Black Lily

Mystery and The Mask (Part 09)

Chapter 24

Walking next to Xena, Gabrielle’s mind played over what she had heard and seen. She marveled at the closeness that had grown between librarian and priestess so quickly. Her bond with Xena had taken so long to form…or had it? She looked up at her partner and smiled at the thought of the warrior trying to rid herself of a pesky, irritating girl who just would not go away. She chuckled to herself at the memory.

Xena looked down at the bard and catching her eyes, stopped and drew the bard in for a quick embrace. Gabrielle reached up and stroked hair out of Xena’s eyes, then pulling her hand down, let her fingers trail across the taller woman’s lips. Xena smiled at her.

“What was the laugh for?” the warrior asked, loosing, but not breaking their embrace.

“I was considering the most interesting story of the “Priestess and the Librarian, A Love Story,” the bard responded, instantly filing the title away for future reference. Xena laughed.

“Hmm. Yes, a most interesting story, as you say.” Her blues eyes sparkled with humor.

“But that wasn’t what I was really thinking.” Gabrielle broke the embrace and continued towards the chamber that housed Lycurgus.

“Oh?”

“No. I was thinking that Aglaia was lying to you. And that you are lying to her.” The bard spoke with care, but Xena was silent. “You know what I mean, don’t you?”

The warrior nodded. “It nearly broke her heart giving me the Mask.”

“And you have every intention of destroying it. Xena, is this the right thing to do? She’s been living with this burden for years. Is it fair to change her life so suddenly?” Gabrielle searched the tall woman’s face as she spoke.

Xena gazed down into bright green eyes for a moment. “I don’t know Gabrielle. I really don’t.” she said softly. “All I know is that I have to find a way through this, so the least amount of damage is done and no one gets hurt. I owe it to you and to Aglaia to try.”

Gabrielle stepped back and considered the uncertainty she saw in Xena’s eyes.

“If anyone can find their way through this, its you. You are the most magnificent person I’ve ever met, Xena.” And the bard reached up to kiss the warrior. Their embrace lasted a few moments and they parted reluctantly.

“But no pressure.” Xena laughed.

“Absolutely none.” Gabrielle agreed with a smile.


The two women found Lycurgus sleeping calmly. Xena reported his pulse even and his breathing normal. But he still looked pale, and there was no response when they called his name.

“Is it likely he’ll awaken anytime soon?” Gabrielle tried to trickle some water down his throat, but it mostly ended up on the floor. She persevered until Xena tapped him lightly below the ear, forcing him to swallow convulsively. Gabrielle quickly gave him the remainder of the water and sat back, puffing air out of her mouth in frustration.

The warrior shook her head, “Can’t say. I have no experience with this poison. He could remain this way, or awaken, or die.” Her face hardened.

“Poor Aglaia.” Gabrielle spoke her thought aloud. Xena looked at her, startled.

Gabrielle met her gaze. “I’m pretty sure she’s never killed anyone before.” and she watched Xena flinch, thinking of the bard’s first experience killing another human being. The younger woman reached out to touch the warrior’s hand. “Its okay, I can talk about it now. We will talk about it, won’t we?”

Xena nodded, her throat oddly constricted.

They tended the stricken soldier in silence for a few moments.

“Its not the right time, but yes, we’ll talk about it – we need to.” Xena finally spoke hesitatingly. But how can I say¬† what I have to say, my bard. How can I tell you that your goodness outweighs everything you did. How can I tell you that when you killed another human, something in me died, something I didn’t know I had left. How can I tell you that I would gladly sacrifice my son again, even to your own hands, if it would keep you here. The warrior shook her head against her confusion. She looked up to see concern in the green eyes watching her closely. She turned again to the supine form before her. She tested the soldier’s reflexes by striking pressure points. He had feeling in all his limbs, although his reactions were sluggish.

When she looked up, Gabrielle had turned away from her, turned inward, lost in thought. Xena waited until the bard was back in the present.

“I hesitate to say this, but I think he may be alright. Look.” And she showed the bard the reactions she had seen. Gabrielle focused all her attention on Lycurgus, to their mutual relief. The tension between them passed out of the cavern and dissipated with their common task.

After some time, the bard looked around in some concern. “Shouldn’t we be getting to work on the, what shall we call it, the “puppet?” We can’t have too much time left…and where is Tereus?” her voice was beginning to show the strain of the past hours and Xena suffered, knowing the next few would only be worse. Xena rose
smoothly to her feet and Gabrielle joined her, a little jerkily.

“Are you going to be alright?” the warrior looked at her partner with some concern, but the bard waved it off.

“I’ll have to be. Let’s get to work.” her voice was hard. Xena flinched again. The tone, the face, it was all too familiar. She was teaching her lover too well….lessons she had been taught under fire. And now this young woman, this kind and good storyteller, She’s had too make too many hard decisions lately, I’m not helping any,
either. Xena made a frustrated sound in her mind.

Xena stopped Gabrielle where she stood and turned her around gently. The warrior’s strong hands searched the pale face looking up at her, smoothing frown marks, uncreasing the brow. She spoke teasingly.

“Gabrielle. Don’t ever be strong because you think I need you to be. Be gentle, be kind, be yourself. One crusty old warrior is enough for both of us…” she was rewarded with a smile that creeped down from the bard’s eyes and joined her mouth at the corners. Xena leaned down and kissed the smile, which deepened and spread, along with a faint blush along the bard’s neck.

Gabrielle threw her arms around the warrior’s neck. “I swear, when we get back to the inn…” she kissed Xena deeply, bringing an answering flush to the warrior’s face, “every soldier of the Third will think I’m killing you.” she laughed at the thought and at the startled look on her lover’s face. She disentangled herself as the look changed to a more meaningful gaze and skipped briskly off into the cave, her laughter floating back to tantalize Xena.

“I’ll get you, I swear…” Xena muttered as she strode off after her snickering partner.

Chapter 25

Time was running out – they all knew that. Xena and Gabrielle returned to the main chamber to find a panting Tereus come running around the turn in the passage. He held out two somewhat crushed scrolls, which Gabrielle took and ran towards the room that had acted as their council chamber. Xena spared the boy a glance, saw him lean on his legs and gasp for air. She made sure he wasn’t about to faint or choke, but he shook his head.

“I’ll…be right…there.” he waved her off, so she joined the other women, finding them rolling out the scrolls. In a few moments everyone had a task to do and silence fell over the cavern as they all attended their allotted chores.

Tereus found the Warrior Princess and Leah weaving together a collection of twigs, leather and fabric to form a skeletal frame. He spoke without preamble, all formality gone in the heat of the moment. He still panted lightly between sentences, the strain visible in his face.

“I saw Marcus. They’re still on the outskirts of town – Pontes has done a great job of stalling them. Marcus tells me that Petros has taken a bunch off to the north to get them lost…your idea?” Xena, her mouth full of wicker, nodded, smiling around the wood. Tereus smirked. “It seems to have worked. Petros has most of the ringleaders
in his group. They’ll find the main group again, but hopefully they’ll be much too tired to do anything rash.”

Tereus grabbed a handful material and began tying off corners, while Leah and Eudore worked on two wavy limbs, their hands fumbling with the unfamiliar techniques.

“I figure they’ll be here in an hour, maximum, “Tereus continued. Then Pontes will halt them again to form them into “proper ranks. With luck, they’ll be so tired they won’t be able to hunt the monster.” he said hopefully.

Xena shook her head. “Don’t count on it.” she said, removing the last twig from her mouth. “Crowds have a way of becoming ugly in an instant. There – that’s got to do it. Leah?” she looked at the Librarian, who held up two ungainly protuberances.

“This will have to do.” Leah said. “But we’ll need hands…” she looked around.

“Got them.” Gabrielle’s voice was followed quickly by two figures carrying a heavy pile.

“I’ve raided the armory here – various pieces acquired from heroes that…well you know.” Aglaia said nervously. It was obviously a topic that made her uncomfortable. She nodded to Tereus as he sprang forward to assist them. The attached the mail shirt to the framework, followed by the armored “tail” Aglaia herself had worn.
Gauntlets substituted for hands and they looked at their handiwork not too critically, forcing their eyes away from obvious weaknesses and potential problems.

“Okay, “Xena’s voice came into sharp relief in the still cave. “Let’s get it up top and hidden. We’ll need to work out our positions and how we’ll control it.” she lead the way forward to the grotto entrance. Gabrielle hung back, stretching her aching back. Leah walked next to her, shoulders slumped.

“Is this worth it?” she mused.” We have plenty of time to leave here…why don’t we just leave?” her voice was dull with fatigue and fear.

Gabrielle looked after her companion. “She’s trying to turn this around, to make it right. Xena doesn’t want to Aglaia to be punished and she thinks she’s got a way out of this. I’m inclined to follow her. She’s never lead me wrong yet.” Liar!! her heart screamed, as she saw renewed hope light in the librarian’s face. Liar! You’ve almost
died, Xena has died! She could kill you again, or anyone of these innocent people could die here. How can you say this to this woman? But the bard shook her head at the inner voice, banishing the uncertainty that threatened to overwhelm her.

Gabrielle forced these thoughts down and concentrated on the commands she heard Xena giving. The warrior’s voice was crisp and clear. As she listened, and assisted, Gabrielle felt that they might just make it out of this, all of them, unscathed. She did have faith in Xena, she thought, and with this thought, her faith strengthened and her
love for this proud, daunting woman flared. We’ll be fine, she thought. And she believed it.

Chapter 26

All was as ordered as they could make it. The sky seemed to be favoring them – clouds were gathering and darkening as the day progressed. Soon they could catch they odd wisp of sound on the horizon. A voice raised, a weapon clattering. They knew that soon, one way or another, this would all be resolved. Leah cowered openly, cursing herself for a fool. Aglaia sat next to her in the hidden niche she occupied.

“Interesting courting ritual you have.” the priestess attempted to joke, but the look on the librarian’s face made her stop. “You don’t have to do this…”

Leah gritted her teeth. “I think I do. Its Xena – she’s a whirlwind and we’re drawn in to her path. For good or ill. ” She shook her head in wonder. “Two days ago, my biggest concern is where I was going to get some new materials from…Corinth or Athens. Hades!”

Aglaia took Leah’s hand and held it in her own. “You know nothing about me, yet the Goddess put me in your path. You could have stepped around me. Why didn’t you?” her deep blue eyes were troubled. “Was it just Eudore? Obviously you worried about her. But you could have taken her and gone.”

Leah considered briefly. “I don’t think so. Something told me to go with Gabrielle. I just knew I was supposed to. I thought it was my long-dormant desire for adventure.” she gave the priestess a lop-sided smile. “And now I think I’m supposed to stay. I hope my destiny is *not* to end in a glorious death.”

Aglaia returned the smile. “I’m sure it isn’t.” She paused. “I’d like to think that it was Athena who planned this. I have enough faith for both of us. She is the Goddess of Wisdom, after all.” she squeezed the Librarian’s hand. They sat side by side, listening to the rising wind.

“How did you come to be the Librarian?” Aglaia asked, trying to take Leah’s mind off the coming battle.

Leah sighed. “Do you know, I’ve never told anyone this story before? Its not a great story…” she sighed again.

Aglaia insisted. “It will help me keep my mind off of our impending doom.” she gave another squeeze to the hand she clasped.

She had been nearly thirteen, maybe, when it happened. It wasn’t even original. As a child she had been indulged, allowed to linger at the Library, and help the current Librarian, Pyrocles, whose eyesight was failing. Her mother used to brag how her little Leah tended the old man with such care. “As if he were her own father, ” Mother would say.

She knew that she was different from the other girls, but never said anything to anyone. She was smart enough to know that those who spoke out against common wisdom never came to a good end. Not as children, anyway. She didn’t care about the boys, or about children or about any of the things that all her peers seemed to obssess about. But she kept her mouth shut, biding her time, tending Pyrocles, and helping at the Library.

It was winter, she had just had a birthday and snow lay fresh on the ground. Her father had come home from Temple, all smiles and cheerfulness. Her came up to her and gave her a hug, lifting her and spinning her around. “You’ll never guess what happened today! You should be very happy!” He was overjoyed. One of the shining
pillars of their community had asked for her as a wife for his son. To her parents shock, she burst into tears and ran to her room. They were so surprised, they didn’t even have time to get angry.

“The fact was,” Leah laughed, “I had read so many stories about unhappy marriages, I was pretty unwilling to admit they ever worked. So I ran away.”

Aglaia stared in amused surprise at the librarian.

“Not far, mind you. Just to Pyrocles and the Library. He knew immediately what had happened. He had read alot of scrolls too. Its amazing what you can learn about people from reading their stories, ” she said, almost to herself. “Anyway, we talked late into the night about where I would go and what I would do. And all my tales of
wandering and adventure ended with coming back to town and being the Librarian.” She fell into silence.

Aglaia prompted her. “Well, what happened?”

“As we say in my people’s religion , ‘A miracle happened there.’ Pyrocles sent a message to my father. He stated that he wanted me as a wife, and that, as he knew me so well, had prior claim over some snot-nosed boy. He also told my father that he would supply both dower and bride-price. My father was shocked, of course, but he
wasn’t a bad man, and he saw immediately that I’d be happier, so he agreed.”

“I learned that the position of Librarian was a paying job. Pyrocles was honest with me, telling me that he was old, he didn’t need a wife, he needed a student, a successor. He told me how for years he had spent almost none of the money he was given, being a man of few needs. He took my hands in his, drawing me close, he was so near-sighted, you see.” Tears began to run down her face freely as she remembered the old man’s face that night.

“He held my face in his hands and told me he loved me.” Leah sobbed. “He was like a father to me, one that knew me even better than my own father. He knew my hopes and dreams – and he knew I should be a Librarian.” she smiled sadly at the priestess, whose eyes glittered with unshed tears. “I told you it wasn’t very interesting. Sorry.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand like a child.

Aglaia said nothing, but drew the other woman close, with an arm, until Leah’s head rested on her shoulder. She waited until Leah’s breathing was even and deep.

“One day, when all this is over, and we can sit in the sunlight together, I’ll tell you how I came to be a priestess of Athena. Its even more uninteresting that your story.” her smile was bitter, but Leah did not see it.

*******

Tereus, Eudore and Gabrielle stood and steadied the “Gorgon,” while Xena maneuvered it into place, behind a pile of rubble that once had been a majestic pillar. The warrior wiped the sweat out of her eyes and looked at the boy. He looked drawn, but crystal clear, as if the day’s events had brought him into sharp focus. He looked older than his years, but tough and wiry. He handed Xena a bag that she gingerly set into the trunk of the ferocious figure. A helm was place on its head, then Xena attached the mask with its brazen snakes.

“Its ugly.” Xena attested, as she stood back to admire their handiwork.

“Yes,” agreed Gabrielle, but will it be ugly enough?”

As if in answer, the storm clouds gathering began to rumble in discomfort. They all glanced upwards.

“At least the storm will be in our favor.” Eudore commented.

“Yes, it may be our best hope, if its a really bad storm. Let’s hope, ” Xena shot a glance to the niche that hid the librarian and priestess, “and pray, that it will be the worst storm of the century.” Thunder rattled the ground underneath them.

Raindrops began to fall, huge, hard, soaking drops of water that pounded down on their heads. In seconds, it was too loud to hear over the noise.

“I think the Gods may have heard you!” Gabrielle shouted to Xena. She saw Xena shrug.

The tall warrior stood against the pillar and shielded her eyes. “No torches tonight,” she commented softly. “Take up your positions – they’re coming!” she yelled.

As all six of them stood in their agreed places, forlorn and already soaked to the skin. In each mind was a voice telling them that this would not work, in each heart was a fire that just would not go out.

I believe that we can do this, Gabrielle thought and she repeated this thought, as if it were a magic spell that would gain power through repetition.