then away, but Claudia new she had her attention. “Bitch!” she shouted.
One of the four soldiers below the cross drew a sponge from a bucket, skewered it on his javelin and raised it for her to drink. Even then, the centurion noted, he couldn’t help adding more cruelty, flicking her breasts to hoots of laughter from the few hundred spectators who still remained. He held the sponge in front of her, just out of reach, taunting her as she stretched forward to reach it, her tongue outstretched. He moved it closer, and she reached again, and then pulled it away.
She would be desperately thirsty by now, the centurion knew, cramp biting at her. The muscles in her thighs stood out like rope, each new thrust sending shudders through her. He was amazed her thin arms had sustained her for so long, but it was clear now that they were as good as useless, her shoulders perhaps dislocated, and it was only her legs that kept her pushing up for air. It was now that they would usually break the legs of a prisoner, to bring merciful death in ten minutes or so, but the orders were for her to keep suffering. Finally the soldier allowed her the sponge and she drank desperately. That too, he knew, would prolong her life.
Huw at last worked himself to the front, so he could drink in her loveliness before she died. He could see she was close to death. Her face had a slightly grey hue, her breathing was unsteady and spasms kept rippling through her muscles. He would never have a woman like this, he knew, not one so pure, so pretty, so slender. He had enjoyed the last 12 hours, enjoyed watching her naked suffering, but he wondered whether he might have enjoyed rather more seeing her around town for the next few years. “Teacher,” shouted one of the drunks near him. “Teach us a lesson now. Why don’t you tell us how important it is to read?”
The sun was beginning to set behind the cross and there was a slight chill in the air. The end was close now. Her writhing had become both more desperate and weaker, almost eight hours on the cross having finally sapped her strength. There were still, the sheriff estimated, over a thousand people there, watching the end of the best show the town had ever known. The crows were circling, ready to enjoy their prey once the crowds had gone. He would leave her to hang for another week before burning the cross and her body, a reminder of how the town dealt with criminals.
Gallus was still there, unable to take his eyes off her, his relish in her agony and shame obvious. The sheriff knew he should feel some sense of guilt, but all he felt was the satisfaction of a job well done and, if he were honest to himself, a thrill at what he’d achieved. The judge, he knew, had gone that morning, unable to watch an innocent and beautiful girl stripped and mocked, scourged and dragged naked through the streets to die in this dreadful way. It was, he guessed, probably 24 hours since the soldiers had begun the process, with whatever indignities they’d heaped on her in the jail, about 12 hours since her clothes had been removed for the last time. He tried to imagine what it must be like to be naked before so many people, to face such hate, but he couldn’t. Even without the whipping and the crucifixion, it was unthinkable, and what he hadn’t quite appreciated was just how exposed she would be on the cross, how everything was on show, how her attempts to breathe would cause her breasts to heave.
The sheriff watched as Gallus rode up to the cross again. He had been riding up every hour or so, taunting her, encouraging those at the base of the cross to heap on more abuse. This time he stopped in front of her, and stood in his stirrups. He reached over, and took her breasts in his hands, stroking them and kneading. Even from 30 yards away, the sheriff could see the look of loathing in her eyes, even though she was too weak to lift her head or pull away.
Gallus slapped her breasts, slashed at them three, four times with his crop, but she barely flinched. And then he reached a hand under her chin and lifted her head. Their eyes met, and he spat in her face. He dropped her head, her chest fluttered one last time, and it was over. Justice had been done.