The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 33

April 18th, 2023
The sun was high in the sky as Echo slowly made her way to the central Roman Temple. The great complex Kebechet and Nora had designed was still being overseen by architects and city planners, so a former administrative building had been gutted and redesigned to act as a primary center for the Greco-Roman deities to be worshipped if they lacked a dedicated shrine of their own. A statue to Nike stood in front of what had once been a palace as if it were a guard. Though the oldest and most defined of the statues, even from the piazza below the other statues could be seen. Nora and Echo had agreed that summoning Hera in Zeus’ temple, given their request, might not lend the best impression.

Still Echo dragged her feet. So much of her wanted to run away, back to Nora’s home or to the greenhouse, even to the cave back in Greece, anywhere but in the presence of this terrible goddess again. She knew it couldn’t work, that Nora’s plan would fail and they’d be left with nothing. There was no point to this, so why try?

Echo swallowed involuntarily, trying to gulp down her fear with it. It might fail, but she could not live with herself if she didn’t at least try. Nora had done so much for her already, the least she could do was try.

“Hey there, Echo.”

Echo nearly jumped as a young woman took up step next to her. Her heart started beating again when she recognized the speaker as Thalia, Muse of Comedy.

“H-hey there, Echo.” She said with a hesitant smile.

“I heard what you and Nora were planning.” The Muse said, the sun-like grin never leaving her face. “I think it’s great, and quite brave.”

“Q-quite brave…” Echo said, more unsure of herself than she’d ever been, footsteps dragging across the ground.

Thalia, seeming to sense her worry, took her arm, pulling her along as they walked towards the temple. Echo could feel the comfort in the goddess’ grip, the kindness and the warmth she seemed to exude. No one could remain unhappy in Thalia’s presence for long.

“You’re not alone in this, you know?” Thalia smiled at her. “We’re all rooting for you. Me, Nora, not to mention all eight of my sisters, even Kebechet. All of the people at the greenhouse know too.”

“Kn-know too?” Echo stammered, and Thalia’s grin only broadened.

“Of course” She said. “All of us want to hear the real Echo again. Even Melpomene thinks your story doesn’t have to stay a tragedy forever. No reason things can’t get better.”

“Thinks can’t get better…” Echo said, looking downcast. Thalia, however, responded only by holding her tighter as they walked.

“They can, Echo, I promise that. We’re all pushing for you, but we need you to make those last few steps. You’ve come this far already.”

Echo looked up and saw the façade of the temple before her.

“Come this far already…” She said, and then looked to her side just as Thalia seemed to vanish into air, leaving her at the threshold with only the echo of laughter in her wake. Taking one last deep silent breath, Echo stepped into the temple.

The building was taken up primarily by a great hall with a central altar at the far end. Lining the sides were smaller alcoves for individual shrines and statues recovered from the city museums. By order of the Pontifex it had been cleared for the next hour, supposedly for maintenance. Echo knew, however, and the other gods understood as well, that the Queen of Heaven would not want an audience.

Nora was standing by the grand altar, dressed in the finest robes she had made for herself as Pontifex, a flowing gown of black and white patterns and blue stitching, mirroring her own dyed hair and her position as bridge between mortals as the gods. If there was anyone who could pull Hera down from Mount Olympus to Rome, it was Nora.

“Ready?” Nora asked as Echo approached, looking all the meeker and smaller.

“Ready.” Echo fretfully shook her head, but Nora put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get you started and then read off what we wrote, alright?”

“Alright…” Echo said hesitantly.

Nora turned back to the shrine, laden with images of cattle, peacocks, and bowls of pomegranates.

“So it’s taken some time and research.” Nora said “But I think the specific epithet we want is Hera Argeia. Gods tend to manifest under a bunch of different names and titles and while the spirit is still the same, the personality can…vary a bit.”

“Vary a bit…” Echo still didn’t entirely understand. She had only ever been Echo.

“Take Ares and Mars for example.” Nora said, still making sure everything on the altar was in the proper position. “Same god, entirely different personalities, all depends on the name.”

“All depends on the name.” Echo said, watching her work.

“Summoning Juno Capitolina wouldn’t be very helpful.” Nora said, turning to face Echo. “It wasn’t Juno that cursed you after all. We need a Greek.”

“We need a Greek.” Echo nodded as she took her place at Nora’s side, staring worriedly at the altar. The time had come.

“I call your name, Lady Hera Argeia, Queen of all Greece and all the Gods, Lady of the Mountain. I beseech that your spirit appear before us so we may speak low before you, pale-armed Queen of Olympos. Bring before us your grace so that we may speak, so humbly asks Pontifex Maximus of Rome.”

Nora’s words echoed through the empty hall, then seemed to hang in the air, reverberating through the silence like a low and steady hum. The sound hummed and shivered around them unnaturally. Something had heard the message.

Behind the altar, a throne seemed to trace itself into existence, a solid seat of shining white marble laced with glimmering gold that came into existence above the altar, putting both Nora and Echo well below the seated figure’s gaze.

The woman seated in the throne was truly larger than life. Three meters tall, her skin like polished ivory, and dressed in a long gown of blues and greens that clung to her divine figure. Her face was the very image of regency, stern and composed yet undeniably beautiful. A perfectly composed face of large brown eyes, a thin nose, and wine-colored lips. Her face was framed by tumbling waves of deep brown hair, held in a tall polos crown upon her head. Long chains and necklaces of gold hung from her neck and wrists, but they seemed merely to compliment the image of the woman, rather than enrich it, as no mortal gold could hope to match the beauty of the goddess herself. She sat loosely composed on the throne, one elbow resting on the arm of the seat as her chin rested upon her hand, her gaze passing from Nora to Echo.

Thalia’s divine aura was perceptible but almost pleasant; Nephthys’ had been like a windstorm that swept across the room. Hera, however, was on another level entirely. All of space and time seemed to warp around the woman’s presence, keeping everything in the reality of the hall focused upon her. Echo felt what little breath she had left flee her body entirely and even Nora seemed to shiver as the pressure of the goddess’ presence came down on them. Nora’s back bent low as she curtsied with due formality to Hera, and Echo mirrored her motion.

“Pontifex Maximus Nora Newstar.” Hera seemed to try out the name on her lips. The voice, the same cold voice as she’d heard so long ago, sent an unstoppable and pronounced shiver down Echo’s spine.

“An oddity that you ask me to come under this name. Would not Juno Lucina or Capitolina be more appropriate for our venue?”

“Under normal circumstances yes, Basileia.” Nora said, head still bowed. “I apologize for the oddity of the request, but I felt it appropriate given the nature of today’s matter.”

“And what is today’s matter?” Hera asked, clear impatience rising in her voice. Echo stared. Did Hera not notice her? Did she even remember? Or was she simply being deliberately ignored?

“The matter…” Nora said, rebounding as she rose and cleared her throat. “Is the matter of the nymph, Echo, who I have brought with me here today.”

“Echo.” Hera did not look her way. “Tell me, Pontifex, why you would mention the nymph’s name in my presence, let alone be so bold as to drag her before me? The matter was settled before even your ancestors could remember.”

“I…we came to right a wrong, my lady.” Nora said, her hand reaching out to pull Echo closer.

“A wrong? And who might it be that has wronged this senseless nymph?” The coldness in Hera’s eyes was unmistakable. She was daring Nora to question her, to say that she’d been wrong, any excuse to bring her wrath to bear. Echo knew that look all too well, the frozen calm before the storm. She looked to Nora, and her eyes widened at the sight. She, Nora, looked unafraid.

“I say, Lady Hera, with all respect I can muster, that you are wrong to continue Echo’s punishment.”

Hera sat up in her seat, the full weight of her divine essence focused on the pair of them.

“It is not your place, Pontifex, to declare the gods to be right or wrong. The mere thought is ludicrous. A mere mortal cannot judge a god.”

“It is my place…” Nora said. “To defend the people of this city from divine abuse. The people of Rome are your worshippers, not your cattle. Whatever punishment Echo deserved, regardless of her crime, is long since passed its rightful expiration. Do you intend to force an eternity of punishment for an ignorant mistake?”

“I will do as I please to those who have wronged me for as long as it amuses me.” Hera said. “I see no reason to recant my word. Is this ridiculous appeal your only case? Is it the only reason you have summoned me?”

“It is not our only statement.” Nora said. “Echo would like to offer her words.”

At this, Hera laughed. It was a sound that should have been pleasant, but it came to their ears like a winter wind, harsh and biting and without a trace of sympathy.

“I believe you will find Echo quite without words of her own. I daresay that was the point.” Hera smiled.

Nora merely responded by pulling out a sheet of paper. Starting from the top line, she began to read it under her breath and Echo, heart full of terror, repeated every word.

“Queen Hera” She repeated. “This alone should show the lengths to which I will go in order to speak for myself. On my knees and in my heart I offer no desire of anger nor retribution. I merely ask for a chance of renewal, for some quantity of mercy you might show, fairest of the gods.”

It had taken seven hours of tireless work, a blackboard, and a dictionary to write this brief appeal in Echo’s own words. She had been as precise as she could be, and it almost felt like she was truly speaking for herself, even if she was far too terrified to ever speak her mind like this without her curse forcing her.

“For millennia I have suffered silence and repetition, unable to speak as myself to those I hold closest. I have all but lost the memory of who I was or how I spoke. My own voice is now foreign to me and in becoming so I have lost most of who I was.”

Echo trembled as she spoke, Nora’s voice pausing at intervals to let her catch up.

“I ask not that you forgive the punishment you laid upon me. It is not the nature of god nor queen to recant upon their word. I ask only that you display your divine compassion in releasing me in turn. As your humble servant that is all I ask and all in this world I desire.”

Nora finished speaking and Echo shortly after her, leaving a new silence in the room as Hera considered her words. It was, she knew, their only gamble. Hera would never go back on her word, but she could amend it later. Echo’s curse could never be lifted, but she could be granted her voice again in a singular act of compassion.

“I am impressed, if nothing else, at the courage you display by wandering before my presence again, Echo.” Hera’s voice had not lost an ounce of its edge.“Brave…but foolish.”
Echo could feel her heart sink in her chest, terror and desperation filling every fiber of her being. Even knowing it beforehand, failing here was like being cursed all over again.

“I see no reason to waste my compassion on a lonely nymph. I have no responsibility to you, and no desire to change how you are.”

Echo’s head sank low in a half-bow of defeat.

Nora, however, stepped forward, earning an irate glare from the Queen of Gods.

“I have no patience for repeating myself, Pontifex.”She said. “The matter is settled.”

“I believe it is not, Basileia.” Nora said.

“The Egyptians might be fond of you, Newstar.”Hera’s voice remained at a queenly calm, though the fierceness of her gaze could not be mistaken. “But we are not so quick to lend credence to your self-import.”

Nora bowed deeply, but did not back away. “Then I ask, Hera Argeia, that you do not offer compassion to Echo.”

“…” The surprise in Hera’s face was visible, and it was exaggerated in the shock on Echo’s face.

“I ask instead that you, under the name of Juno Sospita, offer relief to one of your citizens so greatly in pain.”

Hera scoffed. “Come now, Pontifex. I tire of this. This nymph hails from Mount Cithaeron of Attica. She is no Roman worthy of my protection.”

“I humbly disagree, Juno the Savior.” Nora said. “Echo has lived in Rome for months; she has drunk and ate with its people; she has lived by my side; she has served its people and its government in its time of direst need. She has literally lain down her roots here, with no desire to return to Mount Cithaeron.”

“No desire to return to Mount Cithaeron!” Echo repeatedly loudly, nodding vehemently.

“This city has hosted foreigners since its founding, Regina.” Nora said, switching to the Latin.

“People from across the Mediterranean have made themselves Roman Citizens. Gods as well have come from distant shores and made homes for themselves here. As surely as I am, Echo is a Roman.”

“Echo is a Roman!” Echo said, stepping forwards to stand alongside Nora.

Hera looked from one to the other, the expression on her face one of mixed conflict and mild surprise. A Queen was never one to show her emotions vividly, but her silence spoke to what she was truly feeling. Her fingers tapped on the arm of her throne as she thought. Nora and Echo caught, waiting, in the silence.

“Oh very well.” Hera’s patience had run out before her temper. “You make a strong case, Pontifex, but more than that, I am impressed by your dedication to this careless nymph. It speaks well to your position and to your heart that you would fight for her and stand by her side with nothing to gain.”

Echo, standing close to Nora, could feel the breath of relief.

“I owe much to Echo, Regina, but I would stand here for the good of every Roman.”

Hera turned to Echo, and even as the malevolence left her gaze, Echo could not help but almost cower.

“Then for the sake of that dedication, and for the sake of all those under my protection, I lift from you, Echo, the curse that was placed upon you.”

Hera raised a hand, and Echo placed a hand to her throat as she felt like a vice had been loosed from her tongue.

“Go then” She said “And please do not bother me personally with every gripe and grievance. I am a busy goddess.” With that brief huff Hera vanished, throne and all.
Nora turned expectantly to Echo, a clear weight off of her shoulders at Hera’s departure.

“So…did it work?” Nora asked.

Echo blinked, looking back at her. Slowly, she opened her mouth.

“Thank you, Nora.”

Nora smiled, but before she could reply Echo pulled her into a tight embrace, lips pressed to hers as she kissed her forcefully on the lips, holding her there for nearly half a minute.

“I…wow…” Nora said, half in a daze as Echo smiled at her. “Heh well…I guess we have a lot to talk about.”

“I think we do.” Said Echo. “I want to tell you everything, Nora, and I plan to mean every word of it.”

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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