Author's Note: I would like to dedicate this story to Kelly on AO3 whose encouragement sparked a few ideas to continue this story and in my humble opinion, made it so much better. I can't claim any great knowledge of history and mythology but I did try my best and basically, I just wanted this story to be fun. Thank you again, Kelly, I hope the remainder of this story reflects the inspiration that you gave me. :)
Chapter 2: When Danger Looms
Standing atop the hill at the edge of the latest town, a young man sports a smile of relief at having finally reached his destination. He takes in a deep breath and allows his gaze to leisurely travel over the neighboring hillsides and savors the moment to appreciate how far he has come in his journey and his first mission as The Librarian. "At least it's not as hot as Alexandria." His gaze drops to the valley below and his eyes suddenly widen in shock as he spies a woman surrounded by four men. Rushing down the hillside to come to her aid, his hand reaches for a sword that he remembers that he no longer has but doesn't allow that fact to deter him. He has taken an oath to help others, regardless of the risk to himself, and if that particular risk includes young, beautiful women in distress…well, that's only part of the fun.
His face set with determination, he quickly enters the fray and narrowly misses a strike of the sword from one of the attackers. Stepping back to avoid the hit, he stumbles into one of the men who trips over him and who is then instantly elbowed in the back of the head by the young woman, successfully rendering him unconscious. "Don't worry," he calls out to her, "I'm here to help!"
The woman is silent at first as she is busy holding off one man by locking swords while dropping another by kicking him in an extremely sensitive region of his anatomy. "Move out of the way, I can take care of them on my own!"
He's about to ignore her and jump back in again when he glances down at the man on the ground clutching himself while writhing around in agony and thinks better of it. Before taking a seat on a large boulder underneath an apple tree, he plucks an apple off of a low hanging branch and starts eating it. He normally wouldn't sit by and watch a woman fight off a group of men but she seemed more than capable of taking care of them on her own and he had missed breakfast after all.
He watches in awe as she counteracts their every move while they remain unable to block her own. The beauty of Cleopatra and the skills of the fiercest gladiator and mmmm, this apple is delicious. His attention is immediately drawn back to the fighting when the two remaining men lunge forward simultaneously.
Her response is to bring her sword down to block one of them and then slightly changing her stance so that she can deliver a hard punch directly to the other man's face, knocking him out completely. Using her leverage to push the other man away from her, she watches in disdain as he begins to swing his sword in a windmill motion, an obvious tactic of trying to intimidate her with his swordsmanship as he moves closer to her. All flash and no substance, she muses before circling him to find her opening and speedily raise up her sword to hit him hard with the flat of her blade, watching in supreme satisfaction as he crumples to the ground. When the man who is still moaning in pain makes a half-hearted attempt to rise, she walks over and brings the hilt of her sword down onto his head ensuring that this time, he stays down.
Clap, clap, clap! The young man stands up and applauds the woman as he waves the hand holding the apple to indicate the unconscious men. "That was quite a feat! I had intended to offer my assistance but it obviously wasn't necessary." He offers her a congratulatory grin. "Your fighting skills are most impressive."
She gives a snort of derision. "Around here, they're not considered so much as impressive as they are a rite of passage." She looks at him curiously. "Just who are you, anyway?"
"I'm Yahu-, " he cuts himself off as he reflects on his new life and ponders on the man he was told that he was meant to become.
"You, who, what?" she asks impatiently.
"I'm sorry," he apologizes for his momentary distraction. "My name is Judson."
"Judson," she repeats to him, watching him nod curtly and with pride despite his earlier hesitation. "Are you sure about that?"
"I am now," he affirms with a resolution that even she can't doubt.
Still not ready to let her guard down, she continues to keep him in her peripheral vision as she gathers the fallen swords and deposits them through the crack of the apple tree that he had been sitting under. When she catches him watching her, she barks, "What?"
His brow wrinkles in confusion. "You're…," he looks over to the men on the ground and then back to the tree, "you're stealing from the thieves?"
She stares back at him with a look that clearly states that she thinks that he's a moron before bending down to retrieve eight daggers along with a quiver and bow. Tucking the daggers beneath her belt and taking hold of the bow with one hand while hoisting the quiver around her shoulder, she explains, "In case you haven't noticed, I was just attacked by these four gentlemen that you are so concerned about. And since not everyone is blessed with the ability to fight, I'm taking their weapons off of them in order to give someone else a fighting chance. Besides, the swords and daggers that I'm storing will be given to families who can't afford their own weapons to defend themselves." She drops the remaining daggers through the tree and takes note of his inquiring stare directed to the weapons that she kept for herself. "Let's just say that I believe that it's time that they gave back to the community." Her flippant quip earns her a smile and then a blush when she eyes him up and down. "You're not from around here or I would have noticed you before." She gives him a cheeky grin. "So what brings a nice boy like you to a place like this?"
"I've recently accepted a prestigious position that has brought me here for a very specific purpose," he declares enigmatically as he straightens himself to his full height. "I'm The Librarian."
She stares back at him blankly. "So, you're a librarian."
"No…no," he shuffles his feet as he attempts to imbue his tone with the importance of his position. "I'm The Librarian."
"Oh, I see," she replies blithely, "so that must make me The Local Serving Wench."
He releases a soft chuckle before he realizes that she's not joking. "No, I really am The Librarian, from The Library in Alexandria. They've sent me on a mission that has brought me to your province. Have you happened to come across any strangers bearing tattoos of a snake? They may have mentioned a Serpent Brotherhood."
"Who are they," she questions interestedly, "some fanatics who worship Medusa?"
"Not quite," he denies with a small shake of his head. "They are a group of malevolent men who are searching for Arachne."
"What do they want with her?" she asks in a more serious tone, quickly grasping that this man was not the mere fool that she had first thought him to be.
"She recently acquired the Fates' tapestry and is planning to use her loom to reweave it and regain her human appearance." He's slightly taken aback when his answer seems to mollify her.
"Well, I can't fault her for that. To be fair, I think that she has more than paid for her crime of boasting that her weaving skills outshone those of Athena." She shakes her head sadly. "The gods can be so harsh in their judgments."
"And I agree, but Arachne isn't remorseful. In truth, she is full more of vengeance than any other emotion." The urgency of the situation is laced throughout his tone. "She is determined to take revenge on Athena for cursing her as well as the enemies that she has made over the years of both warriors and villages."
She suddenly appears to take a greater interest in his story. "Then that would include my village as well. We're the only village who has been able to confine her to one area for any one great length of time."
"That's why I'm here," he explains earnestly, "The Library heard the news of Arachne being trapped in the caves near your village. Unfortunately, so has the Serpent Brotherhood," he notes with a grimace. "It's crucial that I retrieve the tapestry before she unravels the deeds of good men and women and history as well, all for the sake of revenge." His eyes alight with fierce determination. "I can't allow that to happen."
"You mean that we can't allow that to happen." She interrupts him when he starts to argue. "This is my home and my people that I have known all of my life. You can't expect me to ignore this now that I know."
He wears a sad smile. "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."
"Ignorance will have to be blissful some other time. Besides," she notes while giving him a quick once-over, "you're going to need my help. I know where to find Arachne, I'm willing and I'm able to fight while all you have is a cloth sack, a bedroll and a charming grin." He smiles brightly at the last bit of her assessment. "That doesn't work on me." She repeatedly jabs him in the chest to emphasize each word. "You need me."
He leans away from her with a gulp. "Yes, you've made your point." He closes his eyes as he gathers his thoughts and swallows his pride. "I would imagine that a Librarian would not require assistance very often but as new as I am to this position, even I know that this is definitely one of those times. I do so happen to find myself in need of your help and if you are indeed so willing then I would be honored for you to join me." He opens his eyes, not to view her humble acceptance but to stare off in shock as he sees her stalking ahead of him and already halfway across the field.
"Are you coming or not?" she yells without even looking back at him.
He blows out a puff of air in frustration. "Right," he mutters under his breath before running after her. "Coming!" Once he catches up to her, he slows down his pace to match her stride. "If you don't mind my asking, seeing as we are going to be working together, may I at least have the privilege of knowing your name?"
She struggles to stamp down a smile in response to his beseeching gaze. "My name is Charlenestia."
"That a lovely name, although most unusual for this area, isn't it?" he quizzes, always eager to learn another fact or point of interest.
"It's a combination of an old family name and that of the goddess Hestia. As farmers, my family has always had a strong belief in hearth and home and so we have a tradition of combining our given names with those of the goddess for each female born into my family." She spares him a glance along with a small grin. "Most people around here just call me Charlene." She reaches out and directs him away from a hole in the ground. "Tell me about this Library that you work in, I've never known a library that sends their employees out on missions."
Judson's face instantly morphs into one of excitement. "The Library is the most amazing place in the entire world. Not only do they have a copy of every book ever written but they have the most incredible artifacts, ones with great power. That's actually the reason that there is a Librarian. The Library's sole existence is to find and preserve the knowledge and magic that would give the wrong sort unimaginable power." He suddenly stops talking so animatedly and looks miserable. "I wasn't supposed to tell you that," he confesses with a disheartened sigh. "You'll have to forgive me, I'm still new at this."
"I never would have noticed," she replies, her voice completely deadpan. "Now, what exactly do you mean by the wrong sort?"
This time, it is his turn to stare at her as if she's not the sharpest dagger in the box. "The wrong sort…evildoers, villains, ne'er-do-wells…you know, bad guys!"
Charlene gradually slows her pace to a full stop. "And what makes your Library the right sort to hold all of that imaginable power?"
His answer is immediate, without any misdirection or hesitation. "Because we don't control the power, we contain it and we don't use it except in extreme emergencies…like this one. The Serpent Brotherhood is determined to conquer the known world while the Library is destined to protect it. I'm willing to give my life to keep the world safe, Charlene, I can't offer you any more assurance than that."
The sincerity of his words and gaze touch her heart in a way that she has long since forgotten. It was the part that used to allow her to be so open with people, the part that had allowed her to trust. He attempted to come to her aid when she was completely unknown to him but he has also spoken of having access to as well as seeking out great magic. Is this truly someone that I can trust? she wonders silently. Or is this simply magic at work? Moments pass as both her thoughts and gaze remain solely on him. She looks at him, this Librarian who is still more of a boy than a man, all gangly limbs with a hopeful expression and in him, she recognizes a kindred spirit. She sees someone who is trying to break free of the life that he was born into and instead is trying to create one that allows him to be who he was always meant to be. To Charlene, there was no higher aspiration and it was one that they both shared. And so in that moment, in that newly reawakened part of her heart, she knew without doubt that she could trust him.
"Alright," she proclaims resolutely as she once again stalks off in the direction of the caves, "let's go find Arachne."
"You trust me?" he asks in surprise, smiling widely when she answers in the affirmative. He trots along beside her excitedly and questions, "What was it that convinced you? Was it my heartfelt argument, my calm reasoning, my utter selflessness and willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice?"
She gave him that moron look again. "That and I doubt that you're smart enough to pull off something so evil of this magnitude."
"What? Of course I could, I'm The Librarian! I can accomplish anything that I set my mind to!" She shoots him a withering glare. "You know…if I was evil," he finishes, his voice barely discernible.
"I'm sure you could," she concedes with a condescending nod, "but why don't we leave that option behind us for now and you tell me about yourself? Convince me that I'm making the right choice."
"There's not much to tell, really. As I said, I recently obtained the position of The Librarian and following that, I boarded a ship in Alexandria that was delivering grain to this island." His expression reveals his weariness. "After that was a very, very, very long walk from the sea shore."
Knowing how far the nearest sea port is, she offers him a compassionate smile and a gentle tone. "I'm sure there must be more to your story than being an excellent hiker." Her gaze rests on his garments. "Since your post of Librarian is so recent, I'm assuming that your clothing isn't brand new and judging by the quality of the linen, you definitely weren't manual labor."
He grins in appreciation of her deductive reasoning. "No, I was a court scribe from a long line of court scribes." His countenance is downcast. "That was our family tradition."
"So then I can take it that you're educated?" she states more than inquires.
"Yes," he replies simply, with no trace of arrogance.
Instead of the sarcastic retort that he's expecting, she releases a wistful sigh. "I envy you."
"With all that you can do? Why would you? I yearn to have even a fraction of your fighting skill," he shares, his voice thick with longing.
"You could learn to fight easily enough, I could teach you," she remarks off-handedly.
He waggles his eyebrows at her. "I would love for you to teach me a few things."
"Careful, Judson," she warns good-naturedly, "class can be just as easily dismissed." She glances at the bag that's hanging off of his shoulder. "Speaking of fighting, do you even have any weapons in there?"
"I did have a flint axe but I lost it," he mentions casually as he avoids her gaze to study the landscape.
"Did you lose it in battle?" she asks, clearly impressed.
"No," he admits while still averting his eyes, "I lost it while gambling on the ship. Coincidentally, that's also how I lost my sword and other various weapons."
She chuckles softly and pats him on the back consolingly. "Don't worry, Judson, that scenario is a lot more common than you would think." Charlene glances at him curiously. "So, why did you leave the courts to work in The Library?"
His expression hardens as if reflecting a grave weight. "I wanted to do more with my life, to make a difference in…in the lives of others. Scribes assess taxes, keep records and court scribes document everything in a court case from the complaint, the testimony and the verdict." His gaze is both sad and defeated when he looks at her. "Verdicts aren't only monetary issues, scribes witness and document the punishments as well. And after bearing witness to executions that were carried out by decapitation, drowning or impalement, I was more than ready for a new career." He looks over to her for understanding which he readily receives. "I didn't want to just stand by and take an account of others' lives anymore, not when I was finally ready to account for my own." The memory of his next statement prompts a smile that is both wide and full of hope. "That's when a piece of papyrus appeared on my desk at home, it was an invitation to join The Library."
"And you just believed them when they told you that they find and store magic to keep it safe?" she questions skeptically.
"No, of course not," he hurriedly denies, "but I did believe them once they showed me the magic that they're protecting and I saw for myself its effects in the wrong hands." His tone is solemn as he explains, "I have seen a great many cruelties during my time as a scribe, but nothing in comparison to what magic could do in the wrong hands. That's when I knew that I had to help, that I needed to help, in any way that I could to stop these atrocities from ever happening again."
Charlene's countenance becomes one of admiration. "You're very fortunate to do something that you enjoy while making such a difference in people's lives." She sighs wistfully. "I would love to be able to do that."
"Have you ever considered leaving home and making a new start? I'm positive that a young woman with you confidence and assertiveness could easily find work."
"I tried that once, years ago, but apparently the other towns and larger cities were only interested in hiring me for one thing," she replies with a tight smile.
Judson offers a sympathetic sigh. "Let me guess, the type of work that only lasts for one night?" She merely nods in response. "I'm sorry, you deserve to be seen for your whole potential, not simply that of a courtesan."
Her eyebrows rise slightly in surprise. "Courtesans usually reside in the finest houses. How would someone who works in a library find entrance to such a place?"
The smile he bears reflects one carrying a secret, a very enjoyable secret judging by the size of his grin. "There's a reason that I was chosen to become The Librarian. You would be surprised at the many ways I know of to enter such forbidden places."
Charlene gives him an assessing glance before she quips, "Yes, and I'm sure the majority of them lead to maidens' bedchambers."
He chuckles softly as he reaches for his animal skin to take a drink, only to find it empty with the exception of a few drops of water leaking out the bottom. "I can't believe that this is already coming apart, I only bought this at the market three days ago!"
She plucks the animal skin from his grasp and examines it. "Oh dear, this is shoddy workmanship. This is exactly why I always create a bargaining scroll."
His gaze is perplexed. "A…a what?"
"A bargaining scroll, I create one for every transaction involving the purchase of goods. That way if the product fails then the vendor has to return my money."
"And if the vendor refuses to sign the scroll?" he counters with interest.
"Then there's no sale. If a craftsman is unable to stand by their work by attesting that with a simple agreement then I see no need to waste my time or hard-earned savings."
He stares off in consideration. "That's actually quite sensible."
"Of course it is," she remarks confidently, "that's how I know that I would make a fantastic financial advisor!"
"Is that something that you've studied for?" he asks curiously.
"I haven't been officially trained, but I'm very good with numbers and with my organizational skills, I could easily monitor the income and expenditures of a wealthy family or business. I cannot tell you how many times that I've seen costly mistakes that could have been so easily avoided if only for the advice of a good advisor." She scrunches up her face in disgust. "I hate that. I also know how to read, a rarity for the women on this island."
"I apologize if this sounds rude," he begins nervously, "but how did you learn to read? I have heard that it's quite uncommon for any woman to be so educated in Greece."
"My grandfather was a General in the army so he knew how to read and he made sure that every member in our family learned to read as well." The light in her eyes reflects her pride. "My father was a Hoplite, he was the one who trained me on how to fight. He didn't want to worry about leaving my mother and I alone whenever he was called away to fight." She flashes a warm smile. "It was his way of protecting us. And there are always travelers coming through the tavern who are less prejudiced about sharing knowledge with someone who dares to reach beyond her grasp." She places her hand on his back to push him down to avoid a low hanging branch. "I've lost count of how many nights' sleep I've lost reading borrowed books, Judson, and of how many hours I've dreamt of using the knowledge that I've acquired."
He shakes his head in amazement. "You are truly a remarkable young woman," he notes with approval. "If you ever decide to venture out on your own again, I would be honored to show you around Alexandria."
Charlene's gaze is skeptical. "Really? And what exactly is the going rate for Courtesans in Alexandria these days?"
He jerks back in shock. "What? No, no, that's not what I meant at all! Opportunities for women who seek education or employment are much greater in Alexandria than they are in Greece." As she is still eyeing him with disbelief, he confesses, "True, not many women move into high positions of power but there's still more of a chance for the life that you seek there than here."
"I'd have to think about it…" she offers but he can tell that she's giving it some serious consideration. She suddenly stops dead in her tracks and scans the area. "What happened here?"
They lock gazes for a moment before taking in the ravaged field lying before them, a field that was once rather lush and green but now only contains dried bits of plants. Judson bends over and inspects the dried leaves that crumble to dust when he gently rubs them between his fingers. "This is basil," he murmurs quietly.
"Does that matter?" she questions as she looks around trying to find what could have caused this.
He straightens up and dusts off his hands. "Basil leaves attract spiders and then the spiders drain the nutrients from them.
"Impossible, there's no way that a few spiders did all of this!" She turns to him for further explanation.
"No, not a few spiders," he agrees readily, "it would take thousands of them or about a hundred of them, I suppose, depending on their size. Do you realize what this means?" he questions excitedly as he takes hold of her hand and starts running towards the mountain ahead while dragging her behind him. "We're definitely heading in the right direction!"
Hours later as they trek up the mountainside with the day's heat bearing down on them, Judson longs for the cool water that he had poured into his animal skin earlier that morning. "Are you sure that we're on the right path?" he asks irritably.
"Well, I was assured by The Librarian," she snipes back at him, just as hot and tired as he is, "but besides that, this is the area that we confined her to and where she was seen last. And despite the absence of dying basil patches," she stops her tirade as her eyes widen at the sight of a dozen spiders the size of dinner plates running down the mountain towards them, "I'd have to say that we are definitely on the right path." Unable to locate an escape route, she withdraws two of the daggers and mentally prepares herself to fend off the oncoming wave of arachnids. "Any ideas?" she yells out over the sound of scuttling spiders.
"No need to worry," he shouts back encouragingly, "a good Librarian is always prepared for every situation!" He immediately reaches into his cloth sack and pulls out and old and worn book. Judson hurriedly flips through the pages and instantly lights up with satisfaction as he finds the passage that he's been searching for and begins chanting in an unknown language.
Without warning, a large expanse of diatomaceous earth appears out of nowhere and covers enough of the immediate area to separate them from the spiders. Judson moves closer to Charlene and takes hold of her elbow to slowly draw her back in case his plan doesn't work. As the spiders react to their contact with the diatomaceous earth, the two watch in a mix of fascination and horror as the spiders begin to release ear-splitting screeches as they stagger and crumple to the ground before shriveling up and turning to dust. Charlene pulls slightly away from Judson's grasp to try and figure out what's causing the spiders to fall in their path. On closer examination, she notes that the ground that they're running across is causing wounds as they move over it and whatever fluid is held within their bodies leaks out onto the ground causing them to shrivel up into empty husks.
"What in Hades is that?" she questions in the barest whisper.
"That is diatomaceous earth," he answers while keeping his eyes trained on the dying arachnids, "the powder of naturally formed fossils of a sea creature known as the Diatom."
Charlene shakes her head in awe. "And that normally happens?"
"It does but at a much slower pace than normal by nature's standards. However, when magic comes into play," he closes the tome with a sharp snap, "it becomes a great deal more expedient and effective."
She watches as the last remaining spiders dry up into dust. "That is so disgusting."
"Yes," he states as if trying to point out the obvious, "but it…it's effective." He places the book back into his sack. "I suggest we head out before she sends out more of her little friends."
After one last look to ensure that they're safe, she puts the daggers away and walks over to the steep part of the mountainside that they need to climb in order to reach Arachne's caves. "It's not that far now," she finds a handhold and starts climbing, "there's a bridge at the top of mountain, it leads to the caves that she's been living in for the past few months."
"There's a bridge? Isn't that rather dangerous for your people?" She looks at him questioningly. "I mean, you've given her a direct path from the caves to your town."
She grasps another handhold and pulls herself up before looking down at him. "Arachne wouldn't dare to cross the bridge, her spindles fall too easily between the slats. And with the way it sways under someone's weight, she would never be able to cross without crashing through, the wood is practically ancient." She watches him struggle for purchase before taking pity on him and offering him her hand. He reaches up to take it and… "Hey, watch the hands, Librarian!"
Flushing with embarrassment, he smiles sheepishly and stammers out an apology. "Sorry," he gulps when he sees her venomous glare, "my…my hand slipped." He pushes himself up part way and begins to slip again when Charlene's hand darts out and grabs the front of his tunic to haul him up alongside her.
"Just make sure that it doesn't happen again or next time I might let something slip," she loosens her grasp causing him to slide down a few inches, "something like you."
Eyes widening in alarm, he immediately nods in agreement before they silently continue their way up the mountainside and with the exception of a few grunts, groans and withering stares, he only needs to request her hand once more to make it over a particularly rough spot. Finally, they arrive at the apex of the mountaintop and haul themselves over the peak with one final lunge quickly followed by flopping onto their backs as they attempt to regain their breath.
"Well," he notes with a heavy pant, "that…that wasn't so bad."
"It's not usually so difficult," she takes a deep breath, "but in my defense, I did have you holding me back."
"Yes," he returns sarcastically with a scowl, "thank you."
A few more minutes rest and then they push themselves off of the ground and head over to the bridge or what's left of it. The slats are all gone and although the rope structure that supported it remains, it is covered with thick strands of webbing that has also taken the place of the slats.
His eyes narrow as he studies the webbing. "This is obviously how the spiderlings were able to cross over from the caves to attack us."
"Apparently," she agrees in a disheartened tone, silently wondering how many spiderlings have already escaped from the caves and possibly entered the unsuspecting village. "So, what do we do now, Librarian?"
He stares back at her with a grimace before returning his gaze back to the remnants of the bridge. What now, indeed?
To Be Continued…