Black Lily

Mystery and The Mask (Part 07)

Chapter 17

 

Tereus stood in the Library portico and watched the the three companions leave. His eyes burned from tears not shed and his body ached with tension. He heard Leah move up behind him and he turned.

The Librarian looked a the youth, noting the straight spine, the proud head. He looks five years older today,she thought and was startled to see a fine growth of mustache along his upper lip. I’ll have to remember he’s not a boy anymore – I can’t keep things from him for his own protection.

“It’s been a long day, already, hasn’t it?” she asked him. He nodded, his lips tightening. He looked over his shoulder at the retreating forms, then turned back to Leah.

“I know I’d be no use, but Are’s balls, I’d like to go!” He spat. Leah barked in laughter at his curse, and Tereus’s face cracked a sour smile. “I know, I shouldn’t curse. Sorry.”

Leah shook her head. “It’s a rare day that see’s me without a curse once or twice on my lips. Just watch who and what you curse by.” She shook a finger cautioningly.

“So,” the boy spoke slowly, with great care, “are we just going to sit here and do nothing? Is there nothing we can do?” He amended.

“Yes, there is. We’d better go back to Aristeus and Philyra and keep tabs on the situation. This is too much for small town people like them. They’re superstitious and narrow-minded. And Evander, well, you know him. He’s a politician – they don’t care about much except their own careers. He’ll do whatever “the people” want.”

Tereus stood, stiffly. “That’s not what I meant and you know it.” He accused. Leah turned to him, exasperated.

“What do you want me to say, Tereus? That I’ll go get some armor and we’ll follow them? I’m not a warrior…”

The boy jumped in, “But you can fight Leah, Xena says so – you’ve told us so.”

“It’s not the same thing! I can, when I’m threatened, face to face – but this… Tereus its too big for me.”

“No! You said so! And Eudore needs you!” His voice rose in agitation.

“Stop it!” Leah demanded. “I can’t make miracles happen. If you want miracles pray to the Gods!” Her voice dropped, “I’m only a Librarian, and a cowardly one at that. I’ve told you that as well. I’m no hero and neither are you. Heroes die young and I want to live until I’m very old and exceptionally crotchety.”

Tereus turned away from her, resting his head against a fluted column. Leah did not press him. She felt the same way – powerless, angry, despairing. They stood in tableau for a long while.

Finally, Leah spoke in a quiet voice. “Tereus, do you believe in the Gods?” Startled at the question, the youth looked up.

“Of course I do…” He began, but the librarian interrupted.

“Not that,” she gestured to the Library behind her. “I mean, do you really believe in them? Do you believe they walk among us and interact with us?”

He considered. “I guess so. I never really thought about it. What about you?” His voice was the voice of an equal, not that of a child.

Leah was silent for a long moment. “Yes. Yes I do. I believe that for many of us, the Gods are abstractions, just names to curse and bless by. I believe that some of us can reach them by sincere prayer and maybe be answered.” She paused.

“I also believe that there are a chose few, true heroes, not the ones the stories tell us about, but the real people underneath the stories – I believe that for these people, the Gods are real. As real as you and me, Tereus.” she paused, reflecting. “I really believe that the Gods walk with Xena and Gabrielle. And I believe that if they can’t find Eudore…then no one else could.” She put a hand on his shoulder.

He nodded and swallowed to moisten his throat. “I think you’re right.” He took a shuddering breath and stood upright once again. “Let’s go monitor a mob in the making.”

Leah almost cried at the look on his face – resigned, brave, adult. It’s a terrible thing to see the end of a childhood, she considered. But this one will make a terrific man. She clapped the young man on the shoulder and they left the Library, never looking off towards the direction the rescuers had taken.

 


 

The crowd in Aristeus’s yard was larger than ever. People were milling about, having heated arguments and forming and reforming smaller groups that often broke into shouting or chanting. Evander had called up a guard division for crowd control, but there was little they could do. Emotions were high and impromptu speeches were being given in various parts of the street and yard.

Leah led Tereus up to the small crowd around the town’s magistrate. Evander nodded with respect as her recognized her. The soldiers parted to let her into the group.

“Well?” She demanded without preamble. Evander told her quickly that the search for the girl was in danger of being lost in monster fever. She took a deep breath to calm the fear that rose in her throat.

“Don’t they realize that a mob could endanger Eudore?” She asked, knowing the answer. Evander’s answer didn’t calm her fears.

“You know how it is – they’re afraid for the girl – for themselves – and they need a scapegoat.”

“Can’t you disperse them?” Leah asked Pontes, who stood at the magistrate’s side.

“I think it may be too late for that…” He pointed to a small eruption of violence, as several guards tried to break up a group that had gotten a little larger and louder than the others.

“Damn them to Tartarus!” She hissed. “Where’s Aristeus? If he calls ‘em off…”

“He won’t be doing that anytime soon. He’s in the middle of that scuffle.” Pontes commented.

“Then arrest him!” Leah had lost patience with the machinations of these men.

“We can hardly do that.” Evander said calmly. “It’s his daughter that’s been lost.”

“Oh, yeah and he’s being a big help, too. I suppose you’ll have some ale sent in here to fan the flames of ignorance and fear, too. Pfeh!” She threw up her hands and turned away in disgust. Motioning to Tereus, she drew him away from any of the groups.

“This is going to blow any time. Evander doesn’t care, as long as the violence isn’t directed at him. Pontes can’t do much without resorting to force.” She ran her hands through her hair in frustation. “I’m going back to the Library. I may be able to help” her voice dropped to a whisper. “although I don’t know how.” She looked up at the pale eyes that faced her and took some courage from the faith she saw there.

“You stay here. As soon as things look like they’re getting ugly, come by and tell me. I’ll need to know just before they blow up – so we can get a message to Xena and Gabrielle.” Tereus nodded, infused with this new purpose, any purpose at all. “I’ll be in my office. Tereus,” the Librarian said urgently, “we’ll figure this out. I know we will.” And she hurried away from the throng of people.

 

Chapter 18

 

Leah sat on the floor of the Library, surrounded by the detritus of two dozen scrolls, ties and seals. She was muttering to herself in frustration, when a noise made her jump from where she sat.

“Leah!” Gabrielle’s voice was a shriek in the echoing marble chambers. “Leah, where are you?”

“Gabrielle!” Leah yelled, running out of the room. “I’m here…oh Gods! Gabrielle, what’s wrong?” She stopped dead in her tracks as Gabrielle appeared out of the dark corridor. Her hair was awry, and she was covered in cuts and bruises. Tears stremed from her eyes, which were wild with urgency.

Leah intercepted the bard. “Hades, what happened? Gabrielle, is Xena…?”

Gabrielle leaned on her staff and shook her head, as she gasped for air. She kept wiping at her eyes ineffectually. “No…no. She’s alive. I can’t explain, we don’t have time. I need you to come with me and bring ginger, rosemary and um, sage. And, oh, Gods, I forget…” She pounded her fist onto her leg in frustration. “Passionflower! We need that too. Hurry Leah, we have to hurry!”

The bard grabbed the Librarian and pulled insistently. Leah pulled Gabrielle’s hand away. “Let me just write a note to Tereus telling him where I’ve gone. I’ll be quick. Then we’ll stop at an apothecary’s shop. I know a good one, she’ll have anything you need.” She wrote quickly, fastening the parchment to the post at the doorway, where Tereus would walk right into it.

Leah grabbed Gabrielle’s hand and they took of for the gate nearest to the temple. As they ran, the librarian watched the bard with concern.

“Gabrielle, are you sure Xena’s okay? You’re all scratched up…”

“It’s not Xena, it Lycurgus – he’s been hit with some poison. I’ll fill you in as we go.”

They found the apothecary’s shop open and quickly procured what they needed. As the two women made their way back to the temple, Gabrielle told of what had happened, as far as she knew, which wasn’t much.

“I still don’t know how Xena knew it was a mask – or that we were in no danger.” She admitted. Her eyes had cleared somewhat in the fresh air. She gave them another swipe.

“It was in the scrolls, remember? The oracle wore a mask, so none knew *who* was answering their questions. I guess Xena figured the tales of a monster were to protect the oracle priestesses from harm.”

“That would explain the poison, too. If the priestesses had to come up with a monster to protect themselves, then they’d also have to deal with the occasional hero, who would want to slay the monster.” She panted as she spoke, the journey was taking its toll on her.

“Right! And don’t forget – the penalty for molesting or killing a priestess was death. So they would feel justified in using the poison to fight off a threat!” Leah panted right alongside of the bard. Her sedentary life was making itself known.

“I swear that if I live through this, I’ll get out for more exercise.” She stated.

Gabrielle laughed – and it felt wonderful.

 


 

When they arrived at the Temple, the bard preceeded Leah to the grotto entrance. The bard dropped recklessly down the hole, but Leah hesitated at the surface. Leah heard Gabrielle call that the coast was clear, but she did not move.

“Leah, come on. I said it’s clear.” Gabrielle insisted.

“Um, Gabrielle, I can’t. I’m afraid of…”

“Heights? We won’t be high up.”

No. Not heights – I can’t jump. I’m terrified of falling. I hate that feeling when you jump…I can’t”

“Leah,” Gabrielle was gritting her teeth, “I’ll get back up there and push you down if I have to. ”

“Okay, okay.” Leah gingerly let herself over the side of the entrance. She slid down until she hung on by her hands. “Hera’s teeth.” She cursed. “Here I come!” and she let go. The fall seemed both endless and all too short as she came to a joint cracking stop on the hard ground beneath. Leah picked herself up slowly, moaning. “Thanks for the help, Gabrielle…” and looked around for the bard. Leah found herself alone in a dim cavern. The air was musty and bitter. Her eyes felt burnt and her throat dry. Well, she thought, that explains Gabrielle’s looks…

Gabrielle came running around a corner and waved her on. “Come on! I told them we were here.” She disappeared again. Leah pulled herself together and ran after the bard.

When she came into the cavern she didn’t have time to look a the surroundings. Xena intercepted the librarian and took the bag of herbs. She handed them to another figure that Leah could not make out in the gloom. The Librarian’s gaze was riveted on the guard Captain, who lay supine on the floor.

Gabrielle squatted at Xena’s side and looked at the soldier.

His legs were rigid and his breathing shallow and fast. The librarian touched his neck and glanced at the warrior in surprise.

“Yes, it’s very fast. Did you feel the muscles?” Xena asked. “They are spasming so constantly, it’s almost like a complete paralysis.” She turned and called over her shoulder, “Is it ready?”

Leah looked to the cavern’s corner where the warrior had addressed herself. There was a serpentine figure, with metallic scales… the librarian choked audibly.

“Hades.” She whispered past suddenly dry lips. “Thank the Gods you had told me, Gabrielle, or I might have died out of sheer fright.”

Then the figure turned and Leah stopped breathing completely. Her heart rose to her throat and she fell silent, for a totally different reason. Never in her life had she seen someone so soft, so glowing, so…golden. The Librarian gaped openly at the strange woman.

Gabrielle and Xena took the mixture offered by the priestess and fed it slowly into the soldier’s mouth. Then a few more drops. Xena hissed with irritation.

“This won’t do. The poison’s in his bloodstream, we have to get this into it too, or it won’t work. Aglaia, “She addressed the half serpent -half woman, “do you have a knife?” The priestess smiled ferally and produced a wicked, thin blade from somewhere upon her person. She handed it to Xena, handle first.

“Gabrielle, get me that torch. ” She held the blade just inside the torch’s flame where it burned hottest. She pulled the blade out and looked at the tip. “This will have to do.” And she drew the blade along the soldier’s arm, where a vein showed blue against the greying skin.

Xena dipped the blade into the antidote mixture and drew it along the open vein until she had the bloodflowing freely. She held the knife steady and poured the antidote down the edge, allowing it to spill over the open cut and down the arm.

“Get me a piece of cloth.” She commanded and kept the potion flowing down the arm until the bowl was empty. Gabrielle handed over a large piece of cloth, which the warrior wadded up. “Leah, sit on his legs, Gabrielle you take one arm, I’ll take the other. Ready?” she asked. Then Xena snapped her fingers onto the pressure points on the soldier’s legs as she shouted “Now!”

The three women bore their weight down as the soldier nearly rose in the air, thrashing. Xena leaned heavily into the one arm, keeping the wound closed with pressure. Leah sat determinedly on the captain’s legs, despite the bucking she had to negotiate and the thin, parched air in the cavern. Gabrielle had the hardest time. She was trying to hold down the man’s sword arm,  which was very strong.

The bard was in danger of losing an eye to the spasming arm, when an extra weight lent itself to her efforts. She looked aside to see the strange priestess kneeling next to her, lending some extra weight. The blonde woman had shed her outer skin and knelt costumed in a simple dress of homespun wool. Gabrielle flashed her a tight smile in thanks and was rewarded with a nod in return.

After a few moments the seizure seemed to ease and the women were able to withdraw their weight. Lycurgus’s breathing eased and Xena had time to bind the new wound with the wadded cloth as a bandage.

Xena leaned forward and felt the pulse at the soldier’s neck and nodded. “He may live.” She turned to the strange woman. “What’s in that mixture? Its not the ginger, sage or rosemary that saved him.”

The blonde shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t know. We have a cache of the herb, but I was told by my teacher and predecessor that it comes from very far away, from a land called Chin.” Xena’s eyes sparked and she glanced at Gabrielle.

The bard said nothing, but met Xena’s eyes.

“I was out of the other herbs and I haven’t had time to collect them yet.” The priestess continued.

“Collect?” Xena asked. “Then you’re here alone?”

The priestess held her head up. “I am, as I have been, alone.”

“Then the girl isn’t with you? Eudore? ” Gabrielle asked urgently. Was this all for nothing? her mind shrieked.

The priestess was silent.

“Aglaia,” Xena spoke earnestly. “If Eudore is here, we need to bring her back. There are people who would harm you if they thought you had hurt her.”

Blue eyes flashed at the warrior’s words. “I have done nothing to her! She came here of her own free will! And she stays of her own will, as well. Aglaia, priestess and oracle of Athena, swears it.”

“Then by Athena, let us see her!” Xena’s voice was cold. She stood and looked down at the the blonde. “We need to return her to her family – or at least a message from her. Her parents worry…”

“They do not.” A small voice came from the farthest point of the cavern. “I mean they do. Worry, I mean. But not for me. They are more worried that I don’t fit in with their plans.” Eudore came forward, looking very small and very young. She stood next to Aglaia and took the priestess’s small, graceful hand in hers.

“Aglaia hasn’t hurt me. She found me crying in the forest. She gave me an alternative to a life I was sure I didn’t want. She’s been very kind to me.”

“But why haven’t you contacted anyone?” Gabrielle inquired. “Tereus has been going out of his mind…”

“Tereus! Great Zeus, I forgot! I was supposed to meet him. Oh, Hades! How long have I been here? ” The girl looked dazed.

“Three days.” Xena responded. The girl looked pale, Xena moved to catch in case she should faint, but Eudore waved her away.

“I’m fine. I had no idea it was that long. It’s hard to tell time down here…” she tapered off.

“Well, we’re glad you’re well. Now we need to return you to your parents…” Xena began, but Eudore’s cheeks flushed with color.

“No! I’m not going back. I don’t want to get married and have babies – that’s all they see for my future. “A tradesman’s wife is a good life.” My mother says. Life! What would she know of it, she’s never lived one!” Eudore was enraged. “Do you know what they told me? They said that going to the Library was *bad* for me! That it was turning my mind from the important things in life.” She humphed indignantly. “Can you believe it? As if life and death and love were unimportant!”

She raged about the cavern. When she returned to the small group, she had calmed down. “I’m sorry Xena – I can’t tell you how sorry I am. But I’m not going back. I’ve decided to stay here and become the next priestess of Athena.” She stood defiantly, hands in fists, close to Aglaia.

The priestess put a hand on her shoulder. “Maybe we should have a word from your mentor before you cast your lot in with me.” All eyes turned to Leah. The Librarian had been uncommonly quiet throughout this exchange.

Leah tore her eyes from the priestess’s visage. “Hmmm. I, um, well. Eudore, you should do what you feel is, um, right.” The librarian’s voice was weak, uncertain. She blushed heavily and fell silent.

Eudore flushed again. “Leah, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize what an insult this was to you.” Tears welled in the girl’s eyes. “Please don’t be upset with me.”

The Librarian came to herself all at once and put her hands on the girl’s arms.

“My dear, you could never offend me. If this is your calling, your destiny, then this is what you should do. Just make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. Running away from trouble is not the way to approach a Goddess.”

Eudore let the tears run down her cheeks. “No, it’s not that. I wanted a way out, true. I thought the Library was that way. But when Aglaia brought me here…I knew that this was where I belonged. This is where I am supposed to be.” She turned her eyes to the priestess, but found the blue eyes locked with those of the librarian. A moment passed and Eudore opened her mouth to speak, but shut it and turned to Xena and Gabrielle.

“You must be exhausted and hungry. Why don’t you come with me and I’ll give you food and a place to wash.” Xena smirked and took Gabrielle by the elbow. The young bard looked done in with the stress and the round trip she had taken.

 

Chapter 19

 

Eudore found herself walking next to the bard. “Gabrielle, I know I can never apologize enough. I never meant it to come to this…” She gestured weakly, searching for words. “I told Aglaia that they would send someone for me – probably a soldier – and that I’d die before going back. Better they should think I’m dead…”

Gabrielle stopped walking and protested. “No, Eudore! That would be the worst thing possible. For a parent to lose a child…” Tears spilled over her tired eyes and she sagged. Xena was right there to offer an arm in support. She took one look at the bard and lifted her off her feet.

Cradling Gabrielle in her arms, the Warrior Princess took charge once more.

“Eudore, can you get us some broth and some water? Some bread would be good, too.”

The girl immediately jumped to attention. “Go around the corner and up the stairs to the left – there’s a chamber there where you can wash – the water’s warm.” She flashed an apologetic smile to the bard, who lay limp, but conscious in her lover’s arms. Gabrielle returned the smile. Eudore ran off, her footsteps echoing.

The bard looked hard at Xena. “You look like you could use some food as well. ” She thought for a moment. “What about Lycurgus?” she Satted Xena’s arms, trying to get out of the embrace and stand up on her own, but the warrior tightened her grip and headed up the stairs. They found themselves in a small, comfortable chamber, with a skin covered pallet and a basin. Xena wetted a cloth and handed it to Gabrielle. Then she began laving her own face with the nicely warmed water.

“He’ll be fine for a few minutes. As soon as we can we should move him to a cleaner, airier place, though.” She said as she toweled her face off.

Eudore returned, carrying a jug, a bowl and a loaf of bread. She held them up for inspection. “Water, broth and bread. Alright?” she looked like she might burst into tears at any moment. Xena nodded her approval and motioned for the girl to join them.

“Aglaia told me that in the main chamber they burn herbs that cause mild hallucinations and eye watering. It was part of their protection, you see. ” She looked with concern at the pale face of the bard. “She said it wouldn’t cause any lasting effects.” She offered. Gabrielle patted her knee.

“I’ll be fine. I just needed some food.” She ripped off a piece of bread, put it into her mouth and sighed. “Ambrosia.” She moaned.

The next few minutes were silent as all three women soaked bread in broth and ate it contentedly.

“Is the soldier going to be alright?” Eudore ventured shyly. “I’m so sorry – I never meant it to go this far. I just thought my parents would be happier wthout me…” She spoke in agitation, not thinking. The two older women sat in silence, not even able to respond to this callous remark.

It was Gabrielle who attempted to find her way through the child’s self-absorption. “Eudore, no parent ever wants to lose a child. No matter what. Please don’t ever forget that. Your parents may not say it, but they love you. They may not understand you, but they do love you. Just remember that.” She took the girl’s hand in her own. Xena had retreated, her eyes veiled and dark. Eudore looked at the two women and huddled herself up into a small, ashamed shape.

“I can’t believe that I…I don’t even know what to say. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything, for all the trouble I’ve caused and for Lycurgus and…everything.” She finished lamely.

“There’ll be plenty of time to apologize later. First we have to get you back.” Xena held up a hand to still the girl’s protests. “You will go back – you have to. Even now there is probably a mob, getting ready to trash this temple and kill the “monster,” to save you.”

Eudore threw her hands in the air in frustration as she stood. “Great! Everything I do goes wrong! All I wanted is a way out…” She clenched her fists, but Xena rose and took her by the shoulders, looking her straight in the eyes.

“Running away is never a way out, Eudore. To find the way out, you have to go forward, through the trouble. Come back with us and we’ll find a way to get you back here – without a mob on your heels.” The girl dashed tears from her eyes and nodded. She looked down at the bard, who had nodded off into a quiet doze. Xena looked down and smiled tenderly.

“C’mon,” she said to Eudore, “Let her sleep. You can help me move Lycurgus.”

They left the sleeping bard, and returned to the main chamber. There was no sign of the priestess or the librarian. A smile flitted across Eudore’s face.

“Weren’t they cute?” She asked with a giggle. Her face sobered quickly. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Leah speak of anyone as an intimate. Hmmm,” she puzzled, “And I’ve known her for about ten years. Whoa! That’s a long time to go without…”

Xena cut her off. “That’s enough of that!” but she was smiling, too.

They found the soldier, where they had left him. Xena lifted him and Eudore led her to another chamber, not far from the one where they had left Gabrielle. Xena settled Lycurgus on the pallet and checked his pulse.

“Will he wake up?” Eudore asked, worried.

“I don’t know. It depends on how strong he is in here.” The warrior touched the soldier’s chest.

“Why did he charge the Gorgon, I mean, Aglaia? What was he thinking?” Eudore wondered out loud. Xena sat back, pushing hair out of her face. She puffed her cheeks out and blew a stray lock away.

“His thought was more on his reputation than on the logic of the situation. I told him of the temple’s history, but what does a simple soldier care for that?” She took a deep breath. “So, when he saw the monster, it didn’t matter that I told him there was none. All he saw was a way to get his honor back. He was impulsive and he’s paid for it. ”

“And I’m paying for my impulsiveness, too.” Eudore said frankly.

Xena nodded, “We all might, before long.”