SEVEN DAYS IN POMPEII
Via De Sepolcri
“Street of Tombs”
The city was washed in the crimson glow of a blood-red sunset. The last rays burned the sky as hot as the heavy August evening air. Xena and Gabrielle followed the street named Via De Sepolcri, Street of the Tombs, as it wound its way to the far end of the city finally leading them out through the Porta Ercolano.
They walked in silence, out of respect, passing rows of mausoleums and tombs etched with the names of soldiers, gladiators, fathers, wives, mothers and children laid to rest here just outside of the city walls. Like the dwellings for the living of Pompeii, the homes of the dead were decorated with fine paintings and mosaics. There were stuccos of gods and goddesses, cupids and nymphs and, in some instances, portraits of the dead souls themselves floating above dinner parties being held in their honor, final feasts to send them on their way to the other side.
By the time they passed the last tomb, the sun had disappeared from sight and the sky was turning the color of plums.
They were not alone on the road of souls. Ahead and behind them walked small groups of Pompeians, all strolling in the same direction: to the Villa of Mysteries -- a temple built to worship a variety of gods from all parts of the world: Greek, Egyptian, as well as Roman. Because of this diversity, the temple was larger than most. Also, because of this, the temple was a religious haven for the common people of Pompeii. The selection of gods was a representation of the rich heritage of the city itself.
"Looks like a good turnout for the festivities," Gabrielle stated, commenting on the many groups of people that were traveling the path to the temple.
"Should be," Xena replied. "Alessandro told me the Golden Ceres has been in the possession of the noblemen for years. This is the first time in a long time that the people of Pompeii have been to this temple for the festival."
Gabrielle smiled up at her partner, thinking once again how proud she was to be a part of Xena's life. "You did a good thing here, Xena. You gave these people back an important tradition and brought meaning back to the Festival of Ceres."
Xena snorted. "You think I did all that, huh? All I did was pilfer the statue from Menander's house. It followed its own path back to the temple ... with a little help from a very smart boy. Speaking of Alessandro, where is he anyway? He was supposed to meet me here at the gate." Xena paused before the entrance to the Villa, searching the gloom for her young Pompeian friend.
"Here I am!" Alessandro announced, popping out from behind a bush and giving Gabrielle a start.
"Me, too!" Hermia added as she jumped up. The small girl smiled up at the two women, swaying shyly from side to side with her hands behind her back.
The bard caught her breath and grinned at the boy. "You scared the daylights out of me!"
Hermia pouted. "I scared ya, too, didn't I?"
"Yeah, you did too," Gabrielle added as she ruffled the young girl's hair.
Alessandro beamed up at the warrior with a proud face. "How'd I do?"
"Ya did good," Xena answered, placing her hand on his shoulder and smiling. "The statue IS in there, isn't it?"
Alessandro grinned wickedly in response, "Oh, yeah. It's in there. I made sure of it."
"WE made sure of it," added an insulted Hermia.
"You make a good team," Gabrielle commented.
"We do at that," Alessandro said with a laugh, glancing at his sister. "I sold them the statue and she snuck in and stole it back."
Gabrielle laughed, just imagining the two of them at work, until her thoughts traveled to the colorful statue that was used to replace the Ceres at Vettii's House. Her brow furrowed. "Alessandro! You let your sister see that ... that ... that ... other statue?" Gabrielle asked the lad in disapproval. Surely she was much too young to be handling something that crude.
"What statue?" Alessandro replied, a little puzzled. "Oh, you mean the hermaphrodite? We have three of them just like at home, one in every room. It was no big deal."
"You do?" Now the bard was really embarrassed. "Well, there's no accounting for customs in a strange city."
"They were good choices, Alessandro. Especially that last one," Xena grinned at the clever boy and winked. "I like your taste in art."
Alessandro frowned. "I hope I can get that statue of you back! No one but me has one of those, not even Vettii! I got it when we went to Athens last year. Bought it on the side of the road from a merchant. He was a strange guy. Fast talker. Had lots of Xena stuff. Claimed he had a corner on the market. Can't think of his name ..."
"Salmoneus," Xena and Gabrielle answered together.
"Yeah! That's the guy! You know him?"
Xena smirked. "I'll have him send you another. I'll see to it personally. Deal?"
"Yeah! Deal! Thanks!"
"All right, then." Xena reached into her cleavage and produced the small pouch of coins. She gave it a shake. "Here ya go. Good work." She tossed it to the lad and he caught it with a confident swipe of the hand.
Alessandro looked at the bag in his hand and then looked up at the warrior.
"No thanks," he said and handed the bag back to Xena. "You keep it. Getting to see the look on Vettii's and Felix's face was payment enough. Besides, I got plenty of dinars from the both of them."
"You're a smart kid, Alessandro," Xena said while she placed the pouch back in its spot between her breasts.
"Me, too!" Hermia whined.
"You, too!" Xena added. "Now, I'm counting on you…on the both of you…to make sure that statue stays in the temple."
Alessandro stood tall. "You can count on us, Xena!"
So did Hermia. "Yeah!"
"Good." She held out her arm to the boy. It took him by surprise for a second and then he smiled proudly, grabbing Xena's arm in a warrior's shake.
Xena bent down and extended her arm to do the same for Hermia, but the girl would hear nothing of it. She flung her small arms around the warrior in a hug, planting a firm kiss on Xena's check.
A very surprised Xena glanced up at her partner. Gabrielle was smiling from ear to ear. Xena gave the small girl a gentle hug in return and then stood.
"G'wan you two. Go home. It's getting dark."
"It's already dark!" Hermia corrected.
Alessandro nodded and grabbed his sister's hand. Together they walked back in the direction of the city; the boy walking proud, the girl skipping with light steps and holding her brother's hand. Their small bodies quickly disappeared into the gloom of dusk at the edge of the street of tombs.
A chill ran up the back of Gabrielle's spine. "I hope they'll be all right."
"They'll be fine," Xena replied as she opened the gate to the temple. "They're city kids. They probably know every nook and cranny in Pompeii. Come on. I thought you said you wanted to attend this party?"
"Then let's go." Xena held the gate wide for Gabrielle to proceed inside. She was about to follow her partner when she noticed a shadow on the road, emerging from the edge of the darkness. The slightly squishy sound accompanying each footstep gave her identity away.
Xena waited and held the gate open for their soggy friend.
Sappho smirked at them both and wiped her nose as she slogged by.
"Laugh now, warrior," the poet grumbled good naturedly. "Remember, I don't get mad ... I just get even."
"Ooooh. Very poetic. No wonder you're famous. Come on in. I'll get you a towel."
"Don't do me any favors."
Xena clanged the gate closed and looked ahead for the bard, but Gabrielle had already gone inside. She took a step forward to catch up, but Sappho stopped her with a touch to the arm.
"Xena, come with me. Let's mark the occasion."
The poet motioned for Xena to follow and so the warrior did. They approached a smooth wall a short distance away. In the darkness of night, it could barely be seen. But once up close, the artwork and messages covering it from one end to the other could be read clearly.
"Here," Sappho said, picking up a brush and a bowl filled with gold paint from a pedestal to their right. There was variety of colors to choose from, bowls filled with paints were laid out specifically so people could leave messages on the wall. "Let's immortalize the return of the Golden Ceres to the temple with a verse. What do you want to write?"
"Me?" Xena exclaimed, pointing at herself. "You obviously have me confused with a certain golden-haired bard."
Sappho smiled widely. "Oh, I think I know the differences between the two of you by now. You're tall, she's short, right? So, tell me, Xena, Warrior Princess, what do you want to write to commemorate your visit to Pompeii?" She dipped the tip of the brush into the bowl and poised herself at the wall, ready to take dictation.
"How 'bout ... Xena was here, but now she's gone, she leaves the statue, to carry on."
Sappho rolled her eyes. "Better stick with the sword, warrior. Now, pay attention! I'll write something. See if you can get the hang of it." The poet looked closely at her warrior friend, making sure she had her full attention, then she turned to the wall and wrote:
Why, when I gaze on Phaon's beauteous eyes,
Why does each thought in wild disorder stray?
The Muse forgot, and lost in melting lay
Mute, on the ground my Lyre neglected lies,
Lost is the wretch, who in her fatal spell
Wastes the short Summer of delicious days,
O ye! who in this sacred Temple smile
Know that, stung by hopeless passion, -- Sappho dies!
The Tenth Muse finished the last word with a flourish and looked over her shoulder at the warrior, who was reading her words as she wrote.
"Well? Whadda ya think?"
"I think it has too many words," Xena stated simply and grabbed the brush out of the poet's hand. "Here. Give me that!"
Sappho watched as Xena dipped the brush into the golden paint and strolled over to a bare section of the wall.
With a tiny bit of her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth, the warrior wrote on the stone. Sappho walked over to watch, recognizing the bold strokes -- the same handwriting that was on the maps of villages plundered, back in Vettii's secret trophy room.
Gabrielle - you are the bard of my soul
The Warrior Princess signed her name and stepped back to look at the simple words with pride.
"Whadda ya think?"
"I think you have many skills, Warrior Princess," Sappho stated honestly. "Come on. We have a party to go to!"
The parchment had fallen out of Xena's hand. She couldn't remember when she had stopped reading, but it had been a while since her eyes had lost focus of the words on the page and her memories had taken over.
The fire was all but out, and Xena was lying next to an empty bedroll, drifting somewhere between dreams and heart-breaking reality.
Not far away, Argo swatted her tail against the tickle of a fly on her rump. The sound barely registered with Xena. The warrior was finding it hard to keep her eyes open and the constant hum of wave against shore was not helping.
"I had a dream, Gabrielle," Xena said softly. A very light breeze was blowing, a gentle whisper of the coming dawn. "I dreamed of a night in Pompeii, not too long ago. Do you remember?"
She closed her eyes and the corners of her mouth turned up into the slightest of smiles.
I'll never forget it.
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