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THE IDES OF MARCH, PART II
by Mark Alger
Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
NOTE: All works remain the © copyright of the original author. These may not be republished without the author's consent.
No Roman legionaries were harmed in the writing of this story. Caesar, on the other hand, got his clock cleaned.
This story © 1998-99, Mark Alger, email@example.com
Lyrical subtext: Sade "I Never Thought I’d See the Day", first stanza, from Stronger than Pride
Campus Martius, the Forum Romanum, Rome, the 14th of March, the year 709 Urbs Condita (44BCE)
At the moment that Xena set out across the plain toward the city, her escape was discovered. She’d never had much chance of concealing it anyway. As soon as they were convinced she was not coming back, the men she’d locked up raised an alarm. She’d just reached the built-up part of the city when she heard cohort of cavalry clattering up the military road behind her. She ducked into an alley.
As the cavalry unit passed her hiding place, another party passed going the other direction, giving way to the military. This was a private guard outfit accompanying a sedan chair. The chair was borne by four husky slaves, the occupant concealed by heavy curtains. The party moved with dispatch and in good order, traveling down the road toward the prison.
Once both parties were out of sight and earshot, Xena emerged from the alley and moved off toward the city center. Along the way, she loitered around several wine shops where she listened to the talk of the patrons. From what she could gather, she was being sought by at least five parties to the civil war, including, severally, Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar. Apparently, the triumvirs were at each others’ throats. Gabrielle was in the hands of a religious cult — that of Venus Aphrodite, whose Fane was in the sacred district at the foot of the Aventine Hill. The betting was running five to eight that the army would take her back — storming the temple, if necessary — before the night was over.
Xena’s sense of urgency was heightened by this news. If any armed unit made an attempt to extract Gabrielle from the precincts of a temple, the warrior was sure the results could not be good for Gabrielle.
The Fane of Venus Aphrodite at Rome, the 14th of March, the year 709 Urbs Condita (44BCE)
As they crossed into the Fane, Gabrielle said to the priestess, "I could do with a bath."
"Certe," Agripina replied. "You shall have a bath and a meal, and a warm bed tonight. All is being prepared for you. But first, my dear, you must have answers, and those I will give to you as soon as we are in private. For now, keep silent." And she patted Gabrielle’s hand with her own in a grandmotherly fashion.
They walked down a long colonnade, doorways framed by half-columns set in a marble wall to one side and a row of fluted Corinthian columns to the other. Agripina let her young charge take it all in. In her travels with Xena, Gabrielle had had a great deal of truck with gods and priests. As a result, she had been in many temples in her young life, include the Temple of Zeus in Athens and the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, but never had she seen one so rich and well-appointed as the Fane of Venus Aphrodite at Rome. As Agripina guided her through the temple precincts, she gawked just like — she admitted it — the country girl she was. The entire structure was built of the purest white marble exquisite workmanship. There was ornamentation of gold, silver, bronze, copper, and tin, but mostly gold. And statuary that just wouldn’t quit. She got a glimpse into the Sanctum Sanctorum. There was a marble statue of Aphrodite chased with gold and inlaid ivory that had to be every bit of thirty feet tall.
At the end of the cloister, they came to a pair of high doors of beaten bronze guarded by a pair of tall men standing at rigid attention in beautifully-decorated armor. The guardsmen opened the bronze panels at their approach and ushered them within. Beyond the doors was a large, comfortable atrium, sunlit, tastefully appointed and decorated with the spoils of empire. Gabrielle had not seen such wealth even in the abodes of gods. For the first time in her life, she got a feel for the wealth and power of Rome. On her first trip to the city, she’d only seen its seamier side. Now here she was in the halls of power. From Chin to Tyre, Troy to Athens, Amphipolis to Corinth, she had been in many of the world’s great capitals. None of them could hold a candle to Rome. Her great pride in her native Greek culture was dealt a blow. Though the style of architecture and art were Greek in origin, the Romans had taken them and, in making them their own, improved upon the original.
Agripina broke her silence then. "Come, my dear. Sit with me a while and talk." She led the bard down the length of the chamber to the end where a grouping of couches was arranged around a brazier which helped keep the chill of the outside air from the room. When they were seated, Agripina spoke.
"I suppose that the first question you have is how it comes that you have fallen into the hands of Caesar’s opposition."
Gabrielle nodded. "Is that what you are?"
"Most assuredly. My cousin began this civil war in which we are engaged when he brought his Gallic army into Italy some five years ago. It looks as if he will not end it until he is dead or until he has seized enough power to make himself king. The Republic will not withstand it. Accordingly, many persons of patrician families who wish to preserve the Republic are joined in opposition to his party. I am one of those. As the High Priestess of a large and powerful cult, I enjoy a position of considerable influence in the city. Not only that, but I am also a Julian, which renders me immune to most kinds of state coercion — so long as I do not overstep certain unspoken bounds or rebel too openly against Caesar’s grabs for power.
"Here of late, I have also received many visitations from the Goddess, and she has directed my actions by giving me knowledge of events yet to come. One of these events we I she has foreseen is the assassination of Caesar on the morrow — the Ides of March."
Gabrielle open her mouth then shut it. Finally, bitterly: "I knew it! Xena was brought to Rome to kill Caesar!"
"Why should that concern you? If what I hear of you is true, you have traveled with her for over a decade. Surely no one in the world knows her better than you. Is it not in her nature to kill?"
Ming T’ien had said something similar to her in Chin. How little people understood Xena!
"You don’t understand," cried Gabrielle. She knew as she said the words how callow they sounded and she hastened to correct the impression. "Xena has done many horrible things in her life." The bard took a deep breath. "If only you could see what I have seen of her work from those times "
"Gabrielle, I am a Roman patrician. I have seen the crosses lining the Via Appia from here to Capua. I live amid the wealth provided by tribute from conquered provinces over all the world. I have seen slaves from a hundred nations in the markets. I know the produce of cruelty. It has put a stain on the Republic that I fear may never be washed clean again. But I do not believe that any person — man or woman — can escape the fate set before them."
"Xena is trying to do just that. She has endured terrible torment in trying to make amends for her evil deeds as a warlord and a pirate. The gods toy with her she’s lost so many lovers and friends. She lives a physically hard life. But for all of the time I have known her, she has been a powerful force on the side of good. Even so, she has a dark-hearted side. She can be bloody-minded and far too quick to kill. I have tried — oh, how I’ve tried — to turn her from hate and revenge to love. She says that I’m the one who carries the light in our partnership, but let me tell you if she could break free of her dark heart, I believe she would outshine the sun."
"And I will tell you that I believe that she is right. Even in your current state, bedraggled and dirty-faced like a street urchin, I can see the purity and goodness in you. You positively glow from it."
Gabrielle took that compliment with embarrassed good grace, nodding her head and murmuring thanks.
"However," said Agripina, "my serving girl, Leticia has returned. Your bath is ready. Go and get clean of the filth of your confinement. When you are comfortable, we will speak again." She shooed the Amazon off in the company of Leticia.
The Forum Romanum, Rome, 14th of March, the year 709 Urbs Condita, (44BCE)
Xena moved quickly, relying on stealth and misdirection to hide her from searching eyes. It worked — mostly — but there was one man, a youngish fellow in a plain brown cloak. He picked her trail up near the Porta Quirinalis and followed her to the Forum, where she got directions to the Fane of Venus Aphrodite. She didn’t know the streets of Rome well enough to dodge him, so she confronted him.
Her disguise as a legionary wasn’t really that good. She was taller even than most Roman men, and she didn’t have the army walk down pat. She was too loose and free with her swaggering long-legged strides. More a swashbuckler than a marcher. Even so, she pulled it off. It was amazing no one had spotted her.
Suddenly the man found himself grasped by the throat without warning and slammed backward into an alley wall. The warrior princess’s face was thrust in his, and she spoke softly, snarling lips bared clenched teeth.
"I’m in a real big hurry, so I’ll make this short and sweet. Tell me why you’re following me or I’ll kill you. Clear enough?"
He nodded and tried to choke out an answer. She released him and gave him a moment to catch his breath. When he had, he told her, "I am an acolyte at the Fane of Venus Aphrodite. I was sent to find you on the instructions of the Great Mater Julia Agripina, the High Priestess. They want to persuade you to come to the Fane."
"Well," Xena growled, "All they had to do was ask. Lead on. And no tricks." The Fane was where Gabrielle was said to be; that was where Xena wanted to be.
She followed him at some distance, knowing she could get to the Fane herself with the directions she had garnered in the Forum, but not wanting to compromise him or be compromised by him should either be stopped in the streets by soldiers or others looking for her. He led her through the Forum Romanum and along the Vicus Jugarius to the Tiber. They strolled the esplanade on the river then ducked into the sacred district south of the Circus Maximus. Finally they came to the Fane of Venus Aphrodite nestled at the base of the Aventine Hill. In front of the Fane, there was a small, cobbled plaza. Three lesser temples and the Circus Maximus shared frontage on the plaza with the grand Fane.
When they entered the plaza it was nearly empty. A group of hired thugs loitered around the fountain in the center. How they recognized her was a mystery, but apparently they were waiting for Xena. As soon as she stepped into the plaza, they moved toward her menacingly. With a display of flashy sword handling, Xena managed to put a few of them to flight before the fight even began.
And, of course, the acolyte broke and ran for the Fane, leaving Xena to face the bully boys by herself. Not that it would have mattered. Xena could have handled twice their number alone. But they hurried her, and she killed two of them. As they ran off, leaving their dead on the ground of the plaza, Xena called after them, "Sorry, boys. Maybe next time, eh?" Then she turned and walked into the Fane.
"Hello," she said to the first guard she encountered. "My name is Xena. I believe that you are expecting me."
Just then, her guide appeared from an inner room and said to the guard, "It’s alright, Livius. Mater is expecting her. Please come with me, Princessa."
"Swords," said the guard.
"Oh, yes! How forgetful of me! Princess Xena, no weapons are permitted in the temple precincts. Would you be so kind as to surrender yours to the guard, they will see that they are cared for."
"Sure. No problem." She proffered the gladii hilt-first to the guardsman, who, having his own lance to deal with, was at somewhat of a loss as to how to handle two swords in one hand, but he managed. "And I don’t even care if I get them back. I hate short swords. No style. Y’know?"
The guard did know and gave a brief nod.
"Oh, and there are a couple of bodies out in the plaza. I don’t know what your policy is about such things, but there might be an inquiry." Xena left it at that and she turned to follow the acolyte down a covered, colonnaded walk that, apparently, had apartments on one side and the main sanctuary of the Fane on the other.
The acolyte ushered Xena into a large, well-lit atrium at the end of the colonnade. Two women were reclined on couches at the far side of the rectangle.
"Great Mater, here is Xena," the acolyte announced, then withdrew.
Lyrical subtext: Sade, "I Never Thought I’d See the Day", second stanza, from Stronger than Pride
The Fane of Venus Aphrodite, Rome, the 14th of March, the year 709 Urbs Condita, (44BE)
When Gabrielle had bathed and was dressed in borrowed clothing — fine linen underthings and a warm fleece-like floor-length white robe of Egyptian cotton — Leticia tried to comb out Gabrielle’s soft, fine hair, golden red like apricots.
"Ouch!" Gabrielle yelled after the umpteenth hard tug at a knot jabbed at her scalp.
"Lady," Leticia said to the bard, "I fear that your hair is beyond hope."
"Leticia, I am no noble lady. I am only a simple village girl from Potidaeia in the Chaldicides. Please, just call me Gabrielle."
"Pardon, lady — G-gabrielle." Then eminently practical, "What are we to do with your hair? I can tell that, clean and brushed, it is very beautiful. But it is so tangled that I would have to pull out most of it to brush it smooth again."
"I’m not sure I could stand the pain. If you have a knife or scissors, cut it off."
And when they were done, Gabrielle observed the effect in a polished bronze mirror. The cut was somewhat shaggy but it would do. The red-gold locks framed her face to good effect. "It makes me look my real age, instead of a girl in her teens, which I haven’t been for years."
Leticia demurred as she gathered up the shorn locks. Then she giggled a little, behind a hand held before her mouth. "We should burn the locks on the altar for your love luck. Many girls offer their hair to Venus for love."
Gabrielle sighed and smiled sadly. "I have no love luck," she said in a tone that brooked no objection and closed the subject like a slammed door.
"Still, it is a shame to cut off such beautiful hair. Although," Leticia went on, shyly, "Were I a man, I could love you were your hair cut as short as a legionary’s. I think any man would."
Acting on impulse, Gabrielle gave the servant girl a quick hug. "Thank you, Leticia. The hair will grow back, and having it clean means more to me than you know. Now. Where can a hungry Amazon find something to eat in this pile of stone?"
Leticia’s eyes went wide. "You? An Amazon?"
"Yes," Gabrielle smiled. "In fact, the queen of my tribe."
"I have heard all of the legends of your adventures with Xena and have never heard this."
"You wouldn’t have. The Amazons are very private and keep to themselves, except for villages close by their country, with whom they trade. Very little news comes out of Amazon country, so I am not surprised you haven’t heard."
"But if you are queen, does not Xena do your bidding?"
Gabrielle had to laugh at that. "Xena does the bidding of no one and nothing except her own heart. All I can hope to do is to try to influence her with love and support. Besides, I came to the mask of the Amazon queen almost by accident, whereas Xena Xena is a real princess, you know."
"No, I did not. What kingdom does her family rule? Has it been conquered by Rome?"
"She has ruled many kingdoms, but never in Macedonia. She is a member of a noble house of Amphipolis, the capitol of Macedonia under Philip the Great. The title is hereditary and passes down through the firstborn female of the family."
"And how did you — accidentally," Leticia smiled, "become the queen of the Amazons?"
"It was in the first year I was with Xena. I saved the life of an Amazon princess, or tried to." Gabrielle’s thoughts swam back to that fateful day so many years past, now. She stood silent for a long time, lost in reminiscences. Then: "She died anyway. But before she did, she passed onto me her Right of Caste — the right to claim the mask. All that was hers became mine. I never really felt I earned or deserved the title, and have given it over into the care of one — whom I love dearly — who can discharge the duties of office far better than I ever could."
Leticia gazed at Gabrielle for a long moment. The bard thought she could understand in that moment something of what Xena must have felt almost a decade ago at the start of their road together. Hero worship was such a burden — to the hero.
"Um, Leticia?" She waved a hand in front of the serving girl’s unfocussed eyes. "Food? Remember?"
"Oh!" Leticia blushed. "Your pardon, lady — er, Gabrielle. A meal is being laid in the Great Mater’s atrium. Please come with me."
Gabrielle rejoined Agripina in the latter’s apartment, where an elegant repast was being laid as she and Leticia re-entered the main chamber. Agripina rose at Gabrielle’s approach, arms wide and welcoming. Leticia faded to the invisibility of her station in the alcove. "Gabrielle!" said the priestess. "Come! Eat! We shall speak more after, but I can well imagine that you are hungry as a "
"As a really hungry thing," Gabrielle finished, smiling.
They reclined on couches near the brazier and were served by slaves until Gabrielle expressed her discomfort with such attention, and Agripina dismissed the slaves, to serve the Greek woman with her own hands. They spoke of inconsequential things, the weather, clothing, articles of furniture in the room, the endearing behavior of kittens, three of which inhabited the priestess’s apartment. When Gabrielle was replete, they washed their hands in gold laving bowls, drying them on fine linen towels. Agripina settled back on another couch then and studied the younger woman intently for a moment.
"Now you look a proper Roman woman. A bath has done your appearance a world of good. I think that food has also improved your outlook on things, no?"
"Me? A Roman? That’s a laugh! I’m as Greek as they come. Anyway, Romans are dark. I am " she gestured at her new-shorn hair.
"Fair?" Agripina chuckled throatily. "That is a sign of Celtic blood. There are many who carry such all around the Mediterranean. The folk from the north have come and gone many times throughout history. And your name, it has a Gallic flavor to it."
"Father was a far trader when he was young, before he married Mother. He traveled to Gaul many times. He gave me the name of a friend of his from those travels, a man named Gabriel. Or so he told it."
"It is a charming name and it suits everything about you. Tell me, is there a lucky man in your life? Or are you a follower of Sappho?"
"No man in my life has ever been lucky," said Gabrielle, turning suddenly bitter. She told the story of Callisto and the murder of Perdicas. Before she was done, she was weeping copious salty tears, her voice choked and strained, her breath coming in great, sobbing gasps. Agripina rose and came to her, holding the bard for what comfort she could offer, stroking Gabrielle’s hair and breathing soft, soothing words. When the bard was all cried out, she sat up straight and wiped her eyes.
"Look at me!" she said, ashamed of showing such weakness to a stranger. "Blubbering like a baby!"
"Oh, you poor thing! That was an awful burden to have to carry around for so many years. Did you never mourn him?"
"Oh, yes, Great Mater," Gabrielle stumbled a bit over the Latin Magna Mater. "I mourned him within days of his death, when Xena and I burned his body on a pyre. And I die a little every night when I think of him, how fine and fair he was, and how much we loved each other, and what great evil it was that took him away from me and what it cost Xena, then as well as later, to take my revenge on Callisto for me."
"Better, I think, she should have let you take it yourself," said Agripina sympathetically.
"I have thought so myself. I did at the time. I was ready to die in those moments, but Xena persuaded me that I would die to no effect. Then, I was no match for Callisto as a fighter. Nor had I been blooded with my first kill; I probably could not have done it. Now, of course, Callisto is a goddess and I could no more harm her — if I wanted to — than I could harm a tree or a rock."
"It sounds to me as if you have a great affection for Xena."
Gabrielle turned her tear-streaked face toward the priestess. "Oh, lady, you have no idea. She is everything in my life! Were we to ever separate for good, I think it would be like ripping my heart from my chest. And as the years go by, the feelings get stronger " her voice trailed off.
"That you love her so is to her credit. She has a bloodthirsty reputation here in Rome, but I can see that you would never love such a one, so the reputation must be false. Seeing her through your eyes gives me a new respect for her. Trust me. As the High Priestess of the Goddess of Love, I know something of these matters."
"But," Agripina continued, "We have strayed rather far from the subject I wished to discuss with you: why you are here."
"I thought you had already said. We are here because the Fates have decreed that we are to be here."
"You are correct. Better to say, ‘ how you have come to be here’. And thereby hangs a tale." Agripina patted the rolled head of the couch. "Make yourself comfortable while I relate the story. Five years ago, at about the time that Caesar returned from Gaul and brought his army into Italy, word came from the Goddess that there had been an epochal spiritual battle fought to the far North and East in Siberium, and that Xena had been one of the combatants and had emerged victorious, but at great cost.
"Come forward now to the recent past. The Goddess revealed to me that Caesar would try to take to himself the powers of kingship. This is not what we Romans would consider a good thing for the Republic. She also revealed to me that the two of you had a central role to play in the end game — Caesar’s assassination."
"Well, that’s off. I won’t have anything to do with it, and I will do my best to persuade Xena against it."
"A very open-minded sentiment for someone who cannot bear to be separated from her lover for even a day." Despite the harsh judgment in her words, there was an amused twinkle in the priestess’s eye.
"We’re " Gabrielle began, but Agripina held up her hand.
"That’s neither here nor there. The Goddess has specifically not said that Xena will kill Caesar. All she has said is that in every version of the moment she has seen, you and Xena are in the Curia when Caesar is killed. Certainly, in some versions, Xena will kill Caesar. In others, you will," Gabrielle gave a derisive snort at that. "It doesn’t matter. Events will march as they will. But in every case, the two of you are there. Willing or not."
"Does that mean what I think it means?"
"If you think it means what I think you think it means, yes."
"Hmm. This is not good."
"Good, bad, indifferent. It means that you can’t run away from it; you’d only be brought back. It means that you must face this fate together.
"Since these matters impinge on my office as High Priestess of Venus Aphrodite, and since the outcome will bear on my political fortunes in opposition to my cousin, I decided to take a hand. The cult of Venus Aphrodite is wealthy, and we have used some of that wealth to buy things. Information. Loyalty. For example, I subverted the centurion of the cavalry escort which brought you into the city from Ostia. But the army moved Xena before we could get someone in place, so we could not work the same trick for her. I sent a priestess to try to buy her out of the Praetorian Prison, and I am waiting to hear back from that one.
"My hope is that, if you two can start from here on a voluntary path, with as much control of the situation as you can be given, that you will come through unharmed, and that whatever happens tomorrow will have a lesser effect on the political life of the city than might otherwise be the case. It may be a vain hope, I admit. But the result is that I believe I give you and Xena the best chance of survival that you can have. To that end, I give you back your parole. I’d not have you held here unwilling." Gabrielle nodded her acceptance.
"Now, why this would concern the Goddess of Love might seem a mystery," the priestess continued, "Until you understand that Xena had gone to the Land of the Dead, had fought an evil sorceress to free the souls of the Amazons, had turned away from a quest to find you in Eternity All of this for love of you, or out of a desire for your love and approval. It was then that Venus — or Aphrodite, as you Greeks know her — began to take an interest in you — you and Xena."
"She meddled with us before that, you know. I never knew she looked on us kindly. You couldn’t prove it by the times she played godly games with our lives."
"So she has told me " Agripina was interrupted by a bright ball of lightning, which rolled around the room, crackling and throwing off sparks, before slowing to hover over one of the couches. It coalesced into the form of a voluptuous young woman, who lounged on the couch. She was clad in a white cotton tunic that did not take into account the chill in the air at that time of year. Her red hair was coifed in ringlets in the Roman style. Despite the differences in her appearance, though, Gabrielle was able to recognize Aphrodite.
Agripina jump from her couch and abased herself before the Goddess. "Great Goddess, welcome to my humble abode."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Aphrodite drawled. "Good to see you, too, Agripina. Get up. That pose is so not you. How’s it hangin’, Gabster? Still a virgin?"
"Not for a long time," said Gabrielle dryly.
"Well, good on you! You go, girl!"
Gabrielle bowed from the waist, a sardonic expression on her face. "My thanks, Aphrodite."
"Goddess," said Agripina, "to what do we owe "
"The pleasure of my company? Couldn’t it just be that I was lonely and " she de-manifested and reappeared on the couch next to Gabrielle, " only wanted to see one of my most favorite humans in the whole wide world?"
"Since when?" asked Gabrielle.
"Since when have I started liking you and Xena? Well, chickie. Lemme put it to you this way. I’m the Goddess of Love, right?" Gabrielle nodded. "What you and Xena have between you is and will be one of the greatest loves of all time. Naturally, as the Goddess of Love, I have a vested interest in that and in your well-being."
"We’ve been together almost ten years. How come all of a sudden?"
"Oh, but it was so unsudden. It came on real slow and, like, gradually. But five years ago, it hit me," Aphrodite smacked her palm to her forehead, "We’ve got a major league, all-time classic love with a capital amo, amas, amat going on here. Since then I’ve been following your exploits with considerable interest. Even sent a vision to Xena not too long ago. Or not to long from now. Whatever. This time-shifting stuff is heavy lifting, even for a goddess, let me tell you."
"Was that you in Dalmatia?"
"It was then, but it’s not now. Will be in the very near future."
"That is quite enlightening. Would you mind telling me what it means?"
"Trust me. You don’t wanna know. Or maybe you do, but right now I don’t have the time to tell you. Ha ha! Get it? I don’t have the time?" Aphrodite’s giddiness moderated a touch. "No, I guess you don’t."
"No. I don’t," said Gabrielle.
"Don’t worry, you will. Anyway. Agripina. The priestess you sent to the Praetorian Prison struck out. Xena has gone missing in the city, and everybody in town knows you have Gabrielle here. Seems to me you’d better look to your guards at the very least and maybe think of some way to get Xena off the streets and these two gals to safety — if there is such a place. Ta-ta for now! Gotta fly!" And with that, she dematerialized in a flurry of sparks.
"Pater Iovem!" exclaimed Agripina. "She can wear you out when she gets in one of those moods."
"I think it’s kinda cute in an annoying sort of way," said Gabrielle. "But I’d never tell her that to her face."
Aphrodite’s disembodied voice echoed through the room, "I heard that!"
Just then, there was a shuffling at the doors to the chamber, which were thrown open, and in strode a Roman legionary accompanied by one of the temple acolytes. Both Gabrielle and Agripina experienced a momentary frisson of panic at the sight of the scarlet cloak and plumed helmet, but then the acolyte spoke: "Great Mater, here is Xena."
Lyrical subtext: Sade "Hang on to Your Love", middle eight, from Stronger than Pride
The Fane of Venus Aphrodite, Rome, the 14th of March, the year 709 Urbs Condita, (44BCE)
Xena removed the stolen helmet, letting her hair fall free. She set the thing on a convenient table and moved to meet the others in the room.
One of the women, a priestly-looking patrician with hennaed hair and a regal bearing, rose from her couch and approached Xena. "My dear Xena. Welcome to my home." She extended her hands in greeting.
Xena froze. Here was the voice she had heard outside the prison where she had first been incarcerated. Hearing her now in ordinary conversation, the priestess didn’t really sound much like Alti, but the similarity was uncanny. "Your pardon, lady, but "
"Forgive me." said Agripina, misunderstanding Xena’s intent. "I feel as though I know you from speaking with your delightful companion." She gestured toward the other woman in the room. "I am Julia Agripina, the High Priestess of Venus Aphrodite."
Puzzled, Xena looked to the third woman in the room. The other rose and turned. She was dressed in a Roman robe and sandals. Her pale copper hair was cropped close about her head. Then Xena recognized her and gasped. "Gabrielle!"
The two friends rushed together and embraced. Xena’s stolen helmet crashed to the floor, forgotten.
"Oh, Xena!" cried Gabrielle. "I was so worried about you!"
"It’s alright, now," Xena said soothingly. "We’re together again."
"Your friend exaggerates," Agripina interjected. "She is a brave one. Even had the brass to challenge me." The priestess chuckled gleefully at the memory. Xena, clutching Gabrielle to her, exchanged a knowing glance over Gabrielle’s head with the priestess.
"My brother once said that Gabrielle is brave because that is the way she is. For a man who was in many ways a fool, it was a very wise thing to say."
Gabrielle looked up into Xena’s face. "Toris?" Xena nodded.
She pulled away from Gabrielle a little and inspected her. "Oh, your beautiful hair! What have you done to your hair?" This is how it was cut in the vision
Gabrielle shrugged, one hand fluttering dismissively. "It was just such a mess. I was two days in captivity with no chance to brush or comb it. It was easier just to cut the tangles out." She broke free of Xena’s embrace and twirled a graceful pirouette. "So how do I look?"
"You look radiant, my dear," Agripina said. "Now, come, Xena. Sit and be comfortable for a moment." She made a gesture to the servant who stood waiting in her niche. "Draw a bath for the princessa. Hot. And with rosewater. Let us know when it is drawn. And prepare clean garments. Her own still need care and I doubt she wants to haunt the temple precincts in the cloak of a legionary longer than necessary." The servant turned to obey. "And Leticia," the servant turned back, "I know I may trust your discretion, but I must remind you; not a word to anyone of whom we guest here. Understood?" Leticia nodded eager agreement, smiled, and hurried off.
"So, Xena," she continued. "We meet at last. Come. Sit. Be welcome in my home. You must have a fascinating tale to relate!"
"I doubt it is all that fascinating. But first, I must know Were you on the Via Ostiensis at the Porta Raudusculana yesterday when Caesar came up the road from Ostia?"
"I was. And before you ask, yes, it was I who called the warning to Caesar. How did you know?"
"I was in a cell in the guardhouse at that moment."
Gabrielle leaned forward to interrupt. "Wait a minute. Warning?"
"Yes," answered Agripina. "A warning. The Goddess and I determined that Caesar would be warned. That is, somehow, he would be told of a plot to assassinate him. Since the date is certain, we hoped that a vague augury might stave off a more concrete warning — keeping in mind the resistance of Time to change."
Xena looked confused and Gabrielle gestured with both hands, indicating later.
"But, goodness, princessa! Your tale is of greater moment than mine! Tell us how you came to be here! Those sent to find you have not yet all returned."
"There’s not much to tell, really," Xena began modestly. "We were captured at sea, taken to Ostia and brought separately to Rome " She related the story of her imprisonment, escape, and flight through the city until she had been found by an acolyte of the temple. She tried to gloss over the final steps of the journey and the fight in the plaza, but Gabrielle saw that she dissembled.
The bard had only to take one look at her friend and she knew right away. "You have fresh blood on your hands."
Xena’s head dipped and she could not meet the Amazon’s cool, green eyes. "Yes," she said softly.
Gabrielle’s voice broke as she cried out, "Xena, you break my heart!"
All Xena could do was turn away, choking back her tears. She took a great, shuddering breath and sighed. It didn’t matter; she knew. No matter the risk to herself, the burning fear for the beloved bard’s safety for her very life. No matter the obstacles she had faced and overcome to reach the side of the younger woman. No matter that she had tried to avoid killing any of the thugs in the plaza. She had killed again. Gabrielle would never, could never accept the necessity. If Xena would exist in her love, she had to live with that.
Gabrielle turned to Agripina. "Great Mater, may we be alone?"
Agripina looked surprised, as though she hadn’t thought of it. "Of course, my dears! I have been neglecting my duties in order to enjoy your company, in any case. Make yourself free of my home." She left the room. The heavy doors shut behind her.
The two friends just stared at each other for a long moment.
Finally Xena: "Can’t you see, Gabrielle, it’s what I am!"
"No, Xena. It’s what you were. I see what you can become, and see what you do, and it breaks my heart."
Xena had no answer.
"What is she talking about all that about Time?"
Gabrielle sighed. "I don’t pretend to understand it all, but, apparently, Aphrodite has been playing around in Time, both the past and the future. And she’s seen that we — you and I — will be at the Senate building tomorrow when — get this — Caesar is assassinated."
"Caesar, huh?" Xena licked her lips and her eyes took on a calculating expression.
"Now just a minute, Xena. If you think I’m going to be a part of your private revenge "
"But you said Aphrodite had seen us there when it happened, not that we — or I — would actually do it."
"Right." Gabrielle was dubious.
Where do I buy a ticket?" Xena thought.
"Never mind," she said aloud, mercurially shifting the subject. "That’s tomorrow. We’re here now. Tell me how you got here."
Gabrielle told Xena the story of her trip from Ostia, the exchange in the plaza, her talk with Agripina, the visit from Aphrodite.
As she finished her tale, Leticia entered the room and announced, "Princess, your bath is ready. If you will come with me "
The Fane of Venus Aphrodite, the city of Rome, Ides of March, the year 709 Urbs Condita (44BCE)
The next morning, the two friends were awakened from their shared bed by a soft call from Leticia, "Ladies, it is time to rise." Xena woke right away and shook Gabrielle. The Amazon bard grumped her way from under the covers complaining about the hour, the cold, the bed, Xena’s movements in the night, and, for good measure, the state of affairs in Phoenicia.
Leticia looked shocked at this outpouring of invective from someone she had just come to admire as the very soul of loving kindness. This amused Xena no end, who reassured the serving girl. "She’s always like this in the morning. She’ll be alright once she’s been up awhile."
The handmaiden nodded, wide-eyed and bowed her way backward to the door, where she collided with a bustling Agripina.
"Oh, Leticia," said the priestess. "Have the kitchen lay out a light breakfast in my atrium. Finger food and watered wine for four. We have to get these two ladies on their way to the Curia quickly. The Senate has been called to a session at the tenth hour."
"Yes, Great Mater," Leticia did a little curtsy and hurried off about her errand.
Agripina was carrying a tall pile of clothing, which she dumped on the foot of the bed and then began sorting through. Here are your disguises. Princessa, you will be a priestess of Venus Aphrodite, of a royal gens and permitted to wear the purple." She piled a purple garment atop a stack of linen underthings. Gabrielle, you will be a serving girl. Not a slave, mind you — I couldn’t ask that of you — but a young girl, like Leticia, born of a great house and who has been committed to the temple for a period of three years. That will allow you to ride in the sedan chair, rather than force you to walk behind."
When they had donned their disguises, Agripina inspected the results. Xena was dressed in a heavy purple robe and looked very regal, her raven hair piled atop her head and held with pins of gold and lapis lazuli. Gabrielle, too, was transformed by her costume from a wandering Amazon bard to a young girl of a good Roman family, with a simple green cloak, trimmed with cloth-of-gold tessellations at the neck and hem worn over a simple outfit consisting of a white cotton skirt and bandeau.
When Xena saw the outfit, though, her expression hardened and she turned away from her friend and stalked out of the room.
She snapped her fingers. "Aphrodite!" she commanded. "The altar! Now! Gabrielle, stay!" She strode out of Agripina’s apartment and into the Fane, heedless of the attendants and priestesses who scattered before her baleful expression like dry leaves in a hurricane. At the altar, Aphrodite manifested and lounged on the marble surface.
"Ye-e-s?" she drawled.
"What is going on here? That outfit. Gabrielle’s hair. It’s all coming true!"
"As if! Xena, the nature of Time is tricky. What you have seen is only a might-be. If you want to avoid it, you’ll have to walk carefully. And even then, there is no way to know which choice will turn a what might-be into a will-be."
"Zeus!" Xena cursed. "I should never have come here."
"That would not have mattered. You will be here. That’s pretty clear. Had you not come by your own choice, you might have been taken prisoner by Pompey and presented to Caesar as a peace offering. You never know. You can’t know."
"Then what good are visions of the future?"
"Not a whole lot. They are not presented or allowed, you know, so much as they just happen. Although we gods can cross time, we are constrained in some ways, almost as though Time itself prevents certain changes."
Xena sighed, but felt no relief. Her center was fading; she could feel it. If she could not bring herself into balance, she would go mad.
"I can’t take her! I can’t risk it!" she cried.
"You’ve got to," the Goddess answered. "And even if that were not true, the choice is not yours to make. Gabrielle is a free woman, able to make her own decisions."
"That’s not what I need to hear, Aphrodite."
"I can’t say what you think you need to hear. All I can do is promise that I will try to tell you the moment I see danger in any direction. But even that warning may go amiss. I may turn you away from one danger only to drive you into another, worse one. Xena, you have to play the dice the way they land, not the way you wish the spots would look."
"What if I just tie her up and leave her here?"
"Then something worse could happen. Just as you must be there, so must Gabrielle. That much is clear. The two of you are the center — together — of one of the great nexuses that are coming together here and now. Remember that Time itself resists certain changes. If you force things, they will almost surely turn out worse than what you are trying to prevent. Perhaps Gabrielle would be captured here and taken under guard to the Curia, rather than going voluntarily and under your protection. Think about it."
"I will, Aphrodite, I will be thinking about this long and hard."
Gabrielle left her hiding place behind a pillar among the forest of them that bounded the Fane and crept back to Agripina’s apartment. What she had heard did not reveal much, but it was nonetheless disturbing.
Lyrical subtext: Sade "Nothing Can Come Between Us", first stanza, from Stronger than Pride
The streets of Rome and the Curia, (Senate house), the city of Rome, the Ides of March the year 709 Urbs Condita, (44BCE).
Xena let the curtain fall and lay back against the pillows in the sedan. "This is familiar. I’ve seen it done many times. Done it myself a few times. Get the rabble worked up and split into factions and turn them loose on each other. Take advantage of the chaos to seize power. I wonder who’s going to get the spoils of this one?"
Xena was silent for the rest of the sedan chair ride from the Fane to the Curia. Her jaw was set with that characteristic tension that said she’d brook no interference. Gabrielle felt like she was caught up in a great tidal wave of events and all she could to was try to breathe when she could and ride it out otherwise, hoping she would not be dashed against the rocks of whatever shore it brought her to. Xena was engaged in an inner battle. For all she loved the warrior almost desperately and feared for her soul and sanity, Gabrielle knew from bitter experience that she could do nothing to help and much to possibly harm. She kept her silence.
She’s thinking about how Caesar had her crucified, and how that led to her going to the steppes and joining up with Borias. And, being Xena, she’s focusing on the negatives. She doesn’t think about the good parts when she’s like this. Like Solan. Or Lao Ma. Sure they were both killed, but for the time she was able to be with them, things were good, and they both left her with joyful memories and taught her things that have since helped her heal both herself and the people she harmed. And she doesn’t think about how our love came through the fire of our time in Chin and in Illusia stronger.
I guess it’s my job to remind her of that.
Cilicia, a beach on the Levantine Sea, the year 694 Urbs Condita, (59BCE).
Caesar was gloating. His betrayal and defeat of Xena was utter and absolute. Crassus, Brutus, and Lepidus were cowed, all to bend sooner or later to his will. Xena hung on a cross, one of dozens arrayed along the beach, holding the dead and dying bodies of her crew. Thirst made her delirious. The Romans offered her liquid, but it was sea water and only made the thirst more unendurable. Caesar laughed. As her legs tired and her knees buckled, her arms pulled and pressed more at her ribcage. The pressure on her lungs made it harder and harder to breath. Then Caesar was finished gloating, and as he walked away he looked back one more time and said to a legionary holding a heavy wooden mallet, "Break her legs!"
That night, M’Lila pulled her down from the cross and carried her to Nicklio, who straightened her shattered legs. But he couldn’t heal her soul. For years after that, she was like a beast made mad by torment, and took it out on everyone around her, friend and foe alike. In a very real way, just as she, Xena, was responsible for the monster that Callisto became, Caesar was the creator — at least in part — of the monster later known as Xena, Destroyer of Nations.
As I have turned away from my past to try to build something better for the future, still I must try to amend the evil wrought in that past. Strange as it might seem, trusting Caesar — thinking I saw in him a kindred spirit when, even then, we were nothing alike: he driven by ambition to personal power, I by revenge — was one of the most evil misdeeds I’ve ever encompassed. Better to have killed him than to have loosed his evil upon the world.
So he deserves to die, apart from whatever political squabbles drive his opponents. And, if I am to be the instrument of his demise, well so be it. I know going in that Gabrielle will not accept it, just as she could not accept the necessity of killing Ming T’ien at the time, and found it difficult to forgive that I did kill him when she finally knew. She can never accept that these killings are necessary to right the balance of justice, and every time she forgives me, it pollutes her soul, diminishes the radiance of her light of goodness. If only she would leave me alone at these times, it would be so much better for her.
It seems that it would be preferable to lose her forever than to see her light gradually dim because of my dark-heartedness. If I can’t send her away or walk away from her for her good, maybe I can so disgust her that she will turn away from me on her own.
The Curia, (Senate house), the city of Rome, the Ides of March the year 709 Urbs Condita, (44BCE).
The little party from the Fane reached the Curia. The sedan chair was deposited on the broad bottom step of the stair from the Via Sacra to the Curia’s main door. A Praetorian came down the steps toward the chair. Xena extended the pass Agripina had provided through the curtain and kept a slight gap open to observe the reaction. The guard read the pass and nodded.
"Okay," said Xena taking a quick breath. "It’s show time." She reached for her sword, wrapped in purple velvet, like a rod of office. Gabrielle touched Xena’s hand with her own.
"Leave it," she said, her voice steadier than she felt, her green eyes meeting Xena’s ice blue ones with an assured, level gaze. "You won’t need it."
"Just in case." Xena tightened her grip on the weapon and thrust her other hand through the curtain. She allowed herself to be handed out of the chair on the side toward the Curia building, while Gabrielle dropped down from the other side to the street. The bard started to walk around the front of the chair to join Xena and go into the building.
Suddenly the crowd, which had been somewhat quiescent as the party from the Fane had approached the Curia, surged toward the Senate building with an incoherent roar. Gabrielle felt herself being pulled away from the building, as if in an undertow in the ocean. She struggled to remain upright, to keep from being trampled in the press.
When she could see through the crowd, she saw that the Praetorians had formed a phalanx around Xena and were slowly retreating up the Curia steps behind a wall of sharp steel and grim expressions under plumed helmets.
Via Sacra, outside the Curia, city of Rome, the Ides of March, 709 Urbs Condita, (44BCE)
"Xena!" Gabrielle screamed, but was sure she couldn’t be heard above the noise of the crowd. Panicking, she struck out, fighting for space to breath at first, then space to fight her way clear. She kicked and punched, whirled and leapt, doing damage without heed or care. She had to get to Xena. To safety. One toothless man with a severe odor problem got in her way and leered suggestively at her while threatening her with a nasty-looking knife. She struck his nose with the heel of her hand, only realizing after it hit home that it was a killing blow.
She stood in frozen shock for a moment, heedless of being buffeted by the crowd. Gods! I’ve just killed a man! Hades, take me now! Her thoughts became a wordless, inchoate roil of sense impressions.
The dagger in her hand thrusting into the unprotected vitals of the girl Meridian. The blood on her hands as she lay suspended in flames above the altar of Dahak, her body violated by the God. The sight of Xena holding the lifeless Solan in her arms, weeping her heart out, shrieking hatred at Gabrielle.
Then she heard Xena’s voice as in the distance, in a dream calling her name.
Shaking herself out of her momentary daze, she battled her way free of the crowd and up the steps. As she crossed the no-man’s land between the crowd and the Praetorians, she called out, "I’m with her!" One of the temple guardsmen, in the second rank behind the Praetorians identified her.
"She’s the princessa’s serving girl. Let her pass. "
But still it took her precious moments to reach the top of the steps. Xena had entered the Curia. Gabrielle could see the warrior’s retreating back as the other woman hurried down a corridor toward the Senate chamber.
"Xena!" Gabrielle yelled and broke into a run. I’ve just killed a man. Down the corridor she chased the warrior’s retreating back. Xena had her sword out. Her priestess’s cloak fluttered in the wake of her passage. "Xena, stop! Think what you’re doing!" What I have done. Around a corner. Far ahead was a room full of men. The Senate chamber. Caesar would be there. Individual voices were raised in debate and anger. A lone voice, unheeded, called for order.
One after another, the guards were dispatched — knocked silly, kicked into walls, heads bashed together in pairs. Gabrielle blessed the gods that Xena killed none of them and breathed a hurried prayer for her friend’s soul. No more blood today, please!
She caught up to Xena just short of the arch where the corridor issued onto the Senate chamber. She snatched at the warrior’s arm. Xena shook her off and the bard went sprawling, bruising her hands and twisting a wrist in her landing.
"Xena! Don’t do this! I’m begging you!" Gabrielle gathered her legs under herself and launched herself at the warrior’s back. Xena shook her off again. Finally, in desperation, the diminutive Amazon rushed around Xena and planted herself between the warrior and the Senate chamber. "Please, Xena," cried Gabrielle, at her wits’ end and near to tears in her frustration.
With a cruel blow of her elbow to the middle of Gabrielle’s chest, Xena knocked the bard off her feet. The younger woman sprawled helpless on the marble floor. "So," exclaimed Xena, "You would betray me again!"
Gabrielle looked up into her friend’s impossibly blue eyes and saw the rage that filled them. Saw the sword raised high above Xena’s head. As Xena began the downward stroke, time seemed to slow to a crawl. Gabrielle relaxed her body, falling into a posture that was reminiscent of crucifixion — arms outstretched, ankles crossed. Kill me now! Let Hades take me! It would be an act of Love. Her chest rose and fell with her breathing once, twice, three times as the sword blade fell. She turned her face away from the sword stroke, exposing her neck to the blow that seemed sure to come.
Xena saw Gabrielle and, in her rage, wanted to kill the younger woman. She had endured so much from the little pup over the years. Betrayal, the loss of her son. Let her protest to Hades of her love! She started the downward stroke. Gabrielle’s chest rose and fell with her breathing once, twice Her cloak fell open, revealing the cotton skirt and bandeau the Amazon wore under it.
The sound of hammers. The ground around her was covered with sleet. Ropes bound her arms to the cross. An ox-drawn cart with wooden wheels rumbled by, a cohort marched the other direction.
The wind cut through her dress of thin rags like thousands of tiny daggers.
A moan and the sound of a shifting body came from her right. She turned her head to see ...
Gabrielle, wearing a ragged gray skirt and bandeau, her hair shorn close about her head. She looked tired and careworn and yet achingly beautiful. She glowed.
"Gabrielle, you’re the best thing in my life."
"I love you Xena."
"I love you Xena," the bard’s words came like an echo to a dream.
"No-o-o-o!" The scream of denial started at Xena’s toes and rose out of her throat like the wail of a banshee.
Unnoticed by the two women in the corridor, the shouting match in the Senate chamber reached a fevered pitch. Caesar looked to be in fear for his very life. All of the derision and scorn he had heaped on the Senate over the years was coming home to roost. Senators were leaving their seats to mob up around the throne Caesar occupied on the dais at the focus of the semi-circular chamber.
Lyrical subtext: Sade "Nothing Can Come Between Us", chorus, from Stronger than Pride
The Curia, Rome, the Ides of March, the year 709 Urbs Condita, (44BCE)
Xena desperately shifted her weight to the right and bent her right knee. Frantically, she tried to force the tip of her sword downward, to stop the stroke against the floor. Sparks flew as the blade gouged a groove in the marble floor. The stroke stopped barely an inch from Gabrielle’s exposed throat.
Xena’s legs suddenly felt very weak. Her sword, thrown aside, clattered to the marble floor as she dropped to her knees with a thud that seemed it should shake the marble hall as if in an earthquake. With infinite care and gentleness, she gathered the Amazon bard into her arms and desperately clutched the younger woman to her. "Oh, Gabrielle! Please forgive me!"
Gabrielle looked up into her friends eyes. "You don’t need to ask my forgiveness. Never doubt that." Again that searching glance from eyes bright with tears.
"I almost killed you. I don’t know what possessed me! After all I "
"But you didn’t. I knew you couldn’t." Or I hoped you would. "It’s about faith, Xena. Faith and trust."
"And a little bit of hope?" Xena tried to smile, failed, then succeeded.
"And a little bit of hope," Gabrielle agreed, smiling back, weakly.
Xena stood suddenly, her strength recovered, and held out a helping hand to Gabrielle. "C’mon," she said. "We’d better get out of here." The Senate chamber was forgotten. Caesar was forgotten. All was forgotten except each other. Xena bent to pick up her sword.
As the two friends turned away, in the Senate Chamber Gaius Julius Caesar, tribune, consul, triumvir, and imperator, lay dying in a pool of his own blood, his body pierced twenty-three times by the blades of his enemies. The civil war was over. The revolution had just begun.
The streets of Rome, the Curia, the Ides of March, the year 709 Urbs Condita, (44BCE)
The two friends walked slowly back to the Via Sacra entrance of the Curia, while the news of Caesar’s demise flew on the wings of rumor. By the time Xena and Gabrielle reached the street door, a riot was in full swing. Their borrowed sedan chair was smashed to flinders, the attendants and guards fled before the mob. Vendor’s stalls were pulled down, the goods scattered to the winds and trampled underfoot. The mob filled the street from the Forum to the bend at the Palatine.
"Uh-oh," Xena commented as she pulled Gabrielle back through the door. "There goes our ride. We’re going to have to hoof it back to the Fane. But first, we have to find a place to sit this out. Wait here."
"Xena," Gabrielle tugged at Xena’s robe. "Please don’t leave me."
Xena’s heart jumped. "C’mon, then, but look lively. We’re not out of this yet. Not by a long shot."
The Curia, Rome, the Ides of March, the year 709 Urbs Condita, (44BCE)
The Curia was under construction, a building project begun earlier that year by Caesar. The two women found refuge in an empty chamber among piles of stone building materials. There they hid until the sounds of conflict and panic — without the Curia as well as within — abated some and Xena reckoned it safe to attempt the street again.
As they crouched among the building stones, Gabrielle reached out her hand and touched Xena’s shoulder. "Xena?" she began, tentatively.
"What?" Xena was at first annoyed at the distraction, then realized there was something in Gabrielle’s state of mind that demanded her attention. She turned and placed a gentle arm across the bard’s shoulders. "What is it, Gabrielle?" she asked more tenderly this time.
"Out in the street when the mob Xena, I killed a man! With my bare hands!"
Xena wanted to praise the Amazon, but hesitated, knowing how this troubled her friend, then gave in to the original impulse. "Good!"
Gabrielle drew back, stunned, horrified.
"No! I mean it’s good that you could defend yourself. I have worried more about that about you than anything else over the years. You have been physically capable for a long time, but it takes a certain spiritual grounding to be able to use deadly force in your own defense. Not many are able."
"But I don’t want to," Gabrielle wailed.
"No you don’t. Nor should you ever want to."
"But I believe I think I would rather die!"
"So is your life worth less than that of the scum who thought to threaten you?"
"No, but neither is it worth more!"
"Exactly. At that moment, at that cusp, you are on the knife’s edge between right and wrong, between good and evil. You could fall either way, and all of your intentions, all of your beliefs in the sacredness of life will do nothing for you. You must kill to survive or you must die. It is never an easy choice. But ask yourself this; where is the right in such a situation?"
"In not taking life. In my not taking a life."
"No!" Gabrielle started at the sudden explosion of that, but Xena gathered her back, gently. Lovingly. She crooked a finger under the bard’s chin and forced their gazes together. "Remember, Gabrielle, your life is sacred, too. Also remember that there are many, many, many people — good people — who love you very much and who would be badly hurt if you were to die needlessly. If you are attacked, you defend yourself! Disable if you can, wound if not. But if you must, you kill. You hear me?"
Gabrielle nodded, still not convinced, but mollified for the moment. Xena pulled the younger woman’s head close and kissed her hair. Then she stood and drew the other to her feet.
"Now," she said, "Let’s go see if the coast is clear."
The Via Sacra, Rome, the Ides of March, the year 709 Urbs Condita, (44BCE)
When they came back to the entrance that faced on the Via Sacra, the street immediately before the Curia was empty. Across the way and to the southeast stood the temple of Castor. The way looked clear toward the Palatine. "Quickly!" said Xena. "This way!" And she led off down the steps and along the Via Sacra away from the Forum.
"Xena, do you know where we’re going?" asked Gabrielle, running to catch up.
"After a fashion. Last night, when I came to the Fane from the Forum, I went around the south side of the Palatine hill. That one." She pointed with her sword. "But I would guess that the Circus Maximus, which is on the southwest side of the Palatine, and is between us and the Fane, will be a gathering place for mobs, and those we want to avoid. There has to be a way around the other side of the Palatine that will bring us back up the ravine between the Palatine and the Aventine to where we can approach the Fane without — I hope — running into crowds."
"Xena, maybe you should not wave that sword around." Gabrielle’s tone said that she was none too sure either way.
Xena stopped, turned the sword in her hand, looking at it as if she had forgotten that she had it. "No," she said. "At times like these, the sight of naked steel may be our best defense. As it is, I seem to have lost the scabbard and will have to get a new one somehow. And we should get you armed, too."
She cast her glance around their immediate surroundings and saw a sedan chair, smashed and abandoned by the side of the road like their own borrowed conveyance had been. She strode over to it and yanked a carry pole out of its rings. Standing it on end next to the bard, she measured its length against her friend’s height, and marked a spot on it with her sword. "Look about right?" Gabrielle nodded. Then it was the work of only minutes with the sword to cut the hardwood into a serviceable weapon. "See how that feels." The amazon made a few quick passes with the staff, testing its balance and the feel of it in her hands.
"Whew," she chuffed, satisfied. "Amazing the confidence a simple staff can give you."
"Yeah," Xena drawled. "I guess it’ll do ‘til we get your own back. Let’s get moving."
They passed along the Via Sacra without incident as far as the small plaza where the Via Appia began. There they turned southward, having come around the east side of the Palatine. After a brief walk, they reached a fork in the road where the Via Appia veered off to the southeast, headed out of the city, and the straight-ahead path issued onto the broad plaza surrounding the Circus Maximus.
Xena drew Gabrielle close and briefed the amazon. All the while her eyes shifted around watching for danger. "Okay, now. The Fane is on the other side of this plaza, right about in the middle of the long side of the Circus. We should try to keep out of sight, but be ready to run. We don’t want to make a stand unless we get cornered."
"Right. Hide. Run. Don’t fight unless cornered." Gabrielle touched Xena’s shoulder to get her attention. "One of your better plans." She smiled and got an ironic smile in return.
"Thanks. Let’s go."
They made it most of the way around the south end of the Circus before they were spotted. Their priestly garb marked them as targets to the mob and it was a close foot race, with the crowd between them and the Circus and angling to cut them off from the Fane. The leading elements of the crowd caught them on the steps of the Fane, where Xena had to deal with a half-dozen rioters using kicks and punches and the flat of her sword, while Gabrielle whacked three or four more with her makeshift staff. As more of the mob advanced, the guard of the Fane sallied out of the main door and formed a cordon around the two women, their disciplined ranks of edged metal offering no purchase to the crowd. Almost before Xena and Gabrielle were inside the Fane, the mob had melted away and gone in search of easier prey.
The Fane of Venus Aphrodite, Rome, the Ides of March, the year 709 Urbs Condita, (44BCE)
Xena strode down the colonnade toward Agripina’s apartment. Gabrielle scurried to keep up with her friend’s longer legs. "We’d better get ready to travel on a moment’s notice," said the warrior. "I’d like to wait until morning to leave, so we can avoid the worst of the mobs — I hope they’ll have worked off their mad by then — but I don’t want to wait so long that the army has time to pay attention to the fact that they haven’t got us in their hands. By the time they figure that out, I want us to be long gone from Rome."
Agripina met them at the door of her apartment. "Xena, Gabrielle! Well met! I have just had the most interesting visit with the Goddess. Come in! Come in! We should get you ready to travel as soon as is practical. The army is busy trying to restore order in the streets at the moment, but by morning, no later, they will begin to look for you two, and you should be gone from the city by then."
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged glances. The corner of Xena’s mouth twitched in that sardonic expression of hers as she shouldered her way past the priestess and into the atrium. Gabrielle took Agripina’s hand and drew her within as well. "Thank you Agripina. It has been a rough day, but we should be on our way as soon as possible."
Suddenly all three women felt an electricity in the air and a seemingly sourceless breath of wind. Then a column of sparks issued from the floor and Aphrodite materialized.
"Well," said the Goddess, "Glad to see you two made it back okay. Bet it was touch-and-go for a minute there. Did you kill Caesar, Xena?"
"Nope. Didn’t even see it happen, although we must have been in the Curia when it did."
"Good! Then you’ll be safe enough for the moment. Come into the Sanctum. I have something you want to see." She dematerialized, leaving the three women to follow by more mundane means.
When they reached the Sanctum, Aphrodite was standing before the altar. She was clad in a sky blue cloak with a hood. "Okay," she began. "As promised. Watch and learn." She pulled the hood of the cloak up over her red curls. A pass of a hand before her face and she was veiled. Then she held her hands about two feet apart as though she were holding a ball. Sparks flew between her fingertips, and an image swirled and then steadied in the volume she encompassed with her hands. The image was a view of a mountainside. There was Xena sitting on a rock, Argo cropping grass in the background.
"Xena Warrior Princess," intoned the Goddess. "Heed my words!" The priestess, warrior, and bard then watched the delivery of the vision Xena had had in Dalmatia a month before.
When it was done, Xena exclaimed, "If I hadn’t seen it, I would never have believed it! I’m surprised you believed it, Gabrielle."
The bard smiled. "It didn’t matter if I believed it or not, Xena. What mattered is that you believed it, and acted on that belief, even though you were not sure what the consequences would be."
Aphrodite stripped away the veil and pulled back her hood. "Have you told her about the other?" She asked Xena.
"No, I haven’t. And it’s time I did." She took Gabrielle’s hands in her own. "Five years ago, when I was fighting Alti, she tried to show me a vision of my future to frighten me and throw me off balance. The vision I saw then was one of our deaths. On the cross. Your hair was cut the way it is now and you were wearing the clothes you have on under that cloak. At the time it gave me strength because I had feared you were dead, but realized that, if that was in my future, it meant that you were still alive then and I had been seeking you in the wrong place, looking for you in the Land of the Dead."
Xena took a deep breath and went on. "I had the vision several times over the years after that. Najara saw it when we were in Phoenicia that time, and it almost drove me to leave you. That was why I urged you to help her start that hospice. I was hoping I could get you away from the danger that I was to you.
"This past winter in Dalmatia, I began dreaming the vision again. It came to me every night, almost. It got to the point where I couldn’t sleep. Every time I nodded off, the dream would come. Now I suspect that in some way it was connected to what happened here in Rome today."
Gabrielle was overwhelmed. It explained so much. She stood in the middle of the Sanctum, almost unaware of her surroundings with tears flooding her cheeks. "Why didn’t you tell me?"
"Because, believe it or not, I was afraid. For you. Afraid that it would come true."
Aphrodite interrupted, "Well, you’re not out of the city yet. And I can’t guarantee that it still won’t come to pass. But I do have some good news. I was finally able to travel beyond the nexus to see the results of all of the various time lines. And on every one where either of you killed Caesar, or advanced into the Senate Chamber — I take it you never got into the chamber?" Both women nodded. "Good. In every instance where you went into the Senate chamber, both of you were taken and executed on the cross."
Agripina looked about ready to faint. "Gods! That was close!"
Xena agreed. "Too close for comfort. And now, we have to get out of the city while we can. No waiting for tomorrow. We leave as soon as we can be ready to travel."
Lyrical subtext: Sade, "Haunt Me", from Stronger than Pride
The Via Appia, at the Porta Capena — the southeast gate to the City of Rome — the 16th of March, 709 Urbs Condita, (44BCE)
Argo’s hooves clip-clopped on the cobbles of the Via Appia as Xena and Gabrielle walked out of the city. They were very careful to give no appearance of haste. They kept their cloaks close around their bodies, hiding their Greek clothing and Xena’s warrior armor. Xena also used a little of the influence of her powers to shield them from too much curiosity on the part of legionaries on guard duty at the city gates.
A little way down the Via Appia from the gates, they came to a place where legionaries were preparing a crucifixion. A half-dozen unfortunates huddled under the onslaught of sleet as their fellows were, in turn, fastened to crosses and the crosses erected. It was an efficient and impersonal process.
"Even in the midst of a civil war, the wheels of Roman justice," Gabrielle’s voice shook and she freighted the word with heavy irony, " grind on."
And then Xena recognized the scene. Here was the cart loaded with stone. And the squad of legionaries The two women gave way to both. At the foot of one cross, not yet occupied or erected, she stopped. The gleaming shields of the legionaries, brighter than they ever had been in battle. The bitter cold of the sleet-laden wind. The parting of the clouds in the west that presaged the end of the freak spring storm.
Gabrielle pulled at Xena’s arm, wanting to urge her friend onward. Xena resisted for a moment.
There was a second cross next the one at whose foot she stood. She recognized it, even to the grain and the knots in the wood. That was the one.
"Xena, we should move. If we stand here, we will attract the attention of the Romans."
"That’s the one, Gabrielle."
"The one what?"
Xena sobbed. All of the pain and fear that she had been holding back for the past five years welled up in her, a single, overwhelming flood. Her knees buckled, and she collapsed. She was grateful for Gabrielle’s support. All that kept her on her feet was the Amazon’s shoulder under her arm.
"Xena?" Gabrielle’s concern touched her heart and strengthened her at the same time. "What is it?"
"That was the one, Gabrielle. The one I’ve been seeing for the past five years." She turned to gaze into the eyes of her beloved friend. "That was the cross I saw you die on." She heaved an enormous sigh of relief. "And now that Caesar is dead, and your love kept me from killing him, you will not die on it. And I can say without lies or games or hesitation
"Gabrielle, I love you."
The Amazon bard’s green eyes filled with tears of joy. "I know," she said.
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