The United States has not won a war by the surrender of its enemies since 1945, yet we keep going to war. Young men are committing acts of war to terrorize us at home. Our civilian police forces are becoming increasingly militarized. Who can remember what it was like when the warrior-priests of the mouse-god, Apollo Smintheus, took over Gaia’s ancient shrine?
Long before they came down, she could see the three men in their imitation women’s robes. Because she had no place to hide, she continued to sit calmly on her little stool. She stroked the serpent, which tended to become excitable when the priests were present. It coiled more snugly around her shoulders.
The oldest of the three men, the one right behind the warrior with the torch and the sword, was wheezing heavily as he explained the situation to the boy, whose first trip into the darkness this was. “She’s always back there,” he said, mopping his forehead. “Like a damn snake in a hole.” He paused to catch his breath, and the other two paused with him. “So we always have to run her to ground, so to speak.” He laughed. “Sometimes we have to bind her to bring her out. She’s old. Used to be quite dangerous—”
“Until we defanged her.” The warrior turned and snorted. He held up the sword in his strong right hand. “Defanged her good, we did.”
The fat man nodded and coughed. “Lord God Apollo’s power is far stronger than that pitiful earth goddess of hers. He banished the whole bunch of ’em. Buried ’em!” He looked around. “Down here.” He smoothed his white robe over his belly and thighs. “No need to be afraid of her anymore.”
“Old women. Useless.” The warrior thrust his torch forward. “Hey! Old woman! You’re needed above.”
Using the cold charcoal brazier to steady herself, she pushed herself to her feet. “Yes. I know.”
The fat high priest stood directly under the raised torch. “Lord God Apollo requires your services. A general has arrived. His donation is significant. Acceptable to the gods.” He permitted himself a meager smile. “So many gold ingots, so many amphorae of wine, so many silver salvers. And a magnificent statue of the general himself. Lord God alone knows what it cost his country—”
The old woman’s spittle forced him to take an undignified, but necessary, step into the shadow. “He raised taxes tenfold,” she said. “Yes yes, I’m ready. I understand what you want.”
The apprentice priest had crept forward for a closer look at this monster, but when the serpent, its tongue working, stretched out to peer at him, he scurried back and raised one arm as if to ward off demons.
The woman thrust her head forward, too. “Silly boy. There’s no need to be afraid of an old woman and an older serpent.” She chucked and picked up her staff. “So?”
The fat man gestured and his companions, wanting to be in the sunlight high above, moved back into the corridor. “Well, old woman, just come along now.” He assumed his most congenial voice as he gestured for her to precede him. “You’ll be surprised, I’m sure, to see how the college has grown during your … ahem … retirement. We’ve added two acolytes just this past week. Good girls. From good families.”
“Bah. They’re ninnies, just like all your other ‘good girls.’ Platon, you know that as well as I do. I myself am the last true Pythoness, and you know that, too. Why else would you come for me today? No matter what you and your so-called gods do, I’m still the only one who holds the true power.”
He flushed. “Well, that’s true, but you see—”
“What I see is the truth. Always.”
“Yes yes yes.” He turned and looked at the apprentice, who was staying well out of reach of the serpent. “She always claims she was here, yes yes, she was a girl when Gaia still owned this property. But their prophecies were just too dangerous for mankind to hear. We had to take it over for the Lord God’s sake. But we had nothing to do with the looting. Nothing at all. It was out of our control.” Wiping his face again, he looked at the old woman for a reaction. But she simply set one foot in front of the other. “Well, Madame, will you come peacefully today?”
“What else can an old woman do?” She gave an elaborate shrug that nearly dislodged the serpent. “I’m coming.” They started up the steps toward the sunlight.
At the tail of this small procession, the boy looked back down. The corridor and the little chamber were almost pitch black, though he imagined he saw darker spots that might indicate other little chambers. How could anyone live down here in the dark? How could anyone exist so far away from the light of the world?
The fat man climbed painfully up, wheezing, limping, gasping, stopping on every third step to lean against the crudely hewn rock wall. The boy already knew better than to offer to assist him.
Not even breathing heavily, but leaning on her staff, the old woman stopped two steps above the fat man and looked down at his bald head with its laurel wreath. She shrugged. Now that they’d turned the corner, she could see the first glow of sunlight, a glow that was a glare to her eyes. She shaded her face with one brown-spotted hand. The light, dim as it was, showed how worn her robe was, where the patches were, where her food and wine had fallen and been carefully mopped. The light also showed how well-muscled her body had once been, how translucent her skin, how full her long white hair still was. “You’ve gone almost as far as you can go,” she remarked in the fat man’s direction.
“What?” He wiped his streaming face. “I am High Priest of Lord God Apollo. I am the future of the world!” He ignored the old woman’s soft laughter.
“Lord Platon, they’re waiting for us.” The man with the torch and the sword, a dozen steps ahead, looked down at them. “Do you require assistance?”
“No. I do not.” He forced himself to stand erect, tried to ease his wheezing. “I require only the luminous power of the Lord God.” He fingered his badge of office. “Well, old woman—what are you waiting for?”
She pulled her stole up so that it covered both her head and the serpent around her shoulders. “I am at your service.” Only the old priest heard the irony in her voice, and he was too busy gathering his dignity to reply. They emerged into the courtyard.
As they crossed the courtyard, she was aware of the maidens gathered along the path, aware of their sudden silence and their staring, aware of their virginity, their silliness, their pliability. But she ignored them. She ignored the armed men standing near the portico of the new marble temple. She ignored the magnificent temple itself and its many outbuildings as she walked calmly along the dirt path to the little structure a little downhill from the marble buildings. Without a word or a sign that she was conscious of anything in the daylight world, she entered the shed that was still shaded by the old, old olive trees.
As the priests gathered their robes about their bodies and stood taller, the members of the conqueror’s delegation slouched together and muttered among themselves. The fat priest, fanning himself, walked a few paces toward the temple to show that he was in charge, then turned to face the great general himself.
…to be continued tomorrow!
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.