XLVII

Fourteen months later, on a hot August morning with the scent of old smoke still heavy in the air, Valerius stood beside a sombre, dark-haired woman, close to the place where Cornelius Sulla had died. They were on the far edge of a large crowd who had gathered to witness another execution.

He had last seen Petrus on the day he delivered him up to Nero. Now he watched as a team of executioners erected an inverted cross in the soil of the Vatican fields and placed the elderly Christian against the rough wood. Valerius flinched when he heard the old man’s shrill cry as the first of the iron nails pierced the flesh and fragile bones of his feet. There was a moment of consternation as the executioner realized a single nail would never hold his victim in this unheard-of position. The crowd hooted as further nails were added, before Petrus’s hands were fixed likewise to the arm of the cross so that he hung upside down with the blood running down his bony white legs.

‘It is cruel,’ Olivia whispered. ‘He was a good man. He does not deserve this.’

Valerius looked at his sister. She was still pale, still thin, but she had insisted on riding from the estate to Rome and showed no sign of fatigue. The house on the Clivus Scauri had been burned along with thousands of others in the great blaze in July which had consumed seven whole districts of the city and incinerated thousands of men, women and children. Fires were a common enough occurrence in Rome, but Nero and his officials quickly found evidence that the Christians had been to blame for this one. Petrus’s execution was only the beginning.

‘He asked for it to be this way.’ Valerius placed an arm round her. ‘He said he was not worthy of dying in the same manner as his Lord. He is an old man. It won’t take long.’ He knew that the head-down position in which Petrus was hanging meant his inner organs would slump down and crush his lungs and heart. No man of his age could live for more than a few minutes in such agony. But he had underestimated Petrus’s resilience. It was forty minutes before the fisherman who had watched his Lord walk on water died with the name of Christus on his lips.

Valerius thought he heard a whisper in the air, and for a moment he had a vision of the tall man beside Poppaea’s waterfall. He realized that if he did not have faith, at least he had hope.

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