Full Disclaimers in Chapter I: 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.
The Via Sacra was uncommon in every sense of the word. Once, it had been simply a valley path for herdsmen to lead their cattle to the grassy swamps at the base of the Palatine Hill. Now, a millennia later, the Palatine had become the traditional home of the Emperors for centuries, and the Via Sacra was simply the route to all of the earthly power of the entire known world.
The Flavian Amphitheatre had been built at its foot, and from there the route passed between more and more grandiose temples, before finally reaching the staggeringly beautiful precincts of the Roman Forum and Senate. No traveller could fail to be awe-struck by the sun blazing along the gleaming marble splendour.
Or at least until now.
Gabrielle was not in the mood to be impressed with The Centre of the Universe as she walked the short distance from the House of the Vestals to the Sacred Way. The Vestals wanted for nothing and Gabrielle had spent her nights adapting to being alive by devouring both the sumptuous foods and the contents of their Greek Library. There, with growing anger, she had found the names of friends whose lives had been changed and altered beyond any resemblance to her own memories. So the lustrous pillars under the blistering sun that surrounded her only reminded her of a Greece that had been long destroyed. All of the almost familiar architecture seemed tainted by Roman arrogance.
As she entered the avenue, the throng parted to let her through, many bowing formally. This was not the rabble of the marketplace. For the Via Sacra, only the most formal of togas or uniforms would suffice. But Gabrielle was not impressed by the nobles’ deference either. Perhaps the girl she once had been might have blushed in the face of the veneration, but that girl was no more, regardless of present appearances.
There was a saying amongst the Amazons: There are bold Amazons, and old Amazons. But no Bold, Old Amazons. Gabrielle had been the exception. Despite her courage and even seeming foolhardiness, she had survived several generations of Queens to become even more formidably revered. As a leader in battle, as the occasional Regent, there were too many legends that separated her from those she had led. Her fruitless journeys to Japa and other adventures alone in search of her soulmate had only added to her legend.
She had finally accomplished that most singular of distinctions for a warrior, that of dying in her own bed at a great age. A bitter accomplishment, as her prayers had been unanswered, and she had been, with one exception, alone. The final act of isolation had been that she had arrived at the Amazon Land of the Dead, still in the form of an old woman, still separated from the generations that had gone before her. Friends from her earlier days and still youthful, who had watched her growth in awe, treated her with the same reverence she had so disliked. So as she strolled along the great and sacred road with a physical ease she had not enjoyed since middle age, she accepted the homage that her robes inspired, by habit. Entirely wrapped in the white Vestals’ cotton, including a headdress veil, she stopped at a crest that looked through onto the smelly, noisy bustle that was Rome. Watched as the smoke drifted from the fast food stalls over the cries of astrologers, talisman sellers, wine merchants and a thousand others hawking their wares.
From the House of the Vestals to the Temple of Venus and Rome, was only a short walk, basically across the street and down a ways. Nevertheless, her instructions had been very clear and repeated. “You are only safe under the protection of the Goddesses within the Temples. Do not stop to talk, to interact with anyone. No one must have a hint that you are not who and what you appear to be, for you are in the city of your enemy.” And though the Maxima’s air of maternal affection seemed possibly inappropriate when considering Gabrielle’s true age, she had agreed without a murmur.
“No problem interacting,” Gabrielle thought, as another passerby backed away, bowing reverently. “Looks like they might have a heart attack if I said thanks.”
The Temple of Venus and Rome quickly loomed above her, its granite columns providing some small respite from the blazing sun. She reached a diminutive staircase at the base to begin ascending towards the grand entrance where two armed guards waited. Again, her Vestal clothing was acknowledged by deep bows and they allowed her entry. Once inside, she had barely any time to glance around the enormous halls before an acolyte approached her.
“Numai?” she was asked.
“Sure,” Gabrielle agreed, indifferently.
“Please, come this way. The Head Priestess awaits.”
Unwrapping her headdress, she followed the girl through even more colossal arches to a niche enclosing a stern woman reclining in the Roman fashion on a divan, beneath a golden statue that Gabrielle assumed was supposed to represent Aphrodite.
The acolyte left them alone at a gesture from the priestess. As soon as the door was closed, the severe expression melted and the woman bounded out of the chair and grasped the shoulders of the now startled visitor.
“I can’t believe you are truly here! You can’t imagine how exciting this is for me!”
Crushed by the hug, Gabrielle returned it while wheezing, “No, but I’m getting an idea…”
“A living remnant of the true Greek civilisation, AND an original acolyte of our Goddess!” the Priestess continued to burble.
“Speaking of whom, she wouldn’t happen to be around, would she?” Caught in the fierce embrace, Gabrielle looked around hopefully, almost desperately.
“Well, yes and no. See that’s one of the things I’m supposed to explain. But first, some wine and perhaps you can tell me a tale? I already feel like I know you. If only your scrolls could have survived!”
Gabrielle froze. She pushed the Priestess back and held her away firmly with both arms. “Excuse me? Now it’s my scrolls? What happened to my scrolls?” Their positions reversed, the Priestess struggled ineffectually in the grip for a moment and then grimaced. “See. That’s another of those things….”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes before releasing the woman and pointing to the statue. “Where is Aphrodite, Venus, whatever you call her now?” she demanded.
“Well, she is here, in a way, in the person of myself as the…”
Gabrielle cut her off. “Look. I need to talk to the real deal.” Ignoring the priestess, Gabrielle began to stride around the niche shouting towards the ceiling, “Aphrodite? Aphrodite???!!” The Priestess blocked her ears as the calls reverberated along the marble corridor and let Gabrielle stomp about for a moment longer before interrupting. “I’m not sure what you’re used to, but Gods don’t just appear in front of mortals.”
Gabrielle stared at the smiling priestess until the smile disappeared. “Where I come from, they did. More than I liked, in fact.”
The woman gestured to a bench. “I’m sorry. Perhaps we could start again? Please, sit down?”
Grudgingly, Gabrielle did so.
“You have been brought here as a result of decades of planning by the Goddess Venus to restore what is right, to reunite two souls, and to change the path of the future.” The priestess smiled, sure that such a noble and extraordinary goal would satisfy this girl.
Gabrielle was strangely unmoved. “Been there, done that. Where’s Aphrodite?”
“I don’t think you understand. You’ve been selected by a Goddess!”
“I’ve already won that particular lottery too many times before. Just tell me why I’m here and no hype, please.”
The priestess blinked. But this was the One, chosen by her Goddess, so she attempted to swallow her concerns. “Certainly. Tomorrow, that small Statue of Mars you passed on the way in, is going to be placed right here, here in the centre of worship of our Goddess! Until an even bigger one can be made! Tomorrow,” and here she choked back her fury, “Mars will be declared the official Patron of Rome, its armies and all its peoples. Every Temple in the world will have a shrine in his name placed in front. Thousands of new Temples to him will be dedicated and those of other deities will be torn down. Each temple, each shrine will draw new worshippers, each prayer adding to his strength. With millions more worshippers to draw that strength from, he will be truly omnipotent. Unless you help.”
“Why should I care about a popularity contest between Gods?”
”Well…” The Priestess hesitated before continuing carefully. “I have been told that this has come to pass through your actions. It is partly your fault, isn’t it? Mars has manipulated time and people to create this situation. He now controls the Loom of the Fates. Which he was only able to do because…”
Gabrielle laughed and stood. “I’m sorry. You’ve really got the wrong woman if you want to try laying that guilt trip on me. I didn’t give a damn what happened when I destroyed the Loom. And the only reason I agreed to come here, was because I thought a friend of mine might show up. But I can see I was wrong.” She turned to leave, but the Priestess continued to speak.
“Also because, Mars has been manipulating the soul of the one you knew as Xena.”
Gabrielle paused but did not look back. “So?” she said casually.
At the sound of a familiar voice, Gabrielle finally turned around. The Priestess had not moved, but her eyes were glazed and her face slack jawed.
Gabrielle smiled. “You were here all along.”
The Priestess returned the smile, but it was as though it was superimposed on her features. “Not really, hon. Like the lady said, we don’t ‘pop in’ anymore. It’s more like we move mysteriously.”
“Not with me, I see.”
“No, Sweet Pea, you… are special.” The Goddess-possessed priestess stood and brushed down her gown. “I don’t have much time, but I hope that ‘so’, was just a trick to get me to show myself?”
Gabrielle was giving nothing away yet. “I shouldn’t have to trick you. So first, you tell me how you, of all people, would dare blame me for destroying the Loom.”
“Gabster! You know I’m the last person who would ever blame you for destroying the Loom of the Fates. I loved that you threw the torch to burn it down. I thought it was the coolest act of pure love that I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something. Anyway, you didn’t really destroy it, anymore than you and Xena killed all those Gods. You just got rid of that manifestation, that physical existence. As long as there are believers, the Gods will exist. But there have been a lot of changes, because, well, there was someone around to take advantage of the situation.”
“A-,” Gabrielle began.
Aphrodite flinched and shushed her. “You don't have to say his name, do you, because He’ll hear you. Even safe in here, it’s like an invite to appear, don’t you remember?” She took a deep breath. “Anyway, you got it. And you have to reckon that if a mortal could figure out how to manipulate the past and future, what a God could do? And He did it. He played with time and rewrote history. And when it didn’t go His way the first, second and third time, He just tried again. He fiddled and screwed around, making changes that He didn’t mean to, to get the ones He did, until He brought us all to this here and now. While He was at it, He changed the myths of the Gods, changed the way we’re connected with our worshippers and shrines. So now He gets credit for founding Rome. He gave it more time to grow until it’s the massive war machine you see. And all of this, all of his change and plans, all come to a peak tomorrow.”
Gabrielle tilted her head as she considered what she was hearing. “The power you have is based on the worshippers? So if he has the whole empire, he’d be more powerful than Zeus?”
“Zeus? The whole Pantheon combined. But even with all that power…”
“Let me guess. He still needs his warrior Queen,” Gabrielle completed. “Is she…
“His already? Nope. She’s holding out. You’d be proud.”
Ignoring the comment, Gabrielle asked, “But why can’t we say His name if the Gods don’t even appear to mortals now?”
Surprised at the avoidance, the Goddess sputtered, “Well, HE can, He’s got power to spare. But to be here like this, even He has to break the connections with any other shrines and followers, and it hurts, lemme tell you! Now I answered your question, you answer mine. What’s with the ‘so’?”
Gabrielle stared at her for a long moment before answering. “Aphrodite, why even bring this up? You know the story. She left me. She chose to leave me. After everything. After I destroyed the Loom, we were… I thought…”
The Goddess nodded. “I know, and you know in your heart, there’s a reason.”
“My heart? Don’t talk to me about my heart. Not even you have that right.” Gabrielle swallowed, then sighed. “I think I’d found some sort of peace since my death. I’ve lost even that now. At this moment, I think I’d accept darkness and even… my soul’s true death… with relief. I’d take it with no regrets. That’s why the ‘so’. You can’t just drag me out of my grave after centuries and expect enthusiasm for one last quest. Can you understand that?”
The goddess nodded with sadness. “I’m immortal, sweets. Sure, I can understand. But, we’re both more than that. We have responsibilities…”
Gabrielle exploded. “Damn responsibilities! Damn the whole of what’s right and best and the greater good! I’ve given everything I was for that and it left me with nothing that mattered.”
“You don’t really mean that.”
The words were muffled as the vestal hunched forward. “You don’t know me.”
The Priestess’ hand reached to draw Gabrielle’s chin upwards. “Yeah, yeah, I do. And if you are ever to fix it, be together as you should have been, you have to put aside what you’re feeling for a bit and figure out what’s been going on inside her heart.”
Gabrielle inhaled slowly and made an effort to calm herself. “So that’s what this is about? We’re finally going… she and I, we’re…. to meet again? After all this time?”
Gabrielle laughed bitterly. “You expected me ask how she is, where she’s been, didn’t you? Because I’ve waited for so long, right?” Gabrielle rose and wandered to a corner of the room where the light was the least and sat down heavily on a marble bench. She spoke quietly. “That was a long, long time ago. I think I gave her up, to survive, you know? I must have had to stop wanting, wishing. After being, and dying, alone. How can you ask me to…?” She faltered. “It hurt… too much.”
There were now tears in both pairs of eyes. “I know, honey. Remember, I was there.”
“I was still alone in the one way it counted.”
“I’m sorry.” For once the Goddess seemed sombre. “I think I hated her. Me, the Goddess of Love, I hated, because… because of what she had done to you. But, things are different. I was wrong, I shouldn’t have…”
Gabrielle looked up. “Shouldn’t have… what?”
Aphrodite continued as if Gabrielle hadn’t spoken. “…because she’s suffered. He’s been pushing her past the breaking point, but that just might work in our favour. Because if she’s been changed, then maybe it’s finally time for the two of you to be together.”
Gabrielle took a breath. Aphrodite waited for some softening but instead Gabrielle asked brusquely, “Fine. So we get together, but…? There’s gotta be an ordeal, a test, right?”
Aphrodite replied, “You got it, kiddo.”
“And with tests, there’s rules?”
“See, this is why we only appear to the special ones. Cuts out all the jumble. Yup. And rule one is, you can’t tell Xena. When the final test comes, each of you has to pass it fair and square.”
There was a dry chuckle from the Vestal. “Oh good. So we get back together by lying to each other."
“Nope, you can work on her all you want, in fact, I’d advise it. Get inside that thick warrior’s skull or you don’t even have the teeny tiny chance I’m giving you.”
“But I bet we won’t be just waiting around for this test. There’s something else you need me to do.”
Switching to an all-business demeanour, Aphrodite nodded. “Like you guessed, Xena has to have been brought back here somewhere, I know it. He’s got to have brought her back for one last try to get her to change her mind freely. But after tomorrow, he’ll be so powerful, he’ll be able to mould her and any mortal to be whatever he wants.”
“None of this explains why it all comes down to tomorrow. Why didn’t you just grab the Loom, or stop him yourself, before today?” Gabrielle asked.
Aphrodite looked slightly self-conscious. “By the time I realised what he was doing, found out where the Loom was, he was too powerful to face head on. And he’s built a great big honking shrine to himself right outside where he keeps it, and his connection with it would warn him if I or anyone went anywhere near it.”
“So you need to strike when he’s not connected with it,” Gabrielle said with a chill in her tone.
“You are so fast, honey, I knew you’d get it,” Aphrodite said attempting to placate the storm she saw brewing.
“And, I bet, whenever Xena is brought back, he’s a little preoccupied?”
“Usually, but so far, not long enough.”
Gabrielle turned away so that her anger was not visible. “So I’m only here as a diversion. To stir things up. To make sure Ares has to be completely, personally, physically involved elsewhere, while you go for it.”
Aphrodite reached out to hold her hands. “No honey, no! I’m not gonna pretend there was someone else for the job, but I would never just play with you. I’m the Goddess of Love, remember? You two have to be brought together. You, your love, is the hope for the future. That’s always been as important to me as anything else. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”
The voice was quiet, but there was no doubt or hesitancy in it. “Yes, it has.”
“No, Sweetiepie. Don’t say that.”
Gabrielle seemed to be pondering this, but again surprised the Goddess when she asked, “How do I know that you wouldn’t be as bad a guardian of the Loom as A… Whatshisname?”
The Goddess laughed with real enjoyment. “Guardian? Me? Of the Future and Past of All? All that responsibility? As much as I hate what He’s done, we’ve all agreed to simply leave things as they are and hide it where no one, mortal or God, can ever touch it.”
“You have to figure I had help…”
Gabrielle began counting on her fingers. “Artemis to get my soul from the Land of the Dead, Hestia to place it in one of her dying Vestals…”
“What can I say. The Grrls Rock. It’s taken a lot of time. I only had the strength once this Temple was built. By Emperor Hadrian personally, fifty years ago.” The Goddess paused and waved her hands grandly. “What do you think of it?”
“It’s… big,” Gabrielle said politely.
“I know, it’s not the Vestals. You have those pools and three floors so everyone gets a view over the garden, and all for keeping a silly fire going…”
Aphrodite caught herself. “ANY-way, I got a prezzy for you around here somewhere. Something you left with me, way back when? You ask my girl for it after I take off, okay?”
Gabrielle didn’t appear to be listening.
“Sorry. For a minute there, it was just like old times. But it isn’t, is it?” She pulled herself up from the bench. “How long have I got? How long before you call in the loan of this body?”
Aphrodite tried to raise the level of enthusiasm in the room and ignored the second and third questions. “Old times? I wish. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff He’s changed! Did you know that I’m no longer his sister according to the myths now?” The Goddess clenched her fists. “I’m his...”
“…his aunt. I know.” The Goddess was pleased to see Gabrielle nearly laugh.
“His AUNT!” she affirmed heatedly. “And I don’t want to even THINK about how I was supposed to be conceived…”
“And from what I read last night, you two had a few kids. Congratulations.”
“Him and ME??? That…” The Goddess sputtered. “He has got to be stopped.”
“If I agree, where do I start?”
“You find Xena.”
“I suppose I could go out and take a look…”
Aphrodite shook her head. “That’s… a bit of a problem. If you’re wandering around, He could sense you. And then, you could be used as the key to finally break Xena… because the memory of you is the only thing that’s kept her fighting Him this long.”
This only seemed to anger the girl more. “Aphrodite, I’m not a kid anymore. I’m hundreds of years old and I feel every one of them right now. I can look after myself. And I am not staying trapped in a bunch of temples….”Gabrielle’s voice trailed off as she realised the Goddess seemed struck by some sort of pain. “What is it?”
Aphrodite’s voice seemed far away. Gabrielle strained to hear it. “He’s doing it again. He’s gone to the Loom.”
Gabrielle moved closer to her. “Can you tell what he’s doing?”
The Goddess shook her head slowly. “We never know until it’s done, and sometimes not even then. It could be something big or little. All I know is that it’s like being in a whirlpool for an immortal…”
Her voice was cut off and there was a moan of misery. The room seemed to shimmer slightly and the body of the Priestess was thrown backwards, striking a column, when the wave hit her. The woman fell limply to the ground. When some unknown time had passed, she finally raised her head, and looked about the room. She was alone. “Goddess?” she cried out, but her voice echoed off the marble without a reply. “Gabrielle?” But the response was the same. The priestess was entirely alone.
To be continued...
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