Black Lily

Mystery and The Mask (Part 04)

Chapter 9

 

Gabrielle had finished several scrolls, all with different versions of the same stories. She was amazed to read all the different ways the world had been created, the origins of the Gods and about all the monsters. She had just begun a new set of scrolls, detailing Hercules’ adventures when a noise above her made her look up.

“Oh!” Both she and an adolescent girl nearly jumped out of their skins at seeing one another. The girl dropped the scrolls she was carrying, and Gabrielle was busy for a moment ducking flying scrolls.

“I am so sorry!” The girl exclaimed. “I can’t believe how clumsy I am. I just didn’t expect to see anyone here…”

“No, no, it was my fault, “protested Gabrielle, trying to separate and gather her scrolls from the scattered group on the floor. “I shouldn’t have been blocking the passage…”

They stopped grabbing for scrolls and looked at each other for a moment. The girl’s face split into a stunning smile.

“I’m Eudore. I’ll bet you’re Gabrielle.” She extended an arm in greeting. Gabrielle took it, smiling in response. The girl plopped herself down next to the bard and looked over what she had been reading.

“Oooh, I love tales of the Gods and Heroes.” she admitted. “I know it’s not lady-like, but, well, so what? ” she finished firmly.

Gabrielle agreed with some vehemence. “I’m planning on telling a few stories tonight at the Two Swans. Maybe you can come and listen to them.” she suggested.

Eudore looked serious. “My parents wouldn’t like that, I bet.” Her smile lit up again. “I’ll be there.” Gabrielle tried to protest, but Eudore waved her words away. “They don’t mind – much. It’s just that they’d rather see me married off, with a kid under each arm to keep me quiet. This is a nice town, but too much intelligence can get you in trouble here.”

Gabrielle met her eyes, “I know exactly what you mean. Curiosity too. But I wouldn’t trade my life for any other, not in a million years.”

Eudore dropped her eyes shyly, “I’ve read some of your adventures…it must be great traveling around, saving people, fighting warlords…” she spoke excitedly.

Gabrielle laughed, “Oh yeah, sleeping on the ground is just fabulous, especially in the winter. And not having a bath for days. I especially like fighting warlords in close quarters…huh.” She shook her head at all the indignities she had to suffer. “Did I say I wouldn’t give this up?” she joked. Seeing Eudore’s face drop with disappointment, she patted the girl on the knee.

“Don’t take me seriously, Eudore. If I had wanted to leave, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to. But I didn’t, and I don’t. For many reasons.” Her voice became wistful.

“You love her, don’t you?” Eudore said with a sigh. Gabrielle started, looking again at this young woman. She noticed the wide-eyed child, but now she also saw a young woman, almost ready for adulthood. Did I ever look like that? the Bard thought, taking in her star-struck eyes.

“Is it that obvious?” Gabrielle demanded. Her cheeks burned, but Eudore was lost in a vision of bliss and never even noticed.

“Yeah!” Eudore sighed, then seeing the bard’s blush, “I mean, uh, no, not really. I’m just a silly girl, and uh….” Gabrielle couldn’t help laughing at the girl’s attempt to flatter her.

“Stop, stop.” said Gabrielle. “Okay, its obvious. What’s a girl supposed to do?” she shrugged. Drawing Eudore in conspiratorially, she said “I’m glad you like the stories, Eudore. Maybe one day, you’ll write ones just like them.”

Eudore smiled that brilliant smile at her, “Do you think so? It must be so romantic to travel with a hero…” Gabrielle was beginning to wonder if this conversation was really happening. It seemed so, surreal. I feel as if I’m talking to myself ten years ago. Too weird.

Gabrielle nodded, “It can be. How about we clean up and I’ll tell you a story you haven’t heard.” The girl practically leapt to her feet. They quickly gathered, separated and stored the scrolls in their proper cubbyholes. Eudore lead Gabrielle to a low bench near a window, where the sunlight entered, warming the marble seat. They sat, and holding one of Eudore’s hands, Gabrielle told a tale of life on the road.

It had been a dreadful storm. The roads, where they existed at all were pitted, muddy and treacherous with ice. The two women had been traveling during every possible daylight hour for four days and were nowhere near their destination. They had an invitation from a warlord that Xena refused to ignore.

“I knew Melanthus and he was always an honorable opponent. If he says he’s seriously contemplating doing good it means one of two things.” Xena explained as they walked, leading Argo. “Either he means it, and I want to be there to support him, or he’s getting old and tired and there’s going to be a fight for the leadership. I need to make sure the right person gets the job. Melanthus has no beef with me. He wouldn’t lead me into a trap.”

Gabrielle wasn’t sure, but she didn’t argue. She didn’t have the energy, for one thing. She had sprained her ankle on the second day, but had never mentioned it. Because of the road’s difficulty, their pace had been a slow crawl, which gave her the opportunity to mask the injury. They had been sleeping in copses, or in minimal shelter, which didn’t allow them the luxury of a bath, or even undressing. She was pretty sure Xena didn’t know about the injury.

This night they found no shelter of any kind. Few words had been spoken during the day. Gabrielle was in alot of pain and it was getting hard to walk. Xena had been curt to the point of rudeness. Although they had been traveling together for some months, the bard wasn’t at all sure the warrior wouldn’t ditch her if she was given half a chance.

I will not blow this. I will not whine. I will not complain. Gabrielle repeated this refrain to keep her legs moving and her lungs drawing in bitter cold air. She focused on Xena’s legs and matched her step to her companion’s. Several times she came close to asking the dark woman to stop, but she couldn’t do it. Death would be preferable to a show of weakness. Is this how she feels? the bard wondered. This needing to be strong, capable? Not to be seen as weak?

Time passed and the sun went down, still no sign of any shelter. They kept moving, walking into the darkness, the bard right next to Xena, for fear of losing her in the night. They kept on and the darkness closed in.

Gabrielle began to hallucinate. Exhaustion, cold and pain began to play tricks with her eyes and ears. She could swear she heard singing, saw torchlight. Xena’s head didn’t rise, so the bard huddled herself against the wind and kept going. The cold had numbed her ankle and the pain was just another dull roar in her head.

Time was an endless passage now. No words were being spoken, every effort was put into moving. Gabrielle, hallucinating again, swore she heard horse’s hooves on the ground, but she just pulled her cloak tighter and headed into the wind. The two women and the horse plodded on, bodies hard against each other for warmth.

Without warning, Xena stopped short in her tracks. The bard, still focused on moving, almost fell over with her momentum, but the warrior’s arm caught her. Xena stood and listened and stared. Still without a word, she pointed to the East, where a reddish tint colored the grey dome of the night.

“Fire?” Gabrielle’s brain could not conceive of the thing. Fire was warm and nice and it brought heated water and cooked food and…

“No. Dawn.” Xena’s harsh voice interrupted the bard’s reverie. Gabrielle stared at her friend in incomprehension.

“Dawn? We’ve walked the whole night through?” Gabrielle shook her head disbelievingly, but Xena nodded. She pointed again through the mist and the gloom to a shadow on the side of the road.

“An inn.” She took the next steps that nearly propelled them with comparative vigor towards this refuge. Gabrielle thought she might fly, she was so relieved. Or maybe cry, she wasn’t sure.

The innkeeper was shocked at the appearance of the two wraiths at his door, so early and unexpected. But he was gracious and kind and soon saw that they had a warm room, stabling for Argo and food and drink to keep them from starvation. When they were done with their meal, still unbelieving they sat, staring at one another, unable to speak. The innkeeper, as garrulous as most of his kind, came over for a word.

“Where did you ladies travel from?” he asked, noting the dark circles under their eyes, “How long you been on the road?” The was no answer for a long while. Just as the innkeeper was about to give up and leave, the taller of the two seemed to return to this world with a grunt.

“We came from Tegea. We’ve been on the road all night long. All day before that too.” The innkeeper gaped open mouthed at the two women.

“Wherever you’re going, it must be mighty important. Or you would have stopped for the night.” He pointed out the obvious to them.

The smaller red-haired woman opened her mouth to speak, but shut it again. When the darker woman didn’t say anything, the redhead cleared her throat. “There wasn’t any place to stop, or we would have.” she said this looking directly at her companion. The landlord stood, hands on hips, shaking his head.

“Tegea is three towns away. There’s the inn at Chalcedon, and two more in the villages of Calcis and Lichar. you would have passed them all on the road.” The redhead shook her head, denying this, but didn’t speak. The darker one, just stared at her friend, silent as the grave and grey as the dead. The innkeeper looked at both and decided that he didn’t want to get between these two and whatever they were doing, so he bid them a good rest and took their plates away.

Eventually, Gabrielle went to rise from her place, but the warmth had done its job and her ankle had swollen immensely. She staggered, held onto the table and grimaced as she tried to put weight onto the foot. Xena went to steady her, rising herself and staggering as she put her weight onto her own foot. They looked at each other and began to laugh, uncontrollably, hysterically, as they leaned into one another and limped up to their room.

“We slept the whole next day through and didn’t leave until the day after that. You see,” Gabrielle told Eudore, “we were so focused, we never even saw the three inns we passed. Or the riders, or the torch-carrying singers. We each thought we had hallucinated them and we didn’t want to appear weak to the other. But the icing on the cake was that we each had sprained an ankle, bad enough that we shouldn’t have been walking. But we did anyway.”

The bard shook her head at their folly. “Being tough is alot harder than it looks.”

Eudore was laughing at the tale. “I wish I could’ve seen the looks on your faces when you realized you had walked the whole night through – and passed three inns!” The girl began to chuckle again at the thought.

At this Leah’s head popped around the corner and asked “OK, what’s all this? You’re having too much fun by half and I want in on it.” Gabrielle stood and greeted the Librarian. Eudore gave Leah the short version and the Librarian pointed a finger at the girl.

Wagging the finger she said, “You see why it’s so much safer to *read* about these things?” but she couldn’t fight the smile that lit up her face. Leah turned to Gabrielle again.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t available, but I hope my young helpers haven’t made a bad impression. In fact, they probably know the library as well as I do now.” Leah pulled Eudore from the bench and hugged her with one arm. “This one is a bit of a scamp, but Tereus, he’s all business.” And she smiled at the girl and squeezed her again, before letting go.

“Actually, Tereus and I have been having alot of fun together,” Xena’s voice came from the hallway, “haven’t we?”

Tereus answered with a hearty “Yes, definitely!” as the two passed into the room.

Gabrielle had to turn away for a moment at the vision of Xena, walking with this young, tawny boy. She couldn’t help but thinking of Solon, and saw the mirror of her thoughts in Xena’s eyes. The bard looked quickly at Eudore to see if she had noticed, but the girl’s eyes were wide in astonishment.

“Are y-y-you Xena? Really?” Eudore was rooted to her spot. Inside her head a calm, adult voice berated her for the stuttering, crush-stricken statement, but Xena merely smiled.

“Yes, I am. It’s very nice to meet you. Eudore, isn’t it? That’s a beautiful name.”

The girl stared for one moment longer than was polite, and blushed a beautiful blush. Gabrielle thought, her parents are right to be worried about this one. She’s lovely and smart – a powerful combination. She caught her lover’s eyes and smiled at the reflected thought there. Well, she should know, the bard thought. Who better?

Eudore had recovered her poise and was now engaged in polite conversation with Xena. Tereus, amusingly, was answering for the warrior. It was clear by their interaction that Eudore and Tereus were fond of each other and had spent many hours in each other’s company.

Xena watched the interplay between the two of them, noting the references to literature and learning that kept creeping into their speech. She turned to Leah, who was watching the youths proudly.

“They’re good kids.” She said with finality. “They’ll both excel at whatever they want to do.” She turned to them both and asked for a few minutes alone with their new friends.

“We’ll be in my office, why don’t you join us there with some liquid refreshment in about a half candlemark?” She said over her shoulder as she led the two women out the door.

She led them to the office and sat them in chairs pulled in from other rooms.

“I apologize for not being around when you arrived, but I wanted to transfer your story onto a scroll while it was still fresh in my mind.” She nodded towards the parchment on her desk. “My only problem is that I’ll need several copies. One to go into the ‘Gods and Heroes’ collection and one into the ‘Xena and Gabrielle’ collection.” She smiled at her own joke.

Turning to Gabrielle she asked, “Is it true you’ll be telling stories at the Swans tonight?” When the bard responded in the affirmative, she clapped her hands. “I’ll be there. Maybe I can bring the kids with me.”

“Eudore certainly wants to be there.” Gabrielle put in. Leah barked with laughter.

“I’ll bet she does. Stories, Xena and a host of good-looking soldiers. I can’t imagine how we could stop her. I think I can get her parents’ permission, though.”

“What about Tereus?” Xena asked.

“Oh, he’s a great kid, isn’t he? He lives with his uncle, no parents or aunt or sibling. Stichius is a good man, an ex-soldier. He’ll probably bring the boy himself.” Leah noted the warrior’s stillness, her intensity. “Is everything okay?” she asked. “Tereus didn’t say something…?”

“No.” Xena waved off the Librarian’s concern. “I’ve had a bad time of it recently and little things are getting to me. I think I’ll take a walk in the Atrium to clear my head. I’ll be back in a while.” and the warrior stood and walked briskly out of the room.

Gabrielle followed her lover with her eyes until she was gone from sight. She sighed heavily.

“If I’m intruding, please tell me to get lost…” Leah began.

“No, it’s nothing like that. She lost her son recently and I…” The bard couldn’t continue.

Leah took her hand. “I had heard something about it from some traveling Amazons. I’m very sorry for her…and for you.” She held the bard’s hand, while tears slipped down Gabrielle’s face.

“We’re still pulling ourselves, our lives together. It’s hard sometimes. Tereus and Eudore, they’re young full of life. Her…our children won’t ever be like that. Sometimes it threatens to overwhelm us with grief.” She paused. “Even chance encounters, like the young guard we met, Marcus. That was the name of her first real love. It’s too hard to fight all the time…” She trailed off and wept openly, while Leah held her.

“While we’ve just met, I feel like I’ve known you for years. If there is anything I can do…” the Librarian offered. Gabrielle disengaged and wiped the tears away from her face.

“There isn’t anything, but thank you Leah, thank you for offering.” She pulled herself together. Xena returned a moment later, looking less stressed. She was followed by the two young assistants bearing food and drink for all.

“Eudore says that you told her of our overnight trek from Tegea.” The warrior smirked. Gabrielle smiled and moved over on her bench to allow Xena to squish in next to her. They all sat and ate and talked of town gossip, plans for the future and other important items until the afternoon had passed away.

Reluctantly, the two women tore themselves away from these people that had so rapidly become friends. Xena said good-bye to the two youths and asked them particularly to come to the performance that evening.

“I’d like it if you’ll both sit with me.” she invited. Both agreed enthusiastically and promised to be there. “You too, of course.” She smiled at Leah, who returned an enthusiastic nod of her own.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” She laughed.

Gabrielle and Xena took their leave, and headed back to their room for a much-needed rest before that evening’s command performance. For better or worse, they were on display that night, and the whole town would come to watch.

 

Chapter 10

 

Laying lazily on their bed, Gabrielle took her accustomed place in the crook of Xena’s arm, while the warrior stroked the bard’s hair lightly. They spoke of the day’s events and what they had learned.

Gabrielle mentioned that she had been doing research for that evening.

“I won’t even ask,” Xena commented wryly. “I want to be surprised like everyone else.”

“That’s good, because I’m not telling.” The bard nuzzled Xena’s neck, planting kisses that raised goosebumps along the warrior’s shoulder. “Not even if you try and seduce it out of me.” She said suggestively. Xena laughed and turned to kiss her bard. The next few minutes were spent proving the veracity of the bard’s last statement.

Kissing Xena lightly, Gabrielle asked the warrior what she had found in that day’s research. Xena half shrugged.

“Pretty much what Leah said – the records talk about a Temple of Athena, then they have monster stories. There’s a gap with no records at all.”

Gabrielle smiled. “It’s a mystery, huh? I expect you want to go to the Temple and take a look. ” Xena shrugged again and yawned. Gabrielle nudged Xena with her head. “Come on, admit it. You’re dying to get out there and see.” Xena smiled and nudged back.

“It’ll wait – it hasn’t gone anywhere for a hundred years, it’ll be there tomorrow. What I want to do now is sleep. I don’t think it will make a good impression if the redoubtable Warrior Princess falls asleep listening to the famous Bard of Potedaia tell a story.” Gabrielle chuckled at the image of Xena asleep in her drink in front of the whole town. Snuggling against her lover’s already relaxing body, the bard fell asleep.

 


 

When they came down the stairs to catch a light meal, they found the inn awash in people. Apparently the entire town had thought it a good idea to have a quick bite there before the main event. The two women didn’t bother looking for a free table – there wasn’t one.

They slipped into the kitchen, took a few provisions and ate, standing, trying to keep out of the servers’ and cook’s way.

“Not exactly what I had in mind,” Gabrielle laughed, leaning out of the way, as an enormous tray laden with food was carried by.

“No, but it works, and the food’s better than usual.” Xena lifted her flagon in salute as the landlord bustled by, and drank.

When both women had finished their ad hoc meal, they steeled themselves to face the crowd. As they had crossed the corner of the inn to get to the kitchen, they had seen a makeshift dais, with stool and low table for Gabrielle and a table in bench behind and to the side, assumable for Xena and their “party.”

The two women entered the room. There was no change in the general level of sound, but the words “Xena” and “Warrior Princess” became audible in the general din.

They looked around for friendly faces and were pleased to see Tereus approaching them accompanied by a stocky man, as dark as Tereus was light.

Tereus smiled at the women. He nodded and greeted them both warmly. The man beside him beamed at both of the women and extended a huge hairy hand to grip.

“My name is Stichius. I’m Tereus’s uncle and guardian. He hasn’t stoped talking about the two of you since he got home. I’m pleased to put faces to the names, finally.”

Xena gave the large hand a firm squeeze and was gratified to feel the man test her grip in return. His eyebrows rose almost imperceptibly and his smile widened. He nodded at Xena and gave Gabrielle a firm, but not *quite* so firm shake. Tereus was so happy to be seen in their presence he stood silently, grinning from ear to ear.

Gabrielle leaned closer to the lad and spoke to both him and his uncle. “I have a favor to ask of you Tereus. When I tell stories, I get very dry. I’ll need someone to keep my cup full of water, so I don’t have to think about it. Will you do that for me?”

The boy looked at his uncle, but there was no hint of disapproval from the dark man. “It’s your life, lad and you have to decide.” His guardian clapped him on the back. “Oh, just do it. I won’t be lonely, I promise. You don’t need to nursemaid me.” Tereus laughed at this image.

“I’d be honored, Gabrielle.” He spoke in his slightly formal manner. The he relaxed a bit and said, “Eudore will be livid! Thanks for asking.”

Xena spoke to Stichius. “I hear you were a soldier, but that you’re retired, is that right?” she asked politely.

Stichius nodded. “I did my duty by land and by sea. Eventually I was allowed to either buy my commission or my contract. I took the contract. I had had enough of guarding, fighting and traveling.” Xena and Gabrielle nodded in comprehension.

“It gets tiring.” Gabrielle said, her face open, unguarded. Stichius started and looked at her harder, then at Xena. Gabrielle, comprehending, smiled patiently.

“When we first began traveling together,” she said lightly, “I was very insecure. When someone assumed that I was just a tagalong, well, I agreed, really.” she stood straight and looked at Tereus with a smile. “Then, after I started to learn how to take care of myself, I’d get so angry, I’d want to strangle people.” Her eyes twinkled as she looked from the tall warrior to the stocky, hairy soldier. “Now I just laugh.” she said with no bitterness.

Stichius laughed. ‘I can see you’re an old campaigner.” He said to the bard. “It’s that that startled me, not your apparent mildness.” with the emphasis on *apparent.* “I’ve met alot of soldiers, Gabrielle, but few, no matter how long they ever served, realized exactly what you said. It does get tiring” He agreed. “Tereus here reads me some of the stories of your adventures and they sound as hard as anything I ever went through. Worse, even.”

“What do you do, now that you’re retired?” Gabrielle was getting edgy, thinking of all the attention about to be focused on her. She wanted to be distracted. Xena put an arm along her shoulders and stood close, recognizing the pre-performance nervousness in her companion.

“Oh, well, this and that. Mostly blacksmithing, repairing weapons and the like.” Stichius said modestly. “I do alot of work for the guards here, especially my old company.”

“Were you an “Eagle?” “Xena asked, glad for the subject change. It was bad enough that Gabrielle would likely be telling stories of her prowess later…

Stichius shook his head and glowered hugely. “No, none of them slackers. I was in the 2nd division – the Lightning.” His glower couldn’t hold and he broke into his smile again, laughing at his own mock anger. “They’re good men in the Eagles as well, but don’t let ‘em know I said it. We’ve an, uh, unofficial rivalry, you might say.”

At this point, Tereus, who had kept turning to watch the door, saw the face he was looking for and bolted. Eudore had entered, looking radiant in a russet dress with gold trim. The candlelight and fire picked up the highlights in her chestnut hair and sparkled. She was accompanied by two solid, pleasant looking adults.

Eudore walked boldly forward, pretending to ignore a few of the younger men’s half-whispered comments, to meet her friend. They spoke, as the older couple caught up, and they all approached the small group in the corner. Eudore had a pout on that could launch ships, though Gabrielle.

“How could you?” She assaulted the bard, before they even had a chance to greet her. The couple, assumably her parents looked scandalized. A common occurrence, I bet, thought Xena. The warrior stood with a small smile playing on her lips, while the young woman berated the bard.

“I thought we were friends Gabrielle!” Eudore said, trying very hard not to let her voice crack with laughter. “And now you’ve given the best job to Tereus. I’m downright insulted.”

Gabrielle smirked at the girl. “You’re right – we are friends. I’ve saved the best job for you.”

“Hey!” yelled the boy, indignant. He crossed his arms across his chest and tried to mimic Eudore’s pout. Stichius had to turn away so he wouldn’t laugh in the boy’s face.

Gabrielle continued smoothly, “I’d like for you to take the “collection bowl” around in between stories. You’d do that for a friend, wouldn’t you?” Xena raised an eyebrow at the idea. This girl would certainly bring in the tips. The warrior cast an eye around the room. There’s too many people for trouble – this is a family crowd and the soldiers’ll have to be on their best behavior. It could work. She nodded at the idea. Apparently, Eudore’s parents couldn’t even get a word in edgewise, once the girl got going, so they acquiesced with good, but tired humor.

Xena’s attention was returned at the mention of her name.

“Mom, Dad, I’d like you to meet Xena, the Warrior Princess and her friend, Gabrielle, Bard of Potedaia. Gabrielle, Xena, these are my parents, Aristeus and Philyra.” They nodded pleasantly, and took the offered arms politely, but nervously. They quickly made their excuses and sat down among friends in the the throng at the trestles.

“You’ll have to excuse them,” Eudore said without rancor. “They are pretty simple people. They’re both from the country and were raised on farms and still find the city unnerving. They’re kind and loving, but they get nervous in crowds and never know what to make of the people I meet in the Library. ” She chuckled. “They don’t even know what to make of the Library – they can’t read and they’re not sure why they have a daughter that does. But they love me and they like Tereus and Leah, so we all get along fine.” She reached over and punched Tereus lightly on the arm. He swung back half-heartedly without removing his eyes from the door.

“I’ll be right back. ” he said and headed to the entrance again, picking his way among the legs and children scattered in his path. Stichius took this opportunity to take his leave as well, pointing out where he’d be sitting with his old comrades. Xena caught a glimpse of Petros in that corner and gave a wave. Marcus’s face appeared from behind the grizzled head and shot her a grin.

Gabrielle was definitely getting nervous, now. The place was packed and getting fuller by the moment. She’d have to start soon. She looked for one more distraction and saw Tereus leading Leah by the hand through the crowd towards their little group. Just as the two arrived, Tryon appeared and asked if Gabrielle was ready to go.

The bard swallowed and nodded. Led by Tereus and Eudore, with Leah and Xena next, Gabrielle walked towards the dais. She made herself comfortable and watched Tereus fill her cup with clear water. The crowd, which had been deafening was now nearly silent, but for the occasional wail of an infant.

“I call upon the Muses,” the bard began in the traditional invocation, and the crowd began to listen entranced, as she told the story of Cupid and Psyche, their love, their separation and the trials that Psyche endured to have her husband returned to her. Tereus was perfect, keeping her cup full, drawing no attention to himself, and the end of the story was met with cheers and not a few wet eyes.

Eudore rose, and flipping her hair back to catch the lights, she began to mingle, carrying a bowl set aside to collect donations, tips and notes. Gabrielle smiled to see her playing the crowd, sweet talking an older man here, complimenting a baby there and above all, flirting with the guards. The servers took this opportunity to refill cups and plates.

As Gabrielle readied herself for the next story, she saw the hubbub settle, then subside and Eudore returned to their little group behind and to the side of the bard. Her next story was the tragedy of Damon and Pythias, two brothers-in-arms that died for each other, believing that the other was dead. She watched the soldiers with interest, seeing many of the older ones shake their heads in sadness at the deaths of the two companions. There were a few younger guards that gripped arms at the end, as well. That one was for you, Tryon, she thought, as the orders for ale quadrupled. Many a toast to long dead comrades-in-arms was said and a few songs would be sung later.

Gabrielle announced a short break before the last story and turned to join her friends. Eudore was finessing the crowd skillfully, and Xena commented on it.

“That was quite an inspiration, Gabrielle.” She pointed her chin at the young woman moving about the audience with grace. Gabrielle shrugged, as her mouth was full of bread. Leah smirked.

“Sheer genius, I think. I may put her to work fundraising for the Library. Or at least gathering a workforce for chores.” She said, watching the girl flirt a group of soldiers out of a surprising amount of cash. “I swear, she’d make the best manager a gambling house ever saw. The guys wouldn’t even wait for the games, they’d just hand her their money.” the Librarian said.

Gabrielle swallowed. “Actually, she is out there fundraising for the Library.” Three heads turned to her inquisitively. “Well, this crowd will give us a whole lot in coins and we can’t carry it all. Xena and I travel light,” She cast a glance at her partner, who nodded, approvingly. “So, I thought I’d give you the extra. Is that alright?”

Leah looked stricken. Tereus goggled at the bard, then the librarian. He smiled out of one side of his mouth. “I’ve never seen anyone do that to her before – she’s speechless!” He chortled and ducked the blow she aimed at his head. The curly-haired woman choked with the effort of speaking, sipped her cider and grabbed at Gabrielle’s hands.

“Thank you – I can’t thank you enough. Gabrielle, Xena,” She turned to include the warrior in her speech. “If there is anything I can ever do…” Leah petered out, shaking her head in amazement. Eudore returned, flushed with success and excitement. She sat down and drank deeply from her cup, fanning her face.

“My parents are not *exactly* scandalized, but I think they’re trying to figure out how to lock me in the barn until they have a marriage offer for me.” She laughed.

Gabrielle took one more sip of water to clear her throat. “I think it’s time for the last story.” She returned to the stool and smiled at Tereus, who placed a fresh cup by her side. The crowd instantly quieted.

“For my last story, I’d like to tell you of Hercules, son of Zeus, and of his eleventh labor for King Eurystheus. When Hercules had completed the first ten labors, King Eurystheus nullified two of them, and caused the son of Zeus to do two more. For the eleventh labor, the King commanded Hercules to go to the Hesperides and bring back three of the golden apples from Hera’s own tree. The Queen of the Gods had set a dragon to guard the tree and the garden was under the watchful eye of the Titan Atlas, who supports the world on his shoulders.

“Hercules approached the oracular sea-god Nereus for advice. He was obliged to wrestle with Nereus, who changed shape to avoid helping the man-god. Hercules held on and squeezed as Nereus became a slimy sea-monster, the a spiky fish and finally an huge-fanged serpent. But with each change, the demi-god only squeezed tighter. Finally, admitting defeat, Nereus gave Hercules the secret to getting the apples.

“Nereus had advised Hercules not to try to pick the apples himself, but to get Atlas to do it for him, and in turn to relieve Atlas of his burden. When Hercules arrived at the garden, he asked Atlas to do him this favor and the Titan readily agreed, so glad was he to gain even a moment’s freedom from his burden. But the Titan was concerned about Ladon, the dragon that protected the tree, so Hercules shot the beast with an arrow over the wall that surrounded the tree.

“At this, Atlas was glad to enter the garden. Hercules bent his back to receive the burden, and the Titan surmounted the wall and retrieved three of the golden apples. When he returned to the hero, Atlas was so enamored of his freedom that he refused to take back the earth. He got ready to leave Hercules there, but the son of Zeus had been warned by Nereus that Atlas might try this. Therefore, Hercules asked the Titan kindly if he would just hold the earth for a brief moment, while he could fashion a pad to cushion his back and neck. Atlas readily agreed to this and allowed the weight to be transferred once again to his shoulders. Hercules thanked him, picked up the apples and left with a jaunty farewell.”

The audience roared. Humor always went well with a heroic story. And I like stories where the strong guys use their heads, not their muscle, Gabrielle thought. She was satisfied with her performance and began to sip at her water when a low mumble began. Soon it became a chant, at first quiet, but then building in volume, into the roar of voices.

“Xena! Xena! Xena!” They chanted. They wanted a story of Xena, the Warrior Princess, and they weren’t letting her leave without one. Gabrielle turned to catch her partner’s eye and shrugged. Xena returned a small, pained smile and nodded.

Gabrielle lifted her hands and the crowd quieted down. She told them of their most recent adventure, against the vanguard of the Persian army. She spoke of her own near death and of Xena holding off the Persian’s picked men alone. And finally she told of Xena, Warrior Princess sending the Persians away with a warning that if they continued to Athens, they’d find everyone else this formidable.

The applause was thunderous. People pounded on the table and stamped their feet. Children and adults all yelled in acclaim for the bard. Gabrielle was floored by this response. It’s true, she thought, my stories are getting around, but I’ve never had a reception like this before. She turned her head and waved for the hero to stand before her fans, but Xena shook her head. The bard walked over to the warrior and looked her straight in the eye.

“If I can do this, so can you.” she said simply. And with Gabrielle pulling and Leah and Tereus pushing, the warrior was reluctantly brought out into the open. The crowd stood up in one motion and applauded their new hero. Xena blushed several shades of red, but only Gabrielle could have seen. The bard nudged her partner and nodded at the audience. Xena took a deep breath and pierced the noisy tavern with her distinctive battle-cry. The crowd went ballistic, clapping and hooting, as Xena waved, and retreated to the table.

As the noise subsided, Gabrielle was approached and congratulated by every living soul in the entire town. Or at least it seemed that way. When she was finally done shaking hands and greeting people, she was nearly done in. Tereus saw her state and rushed up with a newly filled mug – this time it was hot tea.

“Tereus, may the Gods bless you with wisdom, courage and a long, healthy life.” the bard sighed with relief as she took the cup. Tereus used his privilege as the bard’s cupbearer to disengage the woman from her new admirers and lead her back to the seat. No one of their little group spoke for a while, sitting companionably as each pondered the wonders that evening had brought. Eudore was counting the money silently, shaking her head, Leah contemplated the improvements she could attempt, Tereus thought about his new responsibility as friend to these women and Xena thought over the reception she had received. She had been hailed as a hero, and not because she saved this town. On reputation alone, she had been seen as a force for good. She still could not comprehend this…not after…but maybe…. She sat brooding over this turn of fate. Gabrielle sat, silently thanking the Gods for tea, lovely hot, sweet tea.