Birdie’s Song VII The Invasion by Onesockbard

Birdie’s Song VII The Invasion
by Onesockbard

I am Robin…

A sword blade’s clash causes a strident cacophony which sends dogs running. The force of the blow jars the wielding arm to the shoulder, and the blade must be withdrawn and readied immediately for the following exchange. Yet the repeated strike of metal on metal could be interpreted as positive, as it signifies a blade has not entered flesh or bone.

Other animals collide over mates or territory, and they use the weapons they are born with such as teeth or horns. Why have human beings fashioned tools which we decorate highly, carry with pride, and if we are successful in our use of the tools, hack each other to death? Is this the way we were meant to use the intelligence that supposedly sets us apart from the animals?

When I was a small child, I believed that sword fighting must be the most exciting activity in which a person could take part. A few of the old timers Conqueror’s militia still like to tell the story of how at age four, I came across a stray sword, dragged it up to the top of the fortress wall and stood brandishing it like the Conqueror herself. What I recall of that day is my mother making it very clear to me that I was neither the Conqueror, nor was I to be dealing with in any manner with any type of sword. She is still rather strict with me about my owning and using a sword, even though I have proved myself more than competent. Mothers.

Such are the idle thoughts of a squire as she polishes weapons in service of her Lady. I was perhaps three dozen paces from the Conqueror as she sat astride Argo watching her militia on one of the large drilling fields.

The Tide watched Baba Xe’s back and the Chakram guarded her side, so I busied myself with keeping her war daggers, (there are seven) well sharpened. I had no hair left on my arms from trying the edges. This was another activity of which my mother would disapprove; it would be necessary to keep my sleeves rolled down. At times it was not easy to be the daughter of the greatest warrior in the land and also the daughter of Gabrielle the Bard. I had to temper my first instincts; they often had me in trouble later in the day. But at thirteen and a half winters, I was improving. This next fortnight would be chilly and anxiety ridden, with the Roman invasion foremost in our minds, suitable enough for long sleeves.

Having completed my sharpening task, I set to work on her shield. The Conqueror rarely carried her formal shield in battle; she preferred to use both of her hands, and actually both feet, as weapons. For battles she preferred, a very small hand-sized shield clipped to Argo’s saddle ready for lightning fast use. I kept the large one pristine regardless because it was a showpiece; it was a representation of The Conqueror and her militia. Hers was lighter in weight and of a finer metal than the men’s shields and the bronze dragon and stars could look quite stunning when I gave them some extra attention.

There was quite a bit of quiet time that I could devote extra attention to her weaponry, because my Baba Xe had been spending countless candle marks lately perched astride Argo with her indigo eyes locked in observation of the drills. She desired my presence behind her, and I felt that to be something of an honor. In my younger days, I would have been restless; but now there was plenty to keep me occupied. It was an occupation unto itself to observe Xena the Conqueror, which I loved to do. In the scabbard of my own Baby Tide, were quill and paper, with which I often captured my own meditations during these long periods.

In the next few days, the Descendents of Zon and the Amazons would converge in Amphipolis to plan for the invasion of the Romans which we were expecting sometime within the cycle of the next full moon. Every day since we had gained the knowledge that the Romans would come from Chief Jom of the DOZ, had been a little darker in character than the previous one. I wondered if indeed when the Romans did make their appearance, it would be night for all twenty four candle marks we counted. My Baba Xe hated the Romans, and her mood tended to tinge Amphipolis.

When she wasn’t on the field, The Conqueror spent many candle marks in her study brooding about the best way to defend against her old enemy. Mama G said that was because Baba always felt a personal responsibility for the safety of everyone within her sight, be that ten people or ten thousand. Mama said such was the burden of a born leader and a hero.

At this moment, the Conqueror turned Argo abruptly and cantered in my direction. I hooked the shield onto Hades’ saddle and patted his front leg. He bent it slightly to give me a quick foot up into his saddle. I sent a quiet airy whistle through the wind, and the head of a black fox appeared from between the high grasses.

I looked down at her, holding Hades to a circular dance, “Zephyr are the boys with you or will they remain with Fire tonight?”

She looked behind her and I caught sight of her large red mate bounding into the forest with his two gray sons in tow. They were spending more time with him and that was as it should be, because they were growing fast, eating more, and showing more of a wild nature. She gave me a quick look which I took to be affirmative. It must have been difficult for her, but she shook it off and trotted ahead.

Baba had ridden beyond me, so I urged Hades to overtake her quickly. The sound of horses hooves clopping, leather squeaking accompanied by its smell, the chill of approaching evening, and a breeze in my hair, was a plate of senses that I enjoyed very much. Even Baba Xe looked more relaxed than she had been of late.

“How are the daggers?” she asked.

I slipped one out of its leather sheath and handed it across handle first. She peered at the edge, holding it up to a squinting eye, and then shaved a hair from her glove.

“Good work,” she tossed me a smile returning it. Then she grabbed my arm, “Any left or are you a newborn bird?”

I tried to retrieve my arm but she flipped the sleeve too quickly for me. “Birdie??” You must find a better way of testing the blades than on the hair of your arms.” She shook her head, “You will cut yourself. No, I see you did cut yourself.”

“Not badly, Baba.”

“Any unnecessary cut is bad, Birdie, especially to your mother. You know that.”

We rode in silence a moment.

“I need a hairy stick.”

There was a pause and then incredulous cobalt eyes turned on me.

“Birdie, I am pondering large scale war, and you are thinking of ‘hairy sticks’?”

“That I can use to test blade sharpness instead of my hairy arm.”

“Your arms are not very hairy at all.”

“Thanks for not saying that they are feathery, Baba.”

The blue eyes rolled at my lame attempt at humor, so I continued, “And that is part of the problem-not enough hair for so many blades.”

Now she just sighed. “Shall we return to the hairy stick, Birdie?”

“If I can locate the supply of proper sized soft pine, I can check the sharpness of one blade by whittling fine shavings on the stick, and use the next blade to shave them off. Or use the same blade to test the same. I can probably find the right sort of sticks in what Talus discards.” “That makes better sense; a stick instead of an arm.”

“Right.”

“And you haven’t thought of this before.” A slight growl to her voice. “Never talked it out before, Baba.”

She shook her head and smiled. That was good to see. She wasn’t smiling enough these days. Romans had that effect on her. As her squire, I felt that making her smile was a little part of my duty and so was pleased that I had succeeded. Her long arm extended and performed an affectionate swipe across the top of my head.

“Silly squire.” She snorted, “Are you hungry?”

“Always, Baba Xe; shall we race?”

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

She won the race; she IS the Conqueror.

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Washing up for dinner entailed bandaging the cut and donning a clean tunic. After running a comb through my hair, my appearance seemed passable, and my boots were hammering down the stairs when I ran right into my mother, Gabrielle the Bard.

“Turn around and go back up,” she said firmly, “Back to your room, this instant.”

Minotaur shite, this didn’t sound good. I tried to remember a recent misdeed she might have discovered, but drew a blank in the immediate. Well, nothing to be done but face the music of the bard. I turned to her upon entering my room.

“Whatever it is Mama G, I take full responsibility and make apologies.”

She cocked her head at me and allowed her emerald eyes to intensify, and they penetrated mine like fire through snow.

“What might that be, Birdie?”

Clueless, I just looked at her. She laughed.

“Birdie, you look like one of the hounds that’s been caught in the kitchen honey, and you are much smarter than that.”

“Mama.”

This was torture.

She hugged me. “I have received a message on you today.”

“Yes m’am,” still cautious.

“You have been accepted into the Royal Academy of Bards in Athens.”

So I wasn’t in trouble?

“Truly, Mama?”

“Absolutely, my little Bird, and I am so very proud.”

“WOW.”

I hugged her and we did a little waltz in my room. “WOW.”

“Wow is right, “she laughed, “You are the youngest ever, Birdie. It’s an honor.”

“Wow.”

Poetic Bird. Think. Questions.

“What will be required?”

“As I have done these many years, you will have an ‘on the road’ membership. You will send something polished and perfect once a moon or so. Then we will go to the meetings once in summer, once in winter and everyone presents his or her best work. It will be very special to go together with my very own little Bard.”

This was a change; she wasn’t mad at me. I trained as a warrior daily and it came easily to me, but it nearly always had me in some kind of trouble. Writing was fairly easy for me as well, but it engaged an opposite part of my abilities. Writing took focus, concentration, stillness, and patience to work and rework the words. My mother didn’t have to MAKE me do it, but she had to demand it of me sometimes, or ground me to my desk with reflection candles.

Well yes, sometimes she had to make me do it.

I loved writing once she settled me to it, and I knew that I was pretty good at it. Mama G had worked for years in the cultivating of that talent, and my acceptance to the Academy was really a reward for her work, or so I felt.

I hugged her tightly.

“This would never have happened without you, Mama G. Thank you.”

“You know that I will be beating you over the head with your quill quite regularly now.”

An acquiescent sigh, “More that ever, right?”

“Oh, quite more than ever my little Birdie Bard.”

The intensity of my hug increased. “Good, Mama G. I want to be good. Like you.”

“You will be, Birdie, but you know writing is like everything else. It’s hard work.”

“Yes ma’am.”

We hugged a moment more.

“Mama, are you hungry?”

“Uumhumm”

“Want to race?”

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The Conqueror rose at the beginning of the meal. “I need to propose a toast this evening.”

I was already tucking into my stew and so quickly swallowed, grabbed my mug and stood politely without knocking my chair over for once. Grandba stood, as did Mama G, mugs upheld.

Then I realized the Conqueror’s eyes were riveted on ME.

“To the new bard in the family. I wonder how many families are fortunate enough to have TWO bards in their midst. Birdie, we are very proud of you. ”

Grandba Cyrene raised her mug up and said, “Cheers my dears!” and we all drank.

My face burned; it always did if Baba uttered the “the P word” about me. It was seldom heard from her lips regarding her only child, especially within my range of hearing. To my writing ability too, I didn’t know that she cared.

My lips managed to mumble, “thanks…” and I returned to my meal in a hurry.

They all sat smiling at my embarrassment.

“Birdie is going to help me teach the hairy fellas ‘our speak’,” said Mama, as she passed around the bread.

“Won’t that be difficult after all these many years of barbarian tongue?” Grandba asked.

“Not as difficult as one might think. Mother.” said Baba Xe. “They may be barbarians, but they are not unintelligent people. They use very little spoken language. So it shouldn’t be too hard for them to pick up ours.”

“You mean it won’t be a matter of translating; it will just be a matter of learning?” I chimed in after a swallow.

“That sounds manageable; teach them the most important words of battle, such as ATTACK, RETREAT, CHARGE. ”

“There are many more words for them to learn in addition to those, Birdie, “Mama G gave me a wilting look. I have made lists. You will help me.”

“I will, if Baba doesn’t need me on the field.”

“You can help your mother with the language assessment, Birdie.” The Conqueror gave me a serious eye. “The language acquisition of the DOZ is just as important as their weapons acquisition. Never forget that.”

“When are the Amazons coming? I need to ready the kitchens,” asked Grandba.

“Do you have some extra help for the kitchen coming?”

Baba shifted her eyes that way.

Grandba reached out a hand to pat Baba’s arm,” You bet I do, Xena. It’s an area that the village loves to volunteer for. Help in the kitchen. Odd isn’t it?”

“I know why!” laughed my Mama G, “They want to lay hold of some of Cyrene’s Inn and Tavern’s famous recipes! It’s the best LEGAL method of finding out how you make some of that fantastic food of yours.”

My eyes marked my Baba Xe just as her eyes went far away from our happy table.

“Well, it sounds as if preparations are underway as best as we can begin to make them,” she spoke in that low commanding voice. The eyes fell down to her hands and then back up and looked out the window at the fiery sunset. “I only hope that all that we can possibly do, will be enough for what is coming…”

My mother’s small hand crept across the table and upon the bigger callused one wrapping it in comfort.

“We’ll be fine Baba Xe,” her voice had a timbre that always brought comfort, no matter the situation, no matter the age of the person she was speaking to.

“We will be fine.”

What could I do but look up brightly and echo, “We’ll make it, Baba, I know we will.”

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It was a sight which no one could have described– this mass of humanity, clothed in their hairy garb. We stood outside the heavy gate to Amphipolis fortress and evaluated the mass of DOZ for which filled our sight from the gate to the giant oak. They resembled so many bears standing on two legs. But they were neither bear nor buffalo; they had come to fight the human way with us and for all of our sakes and safety.

“I bid you WELCOME!” my Baba Xe shouted and everyone on our little platform spread our arms wide in a gesture of friendliness. The hairy fellas did the same. We had our sign language worked out, and for once the weather was beautiful. Apollo had sent us bright sunlight and the cold crisp air was the kind which fostered positive feelings.

I stood with Baba Xe, Mama G, Grandba, Effie, Eponin, Rach, Atticus and his family and Scrubby at the front of the gathering. On stage next was our biggest gamble. Because the Amazons lived in somewhat similar conditions to the hairy fellas, we had worked with them cooperatively creating a situation near a rear corner of the fortress where the DOZ could make their own domain. The DOZ lived in cone shaped skin tents, so what we had built more permanent frames for their skins, lashing big solid logs together in the familiar cone shapes, but providing fresh skins as well. They could tie their old skins on the outside for extra cover, but inside would be a fine fresh new home. Every frame had its own fire site, set of cooking utensils, clothesline, and fresh bedding. We had also constructed a large common area in the center with a fire circle of heavy white stones.

In the rear of the village, we had set up several deep latrines. Scrubby, Abstone, and Clayburg, bless them, had volunteered to teach them about the latrines and when new ones should be dug. There was also access to the river for all of their water needs. The DOZ seemed amazed and delighted at our peaceful gift to them.

Most of Amphipolis village had a job in settling the DOZ. At least one or two of us were with each family, and during the time we helped them set up, we taught language. I had helped Mama G compile a common vocabulary/ jargon list that all of us would use, so that for important times, we would all use the same “speak”.

It was fascinating. I learned much of their”speak” as well. Mama and I worked with Chief Jom’s family and his son, Tond, was the boy who made friends with Mama.

He and I had an easy exchange.

I showed him a sword.

“Sword.”

“Ssssorrrr?” He tried.

I stabbed it in the air, hit my chest with my fist and collapsed, dead. He understood.

“Oh,” He took the sword and pointed at it?

“Gudge.”

I looked at him, “Gudge?”

He nodded, and then stabbed hard with the sword at an invisible assailant. “GUDGE!” He hit his chest with his fist and closed his eyes.” “Bon”

I made the same gesture, “dead.”

He grinned, we understood each other.

So try it again.

“Ok, SWORD.”

“SSsssoord.”

“Good.” I showed him the thrust.

Then I hit my chest with my fist and closed my eyes. “Dead. Bye bye.”

He mimicked me, “Bon. Byebye.”

I laughed, “Great! High five, Tond!”

The high five slap is as universal as a smile.

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The Baby Tide made a satisfactory snick as it re-entered the scabbard on my back and I quickly jumped aboard Hades as he circled back for me.

The Conqueror stood watching impassively.

“Again.” Her only word.

I thought it was a satisfactory pass but knew better than to speak. Hades and I galloped to the other end of the field. We turned and approached the straw horse and warrior at a fast clip. As we met, I drew my sword, clashed it with his straw sword and flew out of the saddle kicking the straw man’s head with both boots. Tucking tightly into a ball I completed the somersault landing on my feet this time, sword at my side.

She approached me purposefully and grabbed my tunic.

“Birdie this is SERIOUS. Don’t waste time drawing your sword. Ride with it drawn! Why are you kicking the man’s head? This is WAR. Go for the KILL. And the pretty acrobatics are strictly showing off unless they save your life.”

She gave me a little shake and a smack to the back of the head.

“Now do it again and THINK, don’t play!”

Chastened, I swung aboard Hades and we trotted back to the end of the field. Baba had moved to stand beside the straw warrior. As we advanced rapidly, I brought my sword around for a hard swing at the warrior’s straw head, but Baba was standing there doing a fancy drill with the Tide. I couldn’t tell where her flashing blade would rest. Her eyes were locked on me? Shite.

I completed my hard slash, removing the straw head and at the same time leaped from the saddle, flipping over Baba Xe’s head and blade. Landing on my feet, I immediately turned and blocked her next slash at me.

“What would you do, Birdie?” she said throwing another thrust at me which I just managed. She was so much taller and well, she was the Conqueror.

My breathing was labored,” If it were someone as good as you, I would try to stomp the blade into the ground and kick you in the face, hopefully disabling you long enough to get in my killing blow before you killed me.”

Our swords met in that strident cacophony which jarred my smaller arms.

” If it were somebody less skilled than you, I could more likely fight it out strategically and win.”

She pulled up, “That’s my girl.”

She whistled and Hades came to follow us inside-lesson over.

“I don’t want to terrify you, Birdie,” she said in a low calm voice, putting her hand on my shoulder as we walked, “But war is not play or tricks. You must act to kill every time, or you will be killed, do you understand?”

“Yes, My Lady, I understand.”

She put her arm around me pulling me in close as we walked in silence to the fortress.

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Gabrielle lay back in the large bed and watched her lover dress. Despite her high ranking, Xena the Conqueror never was one to put on a show of fancy dress for any occasion, preferring the leather pants blue silk shirts and the pewter breast plate and matching gauntlets when necessary. She felt that she had all she needed and that money should go for defense.

The blue eyes looked at her fondly now. “Thank you my love; you brought me back to center.” She closed her eyes.

But the poet was playing harder ball.

“So are you a warrior who likes a good tumble in the sack before a war council? Happy that I could accommodate you.”

She might as well have thrown a spear dead center into the Conqueror’s heart.

“Gab,” immediately, the warrior sat on the bed, hands on side of Gabrielle, indigo eyes full and anxious, “Gab, how can you say that?”

A knock came at the door.

“My Lady Conqueror, the room is assembled!”

“Served them the ale Andrew, and tell them I will be a moment.”

The bard raised an eyebrow, “Ale?”

Xena chuckled, “Mother’s idea and a good one. Begin with strong ale to relax everyone, and go with lighter ale as everyone needs to cooperate.”

“That is a good idea.”

But tears ran down the sculpted face.

“I’m not leaving until you talk to me.”

Gabrielle caressed the tears with gentle fingers, studying the dramatic features.

“I am sorry, Xena. You want me to watch your back. That means I watch every single facet of your back. In our history the few times we have run into serious difficulties, it has been because of the Romans. Your personal hatred of Rome can cloud your judgment. To a fault.”

She pulled the dark head into her arms, “It frightens me. Sorry to snap the whip at you. I needed to see that side of Xena that only I am privileged to see.” She sniffed away her own tears, “It was a low blow; I’m sorry, love.”

A relaxed sigh and relieved arms embraced her with warm strength.

“My mind is clear, Gabrielle. It’s all right that you should test me; you are entitled.”

She leaned back and looked into her soul mates’ face. “Did I pass?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

They continued the soul searching embrace for another moment, savoring the time for only the two of them.

“Times like this will be few in the coming days, Gabrielle.”

“I know.”

“If you need one, you just grab me, you hear?”

“Promise.”

“Your idea of building the homes for the DOZ was fantastic, by the way,” said the Conqueror pulling back with composure, “It worked, I think.”

“It made sense that if they had nice new homes, they would want to defend them,” the bard smiled.

“Xena,”

“Hmmm.”

“Do you think it’s wise to take Birdie to battle?”

“Gabrielle, you know the alternative is to tell her to stay here, and then she will follow us. That alternative seems more dangerous to me. This way we know where she will be even if it is dangerous.

“I know.”

“You remember last time?”

“Yes.”

“Well?”

“Gabrielle, Birdie is never going to do exactly what we want her to do; it is simply not her nature. I am only trying to train her and order her placement in this situation– in an effort to keep her safe. Basically, you watch my back and she watches yours-and that is safer at least than out on her own somewhere.”

“I hope so.”

“It is my hope as well, love. Now, I must attend the meeting before they are really drunk and disorderly. You will come?”

“As soon as I dress.”

“You could come as you are and they would follow you anywhere, my bard.”

“Xena!”

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Cyrene had dialed the intensity of the ale to a lower strength and all of the leaders studied the great map spread on the long table in the tavern. Xena the Conqueror, Gabrielle the Bard and Queen of the Amazons, Ephiny Regent of the Amazons, Eponin, Weapons Master of the Amazons, and Jom, Chief of the Decedents of Zon were a powerful table for Cyrene to work her magic ales upon, but so far she had done very well. The woman was experienced.

“The Amazon scouts have reported the Roman legions en route are about one thousand give or take a few hundred,” reported Ephiny, ” Even with our new friends,” she shot a smile at Jom, “the legions are double our numbers.”

“Then we shall have to fight very very cleverly,” said the Conqueror.

“With the great minds at the table, I have no doubt that we can,” Gabrielle added her voice to the confidence.

Chief Jom studied the map silently. He spoke little, but he understood a great deal of what was said in any situation, and he certainly understood what was at stake.

Xena watched him, “What are you thinking, Chief Jom?” In the brief time she had known him, she had come to respect the older man’s bedrock wisdom.

He pointed to Wild Horse Valley, a single entry to the great meadow prior to the road to Amphipolis village. Then he pointed to the road lying west of the valley. He made an X mark with his finger.

“You are saying that somehow the legions should be forced into the valley, of course you are right!” Xena immediately paralleled his thinking. “It’s taking the fight to the Romans before they come here! It will require more preparation-enormous preparation– on our part, but then they will fight on OUR terms.”

“But how do we drive them into the valley?’ Eponin voiced the next question.

“We will have to attack from the west somehow and definitively; that could be tough with our fewer numbers,” her partner Ephiny echoed.

“Fire,” Gabrielle whispered.

Chief Jom looked at her and nodded.

“We need to convert the DOZ’s siege engines to fire catapults and we can drag our fire cannons out there. It would burn the entire west meadow, but it should work. ”

Chief Jom laid his huge hand on Gabrielle’s head and nodded in the affirmative. The enemies of the past thought together.

“It would take a smaller contingent to drive the legions into the valley with fire, thereby freeing more of us to attack from here, here and here. ” Xena quickly pointed to either side of the valley and the front. “The fire team then could bring up the rear. We would take them easily ; surrender or die.”

They all stood in silence looking at each other.

Chief Jom smiled. He raised his fist and brought it down on the table. The others laughed and followed his example.

“Done.” said the Conqueror, “Mother, bring another around of ale. The plan is set; we have work to do.”

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“Tired of the war Bird?”

Rachelle, Zephyr, and I had gone for a long walk by the river during the big war council. I had begged to attend the council, but I was “too young.”

“UMHUM, and it hasn’t even begun…” I heaved a rock nearly across the river in my frustration. Zephyr looked at me with alarm.

“I thought you were a warrior’s child.”

“I am. But they won’t allow my warrior’s child full reins.”

“Yeah, same here, but my warrior’s blood doesn’t steam along like yours..”

Our eyes met. It was nice to be understood.

We shuffled along kicking rocks.

“Do you ever feel homesick for the sea, Rach?”

Rach selected a stone and studied it. Then she tossed it hitting an exposed boulder mid stream. Good aim.

“Sometimes. The sea helps one keep perspective on life.”

“How is that?”

Zephyr was listening to her.

“The sea is without end in sight, without measure in depth, and constant in movement and its ability to give life. We are but tiny creatures wandering along its sand for a short while. And because of my parents, I have always believed that when we die, we return to the sea. Knowing that has given me peace at times?”

“That’s poetic, Rach.”

“Really?”

“Yes, did anyone ever tell you that you might have a touch of the poet ?”

“Never.”

“You have been told now.”

That was a good thing to say to her. Hooray for Birdie! Keep it going.

Zephyr looked at me, a silent coach.

“Are you going to return to sea someday, Rach?”

“Someday I hope to.”

“Will you take me with you?”

She reached for my hand and squeezed it. “Yes, Birdie, I will.”

“Zephyr as well?”

The granite green eyes lowered and stroked the dark fur.

“Of course Zephyr could come. She would love the sea.”

Zephyr licked her hand. Zephyr liked Rachelle.

“That would be splendid, wouldn’t it?” I mused, “To wander the road-on our own, no place to be, nobody to answer to, sleeping under the stars.”

“That would be nice.”

Zephyr thought it sounded wonderful.

I sighed, “My parents would never allow us to go alone. ‘you’re too young; it’s too dangerous’.” I said it in a silly squirrel voice.

“Yeah, Aunty Ep would say that as well,” Rach chuckled and kicked another rock, “or she would say, “‘it’s your decision; I cannot stop you.'”

“That is what my parents keep saying, and I don’t follow the meaning.”

“It means that we are too big for them to physically stop us from doing something of which they might not approve or agree. Or that they won’t be present in every situation to control our decisions.”

“Oh.”

“However, they remain in the position as parents to bring the wrath of the gods on our heads if they don’t approve of the decisions we make.”

“There’s something wrong with that picture, don’t you think, Rach?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, if I choose to drink until I am drunk, and fall off my horse and break my arm; wouldn’t the broken arm be the natural consequence of my decision?”

“Yes.”

“So, why should my parents kick my butt, ground me or take my horse away in addition to my broken arm? Haven’t I suffered enough?”

She looked at me and shook her head.

“Birdie, you know the answer to that.”

“No, I don’t.”

She stopped with her arms akimbo.

“Robin of Amphipolis, if I walked out into this river, until it was over my head and stayed there, what would you do?”

“I would go and fetch you out.”

“And?”

“Revive you if necessary?”

“Yes and further?”

“Well, I’d ask you why you did that.”

“And if I had no explanation?”

“What do you mean?”

“Birdie, what if I did something dangerous just out of stupidity? What would you do?”

“Well, I guess I might want to shake you around a bit.”

“THERE!!!”

She sighed liked she had finished a race.

“For someone so bright, you can be thick as a woodpecker, Birdie.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind, tell me why you would want to ‘shake me around’? Why wouldn’t nearly drowning-the natural consequence of my stupidity– be consequence enough?”

“Well?.”

“Yes?”

“Well, because?”

Sigh.

“I know that you know the answer? you know, Birdie..” She smiled.

“Because I — ”

Zephyr bit me.

“Zephyr!! HEY!!”

Minotaur Shite! Where was a rock to kick when I need it?

Rach just waited; Rach just watched me.

“Because I care about you——–kind of quite a bit.” I met her eyes shyly.

Her smile was warm but her eyes were warmer.

“I’ll take that answer for now, “she whispered.

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It was very late. I sat at my desk staring at the blank parchment. Zephyr came over and put her nose under my hand, flipping it so that I would pet her.

I did even better.

“Zephyr,” I knelt and took her head in my hands,” how did you know with Fire? Did a flame erupt in your heart? Were you unable to think of anyone else?”

She had no answer for me except that she would stand by me no matter what my choices were, as she always had. We had a warm furry hug. I kissed her nose, dug into a drawer, lighted one of my reflection candles, and began to write.


Rach

If eyes are windows
to the soul,
Time spend in yours
has made me whole,
and I didn’t even know
my heart was empty.

We’ve only just
exchanged our names
and one adventure.
do you feel the same?
Whatever, however
long it takes,
we’ll be together.

the Fates will cut
and spin and weave,
and we accept
what we receive,
so you are here
in front of me,
and I will have you.

Some will say
we are too young
that we should only
look for fun, but
If your life- journey’s
just begun…
Please take me with you….

Part 2

The work and the weather were abysmal. The swaying of Hade’s head kept time with my boots as he bore his burden. I kept a steady stroking of his nose,” It’s not much farther now Hades; there’s a fine horse; that’s my big mighty horse.”

Zephyr trotted along by my side making the occasional detour into the side grass to investigate a toad or field mouse. The rain had fallen all night, but it did not deter the good citizens of Amphipolis from hauling war supplies out to Wild Horse Valley. Hades had actually drawn comparatively light duty. Across his big back were three heavy leather yokes on which balanced six kegs of the base oil of Greek fire. I didn’t understand all of the magic of Greek fire, but I knew that it was dangerous. It had its origins in a faraway swamp, beginning as a dirty tarry substance. A couple of processes cleaned it enough of the swamp debris, and it could burn for candle marks sometimes and not be extinguished with water. This was extremely deadly to humans and horses and caused a horrific death. But keeping our home safe was duty that was not always pretty or humane. My Baba the Conqueror had a contract with merchants who came through regularly with the stuff, and so the fortress always had a ready supply. We would use a sizable portion for this attack.

Far ahead were the huge work horses, six in a harness set, heads down, mighty flanks heaving, their large hairy hooves digging into the muddy earth. They were towing the heavy fire cannons from our fortress and the DOZ’s siege engines out to the west meadow.

There were no sounds of whips cracking or shouting. My Baba Xe never allowed any horse in the Conqueror’s stables to be mistreated or punished more severely than a scolding and a light slap on the nose. If a horse was in serious trouble, the Conqueror worked with it herself, and she was a legendary horse handler. If she was unable to settle the beast (which was rare), she found the horse a different job. All of the militia were expected to treat their horses as equal companions and partners in battle as Baba had always treated Argo. So even though the present work was very hard, the horses managed it with the encouragement of their humans. This was a challenge for the horses and a long journey, but the behemoths were managing with the encouragement of their handlers who walked beside them. None of us rode our horses; they needed no more burden added, and the journey was several leagues.

We all knew at the end of the journey my Grandba Cyrene, her best friend Rose, and Grandba’s special friend Scrubby waited with a huge wagon of refreshments for humans and horses. After a rest period, we rode back. This pattern had been the rule for three days, and we had almost completed the transporting segment of the preparation.

A selected group of Amazons led by my Effie, together with many of the DOZ had been hard at work all this time cutting and arranging large branches to camouflage the big weapons as we arranged them. They had done an amazing job. The branches were set around each weapon and so in between to give the appearance of a new entry edge of the forest. By half distance to the great road, one could see no evidence at all that there were weapons hidden, and if one walked the road, once would have so suspicion whatsoever. They had even camouflaged the barrels of Greek fire.

I looked up at approaching gallops to see Talus pull up his bay, Howard. Angie was clinging to his back, which was a regular sight these days.

“Talus, old man. Long time,” I slapped his boot in the stirrup.

“What do you think, Birdie? Is it a good layout?” his face was flushed with excitement. “I helped with the design of the lay out of the camouflage. You can barely make them out, right?” “It’s perfect, so far as I can tell, Talus.” I was honest, “You have done brilliantly. I can’t make out the danger and I know where to look. Those thick-skulled Roman legions will march right on by and be fully taken in.”

Two of the militia fellows were unloading Hades’ kegs of fire. I carressed his nose gently.

“There you go, Boy, the hard part is over now. Talus, where is the refreshment wagon?”

“See that siege engine, Bird? Six dozen paces beyond, and you’ll make it out by the crowd through the smoke of the bonfire. See ya Bird. ”

He put his knees into Howard to meet the next group. Angie gave me a shy wave, a pretty smile, and then wrapped her arms about his waist.

I watched, shaking my head. They were perfect together; I had never seen Talus so happy. Sometimes I missed my old best friend, but time worked itself round, and hopefully he would be back to talk now and again when Cupid gave him a break. Zephyr looked at me and read my thoughts in her magical way because she poked her nose inside my hand for a pat.

“Yes, I always have you, girl,” I let my hand drift through her fur, “and you are the best friend of all.”

My ebony colored friend agreed.

Hades shook his head against his bridle and danced around a bit on our way to refreshments. He was happy to be rid of the weight on his back.

There were large troughs of water which we visited first, and then we wandered to the wagon where I retrieved my own cold mug of water while feeding Hades a trio of carrots and Zephyr a special dog treat.

“Did ya make decent time Grandbird?” inquired my Grandba, working steadily handing out big mugs of cider and water.

“I think so, Grandba,” she playfully slapped my hand as it quickly snabbed a nutty muffin under her nose. The aroma of the treat was intoxicating.

“Grandba, I have dreamed of this muffin the entire long and lonesome walk.” My teeth sunk into it, “and it was worth it.”

Her blue veined fingers moved gently through my hair and down my cheek in a rare moment of affection, “Oh, you are full of pretty tales and sweet words Grandbirdie,” she sighed, “and I love to hear them.”

I leaned into her hand a little and then on an impulse, turned and kissed it. The bright blue eyes, so like my Baba Xe’s softened momentarily before she took a swipe at my head. “Get on with ya, Grandbirdie; you’ve work to do and so’ve I.”

I turned from her but left another soft kiss in her palm.

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Cyrene folded her arms watching her granddaughter move away in the company of the large black horse. Rose turned from her duty a moment.

“I can hear your thoughts, my friend,” Rose had a soft voice but it had a way of being heard.

“Ay Rosie, I was just thinking how quickly they grow up. Doesn’t seem so long ago that I watched my own Xena move about in that graceful way around a horse.”

“And now it’s your grandchild.”

“Suddenly, it’s my precious Grandbirdie, and here we are lookin’ at war again.”

“I am very grateful that Talus doesn’t have much of the warrior’s blood in him,” Rosie spoke reflectively, ” I thought his father might be disappointed at first, but he isn’t at all; he is happy that Talus is smart and artistically inclined. So long as he is ‘decent, honest, and good to his mother,’ that’s all Atticus wants from his son. So Birdie is the warrior child for both our families.” Rose softened her voice even more. “You know how much my Atticus loves Birdie, don’t you?”

“Ay, I do, and glad I am that Birdie has him as a male figure in her life,” Cyrene patted her friend’s arm. “Birdie and Atticus have a bond that the rest of us will never know all about.”

Rosie passed another soldier a tin cup of cold water and a thick slice of brown bread with jam spread on it.

“They shared a grand adventure, ’tis true,” the memory shook her voice, “I was so worried about Atticus those days and had no reason to believe he was even still alive, except that I could FEEL it in my soul, you know.”

“Aye Rosie, t’was the same for us, you can be certain,” Cyrene took her dear friend’s hand and patted it a moment gazing into her eyes. “They may call my Xena the Conqueror, but with Gabrielle injured after that skirmish with the Romans, and Birdie gone missing, surely she was far more the conquered one. And I did not know how to help her.” Rose stared steadily into her friend’s eyes, “If only we had known each other a little better than,” she sighed, “There I was beside myself with worry over Atticus, and Talus weeping non stop. It was a great day for us when he rode in on that great black horse of Birdie’s that just cleaned us out of carrots.”

The women touched their heads together and laughed.

“It’s a short history, but a precious one,” Cyrene squeezed her friend’s hands in affection. “And it will see us through what’s ahead.”

“Ay, that it will, “Rosie squeezed back, “That it will.”

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Hades was due a candle mark’s quiet grazing before we rode back to the fortress, so I meandered over to the large campfire circle to listen to discussion of the ambush. My Baba Xe, Mama G, Chief Jom of the DOZ, Ephiny, and Pony were standing around a large map that Baba had scratched in the dirt near the bon fire. My eyes drifted over it, and I picked out our location, every single one of our fire cannons, and the entrance of the Romans designated by a dirt sketch of a Roman helmet.

I crept into the circle as if my presence were only an extra shadow and not a nosy squire.

“These are my thoughts, and I am open to other ideas,” the low commanding voice of my Baba Xe held the group without raising her volume.

“The Roman Legions will arrive in the next day or two. If you have no objection, Ephiny, Pony, if you and some of your fleetest warriors, together with some of the Chief’s fastest, and my strong men on the sieges and the cannons can mount the first fire attack from the west….”

She paused for their input. It was an enormous job, but Ephiny, Pony and the Chief all stepped forward immediately, fists saluting their hearts solidly.

“Whatever you need, Xena,” Ephiny said quietly.

The Conqueror smiled, “Well done then. The Amazons, DOZ and Militia can attack hard and from near invisibility with the greatest force. It is the most critical attack. The Romans must be funneled into the valley quickly. They must feel as if there is no choice.”

Pony spoke quietly, formally, “And we will give them none, My Lady Conqueror.”

She received a look of warmth from the sapphire eyes.

“Chief Jom, you will attack from the east slope of the valley and corral any legions who might try escape that way… You should be able to hold that hill with few soldiers shouldn’t you?”

The Chief gave a silent nod.

The Conqueror finished, “And I, Queen Gabrielle, the rest of the Militia and anyone else who shows up will greet the Romans right at the mouth of the valley and on the road to Amphipolis to hold for the final battle. I say we take no prisoners. Are we agreed on this?”

She pulled The Tide from its scabbard and set it in the middle of her dirt map laying her callused palm across the top of its hilt. My Mama G’s of course came next without fanfare; Ephiny and Pony stepped forward immediately to place their palms on hers; Chief Jom laid his huge hand on top. I took a chance and moved forward to place my hand atop the chief’s. It settled like a small leaf against a sheet of granite, and yet we were united. My mother’s eyes locked onto mine across the stack of hands, and I could not tell if she approved or not.

“Victory at Wild Horse; Death to Rome!” The Conqueror’s voice trembled with intensity.

“Victory at Wild Horse: Death to Rome!” Her followers swore on her sword.

The moment was charged; my heart felt as if it would fly from my chest. Then almost as if embarrassed by their expressions of passion, the war party broke up.

My Baba Xe’s voice followed me as I turned away heading to locate Hades for the ride back.

“Mind yourself on the way home, Birdie.”

“I will do so, My Lady.” I turned and gave her a slight bow which brought a round of chuckles from the fire.

“Smarty britches.”

At least she was out of her Conqueror mode for a moment. We wouldn’t see that again for days.

My response was an innocent smile paired with innocently raised shoulders.

Zephyr joined me looking quite refreshed, and I let my hand fall to her silky black fur.

“Hi girl, Where’s Hades?”

Zephyr took a hard right which took us in the direction of several grazing horses. Something flashed at my peripheral vision-Rachelle. Turning quickly, I caught sight of her golden hair glowing against the grim sky. Her head was bowed; she appeared to be in deep conversation with-Who was that?

“Who is that?”

Zephyr had no answer. I looked down at her soft eyes; she gazed up at me, as hurt as I was. What was this?

Rach must have felt something because she looked our way. She tugged the arm of her companion and they angled their ambling in my direction.

Minotaur shite.

She-who-walked-beside-my Rachelle was tall, with a lean athletic build and tarnished brass colored hair. Her skin was sun tanned, rather the color of her hair, and her eyes, which had now met mine, were dark woods brown-impenetrable. Soft buckskin pants and shirt clothed her in understated class. She was quite striking in appearance, I had to admit.

“Birdie!”

Turning deaf ears, Zephyr and I resumed our journey towards the horses.

“BIRDIE.”

Don’t be silly.

I turned. “Oh, Hi Rach.”

“Birdie, you heard me.”

“Heard what?”

The forest granite eyes pierced me. Rach missed nothing.

“Birdie, don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

Oh, that was quick, Bird.

A sigh from Rach.

“Birdie, this is Tosh.”

The gorgeous one held out a large strong hand. “Hello Birdie, I have heard so much about you. ”

I shook the hand politely as my upbringing required, “Hope it hasn’t been all bad.”

A chuckle, “Not all.”

“Tosh is here to visit me from the Seaside Amazon tribe, Birdie..”

“You must miss her over there,” I murmured making small talk but offering no eye contact.

“Indeed we do, ” Tosh said. She was older, wiser; I could tell. Even worse for me. Tosh was perfect for Rach. By the gods, she probably swam all the way here—by way of the rivers.

“Well, I’ll leave you to your visit then,” couldn’t keep the shakiness from my voice. Minotaur shite. This was not cool.

“Birdie.”

Keep walking.

“Birdie.”

My arm was caught and my body spun around with strength surprising from Rachelle’s her slender form.

“What in Hades is wrong with you?” The words snapped and stung me.

Didn’t look at her.

“Nothing.”

She folded her arms waiting.

“Birdie, look at me and say that.”

I managed a moment’s glance.

“Nothing.”

Zephyr cast reproachful regard.

“Birdie, I didn’t think that you would lie to me so soon in our relationship.”

Still couldn’t look at her.

“Not lying. Ow!”

Zephyr nipped the back of my calf.

“Bite her, Zephyr,” the shattered voice of the girl I loved flew back in shards as she strode away to rejoin Tosh, “Bite her hard.” ++++++++++++

“That went well,” I muttered to Zephyr as we moved on to Hades.

Zephyr had nothing to say to me.

“Zephyr, you are supposed to stand by me right or wrong.”

Difficult to stand by an idiot.

“Zephyr.”

Silence

“Zephyr….” Almost begging

Warm fur rubbed against the side of my laced trousers.

“So do you forgive me?”

She gave a little lick of my hand and moved her head under it. I stroked it gratefully.

” I panicked.”

Wish you wouldn’t.

“I wish that I wouldn’t too, Zephyr. Do you think that I am being replaced?”

Nobody could ever replace you, Birdie.

I knelt to look into the wisdom of my fox’s hazel eyes.

“Have I ever told you that you mean more to me than most of the people I know, and certainly my own life?”

Don’t be silly.

“I’m not being silly, Zephyr. You are my heart and soul.”

And you are mine, little mistress.

“So do we have a problem?”

I have no problem, but you do.

“With Rach?”

Yes. And I like Rachelle as well.

“What is the problem?”

You tell me.

“I was not truthful.”

Indeed you were not.

“That’s bad, isn’t it?”

She nipped my hand lightly.

Don’t make it a habit.

We had arrived at Hades who looked rested. I leaped up into my big horse’s saddle and turned towards Amphipolis. We would make it home before complete darkness settled in, and I had much to occupy my thoughts.

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“What shall I offer for your thoughts, my Bard?”

Argo kept a steady beat with the lighter pace of Gabrielle’s Wendy. The two horses ran together quite often and thus knew the perfect gait for conversation between their riders.

The bright head peered upward at the cosmos. “How about a star?” “A star for your thoughts, my love..” offered the Conqueror to her most precious advisor.

There was a soft chuckle and the forest colored eyes lowered to the saddle pommel.

“My thoughts are worth very little, for they are in conflict with each other, My Lady Conqueror.” She said quietly.

“Are they?” she was answered in equally quiet tones. “And it’s XENA, not ‘My Lady Conqueror’ to you, My Queen.”

The blonde hair looked up, “Touché,” she smiled. “I am wishing for the days my little Birdie did not have lethal combat skills, and I could leave her at home with her Grandba, while we went to battle. And yet, I am proud of her too.”

“I understand,” The dark head studied her own saddle pommel, “Actually, there were very few years before Birdie learned lethal combat skills, Gabrielle. She was born with a certain knack, you know.”

“I do know.”

“It was only a matter of time-always.”

“I know that; it doesn’t mean that I like it. It doesn’t mean that I want our child to find joy or excitement in going to war or killing.”

“Do you honestly fear that in her, Gabrielle?”

The poet paused considering.

“Perhaps somewhat,” she said carefully.

The warrior was equally careful. “You fear my darkness will make its appearance in our child, once she has a true taste of real bloodshed in a combat situation.”

And even longer silence. The horses’ steady clopping echoed in the night as the two women sought answers in the moon.

“Perhaps.” The bard whispered, “I am sorry if that hurts, Xena; it shouldn’t. The gods know I have my own dark side to contribute.”

The horses touched noses as their beloved riders fell silent again.

Xena released a long heavy sigh into Argo’s ears which flipped around.

“You know what I think, Mama G?”

That brought a smile, “What do you think, Baba Xe?”

“I think we have to trust our kid just as we trust each other. Yes, I go a little hardcore nut ball when the Romans are involved. I count on you to check me. Birdie’s behavior restrains me in another way, because she will follow my example. You can go a little hardcore nut ball with worry about both Birdie and me. Birdie and I keep you honest.”

She chuckled, “one way or another I suppose. And Birdie… the gods know where and when she will go hardcore nut ball, hopefully not at all– if we are lucky. Birdie has many eyes on her.”

The Warrior Princess took a deep breath,

“We do the best we can Gabrielle which is no slouch of an effort, and we also hope and strive for the best of outcomes.”

The horses paced, the moon listened; the warrior spoke again,

“Do you remember Helicon?”

The writer’s smaller hand came across the darkness to grasp the warrior’s larger one.

“Yes of course I remember Helicon, Xena.”

“Do you think it was easy for me to witness what happened to you there? You were the one part of my life that I had tried to protect most from the blood rage and violence of war. And there at Helicon you transformed, right in front of me. It hacked my heart to shreds, Gabrielle; my heart wept tears of blood to see it.” The sapphire eyes closed.

The young bard’s head lowered at this confession of the woman who remained her first and her only hero.

Xena reached for her lover’s chin to find the poet’s tears reflected in the moonlight.

“But life is hard Gabrielle; you know that as well as I do; life demands our heartbreak and our blood. All we can do is to guard those we love —fiercely, and to believe in those we love –unconditionally. It’s really all we have in the end.”

“So we cannot protect our Birdie from life can we?” the bard acquiesced.

“No, my love we cannot. We can only to our best to love and to guide her.”

The horses continued on through the dark night under the starlight and moonglow.

“Are you still asking to hear my thoughts?, “mused her soul mate, picking up the pace a bit.

“A star for your thoughts, Gabrielle.” Argo sped up as well.

“Just two,” the bard was mysterious.

“And those would be….?”

“I love you, and I believe in you.”

“Still?” the question was a whisper from the Conqueror of all the lands one could see.

“Still and always,” the soft answer returned across the darkness.

They held hands all the way back to Amphipolis.

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The following morning I was leading Hades out to the barns to collect his last load of Greek fire when I saw my Grandba and Rosie setting off toward the valley in their refreshment wagon loaded to the frames with the food that would reward our hard work.

“Birdie girl, come ride with me a moment before you load!” she waved me over. I turned Hades back and we caught up with the wagon. Quickly wrapping Hades’ reins around the frame, I hopped beside Grandba on the seat easily. In another breath, Zephyr was behind Grandba, sticking her nose on her neck.

“Stop, silly fox,” Grandba laughed, “I’m ticklish…stop!”

“She knows that Grandba…”

I was helpless for anything but laughter, and Rosie joined in as well. Zephyr gave the serious Cyrene of Amphipolis another large dose of cold nose before lying down on a pallet, very satisfied with herself.

Grandba looked back, “Silly fox; I’ll make a coat of ya!”

Zephyr gave Grandba a look which said she knew better.

“What is it Grandba? I am due at the loading place.”

She took my hand which wore the silver ring I had taken from Marcus, my Greco/Roman friend at his death.

“Look here Birdie.” She pulled from her little finger, an identical silver ring.

“Grandba they are just alike. May I see yours?”

I took hers and looked at it. There was one difference. On the inside of the one I had taken from Marcus, there was the letter “M” engraved. On the inside of Grandba’s there was the letter “C”.

“Grandba?” I waited for her to explain.

Her eyes went far away.

“I had a sister, Birdie; her name was Maxine. We were only a season apart and we were inseparable. One Solstice, when our father had a good year with his cattle, he gave us these rings, identical– with our initials on the inside. They were the only gift we ever had from our father; he was killed in an accident soon after. We were so very proud of them, and we never took them off. But when we were about your age, Maxine was taken by raiders, despite the best efforts of my mother.”

My Grandba’s eyes filled suddenly even these many years later. I took her work worn hand in mine and held on tightly.

She closed her eyes and swallowed. “We never saw or heard from her again. My mother, Xenarone never spoke of her, so I didn’t either. I put away my ring and never wore it again. When you showed yours to me that night, it stirred a faint memory. I finally dug around and located it for you.”

“So what this means…” I said, “is that very possibly, Marcus was the son…..”

“of Maxine,” she finished. “My Maxine found some kind of life somewhere, perhaps Rome, and had a son.”

“Who was my friend, and my cousin,” I whispered.” Grandba, that is incredible.”

Her rough hand cupped my face, “In a way, your encounter with young Marcus brought me and you back full circle.”

“He was the kindest, bravest, and nicest fellow one could hope to meet, Grandba. You would have been very proud of him, “I said, wishing that I could tell her that Marcus was still quite often with me.

“Well, Birdie girl, I would like for you to have this ring too, “my Grandba pressed the glowing piece of silver into my palm.

“Are you certain, Grandba? This is very special to you.” I studied the simple beautiful object in my hand.

She closed my fingers around it. “You will find a use for it dear. I have no further need of it, and one day you might.”

I tucked the ring into a small pouch that hung on my belt for just that purpose and kissed her soft cheek.

“Thank you Grandba. I will both keep and use it well. Have to run now.” I reached for Hades’ reins.

“Ride carefully darlin'”

“I smiled at her from the saddle.

“See you at the snack wagon then.”

“Fine… fine.” She turned to the reins of her horses.

“Love you Grandba.”

I received a nod and a warm smile. Hades, Zephyr, and I went off to collect our load.

……………….

“But isn’t life odd?” I asked Zephyr later on as she walked beside me. Hades kept his steady plodding, his nose over my shoulder.

Sometimes.

“But it works out the way it should I suppose; I hope.” We came to the meadow outside Wild Horse Valley with our final load. Hades was ready. We all were ready.

Zephyr slid her head under my hand.

I hope so too.

“Oh it will, Zephyr. See you in a bit then?”

I will find you my friend, as I always do.

And she did.

As she always does.

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There was an “ambush feast” at the fortress that evening. That is what I called it; I believe others called it the” Wild Horse Feast” which did have a grander sound. Leave it to my Grandba to come up with new Wild Horse ale with which my Baba Xe made an inspired toast. My Mama G made a toast then to our own Conqueror who would lead us to victory, and hers was even better. When hearts needed to swell with pride or courage, no one could make that happen with words like my Mama G.

After the formalities, I felt the need for privacy and went to walk by the stream kicking rocks. Rachelle found me rather quickly; it wasn’t possible to avoid her all evening, and I wasn’t so cowardly that I didn’t want to see her again.

“Where’s Tosh?” I asked stiffly.

“I sent her home,” Rach said with a sigh, “she wanted to stay but I told her that with Auntie Pony taking such a big risk in the Roman ambush, I needed at least one surviving relative somewhere.”

“Tosh is a relative?”

“Yes, my first cousin. She’s always looked out for me some. I did want you to meet her.”

With no hesitation, Rach then extended a flat hand and delivered a light swat to my backside, and then quickly moved up to lay a harder smack to the back of my head. The hand then turned and was joined by her other on either side of my head and drew it to touch her own forehead.

“Dumbshite.” Her voice was gentle.

What could I say? Idiot. “Sorry.” “You… Were…. jealous.” ” Never have been. Of anyone till you, Rach. ”

Confession sucked the wind out of me.

Tears welled. Don’t. Talk to her.

“Didn’t want to lose you when I only just found you.”

She squeezed my head in her hands.

“You might have asked me.”

“Paralysis.”

“Stupidity.”

Yeah that too.

“Forgive me?”

Her head moved up and down.

“You will find many knots on your head if you don’t TALK to me when something bothers you.”

“Yes’m”

“Promise me.” “Promise.”

We joined hands and walked again.

We enjoyed contented silence for a time, heads down watching the matched pace of our feet. Then, my mind went very sharp.

“Where will you be during the ambush, Rach?”

She turned, “NOW don’t be that way, Bird. I will be just fine.”

Too late, I as fully gone “that way”.

“You will be with Effie and Pony, right?”

She didn’t want to answer.

“RIGHT?”

“In the primary attack from the west?”

“Yeah.” I walked away.

“I don’t like that, Rach; I don’t like it at all. Who will watch over you?”

“I’m going to be hidden high in a tree.”

“A TREE?”

“With my sword.”

She disliked it as much I did.

“They’ll watch me Birdie, I’ll be camouflaged, and I am not entirely helpless.”

I stared away. “Not good enough.”

“I knew you would say that. But no one will find me. Everyone will be too busy fighting.”

She squeezed my hands and wanted to say more; it was in her eyes.

I looked at the ground stubbing my soft boot into the dirt reaching a decision.

“Then I am coming with the Amazon/DOZ party for the fire ambush of the Romans.”

“Birdie, your parents won’t allow it”

“I will ask permission, but you are very likely correct.”

.” Her eyes grew large. “And not only that, you are sworn to squire for the Conqueror.”

“I’ll work it out. Hades is a very fast horse. As soon as I see the fire ambush is good, and have you safe with me, we can open up for the center valley attack; Hades can make it; we’ve run faster and farther many times.”

“Birdie, we’ll be riding right along the parameter of the Roman Legions!”

“Yes, but we will be flying, and they will be fighting.”

She sighed. “You are crazy. Ephiny is going to kick your butt, the Romans may bloody well KILL both of us, and if we are lucky enough to survive, your parents will double kick your butt!”

“They’ve kicked it before.”

“But this is different Birdie, this is war!”

I took both of her hands in mine.

“That’s just it, Rach. I can’t function in any assignment, until I know for certain that YOU ARE SAFE. ” “You aren’t treading on hubris again?”

“Don’t think so, Rach…think this falls under plain old disobedience..”

She laughed, “You are a piece of work, Robin of Amphipolis.” “So they tell me…

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

“Out of the question.” The Conqueror strode away from me. “You understand that the ONLY reason you are involved at all in this exercise is that you are now my sworn squire?”

“Yes, My Lady.”

“And I intend also that you guard your mother’s back?”

“Yes, My Lady.”

At the other end of the room, I could still feel the sparks of her outrage snap at my skin.

“Baba.” My head was lowered submissively.

“Birdie,” She turned and the cobalt eyes were electric with intensity.

“Robin of the Warrior, do not dare to disobey me on this issue. Am I clear?”

“Yes My Lady.”

She walked back and stood tall over me. “Look at me Birdie; LOOK …AT…ME….” I managed to meet the icy lightning-only just.

Suddenly she softened and ran her hand into my hair.

“Birdie, it is just too dangerous. Rachelle will be fine with Ephiny and Pony. They are warriors too, remember?”

“Yes My Lady.”

She gave my hair a gentle tug.

“So we are good now?”

“Yes My Lady.”

She looked into my eyes one more time. Her gaze penetrated straight into my soul.

Then she sighed, turned away, and left me standing her office.

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

Taking one more gulp of air, I tapped on the bedchamber door of the Conqueror and the Queen.

“Come.”

I entered the huge room, a room in which I had been brought home to safety, shelter and happiness so many times in my young life. Actually, it was the room in which I had been born.

My mother sat in her chair near the window writing on a parchment. She did not look surprised to see me. Baba Xe had gone to the field.

“My Lady, might I have a word?” My voice sounded formal, even though I felt my spirit shake all the way through.

The captivating jade eyes sent my mother’s fond gaze which never failed to ease me regardless of what I had to say or confess.

“Sit down, Birdie.”

I sat on the small tapestry covered footstool near her feet. I was a little tall for it now, but no matter; there were times that I still desired to sit at my mother’s knee. She felt my troubled mind and pulled my head into her lap, stroking my hair quietly.

“Mama, will you hate me if I disobey you and Baba and go to ride with the Amazons in the fire ambush?”

The hand stopped caressing, but it didn’t leave my hair. She took a deep breath.

“First of all, I could never hate you; you must never ever think that. And second, are you confessing to disobedience before you commit it? That is new for you, Birdie.”

I raised my head and met her eyes with my own near tears, “Mama I MUST GO. I cannot let Rachelle go into danger without going with her. Even though it means trouble for me here.”

I lowered my eyes and head to await her words.

She never took her hand from my hair, but gripped it.

“Birdie, you are old enough to make your own decisions and to face your own consequences. I cannot physically stop you short of chaining you in the dungeon. Do we have a dungeon?”

A chuckle from me, “Not that I am aware of, Mama. We have a jail. You could chain me in the jail.”

“Ah, the jail then.”

“Mama, how can I make you see that I feel there is no choice for me but to do this?”

She took my face in her hands and forced me deep into her stormy forest eyes. It was a rare sight, but quite as frightening as the blue flash of my Baba Xe’s anger.

“Convince me, Robin of Amphipolis. Convince me why you should share the extra danger of the first fire ambush of the Romans, when you are already involved in the danger of the final ambush as a squire in Wild Horse Valley.” Her voice shook slightly with her restrained anger.

“You know that I can hardly bear that you are taking part in that much of this military operation.”

“Mama I need to help keep Rachelle safe.” It sounded weak.

She closed her eyes.

“Honey, Rachelle will be SAFE. Her parents are Ephiny and Eponin of the Forest Amazons, and they are extremely capable warriors.”

“I know, Mama.”

“Then, we have no more worries about this, am I right?”

“Yes, M’am.”

“LOOK AT ME, Birdie.”

By the gods, I looked her straight in the eyes; I had to. “Yes, My Lady.”

My conscience twisted and stabbed a finger into my gut.

“Liar Liar, pants on fire..” my heart, my conscience, my very soul taunted me.

I kissed my mother’s hand, rose from the little footstool, turned away from my mother, and went to make my own decisions.

Rach

I have no words,
Only feelings pristine,
Encased in light.
Her face and eyes
So fill my sight

The reproach
In her voice, or
Sweet laughter
Clear, are
All that I hear,

The touch of her
Hand which can both
Hurt and heal,
Are all that I feel.

With her wise
Words,
She mends splintered
parts of this
restless heart.

Is love defined
At the Academy
Of Bards?
In some ancient
scroll?
I need to know.

Part 3

I am Robin
Of the Warrior
And the Bard.

I am going to war.

Predawn of the day-insomnia was the victor so I rose and dressed by lantern light with Zephyr as a solemn audience. The leather breeches felt a little strange; Baba had them made for me, saying they were the best protection for fighting. The black leather was soft on the interior and somewhat stiffer on the exterior, but that was how they were meant to be. I smiled at the lacings in the legs; Baba must have specified to the tanner. The lacings were a Birdie tradition, as soon as I was out of swaddling. My mother discovered that lacings were a faster way to access my many bumps, bruises, cuts, bangs and bandages I acquired throughout the course of a day, or a seven day, or a moon, rather than to constantly be stripping me down to attend to first aide . I was not a completely clumsy child, but I was always needing patching or sewing because of this or that mishap. There was “Xena Warrior Princess” and there was” Birdie Walking Horse Wreck”.

My shirt was silk was like my parents’ only red for the breast of a Robin. My swordplay had earned me a breast plate like my Baba’s under my dragon overlay and also the pewter gauntlets. The boots my grandba had given me completed my outfit, as well as the Baby Tide and scabbard with the silver Robin inlay which lay across my back. The scabbard’s journal was removed for this occasion. Daggers adorned my belt and my right boot. My bow and arrows would be in Hades’ saddle. Even Zephyr had a special coat of light chain mail that was specially made for her because where I went, Zephyr went. We took account of ourselves in the polished shield in my room.

“We look like royalty, Zephyr.” I said quietly.

We do indeed, little mistress.

It had taken me awhile to notice.

“Zephyr?”

Yes.

“When did you begin to convey your thoughts in words to me?”

A pause.

I do not know, little Mistress. I have always had thoughts; you have only just begun to hear them.

I pondered. “Perhaps a visit from our Lady Artemis?”

Perhaps.

“The goddess decided I needed more help.”

Perhaps.

“Will you help me today?”

As best I can, Little Mistress.

“Thank you, I will need it.”

You know that you always have my help.

“But Zephyr, it is more important to me that you remain safe.”

You must be safe as well, Little Mistress.

I knelt to look into her noble eyes.

“Safety first then, for both of us.”

Are you following the safest course, Little Mistress?

The answer took no thought.

“I am following my heart, Zephyr.”

You have my help and my heart in following yours, then.

I kissed her nose and we left my room.

@@@@@@@@@@@

Baba Xe and Mama G were exiting their chambers resplendent in their gear, which as their squire, I had arranged for them earlier. Mama was dressed very similarly to both Baba and I, except that her shirt was sea foam, and she wore different boots to house her sais. It was unnerving to see her thus outfitted, especially with her royal Amazon sword across her back. It often slipped my mind that my gentle mother was Queen of the Amazons and kept the title well polished.

Baba wore her usual dress-the leather, pewter, and blue, and yet she was unusually striking. The Conqueror was in her element when a battle was on her horizon. Ares’ blood ran in her veins, and while it was quiet much of the time, it rose to boiling when summoned. This morning the energy bristling from her was visible; she was mesmerizing in her dangerous beauty. I wondered if I had inherited even a fraction of that charisma.

I followed them down the stairs, out of the kitchen, and into the big yard outside the stables where there was a final meeting.

My godmother the Regent Ephiny, her second, Rachelle’s Aunt Eponin, their warriors, Chief Jom, his warriors and Rach were standing in a circle in the chilly morning.

There was no light, but my Grandba walked among all with a tray of steaming mugs warming the forces. She was a marvel; she never slept, I supposed.

As I sipped my hot cider, I listened to The Conqueror.

“West ambush, be ready. It’s a fair sized group, so they may likely have catapults, crossbowmen, and at least one or possibly two hundred cavalry.”

Mama G stood quietly beside the Conqueror with one hand lightly threaded through Baba’s pewter gauntlet.

There was a pause of some length, and I realized that Baba had extended her other arm in my direction with a slight smile. I took a small shy hop, and I stood in front – her hands on my shoulders- as she continued, “I would expect the fire will damage them greatly, but it won’t stop them completely. Watch for their javelins, and then swords. They have only wooden shields, and so those should break easily.”

Her hands gripped my shoulders intensely to a point that wasn’t quite painful.

“MOST important of all my friends,” Baba’s voice became charged with emotion, “is that you protect yourselves and that you protect each other. If we come through this without casualties, I promise you Conqueror’s Honor, we shall have a three day feast!”

There was quiet laughter and a soft cheer. There was just enough light to see her teeth flash. Baba then stepped back with her arms extended sideways, I grabbed her arm in the warrior’s grip on one side, Mama did on the other, and so the grip went round hands to arms until we formed an unbreakable circle. There was silence; everyone focused- a ring of flashing eyes meeting, united. When the Conqueror tightened her grip, the circle tightened immediately; it was a great symbol for the moment.

“Gods speed to us; victory at Wild Horse!” Baba said quietly.

“Gods speed to us; victory at Wild Horse.” We repeated it almost like a prayer, and the party broke calmly to go separate paths.

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

Gabrielle did weapons check on her Conqueror: daggers, one at the breasts, two at the arms, waist, and legs; The Tide at her back, chakram at her waist. Xena check the Battling Bard, sais at the boots, Amazon sword, and staff in the holder on Wendy’s saddle. Their respective livery was immaculate; they certainly had the best of squires; where was she?

“Where is Birdie?” Gabrielle asked looking beyond Xena to Hades’ stall which was empty.

The Conqueror looked at her partner with a soft smile.

“Gabrielle, you know where Birdie is, do you not?”

“She– didn’t.” The heat began in the usually soft voice.

“It would appear that she did.” The blue eyes were calm.

“She promised that she wouldn’t!” The forest eyes caught fire, “she lied to me!”

“Did she?”

Silence.

“Well, I certainly believed that she had promised me.”

The Conqueror gave her bard a leg up into her saddle and then catapulted her own body easily onto Argo’s back.

“When I talked to Birdie, my feeling was that Birdie said what she had to say in order to appease me under the circumstances.”

“Xena…”

The Conqueror put her hand on the bard’s shoulder. “I don’t like it either, and I will certainly make that very clear to Birdie, Gabrielle.”

“But Xena, what do we do now?” “Gabrielle, we have no choice but to do what we discussed the other night; we can only trust Birdie to keep herself safe. She’s no longer a child.”

The bard put her hand over her heart, closed her eyes, and by great will power held back tears.

“Ok Xena,” she swallowed hard. She gripped the warrior’s hand furiously. “You know this falls almost in the same category as when I accepted your death. ”

The Conqueror blinked as if an arrow has entered her body.

“I didn’t realize it would be this difficult for you.” she said in a tight whisper.

“As usual, I am given no choice in the matter. I cannot very well go riding off after her, can I? There will be several battles in the way.”

She closed her eyes and clung desperately to the warrior’s hand for a count of ten.

When they opened, the deep lakes colored pools of emotion were completely focused; the Amazon Queen had taken over.

Warrior and bard took a simultaneous cleansing breath.

The small mother spoke.

“But after the battle, I will deal with my child, and she will ALWAYS be my child, Xena; Birdie and I will discuss this at length.”

The Conqueror chuckled, “If the kid knows what is good for her, she will remain on the battlefield until you have calmed down.”

She received a cuff to the arm for that remark, but then the bard’s hand slid down the arm to join the Conqueror’s hand, and again they focused on the coming confrontations.

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

“Hades you are such a fine horse, ” I whispered into his ear as my big black fellow burned up the ground between Amphipolis and Wild Horse Valley. It was still fairly dark, but it was as if he had night vision, because his hooves were sure, steady, and fast.

“Zephyr…” my midnight fox loped along easily, keeping pace, even at the speed we were galloping. She must be using some of her god-fox powers; she had her own contract with Artemis. Artemis. I hoped she wasn’t becoming too angry with my actions. There would be enough hot water to boil in IF I lived through this little bout of decision making. I shook my head; WHEN we lived through these crazy decisions. It had to work. So much that I loved was at stake.

We completed the straight road route along the base of the valley and began to ascend the west hill of Wild Horse Valley following the single track. I pushed Hades a little, regretfully, but we were an open target in the bald grass until we reached the tree line. Fortunately, my dark steed covered the distance like the champion war horse that he was.

When we reached the summit, I dismounted, took Hades’ reins and walked him, so he could settle a bit. There was a small pool just at the center of the summit, so I allowed him a brief drink; Zephyr and I drank as well. We walked out onto a small flat ledge to watch the sunrise commence, and we saw them.

The dust cloud was just at the end of my perception in the distance, but it had to be the Romans, because my blood ran cold. I heard a low rumbling snarl rising at my side and looked down to see it was Zephyr. Her ruff was standing straight up; her eyes were flashing and she was snarling like a vicious wolf.

“Easy girl,” I laid my hand gently on her neck to feel her body shaking under the fur.

“Easy girl, we’re going to be all right.” I watched the procession a moment. It was quite a large number of soldiers, but we could deal with them.

“Is everyone ready?” I asked my two closest companions, my animal friends who had seen me through a good many rough times.

Zephyr looked up at me, and Hades responded with a soft nose on my shoulder. Hades bent his front leg and I took the step up into his saddle.

“Zephyr, can you keep up?”

Little Mistress, you offend me.

“Sorry, Zephyr, it was meant out of concern.”

Set the pace necessary, Little Mistress; I will stay with you.

“Very well then.”

Hades completed the decent down into the meadow which was only a couple of leagues from the edge of the woods and the camouflaged weapons. The Roman legions were advancing and I knew my arrival would be close. There was also the matter of identifying the tree in which Rach was stowed.

I urged Hades far to the back of the woods’ edge to prevent our being seen; our presence shouldn’t give away the ambush. It was important that the greatest amount possible of the legion should be in front of the Amazons and DOZ when the attack began. But Hades was tall enough that I could see that the time of the attack was imminent; there were a great many Romans within sight of the edge now, and the call to attack could not be far away.

Hades kept a steady trot while I searched frantically in the trees for Rach; this would not be easy, but if it was difficult for me to find her, that meant she was probably safe. There was stillness and then I heard it begin.

Pony roared, “FIRE!!!” and the deep WHOOOOOMPPP as one of our Greek fire cannons slammed into the mechanism and the huge flaming ball launched into the legion like a deadly comet. It landed with a dull Thummmp, and then there was shouting, screaming of men and animals. I could smell the burning and see sparks rising into the beautiful fall morning.

“Crank ‘er back boys!” that was the voice of the broad red-hair man running back toward the big machine. Clayborne, Clayburg-wasn’t that his name-Baba had mentioned him.

“Run Hades!” I urged into my horse’s ear and he picked up speed as the next WHOOOOOMMMMMMPPP seemed to Whoooosh right over our heads from a cannon in the back.

Hades shied hard to the right..

“Easy boy,” I laid my hand on his neck and stroked it gently, “Easy big fella; yeah, it’s scary isn’t it?” Hades had been in many skirmishes and duels but he had never run through this type of firefight. I kept my hand on him and he settled but he remained very nervous; so was I.

“Zephyr?” she was right there looking up. “Are you ok?”

Yes, Little Mistress; keep moving..

WWWHHHOOOOOOOOMMMP!!! I could feel the heat of that one; the screams of the poor burning souls were louder as they tried with futility to put out the Greek fire on their bodies. The battle was coming closer to us. Among the catapults, Roman soldiers were making their ways into the woods, trying to take out the sources. They weren’t succeeding, but I couldn’t fault their courage. Three Amazons jumped on one centurion on horseback as he neared fire cannon. He must have thought the Harpies were after him, or that was his final thought as his head was removed in two Amazon sword whacks. It just missed Zephyr as she loped past, hopping straight up over the rolling sphere. Other soldiers were running into the woods, swords drawn, seemingly blind as to what they might run into. I drew my own sword as a precaution, and it was soon engaged as a Roman tried to pull me from Hades.

“Up Hades!” I commanded as I blocked his wild thrust with the Baby Tide, and then Hades’ hooves did the rest.

“Good boy,” I patted his neck, and we moved on.

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

Pony fell back to catch a breath beside her partner.

“Looks to be going well enough,” she said as she looked into the dark eyes of her lover, the acting Regent of the Amazon tribe of Queen Gabrielle.

“So far so good,” Ephiny uttered grimly. “Xena planned it well, though.”

FWWWUUUMMMMPPP!!! Another fireball went over and the two Amazons covered their heads.

“It’s coming close to the time for the full out charge isn’t it?” muttered Rachelle’s aunty.

“Yep. Let’s go and make certain that every cannon has a charge and a backup load ready to run; we’ll meet back here, ready?”

“Right.” The burly weapons master turned.

“Pony,” The Regent’s hand held her arm.

“Yeah?”

“Where is Rachelle?”

“She is in the ancient olive at the back edge of the forest.”

“Alone?”

“Arrot is with her; Evaline is further back out of danger.”

“They aren’t fighters, Pony.”

“They don’t need to be; no Roman will succeed in going back that far.”

The Regent raised her eyebrows, “Pony, you planned and hoped for the best, my friend. But did you anticipate the worst? You must always do that when kids are involved.”

Pony had no answer but the fear in her eyes.

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

“It has begun,” The Conqueror said quietly.

“How can you tell?”

“It’s difficult to explain, but when human beings begin to kill each other, the rest of nature goes very quiet. There is an unnatural stillness right now. Can you feel it?”

“Perhaps,” Her partner closed her eyes catching her breath suddenly. “Perhaps.”

“I can smell the odor of Greek fire as well, “The Conqueror took a deep breath. “It’s beginning to drift this way on the breezes. So the fight has begun.”

The smaller paler hand reached again for the warrior’s and squeezed it tightly, “Xena….”

The warrior squeezed in return, “Gabrielle look inside yourself; do you have any feeling that Birdie is not all right?”

“The bard centered herself and looked inward.

“No, she’s fine.”

“If anything happens to her, you will know; you have that connection with her. Trust that Gabrielle.”

The Conqueror gave her soul mate a reassuring smile.

“I will, “Gabrielle calmed herself, “I must; there is no choice, and we need to be ready.”

“Good girl.” Xena leaned across the space between the horses, pulled her bard’s head closer, and kissed the sunlit hair.

The action brought a bright youthful smile, “It’s been a long time since you’ve kissed me that way, Xena.”

“Has it?” The Conqueror settled back into her saddle.

“I still like it.”

“Why?”

“It’s a sign of approval, comfort, and love. It always made me feel good. You do it to Birdie, but I guess I still like it sometimes. Perhaps that’s not very mature.” The bard dropped her head a little.

For an answer, the Conqueror rose in her stirrups, leaned across again, and kissed her soul mate’s bright hair at length.

“How is that?”

The emerald eyes blinked back tears, “That, My Lady Conqueror, makes me believe that I can do anything.”

“Good. Then we are ready.”

“We are. Xena?”

“Yes?” The jade colored eyes shone brightly, “I love you Xena”

A fierce smile flashed in the indigo eyes.

“And those words, Gabrielle, have always made me believe that with your love, NOTHING is impossible.”

She reached across once more, took the bard’s pale hand and kissed it. “You are my source, Gabrielle. Still, always, and forever.”

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

I was beginning to feel a bit frantic. Hades was running an obstacle drill in and out of the fire brands, and when he wasn’t dodging those, I was blocking javelins with my sword, no easy task. A few soldiers had offered to take Hades from me; he was a fine horse, and they assumed I would be no match. We had shown them differently. Zephyr had stayed close by, running like a predatory wolf, nose low to the ground, eyes flashing dangerously. If a man offered to rise after I first cut him down, she quickly finished him with her teeth to his throat. This was a very deadly Zephyr, but we were about deadly business.

A new command rippled among the troops. Horses were being hitched to the lighter catapults and also to the wagons which carried the extra loads of Greek fire. Foot soldiers were checking crossbows, swords, daggers, and all other weapons they had taken from the Romans; I surmised that the final run and drive to the valley was coming into play very soon; I had to find Rachelle. On a whim, I steered Hade’s back left again toward the rear of the forest.

And there it was– a monolithic olive standing like an impenetrable fort-its silvery bark and leaves catching the sunlight. Anyone needing a tree for any purpose would choose that tree. My guess was confirmed when I picked out Arrot’s burly form squatting in the lower branches.

“There– Hades; Zephyr.” My fox was making her way forward of us with similar thought. The tree stood alone in a clearing, a place that should have been safe. But even as we made our way toward it, I saw three Roman soldiers charging that way as well; two were afoot and one on horseback. I could not understand why three soldiers would make this tree their target until I reached the same angle as they had viewed. The sun hit the trunk in such fashion that it had an almost human shape, and in the midst of the silvery leaves shone Rach’s golden hair like a smaller sphere of sunlight itself. The tree somehow exclaimed its importance; it was a tree of character, and something of value was hidden there.

Calm washed over me like a chilling rain; I knew exactly what course of action I would take. A blood red filter fell across my sight changing the Romans into moving black shapes in a crimson mist.

“Hades, hurry boy!” I patted his neck; his speed increased and I reached backward and drew my sword.

Arrot was doing her best, but she was no warrior. As Hades made his first pass, I leapt high from the saddle taking momentum of my horse’s speed and slammed my boots into the mounted Roman’s head which stunned him cold through his helmet as he fell from the saddle. On the opposite side, I drove my sword slashing across the neck of the man standing on the ground as I completed my flip landing on my feet. I reviewed my work; the soldier had died instantly- blood sprayed from his jugular vein. Hades circled back as I ran to jump on the back of the man who had Arrot backed against the tree. This was not the wisest move because he far outweighed me, easily broke the choke hold I attempted, and battered me to the ground with an elbow to my lower gut, which was unprotected by my breast plate. I rolled quickly trying to regain my breathing while ducking to avoid a vicious kick from a huge boot, but it caught my side; fortunately most of it on my armor that time. Tucked and rolled again, a silent command of will forced my body to its feet as he slashed his blade into the ground where I had just before lain. He laughed a lazy phlegmy snort.

“Agh! These Amazon deviants even send their children to fight for what they are worthhhhhh.”

He lost track of the final word as my heavy boot slammed into his crotch with all my strength. He went down choking, and Zephyr came over to sink her teeth into his throat. He gurgled only briefly.

“Good girl, ” I picked up my sword, wiped it clean on the grass, and slid it home in its sheath on my back.

“Birdie!” The warning from Arrot I had been expecting, and I quickly drew and dirtied my sword driving it underhanded and backwards into the man who had awakened from his unconsciousness. I twisted it hard once, twice, and heard his grunt and blurble in my ear. I pulled it from him and cleaned the gore from it on the grass once more.

“Hey Arrot,” My friend’s large hand came to my arm in a hard warrior’s grip as the red mist left my vision. I kicked the Roman’s body over behind me.

“Birdie, what a sight you were. I did my best…”

“You would have managed, Arrot.” I kept Arrot’s pride intact, “it was fortunate I happened by that’s all. What are your orders?”

“To guard Princess Rachelle; Master Arms woman Eponin woulda never thought the Romans would be back this far.”

I turned and surveyed the tree.

“What if I take Rachelle with me?”

“Well, I expect I will just make my way back around the long way to Amphipolis. Evaline is waiting for me a couple a leagues behind.”

“Go then Arrot, because I am here to take her.”

“Are you sure it’s safe, Birdie?”

I reached for her hand again,” Is anyplace safe, Arrot?”

Our eyes met.

She gave me that grin; sometimes Arrot understood me well. “So we need to be with our loved ones then.”

I stood under the tree, “Are you coming down Rach?”

She was beside me in the next breath.

“Thought you would never ask.”

To my surprise she kissed me on the temple, sweat and blood and all.

“My hero.”

She reached down to pat Zephyr, “Heroes.”

The blush must have shone through the sweat and blood on my brow.

“We better ride, “I gave her a hands up onto the back of Hades.

“I never realized that Hades was so huge!”

My backside settled into the saddle in front of her,” Takes a big horse for a mighty warrior, you know.”

That earned me a light cuff to the back of my head and a hug around the waist as we turned to plot our next course.

“Zephyr?”

The black fox attended me, “Will you lead the way? I trust you more than myself right now.”

I shall do my best Little Mistress.

My next message was silent.

“I love you, Zephyr; lead on.”

She only spared a quick glance before putting her instincts to work.

And I you, Little Mistress.

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

“Rach,” I spoke quietly as we cantered quietly at the back of the battle; Zephyr was selecting an extremely good path thus far, ” Are you good with bow and arrow?”

“Am I an Amazon?” She sounded offended.

“Sorry.”

“It’s ok, you’ve been busy.”

Hades galloped on and we listened to the sound of fire and battle.

“Birdie, do any of our parents know about this little escapade?”

“No, Rach.”

She sighed, “Well, you did save me from those Roman fellows, which is in your favor.”

“I told you I would come.”

“I knew that you would.”

I concentrated on watching my fox and guiding my horse’s head. There was a snicking sound and the hiss of an arrow released behind me.

“Problem?”

“Not any more.”

“Good. ” I was gathering my wits for the break from the forest and the dash we would have to make along the side of the valley. It would be tricky because our Amazons and our hairy friends would be driving the Romans into the valley. We would need to outrun the fastest centurions on horseback and they would come for us, especially if they recognized who we were.

A tingly feeling occurred at my left; I extended my hand and caught an arrow heading right for Rach.

“Birdie, how did you do that?” her voice sounded demanding, loud next to my ear.

“I have many skills.”

“Well I like that one.”

“Rach.”

“Yes.”

“Take a good hold now; this next part could become very very tricky.”

She scooted herself up behind me, putting belly to my back and her hands in my front pockets.

“How is that?”

“Distracting.”

She laughed, and so did I. Might have been an odd time for laughter, but we needed it. Zephyr gave us a disapproving look.

I smiled down at her,” Yes M’am, I will keep my mind in the game, sorry Zephyr.”

Humphf.

I kept Hades on the outside edge of the action as we approached the valley. We took out the stragglers as we came upon them; if Zephyr didn’t jump a fellow, I either ran him through with my sword, or if he was out of reach, Rach took him with an arrow. We were a good team. I halted right at the entrance to watch the action for a moment, and then kneed Hades to climb the first inclination of the west side of the valley. At the edge there were four Greek fire cannons in a line to herd any of the legions who tried to make a break for it. I could see on the east side, Chief Jom and his warriors were mounting their attack as well. It looked as if all was going fairly well.

So it was time for Hades, Zephyr, Rachelle and I to make our run. We cantered on to the side service road that ran right along the west edge of the valley. Most of the Romans were running through the center now, being chased by both Amazons and DOZ. We took the wagon path on the side nearest the slope and I let Hades find his footing and pace, and then I leaned down, “Ok, boy, it’s time to really show what you are made of…”

And my horse opened up like he was blessed by Hermes the Messenger himself. Hades was a beautiful, powerful horse, and he had never given anything less than all his mighty heart could give since the day we had rescued him from the cruel King Feisal. Today he was stretching his best to run even faster.

“Easy, boy.. Don’t break your heart now…” I whispered into his ear… “The gods couldn’t give me a finer horse, but I don’t want you to hurt yourself …”

We were moving so quickly there was little of the uneven gallop feeling to his gait, he was running as smoothly as a breeze. I was proud of him and kept a steady hand on his neck.

“Birdie..” Rach whispered tentatively, not wanting to spoil Hades’ effort. “Birdie.”

I turned an ear back and at the same time noticed that Zephyr was looking at me.

“Birdie, we have company.”

Minotaur shite. We’d been spotted.

I heard the cloppity cloppity of horses behind us.

“How many?”

“A dozen perhaps.” I heard the clank of the small hand shield I carried in the back of the saddle. Rach was using it to block arrows.

“They are unlikely to catch us; the problems are the arrows and the numbers. Some of those arrows will succeed by luck and mass.”

An arrow grazed my left knee then leaving just a burn; thanks to the leather pants.

Shite again. My new pants.

I heard two more clanks and more thundering of hooves. Hades had no more to give.

“Birdie.”

I closed my eyes and simply said, “If it pleases you, My Lady Artemis.. to help me…”

And Marcus was beside me riding easily on a monstrosity of a black horse with flashing stars for eyes. He lay sideways on the animal like we were on a picnic, and looked at me amused.

“Another fix, my beloved Bird friend?”

“Still another, Marcus, is this Bartholomew?”

“It is.”

“Birdie, they are coming closer. ”

Rach’s hands clutched me silently, worriedly.

“I think we’ll be ok, Rach. Just hang on.”

Stay cool.

“Marcus, are you here to help us?”

He put his other leg over Bartholomew’s back and rode very casually.

“Is it possible that someday, you could behave in a slightly less impulsive manner?”

“I could work on it Marcus.”

“BIRDIE.”

Rach was trying to remain calm. She knew nothing of my exchange with Marcus.

I could hear the Roman horses coming closer to us; I did not have to look back.

Marcus reached out and swept his hand through my hair.

“THIS time, little sister. Bartholomew, help your brother.”

Bartholomew moved his enormous head and touched Hades’ nose with his nose gently. Hades shook his head as if receiving instruction. Bartholomew took Hades’ reins in his mouth and Hades’ running strides began to match those of the cosmic steed. The strides became longer and more graceful, with quiet periods in between, almost as if he were and then he was … flying.

“Birdie, what is happening to Hades?” Rach leaned forward.

“Hades is working his magic,” I muttered, “Trust him.”

I spared a backward glance and the Romans were already seven horse lengths behind.

“GO HADES!” an excited shout came from Rachel, “YEEEEEEEHHHAAAAAA!!! Hades is the HORSE!!!””

Rach’s whooping and my subsequent laughter encouraged Hades to even greater speed. Marcus had stretched out so that he was prone against Bartholomew’s neck. When I chanced a backward look, the Romans had turned back, no longer willing to spare the men for chasing two silly kids. When I looked again for Marcus and Bartholomew, they were gone.

We slowed a moment for Hades to breathe. I patted him. “Good Boy!”

Zephyr was looking up at a small golden hawk circling overhead.

It was Icarus.

“Icarus!”

“Go to my mother and tell her I am coming!”

The hawk dipped her wings at me and flew away.

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And later landed in the midst of combat on the arm of the battling bard. Gabrielle as always fought back to back with The Conqueror in the midst of a circle of Romans who were making a final charge.

Bard and bird eyed one another steadily.

“Thank you, Icarus.” Gabrielle whispered, and the hawk rose above the clamor of humans vying for earthly things.

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We had arrived at the giant oak a league outside the main gates of Amphipolis.

I tumbled from the saddle and helped Rach down; we walked to the tree holding hands. She gave mine a squeeze, but she could tell that my mind was already drawn to the dust cloud far in the distance, where the final battle was beginning.

“Birdie, I don’t want to stay here, “the granite green eyes implored me.

I took her other hand in mine, “I know that you don’t but you must stay here. I am bound to go and guard my parents’ backs and you will be safe here. That has been the mission of all of this, Rach. That you are safe.”

“She will be safe my friend,” It was Arrot and Evaline jogging in from the far woods.

“Perfect timing,” I shook a hand loose to include them. “You will be safe here Rach. Or if the Romans break through somehow and show here, it won’t matter any more, will it?”

She bowed her head and acquiesced–unusual for her. I took her head in both of my hands and she did the same with mine. Our kiss was chaste, but it made my heart swell to double size.

“Come, Zephyr, Hades,” my voice was husky as I swung into the high saddle. Giving my friends a salute, we turned toward the battle and moved into high speed again.

I aimed Hades into the dead center of the fracas, paying little mind to anything or anyone who stood in my way. This was the final battle and Romans, Militia, Amazons, and DOZ were all functioning on heart alone. Hades made his way through the horror of filth people made when they killed each other face to face. It was not pretty and it smelled worse; when men and horses died, their bodies released horrible stuff and survivor slid around on it. A centurion came at me quickly; he might have had me if he hadn’t slid in entrails As it was, he took a slice in my right leg.

“Minotaur shite.”

I rarely said it aloud. Zephyr gave me a reproving look.

We might be at war, but that is no excuse..

“Sorry.”

It would have been worse but for my leather breeches. But they might not last the day.

“There, Zephyr.” My intrepid parents were fighting in the midst of the worst of the mess. Xena the Conqueror was quite covered in blood, but I would have wagered the greatest part was not her own. As I watched she ran quickly, took one step up Argo’s stirrup, the second from her saddle, and the third threw her body into a whirling dervish of blades that remove three mounted Roman’s heads at once. Baba Xe landed on her feet on the other side of the third headless horseman like a dancing panther. I don’t know how she worked out those moves, or if she truly did channel a part of the God of War at such times.

Mama G was fighting fiercely with kicks and slams, jamming throats, guts, and heads in every direction. She was an extraordinarily efficient fighter because of her smaller size; every single punch she threw counted. I could still see a shadow of regret cross her face when a blow was killing.

What she didn’t see in her frenzy was an enormous man approaching from her blind side, swinging a spiked mace. He was not dressed in Roman uniform; he must have been a hired mercenary of some race of giants.

Urging Hades in that direction I drew my sword and leaped upon him from the saddle. The crimson mist came over my vision mid air and I landed on him with a powerful hack to his shoulder. He roared and tried to swat me off by slinging the mace backward, but I dodged it finding a foot purchase in his weapons belt for my boot. I began to hack at his crusty neck, for my entire world had gone to colors of red and black. The next cycle of the mace caught me in the head with the chain and there was pain at my brow, but I grabbed his armor and clambered around to the front of him. The Baby Tide then went directly into the front of his throat. I could do nothing but stomp on his face. Then with all my darkness rising, I slashed at him endlessly with my sword. He spun roaring and I jabbed and hacked and finally rammed my blade into his neck producing a thick fountain dark red blood and he fell like a stone.

I stood exhausted watching my mother approach me, sadness in her eyes, then alarm; I whirled to plunge the Baby Tide into a man who must have been his brother. This fellow had a spiked club. Where had the Romans found these monsters? I retrieved my sword quickly by bracing my boot against him like I had seen Baba Xe do; it released with a sliggy gish sound, and then I jumped hard against his body and rode it crashing down with my sword going once, twice into his throat as well.

The crimson mist of my vision was almost blinding me now; I looked down at my once beautiful silver sword in my hand and saw only a spike of blackness and blood. My stomach lurched and though there was nothing in my stomach, my knees buckled and I retched over the body of man I had killed. Some dark power had me curled in its clutches beating my gut.

A clean breeze began to blow through my hair and a circle of cool comfort commenced at the small of my back. The other colors of the spectrum returned to my vision. Real consciousness returned to me while gazing into the monstrous countenance of my latest victim.

The center of relief at my back was my mother’s hand.

“Birdie,” she said, quietly. “Come away now; come with me.”

I stood weakly to take her outstretched hand. My Lady Mother’s hand was clean and it felt cool to mine which had been on fire throughout my encounters; the chill made its way up my arm into my mind. I shook my head once and normal vision returned. Hades and Zephyr waited looking at me.

Mama G regarded me, part Amazon Queen, part my mother, her emerald eyes quiet, “Thank you for arriving in time to save me, Little Bird…”

I nodded.

“You know that you are in trouble with me.” Her voice was steady, but her hand took a firmer grasp of mine.

I held on to her hand and dropped my head in an affirmative nod. From a raging killing machine to my mother’s child in one sentence. Baba Xe always did say she was the best cure for our darkness.

She led me through the piles of bodies to remain behind Baba Xe who stood tall, like she owned the sun, sword in hand, overlay flapping,. A small contingent of Romans approached carrying a white flag.


My pride, my fox, my horse
We took swift flight to find
My love, in time
To triumph over
Romans three
My friends alive
And then

Swift hooves, a flight, my horse
My fox, my love and Marcus
Blessed by our lady Artemis
With speed to safety

And then turn back
Into a darkness,
The darkest yet,
Into blood
The deepest ever,
Succumbing to rage
In order to kill
Losing all will.

Led from the abyss
By Gabrielle.
Her love, the Light
Which keeps
us sane,
To her I lied,
And feel such shame.

Part 4

I am Robin
Of the Warrior
And the Bard.

The Roman contingent consisted of four centurions and their general. Though the five of them were on horseback, and my Baba Xe was on foot, she took not one step back as they approached. Behind her stood first Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons and the Amazon Nation of the Forest, The Amphipolis Militia, and Chief Jom and the Decedents of Zon. And I stood there as well. Robin of the Warrior and Bard ; I had proved myself a warrior this day among other things. My mother kept hold of my hand; it was clear that I would not escape from her again.

The Roman Leader removed his helmet.

I caught my breath,” It’s Dax,” I whispered to my mother.

“The one who held you captive?”

“Yes M’am, but he was quite decent to us.”

“Yes,” Mama G thought back,” He was the one your Baba set free, wasn’t he?”

“Yes M’am. Even though Baba knew that he might return one day.” I sighed. ” And here he is.”

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“Dax. Or General Dax now, I see.” The Conqueror inclined her head forward.

“My Lady Conqueror,” The Roman gentleman dismounted and walked forward to his friend, his enemy.

“I am sorry we meet like this, though I knew that we would, Dax,” Xena extended her arm which Dax grasped tightly. “How are your sister and nephew?”

“They are well, Conqueror, worried about me and this assignment. With good reason , alas.” he chuckled mirthlessly. “How are Gabrielle and Birdie?”

“They are right behind me.”

He looked around her, “Ah, they are beautiful Xena.”

“Worth fighting for.”

“Family always is…” he voice dropped.

She tried to interfere again, “Dax, my offer stands. I could use a man like you.”

He smiled, “It would be my pleasure to serve with you, My Lady Conqueror.”

It faded, “However.”

Xena waited.

“My sister and nephew would forfeit their lives for my treason.”

The Conqueror spoke before he did, “So I must kill you to guarantee their good care and safety by the Empire.”

“Perceptive of you, Conqueror.”

“I have been at the game awhile, Dax.”

His head was bowed. “Yes, old friend… you must kill me.”

The Conqueror’s head joined his.

“I would very much regret to do that, Dax. You are the only decent Roman I have ever known.”

He met her eyes, ” I would be honored to die by your hand.”

The Conqueror turned, “Birdie!”

Her young daughter was by her side immediately.

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“Yes My Lady?”

Lord Dax bent down.

“Hello Birdie.”

I looked at Baba.

“It’s ok, Birdie.”

He held out his arms; the onlookers must have thought it odd, but I went to them. We had a bit of a hug and I kissed his rough cheek. He smelled like horses , sweat, and blood.

“Good to see you Lord Dax; sorry we beat your army.”

He laughed, “It’s all right, Birdie, it’s quite all right.”

Baba ruffled my hair, “Go back to your mother now.”

“Yes, My Lady, Good bye Lord Dax.”

“Thank you , Conqueror,” Dax said, “A taste of innocent love before dying.”

I head Baba Xe say, “I do not wish this, Dax.”

“Nor do I, old friend. But fate rolls our dice.”

I stopped to listen, but I did not turn to watch.

“Then I will make it quick and painless Lord Dax. First the pinch and then select pressure points, so you will have no pain, and then the heart for speed. It ‘s the best I can do.”

I heard his deep voice, “Very well, My Lady.”

Hers softly, “May the gods speed you to the Fields, my friend.”

I heard her fingers hit his neck and the choking sound a man makes. The Conqueror didn’t give her usual ultimatum that went with the pinch though. Her fingers made a few other tapping sounds.The next was the slick smooth sound of the Tide leaving its scabbard and the slisch –very unsmooth sound of it entering a body. Dax made no cry at all. When I turned back, Baba Xe had dropped to one knee cradling Dax in her arms like a brother as his life thinned into nothing. They must have shared words, because he smiled at her.

The Roman guard approached, retrieved their leader and tied him across his horse. Then they rode away.

Baba Xe cleaned the Tide in the grass, set the blade over her shoulder, and walked toward us. She looked, sad, tall, proud, tired, bloody, disheveled so many adjectives that do not mix together—she looked more like a woman defeated than victorious until she saw my mother. Their eyes met and my Baba Xe, the Conqueror began to glow somehow from within and the glow rebuilt her soul into a titanic goddess. I cannot not tell you how that happens, I only know that it never fails when she looks upon her Gabrielle.

Mama G took her hand as she arrived, and the three of us walked together toward her combined armies. At a central point, Baba walked into the back of a wagon to achieve a bit of elevation.

“Keep stacking the dead and burn them with the remaining Greek fire.” She ordered looking out at the masses, scruffy soldiers and bodies of men and horses. “We are victorious, but I do not wish our victory to be sullied by sickness. We will celebrate tomorrow my friends!”

She raised the Tide high, “Victory!”

Her voice echoed across the masses, carried by the wind.

And every soldier, Amazon and hairy fellow around raised his or her sword, staff, or fist, and roared back, “Victory!” and then, “XENA! XENA! XENA!” until the hills rang and echoed, “XENA!”

I thought my heart would explode from my chest; there were tears in my Mama G’s eyes, The Conqueror only smiled.

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Rach was no longer in the tree, but I didn’t think she would be. Instead, she was with Pony and Effie inside the gates.

When she saw me, Pony approached in quick and angry strides to grab my arm.

“You little Beast! Do you have any idea how worried I was about the two of you?”

“Pony…” my mother spoke softly.

“You think that you can ride into any situation…like Xena the Conqueror and…”

“Pony…”

Her grip on my arm was painful, but I stood with my head lowered. Zephyr had gone very still. I sent mental message of peace to my fox.

“If I have my way, you and Rachelle will not see each other for a MOON!”

Her voice lashed at me like a strap; I would have bruises on my arm.

“WEAPONS MASTER EPONIN!”

All was silent. The Amazon Queen had spoken.

“Ephiny, will you take Birdie? Pony, we need to talk.”

“Yes, My Queen.”

My aching arm was passed to my godmother who steered me back down the road to watch the smoke rising from the fires in the distance.

“Zephyr.”

The ebony ears turned.

“You can go to my room until I come. All is well for now. Take a nap.”

If you are certain, Little Mistress.

Sometimes Zephyr needed a break from my human complications. It was especially difficult for her when I was in trouble.

“I’ll be fine, dear fox. Please go and rest; you have earned it.”

She touched my hand briefly with her nose and she was gone.

In the distance we could see Baba riding slow rounds on Argo still chatting with the soldiers who were working clean up.

I waited for Effie to begin harsh words or a lecture for me, but she only gazed across the fields at the smoldering fires.

A ten count of silence was all I could bear.

“Effie,” I said tentatively.

“Yeah, kid.” Her dark eyes continued to survey the scene quietly.

“Are you mad at me too, Effie?”

The dark eyes met mine; there was a slight snap of anger there but laughter in them as well. I did love my godmother. Her hand, rough with years of work from arrow, bow, sword and staff came to rest on the back of my neck.

“You know, Birdie, you beat everything I ever saw, kid. You must have lied to your parents, to show up at the west attack, Right?”

I nodded head down.

“You kidnapped Rach, but she might have been hurt or killed if you hadn’t, I assume? ”

I nodded again.

“Sooo that one might break even, if you are lucky.” She was counting on fingers now.

Third finger.

” Then you out rode a patrol of Roman cavalry the full length of Wild Horse Valley with Rachelle hanging on to your tail, and you didn’t get killed.”

Fourth finger.

” And then you somehow returned time to take out not one, but two mercenary nasties at the final battle. I don’t know how you managed that. I saw those giants.”

She sighed and returned her gaze to the billowing oily smoke rising from several stacks now.

“Ashes to ashes…” she whispered to herself.

Her eyes cut towards me.

“Frankly I don’t have the energy to be mad at you or anyone else; I’m just very glad that we made it through this war, and that all of the people I love are still alive.”

She fell into silence.

Not knowing what else to do, I watched the smoke too.

After more meditation, she spoke to me.

” Give Pony time, Birdie. She’s new at being a parent. You scared her.”

“Tell her I’m sorry, Effie.”

“Oh I think the Queen will learn the straight story, Birdie. She will ask Rach, and Rach will tell her.”

I leaned my head against my godmother a moment; she gave me a little nudge which was an inquiry.

“The Queen is angry with me, Effie.”

The Amazon Regent’s dark eyes looked down at me.

“Is she now?”

“Very.”

“And does she have good reason to be?”

“Very good.”

A few tears gathered, but they didn’t fall. This was a warrior to warrior conversation.

The rich worn smell of leather and soft feathers brushed my neck as Effie pulled me close to her.

“Gabrielle will forgive you, Bird. You and Xena are her whole world.”

“I hope so, Effie; it makes me feel so horrible.”

“It should, kiddo,” Effie’s voice was very serious. “I would be worried about you if it didn’t.”

“Effie, do you think Pony meant it when she said Rach and I couldn’t see each other for an entire moon?”

“Well, I can help with that some.”

She gave me a slightly evil smile.

“You can?”

“I will tell her that we talked, and that you realized the error of your ways, and that I whipped your little butt.”

She was still smiling.

“Oh.”

There was a certain logic.

“Well?”

Sigh.

Well, I really wanted to see Rach.

“Ok.”

Bracing my self, eyes closed, I readied myself as Effie took my arm and turned me sideways to her position. I wasn’t afraid of Ephiny, but I did know from experience that my godmother had the hard hand of a warrior and could wallop a person almost as hard as Baba Xe.

But the two swats were barely at the level of Mama G’s smacks.

And then her arm was back around me and we were walking again back toward the village.

I was afraid to ask.

“That was it?”

“Yep. Hope you learned your lesson.”

A few tears appeared unbidden. Not warrior-like at all.

“Thanks, Eff.”

My emotions were shaky. So many experiences today.

My godmother continued studying the ground, “Like I said Birdie, I am happy that everyone I love is alive… That includes you. And you have some hard roads to ride yet this evening, don’t you?”

“Yes M’am.”

We were coming close to the gates.

On to the finish then.

” Effie?”

She had pulled me in close again, “Yeah, kid?”

“I care a lot for Rach, you know.”

“I know, kid.”

Her voice was very soft.

I put my arm around her waist and squeezed hard.

“Love you, Effie.”

Her hand came up into my hair and rubbed the back of my head gently.

“Love you, kid.”

.

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Everyone was making their ways home. We would feast tomorrow after a good night’s sleep. Ephiny released me to the safety of my mother’s hands and fortunately, Pony looked far less likely to beat me black and blue. Rachelle cast a glance at her guardian, and Pony released her hand.

“Birdie.”

My mother’s eyes gave me leave, and we walked to the oak for a private moment.

She took both of my hands in hers.

“Thanks for taking care of me today. You were wonderful.”

I didn’t know what to say and so remained silent. Her fingertips touched my chin lightly raising my gaze to hers.

“You are very quiet, Birdie.”

” I have to work through it all with my parents yet.”

“Tough?”

I looked at her.

“Yes, but worth it for you.”

“Really?”

“Absolutely. Worth much more. Worth…. Anything actually.”

She smiled.

“You’re romantic side is improving.”

Grinned at her.

“Aunty Pony will let me see you soon, don’t worry.”

“Well, I will probably be in trouble-grounded or pounded for a bit of time, so I’ll let you know.”

“Oh, right.”

I opened the leather pouch at my belt.

“Rach, I have two of these rings.”

I handed her the silver ring my Grandba had given to me recently.

She took it and turned it carefully in her hands.

“It’s beautiful, Birdie.”

“Will you wear it?”

She slid it onto her right ring finger. Perfect.

“I will, Birdie.”

“It doesn’t mean we are married or anything.”

She smacked my head gently and chuckled. Then she turned the ring on her finger contemplating.

“But Birdie, it means something.

“Yes ,Rach. It means something.”

She took my head in her two hands then, moved my hair, and kissed my forehead like a blessing. My courage was reinforced. We walked back to our parents.

“I’m ready Aunty Pony.”

Eponin gave her a look of adoration when Rach took her hand. Ephiny took the other, and the Amazons headed back to camp for the evening.

My own mother’s eyes regarded me coolly.

“Go clean up and let’s see what kind of stitches and bandages we need. Then we will attend to other concerns.”

My stomach dropped a little at the chill in her voice.

She walked away to meet Baba who was riding in from the fires.

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After washing up in the bowl in my room, I changed into my tunic and cotton pants leaving the laces undone in the one pant that took the sword slash. I hadn’t even thought about it for awhile, but it was rather nasty. The head wound was only a deep abrasion, but Mama would want to see it. I gave Zephyr a pat and told her to stay. I would be back later on after all my “discipline”. Her eyes gave me sad support. Zephyr hated it when I was punished, even when she knew I deserved it. She had hidden under the bed when she was a kit.

Down stairs in the kitchen, Mama cleaned my head.

“It doesn’t look as if this needs any stitches, Birdie,” she said, running gentle fingers over the scrape. “Show me the leg.”

I opened the pant leg and she drew breath through her teeth.

“That will need stitches; you know the drill, little girl.”

I crawled up on the table and she pulled a stool over and sat down and my leg’s height.

“Mama, are you injured?” I attempted.

“The answer to that would depend if one looks on outside of me or the inside,” she said stiffly. “Outside, I am fine. A little tired.”

Even though I had arrived in time to watch her back, it was evident that she was furious with me. The stitches went in without a word from either of us.

“All right, “she said taking my hand firmly, “We are both healthy enough. Come with me.”

Time to face the music of the bard. I followed her; we were walking the path to the armory. This gave me some pause; Baba Xe always punished me in the armory, and I had come to associate it with tougher discipline for larger offenses. My mother had never taken me there. Her disciplinary methods were no less effective for their gentleness, however.

I trailed behind obediently– as if obedience mattered now. She had never been so angry with me. We stopped at the birch tree and she meditated on it.

“Cut a switch for me, Birdie.” the cold command.

Cut a switch?

Minotaur shite.

This was unprecedented; I had never felt anything but firm and loving hands from both of my parents. They had always been sufficient. Certainly a line had been crossed if Mama thought the use of a switch was merited.

I bent, pulled my boot knife, and walked to the tree, studying the branches. The thought of it had brought tears to my eyes and I was damned if I knew why. It wasn’t fear of the switch. It was the advent of this reaction in her.

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Cyrene came to stand beside her daughter, who was watching the motions of her lover and child from the doorway of the inn.

“My Grandbirdie is in some trouble, is she?”

“I am afraid that she is, Mother,” the warrior chuckled slightly.

“Xena, you two have never taken a switch to Birdie?” Cyrene sounded alarmed.

The Conqueror cocked an eyebrow at her mother, “You used one on me often enough…”

“Ay I did,” the innkeeper put her hand on her daughter’s arm. “Too often, I expect.”

Xena shrugged, “I was a handful; you did what you had to do.”

“Still, this is my Grandbirdie, and that’s different story, you know.”

Another chuckle.

“Aren’t you worried about what is taking place out there, Xena?”

She received a second smile, “No Mother I am not worried, not even a little bit. Gabrielle will not use that switch on Birdie. She may want to, but she won’t. It’s not her way.”

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I selected a long slender branch that looked like it would sting good and sharp. Cutting it carefully I presented it to my mother and held my breath.

She took it, stripped it of its leaves, and then she again took my hand and led me to the doorway of the armory. My heart was pounding so loudly I was sure that she could hear it, but my courage came to me, and I resolved to take whatever she chose to do quietly.

At the door of the armory Mama regarded me for a long moment, shook her head, then she reached back and gave me a light tap on the butt with the switch. She broke it in two kicked it away and said softly, “Just leave me alone, Birdie.”

“Mama?” I was more confused than ever.

“BIRDIE– GO ON!!”

She sat down on the steps with her head in her hands.

I stood in front of her-bewildered– tear gates wide open now.

“Go.”

Her voice was dull.

I had broken my mother’s heart. There was no atonement for this sin. I turned and banished myself to the fertilizer.

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Silence. Inside the bard continued to rail at herself for answers, searching for a way to deal with her daughter. Birdie had looked her straight in the eye, and she had LIED. The audacity of it speared the mother in the soul; anything would have been easier to cope with than a direct lie. It was so unlike Birdie. Gabrielle put her face in her hands and rubbed it hard. A shaft of light gradually worked into her awareness.

“So are you here to offer the services of the flat of your blade, My Lady Artemis?” she muttered glumly. “It would appear that I have hit a sizable snag in the raising of the child you take an interest in. Perhaps you were right. Perhaps I have not been harsh enough with her.”

“You are disappointed.” The goddess spoke.

“Yes.” The bard admitted. “I am.”

Artemis smiled, “You expect I would have forgotten my lesson from you, dear Bard? Shall I be the teacher this time and pose questions to you?”

“You can question. I have no answers regarding Birdie right now.”

“Because Birdie has lied to you?”

No answer.

“Have you sought the reason for her lie?”

No answer but tears from the emerald eyes.

“Birdie lied because she loves, Gabrielle. She loves with the fervor that she has inherited from her mother. And now Birdie has exiled herself to the manure because she loathes herself for hurting you. A mother holds the soul of her child, Gabrielle. You hold the soul of the little warrior, just as you hold the soul of the Conqueror.”

The bard remained stubborn,” Then how could she lie to me?”

The goddess folded her arms. “Her choices were trouble for her either way. Do you remember when you told me that Birdie might equal you in height now, but that height does not bring age or wisdom, and that I should remember to consider her youth?”

A slight smile looking down.

“Yes I do, My Lady.”

“Then I ask you, my dear bard, and MY teacher. Which of you is the adult here, and which of you is the child?”

And the bard’s eyes lifted to look into the ageless amber wells of wisdom. She swallowed, considered, and spoke.

“Thank you, My Lady Artemis,” Gabrielle reached for the large mahogany hand and was brought to her feet, “I think I have some manure to work through with my child.”

The goddess returned the smile, “My pleasure.”

The shaft of light faded.

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Tug, shovel, tamp around a plant; tug, shovel, wipe the tears. As was her way, Zephyr had sensed my distress, and she came to family garden plot where I was spreading manure in the twilight. My faithful fox was so worried she couldn’t convey her thoughts but could only whimper and whine. My sorrow held me in the motion of tugging the manure wagon in the garden row, shoveling some out and tamping it about the plants, sniffing and wiping my tears away with my sleeve. It was almost too dark to see, but it didn’t matter. The motion was automatic. Zephyr’s whining only followed my actions as if she were imploring me to stop. But she whimpered to my silence.

There was a break in her protests and she made a sound that was comforted. I heard my mother’s quiet voice.

“Zephyr, I will take over now.” There was lantern light. “You go on to Birdie’s room. She and I will be along.”

Little Mistress, I do as your mother bids.

“That is fine, Zephyr.”

I returned to her and kept shoveling.

“Birdie.”

My mother’s voice was low, coaxing and quiet; a voice that carried me back to being a toddler. The voice trusted above all others. I stopped, but I could not look at her.

“Birdie, come here; that’s enough for now.” I obeyed taking the handle of the wagon to turn.

“Leave it.”

I dropped it in the row and stumbled from the garden out and under her guiding arm.

“Gods, you smell,” she chuckled lightly, but my laughter had gone to stone.

“How shall we remedy this, my girl? Shall it be a Mama G smacking?” she asked as she pulled me in. I felt so cold.

“No Mama,” I whispered. My mother employed her special method of discipline to release my tears, and I was far beyond that. She held me closely a moment, despite my rank odor, saying nothing until I relaxed a little.

“Come,” she commanded, “You need a bath, so let us begin with that.”

At our family spring, she undressed me as if I was a child again. She had brought the lantern and clean nightwear, and she helped me out of the dirty garden clothing. The warm spring water eased the tension gradually, and the tears recommenced, only more slowly. She washed me carefully, delicately even scrubbing my hair, letting the warmth and clean smelling soap, ease me. There were no words spoken; all was communicated with the tender ministrations of her hands. When I waded out she patted me dry, helped me into my nightshirt and sleeping pants, and she combed my hair.

When we arrived in my room, there was another lantern; Grandba had left chamomile tea with honey; my Grandba has amazing timing. We sat together on the bed and drank the good tea, and then we reclined; my mother taking my head to her breast.

I was a castaway washed upon the beach of her heart. But it was time for me to step up.

“Mama, why are you doing this?”

Her hands stopped momentarily and then continued their delicate motion through my hair. I listened to her heart- heard her take a breath.

“Because you are my little Bird and you need me; why would you ask me that question? You know that no matter what problems arise, or what mistakes are made, I will always love you.”

Could I ever run out of tears? The next pair rose silently and began their treks down my cheeks, and my voice trembled.

“Mama, I am so sorry; if you had used that switch, I wouldn’t have blamed you; it was what I deserved.”

She was quiet for some time then and then she spoke softly,

“Birdie, I have never and would never use a switch on you. I tried to convince myself and you, that such was the degree of my anger..”

She paused, putting her thoughts together, “But a switch would have served absolutely nothing– nothing at all.”

She ran her hand through my hair and I could hear her words begin in her heart.

“Honey, I cannot dismiss how frightened I was for you, or that you placed yourself in terrible danger; if anything had happened, I don’t know what wo…” her voice shook, and she stopped and swallowed deeply.

Her hand gripped my hair firmly and I was forced to look into the deep forest of her eyes which grew misty with her emotion.

“You are my child–a gift of love and– I —will–not-lose– you.”

I nodded my acceptance of that quiet reprimand and two more tears made new paths.

She withdrew a small hankie from her sleeve and patted against my cheeks and under my nose. I sighed against her and waited for her to continue.

“Birdie, we are going to move past all of this difficult time. Past all of the stresses and ravages of war, and work our way into forgiveness now.”

The tears kept rolling down my face.

“Mama, I still can’t explain why I was so driven to disobey you and go to the west battle,” my voice disappeared into my shame. “I desperately didn’t want to lie to you; I knew it would hurt you, but… ”

Her hand stayed quiet in my hair.

“Honey, I understand now why you felt that you had to go, and why you felt it so fiercely. I am sorry that I didn’t see it sooner. And yes, even though you weren’t truthful with me, I know that you had your reasons, even though I might not agree with them.”

I looked at her through bloodshot eyes. “You KNOW?”

It was an indescribable blessing to see her understanding smile, even a small one.

“You love Rachelle. You LOVE her. And I made you choose. . I didn’t know that I was putting you in such a bad place, and I am sorry for that my little Bird.”

Her voice was quiet, thoughtful.

“You are growing up, and I must allow you to. You have certain heroic abilities and the favor of one of our greatest immortals. That doesn’t mean that I am ready to set you totally free from my arms, Birdie. But it does mean I should respect your communications completely.”

She had put into words what I could not; calm began to settle about my heart.

My mind and thoughts were quiet on her chest; my arms wrapped around her; I was thinking.

“However..” Her voice moved about me as gently as her arms.

“It is a painful thing to realize, that someone that you love has lied to you.”

There was no way to spare me the lash of the truth.

I winced and hid my face. Tears began anew.

“Mama, I am so very sorry. Please believe me.”

She gathered me up.

“Shhh, honey… You are long forgiven… I am just not accustomed to it from you. You always tell me the truth.”

I leaned on her against her; she deserved my attempt to answer it on my own.

“Mama, I don’t love Rach any more than I love you.”

Could she help me to understand this?

She pulled me in closer.

“I know that Birdie.. It’s my job to know that. ”

“Well,” I sighed. “I wish I had told you. And I am still sorry about all of it. I don’t think Pony will ever let me see Rach again anyway…”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that happening, Birdie,” her fingers caressed my hair,” You DID save Rachelle after all; she told us the whole story, and Pony will come around to that. We adults aren’t completely impossible to reason with, you know.”

“Really?” I chuckled in a hiccup.

She laughed then and I wrapped myself around her almost fetal like, needing her comfort and safety. Someone many leagues removed from the warrior who had fought and killed several men only candle marks earlier.

I kept my head on her shoulder exhausted, “So you’re sure you don’t hate me, Mama? I feel like I’ve done a lot of bad things.”

Knew better; needed to hear it.

She pulled me to her closely, placed a couple of pats to my bottom side, and brought her hand up into my hair pulling it away from my forehead with gentle fierceness, forcing me to meet those emerald eyes.

“NEVER could I hate you… I told you that.”

Her whisper echoed throughout my soul and it believed. I couldn’t blend closely enough into her as the child in me found home again. She pushed away my hair to kiss my forehead reassembling me piece by piece. Her voice was quiet.

“I think that you and I need to spend a few days in this room doing some heart to heart work. We can talk, write, and uncomplicate life a bit. Do you ever feel as if life is complicated, Birdie?”

A little sigh, “Sometimes, Mama.”

“How so?”

“Well– now, I am a trained warrior, and I know how to kill. I can save other people’s lives– sometimes .”

I gave her a slightly guilty look, but she was listening, so I continued,

“Sometimes it’s necessary to kill, but it’s never good to lie. Not to you. Not to anyone. I don’t live with myself well at all.”

She smiled. “That is what I am talking about Little Bird; we need a few days’ heart to heart time. Everything has moved too fast lately; we should slow it down, sort it out. Just you and me, a few pots of tea, parchment, quills, some serious writing. It will help to keep things in perspective, help you see the bigger picture.”

Her calm voice eased my troubled heart finally; my self loathing and insecurity eased. I lay in her arms quietly.

“This is your nice way of grounding me, isn’t it, Mama?”

She moved a strand of hair over to the other side.

“UmmHumm… it is that my Little Bird…”

“Three days or so, Mama?”

How could my mother ground me and look at me with so much love?

“I believe three days will be enough, Little Bird.”

Well, that was easy to accept; it was a gentle hand in the punishment area, and it was golden in the “make Birdie better” field. She was very good at that.

A long sigh escaped me and the tension was too. I leaned my head against her shoulder spent, but calm.

“Can Zephyr stay with us?” My voice sounded very young, asking a child’s question.

Zephyr chose that moment to come from under the bed and put her nose on the edge flicking her eyes back and forth between us.

“Of course Zephyr can stay; I doubt that she would leave, don’t you?” Mama stroked her dark fur.

“Well, you know how Zephyr is.”

She scooted down against the pillow and readjusted me underneath her arm. “Now fly away to sleep, Little Bird.”

“What about you, Mama?”

“Don’t you worry about me; your Baba will come and fetch us later. For now; don’t worry about anything but a good deep safe sleep in my arms…”

“Mama?”

“Humm?”

“I love you Mama..”

“And I love you, Birdie.”

“Awfully much…” I snuggled down at last. The final bits of the tension running out..

“Yeah, awfully much…”

I slept as her kiss touched my hair.

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A candle mark passed and the Conqueror entered to gaze at her little family. Gabrielle felt her presence and stirred from a light doze.

The Conqueror sat gently on the bed, sliding an arm around her soul mate. “How are we?”

“Much better,” Gabrielle looked fondly at their daughter sleeping quietly in her arms with the streaks of tears showing on her face.

“Did you give her a Mama G smacking?”

“No,” The bard was pensive, “Birdie may have finally outgrown my little smackings; that’s why she had put herself in the fertilizer.”

” Hmmfp, I wouldn’t be too sure; she’ll certainly never be too big for me to smack.” The warrior’s voice was gruff, but the fingers moving through her child’s hair were tender.

Gabrielle put her hand on Xena’s arm, “I know dear, nobody is too big for you to smack; that’s why we call you “The Conqueror.”

She punctuated the tease with her most disarming twinkle of the jade. Xena the Conqueror chuckled; Gabrielle the Bard joined her.

They chuckled so much that the Conqueror was compelled to slide down on the floor with her head leaning against the bed. The trio sat quietly for a few moments. Xena leaned back allowed her hair to be caressed. Zephyr padded a few steps over and fearlessly laid her head in the Conqueror’s lap.

“You are a good friend, Zephyr; you take care of our girl,” were the quiet words Conqueror.

Her answer was a grave stare from the hazel eyes in the midnight fur.

Greece’s greatest warrior gave the animal several gentle strokes.

“Thank you.”

She took a breath and began to move; it was a mistake to sit and be still. Zephyr licked her hand; the Conqueror looked down and smiled as she clambered to her feet groaning with assorted aches and pains.

“Here.” Xena leaned over and scooped Birdie into her arms.

“She won’t out grow sleeping with us every now and again either.”

“No, I don’t believe that she will.” smiled the bard.

“Now, to bed with all of us. The Queen commands it.”

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Daylight peaked on my pillow; I awakened in my room; Baba must have returned me to my own bed this morning when they awakened and allowed me to sleep in. Well, it was nice. I stretched, and leaned down to pat Zephyr who had slept in as well.

“Get up you lazy fox.”

I beg your pardon?

I dressed and ate from the tray in my room; my grandba was spoiling me rotten, even I could tell her that now.

“These ‘Passage’ periods are a little rough, Zephyr,” I said as I fed her a bite of muffin.

Do you speak of the times you make strides towards adulthood?

“Yes.”

I agree, Little Mistress. Far easier to be a fox.

“Unless you belong to Robin of the Warrior and the Bard.”

She snorted.

Perhaps.

I glanced out of my window taking note of the sun and judged it to be not yet midday, when amid the normal daily drone of the outdoor din rose a terrible commotion.

It sounded like the crushing of a wagon, the screaming of a horse, and then shouts and orders given. Then chaos, and running within the fortress. My heartbeat stopped within my chest. I felt a panic to the core of my soul.

I stumbled from my room to witness Baba scrambling to the top of the stairs carefully cradling Mama in her arms. She kicked open the heavy door to their chambers but met my eyes with a haunted stare as she walked inside. She laid my mother on their bed as gently as if she were a newborn.

Mama’s face was untouched; she was unconscious. But her body was in tatters; blood covered her completely from the waist down. After recovering to a point that I would not faint, I walked in quietly to the bed where my Grandba grabbed me and held me to her side.

“It was one of the fire cannon wagons, Birdie,” she whispered. “They were taking it to storage; a crow spooked the great horse and he bolted. The smithy’s granddaughter, little Jory she’s only begun to walk, was right center in the road. Your mama, Gabrielle had no thought of herself of course.”

My grandba stopped a moment to gather herself and I gripped her hand. She took a breath.

“Gabrielle managed to toss Jory to a soldier. But your mama, Birdie. Too late for her. The entire contraption ran over her.”

She stifled a sob, “Her poor little body.”

My knees gave out. “NO.”

“Don’t Birdie, “she said, pulling me up.

“Stand up here.”

I tried; it was hard.

“No.”

Not my mother- who had just reconstructed my heart; who had just rewoven the tears in the fabric of my soul.

“No.”

Baba was kneeling by the bed her hands clutched in the bedclothes, her face in the covers trying to compose herself enough to even look at Mama.

“Birdie,” my grandba said,” You must go to your Baba.”

The fog thickened as I moved to the Conqueror.

“Baba.”

She lurched suddenly, wrapping her arms around my waist holding on to me-trembling. I was undone but embraced her, realizing that I must hold her steady.

“Birdie.” She whispered.

“Baba, she’s strong. She’s stronger than all of us. Baba, we have to believe.”

She sniffed, “You are right.” She pulled together, “Right.”

The healer had arrived.

“Beg your pardon, My Lady Conqueror; shall we examine the Queen together?”

The Conqueror was composed, “Yes. Clear the room except for family please.”

“Baba, I will return in a moment.”

I ran to my room and fell on my knees into the thick black fur which so often was my comfort and my strength.

“Zephyr.” She nosed the tears flooding my face.

Little Mistress. Your mother. I know.

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It was a candle mark before I returned. My grandba sat in the chair close to the fireplace staring into the flames. She looked up at me and smiled sadly, holding out her hand to me. At her side, she pulled me close.

“Go to your Baba dear,” she whispered. “She needs you Birdie.”

The words frightened me. How could the Conqueror, the greatest warrior in all of Greece, need me?

How could we have been victorious over Rome, our greatest enemy, and then have this happen? How could this happen to my mother, the best of all of us?

The master bed beckoned. I could see my mother’s pale hair against the pillow. From the distance, I could reckon only that the skin of her face was as pale as her hair– ashen. But she was sleeping peacefully enough. Perhaps that was Baba’s doing. My Baba Xe was a field healer of some experience and knew a great deal about relieving the pain of others. At the side of the bed sat Xena the Conqueror, staring at my mother in silence, as if she could by her own powerful will, heal her. Zephyr padded over behind us turned in a circle, and lay down quietly.

I placed my smaller hand over the battle scarred, deeply veined hand of my Baba Xe. In that hand I could feel all of the tension, all of the energy of my powerful parent.

“Baba, what did you and the healer discover?” my voice was just above a whisper.

The waterlogged cobalt eyes flicked toward me and the great hand squeezed.

“Not good, Birdie. Both legs are broken and her knees are crushed. Even if there weren’t so many serious internal injuries, I doubt that she could walk again.”

Tears rolled down silently from the famous icy eyes.

“I know that there is damage to her spine as well; there has to be.”

She stood restlessly near hysteria, and pulled back the coverlet, “But look here Birdie.”

From the shoulders upward, my mother’s body was pristine; the snowy white of one of her right shoulder darkened by the wing of the dragon tattoo which peeped over it.

Baba smiled at me “From her breasts up, she could be just taking a nap, couldn’t she? It’s funny, isn’t it?”

She squeezed my hand so hard it hurt, but I said nothing.

“By the gods, not a single casualty did we give to ROME, and now THIS? I cannot bear it. Birdie, I cannot bear it!” She clenched her fists and drove them at her own head.

My Baba Xe was not much herself.

She stood staring and worked her hands together pacing in a short path.

“I’ve put all of the pressure points I can on her to keep the pain away. We stitched all the cuts that were deep and she felt nothing. And we have siphoned herbs into her as well, so I know that she feels no pain.”

As her brief pacing came to me, I caught her hand.

“Baba, sit down.” I said it kindly, but it was a command.

She looked at me, almost in surprised. Then she sat, a surprise to me. I reached to touch my mother’s fingers and ran my hand gently up her arm and back to hold my Baba Xe’s hand.

Grandba came with tea.

“Baba, drink some,” I begged the haunted indigo hollows in the disheveled mane of hair. My conqueror parent had the haggard look of some exotic species of lion, starving, pacing a cage, mad with worry. The feeling of absolute helplessness was driving me to panic as well.

It was unfair; I had protected Rachelle; we won the war; but not for this. The gods were insane.

We must have sat a candle mark in silence. We needed change—talk– so I stood and brushed the dark shadow of the tattoo.

“Baba, will you tell me about the dragon? Mama never would—will– tell me.”

Shite. Almost used the wrong word. Baba Xe was walking a tightrope.

Strangely enough, she smiled. But it was a bitter smile.

“You should know now,” she said in a slightly sarcastic voice, “It is fitting.”

She leaned forward and put her chin on the bed, taking Mama’s hand, “A few seasons before you were born Birdie, I died.”

It hit me very hard, like a slap in the head.

“You died, Baba? All the way dead?”

Her hand came to mine.

“I did. In a far away land called Japa, I went mad on the journey of atonement for awhile and was stupid enough to take on a few thousand samurai soldiers by myself. The odds were not good. ”

“No Baba, not even for you.”

We shared a cynical snort.

“Well, they killed me,” she continued,” and in order for Gabrielle to bring me back, she had to carry my ashes, after she won my body in battle by the way, to Mt Fuji, to pour them into the Fountain of Life. It was a long journey. She was given the dragon tattoo by some spirits of Japa to protect her.”

“Did the dragon protect her?”

Baba Xe paused for a long while– thinking.

“It protected her against a great many dangers, but she could not bring me back to life at that time. It’s a long story Birdie; she should tell it to you. I cannot do it justice.”

Large tears were running down her beautiful face.

“I only now understand what she went through those six moons that she waited to bring me back from the spirit world. Only now do I know what I put her though.”

Her hand went back to my mother’s again.

“Gabrielle,” she whispered. “Please don’t leave me.”

The raven dark head lowered on top of their joined hands.

“Zephyr,” I said softly, “Stay with Baba Xe.”

I returned to my room.

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Respect was not new to me; prayer was.

“My Lady Artemis.”

No blinding flash, no thunderbolt, I blinked and she was there-ironwood skin, golden eyes, celestial armor.

“Robin of the Warrior and Bard.”

I was shaking; I did fear her. She placed her large heavy hand on my head.

“My little Robin. Be at peace with yourself. Please. There is enough strife.”

“I was afraid you might still be angry with me My Lady,” my voice was inaudible.

“No child, you are long forgiven that venture into hubris.” Her giant fingers caught the tears coursing down my cheeks and smoothed the hair from my forehead. It was the first time Artemis had been gentle with me.

“What is it, Birdie? I know what troubles your heart, but you must speak the words, little one.”

“My parents, My Lady. They are in crisis, and it is tearing my heart into shreds.” My eyes stayed lowered; neither my tears nor the tremor in my voice were contained to my liking.

She smiled, “And so you would enlist the help of your goddess.”

I looked at her for the first time, “If possible, My Lady.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“That you might heal my mother.”

“And if that isn’t possible?”

“That you take me instead.”

“And if that isn’t possible?”

She wasn’t making this easy.

I stood silent.

“There is something I would like for you to consider for me, Birdie.”

“Yes, My Lady.” I whispered.

“You are Robin of the Warrior and of the Bard; you would agree?

Why were we reviewing my pedigree at a time such as this?

“Yes, My Lady,” I repeated.

“It is easier for you to be ‘of the Warrior’ than ‘of the Bard’, is it not, Birdie?”

“There are different requirements, My Lady. One is more physical, and I suppose yes, it is somewhat easier in that regard.”

The resonating voice continued, “In other words it is easier to fight than to love.”

That was a thought. “Yes, My Lady, I suppose it is. One may actually train to fight.”

“I desire that you concentrate on your ‘of the bard’, Birdie.”

Were all of the immortals this cryptic?

“My Lady?”

“Your families, your fortress, your Conqueror, YOU all depend on Gabrielle to supply the love for your world. Yet you also Birdie, are ‘of the Bard’. You must step up and begin to support Gabrielle in that regard. It is not enough for you to match the fighting talents of your Baba Xe, nor is it enough to parallel the eloquence of your Mama G. You must work on the wisdom and leadership talents that you have inherited from your Baba Xe, and the spirit of unconditional love that you have inherited from your mother. Gabrielle has shouldered the burden of love for many seasons. You must begin to share the task.”

It was quite a revelation for me, and it took all of my strength to control the thunder in my heart and the well of my tears, when Artemis made me understand my Mama G was the pillar of love in the oftentimes dark architecture of our lives.

“I will do my best, My Lady…” it was difficult for me to whisper.

It was quiet in my room for a time; I made one last attempt, this time sinking to my knees.

“My Lady Artemis, Goddess of the Moon?”

The golden eyes watched me.

“I have one final request; will you please consider it before you deem it impossible?”

“Of course, child.”

” I would ask you please, My Lady, that if my mother must be taken, that my Baba Xe be taken as well, so that one isn’t left without the other.”

Her eyes looked deep inside me.

“And make you an orphan?”

I could not meet those eyes.

“Yes, My Lady.”

“You are still quite young to be alone, Robin of the Warrior and the Bard.”

“Better I be alone than the Warrior without the Bard or vice versa, My Lady. I will manage. I have my Grandba, my Godmother Ephiny, Pony, and I have Rachelle. And you would guide me as well, would you not, My Lady?”

Her large hand fell gently upon my head again. I still could not look at her; my mind was firm but my emotions were not.

“Are you certain of this, Birdie?”

“I am very certain, My Lady Artemis. I apologize for my emotional state.”

Sniffed and wiped my nose on my sleeve, smiled a little to myself as I thought of how regularly mother thumped my head for doing that very thing.

“But I will manage if I know that Xena and Gabrielle are together.”

The great hand was still on my head.

“Your unselfish courage pleases me, Little Bird. Rise.”

I came shakily to my feet.

The great hand moved to the back of my head and pulled it gently toward the goddess’ body. I resisted, but the pressure would not be denied. Finally I raised my eyes reluctantly to meet the golden ones looking down at me. The mahogany arm encircled my shoulders and pulled me closer. Though my head only came to her waist, I put my arms around her and leaned against her royal tunic allowing her to rub my back and hair gently. There was energy in her touch, feathery lightning streaking my hair. Her tunic was soft as one would imagine clouds might feel.

But the sister of Athena was not quite finished with me.

“Birdie,” she spoke as softly as my mother did when she desired my undivided attention. “Take note of this feeling of grief and worry that you are experiencing over the fate of your parents.”

She paused.

“Do you experience that pain fully?”

I nodded into her tunic.

“That emotional trauma is what your parents felt when they did not know your whereabouts during the height of the battle.”

My hands clutched the royal material as tears squeezed from my eyes again. Her quiet words stung like a lash. She felt the tension in my body and allowed it to remain for a moment. Then her hand was back in a motion of gentle comfort in my hair again. I looked up into the ageless eyes and she smiled at me.

“Come now,” she turned me out and we walked, “Let us pay a visit to your mother, Gabrielle the Bard. Perhaps, there is something I can do.”

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Cyrene came later to the Conqueror’s chambers with tea and muffins to bolster the troops at whatever was happening within. In the hallway off the chambers was tall woman in flowing robes who was observing the scene inside.

“May I be of service to you, M’Lady?”

Cyrene was polite though she couldn’t recall ever meeting this woman previously.

“You are the proprietor of the inn aren’t you? Mother of Xena the Conqueror. That would make you Cyrene of Amphipolis?”

The woman’s voice was melodic but strong to match her appearance, decided Cyrene. She was as tall as her own Xena, but with dark finished wood hued skin, black hair with silver streaks striking it with lightening, and golden eyes like those of a feline predator. Cyrene chose hospitality as the wisest tactic to use with this mysterious visitor.

“If you are knowing my little family in there, then may I offer you tea and muffins, stranger?” she said graciously to her guest.

“Why thank you very much,” the stranger took a mug and a small portion of muffin.

Cyrene set the tray on a small table outside the chambers and the two of them stood contentedly together for some moments while the stranger ate and drank.

“This is ambrosia, Cyrene; your reputation is well earned,” the dark woman’s smile shone brightly from her face.

“Might I ask how you know my family?” Cyrene inquired still staring into the bedroom.

“I met them while traveling many seasons ago; they gave shelter to a weary wanderer who was both tired and hungry. While I was in the area, I wanted to look in on them.”

“Well, they have only just returned from a long journey as you can see, good traveler.”

“They have indeed, and I can say the journey was successful.” the stranger reported calmly.

Cyrene wanted to ask many questions, but she was a wise woman who never questioned the ways of gods or miracles. She could see that the flush of Gabrielle’s face was normal again, and that the blood stained bedclothes were gone. As they looked on, the bard’s legs kicked slightly, as if she might be riding or running in a dream.

Under her right arm, dark head cradled on her bard’s shoulder, lay Xena the Conqueror sleeping peacefully as a child, her tall frame relaxed against the bard’s quiet repose. Robin of the Warrior and the Bard lay curled around the Bard’s left arm facing away from her mother’s body, but completely embraced in the gentle anchor. The youngster gripped the hand as if it were her life line. Zephyr dozed quietly at the foot of the bed her bushy tail wrapped neatly around her paws.

“Quite the portrait aren’t they, my family?” Cyrene whispered proudly.

“They didn’t have the little one when I first met Xena and Gabrielle. How old is she?”

“Birdie is in her thirteenth season, though at times she’s going on her twenty- fifth season, and other times acting like her fourth season.” Cyrene chuckled.

“Ah, I know the age well,” the stranger’s voice pitched low with amusement, “Keeps everyone busy, does she?”

“Every waking moment and some sleeping, My Lady,” Cyrene wondered why she found herself addressing the traveler as royalty, but it felt right.

“Birdie is a constant challenge, but she is also our joy, and one of the greatest gifts of our lives-my grandbirdie.” She finished.

“Well, it is said that often the greatest gift is returned to the giver.” The stranger said with a warm chuckle.

“I don’t quite understand what you mean, fair traveler,

said Cyrene looking back, “Would you care to ex…?”

But she spoke to empty space.

Cyrene only nodded to herself. “Ay, I thought as much…”

She cast a final loving look on her family and closed the door.

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

Mama continued to gain strength, and so did Baba. They never asked me how it all came about, and I never told them. We just accepted the miracle and remembered to say prayers of thanks to Artemis often.

Mama chased Baba and I out of the fortress the next evening to do sword drills so that she could soak in a hot bath for awhile. Baba said that was fine because she and I hadn’t really “talked” since the war. I knew that meant we would cover some old ground.

It was a beautiful evening-chilly and bright-my favorite kind of weather.

“I heard from Ephiny that you saved Rachelle during the Amazon fire attack, “she said seriously her hand resting lightly on the back of my neck. We were making our way out to the nearest drill field. We both carried our “Tides” just in our respective hands tonight; neither of us wanted to see battle gear for awhile.

“Ephiny also said that Pony lifted the ban as far as you and Rach ‘fraternizing’. ”

That was a relief; but as far as rescuing Rach, no hubris– not from this Bird.

“It kind of worked out right. You have trained me well, Baba. ”

She sighed and looked far away. “Let’s step inside here a moment.”

We entered the armory. Take a deep breath, Bird; you were warned. Now be prepared to surrender the hide.

Her actions were quick and sharply delivered but ceased far more quickly than I expected. Nevertheless, even a brief trip across my Baba Xe’s knee provides a significant wake up call.

My Conqueror parent set me down straight again and put her hands to either side of my head forcing my watery gaze to meet her own.

The Aegean orbs held an empathy and kindness that was surprising to me considering what had just transpired between us. Despite my own discomfort, I noticed the new lines of strain and exhaustion this entire cycle of the moon had drawn in her angular beauty. Some of those lines were my doing; I felt ashamed.

“Birdie,” she spoke softly, “I knew that you would go for Rachelle the moment I told you not to; I read in your eyes that you would disobey me.”

She shook her head and chuckled slightly running her hand through my hair to the back of my neck.

“Had I been your age, in your place, I would have done exactly the same thing that you did.”

The gaze narrowed to ice, and her fingers squeezed the back of my neck, “But understand me clearly Birdie; I will not again suffer lies or any kind of miscommunication between us. If you intend to go and rescue someone as opposed to an earlier discussion we may have had, YOU WILL come to me and TELL me, whether I may approve or not, do you understand? I very much dislike the way you handled this; you were EXTREMELY lucky.”

The tears were on my eyelashes; I couldn’t look at her but just sniffed. She checked her anger and drew my head back up to meet her eyes.

“Birdie, I know how you feel about Rachelle.”

She smiled and rubbed my head a little, but continued in a firm voice, “That is why I’m not tanning the hide right off your backside at present, and I really should do it anyway, shouldn’t I?”

I dropped my gaze again; there were lies and insubordination to answer for.

“Yes Baba, you should.”

My Amazon friends were insanely curious about what it must be like to be punished by Xena the Conqueror. I was quite unspoiled for an only child, and they thought surely she must have put me near death at least a few times… All I ever told them was that it was a private matter between the Conqueror and me.

The truth was My Baba Xe was a patient and loving parent, and she was never tougher on me than she needed to be. However, if she witnessed my adolescent attention wandering dangerously outside the boundaries that she and Mama G had set for me, she could administer an intense reminder which left me reluctant to sit for a half candle mark or so. Maturity had assisted me in becoming smarter at keeping track of those boundaries most of the time.

Except… She was letting me off easily for this offense, and I knew it. On the scale of Conqueror lickings, this most recent had been almost friendly.

She flicked my chin to force our twin gazes to meet again, “I was very caught up in the battle with Rome, and I didn’t take the time to confront you on the spot. It was negligent on my part, especially when I knew exactly what you would do.”

I remembered clearly how her eyes had burned into mine that day. Words escaped me, so I whispered, “Yes, My Lady.”

But then she went for my heart.

“What upset me most was how hurt your mother was.”

A shadow crossed her eyes, and she looked away.

“Little Bird, I have trained you; I have a fair notion of your battle skills, and still I worry about you. Your mother will NEVER believe that your battle skills are sufficient, even when you become as competent as I am. Can you understand that? ”

Tears escaped that I had held back earlier. My mother’s injury was still too close to both of us. I could take half dozen licks or more of Baba Xe’s battle-hardened hand without a whimper, but any consideration of my mother and her accident broke me down fast. It was difficult to control my voice, but I spoke,

“Baba, I misled you about my intentions on the day of the attack, but I outright lied to Mama… In my own eyes….”

My voice broke; there was no warrior left in me… but I forced onward,

“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done. She has forgiven me; I ask now for your forgiveness.”

She pulled me into her chest then, and I wrapped my arms around her waist.

After a moment her words were soft, “Birdie, I know that you did what you felt you had to do to watch over Rachelle. ”

No words of comfort; no sympathy, just acceptance. One warrior to another. But her strong arms sent their own message as I disappeared in their enveloping strength.

The Conqueror allowed me to hide against her body for a moment, her fingers ordering the messy locks of my hair. The steady beat of her heart soothed me. Then she pushed me back to meet her eyes again.

“And now, so have I. That little tanning was not a punishment, Birdie; it’s far too late for that. It was a reminder of who I am, and who you are to me. I want you to remember that when you make decisions.”

Now she shook tears from her eyes but they continued their lock on mine,

“You are made of heroic stuff, and you will want to follow your heart. But you are still our young Birdie, and when you lie to us for any reason, and put yourself in danger, you will answer to us. We love you and it’s our job to guide your decisions and to keep you as safe as possible,”

The Conqueror sighed and closed her eyes, her strong arms holding me tighter.

“In this very unsafe world.”

She rested her chin on top of my head and kept speaking, “So understand my little Bird that I must hold you accountable for following your heart into danger, even for the best of reasons; even if you are fortunate enough to succeed, and no matter how proud your mother and I are of your success. It is my duty as the Conqueror and even more so as your Baba Xe. Do you understand?”

Her voice had become near a whisper and it hissed it authority. She

pushed me back her firmly giving me a little shake by the shoulders..

I bowed my head submissively.. Accepting.

“Yes, My Lady.”

And I’m not finished, Birdie.”

I looked at her ready to face more responsibility if there was such, “Yes M’am, M’ Lady?”

“We are extremely proud of you, and we love you more than I can say.”

She smiled and opened her arms as I threw mine around her neck, and our embrace made us one person as she lifted me, moving in a slow circle for many breaths.

“I love you too, Baba; I love you so very much.” I whispered, allowing two tears to fall silently.

She set me down and knocked on my forehead gently with a knuckle, sky blue orbs twinkling now.

“Watch-your-self.”

“I promise, Baba.”

She looked at me and sighed as if a great weight was off. Then she swiped her hand through my hair smiling.

“Let’s go run those sword drills.”

Her arm went across my shoulders and we stepped out into the evening sun. It was a little odd, even though she had just delivered a message to me in a fashion that might have made me feel humiliated, I felt only love. Baba Xe’s long arm was warm and relaxed over my shoulders and it drew me closer into her body as she kissed the top of my head.

Apollo began his downward journey behind us and I noticed that while Baba’s shadow was taller than mine, our steps were in sync, and our forms were identical. The arm came up and the hand brushed through my hair.

“We better step it up, my Little Warrior Bird,” Baba’s voice was low and calm, and her eyes surveyed the amber fields.

“We don’t want to worry your mother.”

I smiled up at her standing straight, “No, My Lady, we mustn’t do that.”

Thus in perfect harmony, we jogged together into the golden peace of the coming evening…

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

From the time of simplifying with Gabrielle..

The first definition of darkness
Is the absence of light.
The first definition of light
Is that which enables vision.
If we fear what we cannot see
Then the universe should be
Indeed terrifying.
For we have ventured only to
Its microcosmic edge.
Beyond is vacuous ice.
A timeless abyss
In which we can
Only dare to leap
From star to star.
Our best hope is to kindle
Campfires and lanterns
To glow bravely against
The endless night.
We hold each other,
Provide our own warmth.
By love alone,
We shall become
Shooting stars
In the abyss.
Our joined hands
Never faltering,
Fighting
Fearlessly
Beside the warrior.
Our joined hearts,
Harkening
Always
To the song
Of the bard.

Robin of the Warrior and the Bard. 

The end

Continued in Talus

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