I had no choice.
He remembered an earlier Valerius, a whole Valerius, who had told himself those very same words and done what was right. In the end, the result had been the same.
They would have taken her and burned her, or fed her to the wild beasts. I had no choice.
But he did have a choice. He could have fought and he could have died saving her.
And when they had killed me they would have put her to the torture.
Still, he could have chosen to kill Ruth and die avenging her; that, at least, would have been an honourable end.
But it would have meant abandoning Olivia and my father and condemning twenty thousand innocent people.
Coward! The word rang through his brain like a clash of swords. Maeve, the British girl he had loved and betrayed, had called him a coward. Was it true?
‘Valerius?’ The voice came from a different world and ended with a choked gasp as his left hand found the speaker’s throat. He opened his eyes to see his father’s face darkening above him, the rheumy eyes bulging. Just for a second, he blamed Lucius for Ruth’s death and might have squeezed harder, but the moment passed and he loosened his grip. The old man retreated from the bed massaging his throat. He stared at Valerius as if he didn’t recognize him. Six years earlier he had sent a boy to become a man with the legions. The boy had returned a warrior. Now he realized just what the warrior was capable of and it frightened him. But it wasn’t the hand on his throat that had frightened him most. It was the look in his eyes. Valerius had become a killer.
‘I’m sorry, Father. You startled me.’
Lucius forced a smile. ‘Not so much as you startled me, I think.’
The closed shutters kept the room in darkness, but the temperature and the light squeezing through the gaps indicated some hour around mid-morning.
‘You must not blame yourself.’
Valerius shook his head. I killed her. How could I not blame myself?
‘She went of her own free will and knew the risk she took.’
He felt the anger rising within him again. ‘Did they also take Petrus?’
‘I do not believe so.’ Lucius hesitated. ‘Someone would have sent me word. It was his way to let the faithful gather before he arrived. It was more secure.’
Valerius didn’t hide his bitterness. ‘So he used them as bait in a trap. He used Ruth as bait in a trap? What would your compassionate Christus have made of that?’
Lucius turned his face away. ‘Petrus is more important than any of us. Than all of us. Without Petrus the faith would wither and die. He is the keeper of the truth.’
‘Tell me about him.’
The old man hesitated. Keeping the secret had become a habit.
‘When your mother died at least I still had my ambition and my son, who would make that ambition a reality. Olivia married well, you went to Britain with your legion and I was content.’ He saw the look in Valerius’s eyes. ‘I know what you think of me, Valerius. I know that you laughed at my hopes and only accepted your part in them out of duty. This family once figured among Rome’s great, and I was determined that we should do so again. Seneca, who is my friend, said he would help me.’
Seneca, Valerius thought, like a spider at the centre of a web, manipulating all around him. And at what price?
‘Then Olivia’s husband died, and you returned from Britain, a hero, but a part-man. I looked at you and I saw a candle starved of air, a life flickering on the brink of extinction. You have recovered your health, but when I look into your eyes I know that they have seen too much and you have suffered too much. You will never be the same again, my son, and for that I blame myself. You were changed, but you were not quite lost to me; not yet.’ Valerius opened his mouth, knowing what was coming, but Lucius raised his hand. ‘No, let me speak. I will come to Petrus in my own time. I searched Rome, and the provinces too, to find a suitable husband for your sister, but I did not have enough to offer them. Who would want an alliance with an old man who last had influence in Tiberius’s time? Without mortgaging the estate, the dowry I could offer was not attractive. Olivia is beautiful, but that means nothing to the powerful families I courted. It was Seneca who found Calpurnius Ahenobarbus.’
Valerius sighed. ‘A man as old as you are,’ he pointed out. ‘With a face like a starved warthog and a reputation for degeneracy that would not have shamed Caligula.’
‘A rich man,’ Lucius countered. ‘A man with connections to the Emperor. She should have obeyed me — I am her father. Instead, she shamed me. And you supported her.’
Valerius nodded. ‘And support her still.’
‘Finally, I had lost everything. A razor and a warm bath seemed more welcome than another day of life. Next morning Granta brought the girl to the estate. A gift from a friend.’
‘Ruth.’ Valerius struggled to keep his voice steady.
‘She was different from the other slaves. Something inside her shone.’ Lucius sniffed. ‘How does one define goodness? She sensed my emptiness and she came to me when I was alone amongst my olive trees. At first I sent her away; I did not want whatever it was she had to offer. But she persisted. She too had lost everything, she said, but her God for ever walked by her side and she would never be alone. He protected her from the evils without and within. The temptations of the earthly world and the weakness of her own body. I too could receive her God’s protection. She spoke of a man called Petrus.’
‘And she took you to him?’
Lucius shook his head. ‘Not at first. Petrus must be protected. She had to be certain of me and I had to be certain of myself. I had never heard of Christus, but I knew enough of Rome and Nero to understand the danger. There was a moment when I considered handing her over to the authorities and I think she knew it. She believed the risk was worth taking to save me. That was when I was at my lowest. She told me she forgave me and I wept on her shoulder. Two days later she took me to meet Petrus.’
Valerius remembered Ruth’s instinctive compassion and her fearless certainty and knew that nothing would have stopped her. She had recognized something broken in his father just as she had seen it in him. The path she walked would eventually have ended in her death whatever happened that day in the street. Was it blindness or foolishness that made her ignore the danger? No. It was much simpler than that. She was too good for the world. Too brave and too honest. The purveyors of pain and depravity like Torquatus could not afford to have their deeds questioned by the bringers of peace and love. Eventually, only one voice would prevail. He saw again Cornelius Sulla tied to his stake, his eyes squeezed shut and his lips moving in prayer, and he knew it was not death the young man had feared, but only the method of his dying.
Lucius and Ruth had travelled to Rome together. The city was dark and she had led him through streets he didn’t know, but Ruth walked without fear and Lucius had taken strength from her strength. Eventually they had reached a house marked in some way that she recognized.
‘She whispered the name of Christus and we were shown into a small room where ten others stood, cloaked and hooded as we were.’ He shook his head. ‘How can I describe the atmosphere in that room? At first I believed it was fear, because that was what I felt, but now I think it was anticipation; a desperate need for what was to come. Then he was there. He drew back his hood and looked upon us; an ordinary man but with extraordinary presence. His eyes sought mine and in that moment I felt as if I was filled with light. My fear vanished and I was lifted up and was able to look down upon my own poor, corrupt body, and those of my fellows, before he placed me back among them.’
When Petrus had spoken, his words had reached out to each person in the room, as if he had taken them aside individually. But, when his father recalled what had been said, Valerius was transported back to the Vicus Patricius and the young man with the smashed lips. God, who created all things, sent Jesus to die for you and bring you everlasting life. Follow the teachings of Jesus and you will become closer to God. Petrus had created a network of preachers to carry his message, each trained in the precise wording. Valerius remembered Publius Sulla’s words before he died and saw the genius of the plan. Truly, it was like a disease, for each messenger was capable of infecting tens or hundreds more with the teachings of Petrus’s God, and from these he would select yet more messengers who would in turn carry the message to a new audience. Worse, according to the teachings of Christus, each slave was of as much value as any knight or senator. Unless Rome could stamp out the new religion, it would eventually overwhelm everything Romans now believed in. If they could no longer worship Jupiter and Mercury and Minerva, why should they worship an Emperor who was of no more individual merit than the savage who tended their dogs?
He heard his father’s voice change and take on an almost awed reverence.
‘Petrus told how his life changed when he was approached by the Messiah while he was fishing with his brothers.’
‘God’s messenger. Jesus Christus. When he spoke, he spoke the word of God. Petrus was first amazed, then transformed. From that day onward he followed the Messiah and he has never turned back. He witnessed the miracles.’ Valerius noted a slight hesitation and realized that some parts of the Jesus legend still taxed his father’s credulity. ‘He saw the Messiah walk upon water.’
The idea was so absurd that Valerius laughed, and immediately regretted it.
His father huffed. ‘Do not make fun of me. Do you wish to hear the story of Petrus or not?’ He didn’t wait for answer. ‘Of all Christus’s followers, Petrus was the foremost, and, when Christus died upon the cross, he became the leader in his stead. He was forced to flee Judaea and preached in Antioch and Caesarea before he understood where the greatest need and the greatest glory was to be found. Rome. Since he arrived here, he has been tested many times, as all our faith must be tested so that it may retain its strength.’
Valerius thought again of Ruth and asked the question he wasn’t sure he wanted answered. ‘And has your faith been tested, Father?’
Lucius swivelled his head so he wouldn’t have to look in his son’s eyes. ‘I have been tested, yes.’
‘Did your faith survive?’
Now the old man turned back so Valerius could see the damp sheen on his cheeks. ‘God will be the final judge of that.’