Birdie’s Song VI Rachelle by Onesockbard

Birdie’s Song VI Rachelle
by Onesockbard

I am Robin

Of the Warrior

And the Bard.

Zephyr was quiet, patient and alert while Talus gently turned her kit, Silver, in every possible direction and studying every detail.   Silver was just that color, with black socks, black lining his ears and a black tip to his tail puffed in white.  His brother, Rain, was marked in similar fashion but his dominate color was more inclined a darker foggier mix.  All foxes are some variation of the common red fox, as was Rain and Silver’s sire, but their mother, Zephyr was a rare black fox.  They were nearly two moons old now, and the cutest little fellows one could ever hope to find.   I was hard pressed not to spend every waking moment with them instead of where I should have been. But that was nothing new.

We had sectioned a special place for them in the stable, so that Zephyr could take them out into the fields as she deemed appropriate. Her sons showed more inclination to be simple wild foxes, and not to be the precocious gift that Zephyr was even as a baby. So it was important that she have access to the wild in order to teach them the ways of ‘real’ foxes early on.

Their father, who I had informally named Fire, showed up on occasion as well to play with his sons.  He seemed to have complete understanding of his role, and that he would also one day teach his sons hunt for food and the other aspects of life in the wild.  I rather wondered what Zephyr saw in him except that he was beautiful—a powerful specimen.  Talus and I had laid in wait a few times so that Talus could study him in order to carve a family portrait.  Talus thought Fire was one of the finest examples of fox hood he had ever seen.  He was indeed stunning, but in my eyes, there was no finer fox than my small Zephyr.

“Think you have the fix of them, Talus?”

“Yeah, Bird. Might want another look or two.  Would it be alright if Angie came with me next time?”

Angie was a new assistant and girlfriend to Talus.  He had met her in art classes in the village school, which I wasn’t attending anymore; my public education was handled at the Amazon school now; and my private education in poetry and life, by my parents—mostly my mother.

Angie had moved to Amphipolis from Athens, but her big city ways did not faze Talus.  Angie appeared to be a perfect match drawn by Aphrodite especially for him, from his pale hair and skin, shy pleasant personality, to his artistic hands and temperament, she was his equal at every trait.  I was very happy for my best friend.

“Of course she can come with you ,Talus.”  I pulled his head to touch mine, “Zephyr trusts you, and if you introduce her gently, I am sure that she and the boys will love Angie.”

“Super, “he grinned.  “She’s so wanting to see them, Bird, and she does rough outs in the blocks for me now.”

Talus and Angie had taken over a room in his father’s house, and it was nearly a studio/ shop now.  Atticus was supportive of his son’s art.

“Hey Bird,” he said as he gave Rain a little pat and returned him to Zephyr who began to clean him gently for the evening.

“Birdie.”

“Yes,” I cuddled Silver next to my chest while Rain curled next to his mother seeking a good sleeping position; I could watch them forever.

“You know Talus, I really miss Zephyr at night, but when I see her with these little guys, I understand her devotion.”

I placed Silver near his brother and they snuggled together in peaceful slumber while I gave Zephyr some much needed quality stroking.

“Bird.”

“Beautiful, aren’t they Talus?”

“Yeah. BIRD!”

“What Talus? Spit it out, chum.”

“Do you ever think about love, Birdie?”

“LOVE?”

His face was the color of Fire’s fur.

“Talus, do you speak of perfect, lifelong abiding forever , mishy mushy, LOVE?”

I moved my fingers behind Zephyr’s ears and down her neck a certain way that caused her to close her golden eyes in pure pleasure.

“Yeh.”

“Not too much, Talus.”

I kissed Zephyr’s nose.  My peripheral view saw his head drop.

“ I gather my friend, that you are thinking about love.”

His ears were bright.  My hand clapped his shoulder; we had known each other too long for this.

“Talus, you are my best friend; if you can’t tell me, who will you tell, old chum?  It’s Angie, hmmmm?”

“Yeah, Birdie.  I think I love ‘er.”

“That’s just grand, Talus.  Does she love you?”

“Dunno, Birdie.  I tink so.”

“Little advice, Tal?”

“sure.”

“Take it a little bit easy.  You have a long long time to decide if it’s permanent.  You don’t want to push her or scare her away or ruin something wonderful, because you lost track of yourself.”

He sighed.  “You are right, Bird.  I am pretty low key most of the time, but around her, I could bust wide open, and I don’t even know why.”

“Busting wide open………. Very dangerous stuff, Tal,” I grinned, “didn’t she just move to Amphipolis?”

We rose to take leave of the fox family; I gave Zephyr a final touch.

“Yeah, “Talus replied drooping again.

I put my arm around his shoulder, “Then seriously, man.  Take your time.  She has much to adjust to without you professing undying love right away.”

I knocked on his wooden head as we prepared to go our separate ways at the stable door.  “Talk to your dad.  He’s smart.”  Atticus was one of my heroes.

Talus was looking at the ground but he smiled.  “Thanks, Bird.”

“Anytime, my friend.  Let me know how the carvings are coming and show me FIRST this time, ok?”

Talus had done a beautiful carving of Hades my horse, and Baba Xe had intercepted the piece before I ever even saw it.  It sat in a prized position on her desk where she did militia business.  She had said that being The Conqueror should have its occasional perquisite.  I knew better than to argue with her when she referred to herself as “The Conqueror”.  Besides, it was very good exposure for Talus; many had admired it.

I watched Talus trot toward his family’s home and turned toward my own, with a happy sigh.

My Grandba met me at the family entrance to the fortress and dragged me inside by the collar.

“Get in here and cleaned up, Grandbirdie,” she fussed, “We’ve been waiting for ya.”

Minotaur shite.  They’re always looking for me.

She hustled me into the washroom next to the kitchen and I scrubbed liberally from my face to my elbows, trying to remove the stable smell.  It wouldn’t escape anyone though. Took a quick glance in the highly polished shield which hung on the washroom wall so a person could take quick account of his or her respectability before entering the family dining room.

I was a tiny bit taller at thirteen winters, but retained my mother’s compact build; my hair was dark and unruly like my Baba Xe’s hair,  but we kept it shorter, because it was thick like my mother’s as well, and it went off fully wild if it grew too long.  My eyes retained the sky blue of Baba’s eyes, but occasionally, there was some green sea foam character in them  as well.

“You are a child of yin and yang, Birdie.” My mother always told me.  My life would be a journey of making some sense of that.

Both sets of eyes were fixed on me as I slid into my seat at the table and began slurping my soup.   Yin and yang, warrior and bard, light and dark, all of the above, but never invisible  just because I wished to be.

The Conqueror’s fingers were making a steeple one at a time, and she was giving me an amused smile, rather like a cat might give a mouse before it bats it with a paw, claws extended.

“Sorry I’m late,” my voice was full of soup.

My Mama G was more merciful.  “Zephyr and the boys?”

“Yes M’am.  Soup is delicious, Grandba. It’s vegetable?” I tucked into a bit more with the dark bread.

“Thank you, Birdie.  Roasted. You weren’t so late.” My grandmother always looked out for me.

“You almost missed the meal.” Baba Xe’s voice was still that mild dangerous tone that could go either way.  But she was strict about punctuality; it was the soldier in her.   Figure this out, Bird or it’s going to be your hide.

Try the truth.

“My apologies to all of you.” My voice was low. “Talus was with me.  He’s been looking at the kits for a carving, we put them back with Zephyr to sleep, and then he asked my advice on something else.  We simply lost track of the time.  I’m sorry I kept you waiting.”

I could feel the icy blues cutting into the top of my head.  Steady.  I met them.  They had softened and her big hand reached out to ruffle my hair, “S’all right, Birdie. THIS TIME.  How are little Copper and Leaf anyhow?”

“Baba it’s Silver and Rain!”

Food digests so much better with laughter.

Baba Xe knew that too, because I caught the looks that passed between her and my Mama G, and also the look she received from her own mother.

As I have grown, Baba Xe has become stricter with me.  Mama G says, she fears my dark side coming out too strong, and she is tough because she loves me.  We haven’t been to the armory in nearly four seasons, but that could change in a heartbeat.

She has looked at me on more than one occasion and said, “Infrequency is not immunity, Little Bird,” and I know that the path to the armory is very short and I had better watch myself.  She will still be saying that to me when I am twenty five winters old; there is no doubt of that.

“Don’t you have something big goin’ on tomorrow?” My grandba’s question, as she passed me another slice of bread with butter.

I am very glad that my Grandba Cyrene is around.  Baba Xe was no angel as a youth; Grandba reminds her,  and that is what saves me.

“It’s the final evaluation for your ‘expert canoeist feather’ isn’t it?” the Amazon Queen always knew the lay of the land.  I sent her a smile.

The Conqueror leaned forward, “I’m behind Bird, hadn’t realized you were ready for the final.”

Good sycophantic opening.  “Well Baba, I have parents who gave me an early start, and I’ve advanced quickly through the levels.  I am the youngest going for the expert besides RACHELLE.”  Couldn’t avoid a tone.

“And she is advanced because she comes from a sea tribe?” my mother lifted her eyebrows at me and the tone, so I softened it.

“Despite EVERYTHING else about Rachelle, she’s very good in a boat.”

“Personality still hasn’t quite worked out yet, eh?”  Baba Xe’s question.

“Not at ALL, Baba.”

“Who is Rachelle, and what is wrong with her Birdie?” Grandba had that ‘now, now’ sound in her voice.

“Rachelle is a new to our area Amazon princess who is Birdie’s age, and who has come to live with her aunt Eponin from the seaside Amazon tribe,” explained my mother the Amazon Queen, “Birdie thinks that Rachelle has a few attitude issues to work out yet.”

“She’s arrogant, Grandba; She’s plainly snotty.”

“Not a dinner table word, Birdie.” My mother gave me a look.

“Sorry Mama, but she IS.”

Sigh.  Better concentrate on eating.

“Pony says, that she is doing some better after being around her and Ephiny for, what, two moons now?”  Baba Xe contributed.

She and Effie’s partner, Eponin (Pony) worked together often in combining drills with the Amphipolis militia and the Amazon warriors.

“How many times as Effie given Rachelle the ‘Arrow’?” I grinned.

“Not as many times as she would like, I am sure, “Baba chuckled, “but she hasn’t given it to YOU as many times as she would like to either, has she?”

Eyebrows went above the Aegean eyes and she had me.  No comment.

“You’ll begin very early, I suppose?” my mother again.

“Yes m’am.  I’ll be up, grab a bite, prepare my pack and head to the river.  We are meeting there.  I forgot to say that Rachelle is my partner.”  Tried to suppress the sigh.

“So you have a double challenge.” The Conqueror folded her hands and, leveled the indigo gaze at me again.

“Yes.  It’s your fault, Mama G.”

Now every eyebrow was raised at me.

“My fault?” the Queen didn’t allow that easily.

“You require that I be polite, civil, and nice to everyone.  Nobody else will have anything to do with Rachelle, but I HAVE to be nice to her…”

“OR ELSE.” The emerald eyes had some amusement in them.  “Birdie there are worse things I could do than to make you be civilized to people.”

“Yes, Grandbirdie—be glad that your mother can still adjust that behavior in you…” My grandba was looking at my Baba Xe.

“Indeed Birdie, be glad that you aren’t hopeless,” Mama G shared a look of laughter with my Grandba Cyrene and they both looked at Baba Xe.

Baba was just sopping up the final bit of soup with her bread and shoving it into her mouth.  She felt the eyes.

“WHAT?” came from her full but indignant lips.

Even I joined the next round of chuckling at the next irate blue eyed-

“WHAT?”

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Rachelle’s a pretty girl.”  The bard remarked later as she sat, made child sized in the enormous bed.  She tucked her knees to her chin and wrapped her arms around them as her eyes followed the movements of her tall soul mate going about her evening routine.

Xena wiped down the Tide, examining it carefully to make sure the edges showed no wide places before sheathing it and hanging it on the bedpost.  She did the same with the chakram.  This ritual might have bothered someone else, but Gabrielle had performed a similar dance earlier with her staff and sais.  These were the habits of many years on the road and the pair thought nothing of it.

“She is,” the warrior completed her weapons check, slipped into a nightshirt and them under the warm covers, “She reminds me of someone.”

“Who?”

“Let me see…  Compact but graceful build, light hair, greenish eyes that hide very few emotions…”

“Honestly?” the bard gave the warrior a very startled look, “Guess I haven’t seen it.  Not at all.”

“Well there is some work to be done on the personality,” the lower voice murmured, “But I do believe that with the right person’s touch, there is great potential.”

“You do?” the bard leaned across her warrior with a warm smile and ran a gentle finger down the side of her face.

“It’s been known to happen,” from the baby blues at their vulnerable best.

Gabrielle moved a strand of dark hair away from them thoughtfully.

“It’s not very cold tonight, is it?” she smiled quietly.

She was answered in turn with an equal smile and rumbling answer, “don’t believe so.”

“I’ll build up the fire and you open the ceiling panels.”

“The white teeth flashed in response and Gabrielle hurried from the bed to add several large sticks to the fire from the stash by the hearth.  Her tall lover maneuvered gracefully from the four corners of the bed opening the sliding panels in the ceiling above to produce a view of the night sky.  When the chores were completed, the warrior and the bard were under a diamond night together with a roaring fire nearby, just as they had been so many times– so many years ago.

For a time they just lay cuddled under the blankets stargazing silently.

Then as her dark warm presence moved to cover the bard, the warrior murmured into the blonde hair, “Seems like old times, eh?”

  Lips moved around the delicate edge of the ear and brush- kissed down the neck, around the back and shoulder, and as the bard’s arms rose above the warrior’s shoulders to pull her down skin to skin, she said, “I must admit to preferring this bed.”

There was a quiet chuckle, and then mouths joined and souls drank deeply, endlessly, lovingly– and as they always had done, the stars looked down on this great love, and they approved.

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The morning was surprisingly bright after storms moved in very late.  I wondered if the exam would be held as often the height and speed of the river could be made unpredictable by these unexpected downpours.  But I could see a thin rise of smoke in the direction of the river, and that was the Amazon signal– we would go.   Being raised by travelers, I was well prepared for the day in tough leather sandals, and knee length pants made of a wax treated cotton that was water resistant.  My sleeveless buttoned vest was sewed of the same material, as was the small pack that was strapped across my body.  I had tightened the leather thong on my turtle pendant and wore a red kerchief folded around my head which would both cool me and keep my hair out of my eyes.   At my belt was a dagger with a stone handle with an extra strap to hold it fast.  We were forbidden to have weapons of length, because they could be dangerous during an unforeseen spill in the water, but being Robin of the Warrior and the Bard, I had lashed an Amazon “short sword” up under the gunwales of our canoe, out of sight.   Dangerous or not, a weapon was wanted.  Perhaps I would not be caught.

Having the farthest to travel would make me the final to arrive.  However, Rachelle had not.  Embarrassing but not surprising.  The other three canoes were cast off and almost out of sight when her bright yellow hair glowed above the hill followed by her grumbling entourage’ of Pony and Ephiny.

“Glad you could manage it,” my tone was dry.

“The sentiment is certainly mutual,” her reply.

Effie and Pony rolled their eyes in tandem.

“We are already behind,” I grabbed the back of our canoe expectantly.

“You are taking the stern?” her white eyebrows raised.

“Yes.”

“Huh!”

“Yes.”

Somehow, I made it a command.

Evil evil eyes burned into mine.

“Do you have your Personal Flotation Devices?”  The question came from Pony.

Rachelle and I remained locked in our battle of eyes.

 “Hey!”  Pony didn’t have the tact that my Baba Xe did.

“Yes.”  We answered in chorus, though we had forgotten the question.

I gave a brisk order, “Grab the bow, Rach.”

She did so; choosing to obey orders from me over obeying orders from Pony.   She trotted a few steps into the current, hopped in and took her paddle.  I shoved off hard and did the same.  We caught a fast current and were quickly out into the middle of the swiftly moving river..

“Good luck!”  Effie’s voice.  “Be careful!” from Pony.

We both waved without looking back; we would both regret that.

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“Dig in; we are quite behind, “I said grimly and surprisingly enough, she did without remark.

We drove hard in the water for a time and I found myself watching the water glisten on the fine fair hair of her tanned lean arms.   She had tied a tawny thong of leather around her hair which had bleached nearly white in the bright summer sun.  Her clothing was very like mine and the water was repelled quickly.

A notion occurred.

“Rach, did you sneak a short sword along as well?”

She didn’t look back, but reached toward the rear right gunwale from where she sat and tapped upward.

I laughed, “What is your excuse?”

She shook her head, “You just never know, Bird, right?”

“Absolutely, Rach, Absolutely.”

We had never before agreed on ANYTHING, but there it was.

We shot the first run of white water hitting the “V” dead center, slicker than otters at play. She was an excellent partner.  I didn’t say a word to her, she anticipated every command I might have given and executed the strokes before I could speak the words.  We were strangely harmonious.  We hadn’t caught the others, but I wasn’t worried about that yet.

Try a little small talk.  Not my best area.

“How are you settling in with Pony and Eff?”

Silence for a full six strokes on the left, then four on the right.

“Well enough, I suppose; it’s different.”

“They might be, but they are very good people.”   I defended.

“Not what I meant by that, Bird.”

“Sorry. What was meant then?”

Six more strokes. Silence again.

“Meant it’s different to have family.  You know—Auntie Pony and such.”

Tried a laugh, “Well you and I are sort of family; Ephiny is my godmother.”

There was a pause of some length.

“You and I are most assuredly NOT related in any fashion, Birdie.”

Well, she had made that very clear, hadn’t she?

We entered a part of the river that gave us a break.  The water was so clear it appeared to be only three or four hands deep when actually it was far over our heads.  I scooped a double handful and poured in over my hair and face to cool myself a bit.

Ok, Deep breath

.  “Rach?”

Her paddle strokes were lazy and thoughtful; her eyes disappearing thoughtfully deeper than the depths of the beautifully clear liquid that held us.

“Could I ask a personal question?”

Her shoulders rose, enveloped her ears, then moved back and relaxed.

“ok.”

“What happened to your parents?” my gentle voice.  I had learned the value of this tone from my mother.

She looked out over the water seeing a far away place.

 “Soon after I was born, my parents went out in their canoe to receive the blessing of the sea.  They did so at the same time every four seasons’ turn in order for the tribe to have a prosperous fishing harvest.  They did not return.”

“There was a search?”

“The tribe searched for days.  My parents were excellent canoeists and the canoe was found washed ashore smashed.  No sign of my parents.  Well, except for this,” her hand fingered a string of silver beads alternating with small bright shells around her neck.  “These were in the canoe.  They belonged to my mother.”

Her story hit me very hard.  Rachelle had been an orphan, practically from the moment she had been born.  I couldn’t imagine it; the bright sun made water come to my eyes.

Venturing a little more, “So you were raised by…?”

“The tribe.  The tribe’s healer, Betha, cared for me from the cradle.  She made the crossing when I was eleven winters old after a long illness.  I pretty much took care of her during her last few moons.  Since Betha passed, I have lived rather unhappily with the tribal cook, Shuf.”

She sighed.

“Shuf didn’t like you?”

“Shuf was good to me; she took care of me.  She just didn’t understand me or children at allm the way Betha did.  I…..   I . loved… Betha..”

My paddle dipped the water quietly while I watched the fair head drop for a moment and her strong shoulders sag with the weight of grief.  Then she straightened and looked forward again pulling at the water hard with her paddle.

Carefully chosen words came from me.

“A season ago– through my own foolish disobedience– I witnessed what I perceived to be my mother’s death in battle.   I ran away from Amphipolis for a seven day of self imposed exile and grief.  So in some small manner, I know a little of the pain you must feel.   I am sorry for your great loss, Rachelle, and I honor the great courage you have shown in living your life.”

She turned back to regard me straight on for the first time then, and her eyes were much like my own mother’s, sensitive and strong.  I had not seen those qualities before and I could not unlock my eyes from hers.

And she said, “Thank you, Birdie.”

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To be continued…..

Rach

The river runs

Around the bend,

I know not where

This journey ends.

The river flows

From earth to sky,

I know not how

I know not why.

The river runs

I do not care.

It can and will

Go anywhere.

The river’s journey

Ends with the sea,

And now the sea

Brings you to me….

Part 2

Our water speed increased; the level was higher and there was a lengthy run of white water coming that had been classified “rather intense” before last night’s storms.   The  speed had been upgraded to “rather dangerous”, today.   The area of the river had a name—Tower Rock– obviously a tall boulder stood mid river and caused the most rapid part of the water to split left or right around it.   Historically, it was the quintessential “rock and a hard place” decision that sank boaters on the river, because this boulder had caused many to end their journeys right there –having lost everything in a spill.   That had seemed very odd to me; how difficult could it be to choose a direction of left or right?

“Which hand at the Tower, Rach?”

There was no hesitation.

“I’ve run it a few times, Bird and it feels as if the left is just a bit smoother.”

“Left it is then,” felt a smile on my face.” Hope we don’t discover any Amazon chums there.”

She chuckled, “If no one is hurt, they are on their own.  We all receive the ‘expert’ feather, but the canoe who arrives FIRST receives the largest and most beautiful feathers.”

“Agreed,” and I lifted my paddle to study the smaller rapids beginning, dragging just a bit of a reverse to steer us carefully.  Ahead was a large waterlogged stump, and I concentrated  to turn the canoe just so around it—focusing so intently that I did not see the edge of Rachelle’s paddle dragging a spray of bright splash into my face.

“Hey! SPLURBLEghblurgh…”  A successful out of water dunk.

She laughed, a musical sound coming from her, like a wind chime.

We cleared Tower Rock like we had partnered for winters and then ran easily through another quarter candle mark’s light rapids before banking the canoe for quick trips to the bushes.  We munched on cheese wrap snacks and jogged about, stretching our legs and arms for a few moments.  As we moved to re-enter I made the dramatic gesture of surrendering to her the stern of the canoe.

She looked at me appraisingly, “Nah, you’re fine, “she winked at me, “not bad at all.”

I felt a ringing in my ears and the earth’s rotation stopped for a moment, but I remained cool collected.

“Thanks,” gave her the offer of the warrior’s grip, and she took it, “We’ve a big decision to make now, regarding the next fork.  It’s really a matter of following orders.  I don’t have the best record of doing that.”

“So I hear.” She didn’t comment further.

“Our Amazon Instructors ordered ‘all go left’ at the main fork after the Tower.”

I worked it out for her with a stick in the dirt.

“Pony and the other instructor said the rains have made the right fork too dangerous, and there is a newly fallen tree amid the higher waters which also creates danger.  However, if we’ve any hope to win, Rach, taking the right fork is our only chance, because it cuts a half candle mark of time.”

She was quiet for a moment studying my dirt map and then looked at me, “We are pretty good together.”

“We are excellent together—like we have canoed together for seasons.”

She shrugged, “I believe we can handle it.”

“I know we can, Rach; we can beat all of them. Let’s go for it!”

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

Hubris means excessive pride, and the gods always punish hubris.

I should have known better.

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At mid- day the small group of Amazons halted their ponies for a break on the land journey to the end of the “expert” trip.  The plan was to set up an overnight camp with a light celebration and a big campfire for the awarding of the Expert Feathers, and to return to the village the following morning.    Regent Ephiny smiled in greeting to her partner and handed her a meat wrap as the weapons expert brought her pony alongside hers.

“Did you make it to the river?”

Pony tore a vicious bite from the sandwich, “Yes, blast it!”

Uh oH.   “Problem with the count?”

“Three of four passed,” the weapons master growled through another bite, “give you one guess which canoe was missing.”

Ephiny sighed, shook her head and swallowed.  “The dynamic duo—it would be them.”

“Why does it HAVE to be them? “ Pony was really miffed.

Ephiny laughed then, “Now Pone, we are becoming well acquainted with your niece and by the gods, I DO know my goddaughter.  It will always them, because they ARE who they ARE.” She looked ahead.  “We never should have put them in the same boat.”

“But they drive the others BANANAS!” said Pony, “Even though Birdie and Arrot are friends now, since Arrot and Evaline are an item, we need to encourage harmony, and the other two pairs are beautiful together.”

“Birdie and Rachelle?  We knew this could happen Pony,” Ephiny cleared her throat, “We better work it out, because I don’t want Xena and Gabrielle to show up tonight and find we are missing one canoe, do you?”

“Well your hindsight is lovely!” snapped Pony as she steered her sturdy paint back again toward the river.  “It’s just bloody brilliant!”

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Atticus thrust his great paw out to the Conqueror as she approached the fields.

“Tanks for comin’ My Lady; I’ve got a live one for ya.”

“You know I am always glad to help, Atticus,” her graceful stride ceased in front of the big man, and he marveled at how her slim build, clad in her every day attire of leather pants, boots, and long wool coat disguised her amazing combative talents.  The famous Tide was balanced unsheathed in her hand; she spun it a cycle, making the blade sing.

“Which?—–ah—got him.” The icy orbs hardened at a tall muscular young man with long red hair who was making great show of beating a smaller opponent down to his knees and further.

Atticus turned and bellowed, “Clayburg!! Enough!”  The redhead stopped, but he

continued to glower over the smaller man, kicking dirt in his face and lifting his sword so that the smaller man still cringed in fear.

“Jackass,” Atticus muttered, “I was that feller a lifetime ago.”

Xena blinked tossing him the Tide as she slipped out of her coat, revealing the pewter breastplate and blue silk shirt.

“Honestly? I’d never believe that of you, Atticus.” She smiled as he presented her the Tide across his arm, hilt first clicking his heels.  “What happened?”

“Rosie,” his eyes went dreamy, he smiled and then he laughed, “Rosie, Rosie, Rosie.”

“Then Talus?” she added.

“Aye,” his voice gentled, “and Talus.”

Xena put her hand on his shoulder as she focused on Clayburg, “You are one of my heroes, Mr. Atticus….Mr. Clayburg.” She raised her voice only slightly.

The redhead froze.

She spun the Tide once. “Turn around, please.”

He did a perfect about face and bowed, “My Lady Conqueror.”

She turned up her sleeves with expert sharp flips while never releasing his eyes.

“Mr. Atticus, will you please take Mr. Abstone to the infirmary to be attended?”

“Come lad, “Atticus put the boy under the canopy of his arm and led him away.  As they passed the Conqueror she touched the boy’s back lightly with her hand and smiled.  He straightened immediately, shoulders back.

Her gaze went to the hilt of her sword as she spun it again.

“Mr. Clayburg, “The Conqueror’s voice was of the low and dangerous timbre that anyone who knew her would have shuddered to hear, “you have considerable skill.  I am wondering why the reports that I receive of you are that you use your skills to bully smaller opponents, rather than sharpen your skills on TRUE challenges?”

“The truth, Conqueror?” he did not disguise his arrogance.

She only raised an eyebrow.

“B’cause that behavior brot me face to face wit you all the mor faster, “ he spun his own broadsword and flashed a grin of mostly good teeth.

A slow smile crossed the angular face and put twinkling stars in the indigo skies.  Sometimes it was good to be Aries’ Chosen.

“Mr. Clayburg, have you ever heard the saying, ’take care what you wish for?’”

His first attempt was a lunge bringing his sword straight down as if to cleave her in half from head to groin.  She caught it with the flat of the Tide and used his own strength to flip the sword over her shoulder and delivered a slamming fast boot to his face.  He went down like a tree.

The same boots stepped over his bulk to retrieve his sword, azure eyes admired it and strong hands stabbed it into the ground beside the thick head.   It took little imagination to see birdies flying in a circle tweeting about his eyes.  The question: was Clayburg smart or was he dumb?

Dumb.  He sprang up and she caught his slow cross slash and parried his second.  Strong fellow but he needed to learn that strength was far from all that was required.

With an abbreviated war cry she flipped over him and razored through his hair with a graceful Tide.  He turned to see the red locks on the ground.  This was a flag to a bull, but she needed to force him to his worst to ascertain if he was worth keeping or not.

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

Gabrielle smiled at her young charges and spoke firmly, “Ready position.”

Though none in her class reached even close to her shoulder in height, all eight tiny staffs were flicked smartly into the diagonal position– forward hand up and under the staff and the back hand on top of the staff facing down.  Legs were spread shoulder width, dominate foot followed dominate hand a bit back to direct and force the blows.  Eight small faces were deadly serious and didn’t blink.  She walked among them checking form, “Good job, Freeda,   Bernie, May I touch your arm? There. Good.  Kane,  Excellent.   Shanda, legs just a little bit further… there you go.”  She stood back from them.

“Now.  Everyone three arm lengths apart, quickly!”  The kids spread out and all eyes locked on her.  “Ready.”  Position assumed.

“Opponent is coming overhead!!”  Immediately all small staffs were raised horizontally and the kids were down on one knee braced.  “Perfect!” “And Counter!”   The staffs swooped by in hard swings left to right into the waists or legs of imaginary opponents.

“Behind you!”  The staffs continued the three- sixty sweep and stopped with a vicious poke in an invisible solar plexus.

“And  Ready.”  Back to position.

The Bard clapped her hands smiling, “You are the best Junior Staffers ever!”  She received shy grins.

“Alright, an extra quarter candle mark free- spar, but I’ll test you at the end.”  A cheer rose from the group that actually sounded more like the group of seven seasons’ old kids they were as they scampered for the cushioned soft staffs they used to battle each other.  It was their favorite thing, as they could actually make contact with little damage.

Gabrielle had begun Junior Staffers by accident years ago when dealing with her own little hothead –finding ways to channel her temper.  As a result, she had taught a few of Birdie’s companions, and then as those youngsters grew older, they assumed the job of teaching younger kids.  The end result was that every child in Amphipolis could both handle and respect a staff as a weapon, and there were very few fights among the children.   Older kids continued to work with younger kids, but the Amazon Queen/Lady of Amphipolis herself still taught the beginning course. This both initiated the children with the correct attitude, and also endeared them and the Queen to each other.  The Queen’s First Course went every seven day for six moons and when a child finished the study at age eight seasons, he or she was VERY good at the staff, and received a Robin’s patch.  Many of the Amphipolis Militia’s youngest and finest members had begun in Junior Staffers.   They were famous their good form, work ethics and for bedrock loyalty.

Gabrielle watched several scuffles with the quilted staffs and feeling safe that all the little ones were in good moods, she scooted over to Rosie who was pouring juice into clay tumblers.

“Mind if I snag a juice, Rosie?”

The warm hearted wife of Atticus and mother to Talus topped of the small tumbler, watched the queen drain it and topped it off again.

“Rosie that restores me, “the Bard released a deep sigh which suddenly caught as if a fish were hooked.  She clutched her side.

“Are you alright My Lady? Was it the juice?  Should you sit?” Rosie was behind her queen immediately to catch her.

“No Rosie, I’m fine— it’s my family.  My inner sense, you know.”  She put her hand to her heart.

“Should you sit, My Lady?”

“No, but I must leave.  Will you dismiss the kids for me?”

“Of course, My Lady.”

“Thank you Rosie. “ She walked by the little scrimmages, “Kids– spar for a quarter candle mark more, have your juice, and I’ll see you next Fifth day, ok?” She managed a cheery smile.

“Goodbye Lady Gabrielle, Goodbye My Lady, thank you..” the lilting little voices followed as she hurried from the room.

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

Clayburg continued to roar with mighty thrusts of his broad sword that Xena easily sidestepped or blocked with small effort.  This was tiresome.  Wrap it up.  She eased around and smacked the pinch on him which left his eyes bugging, his tongue rolling out, his voice gagging.

“Clayburg you have until the count of thirty to decide if you will fight for me in my militia, walk away forever, or die.  Make up your mind quickly.  I do think you have some talent which is trainable.”

“Fight fer you m’lady,” strangled voice.

“Good decision, “ She slammed his neck,  he fell forward gasping, but a faraway glimpse of sunlight on bright hair had already distracted her  and as she moved toward it , she gave Clayburg a hand up .  The indigo eyes froze as she felt a shift in the air behind her; she twirled the Tide once and drove it underhanded into his thigh, even as he tried to strike his own sword into her back.

He howled like a dog.

The Conqueror then turned and gave the foolish man with shorn hair and bleeding thigh, a flash of ice lightning eyes which made him fall to one knee, head bowed now—conquered.

“Mr. Clayburg, if you were not such a pitiable idiot I would kill you.  This is your last chance.  Will you swear to serve in my army faithfully, turn and limp away, or die?  Otherwise why DID you come here?”

The young man now had tears in his eyes for the mercy he was shown.  He took her hand in his reverently now, and kissed it.

“My Lady Conqueror, you have my life offered in service to you,” he choked, but regained control and looked at her square, “I swear it.”

She studied him long and then smiled, “ I knew that you were worth something by your good manners.  Well done, Mr. Clayburg.”

Going to one knee, she quickly ripped off his left sleeve and tied off the bleeding of his wound.  Then she rose, giving him a hand up.

“Are you able to walk?”

“Well enough, My Lady.”

“Go to the Infirmary and find Atticus or the Healer Mari-sue.  Then seek barracks four and Headbarracksman Galto.  He will settle you in.”

“Thank you My Lady Conqueror.” The new man’s eyes were showing new adoration for his leader.

“And Mr. Clayburg,”

He turned, “Yes, My Lady Conqueror.”

“Welcome.”

“Thank you My Lady Conqueror.”  Gone was the bluster and in its place were humble good manners.  Containing man’s strength combined with some training of his talent would result in a good addition to the army.  Clayburg was limping slightly, his hair was shorter, and he was bleeding, but he was already a better man.

Xena jogged to meet the bard who fell into her arms.  The forest colored eyes searched hers quickly, “It’s not you; it must be Birdie.” She said.

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

The water had become the color of mud, as if it were no longer our friendly clear running friend, but had become a thick murky foe, with secrets hiding beneath.  Gone was our easy bantering by silent agreement; we concentrated on the job at hand, and the job was growing.  The water ran fast, very fast, and I could see by the levels on the banks and trees that it was quite high.  There were several trees wading deep in the water not by choice, and many had fallen into the river.

I reversed my paddle hard as Rachelle dug right to steer into the V of a quick muddy set of rapids , and we both reversed our paddles to shove away from a large floating log which dipped by us dangerously.

“You all right?”  her words came to me calmly.

“Yeah, you?” my answer.

“I’m fine.  Good job.”

We leaned hard and low into a lengthy run of white water which continued down river as far as I could see.

“Rachelle, I’ll follow your signals.  Whichever way you direct, I will pull, ok?  You will see it first, so you take charge!”

“Ok.”  The river was upon on us.

She was an expert.

We glided through the rushing water like a huge fish– wordlessly; I followed her lead, and we didn’t miss a beat.  But this water was trouble for us, and we both knew it.   We navigated a large rapid and missed two large rocks, round a bend and I caught my breath.  It was the tree—an enormous thing spanning the entire length of the river. We couldn’t miss it; there would be a collision.

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“What is it?”  Xena put her hands on her soul mate’s shoulders and looked into her eyes.

“I just feel the fear, Xena; something is not right.”

“Let’s go—you are never wrong.”  The Conqueror slung her coat over one shoulder hanging on the Tide, and ran a gentle arm around her bard and they walked toward the fortress.  The blonde head rested in the crook of the arm.

“Who were you fighting?”

“Just doing a bit of ‘place-putting’,” the dark head sighed and rested hers on the fair one.  “Did result in a pretty good new recruit though, I believe.”

“Uh oh, something is up for sure.. Look.” Gabrielle pointed to the door exiting the stable.

Zephyr was touching noses with Fire, turning the care of Silver and Rain over to their father.  She trotted up to the parents of Birdie with an expectant look on her face.

Gabrielle knelt and looked into the serious gold-flecked eyes, “Can you find Birdie, girl?”

The black fox simply sat down as if to say, “Hurry Up.”  She looked toward the horizon.

Xena and Gabrielle hurried.

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“Bird!” was the last sound I heard from Rach as I fought to angle the canoe so it might crash broadside rather than head on.   The front went into branches and trunk, but then the furious current caught the stern (my part) to fling it in a whiplash hard left at the larger part of the tree.

“Minotaur Shite,” a growl in my voice, a wood splintering sound, and I was launched into a tangle of branches flung underwater.   A roaring roaring roaring steady roaring sound.  Water, the strong hands of the sculptor of earth.

Disorientation.  Light.  Silence and noise together.  I was among endless branches submerged; the tree was enormous and I banged my head on the canoe? The trunk  A bit of sense came to me, where am I? Find right side up.  Beams of sunlight pierced the tangle; the water was clear down here.

It was peaceful.

“I’m drowning.” The thought that came to me.  “It’s not so bad.”

But another survival part of my brain kicked on, “Not yet.” And I turned and swam down, like a frog, deep as I could under the tangle, and tried to go up.  No, not yet. Still too much tree. My sandal was caught.  Undo it.  My head was pounding.  A little bit more… there, clear to the top.  I shoved from the bottom as hard as I could, still fighting through the occasional stick, but I exploded into the air with a wheezing heave, inhaling, lights floating in front of my eyes, the river still roaring, sweeping me down, choking on the water I drank, but finally, I got enough air to calm down and flounder to shallow water. Footing, thank the gods.  Staggering forth I took two good breaths and it was time.

“RACH!!”

“Rach!”

Panicked, I tramped back into the rush, “RACH!”

“Bird.”

She wasn’t in the water.  Where?  Listen.

“Bird.”

“Rach?”

“Bird.”  Weaker.

Listen.

I dashed back on shore .

“Bird.”

and sloshed back into the water again.  Behind a thicket of rushes, she clung to the grasses with one hand and to what was left of our canoe with the other.  Wading out into the flow, I got my right arm about her waist and my left on the canoe, and began to walk backwards against the current.

“MINOTAUR shite, Rach!”

Our combined leverage once she found her feet was sufficient to bring the canoe against the current and shove it on the rocks.  We fell to the gravel face down side by side to catch a breath.  Without hesitation, our hands, trembling, found each other and clasped, gripped, hard— safe.

————————————————————————————————————————

I awakened, braced up on an elbow.  Cold.   Put a hand with blue fingernails on her shoulder.

“You ok, Rach?”

“The blue spruce eyes cracked opened, “Yes, just cold, Birdie, “shivery voice from blue lips, “I was so afraid you were…..I saw you thrown out…”  One single tear,  “The canoe and I somehow just tucked under the trunk; I don’t know how, but we rolled under it, not too bad actually.  Drank a lot of river.”

“Here, “ I sat up and pulled her up and into my arms between my legs, wrapped myself around her, rocking her a little, trying to warm her.  Her shivering eased a bit.  Our breathing steadied together.  She touched my forehead.

“You’re bleeding.”

“Ouch.”

“Be still.”  She frowned, “Tough girl, eh?  There’s a cut.”

“Hit my head on the canoe and the tree, I think.”

She moved light fingers over it, “Don’t believe it’s as bad as you’re bleeding.”

“Yeah, head wounds.”

We sat another moment.

“Bird.”

“Yeah?”

“We’ve got to move; get warm, we’re in shock.”

“Right, let’s check to see what survived our crash.”  My voice sounded days away with my eyes—staring, but my feet responded.

Stumbling over, I pawed through the packs tied into the canoe.  Mine had broken open my food was lost, but hers was sound; we could have a fire.  I tossed her the flint striker.

“I’ll work on this; check the weapons,” she directed.

Good luck, both short “baby Zon” swords were still lashed in; we had  tied them well in front and back of us for safety.  It was rather chilling to note that the stern of the canoe, my seat, was fully smashed in.  I was safe because I had been thrown out.

“Swords are here!”

“Brilliant, we may make a go of this.  Is there another small kit by my sword?”

“This one lashed very tightly?”

“Bring it.”

“Yes Ma’m.”

On the return, I dropped an armload of wood beside her as well and we continued to feed the fire.  The warm flames were a great comfort.

Rachelle rose and walked into the water again.   She returned very shortly carrying a fish.

Shook my head at her, “I should have known..”

Rach cleaned the fish efficiently with her dagger and soon it was cooking in pieces on stones in the fire.  Hunger set on both of us at the smell.

She opened the smaller kit.

“Come here, Birdie.”

Patrolling the parameters of our fire lighted circle, I was listening.

“No one is here, Bird.”

“Why do I feel eyes?  Why do I hear feet?”

“It’s called ‘shock’, Bird.  Now come here and let me see your head.  You should drop your pants as well.”

My eyebrows shot up so high, it hurt my head wound.

She gave my leg a light smack.

“Latrine brain.  I was raised by a HEAL—ER? Take a look at your left hip.”

Soaked in blood.  Hadn’t even felt it until she mentioned it.

“Ah,” followed directions meekly and eased down the pants and the edge of my loin garment.  Nasty.

“Think you must have rammed a ragged branch there – like a stab wound with a broken lance,” she made a noise.  “ I always carry a small healer’s kit. “  From her pack she fetched a small pan which she carried to the river and returned to place water on the fire to heat..  She also turned our meal; the aroma was enticing.  From a cloth fold in the pack she took a thin bone needle and thread.

“Hate that.”

“You really are a tough girl, aren’t you?  Lie down so I can see your head.”
“My head is fine.”

“You’ll do it or you’ll have no fish.”

I did it but gave her such a dirty look.

She soaked a small patch of cloth in her heated water and dabbed at my head.

“See? You can do as you are told.  I have heard that you do not.”

“Depends on who is doing the telling….”

“”Ah, so I should be terribly flattered.”  Her touch was light and gentle on my head.   I tried not to wince.

“Well, are you flattered?”   I don’t know where the attitude was coming from .

“You need two small stitches here; shouldn’t sting too much, ready?”

Pinch.  Wince.

“So Are you?”

Pinch. Wince.

“Am I what?”

Snip, tie.

“Rach.” She was doing this deliberately.

“All done.”

Sigh.

“Now about this other.”

I jerked up again.  Minotaur shite. I missed Zephyr’s ears.

“Birdie, what is it?”

“There is a disturbance, Rach.  We’re being watched.”  I rose and stalked about the fire with my sword attempting a menacing swagger.

“You are quite good at bluffing,” she smiled when I returned.

“I have learned from the best,” chuckling to myself.  “Can we eat before you torture me more?”

She begrudgingly held me a cloth,  “Push this against it and eat fast.  I must attend to it while there is daylight left.”

The fish offered about seven bites for each of us, but it satisfied.  I walked about again and collected a few herbs.

“These will make decent tea in your little pan when you are finished ‘healing’.”  Her smile was genuine.

The hot water was ready.  She threaded a larger needle this time and took a deep breath.

“All right Robin of the Warrior and Bard,” she said quietly, “You will do as I tell you because we have some bit of adventure left to us here and you can’t manage very well if you have some ghastly infection.  I need you in good shape.  So buck up, tough girl, lay across my lap a bit.  Here.”

Obediently, I moved and she sat cross-legged and guided me ; I wrapped my body about her in a crescent shape, so my wound was foremost in front of her eyes and hands.

“Now you may holler, cry, thump and squeeze me if you like, because this will hurt, Birdie,” she said gently as she reached over to fetch the hot water, “but try not to jostle my hands; they must be steady to clean this nasty injury of yours thoroughly and sew it up.  It won’t be easy  because it’s so uneven and there is wood in it.  If you need to rest tell me, but remember the daylight factor.”

“Ok.” I put an arm inside around her waist.

“Birdie?”

“Just helps me to hang on, Rach; I promise not to impair you.”

“Want me to tell you what I am doing?”

“Sure.”

“Ok, we are going to start cleaning out bark here now.  It’s in there deep, Birdie.”

She kept talking and I watched my tears make spots in the sand.

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The Warrior and the Bard slowed Argo and Wendy.  Zephyr circled back with an impatient tail.

“We need a plan; this is far too wild a goose for my taste,” growled the Conqueror.

“Xena, Zephyr has never been wrong.” insisted the Bard, “and neither have I.”

“Do you not think we should fetch Pony and Ephiny? Rachelle will be with Birdie.”

Gabrielle knew the Warrior was just thinking out loud.

“I believe the Amazons will arrive where our kids are at about the same time we do, Xena.  Pony and Ephiny are parents too, and they will figure it out.  Zephyr is waiting.”

Xena tilted her head.  “You are right of course, Gabrielle.  If Birdie is in trouble there is no time to waste, is there? Don’t know where my mind is.  Sorry, Zephyr!”

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“All present and accounted for but you know who!!” Pony’s pacing was so angry she was kicking up dust puffs.  “This time I WILL tan some Royal Amazon butt!”

“Which one?” Ephiny was calmer but no less annoyed, “and before or after the Queen kicks our butts?  We will put those two before the formal board for insubordination as well.  We TOLD them not to take that fork.”

Her partner sighed,” Let’s go ahead and send the others home and head up river.”

“Toward the right fork?” Ephiny gave her a knowing grin as she put a boot in the stirrup.

“Where else?  I am cutting a switch on the way.”

“Pony, you’ve a lot to learn about parenting.”

“Such as?”

“First you make certain they are safe, sound, fed, unhurt.  Then you cut the switch.”

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“Birdie, that’s the last one, stitch number twelve I believe.” She placed a warm gentle palm on my raw hip, and it was soothed.

I sniffed, sighed, and remained buried somewhere beneath her waist and my own elbow on the gravel.

“Hear me?”

Finally trusted my own voice, “Yeah… thanks, Rach.”

As I untangled myself, she eased my garment and pants over the wound.

The gentle hand remained on the hurt.  Her voice was equally gentle, “The answer is ‘Yes’, Birdie.”

I turned to look her light evergreen eyes.

“Yes— I am flattered that you do what I tell you to do, “she lowered her eyes, “What or when– I ask you to do it.”

The river ran and the fire flickered.  And she was so beautiful.  My fingers reached for her chin, slipped beneath and raised her eyes to meet mine.

“Well,” I smiled, “don’t get too full of yourself.”

I grabbed the pan from near the fire, and walked to the river managing not to clutch my wound too much.  Washed out the container and filled it.

“Steady Bird,” I told myself, “ you are in enough trouble.”

Soon we both watched the water with the herbs in it waiting to share some evening tea.

I took her hand in mine and squeezed it.

“Rach, “I said, “We need a plan.”

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Water

The strong hands

Of the sculptor

of Earth

—Gaia—

 Hands with

 which she

Created canyons

Gorges, Olympus,

All earthen

Drama-

 LIFE

Itself comes

Of water.

And we two

Set out

 in our tiny pod

With paddles,

Daring

 to navigate

Her mighty

 hands

Without a

Prayer?

Hubris

Is a word

Too small

For our

arrogance.

Part 3

I am Robin

Of the Warrior

And the Bard…

They slowed to breathe the horses. Zephyr stopped to drink from a clear puddle. Gabrielle passed the water skin to her warrior who drank silently and then turned the intensity of her azure gaze on her. The bard returned the gaze.

“What is your reading, Mama G?”

A pause, while the bard turned inward.

“She’s in trouble; she needs us, but she is holding her own right now.”

The dark head shook from side to side, ” By the gods that kid, Gabrielle! How many times have we done this?” The Conqueror searched the first stars appearing in the young evening sky.

Gabrielle studied the water skin intently before she reattached it to Wendy’s saddle.

“Xena?”

“Hummm?” the strong hand flicked to the chakram at a nearby rustle and then relaxed. Rabbit.

“Do you ENJOY being a parent?”

Argo danced around in a circle while the Conqueror cocked her head, “Now WHY would you ask me that question, Gabrielle?”

Her partner kept her silence when she began to answer herself; the golden horse did another pirouette, “You know that I have a uh, rather difficult personality, a quick temper, and I am easily frustrated, perhaps?”

The bard extended a gentle hand to clasp the larger one as her partner mused. The musing loosened the warrior’s hand from hers, and the larger hand ran fingertips lightly over the small exposure of the dragon tattoo which peeked from soul mate’s shoulder sleeve.

” My…Our….second life has been much different from the first hasn’t it?” the raven haired fighter kept her touch on the bard and put words together, ” and one of the greatest differences has been being a parent to our Birdie.”

Just a hint of a smile and she and looked again to the stars, “Today, I might have killed a very hardheaded young fellow. Instead, I worked to find the good in him; I helped him to find the good in himself. That is a far different Warrior Princess than existed twelve winters ago wouldn’t you agree?”

Gabrielle recaptured the rough hand and raised it to her lips, holding the indigo eyes with her own, and sending and receiving priceless affirmations.

“Despite the current tone of my voice regarding our offspring, my dearest love, I enjoy-I adore being a parent, and I learn from it daily. Now, shall we carry on our search for THAT KID ?”

She brought the smaller hand to her own lips. The break was over: the ride continued.. the pace was increased.

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We shared the second pan of tea. It warmed us and our shoulders were touching with a comfortable ease. She stared into the fire deeply so I nudged her.

“How are you, Rach?”

“Fine, stiff, sore, cold. Wishing for a bowl of soup, a bath, a bed, have any of those?”

She made me laugh, “OW!”

That brought a smile to her, “Guess you are hurting a little.”

“A little.”

“Do you have the Warrior Princess recuperative powers?”

“Do you know EVERYTHING about me?”

“Only what I have heard discussed, and you do have very famous parents, Birdie.”

Sigh. “Perhaps some tiny bit of the recuperative miracle ; not as much as I would like.”

“Think we can sleep at all?

I patted my leg, “You may sleep all that you wish, oh great healer of the seaside Amazons. Lay your head down. I’ll keep watch. The super-recuperative powers work better when I stay awake.”

The green-granite eyes cut at me, “You are a big fat fibber.”

“There’s no sleeping in me, Rachelle.”

My eyes convinced her, or she was very tired, because she pushed a stone away here, a stick there and stretched out with her head in my lap. My arm fell across her shoulders naturally, protectively and my hand began a slow soothing stroke in her hair. It was a motion which came to me easily from years of my Mama G doing it for me, and I knew it to be one of the safest most relaxing feelings that one person could impart to another. Rach fell asleep in very short order. Watching her sleep peacefully gave me the feeling of flattery now; she felt safe with me.

I watched the flames dance and wondered if my parents were on their way. There was an internal voice that said yes, but much more strongly, I felt that Zephyr was coming. I closed my eyes for a bright vision of my fox running steadily towards me, her white socks flashing. She had left her sons safe with their father; she was coming to find me, and it was very likely that my Mama G and Baba Xe were with her.

It was my fervent hope that Pony and Effie were on their way as well. They would not need the help of a god fox to ascertain what we had done; once again, my impulsiveness would have my backside in big trouble. But whatever trouble was coming from the adults in my life was preferable to whatever was watching from its cover in the woods.

And something WAS watching us.

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The moon was full and bright and it was easy to mark Zephyr’s silver tipped tail. But Xena slowed Argo and extended a long arm across her bard who slowed Wendy . Gabrielle was silent watching the warrior who had shifted her senses to finely tuned listening. Zephyr had halted as well.

“Horses-two,” the warrior whispered without a sound, “let them come to us.”

There came from the distance quiet voices, soft laughter, the clop-clopping of hooves and two figures on mounts in silhouette. Xena smiled.

“Pony!” she shouted, “Yiyiyiyiyiyi!!!”

A horse reared nearly capsizing its rider and itself. The other stayed fairly well controlled.

“Great Zeus’s Balls!! Xena, I hope that’s you! Very Funny, HAHA, Warrior!” came the bellow.

“Eph?” Gabrielle’s softer venture.

“Gab?” the regent’s softer return, “by the gods-well-thank the gods.”

“I guess we all know where we are going…” the dry voice of the Conqueror carried over the four horses meeting.

“We believe that they took the right fork in the river instead of the left, “spoke the weapon’s master with some heat , ” the fork they were specifically told NOT to take. The rains brought down a tree-clear across the river; it was a sure accident.”

“But you didn’t tell them that did you?” asked Gabrielle, “you only told the kids to go left, without question?”

“Gab, they are Amazons..”began the Regent.

“They were given orders..” from the Conqueror.

“THEY ARE KIDS,” the Queen overruled. “I am not excusing what they did, I am only saying that everyone, kids included, needs to be told WHY.”

Zephyr barked— A rare event.

“Zephyr is right,” said Gabrielle, “We can have this discussion later. Right now, we have a fox to follow.”

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My touch on Rachelle’s shoulder became a gentle squeeze, “Rach, we have company, Sorry, babe.”

She sat up, instantly alert, Baby Zon in hand crouched beside me. I tossed half a dozen sticks on the fire feeding the flames quite high. Then I stepped in front of it with my sword held down in a non aggressive stance.

“Show yourself, “Tried to sound like Baba Xe, calm, cool, demanding, in control, “We’ll do you no harm, but show yourself.”

A boy my age but big, hulking, tall and wearing long furred, hairy clothing stepped just into my sight. His eyes were bright blue. We eyed each other seriously but he did not move. I stood in front of Rachelle, hoping that he understood that I would defend us, but made no aggressive play.

“I have your back,” the whisper from Rach.

“Perfect, thanks. But not unless he attacks,” my answer without moving. “He’s a young ‘hairy fella’. He’s alone, so perhaps he will leave, given time.”

We remained at loggerheads for a quarter candle mark, and I could feel my knees begin to shake.

Hairy fella faded into the darkness. My legs sunk, my body tumbled near the fire with relief.

Warm strong arms encircled me, soft blonde hair on my shoulder; I turned into her, “Hey.”

“Just checking your wound,” she was suddenly all business, tugging my pants, “looks ok.”

I didn’t argue with her.

She sat up and patted her knee,” Your turn.”

“I’m ok, Rach, and I don’t think I can…”

Unwavering stare, “Healer’s orders. TRY.”

Her hand steered my head down. it did feel good to rest. “Perhaps for a moment then..” Really tired.

“Tell me about these ‘hairy fellas’ Bird.”

I turned to look up into her face, “‘Hairy fellas’ is a nickname for obvious reasons. They are officially called The Decedents of Zon, an ancient barbaric race of people who have lived in these parts since the times of my great grandmother, Xenarone. They are not quite harmless, for they attack the fortress once or twice a turn of the four seasons, and we have never really known why, except that it is tradition. My ancestor Xenarone and their ancestor, Zon, had a feud but I don’t believe anyone knows exactly what it was about anymore.”

“That seems rather foolish and a waste of life, “said Rachelle, “No it seems extremely foolish, and a colossal waste of life.”

“Agreed,” I murmured.

She began a rhythmic smoothing of my hair, carefully moving past the cut on my head, “but come to think of it, it’s been quite some time since they have attacked, Rach. And we’ve never gone after them.”

I turned over felt a warm arm settle over me, and went out like a candle. Considering it later, it took a level of trust that surprised me. But it was as if that trust had always been there.

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Xena put a hand out –palm facing back and they slowed. Gabrielle smiled at how naturally leadership fell to her lover, no matter the make-up of the group. She eased Wendy to Argo’s side.

“I smell smoke.”

Gabrielle could smell nothing and neither could the others. There was a light mist in the air from the river- a roar which was deafening at this point. They rode to the edge and could feel the heavy spray rising from the churning water.

“By-the-gods!” Pony said softly, ” I had no idea it was this bad. We had word there was a tree down and so forbade the right fork, but this tree is four times the size of what I would have expected. If they hit this… and they couldn’t have missed it….”

“Come,” Gabrielle said firmly, “Zephyr is running far ahead of us again.”

The little rescue group turned and rode into the darkness with trepidation.

The Amazon Queen answered the silent question, “Birdie’s star is healthy, wavering only a small amount, “she swallowed, “I am not sure how, but they survived the tree.”

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“Birdie”

I was wide awake.

“There’s an animal out there.”

I peered a moment and grinned.

“It’s Zephyr, “the fox ran me completely over and I lay on my back allowing her to lick my face before I sat up throwing my arms around her neck, “Zephyr, Zephyr, I am so glad to see you,” we rolled about some, ” Rachelle, we might be saved.”

“Not quiet yet, Birdie.”

The hairy boy was back and he had brought others. At least half a dozen grown ups were standing with him; too many for me to bluff properly. We both found our feet with our Baby ‘Zon swords in hands. Zephyr stood between us.

“How is Zephyr at hand to hand combat?” Rachelle was cool under fire.

“Quite good, actually.”

“Good enough for three to one odds, Birdie?”

“She’s very good, Rach; how are you?

“I’m not this good, Birdie.”

We shifted our swords to bring them into ready position.

They moved closer; the fire cast faint shades of orange and pink across their hairy faces. They were quite big.

Time to begin-deep breath, “We mean you no harm, “Did my best to sound calm, but my voice shook.

“Yes, they mean you no harm, and neither do we.”

The real thing, the calm confident voice— my Baba Xe’s voice, and the most beautiful sound I had ever heard.

Our heads flew around. They stood in the firelight, two capable Amazon warriors, their Queen, and the Conqueror herself, in all of their collective glory.

“Ah thanks to all the gods, ” I closed my eyes in relief.

Pony stepped up and collected Rach immediately, which drew the group of DOZ forward. Baba Xe stepped forward. Tension increased.

Then Mama G came forth from the group extending her hand, not to me, but to the boy in the group of hairy ones.

“I know you, “she said with a smile.

And he returned the smile– recognition lighting his aquamarine colored eyes.

She continued to walk forward slowly, cautiously with one hand extended, like Baba Xe did when approaching a spooked horse. It proved a successful method with the young hairy boy, because he came to her slowly, trusting her, and finally put his hand in hers. They stood beyond – apart-from the rest of us.

She looked back, “We had an encounter on the fortress wall during their last attack on the fortress, when the Conqueror and the kid were taken by the Romans, “she smiled at him, “this guy and I have a private truce.”

The boy pulled her gently to the biggest hairy fella of the party. He introduced her in “his speak,” and told the giant man a story. I heard my mother say, “I am Gabrielle.”

She reached back and I stepped up beside her, “This is MY child, Birdie.” She said to the big fella. I extended my hand to the boy. We shook. It seemed to be going well. Then the DOZ leader looked at Baba; they recognized something in each other and walked aside together silently.

I closed my eyes and felt warm arms around me, hands ruffling my hair and a mixture of leather and feathers. Pony smacked my head.

There was a quiet space, so I spoke,

“I know we’re in trouble,” figured Rach felt the same, ” we’ll explain on the way home. I accept full responsibility, Did you bring any food?”

That final question cracked some tension, and the embraces resumed.

Munching on a meat wrap, I met eyes in the group. Rach looked at me from Pony’s arms; it looked as if Pony might never let go of her.

Baba Xe remained with the DOZ chief. They were drawing pictures in the dirt and engaged in a very serious communication of some kind.

Effie was standing by Pony, but she looked at me, and I knew we would talk later.

Sea foam green eyes caught and held me then. My mother gazed straight through me, and I dropped my eyes.

“Not quite so hungry now, Birdie?”

“No I’m better, Mama.”

Her fingers explored; “Let me look at you,” they moved the locks of my hair aside to touch the stitches and then tugged at my bloody waistband.

“What is this?”

“Stabbed by a branch. Rach fixed it; she was raised by a healer.”

She replaced the waistband, “Looks good, “and she put her arms around me, “How did this happen, Birdie?”

For the first time, I felt tears in my eyes,” I think it was hubris, Mama.”

She pulled back and looked at me directly.

Baba Xe walked up to join us and she simply put an arm around me. She was preoccupied.

“Birdie I will see you in my office first thing after breakfast. Right now, I think we should get everyone home,” was all she said.

“Safe and warm and fed,” said Ephiny.

“Exactly.” Pony finished.

They were adamant about that.

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There is no recollection of my ever being truly afraid of Baba Xe, but as I stood before her late the following morning, I was afraid. The woman who judged me now was the Conqueror. She made me stand at attention for a silent candle mark, while she paced her office, the monotony broken with long stares of the ice storms in her famous eyes. In my heart I knew that she wouldn’t have me flogged nor have my fingers cut off. But the Conqueror is a person who has earned her reputation as one to be feared.

When she began talking her voice was quiet.

“You were told to take no weaponry longer than a dagger and you did.”

“Baba…” The Baby Zon had been a comfort in the night.

“SILENCE.”

There was for another while.

She stopped in front of me again.

“You were told to take the left fork in the river and you took the right, endangering your life and the life of another Amazon princess. That is inexcusable insubordination, Birdie.”

There was nothing to say about that. It had been insubordination and it had been hubris, plain and simple even though Rach and I had both agreed to it. It would not be a good idea to tell Baba Xe that I feared punishment from Artemis even more than I feared punishment from the Conqueror. And Artemis would come, I knew that. The gods punish hubris, always. But, one thing at a time. I wondered if Baba Xe would give me the flat of her sword. I knew that she was angry enough to do it. The wish for invisibility filtered through my thoughts again.

Finally a clipped and very cool voice, “Fertilizer duty, two seven days, family plot.” She returned to her desk.

“Am I dismissed, My Lady Conqueror?”

She didn’t look up. “You are.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat, did an about face and walked out. She wouldn’t even look at me, she was so disgusted. It tore me in pieces. But I knew better than to appear babyish when she was in military mode. No discussion, no forgiveness. I just needed to take my licks like a soldier.

Fertilizer duty, Minotaur shite!!

No, horse shite. Give me the flat of the sword! This was a chore our family did not do for itself, because there were always young soldiers in need of light discipline who had earned the honor.

There were several small wooden wagons which had to be conveyed by hand to the horse stables, filled with the “fertilizer” using spades, and then pulled it to the garden plots-in my case, the smaller family plot. I would then distribute the fertilizer carefully around the young vegetables. My grandba oversaw the work and she was a tyrant because good food was paramount to a healthy fortress. She would be tough with me.

After changing into my work clothes and oldest boots, I did my time at fertilizer duty– much harder work than I had anticipated. Manure was not only smelly, it was heavy. That ancient little wooden cart had uneven wheels so it clattered along slowly even when the ground wasn’t uneven. And dragging it between the garden rows was even more difficult. After close to five candle marks I had covered about one third of the family garden plot. It took another candle mark to clean the wagon and wipe down my clothing.

Then I dragged myself to the family bathing area, scrubbed myself for at least half a candle mark, ate soup and bread in the kitchen, and went to bed, still feeling as if I could smell the manure. It would take least another two full days to complete the plot, and I wasn’t sure exactly what day the Amazon court would call me to face them. The work would be without break.

Sure did wish that Rach and I had taken the other fork in the river. My life became wretchedly complicated at times by my own hard head.

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Her fiery presence awakened me with a feeling of fear pushed to screaming pitch. I knew that she would come. There was no pride in me as I stood before her, my feet bare, my head bowed.

The goddess was furious, “Robin of the Warrior and the Bard, You know why I am here.”

It didn’t seem to be such a wonderful advantage to be the chosen child of the Goddess Artemis at that point. But there was nothing to be done but suffer the consequences the goddess had chosen.

The goddess never raised a hand, but with every lightning flash of her golden eyes, I felt the lash of the flat of a sword blade across my backside. Seven blows– it felt as if the blade was pure flame and might burn me in half. I stood trembling and silent, but the pain was acute, it made me sick to my stomach and dizzy.

When she finished, she said, “Thus the gods punish hubris, even in a young one.”

She disappeared with a clap of thunder and I allowed my knees to give way and also the breath I had held, into wracking sobs. I had never in my life experienced such agony.

. Then into my open window, from the darkness, my Zephyr came to me. How she had managed to climb so high, I will never know, but she came. She was beside herself with distress for me, but she coaxed and tugged, and we managed to crawl back into my bed where she curled up beside me. Then she began to ease my trouble as only she could. As Zephyr made soft noises, calming me, and tenderly touched me with her nose and gentle tongue, my sobs quieted, and I lay my tear streaked face near her soft fur and finally fell asleep in her comforting warmth.

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My appetite was absent at breakfast, but I did my best to hide my distress from Grandba by saying it was just the dreaded smell of my duty. Her blue eyes bore into my back as I headed for the barn, though I managed not to limp every step. Artemis had left me in a state that made it difficult to walk without discomfort.

Pain and stiffness limited my productivity, but I had managed to drag one load of manure to the plot and was ready to spread it when Mama G came out to the garden.

I I felt it my duty to try to hold out a bit.

“Your grandba is rather worried about you Birdie; she says you are off your “feed”.”

” I just wasn’t too hungry this morning Mama. The horse sh—, sorry, the horse manure doesn’t do much for a person’s appetite.”

My mother continued to watch me as I continued to struggle to appear normal.

“Birdie, come here and talk to me a moment before you become too aromatic to be intimate.”

“Mama… I have to…”

“Birdie, come here.” Her voice became softer with the command.

When I surrendered to her, she took me by the shoulders and then ran her hands down my arms lifting my chin.

“W hat is it, Little Bird?”

She put her hands around to my sides to hold my hands and I winced. She didn’t miss it.

“You are hurt. Who has hurt you?”

I couldn’t talk. Tears filled my eyes.

“Birdie, it’s ok. Who hurt you?

“Artemis, Mama. She came in the night to punish me for my hubris.”

I shook the tears from my eyes.

“I deserved it. ”

The forest eyes flashed. “What did she do? You are obviously in terrible pain, Birdie. Tell me. Now.”

I loosened the waist of my pants and let her look at my backside.

“Some kind of magic flat of the sword, Mama. Hurts a lot. Goddesses get pretty mad, don’t they?” My voice trembled.

Her breath caught and then released. Her voice was firm.

“Come with me Birdie.”

She led me back to the kitchen. Grandba was waiting for us. Sometimes they were of the same mind.

“Mother Cyrene, will you please give Birdie some chamomile tea and make sure she goes back to bed? If Xena or anyone wants to know why she is in bed, say it is by order of the Queen. I am going to the Amazon camp and should return early afternoon.” She was gone.

My Grandba took me in hand quickly.

“I’ll do it child. Come Grandbirdie, “The water was already hot. Grandba put a large spoon of honey in the tea. It tasted very good.

“Take it to your room now and go back to bed. You need your rest and you heard your mother. When she uses that tone of voice, you don’t want to trifle with her.”

“I don’t Grandba, you are right.” A pause at the stairs up to my room. “Thanks Grandba. For everything.”

She flicked the bright blue eyes at me with a little smile. “NOBODY hurts my Grandbirdie. Now you go up to sleep. Go!” She flicked her dishtowel at me…

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At the edge of Amphipolis, an angry bard unwound a rope vine from the top of the fortress wall. Placing one hand high on the rope and the other anchoring the rope around her waist in back she leaned and pushed with great momentum feeling the fresh air blow through her blonde hair and a bit of a rush as her boots slammed the small platform in the first great tree.

She took a moment to look rather pleased with herself. “Not too rusty at all, Gabrielle.” She said softly and she sent the first vine back to the wall and took down the second.

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The doors to the Conqueror’s study opened to her balcony and she walked outside to clear her mind. It was time for a break from her worries. She scanned Amphipolis Fortress. Everything appeared to be well, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. Well, something was wrong; she wondered how much longer she could keep it to herself.

She had an uncomfortable feeling something watching, staring boring into her from somewhere, where? Ah from below. Her mother was glaring at her from her kitchen; window, what now, woman? And why wasn’t Birdie in the garden? By the gods, things had better straighten up around here with what was coming. She looked again at the parchment that the DOZ had given to her.. With what was coming.

She returned to her desk.

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The doors to the Temple of Artemis in the Amazon village opened quietly and closed. It was empty. Gabrielle walked to the front, lighted a candle from the eternal flame, and knelt. She knew the prayer.

Goddess of the moon

Huntress and protector

Of the Woods,

But Gabrielle had her own variation to add now. She had issues with Artemis that she intended to share in very clear language. She began to speak.

Who hath given

To me

MY CHILD

As a gift,

And by rights

May still claim

Some part

Of her as

Thine own.

My honor

Loyalty

Life and praise

Belong to thee.

But with all

Due respect

Please

Understand

From the warrior

And the bard,

The child

was yours

To give.

But a gift

Once given,

Is not yours

To harm.

At whim.

I will share

With you,

The steerage

Of her course.

But she is MINE.

Gabrielle rose, “That ought to do it. Bring it on, Artemis.”

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I awakened when my mother sat down on my bed. Somehow my night shirt had become my garment; perhaps Grandba had performed that kindness.

“I brought you some cider,” I sat up and drained the mug. It was cold and tasted wonderful. After some experimental shuffling about on my bed, a sigh of relief escaped my lungs.

“What did you do, Mama G? The pain is gone.”

“Come.”

She moved to the far end of my bed and reached to pull my head into her lap. For awhile she sat smoothing my hair out of my eyes and smiling down at me. Tears kept forming in her eyes. Then she turned me a little.

“Let’s see.” She tugged my shirt up and looked inside the back of my sleeping pants. “Those horrific bruises are gone; thank the gods.” She sighed and eased me back to look at her.

” Mama. What did you do?”

She smiled, “I have many skills.”

A chuckle from me. “Well thank you.”

She tilted her head then and her eyes were serious.

“Birdie, this isn’t over; Artemis will never punish you again without consulting me, but for now, she has now left the discipline to me.” She flicked her eyebrows. “Well, it’s always up to me, I suppose.”

I was quiet and studied her hand in mine a moment.

“Fertilizer wasn’t enough for her, huh?”

“Sorry kiddo.”

I sighed and acquiesced to the tone in her voice, “I guess that means a Mama G smackin’ for me…” She nodded; her eyes regretful as she ran her hand through my hair one more time.

Hated that. I hadn’t had a smacking in half a dozen seasons, a longer record than armory trips. I really try to stay out of trouble with my sweet mother.

“Infrequency…”She began with a little smile and shake of her head, “doesn’t mean immunity…” I helped her finish.

“We will do this one differently,” she said guiding me gently, firmly across her thighs, “You tell me the reason; I will administer the smack. You know every single mistake that you made, don’t you?” I could see the moisture collecting in her kind eyes.

“Yes m’am, “those damned involuntary tears gathered in mine as she moved aside my nightshirt. She gave me a light swat on my sleeping pants and waited.

“Where shall I begin? I took the short sword against safety rules; so did Rach. But they were very useful Mama.”

She shook her head closing her eyes.

“No excuses Birdie; how many times have you taken a sword when you were told not to take one?”

Smack.

She was right about that. Many times.

“Tell me the reason for the next.”

My head lowered, “We took the right fork in the river instead of the left.”

Her eyes were full of questions; she looked puzzled, “Why Birdie? They told you not to go that way and you did. Why?”

“We wanted to win, Mama. We thought we could handle anything. But we wrecked at the tree and could have been drowned; it was my responsibility; I was in the stern and therefore in charge.”

Her hand left a bit of a smart that time. Tears crested, but her voice stayed firm.

“Next.”

“The endangering of both of our lives was needless, and reckless.”

Her expression snapped a bit of fire, and that swat smarted too. But I despised

myself for putting her through it. My Baba Xe had been a soldier for half of her

life; she didn’t enjoy discipline, but she knew it was necessary for safety and survival. My gentle mother knew it was necessary but she suffered -more that I did, usually.

And still she waited, she was quite resolved; she had made a promise to a goddess.

I took a deep breath, “You’ll be most upset about this reason Mama; you taught me well about hubris, and then I committed it. It was stupid and big-headed of me to take the right fork in the river instead of the left ; we believed that we were better than anyone else on the trip. That is why Artemis is so angry with me. I should have known better; I do know better.”

Mama raised her eyebrows at me, and I knew that she was angry about it as well, but she could see that I had since learned humility.

I closed my eyes and held on to her, just like when I was little and got into trouble. Funny that I could mind one swat from her more than an actual beating from anyone else.

It stung on the outside, but her disappointment in me stung my heart more. I kept my head down and continued, my voice breaking now; my tears unchecked.

“I worried you and Baba Xe.”

An additional good healthy smack.

We both had floods of tears now. I turned and looked into those tender, deep lake eyes and whispered, “Is it time for the ‘because you love me’, Mama?”

Gabrielle the Bard nodded blinking a pair of tears down her face, and allowed her hand to fall one final time. She then pulled me up and into a warm embrace; I burrowed into her shoulder. It was if I was seven seasons old, but I didn’t care. After two days of adventure, fear, and pain, to feel that special safety in my mother’s arms for a time assured me that I had really come home.

“I’m sorry, Mama.” I managed.

“I know you are, Little Bird,” she whispered soothingly, her hand in my hair, “It’s all right now. You have paid the price with Artemis and with me honey, it’s ok…”

We stayed until we were both quieted.

She took a deep breath and gave me a pat. “Get dressed. I’ll help you with fertilizer duty.”

My arms couldn’t squeeze her tightly enough, but after a moment, I pushed away firmly, thirteen again, and very serious.

“No Mama, you cannot help me. It’s Baba Xe’s punishment of me, and only I must do it.” I got up, splashed my face, dressed, and pulled on my dung boots.

“Baba was–is so angry and disappointed in me, I cannot risk adding further to that,” I considered a moment, “she might not mind if you came and watched a bit though.”

Mama smiled, “Go on then and I’ll be out.”

My thoughts turned me back at the door, “Are you ok, Mama? I’m very sorry that you had to punish me.” My hair fell over my eyes.

She rose from the bed, moved my hair, kissed my forehead and gave me an affectionate swat. “I’m fine, Honey. Run along and begin your duty. I’ll be along.”

I sniffed, and looked at her, “I love you, Mama G.”

“And I love you, my Little Bird.”

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Gabrielle was about to depart the room when she felt the energy. She turned to once again behold the goddess with hardwood skin, golden eyes, proud stature, and ornate weaponry.

“I hope you approve, My Lady,” wiping away a final tear, the small mother did not flinch.

“Bard of Potidaea, I see what my sister Aphrodite has admired for these many seasons.” The golden eyes smiled. “There is much I could learn from you.”

“A child is more than just a gift, My Lady Artemis.” Gabrielle spoke softly. “One doesn’t mold her with an iron fist. Discipline is in play one hundred percent of the time and it must be done with love, however firm one must be. Then she knows that all direction or correction comes from love.”

“You gave her very little pain, but her tears were truly more heartfelt than those from the true agony I left upon her.”

“That is the power of love again, My Lady. Without love, punishment is only pain, and it elicits fear, anger, hatred and depression. Birdie knows that I love her.”

“And your own tears?”

“She knows that giving her pain or discomfort hurts me. In turn she is distressed because she loves me.”

“And yet, she departed happy…”

Gabrielle smiled, “Her spirits were good-she was redeemed. That is paramount for a child. She was forgiven; life goes on.”

“Except for the fertilizer?” a twinkle in the leonine eyes.

“Except for the fertilizer.” A genuine laugh from the bard.

“Thank you.” Simple words from the goddess.

“My Lady Artemis, might I ask a favor?” the bard raised an eyebrow.

“You may ask.”

“Will you please watch over the disciplinary hearings that the Amazons hold for her? Even if it is what she deserves, I don’t believe that twenty lashes of the Amazon arrow….” the bard’s voice tried to sound light but it faltered,” I just don’t think she is quite up for that…”

“Or perhaps her mother isn’t quite up for that…” the goddess said gently.

“That is true,” The bard lowered her head humbly. “My Birdie is as tall as I am now, but she is young and the young will make mistakes.”

The large dark hand was extended and Gabrielle felt her smaller one engulfed.

“For what I have learned from you today, Gabrielle the Bard, I will keep watch over the proceedings and remember your lessons on love.”

Gabrielle kept her eyes lowered, “Thank you, My Lady I am honored.”

“No Gabrielle,” said the goddess, “I am.”

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The great doors opened and once again, the Conqueror walked out on her balcony seeking escape from her worries… The weather was crisp and all seemed well. Two battalions of militia were already at drills; two others on their way. Good. Thomas was sparring with Clayburg; Atticus was looking on. She smiled at Clayburg’s cap which covered the bad haircut she had given to him.

Down to her right, the smells of the kitchen rose and she could see her mother bringing over pots and skillets to her washer at the tubs. Her mother’s blue eyes kept flicking towards the garden plot. Then they flicked up toward her balcony. The head laboring in the garden was blonde. Blue eye sets locked. Minotaur shite.

Boots clomped downstairs, outside and arrived at the garden in a hurry.

“Gabrielle.”

The shovel moved steadily, but there was no eye contact.

“Yes.”

The Conqueror considered and didn’t waste a question, “You aren’t attending the hearing?”

“Neither are you. Besides, Birdie is my blood. Pony cannot attend either, it isn’t allowed. And I am composing fantastic poetry right now, ‘Meditations on a Heap of Dung’ even as we speak.”

Xena shifted carefully from one boot to the other, listening to her partner. Her little bard was angry at the world this morning and not even the Conqueror “of all within our sight”, crossed Gabrielle when she was in this frame.

“Would you like to ride out to the Amazon village to hear the outcome?”

The spade ceased, “Are you anxious to see that our child suffers more, Xena?”

The warrior wilted, “Gab? Gabrielle, no.” Cobalt eyes filled immediately, “Gab, what has happened?”

The spring meadow eyes relented and regretted their harshness. Gabrielle left the garden and took her taller soul mate into her arms. They simply stood for a moment, exchanging warmth, comfort, strength, calmness.

“Xena,” the voice was gentle,” you’ve been so unavailable lately, physically, emotionally, especially with Birdie. What is it?”

She reached up taking the dark head into her hands, “The Conqueror is not alone in this world whether she likes it or not. Tell me.”

The mouth twitched, the icy eyes looked straight ahead, but the large hand went into the coat pocket and brought forth a folded piece of hide with symbols on it. The symbols were roughly drawn, but clear – a laurel wreath, and two full moons.

Gabrielle studied the hide, “Xena tell me about this; I don’t understand.”

The voice had the low slightly sarcastic tone it often did when danger was on the horizon.

“The leader of the DOZ… you noticed that we spent some time together at Birdie’s campfire? His name is Jom by the way; we established a handshake treaty. This skin is the reason; Jom and I will be talking much more.”

“What does it mean?”

“I can only tell you what I believe it means; I believe it means that the Romans will be here -attacking–within the next two moons.” She squeezed the hide in her hand.

Gabrielle placed her hand on the sturdy heart, “I suppose you can be forgiven some preoccupation then, love. I only wish you had told me sooner.”

The proud eyes smiled down on her, “I am sorry Gabrielle; my mind went into high gear and fear. However, “she smiled, “We will have a new ally this time; the Romans are no friends of the DOZ either. But that is for later,” she shook it off. “We need to go to the Amazon village; I’m sorry to have been unavailable for Birdie. I must make amends for that.”

Gabrielle tossed the spade aside and they began walking toward the fortress.

“I need to change my boots, and I should tell you that I have already been to the village this morning. The Goddess Artemis received my wrath at her temple.”

“That is where you were, early?”

“Yes, Artemis used the flat of her sword on Birdie, and left deep bruises and marks on her as punishment for hubris. She was in the garden plot this morning barely able to move. Your mother alerted me because Birdie couldn’t eat. Zephyr was with her; the fox was beside herself, and actually…” finally taking a deep breath, she leaned into the tall warrior, wrapping her arms around the strength, “I was too. It was horrible.” A tear escaped.

Xena did nothing but rub Gabrielle’s back gently, but the bard could feel the warrior’s entire body tighten with rage. She looked up.

“Easy Conqueror,” she returned the rub, “I told Artemis quite OFF. She withdrew her punishment of Birdie and agreed that I would deal with her. Artemis was impressed with the ‘Mama G Smack Method'”. She looked down smiling a little.

Xena rested her head on the blond one, “But that’s hard on you, love.”

There was a sniff at her chest, “It’s part of being a mother to Birdie. And it was far easier than seeing her in such physical agony. Birdie is growing up. It had been a long time, and she told me the reason for every smack herself. She was quite upset that I had to do it, so those days are coming to an end. It’s what impressed Artemis.”

They ceased walking for a moment and faced each other. The Warlord/Warrior/Conqueror looked at the love of her life, took her face in her hands, kissed her bright hair, and then her lips. She gently touched their foreheads together.

“You amaze me. You always have, but you continue to amaze me with the unpretentious power you have to touch other lives and make them good. You spared and then saved the life of a young man and see what it has brought us, ”

“Xeeena..” a large finger went to her lips hushing the protest.

“Shhh… and yet, you were no different than the person you are every single day. And when it comes to love, there simply is no one who exemplifies it better, no one more impressive than you Gabrielle, and Artemis saw that.”

She held the bard close. “I am so very blessed.”

They stood a moment more and then continued their way indoors.

“I think that Birdie and I will take a day at the lake,” Xena mused as they climbed the stairs.

“That is a brilliant idea, “spoke the bard.

“I feel remiss in her development. She is growing up so fast; I am behind, and that causes me to be angry and impatient with her too quickly. She is at the age that I could lose her so quickly.”

“You won’t lose her, Xena…” the gentle voice reassured.

“But I must make certain it never happens, “said the warrior, ” If I lose Birdie, we will both be lost in darkness.”

They entered the bedroom.

Gabrielle gave her soul mate a pat, “Let me change boots and we will go. I would imagine the hearing is nearly over.”

Xena looked thoughtful, “I wonder if Rachelle allowed Birdie to accept all of the blame for their troubles?”

“I believe that Birdie would accept full responsibility, and it remains to be seen how Rachelle reacts.” Gabrielle pulled on her clean boots and set the dirty pair outside the window. “However there is more to Rachelle than we know and I believe that Birdie is leaning about that.”

“Pony is good for Rachelle, doesn’t it seem that way to you, Gab? In Pony’s own way?”

“Yes, I don’t believe that Rachelle has had someone to shake her by the shoulders, be in her face and outright LOVE her— ever. Rachelle is somewhat aloof and that just doesn’t s fly with Pony. Pony demands honesty.”

“And speaking of ‘in your face Amazon’.”

A chuckle, “Birdie’s godmother may skin her alive for all of this messy mishap, and that is fine with me. Rules were broken. Ephiny is a fine teacher; she is in a position of influence over Birdie, and Birdie loves her.”

“@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

At the Amazon hearing I felt quite alone before all the big feathers in the tribe except my mother the Queen. It was good that she was spared the shame. Perhaps that was why the tribe had the rule of no blood relatives of the accused were allowed at a board disciplinary hearing. My heart made a vow that this would be the first and last time I would appear before such a gathering.

.

“Robin of the Warrior and the Bard, as stern guide and the first responsible for your canoe, you are accused of deliberate insubordination by both arming yourself unlawfully for the float trip and then deliberately taking a forbidden route. Those two acts of defiance endangered both your life and the life of Princess Rachelle of the Seaside Amazons, and it destroyed a canoe. How do you answer?”

I came to attention, “I am guilty of both insubordinations, Regent Ephiny.”

“Is there any reason or someone to speak against this council handing down harsh penalties for your insubordinations?”

There was nothing to do but bow my head and wait.

“Regent Ephiny, I would ask to speak.”

“Princess Rachelle, you may.”

There was shocked silence in the group; including myself.

“Birdie and I do not agree on everything, and she did take the sword against orders. But I took a sword as well, and the decision to take the right fork in the river was a joint decision. I asked her if we went that way, would we win the race. She said yes, but we shouldn’t disobey our directors. We made the decision to disobey together. So I am to blame for that as much as she.”

I was gobsmacked; I was ready to protest, but she came over and took my hand.

“Please, despite my standing in this tribe as a new member, I must share in responsibility for these insubordinations, My Lady Regent.”

Everyone was shocked. Rachelle had never been so eloquent or polite. My peripheral vision saw Pony at an edge of the crowd out of sight, smiling proudly. The board broke for not quite a candle mark. Rachelle stood holding my hand the entire time.

When they returned, Ephiny stood. “Well, we can’t very well FLOG two Amazon Princesses, as much as we would like to.” The tribe chuckled, but she wanted to do it; I could see it in her eyes.

“So we hereby give you two the task of cleaning all of the paths to all of the dwellings and keeping wood stocked for the main fire and every other dwelling in the camp for a full moon cycle. We are dismissed.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. Between the work in the camp and fertilizer, I would be busy, but it was manageable. Rachelle began to walk away and I had just caught her hand when my tunic collar was gripped by my godmother. She pulled me into hard reverse behind a big tree for a private chat.

“Robin of Amphipolis,”

“Yes M’am, Effie,” eyes at the ground; I knew she was mad at me.

“Dear little goddaughter, if I so much as find one.. Even ONE stone out of place in a path in this camp, I will hunt you down and skin your backside, do you understand me?”

“Yes M’am, Regent Ephiny.”

“Your little girlfriend got you off rather easily; but you needn’t think you are off the hook with me.”

I kicked rocks at my feet. Hated having her mad at me too.

“Sorry, Effie. I messed up bad.”

She looked at me and shook her head.

“You sure did kid. I took a good look at that canoe this morning.”

She knocked on my head a couple of times, but something kept my eyes down. She continued,

“That smashed stern-very scary, Bird. Could have been you all smashed up, especially with that monster tree, am I right?

I remained silent.

Hey,” she pulled my head up,” Answer me.”

I sighed a staccato sigh.” Yeah. It could have been.” We were quiet a moment more.

“There is something else bothering you, Birdie. What is it? Her voice gentled.

“Promise you won’t tell my parents? It would only upset them. And they don’t need to see the canoe.”

“Is it something dangerous, or something that’s already happened, like a secret?”

“Like a secret. Already done.”

” Ok, I promise. I can’t promise you that I won’t be upset, however.”

“I nearly drowned out there, Effie.”

“I saw that you left your personal flotation devices.”

“They wouldn’t have helped. I was caught under both the tree and the canoe. Had to swim way down underneath both of them. Thought my head would blow up.”

“Were you scared?”

“Not so much; it was strangely peaceful. But it scares me NOW to think of it. It haunts me at night.”

She folded her arms and just kept that level stare coming at me. I could feel the heat in her dark eyes burning a hole in the top of my head.

“I hope you learned a lot from this, kid.” Her voice was not unkind.

I was back to avoiding her stare.

“I did, Effie; I learned a whole bunch.”

She put her hands on my shoulders, “Well, learn your lessons more safely and more obediently next time. You are my goddaughter; that means you are quite in large part– MY kid, too. I need you safe and unhurt, and that means you do not take EVERY risk that comes along, ok?”

“Yes m’am.”

She pulled me into a bear hug, “Which side has the stitches?”

“The left side,” was my answer, knowing what was coming. Effie delivered with her warrior’s hand, two hard swats and they made me yipe a little. She kept me in the bear hug, and I lay my head on her shoulder and sighed, allowing the guilt and tension to melt away in a couple of tears.

“Effie,”

“Yep,”

“Are you less mad now?”

“Yeah, I’m less mad, Birdie,” she chuckled, hugging me a little closer.

“Effie,”

“Hummm?”

“She’s not my girlfriend.”

“Then why is she waiting for you?”

She felt me snicker and sniff again on her shoulder.

My beloved godmother pushed me back and ruffled my hair. “Go see about her, kid. And -watch-your–self.” Her finger to my nose; she smiled.

I smiled back. “Love you, Effie.”

“Yeah you too, kid.”

@@@@@@@@@@@

Rachelle was waiting for me, and we walked a little ways into the sunset.

“Did you have trouble at home?” I was curious; Pony had been pretty steamed.

She walked on -hands in her pockets- and didn’t look up.

“Aunt Pony sort of gave me a switching and a talking to,” she met my eyes, “It didn’t really hurt; I think it hurt her more than it did me, actually. But I felt bad that my actions made her so upset and scared. Just all around you know. So we both did some crying and hugging. Aunt Pony has been good to me.”

“My Baba Xe says that Pony is way more bark than bite,” my head was down commiserating, “but for sure, she loves you and it sounds as if you love her.”

Grey green eyes met mine, “Yes, I do actually… it’s been not very long, but Auntie Pony is loud, loving and honest and somehow, she grows on a person. I suppose it’s a family thing.” We scuffed some more dirt, “How about you?”

“Oh, everyone’s had a turn at kicking my butt; can’t complain, but I am glad to be coming to the end of it. I’ll tell you about it if you have time…”

She reached for my hand…

Two dark silhouettes appeared on horseback on the hillside above us. One dismounted and walked toward me.

“Rach,”

“Hum?”

“Can you give me one more moment?”

“Sure.”

I turned and ran up the hillside as fast as my boots could carry me. The tall powerful figure of my Baba Xe increased her speed as well and we collided midway in an intense embrace as though we hadn’t seen each other for days. She swung me around and then sat me on my feet brushing my hair back, kissing me on the forehead. I just hugged her and hugged her, listening to her heartbeat, buried in softness of her silk chest.

“I love you, Birdie.” She whispered. “Sorry I forgot to tell you that.”

“S’ok, Baba,” I said, “I’ve been a lot of trouble.”

She pulled my hair back to look into my eyes again,” You have indeed, Little Bird. I am relieved that you and Rachelle are ok. That was…. such… a… dangerous… thing…”

She gave my hair a little tug to emphasize each word.

Then she softened, “I was thinking that perhaps you and I should go up to the hanging lake tomorrow. We need a little Baba/Birdie one on one time.”

“For sure, Baba?”

“For sure, Birdie.”

“I can skip fertilizer duty one day?”

“One day, I think.”

“Any chance of skipping fertilizer duty more than one day, Baba?”

She smiled at me, “Perhaps if you were interested in an intense trip to the armory as an alternative.”

“Baba,.”

“Yes.”

“I believe that fertilizer duty builds tremendous character and I shall continue doing it for the assigned amount of time.”

She laughed then, a rare, deep, heartfelt laugh and ruffled my hair.

“The lake is a date then?”

“Absolutely, Baba.”

“Somebody’s waiting for you.”

“Yeah I guess I better go back to her and ‘be nice’.”

“Or else,” The blue eyes smiled at me.

“Or else,” I raised my eyebrows at her meaningfully and turned to go. “I’ll be home for supper.”

“On time?”

“Yes m’am.”

“Baba?” She was walking back up the hill to Mama; she turned around.

“I love you.”

“And I love you , Little Bird.”

We held eyes a moment and I ran back down the hill to Rach.

“Thanks for waiting for me Rach.”

“No problem, Bird.”

I kicked a rock far up ahead in the path.

“Thanks for speaking for me, Rachelle. You saved me a real hard time, I think.”

She tilted her head and her grey green eyes were smiling from under her blonde bangs.

“I know. I hoped they weren’t going to wallop two semi-royal butts.”

“You took a big risk.”

She strode on a moment.

“I suppose it was; can’t believe I risked my own hide for the likes of you.”

I gave her a twisted smirk.

“Rachelle. I thought you might actually be warming up to me.”

“Warming up to you?? Dream on, Tweet-head!”

“You can’t stand anyone, Rachelle and we can’t stand you!!”

She gave me a knowing look.

“Mermaid shite.”

“Mermaid shite, now what in Hades kind of curse is that? Mermaid shite?”

“Oh, and Minotaur shite is so sophisticated!” “Yeah, well who cares?”

“That the best you can do, Birdie?”

“Rachelle…” I ducked my head kicking rocks again.

“What Bird?”

“What you did today, was … Well.. it was gallant and unselfish. I didn’t know you had it in you.” I stopped and took her hand.

She was shy. “Thanks Birdie, actually, I didn’t know I had it in me either. I just knew that after all we went through together; it just didn’t fit that you should take all the punishment and blame. We were a pretty good team after all.”

I kept holding her hand as we walked.

“We were at times, an excellent team.”

She squeezed my hand,” We were, at times.”

“So Rach?”

“Yeesss.” She was smiling into the sunset

I gave our joined hands a bit of a swing.

“So we might be friends after all?”

She snorted loudly.

“Don’t push it Birdbrain.”

“Rach, ”

“What?”

“What you need is a little character building, and I know just the place…”

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

“I think it might be a good idea to invite Pony and Ephiny to dinner tonight if we want Birdie to make dinner on time,” remarked Xena on her return to the hilltop.

“That’s a good idea ; you are just full of them, “said Gabrielle who had dismounted Wendy, and they both walked ahead of the horses toward the Amazon village. “We can do that when we find out the results of the hearing.”

“You know I totally forgot to ask her. Must not have been terribly traumatic for her, since she spoke not one word about it,” said the warrior striding along leading Argo.

“I saw you laugh,” remarked the Bard as they observed the young pair below– hands joined. “I haven’t seen you laugh in several days.”

“Yes, it felt good. “The Conqueror watched her child for as long as she could keep her in sight, “I must keep her safe and close by in the days ahead.” The Warrior’s voice grew firm, ” Both of you.”

She looked into the eyes of Gabrielle the Bard, her soul mate, her life, “You-always my heart…my love,” she looked shaking her head at the small figure walking into the sunset with her new friend, “and that kid.”

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

Meditations on a Heap of Dung-composed jointly by Gabrielle and Birdie

Is life worth any more
Than a heap of dung?
Is dreaming more
Than a song to be sung?
Could victory be more
Than a battle won?
I ask you now?

Do we ever want more
Than what we gain?
Is what we gain
Worth tears and pain?
And is there forgiveness
For the guilt and shame
Of the sins we carry?

My weary foot
On this small spade,
A tiny hole
That it has made,
I wipe my brow
And seek the shade,
To guard my pride.

If there’s no future
In this toil,
If there’s no harvest
From this dark soil,
And all my friends
Should prove disloyal,
Who’s on my side?

Perhaps life is better
Than a heap of dung,
Dreaming more
Than a song that’s sung
And victory more
Than the battle won,
If you stay–
Will you stay?
By my side…

           

The End

Continued in Invasion

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