Disclaimer: Characters from the television show Xena: Warrior Princess are not owned by me, to my regret. This is written purely for enjoyment with no thought to monetary gain. There are women in love (eventually as Gabrielle is a bit miffed) and if that is illegal for you or where you live, move on or simply move.
Post FIN, I guess, though I have kept specific references to a minimum.
Mail is always answered and appreciated at Kamouraskan@yahoo.com
My website is at dreamcatching.netfirms.com/kam/index.htm
Thanks for corrections and encouragement to the members of the Bardic Circle and Tavern Wall, especially Extra, Jaden, Dawn, JLynn, Jordon Falconer, and Sue. More thanks to Claudia, Morgane, and for rereading this countless times, Abardreader. And my thanks as always, to the great Mary Morgan.
A comment about feeding the bards and once it’s over, I promise not to interrupt again.
This story was begun over six years ago when I was sitting in a balcony of the Coliseum, looking up towards the Palatine. I had hoped to write it with my partner, as we’d just finished what I think is a great story, The Last Conqueror. But the feedback had been almost non-existent and for several other reasons, she decided to forego any more adventures into the Xenaverse. I had the story completely plotted out, so I began writing it on my own. Once again, as each section was posted, there was little response, and after several chapters, I gave it up.
Now I know that writers should write for themselves, but writing is one thing. Posting it, sending it out into cyberspace and then not hearing a word is another thing entirely. It’s like throwing your baby into a well. Now I hate people that leave stories unfinished, and a few special people pushed on this guilty conscience and got me to rewrite and complete it.
My point is that we writers are not that important. More important are the people who man the websites, the people who beta and most important of all, more than they might ever think, are the people who take the time to comment and encourage the writers. So, the next time you read a piece that you liked or touched you, become an important person. Feed the bards.
When In Rome
The slave’s corpse lay where it had tumbled, under brush on the lush green hillside, well hidden from intense sunshine and any human eye. She had been negligently tossed there from a horse and died alone; victim of a flogging and brutal rape. Around the still remains, insects buzzed and birds sang, all innocent that their vigour framed a lifeless carcass. Nature did not hold the dead in their midst in awed respect; it welcomed it. A few crawling insects began to stir in the foliage, drawn by the lingering warmth of the body, and the scent of blood. Only the light breeze could not reach under the bracken to disturb the deceased.
But then an unseeable presence stilled some of the cries. The long dark hair of the slave stirred, and something seemed to trace the encrusted blood that marked the whip wounds on her back.
Then it was gone.
And then the cadaver moved.
Several birds called out a shrill alarm and the hill was frozen in their frightened silence. The former corpse rolled over, then muttered quiet, but fluent curses as the injured muscles were stretched so that she could drag herself even deeper into the cover of the bush.
Accomplishing that, she hauled herself to her feet, clenching her teeth against the pain and scanned above the trees for some sign of where she was. A pillar and the shattered roof of the house on the hill were only barely visible. But that was enough. Her nearly bloodless face became even more pallid. ‘The Golden House,’ she thought. ‘Oh, Gods. I‘m right in the centre of Rome again.’ But the fear quickly left her face and posture, and she declared quietly to the empty air as she carefully lowered herself to the shelter of the foliage, “it… doesn’t matter. It never has, you hear me? No matter what you do, I won’t forget my promise. I’ll NEVER join you and I’ll never forget her.”
Not very far away, in the great House of the Vestals, another woman was dying. Unlike the slave, she would not die alone. As she lay perspiring, gasping out her last uneven breaths, she was being attended by the entire household of the great temple. With the exception, of course, of those tending the hearth that represented the heart of Rome. No cataclysm could prevent that duty from being performed. And cataclysm this death might be. Even as they bathed her body with cool cloths, the novices would occasionally glance upwards to their head priestess, the Virgo Vestalis Maxima, afraid to see their own fears reflected in her eyes.
All knew that the death of this woman, the death of one who was a symbol of the spiritual life of Rome, could mean that their own lives might be forfeit. Once before, the death by lightning of a Vestal Virgin had been of such import, that a committee of the highest powers was formed to investigate what had obviously been the wrath of the gods. Despite the enormous regard for which the Vestals were held, they were women, and naturally the committee concluded that it was the fault of the Vestals themselves. It was decided that the priestess killed by lightning had been punished by breaking her vow of chastity. In the ordeal that followed, other vestals were also convicted of having broken these vows and the Roman Senate was called in special session to read the holy Books of the Sybalines, which advised a simple remedy.
Two couples, one Greek and one of Gaul, were buried alive.
For that reason, no one outside the Temple had been told of the illness that had struck the girl. It was most likely a contagion caught during a recent visit the young woman had made to the docks. Sacrifices of wine and cheese and prayers had been made hourly, yet she continued to grow weaker, until now all waited in apprehension for the end. The Pontifical College, which represented and oversaw all the Temples, would have to be notified, and this was a duty the Virgo Vestalis Maxima was dreading.
As she prayed, much like the birds on the nearby hillside, she became aware of a presence, and directed her chants towards it. This seemed to have no positive effect, and there was an awful silence after the last breath was drawn. The Maxima hung her head low, allowing the stress of the past days to show, and gave one more prayer for the soul of the bright girl who had been raised by her and her sisters.
Regretfully, she gave a nod to have the face covered. She had known Numai from when she had been brought to the temple at the age of six by her once wealthy family. The Maxima had taught and guided her throughout her training to become one of the cherished six vestals. The girl had even been named after the founder of the Vestal order, Numa, and brought there to receive the recognition and education her parents could no longer afford. It was a tragedy in so many ways…
But as the sheet covered the young face, there was a sudden explosion of coughing. Astonished, barely daring to hope, they raised the sheet to see the sweat coated face now wide-eyed and gasping for air. The Maxima took the girl in her arms as the others fell to their knees. The breathing became stronger as did the chants for the miracle that had occurred before them. So great was the relief, that only the Maxima heard the garbled words that the girl spoke, and noticed the astonishment as Numai stared at her hands and arms.
Only the Maxima heard whispers from the still lingering presence, that instructed her as to what must now be done. She immediately ordered the rest of the Vestals to leave and for strong sleeping draughts to be brought. The draughts were accepted without struggle and soon the girl fell exhausted into natural sleep.
Now the Maxima was left with yet another dangerous and more puzzling problem. She could not believe that an evil spirit would have been able to enter the sacred confines of the Temple, and so she would follow the whispered instructions she had been given. For the sake of the Temple she would have to pretend nothing was wrong and hope that when the girl awoke, she would be accepted as the same girl they had all known. But she had spoken fluently in Greek, a language that Numai could barely write. As with all of the senior teachers, the Maxima spoke and understood it well and was quite sure the girl had asked why she was young. And she was also sure that Numai had been brown eyed, though the startled eyes of the now sleeping girl were green.
Back on the hillside, the other resuscitated corpse was not quite alone, nor asleep. She was nervous and waiting; two things she hated more than almost anything else. Almost as much as what or whom she was waiting for.
Her self-directed anger quickly found a foil. “Listen up, cat. Let’s get this straight. I’m sharing these fish only so I can have at least one honest conversation before things get out of my control again. And that should give you an idea about how much she changed my life. Before her, we wouldn’t be talking. You’d already be barbequed.”
The wild tabby looked blandly up, indicting it wasn’t impressed by the honour.
Had anyone been searching the hillside, they would have found few clues that anyone was concealed in the scrub wood. But the former slave had little choice; her injured condition forced her to stay hidden on the hillside until she healed. It was a nervous cure though; shadowed always by the knowledge that it was only the hill that protected her from what lay at the base of the opposite slope: The ‘Navel of the Empire’, and the Roman Forum. As always there was the knowledge that soon she would once again be what she most despised; a pawn in play.
She continued to quietly address the cat. “Okay, where was I? Oh yeah. Japa and dead. Again. A stupid, useless death. The first of many. Even she wouldn’t be able to come up with all the words to describe how stupid. But it all seemed to make sense then. I thought that being without her would be both part of the punishment and what was best for her. I convinced myself, I would be able to stick with her as best I could until maybe, just maybe, we both could be together… properly, some day. You know?”
The cat seemed to shrug.
“Okay, so I was fooling myself and I probably deserved to have that bastard take me away from her. But this rebirthing got old a long time ago. The age isn’t always the same, the eyes aren’t always blue, and occasionally I‘m not a woman. But the bodies are always big, dark and fit. Ready for battle.” The tabby batted the rendered skull of the fish the woman had caught in the ruins of one of Nero’s ponds and looked up for more. Xena groused at it. “If you’re not going to eat that part, I will. The head is good for you, you stupid cat. And knowing Nero, it was probably imported.”
In another of her too many lives she had been a slave of Nero’s, before being crucified once again, along with the Christians who were blamed for the destruction of Rome by fire. Before that, there had been the slave revolt with Spartacus; before that… “There’s always an alternative. I’m handed the choice of being with the winner or the obvious loser, but the price of winning is always just a bit too high.” And despite all the lives she had led and lost, a moment between the two of them, so long ago, was in her mind instantly. ‘Promise me,’ she’d pleaded, no, demanded. ‘If something happens to me, you will not become a monster.’
She closed her eyes at the clarity of the vision and the pain it engendered. When she opened them, the pain was still present but she focussed again on the wild cat. “So when I keep the promise I made to her, I usually end up nailed to a cross. Think someone is trying to tell me something, cat?” she asked rhetorically.
“And this time it looks like I’m supposed to avenge someone. This time the previous occupant was flogged AND raped. And even a handy clue to identify who did it.” She looked at the bejewelled Roman pin representing a winged Victory that had been clutched in her hand when she’d awoken. “Just makes you want to say, how clever,” she muttered caustically. She knew that few Romans wore any jewellery; it would be easy to trace the owner. She let the pin/clue slip from her fingers and fall to the ground without any ceremony, though with an apology to the woman whose battered body she now wore.
She realised she had finally passed the point where she cared about vengeance for herself, much less those whose lives she had entered. For some time she had stumbled from life to life with little holding any meaning to her. Anaesthetised in order to survive, repressing guilt and regret as well as pain and fear. “So what happens when we refuse to play? What’s next on the schedule? Another crucifixion, another pointless, agonising death if I fight back? So don’t complain to me about the quality of the free food, cat.”
The cat ignored her but grudgingly accepted another piece of the raw fish.
Inside the House of the Vestals, the girl woke, confused and thirsty. Her head cleared rapidly as she became aware of that sensation. Thirst, the fogginess after sleeping, these were not the sensations of death. She raised her hand and again marvelled at its rosy colour and lack of liver spots, the clarity of her vision. She was about to clear her throat when a shadow in the corner of the room swooped down on her. Though the room was dark, she was able to make out the form of a middle-aged woman, and the glint of the knife she carried in one hand.
Again, she tried to swallow.
“You have nothing to fear from me,” the woman whispered in Latin, “if we have nothing to fear from you.”
The girl directed her eyes to the knife, but the woman did not lower it.
“I am alive then?” she asked in Greek.
Though the words themselves frightened the Maxima, the tone of wonder they were spoken with, dispelled it. She nodded and sat down carefully by the girl.
Though she had instructed all that she would be nursing the girl alone, she looked to the door before asking her question. “What is your name?”
“Gabrielle,” the girl wearing Numai’s body replied.
“Do you know where you are, have you any memories of this place or of me?”
There was a small shake of the head as the girl replied, “I’ve never seen you before as far as I know.”
At that, the Maxima closed her eyes in prayer for the loss of Numai.
Sensing her pain, the girl reached up to hold the Maxima’s hand gently in a gesture of comfort. “I’m sorry. Have I taken someone’s… place?”
The Maxima did not answer for a moment. “The girl was very ill, and she… died.” And observed how this information seemed to assuage some of the tension she’d seen in the girl. She considered this for a moment, looking at the soft hand on hers and then at her knife, before lowering it.
“I want you to know that you are not being exorcised because I believe that this house is protected by our Goddess. That whatever spirit or God has brought you here could only be for the good. But I still must have an answer to my question. Who are you, and how did you come to be in this poor girl’s body?”
The green eyes stared at the Maxima with some curiosity. “You’re asking the wrong person. I don’t know anything.” She stopped and with what the older woman could sense was a natural impulse, turned the conversation about. “You’re taking this all very calmly. In fact, better than me.”
The Maxima answered sternly, “I have my faith in my Goddess. But I am asking the questions.”
“I told you, I just woke up here. But I envy you your faith. I wish… I envy you. I have only… only my pain. I thought I was finally finding peace in an afterlife, and now…”
“You aren’t 16 seasons old, are you?”
Gabrielle finally smiled. “No. Haven’t been for quite a while.” She took in a deep breath and marvelled at the sensation of air once again in her lungs. Cautiously at first, almost disbelieving the ease with which her limbs worked, she rolled onto her side to better look about the room. “I don’t suppose you could tell me what year it is, at least in a way I‘d know how long I’ve been… gone, I guess is the word.”
“So you are a dead soul, returned?” The Maxima swallowed, but seemed relieved by the almost shy nod.
“You are, were, Greek? Then you would know the works of Homer, when they were written?”
Gabrielle nodded again, but with a faint grin. “Yes, I have a pretty good idea of that.”
“It is about nine hundred years since that time.”
“Years? As in four seasons a year? It couldn’t have…” The girl fell back with a thump. “Nine hundred years!!” The concept hit her like a wall. So much time passed, so much time alone. The Maxima wondered if the measurement was the difficulty.
“That is, as we determine time, by the Julian Calendar…”
A face from the past came to Gabrielle along with a name. “Please don’t tell me it’s named after Julius…”
“The Gaius Caesar, Yes.”
“They made him a God?” The girl snorted. “Xena would love to hear that. But at least it means that he’s dead.”
The girl blinked, as though seeing, feeling something again, and yet for the first time. “Xena!” she breathed. “How could I have…?” She fought her roiling emotions and shook her head to clear it. She gave the older woman a bitter grin. “Remember that name. I think you’ll be hearing it soon enough. Or at least I will. I’d be willing to gamble anything that’s why I’m here.” She lay back again and stared at the ceiling. “Bad enough all of my lifetime was screwed around with, now they’re doing it with my death? Damn them AND her!”
The normally placid face of the Maxima showed her confusion. “Who do you mean? Is this Xena dangerous? Do you hate this woman?”
There was another bitter laugh. “Dangerous? In more ways than you could count. And as for how I feel about her, somehow… I’d forgotten.” The girl closed her eyes in remembered pain. “She made a choice. And it wasn’t me.” Tear-filled eyes opened, but they seemed to be staring somewhere far away. “I searched for her for so long after she left me, searched in so many places, right up until… But somehow, I’d finally found peace. Now, nine hundred years later, it starts again? What does it take to end this?”
“Why did she hate Caesar?”
At this, the girl chortled. “Have you got time for a long story? And that’s not to say I was a big fan either.”
The Maxima became more puzzled, if that was possible. “How would you have met him? He was martyred only two hundred years ago.”
Gabrielle stared. “But you said Homer wrote nine hundred years ago. You do mean Homer, as in the Iliad, right?” The Maxima nodded. “And Julius Caesar, tried to become Emperor of Rome but Brutus and the others…”
“Murdered him. Over two centuries ago. You could not possibly have known them all. Unless you have lived many lives in many eras?”
The green eyes somehow became darker. “No. I lived my life in one straight line. It’s time that’s skipping around.”
The Maxima recognised her cue. “Then perhaps this is the time I should tell you of a message I was given for you.”
Another bright morning on the hillside, and another day of scavenging. The former slave was quiet while the blue eyes stared into a point of the sky. For the first time the self-mocking tone was absent, and the stoic facade shook slightly.
“I know you don’t want to hear this, Gabrielle, but I think I’m about done on both sides now. I can’t keep doing this. Not alone. Not without you. It just goes on and on and I don’t see… love… breaking this cycle. Even when I do figure out the game, that bastard just twists Fate’s strands, and I start all over again. Would you recognise your warrior now? Scared to take a step, just because I’ll find myself back where I started? Or worse.”
There was a meow and the tabby appeared out of the brush to look inquiringly at the food stores. A smile appeared on the former slave’s face, and she welcomed the animal and the diversion it provided. “Hey there! At least I know what you’re here for. “ She reached out to caress the animal who bore the attention for a moment in easy grace. “Gotta shake off the self-pity, cat. We’re all pawns of the Gods, right? I just have a more personal relationship with one of them. I don’t suppose you’d know what his plan is. You’d think he’d be running out of patience or at least finally getting bored.”
She warily stretched her back, flexing the shoulder muscles, satisfied that they were mending, and cautiously lay down on the bracken bed she’d fashioned. Even in the shade it was quite warm and she wiped some sweat from her forehead before closing her eyes. “I should be able to take a walk around tomorrow. I can still see the top of the Tabularium from here, so I’m guessing Rome is still mostly the way I remember it. From the ruins of Nero’s house, I’d guess it’s been about a hundred years since I was last here, maybe more. If I could just slip around the Forum, get behind the Palatine, I’d be right alongside the Tiber. Grab me a boat and get the Hades out of here. But ...” She opened her eyes and looked beyond her shelter, “that would be too easy, right? More likely, if I stick my nose further than these bushes, it’s going to be chopped off. Or time will take another twist, and I‘ll be back here. Or somewhere a lot worse. Any suggestions, Cat?” The cat had found a sunbeam to lie in and didn’t deign to answer.
“I keep thinking that there has got to be some point to all this. Some end game here. That eventually I’ll see what the damn plan is. I thought at first it was just leading up to Caesar again, but that was just a feint. Then the rebellion with Spartacus looked like something might really change. But I threw in with him and it still made no difference. What if there isn’t a point, and this is just my Fate? Alone….” Once more she shook her head as though to cast out the thoughts, and addressed the cat again.
“I could swim across Nero’s lake, you say? Good plan. Good warmup for sore muscles, and once I’m on the other side I might be able to sneak around the Palatine to the Tiber. Though I admit, I was almost hoping you’d suggest a short walk past the Tomb. Just so I could take a moment to spit on the steps where they put Julie. But maybe next time.” Xena laughed but there was no humour in it. The midday heat was taking its toll and she yawned and closed her eyes. “I‘m sure there will be a next time.”
Once her breathing was even, the cat rose, but froze for a moment when a word passed through the sleeping slave’s lips. “…Gabrielle…”
There was nothing more. Satisfied, the tabby slipped stealthily away through the brush. Once it was a fair distance away, it began to shimmer and its image grew faint. But before it completely vanished, a voice said with some amusement, “All this time, and still waiting for the annoying blonde. But I wouldn’t worry. You’ll see Gabrielle. Not the Gabrielle you might remember, but we do what we can…”
A final chuckle faded with the cat.
To be continued...
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