Birdie’s Song III The Little Warrior by Onesockbard

Birdie’s Song III The Little Warrior
by Onesockbard

I am Robin
Of the Warrior
and Bard.

“Icarus! Here!”  A small golden hawk flew a single circle of us before alighting on my leather sheathed arm.  She gave me her usual impatient, “Well?” snappy- eyed look, which subsided as I fed her a tidbit of dried fish from my pocket.

“Whoaaa, she’s bloody beeeautiful, Birdie.. How did you snag her?” my human companion, a tow-headed boy of my same twelve and a half seasons exclaimed in a voice charged with awe.

“I didn’t ‘snag her’, I found her one day maybe a fortnight ago, when out riding Hades,” was the story.  “She was grounded and half-starved, tried to fight me, but I wrapped her in my coat and took her back to the fortress.  She was injured by a dried curved fishbone that had gone through her beak somehow.  Perhaps it happened when she was eating or perhaps a fishing accident.  But I managed to keep her still enough to remove it with a pair of Mama G’s hobby tweezers.   My hands were bloodied by her beak first thing ; she was one angry little bird.  But then I nursed her back to heath on bits of fish and she thought better of me.”

Icarus flapped and sat on my arm glaring irritably at Talus, but she continued to take the fish from him.  “She’s free and on her own now, but if I am out, she always finds me.   Sometimes she comes to my window as well.  You know why I named her Icarus?”

“Of course, Birdie, for the boy who fell from the sky,” Talus gave me an annoyed look, “I can hardly wait to carve her.”

“She’s not very good to be still.”

“Neither was Zephyr, but I got her, didn’t I?”

“You do have a remarkable talent, my friend.”

He grinned, “It’s a passion, Birdie…”

My experiment was complete.  While Talus continued to distract Icarus with pieces of dried fish, I had

secured a small band on her left leg.  She gave me the evil eye a time or two, but then settled in to tolerating it well enough.  I gave her the last bit of fish and stroked her head gently.

“Ok, my pretty girl, are you ready?  Icarus, FLY.”

And she did, soaring up into a sky the color of my Baba Xe’s eyes, my own as well, I suppose.   I ran to spring flip onto Hades’ back, gave Talus the quick arm up and we rode into our second adventure of the day with Zephyr loping along easily sniffing out all threatening ground squirrels ahead.

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A candle mark later, breath by breath I crabbed carefully  to the edge of the precipice.

Below me and across a small creek were the cone shaped huts of the Descendents of Zon, a vagabond group of barbarians, a group who frequently gave my home settlement  some very aggravating moments, as they felt it necessary to attack Amphipolis at least three or four times a season.   This feud dated back to the days of my ancestor the warrior Xenarone, going on nearly one hundred seasons now.  For lack of a greater challenge, I had taken to spying on the DOZ every seven day or so, and today, Talus had come with me.  It wasn’t the smartest way for us to pass our leisure candle marks, and Xena the Conqueror would surely hang my hide on the armory wall if she gained the knowledge of my past time, but for now the diversion seemed worth the risk.   The huts were constructed of slender poles and different animal hides–quite practical for a nomadic society.   The barbarians themselves favored clothing made of longer haired animals, like mountain goats and sheep.  Their clothing made it difficult to differentiate between the sexes, but most of the men sported filthy beards.

There was a noisy rustle to my right, and Talus joined me.  His dark green eyes grew large,

“Whoa, Birdie lookit !” he whispered not very softly.

I gave him a sharp elbow in the ribs.

“Shhhh Talus!!  Announce us to them wouldja?”

He immediately ducked his head.  Talus was a newcomer to the world of adventure; he made mistakes but he was a very quick study.  Heavy panting nearby pulled my attention right into the large furry ears of Zephyr, my black fox, and my closest companion.

“Zephyr, hold it down a little,” she licked her chops and closed her mouth.  The fox understood every word I spoke.

I squirmed my way back to the edge of the precipice peering my nose just over the rim.   Once again…  all right… two hundred or so of the huts, which meant probably at least two hundred fifty of the “hairy fellas” as we of Amphipolis called the DOZ’s warriors.  Several of them were working on what looked like a new siege engine. This one had a modified construction to the catapult portion, actually rather innovative for the hairy fellas. My mind took note.   I had walked around the siege engine that our militia had captured in the DOZ’s last attempt, and it was an interesting machine.  The engineers and smithies of Amphipolis had done some reinventing of the wheel however, and the DOZ would receive a very unpleasant dose of their own medicine the next time they attacked.   I caught sight of a few DOZ wives as they went about cooking and caring for the small hairy fellas.  Life could not be easy for them in the rough as they lived.

Talus crawled up once more, and this time he loosened a larger rock from the cliff which fell over the edge

. “Ahhhh Zeus’s thundering horse feathers!!” I yelled; we released and rolled like crazy people down to the bottom of the hill where Hades was waiting.  Gaining my feet, I sprinted towards my huge horse, who immediately bowed his head and bent his knee from which I took a light spring forward and half-twisted over his head into the saddle. Leaning down, I gave an arm up to Talus and we were off. Zephyr was already quite a bit ahead loping low and fast like a black lightening bolt. Hades galloped like all Hades was after him, and I leaned into his neck.  Talus leaned into my back; I felt a certain wild excitement in the chase, confident that we would make it back safely. After turning back once to make certain we weren’t followed, I slowed Hades at a cold rushing creek within view of Amphipolis and slid from his broad back.   Talus fell immediately to drinking in huge slurping gulps from the creek and trying to catch his breath ; he had a bit to learn yet about taking this kind of activity in stride.  I ran my hands over Hades to make certain he hadn’t suffered from the run, put a steady palm on Talus’ back for just a moment to calm him, and then stretched out beside him to partake of the creek.   I flipped over happily, only to discover that a tall figure was blocking the sun and would very likely the block rest of my joy in the day.   My eyes traveled up the black buckled boots, lean leather pants, and a long dark coat with cobalt stars on the sleeves.   The Conqueror.  Minotaur shite.  I couldn’t see her eyes for the sun, but I could feel the icy burn slicing into the top of my head.

“Talus, your father is looking for you.” The ever calm and Conqueror cool voice resonated.

Talus hung his head, “Yes, my Lady Conqueror, right away, m’am.  G’day My Lady Conqueror, See ya, Birdie.”

He bowed quickly and jogged off, with hardly a limp.  Talus was extremely well brought up, his parents were good citizens of Amphipolis, and I was especially found of his father, Atticus.

“Let’s walk,” continued the low voice as I found my feet.  I took hold of Hades’ lead and felt a light firm hand fall on the back of my neck as we turned toward the fortress of Amphipolis.  Zephyr continued up ahead, checking out the peripheries as was her habit.

“So, Little Bird, would you like to tell me what made you and Talus and Hades ride in here like the Roman Army itself was after you?” was the Conqueror’s quiet inquiry.

I stayed silent trying to think of how to answer this intelligently and safely.

“Well?” the voice was lower, more dangerous.

“Baba Xe, I’ve never lied to you, right?”

“No, Birdie, you have never lied to me; it’s not really in your character.  I think that’s your Mama G in you.”

“Well, I think that you would be happier if you didn’t ask me that question.”

“Clever, Birdie, except that I have already asked the question.”

Oh this was not going to be good then.  We walked a while longer while my conscience cast about for courage.  There was really no way but to say it.

“Talus and I were spying on the DOZ’s; Talus knocked a stone over the edge of the cliff, and I was afraid we would be caught.  So we found it necessary to depart and travel quickly.”

My tall and dangerous parent stopped dead still and closed her eyes.

“Birdie, please tell me that I didn’t hear you correctly.”

Her reaction gave me pause, but I said it.

“You did, Baba.”

“Eurylocus!”  She waved at one of the militia who worked in the stables; he trotted over to take Hades and Argo while we continued walking; Zephyr had gone ahead into the fortress through her special “foxhole”.  She was so smart.

She swallowed and composed her next question.” And it is my guess that this was not your first time at this activity?”

“Well, it was Talus’s first time.”

“Birdie.”

“No, My Lady, it was not the first time for me.”

I waited my head bowed for her to pass sentence.  It would be harsh, because my activities had been most unwise, and I certainly knew better.   Most likely, Baba Xe and I were going to spend extensive quality time in the armory, with my backside catching a thorough demonstration of the power of her hard sword hand.   My crime merited such action; I expected such to be the price of being caught at foolish activities.

But Baba Xe remained silent.  I sneaked a glance at her, and she was walking slowly, looking at the ground, boots jingling slightly.  I couldn’t read her at all, and it clawed at my belly.   After a few more moments walking, she sighed, tilted her head at me a little and said, “Go to your room, Birdie.”

“My room, Baba?”

“Yes.”

And with those words, she simply walked away from me.

Devastated and confused, I ascended the circular stairs to my tower bedroom on the west side of the fortress; Zephyr had rejoined me, tail down, for she sensed my mood.

“I don’t understand, Zephyr.”  I told her, “She’s never done that before.  She’s never just walked away.”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

“I don’t understand Gabrielle, “paced the Conqueror, “she seems to be getting worse, more defiant and using that head of hers LESS instead of MORE!”

“And you just walked away from her?” responded the gentle bard.  “That must have hurt.”

“Gabrielle, are you listening to me? Birdie was SPYING on the D-O-Z!! For FUN!!”

“Why did you walk away from her, Xena?” the question was repeated.  “The very few times in our relationship that you have walked away from me, you might as well have stabbed me in the heart.  I couldn’t breathe; I couldn’t think: I couldn’t move.  My life stopped.  My body was in motion,, but my life stopped.”

The warrior took her soul mate to her heart immediately, drawing her in closely.

“ I should never have done so, and I regret it to this day…”  She sighed and sat on the bed. “And obviously now, your greater concern is Birdie’s reaction to my reaction, and NOT Birdie’s wrongdoing?”

The bard sat beside her with an arm around her.

 “I’m sorry, Xena.” She pulled the dark head close to her shoulder.  “That pain returned so fast and so fierce.   Perhaps it shouldn’t still be so tender, should it?”

“Maybe it should, Gabrielle, “the indigo eyes were a little watery.  “It was a rough time.    Birdie shouldn’t feel that kind of distress at my hand.  I better go give her a different kind of distress.”   She chuckled humorlessly.  “Honestly, I was so upset and disappointed in her for doing something—- just ridiculously dangerous, I felt sending her to her room seemed the wisest action until I could calm down and think it through a bit, and perhaps talk to you.”

The bard looked at the floor smiling,

“Then it was the wise action, Big Warrior, and you are absolutely right.  It was a ridiculously stupid and dangerous thing to do.”

“Gabrielle, this little spy outing was just the first time she had Talus with her.  She has done it before on her own.   I didn’t ask her how many times before kicking her off upstairs.”

“She took TALUS with her?  She’s corrupting Talus?”

“I am sure that Birdie believes that she is teaching Talus.”

“Xena.”

“Well, she probably is.”

“Xena!”

“Well?”

“See, now you have thought about it too long!!”

The bard pounced on the giggling warrior and they rolled backward on the bed in a happy embrace.  After a moment when all four eyes were staring at the ceiling, the bard spoke,

“Xena, I am going to ask you a question that you probably won’t like, ok?”

“That’s nothing new Gabrielle,” came the  purring reply.

“Why are you afraid to deal with Birdie when she needs correction?”

“I don’t understand, Gabrielle, afraid?”

“I think that you do understand,, Xena.  Ever since she was missing for that seven day,  when I was hurt; that was a very rough time for you, and Birdie discovered some of her own darkness then.  But you have been unwilling call her on misbehavior more than once, since that time.   You retire, you leave it to me, almost as if you wish it would go away, or….. as if you are afraid.”

The famous eyes filled. 

 “Shall I bring the target closer so you may skewer more effectively, my bard?”

Her bard pulled the dark head into her arms to tell the truth more tenderly.

 “ Birdie is still our CHILD, our child who desperately needs her Baba’s guidance; in fact, it seems to me, that she is practically begging for it of late.”

“Do you really think so, Gab?”

“What are you afraid of, Xena?  Do you believe that she has changed so much?”

A deep sigh.

 “Maybe.  It  seems like your gentle ways are better right now for her than mine.  Yours are the better example.  And as I have said before, Birdie adores you; she can’t stand to know that you are upset with her.”

“And as I have said before, she worships you, Xena.  If you told her to walk into a lake and never come up for air again, she would do it.  She so needs your guidance, your love, and yes– your firmer hand at times.   She must learn firmer ways of the world from YOU.”

The warrior had rolled over and was staring at the ceiling, rivers of tears running down the sides of her head into her raven tresses.

“It’s very hard to explain, Gabrielle.  But  it’s the darkness.  I guess that I feel like I have no right, with my past, you know; it feels almost hypocritical to stand on her too hard.”

The bard sat up to look hard at her soul mate.

 “Xena, you have been many different people in your life, but I don’t believe that you have ever been a hypocrite.  You have always done what you believed, right or wrong.  You have some regrets, but who doesn’t?  And now you hesitate to cope with our child as she struggles with what you see as your own character flaws developing in her? Not the case, Big Warrior, Birdie’s flaws are her own.  Do not give her that excuse; do not give her any excuse.  And don’t excuse yourself from responsibility either.”

The bard paused a moment pondering.

“Let me deal with Birdie on this, Xena.  I’ll give her a little quality time—short and sweet.”

The warrior turned over to look into the serious jade eyes.  “But I think that you are correct, Gabrielle.  I should deal with her.”

“No it’s playing out a certain way in my head, and it feels right.  But it would be good if you make an appearance;  ask her what she discovered about the DOZ.”

The warrior flipped back over blowing her hair out of her eyes.

“I will follow your lead then, my love..  Gods be damned enigmatic adolescent kid.”

“You LOVE that phrase, don’t you?”

“My mother used it all the time.”

“Do you think we were this difficult to raise?”

“ummmmm, yeah.”

“Remember, there are both of us in one kid though.”

“She will make us OLD, Gabrielle.”

“Well, we shall make her suffer for it sometimes…” the bard winked at her warrior, ran her hand through her shaggy hair and turned to exit the room.

“However,” she turned back suddenly placing both hands on the broad shoulders, “ You and I are far from finished talking about this, ok?”

Her soul mate’s sky colored eyes radiated love, “ Yes m’am.”

Zephyr and I were sitting in my big window sill, watching the militia drill out on the practice fields, when a soft knock at my door took my attention.   I looked at my fox, “Best you skedaddle, Zephyr, you don’t want to be in trouble.”

She gave me her tilted head sympathetic look, and quickly slid under my bed.  My opened door revealed the Queen of the Amazons, the Queen of Amphipolis Fortress, the Lady Gabrielle, the Battling Bard of Potedia, soul mate to The Conqueror, my small, but very formidable mother.

“Spying on the DOZ?” was her greeting.     She walked past me as I closed the door and as she turned to face me, it was difficult to meet the fire snapping in her eyes.

“Yes, m’am.”

“Robin of the Warrior and Bard, did you consider even remotely how dangerous your little sport was?”   Uh oh, full name and title time.

“Not so much, Mama G.”

“And now you are taking Talus on these wild endeavors?  Birdie, he’s not as well trained as you, and he has the weak foot; he could be hurt or killed!”

I hung my head.

“Very poor judgment Birdie!”

“Yes m’am.”

“You’ve upset your Baba as well, you know that.”

“Yes my lady, I do know that.”

“Come here, Birdie.”

I moved front and center and she took my arm, turned me sideways toward her, and pulled me over just a bit.   Her right hand delivered a fair swat to the seat of my britches.

“So this one is for Baba.”

“ Yes, Mama.”

I straightened up, blinking hard, but she tugged me over again.

Another, some sting to it.

“ That one is for Talus. Don’t you ever hurt Talus.  He is your friend.” She put her hand on the back of my hair.

“I know, Mama.”

More sting on the next one. My eyes were watering and I knew that she wasn’t finished.

“That one is from me; you worry me, Birdie.”  She closed her eyes with the word “worry” dropping to a whisper.

“Yes, m’am, “my voice wavered.

My mother’s swats weren’t hurting my backside; the pain was to my soul, my spirit, where true remorse lies.

Her small but determined hand landed again smarting just a bit more and the tears spilled from my eyes, as they met hers once again.

“That one was for not using your wits, Birdie. You are reckoned to be the smartest child of your age in this entire area.”

“Yes, m’am.”   A whispered acknowledgement.

The final whack was gentle, but it broke me down completely.

“That one is because I love you.” Now her voice caught.

“I know, Mama.  I’m sorry Mama.”  The words were just barely managed and I couldn’t look at her.

She took my hand then, and led me to the red loveseat where she sat down, tugged my head into her lap, and ran her hand through my hair saying nothing, until I settled and quieted.  Mama G had a unique ability to take me quickly into her hands and heart and chasten me thoroughly, and gently.

“What are we going to do with you, Birdie?”  She said softly.

“I don’t know, Mama.  I don’t mean to do stupid things… “

Her hand gripped my hair and turned my head to look into her eyes.

“You are telling me that you were spying on the DOZ by accident?  You are telling me that you didn’t know it was stupid and dangerous?”

“Well…”

She laughed then.

“You sound so much like your Baba.”

“I do?”

“You have an upset Baba though. You two will need to talk.”

“She doesn’t want to talk to me, Mama.  She walked away.”

“She was angry, Birdie.   She didn’t trust herself.   She wanted to be cool and careful when she dealt with you on this.”

She gazed down at me and her hand stopped in my hair.

“That’s why I came first.  To do the hard part.”

The sea foam eyes filled and ran over; I reached up to brush a tear from her face,

“The ‘hard part’, Mama?”

Her fingers pulled my hair for emphasis.

“Birdie, the application of tough love is not fun—hence, the name — ‘tough love’; it’s painful for everyone.  But the ‘ hard part’ is necessary to make certain that you stay on the path of becoming the best kid in the whole world.”

“Well, you are really good at it, Mama; you are very smooth.”

She laughed as the tears ran down her face; she was blessed with that ability as well; it enhanced her skill as a poet.  It gave me comfort to be the cause of her smile.  Her hand reached around behind to place another gentle swat.

“Well, try to stay out of trouble for awhile, Little Bird, ok?”

I sighed and stared out from the pillow of her lap before the handle of my hair had me again looking up into my mother’s intense countenance,  accented by her beautiful jade eyes.

“OK?”

“Yes M’am.”

She sighed- one of those half annoyed loud sighs which blew the bangs of her bright hair up.

“Everyone is saying that to me lately; it’s like I am royalty or something..”

“Mama.”

“Hmmmmmmmmm?”

“You are royalty.”

Zephyr chose the moment to creep from her hideaway.  I scratched her ears and she brushed her nose under my hand.

“Hello Zephyr,” My mother patted the couch, and the fox put her head on the red upholstery. “You always know the perfect moment to reappear, don’t you?  ‘ sly as a fox,’ right?”  I KNOW you were with Birdie.  You pull nothing over on me.”

Zephyr folded her black ears back a little and licked Mama’s hand gently.

“Is that an apology?”

A little whine.

Mama rubbed her soft black ears.

“Ok, you are forgiven this time.”

Zephyr scooted over and nuzzled a moment against her Lady’s leg and put her head in Mama’s lap giving her serious fox eyes.  Then with a final hand lick, she returned to me.  My mother’s gaze followed her.

“She understands a great deal, doesn’t she?”

“Mama, Zephyr understands every word I say, and she has ever since the day I found her.  She is like my furry soul mate.”

Another smile.

There was a light tap at the door.

The door revealed my Baba Xe, and I leaped to attention nervously.

“My Lady.”

“Birdie.”

Mama G crossed immediately to slide into her spot under the Conqueror’s arm, her arms wrapped around the powerful body.  Baba kissed the top of her head and Mama closed her eyes, squeezed, and breathed a moment as if drawing life and comfort from her soul mate, replacing what I took from her.  I  looked away to give them privacy.

“How are things?” came the question from the Conqueror.

“Better, I think,” was the answer from her Queen, “Birdie?”

“I offer apologies for my foolish, reckless, unthinking behavior, Baba.” I said, my eyes lowered.  “It won’t happen again.”

Baba Xe extended her hand and lifted my chin so that my gaze met hers.   Our eyes mirrored each other.

“I am glad to hear that, Birdie,” she spoke evenly, “Because if it does, you will find that all of our previous times in the armory were merely practice, I promise you. “

The ultimatum was given in the voice of the Conqueror – absolutely no question. I closed my eyes from the intensity of her words.   She put her fingers in my hair and lifted my head to meet her eyes again.

“Do you understand me, Little Bird?”

“Yes m’am.”

I was saying that a lot today.

“Good. “  She then pulled my head forward and kissed my hair; Baba was returned.

“I hope so. Now tell me about the DOZ.”

“Really Baba?”

“Really, Birdie.”

She sat on my red couch, her arms resting on her knees and looked at me, blue eyes direct.  Mama G stood beside her stroking the dark hair.

“ If you are going to be in trouble, Birdie, you might as well be of use, kiddo.”  She smiled.

I lowered my head humbly for a moment, swallowed,  then looked up.

“ They are located about a half day’s ride from here and have been so for a fortnight.  That would indicate to me that they plan an attack soon, wouldn’t you think?”

“Possibly.”  The Conqueror listened carefully.  “Anything else?”

“It appears that they have modified their siege engine.  It now has a large star shape on the catapult end.  My guess is that it will actually catapult soldiers over our fortress walls, perhaps five at a time if they aren’t too heavy, and they will land in our residential areas, where they hope we will have no defense. It seems like a bad fall for the fellas though.”

“That’s good intelligence, Birdie.”  My head felt almost light at the praise, until my mother’s eyes indicated to me that I better rein in the stampeding horses of my ego.

“How many times have you watched them?”  The Conqueror’s voice, very soft, very dangerous.

I hesitated, but seeing no shelter from the Conqueror’s voice in the flashing jade eyes, I decided on evasion.

“A few times, Baba.”

She glanced over at Mama G, and then smiled,

“You and I Little Bird will talk about ALL of this spying activity at an appointed time in the not too distant future.  And  our chat will be in the armory.”

What was there to say?  She was my Baba Xe but she was also Xena the Conqueror; neither were happy.

“Yes ma’m.”

“But in the interim, we shall ride out tomorrow and you will show me this camp.”

“XENA!”  Mama G’s voice was electric with disapproval.  I was a silent bird.

“Gabrielle, I promise if she offers to take the smallest step out of line,  she will feel the full wrath of the Conqueror in a manner that will be unforgettable.”

Well, there was a good threat.  My insides shuddered a little.

Baba Xe put her hand on my shoulder,

“Go on to bed, Birdie and be up with the sun.  We will make our plan at breakfast and depart soon after.”

She kissed my hair, “Good night, Little Bird.”

I closed my eyes receiving the blessing, “Good night, Baba.”

My mother pulled me into a fierce hug, “I love you, Birdie; you know that.”

I hugged her back, hard.

“I know, Mama…” the words were soft in her shoulder, “I love you too. I’ll do better at stuff. Promise.”

She pushed me back and kissed my forehead a little teary again and then mussed my hair.

“Mess.”

I smiled at her.  She went to my desk , removed one of many small candles in the drawer, placed it in a holder and lighted it from the lantern in the window.

“All the same, Little Warrior, sit and write until the candle is burned down.”

“Yes, M’am.”  My mother intended that I should do some contemplating.  That meant writing.

I opened another drawer and removed my quill and scroll and sat down losing myself in the candle flame.

The Bard of Potedia took my quill, dipped it into the ink well and placed it in my hand.   She then left a gentle kiss on my temple, and I had to blink away tears for love of her.

************************************************************************************************************************************

“Xena, What in Hades are you thinking?  I have only just finished working the kid over for ‘spying on the DOZ’, and now you will take her with you tomorrow to ‘spy on the DOZ’?”  I haven’t read a lot of parenting scrolls, but this seems to be a good example of a ‘mixed message’ to me.”

The warrior swept the bard into her arms completely, spinning her in a circle round and round kissing her , kissing her, kissing her, kissing her……

“XENA, this won’t work!”

Kissing her, kissing her, “Xena…”  kissing her, kissing her…  “Xena, “  softer, deeper, kissing her, taking her down…

They lay on the bed.

The woman with hair like the sun sighed and looked up at the raven haired woman in her arms. 

“Xena, seriously.  What is your thinking?”

The warrior took the bard’s hand in her own. 

 “ Many things actually.  One, if the kid is going to spy on people, I want her to learn to spy’ properly’.  And second, I would wager that before we even arrive at a suitable place to actually SPY, Birdie will do just ONE THING that is stupid or reckless.  I will then take her firmly in hand and put a quick end to this habit of tempting danger for recreation.   Some lessons are better learned at the MOMENT.  Birdie and I always understand each other very clearly when I catch her in the act.  You, my love are the parent for talking reviewing, and consequences after the fact.”

The bard sighed, “No I’m not really, Xena, it’s just that sometimes that’s how it has to be.  It’s hard on me, but I do it because it must be done, for Birdie’s sake.”

She received a warm embrace and a gentle Conqueror’s caress on her cheek.  “You are the finest mother a child could possibly have, Gabrielle.  I marvel at you;  Birdie is clay in your hands. You rarely raise your voice, your temper, or your hand to her, and even when you must do one of those, you are gentle but firm, consistent but kind, our child is heartbroken at causing you pain, and you quickly forgive.  You are a wonder with her.”

Gabrielle propped herself up on an elbow.  “You and I are  different people, Xena, and our differences change the ways we approach Birdie.   I am trying to raise the poet, which means I must teach her that while Birdie may believe she is acting in the best interests of everyone  consequences will follow, right or wrong.  Poets dream, and while dreams make beautiful words, they can be quite painful in the reality .  I learned that from you, my wild and woolly warlord. “

She received a kiss for that lovely little gratitude.

  You, on the other hand, believe that you train a warrior whose very lifestyle means constant vigilance and practice for defense and danger.  Yet you seem to fear taking that responsibility; do you fear the darkness in Birdie, or do you fear your own?”

The Conqueror was silent…. Too long.   Gabrielle knew that her words had traveled home. 

“Xena don’t be afraid of our child; don’t be afraid of what you will teach her. You are no longer a warlord.”   She thought another  moment.

  “Remember how horrified I was when Birdie chose Hades as  HER very own horse ?”

“You were not alone in your fear,” chuckled her soul mate.  “Leave it to Birdie to love the biggest horse in all the land, the horse that could kick her over the moon with one hoof.”

“But they understand each other completely, and Birdie couldn’t ride a better horse.  That horse would die for her.”

“It is truly amazing to see them together.” Agreed Xena the horse trainer..

“Well,” mused the poet, “ from what I have seen and heard of Birdie’s talents as a warrior,  our child has another Hades in the ring. “

Her soul mate regarded her- understanding the image.

 Gabrielle continued, “Yes, I am an excellent fighter, and I have killed to protect those I love, but do I have the innate talent and drive to be a great warrior?  No.   Birdie does, Xena.   It is running loose in her like a huge wild horse, and you must be her guide, you must mold our little warrior.   Think how it might have been for you if someone had worked with you at age fifteen when you were angry and full of darkness—if someone had sat you down firmly and made you deal with that energy in a less destructive fashion?”

            That brought alarm to the azure eyes,.  “Do you believe that Birdie is in so much trouble? So nearly out of control?”

The bard encircled her lover’s waist with her arms and listened to the heartbeat which had increased at the intensity of their conversation.

“No, Xena I do not believe that Birdie is in that much trouble.  What I am saying”, she moved her head back to meet the blue eyes,

“Is that Birdie must have that guidance from YOU.  I am not of the required character or strength to help her develop that side of her personality or talent.  I can always bring the poet in  her home, with love, firmness and WORDS, but that isn’t always enough.  She knows that.  She expected stern correction from you for her latest misadventure, and while I dealt with her misdeed, it would have been better if YOU had dealt with her,  Xena.”

 The warrior sighed, “So I am failing her.”

The bard took the great shoulders in her hands and shook them slightly.

 “NEVER have you or shall you fail our child, my love.  You are Xena the Conqueror, the greatest warrior in all the lands we know.   You will never fail Birdie; I know how much you love her.  Love never fails.”

She smiled and reached for the dark hair, “Buck up big Warrior… you have very likely put yourself into an adventure tomorrow.”

“Don’t you want to come with us?”

“I can hardly bear for you to go without me, but this is a journey for my two warriors together.  There will be growth only the two of you can give each to the other.   And besides, it’s only for a day.”

The big warrior swept the bard up in her arms and kissed her,

 “Are all bards as wise and patient as you are?”

The kiss was returned,

“Are all warriors as strong and romantic as you?”

“I doubt it.”

“Me too.”

“We certainly are fortunate.”

“Oh yes we are.”

And then there was only candlelight and soft laughter.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Robin at her desk…. By candlelight

Who holds my heart?

Is it warrior or bard?

Shall I play either part?

Or shift with no warning?

From yang into yin

From kindness to sin

Without and within

How shall it begin?

The light on my path

Is never quite clear

Might all I hold dear

Be harmed by a wrath

We never saw coming?

I reach with my hands,

To grasp two as one

A test for me comes

And now as it starts

Please calm my faint heart

My warrior and bard.

Part 2

The grey before dawn found me in my Grandba’s huge kitchen watching her cook breakfast for the inn guests. She was packing a large leather sack with trail food and what appeared to be an extra special lunch for two.

“Hey,” Grandba waved her spoon at the furry nose that came over the edge of the counter.

“Down, Zephyr.”

I patted her head. “Sorry Granba. Your food is too enticing for her.”

My grandparent gave me a scowl, “The animal isn’t allowed in here and you know it, Grandbirdie.”

I sighed and gave Zephyr a look. She trotted outside the door to sit patiently. Grandba finished the sack and tied the canvas straps, and I slung it over one shoulder. She cupped my face with in her strong rough hands.

“You and Xena stay out of trouble, Grandbirdie,” she said gruffly, “If you don’t you’ll get no muffins for a fortnight, you hear me?”

“We’ll be fine, Grandba.” I assured her.

“The two of you alone? I have my doubts, “she smiled, “Your Baba may be the Conqueror of all within our sight, but she’s still my little Xena, and you are my little smaller than Xena.”

She then pulled me into her ample bosom which while it nearly smothered me, also always smelled of warm fresh bread. She kissed my forehead and I kissed her cheek.

“Love you, Grandba,” my distance from her grew, but I heard her give Zephyr a pat.

“Zephyr love, it’s nothin’ personal, foxie. No animals in the kitchen. Here, honey.” A smile formed on my face as I knew Grandba was giving Zephyr a tidbit of sausage or what from the kitchen.. Then the soft paws marched by my side.

“You have quite a way with people, Zephyr.” I let my hand fall gently on her head and she nudged my hand with her nose.

Our horses were standing side by side with my parents as a study in contrasts. Hades looked like my Baba Xe- tall, powerful, dark, while Argo favoured my Mama G, powerful in her way, but smaller and a mix of much lighter colours. The woman of light colours approached me now as I handed Baba Xe our food sack.

“I liked your poem,” she gave me an appraising look which always made me shift my boots somewhat. How often does a person know the source of a poem anyway, but then when one’s MOTHER is Gabrielle the Bard? Suffice it to say, she knows me better than I want to be known at times. So I stood in front of Mama G just kicking dirt.

“It took some time to write didn’t it?” she put her fingers under my chin and pulled my gaze up to meet hers.

“Yes, My Lady, it did.”

“Well then, it will take some time to discuss, won’t it? I shouldn’t have said anything right now. I’m sorry, Birdie.” She said softly.

“No, it’s ok, Mama, I am glad you liked it, ” I mumbled. “But yes, it would be nice to talk, if you have any suggestions. Perhaps tonight?”

“Of course, Little Bard,” she put her arms around me and the words came into my ear gently.

I pushed back from her.” Little Bard, Mama?”

“That is what I said.”

“Wow.” I stood a little straighter and smiled into her eyes.” Thanks.”

“Don’t be growing a big head, now.”

“No chance of that today, My Queen.” I gave her a mock salute.

She chuckled.

“No I don’t suppose there is..” Her arms enveloped me again closely.

“Behave yourself today, Birdie; learn from the best there is, ok?”

“Yes M’am.”

“I love you.”

“I love you back, Mama.”

She gave me a love pat, and I unfastened the springy stirrup which was attached a little bit lower to the mounting side of my saddle. It gave me a little bounce step up high into Hades’ saddle I then leaned down to fasten it at equal level to the other. Baba Xe had Mama G in her arms and their heads were together- that intangible power passing between them that no poet could capture in words. Finally they exchanged a quick kiss and Baba Xe flew onto Argo without taking her eyes from Mama G’s eyes.

“Be careful, My Love, “soft words from the Bard

“Always, My Love, “from her Warrior the Conqueror.

I rode our ahead to give them that moment; the intensity was overwhelming me. That I was the product of such a love overcame me at times, and there was nothing to do but keep moving.

Baba Xe caught up with me near the big oak outside the gates..

“Hey, Birdie!” I turned and waited.

“I wasn’t leaving you, Baba.”

Argo galloped alongside.

“See that you don’t little squire; every order you fail to follow will be considered in our quality time.”

I sighed; it was like a hanging sword over me.

“All that said, Little Bird, I’ll race you to the first pass. “EEEEEEE Yahhhh!!!”

Hades and I were left in the dirt for some moments in absolute shock. Did she say RACE? Her trail of dust was growing smaller, so we kicked it in. Hades began to build his speed, but he was carrying the supplies; he was the larger, stronger horse and I was the lighter weight, so actually in a race, we were fairly evenly matched. Baba was wearing her everyday outfit, the leathers, boots, dark coat, blue silk shirt, and silver breastplate and gauntlets; she was armed simply with the Tide and her chakram. I was dressed in similar fashion, only I wore a chain mail shirt under my coat, daggers in my boots, I preferred cotton pants with leather lacings, a quiver of arrows at my back and a bow at my saddle. I was STILL grounded from carrying a sword, but that would be lifted in another fortnight or so if I stayed out of serious trouble. We were gaining on Argo now, almost even with her tail.

“Good boy, Hades, you are doing great,” I said to my horse, as he drummed up even with the golden palomino and her rider. The Conqueror gave me a sideways glance, leaned forward, whispered one word into Argo’s ear, and they were gone, leaving a dumbfounded Hades and me behind as if we were standing still.

But I returned the flashing smile as we trotted up to the first pass finish. Argo didn’t even look winded.

“Baba, you have secrets, “I gave her a look.

“Perhaps I do, “she said in that trademark rumbling low voice that made all listen. “Just because one can ride well and fast, doesn’t mean one will win every race, my little Bird.”

“Obviously.”

She laughed an easy genuine laugh that was good to hear. I realized that my Baba Xe was happy to be away from the fortress for a day, free of Conqueror responsibilities. I resolved to behave myself and make the day a good one for her.

“Now, which way to the DOZ?”

“The upper trail here, Baba.” Hades and I took the lead up a slowly climbing rocky trail back into the mountain pass.

“This trail becomes rather steep doesn’t it?” the low voice murmured behind me.

“Yes, at times, Baba,” I said. “We’re careful though. If the trail is recently washed out, I always dismount and lead Hades. We should do that now.”

“Birdie, Birdie, Birdie…” floated up to my ears.. And I smiled to myself… Just then a ball of black fur hit me in the back of the knees.

“Hi, Zephyr. You caught up!” She gave me an offended look, “Sorry girl, you were just keeping the rear watch, weren’t you?” Well. She accepted that.

“Birdie,” my taller companion called, “take a right up ahead, that smaller path. Do you see it?”

“By the forked birch, Baba Xe?”

“That’s it. Ever go that way?”

“Never.”

“So take a detour, but you will need to walk in front of your horse, the trail is quite narrow.”

I did so and led Hades up the stubbly trail. It was steep and hot, but we persevered.

“What is up here, Baba?”

“You will see very soon. It’s worth it, Little Bird.”

I began to understand what she was saying as a resonating roar resounded in my ears. Within the next two turns we were brought into view of a cascading waterfall which seemed to reach almost into the clouds. At its finish was a deep clear pool which fed the stream we had followed.

I looked back at Baba Xe in delight.

” Can’t believe we just rode by this time after time. It’s outstanding!! And it’s your secret, Baba? ”

“I don’t believe that many people find it, Birdie.”

I quickly steered Hades to a comfortable place; I loosened his entire load to make him easier, to allow him to drink and dunk his head in the cool water as deeply as he wished. Zephyr had already buried her head and was shaking water furiously. I stripped down quickly and was just pulling off my second boot when I was scooped up from behind in strong hands and carried under the Conqueror’s arm as if I were a sack of potatoes as she dashed into the water. Potatoes don’t squeal like puppies though.

We played in that pool for a couple of candle marks and it was the best time I can remember spending with Baba Xe since I was very small. It was time spent with my Baba only’; the Conqueror didn’t ever show. We competed at who could stay underwater longer, then she threw me off her shoulders high into the air, so I could do the perfect dive, and we invented a new game called “dragon” in which we competed to see who could spit the biggest furthest stream of water at each other and while emitting huge loud bellows . We laughed and giggled and sputtered. Then we stretched out in the sun to dry, falling into a quiet nap after which we ate Grandba’s perfectly delicious lunch. I had always worshipped my Baba Xe, but I was witness to more of the person my Mama G loved that morning than I ever had been witness to before, not just the greatest warrior in all the lands we knew of, but someone who was funny, playful, gentle and sweet. It was rather melancholy to end it, but as the saying goes, all good things must. We were back in our serious clothes and just preparing to mount up when she looked at me a moment.

“Thanks for this, Baba,” I said to her, “it was perfect.”

“It was fun for me as well, Birdie,” she flashed that gorgeous smile, “We will do it again soon.”

One might blame our state of relaxed happiness as the cause of our being made such easy victims. Baba had turned her head back to talk to me, and as a result, probably did not have her senses as highly tuned as usual. Neither were mine. The Romans had climbed trees in the pass and they threw four ropes with hooked weights around her from both sides of the path, while another,small and fast struck her hard in the side of the head with a staff. Fortunately, she had time to flip backwards from the saddle but she landed badly on one ankle, being unable to balance correctly with the yanking of the ropes.

She shouted, “Argo, GO! Birdie, GO”, but the golden horse was the only one who succeeded. Argo was like my Zephyr; she knew understood everything that Baba Xe said, so she made an escape.

I was incapacitated by ropes as well, so dumbstruck was I by witnessing the fall of my Baba Xe. However I noticed that Zephyr disappeared into the woods; they would never know that she existed.

The Roman patrol must have been watching us a good while and formulated a very concise plan. We had simply let our guard down. It was a very bitter lesson for me, early on and it would never happen to me quite that way again. I watched as four soldiers took Baba down; they were giants; I had never seen such huge men. Each of them had an enormous spear, and he ran it through a part of her clothing and into just enough skin to pin her. She had also taken a hard fall from Argo to make certain the horse had been able to run away. It was worse for me to see my hero battered than if it had happened to me personally. Yanked from my saddle, the ropes circled me several times, and then someone put his sandaled foot on my head to tighten the knot. I bit the toe, which earned me a curse and a swat to the head.

“Birdie,” Baba ordered, her voice wheezing, barely coherent. “Behave.”

This earned her a kick in the gut. It didn’t faze her; the look she gave her kicker should have killed him. I looked around. It appeared we were captured by a scouting patrol of Romans. Their leader, by his swagger and his ornate cloak strutted to her side and stood looking down at her smugly satisfied with himself. He was heavy-set man, with the short curly haircut, coffee bean eyes, leather clothing and shining brass armour, and sandals with heavy leather straps that reached upward around his thick hairy legs.

“I am wondering today, how Titus Maximus could be so fortunate as to simply come across Xena the Conqueror bathing alone with only her squire for company. ”

He continued to muse, ” Delivering you to our Emperor, my dear Conqueror, will greatly accelerate my career in Rome.”

“It’s just your lucky day, Titus. You caught me on the only day off I’ve taken in seasons,” She growled, “and my squire is of no use to you. She’s very green; let her go; she’ll keep her mouth shut. I am your pay off.”

I wanted to say something, but her eyes stopped me cold. If she could get me out of the situation, she wanted me to run. But I would not leave her.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

“Something wrong, My Lady?” Scrubbers took hold of Gabrielle’s elbow as she leaned against the stable wall.

The small queen pushed her hair back from her face and closed her eyes a moment.

“I don’t know, Scrubby, I’ve suddenly gone just a bit dizzy,” she went inward a moment. “Actually, perhaps I won’t ride just now; perhaps, a stretch on the bed for awhile might be better.”

“You are the Queen, “smiled Scrubbers, “Your wish…”

Gabrielle gave him a playful pat on the arm, “‘The Queen’ wishes that you wouldn’t call her, ‘the Queen’.”

“Very well, My Lady,” laughed the former rider with the Warlord Xena. “But the titl’s don’t go any lower m’am.”

The emerald eyes twinkled at him as she slid out the large stable door, “Thanks Scrubby.”

Outside she immediately put both hands to her head which was throbbing. It was a quick trip across the courtyard into the fortress and upstairs into the large royal suite. Kicking off her boots, she crawled into the middle of the bed, and sat cross-legged, with eyes shut, hands in lotus position on her knees, concentrating on her breathing, breathing in, breathing out, and in, and out… firmer, quieter.. in and out…focus… inside… the beach… the sky… a small blue star on the horizon.. bright… GOOD. Higher still, where was it? There. The larger silver star… bright, but not as bright as usual. Gabrielle steadied her breathing and sent a message to that star. “I’m coming.”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The afternoon waned. The situation didn’t make sense, but that was because there was little honour in the Roman leader. They were a scouting party of some kind just out surveying the lay of the land. When Titus came upon Xena the Conqueror, he saw the lay of his life change instead. However, because he was a big man with a small mind, it appeared that he would take his pleasure playing with us first, and then drag us to Rome, claim his reward, and live happily ever after. The patrol lay around eating and drinking without much ambition, so we had ample opportunity to observe them. It was foreign to me to see soldiers so lethargic- so uninspired. Baba was well secured by ropes; I was not as well secured, but she would not allow me to even entertain any plan of escape on pain of worse punishment at her hand than the Romans’. I believed her, but my little bird voice told me that our survival would fall on my wits. The most recent kick Titus had dealt Baba was to her head and had put her unconscious with blood seeping from her hairline. I was fretting and it showed, for soon his thick laced sandals were in front of my eyes.

“On your feet Conqueror’s squire.” He pulled me up by the hair. I only just refrained from trying a kick in his privates.

“What does her Conquerorship call you?”

I could smell the stale wine on him. His men lay around the fire in different wine induced poses; there were eight of them. One was by the tent though, washing dishes and clothing. He had brought us bread and drink earlier, and I had taken notice of his kind eyes. He was perhaps fifteen or sixteen winters old.

Titus received no answer from me.

“I said what does the Conqueror call you, girly?” he was louder. My refusal made him angry. Good.

“Insubordinate are we? Marcus!” The boy halted his duties and came immediately to his master’s side.

Titus drew his sword. The gentle brown eyes I had admired in Marcus earlier showed a flash of dread, and then they closed.

“Let’s show this little girl how we handle insubordinate squires in Rome, Marcus.”

“My name is Clio, sir.” I spoke quickly. “Marcus has not been insubordinate.”

The boy bowed his head and clenched his hands into tight fists.

WHHHAM!

The flat side of the heavy Roman sword slammed into Marcus’s slightly built backside. Marcus rose on his tiptoes with a grimace and then let himself down without a sound.

WHHHAM!

The second blow opened his eyes and the tears filled them, but this time there was also anger. I didn’t blame him. This was just the cruelty of a bully and a tyrant.

“Looks like enough of a lesson to me, Titus.”

The always cool conversational tone of Xena the Conqueror drew all attention to her standing in her relaxed athletic pose. Even with dried blood on the side of her head, dishevelled, beaten, with bound hands, she was magnificent.

“What is the problem? Is my squire being disrespectful?”

“Just a might, Conqueror,” growled Titus, glowering at me. “I was just going to give her a lesson in humility.”

“The squire of the Conqueror is specially chosen.” Baba kept the very casual tone,

“She answers to no one but me. Isn’t that correct, Clio?”

She limped over to me to lift my chin, her eyes slicing into mine with cold intensity.

“Yes, my Lady Conqueror,” my answer was meek; I dropped my eyes, in keeping with the tone we were creating.

“Clio, it doesn’t matter if a superior is Greek, Roman, or DOZ, that person will always be superior to YOU, child. Perhaps you need some extra emphasis on that attitude.”

She looked at Titus.

“No one disciplines my squire but me, Lord Titus. It is necessary for the maintenance of discretion, obedience, and safety that my squires answer to me and no one else. I will punish Clio.”

She looked over the group. Limping to one of the lieutenants she spoke, “May I borrow your sword, sir to discipline my young squire? The sword of your Lord Titus would break bones in my Clio.”

The soldier shot Titus a questioning look, and Titus nodded. Baba walked toward me slowly, showing no pain for her injured ankle, twirling the sword, testing the weight against her hand; it was a much lighter sword. I began to worry. Baba had never given me the flat of her blade-well not seriously, a light swat now and then, but I had heard many personal accounts of the painful a punishment a flat side could deliver. There was something about the way thin metal could slice the air that made the extra fast resulting swat to one’s backside the champion of stinging chastisement. Baba would never have used one on me. She and Mama G believed they could do quite well enough on my backside with a firm and loving hand.

But Baba was having her hands unbound even as shackles were locked on her feet, so any thoughts she had of escaping with a sword were dashed. I swallowed as she limped towards me with that sword realizing that we had become the centre of attention. There was a soldier on each side of her as she stopped and stood looking at me. She gave a little sweeping motion with the sword to the soldiers,

“A little personal private space if you don’t mind.” Then she put her hand on .my shoulder and spoke, “Take off your coat, Clio.”

I did as I was told.

“Bend over.”

Hands went to my knees.

She was going to do it; I was going to feel the flat of a sword. I closed my eyes.

WHACK!

The breath flew out of me; a flash of light enveloped my body originating at a searing hot brand spreading across my backside. I caught my breath hard; the flat of the sword’s reputation was well deserved. She put her hand gently on my shoulder.

“Again, Clio.” My hands reached my knees again; my eyes were wet, I took another breath.

WHACK!

My body straightened up involuntarily. It hurt almost as much as when Feisal stabbed me, but that was only one time; tears flooded my eyes, but willpower locked down any outcry.

“One more time, “Baba whispered, and I heard a tremble in her voice.

“Yes, My Lady Conqueror, “I whimpered.

This time her other arm came across the front of me shoulder to shoulder-as near to an embrace as she could manage, and just barely, her lips on my hair; from that embrace her strength flowed into me. The third wallop hurt, but I was able to shake it off quickly.

She turned me towards her and said firmly, “Clio, I hope that you have learned that you must be always be obedient, subordinate, respectful.”

“Yes, My Lady Conqueror.” I said it so the Romans could hear, even though my voice shook terribly.

“Now go to bed immediately. No food for you.”

“Well done, Conqueror,” Titus was laughing,” at least we agree on a few things; subordinates must be kept subordinate, and the best way to do that is by beating them with regularity.”

“Yes, Titus, I do agree.” Baba Xe gave him a cold smile. “People who serve must remember their places, and if they forget, they must be reminded. Even the young ones.”

“Come, eat a bit,” bellowed Titus. “You will be the crown in my political career when I deliver you to Caesar. I should pick your brain first.”

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I don’t know how long I lay in the dark, trembling, either from the shock of what had happened, or the cold; it didn’t matter.

“There is my tough little Bird,” the whisper was soft, gentle. “Come here, baby, I am very sorry.”

The familiar voice caught, and a callused hand reached over my back to pull me into strong comforting arms; my trembling subsided.

“Birdie, we swore we’d NEVER punish you with anything but an open hand; we agreed that if you couldn’t be reached with our guiding hands, we would look for another way. ”

Tears began to flow from me like melting icicles; I had held my breath since the punishment, but I kept my sobs quiet- melding into her body. Tenderly she held my head to her shoulder rubbing my back until I quieted and could speak,

” It’s ok Baba. Reckon I’ve had it coming for a good while.”

“Not like that, Birdie. Never like that.”

She sniffed, and I saw the streaks of tears on her face in the moonlight. She swallowed and then asked softly,

“Do you understand why I did it?”

“Sort of. I figured you were at least a little bit mad because I was being stupid.”

She stroked my hair in the darkness.

“No, Birdie, I couldn’t take the risk of Titus touching you. He had decided that you must be punished; therefore, I chose lay the blade on you myself, rather than to allow one of those Roman PIGS come anywhere close to striking you.”

She kept stroking my hair and drew her own shuddering breath.

“But it had to be convincingly severe, honey, or they would have beaten you again. Birdie; you saw their cruelty to Marcus. It entertains them. ”

She then raised her head alertly. It was Marcus, creeping silently in the dark.

“My Lady Conqueror, I’ve brought some things to ease Clio,” his whisper was barely above a breeze. “It’s a bit of a salve and some numbing weed. It helps me. There’s also some bread since she missed dinner.”

“Thanks, Marcus,” I whispered, “Why would you care to be kind after they made you an example to me?”

“That? It was nothing.” He said, with a slight smile.

” I am their punching bag nightly before they drink themselves unconscious. Your show spared me a night. That’s why I brought the medication to you. ”

He ducked his head as if embarrassed. Then he looked up.

“You were wise to punish Clio yourself, My Lady Conqueror. Titus would have broken bones in one as small as she; a squire is nothing more than a piece of game like a rabbit or deer to them. He would have thought nothing of crippling her.”

“And you, Clio, “he whispered, “You were very brave. I don’t even know you but I was proud.”

“Why should you care, Marcus?” Baba asked, not rudely.

“My grandmother was from Amphipolis. I loved to hear the stories of Xenarone.”

“Ah then you are Greek, I thought as much.”

“Yes My Lady Conqueror.”

“Do you want to come with us when we escape, Marcus?” I asked munching on the bread.

“Shouldn’t the Conqueror ask that question and not her squire?”

Marcus gave me a rather severe look, even in the darkness.

A soft chuckle from Baba,

“You will have to excuse Birdie, Marcus. She’s a bit bold for her britches sometimes. You would think the state of her arse would keep her quiet right now.” She gave my pants a little tug.

I was quickly chastened. “Sorry Baba.”

“‘Baba, Birdie?” Marcus was clueless.

“She is Robin of the Warrior and Bard. But her friends call her Birdie. And for the time being, you will call her Clio. No one should know that she is mine.”

“Yes My Lady Conqueror. ” He chuckled, “That is wonderful. It gives me even more hope. Two of you!!”

“You’d best be back in your sleeping quarters, Marcus. We’ll talk again. And we WILL get out of this.” Baba told him.

“Thank you My Lady. Good Night, My Lady. Good Night, Bir-Clio.” He scuttled away quickly.

“So then there were three. Things are looking up, “said Baba, in a stronger voice. “Let’s try some of this stuff on your backside, Birdie. Drop those britches.”

I tugged them down over my smarting tail feathers, and she mixed the salve and numb weed together and smoothed it on gently. The fire was eased.

“Good.” whispered my Baba., as she tucked my head inside her arm, “Now go to sleep, Clio. Tomorrow, change will come.”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Daylight found Gabrielle securing her staff to Wendy’s saddle. She then slid the Amazon sword into the sheath at her back and checked the sais at her boots. She walked past Wendy to stroke the soft nose of the golden Argo who had appeared in the night. The horse without rider had shaken everyone and brought all sorts of faithful family forward to help. She cast a glance at her intrepid rescue crew: Cyrene and Scrubby on the wagon, Ephiny and Eponin riding bareback with bows and swords, and Thomas and Galto bringing up the rear. Perhaps not the most handsome posse, but the posse with the greatest heart for certain.

“Gabrielle, do we know where we are going?” Cyrene asked quietly.

“Basically, we are following my hunch, “was the bard’s answer, “but my hunch about my family is usually correct.”

“Then we’re wid ya lass,” came the gruff voice of Scrubbers.

“That we are my Queen, “called Ephiny, while Eponin raised her bow, and Thomas and Galto merely saluted.

The bard smiled at all of them . The Conqueror’s most loyal.

“We are off then,” she said softly and gave Wendy’s reins a little shake…

Eurylocus then came jogging from the gate. Gabrielle closed her eyes.

“Don’t even say it.”

“My Lady, ”

“DO NOT EVEN SAY IT!!”

He stepped back.

She ran her hand through her bright hair, gave an enormous sigh, and spoke.

“Say it.”

“My Lady, it’s the DOZ.”

“I KNEW IT!! FREEZIN” FRICKIN, FROZEN, DUCKIN MINOTAUR SHITE!!!”

“My Lady?”

“They always do this!”

“My Lady?”

“Every time we need to take care of personal emergencies, the stupid DOZ attack!! I swear, someone on Olympus is involved in this. ! Coincidence just does not cut it!”

She swung herself out of Wendy’s saddle.

“Well, I have everyone here at least. Cyrene, Scrubby, will you please secure the domestic areas, particularly the rear residential areas? Thomas, Galto, fetch the militia, and set up. We will need to quickly ready the new siege engines inside the lower parts of the wall; can you do that? Gods. They’ve not even been tested, do you realize that?

Ephiny, Eponin can you send runners to double check everyone and report back to me? We know about their new siege engines, and we are trying new defense ones as well. It makes me nervous. What am I forgetting? Yep, I wish the Conqueror was here too!”

Her group smiled at her as they broke ranks. Scrubbers threw back a grin, “You are doing fine your Majesty!! ”

“Thanks, Scrubby. ” it warmed her. “I am going to the wall.”

“Be careful Lass!”

*****************************************************************

The Roman patrol was striking camp just after daylight; obviously, it was time to move on. Baba watched them calmly, seated with her bound hands and feet and bloody head beginning to look a bit grungy, nevertheless, she never lost her regal bearing.

Titus strutted over to us, “On your feet, ladies, it is time to make our way to Rome, and to my new life.”

“Is that what you think my capture will bring to you, Titus,” Baba said with a sneer, “Don’t you know that Caesar has no loyalty to one person? Loyalty lasts a day in Rome. You would do better to come to Amphipolis and join us.”

Titus bellowed with laughter until he had tears in his eyes.

“You have taken too many blows to the head Conqueror!” he said with a snort, “Do you have any idea what the bounty is on your lovely head?”

Baba rolled up to her feet, shackles and all and looked at him square in the eye.

“Release my squire, Clio,” she said,” She is worth nothing and will say nothing if my orders are such.”

Baba Xe had to have known that her request was hopeless, but I suppose she had to try. And when he laughed again, I guess she had her fill of it, because she leaped upon him wrapping her wrist ropes around his neck. She managed to swing around with both feet and slam his first rescuer in the gut. Titus was a bright purple before one of the big centurions, Felix, they called him, clubbed her nearly unconsciousness again with the hilt of his sword. He slammed her once, and she went to her knees; he would have done so again, but I stepped in front of him.

“Can’t you see she’s down, Master Felix, I whispered. “She’s no good to you dead.”

He locked eyes with me.

“Very well,” he said, “Far less mobile then.”

He grabbed the back of her injured foot and twisted. Baba grunted and immediately flipped around, despite her near unconscious state, but I didn’t know if he had managed to re-injure her ankle or not. Damn him.

I was worried about the beatings she continued to take at the hands of men nearly twice her weight. It was too much even for her, and every encounter weakened her. Titus had regained both breath and feet by now and he took advantage of the opportunity to swing his fist into the side of her head. I jumped with both feet and all of my weight on his big toe, breaking it I hoped.

“You little piece of shite!! I’ll strap every bit of your scrawny hide!” he screamed as he backhanded me.

A cold realization that he would do just that hit me he stumbled toward me unbuckling his heavily studded belt. I scrambled backwards, but could not gain my feet. Well, perhaps I would pass out quickly.

“Master!” it was Marcus who called, “The gods are watching!”

I couldn’t fathom what he was talking about, but I looked in the direction Marcus pointed, and not a stone’s throw away, sat Zephyr, but not the Zephyr I knew.

This was a Zephyr who was much larger and deadly fierce; her teeth were bared with great fangs and her eyes glowed a dangerous amber. A reverberating snarl made my skin become goose flesh, but I knew she wasn’t after me. Perched on Zephyr’s back was Icarus. Only the eyes of the hawk had changed, but they too, glowed with amber flames. As Titus turned to look at her, Icarus gave an ear splitting shriek and flew straight at his head. He immediately fell to his knees covering his eyes while she beat him with her wings. Zephyr was circling him by this time as well, snarling and taking quick snaps which drew bits of blood. With Titus thus occupied, I managed to call,

“Icarus, here.”

And my hawk came to me. I tore a piece of my shirt and wondered how to communicate. I crawled to Baba’s side and dipped a thin twig in the blood from her head. On the tunic, I drew a sun and “N”. My intent was “One day north, “but it would be a miracle if anyone could understand it. Nevertheless, I tucked the scrap into the band on her leg, gazed into her eyes and said, “Icarus, Home.”

Zephyr, heard me then as well. With one more snap at the coward, Titus, she looked at me and her eyes were of my own little fox.

I held her in my heart, for my fox was my love.

“Zephyr, can you go to Mama and bring her?”

She looked at me intensely and then turned and ran. Icarus was only a spot in the distance by now. I held little hope that deliverance would come from this event, but it was all that we had. So my heart clung to it. I collected my wits, strode deliberately to Felix and stood before him humbly. I had an idea that Titus would not trouble us for some time, as he remained cowed and snivelling.

“Master Felix, if you will give me water and a cloth, I will ready the Conqueror as best I can for travel and offer no trouble.”

It seemed to be the best avenue for the time being. Neither of us were up for much physical conflict. Baba must rest, even if the rest forced our distance. He nodded approval, and I collected a small pan of water, and a clean rag; I also began to tear strips from the cleanest parts of my tunic.

I knelt by Baba and began to clean the blood from her head. Fortunately none of the gashes were large, but the bruising and swelling were impressive. Her face winced involuntarily as I dabbed gently at the dried blood. Then I began placing the cool rags on the injuries. Blue eyes began watching me before long.

“So how is the rescue going, Birdie?” she murmured.

“Don’t know yet, but we are working on it,” my voice was low, “the swelling appears to be lessening in your ankle, Baba. Perhaps it’s healing.”

“My famous recuperative powers, “she laid back with a sigh. “Sometimes I wish I could just take a seven day in bed.”

“Why don’t you Baba?” I looked at her, “As long as I’ve known you, you’ve never spent more than two days in bed, and you were either very ill, or very injured. Right now, you MUST REST, because we won’t escape at all if you are hurt again.”

The regionally famous eyebrow went into her hairline at me.

“Listen to the little conqueror.”

I wilted, quickly into tears. “Sorry, Baba.”

She took my hand.

“No, Little Bird, I am sorry, you are doing well, and I am following your lead for now. But if I speak of change… be ready to follow mine, are we agreed?”

“Yes m’am.” That was a relief.

I moved my cold rag to her head.

“I believe that Zephyr or Icarus or both will get word to Amphipolis.”

“You know what worries me, Birdie.”

“The DOZ.”

“It’s when they always show . The worst possible time, and that would be now; don’t you agree?”

My answer was an affirmative snort. “I just hope my god/creatures can manage to break through all of the confusion.”

Baba Xe smiled one of her knowing smiles, “Your god/creatures, Birdie, seem to have their assignments well under control. Did you know?”

I just smiled. My animals were very special.

“Well, Baba, “I whispered, “Here we go.” Lieutenant Dax was striding over briskly. He looked down at us in an impatient, but not completely unkind manner.

“What is your verdict, little one? Is the Conqueror fit for travel?”

I rose.

“Yes sir, I believe we can have her sit our horse if we are careful. I will go and fetch Hades.”

“Clio,” He stopped me.

“Sir?” He handed me a ring from his finger.

“This will say that you have my permission to fetch the horse.”

I took the ring, a heavy gold one with his signet. “Thank you, sir.”

As I walked away, I heard him say, “May I help you stand, Conqueror?”

“Why this sudden kindness, Roman?”

“Romans can be decent people, Lady Conqueror.”

“I have seen little demonstration until now.”

“Allow me.”

“Perhaps.”

“You have a brave squire.”

“She is that. Sometimes too much so for her britches.”

“Ah, it’s the age; I have a nephew.”

“So you are human, Roman.”

My final earshot heard a chuckle. I was near to the horses. The soldiers released Hades to me quickly when I showed the signet ring, as he said, and the other soldiers were nicer to me as well. One asked me if I was still sore from the bite of the blade. I gave him a smile. My trial of the sword blade had bought me some respect among the common men. That was worth something.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle stood at the pinnacle of the wall’s tower. Shading her eyes, she walked to the corner and looked to the back edge of the fortress, then she prowled across and looked to the other edge; she saw no fault in either preparation, but she felt woefully inexperienced to be making the judgments. There were reinforcements at the wall’s corners to make certain no hairy fellas cut around the edges to scale it at those places, but how was she to know if they were enough? She had never been the full commander during an attack. She had troops posted at the rear of the fortress to take care of the hairy fellas who would be catapulted in, even though that was a rather dubious strategy on the part of the DOZ, they were as prepared for such an attack as possible.

The latest strategy of the fortress was set as well. There were six new access doors in the forward wall-heavy wooden doors constructed in like fashion to the fortress gates. When under attack, the doors would be opened and large wooden chutes were fitted inside. Sturdy flaming tubs of Greek fire would be fired though the chutes sledged at great speed and force by enormous wooden hammers suspended on frames backed up to each door. The hammerheads and the tubs had been cured with much sap and smoke to withstand the slamming force required to deliver the fire. This gave Amphipolis Fortress the double ability to hurl Greek fire bombs from the top of the wall and at waist level from the inside the wall. It was a fearsome defense, and it put fewer militia lives in danger.

The job of cranking the gears that drew the great hammers back up to the frame tops and then tripping the releases on the hammers to smash into the tubs, was extremely dangerous. But it was a challenge of strength and coordination, and like any group of boys, the soldiers loved honing their skills at working the machines. They did it with gusto, sweat, chants, and song.. The army was well practiced at their complicated contraptions, and it was paying off. As a new weapon, the Greek fire sledges were overwhelming to the DOZ’s. They might have even fancied that Ares himself had come to hurl his weapons at them. When the first rounds of fireballs came roaring at the Decedents of Zon they stood, totally gob smacked. Gabrielle closed her eyes at the panic-stricken screaming of the men as they ran around in flames. She wanted to shout to them to lie down in the dirt and roll over and over to extinguish the flames.

If an enemy were coming to kill herself and her loved ones, good enough, she would battle to the death. But this everlasting posturing battle over territory and who would build the better weapon only to cause others pain, misery and death, time and time again, made her ill.

It wearied her, even as she met her responsibilities as Queen of the Amazons and Queen of the Amphipolis Fortress. She would protect her own, but she didn’t have to like it.

While she lost herself in these meditations, a hairy hand slammed her from her reverie and put her on her backside. It dragged her by a single foot toward the wall’s edge as she fiercely kicked and cursed.

“Let me go, you fool!!”

Frantically she stomped and kicked. Just as her foot slid over the edge, she drew the sword from her back scabbard as a very strong yank nearly pulled her over entirely. She leaned back grasping a rope tied to a metal ring in the wall. With the other hand she pointed her sword into the face of a …. boy… with no hairy face yet, perhaps only three seasons older than Birdie. His eyes were sapphire blue.

“Stop it!!”

She tried one more kick.

” I don’t want to hurt you! But I have a family to take care of, and I will hurt you. Please, Please, you must let go!”

He kept staring at her but didn’t pull any harder. It came to her then, and she leaned forward and simply rapped his hands with her sword… hard. The eyes held surprise, but he released her foot. She immediately twisted about on her belly, peeking over; to make sure he was uninjured. He was fine. But he had landed right beside a fire door.

“HEY!” She yelled once again.

He looked at her and she motioned to one side of the door. He flattened himself to the wall just as the fireball blasted out full force. When his eyes met hers again, they were soft with gratitude.

“Run away, boy!” she called. “Go!”

He looked at her one more time… and then made his way into the crowd of hairy fellas and disappeared.

“My Lady, are you injured?” It was Thomas. She looked up at him somewhat dazed, and he helped her to her feet.

“I believe we have them discouraged now Lady, if you would like to go below; I and the lads are going out to clean up the mess in front.”

Gabrielle shuddered inside; she knew the “mess’ of which he spoke. It was a job that Xena usually joined her men in performing, a reality of war, of which The Conqueror never lost sight. Gabrielle had plenty of imagination for that.

“Lady, we took no casualties.”

“Thank you, Thomas that is excellent news..”

The Queen sighed. Yes, she could command well enough if circumstances forced her hand. But she had no drive to be a warrior, like the two people she loved most in the world did. Descending the stairs from the wall, she stopped a moment and studied the population below. They were waiting for a word from her about the victory.

She looked out over the people, good people who supported herself and Xena; people, who looked to them, loved them, people who would die for them. She raised her head,

“Thomas has just told me that we have won a battle with no casualties to the fortress; there is no better news to this queen’s ears.” She drew her sword and held it high.

“Well done Amphipolis!” And Amphipolis cheered. Perhaps that was the sound that Xena loved so much.

Later, the people were still feasting downstairs, but Gabrielle was in the bedroom making final preparations to depart on her search in the morning. She had looked inward at the small blue star and the larger silver star, and they were both dimming now. The anxiety had taken her appetite.

A sound at the window drew her attention; perhaps a tree branch,, she crossed the large bedroom to secure it. Instead the wind slammed the heavy window open and standing on the wide sill was Zephyr. There was a small goldenhawk perched on her back.

“Zephyr!”

Gabrielle was not so familiar with the hawk, so she simply stroked the fox’s head for the moment. Then Zephyr looked back at the hawk. She discovered the small band on the bird’s leg.

“Will she peck at me?” The fox just looked at her and continued to wait patiently.

“Very well, then,” The Bard began by caressing the bird’s head with a gentle finger,” I believe that Birdie calls you Icarus, right? Be a good bird, and don’t hurt me. There we go.”

She eased the band from the talon with no further repercussion than an angry stare.

“Hmmm. A sun and an ‘N’. One sun north, is my interpretation of this, but I would feel better if you were with me, my animal friends.”

Icarus had already flown into the night again, but Zephyr made her way out of the window and into the room. She padded over to the large bed and looked for permission.

Gabrielle smiled, “Of course, Zephyr, I would be glad of some company; perhaps you would too?” She lay down on the bed and the ebony fox curled up close to her resting her muzzle gently on her stomach. They looked into each other’s eyes for a long while.

Gabrielle stroked the dark fur, and felt a single tear track down her cheek..

“I promise, Zephyr. Tomorrow, we set out to find our girls, at first light.” She received a gentle lick of the hand…

“I am very glad that you are here.”

Another silent tear fell, and the fox crept a little closer, in the same manner as she had comforted her young mistress many times when Birdie was in sorrow.

“Zephyr, you do understand, don’t you?”

A cool nose touched Gabrielle’s hand; the fox rose, turned her warm back to the queen, and snuggled close to her. The Queen of the Amazons, put her arm across the soft dark fur, and they both drifted into quiet sleep.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++<

Into the new morn
My warriors ride
Toward distant horizons
Far from my side.
I disguise misgivings,
Swallow fears
Embrace– release
Control weak tears.
If either leaves me,
I am not whole.
One is my heart,
One holds my soul.
They look toward stars
I cannot reach.
They search for lessons
I cannot teach.
I ask you Artemis,
To watch them please,
And guide them safely
Home to me.
Gabrielle the Bard

Xena’s poem below

How shall I live
Without my Soul?
My heart is cold
Without the glow
Of her warm light.
I shall not die
I must survive,
To train our child
When she must think,
When she must speak,
And should both fail,
When to fight well
And so return
To Gabrielle.
Xena the Conqueror

Part 3

I am Robin
Of the Warrior
and Bard.

The day had been rather uneventful and I felt little shame for being grateful for that. I had seen my Baba the Conqueror take too many blows and was glad of a respite for her. She was sitting behind me on Hades slumped against my back, but it was a bit of an act, because she spoke into my tunic every so often to remind me of her awareness. Once she gave me a light swat and inquired about the state of my backside. It was much better, I told her, or sitting on the horse would certainly be miserable. When I inquired the same of her numerous injuries, she simply grumbled, “Mending.”

Titus had kept a distance. Perhaps Zephyr and Icarus had sent a clear message about cowardice and bullying us smaller folk. We could hope so for awhile anyway. Lt Dax was second in command and he had taken over since Titus had been humiliated. All was orderly, far more what I would expect from a Roman patrol.

“This is more like it,” Baba murmured softly.

“What?” I turned my head slightly.

“If I am to be taken into Rome, at least it will be with some dignity,” she continued in a low voice. “That Titus character was a disgrace to any army.”

“Baba, are we going to Rome?” my voice caught despite my effort to sound calm.

There was a deep sigh, and she pressed her lips to the back of my hair; I hoped no Roman witnessed this show of affection to a mere squire.

“Oh, no Little Bird.” She whispered,” You won’t be seeing Rome just yet.”

The sigh of relief was great; for a moment my head hurt. But I should have known better. My Baba Xe is Xena the Conqueror, and that is no small title.

“The centurion that rides two horses ahead,” she said into my ear.

“Right.”

“On his belt are the keys to my shackles.”

“Ok.”

“Just sharing information, Birdie.”

“Yes m’am.”

“Would you like even better news?”

“Of course!”

“Whisper… Little Bird..”

We allowed Hades to plod on awhile; I reached for the water skin on my saddle and turned slightly to help her to drink, all in keeping with her act of weakness. She spoke as I held the water bag to her lips.

“Your mother is on her way.”

I almost dropped the skin.

“Steady, we need that.”

“How do you know this, Baba?”

How shall I describe her smile when one mentions my mother? Even in her woebegone state, I could see her soul renewed. The knowledge shone like the clarity of the sky in her eyes. Then she lowered her lashes almost shyly.

“I am no poet, Birdie; words are the tools of you and your mother. But my soul feels her coming closer. My breathing, my heartbeat become steadier and my courage takes strength from them. She is my source you know; every part of me is aware of her advancing, and every part of me responds by standing straighter, quieter, calmer, more patient, but ready to act. Every part of me turns instinctively to Gabrielle’s presence rising, like the flowers know and turn toward the sun when daylight is near. I know that we will do what must be done together, and that all events will happen as they should happen when she arrives.”

I looked at her, “Baba you speak of Mama G, the way I hear people speak of you; you speak as if Mama G is the Conqueror.”

Baba Xe chuckled quietly for a rather long period after my statement, and I could not make her tell me what was so funny! But she found it to be a very amusing remark right there in the middle of our capture by Romans, and she refused to enlighten me. It was almost annoying.

******************************************************************

The Amazon Queen rode ahead of her search party which had varied somewhat since its first muster. She had asked Galto and Thomas to remain behind and in command of the fortress. They did so under protest, but she did not want to leave the fortress completely without defense, should anything or anyone challenge it.

Scrubby and Cyrene drove the wagon in the rear and it carried medicinal supplies, blankets and food; they did not know what or who had happened to Xena and Birdie, so they were prepared for just about every possibility, including spending a few days on the trail.

Ephiny and Eponin rode the parameters expertly, guarding their queen. She felt very safe. Once the Amazons had learned horse craft, there was little they were unable to do in a battle, even though at times they still took to the trees and vines-a priceless talent.

Lord Atticus had joined their motley crew and his presence had given her assurance and peace. His young son Talus had wanted to come very badly, but his father had discouraged him and left him at home to watch over his mother. Talus was not battle trained and his father did not want him involved with the violence that might occur. Gabrielle felt the breeze of the great horse Atticus rode, as it trotted up beside her.

“My Lady Queen.”

She smiled at him warmly, “Atticus, I am very grateful that you have joined our party.”

” Agh, Wouldn’t a missed it Lady, I owe young Birdie my life, and I am fond of the girl….you know ..”

“Yessss, and..” she knew there was more.

“I was wonderin’ if maybe on the ride back. I was wonderin’ if you ‘n the Conqueror would mind if I had a word wid’ Birdie about her and Talus goin’ spyin’?”

Gabrielle smiled to herself and then focused the same smile at the big redheaded warrior, “I think that is a grand idea Lord Atticus, and I hope that you use your loudest, deepest voice.”

He laughed both loud and deep, “I had a loud and deep conversation with Talus and I gave him a couple of “hands-on reminders” to help him wid’ ‘is future decisions.”

” Birdie’s attention was brought rather sharply to the error of her ways as well, and I hope to see her decision making skills improve, ” chuckled the Bard, “But I would love it if you talked to her; you are so special in her life. Would you like me to say something to Talus?”

The gruff chuckle greeted her idea, “My Lady, he would never forget it, please do honor us by speaking wid ‘im, ” Atticus rumbled, ” You know, Talus is a shy boy, wid ‘is foot and all. This was the first time I have ever had to come down on him. To be honest, I was a bit proud of ‘is misadventure.”

“Well, now that he and Birdie are friends, he may be in trouble more often,” sighed Gabrielle, “We’ll just have to do our best, Lord Atticus, because she really likes him, and she doesn’t have many friends-well HUMAN friends.”

The big man chuckled again, “It’s a happy thing for our family, My Lady. Our priority now must be to find that child and The Conqueror. And we’ll do it.”

“Thank you Lord Atticus,” she reached and took his huge hand in her small one.

“Don’t you worry lass,” he smiled and let his horse fall back.

She looked ahead to a small speck on the horizon, which she knew was a rare black fox running, to follow a golden hawk flying even farther ahead of them. She wondered what they were chasing, what they were riding into. But she knew they were going in the right direction. She could feel it.

There was a break. The men were wandering around near a river, stretching their legs a bit, allowing the horses to drink and roam about unencumbered for a half candle mark or so. The general atmosphere was relaxed. Baba Xe had stretched out under a tree. Since she had felt the approach of Mama G, which had eased her somewhat; she knew that the answer was on its way; she had only to be patient.

It was not to be so nice for me. A large shadow fell across me which made my marrow chill as I lay drinking from a place where the river pooled. It was the haystack shaped shadow of Titus. He was mean spirited, cowardly, and ugly, but he wasn’t completely stupid. He had waited until I was alone. No Baba, no animals, no defense but my own. His big sandal kicked the back of my leg,

“Get up girl.”

Rolling quickly over a few turns away, I faced him. “What do you want now, Titus?”

“Sounds like you’ve already forgotten your lesson in subordination, girly. Maybe it’s time for another.”

“Leave me alone, Titus.”

Fortunately, I was unbound; they knew I would not leave the Conqueror and posed no flight risk.

“HEHEhh, that sounds very smarty to me, girly; now I will show you who is in charge around here.”

I ducked the first swing of his metal studded belt and rolled out of the way, tried to run past him, but he swung it back immediately and the studs caught my left side. I sucked in a breath. The studs were not only decorative; they were sharp, and cut into my skin.

He whirled the belt around his head like a lasso and scooped it down at my legs next; I jumped the leather escaping the blow and began scanning the ground frantically for a defense. There was not even a stick within reach, and it would be useless anyway against something of that weight and momentum. Titus wore his huge sword clipped to his leather armor; I suspected he would use that weapon at his leisure. My eyes fell on a jeweled dagger in a sheath on the heavy straps of his sandal, a glimmer of hope. It was strictly ornamental, but it would have to do. Trouble was, I would take a hit to fetch it. I took a deep breath.

Running full out under the next swing, the weight of the slam came on my thighs and up my backside. He put his full body into it; the weight of the belt was considerable; it struck like heavy club, I felt the leather lift me from the ground, but I tucked and rolled out again. The dagger was snagged. Now.

I looked into those bean shaped eyes and realized that Titus had been at the wine again; thus, his new dose of courage. He staggered toward me swinging , and I dropped and rolled, taking what I surmised was a light touch on the thigh but a glance told me that it had drawn blood; all of the places I felt dripping on my person were not because of sweat or nerves. I looked toward the settlement of soldiers to see if anyone had missed us. Not yet. I closed my eyes sending a mental message to Baba, please. Titus had picked his place. My only escape was to swim the white water of the river, which I surmised would be my next step if someone didn’t come. I tried to peer around his wideness, and that was a mistake, because he caught my arm.

“Let me go, you fat TROLL!” Roared from my throat… The river drowned my shout. He got another good lick across my shoulders and neck. It really hurt. My vision began to go dark, but a red rage boiled from my core- a flame to keep me conscious. This must end; if I lost consciousness he would kill me, and I wasn’t ready to die.

“This is my last warning Titus.” I said weakly, as he hit me again, the leather and metal wrapping itself around my ribs; I could feel the studs tear into my skin through my shirt and new blood drawn. My coat and chain mail were back with the horses; this was a lesson in why Baba Xe almost never took her armor off. There was no other help for it now; I was involved in a blood fight and blood swam before my eyes.

“Baba!”

I put all my strength into that one pleading shout, then with a final roar I lunged for his inner thigh and the life-connecting artery which ran there- a target with which I was familiar because Feisal had come close to severing my own several months earlier. I knew I needed a killing stab with such a feeble weapon. My dagger took a close nick at the right place, but at a cost; he laid another heavy slam on me with the belt as well; the studs raking blood from my backside up my back and into my hair; there was red dripping into my eyes now, in a literal and figurative sense, the ogre made three of me in weight, and he put his strength into that blow. However, he crashed down heavily, staring at the blood flowing from his inner thigh staining the brown winter grass bright crimson; somehow I stayed on my feet circling him with murder flaring in my soul.

And Baba was there kneeling beside me, her sky blue eyes flashing, frightened, teary; her bound hands quickly evaluating, examining me, feeling the bloody lumps and bruises the belt had left.

“Nothing broken, Birdie; nothing bleeding out? Can you tell, Little Bird?” her voice was locked calm.

I shook my head wearily. There was anger in her eyes as well, but whether or not it was directed at me, I neither knew nor cared at that moment. She said nothing, but held out her hands. I placed the dagger on them, as they were still shackled; it was stained with Titus’ blood.

“Tear as many strips of material as you can find, Birdie.” Her order was brief, as she dropped next to Titus, using the dagger to twist a tourniquet around the chubby leg, placing it near the groin quickly to stop the life from bleeding from that Roman pig. I wished she would let him die. I hated that man. Marcus appeared, and after laying a gentle hand on my head, he scooped up the strips I had torn and carried them to Baba’s aid.

By that time Dax and the rest of the patrol had arrived and did nothing but watch. Baba simply worked like a healer on Titus, even though her hands were locked together, and despite the fact that he had tried to beat me to death. Of course we weren’t talking about what I had done to him.

Baba stood looking down on Titus and then she looked at Dax.

“Titus will live, though he’ll hardly realize it in his state of drunkenness.” She said disgustedly. “Lieutenant Dax, humor my curiosity- how in Hades did this man rise to rank in Rome?”

“That would be nepotism,” Dax spat on the ground near Titus. “He’s an embarrassment to the real army. However, he is a Roman and I must know right now. What happened here, Clio?”

“I was having a drink at the river,” my voice obeyed orders, but shock was setting in; my body was trembling hard, and my teeth chattered. I hugged myself trying to get control of my body and words.

“He walked up behind me and commenced with me again; he just started beating me. I was near to passing out, and he would have killed me, deliberately or not. I only protected myself, Lord Dax.”

Dax looked at me straight on. “And a fine job you did of that, Clio. You are very well trained in the killing arts for a squire. Are all the youngsters in your fortress so well, trained, Conqueror? And do many of them call you, ‘Baba’?”

Baba’s head dropped and she smiled at the ground.

“You have found us out, Lord Dax. Yes, Amphipolis practices nepotism as well.”

“From what I have seen,” Dax replied, “Amphipolis practices it more successfully than Rome. I would take Clio over Titus in any battle.”

The men laughed, and I couldn’t suppress a weak smile. Baba shot me a smile too, but it wasn’t an easy smile, as she walked over and put her shackled wrists around my neck to pull me close to her.

“If you will excuse us, I should see about my squire before we ride again,” she said turning me.

She turned with me.

“Conqueror, a moment.” Dax walked over. He looked at her squarely, as he unlocked her shackles. “This is for the treatment of the girl ONLY. Know that I will shoot you dead on the spot, should you try to run.”

“Thank you, Lord Dax. You have my word.” She spoke under her breath.

“I will bring you materials,” Marcus spoke up quickly.

“I would appreciate that, Marcus.” She turned and we walked away with her hand on my shoulder.

Gabrielle felt the regent’s presence before Ephiny’s big dappled grey, Otto, arrived beside Wendy.

“My Queen.” She inclined her brown curly hair, streaked now with only the occasional white visitor.

“My Regent. How are you?”

“My question first, My Queen,” she grinned, “Respectfully, of course.”

The grin was returned, but the answer was honest,

“Slowly. Too slowly, My Regent, but….”

“You long for the days without a party.”

“Sometimes, but I can rescue no one on my own. They may be slower, but they must be along. Necessity teaches patience, even to panic.”

“Do you have a reading?”

“Xena’s star grows stronger now, but Birdie’s is weak. Whatever or whoever has them continues to try them and to test them. Thank heaven I do have a sense that we gain ground. I hope we arrive before the situation develops into a major crisis. There is a danger.”

The Amazon Queen shaded her eyes at the animals she followed. She saw Zephyr look back.

“We should hurry. Perhaps you, Pony, Atticus.” She said no more but urged Wendy to a faster trot.

“Yes, my Queen.” Ephiny fell back quickly to Pony. “The queen wishes that we and Atticus should ride ahead. She’s uneasy.”

Eponin said nothing but clicked to her mahogany mount and rode on to speak with Atticus. The Amazon regent then fell back to the wagon.

“I must beg to leave you two behind for now. Our Queen is uneasy and wishes to ride ahead.”

“Aye, Lassie, do what ye must,” Scrubbers answered quickly. “We’ll do our best to not be far behind ye.”

Ephiny gave a curt nod and nudged Otto to begin catching up quickly with the three ahead. Wendy needed no further urging, but sensed her rider’s anxiety, and simply began to increase the speed of her gallop, knowing she should follow Zephyr. The other animals and their riders followed the example. It wasn’t long before they caught up with the fox and the bird. Then it was as if all of the animals and humans received the same internal message to double their pace.

Marcus was cleaning the blood from my wounds while Baba paced back and forth mixing a poultice of herbs and powders. The medicine kit that Marcus had brought was well stocked, but we were using quite a few of the supplies. Numerous jagged cuts ran from my hips up into my hair, and along both sides of my ribcage in the front. In addition, several bruises were swelling and darkening to shades of red and purple now as well. It hurt with every breath when Baba ran her hands across them.

“I don’t believe you have broken ribs, although they may be deeply bruised, Little Bird.” She said quietly. “There is only one place that needs sewing right at the hip; are you up for it, or shall we try to put some tea down you first?”

“It can’t hurt any worse than it already hurts, Baba.” My voice was shuddering.

“Ok, then lean across here.”

I stretched across her lap, as she brushed the area with numb weed; my body still trembled, so it was difficult to be still, as the needle bit into my skin. It really didn’t hurt so much more than I already hurt, but the tears ran silently anyway. Marcus crept around to my head and held it on his knee, stroking the hair around my face, where it wasn’t sore. . He was the kindest adolescent boy I had ever been around.

“There, that’s my brave girl,” Baba finished the four stitches with a warm hand over the spot.

“I know that hurt, Birdie, but now it won’t break open and bleed more. Are there any other deep places?”

“I wouldn’t tell you.”

That earned me a not quite so gentle pat, and a chuckle.

“If you could stay out of trouble for even one candle mark..”

“Then I wouldn’t be related to you.”

That brought me close to a genuine swat and some tickling which made me laugh AND made me hurt all over.

“Baba, I’m sorry, that hurts!”

“See Marcus? She is too bold for her britches.”

“She is indeed, My Lady Conqueror; she is an amazing girl.” His kind dark eyes sparkled with laughter at me.

“I am going to brew a couple of different teas to put down this rascal,” he said, “perhaps some willow bark, chamomile, to sooth her discomfort all over.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Baba muttered, “I will finish with the numbing weed here; they will be bringing Titus in and wanting some kind of treatment for him.”

As Marcus walked away, she rolled me over gently to face her serious indigo stare. It was difficult to meet.

“Birdie, you and I need to talk about what happened with Titus. First, you should never have been out of shouting distance of me.”

My eyes refused hers.

“I was only thirsty My Lady, it was certainly not my intent to find myself in a life or death struggle.”

It sounded insolent, but I had born quite a lot, and it seemed that she should be more understanding of my plight.

“You will find yourself struggling with other issues because of your tone, injured or not, Romans or no Romans, Robin of the Warrior and Bard.” Her voice carried that soft, dangerous quality that meant nothing but absolute business. The Conqueror was quite strict about attitude.

Her fingers came firmly under my chin to lift my gaze to her storm clouds. My eyes flooded immediately as they had not done in the entire bloody encounter with Titus.

“I’m sorry, Baba; it was just so—-terrifying. Sorry.” My voice dropped to a whisper.

The skies cleared quickly and she pulled me into her arms, ” C’mere, baby, it’s ok… We’ll talk about the other later, Birdie. No worries now; you’re safe here. I shouldn’t have pushed it; I am very sorry and frightened that I didn’t hear you sooner, but it’s all over, Baba’s got you now…”

She rocked me back and forth slowly as I quieted and Marcus brought the tea. Then she stopped mid-rock and helped Marcus steer the cup toward my lips.

“Here, can you take a little of this? It’ll help you to settle, Birdie..” she brought the cup to my mouth, and I tried to catch my breath enough to take a sip.

Marcus sat near her and I felt his gentle hand take mine. “C’mon, Birdie girl, sip a spot of tea for your buddy Marcus?” As he guided the cup to my mouth, he made a face with crossed eyes, and I laughed.

” You are a silly fellow, Marcus..”

” Yeah, well, drink the tea, silly Bird.”

“‘K Marcus.” I did, and it tasted good.

“Another sip, there’s my girl..”

I took several gulps and relaxed against Baba’s chest with my eyes heavy, finally relaxing.

“You are good with her, Marcus.”

“My grandmother ran a daycare in Rome; I worked there off and on. She told the kids stories of Xenarone at naptime. I am just so honored to be around Xenarone’s descendents.”

“Your grandmother would be very proud of her grandson, Marcus.”

Baba shifted me just a bit in my drowsy state.

“When you and Birdie go Lady Conqueror, will you take me with you?”

“If that is your wish, Marcus, absolutely.”

His smile flashed in the night.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle walked beside Wendy leading her. Everyone in her party did the same. It was their plan to walk upon the kidnapping party as closely as possible without being detected and wait until daybreak to attack. Dismounting made their progress much less noisy, and they only whispered when necessary. Even the horses were quiet, sensing the need.

Atticus came to her side pacing with her. She was surprised at how a man his size could be so noiseless. He gazed at her with a smile that she interpreted as inquiry.

She returned the smile,

” Lord Atticus, as soon as their flame is spotted, we will halt and fall back into a camp that is undetected yet close. I can send the Amazons ahead to be certain of that. It is their specialty. We catch a few candle marks’ rest and take them in the early dawn before they wake, with silent arrows. Xena will know, but she will be the only one.”

“Aye the Conqueror will know before we arrive, “He spoke softly, “But it has a good sound for a plan, My Lady. Of course, events play out as they will, and there are always unforeseen factors that we mus’ deal wid’ as they fall.”

“And I can do nothing about those, and they worry me most,” she said with lowered head. “They drive me mad with worry.”

“It is the weight of command, Lass,” he said, laying a gentle hand on her shoulder, nearly enveloping it. “It’s why so few care to take it.”

“It is my least favorite hat to wear, “she whispered, looking straight ahead,

“But I find it sitting on my head regardless of whether I like it or not.”

“You do very well, My Lady Queen,” He smiled.

“Thank you, Atticus,” she smiled, and turned to the shadows that had circled behind her and now approached closely. It had to be her Amazons. Zephyr appeared by her side with a gentle nose touch of her hand.

“My Queen,” the Regent’s voice was hardly a disturbance on the breeze.

“Ephiny.”

“We have seen their fire. Half a candle mark ahead.”

“Then we stop.” Gabrielle pulled up immediately.

“Right. Pony and I will go back to meet Cyrene and Scrubbers. They won’t be far. We will bring them the rest of the way quietly.”

“Good thinking,” Gabrielle put her hand on Ephiny’s arm. “Be careful.”

She saw a flash of teeth, “Always.”

And the Amazon vanished.

Gabrielle looked at Atticus. “Well,” she shrugged her shoulders, “I guess it’s up to us to make ready a camp for whatever rest we can steal with so much ahead.”

He smiled, “And so we will, My Lady.” He walked around picking up wood and arranging it into a pile. Gabrielle simply followed his example, calmly and quietly. She was very glad that Atticus had come.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

A slight shift in my human pillow woke me along with a slight shift in my pain. Even in the darkness, I could see the gentleness in the sapphire color of her eyes as she offered me a sip of tea that she had kept nearby.

“Sorry it’s no longer warm; Birdie, but it will still do the work for you.”

“Thanks, Baba.” I drank deeply, and felt relief, as much from the attention as from the tea.

“How do you feel?”

A quick inventory. “Actually somewhat better, Baba.”

“Good, because I believe our situation is about to change.”

My senses became intense, “Really?”

“Even as we speak.” She rose, a tall dark pillar against the grey sky streaked with slashes of Apollo’s efforts to banish the night. I listened; it took only a moment to identify the fast whispers of arrows slicing through the dawn. Baba was gone, running toward the large fire at the center of the camp. I saw that two of the large centurions were down, their bodies riddled with arrows. Shadows flickered by the fire, the silhouettes of feathers and doeskin revealed them to be type of warrior I recognized well; we were delivered at last by the Amazon Queen.

My heart lifted as it had not in days; Baba was bending over a Roman body; she fumbled with her shackles and claimed two hands free. There was a shout from behind her and suddenly the Tide was flying through the air to land with a definitive smack in its owner’s hand; Xena flashed a smile that was returned by Pony ; the Amazon weapons master had met her first priority. Now the Conqueror was whole; Rome should tremble. Eponin turned then and thrust her dagger straight into another of the big centurions.

I huddled near the fire just watching for the moment, everything seemed to be going rather smoothly. Another of the big guards went down, and I waved at the red hair of Atticus in the distance, then turned and froze as I saw Ephiny loose an arrow at Marcus.

“NO!” My legs scrambled into motion at speed they never had felt before. Marcus could do nothing but stand still, almost as if he were unaware that death flew toward him with bright feathers. I couldn’t make it, it was too far, I stretched my arms, legs, rammed into Marcus, ate a face full of dirt… and..felt something hard in my grasp. I snagged it! Finally when it counted!

Marcus looked at me, his eyes huge, “Birdie that was bloody amazing!”

He was no more amazed than I.

” Marcus, you have no idea how long I have tried to do that. But now was certainly the time to succeed.”

“Thanks, kiddo. You are the best.”

He stood and hauled me to my feet. We smiled at each other. But his smile turned to a grimace, and there was a sound, a sickening crunching sound like when one cuts through the bones of chickens.

“Marcus…”

“Birdie..” his mouth was filling with blood and he looked down puzzled at the short length of blade which protruded from his chest and the red circle that was spreading; he looked at me.

“Such is the fate of dirty little traitors, Marcus..hah.”

It was Titus, withdrawing the sword.

Marcus slumped into my arms, his blood splashing my filthy shirt and arms. I knelt quickly and laid him down.

“A moment, Marcus.”

The explosion of rage erupted in my head and became a battering ram aimed full speed straight into the privates of Titus. He choked, gurgled and doubled over. I rolled quickly from under him jumped up and slammed the side of his head with both boots, taking satisfaction from seeing his nose burst in a red spreading flower. Then I was caught from behind and dragged away.

“Birdie.” It was my mother, but I was too far gone.

“Let me GO!”

She sat down on the ground, forcefully wrapped her arms around me, and locked her hands together at my waist; Baba Xe strode by us to stand over Titus with the Tide dangling easily her hand.

“Let Baba handle it now.”

“Mama, LET ME GO!!”

I lunged against her arms, tried to peal apart her fingers, furious at being denied my revenge.

“Robin of the Warrior and Bard.” her voice was the Amazon Queen and she gave me a shake. I went limp in her arms. She spoke quietly into my ear.

“Birdie, your friend needs you, and you need to settle down before I take this arrow shaft to your backside in front of everyone, do you understand me?”

“Mama.” My voice broke; I was her child again.

“Birdie.” A gentle whisper, a gentle shake.

It was my MOTHER. I took a deep breath, and released a shuddering sigh.

“Yes, Mama.”

“There’s my Little Bird. Can I let go of you now?”

“Yes M’am.” She kissed my hair; I kissed her arms, and I crawled over to Marcus.

“Birdie, help me watch.” Marcus was bleeding terribly, but I braced his head on my knee and put my hand over his wound to staunch the blood.

Baba held her hand down to Titus, “Get up, Coward.” She spat the words.

He took her hand and she pulled him to his feet easily; at times her strength still amazed me.

“Now FIGHT.”

He tried a couple of stabs, but she made it quick and more painless than he deserved, with a graceful spin and lightning speed, she removed his head from his body in a spray of blood. Then she stabbed the head on the end of the Tide and regarded it saying,

“Thus ends Titus, the Coward of Rome.”

“But it does not end all, Conqueror.”

“Dax.”

She tossed the head and stepped back to meet the swinging clang of his broadsword with both hands on the bloody Tide.

They held the blades together, pitting sheer strength, walking in a circle, eyes locked.

“Wow.” Marcus managed, “Your Baba Xe. She must be like Xenarone reborn.” He choked blood from his lips, and I tried to raise him as much as he could tolerate.

“I think so, Marcus,” I stroked his hair. “I’ve heard the tales too.”

The stand off ended in a twisting spin and standing back regarding one another.

“I could use you in my army, Dax.” spoke the Conqueror, “You are brave, capable, and you have integrity. I need those qualities in officers. Come with us.”

The Roman smiled, “You tempt me Conqueror.” He charged again with an overhead swing that she met with a clang and threw back nearly putting him on the ground. He ducked under and recovered.

“You have slain my leader, and I must report that to Rome. Else I would be a traitor; you understand that, do you not?”

“I do,” Xena ran lightly, flipped over him, and placed the point of the Tide in the back of his neck. “But then you see, you will live to ride against me another day, will you not, Lieutenant Dax?”

“I am afraid so, Conqueror,” feeling the Tide at the base of his skull, Dax dropped his sword and surrendered to his fate hands open, “So, do what you must.”

The Conqueror paused. Then she removed the Tide and slid it back into the sheath at her back.

“I have very few HONERABLE enemies, Dax. It will be nice to have a new one. Go.”

He turned and regarded her a moment. She extended her hand and they gripped arms in the warrior’s handshake. Then he picked up his sword, slammed it into the sheath and began walking. He did not look back.

“Baba!”

Marcus was struggling for air, but he smiled at me and put his hand to my cheek.

“Birdie, my friend, I’m afraid I cannot remain with you.”

I clutched his hand, “Yes you can Marcus, just hold on a little.”

He gave me that gentle smile, “At least I met you and Xena.”

I tried to support his head, ” I just met you, Marcus; please stay with me.”

He managed to pat my face once more, ” I’m trying, Birdie, I’m trying…”

The light left his eyes.

Zephyr padded quietly from somewhere to stand silhouetted in the firelight. A sob escaped me from deep inside, “No, Marcus.”

Our rescuers gathered to stand silently with Baba Xe and Mama G. Only my fox approached. Whining softly, she nosed my hair away from my tears, and remained close by; my head fell to his unmoving chest and grief overcame me in a whisper, “Marcus…”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

For Marcus

With freedom comes death,
With birth comes breath.
With love come tears,
With life comes fear.
Against the danger we must guard
With the Warrior and the Bard.
Hope each sorrow brings some joy,
A gentle smile, a kindly boy.
A sweet friendship, all too brief,
Innocence is brought to grief.

Part 4

I stood patiently as another bucket of warm water was poured over me. When my gaze roamed across the blazing fire, it met eyes the same color as my own and an equally long suffering expression. After sending the two men off to smoke, my mother and Baba Xe’s mother had declared open warfare on the collective pitiful states of our physical shells. Mama G hustled me down to the river and dunked me in the cold water, scrubbing off the worst of the filth before I could even protest. We had both chuckled at the commotion of Baba Xe receiving the same treatment from Grandba, only Grandba had taken Baba by the ear. I reckoned that Baba had protested. Then it was up to the warm fire and warmer water that our Amazon friends had prepared, and a slower examination. Mama G’s sea foam eyes filled and spilled a few times as she cleaned the jagged cuts and abrasions she discovered on my body.

I put my hand over her empathetic fingers,” I’m really ok, Mama.”

She gave me a watery eyed smile, “Don’t lie to me, Birdie; I’m not up to it.”

“Well, except for Marcus; that’s not ok.” My wet hair curtained my eyes as the emotions of that event caught up with me again. It was an empty raw feeling; ragged claws working inside my gut and behind my eyes. I put it away again.

“He was very special, wasn’t he, Birdie?” My mother’s gentle fingertips brushed back my hair.

“Yeah, I guess so, Mama. It hurts that he’s gone.”

“Tell me about him,” she encircled me in a softer drying cloth and began to rub delicately beginning with my hair.

“Wait.” She heard the intake of breath through my teeth.

“Bend down.”

I did, and she found the cut in my scalp.

“Not too bad, Birdie, just sore, I bet.”

She continued the rubbing downward.

“Took stitches here?”

“Yes, m’am,” I murmured, as her fingers flickered expertly over the thread.

“Looks well enough, no infection -surprising, as dirty as you were.”

“Baba put those in immediately.”

“Good thing.”

She finished her exam and unfolded a soft blue tunic for me, “Hands over your head, now.”

“Mama, I’m not four.” I chuckled, finally protesting.

She laughed too, “Sorry, I forgot.. Hands over your head, Birdie..”

I rolled my eyes and obeyed; she slipped the clean tunic over my head. It smelled and felt wonderful.

“Nice, yes?” She asked.

“Yes, m’am. ” She continued to tuck and smooth a little.

“Mama?

“Hmmmm?”

“Do you think I’ll ever develop uh, ‘girly’ parts?”

A flicker of a smile escaped, “Anxious, are you?”

“Not very. ”

“Yes, you will … but I don’t think you will be voluptuous, if that’s what you mean.”

“Val up shu what?”

“And it’s very likely that your cycles will be like your Baba’s. Rare. You are too active.”

“Oh.”

“Now, my little subject changer. About Marcus.”

“We met him right away. ”

Ah the pleasure of clean underwear. She then shook clean dark pants with lacings up the sides for me to step into, careful to avoid all of my scrapes and cuts, and I buttoned them; they were loose, as we had not been overeating.

“He was Greek; sort of a boy servant to the patrol. He took up with us, because his grandmother had raised him on stories of Xenarone. Titus..”

“That horrible heavy-set man whom you wanted to murder, and who is now headless.”

“Yes.”

“Picked on me from the start. But one evening he gave Marcus the flat of his sword to demonstrate what he would do to me for being insubordinate.”

Mama G was threading a belt through the loops for me and stopped. “He didn’t.”

“No, Baba did.”

Again she stopped and looked at me. “Baba?”

“She did it so Titus wouldn’t, Mama. It’s ok, old stuff now. Titus would have broken me in half. For some reason, he really hated me.”

“I see,” she continued, looping the belt through the buckle and over itself, listening.

“So later, Marcus brought some medicine to help my backside recover from the flat of the blade.”

“Did a good job, did she?”

“Good as I ever want to experience. She had to be convincing, so Titus wouldn’t just beat me all over again.”

“You two do have this worked out, don’t you?”

“Yes m’am, but it wasn’t fun.”

“No, my Little Bird, I don’t expect it was.” She patted my second sock, and

presented my boots, all cleaned and brushed.

“Thanks, Mama, who cleaned them?”

“Your friend, Scrubby of course, who else would have them looking that good?”

I smiled. They were vastly improved.

Mama G. locked her fingers behind my head again to gaze directly into my eyes . She seemed to be searching for something, as she ran her palms down the sides of my hair and shoulders.

“I’m really ok Mama. Considering.”

“Well, you are more presentable anyway. Coming to the fire to eat something?”

“Yes m’am, in a bit.”

She kissed my forehead and left me with my thoughts as I put the leather of my turtle medallion around my neck and then pondered a silver ring I had taken from Marcus just before we sent him to the Fields. It had caught my attention shining on his pinkie finger as I laid his hand on the funeral bier, and something had told me he wanted me to have this small silver remembrance. It fit me exactly, and there was no guilt in me about it. There would be an explanation later somehow.

We had given Marcus a soldier’s journey by fire to the Elysian Fields. Baba had sung the haunting dirge that she sang at the end of all our heroes’ journeys. I was heartbroken, but proud; Marcus would have been honored.

Soup made on Mt Olympus for the gods themselves couldn’t taste better than the large bowl of my Grandba’s special trail soup. The food and fellowship were welcomed luxuries, and of course everyone wanted to hear our story. We talked a little, but it was evident to everyone that Baba and I were exhausted, and the stories could wait until morning.

“Come along little one,” my Grandba put a kind hand on the back of my neck, “You and I are bunkies tonight. I have a nice pallet of furs all ready for you in our tent.”

“That sounds wonderful, Grandba.” I was somnambulant. We took quick leave of everyone around the fire, and she led me to the tent we were sharing.

Even the familiar sound of the tent flaps going back were a comfort to me; it was not my habit to take luxuries , or anything else much for granted, but recent experience had intensified my gratitude. I rolled into the soft hides, furs and blankets with a contented sigh. The aroma was of my Grandba’s inn, which was always sunlight and warm bread.

“Grandba, you have the best smelling, beds, food, the best smelling EVERYTHING in the world.”

She groaned down beside me propped up on an elbow, and played with my hair.

“Yes, well enjoy it now, because these old bones don’t have much camping left in them, Grandbirdie.”

“Sure they do, Grandba; how would we manage without your wonderful food?”

She gave me a playful cuff to the head, “Oh go on with your sweet-talkin’ GREAT THUNDERIN’ STARS AND PANTALOONS!!”

There was a terrific commotion at the tent flaps as something furry, sniffed and hunkered her way in under the heavy canvas. It was Zephyr.

I patted my leg, and received the nose laid to rest on it with a sigh. “Sorry, Grandba. I was so tired, it made me forgetful; sorry Zephyr.” A very offended look came from the fox, but she settled in, a black fur ball at my legs.

“So now I’m sleepin’ with foxes . And at my age.” Grandba muttered.

“Sorry Grandba, she won’t stand for anywhere but with me.”

“Oh all right then.”

“Thanks Grandba.” I lay back down and gave her hand a squeeze.

“Birdie, where did you come by that ring?”

I was a little ashamed.

“I took it from Marcus, Grandba. It might have been wrong, I guess.”

No admonishment.

“May I see it?”

I handed it to her and she turned it over studying it carefully. Then she held it close to the candle and looked on the inside of it.

“What is it Grandba?”

“Birdie, will you lend it to me when we return to Amphipolis for further study?”

“Yes m’am.”

She returned it to my finger.

“There is something about it; but I don’t know what. YOU on the other hand I DO KNOW must go to sleep, Little Birdie girl.”

“I won’t argue, Grandba.”

She continued to look down on me stroking my hair gently.

“We were so worried for ya, little one.” One tear ran down her cheek.

I reached up to touch it; she reminded me just then, of my Baba.

“I am glad that you came, Grandba. We might have broken loose; but we were getting tired and discouraged. One of us was always beaten down. We had Marcus to help, but those guards were big, even for Baba.”

“Yes, your Baba sometimes thinks she can take on the Titans, and even she has her limits.”

Another tear. She blinked it back before I caught it, and so reminded me even more of Baba.

“She does, doesn’t she, Grandba? She’s an extraordinary person, but yet, a person, isn’t she? I have learned that about her.”

“She is indeed, my little bird.”

“Grandba?”

“One last question sweetie and then it’s time for eyes closed; you are exhausted.”

I twisted the ring on my finger.

“Did Mama G have a real hard time worryin?”

Grandba ‘s marine eyes went away for a moment, and then she came back.

“Your mother can’t hide her feelings, child, but she’s one of the bravest people I know. Gabrielle may be terrified, but it has never stopped her from doing what must be done. You would have been very proud of her leadin’ the lot of us when the DOZ attacked. ”

“I bet she was ferocious; she’s small, but she’s dangerous, Grandba.”

“You are quite right, little one.”

“I knew she was worried about us; I can feel it in her.”

“You can? How Birdie girl?

“There’s no explaining it, Grandba. It’s a pain in my soul.”

The hand kept stroking my hair soothingly.

“Ok then, lights out in that head of yours..”

“Grandba?”

“Birdie, what did I say?”

Will you tell me all about Xenarone one day soon?”

“You know quite a bit, darlin’.”

“No, I want to know everything you can remember.”

“Only if you go to sleep NOW. You don’t wanna make me mad now do, ya?”

Her fingers tugged at my hair.

I grinned at her.

“No m’am, I don’t wanna make you mad.”

“Then fly away into sleepy skies, Little Birdie..”

I turned into her and snuggled up a little.

“Love you, Grandba.”

I felt a gentle kiss on my head before Morpheus took me.

” I love you too, Grandbirdie .”

The Warrior and Bard were settling into their own tent. After reorganizing all of the furs, pallets, blankets, and padding to suit her, the Conqueror fell against them, closed her eyes and relaxed with the sound of breath held for days. She became aware of the Bard watching her looking slightly watery eyed.

“Gabrielle, don’t be maudlin.” She growled. “I am in full Conqueror mode.”

“Maudlin? Perish the thought. Why would I be maudlin?” barked the Bard, “Just because the two most important people in my LIFE were kidnapped and held by Romans for DAYS? Just because I had to hold off the DOZ on my own? Just because I finally have my family back together safe and sound? I have no reason to be maudlin. I only have smoke in my eyes. A true Spartan, that’s me.”

“Well, I am glad to see you.” Xena grumbled just a little bit.

“And I am glad to see you as well,” replied her soul mate, ” I am equally happy to have you all to myself and spotlessly clean thanks to Cyrene.”

“Watchit, ” grumbled the Warrior.

“Sometimes one should just submit,” her partner offered. “Birdie was wise enough to do that. She knew that her mother needed to check her over top to bottom. So did yours.”

“I am not a child, Gabrielle.” grumbled the Conqueror.

“To your mother, you are always a child, or parts of you are,” the bards offered gently.

“Is it childish and selfish to be glad I have you alone?, ” crooned her partner, stretching like a long black cat, and smiling at her soul mate.

” Nope. That’s why Atticus and Scrubby are bunkies tonight. Birdie may not be ready to accept Scrubby and Grandba together.”

Xena shrugged, “We’ve had most of ‘the talk’, and Birdie understands a great deal about connections, because of Zephyr. It wouldn’t be a huge stretch for her to see that people can have physical connections too.”

“My baby,” her mother reflected a little sadly, “However, having ‘the talk’, and knowing your Grandba is doing ‘the deed’, is another story. Especially with Scrubby. Perhaps Birdie has had enough ‘real life’ education these past few days.”

“You are right about that.”

The raven haired warrior groaned as she turned over to lay her head in the bard’s lap. “Too much, too fast, especially in the department of violence.”

“We have much parenting to do, don’t we?”

“I am afraid we will have quite a bit over the next several years, Gabrielle. Birdie is not going to be easy; she is quick tempered and will NOT walk away from a fight. And I must say, she’s quite a good fighter.” The warrior’s chuckle was low and earned her a light smack in the gut.

“She’s an excellent writer as well, but I know what you mean. She can be so foolish, angry, or impulsive I can’t whack her little butt fast enough, and then in the next moment, she will be deep, tender, sensitive and brave and I am so proud of her, my heart breaks.”

“That’s our kid, and I wouldn’t trade her,” smiled the Warrior, twirling back around, propped up on the furs. “Now you c’mere.”

“Do I sense impulsiveness in the Big Warrior?” The Bard returned the smile, as the larger hands tugged her into a prone position atop the powerful body gazing directly into the sky blue eyes.

“Uh huh.” the answer.

“Well, ” was the returned whisper as hooks were undone and laces untied, and the bard’s tender hands began their journey down the bronzed muscled shoulders and curved toward unfastening the swaddling that supported the warrior’s breasts during periods of high activity.

“Remember we are in a very small campsite, so

” You,”

She first whispered a warm breath on the right collarbone then a kiss, then to the center below the throat and a kiss, and to the left collarbone and a kiss, moving down,

“Must”,

She performed the same movement on each breast, the warm nuzzling breath and lingering kiss, causing Xena to breathe and arch her back rising,

“Be”,

She concentrated on the belly, covering the smooth flat skin in warm breath and soft kisses.

“Very,”

She tugged down the waist of the dark trousers to deliver the same gentle treatment to each hipbone,

“Quiet.”

She paused with soft breath at the top of dark curls.

“Gabrielle, I’ve been so edgy it won’t take much, “whispered her lover.

“I am in a similar state,” inhaled the bard as she devoured the sleek body’s path forward again to meet the warrior’s lips in a kiss which stoked the fires. “We can’t exactly go off like howler monkeys in the middle of camp either.”

There was a soft chuckle from under her.

“Well, no we mustn’t do that, it sounds downright uncivilized.”

With that she rolled over on top of the smaller woman with the bright hair and smiled as she began with the Bard’s buttons.

“and we must never be uncivilized.”

She looked down into her lover’s eyes a moment.

“I love you.”

“And I you,” the smiling response.

The dark head moved near the ear covered with blond hair and kissed the neck behind, brushing gently with warm breath around to the collar bone.

“Now,” the words were barely breathed warmly into the ear,” Let’s see how quiet you can be…”

The miles were going fairly quickly, but I was ready to be home. Baba and I had alternated turns riding Hades and riding in the wagon. Both of us preferred horseback of course, but we did what we needed to do. I was jostling along in the wagon, when Atticus rode up beside us and extended his hand to me.

“Fancy a little double time, Birdie girl? Just fer a spell?”

“Sure.”

I stood up in the wagon quickly, (not supposed to do that), and hopped over in front of him as he slid back on his blanket to make room. Atticus rode a horse that was as big as Hades, perhaps a little bigger, so it felt like sitting atop a hillside.

“Thanks for coming to save us, Lord Atticus,” I said quickly, “I know that my mother was glad to have you along.”

“I was ‘appy to come , ya know that Birdie,” he said. “I am just glad that you and the Conqueror are safe and sound. But I really want to talk to you about Talus.”

Uh oh.

“Lord Atticus, I am sorry about spying on the DOZ. It was very stupid, as my parents have pointed out to me.”

“You know, Birdie, I never hada raise my hand to the boy til’ he went off there with you.”

I hung my head. I wanted to cry.

“I am so sorry Atticus. I really am. It happens to me .. well not often, but …”

“Relax, girl.. I didn’t hurt him much. I think he was kinda proud.”

“Proud?”

“For the first time in his life, he was into that level of devilment.”

“Oh.”

“So, I don’ know whether to be upset wid’ ya or thank ya.”

My inclination was to be silent. It was wise.

“I believe though, that I should counsel ya, my little friend, that you and Talus should not be makin’ that level of devilment a habit, am I clear on that?”

I turned around to smile at him.

“Yes sir, Lord Atticus, you are very clear on that.”

“Soooo Birdie girl, would you like to see how fast my horse can run?”

“Yes sir, Lord Atticus, I would.”

“Well, then Barney, you hear the lass! EEEEEEEHAAAA!!”

That puppy dog squeal of mine, I cannot control it sometimes, and it’s so inappropriate for a warrior.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

It was good to be back in Amphipolis, but it wasn’t to be a sweet and easy homecoming for me. Trouble came looking before a single sunset passed.

An altercation occurred near our family entrance to the fortress; I was walking in from the training field, and came upon a fight between some stable boys- a slight scrappy boy who was taking the worst of the business from a larger, uglier bullying fellow. I had stepped in to try to stop it; the bully had taken issue with me, and of course there was no standing for that. The next thing I knew, Baba was pulling me off the big kid who had somehow acquired a bloody nose. The others had dispersed immediately at the command of Xena the Conqueror, and I was sent upstairs to my room with a stinging swat and a promise of later discussion. Entering my room, I immediately climbed into my window to sulk.

What would she have me do? Protecting smaller folk was part of my “greater good” now. That should be apparent to Baba! This wasn’t right; not right at all and I would tell her so. Zephyr climbed up into the window beside me to rest her head in my lap in deep sympathy. Stroking her dark fur calmed me eventually, and I began to enjoy the sun’s golden farewell in the distance. Murmuring voices from outside rose to my window.

“…..can’t have her believing that violence is a way of life Gabrielle –that breaking somebody’s head is the answer to every problem. She has a brain; she is articulate, she needs to demonstrate those strengths!”

I ducked down low in my window, but tried to keep my ears tuned to the conversation between my parents as they strolled the sidewalk to the garden.

“…Amphipolis is a violent place……….Athens was good for me….

…. Change of scene………different habits… she’s bright.. not long.”

They wouldn’t, would they? Send me to Athens? Was I THAT bad?

…….”she’s very young…. Don’t know if they would accept her… give it a try..

…for her sake … to steer from the violence…”

I looked at Zephyr.

“They are going to send me away, girl. Can you believe that?”

Athens. Nothing came to mind. Perhaps there was some sort of “finishing school” that would make a better person of me, a person who didn’t fight so much, or who would be such a disappointment to my parents.

Well, there was an answer to their disappointment; a plan had already begun to form in my head. It kept forming while I sat on my bed, listening to Baba Xe’s lecture on trying first to “reason” with people before punching. It kept forming while she told me if I had no explanation about the matter, the whole of the next day could be spent in my room until my “very good mind” thought of something to say. The plan only faltered a moment in growth when she squatted down, put her hands on my shoulders, to look me straight in the eye and said,

” I love you more than life itself, but there are hard times ahead for you Little Bird, if we can’t do better than this.”

See, that was the biggest disadvantage of being a kid. A kid has no choices. Well other kids were not Robin of the Warrior and the Bard; they would soon see that. I would make my own choices; I could take care of myself.

When the fortress fell dark and quiet, I collected my ever ready field bag, and Zephyr and I crept down the stairs quiet as death. We lifted a couple of muffins from the kitchen before silently unlatching the door to go out into the moonlight. Hades was game for whatever I had in mind, so he walked quietly behind me from the stable, through the town gates, out to the big oak, where I hopped astride him, and we followed Zephyr into the night.

*****************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

But it was a lonely night’s ride and a still lonelier following day, and I found myself returned to the pool and waterfall where Baba and I had spent such a happy interlude before the Romans took us. Zephyr didn’t argue with my indecision; in fact she knew that I had never intended to TRULY run away, but she waited patiently while I paced to and fro, and skipped rocks into the water trying to figure out my next move. How does one go home and still save face or even more so one’s backside? I had only just returned home for thunder’s sake! Becoming a permanent run away was NOT my first choice of lifestyle, but neither was becoming some kind of Athenian proper society person. The only sure thing was that I was definitely in trouble again. That always came easily for me.

“It’s not fair, Zephyr.”

She didn’t act like she heard me. If she did there wasn’t much a fox could do to make life fair anyway, so she kept her gaze steady at the white cascades as I skipped another rock across the pool. If I took a running heave the rock could almost break through the crashing curtain. Even throwing stones was frustrating, so the next target became a perfectly innocent duck. That earned me a reproachful look from my fox, although I missed the quacking creature.

“Didn’t your Baba Xe ever tell you that the dead can hear your thoughts, Birdie?”

A quick spin revealed nothing behind, on either side, so where? Up. Sitting on the first overhanging branch on which I had loosely secured Hades’ reins. Dressed elegantly in a long white tunic with gold trim and he looked healthy, if a bit transparent.

“Marcus?”

“In the… .well, not quite the flesh. But in your thoughts? Absolutely. And your thoughts are not pretty my young friend.”

“Is it really you, Marcus?”

My knees were weak, and he was immediately beside me helping me to sit on the ground.

“It is you. Did you just fly down here?”

He sat right next to me arms on his knees, and bumped shoulders with me affectionately. Zephyr collapsed in front of us, head on paws watching.

“It is I, Birdie Girl, and I don’t fly. It all happens by thought.”

My head went down wipe my watery eyes.

“I miss you Marcus; you became important to me so quickly.”

He leaned his head against mine,

“And you were important to me, Birdie, why do you think that I am here? You became family to me very fast. I care for you and what happens to you.”

“I had never considered having a big brother or a brother at all until I was around you, Marcus. It was a good feeling.”

“Well, you still have one, Birdie, just in a different sort of manifestation. You certainly need someone right now, don’t you? Tell me, why would you return to the scene of your capture?

“There were good memories here before there were bad memories, Marcus,” was my explanation, “but I think that Baba Xe and Mama G are going to send me away to a boarding or finishing school or something similar in Athens. They fear that life around Amphipolis exposes me to too much violence, and in turn that I am becoming too violent. So I ran away before they sent me away.”

“Birdie, Birdie, Birdbrain, “He sighed. “You honestly believe that the Big X and G would send you away?”

“I heard them talking.”

“You heard their entire conversation?”

“No. Only segments.”

“So you jumped to a few conclusions?”

“Well.”

“Birdie, if I weren’t in this wise-counseling spirit/form special relationship thing with you, I would kick your butt myself.”

I had to giggle at that. Marcus had a way. Besides, he was making sense. When truly considered, it did sound, well— dumb. Big sigh.

“I don’t seem to be able to do much of anything right lately, Marcus.”

“Little Bird, you aren’t meant to. You are an emerging adolescent; you have very few answers. Adolescent life is about getting most of it wrong and learning. The trick is to only have to learn something ONCE, Birdie, especially if the lesson comes hard.”

I sighed, “All of my lessons come hard, Marcus.”

He leaned his head against mine again.

“You’re telling me kid.”

We sat quietly a moment just being together.

“So what do I do now, Marcus?”

“Just wait. Your parents are on their way.”

“I guess they are pretty mad at me aren’t they?”

“They have been quite worried, wouldn’t you be?”

“I suppose. So it’s hard lesson time, right?”

” See? You do learn quickly, my little feathered friend.”

“Will you come back again, Marcus?”

“As often as I am able.”

“Promise?”

“I promise. And Birdie…

“Yes, Marcus?”

“I will always be listening..”

The golden palomino and the patient paint stood side by side at the trail head. In the distance, the silhouette of Hades could be seen grazing.

“I thought that she might be here. Birdie was angry, but she wouldn’t run very far.”

“It’s a beautiful spot, Xena. This is where you came the day you were to find the DOZ?”

“Uh huh, we had a swim, some lunch, a nap, a really good time before the Romans took us. I regret to give her yet another painful association.”

“Would you rather I…?”

The Conqueror’s gentle touch on her shoulder silenced her.

“No Gabrielle, I will not shy away from what she needs. The kid got into trouble, she got mad, and she ran away. Actually, that is typical adolescent kid attitude, but it is absolutely unacceptable and very dangerous, and Birdie knows that. We’ll make quick work of it, so we can get on with the talking things out, agreed?”

The emerald eyes gave agreement, and the warrior dismounted and walked ahead with purpose. She looked back,

“Nothing is worse than being captured by Romans anyway.”

“Xena…”

“Ha..um?”

“You’re positive that you are good for this?”

The warrior paused and looked back at her soul mate.

“Well, I’m not looking forward to it, but I’ve come to trust myself much more in handling Birdie. I am her Baba after all.”

And her soul mate gazed back, proud of Xena’s new confidence in herself as a parent, “Yes, my love, you are her Baba.”

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The tears would not subside, and I shook them from my face impatiently as I bent over to gather more dried twigs and branches. Baba Xe had begun assembling a stone circle near the water after she told me to collect some firewood; we were spending the night, and she and Mama G would talk to me in a little while. She had made small fuss of finding me. I felt her presence as she approached, so it was no surprise when she spoke my name and turned me around to hold me closely a moment. She pushed me back by the shoulders, adjusted my hair and looked into my eyes to ask me if I was whole and well. When both were affirmed, she firmly steered me to a nearby stump where she propped up a boot. Leaning me over her knee, she then gave me a quite emphatic reminder of why she had never needed to use anything other than her hard warrior’s hand to tan my hide properly when she desired to have my complete attention or to express disapproval of my actions. When she gently lifted me back to standing, she had gained my full attention, but she had said very little- only sent me off to chores, and that had upset me more than the walloping. I had managed to hold to the Spartan code of silence during the castigation, but my tears would not obey the code, and thus the stack of firewood continued to grow with my many trips to the forest to hide them.

I studied another small log and felt a light touch in my hair. It was my mother whose hand now stirred me gentle as a quiet breeze.

“Birdie.”

I couldn’t look at her, and my tears fell faster. She simply took me into her arms for a moment of much needed comfort and withheld the scolding I expected.

She took my hand.

“Birdie, come with me.”

She led me to the fire circle, where now danced a warm fire. Baba looked more relaxed as well, sitting on a log, staring into the flames, and watching the fresh fish cook. She looked up at our footsteps, and gave me a somewhat melancholy smile when she extended her hand.

“C’mere.” I slid in beside her immediately, and she tucked me under her arm and kissed my hair. “You understand why, don’t you, Birdie?”

The tears fell endlessly, and I sniffed, “Yes My Lady, I ran away and worried you. It was a bad decision.”

Her voice was low and gentle,

“Tough love is tough, even when it is rightly deserved, isn’t it?” I sighed shakily, held against the warmth of her strength and steadiness, and whispered, “Yes M’am.”

My head felt another warrior’s kiss, and her other arm came around me for a moment of quiet peace and safety. Baba’s words came into my ear very softly,” You do know my Little Bird, that tough love, is still very much love, don’t you?”

I burrowed into her then, hugging hard, and I felt her arms tighten around me. “I know, Baba.”

She didn’t have to say that she had forgiven me; I could feel it coming from her heart as she held me.

After a little time tender hands were placed on both sides of my face, and forest eyes burned into mine as my mother knelt in front of me.

“Birdie, you gave us such a scare, why?” Mama G pierced my heart with the injury in her voice, and the tears I saw gathering in those eyes. I looked down.

“I was afraid you were going to send me away-to Athens; it just really upset me. So I just left.”

“Whatever gave you that idea?”

“I heard you talking.”

“When?”

” Last evening.”

She looked at Baba a moment and then smiled.

“Birdie, when did you stop asking questions, honey? It would have saved us some heartache, if you had simply asked a question. We are going to have a nice camping trip now, but it was very costly to all of our hearts, and not a lot of fun for your tail feathers, was it?”

“No, Mama. I’m sorry.” Big sigh. ” I just keep messing up.”

“Well, would you like to know how the word ‘Athens’ was being used in our conversation?”

“If you want to tell me, Mama.”

“Your Baba and I were talking about trying to register you as a bard or bard in training at the Royal Academy of Bards in Athens.”

I blinked at her.

“Did you hear me, Birdie?”

“Yes m’am, I think so.”

“What do you think of that?”

“I don’t know what to say, Mama; it’s wonderful. Is it possible?

“Perhaps. I am going to send some of your writings, and you and I will work on some other pieces. I was among the youngest when your Baba registered me. But you may be youngest bard ever. We are thinking that perhaps a good method to deal with some of the darkness in your nature is to further encourage the light in your nature and some of your other talents.”

She rose gracefully and looked down at me.

It is about balance, Birdie, it always will be.”

“Yes M’am.”

She shook her head a little, “Birdie, stand up.”

Was she going to take her turn at me now? Bad news for that recently well tenderized area; Baba hadn’t gone soft on me this time. I gave it a rub and did stand as she told me, but she only pulled my head into her shoulder, her hand in my hair, holding me tightly.

“We would NEVER EVER send you away Birdie. You should know better,” her voice hissed into a whisper that was both sorrowful and angry. It hurt as much as Baba Xe’s hand.

I butted my face into her shoulder, and spoke into it, ashamed to face her.

“You are right, Mama, I should know better; I am sorry to have worried you. It was especially wrong on top of your recent worry about Baba and me. It won’t happen again.”

She pulled my head from its hiding place so that I faced her directly.

“You have told me that before, my little Bird.”

Her eyes were locked on mine, not angry, but not gentle.

I dropped my eyes ashamed, but had no good explanation to offer. Only another sigh.

“I know that, Mama; perhaps it is as the writers say, I make my promises in the general, and life occurs in the specific.”

She almost laughed at that, but caught herself and gave me a light cuff in the head. “Don’t be a smart aleck, Little Bird; you and I will talk.”

I knew she meant it; there would be time spent on the red couch in my room in deep conversation, and time spent at my desk with many candles burning while I wrote for her. But I didn’t mind. Mama G was my soul searcher. That was how it should be.

For now, she smiled and kissed my forehead. She had forgiven me in the immediate; that was imperative for me collecting myself now. She understood that.

“Fish is ready, “Baba Xe said casually, “and I bet those specially seasoned vegetables and potatoes that Mama G managed to bring along are ready too. Are you hungry, Little Bird?”

I sniffed and wiped my eyes a final time, “I am very hungry, Baba. Haven’t eaten all day.”

“Well, let’s see, consequences given, apologies made, misunderstandings clarified, and outlines for lessons learned have been worked out, I would suggest that it’s TIME TO EAT!”

“Baba, did you cook this fish?” I asked politely as she served me.

“Don’t worry, Birdie, Mama G. did all of the preparation before she went to find you. It should be quite edible.” Baba Xe gave me a mildly dirty look.

Mama G. laughed openly then, her anger dissipated, and we sat down together as a family for some excellent food. I was very hungry and so was Zephyr, who had reappeared. She had a way hiding out until after all the human family drama was spent.

“Glad you could show up, Zephyr.” I questioned her loyalty. She looked at me incredulously.

“I know why should you get into trouble; you make no decisions, do you? You are just a sidekick.”

Well that was too much. She stalked away stiff legged.

“Zephyr.” No response.

I walked down by the water to find her and squatted down, took her head in my hands and kissed her nose.

“I am sorry Zephyr. You are no sidekick; you are my soul mate, and I love you.”

That was some improvement, but I had better watch myself. She nosed my nose and put her head on my knee.

“It’s just… I’m the one who gets all the lickin’s’.”

She looked at me and stuck her nose up under my chin affectionately.

“Yes, I’ll live; I’m fine. It can’t be helped can it? Shall we go to eat?”

She stuck her head under my hand for another bit of assurance.

” I know, and I have more to learn than you do. Why are you so wise, Zephyr?”

Do foxes smile? There are times, I could swear that Zephyr smiles.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The Conqueror leaned back against the log allowing the Bard to rub her shoulders. Through the flickering curtain of the fire, they watched the silhouette of Birdie and Zephyr moving about down by the water.

The Conqueror and Defender of Mountainous Greece sighed deeply, “Well, all is safe and sound again.”

“Yes, it is.” The gentle fingers worked into slightly tense muscles, waiting for the warrior to talk.

“I do love that kid.”

The Bard smiled fondly into the dark hair under her care.

“Even when you have to whack her ornery little butt?”

” I think especially then… Don’t misunderstand me, Gabrielle, it tears holes in my heart as much as it does yours to be hard on her. I’d rather take a dagger wound. No it has more to do with Birdie herself. There are many time that there are images of myself as a child in Birdie, and those troublesome parts that she struggles with… those same parts for me– were lost in the darkness.”

“And this time, with Birdie, those lost parts are being saved?”

“At least there is hope. I don’t know if it’s because of the’ Gabrielle element’ in Birdie or because she has you as a parent, but when the darkness in Birdie is redirected, and she accepts the redirection ; it’s gratifying to witness, and I love her more for it.” “And you give yourself no credit? Did you not just feel that kid try to bury herself in her Baba a little while ago after you gave her a pretty sound “redirecting”? You are amazing with Birdie. You really are, Xena.”

“Well, I do love the kid.”

The Bard’s hands paused on the shoulders,

“I worry about her impulse for revenge; I had to threaten her very hide to drag her off Titus.”

“She had just witnessed the fatal injury of a friend by a coward whom she hated. Revenge is a basic instinct–very basic to warriors.”

The green eyes snapped; Xena didn’t have to be facing them to be aware of the fire.

“May I remind you my dear Conqueror, that Birdie is a child of twelve and a half seasons and NOT a warrior, not even a little warrior?”

The Big Warrior winced,

“Her warrior instincts frighten me, Gabrielle. They rise quickly and they take her over in a heartbeat. We have a very complicated kid with very complicated abilities. She is going to make big mistakes, and she is going to do incredible deeds; we’ve already seen that. We must be present in her life, watching her, guiding her, praising her when she does things brilliantly, pulling her back in line very firmly when she goes astray. Most of all we must love her unfailingly, unconditionally, no matter what, she’s our Birdie. We cannot anger take over. That’s what I needed, but nobody could give it to me; I became too angry to receive love– well– until you came into my life. ”

The Bard’s eyes had softened along with her hands on her soul mate’s shoulders.

“That was a big speech for you.”

“Yeah, don’t know what got into me. ”

“I think Birdie may help the Conqueror understand- Xena, the big warrior and the little warrior.”

“You think so, my Bard?” The deep voice hummed.

“Maybe,” the hands were rubbing again.

The Conqueror reached up and pulled the bright haired Bard down to sit cuddled under her strong sheltering arm.

“That’s why I know that the revenge problem will be ok. We– you will teach her with time, just as you taught me. I think it will be easier with Birdie, because you will find the peaceful loving elements of yourself in Birdie as well.”

The Bard pondered thoughtfully.

“I hope so. She did respond to me with Titus, and not only because I threatened her. ”

“I know so, Gabrielle; Birdie responds to us because she knows we love her, even when we must be firm.”

“It’s going to be quite a journey.”

“It always has been.”

“and…”

The light and the dark heads touched and the words were spoken in unison,

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The night sky is always more beautiful when one is sleeping away from a city. There are no distractions at all, and Gaia and the gods of the sky display for us earth bound mortals, the best that they have to offer.

We all lay stretched about in a contented pile around the fire which was flickering lazily. Baba Xe had her head resting on the saddle, Mama G’s head was cradled in her lap, my head was in Mama G’s lap- her hand looping my hair absently, and Zephyr’s furry head rested contentedly in mine. Family portrait time.

“See Birdie, there is the Great Bear.” Mama pointed out to me, “and the Little Dipper.”

“I think I see it…. There?”

“And those three bright stars … those are Orion’s belt, ” Baba’s low voice came from further up the pile.

“Do you ever tire of the same star patterns, Mama, Baba?”, I asked them, “You’ve been watching for years.. don’t they bore you?”

“Never,” was Mama’s thoughtful reply, “somehow they are ever-changing.”

“I believe that I know why, ” I looked up at the sky, “want to hear?”

“OF course, Birdie, “my parents were listening..

There was once a young Greek slave boy called Marcus who made it his business to be more than a slave. He served his wealthy masters of course, who were not very civil to him, but Marcus let their cruelty feed his own desire to be more kind to others. When Marcus was sent about the city on errands, if he came across a child who was hungry, he would stop, feed the child and help him find his way home. If his path traveled by an old beggar, Marcus likewise fed the beggar, and found him shelter for the night. One time he was returning from the bakery and a woman who was with child fell in front of him and went into labor. Marcus dropped the bread he had purchased, and placing the woman’s arms around his neck, he carried her to the healer’s hut, nearly a candle mark’s distance. He stayed with the woman until the baby was delivered healthy and hollering, all because Marcus had taken time to help.

When he arrived back at his master’s house later, he was beaten for being gone too long and for losing the bread, but it mattered little to him, because that day, there was a new baby boy in the village named Antony Marcus.

Over the course of a few years, Marcus became rather well known in the village. His owner could never understand why, that when Marcus accompanied him to a meeting at the coliseum or some other important event, it appeared that nearly everyone along the way, waved at his slave. His owner took it on his own ego, deciding that whatever Marcus did embellished his own reputation.

But there came a darker day. It was a very busy market day, and Marcus had been sent to purchase food for an important dinner his master was having that evening. There was a rich vintner coming to town bringing with him many kegs of fine wine to sell. The master chef of the kitchen had told Marcus to specifically look for this vintner. When Marcus arrived at the area the vintner had taken for market, there was a bit of confusion, especially around the horses, while trying to off load the great barrels of wine. A horsefly or perhaps a shout spooked the horses causing them to bolt suddenly and over turn the wagon. They did not stop, however, and began a terrorizing campaign of thundering hooves and heavy wood against anything or anyone who might be in the way. A tiny girl wandered into the path of this deadly combination. The only person who acted was Marcus. He scrambled into the heat of the situation, tossed the child to a bystander, and took the impact of the rushing wagon directly on his head and back. When they finally stopped the horses, there was nothing left but a crippled horse and a crumpled human figure, lying limp in the dirt.

The owner of Marcus couldn’t understand why people left piles flowers at his gate. Marcus was only a slave; he was only a nobody boy. But the flowers continued to mount, and when Marcus was buried outside the city in the slaves’ graveyard, there again, a large mound of flowers grew.

When Marcus reached the Elysian Fields, he was called into the great hall to speak with the gods. This was a surprise and somewhat terrifying to him, as he had never thought of himself as anyone special.

Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, and all the Greek royalty looked down at this humble young man who knelt with his head bowed in their presence.

Zeus spoke, “Rise young, Marcus. You have nothing to fear. You have pleased us well.”

Marcus only said, “Thank you My Lord Zeus.”

Apollo then spoke, “Because of your extraordinary life, we were wondering if you would like a special celestial position that we have need to fill. We believe that it would be perfect for you. “

“My Lord, I will be happy to serve. What does this position entail?”

The sun god chuckled, “Marcus we find that humans love to watch the stars, but they grow weary of the same patterns. We would make it your responsibility to ride across the sky and change the stars into new patterns occasionally; just to keep humans entertained and ever challenged.

Marcus was transfixed. “My Lord, can you possibly mean what you say? I am to arrange the stars themselves?”

The god’s deep laugh shook the chamber, “It is no small task, Marcus. The sky is endless, and the stars are huge. You will be constantly busy.”

“I think it is a wonderful job and I am deeply honored, “said Marcus kneeling again. “I only hope that I can manage it.”

“Oh you will have help,” thundered Zeus, and a huge black horse with eyes made of stars and lightening bolts flashing on his hooves danced proudly into the hall. He came to a halt standing by Marcus.

“This is Bartholomew, “spoke the gentle Artemis for the first time.

“Bartholomew was the only horse killed in your market mishap. He will serve to carry you, and help you to transport the larger stars.”

“Bartholomew, “Marcus stroked the great nose and the starry eyes closed in pleasure. He looked at the gods.

“We will take the job.”

The deities rose as one applauding.

And to this day, during some seasons we see the Big Dipper and Orion the Hunter, and then clouds may cover the skies for a time.. When the skies clear, and the seasons change, we might see Cassiopeia and Scorpio, or even shooting stars. All is the celestial handiwork of Marcus and Bartholomew. If we watch carefully, when dawn is approaching we might catch a glimpse of two small bright stars that linger for a moment on the horizon. Those are the laughing eyes of Marcus, just before he and Bartholomew ride back into the night sky.

From the portfolio of writing

By Robin

Daughter of

Xena of Amphipolis and

Gabrielle, Bard of Potadeia

In consideration for long distance membership

To Athens Royal Academy of Bards.

The end

Continued in The Nightmare

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