Black Lily

Mystery and The Mask (Part 03)

Chapter 7

 

As they walked through town, The three women chatted amiably. Eventually Leah brought the conversation back to the thrilling tale Gabrielle had told.

“So, tell me, “she asked with interest, “didn’t helping Cecrops upset Poseidon? I mean, he doesn’t sound much like a God who loses well.”

Xena nodded in agreement. “It’s not the first time I took something from him, it may not be the last. ” she shrugged, not knowing how to describe her relationship with the Gods.

“Good thing we’re landlocked here.” Leah joked. She pointed, “This is where we’re going.” and led the way into a small, nicely painted taverna. The women were seated at a table that gave them a view of the small square outside. They watched the evening perambulations of young couples, shops being closed, others being opened, the general hustle and bustle of town life. Each was lost in her own thoughts for a time.

“So…” eventually Leah persisted, “How do you deal with it – when a God has it out for you?”

Gabrielle took up the thread. “It’s not that simple. Thankfully, or we’d probably wouldn’t even be here.” She said truthfully. “But Xena has done the Gods some favors and they owe her as much as we owe them. I think its a kind of uneasy truce.” Her voice faltered as she thought of the truce between Ares and herself, and how uneasy that was, in truth. “There a few of them that actually *need* Xena, but they won’t admit it, of course.” She smiled, thinking of their last fiasco with an enchanted scroll and two Gods without their powers.

“You’d be surprised, ” she said confidentially to the Librarian, “Without their powers, some of the Gods seem, well, like poorly bred peasants.” The image of Aphrodite belching sprang unbidden into her mind and she had to stifle a giggle.

“I’ll try not to remember that next time I visit a temple.” Leah grimaced at the images the bard’s words called up. They were interrupted by a server, and the next few minutes were taken with ordering and food talk.

Xena leaned forward, spearing Leah with her eyes. Gabrielle noticed that Leah’s eyes were a darker blue, but had the same capacity for iciness that she had seen in her partner.

The warrior spoke with unconcealed interest. “How did it happen that this town has a library such as yours? Don’t they usually get built as part of a temple complex? I didn’t see a temple.”

The librarian nodded and waved her hands around. “Oh, it’s there, alright. You noticed the wooded copse next to the Library?” Xena nodded. “Well, it used to be the Temple of the Muses.” Xena relaxed backwards and Gabrielle leaned against her, as the Librarian told the tale.

“There was a time, long enough ago that there are no people that remember relatives who remember this, when building Temples for the Muses, and for Athena was alot more popular than it is now. Now it’s all Apollo, but back then, the Fates, the Muses, they all had their own powers, with no help from any other God.” She sipped at her cup, which had just been placed in front of her.

“Anyway, as I said it was long ago. The Muses had their powers usurped by Apollo, and most of the donations went to the new priesthood. The calling to serve the Muses fell by the way, or passed over to men, the women stopped becoming acolytes.” She shrugged. “It happens. One god takes the place of another, one priesthood dies, another is born. The Temple fell into disrepair and eventually was abandoned.”

“But that doesn’t explain why the Library continued…” Xena prompted with a dazzling smile.

Leah returned the smile. “It does though, if you think about it. A Library is usually built as part of the Museum complex, as a place to store knowledge. The priest or priestesses have their religious duties to attend to. They can’t be bothered to catalog or index the Library’s contents, so they hire scholars to do that. The scholars aren’t drawn there for love of a God or Goddess. Scholars love the knowledge available, the scrolls and artifacts.”

Gabrielle nodded. “So when the temple dies away, if there is still a scholar that wants to take care of the Library, it survives.”

“Exactly,” Leah agreed. “In our case, a noble and far-seeing magistrate created an inviolable trust that stated that, as long as a single person was willing and available to ward the Library, that the town would pay them income and expenses for the building’s upkeep. Within reason, of course.” she smiled wryly. “I’ve been lucky. This magistrate sees the Library as a treasure, not a drain on the treasury. You can see the building’s been decently maintained. I can’t really ask for more.” She nodded to herself happily. “It’s been a good life so far.”

Xena looked satisfied at the answer. “But one thing puzzles me.” she inquired. “If the Library was part of a Museum, what was the ruined Temple outside town for? It’s pretty rare, you have to admit, for a wealthy and thriving town to have two ruined temples so close together.”

Leah looked conspiratorily at her new friends. “I wondered when you would get to that.” The server arrived with their food and there was a prolonged silence as they turned their attentions to the very excellent food in front of them.

As they each established a rhythm to their meal, Leah continued. “The problem with the other Temple wasn’t falling from grace, or fashion. It wasn’t even the politics of religion. Nope, ” she put down her bread and drank. Her voice lowered ominously. “It’s a monster.”

Xena and Gabrielle both looked at her incredulously. “Seriously!” Leah insisted, with a smile. “There is a Gorgon in residence. It used to be a Temple of Athena, but eventually a Gorgon took up living there. Some say she did it to defy Athena, in revenge for her sister Medusa. In any case, heroes that go to kill the monster don’t return. There are even a few accounts of young girls going missing out that way and never being seen again.” By this time Leah looked like a cat caught with cream on her nose. Xena had to laugh.

“You don’t believe a word of it.” The warrior chuckled. Leah shook her head.

“Not one. But it makes a great ghost story for the kids who come by.” Gabrielle and Xena laughed.

“So what’s the real story?’ Gabrielle insisted. Leah shrugged.

“I don’t know. The oldest records in my Library state that the Temple of Athena had an oracle. But you know, Apollo took that over, as well. The oracle fell out of fashion, I suppose. Everyone goes to Delphi now. A few generations later monster stories fill up the scrolls. I don’t think we’ll ever really know.” She shook her head again.

Xena cocked her head, “Haven’t you gone out to look?” Leah pretended to be horrfied, flinging her hands in front of her face.

“Not me! I’m a coward by nature. Let others get hero status – I’ll stay home and read my scrolls about them.” The two women facing her laughed.

As silence fell as they finished off their plates and sighed with contentment.

Gabrielle licked her fingers for the last of the sauce on them. “You were right. this certainly beats the food at the Swans.”

“I heard you were staying there. Interesting choice. Friends of yours in the “Eagles?” She saw them nod. “Well, you’ll be safe as houses there and the cider’s damn good. Not that you two are worried much about safety. ” she finished, her eyes twinkling with good humor.

The bard regarded their new friend for a long while. Finally, she asked with curiosity. “Why did Marcus, uh, he’s one of the guards in the “Eagles,” why did he speak of you with such awe and fear? I mean, I’ve been watching you all night, waving and greeting people. you seem to have good standing in this town. Why would the guards fear you?”

Leah smiled wickedly. “What use for knowledge do guards have? Seriously, though. They do their job, it takes experience and battle smarts, but not many of them can read past their own names. What use do they have for the likes of me?” Her eyes darkened, but her smile never faded. “And when I was young, and new as the sole Librarian, a few of them who had had a bit too much drink decided to make a point of it. I don’t think they meant anything by it, not at first. Maybe they expected me to run and hide, they would do a bit of damage, steal a scroll or two…” she wandered away for a moment. When she continued her voice was soft, sad.

“Only I didn’t know that. I heard booted feet coming through the entrance and I spooked. They did too. We had… well, a tiff. It wasn’t more than a few seconds and we didn’t do more than scare each other. I did manage to knock a few down with my broom, I know I broke at least two of their arms and ruined another’s knee. They jumped me and beat me pretty badly.

“I woke up, didn’t know what had happened to me. I dragged myself to bed and slept through an entire day. It wasn’t until one of the children who come by for stories came around that anyone knew. He took one look at me and ran for the healer. The same man had treated the guards’ hurts. He knew what was what and reported it to their captain. I never knew about any of this for months. No one wanted to tell me, I guess. The guard whose knee I shattered had to retire. He’ll never walk straight again. The two with the broken arms were shipped out to a different regiment to guard trade routes. The other two spent alot of the next few months doing pretty unpleasant work for their punishment.

“Like I said, I didn’t know about any of this. I had a concussion and some deep bruises and a few minor cuts. The Healer was worried about my kidneys, too, but whatever he was concerned about didn’t happen. Anyway, “she said, drawing a deep breath and stretching her back, “it’s pretty traditional now for the guards to give me a wide berth and me them. I’ve got nothing against them, you understand, and they’re cordial to me, but we don’t try to have many dealings even now.”

Gabrielle regarded their companion with sad eyes. “You’re an interesting person, Leah.”

The Librarian laughed drily. “You know, I suppose, that that’s a curse among my people? ‘May you have an interesting life,’ is not a thing you want to hear.” They all laughed at this.

The rest of the evening was spent in convivial speech, flavored with good drink and excellent desserts. They separated late, after walking Leah back to her Library. The two travelers returned to their inn, to find they had beaten the guards in staying out to the wee hours. The main room was quiet, so they headed straight to their room.

 

Chapter 8

 

“Not what you expected, was it?” Xena asked her partner as they made ready for bed.

Gabrielle thought about the question solemnly as she brushed her hair. “No, but I don’t know what I expected.” she admitted.

“Well, I expected a dry as dust old man, nearsighted, deaf and cranky.” Xena plucked the brush from Gabrielle’s hand and took over.

The bard chuckled. “Or a wizened old crone, who knows everything about everyone – and keeps you there for hours telling you about it.” she quipped. “No, Leah’s not like that. She talks alot, but she’s deep, too. And there’s something profound that runs in her, like an underground stream.”

Xena leaned forward and kissed the pale neck in front of her. “Like you.” Gabrielle turned and kissed the hand that held the brush.

“And like you.” she said quietly. She leaned backwards, and wrapped herself in Xena’s arms.

For a long time, they sat like that, Xena propped up in bed, Gabrielle leaning into her, until drowsily they covered themselves and fell into a deep, rewarding sleep.

 


 

The next day dawned even brighter than before. Gabrielle couldn’t keep the light out of her eyes, even with a blanket over her face. She squinted into the glare of the room. A smile crept across her face, as she watched her lover heat water, bathe and dress. When Xena was finished, she walked over to the bed and sat down.

Stroking Gabrielle’s hair she said laughingly, “I hope you enjoyed the show.”

Gabrielle groaned. “How long have you known I was awake?”

“The entire time. A sleeping person inhales longer than exhaling, a person who is awake does the opposite.”

“Is *that* how you know?” the bard threw back the blanket and rose. “I’ll try to fake my breathing, next time.” Xena laughed.

“Would you like me to get breakfast and bring it up, or shall we eat downstairs?” the warrior asked.

“Let’s eat in the big room. I want to ask the landlord about performing tonight. It’s a rest day tomorrow, Leah said. There should be a big crowd of soldiers. If I keep the stories light, heroic and exceptionally filthy, we could make some good dinars.” Gabrielle gave a last tug to her boots and rose.

“Xena?” the bard asked hestitantly.

“Hmmm?” the warrior turned and caught her eye. At once Gabrielle stopped breathing, struck by the beauty of the tall woman. She stood gazing until Xena prompted with another, “Yes?”

“Oh, uh, sorry, ” Gabrielle blushed, knowing there was nothing she could hide from Xena, but still feeling like a start-struck schoolgirl. “Can you tell me what it was like, living with all those men?”

“What do you mean?” Xena’s brow furrowed. “The smell? The noise?” she smiled and opened the door.

Gabrielle passed into the hallway. “No, I mean, what did they do to pass the time, what did they like?” she spoke as they walked. “I’m trying to decide what are some good stories to tell.”

“Oh, that. Well, as you said, they liked stories of heroic deeds…”

Gabrielle interrupted, “Even though they were, well, um, they were…?”

“Criminals? Scavengers? A warlord’s army? I know what I was, Gabrielle.” She forestalled the bard’s protest with a hand. “No man likes to think of himself as an animal. Even some of the most evil like to think that there’s a place for themselves in the world.” She lightened her tone. “And these men here, they’re guards, the soldiery of a town. They’ll think of themselves as honorable and heroic. A few tales of Hercules ought to be just right.”

After breakfast they sought out Tryon and struck a deal for that night. “Three tales, we get the room free tonight and I keep whatever tips I get.” Gabrielle reported, satisfied. “Tryon said he was going to spread the word. He should have a big crowd.”

“That’ll be good for him, as well.” Xena commented, thinking of all the ale and food a large crowd could consume.

They spoke of inconsequentials as their steps led them inexorably to the Library. When they arrived, they were told by a youth standing outside that Leah was in her study and could not be disturbed for a short while. He introduced himself as Tereus and told the women that they had free run of the Library.

“If you need anything, feel free to ask me or Eudore. She’s around here somewhere.” He smiled. “We come around to read the scrolls and help out whenever we can.” he explained.

Gabrielle asked curiously, “How did you get interested in the Library?”

“Oh, well, around here most kids do lessons until they can do the basics, read, write their names, that sort of thing. But old Hyperochus, he’s the schoolmaster, when he sees a student with a bit more “life,” as he puts it, he’ll send them here to the Library with assignments to do. Eudore’s a little older than me, I’m 14. We’re the oldest, now. Most of the others that come by are younger. And Leah has storytime for the youngest ones, once a week. Anyone can come to that.” Tereus’s eyes lit with laughter.

“On rest days you should see the crowds that come to storytime. ‘I wanted to bring the children,’ they all say, but you can see they want to hear the tales too.”

He stepped back towards the door. “Anyway, feel free to look at anything you like.” He held his hand as formally as a palace official pointing a potentate to a reception. Xena smiled at him as she passed.

“There is something you can do, Tereus. Can you show me where the town records are?” He nodded eagerly.

Gabrielle patted him on the shoulder as she passed. “I think I remember where I need to go, but I’ll call you if I get lost.” She watched the boy lead her companion off and headed down another hallway. She was pretty sure that the great myths section was down this hall, turn left and…

The bard entered a room that was nearly overflowing with scrolls, paintings, even scuplture. She found what she needed and sat on the floor with an armful of scrolls, right across from a formidable sculpture of Zeus enthroned. Moments later, she was enthralled in all the different versions of the stories she knew so well.

 


 

Tereus led Xena to a small chamber, dusty and grim, but with a small desk and workspace area. He gestured for the warrior to proceed him with surprisingly adult gesture. She nodded graciously and entered.

He pulled himself up to his full height and orated the history of this room. He told Xena that the room was still used when architects needed to look up plans or if the magistrate wanted to build something. The warrior smiled to see the boy so formal and stiff. When he was done he took a deep breath and shot her a quick smile. She thanked him for all his efforts.

“May I ask you one question?” He asked, still formal. She turned to see he was a bit pale beneath his healthy coloring.

“Of course.” she answered evenly.

“Were you really evil once? And now you’re good? How did that happen?” He blurted out, losing all fomality.

She approached and bent down until they were of a height. She put a hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eyes.

“Tereus, no one is ever all evil or all good. I did some very awful things, but I’m trying to make amends now.”

“But why? Why didn’t you just stay bad? What happened?” He spoke quickly, his voice rising and breaking. He took a breath, “I really want to know. I always want to know about people, why they do things. I’m sorry if I’m being rude,” he ran on.

“You’re not being rude. I changed because, well, because someone loved me, because someone believed in me. It doesn’t seem like much, but love is the most important force in the world. Never underestimate love – it even can beat hatred. The only thing love cannot defeat is despair or hopelessness. Remember that, Tereus, and you’ll die a happy man.”

Tereus swallowed. “Wow. I didn’t think you’d be like this. You don’t talk down to me at all. Most adults do, but I understand better than they think.”

Xena nodded and stood up. “I’m sure you do, Tereus, I’m sure you do. I was a bit like that too.” She smiled down at him. “And so was my son.” He took a step back and looked at her.

“Was?” he said immediately recognizing the importance of the word. Xena nodded, but found she couldn’t speak past the lump in her throat.

She cleared her throat and said, “I think you would have gotten along very well with him.”

He considered for a moment. “Since I can’t be friends with him, can I be your friend?” He asked seriously. He held out a hand and she solemnly shook it. They stood for a companionable moment and then she looked around.

“So, now, where are the town records? I’m looking for information on the ruined temple outside of town.”

“Are you sure?” he looked a little worried. “You’re not planning on fighting the…” He realized to whom he was speaking and blushed. “I’m sorry. I’m not used to meeting real heroes in person.”

Xena laughed and waved away the insult. “I’m not used to people calling me a hero. I’ll leave that for Hercules to deal with. Come on, Tereus, help me here…” and she gestured to the desk. For a time the two were so caught up in reading the old records they never heard Leah come in, see them together, and leave with smile on her face.