Rome, July, 25 AD
Rain from overhanging clouds drizzled on Marcellus and Arius as they ascended the marble steps of the temple of Minerva. At supper the previous night, Marcellus had revealed to his best friend his visions of the helmeted woman summoning him. After further discussion, Arius suggested he seek spiritual guidance from a priestess of Minerva. It made sense; the goddess of wisdom was often depicted with helmet and armor.
Marcellus now believed his relationship with Eliana had been fated to end so he could search for the helmeted woman. In a few weeks, he would depart with Arius to Gaul, where they would train before reporting under the leadership of Tribune Decimus Flavius the following spring. So long as Consul Asinius lived, Marcellus could never return to Rome. Also in question was his betrothal to Licinea. If word ever leaked out about his affair with the consul’s wife, his father would surely disown him.
Arius jolted Marcellus out of his churning thoughts with the question, “Do you really believe Eliana is carrying your child?”
“Eliana’s goat of a husband has been impotent from the day of their marriage.”
“Miracles do happen,” Arius said with a chuckle.
Marcellus shook his head. “If I were so lucky.”
Arius slapped Marcellus hard on the back. “At least we can both join the Legion and go on a great adventure together.”
“I already had a great adventure in Britannia,” Marcellus said sarcastically. “And I can’t remember what happened. Thank you for staying the night at the temple with me after the priestess gives me the potion.”
A dark-haired priestess dressed in a white tunica greeted them at the top of the steps. Her almond-shaped eyes reminded Marcellus of an Egyptian’s, the green powder on her eyelids sparkling whenever she blinked. A black line painted outward from her eyelids looked like the forked tongue of a snake. He shuddered, recalling his near-death encounter with the cobra.
The priestess gestured for Marcellus and Arius to follow her to the cella, the main enclosed room, where worshippers were praying to the statue of the helmeted Minerva. On the top of the statue’s hand was the winged goddess of victory, Victoria.
The priestess sprinkled oil on a candle next to the statue and turned to Marcellus. “What do you seek from Minerva?”
“I want to know the meaning of the helmeted woman in my dreams,” Marcellus answered.
The priestess walked to a table on which several bowls of various solutions and herbal powders has been set. She poured solutions from two different jars into a brass cup and mixed in an assortment of powders. After preparing the mixture, she raised a goblet toward the statue, chanting incomprehensible words, then handed the vessel to Marcellus.
“Drink this,” she instructed. “It will induce sleep. The helmeted woman you seek will reveal who she is in your vision.”
Marcellus stared at the various sized particles skimming on what looked like oil in the goblet. “What’s in this drink?”
“Powders of saupe fish scales, blue lotus, and opium. Just enough for you to connect with the goddess while you dream,” the priestess said.
“What if the woman does not appear in my dream?” asked Marcellus, becoming uneasy about ingesting such powerful drugs.
The priestess shut her eyelids. “I feel her essence all around you. She has a strong god who protects and empowers her.” She opened her eyes and lifted the vessel to his mouth. “Drink all of this. The effects will be rapid. You must stay in the temple tonight in case there are ill effects. Will your friend stay with you?”
Marcellus nodded and sipped the foul-tasting mixture that smelled like fish and burped. He took a deep breath and drained the goblet. He gagged, barely able to hold the contents down. Shortly, the effects of the drink made his vision blur. He could barely discern the door opening in the chamber. His head spun so wildly that he collapsed in Arius’s arms. He felt his feet drag on the floor until his head hit a soft cushion.
He then envisioned his body floating through a dark tunnel until it reached a dense forest. There, he saw himself alight on a massive rock that looked like a throne on a cloud-like pedestal. The raven-helmeted woman appeared naked through the trees. As she provocatively ambled toward him, she removed her helmet to reveal her long, gold-blonde hair. Marcellus couldn’t clearly discern her face. She pushed herself up between his thighs. He lowered his head to meet her lips. As she passionately kissed him, she placed an arm over his thigh. They froze in that position like a marble statue of Apollo kissing one of his lovers.
The image faded …
Marcellus next saw himself dressed in a white and purple striped toga of a Roman senator. He was gazing across a mosaic pool at the woman he just kissed. A beam of light shone on a blue tattoo of what looked like a bird spreading its wings across her forehead. A white raven was perched on her right arm while her other hand rested on a crimson shield. Her gold breastplate was emblazoned with the image of a coal-black horse.
Tongues of fire suddenly lapped the surface of the pool’s water …
He was now armed in the brass-plated cuirass of a Roman General. To his side was another striking young man similarly armed, holding a sword, its blade covered with blood. Crimson flames from the water reflected in the young man’s eyes as he stared at an eagle soaring over the white cliffs at the other side of the pool. Marcellus could no longer see the armed woman through the blaze. To find her, he stepped into the fiery pool. The woman appeared out of the flames and embraced him. Billowing flames engulfed their bodies. The acrid smell of burning flesh assaulted his nostrils. He flailed his arms to escape the searing heat.
Waking with a jerk, Marcellus screamed, his body soaked with cold sweat. Disoriented, he couldn’t recall where he was. Closing his eyes, he was pulled back into a hallucination. Blue-faced warriors were surrounding him, brandishing their spears and swords. Panic gripped him that he could not escape; he couldn’t catch his breath. His heart hammered against his ribcage as he slowly unsheathed his gladius. The warriors leapt on him like locusts and pinned him on the ground. Just as one of the warriors lowered his blade on him, he heard Arius’s voice shouting, “Wake up! Wake up!”
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