Black Lily

Mystery and The Mask (Part 02)

Chapter 5

 

Gabrielle rolled over to snuggle closer to the warmth of her lover and almost fell on the floor before she realized she was alone in the bed.

“Hey!” she called from the depths of the blankets.

When no answer was forthcoming, she opened one eye and looked around. There was no sign of the Warrior Princess, her armor and weapons were gone, but the fire was stoked and there was a plate of bread and cheese awaiting the attentions of a hungry bard. Gabrielle dressed and ate rapidly, checking the light outside to determine the time. Still pretty early, she thought. Where could she be? Shops won’t be open, town’s barely awake. She yawned hugely, stretching her arms out.

“Another beautiful spring day.” she declared out loud.

“Yes, you are,” came the answer from the doorway. “Good to have you up so early. I left food… oh, I see you found it.” Xena smiled at her partner, closed the door and came over for a kiss.

“Where were you? I needed you – my feet were cold.” Gabrielle smiled up at Xena.

“Outside, giving myself cold feet.” the warrior lifted a booted foot, covered in dew. “It’s misty out, but it will burn off soon. The sun rises early here – the eastern wall is low.”

“Are you still doing that – checking out the defenses?” Gabrielle asked surprised.

“No, actually, I was out having a run,” Xena laughed, “but since I can’t help it, as you noticed, I just cataloged the fact.”

They packed up their small belongings and made ready to leave the room. Best be prepared for the worst,Gabrielle thought wryly, remembering times when only this preparation saved their lives. She thought back to the early days, traveling with Xena, how she pestered the warrior with questions. How little I understood.

There had been a day when she asked why they always had to act as if they were moving on, keeping their gear stowed, their saddlebags full.

“Why do we have to act like transients? We’re staying here for a while, aren’t we?” she asked peevishly.

The warrior did not answer at first. She continued to stow her gear in her saddlebags with single-minded determination. Gabrielle stood petulantly, refusing to budge without an explanation. After a while, the bard had shrugged and haphazardly thrown her possessions together.

As they sat in the inn’s main room eating in silence, Xena had spoken to her bowl.

“We need to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. You just don’t know what will come up and it pays to be prepared for the worst.”

Gabrielle took a moment to figure out the cryptic remark. Nice attitude, no wonder you don’t have alot of friends. And regretted it the moment it crossed her mind. She looked guiltily at the warrior from under lowered lids, wondering if she guessed what the young bard had just thought.

“It may be a small inconvienience, ” the dark woman had looked up, making the bard catch her breath at the sight of that cold, blue gaze, “but, ultimately, it can save your life. Besides, ” and at this the warrior had smiled, making Gabrielle catch her breath again, for an entirely different reason, “packing and unpacking’s such a pain.” The bard grinned and returned to her meal.

Two days later that town was nothing but rubble. A warlord named, what, Harpalycus, the “ravening wolf,” wasn’t it? He tore through that town like it was papyrus, taking everything that wasn’t moving, killing everything that was. Gabrielle remembered how the news came and Xena left her where she was standing, running at full speed for the stables, screaming at her to grab their things and come as fast as possible.

As she had left the inn, Xena came galloping up on Argo, grabbed her, bags and all and swung her onto the horse. They didn’t stop until they had reached the refuge of some seaside caves several miles away.

“You’re not going to help them?” Gabrielle stuttered when she had regained some of her breath.

“There’s no help for them. they’ve known about Harpalycus for months. They tried to cheat him with false promises. The scouts told of an army too large for any one person, or even a person and a town to fight. I’ll get Harpalycus on my own terms.” Xena set about making a quick camp.

Gabrielle had grown accustomed enough to the tall woman to know when she was really angry, and she was really angry now. The bard could see it in her posture, the way her movements were choppy, agitated, the way she broke wood for the fire. Still, all those people…

You’re just going to let them get killed?” Gabrielle accused.

“I told you – they cheated him. All he wanted was supplies. They could have bought him off, but they cheated and lied. Now they’re going to pay the price.” But Gabrielle could see how grey her face was, how hard she was holding herself back. If I wasn’t here, she’d have gladly fought that fight – and died.

The bard drew closer. “Thank you for saving me.” Xena didn’t respond. “I’m the reason you ran, aren’t I? If it weren’t for me, you’d be there. And you’d be dead, So, thank you. On both counts.” Still the warrior was silent, but her jaw relaxed a little, and her movements smoothed out. With sudden realization, Gabrielle recognized the source of her companion’s anger. She thinks *I’m* angry, about leaving the people in the town. She thought of this woman who valued her sole opinion more than that of an entire population, more, than the *lives* of an entire population.

“I guess they could have done something, couldn’t they?” she suggested, tentatively. “Maybe they should have been packed and ready to go, too.” she giggled nervously, as the tension and fear caught up with her. Xena smiled tightly and suggested that the bard heat up some water for tea. When the younger woman looked up, Xena had all her weapons out, and was checking over each one minutely. As Gabrielle watched, the warrior took clay from the cave’s floor and began to dull every shiny surface on each weapon, from sword to her smallest knife. Then she applied it to her armor and finally, any skin that was visible. By this time, the sun was down, and the cave was dark and gloomy.

“Don’t wait up.” was all Xena said, as she disappeared out of the cave. Gabrielle heard Argo’s hoofbeats fade away into the night. She didn’t sleep. All night long she huddled near the fire, singing songs to herself and drinking tea to keep warm.

She talked to herself then, telling herself that this was worth it, that she was learning important things.. And she sternly reminded herself to keep her equipment packed, neatly and portably. At this, the young bard rose and pulled out all her meager possessions, refolding and repacking each item, until she had used only half the space in her bags for everything. By the time she was done, the eastern sky was a dull grey. The sea was a far-off pounding, muffled by the cave walls. Above the booming she began to hallucinate that she heard another pounding. Hammers, she thought, pounding away at the walls of the cave. As the pounding got louder, she began to panic, fearing a cave-in, when she realized it was the sound of hooves pounding on the sand.

Xena rode up almost at the moment Gabrielle realized who it must be. The warrior was blood and mud spattered. She looked exhausted. Gabrielle realized with a shock she had gone to “take care of” Harpalycus. The bard thrust a cup of tea into the tall woman’s hands and took Argo’s tack off. She watched as Xena sipped the tea, sighed and sipped again. She saw Gabrielle reach for the saddle.

“Let me do that.” The warrior said, but Gabrielle shook her head.

“You rest. Use the rest of the water for washing. I’ll be fine.” and she set to cleaning and feeding Argo. Xena stood silently for a moment, then did as she was told. When she had washed and eaten, she pulled something out of her scabbard and handed it to Gabrielle.

“Here.” and the warrior rolled herself up in her blankets. In a moment, the bard heard the even breathing of a deep sleep. Gabrielle looked at the object in her hand. It was her good quill, set into a holder to keep the end firm. The holder had been a gift from her family, made from onyx, with a small gold band at the top. In her haste to grab her loosely packed possessions, she must have dropped this small item. And Xena had found it. And returned it. Even with the weight of hundreds of people’s deaths and the vengance she had taken for them, weighing on her, the warrior had thought to retrieve this small, but valuable gift. At that moment Gabrielle vowed she would never be unprepared again. Never again would this woman, silent but full of so much feeling, have to risk her life for even the most precious of Gabrielle’s possessions. Never again, she swore.

 

“Where have you been?” Xena asked, watching her partner, as she settled their few possesions in convienient locations.

“Thinking about myself a few years ago – how naive I was, how much trouble I caused you.”

“Gabrielle, you were never any trouble.” Xena stood behind the bard, who leaned her head back against the warrior’s armor. Xena kissed the offered forehead.

“Well, I’m about to be.” Gabrielle said lightly. “Are you ready for your trip to the library? Excuse me, ‘The Library.’ ” she stated formally.

“So, you noticed that, did you? The people from around here seem to hold it in a mixture of esteem and fear.”

“Not unlike a Warrior Princess I could name.” Gabrielle retrieved her staff from the bedside. “Ready?”

Xena shrugged good naturedly. “Sure.” She paused,” what was that thing you said last night?”

“Which thing?” Gabrielle asked uneasily, “You mean, about…”

“No, ” Xena reassured, “you said something as I laid down that I didn’t catch.”

“Oh!” Gabrielle laughed happily as she headed out the door. ” I said, ‘I sure do love a real bed!’” Xena laughed with her as she followed the bard out into the hall.

 

 


 

 

It took the best part of the morning to reach The Library’s grounds. There had been several marketplaces, full of various goods and foodstuffs. Xena and Gabrielle had spent much of the morning shopping for provisions, supplies and the like, arranging to have their goods sent back to the inn.

“Did you notice the looks on people’s face when we told them we were staying at the Two Swans?” Gabrielle asked, as they rounded a corner and headed towards the marker that told where the Library was located.

Xena turned to look down on her companion. “Yes. I fancy a few prices came down, as well. The “Eagles” must have a lot of friends in this town.”

“Well, if they’re mostly like Marcus and Petros, I can see why. They’re honest and kind and…” the bard ground to a halt as the (in)famous Library came into view.

The grounds were not landscaped, but allowed to retain a natural feel, running to the wild side. The building however, was not even a little wild or natural, but was indeed impressive. It was a marble building, glowing with reflective whiteness in the bright sunshine. What it lacked for in hight, it made up for in sheer compact perfection. The frieze adorning the lintel was in high relief, the columns aligned and carved beautifully, with acanthus leaf capitals.

“It’s beautiful,” breathed Gabrielle, “and look, the frieze depicts the Muses.” She pointed to the carvings. They stood for a moment, taking in the whole effect. Eventually a movement gained Xena’s attention. She noticed a woman sweeping in the portico and gestured in that direction.

“Maybe she can tell us where the Librarian is.” They headed towards the structure.

As the women approached, they could make out a short, dumpy woman in loose clothes. She was humming tunelessly to herself as she swept. She acknowledged them without looking up from her chore.

“Strangers, eh?” she kept sweeping. They didn’t respond, but shot each other an amused glance. “Oh…so you’re quick, I see. You know how I know, yeah?” she hummed a little more, completed her task and looked up, leaning on the broom, hand on hip.

“Well, that nails it. If you’re quick-witted, you’re not from around here.” she smiled. The three women looked at each other, sizing each other up for a silent moment. Xena noticed the stance the women was in, and the way she balanced. I’ll wager this woman knows how to fight, she thought. Gabrielle took in the dark curly hair going to grey, the sallow, freckled skin.

“You’re not from around here, either.” Gabrielle said lightly. “Land of the Israelites?”

The woman waved a hand vaguely. “Oh, way back, yes. We’ve been here a long time, but we’ll always be strangers.” She didn’t look or sound bitter. She gave Gabrielle a keen glance, “You’re from Potedeia from the dialect, but you don’t look like a small town girl.” She transfered her gaze to Xena. “You must be Xena, the famous Warrior Princess, and you,” she looked at the bard, “are Gabrielle. You’re both very welcome here.”

She extended a hand to Gabrielle, then Xena. “I’m Leah, I’m the Librarian. C’mon in.”

Leah led them through the portico, into a dark passage with no windows. They passed down this hall into a very bright interior chamber and from there into a garden atrium. Leah invited the women to sit, while she went about putting the broom away, gathering cups and plates and serving her guests food and drink.

“I hope you like stuffed grape leaves.” She said apologetically. “I love ‘em and its all I have on hand. I didn’t realize I’d be getting guests today.” She looked up at them as she served them wine. “Don’t get me wrong – I wanted to meet you both. I just figured I’d have to find you, rather than you coming to me.”

Xena waved away the apology. “This is more than we expected. Thank you. What do you mean you wanted to meet us?”

Gabrielle listened to the Librarian talk as she ate some very excellent grape leaves.

“Well,” said Leah, “I collect information. I’m a librarian, after all. And you two are famous. For your adventures, for your expertise, for alot of reasons. I wanted to collect you.” Seeing their expressions, she laughed. “Not literally. I mean, do I *look* like a threat?” she chuckled, gesturing at herself.

Xena raised her eyebrow and nodded. “You can be, though, can’t you?” Leah started, then blushed.

“Hades, you *are* good, aren’t you?” she inquired.”I have a great deal of free time here,” she gestured largely to include the whole building.

Gabrielle noted how she seemed to speak with her hands, as much as her mouth. I wonder, if you tied them down, would she go mute? The bard stifled a giggle at this thought in a sip of the wine.

Leah continued to talk. “I do alot of reading, obviously, and some of what I read, I practice.” She got up and began to walk back and forth. “I’ve learned ways to keep marble white, to sew my own clothes and yes, to fight.” She stopped pacing and looked at Xena. Her face was benign, but her eyes were sad. “And yes, Xena Warrior Princess, yes, I have had to use my knowledge once or twice.” She fell silent for a moment. “But that’s beside the point.” and her eyes were once again jovial. “The point is, what brings you two women to our peaceful little town?”

Gabrielle leapt in with “We’re on vacation. Taking a working holiday, of a sort.”

Leah nodded. Gabrielle kept going, “Well, we travel anyway, and we had nowhere special to be so…”

“So, ” broke in Leah, “you came to visit the famous Library. Or infamous?” she asked archly. “C’mon, tell me, what have you heard? “The Librarian is a witch.” or “The Libarian eats children?” Yes, it’s all true.” she laughed merrily at her own joke.

“We heard that there is a price to see the Library and that you are…weird.” Leah laughed heartily at this.

“And so there is – and so I am. Who’d have thought it? You heard the truth!” She clapped her hands in delight.

“What kind of price?” Gabrielle asked, “He was, I mean, Marcus, was so somber about it, it seemed terribly steep. We don’t have many dinars and…” Leah shook her head.

“No money necessary. But the price is steep. For everyone who comes here must tell me a story.” Her voice dropped ominously. Gabrielle looked confused for a moment.

“A story? But that’s..”

“No problem for a bard?” Leah interrupted, her voice light and cheery. “Of course not. How many bards do I get? You should hear the dreadful hash people make of most stories. I collect various version of the most common stories. You, ” she focused on Gabrielle, “would be appalled at how many times I’ve heard that Jason was the Hero of Troy and how Hercules stole the Golden Fleece.” She shuddered at the thought.

Xena was watching all this with amusement. “So I guess we heard at least a half truth.” Leah looked at the formidable warrior with questioning eyes. Xena smiled wickedly. “For us, at least, the price is not steep, but you Leah the Librarian are most definitely…” she balked.

“Weird.” Leah supplied with a grin. “I suppose I am.”

 

 

Chapter 6

 

Before she extracted her price, Leah graciously lead them around the actual Library part of the building. She showed them her cataloging system, how to find any one scroll or parchment among the many.

“Have you actually read all of them?” Gabrielle wondered, her eyes wide with the enormity of the task.

“Oh no. The last keeper, he was getting close, but he died very old. I’ll admit,” she said as she lead them to a light and airy room, “that I could have read more, but I have a habit of reading my favorites over and over.” She smiled over her shoulder at them.

Leah stopped and gestured expansively at a newish set of cubbyholes. They were mostly empty, with only a few full of scrolls.

Gabrielle leaned close, “These look like new scrolls.” she commented. Leah nodded.

“I thought you might like to see this section. As you can see, its’ new.” her grin widened. Xena looked at her suspiciously, but a grin tugged at the corners of her lips.

Gabrielle took a long look at the Librarian and reached for a scroll. “Is this… they’re not…?” she said as she opened one up. “Oh Great Hera! It is. I am so embarrassed.” She put one hand on her forehead. She couldn’t stop smiling. “And pleased, too. Of course.” she continued hastily. Leah had to laugh at the emotions crossing the young bard’s face. She took the scroll back.

Gabrielle looked at Xena, her eyes wide, and more than a little dazed. “It’s one of mine.” she choked. Xena put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed.

“And why not?” The warrior demanded, smiling. “Who better?”

“Actually, it’s a copy. I have a friend that works as a copyist in Athens. We have a reciprocal arrangement. He sends me new stories, and I do likewise. So, ” she continued as she slipped the scroll back into the cubbyhole, “we know all about you here.” The smile was friendly, but Gabrielle could not stop blushing.

Xena ran her eyes across the cubbyholes. “Why are there two collections here? And what is that catologing number? BG? What does that stand for?”

Leah pointed to one stack, then the other, “BG, AG. ‘Before Gabrielle,’ ‘After Gabrielle.’” Seeing the look on their faces she hurried on. “Well I had to do something! The original stories were, well, you know what they were. But after a while, the stories changed. And a name that hadn’t been there before was being repeated.” She turned to face both women. “I fancy myself a student of humanity, ladies. The original stories were about Xena, Destroyer of Nations. The later stories were about Xena, Warrior Princess and her friend, Gabrielle. Remember, a great deal of these stories are told to me by travelers and traders.

“You, ” she wagged a finger at the bard, “don’t write about yourself. But others do, and some have seen you two in action – or heard about you.”

The Librarian looked seriously at them for a moment. “Please don’t take offense at this, but I want to tell you – I’m probably the first person in Greece to have known about you two, well, as a couple.” She kept her eyes on them, judging how far she could take this conversation.

“Y’see, other people know stories of Xena, but I’m the first person to collect and archive them. This isn’t the only copy in the world of these scrolls. My Athenian friend, Glaucus, he’s got a collection of the Xena Scrolls too. We don’t want them being lost. Glaucus is a great guy, but he’s a guy, you know? He didn’t notice the writing had changed, the description of the Warrior Princess had become softer, more…loving.” Gabrielle turned a little pale, then blushed again.

“I didn’t realize…” she said, ducking her head. “Is it that obvious?”

“No! I only noticed because I like to read things over. And in order. Don’t fret – it’s not a widely known thing. I mean, I’m not town crier or anything. It’s just that I wanted to let you know, you don’t have to hide. Not from me, not here.”

Xena nodded briefly. “We don’t hide, not from anyone.” She extended an arm. “But thanks, Leah, thanks for caring.”

Leah took the proffered arm. “Hey! It’s my pleasure. Remember, I know you way better than you know me.” She chuckled and waved at the scrolls. “So, do you want to pay the price now, or tomorrow? You will be back tomorrow, won’t you?” She tried to look formidable, from under her dark brows, but her blue eyes twinkled.

Gabrielle took Xena’s arm in one hand. “Oh we’ll be back. And thank you, Leah. I’m glad you’ve done this.” The bard gestured to the cataloged scrolls. “Let’s do the story now, then we’ll do dinner. Do you know of a good place to eat?”

Leah laughed. “How do you think I maintain this?” She slapped her ample hips. “If there is one thing I know – it’s where to get good food.”

 


 

They sat in a well lit room, Leah with a much used piece of vellum on her lap and a quill in hand, Gabrielle with her legs tucked underneath her. Xena stood in the corner, arms and legs crossed. Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, they were far away, but her voice was strong.

“I thought about this, what story to tell you. I think you’ll like this one. You may have heard the beginning – but I don’t think you know this ending.” A small smile crossed her lips. She sat quietly, collecting her thoughts.

“A long time ago, when our ancestors were wiser and the Gods more present in our lives, a great dispute formed. Both Poseidon, Earth-shaker and Grey-eyed Athena wished to be the sole god of Athens. Poseidon made his claim by thrusting his trident into the high ground of the Acropolis. At this, a spring of well water gushed forth. This spring is active even today and if you stand at sunset by the spring, it is said that the sound of the ocean rides the wind and can be heard. Athena made a gentler claim by planting the first olive tree. Poseidon would have fought her in single combat, so angry was he, and Athena, afraid of no one, would have gladly obliged. But Zeus the Thunderer intervened, declaring the dispute must be settled by arbitration. The King of Athens, the first citizen, Cecrops was called in as arbitrator.. He was perceived as a wise man, a man of depth and understanding.

“Cecrops determined that Athena’s claim to the city was greater, because the olive tree was the more useful gift. Poseidon, greedy of land, was enraged. He cursed Cecrops, saying that his children would have serpent’s tails and die early deaths. The King himself he commanded to be sent to sea, to be trapped forever on a ship surrounded by his enemy’s kingdom, never to see his fair Athens or his wife, again.”

Gabrielle waited as the Librarian took a few notes on the parchment.

“What you don’t know, can’t know, is the end of this story.” the bard continued.

Then she told Leah of their meeting Cecrops, of her rescue from the sea, of Xena’s amazing leap onto the ship, of the pirates that pursued them and were lost in Charybdis’s dark waters. She told of Athena’s gift to him, immortality, and how it must have seemed a curse for a long, long time. And she told, finally, of how love, of Xena and Gabrielle’s love for one another and his crew’s love for him, set him free.

When she was finished, the bard sat again quietly, as her thoughts ranged and she sipped a drink to soothe her tired throat.

Leah sighed and shook her hand, which was cramping from the note-taking. “You aren’t kidding. I never heard of the ending to this story. Wow, you two are something special. You live legends, your lives are epic events.” she shook her head in wonder. “That was one Hades of a payment. I think I owe you, now.”