Birdie’s Song IX the Road Trip by Onesockbard

Birdie’s Song IX the Road Trip
by Onesockbard

I am Robin of the Warrior and the Bard.

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“Baugh!” The latrine door slammed behind me; Zephyr joined my swift disgusted pace in short measure.

“Little Mistress, are you ill?”

“I am neither ill nor am I well, Zephyr, “it’s the gods be damned moon cycle. My body is not adjusting nicely at all.”

“Feeling poorly then?”

“Rather. Crampy, crabby, generally icky and messy. Why does it have to be this way, Zephyr?”

“That isn’t my question to answer Little Mistress. Nature works in wonderful ways to procreate. I do not believe that my reproductive process is as uncomfortable as yours.”

“Well, I should hope not for your sake, Zephyr.”

We were well up the path to the fortress when the energy in the air changed; I had not experienced the sensation in some time, and so it escaped me for a moment exactly what the feeling heralded. Then I remembered with a lurch and fell to my knees.

“My Lady Artemis.” Zephyr sat down quietly, head bowed.

She seemed larger than my memory had kept her, or perhaps it was the anger snapping in her flashing amber eyes.

“You do realize, Robin of the Warrior and Bard, that the cycles you curse are a gift from me?”

Minotaur shite. Goddess of the Moon. Idiot, idiot, idiot.

Nausea.

“I humbly ask your pardon, My Lady; it is only my second time and I…”

My body then bent almost prostrate on the ground. The combined results of acute embarrassment and a killer cramp.

There was heat on my head; her large hardwood hand brought immediate relief of my physical discomfort. Sizable fingers then tugged at my mop of hair and brought me to my feet. I dared not meet the golden eyes.

“Birdie, my moon cycles are one of the great miracles of the human race, child. The moon cycles make it possible for you to carry, nourish a baby in your body, and eventually give birth to another human being. “

And I had just been complaining. Tears came unbidden.

“My apologies, My Lady.”

The hand pulled my head to her tunic. The energy from her body caused my hair to stand out in little strands. The goddess had learned patience since our first encounters. I wondered if she were patient enough to hear what I would tell her. But I must tell her and steadied my voice.

“My Lady Artemis.”

“Yes, child.” Her voice rumbled throughout her body.

I swallowed, “Though there are men, boys, in my life that I would die for, but I …. I have no wish…”

“To ever lie with one?” She completed my thought.

“Yes, My Lady. I have known Talus from our youngest days, and I love him, but I do not wish to mingle our parts.”

Her rare deep chuckle put my mind at ease.

“Birdie, there are other ways of having children than by “mingling parts” with males. You should know that.”

“Yes, My Lady.” I should know that.

“You love the girl, Rachelle.”

There are no secrets from a goddess so I looked straight into the amber eyes.

“Yes, My Lady Artemis, I do.”

“You love her well.” She paused. “You and she made silver leaves on the Telling Tree together didn’t you?”

“Yes, My Lady. Is there significance?”

She put her arm around my shoulder then. It felt somewhat like Baba Xe’s manner only the Goddess of the Moon’s arm was much larger and the weight was dense. The tawny eyes looked to distances and times that I could not see.

“You and Rachelle will walk a path together. At times it will be difficult.”

I did not think that was so helpful but remembered to be careful with my thoughts.

The energy was beginning.

I took the great hand in both of mine and kissed it.

“My Lady Artemis, it was good to see you. I will remember to revere my moon cycles.”

She enjoyed the kiss.

“Good bye for now, Little Robin.” She smoothed back my bangs and kissed her mark on me right at my hairline. It burned again slightly, and the goddess was gone.

Zephyr and I resumed our trek toward Amphipolis fortress.

“Zephyr, one thing I never am, “my hand reached down to travel the thick fur of my fox’s head, “is bored. I am never ever bored.”

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“Road trip!” The tone of the words was a whoop. There was really no other description, and it was a very unusual sound coming from Xena the Conqueror. The “Whoop” was followed by the door to Granba’s kitchen banging shut with a force that would have merited a reprimand for me. I looked to my mother with inquiry on both counts.

“It never fails. She anticipates it every seasons’ round. Poor thing.” My mother sighed after the Conqueror. “She needs to get away more often; the Fortress responsibilities weigh on her.” The sunlit sea eyes lighted on me, “Even though most of them are a labor of love for her.”

Planning was just completed for our twelfth moon trip to Athens to attend the convention at the Royal Academy of Bards. My mother’s scrolls had been stored and highly regarded there for many winters. My acceptance as a junior contributor, an apprentice of sorts to my mother had been recent. Actually, I had been an apprentice bard to my mother from birth, but the Academy recognized it “officially” four seasons ago. “Officially” was meaningful to my mother, but less so to me; I had already known well that the mentorship of Gabrielle the Bard was the most precious teaching that any young writer could hope to have.

Zephyr and I were striding past the master bed chambers when a motion inside caught my sight. Curiosity led me quietly into the warm room, rich with woven reds and wooden furniture where I was treated to the vision of Baba Xe admiring her reflection in the highly polished shield which hung on the wall. The Conqueror was taking a walk down memory lane.

I had seen the famous “warrior princess” outfit hanging in its place of honor in her study for many seasons, but I had never seen it actually on the body of the Warrior Princess. Today I witnessed the living legend. High boots were topped by greaves which protected her knees. The leather “skirt”, (a rare garment in our household) was made of riveted straps, and the bodice was soft leather which protected her skin from the ornate breastplate, which also covered her back. Gauntlets and armbands emphasized the well toned muscles of her upper and lower arms.

What gave me away wasn’t exactly a snicker. But she must have thought so by the force of her grip on my ear. It was as if a snapping turtle had laid hold of it and I was dragged from my place of concealment. Zephyr wisely made a quiet nest under the shield. I witnessed our similar images in the reflecting shield: two figures with very dark hair, (mine was cut short, though, and shaggy) tan skin, and bright blue eyes, only I was not nearly so tall. And my face was grimacing as her pinch on my auditory organ intensified.

“And just what is so funny, Robin of the Warrior?”

I looked contrite. “Nothing, Baba.”

Up on my tiptoes then.

“Shall I cut off the oxygen to your brain?” The growl was not quite serious.

“No, Baba. I will tell the truth.” I giggled then.

She released me with a quick smack to the head.

“Yes. “ She looked at herself a moment longer. “You are wondering how anyone conquered anything at all in such a get up.” She gave me a sultry look. “Remember Birdie, I had many skills. There are ways of gaining men’s loyalty other than by a sword.”

I looked at her differently then. My Baba Xe, tall, tan, raven tresses, eyes like the sky, dangerous, deadly even, a champion in the fighting ring, and, I was only beginning to understand, a champion of seduction? Xena Warrior Princess, Xena the Conqueror. Xena the Man Killer. Her stature increased even more in my eyes.

Embarrassed, I cleared my throat. She put her hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry Birdie; those days are long gone by. Your mother changed all that. Well, I was changing before…” She stammered a bit, finding herself in corner “Well… Gabrielle changed everything…”

We rarely went into these waters, my Baba and I. She would never need to tell me how much she cherished my mother; one had only to watch them together for a little while. Somehow I knew that Baba understood that I shared her capacity for passionate love and likewise an inability to express it. But Baba and I didn’t speak of these subjects. Perhaps someday.

We were both looking at our feet, so I changed the subject.

“Baba, how did you manage to ride your horse all that time without pants?”

She laughed. My Baba Xe rarely laughed in her deep heart-felt way; she was always preoccupied. I loved to hear the sound and joined her.

“Birdie… It was damned uncomfortable and it was cold. “Baba Xe fingered a flap thoughtfully, ”Sometimes we wore cloaks, but never on our legs. I used a great deal of skin salve. I am very glad to lead an army now based on my attributes as a leader and not just on my fighting and ahem, various other skills…” She turned a circle causing the flaps on the skirt to splay out. “Well, so what do you think?”

I was very careful. “It is a stunning outfit, and I am certain that it served its purpose in the day of the Warrior Princess, Baba Xe.”

The cornflower eyes studied me as the leathers dropped to the floor and I was treated to a view of my warrior parent’s godlike physique clad in her loin garment and upper wrap.

“Good answer,” She strode to her desk began lifting new sets of traveling clothes from their wrappings. Piece by piece was held up and scrutinized carefully. We always traveled in modified Amazon golden buckskin shirts and ponchos. The leathers were light, but the Amazon tanning method made them withstand nearly every sort of weather and they washed and dried quickly. Undergarments were long or short depending on the temperature of the day.

Baba Xe rifled through the short stack of regulation tunics in sizes for herself, Mama, and for me. There was something special at the bottom of the package and I caught my breath as she lifted it from the wrappings. It was a longer leather tunic with ornate tooling on the front, which I recognized as the heart-shaped patterns in the armor of the Warrior Princess. The work was intricate, yet understated; it surely took the patience of many candle marks.

“Gosh Baba…”

“Nice, isn’t it Birdie?”

She slipped it over her head and tied the lacings at the chest while I fastened the hand hammered silver buttons at the sleeves. The heavy lacings had silver ends, and there was an attached belt with once again a handmade silver buckle. The skin had been dyed an indigo blue. The wide cuffs turned back at the sleeves and on one was tooled a chakram, on the other the Conqueror’s dragon.

“It’s beautiful, Baba.”

She twitched her shoulders around in it impatiently, “Step back, Birdie.”

She executed a back flip, landing lightly a body’s length away from me. She threw quick punches out one right and one left, then sniffed critically.

“It seams sturdy enough.”

“It matches your eyes, Baba.”

She rolled them at that. “Yes, well, your mother had it made.”

“My mother has good taste.” My smile completed the tease.

Her hand breezed through the top of my hair as I ducked grinning. Her teeth returned a good natured flash.

“So, Little Bird, would you care for a tunic such as this?”

I fingered the soft leather. ”Who wouldn’t, Baba? It’s as fine a garment as one could come across. Did The Amazon tailors make it?”

“Yes, by special order of the Queen. We had one made for her in sea green, of course. We were thinking of having one made in ’Robin red’ for your birthday if you liked it.”

“Gosh, Baba, it’s so nice.”

“It is very nice, but you are growing up, and you need some fine things, Birdie. Now, my fledgling; Do you like it?

My nails outlined the tooling, “Yes, Baba, I do.” My answer was shy.

“Then it’s done. Should be ready in a couple of moons, right?”

My eyes met hers. “Right.”

Her hand fell gently into my hair, “When my little Birdie girl turns fourteen winters.”

There was a lump in my throat for no reason that I could explain. “Doesn’t seem possible, does it, Baba? That my boots, scabbard and sword have been in play for a four seasons’ turn now?”

“No it certainly does not.”

She did not elaborate; I stood up straight and met her eyes, trying to be all that she wanted to see in her daughter of fourteen. There was no immediate disappointment in her eyes. I wondered, because it seemed as if I had been in little else but trouble over the past several moons, most especially with my Baba Xe. But the clear azure orbs were gentle in their appraisal, and the warrior’s hand, which could sever a man’s head, pull a brace of horses to halt, or leave an errant Birdie part stinging was now moving the silver strands of my hair behind my ears.

“You never did grow any more silver hair much after that nightmare episode, did you?” she asked, studying the top of my head carefully.

“Not that I have noticed, Baba. But then my nightmares since have been mild by comparison.”

“Well.” She gave my shoulder a little pat. “Get on with you. Road Trip coming!” Her eyes sparkled again.

I stepped back and bowed, “Yes, My Lady Conqueror.” Executing a perfect about face, I ran full into my mother who had made a quiet entry.

“‘Scuse’ me My Lady Mother.” My bow was hasty.

“What is the hurry, Birdie?”

“Haven’t begun to pack.” Sheepish look time.

“Birdie….. Get in there girl and get busy! Have you forgotten we leave in the morning?”

.

I winced a little on reception of a painless smack as I trotted past her.

“No, My Lady; I haven’t forgotten.”

First the goddess and now my mother. Exquisite manners were always a tactic that I employed when in trouble even though they bought me little pardon.

“Well march in there and make the fur fly!!” Mama received a reproachful look from a certain furry source at this last command. “Not yours Zephyr.”

“You have everything you need on your back, Zephyr,” I grumbled.

“Except for this delightful company, Little Mistress.”

That brought a snicker.

“You sly fox.” My muttering as we exited.

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Strong and gentle arms encircled the Conqueror; the dark head bent forward for a kiss. “I like the look of that new leather tunic, Warrior.”

Indigo eyes closed and remained relaxed in the embrace, “I was hoping to do it justice. It is a beautiful garment, Gabrielle.”

She received a pat on the belly, “Xena you could do justice to a filthy turnip sack.”

A tad of a tease, “So you would love me were I not the Conqueror clad in designer leathers?”

The patina eyes turned a shade, “You know better than that, Warrior Princess. You know that I would love you in, Amazon buckskin, in peasant wool…” her hands began to unlace the leather strings, “in aristocratic silks…”

Her hands were clasped in the larger hands, “How about in the tree bark and leaves of a madwoman?”

“I would love you still…”

“How about in the untreated, smelly furs of an aboriginal?”

“Still…”

“How about??”

The hands continued to unlace… one finger fell gently over the full slightly pouting lips as the blue eyes formed a question.

The softest chuckle from the bright haired poet, “And yes, I do love you best in nothing at all…”

A deeper chuckle answered, “A pleasure to oblige, my Queen.”

The bard paused, her eye caught by something else. “You didn’t tell me that you had the Warrior Princess leathers out.”

Xena walked to the bed, preparing to rearrange the brown outfit for display. “I was only just experimenting a bit.”

Gabrielle looked at her lover with a mischievous glint. She crossed and crawled into the middle of their massive bed.

“Put the leathers on, Warrior.”

“Gabrielle?”

“Put them on piece by piece, casually, carelessly, the way you did every morning in front of me for all of those moons while you thought I didn’t watch.”

A smirk began on the lips and spread to the cobalt eyes. “Like this?” The leather shift slid with a ‘slish’ sound over the sleek body. Long fingers tied the lacings at the bodice which reined in the breasts and waist was only secured.

“Yeessss…” olive eyes watched.. “more please.”

“Gab,” the strong hands were raised helplessly, “the entire outfit?”

“Hummmm,” the little bard purrred, “the boots, perhaps?”

The Conqueror sighed, gave her lover a slightly beleaguered look, scooped up the boots, trudged across the room, leaned on the bed, and commenced tugging on a skin tight brown boot. During the third tug, her hands were caught by smaller hands.

“Lay back, Warrior.”

Xena did so and found her torso straddled by the bard who began to unlace the bodice of the brown leather slowly.

“You are right, my love, “her green eyes were dark with desire now,” all I truly want to do is rip it off of you.”

“Well, we best make good use of the bed,” grinned the warrior, “it is rougher on the road if you recall.”

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“Two pairs of pants, two tunics, three undershirts, and nightshirt, three sets of undergarments, soap, teeth cleaners, powders, and lotions. “ I closed the lids on my clothing trunks and carted my selections to my bed.” What do you think, Zephyr?”

“Cold weather?”

“My cloak is with Hades.”

I flipped the pants into triple folds smoothing the wrinkles out carefully. Then I laid out the shirts on the bed and began smoothing out the wrinkles with both hands one sleeve at a time. These would be tucked carefully into Hades’ saddlebags.

“Weapons, Little Mistress, and your writing/sketchbook. You have promised Rachelle that she may read one journal, do you remember?”

Ah, yes.

“Which one first, Zephyr? This is difficult, you know.”

“Yes, Little Mistress, but there is no better way for her to know you. You wish for Rachelle to know you, do you not?”

“Yes, I do Zephyr.”

“Then she must read what you write.”

My boots made a tha-dumping sound across my room to my book shelf where the leather bound diaries were stacked chronologically.

“Zephyr.”

Silence from the fox.

“It’s a little frightening, opening these to her.”

A soft cool nose came into my hand then, and the warmth of her body leaned into my leg.

“Come here to me.”

I crumpled into the floor and the ever changing hazel-golden eyes of my god-fox stared deeply into my own. Then Zephyr reached forward with her head and licked my face lightly, one cheek and then the other. Her small tongue felt like the touch of a child. It was a blessing; Zephyr never smelled like an animal; she had her own clean sweet scent – like warm cedar-natural and comforting. I sat with bowed head while she watched me knowing that the fox would speak now as my true soul mate.

But she simply rose to four feet.

“Have her read our first adventure, Little Mistress.”

“Our seven day ‘in the rough’? When I thought Mama had been killed?”

“Yes. We were both very young, and we learned a great deal, didn’t we, Little Mistress?”

“By the gods, Zephyr; we learned much the hard way on that little odyssey.” Her fur was soft under my hand as I contemplated it. “I wouldn’t trade it though, not really.”

“Even the tears, Little Mistress? There were many, as I recall.”

My eyes stayed on the wood planked floor tracing the knotted pegs, ”Sometimes I think we learn the most from tears, Zephyr, even though they are painful teachers.”

“Some tears are joyful, Little Mistress.”

“Some.” I collected the slim collection of parchments wrapped in leather and tied the string around them.

“This is rough writing, Zephyr.”

“It is truth, Little Mistress. In the beginning, there must be unadorned truth.”

“You are a wise fox.”

“I know.”

Her nose moved into my hand and she nuzzled my hand gently.

“Zephyr.”

“Yes.”

“Will you ever ’talk’ to Rach?”

“That is not my decision, Little Mistress.”

“You would like to?”

“Yes, I would. Rachelle is a gentle and loving person.”

I snickered, ”She’s rather rough on me at times.”

“Only if you deserve it, Little Mistress.”

I grinned at her,”Only if?”

“This discussion was about Lady Rachelle, I believe?”

“Oh, she is now Lady Rachelle? Ha!”

A fox snort.

“It is in the hands of our Lady Artemis, as you must know, Little Mistress.”

“I do know, Lady Zephyr.”

That silly fox nipped me then.

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All was quiet on the grounds between the fortress kitchen and the stable. For some reason, all momentous events had their advents in this innocuous little strip of grassy land. Here had been the great circle of joined hands before the Battle of Wild Horse Valley; here had Gabrielle been injured soon after the victory. It was an entry way to the stables of the Conqueror’s family horses. It had been the walk to the home of Zephyr’s nest of kits.

In this small yard, everyone picked up their food stuffs and said good-bye to the fortress. On these grounds everyone returned to the fortress and was welcomed home. It was only an humble patch of ground with the grass beaten down. But it was the pathway to good beginnings and to good endings.

The sturdy woman with the iron grey hair and Aegean eyes left the fortress kitchen and walked out into the grounds to watch as her tall daughter rearranged the palomino for the fifth time in a candle mark.

“I will miss you, Xena,” her voice was soft. But she approached her daughter.

A little surprised, the warrior turned to behold her mother. “I’ll miss you too, Mother,” she tilted her head and took the rough hand in her larger one. “Since Birdie has trained Icarus you know, we will try to send word occasionally, however brief, so you will know that we are safe. That is an improvement over the old days, isn’t it?” Xena stepped away from her horse, her duties, in the cold morning light to attend to another woman that she loved with her whole heart.

Tears filled the old eyes, but they didn’t fall and strong arms encircled the Conqueror and Defender of Amphipolis and all lands surrounding.

“There is so much improvement over the old days, Xena. I never tell you, but it has meant everything to have a daughter again; it has filled my heart so to have you and Gabrielle and Birdie. I will miss you dreadfully.”

The Conqueror stood by her horse and looked around a bit. There was no one in sight, but then she decided that she did not care. Strong arms embraced the little woman warmly. The warrior’s lips touched the top of the sturdy woman’s iron hair.

“And I love you, Mother. You cannot know what it has meant to me to have my mother’s love returned to my life. I will think of you every day; I will keep everyone safe.”

The mother’s arms squeezed and then pulled back to shake the warrior lightly, “You see that you keep my daughter safe, do you hear me, Xena of Amphipolis?” The voice was gruff, but the hands that reached up then to pull down the strikingly beautiful face to meet her mother’s eyes were gentle hands.

Cyrene kissed one cheek and then the other.

“I will, Mother. I promise.” The warrior stepped back and crossed fist over heart.

They separated then sapphire eyes focused; each had her job to do.

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“Hold still, Hades!” But my sable horse snorted fog in his excitement to be off in the exhilaration of the bright cold morning. I buckled a final strap, gave him a stroke on the nose, and cast my gaze toward the direction of the Amazon camp. My impatience was eased. Three horses approached, but my eyes were only for the slender chestnut that carried Rachelle, the young Amazon princess from the sea. During the past several moons Rach had become as important in my life as my family. Recently, she had admitted that my love was reciprocated. But as love was a new journey for both of us, we followed each other’s footprints and took turns leading the way.

This morning she wore a heavy woolen poncho over her Amazon buckskins in a greenish grey color that set off her eyes. There was a cream colored design threaded throughout that I recognized as the constellations, but not our Amphipolis sky. Perhaps it was a view from the sea. I placed my hand on the soft buckskin leg and met the quiet marble-hued eyes regarding me.

“Good morning, Princess,” I kept my voice soft and serious.

“Robin of Amphipolis, right?” her voice was aloof. “I have come to travel to Athens with her.”

“And she is most grateful indeed,” I offered a hand up, and Rach swung her leg over and slid down Lucy into my arms for a warm embrace and a quick kiss which spread tendrils of warmth throughout my body.

We looked into each other’s eyes. “Are you well packed?” was all I could think of to say.

“I am.”

“How is Lucy feeling?” Soft lips nibbled the palm of my hand as the horse took some chopped dried apple I always kept in my pocket as treats for Hades.

“Lucy is anxious to see the world.”

“Let’s give her a drink,” I took the reins from Rachelle’s hand and offered my arm to my friend. It was accepted. “We will be riding out soon.”

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Gabrielle placed her hands on the shoulders of her old friend, “What is it, Eph?”

A soft Amazon boot drew circles in the dust. “Pony is having quite a difficult time with this you know, Gabrielle.” The laughing dark eyes watched her stocky partner talking with the Conqueror a short distance away. “She won’t say as much, but this is very hard on her; she adores that child; even after only a four seasons of having her about the camp.”

Gabrielle chuckled, and she watched the same pair, “You need not sell me on the size or capacity of a warrior’s heart for love, Ephiny,” she placed her own foot to stop the motion of her friend’s uneasy circling and patted the foot with hers affectionately. “You know that we will take care of Rachelle like she is our own child; we have come to think of her as such. And Mother Cyrene will send word of our good health as often as Icarus brings it.”

“I want to hear of it,“Ephiny raised shy eyes again. “I love all of you, you know, and I will worry a bit.”

The warm arms of her Queen and longtime friend embraced and held the steadfast Regent long and lovingly then. “I know that you will, Eph; I wondered if you would speak for yourself, for you and I have no secrets.” She stepped away and tried to meet the eyes of the discomfited Amazon warrior, then surrendered. “We will do our best. You know that running with our Birdie will give Rachelle an adventure or two though.”

“That, I do know,” a shake of the curly hair. The Regent took her Queen’s head between her hands and bestowed a kiss upon her forehead as she would a younger sister then, “Be well, and travel safe, Gabrielle. Return to us, wiser and happier; I know that you and your partner there do yearn for the open road.”

The emerald eyes twinkled at her, “I will.”

……..

Pony clasped arms with the Conqueror; the grip was very firmly returned, “Xena.” Her voice was hoarse.

“Pony, I will watch over her as I do my own Birdie. I swear it.” The Conqueror’s words were soft but the cerulean eyes flashed with intensity—warrior to warrior.

Arms were squeezed, no more was said. Eponin spun from the Xena the Conqueror to meet her Queen. She knelt formally and gave the fist over heart salute. Gabrielle knelt and raised the weapons master to her feet, silently kissing one cheek, then the other. Then she only gazed steadily into the warrior’s eyes. They exchanged smiles. Gabrielle then looked to her daughter and her friend.

“Birdie, Rach, let’s go!”

The six travelers mounted their horses and began a slow exit of the city gates. After an extended argument with her officers, the Conqueror had reluctantly conceded to taking an extra guard of two soldiers. Atticus had volunteered, but the Conqueror had insisted he remain behind and take command of the fortress along with Ephiny and Eponin. Thomas and Galton were selected and admonished to stay on the parameters as much as possible. They assured their commander that she would hardly know of their presence.

Rachelle and Birdie both turned to wave as they exited, Rach to her parents, and Birdie, to her beloved Grandba. The Conqueror and Gabrielle waved as well as the mighty fortress gates closed behind them.

“Gods’ speed, my children,” Cyrene whispered, and then she turned and went inside the inn’s kitchen to work.

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“ooooooofffff,”

“You sound like air going out of a … I don’t know, a cloud or something.” Rach teased me as we dismounted. Then sun was hanging low at the end of a long day; however, Baba Xe had traveled to Athens many times over the seasons and she had set a goal for us each day. This was a place that she or she and Mama G were familiar with, and so it was selected.

“My backside is both numb and sore. I guess I have never actually been in the saddle literally from daybreak to dusk. Ouch.”

“Mine is in a similar state if that is any comfort, Birdie,” I could just catch the flash of her teeth in the remaining daylight.

“We had better go see if we can be useful at the camp,” she flicked her head toward my parents who were quietly going about setting up the cozy hideaway as if it were something they did every night. Well, they had lived on the road for many seasons together before settling down in Amphipolis. Before settling down and having me.

“Go on, I’ll see to the horses,” I nodded to her as I pulled Hades’ saddle from his back staggering under the weight a little. He looked back at me questioningly.

“Feels better, huh big guy?” Hades snorted, as I settled the leather gear under a tree nearby. I took a curry brush out of the saddlebag and began to run it briskly down his sides. He walked out towards fresher grass and I followed.

“Find some good stuff there, Hades? Hmmm?” I quickly brushed him all over and untangled the snarls in his mane.

“Ok, buddy there is a burr here,” I carefully picked a sticker from his tail. It twitched a little, but the big horse did not kick me into tomorrow.

“Thanks, Hades.” I stroked his nose and fed him some dried apples from my stash. His beautiful dark eyes favored me a moment with a soul searching look. I hugged him.

“I love you big horsie. Have a good night.”

“Lucy.”

Rachelle’s mischievous mount looked at me. I fed her right away and removed her saddle. She was perfectly cooperative. It took no time at all to brush her smaller physique, and she had no tricky burrs or stickers. As I finished with her, I felt a warm presence moving around my legs.

“Zephyr.” I knelt to hug her, “How are you girl?” I picked up her paws. “How are your feet? Do they hurt?”

“I am fine, Little Mistress. My god fox blood enables me to travel far and fast without tiring too much. Your family awaits you for dinner.”

“Guess it is time to wrap up the chores and go to the fire, huh?”

I walked up to the firelight with an extra armload of wood and my black fox in tow. It was a lovely peaceful spot with ancient trees to stand guard and give us some shelter. Also nearby was a clear running stream which provided water and a soothing song. In the distance I could see the small fire of the Conqueror’s guard. They had kept their word to respect our privacy, and yet their cheerful little fire was oddly comforting.

Baba Xe reached out and slapped my leg. “Late as usual.” But it was not a reprimand. Her face was relaxed and her cobalt eyes were gazing peacefully into the fire. Her countenance held a mood that I had rarely seen – serenity. She was running a whetstone along the sides of her sword methodically. At a nudge from my mother’s knee, she set those aside, and smiled adoringly at the hands which gave her a smallish but deep clay bowl of steaming stew and a sizable hunk of dark bread.

“We eat tonight, courtesy of Cyrene’s Famous Inn,” Mama G said almost reverently as she twirled the large spoon in the black kettle, “Enjoy it girls, because every night hence will be hunter’s pot luck.”

Baba Xe snorted.

“Hey,” I said, “ I can provide.”

“And I am fair enough with bow and arrow Lady Conqueror,” Rach said a little shyly.

Mama G put her bread down on the plate beside her own clay bowl. “I’ve been thinking about what you should call us, Rachelle. ‘Lady Conqueror’ and ‘Lady Gabrielle’ are just too long and we are going to be together for a good while. We are not exactly your mama and baba either.”

“How about ‘Lady G’ and ‘Lady Xe”?” I asked.

Moments passed while this was chewed upon carefully.

“Works for me,” the low tones of my Baba Xe’s voice came muffled with bread.

“I think that its’ fine,” Mama G agreed. “Rachelle, can you manage those names?”

“I will try My Lady G,” my Rach answered. “Will you call me ‘Rach’ sometimes, as Birdie does? Rachelle is used mostly if I am in trouble.”

“Rather like ‘Robin of the Warrior and Bard, or Robin of Amphipolis’?” from my Baba Xe again. She put that special “You’re in trouble” tone in the words perfectly.

“I would imagine so,” Rach chuckled. “Will you tell me, Lady G, and, Lady… Xe…”

“Yes?” My parents were being nice to her; they seemed to like her.

“The story of Birdie’s birth?”

I snorted on my stew…

“That one there?” My Baba Xe growled. “There’s a tale alright.” She looked up at the stars.

“Indeed,” my mother’s eyes laughed, “I can probably tell it.”

“Maaa ma.”

“Birrrr die.”

I sighed and stuffed the bread in my mouth. Zephyr gave me a sympathetic look.

“We were settled in Amphipolis,” Mama looked at Baba Xe, who finished chewing, swallowed, and settled back on her elbows. The firelight cast a golden glow on my mother’s face and set her into her storytelling mood.

“Several season’s past Japa,” the mood darkened momentarily.

“That is the story I want to hear,” I said quickly.

Both sets of eyes regarded me quietly. Everything in the evening stopped, the breeze, the crackling of the fire, the rhythmic swishing of Zephyr’s tail. It was as if Zeus reached down and stopped all of natural motion.

“We will tell you that story some day, Birdie,” my Baba Xe said softly, “When the time is right for the telling of it.”

My mother didn’t look up at me, “When we are right to tell it you mean?” Both sets of eyes were lost in each other for a moment. Then Baba Xe’s big hand reached to envelope Mama G’s smaller one. “When everything is right.” She finished.

“Anyway,” Mama G regained herself, “I had been wishing for a child…”

“As had I,” Baba chimed in, “Though neither of us had spoken of it; our history with children had been… Unfortunate.” My parents met eyes again, tears immediate. But they took strength from each other and worked through it silently. My parents were amazing.

“Again, another story for another time,” Mama reached for Baba’s hand and held it tightly.

“I will tell you someday,” I leaned into Rach speaking softly.

Rachelle leaned back and looked up at the stars, “My life seems so simple when compared to yours,” her eyes sparkled with her compassion.

“It’s just different,” I rested my head on her shoulder; “You will share your life at campfire one night, won’t you?”

“On a night of a short fire,” she chuckled, “I am no bard.”

“Good,” came the wry tone of my conqueror parent, “two bards in a family are quite sufficient.”

“Hey!” Both my mother’s and my own voice chorused at her.

“To continue…” My mother’s voice took authority at last. “The Amphipolis Fortress was well set, and we were returned in connection with your aunty Pony, Ephiny and the Amazons.”

“Yes,” The Conqueror intoned, “life was settling down to a comfort level for once.”

“It was the end of a seven day, and we decided to go camping,” Mama’s eyes looked far away from us, seeing another campfire, another sky, and another time.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

“You miss the road, don’t you?” The bard took Xena’s hand as they walked the circumference of the small lake.

The taller woman was pensive, “Don’t you?”

“Yes,” her hand was squeezed and the bard watched her feet a moment, “I love our life, don’t misunderstand me, but it seems as if something is missing.”

“And that would be?” The warrior didn’t beat around the bush.

Gabrielle wouldn’t look at her, “I’m not sure exactly.”

Xena had stopped and taken both of the bard’s hands in her own. “Yes, you are sure, Gabrielle. Don’t try to sidestep me.”

The bright head remained lowered.

Xena stooped a little and raised the chin to find tears, “Gab?” She enveloped the smaller woman into her arms closely. “Tell me.”

After a moment, the bard was quiet. “I would like a child,” she spoke softly into the warrior’s chest.

“I know that, Gabrielle,” Xena put her chin on top of the blonde head, “You would be a wonderful mother.”

A cynical snort came from underneath her chin, “Xena, I don’t deserve a child, after what happened to our children.”

She was firmly pushed away from her lover’s body and pinned by icy blue eyes.

“Gabrielle, I have said this before, and this is the final time that I will say it. What happened to Solon and Hope is on both of our heads. We have forgiven each other, and that tragedy is in the past. You must leave it there. Promise me.”

The bard wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“Gabrielle, if you cannot forgive yourself, how can you raise another child? How can you pray for a miracle?”

Silence. Desperately, the warrior shook the smaller shoulders.

“Gabrielle, are you listening to me?”

The sea foam eyes raised then full and beautiful. “You are right, Xena.” She sniffed and leaned against her steadfast companion. “Perhaps I have flogged myself long enough, and I do want another child. Do you truly believe we might be blessed?”

She was pulled back into an intense embrace and then the walk was recommenced. A breeze came up and the moon was rising.

“Gabrielle, when I am with you, I believe that all things are possible.”

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Mama G’s eyes returned from the fire to us. “Well, Rachelle, I know that you and Birdie are feeling some of your first… ‘stirrings’ for each other.”

“Maaaama…” my ears burned and I tried to find a treasure in my bowl of stew.

“Relax, that’s all I am saying, Birdie. Your Baba Xe and I had a big case of ‘stirrings’ for each other that evening.”

“I like romance, Birdie.” Rachelle gave me a big nudge. My eyes didn’t leave the stew.

“The stars fell from the sky that night,” Baba had been lying on her side, but now her eyes lifted to find my mother’s eyes almost shyly.

“That, my love,” my mother’s hand joined hers, “they did.” She closed her eyes. “Indeed they did.”

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

“We best head back to the camp,” Xena wrapped her long arm about the bard’s shoulders. “The wind is rising and night is coming.”

“Look at the moon, Xena,” the young poet was nearly fixated on the sphere in the sky, “It’s blue; it’s nearly the color of your eyes.”

“I believe that you must have dust in your eyes, Gabrielle,” the warrior muttered as she hustled her bright haired friend along.

Their camp was welcoming and they rolled out their furs near the fire. The breezes had died down and there was a sharp chill in the air.

Gabrielle snuggled down, “Come to me Warrior, “she smiled.

“Gladly, My Queen,” Xena’s lean physique joined the bard’s under the furs.

“The stars are falling,” the bard whispered, “as soon as one disappears, another one begins at a different point in the sky; it is amazing Xena.”

“Perhaps it is a miraculous night,” the warrior said softly as her fingertips began a familiar journey which began at the bard’s cheek, moved down the neckline and collarbone, stroked the curves of the breast and waist, rolled into a gentle palm cupping the hip and thigh, and became intimate finger feathers as the motion journeyed back up the belly.

The bard’s breathing caught and she took her warrior’s face between her hands. “Every day and every night is miraculous with you, my love,” she whispered. Then she frowned.

“Am I hurting you, Gabrielle?” Immediately the warrior was alert.

“No! No, Xena, of course not, I adore your touch, but Xena,” she frowned again, “I have never noticed that your eyes have flecks of gold color before.”

The Conqueror sighed in relief and lay down quietly beside the bard, “That is because my eyes do not have gold flecks in them, Gabrielle. You looked into the sun too long today, my little love. First the moon is blue and now my eyes are gold.” She kept the stirring motion on the bard’s belly.

The stars continued their travels across the sky and the eyes of the warrior and the bard followed them.

The bard turned to her warrior, “I won’t interrupt anymore,” she said silkily, “where were we?”

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

“We know now that the moon, the stars, and even Xena’s eyes were the blessings of our goddess Artemis, “ whispered Mama G with a smile. “We didn’t know the specific goddess for quite some time, but then she revealed herself to Birdie.”

One can only hear so much about one’s own conception; I rose, fetched everyone’s empty bowls and carried them to the big pot of hot water on the fire. Squatting down by it, I quickly ran the cloth and cleaning soap around each bowl and then rinsed it in the hot water. A cold nose appeared under my arm.

“Hey girl.” The head came up by mine and licked my face.

“Mama, there’s a bit of stew here, may Zephyr have it?”

The affirmative nod made both of us happy, so Zephyr cleaned the pot so I washed it easily, and then made my way back to the fire.

Rach was sitting up enraptured, (as are all listeners to my mother) to the continuing tale. I dropped down beside her with a sigh.

“Here, good washer girl,” she patted her lap, “right here.”

I was hoping that she would offer; my head hurt a little just from the long day in bright sunlight.

“The moons of my pregnancy were easy until the final two,” my mother telling the closing chapters of this story. That was ok as it was familiar to me.

Baba Xe took over, “During the eighth moon, the DOZ attacked.”

“It’s difficult to believe that they were ever our enemies,” Rach’s fingers danced lightly in the locks of my hair smoothing them all the way down into my tunic collar where her fingers rubbed my neck.

Baba smiled, “It is, isn’t it? And we’ve had the truce for only a four season’s round, but they have become such valuable friends and allies. Jom is one of the wisest men I’ve ever known.” She looked into the fire a moment and I noted a shadow of regret in her face, “I can never learn all he has to teach me because of an ancient feud.” She tossed a small stick at the flames.

“Xena, that isn’t your fault,” my mother pulled my Baba’s head into her lap and my warrior parent accepted and took comfort from her gentleness. It warmed me; they were rarely this publicly demonstrative. The campfire was a sedative, especially for my Baba Xe.

“It was a fairly straightforward battle,” my mother continued the story, her hand running through Baba Xe’s dark tresses.

Baba sat up again to remember, “Yes, very typical. We defended the wall, like we always did, and things were going well, until I found myself in the west tower with eight DOZ’s on me. I still don’t know how so many got to me at the same time, unless it was planned.”

“It very likely was, Xena,” Mama G said quietly, “In those days; the assassination of the Conqueror would have been a really big feather in a DOZ’S cap.”

“I was fighting full out, but faltering; it was at the end of the battle and I was tired. Suddenly two of my attackers were down, and who had taken them out but… Little Lady eight moons pregnant, Queen of the Amazons Gabrielle with her trusty sais.”

I shook my head, “Mama.”

My mother gave my Baba Xe her best innocent look, “The DOZ wouldn’t hit a pregnant lady and, you needed me, Xena.” I recognized the attitude as one I have tried. It never works with my mother.

My Conqueror parent blew out a big sigh and lay her head back down in my mother’s lap, “Talk about wanting to tan someone’s hide. It’s a good thing you were pregnant.” The blue eyes shot a killer look up into the green ones.

“Soooooooo…” my mother continued dramatically, “and then in the ninth moon of my pregnancy I fell into the river!”

I felt Rach’s body start violently, “You what?”

Mama chuckled, “I was actually fishing…”

There was a snort from her lap, “She never fishes.”

“But I had a random urge,” Mama continued, “One is allowed random urges when one is pregnant, and thus I was fishing.”

“I was out with the men on the drill fields.“ Baba Xe sat up from the lap again; her eyes were flashing, but she was smiling with the memory. “And suddenly a chill went all over my body. As if…”

“As if you had been plunged into icy cold water,” I finished from Rach’s lap.

“Yes,” hissed Baba as she leaned forward, “And I ran for the river with Hermes’s wings on my feet.” Not bad storytelling for Baba.

“Where I was merrily bobbing along,” laughed Mama.

“Ha ha ha,” another snort as the warrior settled back into her lover’s lap.

The bard’s hand soothed ruffled hair, “It would not have been so bad had the water not been so gods be damned COLD. Brrrr.”

“I still prefer cold weather,” I chimed in.

Baba Xe had rolled to her feet now, poured tea from the kettle, and distributed it. The night was chilly and the warm mug felt good between my hands.

“Here, I brought a treat,” Rach raised my head, and hopped to her feet. She fetched a small tub from her rucksack which contained a white substance and gave us each a piece of nut bread with the spread on it.

“This is wonderful, Rach,” my mother was first to comment, licking a drip from her thumb.

“It’s a kind of cream cheese our cooks have concocted,” Rach explained. “With the touch of honey in it, they can’t make enough for the tribe now.”

“My mother will want to order it for the Inn,” Baba said with a full mouth. “The Amazon cooks have finally hit on something. You may be rich.”

Rach sat back down cross-legged and smiled, “So, Lady G. You were in the river.”

“Quite helpless, really. All I could do was send the mental message to my warrior,” Mama G gazed fondly at the dark head in residence in her lap.

“Yeah and I got it.” The lap voice mumbled sleepily.

My mother’s gentle fingers played with the silky black strands, “Like a vision I saw a figure hanging upside down from an overhanging branch a little ahead. I knew that I had to grab her hands.”

“I bellowed ‘Gabrielle!’ just to be sure,” the yawning warrior added, “scared all of the cows in the field.”

“I sent a little prayer to Artemis for good measure,” the bard’s voice teased.

“And the rapids seemed to lift you right into my arms, thank the gods,” Baba Xe sat up now looking at my mother.

“I believe you had some strength from Artemis to haul me into that tree, hustle me across the branch and down it,” my mother said quietly. “I just remember returning to my senses in a warm bath and your face finally relaxing. Although I do recollect receiving a good smack on the butt for that trick.”

“Yep,” The Conqueror kissed the blonde hair and pulled it under her chin rocking her slowly.

Rach gazed at me a moment, “You look so like your Baba Xe, but you are so like your Mama G, aren’t you?”

“Yep.” I ducked my head a little; Zephyr put her head in my lap.

“So then the birth?” Rach pushed on.

“Was by comparison, quite easy.” My mother chuckled. “One night shortly after, I awakened and said, ‘Xena, it’s time.’ And it was.”

“Birdie arrived within a few candle marks.” Baba Xe smiled, “No trouble at all. Of course she’s been trouble ever since.” Now she reached for my head and pulled me across the space to kiss it.

Mama was staring into the fire, “Xena gave me some easing tea, numbing weed, and local pain relief. I felt so sure with her, we didn’t call a second healer.”

“It was…” I could hear a tremble in Xena the Conqueror’s voice her eyes dark cobalt staring into the fire, “among the greatest miracles of my life… to deliver my child, of the woman I love, more than my life.”

I said nothing but blinked away tears. Zephyr nosed my hand gently.

“We cleaned her, swaddled her, I fed her a little, and we put her into the bed with us, “Mama G went on in a hushed voice. “She went right to sleep; she was really a good baby.”

“At daybreak, I got up to change her swaddling and I heard birds singing on the ledge outside the chamber window,” Baba Xe took over the story, “I opened the window so the sound would wake Gabrielle. We had talked about names, everything from Hecuba, to Hercules, Cyrene, and of course, Lyceus.”

“The robin’s singing woke me, and it was the sweetest sound,” Mama spoke dreamily, as she adjusted her head on Baba’s shoulder. “I watched Xena in the silvery new morning light, holding up our baby daughter, showing her the little mother bird. It was so peaceful.”

“It was,” Baba took up the tale, “and the name came to me. How about ‘Robin’?”

“’Robin’ had entered my mind at exactly the same instant,” my mother completed the tale, “and so our baby was Robin of the Warrior and Bard.”

“And ‘Birdie’?” asked Rach.

“Baba’s army named me ‘Birdie’,” I squeezed her hand. “Baba Xe took me out to show me the next day and they passed me around. I was the ‘wee birdie’, and then, when I was old enough to scamper around their feet and they were shouting it constantly, the nickname became permanent.”

“And now it’s time,” Mama G smiled, “for all good little Birdies, bards, Amazons, and warriors to go to bed. Enough story telling for tonight.”

“Right,” I groaned, “I’m tired.”

“No one goes to the bushes alone, got that?” Baba said her eyes crisp.

“Yes ma’am.”

“G’night then.”

“G’night, Baba.”

“Good night, Lady Xe.”

The cornflower blues gave us a glance with a smile.

Mama walked over to us. She put her arms around Rach and kissed her forehead gently, “you are not too big to be kissed’ good night’, are you, Rachelle?”

“No, Lady G, I never will be,” Rach accepted the gesture gratefully. Rach’s mothering had been rather assorted, and I realized how fortunate I was, even as my backside received a gentle smack.

“Are you too big my little Bird?”

I put my arms around her and laid my head on her shoulder a moment. “Think that we established that a long time ago, Mama.”

“Good.” She kissed my cheek and I kissed hers. “Good night. Sweet dreams.”

“Good night.” Mama walked away to the other side of the fire and to her warrior.

We spread our furs out under the stars. Rach snuggled up under my arm, her head on my shoulder. Zephyr curled up down by my legs and was almost immediately asleep. The stream sang; the fire flickered.

“See there?” I pointed and my finger worked out a pattern in the starry sky. “That is my friend Marcus and his horse Bartholomew. They build all of the other star pictures.”

Rach sat up and looked at me, “How you do go on, Robin of Amphipolis.” She said a little sternly, “That star formation looks like nothing more than a simple bear to me.”

She poked me in the ribs and I clutched her to me giggling. That brought a stern “Hey.” From the other side of the fire, so we settled back again and matched our breathing quietly.

Just before I dropped away Rachelle whispered, “Birdie?”

“Yeah, Rach?”

“I love this.”

I pulled her closer, “I do too, Rach.”

We entered the realm of Morpheus together.

XXXXXXXXXXX

Silent evening

Silent time

A goddess moon

In the chilly sky.

Quiet breathing,

Gently paced,

Peaceful smile from

My love’s face.

The Bard and Warrior

Find their rest

With trees and stars

They slumber best.

I move the hair

From her eyes,

All I love sleeps,

Under silent skies.

Part 2

The second and third days were much like the first.  We awakened early and took a warm wash in the hot water that Mama always had going on the fire that Baba brought back to life in the pre-dawn darkness.  Then there was a bracingly cold rinse in the nearby stream or lake which bordered our campsites.  By the gods I hated those rinses and actually developed quite a good war cry when taking the icy plunge.  Baba Xe said a cold rinse prepared one for the day ahead; it made a warrior properly alert, but I never really bought into that theory.  It was just cold.  However, Mama complained little by habit of many seasons, and Rach almost never complained by virtue of growing up by the sea.  So eventually, I was shamed into toughness.

A mug of good hot tea, and drying my hair by the fire warmed me quickly.  We nibbled on fruit, nuts and bread as we struck camp, and by the time we were mounted and setting off, I always felt great.  But my Baba Xe was positively glowing; she had terrific energy; her sky blue eyes were flashing, and even Argo danced lightly.  Mama G was energized by watching the warrior princess, and soon the whistle came from Thomas and Galto and we began, staying mostly on the big main road to Athens, veering off only to the special campsites which had history with my parents.

We had pheasant the second evening with some wild mushrooms Mama G had found: I had to admit that the crispy meat was delicious, even though I tried to stay away from hunting birds.  The third evening Rachelle, Zephyr and I fished.  We did rather well and had a fair sized feast, with wild greens Baba had gathered and crunchy cornmeal bread dumplings that Rach knew how to make.  She said they were popular in the coastal Amazon camp.  It was rather exciting to wonder what the next meal might or might not be; it kept a person on her toes.

The fourth day we ran into brigands.  Such was always a possibility, just as surely as running into pirates was on the open sea.  There were people in the world that could make no honest living and so laid in wait to take others’ honest livings from them.  And there were those would take more than that, particularly if their victims were women.   Xena the Conqueror took particular issue with that type of raider.  The troop who came upon us was a vicious group of reprobates; one could tell from their smell, their unkempt clothing, their general nastiness.   Baba Xe had spotted them from some distance away, when they were still just a thundering cloud of dust.

“You, Birdie, Rachelle,  climb up into that tree,”  she directed, “ and you will not  leave it, no matter what you see occur, do you understand?  Do you understand me, Birdie?”

“Yes, Baba Xe.”

She whirled Argo who had already taken her warhorse persona.  I had never considered how Argo managed that personality change, but she did it well.  Perhaps she was Ares’ chosen too.

“Thomas!  Galto!”  My Baba’s voice was the one that could ring across an army.  Her soldiers were beside her immediately.

Hades and Lucy cantered away from the fray for the moment.   I boosted Rach’s butt ahead of me quickly through the branches and then perched myself lower as look out. I was terrified for my parents for they were greatly outnumbered and there was no doubt that these men were dangerous.

He who fancied himself the leader was riding straight at Baba Xe like a madman; he was heavily built and had long dark greasy hair which blew behind him and a matching beard, braided with leather.   He was bellowing, “Come to Papa, Beautiful!”   He threw hairy meaty arms open wide from a sleeveless jerkin a dagger in each hand, “Papa will dine well tonight.”

I shook my head at his hubris, for the man was a fool; he had no idea with whom he toyed.

As she rode toward this grizzly fellow, my Baba Xe became Xena the Conqueror of old, a warrior as formidable as any man who thought he might take her down.  Her eyes narrowed into slits of ice, and the smile that formed on her lips was primal, predatory. She was no man’s victim.

“Stay behind me, Gabrielle,” she shouted, “Watch yourself!”

Her pass with the leader was brief; her sword sang; half his head flew into the air, bloodied from the gash that drove a ditch into his chest and sliced upward; he would not be dining on Xena Warrior Princess tonight.   The second horseman behind the leader caught the Tide’s blade in his groin, and he screamed as the weight of her body slung itself over his head and her boots landed  straight in the face of the third rider which snapped his neck.   Argo had watched her rider’s actions and galloped into position for Baba to land quite nicely in the saddle without a hitch.  The man with the groin injury bled to death in moments, saturating his horse.  It was ghastly and I closed my eyes.  Three down in a matter of a dozen breaths.

Mama was behind and had taken out a more fortunate fellow with two quick cross slashes of her staff and was binding him securely with some cord she had taken from Wendy’s saddlebag.  Thomas and Galto had dragged lesser members from their respective horses and laid them out with no more mercy than Baba Xe.

Baba had leaped from Argo again and dragged another fellow from his horse to first kick him silly, and then pummel him into complete unconsciousness.  The two others had simply turned their horses and fled.  Baba whipped rope around the unconscious one.  The last chap, a bit slower or more stupid than the others was riding toward our tree.  As he passed under it, Rach swung her legs and booted him in the head, and I leaped from high up, completing the head kick and stomped him down to the ground.  He tried to rise once, but I executed the perfect Baba Xe spinning kick to the chin and he dropped like a stone.  I quickly straddled his back and began tying his hands together with rawhide cord that Rach dropped down from the tree.  Zephyr watched as I completed my knot.

I sprang to my feet triumphantly from the conquest only to have my hop arrested in mid air by a firm grip on the collar of my tunic.  This did not feel good.

“What was the last thing I told you to do, Birdie?”

Baba’s voice.  Low and dangerous.   Minotaur Shite.

“Baba.”

“Birdie.”

“Don’t be mad at Rach, Baba.  It was my fault.”

“Birdie, Rachelle is still in the tree.”

The Warrior Princess felt a familier cool hand at her back.

“Xena.”

She inclined her head, “Gabrielle.”

“The Conqueror has receded, right?”

Xena took a deep, cleansing breath.  She focused, eyes closed.  She was a parent.

She smiled at her lover, “ Yes, Gabrielle, the Conqueror is gone.  Shall we plan on camping at that wide place in the river we noted before we were attacked, about a quarter candlemark back?  We can walk.”  She turned to her queen so that Gabrielle would know she was completely calm.  “Will you please speak to Rachelle about this judgement error the girls have made?”

“I will.”  The emerald eyes held the saphire for a moment longer and the hand gave the back a pat.  “Talk to you later.  Love you.”

“And I you.”

They parted, each with a youngster in mind.

“Walk with me , Birdie.”

She didn’t seem quite so angry, but that didn’t mean I was out of the woods at all.   I  followed her silently to Argo, whom she checked  carefully for any injuries, running her hands down the tan legs of the horse,  fluttering delicate fingers over the fetlocks, and even checking her hooves.  Then she held Argo’s head still and looked straight into the dark eyes and found the gaze as steady as ever.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Mama G hold out her hand to Rach, and then her other hand to Hades and Lucy, as they galloped to join them.   I sighed and returned my attention to Baba expertly  pouring a drink into her cupped hand from the water skin and allowing her horse a few sips of water.

“That will hold you until we find the stream, Argo.  Are you thirsty, Bird?”

I was, I took the skin, and drank deeply;  then she did.  We  stood there silently.

With a weak attempt at courage, I offered, ”If  you are going to wallop me, Baba Xe, I wish you would do it here and not do it in front of Rach.”

I felt her gaze on me steady, calm, appraising, “Do you think that is what I should, do, Birdie?  Take you across my knee and tan your hide properly?”

Tears came unbidden; never with my Baba Xe would I be “too big” for this feeling, “Yes, Baba, probably.”  My head dropped.

Her hand came around my shoulders then; it surprised me.  “Let’s walk.  Though I am not disagreeing with you, tell me why you should be disciplined, Bird.”

Well, this was a new approach; couldn’t say that I cared for it.  Too much like Mama G, only with the Baba Xe whip-sting.

“I disobeyed you.  You told me to stay in the tree.”

A few quiet steps.   She walked ahead of me looking out into the distance arms akimbo.

“And why did I tell you to stay in the tree, Birdie?” her voice was still too mild.

“To stay out of danger, but Baba, I wanted to help, and I could, and I did!”

She did a quick about face, returned, clamping her hands on my shoulders very firmly.

Wrong!   I know your skills Robin of Amphipolis; I trained you.  I ordered you to stay in the tree to protect Rachelle – whose skills I do not know.”

She might as well have struck me in the face; I had no answer for her;  it had not occurred to me that such was her intent.

She strode away a few steps and then turned back to me, “ Birdie you were to guard Rachelle against the failure of your parents  to protect both of you!  I gave Eponin my word ,and there’s nothing more important, Birdie, nothing!

@@@@@@@@@

There was silence between Rachelle and Gabrielle for nearly a quarter candle mark, only the sound of hoof beats following boots on the hard ground. 

“I’m sorry, Lady G, about our behavior,” Rach ventured softly, “We disobeyed you.  We were wrong.”

Gabrielle swallowed and then fixed her young friend with a full dose of her stormy sea foam eyes.  Rachelle immediately dropped hers from the intensity.

“Well, you at least stayed in the tree, Rach.”  She said calmly. “But I would like for you to use your imagination for me, a moment.  Will you do that?”

“Yes m’am,” Rachelle felt herself blinking back tears.  She could not believe the emotional power the bard could wield using only her eyes and tone of voice.  Auntie Pony always bellowed a bit or sometimes even smacked her backside, but it was over quickly.  Rach had no idea what Gabrielle had in store for her.

“I want you to imagine me riding into the Amazon camp and telling your Auntie Pony that great tragedy had befallen you.”

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

I had walked behind Baba for many moments, head hanging; she turned back to me again.

“Birdie, what will you do when you grow up?”

The question came completely out of nowhere, and I was completely unprepared for it.

“Uh, Baba?”  Stammering. “What you do, I suppose.”

She had halted and had fixed me with her blue glare again.  Those gods be damned eyes; I couldn’t look at her.

“What is it exactly, that I do, Birdie?”

I tried raising my eyes, but couldn’t.  “You look after Amphipolis.”

“I maintain the fortress.”

“Yes My Lady.”

“I run the army.”

“Yes, My Lady,” a whisper.

“Birdie, right now I wouldn’t want you in my army.”

My vision blurred; a ringing began in my ears.

“Do you know why, Birdie?”

“I don’t follow orders.”  My voice barely audible.

“Pretty piss-poorly, girl.”

She put her hand on my shoulder, not unkindly.

“I want you to think about that, Birdie.  Think about it hard.  I issue orders for a reason.”

She turned me towards my mother and Rach and dismissed me with a little push.

“Go see if you can help your Mama now.”

My vision was greatly hampered by my self loathing; I was in a dense fog of shame.    Mama G took one look at me stumbling into the neat campsite that she and Rach had made, and she rose to place a guiding hand on my arm.

“You have the look of a person in ‘bistrace’. “  That brought a bare brief smile from me.

“Rach, can you manage here?”

Rach’s granite eyes shot sympathy to me, “Of course, Lady G.”

Mama G steered me along the clear stream for a ways then turned to look at me with gentle eyes.  She simply pulled me into her arms, settling my head on her shoulder.   We listened to the music of running water over stones.

“I know what you need,” she whispered.

I sniffed a little on her shoulder as she moved me on to her arm but kept me in her embrace.   Mama’s hand lifted a bit and fell softly on my backside.

“One,” she said quietly, “for impulsivity, correct?”  The tears finally fell from my eyes, and I dropped my head onto her shoulder with an affirmative nod.

The palm fell again with no sting, her voice low and loving; the salty water flowed generously from under my lashes.

“One for disobedience—you must work on that, Honey.”   The same hand came up to stroke my hair and guide my eyes to meet hers.

“I know, Mama,” the words spoken in a sob, but spoken, “I will.”

Her hand made a third gentle connection.

“One to make certain that you have grown up a little today; have you done that, Birdie?”  It was a question that demanded an answer.

“Yes, Mama, I have.”  I laid my head back on her shoulder, which was quite damp now from my sorrow.

“And one,” with some firmness, “because- I- love -you.”  Her words were carved in stone and they anchored me, even as her arms surrounded me.

I straightened my shoulders and wiped my sleeve across my eyes.  She pushed my hair back and stroked the tears away with her thumbs.

“I love you too, Mama.”   Get a grip, Bird.

She searched my soul through my eyes.  “Better?”

Deep breath.    I would manage.

“Yes, Mama.  Better.  Thanks.”

“Then go help Rach; keep chopping up ingredients for the soup, ok?  I am going to talk to your Baba.”

“She didn’t wallop me, Mama.”  My eyes lowered, “She should have; I really messed up.”

“I know that, Birdie.  I just need to talk to her.   Go on now.”

I hugged my precious mother and went to snuggle under the comforting arm of my girlfriend.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Xena knew who it was by the sound of the light step in the gravel.  So she waited.  And she was expecting her.

“Xena, what did you say to Birdie?” It was a mild inquiry from her lover, but there was no doubt that it demanded an answer.

The warrior turned from her horse, “I didn’t lay a hand on her Gabrielle.”

“I know that. Still, she was fairly destroyed; what did you say?”

Impatient sigh, blue rolling eyes.

“The wrong thing.  I said the wrong thing.”

Silence from the bard.

“I told her that I wouldn’t want her in my army.  She can’t follow orders.”

Longer silence.

“Well, she can’t!”

Nothing.

“Gabrielle!”  Howled softly at the sky.

Quietly, “Xena, I wouldn’t want Birdie in your army either.  She’s a kid. She’s thirteen winters old.  Do you remember the trouble I had following your orders at seventeen winters?”

The taller woman considered.

“Yes.”

“Xena you told the child- your favorite squire- who worships the ground you walk upon that she wasn’t good enough for your army.  That you didn’t want her in it.”

“I was trying to make a point, Gabrielle.”

“Well, I guess you did that.”

The sky blues lifted.  Another sigh and the strong hands rose in a plea and then fell again. The warrior’s boot drew circles in the dust.

“Gabrielle, there is a new breed of brigand out there. I have heard the word, and now we’ve seen them. A new kind of gang mentality, mostly younger men, tossed from society or their families because they don’t measure up and don’t want to play by the rules.  They join and ride together and take what they want from the weak because they don’t have the honor to earn it, these gangs.  They have their own systems, their own initiations and leadership.  They are ruthlessly powerful in their own ways and they are frightening. Such a gang would love to feed on young girls.”

“And this requires Birdie to behave as a soldier at thirteen winters?  Honestly Xena, I’d much rather you tan her little backside than break her heart in the manner I’ve just witnessed.”

Silence.

The bard spoke softly, carefully, for her words were hard, “I want her to grow up to be like her Baba Xe, but I must tell you that I do not wish her to be the Conqueror or the Destroyer of Nations.  I hope that she will not ever need to be so ruthless.”

It was a center strike. Sky blues flicked tears and looked away.  The Conqueror walked over to Argo and placed her hands on the saddle looking at the ground.  Dark spots appeared in the dust; a tall boot kicked at a buried rock repeatedly.

Gentle arms embraced the warrior from behind, and Xena straightened and held onto the smaller hands.  Then she turned to face her lover.

“Birdie scares me Gabrielle; I do need for her to do what I tell her to do especially in a situation like today.”

“She is your child, not your enlisted man.”

The raven tresses drooped.  The bard knew that the ice was broken.

“Xena, remember how much time it took with me, and I was older than Birdie?”

“Yes, and I had to smack you a couple of times.”

“Only a few times.”  The forest eyes twinkled mischievously.  “But you loved me and you were patient, and I adored you and wanted to please you.”

“You did,” the warrior smiled to herself, “you were a stubborn little thing, but you learned.”

The bard’s gentle touch stroked the warrior’s stiffened back soothingly up and down. “So will Birdie.”

The warrior’s chin came to rest upon the bard’s head gently.

“I was too hard on her.”

“Birdie deserved a reprimand, Xena; I am only asking if you intended to destroy her.”

“No.”  A pause.  “Can you and Rach do dinner?”

“Of course.”  Another silence, “Xena.” Only Gabrielle could note the shakiness of the cobalt orbs.  “Come here.”   The smaller woman led her warrior to a convenient stone and stepped up on it which brought her eye to eye with her lover.

The bard then put her arms around the warrior and held her closely.  “How is my big warrior?”

“Fine.”  A sigh.

“Do you need a Mama G smacking?”

“No.”  A mischievous light in the blues.  “Well not in that sense.”

The warrior’s butt felt a bard swat.

“Later, Warrior.”

“Will you send Birdie?”

“I will.”

The hands drifted apart.

“I love you, Xena.”

“And I you, Gabrielle.”

@@@@@@

Mama G returned to the fire and looked at me.  Her eyes looked toward the direction of Baba Xe.

“Go.”

She hunkered down beside Rachelle and elbowed her, “I promise we’ll eat soon.”

I followed the creek bed until the silhouette of the Conqueror came into view.  Her eyes raised, grabbed mine, and she extended her long arm.   I fell gratefully under the sheltering wing and she held and rocked me gently for a little while.  Despite the pain between us, I could feel the love in the enveloping strength of her arms and the warmth of her body.

“I shouldn’t have said what I said to you, Birdie,” She sighed softly.

“I shouldn’t have done what I did, Baba.”

She chuckled and pulled me even closer, tucking my head under her chin.   I wrapped my arms around her waist, burrowing into her chest listening to her steady heartbeat, a favorite pastime of mine since I was very small.

She took a breath, “You are such a wonderful kid, and you do nearly everything right, do you know that?”

I shook my head back and forth in her chest.  It didn’t feel that way.

Baba pulled my head out to make me look at her then, “I made the mistake that parents make, and perhaps soldiers make when they are given wonderful kids.  I expect you to be perfect.”

I dropped my eyes and remained silent.

Baba tugged my hair, “And that is wrong of me, Birdie.  You are allowed to make mistakes and you are allowed to be imperfect.”  She kissed my head.  “Just not too often, and you must never ever make mistakes that will get you…..”  Her voice faltered….”hurt…”

I hugged her hard.  “I’m sorry, Baba; I’ll do better.”

She returned me to the close embrace, “I know you will, and we are good now.  I want us to learn from this and move on.  That is an order.”  She kissed me again.  “Hear me?”

I pushed back straightening.  “Yes, My Lady.”

“Good, then let’s go EAT!”

We stumbled back like two drunken comrades, walking awkwardly wrapped around each other.  But neither of us wanted to break the contact.

@@@@@@@@@@@

I was afraid it would be a completely silent soup dinner, but my dear girlfriend came through once again.

“So, Ladies G and Xe,” she smiled leaning back on her hands, “Tell us what happened at this camping spot.”

They both stopped chewing and gazed at her.

Baba made a circle with her utensil, “Now why are you so certain, young lady, that every campground has a story?”

Rachelle had a little bit of stretchy rope with Baba Xe, much like my mother, an ability to tease her, that few people were given.   Now her eyes twinkled at the warrior.

“Because, Lady Xe, every campsite thus far, has told some kind of story, no matter how small.”

My parents regarded each other in the crackling firelight.

“Wellll….”  Grumbled Baba.

“I don’t like to remember.”  Mama looked away.  “You tell it.”

Baba chuckled some, “We had stopped a little late; I don’t remember why.”

“We helped that family tug their wagon out of the mud.”  Mama was still looking away,  “They had buried a wheel nearly to the axel.”

“Ah yes, that was it…”  Baba smiled.  “Well, it had been a rather frustrating day, but I had managed to catch a couple of nice fish in the river, and we were set for the evening.”

“Yes, the fish were cooperative.”  Mama grumbled.  She was acting most un-bardly.

Baba Xe looked at the ground now.  “Yes, we were set except.”  She looked over at Mama.  “The love of my life here, decided that we needed a side dish, perhaps some berries, or mushrooms.   I told her that it was too dark.”

“I just wanted to make a nicer dinner; it was a hard day…”  Mama’s voice had a little bit of a whine to it now.

“Anyway, off she went.”  Baba continued.  “I went ahead and fixed the fish;  I was fair enough at that on my own from watching her.   Well, after a time, the fish were nice and brown and smelling wonderful, and guess what…?  No Gabrielle.”

Granite eyes met mine in the firelight.  “Uh oh.”  We said in chorus.

“I was becoming very concerned.”  Baba Xe’s voice took that low dangerous tone, “Very concerned.   It was quite dark.”

“Then…”  Mama mumbled, “Argo kicked up a fuss.”

Baba cut a long low blue glance at her.  “Tell them why.”

“sssshhhnnnk…”  came from a buried blonde bard head.

“I can’t hear you.”

This was obviously not Mama’s favorite story.  I had never heard it before.

Skunk!”  Said Mama G emphatically, “Skunk! Skunk! Skunk!!   I was attacked by a skunk!  We had a disagreement over some very nice blackberries and the skunk won.  By a very large margin!”

My hand was over my mouth holding my breath.  Rach had covered her eyes with her hands out of courtesy.

“Oh go head and laugh your little butts off!”  She said.

It felt so good.  I had tears in my eyes again.  Even Baba lay back on the ground, and after an indignant moment or so, Mama G joined us.

“So Birdie, I learned many lessons the hard way too, Honey.”  Hher eyes smiled at me in the firelight.

“The very hard way.”  Baba joined the story again.  “That was grounds to send you home, if ever there were any my love.”  Cuff on the arm…  Hard one.   “You are lucky that I let you sleep anywhere near me that night.”

“It was awful.”  Mama sighed.  “You cannot know how awful it was.”

“Argo wouldn’t go near her.”  Baba was laughing again.  “The following day, she had to walk either far in front of us or far behind us depending on the wind direction.”

Green eyes could have killed. “You always blame Argo.”

“It was Argo!”

“And I suppose it was Argo who made me take a bath in lemon and tomato juice in a horse trough in the village stable that night!”

“Gabrielle, you were lucky we were that close to a village, and we were lucky they had the vegetables!”

“You nearly scrubbed my skin off!”

Baba was silent a moment just watching Mama G and smiling.   “It worked didn’t it?”

A sigh.  “Yes.”

“Got you back in good with me and Argo, didn’t it?”

“Argo!  Always with Argo!!”

Oh it was good to laugh.

@@@@@@@@

It was Rach who suggested that Baba and Mama go for a walk, and that she and I would clean up.

“Thanks, Rachelle,” my mother’s eyes warmed on her,” that’s a lovely offer.”

“We are glad to do it, aren’t we Birdie?” Rach smiled elbowing me.

“Sure.”

“Baba wasted no time at all but rolled up a smaller fur and tucked it under her arm.

“Birdie, you know the alarm whistles.”

“Yes’m.”

She winked at me and took my mother’s hand.  Mama looked back,” We won’t be gone too long.”

“Take your time.”

It didn’t take us long to wash up; our appetites had been light after the drama of the evening.  We put all the cooking gear away and then Rach and I sat looking at each other.

“Come,” she dragged me to our packs and drew out our nightclothes, “I think it won’t hurt for us to bed down early tonight.  We have some talking to do.”

“By the gods, that’s all I’ve done,” I sighed.

She looked at me directly and captured a front lock of my hair.  “You, Robin of Amphipolis have the most extraordinary parents; you are so fortunate; I hope that you realize that.”

“I do,” my nightshirt felt cool on my back. “But at times it can be exhausting.”

@@@@@@@@@@@@

They had made a soft bed of leaves near the creek and unrolled the fur. 

“I thought you might be rather tired,” Gabrielle said quietly as she unlaced the buckskin tunic in front of her.

“Never too tired for this,” growled the warrior, reaching for the bottom edges of the bard’s shorter tunic and stripped it off over her head, complete with undershirt.  “C’mere, little skunky.”  She drew the smaller woman to her.

“You… are… so… bad….soo… I.. will…” Gabrielle stripped the warrior in similar style so they could embrace skin to skin, “Yes.  There.  Nice.  Brrr.  Little bit chilly.”  She leaned back looking at the sky.

The warrior’s hands came up her spine, cupped her breasts, around her neck and curved her face pulling it in for a kiss, “Let’s remedy that right now.”   One hand fell to unlace the bard’s britches as they sank to the fur.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Tonight Rach had tucked my head under her arm. That was a really good feeling because my emotions were about spent by the day.    Of course my emotional state was my own responsibility, but it was nice to lean on Rach’s shoulder and very nice that she took me on.

“My little childhood must have been very quiet compared to yours,” she spoke in a quiet relaxing tone.  “My parents died so early, and my life with Betha was relatively peaceful.  I learned about healing herbs, helped her gather and mix them into pastes and tonics; there wasn’t too much adventure for me.”

“You mean you didn’t get into trouble at every turn like I did and still do?”  I chuckled.

“Right,” she smacked my head gently.  “I used to believe that it was just you, but now I realize that you live in a trouble prone environment.  I grew up in a fishing village with a gentle healer as a primary guardian.   If I wandered astray, there were a hundred Amazon aunts to find and restrain me safely.  The greatest danger was the sea, and that information wasn’t difficult to drum into me; after all, it took my parents.”

“That does sound comparatively peaceful.”  I admitted.   “There was trouble for me as soon as I could walk so many places to explore and things to look at.  And the army.  Wow.”

She knocked the top of my head gently, “What is ‘bistwace’, Birdie?”

I recollected, “That was the first time major trouble came my way.  Age around four winters.   There was an unguarded sword in the main yard.  I found it and somehow dragged it to the top of the fortress wall to brandish it as if I were the Conqueror herself.  It had to be heavy, so who knows how I managed it.    But it was short lived, because Baba did one of her flying leaps up there and disarmed me in record time.”

“I would expect so,” Rach stroked my hair.

“We flipped and flew back down, she handed me over to my mother, and she went in search of the soldier who had so carelessly abandoned his sword,” I continued.

“I would not want to have been that soldier,” the hand stopped in my hair momentarily.  “Bet she kicked his arse.”

“Bet she did.”  I sighed. “But meanwhile, my mother kicked mine.”

“Your mother is rough isn’t she?” my love whispered, “Well, not rough at all physically, but emotionally… you know what I mean.”

“Exactly, it’s easier to take three lickings than meet one of her disappointed looks.  It’s easier to take six lickings than hear her words of disappointment.”

“But you were only four.”

“Yes, that day, she laid me across her lap, applied a few gentle spanks, told me I was a naughty girl and that I must never ever touch a sword.  Then I had to sit on a stool for a quarter candle mark or so.  She said that I was in “disgrace”.   I cried and cried; it hurt my feelings to be in ‘bistwace’.  Ever since then…”

“You are in ‘bistwace’ on occasion.”  Rach smiled.   “I’ll have to remember that.”

“I took it very hard.”  I sighed into her shoulder, “Still do.  My mother’s displeasure is tremendously difficult for me.  Baba Xe  is  very tough, very strict at times, but somehow, it is always over quickly, and I know that she loves me and she improves me;  I…”   my voice dropped away, “ Of course I know that my mother loves me as well, but I cannot bear to hurt or disappoint her.  Well, actually, “I paused for breath and thought, “I am coming very close to feeling that way about you.”

There was silence while her hand traveled through my hair thoughtfully, “That’s good,” her voice was quiet, “and I’ll try not to be too hard on you.  Except…”  She lifted her head, and I felt her lips touch the top of her head gently, “It’s time we go to sleep now.  It’s been a tiring day.”

“Right,” no argument from me.  “Love you, Rach.”

“I love you back, Robin of Amphipolis.”

As I snuggled further under that gentle, protective arm, listened to her heartbeat and steady breathing, I felt very certain, that except for possibly the company of my parents, there was no safer place for me to be than with Rachelle of the Amazons by the Sea.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

The following morning, Baba Xe climbed the bare hill where I stood stroking the soft head feathers of my little hawk, Icarus.  She was eating a few tidbits of dried fish that I had saved for her from our catch a few evenings previous.

“What message have you readied to send to Amphipolis, Bird?”  Baba Xe’s voice was mild, but commanding.

“Only that ‘all is well’, Baba, “I raised my eyes reluctantly to meet hers, “Is that all right?”

Her big hand clapped my shoulder and then fell to swat my backside good naturedly, “That’s perfect, Baby,” she drew my head to her lips and then turned away, “We are departing soon.”

My eyes watered at the diminutive endearment; she never called me ‘Baby’ except on those rare occasions when she had sung me to sleep when I was very small.  It was forgiveness.  My shoulders straightened.

“Be safe on your journey, Icarus,” I spoke to my bird, “Artemis will guide you to me in Athens I hope, and if not there, then later on.”  I gave her a little toss into the air and watched her soar away.    A softness at me legs drew my attention.

“It would be wonderful to fly, don’t you agree, Little Mistress?”  My hand felt thick black fur arching through it.

“Yes, Zephyr, it would.”  I ran my hand down the length of her bushy tail to the silver tip.  It was as long as her entire body.  She stretched lazily, sleek legs to big furry feet and haunches.

“Did you have a good night out?”  I inquired with a smile.  Zephyr didn’t stay out often when we were in Amphipolis, but there was too much temptation on the road.

“I had a lovely evening, Little Mistress,” she gave me a slightly haughty look.

“Zephyr, I was not being nosy.”

“For your information, I returned quite early to sleep beside you and Lady Rachelle.  You had a trying day, my dear one.”

“I did, Zephyr.”  My knees gave way easily and I sank to her level.  The wise golden eyes regarded me with quietly.  I wrapped my arms around her warm soft neck and she leaned into me.  Thus, my fox loved and comforted me in her fashion, just as she always did.

“We’ll enter Athens today, I suppose?”  She trotted easily at my side as we approached Hades.

“I suppose.”  My own reservations entered as I began the automatic check of straps and fastenings on my horse.

“It seems a poor place for a fox.”

“Perhaps,” I looked down at my friend, “If you are uncomfortable in the city, you may retreat to the outer circles, Zephyr.   I can call you when we depart.”

“That may be the way for me, Little Mistress,” my fox looked thoughtful, “However, I shall give it a try.”

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Athens rather overwhelmed me.

I had always considered Amphipolis Fortress to be the greatest human construction that could possibly exist.  But then, I had never been very far from home.

Hades waited patiently as I sat staring at the Acropolis and its crowning Parthenon.  My mother rode from behind me and gently reached to push my lower jaw up to close my mouth.

“Bugs will fly in there, Sweetheart,” she laughed.

I just blinked at her.

Her emerald eyes sparkled at me and she turned her head to behold as well, “It truly is quite something though, isn’t it?”

“Lady G, may we go to see it?”  Rachelle voiced what I could not.

“Of course, but let’s go to our inn, stable the horses and clean up a bit first,” She put her hand to my back to restart Hades, “ Go.”

A sardonic sniff from Baba Xe, “The goddess Athena will still be there I think, and she will like it if we smell better I am sure.”

This drew a dirty look from Mama, “Xena.”

Lucy and Rach trotted up beside me, “Your Baba Xe doesn’t like Athena?”

I smiled just a little bit.  “My Baba Xe doesn’t place much stock in the deities.  She prefers doing jobs herself.”

“Oh.” Said Rach, “I think I knew that.”

I did my own study of my Conqueror parent.  This morning she had fashioned her hair behind in a low braid and covered it with a buckskin scarf.  Even the way she sat Argo was different.   Galto and Thomas sat their horses differently too, although they kept their usual wary eyes alert.   We had a campfire meeting a few nights previous to discuss our entry.  Baba Xe came to Athens quite often enough for political and military events.  This was the one time, one season, for the Academy of Bards convocation, that she came to the city for pleasure, to see old friends, and to eat good food.  While it was difficult to keep Xena the Conqueror incognito, we were going to give it a good try; she had made it clear that it was very important to her.

Our Amazon travel garb was taking its share of curious stares.  We were difficult to ignore, I guess, as most of the natives walked about in light colored togas and sandals.  After studying the garments, I decided to prefer my own buckskin and boots, even though they were hot in this warmer climate.   A toga was no protection in a fight.

Activities abounded.  Beggars and performers vied for our dinars.  Stands and booths selling food, fortunes, musical instruments, art, fabrics, and love lined the street.  I paused to watch a man play a horn at a round basket.   In a moment, a horrid looking serpent rose from the basket and spread a hood behind its neck.  It swayed with the motion of the horn.

“Little Mistress, I will leave you now,”  Zephyr did not like that snake.  Neither did I, but I was not a fox.

I dropped to one knee and took her head in my hands.  “Zephyr, will you be safe?”

“Of course, I will simply join the goddess, little one.  If you want me, you need only think of me.”

I rubbed her ears gently,” I understand your discomfort in the city, but selfishly, I dislike to be without you, Zephyr.”  My head dropped to hers.

The soft black head touched mine, “You are never without me, Little Mistress.”

And she was gone.

“Where is Zephyr?” Rach missed her immediately.

“She cares little for city life and will rejoin us as needed,” the sigh in my voice was apparent.

Rach slid her arm into mine, “I hated that snake too.”

“I will see to the horses,” Baba commanded, “Everyone collect your saddlebags.”

We unburdened our horses and approached the tidy building, a two storied affair of brick and adobe with a wooden sign that stated, “Zoe’s Best of Athens”.

“Is it as good an inn as Grandba’s?”  I turned to my mother.

“No,” she paused, “But it is the best in Athens”

Inside, it was dark, and thankfully much cooler.  As my eyes adjusted to the light, I watched a sturdy, roundish woman with bright white hair leave a group of people at a table and come to take my mother’s hands in hers.

“Queen Gabrielle,” the woman had grey eyes which held the wisdom of experience, “a four season’s round passes quickly.”

An elbow went into my side.  “Is that “The Zoe” of the Amazons of the Rock?”  Rach whispered, “She is legend.”

“I don’t know, Rach,” my answer, “but she has a look about her, doesn’t she?”

At that moment, Rach caught sight of the woman’s powerful arms embracing my mother.  On the left was a small tattoo of a woman warrior with bow and arrow, one breast bared.

“It is she!”  Rach couldn’t contain herself then.

My mother turned to flash a warm admonition and we quieted.

“Zoe, may I introduce our daughter, Robin of Amphipolis, called ‘Birdie’, and her friend, Rachelle of the Amazons by the Sea, fostered by Eponin and Ephiny.”

I bent to kiss the short woman’s hand, but Rachelle went down on one knee, fist over breast, her head bowed.

Zoe laid both hands on Rach’s head and then brought her to standing and kissed her on each cheek.

“It is such an honor, Queen Zoe,” Rach murmured.

“You honor me, my sweet girl,” Zoe said, “But now I am an innkeeper and so it must remain, or I am forsworn; remember that child.”

“Yes, My Queen,” my girlfriend said her eyes shining.  I was proud of her.

“Let me show you to your room; it’s the biggest in the inn,” Zoe took my mother’s hand.

@@@@@@@@@@@@

Xena the Conqueror strode into the inn and glared around the room quickly.  Zoe rose immediately and her grey eyes clashed with the cobalt in immediate challenge.

“Where are they?”  The tall dark and dangerous road traveler demanded.

The shorter, but no less intimidating woman moved to meet her in the center of the lobby, “I have no idea what you are talking about, warrior.”

Azure slits accompanied a growl, “Yes, you do, Amazon, and you’d best tell me.”

“Make me, warrior.”

Their hands slammed together and remained clasped as they walked to a table and sat across from each other elbows resting, hands pressed in a clash of will.  A small crowd began to gather as the veins on the arms and wrists showed with the strain, and beaded sweat formed on the brow of the dark headed stranger and equally on the white headed local woman. Money exchanged hands as the blue eyes remained locked with grey and teeth were bared.

Finally with a groan and a curse, the Amazon’s hand slammed backwards into the table.  Zoe laughed.

“Xena, you Cyclops, you are stronger than ever!”

A grin exploded on the Conqueror’s face, “You had me trembling, Zoe.  Are you working out?”

The crowd dissipated, exchanging coin, as the two old friends, rose, exchanged the warriors’ grip and followed by a quick, intense back slapping hug.

“It’s good to see you, Xena.”  The greeting was warm.

“Always good to see you, Zoe,”

“Your family is upstairs, final door to the left, small adjoining room, views of the stable and street, just how you like it.”

Zoe was rewarded with the warrior’s rare bright smile.

“Thank you, my friend.”

“A pleasure for the warrior princess, my friend.”

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

“So what is the story of “Zoe of the Rocks?” I asked Rach as we unpacked our gear in the small adjoining bedroom of the inn.     The accommodations were impressive.  The primary bedroom contained a huge bed with down covers and a small end table at either end for reading or writing.  Mama would like that and Baba always sharpened her weapons.  The walls were freshly whitewashed, and there was a large window which looked down on the street and stables below.    A short hallway kept a bathing tub with towels and something I had never seen, an indoor latrine.  Looking down into it, I saw flowing water below.

“Whoa, Rach, lookit this…”  I called her into the loo.

“Whoa!”

Mama G entered, “You two sound fresh from the farm.  Athens has indoor plumbing.  And now you have experienced it, so your education is complete.”  She rolled her eyes.

“Well, I haven’t truly experienced it yet.”  That got me a cuff in the head.

“Zoe of the Rocks?”  I tried again, as we re-entered our snug bedroom.

“I don’t really know that much, Birdie,” Rach carried her tunics to a small chest, “I’ll take the right side, ok?”

“Sure.  Tell me what you do know.”

“Only that she was the leader of an Amazon tribe which single handedly held an entire legion of Romans for a seven day straight, while a valley of villages escaped their capture.”

“It was rather an epic battle,” my mother frowned at my selection of clothing as she took it from me and carried it to the chest, “Birdie, didn’t you bring anything nicer than this?”

“Yes, Mama,” I sighed, “I brought my black tunic with the silver piping, don’t worry.”

“I felt your eyes roll, kiddo,” she didn’t turn around from the chest.

“Mama I didn’t roll my eyes,” I did protest.

“She did too, Lady G,” Rach laughed as she snapped me with a towel.

“Traitor!”  I nailed her with two balls of socks, once then twice.

“This one,”  Unfolding the black tunic, I showed it to my mother for approval.  She cocked her head to the side.

“It’s almost too small for you, Birdie.  Good thing you have a birthday coming up.”

“Back to the story, please?”  I redirected, as I fetched my socks from across the room.

“What you don’t know,” my mother paused at our bedroom door, “is that Zoe of the Rocks was aided by none other than Xena Warrior Princess.”

Who appeared through the door, as if on cue.

“What?”  She said gruffly, then.  “Nice room isn’t it?”

“Zoe always takes care of her friends,” Mama G drew a circle on Baba Xe’s belly and pushed her back through the hall.  “Let’s unpack, love.”

Baba Xe said nothing as they turned back into their bedroom.

Rach rolled her eyes, “I should have guessed.”

“So should I,” the bed bounced under my tired body.  “What a different world this Athens is.”

“It’s a little bit intimidating for me,” Rach observed as her warm body joined mine on the bed.

“Me too,” my voice drifted away from my own hearing, and I felt her arm settle gently across my belly, as our breathing synchronized quietly.  “I’m glad that you are here, Rach.”

She raised up to regard me, “Are you?”

“Always.”

The granite green eyes looked deep into my soul.  “What is it about you, Robin of Amphipolis?”  Her fingers played with my bangs.  I reached across my chest to capture her other hand in mine.

“I don’t know, Rach.  But there is definitely something about you.”

She closed her eyes and brought her lips to mine.  The joining ignited flame from my lips spreading down my arms in my belly, in my legs, in my…..

She released me.  My heartbeat accelerated.  I placed a gentle hand alongside her cheek.

“Rach..”

“Yes..”   a whisper.

“Do you feel like I do?”

“Kind of crazy inside?”

“Yes.”

“What shall we do about that, Birdie?”

I rose up to kiss her again, to feel the fire expand; she sat back as I ran light fingertips along her side and up her neck and collarbone.  Her hands fell around my waist and hips.   The warmth flooded my body; this was nice; this was very nice; I could become lost in this feeling.  But the heat was becoming too concentrated on my …. Head?

I fell back with a sharp burn to my forehead.  Rach did the same.  Reaching up under my hair, the stylized “A glowed hot.  Ouch.

“Birdie, did you do that?  My head hurts.”

I sighed and turned over.  “Is it better now?”

She joined me again at the headboard leaning on my shoulder quietly.  “Yes, but what was it?  It was sharp, but it went away.”

I kissed her hair and wrapped my arms around her.  Once again our breathing fell into rhythm.

“It would seem, Rach.”  I whispered.  “That we have an omnipotent chaperone.”

“Great, that’s just great,” she murmured.

Then it was quiet.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

“So many stairs!”   Nearing the peak of the Acropolis, I bent over to catch my breath and was immediately straightened by a brisk swat to the backside.

“Are you out of shape, Birdie?”  Baba Xe took the final six stairs in one bound.

Shook my head and sighed; should have known better.  “No Baba, I’m fine.  It’s just a bit hotter here, isn’t it?”  Suck it up Birddog.

“I think that it is both hotter and there are a gods be damned bunch of stairs!”  My mother was panting.   She could get by with it.

Baba Xe smiled and strode to lend a hand to her for the final few.   She was rarely ever made tired by a mere physical challenge such as a hundred stairs.

I did the same for Rach, but she was already recovered and completely mesmerized by the Parthenon.   It was a sight beyond anything in my experience.  I took her hand and we approached the massive temple in silence.

“So much marble, so much wealth,” I murmured.

“This city wanted Athena as their goddess, and they spared no effort in winning her favor,” Mama G spoke in hushed tones as we entered the edifice.  “No matter how many times I see this building, it always amazes me.”

Our boots echoed in the vacuous darkness.  There were other visitors perambulating about the temple, but they were lost in the immensity of the place.

“There, at the back.  There she is.  Well, it’s not really Athena, but…” my mother continued.

My exposure to sculpture was rare; actually, I had seen more during this trip to Athens then during the entirety of my short life.  Athens had a little jump on Amphipolis with regard to the fine arts.

Beginning with and ending with its namesake sculpture.  It was nearly as tall as the ceiling of this massive Parthenon.  I felt like an insect in its presence.   Created of white and golden marble, the goddess Athena herself gazed at her people with her famous wise and calm regard.  She was all at once beautiful, overwhelming, intimidating.

“The Goddess of wisdom and of just wars,” Rachelle said.

“You have done your homework,” my mother sounded approving.

Baba Xe snorted as she nearly always did when the deities were a topic.   She received the usual cuff to the stomach from Gabrielle the Bard.

“Xena, we are in Her Temple? Can you control your sarcasm?”  She admonished.

Another eye roll and another cuff.  I hid a grin; I would have received worse than a cuff for the smart arsed attitude exuding from my warrior parent at the moment.

“Well, you come by that honestly,” Rachelle whispered.

Mama G continued to glare at Baba Xe.

Baba sighed, “It’s only that Athena and I have disagreed at times on just exactly what the definition of a “just war” should cover.  You should appreciate that Gabrielle; it’s a matter of semantics.”

She squawked when she received the third cuff.

During this exchange, Rachelle had walked closer to the sculpture.   She stood quietly looking up at the serious countenance of the wise goddess and then dropped to one knee, bowed her head and placed her right fist over her heart.

My mother joined her in the same position.  They both held for a few moments and then began walking toward the exit pillars.

I had fallen back with Baba, somehow needing to stay beside my warrior parent.  She gave me a little push following behind me.

“Pay your respects, Birdie,” her voice was quiet.  I turned to look at this sudden change in attitude and received a firm nod of the dark head.

Dropping to one knee and lowering my eyes, I crossed my heart with my right fist and held it.   A strange charge came into the atmosphere, my heartbeat increased; it was not unlike the sensation I experienced when my Lady Artemis appeared.

Just a little frightened, I rose quickly and stepped back under Baba’s arm.  To my surprise, she was standing rather submissively, right fist over her heart.   I looked at her, and then at the sculpture.   The huge eyes had taken on life; they were a stormy thundercloud grey with lightening bolts flashing them; I began trembling.

“Baba?”

She drew me in, “It’s all right, Birdie.  Athena is only recognizing you.  Bow again, Little Bird.”

We both did so again, fist over hearts, and then we turned and departed.

“Baba,” I began outside, but only caught a wink from the sapphire eyes.

“I’m hungry,” my warrior parent announced to our significant others, “Let’s go to Sybil’s.”

Sybil’srather like Zoe’s was a tiny unassuming location which one would pass by if one were uninformed.   I was thirsty; Athens was much hotter than Amphipolis and the Acropolis stairs had exacerbated that thirst to raging.

“Athena keeps her people perpetually thirsty.”  I remarked as we entered the cool shade of the adobe dwelling.

Rach had my arm and squeezed it to a pinch.  “Respect, Birdie; be respectful.”

“Do you think she can still hear us, Rach?”

That brought me a cuff to the head.  I grinned at her.

We were escorted to a back corner table.  We always sat at a rearward corner table.  Later in my life, I would request those tables as well; a wise warrior wants her back to the wall and full surveillance of the room and entryways.   I drained my clay water mug and it was quickly refilled.

There was a tall red headed woman making her way back to our position.

“Sybil,” Baba Xe rose, shook her hand graciously and allowed a brief hug.  “How are you?”

“I am well, Xena,” the woman had a low melodic voice and her eyes were a creek bed brown with sunlight highlights framed in pale skin.

“Sybil,” my mother had made her way from the other side of the table to embrace the woman fully, “you look well.  How are the twins?”

Sybil laughed, “Difficult!”  But then she softened into a smile, “But also wonderful.”

Mama G looked at the ceiling calculating, “They are what, eleven winters?”  She kept track.

“Yes,” the woman closed her eyes, “a challenging age.”

“I don’t know; we’re surviving, “Baba Xe pulled me up and in front of her, “Here’s our Birdie, age thirteen winters; she’s still intact, and so are we.”  She ruffled my hair.

I nodded and grasped Sybil’s hand gently, “My Lady.”  Best manners.

“And this is Birdie’s best friend, Rachelle, same age, also intact,” my mother tugged Rach to her feet.

“Lady,” Rachelle smiled.

“See?”  Baba Xe grinned, “There is hope.  There is struggle, but there is hope.”

“So you’re here for the convention at the Royal Academy of Bards?”  Sybil asked looking as if she might sit and talk a little while.   She seemed very nice.

“The one and only,” Mama took a deep smell of her pie and closed her eyes, “and it’s extra special for us this year, because our Birdie is now a member as well.”

“Really?”  Sybil’s eyes turned immediately to me, “You are a bard as well?”

I felt the heat in my face.  “Well I try my best.”

“It’s no surprise considering who your mother is,” she patted my hand.  “I will look for your scrolls, Birdie. “ Are they under ‘Birdie’?”

“No, they are under Robin of Amphipolis,” my mother told her.

“Birdie is a nickname,” I said, wiping my mouth, “but I like it.”

Sybil smiled again, “It suits you.”

At that very moment a commotion began in the kitchen which sounded as if bandits had attacked it, or that a small war had begun.  Pots and pans clanged and fell, chickens clucked, women screamed, men cursed, kettles whistled, and voices shouted in every octave.

Sybil closed her eyes, “That would be Tobias and Timothy now.”  She placed her hands on her hips and did an about face.   With the timing of a trained fighter, she dropped her hands at the perfect moment to corral the forward motion of two fast moving, little red headed boys.

“Boys,” she said quietly, “Look who is here.”

Two pairs of hazel eyes widened immediately, “Xena!”  They looked at each other, “It’s Xena!  Hi, Gabrielle.”

Baba Xe strode forward and gathered a boy under each of her arms, “Hi boys,” she said it as cheerfully as when she rode into bandits, “lets go see what you did to the kitchen.”

“Ah, Xena…”  But she was already at the doors.

Our server brought our food then, and Sybil sat down with us for a moment.

“This spinach pie is as superb as ever,” Mama G managed with her mouth full.

“Wow!”  I mumbled, and bit again into the hot cheesy delight.

“It’s what keeps me open,” But Sybil looked pleased.

Baba Xe rejoined us and took two wolf sized bites, “That Acropolis will give you an appetite.  Yum!”  She said appreciatively.  Her eyes paid the compliment.

“So will tackling my twins,” Sybil sighed, “Thank you Xena; we miss their father so much.”  Darkness marred her pretty eyes.  Mama reached for the pale hand, and Sybil returned the empathetic squeeze.

“They just needed a little firmness,” Baba swallowed and took another bite.  “They are mopping up in there good as gold.”

We ate contentedly for a few moments more.  I was feeling like I might begin to rather like Athens after all.

@@@@@@@@@@@@

To be continued….

Some days the road climbs high,

And some the road runs low.

And what we next might meet,

That we cannot know.

Some days are full of laughter,

And some a share of strife,

Or even those who’d deign

To threaten our good lives.

But round the evening campfire,

There are great tales to tell

And many lessons learned

And so we listen well.

And now this giant city’s

So full of power and grace,

And yet searching within it

I really find no place-

For Robin, child of the

Fighter who flashes sapphire eyes.

And also the poet who guides

With her heart that’s deeply wise.

I long for gentle sleep

Under the silent stars.

Back out on the road again,

With the warrior and the bard.

Part 3

There was movement on the right side of the bed. Finally. Granite green eyes gazed sleepily at me framed in adorably tousled ash hair.

“How long have you been awake, Birdsong?” Rach yawned, then flipped over on her back and stretched her arms over her head as her toes extended long and white.

I returned to my study of the ceiling, “A little while.”

She rolled back over immediately pinning me with her gaze,” What’s wrong? Are you nervous?”

My smile formed easily as I played the strands of hair from her eyes, “You are so cute.”

My girl looked annoyed. “Don’t change the subject, Birdie.”

“Yes. For some reason, a little bit.”

“Why?”

I turned on my side to face her.

“I don’t know, Rach. Being a warrior is ….. So straightforward. One has an issue, one draws the sword and slam, blam, and it’s over, Sam.” My fingers drew circles in the bedsheets pondering. “Whereas with writing, minotaur shite, if there’s an issue with writing, Rach, sometimes not all the gods on Olympus can help a person. Sometimes there’s more blood with writing than with war.”

“Really?” She looked puzzled.

“Absolutely.”

“I had no idea, “the blond head lay down beside me and her hand stroked my belly soothingly. “I am glad I am a healer then.”

“Don’t misunderstand, I enjoy writing, “ this from me with a sigh, “but it’s also my first time to meet my mothers’ …. Well…. ‘army’ of writers.”

“Army?”

“Her people, Rach. The other writers in Greece that are her old friends—those whom she admires so much. It would be a very good day for me to not mess up.”

Rachelle sat straight up in the bed . She reached for my nightshirt, and yanked me up firmly to face her. Her eyes were snapping.

“Robin of Amphipolis, Look at me.”

When I didn’t right away, she caught my chin and raised my head so that our eyes met.

“Birdie, you will be fourteen winters old very soon. You have matured since I have known you, and you will not make so many mistakes. Actually, you don’t make many at all; you just live a life that is fraught with high expectations.”

I swallowed silently.

She kissed my forehead, “ You are too hard on yourself, Birdie.” Her hand moved gently from my bangs down the side of my face. “It’s one of the things I love about you, but you also need to go a little easier on the Bird girl, do you hear me?”

She moved my errant bangs from my eyes. “We need to be up and about.” Then she put her arms around me. “Besides…”

I rested my head on her shoulder and allowed the tension to drain away. “Besides what, Rach?”

Her hand had travelled up the back of my head into my hair and now it gave me a light slap, “Now you have me, and I will let you know if you mess up.” She pulled back and we touched foreheads. I chuckled as we rocked together a moment.

“Right, Rach. I forgot.”

Another light head smack, “Well don’t ever forget it. Now wash up, we need to be ready.”

She swung her legs to the side of the bed and rumbled through and retrieved a small wooden box from her pack.

“Would you like to see my most prized possession? Besides this, I mean.” She twirled the silver ring I had given to her a few moons previous.

“Of course.”

Rachelle scooted her bottom back into the covers and opened the box. “These were Betha’s; the most valuable thing she owned, and she left them to me.”

Glowing softly in the dark wood were a pair of silver coin earring studs.

“May I?” Rach nodded , and I gently scooped out the small disc to study it. “Is it a boy on a dolphin?”

“Yes, thought to be a son of Poseidon.”

Now I studied her closely, “ Hadn’t realized that you had pierced ears, Rach.”

“Well, Birdie you aren’t the best at noticing finer details,” she laughed and ruffled my hair. “ Now if it’s a swordfight..”

She kissed my hurt feelings on top of my hair, “its fine sweetheart, and I only wear very tiny earrings otherwise.”

“You should wear these all of the time, Rach; they are part of who you are; a seaside Amazon.”

Rachelle’s brows furrowed, “ I would hate to lose one.”

“We’ll figure out a way to make grooves and a screw back. I bet Talus or Baba can think of something. Put them on. “

They were magnificent; she looked like royalty.

My head was immersed in the washbowl when I heard the door between bedrooms open.

“Hi Lady G,” Rach was tying the laces on a beautiful dark brown silk tunic with gold embroidered starfish on the cuffs and collar. It matched her dress buckskirt and soft boots perfectly.

“Good morning little Amazon girl; you look nice.” Mama drew Rach’s head to her lips and kissed her softly. Rachelle blushed a little; she and Mama both knew that Rach cherished the little bits of love that Mama gave to her more and more often.

My smaller parent approached me as I toweled off my hair and face. She was wearing a long silk cloak of sage green over matching trousers and tunic. There was golden piping of leaves at the collar and sleeves and the same down the edges of the cloak. In her hair was a circle of laurel leaves. Gabrielle the Bard had arrived in Athens . It was a fine sight to see her in her true element.

“Birdie,” she looked at me appraisingly, “I want you to try this on.” She handed me a cream colored silk shirt. I took it and ran my hands over it. The material was heavy and there were silver birds embroidered at the cuffs and on the collar.

“Mama, what’s wrong with my black tunic?” I protested.

“You’ve outgrown it, and this one is much nicer. I only wore it three times and it’s perfect for you. And try these.” She handed me a pair of silk trousers.

“Ma-ma! I don’t wear sissy pants!”

The forest eyes flared. “Sissy pants? Do you call what I am wearing, ‘sissy pants’?”

Behind her, Rachelle made the sign of cutting her throat with her hand across her own, quickly. Right.

“No Mama,” I looked at them, “But there are no laces on the sides.”

“Exactly.” The Royal Academy of Bards is not a battlefield.” My mother’s hands were on her hips, always a bad sign.

I looked up to see that Baba Xe was leaning in the doorway. The silk shirt she was wearing was an aqua blue and the gold trim on it depicted swords. Her dark silk trousers were belted in dark leather with a golden chakram shaped buckle. She still wore her hair back, but Xena the Warrior Princess would always capture every eye in a room.

“Would you like to wear a dress, Birdie?” Baba Xe asked in that dangerously low voice she employed when her statement or question was to be considered final.

A DRESS? My vision blurred ; my breathing stopped.

“This blouse will be fine, Mama G,” I murmured humbly. “I will be ready very soon and we can have breakfast. Sorry, the clothes are lovely.”

Mama smiled at me and gave me an encouraging swat, “That’s my little bard.”

I sighed and slipped into the shirt which was very nice. But I could still feel the blue gaze on me so I looked up.

Baba Xe was smiling at me, and she winked as she vacated the doorway, “Bird,” she chuckled, “a wise soldier learns to pick her battles.”

++++++++

“Where is Mama?” I asked a few moments later as butter slopped down my chin having leaked from Zoe’s hot muffin. The shirt did look splendid on me and I owed her a bit of contrition.

Baba Xe was finishing her third muffin and sipped from her tea mug, “She went to have breakfast at the Academy with the “boys”. It’s an annual reunion for them; she really looks forward to it.”

+++++++++++

Gabrielle arrived at the scratched and scruffy door of the servant’s quarters of the Royal Academy of Performing Bards. Her fingers played a moment with the rough wood remembering the few nights she had spent there in the primitive quarters telling stories with her friends. Since those days, at every convocation of the bards, the old group met for breakfast in this humble room where they had shared their stories as youths. She pushed the door open.

“Gab Gab Gabrielle!” The tall darkheaded man leaped across the room to embrace her– first picking her up and then swinging her about in a circle.

She threw her arms around his neck, “Twickenham, it’s so good to see you! How are your wife and kids?”

“Just had number three, “ he set her down gently, but they remained with arms clasped. “And Gabrielle, none of them stutter.”

“Well, yours has improved with age, “ she said with a pat on his shoulder, “The gods give us challenges to overcome for a reason, you know. Your children’s scroll about the cat in the hat who helps the little boy with his stutter is still one of my Birdie’s favorites.”

“Truly, Gab.. Gabrielle?” he asked quietly pleased.

She took his face in her hands,

“Absolutely. And what is more important, my Birdie has never made fun of anybody with a speech, or hearing, or any kind of issue such as that to face in life, Twickenham. Oooooffff!!”

The small bard was seized from behind by a mighty force and raised into the air again.

“Let me guess, “ she laughed, “ I guess—- Stallonus!”

“AHHH !! How did you know??” He put her down and immediately danced away doing a one two punch.

“Just your energy, old friend, “ she laughed, “How is your work in the ‘action/visual scroll’ business?”

“Better all the time, Gab.” The hyperactive man actually stood still for a moment. “Actually I have two new ideas for superheroes, one about a man with super strength…”

“Like Hercules?”

“Nah, this guy can fly.”

Gabrielle and Twickenham rolled their eyes and laughed. Good old Stallonus.

“And another about a regular guy who fights dressed as…..”

“A chimera?”

“No a bat.”

“Well, “ Gabrielle looked at Twickenham tactfully, “it could work. Birdie still reads your scroll about the man who could shoot spider webs out of his hands. You have a wonderful imagination, Stallonus.”

“Well, neither of us are in the hall of scrolls like y.. y… you,” Twickenham ducked his head a little.

Gabrielle grabbed his arm emphatically and after an instant, she grabbed Stallonus’ arm just as emphatically. “Now you two listen to me,” she spoke firmly. “Writing is not just about being in the Academy Hall of Scrolls. You two fellows have influenced many many kids, including mine for the greater good. Never ever undervalue that contribution.”

They smiled at her and joined in a three way hug. The old door opened and two more of the party entered, this time with the aroma of baked goods.

“We are arrived with the means to satiate ravenous appetites, “ quoted Euripides.

“He means the food’s here, “ said Homer.

Gabrielle went to put her arms around the two men. “Welcome.” She said, “Let’s eat.”

@@@@@@@@@@

We ambled amiably along the streets pausing here and there to look at a vendor’s wares. It was very out of character for my Baba Xe.

“Baba, are we actually shopping?” I finally asked.

She laughed with a genuine look of confusion in her eyes, “ I’m sorry Birdie, should have told you. Yes. We have three quarters of a candle mark or so before the convocation begins, so your mother told me to select some gifts to take back to Grandba. The only catch….” She sighed wearily, “ Is that I haven’t the slightest idea what to take to her.”

“Lady Xe, “ Rachelle called from two stands ahead, “Isn’t this silk from Chin?”

Baba’s eyes sparkled and she strode ahead quickly, “I like that girl, “ she said.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Gabrielle sat back from her pastry and took another sip of tea. “Excellent choices, fellows.” She complimented, “and speaking of excellent, Euripides….. Your Medea… what a stunning piece of work, big guy.”

“You perused the tome,” the bard looked pleased, “most of the common populous does not imbibe.”

“Euripy, guy, it’s too freaking’ hard ta read. You need pictures,” Stallonus piped up.

“Not so difficult to read, this one, “Gabrielle’s tone was thoughtful, “it was, however, extremely dark; Jason paid dearly for his adultery.”

“One cannot make light of adultery resulting in the demise of progeny or any event resulting in the demise of progeny.” intoned the erudite poet.

“No…. one cannot, “ the emerald eyes went far away and then returned. “Homer, The Iliad was brilliant, and you have begun The Odyssey?”

“I have,” the handsome and perhaps most famous of them all reached for her hand. “And I owe it all to you, Gabrielle.”

“Please, “ she took it away.

“No, you please,” he grabbed hers with both of his. “If you hadn’t chased me down that day and talked me into returning… I would never have become who I am. “

“Be sure to check your scrolls in the hall, Gabrielle, “ chimed Twickenham, “they are always being read.”

“Well, “ Gabrielle leaned back looking at all of them, “I guess we did pretty well to come from the servant’s quarters, didn’t we?”

They laughed and toasted old times with their tea mugs.

@@@@@@@@@@@@

After the splendor of the Parthenon, The Royal Academy of Performing Bards appeared a little ordinary, really not much more remarkable than Zoe’s Inn.

Baba Xe looked up at the edifice, “But great tales are both told and written down here, girls. Without our storytellers, there would be no heroes; there would be no history.”

“That is why you think that ‘barding’ is as important as fighting, Baba Xe?” I asked her quietly. I had never really asked her that question before.

She looked at me a long moment and then wrapped her long arm around me, “Actually, Birdie, I believe that ‘barding’ is more important than fighting. Unfortunately, it is in humankind’s nature to always be in conflict. And so we must protect our bards , because they recall, record, and recount the lessons we learn from our victories and from our mistakes.”

I blinked at her and committed her words to memory, because I still believe those are the most important words my Baba Xe ever said to me. Neither of us realized it at the time, but the words chiseled into my brain and I think of them often. Xena the Conqueror was known as a warrior and fighter without equal; few knew that she was also a sensitive, thoughtful, and wise woman.

We entered the building which had as its main room, and amphitheatre much like those found outside around the city. This one was a little smaller and of course under roof. Baba said that it had marvelous acoustics.

“Do you see Lady G?” Rach was taking it all in with big eyes.

“Look for the largest gathering,” my Baba was smiling, and she was right. I caught the flash of Mama’s hair surrounded by a group of tall good looking men. Baba Xe waved and the little group moved our way.

“Here’s my family, “ Mama had laughter in her eyes; the fellows surrounding her seemed like a happy crew. “This is my Birdie,” she put her hands on my shoulders, “You know Xena of course, and here,” she drew in Rach with an arm, “is Birdie’s friend Rachelle. Birdie, prepare yourself, ok?”

“Ok, Mama.”

The guys laughed.

“Birdie, this is Twickenham.”

“Hello, Mr. Twickenham, “ I was polite.

“Twickenham wrote TheCat in the Hat and the Boy who Stuttered”.

My grip on his hand changed. “REALLY? I am honored to meet you , Mr. Twickenham!! That was my favorite scroll! The first one I could read all by myself.”

His dark eyes laughed at me, “And I am honored to meet y… y… you.. Birdie.”

“And this…” my mother steered me again, “is Stallonus.”

“Who writes the visual scrolls? The one about the fellow who shoots spider webs from his hands?” I finished for her.

Stallonus did a little dance and shot invisible spider webs at me; I did a spin and shot them back. “I love your stories!” I shook his hand.

A tall rather imposing figure was next.

“This is Euripides, “ Mama G introduced, “You won’t have read any of his writing yet.”

I shook his hand.

“But you may, should you ascend into esoteric echelons of education,” said Euripides.

I didn’t even try but only shook his hand gravely.

“And this, “ my mother turned me to a kind looking man with an intelligent face, “ is Homer.”

His grip was warm and friendly. “I am so pleased to meet you at last, Birdie.”

“I am pleased to meet you as well, “ I said, “ I have just begun reading The Iliad on my own, but Mama told me the story long ago when I was very young.”

Homer looked at my mother. “The kid’s a bard.” He said.

“I do my best, “ my mother returned.

Baba Xe’s hand fell on her shoulder. “They are trying to begin the meeting now.”

So we all sat down together.

+++++++++++

I wasn’t exactly asleep.

My mind was simply roaming elsewhere, anywhere actually. The presentations had gone on awhile, with awards given for epic poems, drama, short stories, comedies, on and on. The winners went to the front and received laurel wreathes like Mama G was wearing. As I considered it, there were quite a number of those wreaths about the fortress.

Baba Xe had sat between Rach and me after the first candle mark because we were whispering too much. She had given me the icy evil eye as well, but it was followed by a wink. She knew we weren’t used to sitting still so long. Mama G put her hand on my knee and squeezed still keeping her eyes forward. I settled down. A knee squeeze from Mama meant all kinds of dire consequences could follow later.

An elderly man rose from a seat on the stage and hobbled to the podium.

Mama leaned back. “That is Gastacius,” she whispered, “He was the judge who was responsible for my chance to compete the very first time all those years ago. “

When the man arrived at the podium, his carriage straightened and his voice rang across the crowd, “We have a new award to present this year. It is for two different accounts of the same event. If you go to the hall of scrolls, I would very much recommend that you read the accounts of ‘The Battle of Wild Horse Canyon,” . There is a version written by a well known bard, Gabrielle of Poteidea, and a version written by her daughter, Robin of Amphipolis. They are both superb scrolls. And so the Academy is proud to give its first awards to bards that happen to be mother and daughter: Gabrielle and Robin of Amphipolis.”

Baba Xe finally reached under me and shoved my butt up to assist my mother tugging at my hand. I stumbled out into the aisle and followed my mother up to the podium.

She shook hands with Gastacius, then kissed him on both cheeks.

“I am so proud of you, Gabrielle, “ he said, as he placed the laurel on her head, then his dark eyes fell on me, sparkling brightly. “And this is Birdie. At last.”

I shook his hand as he placed the laurel wreath on my head, “Thank you sir,” I whispered.

“Work hard at your writing, little bard, “ his voice was raspy, “ You have talent.”

My shoulders straightened a little and the warmth of my mother’s hands on my shoulders came through that dressy tunic she had insisted that I wear.

Then we turned and faced the crowd; I was shaking, and Mama G could feel it, because she now squeezed my shoulder gently and leaned forward, “Look back at Baba Xe and Rach, “ she whispered in my ear.

Baba Xe and Rach had joined hands and were holding them in the air triumphantly. It made me feel good to make them proud.

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

“So this is the famous Hall of Scrolls?” It was the place I had most wanted to see at the Academy. The enormous room had a musty smell, but that was to be expected. It was indeed, a great hall that seemed to go endlessly.

“They add rooms constantly, “ said Mama G, “ I suppose they always will as long as there are bards.”

“Where are your scrolls, Lady G?” Rach was taking it all in, just like she always did. My girlfriend missed very little.

“There, “ Baba Xe pointed to an area . There were a few people there and a scribe seated at a desk , feather quill in hand, writing. We walked over to the shelves.

I looked at the dozens and dozens of long stories piled on shelves with the golden handles sticking out. A young man selected one and checked it out with the young scribe who sat there. Rach had been watching the scribe work and she returned to my side.

“The scribe is recopying a story, “ she said. “Your mother’s scrolls are read so often, it takes a full time scribe to keep them in repair and readable. It’s awesome. Oh!” she drifted to the left of my mother’s work. “Birdie, come here.”

There was a single shelf with eight divisions in it. Two were empty. On the shelf top was lettered neatly, Robin of Amphipolis.

My grin was hurting my face.

“Look, someone has checked out two of your scrolls! That is just soooo. “ my girlfriend put an arm around me and kissed my cheek, “I am proud of you, and now I need to read all of them as well. Look, the others have been read, see the smudges?”

Gob smacking.

My head took a bit of a cuff. “Birdie!” my girl was growing impatient with my silence. “Can you only write and not speak?”

Mama G chuckled gently, “ I think that our Birdie might be a little overwhelmed Rachelle. It’s been a big day for her. “ She ran a gentle hand up the back of my hair. “Now you know why I work you so hard?”

I turned to look at her, “ Yes ma’m, and you will continue to do so, won’t you, Mama G?”

The emerald eyes gave me her answer.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

The following morning air was uncharacteristically cool in Athens and it seemed to bring a quieter atmosphere to the city as we performed out final checks on the horses.

Zoe stood eyeing my Baba Xe as she ran an expert final check on Argo, then paced by all of our horses a doing a quick inspection without really being aware that she did it.

“Always the Conqueror, eh Xe?” Zoe poked her hand into my tall parent’s ribs.

Baba turned to her, “Old habits die hard.” Her azure eyes were serious. “And some old habits are very handy, wouldn’t you agree, Old Amazon?” She held out her arm.

“Indeed I do agree, my friend, “ Zoe grasped the muscled arm warmly. “Don’t forget us here.”

Mama G had walked over then, “How could we?” she kissed Zoe on the cheek, “We love it here, Zoe.”

“You have a standing reservation.” The little innkeeper shook her hair back. “Always.”

Rach and I waved at her from our horses.

“Where the devil is Galto?” Baba Xe’s voice took the true Conqueror’s tone then.

Thomas took to his saddle and bowed his head apologetically. “On his way, M’Lady, I can see him up the road.”

We all looked and noted that Galto walked toward us arm in arm with none other than Sybil. The company parted at about a block from us with Galto and Sybil engaging in a long kiss. Then she and the boys waved as Galto ran to his horse and vaulted upon it.

“Sorry M’Lady, “ he said, shyly.

Baba Xe shot him a flash of cobalt ice that should have frozen him stiff. But then she snorted and growled, “Your next leave may be in Athens, Galto?”

He blushed a very deep red.

We all waved at Sybil. Then we saluted Zoe once more and rode out of Athena’s great city.

@@@@@@@@@

As soon as the road opened in front of us, there was a black dot on the horizon. It was approaching quickly and I nudged Hades to part from the crew and sped to meet it.

“Bird,” Mama G managed to say, before I left the group.

Hades took a good three dozen strides and then I slid out of the saddle and continued at a fast sprint. We collided in a great, fond furry laughing embrace—my fox and I.

“Oh Zephyr, how wonderful it is to see you!” I lay back on the ground and she placed her head on my chest while I ran my hands through the thick ebony fur. “I missed you!”

“Indeed, Little Mistress.” was my fox’s thought, “I missed you as well.”

“Have you been watching?” I held her nose to mine, “ Were you with Lady Artemis when she stopped my kissing Rachelle?”

“Little Mistress,” my fox looked offended, “do you think that I have nothing better to do among theduties of the goddess than to spy on my mistress? You do me an injustice.” She grasped a shock of my hair in her teeth and pulled.

“Ow, I am sorry Zephyr, OW! It was an inappropriate question.” I tumbled back again and resumed stroking her.

Hey,” The rest of the party was sitting in their saddles amused.

“Right.” I clambered into Hades’ saddle, and we resumed. Zephyr took the lead.

Rachelle inclined her head at my happy sigh. “That fox is so very much a part of you, isn’t she? I hadn’t quite realized it until just now what a large chunk of you had been empty.”

“She’s my soul mate , if an animal can be such, “ I looked at her seriously, “I have more than one soulmate you know.”

Rach smiled and returned her eyes to the road.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Our first night was uncharacteristically quiet. I believe that we were all very contented to be out of the noisy city and enjoyed the silence of nature once again. We had brought our first night’s meal from Zoe’s, a rich mutton stew with her ready side of chewy dark bread and it was deeply satisfying. Baba Xe had frowned at the weather conditions all day however ,and as we cleared away our dinner, she hustled us to bed under a good sized hanging ledge of boulders that were conveniently arranged for our shelter.

“Birdie, Rach, go and gather wood to keep the fire fed tonight and for in the morning, “ she directed, “It will rain tonight, and we will want warmth and tea at daylight. I imagine we will have a later start.”

In the night it did rain and chilled the air. I felt Rachelle trembling and pulled her closer so that we were spoons together and after a few moments her body quieted. Zephyr’s breathing brushed her warm fur in a comforting massaged at my back. Across the low glow of flames, I could see the dark and light heads of my parents, cuddled together in their furs, while Galto and Thomas watched over us in the outlying rocks. I wondered if any girl in Greece could be happier than I was at that moment.

@@@@@@@

The sun reappeared the following morning and sped our departure somewhat; the thought of returning to Amphipolis was cheering everyone; it was definitely time to go home.

We had just taken our midday break and settled into the afternoon pace when Baba raised her hand at the lead of our procession. That was her signal for the rest of us to stop behind her and maintain absolute silence so that she could concentrate all of her keen senses on what had disturbed her. When she turned back, she was agitated.

“Thomas, Galto, prepare. Gabrielle, with me. Birdie, Rachelle..”

I inclined my head toward a large oak, perhaps ten horse lengths to the left, “That tree, Baba Xe?”

The icy blues appraised it, “Yes, and remain there, unless I give you word.” Her eyes flicked at me with lightning quickness and message.

“I understand, Baba.”

She and Argo whirled as one to face the cloud of dust that heralded the approaching gang.

“Hades, don’t go too far away, “ I said softly to my horse, as I caught the lowest branch behind Rachelle who was already four branches ahead of me.

“Birdie, who do you think it is?” Rach whispered as I joined her on a high perch.

“I don’t know, Rach, could be anyone; minotaur shite there’s enough of them.”

A dozen men rode hard at my parents’ tiny defense. Even though I knew that Xena the Conqueror was a match for ten or even a dozen men alone, the numbers worried me. The attack was wide open , extremely aggressive, and I wondered if they were related to the other gang.

It was no matter to The Conqueror. She rode with equal aggression into the dead middle of them at top speed without drawing the Tide; had she lost her mind? At a measured moment she stood in Argo’s saddle and grabbed the men’s hair on either side of her. Then with her “yiyiyiyi”, she leaped down and then up into the highest backward flip I had ever seen her perform. The momentum of her decent tossed both men over the heads of their horses so that they were trampled by the oncoming gang’s mounts. To recover, she simply waded her way dancing on the backs of horses, now with Tide drawn taking off two more heads before Argo found her, and they were reunited.

“By the gods,” Rachelle’s voice was soft with awe.

“Sometimes,” I offered shaking my head, “I believe that Baba Xe creates her fighting moves on the spot. I have never seen that one before.”

Thomas and Galto were taking the men on the perimeters and Mama G fought the stragglers. But she was in trouble; too many were coming through. The bright hair flashed and fell into place with the swinging sais, but two of the brigands broke away and rode in our direction.

I folded my tongue a certain way in my teeth and blew an ear splitting whistle. Baba Xe turned her head in my direction, then in Mama G’s. She whistled back. It was consent.

“Hades!” My horse was there immediately and I dropped into his saddle. We thundered toward the approaching men. They were young, strapping, and strong, and thus gave me some pause as they drew near.

“Hades, you must take one of them,” I whispered into my horse’s ear. There was a short bark below, and my heart was filled. “Thank the gods you are here, Zephyr.” I breathed. “Now we are even.”

Mama had disabled the man who was troubling her and leaving him unconscious, urged Wendy toward us. As my animal kingdom partners and I greeted our attackers; I drew the Baby Tide and pulled my boots from the stirrups. When the first bandit and I passed and we clashed swords, I left my saddle, stepped to the rear of his horse and dislodged him by wrapping my arms around his neck and pulled him from the saddle with my weight. We both hit the ground hard, and I lay a moment too long gathering my wits. A fiery pierce split into my upper left arm, and I howled with both anger and pain. He had taken the risk however, of his sword was sticking into the soft earth along with my sleeve. Rolling to the right, I ripped the sleeve from my shirt, and rammed my boot into his crotch hard as he struggled to free his sword, and simultaneously slung the Baby Tide back right to slash his throat deeply as he hung over me. I rolled away from the spurt of his jugular vein and the collapse of his large body and without a look back, went to check on Hades and Zephyr who had the other bandit squirming and screaming on the ground; Hades was standing over him like a stone horse and Zephyr had sunk her teeth deeply into his arm.

Mama G joined us dismounting Wendy and striding to the scene in one motion, “Zephyr, let him go.”

My fox always obeyed my mother as she did me.

I walked to join her, but spared a look at the tree which Rachel had descended. She was jogging our way now as well, unhurt.

Mama G looked very tall standing over the gang member. “Who are you?” She demanded.

The man shook his head.

“Zephyr.” My fox was as good as the pinch. Her teeth went t right back into the arm.

“Haugh!” Call the beast off! I’ll tell ya!”

“Zephyr.” I hunkered down beside my fox and stroked her head until the amber fire left her eyes; but she only just lessened the bite.

“You had better begin talking, sir.” My mother was formidable in her fashion.

“Tell the dog… yeouch!”

“Answer the question, meatball. Who are you?” Xena the Conqueror had arrived, and it was her sultry tones which asked the question.

The man shriveled considerably. Zephyr increased the bite.

“We ride for one man. Calls himself Rankor.” The man ducked his head ashamedly. “I got nuthin’ against you personal, Conqueror. It was a job, s’all. Rankor pays.”

Baba walked closer and stood very tall over the fellow, “So you do know who I am and Rankor pays well to kill me, eh..?” She extended her hand down and after a furtive glance, the man took it. She hauled him up with such power; he flew into the air and had to scramble for his footing. She continued to appraise him, and he continued to scuff the ground with his boot. He was actually very young, no more than sixteen winters, with dirty blond hair and almost violet blue eyes which were quite beautiful when he found the courage to raise them. Baba continued to wait him out.

He found some shaky courage, “I got no ‘ome, Lady Conqueror. Took to drinkin’ and partyin’ with my friends too much. My parents give me the threat of straighten up or ship out. I shipped. Kicked around for awhile, but was nearly starvin’ when Rankor found me. At least he fed me and gave me a place to sleep.”

Baba Xe said nothing, but she leveled her icy blues at the boy. I began to feel rather bad for him.

Rachelle had joined us by now, had taken a handkerchief from her pocket, and was tying it off above the cut in my arm. It was throbbing with every beat of my heart. She had spared me a look that wasn’t relaxed.

Mama G had crossed the distance and stood by Baba.

“What is your name, son?” My mother said in the gentle encouraging way she had which put friends and enemies at ease.

“Caleb.” Tears ran down his face. Zephyr pushed her nose into his hand. “What’s this?” He stroked her head.

“Zephyr is an excellent judge of people,” I offered.

Baba crossed her arms on her chest. “Well, Caleb, you have three choices. You can continue this fight and likely die. You can ride on back to Rankor and report what has happened here, and he will kill you. Or you can come to Amphipolis, find a new life, and one day return home with some pride returned to you.”

“I like the third option, if you will have me.” Caleb said softly.

The slightest smile came into Baba Xe’s eyes. “Kneel then.”

The lad dropped to one knee immediately. This was my first time to witness such; I supposed she didn’t quite trust the kid yet. But my Conqueror parent stepped back looking at my mother who smiled and placed her hand on Caleb’s head.

“Caleb, “she said softly, “Do you pledge your life, loyalty, and strength to the service of the Amphipolis militia under the command of the warrior and the bard?”

Caleb raised his head and looked into the bard’s knowing eyes. “I do so pledge, My Lady.” He kissed her hand, and she took both of his hands in hers and lifted him to his feet.

Baba Xe then stepped forward and clapped him on the back,” Come let me introduce you to Galto and Thomas,” she said. “They will take you on.”

“And, Birdie,” she paused and turned, grabbing me with the eagle edged vision, “Good job. You are back in my army.” She pointed a long finger at me. “See to that arm little girl.”

I looked down; there was a small pool of blood collecting in the dirt which had run from the gash on my arm down dripping from my hand, but it didn’t hurt; it didn’t hurt one bit. I was back in Baba Xe’s army.

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

“Hold still!”

Rachelle finished the last of the twelve stitches she had sewed into the meat of my upper arm. It was a tender spot, and I couldn’t help but pull away from her.

“Sorry Rach.”

She cut the thread, carefully replaced the delicate instruments into her kit, and began tearing strips of clean white cloth to wind around my arm.

“What have you to be sorry for?”

The tone of her voice was almost a blow. There was coldness- a distance in her even as she expertly wound the bandage around my arm and tied it off.

“What do I have to be sorry for, Rach? Please tell me?” She could feel my arm begin to shake.

“Here, quiet yourself.” She reached behind and brought forth a cup with a warm drink, “Drink this, it will take the edge off the pain.” When I took it, she handed me a piece of nut bread as well.

“I know that you aren’t very hungry, but you need something in your stomach to drink this medicine.”

“It doesn’t hurt that much, Rach.”

She sighed and looked directly into my eyes, “Don’t lie to me Robin of Amphipolis. That wound was close to the bone. It hurts. Now drink!”

The warm liquid was soothing, and took the tension from all over my body. It brought a slight numbing sensation to my arm which was indeed hurting more than a warrior wanted to admit. The bread tasted good, grainy and chewy.

Rachelle pushed the hair back from my eyes gently. “Now you need to get into the furs. Your bath will need to wait until morning. Healer’s orders.”

I didn’t argue. It sounded heavenly to me.

“Are you coming with me?”

“I’ll be along soon. I want to help Lady Gabrielle clean up the supper dishes. Go on now.” She gave me an encouraging pat.

“Yes’m.” Trying to be my most obedient, I headed for our bedroll. “You won’t be too long?” Don’t be pitiful, Bird dog.

“I won’t be long, Birdie. I’m tired too.”

The bedroll and the warm fur reached for me like the arms of Gaia herself were taking me to her bosom. That tea/potion was good stuff.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

“Lady G, may I offer some help?” The slight Amazon approached the Amazon Queen at the flickering firelight.

The warm evergreen eyes surveyed the troubled adolescent and guided the girl to a seat beside the bard. Both stared into the flames for several moments.

“Here, Rach, see how this set of bowls stacks together? Can you do that?” Gabrielle demonstrated by taking Rach’s hands in her own, and then kept the hands in clasp.

“What is it, Rachelle?” The bard reached up and ran a gentle hand down along the thick ash locks of hair. “What’s bothering you, honey?”

The youngster’s head drooped and silent tears began treks down the pale cheeks. “Lady G, doesn’t the killing bother you?”

The bard sighed and leaned her head in to touch the girl’s head with her own. “Of course the killing bothers me, Rachelle. It bothers me a great deal.”

Rach gave a shuddering sigh. “Today was the first time I have seen Birdie kill. Well, kill in cold blood. It bothered me.”

The bard leaned back and put a warm arm around the girl and drew her close. Rach dropped her head onto the soft shoulder.

“We should never feel good about killing, Rachelle, “Gabrielle’s voice was soothing and serious. “Nor should we fail to defend ourselves when our lives are threatened either. Do you understand that those men would have hurt and raped us before they killed us today?”

“I know they would have done so; I know that.” A slow trickle of tears meandered down the young Amazon’s face. “I understand, Lady G, that such things… such violent actions are necessary to keep us safe, but it doesn’t mean that I have to like it.”

The battling bard kept a comforting hand running through the girl’s hair, “No honey, you don’t have to like it. However, if you intend to be a part of this family…. And I believe that you do…. Yes?”

The smaller ash head nodded affirmatively without hesitation.

“Then you will need to come to your own terms with the violence. We live in a violent world, Sweetheart.”

The tears were running freely down the youthful countenance, and the bard pulled the girl’s head to her shoulder and stroked her soft hair until the shaking had eased. Then she spoke again.

“That does not mean, Rachelle,” the bard paused for effect, “that you accept all violence without question.”

The patina colored eyes moved away from her shoulder and gazed at her directly. “What do you mean, Lady G?”

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Heavy jingling boot steps approached, and I turned over to find the expected black variety with silver buckles stopping near my head. They hunkered down and my Conqueror parent plopped back on her elbows rather inelegantly, giving me a long studious regard.

I sat up too quickly, “Baba Xe?”

Her big hand caught me center chest. “Easy kiddo.” She pulled me a little closer to her. “Let’s check the arm.”

I unbuttoned my nightshirt and shrugged out of the sleeve to present my wound for appraisal.

My Baba Xe’s hands always fascinated me. She was an unusually tall woman—Amazonian tall, though not an Amazon. She was more like a goddess, so larger than life was she, a dangerous killer, with large strong hands that could kill a man without a weapon. I was only too familiar with the fact that one hand could flip me over and the other could blister my backside faster than I could blink an eye if my attitude was not to her liking as well. Maturity and wisdom were sparing me that experience as often now, thank the gods.

Now her hands were feather light as they unwound the bandage that Rach had secured around my arm. Her fingers evaluated the stitches with an airy touch.

“Rachelle has an incredible natural ability, and she has been taught well, “Baba murmured. “I doubt there will even be much of a scar.”

I grinned; could hardly wait to tell Rach; Rach knew that she was gifted, but it never hurt to hear it again.

Deep breath.

“Baba. Rach is upset with me.”

“She is, hummmm?” the blue eyes met mine as if she had perfect knowledge of my problem. “Why would Rachelle be upset with you?”

“I don’t know, Baba.”

“You… don’t… know…?” she helped me back into my sleeve and rebuttoned the shirt for me. She looked away with a little sigh, and then gazed back at me with very direct icy eyes.

“What was different about today, Birdie?”

“Well, we were attacked.”

“And?”

“And we were victorious of course, Baba. You were amazing.”

The azure eyes snapped; the compliment seemed to irritate her.

“And what else, my Little Bird? THINK.”

Oh.

“I killed someone.”

“And?”

“I think it was the first time that Rach has seen me kill it in battle.”

Baba Xe twisted her body around so that she was pitched up on one elbow.

“That’s my girl. Now how do you think Rachelle felt about seeing you kill someone, Birdie?”

Oh. What a slow slow birdbrain. It made me sick. Tears came quickly. Baba Xe reached out to catch them on her fingers and then she pulled my head to her lips.

“What shall I do, Baba?” a somewhat panicked whisper.

She drew circles in the dirt with a finger. It alarmed me; my Baba the Conqueror had no easy answer. She sighed.

“Birdie, that is something which will take time to work out between the two of you. There will be occasions that call upon you to kill. It is part of your nature, and at times something that you must do to protect those whom you love. But you can be assured, that Rachelle, especially as a healer, will never much care for that side of you.”

“But I care so much for her, Baba.”

Baba’s cobalt eyes softened, a rare emotion for me to see in her, and she laid her big hand gently on my head.

“Honey, I know that you care for Rachelle. I wish that I had an easy explanation for you.”

The tears kept coming and I wished they would stop. Crying in front of Baba Xe bothered me. I did it often enough in front of my mother, but I wanted to be a warrior with Baba Xe.

“C’mere.” Baba stretched all the way out on the furs beside me and took my head under her arm. I snuggled up close to her long body and felt her hand drift through my hair. Her heartbeat was soothing to me.

She pointed skyward. “What do you think that is, Bird?”

“That is Marcus, Baba. Marcus on Bartholomew, arranging all of the other star pictures.”

A chuckle came from deep within her.

“Sometimes, kiddo,” she said softly, “I think you may have your mother beat at imagination. But never tell her that, hear me?”

“Never, Baba. But thank you.”

“You know, Birdie, that your mother hates killing as much if not more than Rach.”

I sighed into her shoulder, “I know that, Baba. I think that is why Rachelle is talking to her.”

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

“So it has always been part of my path, to not only walk beside Xena, but at times to guide her. And believe me, it isn’t easy.” The bard stood to put away the last of the dinner utensils. “But with time and experience, and because Xena actually values my opinion in every situation, we get on very smoothly now.”

“So what you are saying is that Birdie will need my guidance at times. Guidance to help reign in her extraordinary skills as a warrior. And when I think that she is wrong, I must tell her, even if she doesn’t like it.” Rach was intensely watching and listening to every word of her new mentor.

Gabrielle turned from the cook site. “Yes, and today, Rach, was she wrong?”

“No Lady G, those men were coming for us. She did what she had to do. And,” Rach paused to consider, “Actually Birdie was very efficient about it; she caused no suffering.”

“Then you must accept that these things happen, “Gabrielle sat down again by the girl and looked deeply into her fire lighted face. “Now if you see Birdie go into some kind of war rage and off on a demented killing spree, that is different and you will also tell ME.”

Rachelle laughed a sad little laugh and then looked into Gabrielle’s eyes. “Thank you so much for talking to me, Lady G. I was very confused.”

Gabrielle simply pulled her into a hug and felt the girl relax into it quietly. “I love you, kiddo; don’t you know that yet?”

Rach pulled back from her long enough to flash her huge smile; then she returned the hug fiercely. “I love you too, Lady G.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

“Do you really want my suggestion?” Baba was saying as she rolled up to leave; it was becoming late now. “Write something for her.”

I blinked at her; it was the last suggestion that I expected from the Conqueror.

“We all find our own ways, Birdie. I had to find the way with your mother. You have a gift that I didn’t; you are a bard. Write of your feelings for her, so she will know that both the warrior and the bard in you love and need her.”

It was a good idea. I rolled over and retrieved my journal from my pack.

“Thanks Baba, I’ll do it.”

“Don’t stay up all night now. You fall out of Hades’ saddle tomorrow and hurt yourself worse, I’ll skin you alive, little warrior.”

“Yes, My Lady,” I grinned at her, and began to write. The bootsteps began their retreat.

“Baba?”

A turn. “Yes, Birdie,”

“Baba, thank you.”

Her teeth flashed in the darkness. “Anytime kiddo, anytime.”

Rachelle appeared with a lighted candle soon after. I turned to her for a hug.

“Are you better, Rach?”

She kissed my forehead, “I am, Birdling.”

“Are you still mad at me?”

She snuggled down into the furs with an arm around my waist.

“Birdie I was never mad at you. I was just conflicted; I still am, but your mother helped me with it.”

“Yes, Mama G is good at that.”

“She’s remarkable.”

“That she is. My Baba Xe is quite remarkable as well, in ways and when, you least expect it.”

Rach rolled onto her back and sighed up at the sky. “And I love the child with characteristics of both.”

“Not my fault.”

That fetched me a serious elbow jab in the ribs.

“OOooFF, Rach, I’m injured!”

“You are just barely injured; I will injure you seriously!”

I met those beautiful sleepy eyes. “I love you, and may I borrow your candle for awhile?”

“Yes, but you need your rest.”

“I have been so ordered; just a little while.”

I took the candle and turned to my writing. Rachelle spooned herself close to me. There was a gentle pat to my backside.

“Night Birdbutt. Love you.”

“I love you, Rach.”

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The weather was almost too beautiful to believe. My arm was stiff, but the pain was bearable. I completed the tiny missive to Amphipolis and attached it to Icarus’ leg. Baba strode to me after doing her final check of the horses.

“I said three more days, Baba Xe, is that a good reckoning?”

“I think so, Birdie.” She said, following my little hawks ascent to the sky. “We should be home barring any kind of trouble. How’s the arm.”

“Good.”

“Did you sleep?”

I avoided her eyes, and she laughed. “Just remember what I told you, little Bird.” She gave me a swift affectionate swat to make sure I remembered.

“I’ll stay awake, Baba Xe.”

“Ah yes,” she continued to chuckle. “Nothing like love to keep a person wide awake.”

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“Lady G,” Rachelle said softly so only the bard could hear.

“Yes, dear, is everything ok?” the bard was instantly alert fearing that the young people might have had words over their dilemma.

“No, everything is fine, Lady G. I just wanted you to see the extraordinary gift that I received this morning.” Rachelle’s cheeks blushed a slight pink as she handed the bard a piece of parchment.

“Are you sure, Rach? It looks personal.”

“It is personal, but I want to share it with you, “the young Amazon said decisively.

“Very well,” the bard, warrior, mother opened the parchment and began to read.

@@@@@@@@@@@@

For Rachelle

Where the sky touches earth,

You meet me.

Like death follows birth,

You greet me.

Like raindrops kiss the flowers,

You feed me.

And the source of all my power,

You lead me.

As the river ever runs,

You cleanse me.

Till the stars turn into suns,

You’ll mend me.

If darkness swells and threatens,

You hide me.

Like a cliff will stay the wind,

You guide me.

With a soft word or a sigh,

You touch me.

Or a flame-glow in your eyes,

You love me.

I must be forever near you,

At whatever cost

Because without your hand in mine,

I am truly lost.

Robin of Amphipolis

Part 4

“Birdie.”

I bolted straight up in the saddle at the sound of my name. Oh boy. Hope Baba hadn’t seen me drowsing lazily in time to Hades’ rocking gait.

Fortunately, it was my mother. Wendy trotted up to keep pace with Hades which was a bit of a challenge for her as she was a much smaller horse.

“Yes, Mama,” I leaned back to her. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“You do not fool, your mother,” her voice growled with laughter in it as well. “You were sound asleep, Birdie. I thought I best wake you before you fell from your horse or your Baba Xe caught you.”

“Thanks, Mama.”

She looked straight ahead, her bright hair blowing back gently in the sun, “I am not sure which would be worse though, to fall from Hades might break bones, and your Baba Xe would never do that to you.”

I ducked my head a little, “She said she would skin me alive, and that’s a pretty serious threat, Mama G. So again, I thank you.”

“Well, I have my reasons.”

Silence from me. This was often the best tactic, I had learned after many years of allowing my mouth to run astray.

“Rachelle shared your gift to her with me.”

My face burned; I knew that it must be crimson to my ears. My mother’s strong and gentle hand came between our horses to hold the back of my head and run her fingers up though my hair.

“Honey, I am proud of you. I know it was personal, but she wanted to share it with me after she and I spent such a long while in discussion last night. I am so proud of you for writing it, and I am proud of the quality of the writing.”

“Thanks, Mama,” I managed to mutter. “It was Baba Xe’s idea, you know.”

“Um hum, she told me,” Mama chuckled quietly. “I must say that I am proud of her too. What a trip this has been.”

“It has.” I smiled to myself, “Life is never boring is it? There is always something new to learn.”

“No it isn’t, which is why you had best not fall asleep,” a light pat on my head told me I was being left alone again. But only for a moment.

“Little Mistress, are you glad to be on the home stretch?”

I spared a glance down at the sleek ebony fox trotting easily beside Hades. My beauty.

“I am indeed, Zephyr, are you?”

“Very glad. I have missed the familiar woods and streams.“

“And your special friend.”

“Perhaps him too. And the boys.”

“Do they still visit their mother, Zephyr?”

“On occasion, though they are quite independent.”

I shifted in my saddle. “I would imagine they are handsome fellows.”

“They are, Little Mistress. They will soon begin their own families.”

Only the steady clopping of Hades hooves kicked the dust for a span of time.

“The seasons pass quickly, don’t they Zephyr? It doesn’t seem so long ago that I found you as a tiny kit, and now you will soon have grand kits.”

For that I received a slight showing of teeth.

“Zephyr, you know I mean no insult.”

Silence.

“Zephyr.”

“And you, my dear Little Mistress, are… in… love.”

Comeuppance then.

I rode silently.

“Though you have been quiet; dear girl, you cannot hide it from me.”

My chin went to my chest, “Yes, Zephyr that is true; there is no point in hiding it from you is there?”

“No, little mistress, there isn’t.” My fox’s telepathic voice was gentle resonating in my mind.

“Life is rather amazing, don’t you think, my foxy friend?”

“Amazing is one word one could use, little mistress.”

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I realized how much I had grown to love being on the road as I carried Hade’s saddle over to a shady tree and searched for his curry brush, it seemed a very natural way of life.

“I’ll do the rubdown if you lay out the beds and talk about dinner,” I offered the usual deal to Rach. She smiled and tossed me the brush. We had fallen into these chores by preference. I enjoyed hauling the water for the horses to drink while I brushed any uncomfortable debris from their coats; it was a form of gratitude for carrying us the entire day. Rachelle had more of the natural nesting instinct; she liked to set up our neat little camp, contribute to the fire we shared with Baba Xe and Mama G, and also discuss, dinner with Mama G. They enjoyed cooking together.

“Birdie, strip down before you clean the horses!” Rach called. I had forgotten and quickly shrugged out of the buckskin tunic. My undershirt was easily washed in our evening bath, while the buckskin would keep the “horsey smell” that Rachel was not fond of. I liked to think that she enjoyed seeing me in my undershirt and hoped that the tiny bit of adolescent hubris was acceptable to the gods.

“Girls, hurry up!” this from my Lady Mother striding up, “this is one of our favorite camping spots because of the bathing pool, and you will want to spend extra time in it. There’s just soup and bread tonight anyway.”

I quickly finished examining Lucy’s fourth hoof for damage, gave her and Hades each an apple, and sent them off to graze the evening away.

“That sounds really good to me,” I said to Rachelle, quickly shucking my boots and britches, while rooting in my pack for my towel and soap.

“Oh, me too,” she agreed. “Truly the only thing I have missed about civilization are good baths.”

“Softy.” I grinned at her which fetched me a smack to the back of my head on the run to the place where the trees made a circle and had to be the perfect place for a pool. The water was extraordinary, an aquamarine color; Mama had not exaggerated. It was the most inviting bath on the road. Baba Xe was already floating around on her back spouting water from her mouth like a contented whale; she was quite relaxed. Mama was just entering in front of us, her sleek, slim, slightly sun tanned body on display.

“Birdie,” Rach whispered, “You know absolutely nothing about that fantastic dragon tattoo? I find that difficult to believe.”

“Believe it,” I returned. Memories also returned.

Among my first spoken words must have been, “Mama, what is that on your back?” She would never tell me, even after I was old enough to know all about tattoos and tattoo artists and such. Once I had tried to threaten her with getting a tattoo myself, if she didn’t spill the tale. That little bit of arrogance only brought me a firm tattoo of handprints on my backside which convinced me to never again try that tactic with my mother.

At my embarrassed tears, though, Mama G had gentled, and taken me into her arms, “Honey, I know that you want to know all about everything, but right now, you are just too young. The time will come when you are older and ready to hear all of the past and all of its secrets. But that is a decision that your Baba Xe and I will make, and you pestering me about it will only bring you trouble.” She wiped the tears away with her thumbs and kissed my forehead, “Patience, Birdie.”

So I had learned to be patient and more observing. I had learned that my parents were not just merely “my parents”. They were something far more.

I sighed, “Rach, there are many things I do not know about my parents. You cannot imagine how much I have learned on this trip alone.”

“Really?” she looked at me quizzically, “How can that be? You spend so much time with them.” We sat down a moment soaking our feet. We must have looked pretty funny in sudden serious conversation, buck naked.

“Xena the Conqueror and Gabrielle Queen of the Amazons are far different people than just Xena Warrior Princess and Gabrielle of Potidaea who traveled together for all those many moons. We have now seen that simpler, gentler side on the road. The happy, relaxed, loving, teasing sides of a couple that have too many responsibilities at home to show.”

“Well, I don’t know them as well as you do at all, but I can see what you are talking about, “Rach ran her fingers into the back of my hair gently. “They are quite different on the road. They are freed to be alone together.”

I looked across the pool where my parents were engaged in a water fight, and laughing.

“Look at them. They had quite a life on the road before Amphipolis and me, and it wasn’t all good. Some was quite dark, Rach. They do not share certain parts of the past until they believe it to be appropriate for me to know, or if I am old enough, or if the Fates force it.”

I paused thinking about Solon and Hope. It would not be easy to tell Rachelle that story. Suddenly I understood my parents’ positions better. I reached for Rach’s hand and squeezed it.

“There is an entire section of my mother’s scrolls that I am forbidden to read until she gives me permission. At times that has seemed unfair, but I love and respect her so much, I have learned to accept it, and I know that the right day will come.”

“HEY!” The Conqueror bellowed. “Are you two so love-struck that all you can do is sit in the dirt in your nothing-at- alls? Xena the Conqueror does NOT ride with stinky kids!!”

After grinning at each other sheepishly, we waded into the pool.

Rach plunged into her chin, “Oh by the gods, it’s WARM! C’mon Birdie!”

It was warm. “Baba Xe is this the bathing pool of the gods?” I called.

“Sounds like a good story,” Mama G was washing her hair.

“It’s the bathing pool of these gods tonight,” said my Baba, as she continued to float.

“Rach.”

“What?”

Across the pool, My Baba Xe was gently scrubbing my mother’s back after helping her rinse the soap from her hair. Then the Conqueror followed with a careful pattern of kisses, the different points of the dragon tattoo.

My mother turned and put her arms around my taller parent’s neck, “What are you up to , Warrior?”

Baba’s voice was a low growl, “Just admiring that lovely art work and its canvas, My Love.”

“Hummm, you like my dragon? I don’t see it much you know.” My mother kissed her warrior gently.

“It is of itself a work of art,” Baba said quietly, “ and what it means, and that it’s on your back, makes it even more precious to me.”

My mother smiled, “Oh, I love it when you speak soft loving words, Big Warrior.” She kissed Baba Xe again, and they sank in the water more.

“Birdie!” Rach could whisper the loudest of anyone I knew.

“Huh?” I was deep in a dream.

“What?” a little splash of water in my face brought me back.

“Rach, I think possibly that tonight would be a good night to ask them a very big question- one that has been off limits until now.” I took the soap and began to lather it in my hands preparing to wash her hair.

“So? That feels good, Birdie; it’s so nice to have warm water, “ she leaned into my hands.

I pulled her head back so she looked at me upside down.

“So I need your support. It’s dangerous territory.” I felt nervous even thinking about it.

Rach extended a hand to cup my cheek. “I’ll be right beside you, Birdling. If you think it’s time.”

Good enough. I totally submerged myselfthen and flew out of the water like a dolphin, expending pent up energy.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@

After a quiet dinner of soup and bread, and we were all sitting staring reflectively into the fire’s dance, I gathered my courage .

“Baba, Mama, will you tell us about when Baba Xe died?”

Mama’s shoulders slumped and Baba’s eyes went dark with gathering clouds.

“Please?”  I implored, and Rach’s hand crept over to grip mine.  She squeezed as she felt mine tremble.

The sapphire orbs flashed at me in a manner which felt almost like a strike. I wondered if I would ever cease to fear her eyes. Even though mine mirrored hers, I still feared the eyes of the Conqueror.

But then she looked to my mother who nodded acquiescence. My Conqueror parent sighed a heavy sigh.

“One time, and you will never ask for the tale again.  Not of us anyway.”

“Never again, Baba Xe.”  Perhaps she would finally tell me. I sat up straighter.

First the Conqueror took my mother’s hand in hers and gazed long and deeply into the calm jade sea. She found approval and so recommenced her gaze at the ground.

“It was a mistake.  As usual, I believed that I owed someone a debt.” She bit the words like they were distasteful.

“It’s not so a great fault, “the gentle voice of the bard intervened with the warrior’s disgust, “It only sometimes can fly out of hand.  You have tempered that tendency.”

“I would hope so; it’s cost us everything so many times!”  Tears were forming in the warrior’s eyes.

“Baba,” I felt bad now.  “If this is too hard; I had no idea….”

My Conqueror parent shook herself, “No, Birdie, you have come of age, and you deserve the truth.  It isn’t your fault that it is a tough tale to tell.” She stared at the ground. My soup churned in my belly.

My mother took charge, “Before we continue, let me say, when we arrive back at Amphipolis, you may read the forbidden scrolls, Birdie. You have come of age.”

Wow. That was nice to hear. But I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. Mama was beginning again, so I didn’t ask.

“An old friend sent for her.  Her name was Akemi and she lived in the far away land of Japa,” My mother’s calm voice began.  “The mission was important to your Baba, so we started for Japa right away; it was a very long journey.”

This from my Baba, “On the countless days at sea, I told your mother the story of the debt I owed this girl.   I had cared deeply for her at one time and while yes, I believe she cared for me too, she also took advantage of me. “

“Despite your Baba Xe’s tremendous skills and powers,” my mother looked at her warrior appraisingly as the fire illuminated the striking face. “She has her vulnerabilities.”

Baba snorted. ”Do not.”

Mama rocked back into the darkness laughing silently.

“Any—Way.” Baba Xe continued with a gulp, “I taught her ‘the Pinch’.”

This was indeed a shock. I knew better from well, birth, than to ask for lessons concerning the deadly, ‘Pinch’. It was even more off limits than the tattoo.

Baba continued quickly, it was a terrible memory for her, “Akemi then used the pinch to kill her father who had been abusive to her entire family, and then she forced me kill her rather than allow her to disembowel herself.”

The sapphire eyes went far into the fire. “The people of Japa have a great many odd notions about personal and family honor. Akemi felt not only that she must kill her father, whom she hated, but then also that she must die to preserve the family honor. Suicide after such a disgraceful act would bring even more dishonor; she begged me, on her knees in tears. So I killed her.” She tried to shrug, “It was quick. No drama.” None of us were fooled.

My mother’s hand gripped my Baba’s tightly again and I noticed Baba’s hand squeezed hers equally hard. This had happened many moons, many adventures, and many feelings ago, but the old wounds ran red. My own hand was squeezed gently, and I felt Rach’s voice whisper into my ear,

“Birdie, breathe.”

Oh. Hadn’t realized I wasn’t.

“In my grief, I hacked off my hair and took to drinking,” Baba Xe still talked to the ground.

I looked at Rach and remarked, “Understandable.”

“Yes, very,” my mother echoed. She showed no jealously whatsoever, my remarkable mother; she showed only compassion for her warrior, and so took the telling for awhile.

“Xena was ridiculed and taunted by the townspeople whom she had not harmed. They felt the honor she was showing for Akemi’s ashes was a dishonor to them. They began to jeer and stone her. She defended herself by blowing fire at them and departed.”

“Which brought us to our ‘present’ arrival at Japa, where we found the old city of Higuchi under siege by a samurai army,” Baba took up the tale again. “We made short work of it, only the two of us. Your mother was quite the warrior in those days.”

“Still am, when necessary,” Mama looked into the cobalt eyes seriously.

“Anyway, we brought a bad situation under control, and then we were visited by the ghost killer, who gave us the bad news that Akemi‘s spirit was held prisoner by Yodoshi, Lord of the Dark Land, and eater of souls. And then he told us the very worst news of all.”

“What a tragic tale,” Rachelle said softly.

“The ghost killer told us that my little episode of blowing fire had raised Higuchi to the ground killing forty thousand people, and the evil spirit of Yodoshi had eaten those forty thousand others as well. And …..it was basically all my fault.”

My mother snorted—a rare sound from her. “I do have my reservations about that.”

“How would we ever know?” Baba Xe leaned her head against my mother’s shoulder, another rare sight, her eyes fading to an incalculable midnight sadness. “There were thousands of spirits freed at the death of the Lord of the Dark Land on Mount Fuji-San.”

Mama G kept her silence.

“After the ghost killer told us his first bit of cheery news,” Baba continued. “He informed us that only a spirit could kill the ghost of Yodoshi.”

“Meanwhile, the Samurai army had regrouped and was approaching.” Mama said. “The situation was deteriorating very quickly, faster than we could think.”

“And so we prepared,” Baba’s voice was barely above a whisper. Mama watched the Conqueror for what felt like a long time, making us all uncomfortable. My mother could do that to children and ex warlords alike.

Then she spoke, “Your Baba Xe taught me ‘The Pinch’,” there was a tone in her voice that I couldn’t quite identify.

Gabrielle the Bard’s voice continued growing stronger, “She taught me the Pinch by demonstrating it on herself. It upset me, but I trusted her, since Xena had been honing my ‘warrior skills’ at the time. I…. trusted… her.” The tone of her voice was bitter anger and betrayal; that’s why I couldn’t place it.

“And as the blood trickled from her nose,” my mother continued in that terrible voice, “ Xena looked at me and said, ‘If I had only thirty seconds to live, this is how I’d want to live them; looking into your eyes.’”

My mother picked up a stick and began to draw chakrams, the signs of yin and yang in the in the dirt. “Such irony in romantic words” she murmured at her drawings and then stabbed the drawings as she bit off then next words one by one.

“ I….. should…. Have….. known….”

There was silence, and Baba Xe realized she would take the story, but she cast a devastated look at Mama.

“Yes, I did send your mother to safety, while I allowed myself to be killed,” she whispered.

“ Massacred ” is the word, “It was the first time I had ever heard an unforgiving snap in my mother’s voice.

“Yes, well that…”

“Don’t- you- dare, ‘yes, well that’ me ‘”, the gold flecks in the jade eyes were flames. “Don’t you dare.”

This anger scared me. It dawned on me that they might not have ever really told this tale to anyone at all –together.

Should I stop them? No, it was in progress; Rach squeezed my hand and we both locked our eyes on Mama’s dirt drawings, and waited for the moment to pass.

Mama took a deep breath, “To make a miserable story shorter, the ghost killer told me that Xena could come back to absolute life after her spirit defeated Yodoshi. I had only to pour Xena’s ashes into the Fountain of Strength on mount Fuji-San before the sun went down on the second day after her death. It was then that your ‘Spirit Baba Xe’ took me to meet Akemi at the tea house per his instruction.”

“I was wrong to deceive you,” Baba muttered brokenly. “It was regression into my old ways. I took advantage of your trust in me, your love for me.”

“Yes, you did,” the Bard replied her voice soft again, “But my trust and my love for you did not change for all that, did they?”

“No.” my Conqueror parent’s eyes looked up and were locked still by the gentled jade, “and though I am grateful daily for that miracle, I should tell you much more often. Gabrielle, I’m sorry.” The Conqueror’s head bowed, and I saw teardrops falling into the dust.

The bard’s hand extended, and the warrior clasped it immediately, “You have been forgiven for a very long time, My Love.” she whispered.

Then she continued, “So I have been to the Tea House of the Dead,” She rose to her knees, reached across the distance and tugged the forelock of my hair “And that, my curious little Bird, is where I received my dragon tattoo.”

“It took a long time, and it hurt,” my Baba’s eyes were the Aegean ocean color when she was deeply linked with my mother; she gripped the paler hand. ” But Akemi said it would protect her.”

“And you were right beside me, and it was needed later on, wasn’t it?” Mama G was so bedrock strong. My Conqueror parent was strong to the point of legend, but few knew the source of her power. Rachelle and I were witnessing the raw exchange of their connection tonight, far more than I had ever seen. It was a privilege.

“But first I had to collect Xena’s body from the samurai army and cremate it; the ashes and I had a journey to make. I did collect Xena’s body…”

“Don’t down play what you did, love,” Baba Xe interrupted. She looked at us across the fire. “My little bard here demanded one-on-one battle with the captain of the samurai in front of his army for my head. She defeated him, but she didn’t kill him. That was the worst thing she could have done to his pride and sense of ‘honor’.”

“It meant nothing to me to kill him,” Mama G said tonelessly. “There had been enough death.” She closed her eyes. I thought of my small mother bracing against the task of building a bier and burning the body of Xena Warrior Princess, the love of her life, alone. Then she had collected the ashes into an urn and ridden toward mount Fuji.

“Yes,” Baba gathered herself and took the story again. “Meanwhile, my battle on Fuji with Yodoshi was fearsome, even for a spirit world encounter. He was extraordinarily evil and had the force of all the captured spirits within him.”

“I arrived in the midst of their battle,” Mama G chimed, “there were lightning bolts flashing and the tops of trees sheared off.”

“At one point he had me,” Baba shook her head sadly, “I was down, even my spirit was defeated. Your mother noticed; I’ll never know how…”

“Because that pesky samurai had followed me all the way to Fuji still wanting to fight me to the death over Xena’s ashes. That man had issues.”

“That is when Gabrielle learned that she could throw the chakram,” Baba said smiling proudly.

“Lucky toss, perhaps. But I was out of patience with him,” Mama G said huffily. I smiled. One doesn’t want ‘To make Xena mad’, nor does one want ‘to cause my mother to run out of patience’. They are equally dangerous.

“Anyway, I saw that Xena was down, and my first thought was the Fountain of Strength. So I ran to with cupped hands to fetch water for her and took a sip myself.”

“At which point, Yodoshi hurled a huge fireball directly at her back, “Baba Xe spoke again, “I saw him do it, and I lay there helpless. But the tattoo…”

“The dragon tattoo worked,” my mother accounted very calmly, “The back of my traveling tunic was burned away, but I was unharmed. So the time spent poking and inking was well worth it.”

“And she was able to revive me with a kiss. The water from the fountain tasted sweet on those lips.” Baba Xe, cast the bard a sideways look.

“Yes.” No further words came from the bard. The recounting of this tale was becoming heart breaking again for my mother; I could feel it.

“I defeated Yodoshi, and the spirits were free,” Baba Xe closed her eyes. “But the cost.”

My mother said no more, but she laid her head down in Baba’s lap, staring into the fire. Tears filled her eyes, but they did not fall.

“Akemi had told me that in order for the spirits to remain free, I must remain dead.” Baba said quietly, “It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do—telling that to your mother. And I wasn’t even sure it was true. But it felt to me to be the right thing to do.”

“Except for me,” this came from the blond head.

“Except for the most important person in my life,” Baba whispered. “It was totally wrong for her. But my Gabrielle allowed it, and she accepted it. For my honor and for my final atonement for the wrongs I had committed as a warlord.” Xena the Conqueror’s voice began to break, “Something I am not sure I would have the strength to do…” Her head fell, and tears dropped upon my mother’s face.

My mother turned in Baba’s lap and extended a gentle hand wiping the tears from the hidden face. She spoke one final line in a comforting voice, “To her credit, Xena’s spirit stayed with me; she never left me, never.” Her voice began to tremble, and she turned her head to burrow within the warrior’s body.

The Conqueror pulled her in and cradled her closely. They were the only two people at that campfire.

“So how did you return?” Rach almost whispered.

“We can read about that in the scrolls.” I said quickly, “And we will, as soon as we return to Amphipolis.”

“Actually,” said Rachelle, squeezing my hand and rising. “I want to read all of the scrolls when we return to Amphipolis. “Ladies Xe and G, would you like to go for a walk? Birdie and I can tidy up.”

“No, I think it best that we call it a night.” Baba spoke quietly, still cradling my mother in her arms…” Let’s all go to bed and have a fresh start in the morning. Are we agreed upon that?”

Baba rose to her feet effortlessly, holding my mother as tightly and tenderly as possible to her own body. Mama wrapped her arms around the Conqueror’s neck and was thus borne to their rich bed of furs. Their silhouette in the firelight became one dark being in a magical way that I had seen happen a few times before between my parents. They were both wounded and healed. Rach’s hand slipped into mine, and she pulled me to standing.

“In the morning then, My Ladies,” Rach was speaking. At least she was capable of speech; I had gone stone mute.

“Bird, stoke up the fire a bit there for the night.”

I obeyed like a zombie moving about the fire, poking and adding larger logs; the story had taken quite a toll on me. Rachelle finally gave up and led me by the hand to our place of furry repose. I wondered how it would be, after all of this time, to sleep alone again back in my little bedroom with Zephyr. It would be difficult. I would miss Rach, her breathing, her warmth, her presence had become as natural to me as the night itself.

@@@@@@@@@@

“Xena,” the bard’s voice barely broke the night silence.

“Yes, Gabrielle,” the warrior was perched on an elbow looking down at her companion, her queen, her lover, her life.

“Do you remember during that time that you were gone—when you were a spirit…”

“Yes, Gabrielle.”

“Those times we were ‘together’, how you could be with me, actually come totally within me? I never thought it was enough during those days; I missed your physical body so much, but tonight…. Tonight… I want all of you. I want all there is of you.”

Her intense jade regard captured the serious azure eyes which glittered in the moonlight. “I will try, Gabrielle,” she whispered, and began to untie the strings to her sleepwear.

“No,” the little blonde’s hands were gentle, “Let me.” She tugged at the strings at each shoulder revealing the dark soft skin and stiffened breasts beneath. She cupped them briefly, then ran her hands over the muscular shoulders, down the shoulder blades, almost like wings, and pushed the material from the Conqueror’s taut buttocks with a feathery, familiar touch, made fingertip circles around the groin and drew light lines on the flat belly. She smiled as the warrior groaned deeply closing her eyes. When they reopened, there were flecks of gold in them.

“There you are,” the bard whispered, “my Warrior who is of the gods.”

@@@@@@@@@@

The stars were brilliant. I thought of Marcus and Bartholomew at their celestial duty. Tucking both hands behind my head, I accepted the fact that it might be a sleepless night.

A warm hand crept under my nightshirt and the arm went across my bare skin leaving a trail of heat. But the touch was soothing, not arousing, and her voice followed, just as soothing.

“Birdie.”

“Hmmmm.”

She elbowed up to look at me straight in the eyes. “I’ve decided that we should read all of your mother’s scrolls from beginning to end.”

“I agree.”

Rach frowned a little, “You have never done so?”

Rather ashamed, I shook my head, “Not every single one, not all the way through. I have read bits and parts, and of course, she’s always told me stories, well, except for the “forbidden ones”. Then I began writing my own, and she worked with me so hard on those….” I paused and shook my head a little. My mother.

“Well, we will read them now, Little Bird.”

“Together?”

“That would be fun. We could take turns reading to each other.” Rach lay back down beside me and snuggled up under my arm.

“I love you,” I whispered into her hair. “Did you know that?”

“Pretty much,” she sighed looking at the stars, “I love you too, Birdie.”

“You do?”

“Pretty much, I think. Now go to sleep.” She snuggled in deeper and her breathing became regular. Rachelle could fall asleep in the space of a breath. It was never so easy for me.

Pretty much. Huh. I closed my eyes, and Zephyr crept closer.

“Pretty much will suffice for now, Little Mistress. Sleep.” The words came into my mind.

“I love you too, Zephyr.” My hand rested in the dark fur. It eased me.

“And I you, Little Mistress, always true.”

Then all was quiet.

@@@@@@@@@@

The Fortress walls of Amphipolis appeared almost as foreign to me as Athens had when it finally came into sight. It looked smaller to me now, yet it was home my home ; something stirred deep in my gut and brought dampness to my eyes. How long had we been away? Two moons perhaps? I didn’t even know for certain. All the days and nights had run together.

What I did know was why my parents missed being on the road. There was an infinity of adventure, knowledge, and challenge beyond the fortification of Amphipolis. Life was not only about being safe and sound, although that counted for much, I thought, as the gates creaked wide open, and I beheld my little Grandba leading a small parade of greeters. After a swift dismount, I found my strength so increased as to almost lift her from the ground in our hug. Not quite though, so I settled for a spinning embrace.

She pushed my hair back from my eyes, and I saw eyes like my own, only calmer with wisdom, fill with tears, “There’s my Grandbirdie; I’ve missed you so, little one. And mercy sakes you’ve grown lean and mean!!” She leaned backward and surveyed me, “Just look at ya!”

I only laughed, hugged her again, then watched her run towards my Baba Xe who did pick her up and swing her in a large circle—almost a dance move. Mama G watched bemusedly as Grandba pretended to scold and fuss her Conqueror daughter before she took my blond mother in a warm embrace. At loose ends a moment, my eyes sought Rachelle, but then I was knocked to the ground.

“Gotcha!”

My instincts threw a fierce quick counter pin on whomever had ambushed me.

“Talus,” I sighed. “Don’t do that anymore, my friend; I could hurt you.”

He lay there blinking at me in surprise, “Garsh, Bird. I was only foolin’ with ya; I missed ya like crazy!”

“I’m sorry, Tal.” I stood and extended my hand, hauling him to his feet.

“Yer stronger too!”

“I’ve learned a great deal, my friend,”

Talus gazed deep into my eyes for a moment. “So you have, Bird. Have you changed?”

“Some,” I returned the gaze, “We’ll have to take a long walk soon, Tal.”

He clapped my shoulder, “We will then, Bird; just let me know.”

We faced each other and engaged in an intense warrior’s clasp at the entrance of the fortress, “I will, Tal.”

“Where would you begin, Little Mistress?” the black fox looked up at me as I led Hades through the meeting grounds and into the stable.

I considered the campfires, the ambushes, the lessons, the Academy, Athens, The Goddess Athena, the laughter, the tears, the stories, the nights with Rach under the stars.

“Zephyr, I don’t have a clue, ”I returned silently,” But he is my oldest friend, and I owe him the effort.”

“Change is an inevitable part of life, child,” the voice of the goddess was coming through the fox just then.

“I don’t want to change so much that I lose friends, Zephyr,” the thought went back.

“Then see that you do not,” was the answer and black fur rubbed up against my pant leg.

I pondered that as I unsaddled Hades and rubbed him down complete with sweet talk. There was a commotion outside in the grounds between the stable and the inn, and I lugged my packs out to see what it was.

It was the Amazons of course. Ephiny swooped me into a bear hug causing me to drop all my gear, and I responded with a sudden sense of being overwhelmed, and I buried my face in her shoulder seeking a little extra love.

She pushed me back, “Hey, you ok, Kiddo?”

I sniffed, embarrassed, “Just missed you, Effie. It seemed like such a long time.”

She gave my backside a brisk swat, “Well it was, Birdiegirl. And I expect to hear about every single moment. There is no education like travel. You learn a lot about yourself on the road.”

Her dark eyes locked with mine, “Don’t you?”

Why was I so gods be damned transparent to everyone? “Yes.” I said quickly and bent over to recollect my gear. I waved at her as I entered the inn. She pointed a finger and pierced me with an eagle eye.

“We’ll be talking, Goddaughter; that is a promise.”

I flashed her a look that was pure love- warrior to warrior. Effie hadn’t changed at all. That was good.

My arm was snagged at the doorway, “Hey, you aren’t leaving are you?”

“No Rach, just taking a load up.”

“Well, my aunties will be expecting to depart before too long,”

“I’ll be right back down,” The dreaded moment had arrived. My heart sank as I dragged myself up the worn staircase. My bedroom was welcoming, filled with sunlight from the window in which I loved to sit and watch the world of Amphipolis. But my world now revolved around one ash blonde girl. Sighing, I set down my saddlebags and turned to go back downstairs.

Rach was waiting at the bottom for me, and we were of similar mind set, because she threw her arms around my neck.

“How will I sleep at night without my Birdie?” she spoke into my hair.

I could say nothing, but held her as tightly as I could burrowing into the softness of her.

“Rach!” it was the unmistakable bellow of Eponin, Rach’s aunt, calling her to join them.

“I’ll come as soon as I can to see you,” I whispered. “I’m fourteen soon and can legally use the quick vines to the camp.”

We stood at the foot of the stairs, our foreheads touching.

“You better, Birdiegirl,” her hand came up under my chin. “Ah yes, your birthday is the day after tomorrow. We’ll all be on hand for that event.” She gave me a wicked smile, “I may need to spank you.”

I blinked at her, “Rach, warriors are never spanked.”

The green granite eyes flashed with warmth and authority, “Shall I repeat that to Xena The Conqueror?”

Oh minotaur shite, now she knew me too well, “NO, Rach.”

“Or to your Lady Mother, Gabrielle the Bard?”

Absolutely not. “Noooooooooooooooo…” Now she had a sulky warrior.

She locked her hands behind my head, “Well, if I am to be a serious part of your life, as gifted as you are, Robin of the Warrior and Bard, you do need some guidance every so often. Don’t you?”

“I do.” It was surprisingly easy to admit that to her. “But we’ve said nothing about birthdays.”

She kissed me lightly again. “We’ll see how you behave.”

And thus Rachelle of the Amazons by the Sea, gave me a gentle back of the head swat she was so very good at placing, trotted out the door , hopped up on Lucy like a champion now, and flashed one last gorgeous winking smile at me, as she turned to follow her aunts to the Amazon camp.

What she took of Robin of Amphipolis with her, I could not measure. But it was great enough to leave me hollow.

Without

How does one heal

An aching heart?

Or try to console

A grieving soul?

My every breath

Was timed with yours-

Now I know loneliness

Which has no cure.

How do I fill

That empty part

Which rode with you?

I am no longer whole,

A warrior defeated.

Return to my arms,

Restore my soul,

And heal my heart.

My Love.

Robin of Amphipolis

“Little Mistress, you are wakeful?” the thought came into my mind from underneath my bed.

With a groan I left my bed and padded barefoot to the window to look at the moon. Soft fur nudged itself under my hand and I caressed it affectionately.

“She misses you as well, Little Mistress 

I smiled at that and looked down at Zephyr. “My dear companion. You always know the right thing to say.”

My fox stood quietly a few moments more listening to the night. “She misses you, but she sleeps, dreaming of you. And that is what my Little Mistress should be doing.”

Kneeling, I put my arms around my fox, and she rested her head on my shoulder. It was our hug; I inhaled her warm cedar smell which was relaxing and unique to Zephyr. It ended with her gentle tongue lapping me once on each cheek.

She took my sleeve in her teeth, tugging me toward my cot, “Now it is time for bed, Little Mistress.”

Honestly, I was quite exhausted, and allowed her to lead me to my bed cooperating completely by snuggling in the covers. But then, as in our younger days, Zephyr jumped up in beside me; this was not something she did very often since she was full grown. Usually she preferred the rug under my bed, or at times she slept at the foot. But tonight she cuddled in closely, as we had those times we were alone on the run, in the rough, so long ago, and I found myself matching my breathing to hers. Zephyr had a long history of being able to calm me and to comfort me with her presence, and we slept.

Epilogue

“There!”

Spontaneous applause followed as I blew out the candles on the spectacular cake Grandba had created for me. Fourteen candles would have overweighed the thing, so we had adorned it with four. That was fine. Fourteen winters seemed very old.

Baba Xe stood up. “I know this is Birdie’s night, but first I would like to present my mother with a few gifts that we bought for her in Athens.”

Minotaur shite ! I had forgotten them too. This would bring the house down; suddenly the cake became very distracting to me. Rach came to my side and we pretended to analyze the way to cut it.

Grandba came forward, “Gifts? For me? You never bring me gifts, Xena.”

Baba looked across right at me and Rachelle, “Baba!” I shot her my best facsimile of “The Look.”

The Conqueror laughed deeply, “I had some expert help in picking these out for you, Mother. Birdie and Rach were with me, just before the Academy of Bards presentations, and we stumbled upon this little collection of treasures in a trader’s stand from the East.”

I shook my head hard in denial at my Grandba; huh uh, no way was I involved with this. We had only discovered the stand.

Grandba unwrapped the parcel carefully. Without a glance she gave Xena the Conqueror a backhanded bat in the belly because she could hear Baba’s smothered giggling.

“What ‘av we here? Silk? Why Xena , it’s lovely. What’s all the fuss about? ” She drew piece after piece out. “It’s this glorious blue like our eyes, it is. Look, a blouse, “She slipped it on. “It’s gorgeous. Birdie, why are you ashamed of helping with this?” Grandba peered deeper into the parcel, “Oh and here’s a scarf!” She withdrew the long blue length with a flourish and wrapped it round her neck. “It’s so nice! I love it. And one more thing….”

Baba Xe began a slow retreat; I became more preoccupied with the cake.

“BLOOMERS! Silk BLOOMERS?? XENA you come here!!”

The chase was on. Grandba chased Xena the Conqueror around the grand room of her own fortress not once, but twice, snapping at her backside with the silk scarf. Judging from Baba’s squeaks, Grandba had excellent skills as well. Pony blew ale out of her nose, and Effie’s head was down as she held her stomach. Mama G was a little more contained, but I could see that tears were coming down her face. Atticus was slamming his hand on the table and Rose was holding on to his arm. Thomas and Galto were roaring and slapping each other on the backs as if they had done it themselves. Rach and I looked at each other and laughed, then hugged. It was a fine moment in Amphipolis.

The hilarity was soothed when Scrubbers walked over to the parcel, regarded the bloomers and said, “I think they’re quite nice, Cyrene.”

There was no hiding Grandba’s dreamboat eyes at the man, “Well, if you think so, Scrubby.”

“How about we go on with honoring our Birthday Girl?” My mother took command of the situation. “Birdie, come.”

I walked obediently with my mother the Queen of the Amazons and Amphipolis to the center of the room, even though I hate being in the center of anyplace.

Gabrielle the Bard’s eyes, however would never stop appraising me as if my soul were stripped naked in front of her. That would not change at fourteen, nor would it ever change.

“Since you are older, Birdie, you will have more occasion to look a little smarter at times. We had a clash about apparel in Athens, and her Baba Xe had to threaten her with making her wear a dress.”

Everybody laughed their fine butts off about that, but there was no ale spouted. I could feel the red from my neck to my forehead. Minotaur shite, Mama.

“So, here is an answer to future problems.” She held a parcel for me to unwrap; I hate unwrapping presents in front of people, but this was easy to react to… It was a red leather tunic.

“Mama,” I held it up. The tooling was of birds and quills. It had silver ends on the ties and silver buttons at the cuffs. “Is this Amazon made? Baba said something about you might get one for me…”

” Yes, dear. You do like it?”

“I love it. It’s so elegant and soft and gorgeous. Thank you.” I hugged her tightly.

“Wait, there’s more.”

“Oh,” Black leather pants. I couldn’t believe it. Just like Baba Xe’s– well, smaller. “Mama! I these are so, wow!” I hugged her again.

“Look here my Little Bird,” she showed me.

“Lacings on the sides with silver ends on the ties! You are the best Mama in all of Greece.” I hugged her and kissed her then; tears were squeezing out.

Grandba walked out holding my boots. “Sorry I can’t get you new boots every year, Birdie, but I had these re-soled, mended, polished, stretched a bit and decorated for you.”

I was delighted, “Granba, this is fantastic.” I slipped them on. The new soles made them feel just like new boots and the added size made them far more comfortable. “You added buckles!” I walked around, “They jingle!” I kissed her cheek, “I love you, Grandba; they are perfect.”

“You are pleased then Grandbirdie?”

“Oh, absolutely pleased, Grandba. You did the perfect thing, because I was just getting them broken in well, and now you’ve made them glorious.” I came to attention, clicked my heels, and the buckles jingled.

My grandmother’s smile was as valuable to me as anyone else in my family. It always made me feel good to see it.

“Now, Robin of the Warrior and Bard ,” I stood still. That voice always made me stand still. The presence came up closer and spoke softly to me.

“It’s time for my gift.”

My Conqueror parent loved to sound dangerous. I was sure that Rach hadn’t said anything about the spanking thing though. That would be a terrible betrayal; she had seen too much of my family on the road to get me in that kind of trouble.

So I turned and faced my Baba Xe. She smiled her smile that gave the sun permission to shine and handed me something heavy wrapped in a cloth.

“Hear me well, Birdie,” she said in her best authoritative voice as I unwrapped the cloth, “you shall not, I repeat, SHALL NOT use this until I have given you many lessons.” She put her large hand on top of mine, stopping my action. “Do you understand me, Birdie?”

I met her eyes, “Yes, My Lady. Yes, Baba Xe.”

“Alright then,” she stood away and allowed me to finish.

It was a chakram, like hers, but like the Baby Tide, designed for me.

“I made it for you.” Baba’s voice had softened considerably at this point.

“Baba….”

“Your mother helped me with the etchings; we designed it with the thought of my original chakram.”

I had heard about Baba Xe’s original chakram, which had been more ornate than the utilitarian Yin and Yang model she carried now. The original had been etched with Greek key design and had abalone stones like were in the Tide. Mine was all silver with alternating etchings of birds and foxes. Like many fine hand weapons, my chakram was a work of art.

I was gobsmacked, completely speechless; the edge was fine and I kept running my finger over it lightly. Baba smiled at me, “No more wallopins for you over stolen chakrams, kiddo.”

The weight and size were perfect. Hers had always been a little bit heavy. This one. I could do magic with this one.

“Unless,” The Conqueror’s arresting hand was on my shoulder, jarring me from my reverie, “you go honking off and use it without instruction. I mean it, Birdie. You have a natural gift for using a chakram very artistically, but I need to teach you to use it as a weapon. Understood?” Her hand came up to the side of my head locking eyes with me again.

“Yes, Ma’am, I promise.” I muttered. “Baba, it’s beautiful. Thank you.” I wrapped my arms around her waist and hugged tightly. ” I never expected this..” The Conqueror kissed the top of my head.

“You’re welcome, Little Bird.” She whispered.

My mother re-entered the scene, “And here we have ….” She ran a wide black belt around my waist. It was tooled with birds and foxes as well, and a finger away from the silver buckle was a silver hook. The chakram clipped into it perfectly.

I sniffed and slung a few tears from my eyes. “My birthdays just get better and better…” I managed to croak.

“We’ll see about that!” My girlfriend came and took my hand, leading me to a long bench. She wasn’t really going to spank me was she? She whomped on me plenty in private when I deserved it, but that was something just between us; she would never do it publically.

“Rach…” it wasn’t quite a whine. “Rachelle… what are you doing?”

“You will see my Birdling. I have permission from your parents; this is my gift to you. Lie down.”

I looked at her a moment. “Am I going to be embarrassed?”

That depends on just how brave of a warrior you really are, Robin of Amphipolis.”

Well, there was no help for it.

“Belly or back, Rach?” I submitted to my girl. She gave me a warm smile. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt too much.

“Back.”

Relief, no public humiliation. Even though most of the people in this room knew that I would probably eat fresh bear poop if this little Amazon princess commanded it so, it was better not to have to prove it.

Rocking carefully down on the hard bench, I looked up into her granite green eyes as she straddled the thing near my head.

“What are you going to do to me, Rach?”

“I am going to give you your birthday present, Birdie.”

“Will it hurt?”

She took hold of my left earlobe and cleaned it with a rag she had dipped in a solution. I realized her healer’s kit was on her knee.

“Trust me, love. You have been through things that have HURT…”

Pinch.. Yipe! But I was stoic. What the Minotaur shite was she doing? Trust, Bird, Trust.

“…far worse.” She did a little dabbing to my ear with a clean rage. “There, all finished. Happy Birthday, Birdie.” She leaned over and kissed my nose.

Standing, she held out a hand to pull me up and we walked to one of the polished shields in the room so I could see the product of her labor.

“What do you think, Birdie?”

My girlfriend had pierced my left ear with a treasure coin earring. It glimmered a polished silver from my black hair- the boy riding the dolphin. It felt rather strange and sore, but it looked stunning.

“I like it, Rach. Ow!”

Rach had reached in and turned the earring. “You’ll need to keep turning it, and keep it very clean for the next several days.” She pushed me back to regard the effect. “I like it too. Very much.”

She then took me into our deep embrace that felt to me as if it linked every part possible of us. Mind, body, spirit.

“Thank you, Rach. I love it. It’s the best thing you could have given me.”

“Do you know what it means?” she whispered. “I didn’t ask permission for this part.”

“No,” no telling what meaning my enigmatic girlfriend would attach to this earring. It would likely mean that I would have to keep her supplied with fresh fish for life.

“It means….” still a whisper, heard only by me, but Rach drew it out with her flare for the dramatic. I pulled back to meet her eyes. It was as if there was no other person at all in the room at that moment.

“It means that I love you, Robin of the Warrior and the Bard, and that as future Queen of the Amazons by the Sea, I have now claimed you as my consort.” She kissed me again and lingered this time. Artemis didn’t seem to mind.

Zephyr licked my hand; she approved.

By the gods, Bird dog. Happy Birthday.

The End

continued in Gone

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