Black Lily

Mystery and The Mask (Part 05)

Chapter 11

 

“Okay, fess up.” Eudore said out of the blue, after a few minutes had passed. “Why those particular stories?” she asked cryptically, glancing at Tereus.

“Yeah, ” the boy agreed, “Eudore and I, we , that is…” He blushed slightly.

“We have a bet. We each have a reason that we think you picked those stories and we want to see who’s right.” Eudore grinned, incorrigible as ever.

“Well, let’s see,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully. “I knew that alot of families in the town would be here – lots of women and girls, who don’t normally get to hear storytellers. I wanted to tell a story for them, about love, but mostly about a woman who was strong willed and determined to get her way. Even if it meant defying a God.” The bard smiled at her partner. “Like someone I know.” Xena waved the adulation away with a smile and a gesture.

“Then I chose the Damon and Pythias story for three reasons. One, it was guaranteed to get all the old soldiers crying into their drinks – that was for Tryon.” She flashed a smile at the shocked looks on her friends faces. “Never knew how mercenary we bards are, huh?”

“The second reason was for the young soldiers – they need to know that bonds like that can’t and shouldn’t be broken. Then,” she commented hesitantly, “there’s the last reason. It’s kind of personal, so if this makes you uncomfortable, I’ll understand.” Eudore’s eyes narrowed, but Tereus didn’t react. Leah sat back, barely breathing. She’s not…I guess she is. Well, even children grow up.

“Me and Xena, we’re, well Eudore knows. Tereus, we’re closer than just friends.” The boy nodded, looking wise beyond his years.

“You’re lovers.” he said, waiting for the “uncomfortable” part. When Gabrielle didn’t speak for a moment he looked at her surprised. “That’s it? That was – oh, I see. So were Damon and Pythias.” He shrugged. “Well, I’m not a child and I *do* read all those scrolls, y’know.” He said a bit defensively.

“Tereus, my apologies.” Gabrielle was blushing, “I’m not used to being with people as well read and as intelligent as you.” He smiled at her reassuringly and she returned the smile, relieved that he was not angry. “Anyway, for most people in towns and villages, they never see a happy couple at all, much less two women or two men. Remember this, you two – the Gods don’t hate anyone for loving someone. Period. ” Both young faces nodded seriously. She sighed with relief.

“Anyway, when a child grows up, he or she looks for role models – people they can identify with. Most kids have their parents or heroes. Some children are different.” The eyes looking at her changed at this. Both adolescents reached out at that moment and she gathered them in with her voice.

“They can be smarter, more artistic, or slower, deaf or blind. And these children want role models too. Often they never find them and spend a life alone and sad, never realizing that there are many others like them. I don’t know if you can appreciate this, but even Bards and Warriors are like that, sometimes. Isolated.” Eudore and Tereus nodded. “And if the difference between you and everyone else is small, so small that no one would notice if you didn’t mention it, well then, its even worse. Like liking someone of your own sex, or being able to see things that other people can’t. It seems stupid to bring it up, but it’s agonizing not to. And if it is mentioned, often the child is punished for it, or discouraged by people who don’t understand or who are afraid. So I told that story for anyone who didn’t see themselves in the other stories. Does that even make sense?” Gabrielle rubbed her hands together, not sure if she was even talking coherently.

“Of course it does, Gabrielle.” Leah said quietly. “And it was beautifully put, if I do say so myself.” She looked at both children, sitting lost in their own thoughts. “We’re all different, you know. Very few of us ever find ourselves part of a crowd, even fewer on the top of that crowd. We’re all lost and alone. Here at this table are four of the most talented and best looking people I’ve ever met – and I bet all of you have felt this, just like I have.” She took hold of Eudore’s one hand. Eudore reached out for Tereus and clasped his hand in hers.

“We all need a Pythias.” The girl’s voice was low.

“Or a Psyche.” agreed Tereus. He looked at the bard with curiosity. “Did you grow up feeling…different?” His eyes flickered meaningfully at the dark, brooding warrior.

Gabrielle shook her head. “Not that way. I never really thought about it. Well, you’ve read the scrolls, it, we…just happened. But when I was growing up, girls were not particularly encouraged to become bards. Not that anyone would yell or anything. They would just suggest a chore – immediately. I wasn’t sure I’d ever tell a whole story, much less to a packed tavern like tonight. Leah is right – we’re all different.”

They sat again in silence, drawing in strength from each other’s presence. Eudore’s bubbly humor was the first to reassert itself.

“Okay, that’s two – why the third?”

Gabrielle laughed. “I *like* that one. And number four wasn’t planned, honest.” She turned to her lover, who had been exceptionally silent. Xena looked up and smiled at the copper-headed bard that faced her.

“I know. It was well told, anyway. I was pretty impressed with that Xena person by the time you were done with her.” She laughed gently. They all chuckled at the joke.

 


 

Well-meaning parents and guardian came by to collect the young assistants, and were shocked to find the bard pressing dinars as gifts into their hands. Stichius shook his head, then his finger and finally acquiesced good naturedly. Aristeus made a valiant effort and broke into a genuine smile. His wife was much more forthcoming. As they left with their daughter, she turned to the bard and whispered, “They were beautiful stories, thank you. I haven’t enjoyed myself that much in years. I hope you’ll tell us some more soon.” and hurried away.

“Well,” Leah said with surprise, her hands on her hips.” That’s a new one. I’ve known them since Eudore was a babe-in-arms and she’s never said that many words in a row. Huh. You must have made a real impression.”

The three women wound the night up being greeted and wined by many of the more prominent of the town’s citizens. Drinks were bought and drunk and the favor reciprocated. Both Gabrielle and Xena were feeling light-headed from too little air and too much…something or other.

Before the Librarian left, they counted up Eudore’s take that night and came up with such a large sum that they had to count it again to make sure.

“100 dinars?” Gabrielle asked Xena, for the third time.

“A bit more, actually.” Leah replied, for the third time, with an evil grin.

“Is it so hard to believe?” The warrior laughed at her companion’s horror. “You performed magnificently to a packed house on a rest day eve. Gabrielle, you earned it, enjoy it.” She held the bard’s hand and stroked it soothingly, an amused smile on her face.

The bard shook her head. “100 dinars?” She repeated She immediately looked at the Librarian and smiled. “What are you going to do with fifty dinars?” she asked.

Leah pursed her lips. “I have no idea, but you can be sure, I’ll spend the day tomorrow figuring it out.” She yawned hugely. “Right after I wake up late.”

They took their leave of each other with many promises of meals and shopping together. Leah insisted that she would show them the local sites, to Gabrielle’s delight and Xena’s amused resolve, and thus, they parted.

 


 

The inn showed no signs of emptying, but the clientele had changed. Gone were the families, the young couples with infants and toddlers. Gone were the youngsters of the town. The soldiers, young and old, were pretty well set on having the night out they wanted – and they were pursuing this end with gusto. Ale was being drunk in quantity and songs, as Gabrielle had predicted, were being sung. Xena slipped her arms around the bard’s small waist and put her head close to the red-gold head.

“Bed?” The soft voice spoke volumes. Gabrielle nodded with delight and they headed to the stairs. Before they could reach them, the landlord Tryon intercepted them. He wiped his hands on his apron and took both of Gabrielle’s in his own.

“I owe you quite a bit more than one night’s rent.” he said with out preamble, his cheeks puffing out in a huge smile. Gabrielle began to protest, but he cut her off.

“Young lady, this inn has been open for my whole life and never, never has it seen anything like tonight. I’m out of nearly all my provisions, and I’ll be broaching my last keg tonight, I’ll warrant. I could take a month off of work and still have money to burn. All because of you. No, I insist. You’ll be staying here rent free until you leave. No free meals, though – I haven’t got the food.” His face creased with laughter. “Anytime you want to tell a story in the Swans, you’ll be welcome.”

He looked over his shoulder at a noise from the kitchen. “I’m needed. You ladies sleep well. It’s a rest day tomorrow, but I’ll leave breakfast fixins outside your room, if it’s alright with you.” They both nodded in surprise. Tryon took his leave with a final, “Thanks and goodnight to ya.” A wave and bang of the door and he was gone.

“Well, Gabrielle.” Xena looked down at the surprised face below her. “I’d say you’ve become a star in this town.” The bard’s face was red with mixed emotions.

The warrior gave her a squeeze, “C’mon, star, you’re coming to bed.” and led the bemused, gratified and embarrassed bard up the stairs.

 

Chapter 12

 

The next several days were perfect in their luxury. After breakfast, Leah would collect them and take them on her tour for the day. Xena was surprised at the Librarian’s depth of knowledge, especially of the town’s history. The librarian was equally amazed that the warrior seemed to be instinctively able to read some of that history from the walls and buildings they saw.

Gabrielle was like a prodigy who has wandered into the Academy at Athens, and stands soaking up information, knowledge, and detail for later use. She couldn’t stop smiling and eventually stopped trying.

The second day after rest day, the two travelers accompanied Leah to the biggest market in town. The librarian said she was going to use some of her “ill-gotten” gains for luxuries like new curtains and new cushions. Gabrielle was excitedly walking along with her, chatting about fabrics, colors and textures. Xena walked slightly behind, looking at more practical items like knives and tack. Being on the road played havoc with their gear and they always needed small items like sharpening stones or rope.

The day passed pleasantly, the cushions and curtains were ordered, items of need and luxury purchased and the three women turned towards the north of town. Stichius and Tereus had invited them for an evening meal, and to their amusement, Tereus had assured them that his uncle was a passable cook.

They found the small house next to a blacksmith’s forge and hard by the stream the passed through the town. Xena nodded at the sheltered place, away from other houses to avoid complaints of noise or smell.

“I noticed that alot of the craftsmen in town seem to have their workshops here on the North side, but they sell from stalls in town.” the warrior commented, “Isn’t that expensive?”

Leah shrugged. “We’re a reasonably prosperous town. The crafters don’t want amateur hands grubbing up their workshops and the citizens don’t want to get dirty or dusty. It’s a bit effete, but most of our artisans get by just fine.” She nodded forward. “There’s Tereus now… and it looks like something’s wrong.” she said, puzzled. They sped up their pace and met the boy coming forward to greet them. He looked worried and tense.

“Stichius…?” Leah asked, but Tereus shook his head. He greeted the women formally, as he always did.

“Eudore didn’t say anything to you, did she? ” the boy blurted out suddenly, “I mean about not coming to the Library today?” Leah shook her head. “She didn’t. I mean, she never came and there’s no word from her.” He looked at the women, each in turn, and his eyes looked treacherously close to tearing up. “Do you think her parents finally…” He choked and stopped. Leah slipped an arm over his shoulders and turned towards his home.

“I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation. Maybe an unexpected visitor, or a chore that had to get done. There’s alot of reasons why she couldn’t make it…” She comforted the boy. They conjectured as they walked, but Tereus seemed comforted by their presence and the subject dropped.

They approached the low building and found it was a simple, but comfortably built one-story house. They were greeted by Stichius at the doorway, but the man’s brows were drawn together and he looked worried about his ward. With a little effort, however, they all found themselves drawn into a comfortable room and prepared to make merry of the meal and the company.

Dinner was simple but hearty fare, and was quite good. It was followed by an excellent pastry, which, when pressed, Stichius admitted to having baked himself.

Gruffly he said, “I don’t like to let it get out, or all the women will want to marry me.” They laughed at his secret talent and enjoyed the pastry thoroughly.

The evening was convivial and ended with an invitation from the two women for a party at the Swans hosted by them for their new friends.

Xena and Gabrielle walked back to the inn, arms entwined. The bard leaned into her partner.

Quietly, she asked, “I wonder if Eudore is really alright.” Xena shrugged.

“I’m sure she is, but we’ll check up on her tomorrow.” The warrior fell silent and Gabrielle wondered out loud what she was thinking. Xena pulled out of her reverie with a guilty grin. “I was thinking that this wouldn’t be a bad place to stay for a while.” She looked out of the corner of her eye at the bard.

Gabrielle stopped and faced Xena. “Do you want to do that?” she asked seriously. “Stay?” Xena’s eyes focused far away for a while. Eventually she returned to the present. She looked into her companion’s eyes. The green eyes gazed back at her levelly.

“Do you?” the warrior asked, also seriously. Gabrielle cocked her head in thought, but finally shook her head.

“I’m having a great time. But this is a vacation, it’s not real, It not…it’s not what we do.” Gabrielle looked for a response, and Xena nodded in agreement. “We have a job, don’t you think?” The bard continued. She pulled the taller woman’s arm in close and turned towards the inn again. They walked in companionable silence for a few paces.

Xena’s voice was low, but there was a deeper question beneath the spoken words. “Do you really think we have a job, Gabrielle?” The bard ached to soothe the pain she heard, buried under the layers of years of conflict and upheaval.

She said firmly, “Yes, Xena, I do. This is what we were meant to do. This is what we *have* to do.” and she pulled in the warrior’s face for a kiss. As their lips touched a thrill ran through her. Xena’s arms pulled her in and the kiss deepened. They were lost in each other when a door opened, flooding them with light and they broke off. They looked up into the highly amused eyes of the 3rd guard division leaving the Swans for the night. Old Petros’s gruff voice sounded.

“Ain’t you got a room somewhere? Or is this for our benefit?” Choked laughter sounded around him, no one wanting to offend the Warrior Princess. The warrior and bard stood light rabbits caught in torchlight, blushing eight shades of red for being caught.

Finally Gabrielle couldn’t take the tension. She began to laugh. Xena followed suit and then the soldiers. All of them shared a few moments of raucous hysteria, followed by many eye wipings and stomach holdings. Xena pulled herself together and stood at her full height. She glared around threateningly, but a smile still played upon her lips.

“If any of you even think….” she began. One of the soldiers lifted an arm.

“I swear by Ares..” he began, but the bard interjected.

“No!” Gabrielle exclaimed. “Swear by anyone you want, but not him.” and she looked pretty firm about it. He shrugged.

“I swear by Zeus’s beard, I’ll not speak of this,” He smiled winningly, “…until you’re both well gone from town.” There were more chuckles. Xena waved, defeated.

“Fine. Go home, “Eagles,” I’m going to *bed.*” and she stressed the last word slightly, grabbed Gabrielle , swung the bard up into her arms and forced her way through the mass of soldiers. Laughter and some baudy remarks followed them, but she ignored them, carrying her lover up the stairs and into their room with a brisk step.

Gabrielle was dumped unceremoniously on the bed and let out her breath.

“Oh, Eros, that *had* to be punishment for the Cupid and Psyche story…” she laid herself back and watched Xena out of narrowed eyes. The bard arranged herself seductively and smiled at the sable-haired woman. “My tall, strong warlord…” she purred. Xena’s breath caught audibly in her chest. She stood over the bard, transfixed with Gabrielle’s light and beauty.

Gabrielle, thoroughly enjoying herself, reached out a luxurious arm. “Come.” she whispered. Xena, as if in a trance reached out and took the arm, and lowered herself to the bed. Gabrielle reached up and stroked the raven hair, the high cheekbones, and ran her fingers across the full red lips. Xena’s tongue poked out and caught one finger. Gabrielle allowed the tongue to taste the finger, then pulled away. She shook her head.

“No…” she said firmly, “Not until I say so.” she looked the warrior in the eyes, until she saw acquiescence there.

Xena dropped her eyes and whispered, “As you command…” Gabrielle completely stopped breathing. For an eternity all she heard was her heart pounding in her chest. She pondered the power she had just been given. Her heart swelled to think that this woman, feared and respected by the strongest in the land, had just given Gabrielle ultimate control over herself.

She breathed again and resumed stroking the face in front of her. Xena’s eyes remained down, looking at the bed beneath them.

“Lay down.” Gabrielle’s voice was husky. Her hands shook as she brushed back sable locks from red lips. She nipped at the throat bared to her, tracing along the jaw with little bites, Xena lay passive, waiting to be commanded. Gabrielle pulled on an earlobe, ran her tongue around Xena’s ear. Still, the warrior remained quiet. Gabrielle flicked her tongue at the corner of the warrior’s mouth. A reluctant groan escaped from the tall woman and the bard thrilled to hear it.

“Stay there.” she commanded her lover and rose to rummage through her pack. She pulled out a few items and walked back to the bed. “Close your eyes. Don’t resist me.” she had no energy for more words. She folded a scrap of cloth and placed it over Xena’s eyes, lifting her head and tying it in the back.

She lifted the warriors’ hands. “Get up.” she barked, getting into the role. “Undress.” Xena began to untie the laces to her leathers, still silent, now blind as well. Gabrielle didn’t doubt that even so, Xena was more formidable than most warlords. She marveled again at the smooth skin, amber in the candlelight, and the magnificent contours of the body that now faced her completely naked.

She laid Xena down again and whispered closely in her ear. “Don’t moan. If you do, I’ll have to punish you.” Even as she spoke, Gabrielle felt her throat close up. What if she went too far? She cleared her throat and said, in her normal tone of voice, “Xena, if you need me to stop…”

“I’ll say “Kaliph.” the warrior’s voice was soft, soothing. Even so, Gabrielle almost bit her tongue at the word.

“Kaliph?” she laughed.

Xena shrugged. “I can’t see how we could fit it in to this scenario… it would stand out.”

Gabrielle agreed. “Kaliph, then.” she shook her head, wondering once again at the mind that was always one step ahead of hers.

The bard lowered her voice. “Don’t moan. Do exactly what I say, and everything will be just fine. No noise, and you’ll be free, any noise, and I’ll have to bind you. Nod if you understand.” The naked figure nodded.

Gabrielle flicked her tongue again in the corner of Xena’s mouth. Xena didn’t even try to still the moan that came. Gabrielle shook her head, dragging her hair back an forth across the warrior’s chest. She watched the nipples harden in response.

“You’re very badly behaved.” Gabrielle whispered. She knew Xena’s acute hearing would catch her words, so she did not move closer. “I’ll have to punish you.” she made her voice sound sad, disappointed. She grabbed one unresisting wrist and brought it above Xena’s head. With her other hand she took the other wrist and brought them together. She held them and took the rope she had taken from their pack and tied the warrior’s hands tightly to the headboard. Gabrielle knew full well that if Xena wanted to, she could snap the ropes apart, so she gave an extra tug for good measure. A smile flitted across the warrior’s face at that.

Gabrielle drew her hands very lightly over Xena’s breasts. They grew even harder, as the hands repeated the motion. The bard hovered over Xena’s mouth, almost kissing her, until the warrior lifted herself up, trying to find the lips she craved. Gabrielle pushed her down, resumed her gentle, teasing exploration, brushing a hand here, licking there, until Xena was writhing with unconcealed desire. Her hips churned, her back arched, and she thrashed trying to pinpoint the sensations assaulting her. Gabrielle chose that moment to enter her, thrusting hard into Xena. Her hand was surrounded by warm moistness as she pushed into the warrior’s depths. Xena’s moans were loud now, almost yells. and Gabrielle increased her rhythm, timing her thrusts with Xena’s , until almost her whole hand had been drawn inside her lover. With a short scream and “Oh, Gabrielle…” forced out of her throat, Xena stiffened and crashed down, internal muscles pulsating in orgasm.

Gabrielle fell over the taut body beneath her and they lay still for a very long time. Slowly, softly, the bard disentangled herself from Xena, then removed each bond, followed by a kiss to that portion of the anatomy. Xena lay as still as earlier, her breath still coming in sucking gasps, her eyes closed. When she had restored Xena to freedom, she sat behind her partner, and placed the dark head in her lap. She stroked the fine, sable hair, and hummed a lullaby. Gradually, Xena’s breathing slowed and deepened and the bard recognized signs of sleep in her lover. Gabrielle leaned against the headboard and relaxed into a doze.

 


 

When they awoke, all but one candle had burned down. The inn noise was a present, but dulled roar, like the background noise of rain, or a river. Xena rolled over and looked up at Gabrielle’s face, innocent in sleep, slack as a child’s. The warrior sat up and pulled Gabrielle into a less awkward position. The green eyes opened, confused for a moment and then Gabrielle smiled.

“Thank you.” Xena murmured. Gabrielle’s smile widened, then turned shy.

“It’s been a week of wonders hasn’t it? she asked. The blue eyes facing her never even blinked.

“Yes, you have.” Xena leaned forward and kissed her lover gently on the lips, then began to move downward, freeing laces and limbs from clothing as she went.

The next several hours were spent in Xena paying back, with interest, what she felt she owed her bard, for favors rendered.

 

Chapter 13

 

The next morning at breakfast, Gabrielle kept finding herself grinning unbearably goofy grins at the woman across the table. What was worse, she considered, was Xena shooting equally goofy grins back at her.

“Yeah, ” the warrior commented wryly, “there’s nothing like sending a blatant message to the whole world.”

“Oh yeah, we’re real subtle this morning,” Gabrielle agreed. “especially when you greeted the landlord with ‘It *is* a fine morning, isn’t it?’” She tried not to laugh at the look of chagrin on Xena’s face, but was unsuccessful.

As they ate, a feeling of contentment and happiness settled over them. They agreed that the vacation had been a stupendous success so far.

Suddenly, there was a commotion at the entrance and the door was flung open. The women exchanged knowing glances and turned to see Tereus trip and nearly sprawl in front of them with haste. All his studied formality was gone and he looked as if he might cry.

“Eudore’s missing!” he panted, as he grabbed for Gabrielle’s arm. “C’mon! We have to find her!” Xena and Gabrielle rose together and grabbed the boy, who had bolted towards the entrance. He thrashed, shouting, “There’s no time! We have to find her!”

“Tereus, “Gabrielle commanded, “Slow down. We need facts before we can act. Here.” Still holding the boy by his tunic, she handed him a cup of water Xena had passed over to her. “Drink this and tell us what happened.”

The youth did as he was told. He settled down a bit, but still spoke urgently. “Remember how I asked Leah yesterday about Eudore?” he asked impatiently. “Well, she didn’t show up again today. So, I asked Leah and she sent me to Eudore’s home to find out if she was sick. Her parents weren’t there – no one was. I asked the neighbors, but no one knew anything.” Tereus gulped some air and continued quickly. “While I was waiting, Aristeus ran up, out of breath and asked if I had seen Eudore. I told him I was looking for her. He said they hadn’t seen her since the day after restday!”

Gabrielle shot Xena a look. She said to the boy, “Has anyone seen her?”

He shook his head. “Aristeus wants to talk to you – Leah is with him and Philyra, too.” This time, they let him lead them out of the inn and onto the street.

On the way, they questioned him, but he didn’t have much to add. “Aristeus said Eudore had gone out to pick some flowers or herbs or something, but she hasn’t come back.”

“She’s been gone two days?” Xena asked. She stoped Tereus with a hand on his shoulder. “Tereus, I need to know. Does she have a reason to run away?” Her blue eyes locked with his grey ones.

He shook his head forcefully. “Like, do her parents beat her? No, I don’t….no, I’m sure they don’t. ”

“Boyfriend? Suitor? Were they trying to marry her off? Tereus, even if she made you swear to keep it a secret…” Xena’s voice was grim.

“No. Her parents kept threatening, but no. She’d tell me, we’re that close. No, Xena I swear it.” His eyes were teary, but his voice remained firm.

The three sped to a house out on the perimeter of the town. A few animals were ranging around and people were running in and out of the yard. There was a small crowd gathering, mostly men. Gabrielle and Xena both spotted Leah, who was awkwardly comforting a weeping Philyra. With relief, the librarian saw the two women and waved them over, using this excuse to disengage from the woman.

“Thank Athena you’re here…” she began, but a male voice interrupted.

“You’ve been sent by the Gods, Warrior Princess. We need your skills.” They turned to face a tall man, with silver hair and a fine orating voice, smooth and deep. He bowed elegantly. “I’m Evander, the town’s magistrate. I’m sorry we have to meet under such extreme circumstances.” He waved Aristeus forward. “As you already know each other, I’ll get to the point. This man’s daughter is missing. We have reason to believe that she has disappeared in the vicinity of the ruined Temple outside the town…”

“What ‘reason?’” Xena demanded. The magistrate smoothly waved another man forward. This one wore a guard’s uniform, trimmed in gold, not the steel of the “Iron Eagles.”

“This is Metion, captain of the Guards. He was in charge of the search effort. Tell them what you have found.” Evander commanded smoothly. Gabrielle noted his polish and was both impressed and revolted. Too smooth. I wonder if there even is a real man under there. She shuddered mentally.

The guard captain stood at ease. “Ma’am, the search party found this not too far from the Temple demesnes.” He handed Xena a basket. It looked ordinary enough, a common type. She looked in it and found a scroll, some sewing, not terribly well done, and the remains of a meal. Philyra wailed as each item was brought forth. The warrior turned to Aristeus.

“Are these Eudore’s?” he asked, although the answer was obvious.

Aristeus nodded curtly. “Please,” he faltered, then went on gruffly, “please can you save my daughter from that monster?” He looked for guidance from the warrior, then the magistrate.

Xena looked up sharply at the magistrate. Evander nodded regally.

“I, that is, our town, would be glad to recompense you for your efforts. Too long have we labored under the fear of that Temple.” His voice rose. “Too long have our children been bound by fear. Now a hero is come that can rid of us of this burden. What say the people?” he asked, raising his hand into the air.

“Aye!” The crowd yelled back. “Xena can save us!”

Xena’s eyebrow rose. She squinted at Evander. “We don’t want your money.”

Gabrielle’s heart leapt at the casual use of the word “we.” There was a time when that word would not have come so easily from the lips of the Warrior Princess. But that time is gone. We’re a team now, inseparable.

Xena had continued. “I can’t promise to conjure up and kill a monster, but we’ll be glad to investigate what happened to Eudore. After all,” and she turned to Gabrielle with a small smile, “it’s our job.” The bard returned the smile and nodded.

“We have two conditions, ” The warrior went on. Evander’s eyes narrowed, but he motioned for her to continue. “We want Lycurgus to accompany us.” The magistrate looked surprised, but nodded. “And we’ll need some supplies…”

Evander spoke loud, but firm, measured tones. “Whatever our town can offer you, whatever you need to save the daughter of this man, you shall have.” Gabrielle suppressed a giggle at the melodramatic quality of the man’s voice. This one would be jeered off any stage except the political, she thought.

Xena motioned to Leah, “We’ll need to do research.” The librarian hopped forward and with alacrity, lead the two women away. As they left the yard, Xena shot over her shoulder, “Have Lycurgus meet us at the Library.” Then the three women moved into the stream of traffic on the street and were lost from view.