SEVEN DAYS IN POMPEII
Xena kicked open the door to Sappho's room.
"SAPPHO! GET UP!"
The poet jumped so high, she almost fell out of the bed. She did manage to send both lyre and covers tumbling to the floor.
"By the gods, Xena, what is your problem?" the poet said, gasping for breath. She looked around the room and knitted her eyebrows. "How the Hades did I get in here?"
"I put you here. Now, I'm taking you out!" Two long strides and Xena was pulling the poet out of the bed by a handful of toga. She lifted the Tenth Muse off the mattress and shoved her toward the bard.
"Let’s go." Two more long strides and Xena was out of the room, leaving a speechless poet behind.
She twisted around in Gabrielle's arms. "What? Did she wake up with Echidna this morning? Talk about wrong side of the bed -- geez!" Sappho stared at Gabrielle, waiting for an explanation.
Gabrielle looked just as worried and panicked as Xena.
"Gabrielle, what's going on?"
The bard started moving Sappho toward the door.
"Xena thinks the volcano is going to erupt."
Sappho stopped dead in her tracks and twirled around to stare at her friend in disbelief.
"So do I," Gabrielle said, staring right back at her, her expression one of deadly seriousness.
Sappho needed less than a heartbeat to decide.
"Then let's get the Hades out of here."
Xena marched into the main ceremonial chamber, not worrying about making noise, not bothering to step over couples. She poked as many as she could, trying to stir them into consciousness.
"EVERYONE UP! WAKE UP! LET'S GO! WAKE UP!"
The disruption started a wave of movement across the floor as bodies began to disentangle and lift their heads, searching for the cause of all the commotion.
Xena strode through the room, clapping her hands and trying to make as much noise as possible. She whistled between two fingers -- a noise that would have summoned Argo to her side from miles away. It had the satisfying effect of jolting the remainder of the room abruptly awake.
"Augghh! What's going on?" Vettii said, grasping his head between his hands. "Stop that noise! Are you trying to kill us?"
"If ya don't get up, you'll be as good as dead," Xena said as she stood over the Vettii and Phaon. The beautiful woman took one look at the seriousness of the warrior's face and rose up in alarm.
"Xena, what's wrong?" she asked as she pushed Vettii to the side so she could get up.
"We have to get out of here," Xena replied and then stepped away to address the room. "WE HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE!"
Mumurs of protest and question started filtering through the crowd.
Phaon stood and got the warrior's attention by grabbing her arm.
"Xena, what's going on?"
Xena pulled away, ignoring the question, and continued to walk through the room.
At that moment, Sappho and Gabrielle entered the chamber. The poet ran over to Phaon and turned her around.
"Xena thinks that Vesuvius is going to explode," Sappho told her.
Vettii jumped up from the couch, hearing the comment. "WHAT! That's ridiculous!" He ran after Xena. "You woke us up for this? That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard!"
Xena whirled around and glared at the nobleman. "Vettii, that volcano is getting ready to erupt. I can feel it coming."
Vettii snorted. "You can FEEL it coming? What are you, a prophet as well as a Warrior Princess?"
Xena turned away in anger, but Vettii grabbed her arm.
"Xena, that volcano has been dormant for hundreds of years."
Xena looked down at her arm, snarling at the hand grabbing it. Vettii released his grip quickly and took a step back.
The warrior stared at him, a deadly, cold seriousness unmistakable in her eyes. "And I'm telling you that that volcano is about to blow its top. Now you can come with me if you want to live. Or you can stay here and die. It's up to you."
They glared at each other, eye to eye, but Vettii could not stare down the warrior. He looked away and turned to the room.
"XENA THINKS THAT VESUVIUS IS GOING TO BLOW!" He announced. A chorus of chuckles filled the room. "SHE'S TRYING TO SAVE US." More laughter.
He turned to Xena. "So, where would you go, Warrior Princess?"
"Ya got a boat?"
"Of course I have a boat."
"Where is it docked?"
"At the Porta Stabia, on the Sarno River, of course."
"Well, it's mine now," Xena stated and pushed past the nobleman, ignoring the chuckles.
"What do you mean, yours? Are you presuming that you can take my boat?"
"If you stay here, you won't be needing it."
Xena looked around the room, at all the faces watching her, some with expressions of amusement, others etched with concern.
"I'M GOING TO THE PORTA STABIA AND I’M TAKING VETTII'S BOAT. IF YOU WANT TO LIVE, YOU'LL COME WITH ME," Xena announced and looked at Vettii.
He flipped his hand at the warrior. "Go ahead, take it. But you'll be getting calluses on your hands for nothing."
"I already have calluses on my hands." She walked over to Phaon and stood before the beautiful woman. "Are you coming?"
Phaon studied Xena, gauging everything she had heard about the warrior and what she had learned herself so far. She glanced at Sappho; the poet was as serious as she had ever seen her.
Sappho took a step forward and touched her shoulder. "Phaon, please. Come with me."
"Do you believe Xena?" Phaon asked.
Sappho nodded emphatically. "I trust Xena with my life and more."
Then Phaon regarded Gabrielle. No question there.
She was free, Phaon realized suddenly, she could go where she wished.
"All right. I'm coming with you."
Xena counted heads and sighed. It was a small group; 10 altogether including themselves. She turned around and faced the road into Pompeii. So many people in the city. What was she going to do?
"You can't save them all," Gabrielle said. They were standing outside the Villa of Mysteries, waiting for the last of those who were willing to leave to join them.
Xena turned to the bard, dread clear in her eyes. "I'm not even sure I can save us." She faced the group assembling behind them.
"All right, listen up." The mumblings ceased. "I don't know how long we have, but I know one thing for sure: We have to get far away from here as quickly as possible. Phaon, I want you to lead these people. Take the fastest route through the city, go directly to the Sarno River port. Can you do that?"
Phaon nodded solemnly. "Aren't you coming with us?"
Xena shook her head. "I have to go to Vettii's house."
"No buts. Take these people directly to the port. Get Vettii's boat ready. I'll meet you there. I won't be long."
Phaon looked at Sappho. "You're coming with me, aren't you?"
Sappho turned to Xena for permission. The warrior gave a brief nod and then faced Gabrielle. "You're with me."
"I certainly hope you didn't expect me to be anywhere else," the bard replied.
Her remark earned a brief grin from the grim warrior.
Xena stepped to the side of the road and waved the group along. "All right, get moving. Remember, straight to the dock and get on the boat. As soon as I get there, we're leaving. I won't wait for anyone."
Xena and Gabrielle watched solemnly as the group, led by Sappho and Phaon, started walking toward the city. At first, their steps were slow. Then, a series of dog howls echoing through the empty streets caused the majority of them to jump in alarm and they began to run.
"Did you feel that?" Xena asked, looking in the direction of Vesuvius.
The bard shook her head. "Feel what?"
"A slight tremor -- underneath our feet." Xena's face held a renewed sense of urgency. "C'mon. Let's get Argo and get to the boat!"
The tremor Gabrielle felt, however, was not under her feet. It was the tremble of her heart as a dark foreboding invaded her bones. Xena took off for the Porta Marina, the entrance into the city, with the bard right on her heels.
When Xena arrived at the stable, Argo was in a state of panic. The mare had kicked down her stall and was pacing the length of the entryway, trying to find a way through the closed stable door. When the warrior opened the latch, Argo nearly ran her down.
"Easy, girl!" Xena put up her hands, trying to calm the mare. The horse backed away from the stable door, rearing up on hind legs, her eyes wild with fear. It took a moment for the horse to recognize the human at the entrance, but Xena's voice and her calm tone eventually won over. Argo came to her senses and Xena was able to grab the reins.
By the time the warrior had pulled the clearly agitated mare around to the front of the house, Gabrielle was outside with her scroll bag and staff in hand. With some difficulty, the bard tied the bag to the saddle and they mounted. Gabrielle barely had time to wrap an arm around the warrior’s waist when the horse took off, ignoring all Pompeian rules of traffic. As the mare’s hooves kicked up dirt from the street, they rounded the corner of Via Stabia, galloping for the dock.
The market area was more difficult. Although it was Sunday and the day after a festival, there were still plenty of Pompeians traversing the streets. Xena had to slow down the mare and weave her way through. Several times the warrior had to soothe her skittish horse; both the crowd and the sense of danger were almost too overwhelming.
When Argo nearly kicked a passerby, Gabrielle became concerned.
"Xena maybe we ought to get down?" the bard suggested.
"No, we just have to get through this intersection and we should be all right."
It was the sound of her name being called that caught Gabrielle's attention. She looked through the crowd and spied Alessandro waving at her from his usual spot under the awning.
"By the gods, Xena! Alessandro!"
Before the warrior could do anything about it, Gabrielle was off the horse and running in the direction of the boy.
"Gabrielle! Wait!" Xena called out in vain. The bard was already lost in the crowd. Xena pulled on the reins, trying to get Argo to follow, but the horse refused. Argo knew what direction she wanted to be going, and into the crowd was not it.
"Damn it!" Xena jumped down and had to forcibly pull Argo along.
"Hi, Gabrielle!" Alessandro said, smiling happily at his friend. "Where you guys going so fast?"
Gabrielle ran up to the boy and pulled him to his feet.
"Alessandro! Where is your sister?"
"She's home. Whatsa matter?"
"Home? You have a mother and father, right?"
"Yeah, sure I have a mother and father. What's this all about?"
Gabrielle turned the boy around by the shoulders and pushed him forward. "Take me to them."
"You want me to take you to my house?"
Alessandro shrugged. "All right. But it's this way," the boy said, pointing with his thumb.
Gabrielle turned him to face the opposite direction and pushed him along. "Let's go!"
Xena managed to pull Argo through the crowd, finally getting to the awning where she had last seen Alessandro - just in time to see Gabrielle and the boy run around the corner onto another street.
"DAMN IT TO HADES!" Xena pulled Argo, but the horse was refusing to budge. She stared at her mare, first in anger, then in sympathy. Petting Argo's soft nose, Xena decided it was time she and her mare had a little talk.
"I know, girl. All you want to do get out of the city, right? But if Gabrielle is going that way," Xena said, pointing at the street, "then that's the way we're going. I won't be separated from her. You got that?"
Argo snorted and Xena mounted the saddle. It only took one click to send the mare trotting after the bard.
Alessandro came to a gate and pointed with a smile.
"Here's where I live!"
With a click of the latch, he threw open the gate and marched inside, proud to have the bard in tow. Hermia was playing in the garden. She looked up from her mud castle, squealing with delight when she spotted Gabrielle.
"Hermia! What are you doing!" a voice called out from inside the home. A few seconds later, a woman walked through the doorway with a baby in her arms. She frowned at the sight of her young daughter wrapped up in the arms of a perfect stranger.
"It's all right. I'm a friend," Gabrielle called out, returning the hug from the young girl. The bard smiled at the kindly woman, noting that she was very obviously in the late stages of pregnancy.
"Yeah, she's our friend!" Alessandro confirmed.
Their mother sighed with relief. She offered the bard a smile and shifted her child to the other hip. "Thank goodness. You never know these days, especially with these two."
Gabrielle chuckled and placed Hermia back down on the ground. "You have two very beautiful and very friendly children. Make that three."
"Don't I know it. And it's soon to be four," the mother answered with a grin as she patted her extended belly.
Gabrielle took a step forward, hand extended. "My name is Gabrielle."
"Hello, Gabrielle. My name is Lena." They shook hands and Lena took a moment to inspect Gabrielle's clothing, including the staff in her hands.
The bard saw a bit of nervousness return to the woman's eyes. "Listen. I'm a stranger to this city --"
"I could tell."
"Your children helped my friend and me with something very important. And we're very grateful to them for it."
Lena looked at the bard quizzically.
"But that's a story for another day. I hope." Gabrielle pulled a piece of hair from her mouth, blown there by a breeze. "The reason I'm here is because we're all in terrible danger."
Lena's eyebrows rose. "Danger? What kind of danger?"
Gabrielle paused for a moment, thinking. She had no doubt what kind of reaction she was going to get.
"Now, I know you don't know me, so what I'm going to tell you may sound ... unbelievable. But let me assure you, the danger is real."
"Gabrielle, what's going on?" Alessandro could see the concern in the eyes of the woman with hair the color of the sun. He could see she was serious, and though he barely knew her, he trusted her. "Just tell us."
Gabrielle swallowed. The best way to say something was to just say it, right?
"The volcano is going to erupt."
"What?" Lena exclaimed, chuckling. "Vesuvius?"
The bard nodded.
Lena looked down at her children. Hermia was playing with something in the dirt. Alessandro was studying the bard's face, but the boy was not laughing.
Alessandro took a step closer to Gabrielle. "Does Xena think Vesuvius is going to erupt?"
Gabrielle nodded. They stared at each other for a long moment before Lena interrupted.
"Who is Xena?"
"She's my friend," Gabrielle replied.
Alessandro had heard enough. "Mother, you better listen to them."
The boy pulled on his mother's dress. "I trust them, Mother."
"We don't even know them, Alessandro. They're strangers."
"No, they're not. They're our friends. Get Father. It's better to be safe than sorry, right?"
Lena looked down at her daughter, then at the baby in her arms, and then toward the sky, in the direction of the volcano. Mount Vesuvius stood in the distance, covered in the silvery-green of olive-groves and forest.
"Wait here. I'll get your father."
Lena cradled her baby and hurried back into her home. Seconds later, she returned to the garden followed by her husband. The man was a Roman soldier. By his uniform, the bard could tell he was not a high-ranking official, but he was not one of the infantry either; perhaps a tribune.
Gabrielle gulped. "Great," she mumbled under her breath.
"What's all this about Vesuvius?" the Roman demanded, marching out to meet the bard.
Lena placed a hand on her husband's shoulder and brought him to a halt. "This is my husband, Cicero. Cicero, this is Gabrielle."
"How do you do," Gabrielle said, extending her hand in greeting.
The soldier ignored it.
"How dare you come into my home and put my wife and children into a panic about the volcano!"
"Look, sir, I'm telling you, that volcano is about to explode and when it does, it's going to take the entire city with it. Now, I came here because I care about Alessandro and Hermia. All I want to do is take them ... and you ... to safety."
Cicero eyed her suspiciously, but his manner became a bit less hostile. "What makes you think that Vesuvius is going to erupt?"
"I have a friend. She's really good at reading the signs --"
"Oh, great!" Cicero exclaimed, throwing up his hands. "Are you talking about Portia? That crazy, old crone!"
Gabrielle laughed once. "No, my friend is no old crone. And I don't mean those kind of signs. She's a warrior ... a soldier just like you. She's really good at understanding her enemy and reading the signs of danger. I know you know what I'm talking about, right?"
Cicero became even less hostile, a little more convinced. "Go on."
"She's been seeing things all week. Wells going dry. Birds taking flight. No game in the forest. Have you noticed any of these things?"
Cicero nodded once and looked at his wife. Lena agreed. "There's barely a trickle in the fountain today."
"She's noticed that the animals have been acting strangely. Dogs howling, horses skittish. This morning, she saw a horse refusing to go into the city. If there's one thing she's taught me, it's that you should always trust your horse." Gabrielle studied the soldier's face for his reaction.
The man was almost there.
"Gabrielle?" Xena took that moment to step in through the open gate and into the garden. "Gabrielle! What do you think you're doing!" And then she saw Alessandro.
"Alessandro!" the warrior breathed a sign of relief. "Has she told you? Are you coming?"
The boy nodded enthusiastically. "Yes. Gabrielle's convinced my father. Right, Father?"
Alessandro turned to look up at his dad, but the soldier had drawn his sword. He pushed the lad behind him.
Xena lost her smile. Gabrielle turned around and took a surprised step backward.
"Is this your friend?" Cicero asked with a snarl. He pointed the sword, making a small circle with the tip. "I know who you are. I saw you in Rome ... at the Coliseum."
"No, wait," Gabrielle said in protest. "You don't understand."
Xena pulled her partner back by the shoulder and stepped in front of her. The Roman pointed his sword at her chin. Xena let him.
"You're Xena, the Warrior Princess."
"That's right. You got a problem with that?"
"You're an enemy of Rome."
Xena sneered. "That depends on how you look at it. Right now, I'm your best friend."
"Oh, yeah? How so?"
"I'm willing to save you and your family. We're taking a boat and getting out of here. I suggest you put aside our differences and come with us." She put her finger on the tip of the sword and attempted to gently push it away.
The soldier flipped the blade from Xena's hand and returned its threatening point to the warrior's sternum.
"The only place I'm going with you is back to Rome. In the name of Julius Caesar, I place you under arrest, Xena, Warrior Princess."
"Don't curse in front of children!" With a high pitched yell, Xena jumped and landed a solid front kick, sending the sword flying from Cicero's hand. The blade twirled upward, embedding itself into a thick tree limb directly overhead with a resounding twang. Cicero watched it vibrate for a moment before he realized that he was now unarmed.
"Get in the house!" He ordered as he gathered up his wife and children and pushed them toward the doorway.
"But, Father!" Alessandro shouted.
"I SAID GET IN THE HOUSE!"
"Wait!" Gabrielle cried. She tried to go after them, but Xena held her back with a firm grip. "Wait! You can't do this! You have to come with us!"
"YOU'D BE THE LAST PERSON ON EARTH THAT I'D TRUST WITH MY FAMILY!" the Roman soldier yelled as he shoved his family inside.
"No! Wait! You can't ..."
The bard's cries were cut off as Cicero slammed his front door closed. Gabrielle turned to her partner.
"Xena, you have to do something."
Xena shook her head. "Gabrielle, what can I do? I can't force them to come."
"Yes, you can."
"What can I do?"
"You can put the pinch on him."
Xena smiled sadly. "You know I can't do that."
Gabrielle shook her head from side to side, tears filling up her eyes. "Xena, we can't leave them." The realization that they were going to save very few people finally hit the sensitive bard. "All these people. An entire city. Alessandro, Hermia, that small baby ... what will happen to them?"
"They're in the hands of the Fates, Gabrielle. I'm sorry. If you weren't with me, maybe ..." Xena frowned. She could kill the father and save the rest. What’s one more death to atone for, she thought, then shook her head to chase the notion away. "We don't have time for this Gabrielle. There's nothing I can do about them now. But there is something I can do about us. C'mon. We tried. You tried. You did your best. Now we have to go. All right?"
Gabrielle nodded and let Xena pull her by the arm, away from the house and through the gate.
Xena mounted an impatiently waiting Argo and reached down, pulling the bard into place behind her on the saddle. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's waist. The bard looked back at the villa with tears spilling from her eyes as they galloped away.
Argo would not be denied now. Neither crowds nor traffic could stop the mare from galloping through the streets of Pompeii, traveling as quickly as the road would allow. Several times, pedestrians had to duck out of the way to avoid being trampled.
At this point, Xena did not care. Her only thoughts were to get herself and Gabrielle to the boat. She guided Argo around a group of laughing shoppers, disregarding their shouts of anger as the horse galloped past.
They rounded the corner of Via Stabia at top speed, almost running over a rag-covered old woman.
Portia twirled out of the way, stumbling back against a wall. She raised a fist and started to yell an obscenity when she recognized the backs of the retreating bard and warrior. The curse turned into a cackle.
"Run, warrior, run!" the old hag screamed. "There's no escape for the likes of you. Death will always be at your heels, just one step behind!"
Portia staggered out into the middle of the street, laughing and waving her fist at the retreating warrior until a group of Pompeians walked past, pushing her out of the way.
"Get out of our way, you smelly old woman!" a nobleman ordered.
"Watch who yer pushing!" the crone said, leering at the group. Then her eyes turned to Vesuvius, looming in the distance, and widened with fear.
"THE TIME IS AT HAND!" she yelled as she lifted her hands to the sky. "HAEPHASTUS' HAMMER IS ABOUT TO STRIKE! ARE YOU PREPARED TO DIE?"
"Oh, SHUT UP, you old cow!" the nobleman barked. The group turned their backs on the soothsayer, laughing at her as they walked away.
Portia watched as they casually strolled along, oblivious to her warning. She stood, hunched over in the middle of the street with tears streaming from her eyes.
"The gods punish those who turn their backs on destiny," she whispered, drawing her cloak around her as she faded into the shadows.
Xena leaned into Argo's stride as they passed into the shadow of Porta Stabia's arch. The warrior welcomed the strong smell of river water as they exited the city.
She pulled the mare to a trot and guided her along the path leading to the dock. The thud of hooves on dirt changed to the empty echo of wood as the path turned to wharf. Xena brought Argo to a halt and squinted into the sunlight. Although almost noon, the dock was empty. Obviously no one was planning to do any work the day after a festival. There weren't many vessels tied to the moorings. In fact, there were very few; and there were no merchant ships whatsoever.
"Where is the boat?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena searched the line of the dock until her eyes rested on a stretch of ships moored neatly in a row. There was a great deal of activity on one of them.
"Over there!" She maneuvered Argo south, along the wharf.
As they got closer, Xena noted that the boats tied to the moorings were sleek and long. Her heart sank in her chest.
"They're all racing boats," she mumbled, bringing Argo to a halt and helping Gabrielle from the saddle.
"That's good, right?" the bard asked, hopefully.
"Yeah, good for us because they're fast," Xena answered as she kicked her leg over the saddlehorn and jumped down. "Not so good for Argo."
Xena studied the long boats carefully. They were narrow and built for speed; no more than 10 rowers per side and a drummer at the head. She had no doubt that the vessel would cut through the water of the river and get them out to sea in no time. But the craft were meant to win races, not carry horses.
There was absolutely no place for Argo.
Xena held out her hand. "Give me your staff."
The bard whirled on her partner. "Xena, what are you going to do?"
The warrior didn't answer, just held out her hand. Gabrielle reluctantly handed over the staff and watched as Xena attached it to the saddle.
"Xena," Gabrielle said as her partner tightened down their belongings. "Maybe we could put her in one of the other boats and tow her with us."
The warrior shook her head. "She won't be able to keep her footing. She'll panic."
There was silence as Xena finished her task and then turned to face the bard.
Gabrielle was having none of it. "Xena, don't you even THINK about staying behind with her."
Xena chuckled. "Don't worry. I'm not going to do that. She'll be better off on her own. When there's a storm, let the horses run, right? She'll get to safety, even if we don't."
Gabrielle breathed a heavy sigh of relief and nodded solemnly.
Xena checked the saddle one last time, deciding at the last minute to toss a water bag to Gabrielle. She said a brief goodbye to her faithful mare, petted her nose and promised to meet up with her as soon as she could. That said, the warrior swatted the horse on the rump.
"Now get going! G'wan."
Argo hesitated before taking off, instinct for preservation battling with the desire to be with her master. She trotted backward and forward, undecided about which way to go.
"Get going, I said!"
There was no denying the command. Argo took off like a griffin out of Tartarus, heading west along the Sarno River toward the sea.
"C'mon," Xena said as she watched Argo gallop away. "Let's get the Hades out of here."
The small group was in the boat, waiting. The sky was as clear blue as they had ever seen it; the water as calm as glass. One of the men looked toward the volcano and studied it carefully. It might as well have been a painting, it was so serene.
"Is she sure about this?" he asked aloud. The group began to mumble.
Sappho sat on a bench, watching as the warrior and bard ran toward them. "If she says something's going to happen, then believe me, something's gonna happen."
The responding mumbles were not ones of agreement.
"Look at it this way," the poet said, turning in her seat. "The worst thing that will happen is we'll get a nice boat ride and a good workout today."
"Yeah, and half the city laughing at us when we get back."
"At least we'll be alive."
That shut everyone up.
"What's going on?" Gabrielle asked. She accepted Sappho's helping hand and stepped into the vessel.
"Oh, nothing. The natives are getting restless."
Gabrielle studied the group, one at each oar station. They stared back at her blankly as she looked them over.
"Lively bunch we got here," the bard mumbled. "Any of you know how to row a racing boat?"
All heads shook negatively.
"Great," Gabrielle said and blew a strand of hair away from her face.
"All right, what have we got here?" Xena stood on the dock, looking over the sleek boat. She frowned. 10 people, 20 stations. "We can fit more people," she said, stating the obvious.
"There's no one else here," Phaon answered.
Xena looked over her shoulder. The dock was empty. The only sound was the boats gently knocking against wood as they swayed at their moorings.
"Phaon, where are all the merchant vessels?" Xena asked.
The woman shrugged, so a merchant answered for her. "They moor out at sea. Sarno dock is for loading and unloading only."
Xena nodded once. "All right, then. Let's put out to sea and see if we can't get one of the merchant ships to listen to us. I'll sit in the lead. Gabrielle you sit right behind me. Follow my strokes and we should do just fine. Sappho, I want you at the drum."
"What tempo for rowing, Xena?"
Xena thought for a moment and then replied, "Start at half-heartbeat. We'll speed it up as we get used to it."
The poet nodded and picked up the mallets.
Xena reached down to untie the thick rope from its mooring post when her skin began to crawl. She could feel something coming. Something was coming and it was heading directly for them. She whirled around and stared in the direction of the mountain, her senses jolted to full alert.
"Xena?" the bard's shaky voice asked from behind her. "What is that?"
It was a low rumble, slowly building. Xena could feel the vibration under her feet, building steadily in intensity and moving quickly toward them like a herd of stampeding horses. A deafening groan from the very bowels of the earth filled their ears until it was all they could hear.
And then the ground heaved beneath Xena's feet, throwing her backward onto the wood of the dock. Her world was jerked violently away and she lost all sense of equilibrium. Try as she might, she could not stand, for it felt as though the ground had turned to liquid and was shifting beneath her in waves.
"It won't be a good day," the beggar said to his dog. "People with hangovers don't usually feel like giving money away."
He walked to his usual spot on Via Dell'Abbondanza and started to sit, wincing at the pain in his bad knees. The dog tugged on her leash and almost caused the beggar to fall down.
"Hey, easy now! You know it’s hard for me to sit!"
The dog yanked again, harder this time, and started to growl.
"What is your problem?"
Ceres started pulling on her leash frantically, yipping and twisting in her collar trying to get out.
"By the gods, Ceres, what is wrong with you!" He looked around the area for the source of the dog's agitation, but there was nothing unusual. "Whatsa matter? Is there a male dog around you're not in the mood for?"
The beggar smiled at his pet. The dog burst into a fit of barking.
"Well, that's just about enough of that!" the beggar said. He tied the dog's leash to a nearby post and then eased himself down toward the ground.
The dog's howling ceased abruptly. She stood at stiff attention, facing Mount Vesuvius.
And then the earth rocked underneath their feet. The dog crouched down and howled in fear. The beggar was thrown back against the stone wall, knocked unconscious, leaving a trail of blood as he slid down the wall to the dirt.
Lena and Cicero were arguing in the kitchen. Alessandro and Hermia sat in their chairs at the kitchen table, following the shouting with solemn faces.
They hated it when their parents argued. The baby in Lena's arms began to fuss and cry, so she left Cicero in the middle of a sentence to put the child into his crib.
The soldier waited silently and glared at the two children. Alessandro and Hermia looked briefly at each other but said nothing.
The argument picked up right where the couple had left off when Lena returned.
"Why would you even think of trusting an enemy of Rome?" Cicero finished.
"How do you know she was an enemy of Rome?"
"Because I saw her myself. She was a prisoner!"
"And what does that mean? I swear to Mars, Cicero, sometimes you are just so naive! She could have been trying to save Rome, for all you know!"
"Save Rome from what?"
"Don't be ridiculous!"
"Don't you be ridiculous!"
"Now, who's being ridiculous!"
"You are, that's who!"
"Um, Mother? Father?" Alessandro said, interrupting. "Um, what if the volcano explodes?"
"Alessandro, my son," Cicero said, kneeling down to face the boy at eye level, "there's as much chance of Vesuvius exploding as ..."
"You becoming a general?" Lena finished for him.
Hermia covered her mouth with her hands to hide a laugh.
At that moment, the ground seemed to lift below their feet. Then the most deafening sound that Alessandro had ever heard filled their ears and shook the house down to its foundation. Their home shuddered, increasing in intensity until the boy thought the walls were going to disintegrate. And then a violent jerk threw them to their right. They all crashed to the floor, unable to stand, and the house began to rock.
Dishes crashed all around them. Goblets flew out of their cupboards. Chairs fell over. The walls creaked and groaned, threatening to collapse.
"GET OUT OF THE KITCHEN!" Cicero yelled as he managed to get to his feet. He ran to his wife and helped her up. Alessandro was already up and helping Hermia. Together, they stumbled through the doorway of the kitchen into the garden, searching for a safe place to hide.
Xena managed to roll onto her knees and struggled to get to the boat, but the earth twisted again, throwing her brutally onto her back. The deafening rumble rattled her very bones.
"Xena!" Gabrielle screamed as she was thrown to the floor of the vessel. The boat rocked back and forth, rope creaking in protest as it strained against its ties to the dock. The bard felt Sappho stumble against her, so she reached out for her. They held tight as the boat was tossed about like a toy in the hands of the gods.
Julia Felix could hear only her own screams and the sound of shattering glass. She stumbled through the doorway into her bedroom followed by the two slaves, Labia Majora and Bougain Villae, who had been repairing her hair.
"We must go back to Rome! I should have listened to Xena at the festival!" she screamed and grabbed onto a slave as they were thrown against a wall. "Fetch all the valuables -- the silver and gold, the statues of Isis, everything you can carry. Quickly!" she shrieked at Labia Majora and fumbled for her jewelry box. The floor wrenched and sent the widow and her valuables tumbling to the floor.
"You fool!" the slave screamed. "Don't you see what's happening? We have no time to save your baubles! We have to get out of here!"
"You do as I say," Julia cried, "or I'll see that you are whipped!"
Then the ceiling screeched as a crack spread across it from one end to the other. They looked up and watched in horror as the ceiling split and crashed down upon them, silencing them all.
Up on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, a woman ran screaming out of her home toward a dry well; her husband right behind her. They huddled together and watched in horror as their home crumbled to the ground. And then the earth howled and cracked open beneath their feet, swallowing them whole.
Finally, the earth seemed to settle, though it still protested with muffled groans. Xena's heart was racing as she felt the ground become solid once again. She lifted herself slowly from the dock, breathing a sigh of relief when her eyes found the bard's.
The boat was still there, intact. Xena turned toward the city. Pompeii was still there, though she wasn't sure how intact. She could hear the screams filtering out from within.
"Xena, let's go!" the bard yelled.
"No, wait!" Xena held up a hand as she stood. "We can fit more people on the boat. Here they come."
Gabrielle lifted her gaze and watched as a wave of people ran screaming through the Porta Stabia.
"This way!" Xena yelled. "Hurry!"
Several men heard the shout and ran in their direction.
"Gabrielle, fill the seats," Xena ordered. "Get as many on board as possible, but let me know when we're full. We don't want to get too heavy."
The bard nodded her assent as the warrior helped the first of the Pompeians into the craft. A crowd began to form on the dock as people fought over possession of the other boats.
"Xena," Gabrielle said in a warning tone she watched the situation with concern.
The warrior was feeding her a steady stream of people, trying to reach for as many women and children as she could. Her efforts were turning into a scuffle as men began to fight for position on the boat.
"Get back!" Xena huffed and knocked a frenzied merchant to the side. "I said get back! We can only fit so many! Go to another boat!"
"Get out of my way!" a finely robed nobleman ordered. He swung his hand at the warrior, intending to land a vicious slap, only to find his wrist caught in an iron grip. Xena's fist filled his vision. The solid punch broke his nose, sending him to the ground.
The fierceness of the blow and the splattering of blood brought the crowd to a sudden halt.
"Anyone else want some?" Xena asked through clenched teeth. The crowd backed up warily.
"Xena, one more!" Gabrielle called.
The warrior nodded and drew her sword, pointing it at the crowd.
"You!" she said to a woman who was holding a young child. The woman smiled briefly and stepped forward. "The rest of you GET BACK!" Xena stood guard as Gabrielle helped the last passenger into the boat.
Then Xena heaved a mighty swing, cutting through the boat's mooring rope as though it were butter. She leveled the blade at the crowd of angry men as she backed toward the craft.
"This boat is full. Find another," she informed them with a growl.
The men surged forward hesitantly, trying to decide whether or not to take matters into their own hands.
And then the earth roared and the world turned upside down.
Xena was thrown forward, stumbling into the crowd. She fell into the people, sending the men tumbling to the dock like a set of bowling pins. Xena rolled helplessly as they were all tossed from side to side.
"I warned you, didn't I, you fools!" cried a hoarse voice above the rumble. Xena looked up to see a familiar figure standing just at the edge of the arch. It was the crazy soothsayer, Portia. She staggered forward, her hair standing out and twisted like Medusa's, as though full of snakes.
"The gods are punishing us, can't you see that?" she shrieked above the roar. "Did you really think there was any escape?"
Suddenly a fierce rumble shook the ground and Xena looked up to see the great wall of Pompeii buckle and lurch. It swayed in loping waves, groaning at the effort. Then a huge cracking sound filled the air and Xena watched in horror, unable to turn her eyes away as rocks tore from the wall and hurled through the air, tumbling down all around them.
Xena rolled along the dock, trying to avoid the downpour, feeling the bite of stone against her arms and legs.
She heard the bard screaming, as though from a distance. The warrior looked up to see the boat drifting away from the dock, tossing violently in the waves of a sea gone mad. Xena turned back to the wall. Portia was dead, her body crushed under the weight of the wall's debris, as were many others. Xena watched as the blood of dozens began to soak the earth.
Cicero thought the safest place for his family would be their garden, but the entire colonnade began to sway and the columns were threatening to fall. What was worse, a light rain of hot ash had started to fall. He could feel a tingling, burning sensation as the ash touched his exposed skin.
Hermia started to cry.
"INSIDE THE HOUSE!" he ordered. "INTO THE STORAGE ROOM."
He herded his family out of the peristyle just as a marble column split and crashed to the ground, destroying a bed of bushes and flowers.
It was snowing smoldering ash on Pompeii now. Hot dust filled the air and poured down over the city, covering everything with a layer of gray within seconds. The rain of ash was so thick that it became difficult to see. Gray blanketed the streets, covered the alleyways, filled every crease and crevice as it drifted down to the ground.
The falling debris coated the still body of the beggar with a light dusting of soot. As the intensity of the downpour increased, the body was covered as though by a soft white blanket, until finally, the beggar became invisible under a mound of smoldering ash.
The dog's strangled barking was lost amid the rumble of the earth and the screams of the Pompeians. The animal twisted and rolled, furiously trying to reach around and bite through her leash. The hot cinders that fell were burning her skin and there were raw, bare patches on her coat where she had gnawed at her own fur in her frenzy.
The dog convulsed on the ground, frantically trying to escape, sending splatters of ash and embers flying all around. Eventually, the downpour became too much, covering even the dog in a blanket of desperation.
Xena stood shakily, swiping at the deluge of soot and ash that was impairing her vision. Another shift of the earth almost sent her tumbling. She took a few steps back and then ran forward, launching herself from the dock, straining with her arms to reach for the boat as the earth groaned at her departure.
Her body hit the side of the vessel with a thud. A hand gripped hers and held on tight as the warrior's legs splashed into the churning river water. Then Gabrielle and Sappho were grabbing at her leathers and pulling her aboard.
Xena rolled into the craft, resting in its center, trying to catch her breath, choking instead when she swallowed a mouth full of soot. The vessel was rocking as it drifted away from the dock farther downstream.
"Are you all right?" Gabrielle asked, concern filling her voice.
"I'm fine," Xena's answer was brief and she pushed herself to her feet. "All right. Let's man the oars. Sappho, give us a steady beat. I want EVERYONE who can row at an oar. Follow my movements! Let's go!"
Xena eased herself into the lead position, at the right of the drummer, and waited until Gabrielle had seated herself directly behind.
She looked at the boatload of passengers. The vessel was almost too full. Every seat was taken: Children sat on the laps of their mothers, others were squatting in the center of the craft, balancing over the spine. Everyone was covered in a layer of gray soot. The warrior gritted her teeth and took a firm grip on the wooden oar, hoping they would have the strength to gain enough speed.
Xena hefted the oar up and out of its docked position, determined that they would make it out to the open sea. "All right. Follow me!"
Sappho began the beat. Xena took one deep breath and began to row. Her oar dipped into the river and she pulled. The others followed, hesitantly at first, then more confidently as all oars joined in sync and the boat began to glide across the water, gaining speed with every stroke.
"That's it!" Xena huffed out between breaths. "Stay with me! Don't forget to breath! Row! Row! Row for your lives!"
Xena watched the dock recede from view as they pulled away. The crushed bodies and broken wall disappeared into the landscape as the distance grew between them.
Her vision filled with the sight of Vesuvius as it rose into view over the horizon of the city. The mouth of the mountain was outlined in a blaze of red flame, and glowing rocks bubbled out below a gigantic plume of smoke and ash.
By the time they made the mouth of the river, the sky had turned an odd shade -- not gray like storm clouds, or black like night, but dirty-brown --
"Like death," Gabrielle thought, as she rowed. "The color of the grave."
And there was an odd scent to the wind, a strange stench like rotten eggs. They rowed into the open ocean, the wind picking up and filling their nostrils with the horrid smell. The bard's muscles were beginning to tire and she could tell by the pace of the rest of the oars that others were tiring as well.
"KEEP ROWING!" Xena ordered, as if smelling their fatigue in the air. "WE'RE NOT SAFE YET!"
The ocean water was in a state of chaos. The sea heaved in bizarre patterns -- not in waves, but as though it were a gigantic cauldron of boiling scum. The bow of the boat crashed against the uneven whitecaps, impeding their progress.
"PUT YOUR BACKS INTO IT! DON'T STOP!"
"Xena, which way?" Sappho yelled, pausing in her drumming. Oars stopped their motion the moment the beat died away.
Xena was going to yell at the poet, but decided it was as good a moment as any to take a short breather. She had to make sure that their efforts headed them in the right direction.
"The closest town is Stabiae," one of the passengers yelled as he pointed southwest.
They watched as a small number of racing boats crossed the mouth of the Sarno. Xena's eyes followed a line of three vessels as they rounded an outcrop of land and headed southwest, toward Stabiae. She could see a crowd of desperate people yelling to them from the shore.
The beach was filling with people, all trying to flee the city. Xena watched as they waved and screamed, frantic in their pleas, but there was nothing to be done. Their fates were sealed.
She studied the volcano instead, watching the rising plume of gray smoke as it stretched out across the sky. The cloud was definitely drifting southwest, starting a downward arc over Pompeii.
"No," Xena said as she sensed the direction of the wind. "No, the wind is blowing southwest. Stabiae is at risk. We're better off going in the opposite direction. What's across the bay?" she asked, turning in her seat to face the merchant.
"There's Neapolis --"
Xena shook her head. "Too close."
"There's Misenum. The naval base."
Gabrielle was not happy. "Xena, we can't go there."
Xena stared north, thinking. "There'll be help there. Food, shelter, supplies. They'll be better prepared for a disaster than a normal village. These people need that, Gabrielle. All right, that's enough rest. We're heading northwest to Misenum. NOW ROW!"
She nodded to the poet and Sappho picked up the beat. Soon all oars were dipping into the churning waters of the Bay of Naples, their progress slow and grueling as they cut a path through jagged whitecaps and an ocean of angry waves.
Even Xena's back was beginning to ache. She eased up on the rowing and looked out to land, trying to gauge the distance they had covered in the last hour or so.
Great billows of thick, gray smoke were still churning out of the mouth of Vesuvius. The eruption column ascended high into the air, broadening outward like a great mushroom. The wind spread it mostly southwest, fanning it out over the slopes of Vesuvius. It appeared bright in some spots and in others dark and thick, the clouds a deadly combination of cinders and earth.
It seemed that the worst of the billowing vapors were tumbling over Pompeii, covering the city in a sheet of gray. And, judging by how quickly the cloud was spreading, Stabiae would probably suffer the same fate.
Though ashes were still drifting in the air all around them, Xena knew they had chosen correctly.
"TAKE A REST!" She yelled out and stilled her oar. The rest of the contingent complied gratefully.
She looked behind her, to Gabrielle, and smiled briefly. "Pass around the water. Take small gulps. It's all we got."
Gabrielle nodded and took a small sip from the waterskin before handing it to her partner. Xena did the same and then passed it forward to Sappho.
The warrior looked over to Phaon, who was sitting at the station across from her. The woman nodded in the direction of the volcano.
"Is it over? Are we safe?"
Xena wiped her mouth with her hand and shook her head slowly. "I don't know. I've never been this close to an eruption before. By the gods, we were so close --"
"-- we could taste it," the bard finished for her.
"You said a mouthful," Sappho commented, leaning wearily against the drum. She looked at Phaon with concern. "Do you want to rest for a while. I can row, you can keep the beat."
Phaon chuckled, "I have as much rhythm as a drunken warrior -- no offense, Xena."
"I'll have us rowing around in circles. Best you keep the beat, Tenth Muse."
"All right then," Sappho said as she twirled a mallet in her hand. "But I'm so happy right now, I might play an Amazon Mambo!" She lifted the mallet and struck the drumskin to make her point.
A tremendous crack accompanied the beat, resounding through the depths of their souls as though the core of the earth had just split in two.
"By the gods! Look!" Gabrielle screamed out and pointed to Vesuvius.
They watched in horror as the top of the mountain seemed to lift away, as if in slow motion, rising upward into the sky. It broke into a million pieces, gaining momentum as it ascended, mixing blazing rocks and debris with thick, ash-laden smoke. The clouds turned black and angry red. Broad flames shot out in several places through the churning black smoke. The deadly column rose higher and higher in the air, spreading out for miles and miles across the sky before turning downward to rain death upon everything below.
The explosion left a gaping, spurting red hole -- a deep wound to the heart of the earth.
"Oh, my gods!" Xena muttered as she watched the ascending spread across the sky.
She heard the first splash of rock hit the water to her side of the boat and realized with a sinking sense of dread that they were not far enough away.
"TAKE COVER!" Xena yelled as more stones began to splatter around them. She put up her arms and felt the scratch of debris battering her skin.
Passengers dove for the center of the boat or tucked into their seats, trying as best as they could to shield themselves from the rain of black pumice stone.
Suddenly, they were not only in danger of being pummeled by the vast amounts of fragments that were falling from the sky, but the sea had also begun lift and stir, rocking the small vessel from side to side as the ocean shuddered in agitation.
A large, fiery stone whisked by Xena's head. She ducked just in time to hear it hit the water, hissing on impact. The battering of small light stone was changing quickly to cinders and black pieces of burning rock.
The warrior turned around and threw herself across her partner, covering Gabrielle's body with her own to protect her against the storm of stones that was falling all around them.
The bard tried to push against the warrior in protest, but a firm, muffled voice kept her still. "Keep down, Gabrielle!"
A soft grunt followed the command, then Gabrielle felt Xena's weight slump heavy on top of her.
Popidius was running through the streets of Pompeii. He was trying to find Ciro, having spent the first hours of the eruption huddled in a corner of the Grand Palestra. He felt the crack before he heard it; an ear- splitting sound that stopped him dead in his tracks. He knew it was Vesuvius, but he was afraid to look back -- to look the beast in the face.
Popidius turned slowly and brought his eyes to the sky in time to see a fiery boulder screeching directly for him. He held up his hands in a vain attempt to stop the inevitable.
The rain of fiery boulders quickly changed to a downpour of smaller pebbles and pumice. The shower of rock poured down upon the city, thudding and cracking into the already settling ash. It filled the streets like a black tide, rising up against walls, spilling over into windows, filling the rooms of homes and stores. The flat roofs were covered with it within seconds. It spilled over the tops and poured down into courtyards.
The Grand Theater filled up like a gigantic pan. Black and gray pumice covered the seats and stage in a cloak of rock. The seats disappeared. Walkways leveled out. The debris rose quickly against a wall in the rear of the theater, slowly covering the many poetic messages written throughout the years. The words written by a bard eventually disappeared under the hail of volcanic debris.
Inside the storeroom of their home, Alessandro and his family huddled in a corner, listing to the incessant thundering of rock against the roof and walls. They flinched with every crash, gripping each other tightly, praying that it would soon end.
Hermia screamed when the door to the enclosed room burst inward under a rush of volcanic rock. The dark matter flooded into the area, filling the space quickly. They scrambled to their feet and rushed atop barrels and crates, trying desperately to escape the deluge. The pumice tumbled in on them, rising up the walls, pushing everyone toward the ceiling. They scrambled and slipped on the stones, trying to stay above the black swell of stone -- just trying to stay alive.
Finally, the rain of debris lessened, trickling down to a few random splatters in the water, then stopped entirely. As the boat continued to rock, soft moans echoed in the quiet as the passengers began to relax their limbs and lift their heads.
Gabrielle heard a groan from the body covering her own.
"Xena!" she cried out hoarsely. "Xena!" She started to lift the dead weight up, relieved when she felt the warrior shift on her own. "Xena! Are you all right?"
Xena sat up and looked at the bard in a daze. She reached around to the back of her head, grimacing at her own touch. When she pulled her hand around, her fingers were slightly slicked with blood.
"Xena, you're bleeding!" Gabrielle jumped up and reached for her partner.
"No. No. I'm all right. It's nothing." The warrior shook her head to clear the cobwebs away. "We have to get rowing," she said to the bard, then looked around at the passengers on the boat. "Is everyone all right?"
"No," Sappho said as she unwrapped herself from Phaon's arms and pointed toward the center of the craft. "He's dead."
The merchant was lying in the center of the craft in a pool of blood, his head crushed by a pitted, black boulder, the stone visibly embedded in his skull.
Gabrielle looked away. Xena sighed, then chastised herself for being grateful that the rock had hit him instead of crashing through the hull of the vessel.
She stood up and worked her way over to the body.
"Give me a hand," she said to the man next to her.
"What are you going to do?"
"Throw him overboard."
The man started to protest, but the warrior's stern glare stopped him cold.
"You don't want to row his dead weight all the way to Misenum, do you?"
The man gulped and helped Xena toss the corpse over the side of the boat. They watched in silence as the body disappeared into the depths of the still churning ocean.
Xena wiped her hands on her skirt and looked up at the passengers. They stared back at her blankly.
"All right," she said, sighing. "We lost one. Let's make sure we don't lose any more. I can't imagine what Vesuvius might throw at us next, but I don't want to wait around here to find out."
Xena stepped her way carefully back to her position at the bow of the boat, managing to avoid the spill of blood. She sat down wearily and looked out across the bay.
There were other ships on water; merchant ships mostly and a few racing boats. Some were safe, their sails fully hoisted and fat with wind, racing in the same direction as they, for the safety of the naval base in Misenum. Others were sinking or adrift, their masts and sails engulfed in blazing infernos.
She was tired to the very core. Looking at her hands briefly, she noted the redness around her own calluses. If she was uncomfortable, the warrior could only imagine what the rest of this boatload of Pompeians must be feeling like. Xena turned to study her passengers for a moment, realizing she had no idea which ones were slaves and which ones were nobles. Frankly, she didn't give a Hades-damn if one were the Queen of Sheba.
"LET'S ROW!" she ordered and bent to the task.
Xena let her body keep the rhythm and tried to ignore the burning of her muscles by watching Vesuvius as it shifted into yet another phase of its eruption.
The widening of the volcano's vent seemed to change the dynamics of the flow. The tower of boiling gases and smoke was dissipating. No longer was there a tall column of ash hovering in the sky.
Instead, the volcano appeared to be bubbling, heaving out avalanches of glowing vomit that shot up but immediately fell back onto the upper slopes. Hot clouds of throbbing lava rolled down the side of the mountain, enveloping the towns beneath in a blanket of thick, black, gaseous death.
Paris staggered out of the Villa of Mysteries. He had survived the quakes and the deluge of burning rocks. The temple was, for the most part, intact. The gods had protected him and he thanked them profusely as he stumbled outside.
But why was it so dark? He could barely see as he felt his way around the wall of the garden. And why did his chest feel so heavy? Drawing in deep breaths, Paris suddenly felt as though his limbs had turned to lead. A goddess must be leaning on him, he thought, as he slumped against the wall, next to a short sentence written by a warrior, and slipped down to the ground.
"Time to sleep," he mumbled as he slid across the wall, smearing the writing and closed his eyes.
Menander led several noblemen along the Street of Souls. Thank Jupiter he had found a lantern, for if he had not, they would not be able to see at all. It was hard to believe that he was outside. He should have been squinting in the sun; instead his eyes were straining through a haze of brown muck as he tried to lead the small group somewhere safe.
They froze upon hearing a chorus of wails and moans. The cries were coming from a large mausoleum, just to their right. He peeked in, lantern first. Several people were there, crouched together against the far wall having sought shelter from the hail of rubble. But the group had gone suddenly quiet. The oil lamp cast a pale glow over the tomb.
Vettii sat huddled in a corner. Menander watched as his rival choked and gasped, then his eyes closed and he went silent. His fingers loosened and something fell from his hand onto the dirt floor.
Menander stared at the metal object. It was the Golden Statue of Ceres.
The lantern fell from his hand, crashing to the ground as Menander suddenly choked. The nobleman followed shortly after it, his body hitting the dirt with a heavy thud, dead before he even hit the ground.
Alessandro lifted his head from Hermia's shoulder and looked for the door. It was barely visible. The black rock had filled up the room almost to the ceiling, but somehow they had managed to stay on top.
He cleaned some debris from the hair of his crying sister and scanned the room for his parents.
His mother was lifting herself out of a near grave of rock. His father was helping her.
"Are you all right?" Cicero asked his son.
Alessandro sniffed and wiped his nose. "I think so."
Cicero nodded once and then pulled his wife the rest of the way out of the rubble. Her breathing was distressed so he had her lie down, not an easy thing to do considering her pregnancy. Lena shifted, trying to find a comfortable position on the rough, jagged stone. Cicero sat down wearily beside her and sighed.
"It sounds like it's stopped," the soldier said as he stared at the ceiling, half expecting the pummeling to start again. "Come here." He waved his hand at his children, beckoning them over.
Alessandro helped his sister crawl across the pumice. They lay down wearily between their mother and father. Hermia was still sobbing softly.
Cicero wiped at a black stripe of soot on Alessandro's cheek, helping to make an already dirty face even dirtier. The soldier smiled at his son.
"Now, that wasn't so bad, was it?"
Alessandro smiled back at his father, glad that they had stayed together. But the thought made him lose his smile. The baby, he thought. They had forgotten about the baby.
Almost at the same moment, Lena became hysterical as she came to the same realization.
"My baby! Oh, Sweet Juno, my baby! Oh, Cicero! The baby is still in the crib! We left Tiro in his crib!" She scrambled in the rock, trying to stand, but Cicero caught her in his arms and held her still, rocking the weeping woman gently.
"It's all right. We'll get out of here in a minute. Just stay still and calm down."
"Father, what is that smell?" Hermia said as she crinkled up her small nose.
Alessandro took a sniff and covered his mouth. His lungs felt like they were burning.
Hermia began to cry. "Father! My chest is burning! Make it stop!"
But Cicero was too concerned with his wife, who had suddenly slumped in his arms. He lay her down as she gasped for breath and suddenly realized that he was having difficulty breathing himself.
Alessandro watched his father lay his mother to the ground and then slump next to her. The last thing the woman did was raise her apron to her mouth in a vain attempt to keep the offending fumes at bay.
He realized that his sister was no longer crying. He looked over at her. Hermia’s face was tranquil and still as though she had fallen asleep. Sweet dreams, he thought and smiled sadly.
He felt very calm now. It was becoming difficult to breathe. The rotten-egg stench was in his throat, his nose, his eyes, everywhere.
What a waste, he thought. All those dinars. And he closed his eyes.
The shore was no longer visible to the naked eye. Oplontis, Herculaneum, Pompeii; they no longer existed in this world. A black cloud had descended, blown by the breath of Hades himself from the depths of Tartarus, covering all in eternal night.
"... darkness fell, not the ark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room. You could hear the shrieks of the women, the wailing of infants and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many sought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore."
-Pliny the Young, 79 A.D.
(as he witnessed the eruption from Misenum, August 24, 79 A.D.)
Xena pulled hard on her oar, feeling with great satisfaction the increased surge of speed as all oars dipped into the ocean in unison, propelling them onward. They were gaining momentum quickly -- almost too quickly.
Xena pulled again but gave her full attention to the bay, suddenly noticing a change in the water's condition. The whitecaps were gone; the water had gone still.
"By all the gods on Mount Olympus," Xena cursed under her breath as her oar stilled. The other passengers faltered in their rowing, bringing their oars stationary in confusion
"Xena, what's wrong?" Gabrielle asked, noticing that the warrior had stopped rowing, her own oar stilling in response.
Xena was looking out across the bay and had begun to stand.
"For the love of Zeus, are all the gods against us today?" the warrior yelled out in frustration. Xena had to steady herself as the vessel shifted in direction.
At first, they were still gliding towards Misenum, even though all the rowing had ceased, but a sudden shift in the water abruptly changed their direction. The ocean was dropping away, ebbing back to shore. They could feel the boat falling and being pulled in the opposite direction as the sea surged away.
This is it, Xena thought, there's nothing I can do.
The bard was on her feet. Xena reached back frantically and pulled Gabrielle forward into her arms.
Sappho dropped the mallets and grabbed onto the drum, trying to keep herself upright as the boat dropped, caught up in a horrific rip-tide.
"Xena, what's going on?" the poet screamed.
Xena held onto Gabrielle tightly, trying with all her might to keep them both in the boat.
"A huge swell ..." the warrior gasped out. "The beginnings of a tsunami."
The boat was moving fast now, being pulled backward by the swell as it sucked up the water in the bay. The other passengers began to scream as they grabbed onto whatever they could to keep themselves onboard.
"Maybe it'll roll right under us," Gabrielle yelled out hopefully.
And then they saw it. A wall of water rising upward out of the sea. It pulled them toward it even as it rushed at them, making the climbing wave appear to be racing for them twice as fast. Every second it grew; they dropped lower.
"WE'RE GOING TO DIE!" someone screamed out from the rear of the boat.
The boat began to tilt upward as they began to climb, pulled up the slope of the watery mountain by the force of the tide.
Sappho fell away from the drum. Phaon caught her in her arms and held her tight.
Screams began to rise above the tremendous roar that was growing in pitch as they climbed higher.
Xena looked up to the top of the rumbling swell as it towered over them, into the churning, translucent waters of the mountainous wave. The boat listed upward as the wave lifted them into its arms, and for a brief instance, Xena felt a moment of incredible calm.
She tightened her arms around Gabrielle and pulled her close. Placing a large hand on the back of a sun-gold head, she turned the bard away from the sight of the roaring wave. With eyes staring up and glittering with a reflection of the watery hand of Poseidon, Xena stood tall and prepared herself for the inevitable.
"Ares protect us," Xena whispered.
The boat reached the apex of its climb and the water turned against them. They flipped over, suspended for a moment in the air as oars and people began to fall away. And then the hand of Poseidon came crashing down.
ConclusionReturn to the Academy