Black Lily

Mystery and The Mask (Part 08)

Chapter 20

 

The thick air of the chamber was charged with something almost electric. The silence hung heavy and nothing was said for a long moment.

“I’m acting like a complete fool, I’m sorry.” The Librarian finally forced a few words past her lips. “I’m Leah, the…”

“Town’s Librarian. I know.” the priestess smiled brightly. “Eudore spoke of you quite a bit. She has nothing but respect and love for you, you know?” Blue eyes sparkled with good humor and not a little teasing.

The Librarian blushed at what she imagined those eyes to be saying. I am way too old to be acting like this, or even thinking like this, she thought. But a precipice lay ahead and she was sure she was about to leap without looking.

“Now its my turn to act like a clod.” The priestess’s voice was melodic. “I’m Aglaia, as you heard. Priestess and oracle of Athena. Will you come with me? I’ll get you some food and a place to rest.”

Leah looked relieved. “Food! What an excellent idea! I never even had breakfast today – too much has happened…” she stopped, hoping she hadn’t inadvertently insulted the proud woman beside her. As she turned, the Librarian found herself looking into eyes at her own height. A surprise and a pleasure, for she was used to being the shortest in a room.

Aglaia gave her an amused glance. “I could use a bite myself – its been a long day.” she laughed. “Its not every day I meet a Warrior Princess who sees through my machinations, have a soldier try to kill me, and a visit from a beautiful librarian.”

Leah blushed furiously under her pale skin. The priestess led her to a low ceilinged room, furnished with only a pallet, table and two chairs. Aglaia motioned for Leah to be seated and provided her with wine and various dishes – all of which looked as good as Leah had ever seen.

“Do you cook, as well?” the words were out before she even realized she had said them.

“As well as what?” Those eyes had her pinned again, but the voice was teasing, familiar.

“Um, nothing, sorry. I…look, I’m out of my element here. I apologize for any tactless or rude remarks that inadvertently make their way out of my mouth.” Leah wouldn’t meet the priestess’s gaze.

The blonde woman walked around the table and pulled up the chair so she was knee-to-knee with the librarian.

“As well as what?” she said with a knowing smile.

“Oh, Hades. Fine.” Leah muttered. “As well as being the most stunning woman I’ve ever seen.” she stated defiantly, her pale blue eyes meeting the deeper blue of the Priestess. They sat for a moment, lost in each other and then they smiled – genuine smiles of delight. They both laughed.

“I’m a bit old for a crush,” Leah began.

“I don’t usually do this,” Aglaia spoke at the same time.

Their smiles widened. Both sets of eyes twinkled in the dim light.

“Oh, Hades. Well, we’re hit bad, I think.” Leah said and she picked up a piece of flatbread, broke some off and dipped it into a light yogurt sauce. She took a bite and offered the rest to Aglaia. The Priestess took the bread, dipped it, bit and offered it back to Leah.

“Yeah,” the Priestess agreed as she chewed, all her proud demeanor replaced with a down-to-earth manner, “I think its a bullseye. Here’s one for Eros.” She took a drink of wine.

Leah lifted her cup. “And one for Aphrodite.”

They spent the rest of the meal talking to each other, learning about each other. They spoke of all the dreams and desires that a life alone brings. In between offering each other tidbits, they found themselves in the presence of another that truly understood who they were. Leah was delighted to hear that Aglaia was also interested in history. Aglaia was ecstatic to learn that Leah was interested in religion and the Gods.

“This is pretty scary, you have to admit.” Leah said, after they had cleaned up the remains of the meal. “This is way too fast – we don’t know each other…” she held one of the priestess’s hands and rubbed her thumb across the graceful fingers.

“Oh, definitely.” Aglaia agreed. She shyly stroked her hand across the librarian’s jaw. “I’ve never felt, well, you know, blah, blah, blah…” She leaned toward the dark-haired woman and placed a soft kiss on her lips. “Don’t make me regret this.” she said plainly.

“I think we’re too old for those kind of games.” The Librarian said, and kissed her back.

They leaned closer, beginning to embrace, when a loud noise, or noises interrupted them. Banging and shouting seemed to come from all directions at once.

The two women jerked apart, looking like two adolescents that had been caught by a parent. When they thought to breathe again, they laughed nervously at their own discomfiture.

Taking a deep breath, the Librarian straightened her loose, flowing jacket. “Had to happen.” she laughed. The priestess stood and held out a hand.

“We might as well found out what it is…” Leah took the hand and together they returned to the main chamber.

 


 

Long before they entered the room, they could make out several voices. One, Aglaia could tell was the Warrior Princess, it was low and even, another was Eudore – she had heard it frequently over the past days. And the third was Gabrielle…but who were the others?

Aglaia rounded the corner, still holding the librarian’s hand and came up short. Such a lot of people in her chambers! She backed off a few paces and stood, composing herself to meet company. Leah watched her, concerned.

“Is this too much for you?” she asked. “Too many people?”

“No, no, ” the priestess reassured her, “I’m used to people – I shop in town all the time. I’m not used to this many in, well, in *my* temple.” she spoke apologetically.

Leah gave her hand a squeeze. “Take your time. We’ll go when you’re ready.”

The priestess stood up straight, relaxed her shoulders, and took her hand back from the other woman. She lifted her chin and settled her hands lightly by her sides. Her voice was calm, proud. “I’m ready.” she said.

 

 

Chapter 21

 

Tereus stood at the edge of the crowd, arms crossed and leaning on a tree for support. He watched the ineffectual efforts of the guards to control the movements of the people in yard and street and muttered to himself. This sight became so frustrating that he backed up from the view and moved around the tree to face away from the scene. He came face to face with a young guard, apparently of the 3rd division.

They looked at each other for a moment, then remembered where they knew each other from.

“Oh, hi.” said Tereus, with no enthusiasm. “You’re Xena’s friend, um…” he paused at a loss for a name.

“Marcus. Yeah, and you’re the bo… the Librarian’s assistant, right?”

Tereus smiled appreciatively, at both the pause, and the title. “Thanks.” he said, friendlier.

The young soldier shrugged, smiling shyly. “You’re not much younger than I was when I joined up, actually. I remember how much I hated being called a “boy.” They stood awkwardly, facing out into the street, side by side. For a few minutes no words were spoken.

“What made you join?” Tereus finally asked, grasping for a topic of conversation.

Marcus spoke to him without taking his eyes off the street.

“I don’t know, really. It just seemed right. I’m a third son and fifth child. My father’s a leatherworker, which was good enough for my oldest brother and paid for two dowries, but I never wanted any part of it. I used to play battles by myself.” he smiled, remembering his youth. “When other kids stopped playing soldier and started thinking about girls, I just kept on playing. I think its what I was meant to do.” His reverie ended and he focused on the youth next to him. “How about you? How did you become interested in…what it is that you are interested in?” he fumbled, not being familiar with the correct turn of phrase.

It was Tereus’s turn to reminisce. “I was always asking questions in school. The schoolmaster got sick of it and sent me to the Library to bother the Librarian. She didn’t seem to mind, but I was terrified at first.” He smiled, thinking of his first few weeks haunting the Library’s rooms. “I wouldn’t even ask Leah anything, just skulked around. Finally, she put me to work – straightening the room where all the answers to my history questions happened to be. I thought she read minds.” he laughed. “Now I realize that the schoolteacher told her.”

Marcus regarded Tereus with some consideration. “Do you ever think about what you’ll do when you get older?”

The boy nodded energetically. “I haven’t ever mentioned this to Leah, but I’d like to be the next Librarian. Its a good job, and I feel at home there.”

“What about your folks?” Marcus stopped himself. “I’m sorry if I’m being rude…”

Tereus waved off the remark. “Honestly, I’ve been so worried these past few days its nice to just *talk* to someone. I only have a guardian – my uncle. He’s very understanding. He was a soldier, too, you know.” Tereus looked at the young man at his side. “Stichius, of the ‘Lightning’.”

Marcus’s eyes widened. “Stichius Munitas, “single shield” ? Hero of the Battle of Tricha?” he whistled. “He’s a legend in the guard.”

Tereus nodded. “I know. I’m very proud of him. And he’s proud of me.” The boy looked defensively at the guard.

Marcus raised a hand in defeat. “Who’m I to question Stichius’s judgment?” and he smiled and offered an arm to the boy. Tereus took it solemnly and shook it as if it sealed a pact. “Its nice to meet you, Tereus.” Marcus said honestly.

Tereus replied with genuine pleasure. “The feeling is mutual. Any friend of Xena and Gabrielle’s…” he began. To his surprise the soldier flushed with embarrassment.

Tereus was about to ask what the blush was about when the background murmur began to swell, voices rang out in occasional anger or agreement. The two youths turned and took in the scene with some concern.

The crowd had grown, rather than dispersed. Aristeus was up on a cart, calling for the blood of the monster that had robbed him of his daughter. The crowd, by now, whipped into an unheeding frenzy, responded with shouts in all the appropriate places.

Tereus looked around but Philyra was nowhere to be seen. In fact, the crowd seemed to be composed of mostly men, some of whom were armed. He could see staves and knives and even a few swords. He cursed under his breath.

“Marcus, I know you can’t leave your post, but I’ve got to go. Leah wanted to know when the mob grew strong enough to move. It was nice talking with…”

The soldier cut him off. “Stay here a moment.” He ran towards a group of guards surrounding the magistrate. Tereus could see Marcus stop in front of a captain and speak briefly. The captain looked over at Tereus and back at the young guard before him. He spoke to the magistrate then to Marcus. The young guard ran back to Tereus and grabbed him by the arm.

“I’ve been released from my post to warn Xena and Gabrielle at the Temple. C’mon, Pontes says we won’t have much of a lead.”

The two youths ran down the street. Tereus felt oddly comforted by the older youth’s presence. At least this was something he could do.

“How does he know we don’t have much time?” Tereus asked as they loped their way down filled streets, dodging carts, animals and people.

“Pontes has been guard captain longer than I’ve been alive. He’s seen battles, riots and peace. He knows.” Marcus stopped speaking to vault a pile of cloth bales that were being unloaded in the street.

Tereus waved his arm in front of him. “I have to stop at the Library and tell Leah – are you going straight on?” Marcus shook his head.

“Pontes told me to go with you, then to the Temple. You might be able to do us a favor. Can you run?” he grinned at the boy, who did not answer. Tereus set his shoulders and picked up the pace. Soon he was ahead of the soldier and gaining.

“Okay, okay!” Marcus’s voice rose over the hubbub of the market. “That’s what we thought. You may have to relay a message for us. I’m supposed to stay with the rescue team at the ruins. ” He ran silently for a moment, catching up with Tereus.

“Assuming they’re still alive.” the boy said soberly. Marcus just nodded and ran.

 


 

The two youths arrived at the Library and were taking the steps two at a time when Tereus caught site of the note fluttering in the wind of their passage. he stopped and read it. He shook his head with chagrin and wonder.

“What is it?” Marcus asked, looking over his shoulder.

“She’s already there. I mean Leah. Gabrielle came back to get her. Wouldn’t you know it?” he chuckled. “Well, let’s go.”

Marcus paused and grabbed Tereus’s arm. “Why? What happened? Is everyone okay?” Tereus glanced at the note again.

“All it says is that Lycurgus was wounded.”

The soldier nodded. “Then let’s go.” They took off down the steps and ran towards the city gate.

 

 

Chapter 22

 

Aglaia preceded Leah into the chamber and waited, as the figures turned to acknowledge her. She saw Xena, Gabrielle and Eudore, but there were also two young men – although one could only barely be called “man.” They had been talking animatedly with the Warrior Princess, but now they stood stiffly. The young soldier stood calmly at attention, as one does in the presence of superiors, but Aglaia’s gaze rested on the younger of the pair.

His eyes were downcast, not in fear, but in awe. His manner was formal as she approached. To her surprise, this young man made a formal and very correct obeisance as she reached the group. The priestess made a gesture for him to rise. He did so with no sign of discomfort or embarrassment. An interesting child, Aglaia considered his behavior.

After a moment she spoke to the youth. “You must be Tereus.” He looked at the woman with no trace of confusion. She smiled at him and his smile was brilliant in return.

“Thank you, Priestess, for taking care of Eudore.” He said formally, but sincerely. Aglaia took the hand he offered. “If I can make an offering to the Goddess…I’d like to.” he attempted.

“Later.” the Priestess responded. “Right now we have a crisis to deal with. She glanced at the soldier that stood at Tereus’s side. “Not the least of which is why another soldier comes to these grounds in clothing of war.” she cast a long look into the young man’s dark eyes, but he did not flinch.

“This is Marcus.” Gabrielle interjected. “He’s a friend of ours and he’s brought news. Marcus…?”

The soldier spoke gravely, including everyone who stood around him in his speech. “The mob is coming. And they’re after blood. They’re coming to kill a monster, and they won’t leave without a death.”

Leah was first with the question. “How close are they?”

Marcus turned to her. “Pontes, my captain, told me that he was going to stall them as long as possible.”

“Stall them? How?” Xena spoke quickly, her eyes intense, weighing all the information she was being given.

Marcus gave her a tight smile. “He was going to try to form them into ranks and make sure they were all “properly” armed.”

Xena barked with laughter. “Perfect, that ought to buy us a chunk of time. Okay, here’s what we need to do.” Her natural talent for command asserted itself once again.

“Marcus, return to Pontes, let him know that we’re all safe, but Lycurgus is wounded. Tell him we’ve got the girl, ” she gestured towards Eudore and Marcus was surprised to see her included in this “war party.” Eudore saw the look cross the young man’s face and she flipped her hair back in irritation. The soldier was completely distracted by the movement of the chestnut mane and had to be recalled to reality with a nudge from Tereus.

“While you’re there, volunteer as a scout group – get Petros to join you, he knows some old tricks. When the mob makes the temple area, volunteer to go ahead and scout. Remind Petros of the “Wood splitting” maneuver – that should buy us a little more time.” Marcus nodded, committing the commands to memory.

“Good – now go!” the Warrior Princess sent the soldier off with a gesture. Marcus hesitated, remembering his captain’s orders, but he made his decision quickly and ran out the way he had come in. Whatever was going to happen, his money stood with the Warrior Princess.

“Next, we have to find a way to give them a monster – blood and all.” Xena looked around for ideas.

Leah spoke to Tereus. “I know you just ran here, can you run back and get me two scrolls? We could use them to build a monster…” Tereus nodded, wondering how much running he could actually do.

Xena interjected. “Leah, you’ve said this magistrate is intelligent. How will he react to having a functioning temple here?” she swept her arm around.

Leah thought for a moment. “I’d guess that he would be receptive. A real oracle could be a big tourist draw.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Aglaia stiffen, then relax herself with visible effort. The librarian turned to the Priestess.

“Maybe its time you left the darkness…” she offered.

Aglaia meditated quietly. “This is all so sudden. I wasn’t prepared. I knew change was coming. I knew Eudore’s presence was the signal, but all this…its so much.” she spoke quietly. She stood, lost in her own thoughts. Finally she looked up at her companions and longest at Leah.

“When my teacher and predecessor found me, I had been abandoned to the Fates by uncaring parents. I was brought up here, alone but for my mentor. When she passed into the Elysian Fields I was alone. Alone in body, that is, but my Goddess is ever with me. She told me that one would come who would shake my world to its foundation. I thought she meant Eudore, but I see that I was wrong. Eudore was the herald, but you, Xena, you would shake my world to its very roots.

“You would have me put aside my armor, and fight no more. You bring me into the light, into community and into love,” she glanced at Leah quickly, then back at the warrior. “You would have me take my place as the head of a noble order, as Oracle once again, where for years I was but a myth, a legend to be sought out by only the foolhardy or drunk.” She took a deep breath. “After so long…”

“I believe I am ready to do this” she looked around carefully at all those who stood with her. “If you will help me.” They all nodded.

Eudore stepped forward. “You won’t be alone in this.” she promised. “I, at least, will stay here, whatever happens.”

Gabrielle spoke up. “Aglaia, we’ll do everything we can to keep anyone from being hurt and to get your temple raised once again.” They all nodded again.

Leah took a scrap of parchment from one of her capacious pockets and wrote quickly on it at the table in the corner. She handed it to Tereus .

“Get back here quickly, Tereus. Please. Run!” she said as she shoved him towards the entranceway. He nodded somberly and ran out of the room.

The librarian turned to the women remaining in the chamber. “Okay, how in Hades did they find us?” she demanded.

Gabrielle laughed and raised her hand. “My fault. I was up top getting some fresh air…” Aglaia grunted, walked over to the torches and began to douse them, replacing them with candles. “when I heard them talking.” I recognized the voices and led them to us.” the bard finished.

“Thank the Gods that you did.” Leah began, but Xena finished.

“Yes. They may have bought us the time we need to get out of this without any bloodshed.”

The air in the room began to clear perceptibly while they talked, which made them all feel clearer headed than before. Aglaia apologized for the stuffy air.

“The smoke, the incense – its *all* part of my armor. Even these caves…” her voice dimmed.

Xena looked at the Priestess. “Are you ready to make some sacrifices for your Goddess?” she asked bluntly, almost rudely.

Aglaia nodded, slowly. “Of course. Sacrifice is part of service. What do you need?”

Xena locked her eyes with those of the shorter woman. “The Mask.”

 

 

Chapter 23

 

Aglaia began to reject this idea, but was silenced by the warrior’s intensity. “We need the Mask. And the armor. Aglaia, if you want to leave here alive, we need to kill a monster.”

Leah, at the Priestess’s side spoke up. “No.” she said firmly. Xena looked at the diminutive woman with curiosity.

“But why?” Gabrielle asked, “Its just a mask, isn’t it?”

Aglaia began to answer, but Leah hushed her. “Can we sit somewhere an talk?” she said, a wave of exhaustion rushing through her. Aglaia took her arm quickly and steadied the woman. Eudore stepped to support Leah’s other arm.

Xena agreed. “We have alot that needs to be planned and we’ll all need to be rested and sharp-witted.”

The Priestess led them to the chamber she and Leah had occupied earlier. Chairs were fetched and they all sat around the worn, old table.

With great gravity, Xena turned to Leah, searching her face. “Why shouldn’t we use the Mask? Is there something we should know? A curse or a power that it possesses? I respect your knowledge, Leah, but I need to know.”

The Librarian shook her head. “It has no power that I know of, no geas or curse. You’re asking Aglaia to give up the very symbol of her power – the heirloom her order has treasured for generations. Xena, you are asking her to surrender her power, to see it destroyed. I won’t see that done.” Leah’s voice was hard. “My job is to save information and culture from disappearing. You won’t take that away from Aglaia.”

Gabrielle was watching the Priestess as Leah spoke. She noted the body language which spoke volumes, and spoke a completely different tale than the words she heard the Priestess say.

“I think Xena is right, Leah. It is only an object…”

Leah interrupted with a firm “No!” but sagged at the Priestess’s touch.

Xena thought for a moment. “Aglaia, ask yourself – ask your Goddess. Take time and consider, but not too long…” but the priestess stopped her with a raised hand.

“You are right, of course. You shall have whatever you wish. A mask is merely an object and can be replaced, no matter how powerful it may have become through use, as a symbol – or as a weapon” she sighed heavily and left the room. She returned, carrying a pale mask, surmounted by brazen serpents. She turned the mask over in her hands, gazing into its blank eyes. Without looking up she handed it to the warrior.

“I’m sorry.” Aglaia apologized. “Its all I’ve ever known…” she tapered off. She was surprised to hear the warrior’s voice, soft and comforting.

“I understand. If someone took my sword…” she left the sentence hanging. Gabrielle was touched by the simple eloquence of her partner and touched the warrior gently with a hand to her back. Xena smiled at the smaller woman.

Aglaia met Xena’s eyes and nodded. “Yes. We all have our weapons.” Leah took one of the blonde’s hands and clasped it.

“If I lost my scrolls…”

“Or I was called upon to lose my voice…” Gabrielle added.

“But don’t you see? “Aglaia asked. “These things are just attributes – they are not skills If you take away the mask, I am still an oracle. If you lost your voice, you would still find ways to tell stories, ” she pointed at Gabrielle, “you would still have all your fighting skills if you lost your sword.” she said to Xena.

Leah was quiet a moment. “But if I lost my scrolls, I’d be nothing.” she said, finally, her eyes downcast.

“No,” Gabrielle stated firmly. “You’d still have your ability to learn. A Library might make a Librarian’s job easier, but you’d still have the ability to find and analyze information. That is your skill – your memory, your ability to think critically. Its not your scrolls that make you, Leah, its you that make the scrolls. Without you, they’d just be a pile of vellum. With you, they are valuable resources.”

“I never thought of it that way…” Leah fell into silence. She was brought out of her reverie by Agalia’s voice.

“And you are wrong, Leah. Sacrifice is not surrender. One is given freely, as a gift, or as a payment or as a preparation. One is taken almost always by force or coercion. I freely sacrifice the Mask of the Gorgon, so the Gorgoneion may live again.” Her voice built, becoming stronger with every word. “There will be a Temple here again, where life, not death is sought. Where the soldier and the farmer will be free to meditate and ask the Gorgon’s head for advice. Because of you, ” she turned to Eudore and smiled, “There will be a new generation of disciples and priestesses. And the town will prosper.” Her voice lowered again, “If bloodshed can be avoided.”

Gabrielle caught the implication. “And if it can’t?’ she asked quickly.

Aglaia turned her dazzling blues eyes on the bard. “Then death, not life, will find its home here.” There was finality in her tone.

Xena slapped the table. “I’m not the biggest believer in oracles, Aglaia, I’ll admit it. But if in anyway I can, I’ll avoid bloodshed.” She stood and stretched. “The townspeople are the problem – they’ll have no control over their emotions.” She looked imploringly at the bard, motioning Gabrielle to follow. “We’ll go check on Lycurgus. If you can, rest until Tereus returns or until I call.”

Gabrielle rose and joined Xena at the room’s entrance. They looked back at the two strangers, so quickly bonded, already forgetting their company and their precarious situation, losing themselves in each other. They two women swiftly left the room, leaving a profound silence behind them.