Birdie’s Song VIII – Talus by Onesockbard

Birdie’s Song VIII – Talus
by Onesockbard

I am Robin?

A cool breeze lifted the tassels at the bottoms of the heavy drapes drawn on the massive windows of the master chambers of the fortress. It was early afternoon of a slightly warmer day, a day perfect for laziness, a day without demands, a day to rest, a day to savor the afterglow.

The compact woman with the sun bright hair rolled easily atop the longer stronger warrior’s dark angles and muscular curves. Her patient hands scanned the magnificent body which the bard alone held ownership, tracing, taking account of the old scar at the left thigh; recently removed stitches under the ribs, numerous abrasions on the right arm. The taut skin fluttered at her touch like that of a skittish horse. Gabrielle smiled at the sensitivity which remained after so many years, as she lifted her own head and gently laid it between the warrior’s breasts. Xena’s strong hand rose immediately to hold the back of her bard’s head tenderly against her chest and closed her eyes, living in the quiet bliss of the moment.

“Xena,” it was a tone above a whisper.

“Hummmm.” Nearly asleep.

“Do you ever think about more children?”

“Nooooooooo, not really.”

“I don’t suppose I do either..”

“You just mentioned children.”

“Well, I know the one we have is a gift.”

The warrior shifted just barely.

“And every day of my life with you and with Birdie is a gift, Gabrielle.”

The bard raised her head and regarded her soul mate.

“You are right, Xena. We do have many gifts, and I am a happy bard.”

“I will make one prediction.”

Gabrielle placed her chin on her folded hands on the Conqueror’s chest and looked straight into her lover’s eyes.

“Pray tell me your prediction.”

“I believe that Birdie and Rachelle are forever.”

“Do you? They are so young, and really haven’t known each other that long, Xena. Do you really think so?”

“I do.”

“How do you know?”

“I can just tell; I know how Birdie feels anyway; her feelings are deep.”

“And is there more to this prediction?”

“Yes..”

“Well?”

“I would predict that one day we will have a little granddaughter who is

very much like Birdie.”

The bard’s eyes twinkled and laughter followed, “Oh that is rich, I can hardly WAIT!! We can spoil the little kid rotten while Birdie is going mad trying to keep her out of trouble!!”

The warrior smiled, “Revenge at last.”

Xena watched the bard’s eyes creating scenes in her own mind and smiling she reached to capture Gabrielle’s head gently in her hands.

“Come, my love. Will you reward me for such a delightful thought?”

Aqua green melted into aqua blue and exploring lips began a soft caresses.

“Your Queen will reward you well indeed, my love. From head to toe.”

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Awareness. Where am I? So quiet, peaceful. Silence. Water running. Pressure on my shoulder.

We were in a meadow near a trickling creek. Rach and I had enjoyed a picnic and afterwards had tumbled together upon the saddle blanket for rest and digestion. The pressure on my shoulder was her slumbering head. The softness at my thigh was Zephyr. Hades grazed nearby. I ran my fingers through Rach’s hair. It was as if golden light had been given a texture. Lengthy eyelashes trimmed the lids that covered her polished granite green eyes.

What a beautiful companion she was.

Zephyr approached and ran her nose up Rach’s bare foot-once, twice. The third time Rach shook her foot and sat up.

“I caught you, silly fox!” She ruffled Zephyr’s fur and my fox lay her head under Rach’s chin a moment. I thought it significant that Zephyr loved Rachelle; Rachelle couldn’t ‘hear’ Zephyr’s thoughts like I could, but it wouldn’t surprise me if one day she developed the ability. Something new about Rachelle showed itself nearly every time I was with her, but nothing surprised me.

Her attention returned to me, pushing down with a hand on my chest, while she hovered above. Her hair fell in sunlit waterfalls, framing her face.

“I’m happy that you are finally free from grounding,” she smiled. “Although it seems rather odd that you would be grounded for rescuing me from the Romans.”

“I wasn’t grounded for rescuing you, Rach, I was grounded for lying to my mother,” I fiddled with the strings that held her buckskin tunic closed, because I didn’t want eye contact. It was still a source of shame for me, and this was the first confession to Rachelle.

“Oh,” she sat back. “Birdie, how could you?”

“I did so to come and see about you, Rach, remember?”

“Yes, but lying to an Amazon Queen, especially if said queen is one’s mother, is not high on my list of approved activities.” Her voice was firm, soft and warm; her eyes looked right into the depth of me.

I avoided them, “It seemed necessary at the time; but it won’t happen again. The lie was more difficult to live with than the fighting and killing. Is that wrong?”

She slid down beside me outstretched and turned my head to face her with a firm hand,” Well, not wrong in so many words Birdie. Fighting a war is a ‘life and death’ issue. Lying to your mother is a matter of the soul, a matter of your origins, and how you want to keep those bedrock values and the people who instilled them in you safe and cherished. It is the source of who you are and what you stand for.”

She had voiced that perfectly; I walked my fingers up and down her arm and gripped her hand.

“Nicely said, Rach. I have been trying to work it out myself and come up empty time and time again.”

I scooted back and came to a seated position, as did she. We faced each other, our legs still entwined, and I cupped her face gently between my hands gazing into her amazingly clear, greenstone – colored eyes. Rach’s eyes seemed to hold wisdom far beyond her years.

“I think that I love you,” the words were out before my mind knew they were escaping from my mouth.

But she only smiled, “Really? My brave warrior faces the greatest danger of all? I cannot believe it.”

She rose and began gathering picnic utensils and tossing them into the bag. I watched her. There had been no reciprocation, and it bothered me. But it was better to let the words drift with the wind. I had learned that if my ego surfaced in these matters, it would only be smacked away gently. Rach told me what I needed to know, when she was ready, and not before.

So I continued packing the picnic into the saddle bags for our horses. Rachelle had gone to stroke the nose of her new horse, she called Lucy.

“How did you arrive at that choice of name for your horse, Rach?” I had to grin while helping her to tie on Lucy’s share of the load.

“It just came to me,” was the reply, ” Lucy is rather spirited, golden, like Argo, and I think if she were human, she would have a sense of humor. Can’t you see it?”

The horse turned to fix me with her large dark eyes, and there was a twinkle there. I patted her nose and she bumped her head under my chin almost as if she were tickling me. It was unusual for me to be around any kind of horse other than a warhorse. Mama G’s Wendy was gentle, but even she could be a proper warhorse if called upon to do the job. Lucy was almost a companion, and it was apparent that she and Rachelle had developed a fast bond. I felt happy for both of them

“Heyo! Birdie!”

I turned to see my best friend, Talus, riding through the meadow on Barney with his ever present shadow, Angie clasped to his waist behind.

“Talus!”

I stood to greet him; since the advent of Angie, I rarely saw Talus; but there were occupations in my life as well.

“What brings you two out and about?”

He pointed to the saddle baskets laden with different chunks of river drift wood.

“Collecting.”

Taking a look into the basket, I was fascinated and handled a few pieces. The water and sun had worked character into the wood.

“I can almost see the figure in these pieces, Tal. Good work.”

“Angie finds a great many of them,” Talus looked back at his shy girlfriend, “She really has an eye.”

“I should say so, Angie,” I picked up a slender piece of red cedar, “This one will be a fox, for instance.”

“Yes,” Angie’s voice was like breezy bells, and I saw Talus look to her at once, “You have a good imagination, My Lady Robin.”

“Annnn gie?” I drawled her name long and rolled my eyes..

“Please don’t ever call me that unless I am in trouble with you. It’s just ‘Birdie’ to my friends, ok?”

My pursed lips imitated a rather poor bird call, but it had the desired effect of making her smile. Good, perhaps we could be friends yet.

Rach convinced the couple to dismount and sit a short while before we all journeyed home. We had enough drinks and bread to share, and it was nice to lie around a while longer just chatting idly. We took every piece of wood out of the baskets and remarked as to the shape.

“What do you think, Talus?” I had selected a large piece and whittled a little on it with my dagger. It held some semblance to an equestrian head.

“Not bad, Birdie,” he grinned, “You never got over the Conqueror taking my first one did you?”

“No.”

One of Talus’s true masterpieces was displayed on Baba Xe’s desk.

“I’ll whittle ya a new one.”

“For Solstice?”

“Sure.”

“Suppose we should be heading back?”

Rachelle, the responsible one, mentioned.

I looked at the sun, “Suppose so, though there’s little danger out here.”

“It’s not about danger; it’s about punctuality,” my companion moved her fingers through my hair – rather patiently for her.

A sigh escaped me, which elicited an explanation from her.

“Punctuality encourages our elders to trust us and not worry about us when we are off alone like this.”

She ended the sentence with a rather sharp smack to my head.

“I can see there are changes to be made around here.” Another smack.

I rubbed my head gingerly,” Such as?”

She rolled her eyes at me,” Such as, Birdbrain, that we might try to cultivate the impression that you and I spending time together, is a good thing.. Such as, that you will always tell the truth, and that we will always be home in timely fashion. ”

“Oh.”

“You are bad to overlook those things, Birdie.”

“Not really, Rachelle; just wasn’t thinking about them at present.”

“And thus, we might be late, and you’d be composing an excuse.”

“Oh, again.”

She noticed my grin.

Rach shook her head, grabbed my head by the hair, and wrestled me gently to back to the ground. We looked into each other’s eyes.

I noticed Talus and Angie exchanging smiles.

“What?”

“You two?.” Angie’s voice was soft..

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The Conqueror stretched, arching her back in a long lean feline flex. Then she collapsed into the bedclothes again, a cumulative tiredness still hovering from the war with Rome.

“So where is the little bird today?”

“Off with her friends to picnic, to play in the woods and around the creek, enjoy the outdoors, and hopefully, to stay out of trouble,” the bard said with a smile.

“You know, some of the normal activities that kids engage in when there is no war.”

The warrior closed her eyes and sank further into the sheets.

“Shall we engage in more peace time activity as well?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

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“Finally!” I tugged at the last strap securing the picnic gear to Lucy. The horse turned her head and gave me a quiet look as if to say, “What is your problem?”

“What is your problem?” this from my girlfriend.

“Problem? No problem. Except that Angie and Talus are probably at the gates of Amphipolis by now and here we are, trying to make certain all is packed up to your specifications?”

“Do I detect an attitude from Princess Robin of Amphipolis?”

I buried my face in Hades’ saddle blanket. Minotaur shite, but this woman knew how to get to me. A cold nose on my hand.

Patience, little mistress.”

“Yes, well you have patience, Zephyr.” In a whisper only foxes could hear.

“I do. “

Had to smile at that.

“I know, Zephyr, I know.”

I sighed, looked at the sky, and counted to fifteen.

“No, My Lady Rachelle, You do not detect an attitude.”

She swung up into Lucy’s saddle at last.

“Good.” She smiled.

There was silent rejoicing in my head as I leapt onto Hades’ back and reined his head around.

“Good then , I’ll race you, Rach.”

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Now it was the bard who stretched like a lion cub she viewed her warrior’s perfect physique from their bed. This past moon had seen the addition of a large tub near the fireplace in the masters chambers.

It was easy enough to heat water for it; Xena had worked out a way to pipe water up from the kitchen into a large pot over the fire. The water then flowed into the tub from a valve that operated a little door, she could open and shut. They regulated the temperature with handfuls of clean snow from the roof. Gabrielle really enjoyed an occasional soak-a residual therapy from her cannon cart injury, and it also made a good excuse for a little luxury. The tub was large enough for two, and the bard had coaxed the warrior into sharing it with her today. The bard’s emerald eyes sparkled as they studied every perfect muscle in her warrior’s lean Olympian body.

Gabrielle closed her eyes and shook her head to herself. They had made love all afternoon and yet, just watching Xena right now stirred fire in her belly. Silly, hopeless, love struck girl. Well, why the Hades not. How often did they have the leisure?

Xena turned back as if she read her thoughts, “What?” with that crooked smile that made the gods stop and take notice.

The Bard of Potidaea covered a silly grin, “Nothing. Is that bath ready?”

“Almost.”

The jade eyes followed the movements of her lover as she strode across the bedroom.

Gabrielle lay back in the sheets.

” Warrior.”

“What?”

“Come hither.”

The warrior approached and stood by the bed looking down at her fair haired lover. The cobalt orbs didn’t take long to read what was going on in the dancing jade and she responded in turn, scooping up an armful of bard.

“XENA!! HEY!!”

The little blond found herself toted across the bedroom and gently deposited into the warm bathwater.

“Gabrielle, I have worked for half a candle mark to get this bathwater just right and we will not waste it.” “Xeeeeennnaaa?.”

“No whining?.” The tone took the Conqueror’s edge, and the bright head bowed a little.

Then the Conqueror’s angular body joined her bard in the tub.

“No whining, just kissing?”

And steam.

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” Do you see Angie and Talus yet?” I called to Rach as we drew the horses to a walk.

“No, I suppose they’ve long left us behind; which rather defeats the purpose of a couples outing though,” Rach looked annoyed.

“They mean no harm, Rach? they have their own world and they get caught up in it, that’s all.”

“Yes, but sometimes we have to associate with others?.”

I sighed. My companion could be very strict sometimes, but still I loved her.

And then a different stir in the wind.

“Rach.” I put my hand out sideways slowing her.

She spiraled to silence. Lucy responded well to her rider’s mood.

“Do you feel it?”

“Yes, something is wrong. What shall we do?”

“Let’s wait a moment.”

We stopped the horses like statues listening. From the horizon, a speck approached, just barely discernable. Zephyr gave me a look of great alarm and then set off to meet the figure at full speed; I urged Hades to follow and could hear Rach do the same with Lucy. As Hades found his quick gallop, the wind brought a sinking feeling to my gut that nothing could be fast enough.

As the figure drew closer I could see that it was Angie astride Barney alone, and a flutter of panic squeezed my heart. But I swallowed it .

Her thin straw hair was blown over her face which was bright red from fear and exertion. I took her hand, and said nothing but passed her the water skin. Rach arrived and we converged, our horses dancing in circles.

Angie took another drink, inhaled deeply and locked her gaze on me, struggling to speak.

“Take it easy, Angie,” I reached for her hand and she squeezed it, swallowing. “Tell us slowly.”

“It was raiders I think, Birdie,” her voice trembled and huge tears began to fall rapidly from her blue eyes. I felt her hand shaking. “There was so many of them, a large band of raiders.”

“How many; can you reckon a number?” I asked. Rach had ridden to the other side of her and leaned over to put a comforting hand on Angie’s shoulder.

“Couldn’t say Birdie, but it seemed like a hundred, all great and dark, with swords, maces, and staves,” her voice faltered again, “Talus tried to protect me; he put himself in their way and sent me running.” She bowed her head in broken weeping, “They took, ‘im Birdie. One great horrible fellow took Tal across ‘is saddle and they ran.”

My mind was perfectly calm as I looked across at Rachelle.

“Angie, I want you to go with Rach back to Amphipolis. Baba Xe and Mama G were spending the day at the fortress and will be available. I am going to try to overtake this band of brigands.”

“Birdie?” she did not approve.

“Only to follow, not to confront, I promise.” My eyes locked with hers; it would take insisting, “Rach, it’s the only way. Look for Icarus. If I call her, she will come to me and then I will send her back to lead the rescue party; I promise to do nothing rash.”

Rachelle turned Lucy with a firmness that communicated her displeasure with me.

“Please, Rach.”

No answer from my girl.

Zephyr had run a little ahead and looked back at me with a short woof.

“Little Mistress, We lose time.”

I kissed Angie’s hand for a long moment.

“Angie, I will find Talus. You go for help. All will be well.”

Angie’s glacial blue eyes blinked two more tears at me, and then she turned big Barney to follow Rach and Lucy toward Amphipolis.

I turned Hades in the opposite direction, toward the final streaks of Apollo’s light.

“Zephyr, do you know the way?” I sent the message soundlessly.

Only a weak scent of dirty men that I will follow.”

“It must be the raiders who have taken Talus then.” My thoughts returned to her.

“Perhaps.”

“Lead me, little fox.”

We rode into the darkening sky.

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Gabrielle raised her head from the warrior’s chest flinging droplets of water. They had drowsed soaking in womb-like warmth and the firelight’s flicker.

“Xena.”

The Conqueror didn’t start, but she became quietly alert.

“What is it, Gab?”

“Something’s wrong.”

“Birdie?”

The warrior began exiting the tub.

“Birdie isn’t hurt, but somebody is. Birdie is involved.” She caught the length of cloth the warrior tossed her way and began drying herself. The warrior had already donned her leather pants and was slipping a warm tunic over her head.

“What do you feel, Gabrielle?”

“Very uneasy.”

Cobalt eyes shot exasperation at her.

“Hey, you know how this works.” Emerald eyes fired back.

The Conqueror sat down to buckle her boots.

“There is little to do then, but go outside and wait for word to arrive, right?”

The bard was shrugging into her heavy sea foam tunic now.

“Right.”

There was a warm rush of airflow to Gabrielle’s face and a brush of lips to her own.

“I am going on to the stables to get the horses ready then.”

“All right.”

The bright hair lowered.

“Hey.”

Wild dark hair peered back from the doorway.

“We’ll be fine. Birdie is fine.”

The smile was returned.

“I know.”

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With the departure of Apollo, the ride became chilly. Hoping it was more than wishful thinking, I reached back into Hades’ saddle bag and experienced a stroke of luck, my winter riding cloak was stuffed inside.

“Hooray,” I said softly.

Little Mistress?

“Only a small favor; I won’t freeze on this adventure.” Wrapping the reins around the saddle pommel, I allowed the cloak to snap open behind me, and then flung it about myself both ways like warm woolen wings. Much better.

“Hades,” I leaned down next to his ear and patted his neck; “Here we go again.”

He never missed a beat. My faithful dark fellow.

Little Mistress, we must hurry.”

“Hades.” I wondered if my horse too, had a connection with Artemis. The way he increased his speed seemingly without effort answered my question. If he was not a god-horse, he had god-horse blood. Perhaps he had received an infusion from his recent connection with Bartholomew. I would have to ask Marcus.

“Why are we always about this business, Zephyr?” I sent this question to my fox running ahead of us.

“Ah, Little Mistress, it seems to be your destiny,” were the returning thoughts, “I fear that you may find yourself in trouble with the Queen and the Conqueror.”

“Always, “my mind chuckled at her. “But do not worry, dear fox, I have neither lied nor deceived anyone. My conscience is clear on this. ”

“Mistress Rachelle was not happy.”

“That may become a regular occurrence as well, Zephyr.” “Her disapproval is painful…” “Yes, it is quite; but we do what we must, Zephyr.”

Very true, Little Mistress.”

And then I spared the breath and thought of my animals so that they might find speed in the night. My mind wondered what in the name of Artemis we rode towards. But it didn’t matter, someone had Talus; Talus was my friend.

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Gabrielle descended the stairs quickly and strode through the kitchen purposefully; she was gently clothes lined by the short arm of her mother in law.

“Xena won’t tell me a thing, so you better give it up little lass.” The older woman’s raven hair might be liberally sprinkled with silver, but the azure eyes held much of the same directness.

“Ahhhh?. Got a feeling about Birdie, Mama Cyrene.” The bard knew better than to hedge with the formidable mother of Xena the Conqueror.

“What?” the voice was gentle, but small strong hands clutched Gabrielle’s shoulders.

“Going just by my instinct (which is very good) Birdie is fine, but she is involved in something. That is all I know to say. Truly.”

The small foot tapped on the floor impatiently.

“Well, I might as well prepare trail food and hot drinks, shall I?”

Gabrielle threw her arms around the woman. “It could only help.”

“Minotaur poop,” the woman grumbled back to the great fireplace, “Tis always somethin’, always somethin’!! Never a moment, never one solitary peaceful quiet moment. Never, never, never?”

Large hands, veined and lined like clay maps, encircled the older woman’s sturdy waist and pulled her against a sturdy tree stump body. He smelled of sweet pipe smoke and leather, and the low growl of his voice in her ear, calmed her,

“What is it, love? What’s gotcha fussin’ like a bitty henny?”

She turned into the arms of her Scrubbers, a man who followed Xena the Conqueror/ Warlord in the old days.

Scrubbers had lived in Athens after the dispersal of the Warlord’s army. But when he heard that Xena the Conqueror had set up housekeeping in Amphipolis, he was the first to come offer allegiance. What he hadn’t expected was to find love with Cyrene, Innkeeper extraordinaire. Sometimes the gods were good to a man.

“Ah, Scrubby, they are off to see what our Birdie is into again. They don’t know the specifics. Gabrielle has a feelin’. She says Birdie is alright though, just involved.”

He held her closely, “Cyrene, the lass has a head on her shoulders that’s becomin’ more level every day. We’ll get word, and it will be ok.”

“I can’t help worryin’ about the child, Scrub. It was such a short time ago, she would sit on the cabinet in here and watch me cook. If I wasn’t havin’ to keep her outa the fire, I’d have to keep her from eatin’ every last muffin in the place.”

Cyrene sighed and laid her head back on Scrubby’s leather jerkin.

“She’s a smart girl; I know that she’s alright. Xena and Gabrielle are makin’ ready to act when they get the signal. Birdie will send word somehow. She will. It’s just?..”

“It’s just you can’t keep from worryin’ about the girl,” he said, releasing his own sigh, “I know dearie, I know.”

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Xena had both horses saddled and fully equipped when Gabrielle arrived at the barn.

Their eyes met and then their hands, palm to palm.

“Mama Cyrene’s fixing trail food,” Gabrielle spoke quietly.

” Good.” The Conqueror stood ready beside Argo, quietly alert and waiting for the signal. Somehow she knew it would not be very long in coming.

They had only to wait.

It was so very hard to wait.

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“What do you sense Zephyr?” my thoughts went forward to my friend.

“We come closer to the scent, Little Mistress, but there is distance yet.”

As Apollo’s final rays left us, I heard the cry. My eyes searched the sky.

“Icarus!”

I lifted my arm, and the little golden hawk landed on my cloaked encased arm with perfect balance

“I am glad to see you, girl. ”

Icarus cocked her head a little but seemed focused on what I had to tell her.

I considered for a moment.

“Icarus, can you go to Amphipolis and guide my parents to me, wherever that may be?”

She didn’t move a feather.

“I know it is a difficult request.”

She pecked at my arm.

“Yeee-ow.!!”

Must persevere…

“Icarus, I will find you special tidbits and feed you especially from my window later on. I promise!” The hawk cast a final glare at me and lifted, her wing span carried her backwards from me very quickly.

“Be well, Icarus!” I called back.

It was now completely dark, as we had ridden perhaps two candle marks into the night. It was dangerous to travel at this pace in utter blackness.

“Zephyr, can you see?”

“Well enough little Mistress and Hades follows me.”

Still.

I closed my eyes a moment, bowing my head, rocking my body along easily to Hade’s rhythmic gait.

I allowed my spirit to bind itself with the rhythm of my horse, my heartbeat’s sounding in time with his hoof poundings.

Dare I ask?

Goddess of the Moon?

My spirit was still and quiet, with nature, with my animals.

A very slight shift in breeze.

The great orange sphere rose from the horizon full and fiery, directly ahead.

My heart was filled with overwhelming gratitude, as I smiled at the light.

Thank you, My Lady.

Thank you.
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The chill of night air
Surrounds me
I know not
What or where
We are called.
And yet
My friend is there;
He needs me.
So fox and
And faithful
Horse, fly
In the night,
We pray for light,
And so are blessed.
by the goddess
Of the moon.


Part 2

A candle mark later, the palms of the warrior and the bard had joined in a simple clasp.  Xena released a heavy sigh.

“Well,” she said disgustedly, “perhaps it was a false alarm?”

“No, Xena, it wasn’t.” Gabrielle spoke with a trace of bite in her voice.

The space between them was charged with discomfort. 

In her gentle and fearless way, the bard extended her hand to trace the stiffness of the Conqueror’s cheek.

“You are angry; shall we talk about it?”

The blue eyes would not rise to meet hers, so the bright haired poet slipped her fingers under the angular chin as she would a child’s. The jaw worked back and forth, but the eyes lowered as the hardened face turned towards the warmth.  Who would ever believe Xena the Conqueror would stand for such handling?

“Xena.” The bard waited.

“Gabrielle, Birdie and I had just such a long good talk about this sort of impulsive behavior, and I thought she understood.   Now at the first chance she goes charging off into the wild blue again.”

 The battle-scarred hands lifted and fell to the warrior’s sides .

“It’s disappointing.”

Gabrielle’s gaze fell and she captured a discouraged hand.

“Perhaps she has good reason, Xena.  She does not disappoint you lightly, you know that.”

The bard traced fingers over the lines in the larger hand.

 “You are her hero, and she wants your approval, not your condemnation.   It must be important; try to believe the best of Birdie, not the worst.”

The famous azure eyes blinked back any moisture then and followed a sound the keen ears heard before the bard did.

“There.”

The stable doors opened so emphatically, they slammed the barn walls backwards and the horses started.  It was Atticus followed by Rosie and Angie.

The burly red-headed man’s eyes drilled into his commander’s face, “My Lady, they have my boy.”

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It was cold.   Clouds steamed from Hades’ nostrils and Zephyr’s muzzle as we galloped through the icy columns of moonbeams, shadow by shadow.

“Zephyr, do we gain any ground at all?”

The tall ears of my ebony beauty laid back and her senses focused keenly without breaking her stride.

“There is a faint scent of cedar mingled with the odor of filthy men.  That tells me Talus is ahead.”

“So this is good news.”

I hope so, Little Mistress.”

“And it’s time I thought of a plan.”

It is time.”

“You are cool under fire, Zephyr.”

Agreed, Little Mistress.”

I lay my head closer to Hades’ neck to feel the warmth.

“Lead on then.”

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Gabrielle watched the glittering jewels in her lover’s face grow colder as Angie tearfully recounted the tale.   The Conqueror strode across the barn to fetch the extra boot daggers.

Then the slender girl bravely addressed the glowering Conqueror directly, “If it please Your Majesty Conqueror, I’d like to add that Lady Robin didn’ ride off in any huff.”

There was no answer from the first direction, so she shifted towards Gabrielle.

“Tal is always sayin’ Birdie gets in a bad way with you folks for being too impulsive n’ such, but she was very calm ‘bout this.    She tol’ me to come for you; that you’d be ‘er and to follow her hawk; Icarus would show the way…”

There was a second disturbance at the stable door.

“I agree,” a young but outspoken voice joined the throng, “Birdie will do nothing foolish, because she knows that I will drum knots on her hard head if she does.”

Princess Rachelle of the Amazons by the Sea had spoken these words.  A grinning Eponin and Ephiny dressed in full weaponry flanked her.

Outside the barn there was a rumbling and the wagon holding Scrubby and Cyrene arrived.   Rosie, beloved of Atticus, mother of Talus, sat behind them.  It had become their habit to keep the wagon rigged for food and first aide.

Xena the Conqueror slowly grinned, lowered her head and shook it, “Well the gang’s all here…” she growled.

“This kind of talent simply must be used on an adventure,” sparkling emerald eyes caught hers across the horses’ backs; “We cannot waste it.”

 “All right then, everybody outside,” the Conqueror command was given, “watch for the hawk!”

A quarter candle mark later the little gathering rallied outside the stable, just as it had done only a moon previously when preparing for war.   This was a more peaceful circle, but tension remained.

“Shall I pass the hot cider yet, Xena?” Cyrene’s voice crossed the darkness.

“Give it another moment, Mother, thanks.”  Cyrene felt her daughter’s smile, “If possible, it would be better to conserve it, since I have no idea what we are into.”

A piercing cry cut the cold darkness.  Gabrielle’s practiced eyes searched the moonlight for the flash of gold, “There!   We see you Icarus!  Fly on!”

The little hawk banked right in a perfect reverse and didn’t miss a wing beat.

  Gabrielle nudged Wendy, who felt her rider’s concern and stepped up hastily towards the road headed north.  Atticus followed on Barney, and Angie rode on Barney’s son, Billy.

Xena circled back around on Argo.

“Look, Pony, Eph, you don’t have to come with us, there’s no need; we aren’t sure how serious…..”  The Conqueror’s words were cut off by the dust of Lucy’s hooves blowing past; Rach’s hair was glowing in the moonlight.   Pony followed more slowly, but not without turning back to Ephiny.

“What?” she said with a nod toward Xena, “she’ been livin’ under a rock or somethin’?”

Pony flicked her bridle straps loudly, encouraging the sturdy Amazon mount to catch her beloved niece.

Ephiny chuckled.

“What?” was the warrior’s flat warning tone, “Don’t you start.”

“Oh, no,” said the Regent Amazon galloping ahead into the caravan, “Not starting… never starting… not me…”

Xena was left with no choice but to follow the lot of them.

“This had better not get back to the militia.”

 Argo snorted.

“Especially not from you, Missy Horsy, “she grumbled at her ride, but as the palomino’s canter gained speed, so did the warrior’s smile.

@@@@@@@@@

We arrived in a quiet mossy glen with a cold stream; Zephyr slowed to a halt.  I led Hades to the water.

“Easy, good fellow,” I patted him as he drank thirstily, “not too much now.”

Cupping my hands together made a fine bowl to carry the icy creek for my own thirst; it was delicious, and I refilled it three more times.   Zephyr too, was lapping eagerly.  Thirst before thought.

“Now.  The plan.”  I whispered.

“Little Mistress, shouldn’t you assess the situation?”

“Well yes Zephyr, I suppose that I should, thank you.”

“You will find a view ahead.”

“Really?”

“Yes, at the edge ahead.  Come.”

I dislike heights, particularly at night.  Depth perception is so easily skewed.

“OK.”  I sucked in a breath, dropped to my belly and commenced swimming through the rocks and grass..

Zephyr was superior in this kind of skulking and was right near by.  Bits of laughter and rough talk rose on the tendrils of smoke.   I wormed as close to the edge as I dared to hear what I could.  Zephyr crept closer to me; I put my arm around her, soaking in her warmth.

“Doubt the lit’l mite can do the deed,” a deep voice stated.  “’E’s too young, e’ is, and too innocent, but Savagemon’s bound tha’ e’ s female wee’s should be womanized dis instunt, and by a v’rgen lad.   An’ When th’ chief gets it in his head, it’s in his head.  The lad was the only youngin’ wid’ in the fast ride.  Ya know how Savagemon is!”

Another voice joined the first, “Ay, wid’ ya on dat, Fanker.  The’ littl’ lad was wid ‘is gurl, and a sweetie she was..  E’s not at da point o’ cosumatin’ nutin’, e’vn by force.”

The first voice spoke again, “We’ll ketch it fur lettin’ the gurlie go, Tram.   But I wazn’t gonna ‘av the damagn’ o’ dat many chilren’ on my ‘ead.  What‘s bein’ dun‘s enuf.  I’s skar’d o’ da Master, I is.  But I don’ like dis. Not a’ all!”

There was a summoning shout then, and a rumpus and rumble of boots walking.  I ventured closer to place my eyes over the cliff.   I did not like what I was hearing and was certain that I would hate what I would witness..

There was a fire circle just beyond the men’s conversation, and a ring of men formed around it.   Two of the chunky men were dragging Talus to the inner circle where another three men were holding down a young girl who was weeping wildly.   A large man in buckskin with long hair laughed heartily and constantly.  He must be Savagemon.

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

The rescue party ran silently in bright moonlight.    The little hawk flew above and beyond just within their sight. She showed no sign of stopping.  

“Hey,” Argo caught up with Wendy, and the two horses cantered side by side.   Blue jewels glittered across the space to green ones watching the sailing raptor.

“Is Birdie still all right?”

The poet closed her eyes and concentrated, breathing with the hoof beats.  Then she opened them and looked at her partner.

“Physically, yes.  But there is stress; we need to hurry.”

The Conqueror closed her eyes then, “Gabrielle, I hope she does nothing foolish.”

The bard extended a hand, “She has grown up enough to know better, Xena.  She knows that getting herself in trouble or killed does not help a bad situation.  Have a little faith in our kid.” She squeezed the big hand.

The icy eyes closed and when they opened, they were followed by a smile.

“All right, I will.” The warrior said.   Then she looked back, “Let’s step it up folks!”  

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

Zephyr moved her nose next to my face to nuzzle the tears running silently down my face.  Talus and the girl had both been weeping steadily for the past candle mark.  Those barbaric raiders yanked him up and slapped his head and his privates every time he failed to perform a “man’s task” on the poor girl beneath him.   There was no possible way, Talus could do what they wanted; he was hyperventilating at this point and it was simply not in his nature; he would have died first.  And I feared they would kill him if he didn’t perform the task on that girl.

“Zephyr what can I do?”

“Little Mistress, you must do nothing.”

The ordeal below was repeated; I buried my head in my arms to shut out the misery of my friend.   Zephyr crept closer; I knew that she was watching.  Voices rose in anger; there was screaming.  It was Talus.  My head remained down; I sent a thought.

“Zephyr, what has happened?”

“Little Mistress they have cut off his finger.”

I found my feet. Time to act.

“I am going down; Zephyr, can you find extra numb weed?”

“I will look, Little Mistress; perhaps if our lady Artemis is feeling generous. You must take great care.”

“I will Zephyr.”  I placed my hand on her coat.

“Little Mistress, if they catch you they will kill you.”

We stood in the darkness listening to the sobbing of my friend.

“I am going.”

I buckled the extra fastener of my scabbard through my belt loop, flipped on my belly, put my boots over the edge, and began the terrifying slide backward, blindly searching for roots and toe holds in the cliff.  My stomach flailed like a trout on land.  When down a full body length, I stopped to steady my breath.   It took a long moment’s firm self talking to quiet the panic attack.  This would never do. There had to be another way. 

Ascending went much faster.   Searching carefully along the edge, I discovered a narrow trail going down the cliff, scuffed out perhaps by goats or sheep. I followed the tiny trail a quarter candle mark down, where more good fortune laid the narrow branch of a tree into the path.  Perhaps it would be strong enough.  I shimmied along the branch without breathing, until the thickness  near the trunk was thick and stable.  Then I stood and then spent an additional quarter candle mark climbing down as soundlessly as possible, pausing on every branch.   Fortunately the raiders had drunk themselves into the land of sweet Dionysus and were sprawled about snoring.  The loudest sound was Talus, trying to muffle his sobbing; my friend was in agony.

I landed beside him like a feather, my hand over his mouth.    His eyes went wide.

“Tal, do you know me?”

He nodded.

“Good; just listen and do as I say.”

I wrapped both arms around him, pulling him close to my body.

“Breathe with me Talus, steady, my friend, in and out, in and out… That’s a good fellow.”

Gradually he settled in my arms; he had been in near hysteria for many candle marks.  His heart beat at double pace under my hand.

“Easy old man.  You have been through it.  But I am here now, and Zephyr is nearby; we are going to rectify this situation, hear me?”

I hugged him close, giving him warmth and tenderness, whispering soothing words to him, until he was easier, although he still shuddered involuntarily with silent sobs.

“Thank the gods you are here Birdie.” He whispered; his voice was weak.

“Well, I am buddy, and things are going to improve; can you let me see your hand?”

He surrendered the shaking appendage.  They had cut off his little finger right at the second joint.  Seeing the white bone made me feel faint at the blood running freely.   I unlaced the first three crosses of my left pant leg and cut it with my dagger.   Wrapping the leather string around the base of the finger slowed the bleeding.

“They said they were cutting off the finger the size of my ‘manhood’,” Talus choked.

The darkness rose in me; a red mist covered my sight momentarily.  But my spirit contained itself; my first concern was my friend’s comfort.

I always carried a small portion of numb weed in my scabbard for accidents, and this I crushed in my fingers and pressed to the stump.   He closed his eyes with the scant relief it gave to him and the added pain of the pressure.

“By the gods, Birdie, I could never rape that girl.  I woulda died first.”

I put my arm around him again.  “Talus, their perception of your ‘manhood’ is minotaur shite. “

He actually chuckled at that; it was a good sound to hear from him.

“And your ‘manhood’ is no measure of the man that you are.  You are Talus, son of Atticus and Rose of Amphipolis and a gentleman.”   It was difficult to keep my voice low and calm.

“You are the bravest fellow I know; I am so proud of you.  Proud to call you my friend.”

Tears choked the final words to a whisper, and I kissed his matted hair.

He put his hand back to my face then, sensing my distress.

“Hey Birdo; it’s not so bad.”

A flurry of darkness disturbed us.  It was Zephyr with another sprig of weed.

“There she is, ‘ello Zephyr.”

“Good girl.”  I took the weed and crushed it between my hands.  Pressing it to Tal’s finger, I wrapped it with a shred of my handkerchief, and then secured it with a bit more lacing.  Zephyr lay down near Talus and he stroked her fur.  That simple action soothed him as well.

“Birdie you best get off afore daylight breaks,” Talus turned and touched his trembling hand to my face.  “You can’t be caught.”

“Help is coming, Talus; you hang on.”

I put my hands on his shoulders.   He was trembling hard all over, even though he had insisted he was much better, he was entering severe shock.  I was deeply worried.

“Little Mistress…”

Zephyr was adamant.

“See you soon Talus.”

It broke my heart.  I laid his head gently on his folded arms and ran for the tree.   Dawn was coming.   I scrabbled up into the upper branches as the camp began stirring.    Thrice on my assent, I froze in place, not daring to breathe, because raiders used the tree as their morning toilet.  I gagged quietly in my hiding place fearful of giving myself away.

Tiredly, I wormed across the final bridge of the large branch and walked to the trail.   Clambering up the final dozen hands of the cliff, I swung my exhausted body over the edge to collapse catching my breath.

Icarus fluttered down right in front of me.

“Hi girl!”

I stretched a tired hand to my hawk and touched a well-made pair of black leather boots with silver buckles.   After a moment of observation,   I gave them a pat and looked up into the blazing ice blue eyes.

“I am so glad that you are here, Baba.”  I kept my voice light as I began to find my footing.

She grabbed the back of my tunic and yanked me to my feet firmly.

“Start talking, Birdie.”

Mama’s greeting was softer; she enveloped me with one arm and the other pulled my head to her shoulder tightly.

“Are you all right, Honey?”

“Yes, Mama, I’m fine.  Sorry to worry you.”

Rachel kept a distance with folded arms and stormy eyes that made me drop my gaze away from her.

“Birdie.”  The Conqueror’s voice, low with patience running short.

I began talking.

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

My heart felt as if it would pound straight out of my chest.  We had circled around and found the main entry into the canyon.   I still couldn’t believe that we were just riding in there, our little band, and demanding the release of Talus.  But when Baba Xe had heard the name “Savagemon”, she nodded her head and said, “Let’s go; I know how to handle him.”

“You know this man?”  Mama G had asked.

“Unfortunately, yes, I do know the Brigand Savagemon,” Baba was looking far away to someplace we couldn’t see.

Mama had waited for more explanation but received none.  That made her unhappy, but she didn’t voice it.

And so our little crew arrived into that large camp of smelly rough men.  But they parted ranks, as Baba Xe and Argo stepped among them, searching for Savagemon.  The Conqueror could have that effect on crowds of people sometimes; it didn’t matter who they were.

At the center of the camp, a huge man dressed in layers of buckskin, stolen boots, and a matching sword and scabbard across his back turned slowly from the group he was addressing, to look at her.

His eyes were a nearly colorless grey; his hair the same hue, long, stringy and greasy.  He smiled at Baba Xe, a predatory showing of teeth.

She returned the same.

“Xena Destroyer of Nations,” his voice was guttural, walking the edge of inhuman.

“Savagemon,” she nodded, “and now, it’s ‘Xena the Conqueror.”

“So I’ve heard.  And now you have come to conquer Savagemon,” his laugh was phlegm-filled, a sound that made one’s bile surge.

“I have come to fetch one who is under my protection, a young boy.”

“He’s no boy; He’s a eunuch!” the ugly man spat on the ground.  I watched Rosie and my mother both put hands on Atticus.  I caught his eye and smiled.

“Call him whatever you like; you will deliver him to me,”  my Baba’s voice held that soft tone of authority which if a person knew her at all, would hurry to obey.

“And why should I?” smiled Savagemon, “I caught him.  He is my prisoner until he performs the deed I require of him.”

He strode forward a step, hands akimbo looking at my Baba Xe with amusement.

“How will you make this interesting for me Xena the Conqueror?  I could just have all of you killed right now”

Baba Xe dismounted and approached him.  Though she did not equal him in size, she more than equaled him in presence.

“If you must have a wager, Savagemon, I will fight you for him,” she met his cloudy eyes with her ice.

“So how is that interesting to me?”

“If I win, I take the boy and we all leave in peace; if I lose, you keep me and one third of my fortress treasure in Amphipolis.”

Savagemon’s eyes floated over the party and lingered longest on my mother. I did not trust him.

“Your family will live to regret your hubris, Conqueror, “he laughed, “They will regret it long and bitterly.”  He began to cough on his laughter.

“We shall see about that, “was the return.

“Done then, “the leader said.  “Take a half candle mark to prepare and we’ll meet at the great fire circle.”

“Call your weapons, Warlord Savagemon,” her challenge.

“Swords will do,” he sneered, “I will cut you into little bloody pieces. I have improved since last we met.”

There was a timbre to his voice that chilled my marrow; there was no reason to it.  Perhaps it was the lack of warmth in his blood that I had witnessed first hand.

The Conqueror returned to our party with the easy athletic stride that was her signature.  If she was worried about fighting a man nearly five hands taller and five stone heavier, it did not show in her manner.  But I noticed the icy clarity of her focus soften as she met my mother’s eyes; she allowed vulnerability to peek through in her gaze to Mama G.   Though Xena the Conqueror had fought this very fight dozens of times in her life, my mother never accustomed herself to it and she never took anything, especially the life of her Xena, for granted.   The bard’s smaller hands slid up the warrior’s sides to her shoulders.

“Xena, you know this man?”

“He rode with me awhile in the dark days.”

“Oh.” The green eyes were shadowed.

“Gabrielle,” the Conqueror’s softest voice, “you know that I will be fine; you know that I will prevail.’

“No My Love, I do not,” the voice was gentle; the words were hard, “Japa taught me only too well that I can lose you.”

Shadows crossed the confident countenance, “Gabrielle, I promise.  …”

The finger touched her lips.  “there is no need for you to make promises, Xena,” she was assured, “ just fight your best for all that you have, with all of your heart, like you always have, and you always will.”

They stood for a moment, locked in their world.

“I need to eat something, “the warrior said off hand.

“Then do that, “said the bard, and they parted.

I met and wrapped my arms around her tightly; tears squeezing from my between my lids.

“Baba I feel like this is my fault.  I am sorry.  Please don’t let him kill you. Please.” A squeak unworthy of a warrior escaped me.

Her big hands fell gently to my shoulders.

“Birdie this is not your fault, and Savagemon will not defeat me; you need not worry about that.”

She spoke with quiet confidence and ruffled my hair.  Then she raised my chin with a finger, “I need for you to be strong and stand by your mother.”

I blinked away the errant tear.

“Yes, my Lady Conqueror, I will do that.”  I snapped into squire mode which pleased her.   She kissed my hair a long moment, and moved on.

“Mother, what magical substance do you have for me to eat? Something to sustain me?”

My grandba’s arms replaced mine around my Baba Xe, and she gave my Baba a light swat on the backside.   Baba held her closely and then kissed the sturdy little woman on the head, and when Grandba looked up her eyes were watery as well.  Those rare moments reminded me in startling fashion, that my small grandba had actually raised Xena the Conqueror.   They walked arm in arm over to the wagon.   I went to my mother and took her elbow.

“Mama, let’s join them.”

She moved her hand into the back of my hair as we walked, “You are growing up, my little Bird.”

She studied the ground as we walked; she had words for me.

“How is Talus?”

“It is rough for him, Mama, they have cut off his little finger.”

She paused with closed eyes.

“Why?”

“The band and Savagemon actually wanted Tal to rape his, that is, Savagemon’s daughter.  To ‘make her a woman’.  Talus could not.  He would not.  So they punished him thus.”

I shook sway angry tears at the memory of my quiet friend’s mistreatment.

“What did you do for him?”

I paused; should I tell her everything?

Her hand fell from my neck, to my arm, to place a gentle pat to my backside.  Tell Mama G the truth.  Always.

“I… we… Zephyr and I wrapped the stump in numb weed and fashioned a rough tourniquet from my pant lacing to stay the bleeding somewhat.  It soothed the edge of his pain.  But we had no chance to clean it.  Mama, he will be in serious condition very soon.”

She put her arm across me, and turned to look up at the cliff as we neared the wagon. I faced her.

“Will you tell me how you managed to come down here?”

“Are you sure that you want to know, Mama?”

“I am fairly certain that I don’t want to know, but tell me anyway, Birdie.”  Her voice was no nonsense.

I sighed and pointed my finger at the enormous tree.  “See?”  She followed my moving finger upward to the branch which bridged across to the tiny trail almost hidden in the leaves.

The forest colored eyes leveled at me with clarity and heat.  “I should give you a smacking for doing something so dangerous, Birdie.  And that doesn’t even consider the fact that you might have been caught.”

I dropped my eyes, and became ten winters old in the face of her anger.

“Perhaps, Mama, but I was careful.”  Stammering,   “Mama, Talus was crying.  I couldn’t stand it.”

The moment seemed long, and my eyes dampened my cheeks again.  The sting of her displeasure was sharp, but after a time, her hand reached to stroke my cheek.  I clasped it and kissed her palm, begging forgiveness wordlessly.  Her eyes softened;   I sighed and wiped the tears on my sleeve.

There was furry warmth about my legs and I reached down.  “There must be no danger of chastisement; the chicken fox arrives.”

Her cold nose nuzzled my hand.

“Forgive me Little Mistress.”

My mother stroked the dark head, “Hello Zephyr.”  She knelt down to look into the golden eyes.

“Thank you for taking care of Birdie.”

Zephyr met her gaze with grave adoration.

Mama G rose and we continued to the wagon.

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

The sun was high when we returned to the main fire circle.   Baba had eaten only a small slice of nut bread with some creamed cheese on it and she had drunk a little extra of the cold Amphipolis water the wagon always carried.  None of the rest of us had any appetite.  My mother wore a water skin, which I knew that I could use if my mouth went dry.

Savagemon’s men cleared a wide circumference of the fire circle to “keep it fair,” someone said.   I didn’t laugh.

My Baba stood with my Mama talking quietly.   Then Baba turned around, and Mama took her long dark coat and also Baba’s scabbard.  This left our Xena the Conqueror in her customary leather pants, boots, silk shirt, pewter breast plate, and long gauntlets.   She knelt and tightened the buckles on her boots, then rose and kicked out the fit of them a little.  It was obvious to me that she considered Savagemon an opponent to be reckoned with.

As she came to her feet, my mother’s eyes held hers for one more moment.  Baba stood looking down at her, listening.  She raised her palm; Mama placed hers against it and their fingers folded interlacing and held.  I was always fascinated at how simply they could display their unbreakable bond.  And with a nod and a smile to my mother, Xena the Conqueror turned to her business.

“HOW I have dreamed of this day!” roared Savagemon charging like a enraged bull.   Panic struck me; he had a sword in each hand!    It is extremely difficult to defend two swords with one.  My thoughts flew, the Amazons had theirs, so did Atticus and Scrubby, Mama G, carried her Queen’s sword.   No, there was only one sword that Baba Xe knew as well as she knew her own.  Mine– she had made it for me.

“Baba!”  I flung the Baby Tide.

She caught it, glanced up and down, gave it a toss in the air, and then sent me one of her flashing smiles.  I knew that I had done the right thing.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

“Baba,” I asked one day, as we prepared for drills, “Why is your sword is called, ‘The Tide’?”

My Conqueror parent studied her weapon as she answered my question,  from the brass hilt, the worn leather needing replaced at present,  the paua shells in the pommel and the edges, to the near surgical edge she maintained at all times.

“All great swords have names, Birdie, and this one is no different,”   Unfortunately, my grandmother and your great-grandmother, Xenarone died too soon for the story to be properly told.” Her voice took a little storytelling timbre, rare for her.

“I know that the goddess Athena gave Xenarone the sword, and that it was called The Tide when it was gifted.    Perhaps her brother Poseidon made it, and it refers to the fact that nothing holds back the power of the tide.”

She was regarding me seriously and I listened.  It was an important moment between us.   Then her sky blue eyes looked into the heavens.

“In the far away future, Birdie, human kind will still be fighting, and wars will be fought with machines far advanced of our siege engines, or Greek fire; they will use weapons our imaginations cannot even conceive or  comprehend.  But remember this: true evil is always defeated with a sword.  That is because true evil can only be fought, can only be defeated, by what lies within a hero’s heart.  The sword in one’s hand is merely a tool to enhance one’s courage.  A sword is what helps a hero to believe in herself.”

She placed her big hand gently over my heart which at that moment began to beat much faster. She smiled. 

“When it is time for me to pass along the Tide to you Birdie, I know that your heart will be ready.  It is almost ready now.”

I stood as straight and tall as possible.

“Do you think so, Baba?”

“I do little one, and although the Tide will mean a great deal to you because it will have belonged to me and our ancestors, remember it will be your heart and your friends that carry you through difficult times, no matter if you hold The Tide, or the Baby Tide, or just an ordinary soldier’s sword in your hand.”

Looking at my smaller sword, I mused, “The Baby Tide means so much to me, Baba, because you made it.”

“Does it, Birdie?”

“It does. The sword and the scabbard are my prized possessions, because you and Mama G made them with your own hands for me.”

The Conqueror smiled.   “And that is again, another part of the strength of the sword.  Some might find irony in the suggestion that there might be love in the making of a weapon.  But I tend to think of it as love in defense of what is ours, and in defense of those who look to us to protect them.”

“So someday, Baba, you will pass the Tide to me, and I will pass the Baby Tide to my child,” It seemed like a huge responsibility.

“My grandchild,” Baba Xe said, with a smile.

“Whoa,” suddenly the talk became too big for me.  I felt a little dizzy.

“Rather frightening, yes?” my Conqueror parent was laughing at me.

“Incredibly scary, Baba.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Savagemon’s first charge was culminated in a powerhouse swing from over his head and a drive downward with both swords aimed at Baba’s shoulders, as if he would cut her into three parts.    She stood quiet, watching, and at the final moment, thrust her blades, focusing her strength going horizontally diverting his blades as she planted a hard foot in his gut.   It took everything she had, but she managed to flip him over tucking under him, and she rolled from under, while his great bulk slammed to the ground flat on his back.    Baba stood easily, waiting for him to come back to his feet.  This angered him, for it made him look weaker; she had not taken the opportunity to finish him immediately when the chance was there.  I wished that she had, because I didn’t know how many times she could throw a man of his size.

With an enraged growl he swung both blades together from the left; she blocked, but I saw the shock waves of it vibrate her body. There was no doubt that his size was an advantage.  As soon as she stripped the left swing, he drove from the right; she simply jumped over the deadly pass and then got in close to slash a cut in his sleeve which ran bright red.

This angered him more; his colorless eyes were burning with hate.  He put his blades together and drove at her straight on.  Baba Xe watched, timed, and then with her trademark “Yiyiyiyiyi”, rose as if blasted from a catapult and somersaulted over him to land behind him once again.

I moved close to my mother.

“She is tiring him,” Mama said, calmly, but her eyes were riveted to the warrior.  “She knows that she can’t defeat him with brute strength alone, so she is allowing him to run himself out.  I hope he continues to cooperate.”

It was as if he had heard her, because Savagemon began to move in a crouched circle now, watching, playing more conservatively. Baba Xe did the same, light on her feet, alert, quiet.  When he struck, she parried, but my sword was shorter, so he took a slice in her shoulder, just where the breast plate met the sleeve..  The red stained her blue silk shirt quickly and I heard Mama take in a breath.  Baba Xe paid no attention at all, but I saw the intensity of her icy eyes go very cold.

“Hey,”

I turned at the whisper, “Hey.”

It was Talus, standing, very pale.    Savagemon’s daughter stood by him.  She was tall, older than we were.

“This is Jorry,” Talus said softly.  “She’d like to come with us when we leave.  When the Conqueror defeats her father, the band will likely kill her, and not quickly.”

Jorry had her father’s eyes, but her hair was dirty blonde.  I reckoned her to be no more than two winters older than us, although the rough living in her hands and eyes made her look very tired.

She knelt before my mother, “If it please My Lady, I have cooked an’ cleaned for m’ Da’s mob for seasons now.  I m’te be usefu’l to ya.”

Mama G spared only a moment for her.  “Of course you may come with us Jorry.”

The fight was reaching a zenith.  Savagemon kept making rapid lunges with his swords clamped together and Baba was able to split them at her chest at the final moment time and again.  It was sapping her power though, because she had to compensate with extra strength for the smaller size of my Baby Tide.

He must have thought his attack was working because he kept at it, mindlessly, which was stupid.  She allowed him a fierce lunge, swept the blades aside, and ran the Baby Tide into his thigh, at the femoral artery.   The spray hit her boots.    She stood watching him roar and limp about furiously, the one leg losing power. Her voice sounded reasonable, calm.“Savagemon, now the choice is yours. You can insist on continuing, but your life’s blood is spilling on the ground, and you have only so long to live.” she said evenly.  “Or, we can stop this, bind your wound and I will take my people and go home.   We have fought a fine duel.”

He seemed to consider it a moment, but then he laughed his disgusting laugh.

“Conqueror, I still plan to cut you into pieces,” he slobbered, “If you have no intent to die today, you had best intend to kill me.”

Baba Xe had waited for his answer in a relaxed pose.  When she heard it, she came to full alert, and her eyes turned feral, as if Aries himself had suddenly whispered into her ear. I closed my eyes and felt the darkness enter her.

“Very well then”, her voice carried the tone of finality.

Savagemon began a final charge.  He slashed with the right blade, she jumped it and sliced a long gash across his chest, when he slashed with the left sword, she answered with the same.  He stood shocked astounded, blood gushing from his leg and a large letter “X” on his body.  She took a large step to launch a whirling high jump with both swords flashing hard; The Tide severed his head at the neck, and the Baby Tide finished the dance by chopping the head in half again before it hit the ground.

Xena the Conqueror stood beside the pile of buckskin and blood.  I felt the darkness leave her.

She simply asked, “Who now is in charge?”

A scrappy fellow stepped forward.  “

“I’m, Fanker.”  He raised his voice, “The Con’quor wins, and we hon’r that win.”  He looked back at Baba.

“Take w’at you wil an leave us.”  He paused, “M’Lady.”

She nodded and strode out of the circle.  All of our party, including Jorry, followed her.

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

“Xena let me see the cut.”  Gabrielle reached across the distance of their horses to take her arm.   They were setting an easy stride to Amphipolis and would make it by nightfall.

The bard rolled up the blue sleeve to view a deep slash, of about a hand and some long.  She sucked in air between her teeth. 

“Does it hurt?”

The warrior chuckled, “To be honest Gabrielle, now it hurts like crazy.  I don’t feel it when I’m fighting, but it hurts all kinds of ways now.”

“Here, we have numb weed,” Gabrielle pressed the herb to the cut.  “I will clean and stitch it when we arrive at the fortress.”  She patted the arm gently.  “How are you?”

The Conqueror closed her eyes, “I’m fine, Gabrielle.  As you said, I did what I had to do.”  She paused, “Sometimes I could wish that vicious Aries- fed side of me didn’t have to appear before my child. It’s a poor role model.”

“Birdie understands,” the gentle hand was soothing on the powerful arm.

“Birdie knows that ‘that dark side’ of you bought the freedom of all of us today, and Jorry.  You are a good role model.”

The warrior lowered her head.  “Savagemon would have accepted nothing less than a wager worth our lives and riches.  I saw him look at you.  I shouldn’t have risked you; anything could have happened.  I didn’t know what else to do.”

“But you won.  Just like I knew that you would.”

The blue eyes met hers and smiled.  “Well I’m glad you knew.”

Gabrielle squeezed the scarred hand more firmly, “You set someone free today, Xena.  You freed Jorry from a terrible life.”

“She seems like a nice girl, right?”

“Your mother has already taken her under her wing. They are talking in the wagon.  Jorry will be just the right help Mother Cyrene needs at the inn.  It was a good thing.”

“And Talus?”

“Asleep in the wagon as well, in his mother’s arms.  Atticus rides nearby.  They have made an appointment in the morning to come and see about his finger.”

“And Birdie?”

“Straight ahead, talking with Rachelle.”

“I will want to speak with her about dashing off on adventures.”

“And we will speak with her, but later.”   The bard’s voice was gentle, but final.

Xena the Conqueror smiled, “Yes, My Lady.”  Her hand fell to hold the bard’s hand as they rode.

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

“Don’t you ever send me in one direction while you go another again,” Rach’s voice was slightly above a whisper, but quite emphatic.

I didn’t know what to say.

“It seemed the best thing to do at the time, Rach.”

“Oh, as if you are of higher rank than I am?  As if you are the sole person with the intelligence to formulate a PLAN when one needs to be formulated?”  Her words flicked at my spirit and stung like a switch.  I physically winced.

“Rach, I didn’t mean to make assumptions; I only meant to think quickly.”

“Well, next time my dear Birdie Girl; you had better let me in on the ‘thinking quickly’ part.”

“Yes, Rach.”

Her hand came across the space between the horses and smacked the back of my head smartly and then my backside.  “Ow!”  She had my attention.

“Otherwise there will be whomped Robin on the menu, understand me, Birdie?”

“Yes.”

“I respect your thinking, and I am so glad you were there for Talus; don’t get me wrong.  But I wil know the plan and not just be told the plan.  I am not a subordinate, am I?”

I had to laugh then, “No Rach, you are not a subordinate.”

“Good.  As long as we are clear.”

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

The warrior and the bard watched their daughter and her friend’s interactions taking place a short distance in front of them.  No words could be heard, but the conversation was obviously covering a multitude of subjects.

Xena smiled her little smirk, “Mama G, perhaps it is time to have ‘the talk’ with Birdie.”

The bard laughed internally and decided to play with it.

“‘Talk’?  What talk do you mean, Baba Xe?”

“You know, ‘the talk’.”

“About what subject, exactly?”

“Gaaaaaaabrielle…”

“Oh, you mean a ‘sensitive chat’.”

“Yessssssssss.”

The growl was intensifying; the petite blonde wondered if she could push her champion a tiny bit more.

“Can you be more specific?”

Stony silence from the other horse.  Far enough.

Gabrielle leaned across to pat the pouting warrior, “You mean, have I discussed ‘the topic of physical intimacy between human beings’ with Birdie?”

“Yes.”

 Big pout.  No eyes, no hands.

Now the bard must tread carefully.

“Actually Xe, we had ‘the talk’ a while ago.  Ten or twelve moons ago if my memory serves me.”

Dark eyebrows reached the hairline.

“You have already done ‘the talk’?”

Gabrielle shook her head and smiled at her saddle, “Most of it, yes.” 

She watched Birdie and Rachelle a moment.  “It could be time for a review though.”

Xena shook her head and was quiet for a few hoof beats.   Was she angry? Gabrielle couldn’t tell.   Sometimes The Conqueror wanted all the power and sometimes…

“Well, I would have been very bad at such a discussion, so I am glad that you took that job.”

The bard smiled.

“However…”

The blond head turned sideways listening.

“You might have told me.”

More hoof beats.

“I’m sorry, Xena.  I should have and I will.  It didn’t seem like such a big thing.”

Clop clop clop clop.

“Well Gabrielle, it is a big thing, is it not?”

Now the bard was quiet for hoof beats.  Her hand extended and caught the warrior’s.

“Yes, my love, it is a big thing, and I should have told you.  Forgive me?”

A long hand squeeze.

“Of course.  Sometimes we have little time to ‘catch up’ on the daily stuff”.

“So now you are catching up?”

Silent hoof beats.

“Have you talked about Rachelle?”

“Oh yes,” said the Mama, “almost as soon as they met.”

“You are sharp, Gabrielle, you really are.”

They chuckled.

“So what did the Bird say?”

More laughter from the bard.

“She did a great deal of squirming; she’s quite like you that way.  I thought she might self combust before we finished the chat.”

Now the warrior laughed quietly.

“And so….?”

“Birdie said that they haven’t even considered physical intimacy beyond just a little snuggling.  They love only to be close, and when they spend a night together, they just talk until they fall asleep.  If they wake up, they talk more until they sleep again. Rather like the fox kits, she said.  Litter mates.”

The warrior smiled, “That sounds harmless enough.  Birdie let it slip to me once, that she felt as if she had known Rach all of her life.  But she’s not quite sure how Rach feels.”

“Oh it’s reciprocated, even if Rach doesn’t let her know,” Gabrielle’s wisdom of people shone brightly; “I don’t believe that they quite realize how deeply in love they are.”

“Well, some of us are slow,” the warrior was grinning now.  “And in this case, slow is good.”  Her brows furrowed.

“So you feel they are safe to sleep together?”

“Oh, absolutely.” Answered her soul mate, “I told Birdie that there’s some kind of Amazon law that requires we wait until a certain age, and I would look up the age.  Otherwise Artemis might be unhappy.”

“Well that will keep her careful.”

“It should.  But Birdie said they weren’t ready anyway.  I made her promise that if she felt they were coming close to ‘ready’ that she would talk to us first.  Without fail.   She was fine with that.”

“And what about Rach?”

A little snort from the bard.

“Well, you know Pony; she told her niece plainly that she had better watch herself carefully if she wanted to escape being tied up in the hut until she is eighteen winters old!”

“Pony,” the warrior laughed, “she is more my style.”

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

A cool breeze began and the mood changed, Rach’s hand floated across to stroke the back of my hair; our horses already knew how to keep in step.

“So how are you doing, Birdie girl?”

“I’m fine.  Tired and dirty.  I’m worried about Talus.”

She stretched in the saddle and rode easy, “I have already asked Aunty Pony if we can stay tomorrow so that I can help the Conqueror look at his finger.   Your Conqueror parent and I can do a pretty good job of healing folks as a team.”

I smiled at her.  Rach had become known as the best healer in the area, except for my Baba Xe.  Talus would be in good hands.

“Does that mean you are sleeping over?”

“Yes, Aunty P and Ephiny in the guest room, and I will bunk with you, if you have space.”

I ducked my head.

“Oh, I probably have room in my bed for you to spend the night, but I’m likely to fall asleep rather quickly; it’s been a long…. how long has it been?”

She gave my shoulder a pat,” You are tired and that is fine.  You may sleep all you like, and I might even snuggle with you, as long as you take a bath first.”

Zephyr running ahead in the twilight looked back at me.

That fox was grinning; I know she was.

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

Flashing bright

The warrior spins

Her dance of death

Our lives will win

Time and again.

Beauty , Terror, Her

Fierce edged skill.

Straight for the kill.

 One shall fall

Bathed in blood.

And all will fear.

The darkness then

Takes leave enough,

And she will come

To seek her home

Within this heart

And be my own.

Gabrielle — Bard of Potidaea

Part 3

My eyes opened to gentle stirring of fingers through my hair and soft words being crooned in my ear. My body was trembling but settling with the quiet treatment. I looked up into concerned hazel eyes. Equally concerned golden eyes encased in a black fur muzzle lay on the bed beside us.

“Bad one, huh?” I whispered.

“Pretty bad.” Rachelle could be as gentle as she was tough. “I suppose that one of these days, you will tell me about ‘Dahak’?”

“One of these days…” I whispered, “It’s not a good bedtime story, though.”

“Right,” she pulled my head to her chest and I snuggled close to her. Her hand drifted down to pat Zephyr who returned to slumber under the bed.

“Love you, Rach.” I whispered.

“You do, do you?” She chuckled. My evasive Rach. But she shifted my head on to her shoulder and continued caressing my hair.

“I will tell you someda…” I began.

“Birdie… shhhhhh… Just sleep now…” she whispered, and ran her hand down my back to match our breathing in and out until we slept.

@@@@@@@@@@

Rose turned over in the large bed to dance light fingertips down the red sideburns and beard. The hazel eyes stared at the ceiling.

“What has you wakeful, love?” Her soft voice intoned.

There was a deep frustrated sigh that shook the bed. Then the big man turned sideways, propped his head up on an elbow and gazed at her.

“How can a boy respect a father who can’t fight for his life, Rose?” He sounded almost petulant. He stared at the sheets drawing circles with a strong finger in the clean wrinkles. “I went to the Conqueror, and she didn’t allow me near enough to ask her, Rosie; she just flashed those icy blues at me and said, ‘No.’ and that was that. We don’t question the Conqueror, and I am one of her officers.”

“Yes you are Atty, one of ‘er finest,” his wife put her hand in the rusty curls as his head dropped, “Darlin’ you should feel no shame, fer not fightin’ the likes of Savagemon. Everyone could see it was Xena the Conqueror that no good reprobate wanted to call out. What good would ya done if ya only got yourself killed?”

She dropped her hand under his chin and lifted it guiding his chagrinned eyes into her own loving deep pools of chocolate brown.

“Tell me now, what would Talus have done without his father, and I without my husband? What would the Conqueror’s main rank of the militia done without their captain? And that’s how it would have ended, Atty. I’m not saying you aren’t a great fighter, but that Savagemon had no honor and you do. He went after our Lady Xena with two swords without a word of warning. He could have killed you very quickly while you tried to keep your honor polished.”

She was convincing him.

“Didn’ ya notice the Conqueror called on her dark stuff to kill him? You don’t have that stuff, Atty. You don’t.”

She kissed his forehead.

“Ya did right. Ya did right by all of us and I’ll hear no more about it.”

He smiled at her then and his voice went husky, “I luv ya, Rosemary of Athens’ Finest Inn.”

She laid back then and kindled a smoldering cinder into her eyes that was only for her husband; she tugged at the reddish chest hair, “Come then and show me once again what manner of man ya are, Atticus of Amphipolis.”

@@@@@@@@@@

“Hey.”

Gabrielle cupped her hand behind Xena’s thrashing head to guarantee the first sight in the warrior’s awakening eyes was the reality of her bard. The Conqueror inhaled violently and then exhaled gasping; the powerful body thrust itself sitting up, and the blue eyes shot open wide awake. But her face was cradled in hands she knew, the gentle eyes that held hers were familiar , the bed was hers ; she quieted and sank down again.

“Bad one, huh?”

“Pretty bad,” the bard lay back down and pulled the warrior’s head to her breast, caressing the long dark hair. “You must have fought the entire battle with Savagemon again. Was that it?”

“Something like that.” The Conqueror felt her heartbeat slowing down. “Whatever or whomever I was fighting was kicking my butt.”

They chuckled tiredly.

“I guess as long as that happens only in my dreams,” she continued with a sigh.

The bard’s hands began to knead her shoulders, “You are as tense as petrified wood; want some help with that?”

She couldn’t see the eyebrow rise into the hairline, but she knew that it did. “What do you have in mind, Gabrielle?”

“How is your arm?”

It was flexed. “Pretty stiff. Stitches are tight. Need to be careful.”

“Very well, there is a rule.”

“I am the Conqueror, Gabrielle.”

“The Conqueror can’t hold herself to one rule? Some Conqueror.”

The azure orbs rolled, “What is your rule?”

The diminutive queen settled back on her heels. “Lie on your back in the middle of the bed.”

It was done.

“Spread your arms wide and hold on to the sides of the bed.”

Easily done with the warrior’s long limbs.

“Gabrielle, this feels too much like crucifixion.”

“Sorry love, it won’t for long. It’s only to protect that injured arm.”

“All right. Now what?”

The bard crept over in the darkness and straddled her warrior’s hips. She pulled the ties on the linen night shirt, exposing warm skin. Smiling she folded forward to begin a series of tiny kisses on the golden flesh nuzzling inside the warrior’s shirt.

The big hands met in the blond hair stroking it upward. The head pulled back fast.

“Uh Um.” the voice was sultry and firm. “The rule is, you don’t move your arms. Put them back. Hang on tight. Don’t let go.”

“Gabrielle…” an unhappy growl.

“Put them back.” An order.

The eyes were rebellious, but the long arms slid horizontally along the sheets and the hands crunched the sides again.

The bard began loosening the next tie in the nightshirt and the next, exposing the flat belly and the loin garment. She sat up and pulled her own night shirt over her head, shaking out her bright hair in the moonlight. Her compact muscular body shone silvery, lean, silhouetted the small curves of her breasts highlighted.

The warrior’s hands gripped the bed.

Slim fingers walked along the ribs and hands lingered at the tanned breasts as the bard lay her warm skin along the warrior’s bit by bit. Lips moved from breast to collarbone, to neck, to ear, breathing softly to lips, lingering, exploring, entering…

The sheets came untucked.

Released. Both were breathless.

“Gabrielle.” The bed linens came loose in wads and the hands gripped the bed frame.

The bard was silent. Moving aside the nightshirt, she kissed adrift, neck, collarbone, shoulder, breast, nipple, circling, circling, hardening, yes, ahhh, ribs, across the belly, down… teasing the strings of the loin garment…

“Gaaaaaaabrielle.” The body under her lifted and settled, but the arms held to the rule.

The bard sat up again and gazed at her warrior with bright and hungry eyes.

“You are so beautiful.” She whispered.

@@@@@@@@@@

The sun was shining and a cool breeze whispered through the window as I threw my scabbard around my back. Rach was running a comb through her thick wheat colored hair and she smiled at me in the reflection of the shiny shield on the wall.

“Ready to fetch Talus for us?”

“Nearly.” I scuffed my fingers through my unruly mop. “How did you leave him last night?”

“Clean, comfortable and with several doses of tea to work on the infection. Both your Conqueror parent and I wanted to sleep on the permanent fix for his finger. He needed a bit of rest as well.” She shuddered. “What a mess; it will take some healing on that finger. I don’t know how he stood it.”

“Talus’s appearance belies his fortitude. He’s a tough fellow.” I assured her. “You put on your healer’s hat, and we’ll meet you downstairs in a bit then.”

The reflection of her eyes met me and they sparked at me warmly. Without thinking, my hands were on her waist and my lips brushed her neck where her hair met the collar.

“Bye love,” the words escaped without thought.

“Watch it there, Slick,” she smacked my head gently with her comb.

Our eyes met in the reflection as I exited.

@@@@@@@@@@

It was a good day to be alive; my favorite weather, cold and sunny. Zephyr danced along at my side, and I leaned down to give her an affectionate rub. But our good moods dissipated as we neared the wood shop. The door flapped open, swinging on a single hinge. I heard soft sobs coming from the interior and flattened myself against the outer wall listening a moment. There was only one voice – Angie. Zephyr leaped to the far side of the doorway and entered immediately, so I followed.

“What is it?” I knelt and gathered the thin girl’s hands in mine. There was blood.

“Birdie,” she fell forward into my arms; I squeezed her gently a moment and surveyed the scene. There was blood on the wood, specifically a carving of a horse, an alarming amount of blood.

“Angie, what happened?”

“I can’t tell you, but there was rage in his manner, Birdie,” she tried to calm herself. “I never saw him behave so. ”

“Just tell me.” My hands were on her shoulders. “Tell me quickly.”

“He seemed to feel a bit better this morning until he came out here and picked up a carving knife. It started when he couldn’t brace his fingers on the horse to steady the knife the way he wanted to, to carve it right, you know?”

She paused and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand composing herself.

“He kept forcing it, Birdie, that’s why there’s blood; he wouldn’t accept the limitation. He became furious because he couldn’t brace it or get proper leverage.”

Her eyes filled again, “I’ve never seen him like that, Lady Ro… Birdie.”

I considered. “Nor have I, Angie. But he is dealing with a great loss, a great deal of pain and likely a great infection. Do you know where he was going?”

“He just shouted, ‘I’ll murder the gal!’ and ran out.” Angie trembled. “I can only guess that means Jorry, don’t you think, Birdie? He’s got no anger toward anyone else. But he’s really got no call to hold his troubles against her.”

“No, but she’s the only one he can blame,” not a great lead but all we were given. I smiled sadly at Angie and took her hand. “Well Angie, you know the drill now. I am going after Talus. Find my parents. I will follow Talus and later send Icarus to inform you of our location. ”

The slight girl gave me a weak smile. “Well yes, I believe I do know ‘the drill’.”

I hugged her reassuringly. “We’ll find him Angie.”

She returned the hug in grateful fashion, “I know you will, Birdie.”

Her faith in me was somewhat frightening; was this how my Baba felt? Complete responsibility for those under our protection?

@@@@@@@@@@

Grandba Cyrene called to me as I trotted near the inn, and I took a hard left into the kitchen. Her blue eyes were wide and her chest was heaving with excitement.

“It’s not a quarter candle mark yet, Birdie. Talus came roaring in here with his hands all red shouting, ‘I’ll kill ya!! I’ll bloody kill ya! Ya stole my livelihood!’ He was mad about the eyes, Birdie. Jorry looked to me and I said, “Take Cybil.”

Cybil was my Grandba’s sturdy pony who pretty much ran the yard like a pet, but a strong enough mount if called upon.

“Anyway, Jorry flew out and onto Cybil’s back and they rode while I wrestled Talus around a bit. I didn’t have the heart to club him, Birdie. I should have, I know.” Her eyes filled. “I tell ya, “she finished her tale, “that Jorry’s used to running.”

I kissed her forehead. “My grandba doesn’t need to be ‘clubbing’ anyone, much less a boy for whom she has affection. You did right, Grandba. Was Talus mounted?”

“Ay, on Billy. He rode the long way around.”

@@@@@@@@@@

Beautiful weather was all that didn’t betray me.

While on my way to the stable to get Hades I ran into Schoolmaster Blarff, my arch enemy. Our paths had not crossed in quite some time and never again would not be long enough. Blarff did not believe that women had any place in government, much less as “rulers or conquerors”. This chauvinistic attitude was made clear to me very often while I was under his tutelage, and only one of the reasons I was taken to be “home schooled” by my mother.

“Well if it isn’t young Robin of the Warrior— my former star pupil…” He sneered.

Our educational history was most unfriendly; however, I was no longer a small child to be easily intimidated. Zephyr’s hackles rose immediately. By the gods, it had been two, three winters since I had laid eyes on the man, and he had changed not one bit. Blarff was bald headed, tall and thin with pointed teeth, pale skin, and hollow eye sockets with dull black eyes. I always considered the fellow to be on loan from the underworld, perhaps the personification of Cerberus if the beast from Hades had only one head.

I tried my best.

“Good day, Master Blarff. Hope you and the Missus are well.”

That was all the polite patter I owed that man, (remember my mother insisted), and I stepped aside. Blarff moved into my way.

“If you please sir, I am trying to follow my friend.”

“Oh, the young Robin has friends now,” he spoke through his large nose, “when I knew you, all you ever did was fight.”

Blarff is trying to get under your hide. I talked to myself sternly. Patience. He is a miserable human being who has no business influencing children.

Zephyr set her teeth in my pant leg tugging anxiously.

“Little Mistress, can we avoid him?”

“Right sir,” I tried to remain polite. “My friend is in trouble, and I must help him.” I took a dive around his left side, but he clotheslined me straight across the neck, and I went down in the dirt. Crimson tendrils began to form at the edges of my vision and my face grew hot.

“You never had a single friend in the world; only those who feared you because you were the ‘Conqueror’s’ bitty child,” Blarff continued his sneering tirade, only now he looked down at me.

Too many memories. How many times had I felt his condescension in just this manner after he humiliated me in front of the class for an arbitrary reason that left me painfully confused? How many times had he stood me in the corner for a fabricated crime; how many times had I endured the bite of his “Instructional rod,” as he preferred to call that whippy stick of his? I had always wished my mother could challenge him with her staff just once.

How to defend against this coward? He didn’t have his stick, but he had a cane and he had full intentions of leaving bruises on me as he had so many times in our bitter history. Still my parents would consider him ‘unarmed’ should I draw my sword, so that was out of the question. Zephyr’s lips parted to show teeth, and I saw the beginnings of the god fox. I put my hand on her fur.

“Zephyr, no.”

“I would deliver a painful bite quite cheerfully Little Mistress.”

I laughed. “Sorry, Zephyr, I don’t want you in trouble as well.” And well, it was going to be that kind of day for me.

My stout boot connected with Master Blarff in the groin, not excruciating, but a good solid kick and he went down choking and gasping.

Grabbing the reins of his horse, I gave her a quick pat on the nose and locked into her dark eyes, “Will you trust me sweetie?” She would. I mounted her quickly and turned.

“I will return your horse, Schoolmaster Blarff, with restitution for her use. I must help my friend.”

The little horse spun on my signal, and we rode hard following the now miniscule figure that was Talus.

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

The Conqueror and the Queen sat calmly astride their horses listening to the ravings of the schoolmaster.

“She was always out of control, that child. It is apparent to me that without my guidance and daily discipline she has become far worse!”

The Conqueror leaned forward. “What exactly, Master Blarff, was Birdie’s ‘crime’?”

The thin man paced back and forth in his agitation waving his cane, ” Why, why, she addressed me rudely; she refused to grant me proper subordination, and when I called her on it, and would have corrected her, she kicked me in the private parts and took my horse.”

The Conqueror only looked amused, “Did she?”

“Yes,” the man sputtered, “Robin was always incorrigible in school, always fighting. No amount of punishment worked on her. Well I will see her publicly whipped for this. Royalty or not, that should take the spice out of her.”

Xena shifted and gave a sidewise nod to Gabrielle; she didn’t need to turn her head to know that there was a grass fire burning in the eyes, “You may have the pleasure, my Queen.”

The bard swung from her saddle gracefully. She yanked her staff from its holster and spun it left and right.

“Come for me Mr. Blarff.” She said, rising on her toes.

“What?” he sputtered.

“You heard me. You have a big cane. Come at me. Pretend I am Birdie. I am sure that you struck her often enough.”

“For all the good it did her. I would wager it will do no more good for you.” The man was foolish enough to swing his cane at the little bard.

The staff struck the cane spinning it away, and then flashed back sharply into his head. The bard did a three-sixty turn and walloped the taller man’s legs hard from under him. He fell on his arse, dust flying.

Gabrielle stood over the downed man, staff at his throat, her voice shaking.

“First, Mr. Blarff, no one in this city, NO ONE, not even our worst enemies would ever be punished publicly. That is barbaric and unacceptable. Second, when we find Birdie we will ask her about your accusations and hear her explanation. If we need to punish her, rest assured we will, IN PRIVATE. And third, when we return, we will examine your record as a schoolmaster. I question the wisdom of having someone of such a vile and vindictive nature in charge of the public schoolhouse. I for one believe that our children should be taught patience and forgiveness. I detect neither of those qualities in you. You sir, need to look for a different job. Perhaps in fertilizer.”

She strode away, mounted Wendy and galloped ahead.

The Conqueror gave the fallen schoolmaster a final nod, “You heard the Queen. See my head gardener about the fertilizer job. Do it immediately.”

She caught up with Gabrielle. The tears were running.

“Xena, how many children has he damaged? How much did he damage Birdie?”

“Children are resilient, Gabrielle.”

“I should have beaten him properly.”

“You did a fair job, my Queen, you did a fair job.”

@@@@@@@@@@

At about six horse lengths from Talus and Billy, my hawk landed on my arm. Her eyes were glittering sharp.

“Icarus, I suppose you are angry with me.”

She was.

“I apologize for the circumstances once again.”

The hawk accepted my apology, but I could tell she was feeling used.

“Well, I am very likely to be grounded for a time after all of this, so come to my window, and we will chat at length.”

That would be nice. But for now, the usual “lead your parents to you”?

“Yes, my dear bird, if you please.”

She spread her wings and was soon out of sight.

Sweetie and I caught up with Talus quickly then, because my friend was riding slumped in the saddle. There was no doubt he was very ill; his skin sweaty, his hair plastered down to his face.

“Hello, chum,’ I acted as if there were nothing wrong at all, “what are you about today?”

Talus raised himself up and tried to identify me. He couldn’t.

“It’s Birdie, Talus.”

“Ah, Birthie.” He muttered. ” I’m off to kill that murderin’ Jorry.”

Sweetie kept perfect time with Billy.

“Why, Talus? What has Jorry done to you?”

“I can’t carve no more Birdie. M’ lack of finger bled all over my Hades carvin’. Like nev’r to carve good agin, and it’s her fault. “He retched weakly. “Well, near as I can place the fault.”

“Tal.”

“Yah.”

“You don’t mean to kill her actually.”

“Nah. But I will cut off her fingers. One for mine and one for revenge.”

“Really?”

“Maybe then I can carve.”

“Well if you must. Talus, will Billy find his way home?”

“Yeah, sure ‘e knows th’ way.”

“Then come over.” I leaned across and offered both hands. Sweetie did beautifully. Talus slung himself over; I could feel the fever heat in his body as he joined me.

“Home, Billy.” He muttered to the horse, and it obediently turned back. The rider less horse would be a concern in Amphipolis, but I needed Talus with me; there was no help for it.

There was a burning weight on my back; Talus’s head. By the gods he was sick.

“Zephyr.”

“Little Mistress.”

“Are you in view of Jorry?”

“Yes.”

“Can you bring Cybil around?”

“Possibly. I am not a farm dog.”

But I had no doubt that my fox would do the deed.

My hand gripped the dry hot pair clasping my waist. “Tal?”

They squeezed me weakly.

“Tal, Zephyr will try to herd the pony back around, and I will take Jorry to the ground. You must TRUST me in handling this. I need you to stop Sweetie here. Will you do that?”

“Sure Birdie.” He was so terribly weak. “Isn’t this Master Blarff’s horse?”

“That’s another story, Tal.”

He laughed almost normally, “I can hardly wait, Bird.”

Jorry and Cybil were thundering head on, Zephyr snapping at Cybil’s heels. I yanked Sweetie left just as they passed, stood in the stirrups and pulled Jorry out of her saddle. We hit together on the ground rolling over and over in the tall grass. Fortunately it was fairly thick.

She found her feet before I did and landed a hearty slap to my head.

“Jorry,” stars were circling in my vision, “Jorry, I mean you no harm.”

A kick to my gut; I grabbed her boot and pulled her down. “Jorry, listen to me!”

She kicked at my head, “An’ let you turn me over to that Talus? He has foul intent for me, Mis’tris Rob’n.”

“Jorry, you must trust me.”

She scorned, “Trust you?”

“If you wish to live, yes.”

We eyed each other. She had beautiful eyes, the color of a creek bed with sunshine in it.

“Please, Jorry, I don’t want to hurt you!”

“I’m not the one receiving hurt.”

“You are right about that.” I grinned at her.

Our eyes remained locked. My grin remained. “I swear on my Honor, Jorry.”

Zephyr came and sat beside me. She lifted a paw.

The rough girl gave me a half disgusted look; it was apparent that she had been around my Grandba.

“Well how can I disbelieve such an honorable display? But mark me, my Lady Birdie….”

“Please trust me.” I didn’t allow her to finish. “Jorry, what I must do now, will seem very strange, but no harm will come to you; you have my word.”

Her eyes didn’t leave mine.

“I’ll trust ya, my lady.”

“Good, for I have a plan..”

@@@@@@@@@@

The Conqueror heard other hoof beats and glanced behind. She found Gabrielle’s eyes.

“We have company.”

The Queen didn’t need to look back.

“Of the Amazon kind, I would wager.”

“You would be correct.”

They slowed Argo and Wendy until their friends caught up with them.

“Greetings my friends,” The Conqueror was cordial.

“We were hunting and chanced to see the hawk,” Ephiny began.

“It’s Birdie again, isn’t it? What has happened NOW?” Rachelle didn’t allow anyone to complete a thought.

Eponin put a restraining hand on her niece.

“As we were saying,” the Amazon weapons master gave her report, “we came upon the hawk and reckoned that we should follow her. We passed the procession of Cyrene, Scrubby, Atticus and Rose with the wagon on their way as well.”

“The gang’s all here,” chuckled the Amazon Queen.

“… and we are chasing the usual suspects,” growled the Conqueror.

The bard looked to the warrior.

“You are angry.” She said mildly.

“I am not happy, Gabrielle.”

@@@@@@@@@@

All was going well. Jorry’s begrudging trust of me had grown with each passing breath, and now we both considered the boy in my arms.

I was deeply worried about Talus. His injured finger stump seemed to throb with his heartbeat. Jorry looked at me as if I had all the answers. I did not.

I bow my head and looked inward… to Artemis.

Suddenly Zephyr was in my lap. Not a common action for her.

“Zephyr!” She jammed her furry head right under my chin; her thoughts came in a different voice.

“Robin, you must cut into the finger. It will pain him greatly, but the infection must be drained. Otherwise, he will lose the finger and possibly his life, if his fever isn’t lowered.”

“My Lady Artemis?”

There was no answer but a gentle lick on my face, and Zephyr was a fox again.

“Zephyr, go and meet the others.”

She didn’t want to but she turned and ran.

“Jorry, hold him down; I know what to do.”

I drew my sharpest dagger, the one which rode in my boot. It should be sterilized, but the infection was already raging.

A deep breath, “Sorry buddy,”

I set my teeth and cut. The yellow pus exploded. By the gods. Talus screamed; his body thrashed. Jorry was strong as a titan. I drew back, my hand covered with bloody stuff. Talus was sobbing.

“I’m sorry, Old Man.” I placed what I hoped was a soothing hand on his forehead; I rummaged in my pack and found a fairly clean cloth to wrap the finger with. My eyes met Jorry’s.

“Good job, Jorry.”

Then stars whirled into my vision as a heavy body plowed into me from the side with the force of a bull. Only my training rescued me as I found my feet and simultaneously drew my sword. My attacker was a good head and a half taller than I was and probably three stone heavier. He had no sword but he brandished a very heavy club, and it was customized to him. He took a wide swipe at me and I ducked, but the wind blew my hair from it.

“Jongo!” I heard Jorry shout, “Jongo, NO!”

I jumped the second swing and tried to figure out what good my little sword would be against his heavy club. I could perhaps nick the thing, but he could kill me with a blow.

The club smacked down poofing up a dust cloud by my feet; I tried the Conqueror somersault over the fellow. It worked, but I didn’t land well and had to roll quickly out of shot of the next deadly strike.

“Jongo, is that your name?” Try and talk, Bird. “I am a friend of Jorry’s. I haven’t hurt her.”

“Jongo, heart mate. No.” She sobbed as she held Talus, “No, Jongo.”

I parried his next swing just barely; my sword was no match for the weight of his club. I would lose if Jorry couldn’t get through to him. He wanted to kill me; I would lose if I didn’t kill him.

“Jongo, I haven’t hurt her. I will not hurt her!”

“Jorrrrry.” He had tears in his eyes. Cleaned up a bit with a haircut; he could be handsome. So much for distractions: his club caught my shoulder. Pain. I went down.

“JONGO!” Jorry screamed. I looked up. Well, it had been a good life.

“Little Mistress!”

I felt Zephyr coming, but she would be too late.

Jongo was shoved from my vision by a blow from the flat of the Tide. Big as he was, he was no match. Tears of relief and fear sprang to my eyes.

My Baba Xe stood over Jongo, her anger building dark and skyward like a growing thundercloud. One could imagine the lightning strikes in her eyes; she was every bit The Conqueror, and her child was threatened. She was terrifying.

“My Lady, Please!” Jorry was sobbing.

“Baba, don’t kill him; he’s protecting Jorry, and I am fine.”

My answer was a shot of blue fire from eyes which I could only meet for an instant. The Conqueror was unhappy with me as well.

“Xena.” The voice was quiet. It was my grandba arriving on the scene. “He is big, but he is a boy. Jorry told me about him. Jongo is Jorry’s heart mate. He was only defending her.”

The boy’s eyes were wide now and full of fear. He looked at Jorry.

“Jongo, be good.” She implored.

He lowered his eyes, and pulled his body into a submissive and contrite position, kneeling, head lowered.

“I sorry.” He murmured. “Jongo sorry.”

Baba Xe looked up at the sky and took a deep breath.

“By the very gods.” She whispered and fought down her darkness, bit by bit. Mama G came to put a hand on her arm. It was like watching the sun overtake a black cloud, beam by beam. Finally, Baba gave herself a little shake and relaxed.

But I didn’t. Minotaur shite. This would go on my tab.

@@@@@@@@@@

It had been deemed that Talus needed attention and everyone needed rest before we went back. Grandba and Scrubby had started a small fire and Rachelle was tending to the primary first aide of Talus, cleaning the mess of the finger, with Baba Xe looking on. Ephiny and Pony were guarding the perimeters.

Jongo watched shyly holding Jorry’s hand. I went to my Grandba to hear the story.

“Jorry told me about him,” she whispered. “He wasn’t good enough in Savagemon’s eyes, because he only cared for the horses. Savagemon had a real warped sense of ‘good enough’, didn’t he?” She growled.

“Savagemon was evil.” I sighed. “That is the clear portrait coming to me as time passes, Grandba.”

“Anyway, Jorry loved him since they were children, but it was a secret.” Grandba continued. “Savagemon would have killed Jongo.”

Eventually, I saw my Baba Xe give Rach a nod, and then look to my mother with an extended hand; the blue beacons fell on me, and I followed them down to the lake for a walk and a reckoning. We walked silently for awhile; I decided to allow them to bring up whatever topic was bothering them the most. Zephyr licked my hand, fixed me with her apologetic gaze, and disappeared. The desertion of my fox was not a good sign.

Not one of the three of us spoke for a time, but then I felt the sapphire burn on the top of my head.

“Birdie, during the past few days, I have spent far too much time being uninformed regarding your whereabouts and activities.”

“Yes, Baba.”

“And as the primary protector of this area, it is not asking too much to know the location of my own child.”

“I know that, My Lady.”

Keep your head down. Try formality and see if it helps.

“I thought that we had reached an agreement regarding that problem.”

I looked up, “We did, Baba, however, sometimes circumstances arise…” it was weak.

She paced away impatiently. “What did I tell you Birdie? That whether I approved of your actions or not, you were to inform me of your plans and location.”

“But Baba…”

Without exception, Birdie, and now we have had quite a good example of the reason for my concern with that Jongo kid. ” Her voice shook; she had been frightened and now she was angry. Bad combination.

She continued her pacing, “And actually, that example was mild.”

“Baba…” she moved away again, she wasn’t hearing me. What could I say?

She turned and faced me. “No exceptions, no excuses, Birdie!”

But life was full of exceptions.

“Baba, it was Tal…”

“Are you making excuses?”

It had been a long day, and my own dark side flared. My hands went into the air.

Baba Xe, you aren’t even giving me a chance to speak! There are circumstances where I am given neither the time nor the means to notify you of my plans! Today it was simply not possible to contact you in the manner which you require!”

My mother’s eyes flicked quickly at mine, but it was too late.

Ahhhh… extra large Minotaur shite.

After one has expertly sharpened the edge of a sword, rubbed out the dull dark spots, there is an incomparably dangerous and beautiful sheen to the edge. Rather like the fiery blue edge that was now glowing in my taller parent’s eyes.

Wrong tone of voice, Birdbrain, very wrong. Not soldier, nor subject, nor enemy, nor friend, were allowed to address the Conqueror in a tone. Not king, nor queen, nor emperor, nor child were allowed to use a tone. Gabrielle the Bard might use one and survive, but she was wise enough never to try.

There probably isn’t a normal adolescent anywhere who hasn’t dug her own grave with a poorly chosen tone of voice. But “normal everyday adolescents” do not have Xena the Conqueror as a parent.

So it didn’t surprise me when she turned without a word, and walked to a nearby stump on which she propped an expectant boot. My eyes asked a silent question. She sent a cold azure flash; her anger was clear; my Baba Xe was at the end of her patience with me. I held my breath and tears, and unbuttoned my pants.

@@@@@@@@@@

She had required that of me only one other time in my life; I was just beyond eleven winters old, and to this day my actions can only be explained as a fit of complete madness. A creative brainstorm requiring the chakram had laid siege to me, and it would not leave until it was tried. So when an afternoon presented itself that I knew that Baba was in a long meeting, I took the disc from her bedroom, (which in itself was madness) and went to test it .Thrown into a field of tall grasses, the unique weapon could scythe small, but interesting crop circles. It was tremendous fun and brought artistic results; but of course, I had neglected to ask permission to use the weapon. What had also slipped my mind was that the chakram had a distinct spiritual tie to my Baba Xe; hence, I wasn’t aware of her arrival at the scene until I had lifted it for a final toss. When Baba took the shining ring from my hand mid-aim; she might have been standing behind me for quite some time.

The sparks of fire and fear in her sapphire eyes seared my excuses of “borrowing” the chakram in the air between us, and I simply fell silent. Without a word, she unbuttoned my pants with one hand and they slid down as she took me over her knee. I called on my inner warrior for strength as her hand burned a quick dozen brands on my backside through the negligible protection of my linen loin garment. Every time the chakram comes into my view, the memory returns with searing clarity.

When she finished, we climbed to the zenith of a nearby hill, where she both admired my artwork and also pointed out three stones that might have thrown the chakram off track. And a bad hop, she told me, is a danger to the thrower.

“Now, the truth, Robin of Amphipolis, “she said calmly, “is that you knew much better.”

It was the wisdom from her own youth that advised her not to ask me “Why?” I was grateful to her for that; most kids do not know why they do something foolish; the notion arises and it is followed. However, there was no denying that I did know better, and had disregarded that to my peril. My heart opted to take responsibility for my actions; that was what was important to Baba. But first I would listen.

“You knew not to bother with asking permission; you knew what the answer would be; you knew the chakram is a very dangerous weapon, not a toy, and not an artist’s brush.”

“Yes Baba.” My voice cracked; my eyes dropped as the tears fell; I was feeling fully contrite by then…

“I am sorry to come down on you so hard, but you could have been hurt very badly-lost a finger or hand or even…kill..”

Her voice trailed away, but she jerked me into a powerful embrace, pulling me very close to her body, and she placed a gentle kiss in my hair. I felt the shaking of her arms, heard the beating of her heart, and remorse hit me full force.

“It won’t ever happen again, My Lady,” My voice cracked, “It was foolish and dangerous; I’m sorry, Baba.” I hid my face in her shoulder as shame set free my tears.

“There’s my little Bird,” she whispered bringing her hand up to support my head, “It’s all right now; you have learned the lesson.”

She sat down with me then in a little heap, humming softly, until evening fell and my conscience had run dry of tears. The sunset on contrasting cuts in the crop circles were beautiful. Then we walked home together, my hand still in hers and no more was ever said about it.

I put away many childish things that day and worked harder at considering my actions to their eventual consequences. And many moons later, after our encounter with Feisal and the arrivals of Zephyr, Hades, and the Goddess Artemis, into my life, my truly idiotic misjudgments were fewer and far between.

@@@@@@@@@@

But obviously, Baba Xe felt there had been a relapse during past few days, and I was not explaining myself well at all.

“We only just had that discussion about your heroic impulses, and how you must keep me informed, did we not, Bird?” The Conqueror was leveling a stern gaze at me.

“Yes my Lady,” I whispered, careful of my tone.

“And I gave you fair warning. You knew the importance I placed on it.”

I hung my head nodding and wished she would get on with it.

“Well, then we best get on with it.” The blue eyes remained stern, but she released a heavy sigh as well as she patted her knee.

I walked to her side; my pants had sagged to my ankles. My linen loin garment barely covered my backside anyway. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath; this would smart, but I had been here before. I stretched across her leather knee; she pulled me close, and her body shifted as she raised her palm.

My mother spoke. “Wait Xe…”

My bard parent reached for my hand and rubbed my trembling fingers one at a time, as if she were considering our predicament. It seemed to sooth all three of us.

“Birdie, do you have anything else to say, Honey? Are you just going to take a dose of flaming tail feathers without offering a better defense? Is it so simple then?” She looked up at my Baba Xe.

“What shall I say, Mama?” my voice whispered cracking with restrained tears, my hand gripping hers, the other holding on to Baba’s leg,” I did what I had to do. Icarus came to you didn’t she? And Zephyr as well?”

“Yes they did… faithful as ever,” The Conqueror’s voice sighed completely into softness, her hand had lowered and it rubbed my back calmly with no further threat. My Conqueror parent was an intimidating woman and the most dangerous person in Greece to most, but in my own Baba Xe, there were soft places for me. Like my mother, her anger with me could be short-lived, and it was a gift from the gods when it happened.

With the encouragement from my mother, I was able to explain myself a little better, even though my “position” remained precarious.

“I couldn’t let Talus go alone, and his obsession with hurting Jorry was so out of character for him.” I sniffled and caught a breath. “He couldn’t just set off by himself as ill as he was, and I wanted to intercept him before he did real damage to himself or to Jorry.”

The tears ran fast then, unexpectedly. I dried them from the Conqueror’s leather pant leg with my sleeve while still grasping her knee. Then I worked to focus my thoughts on what was important.

“I’m sorry I didn’t inform you, Baba, and I am very sorry that I lost my temper and was disrespectful to you just now. But Talus is my dear friend. I couldn’t let him go alone in the state he was in, no matter what he was about.” I whispered, “Regardless of what the consequences would be for me.”

And that was my best explanation. I buried my head in the Conqueror’s knee and awaited her decision.

There was a pause of a few heartbeats and then I felt Baba’s hands at my legs. She hitched my pants up over my bottom side and put me on my feet with the delivery of one firm swat.

She shook her hair back and gave me a slow smile. “Do them up, Birdie.”

Silent tears continued down my face while I buttoned my pants. I wasn’t afraid of Baba; it was a merely the sum of -all the stresses of late, culminating in being spared the loss of any backside hide. My mother pulled me into her arms, and I was glad of the comfort.

“I know that you couldn’t, Birdie.” The bard’s words were a welcome softness, “and it’s likely that you prevented him from making a very grave mistake. But when you charge away with no plan and no others in tow, you put yourself in danger and we – will – worry – about – you, no, we are frightened for you.”

Her hand squeezed my neck with each emphasized word.

I felt the stronger heavier hand of my Baba the Conqueror moving up through the back of my hair, her voice still stern.

“You do not have permission to go honking off every time a hero is called for either. We expect you to show good sense.”

I stood away from my mother but remained quiet receiving the light sting in her words.

“I believe that I try to use good sense, but it must not appear so.”

“Let us judge that,” my mother agreed. “Right now, you must tell us everything that happened. You may yet still be in trouble you know. We encountered Schoolmaster Blarff.” Her eyebrows rose and curved at me.

“Minotaur Shite. ” a light smack put my bangs in my eyes; I met the sparkling emeralds from under them, “Sorry, Mama did I say that out loud?”

But my mother’s eyes were soft and laughing; thus, I surmised that my hide at least was safer, as we began a slow return alongside the lake. Zephyr appeared from somewhere, snugging her nose up under my hand.

“Coward,” My silent message to her.

Sorry, Little Mistress. ” Her answer, “I cannot bear it. 

“It’s ok, Zephyr,” was my return, “My fearless fox.” Her head stayed inside my hand.

“Well,” I began, more relaxed now, “Talus was so bound and determined to take revenge; he was angry at the loss of his fine motor skills. I had to follow him. He just kept yelling about revenge, that he would ride down Jorry and cut off her fingers.”

“That is really so unlike Talus. His fever must have been high.” My mother was listening gravely.

“When we caught up with Jorry, I held her hand down, handed him my dagger, and told him to be quick about it.” My story continued. “But since I had gotten to her first , I made her understand my plan. It took a bit of doing, but she finally decided she should trust me.”

“Then I told Talus that before he cut her fingers, he had to cut off one of mine.”

Both of my parents’ eyes went wide at that.

“I could think of nothing else, Mama, Baba. So I told Talus that I had as much to do with his losing his finger as Jorry, so he should cut mine off as well. I said perhaps you, Baba, could pass a law for everyone in Amphipolis to have to lose a finger. We should name it,” The Talus Law.” It confused him completely, which I had hoped for.”

“He raised the dagger, I feared he might do it, but then he fell to the ground crying, and I caught him while Jorry fetched some water. He was so sick; I held him in my arms and Jorry bathed his face while we waited for Icarus to bring you. That was when I cut the finger to release the infection.”

“How did you know to do that, Birdie?” A reasonable question from my healer parent.

“I had guidance. It was bloody awful, Baba. But it did help. And when he quieted from the pain of it, the three of us came to an understanding.”

“And that was?” From the bard.

“I told Talus and Jorry that the only way to stop the cycle of hatred, hurting, and killing was through love and forgiveness.”

There was quite a long silence, and it worried me.

“Those were your words?” my mother inquired in a near whisper, “Those were your exact words…?”

“Yes My Lady.”

“Those were your words, Gabrielle.” Baba spoke softly coming up behind and laying her hands in Mama’s hair. “Your… exact… words.”

“All those winters ago, at our campfire,” my mother continued, “when we spoke of monsters and such, after Callisto.”

Both of my parents appeared to be in shock.

“Then Jongo arrived,” I finished, “and thankfully, you came. I was in trouble at that point Baba Xe, no doubt. My final and only chance was to kill him, and I did not want to do that.”

Mama G pulled me to her and began smoothing my hair back from my face. She looked at me a moment and then sighed.

“Go on back to camp now Birdie; it’s all right.” She placed a soft kiss on my forehead. “However, Honey, I think that you should plan on spending the sixth and seventh day in your room. Just for reflection.”

My head drooped a little. A kid can always hope for a lighter sentence; it’s only our nature.

I gave her a dose of my very best mournful puppy dog eyes.

She laughed and continued to push my hair back gently. “Oh you are good, kiddo,” she closed her eyes and shook her head, “The term might be shortened with exemplary behavior.”

I said no more but kissed her hand. I met my Baba’s eyes then turned and brushed Zephyr’s fur and we headed back to the main circle.

Two days. It felt like a lifetime right now; I’d almost rather take the licking. It would not bode well with Rachelle at all; when she was in Amphipolis, she wanted me to be available.

@@@@@@@@@@

My own blonde medic, came to greet me as soon as Zephyr and I walked up from the lake. She came, held out her hand, which I grasped gratefully allowing her to lead me on still another late afternoon stroll.

“Not too far, Rach,” Pony called.

“We’ll stay nearby, Auntie,” Rach answered.

“Talus is better?” I ventured.

“Under control for the moment.”

We walked slowly, and I looked at how the later afternoon sun reflected golden lights in her hair the same way it did from my mother’s hair. There was always something new to notice about Rachelle. We stopped at a large round stone at the edge of a meadow. I was tired.

“Sit,” she pushed me down with her hands on my shoulders and then lifted them to either side of my face.

“So did the Conqueror set your back gates aflame?” she asked gently.

My sigh was shuddering, “No. But it was close.”

Her arms enfolded me like buckskin wings, and she pulled me to her body. I wrapped my arms around her waist and felt her fingers toy with my hair. My mind began to relax.

“‘Close’, is how my Birdie likes to play the game, right?”

“Not this close, Rachelle.”

“Well, I am glad that your hide was spared this time.”

“Me too,” her skin smelled like clean rain, and it was comforting to be near her, but Rachelle required the truth.

“Rach.”

“Hmmm.”

“I am rather afraid that you are going to whomp me…”

“Why…?”

She said it like she would do exactly that, as she pulled me to standing. I winced as the words left my mouth.

“Grounded … two days.”

“Why?”

“For non specific reasons, Rach. Maybe for “honking off yonder too much, “or perhaps for offering my fingers to be cut off.. or my body to be clubbed.”

“Birdie, that makes no sense.” Rach liked specificity.

Buckskin wings changed to whompers in a hurry. Quick swats thumped my rump and then the back of my head, once –

“oww.”

“That is for not making any sense, Birdie, and playing dangerous games..”

“and This”

She repeated the whomping, down, up, stinging.

“Is for once again disappearing, no notice, no niceties, no nothing!”

And then, twice more, before I flinched away.

This is for worrying the River Styx out of me!” Her quick hands delivered another pair of whomps-butt, head.

“Rach, Ouch!”

Tears were in my eyes now; the whomps had stung, but my feelings were in shambles.

“Robin of Amphipolis, I am NOT some girly girlfriend who will suffer being left behind to worry while you go off playing warrior princess hero!”

Her quick hands delivered another pair of whacks; they drew another pair of tears from me.

“I am an AMAZON. I will know what is going on with you!”

I wilted then.

“I’m sorry, Rach, really. It isn’t deliberate; it’s just that events can happen so quickly.”

It was a miserable excuse.

She grabbed my head and looked into my eyes with a loud sigh, then pulled me into a fierce and angry embrace. I relaxed into her arms and sniffed sadly laying my head on her shoulder. She kept running her hand through my hair, first roughly, and then more gently.

“I’m sorry, Birdie; some of those whomps were left from the first time because I was so very worried about you and Talus as well.”

She pushed me back to flash a quick watery smile and then drew my head back into her shoulder again.

Something inside of me let go on the soft buckskin; my tears were silent. Minotaur shite, life was dramatic.

“Sorry, Rach, I’ll work on it, promise.”

Sniffling; didn’t sound like much of a warrior in her arms. But then, I didn’t have to be a warrior in her arms.

“Well,” her voice was firm and shaky at once,” Accustom yourself to this treatment if you don’t.”

“Ok,” another chastened sniff.

“I mean it, Birdie; you had better stay clear of trouble and danger as far as I am concerned.”

“Yes ma’am, “my voice was meek in her shoulder, “You’re tough, Rach.”

She took a deep breath and her voice became only for my ear.

“That’s because I love you, Birdie.”

Oh. Wow.

My heart came home-my tears were happy.

I tightened my embrace of her as our souls flowed together.

@@@@@@@@@@

There had been a lengthy silence between the warrior and the bard as they returned to the party after confronting and coping with their offspring. They walked hand in hand, heads down both in deep thought.

“Gabrielle say it,” came softly from the Conqueror, “You believe that I am too strict with Birdie; you believe that I am too hard on her. Am I correct?”

“It’s not a matter of you being ‘too hard’ on her, Xena,” the bard mused “because definitely there are times we should take her in hand. But there is inconsistency that I don’t understand sometimes. Birdie essentially commits the same crime again and again. She is, by her own power or by other powers, dragged along on some kind of adventure, and does not or cannot notify us to our or your specifications. And….”

“And that seems to make me angry at differing degrees?” The Conqueror finished.

“It does, and I don’t understand that, which makes me very concerned that Birdie truly doesn’t understand.” Gabrielle stopped to face her lover taking the other hand. “Essentially, and she proves it again and again, Birdie walks the Way of Friendship, and I am proud of her for that, no matter how much she worries me.”

The warrior sighed and looked away for a long moment.

“Gabrielle, you know that I am proud of her too, I truly am.”

Xena the Conqueror walked along kicking rocks ahead of her, her dark head lowered, studying the ground. It was a melancholy meandering, and

Gabrielle was greatly reminded of her daughter. She reached across to gently gain eye contact for the continuation of their talk.

“Go on.”

“But my past will always be a danger to both you and to Birdie. Savagemon,” the taller woman expelled with a sigh of disgust, “was my lieutenant in charge of executions during the ‘Destroyer’ days. He always thought that he was a better killer than I was, and he marked his time to take over; I never trusted him. But he was good. If he had taken a long look at Birdie, or studied the pattern of her sword….. He might have identified her as mine…” The sapphires filled, and Gabrielle pulled the warrior closer to her side.

“But he didn’t Xena…”

“He could have, and you know what he did to his own daughter!”

“But he didn’t. And should we punish Birdie for ‘potential danger’? Should we punish Birdie because of your fear?”

“Is that how you see it, Gabrielle?”

Now it was the bard’s turn to look away for a time. Then she answered. “I fear for her too, Xena. I can’t put this all at your door. I only wish that we didn’t always have to yank her up by the britches.”

“I don’t believe we are so much, Gabrielle. Birdie received no more punishment than she expected; she received less in fact. She knows when she has gone outside the boundaries; she is only thirteen winters old.”

“I know that she knows. She is a good kid, and we try to be good parents,” The bard sighed and leaned against her tall Conqueror. “We need to do something fun soon. It feels as if all we do is go off fighting and then have to discipline Birdie somehow.”

“Well, if the kid weren’t always in the big middle of whatever there is to be in the big middle of!”

The bard laughed. “Birdie is that, isn’t she?”

The blonde hair was tousled then. “She reminds me of her mother.”

“Hey!” the warrior took a head butt in the chest for that remark.

@@@@@@@@@@

We came to the top of the final meadows leading into Amphipolis. A perfect evening was beginning to fall, with the sun going down casting golden beams across the fields.

Talus’s bandage had soaked through again; the infection was deep and dangerous, and it needed re-attending, or he might lose the rest of his finger. Baba Xe and Rachelle prepared a fire, and hot water to clean and work on it again. It was going to be involved and painful.

‘Birdie, come here.” Baba looked over the hill down at a meadow we were both familiar with.

“Think you can remember that trick you did with the chakram?”

“Baba?” My backside burned slightly just to think of it.

She smiled at me. “I do; it will take his mind off of his pain and it will entertain everyone…”

“You are sure?”

“Yes, I will watch carefully and intercept it if I need to.” She unhooked the chakram off the catch at her belt and handed it to me.

“What if I can’t remember how to do it?”

She raised her eyebrows as her hands quickly undid the knots in the bandages on Talus’s finger.

“Birdie you’ve always known how; you are a natural.” She gave my leg a little cuff, “Go on. ”

The bandages were bad; my friend’s color was very pale.

I reached over and tapped his shoulder, “Watch this, buddy,”

A strong sidearm fling sent the chakram sailing into the far meadow; the sun’s fading rays catching it, as it scythed through the tall meadow grass in a large circle.

“Wowser, Bird.” Talus grinned as they dried the sweat beads from his face.

I caught the return and sent a second toss curve from inside my body, making the disc cross the first cut in a variation of the infinity sign.

Baba Xe and Rach were draining horrid yellow gunk from the stub and I quickly demanded, “Tal, watch again.”

This time the disc cut another sign of infinity in opposite direction to the first; at its return, I threw it again, making the petals of a sunflower.

“Birdie you are a gen…. oooof”, they stuck his finger in hot water.

“One more, Tal….” I threw again for that final pair of petals.

“By the goddesses, Bird. You could charge for that show!” Talus smiled at me, tears running down his face and he slipped into unconsciousness. His mother came over to pillow his head in her lap. Angie crawled near to hold his hand in the warm water.

Baba Xe met my eyes seriously, “Good job, Birdie.”

I extended the shiny weapon immediately; she accepted it and reaffixed it to her belt. My own cheeks were damp as I turned away.

My mother caught my arm and then my eyes with hers, “I had no idea that you had such skill with the chakram, Birdie. When did you learn? Xena have you trained her on the sly?” The emerald gaze shifted to the warrior with a flash of sternness.

“No m’am.” I questioned Baba Xe’s sapphire orbs and saw that I could be excused. Rach came to put her arm through mine and we walked to the edge of the hill to watch for the early emergence of bear and the dipper together.

@@@@@@@@@@

“Xena, what was that about?” asked the bard.

The Conqueror smiled as she dismissed herself from Talus, and they walked together.

“Birdie helped herself to my chakram… ummm not quite two winters ago, and came right out here to experiment with doing just what we just witnessed. This time she was even better with it.”

“She … TOOK… your … chakram?” the bard was incredulous.

“Yes, and I tanned her backside to record red when I caught up with her,” The cobalt eyes dampened with the memory. “Poor kid.”

The bard’s gentle hand moved up to stroke the Conqueror’s back.

“You failed to communicate that particular incident to me, didn’t you?”

The warrior’s eyes didn’t meet the question, but she turned to face her partner.

“It was a tough call, Gabrielle, perhaps I should have. It wasn’t an easy day.”

“It was hard on you, Xena. That is why we share the job of parenting the kid.”

The cerulean eyes raised then, “I should have talked to you about it, but Birdie didn’t want you to know. I think she feared your disappointment. She was disappointed in herself.”

The Conqueror kicked a rock and then looked beyond her Queen’s shoulder.

“And as much as I hate to admit it, in retrospect, there may be times I may have some divine guidance with Birdie.”

“Really?” from the Amazon Queen.

“All those moons ago, Birdie was a precocious but a rather ordinary bratty child who needed a firm hand.”

“Indeed. I agree with how you handled her; I just regret that you kept it to yourself.”

“Well, then today I was able to acknowledge her great gift rather publicly, and I could not do that before.”

“I am a little confused.”

“Gabrielle, you saw what she did with the disc today?”

“Yes, that must have taken a lot of practice.”

“Today was only the second time Birdie has even touched the chakram.”

@@@@@@@@@@

At nightfall, we traveled the final leg into Amphipolis, and Rach and Baba Xe continued their work on a slumbering Talus. I felt a touch on my back that steered me away from the group. It was my mother. We walked a way from the group with only the company of Zephyr.

“I see you are competent with the chakram; you have skills that you’ve been hiding from your mother. Naughty Bird.” Her eyes were smiling from under the blonde bangs.

My heavy bangs covered my eyes, “Just took it once, and it was a big mistake, “my gaze remained on the ground and our footsteps, “don’t know where my mind was that day.”

“It was on doing something creative, without thought of the consequence; it happens.” Mama G raised her face to the young starry night, “I made similar mistakes when I first began to travel with your Baba. She was a warrior and I was a dreamy eyed kid you know. I took my good share of reprimands.”

“Did you Mama?” that was difficult for me to believe. My diminutive mother was very competent and level headed, well, all of the time, it seemed to me.

“And your Baba took her share of gentling…”

I smiled and kept my silence.

“Do you think that we are too hard on you, Birdie?”

That was puzzling. “You are asking me, Mama?”

She stopped and by hand to elbow, turned me to face her, “Yes, do you believe that your Baba and I as parents, are too strict with you?”

I considered. Riding after Talus and the smelly gang, climbing down the tree into the midst of them, my encounter with Blarff, stealing his horse, a near death encounter with Jongo, taking the chakram. Well, in all fairness…

“No, Mama G. You and Baba Xe are not too strict with me; I take dangerous risks. If you didn’t call me out on them, I suppose it might feel as if you didn’t care what I did, or what kind of trouble I got into.”

She said nothing but took my hand and squeezed it as we recommenced our walk.

I ventured what they had not voiced to me personally, “Savagemon was a bad man, wasn’t he, Mama? A man from Baba’s past?”

She confirmed with a nod. I did not push. The degree of Baba’s fear for me had given me clue that Savagemon was dangerous indeed.

I chuckled, “Rachelle becomes very annoyed with me sometimes.”

My mother smiled at the ground. “Good for her.”

My smile joined hers with a mirthless chuckle, “I am a pain in the arse.”

Mama turned me towards her again and embraced me. It felt good. “You will outgrow that, and we love you anyway.”

I closed my eyes and felt, part by part the young warrior in me come to peace; my mother’s arms were still the safest place in the entire world to be.

“Mama G, I will never outgrow the need for your love and guidance. Never. Even if I argue with you sometimes, I do respect yours and Baba Xe’s wisdom and experience.”

A pause. We looked into each other’s eyes.

“Although there are times you may need to temper my ‘tone’.”

We rejoined hands with a chuckle.

“Oh, I think that you are learning,” she said.

@@@@@@@@@@

The next morning, I knocked on shyly on their bedroom door.

“Enter.” Baba’s sleepy voice.

The heavy wooden door swung open; I walked in and stood by the fireplace gazing into the flames.

“Birdie.” Baba’s voice again.

My mother sat up then; her hair was sticking out in every direction. “Birdie honey, what is it?” She patted the bed. “C’mere.”

I crawled among the piles of bedcovers and knelt eyes down.

“Birdie.” Baba’s voice was low and serious.

Couldn’t find my voice.

“Birdie. Ohhhh…” My mother knew then and took me into her arms. “My baby is no longer a baby.”

“Maaaa Ma.” The changes in my body felt so odd, like a thunderstorm within. There was a ringing in my groin and in my head. And it was so untidy.

Baba was a little less sentimental, a little more practical;” Do you still have the choice of materials your mother gave you from the ‘first time’?”

“Yes, Baba.”

“So you have something on?”

Yes Baba. ” That was too personal.

“I’ll make you some tea.” She swung her legs over the side of the bed.

Mama was stroking my hair and looking at me. “My little girl…”

“Maa Ma!”

She pulled me over her lap then and gave me a swat.

“Now you listen to me, Robin of Amphipolis, this is a big day. My baby girl is becoming a woman, and as her mother, I have the right to engage in whatever sentimentality I wish. And you will just have to bear it good naturedly or else get a smacking!” She ruffled my hair and let me up.

I sat up and gave her woebegone eyes, “Yes m’am.”

Mama G sat back against the headboard and positioned my head on her thigh. “There,” she said, gently, “How do you feel?”

“Strange. How did you feel?”

“It wasn’t something that we talked about much when I was a girl. We just took care of it and went on about our business. I had chores to do even though I felt pretty wretched.”

“Wretched. That’s how I feel.”

She sighed and leaned back against the headboard thinking, “Many would have you believe that womanhood is wretched, Birdie. But your body is now maturing and changing enough to support the growth of a child. That is a wonderful gift. A miracle. I would never trade for anything in the world, the miracle of carrying and giving birth to you.” The emerald sparkles fell from her eyes.

I reached up to catch her tears and looked at them on my fingers. “I was a lucky lucky girl to be born to a mother like you, Mama G.” I whispered. My hand reached up to hold her cheek. Her hand caught it there. We looked at each other.

“I hope that I am half as good a mother to my children as you have been to me, “I managed to speak those words aloud in a cracking voice.

“You will be.” She whispered.

@@@@@@@

I leaned forward on Hades’ neck. “You are fortunate to be male, boy, “I whispered. Everything below my waist was throbbing dully. The throbbing was matched equally in my head.

I sat up in the saddle, only to lean forward as the next cramp took me. A gentle hand crept up the back of my hair.

“Pretty bad?” My mother.

“Mama, how can anyone consider ‘getting one’s moon cycles’ to be the triumphant entry into womanhood? This does not feel like triumphant entry, it feels like Minotaur shi….”

My not feeling well did not spare me a light slap in the back of the head. I smiled at her.

Baba Xe rode up on the other side, “Still not so great, huh, kiddo?”

“Not so great, Baba Xe.” I leaned forward again.

“Here,” she unslung her water skin “take just a few sips of that. It’s a special tea that relaxes you. When we return from the Amazon ceremony, I will put you to bed with something stronger.”

“Which reminds me,” I whined, “Mama, one would think that this rite of passage could be a little private? As in I would so prefer it to be private.”

My mother straightened part of Wendy’s mane. “Sorry, Birdie. The Amazons have many ancient ways, and I am the Queen. That makes you a princess and subject to a few ceremonies now and again. Besides,” the evergreen eyes looked at me very directly, “You really do want to stay on the good side of Artemis, do you not? And actually, this ceremony is private.”

“I cannot argue with that,” deep sigh, “May I please have another sip of your tea, Baba Xe?”

@@@@@@@@@@

There was a large pool in the shade and roots of a giant maple tree. From the roots there came a natural hot spring which joined the regular creek a candle mark down the hill.

“Well, it could be worse. ” I thought. But I still wasn’t thrilled.

“Tell me what to do.”

“Which of my ‘materials’ are you using?” This from Baba.

“Baba!”

“I wouldn’t ask, if I didn’t need to know.”

Big disgusted sigh, “The little rolly thing with the string. As far as I am concerned, that is all I will ever use.”

“So all you will need to do is to remove your clothing and take a soak in the pool,” this information from my mother.

“Mama, it’s very cold for swimming.”

“Don’t worry about that. See the steam rising? You will only feel the cold when you strip to enter.”

I know that my eyes must have bugged out like a bullfrog’s, “Strip? In front of you and Baba?”

My mother’s laughter was musical,” Birdie, do you think that we have never seen you naked? Remember who changed your swaddling.”

I could feel my ears burning, “MAAA…. MUH….Well….NO, but that isn’t the same as stripping, Mama. …Baaaa Buh!!”

My Baba Xe’s face was red from trying not to guffaw.

“I’m sorry Birdie,” she did a poor job of snuffling her snortling, “It’s just a little bit amusing that our mighty warrior should be bashful.”

“Humpf.” Well I was truly miffed then.

. Just as I swung from the saddle, there were hoof beats

“See? You never know who might show up?? One shouldn’t just go around stripping!”

“Birdie hush, and look regal.” My mother was always big on appearances. My Baba Xe too, for that matter.

“Ephiny, Eponin?” My mother’s tone of voice changed entirely. “What brings you here? Wait. It’s Rachelle, isn’t it?”

I was already deep into the eyes of my closest companion.

“You as well, Birdie?” Her face was slightly pink. “I suppose we shouldn’t be completely surprised, as much time as we spend together.”

I leaned against Hades with a groan. “Do you feel as rotten as I do?”

“I don’t feel wonderful. Achy, crampy, icky.”

I put my hands into the small of her back as she slid off Lucy. “Mostly right there?”

“Ughhhh… yeah.”

We touched foreheads a moment, eyes closed. Rachel spoke first.

“Buck up, now. Where is my big warrior? This is only an act of nature.”

She shamed me and I straightened.

“Did Effie and Pony tell you what they want us to do at this tree?”

“Yes, it’s the Amazon Telling Tree. One soaks in the warm pool and the tree tells the future of that Amazon. If the leaves turn green, she will be a healer, homebuilder, and bear warriors for the tribe; if the leaves turn gold; she will be a warrior and trained as such.”

It was slightly offensive to me. “I already know my path.”

“It’s just a formality, Birdie. I am sure that the tree won’t make you a housewife.”

“It better not, I have an ax.”

My hair flipped into my eyes at the cuff to my head, but immediately, a gentle hand stroked the hair back.

“Tell you what, I’ll go first.” Rach raised her voice. “Everyone, a little privacy please.”

There were snorts and groans, but Effie, Pony, Baba Xe and Mama G all turned around.

“Come on down, Zephyr.”

My fox, who had been unusually silent through all of this, picked her way easily down the path to the edge of the pool. She curled up with her head on her paws watching intently.

“And you are welcome of course, Birdie.”

I sat quietly and watched her untie the buckskin strings on her tunic. Her skin was slightly tanned and soft, and her muscles were developed but not large; her neck connected to her shoulders in a graceful slope that begged a kiss. I stood to hold the fur towel as she loosened the lacings on her britches and allowed those and her loin garment to fall as she stepped out of her boots. Her breasts were perfect spheres on chest; her waist slender and strong. My eyes continued their journey resting briefly on the small triangle of fair hair between her swimmer’s legs and lingered shyly on her toes. When I could force my eyes back to hers again, she looked into me so directly, so intimately, I could barely breathe.

“Rachelle.”

“Are you ok, Birdie?” her voice was soft. “You never call me that.”

I closed my eyes and kissed her forehead lightly, holding my breath.

“Go on in.”

She waded in and sat a moment.

“You will like it. It feels good to the cramps.”

But nothing happened.

“That’s odd.” Pony sputtered from the ground above the tree. “This doesn’t happen. I wonder if it’s because you are a different tribe.”

“Let me try.” I began undoing my pants.

“Audience….” Rach made everyone turn around again.

My eyes thanked her.

“Here,” she pulled my tunic over my head. I hoped she wouldn’t be disappointed. Her fingers danced along my shoulders and arms to my sides. My skin was darker than hers.

“Turn around, Birdie.”

I did and felt the feathery exploration continue on my back and shoulder blades. The steam coming from the dampness of her body warmed mine.

“You have more scars,” she whispered.

“There is a place or two that you sewed.”

Her hand found the place on my hip from our float trip.

“It healed well.”

“Good healer.”

“The rest.” Her command.

I unbuttoned my pants, untied the loin garment, and stepped out of my boots as they slid to the ground. There was a slight brush of lips on my shoulder.

“You better get into the pool.” Whisper in my ear.

I was paralyzed with the intensity of the moment; there were no definitions for my feelings; a gentle pat to my backside steered me into the warm water.

Rach was right. The heat eased the cramps.

But still no change from the tree.

“But I am the Queen,” said my mother. My mother never said that. “The Telling Tree has to have something to say. Rachelle and Birdie will be Amazons of note.”

“Put them in together,” the Conqueror spoke for the first time.

“I was wondering, ” came the low voice of Ephiny. “It’s a special mix.”

I looked at Rach and nodded, scissoring around the edge to give her room. She walked back into the pool and glided into the warmth, moving quietly towards me. Zephyr stood up watching the leaves. Every single one began changing to bright shining silver. The tree became almost blinding to behold.

“By the gods,” my mother whispered. “Have you ever seen this message?”

“No, My Queen, “Pony’s voice was awed. “We have some special kids here.”

@@@@@@@@@@

The ride home had been quiet, but we were coming to the place where the road forked to the Amazon camp and Amphipolis.

Lucy and Hades put their noses together.

“I will try to contact you soon, tomorrow if possible.” My voice was hushed, I was afraid of destroying what had happened at the tree.

Rach reached for my hand and held it. She seemed to be in a very open mood.

“Whenever we feel better, not to worry, Birdie,” she said. “Evidently, you and I will be spending quite a bit of time together.”

I squeezed her hand studying the silver ring on her finger. “And that’s alright with you?”

There was a returned pressure, “It’s perfect with me.”

Our eyes locked, “Until that time, then. And it will be soon.”

“It will be soon, Birdie.”

I lifted and kissed the back of her hand, and we parted ways, a new and warm bond growing between us.

@@@@@@@@@@

“Conqueror,” Eponin, Amazon Warrior said, riding seven horse lengths back.

“Pony,” the Conqueror answered. “My favorite bar is still my mother’s tavern. If we need more, we’ll just grab a jug and the horses, right?”

“Right,” Pony chuckled. She leaned over and smacked fists with Xena the Conqueror of Greece. “Right.”

“Right,” Gabrielle Queen of the Amazons held out a hand to her best friend and felt it clasped tightly.

“Right, right and Minotaur Shite,” said Ephiny, Regent of the Amazons as she held her Queen’s hand before departing.

And so they separated. But there was laughter.

@@@@@@@@@@

Angie answered my knock at the new door to the carving shop.

“Come in, Birdie,” she smiled, “Tal, it’s Birdie.”

“My friend, just in time Bird.” Talus sounded well, strong. “We are about to try something.”

I moved into the main part of the shop to find Atticus and Rosie visitors as well.

Atticus held out his big hand to me. “Come Toadie, ” He clapped my back. Sometimes he called me ‘Toadie’ to tease me about our ancient history. But his hand was gentle on me, and Rosie’s eyes were warm.

“Where ya been this morning, Lady Bird? Off with your parents riding?”

“Yes, Lady Rose, we had some ‘Amazon’ errands to tend to.” I accepted the cup of tea that Angie pushed into my hands. “Thanks Angie.”

“And all was well, I hope?” Lady Rose continued politely.

“Yes’m. All is just fine. Now what’s up with my best pal here?”

“Well you are just in time for the test, Bird,” Talus said proudly. “I’ll let Angie tell ya. T’was her idea.”

“Angie?” My full attention went to her.

“I was thinking about those gloves your archers wear, Birdie, the leather ones to protect the fingers?”

“Angie…” the birth of the idea came to me, but not the details.

“So I went and begged one from Scrubby; this one here.” She showed me the archer’s glove with the heavy leather fingertip parts.

“Then, the next challenge was to whittle a little bit of finger to replace what Tal lost.”

She had carved a tiny joint of pinkie finger that she slipped into the pinkie part of the glove.

“Now, Tal.”

Talus was very cooperative; he adored this girl and it was mutual. Very gently she pulled the glove over his hand and slid the protective finger parts onto each finger. When it came to his stump, she gingerly slid the end into the glove piece until it stopped.

“How’s that?”

“It’s good, Ang.”

“So then, “Firmly, she wound a soft wide leather strap from the finger part around the stump and buckled it into the glove.

“There.” She said with a sigh. “Not as good as your own, Tal, but try it.”

Talus picked up his knife and beheld his other gloved hand. He walked to the carving of the horse, the same carving which had once been covered with blood. Angie must have sanded it down, for the wood was clean again.

“I was trying to get this leg,” he said. Talus laid the blade of the knife against the side of the wooden horse and drew one shaving across. Good. Then another. Then he braced his left hand on the back of the figure, using every single finger to bring the curve under the belly of the back leg just so. The shaving came off slender and clean.

Talus stood quietly. He walked over to Angie, bid her stand with his two hands. Then he put both arms around her in a deep tearful hug.

“It works,” he choked, “It’s a little shaky, but I can hold it steady and will get better with practice. Angie.” His eyes squeezed shut on the tears.

The slender girl I was coming to admire more every day returned the embrace and simply spoke, “Tal, I’m so glad.”

Atticus and Rosie were awash. I stood, said “Thanks for the tea. Congratulations, all of you.” And left them to their family moment.

I managed to find the back path to the fortress so nobody would witness Robin of Amphipolis break down and sob like a little child. Perhaps I was becoming more like my Baba Xe in how I liked to present myself to the public.

@@@@@@@@@@

“Scrubby,” The Queen’s head poked around the door of the armory. “Have you seen Birdie?”

“Not in a while, Lass,” the older fellow lowered the mace he was polishing. “If she shows in here, I’ll let her know you seek her.”

“Thanks.”

Gabrielle strode with a slightly impatient air toward the schoolhouse keeping a roving eye for her daughter. She hadn’t darkened the door in winters now, but since she had in effect dismissed Blarff, she felt that she should look in.

A pleasant looking middle aged woman with bright blue eyes looked up from the master’s desk in the schoolhouse. She stood immediately.

“My Queen!” she rose and quickly fell into an old fashioned curtsy, eyes lowered. Gabrielle flushed and trotted up the aisle between the desks.

The small queen sank to one knee and took the woman’s hands in hers.

“Madam, the Conqueror and I do not require such salutation. In fact, you shame me with your perfect manners, for I cannot match them. Please,” the bard rose bringing the woman to her feet, “call me Gabrielle.”

The blue eyes met hers then, were set in a lively intelligent face, and framed in short salt and pepper hair. The voice was light and cheerful, “My Lady Gabrielle, I have wanted to thank you for making it possible for me to teach at last.”

Gabrielle looked around the schoolroom. The windows were open with fresh flowers in every sill. The day’s lessons were on the board and the slates were ready at each desk. The queen walked forward to the teacher’s desk.

“You took over when I dismissed your husband; well, actually, I smacked him around,” the small woman’s cheeks blushed slightly.

“My ex-husband, and glad I am you did it,” replied the woman, “I go by Schoolmarm Fable now.”

Gabrielle was studying the big desk. There was the traditional apple. But there were also a roughly carved owl from a block of soap, a marble, a shiny stone with a hole in it, and a pretty seashell all arranged in proud order. Gifts from the children.

“Well, it looks as if all is going well, Madam Fable,” the Queen turned back and smiled. “It looks as if this was how things were meant to be.”

“Oh yes, m’am. I think so,” the woman curtsied again in spite of herself. “Do you think you might find time, My Lady, to come and tell the children a story or two? I have told them that our Queen is one of the most famous bards in all of Greece.”

“I would love to do that, Madam Fable,” Gabrielle walked toward the exit turned and took the woman’s hand again. “Let me know a day in advance and I will be glad to come.”

“Wonderful,” the woman smiled again. “Good day, My Queen.”

As Gabrielle descended the few steps into the schoolhouse, she was met with an onrushing flood of children scampering into the building.

“Hi, Missus Lady, Hello, ‘Scuse me, HELOO Madam Fable!”

There was no doubt who the kids were anxious to see. It was not their Queen. Well, there was a deed well done. Blarff was better off in fertilizer no doubt.

She glanced in the window as she passed by the carving shop. She saw no dark head with the two blond ones working diligently over the wooden horse. It looked like Talus was adjusting well to his glove. Birdie had told her mother the story, and it was a good one. Either Gabrielle or her little bard would work it into their writings.

“Birdie, if you have gone honking off again, I will skin your backside myself,” the emerald eyes flashed the bard’s own spark when her patience was tried. “Where are you? How am I to keep your butt out of the fire with your Baba when I cannot locate you?”

The stable was clean and quiet. Hades looked at her hopefully, but there was no Birdie for either of them.

Shaking her head, Gabrielle turned back to the fortress.

“Mother Cyrene, have you seen Birdie?” She tried to sound casual as she entered the kitchen.

Cyrene turned from her pots, a dishtowel over her shoulder, “No love.”

She strode quickly across the clay floor and looked out the opposite door; Gabrielle trotted to keep up with her.

“Jorry!”

The sturdy girl looked up from the garden, brushed a thick lock of hair from her eyes and smiled, “Aye Muma Cy?” The bard smiled to herself.

“Have ya seen Birdie?”

“No, Mum, not this way. Just a moment.”

The women watched as the tall girl walked outside the garden and looked further down the backyard where a figure rode a horse toward them bareback. As Jorry approached, the horse stopped suddenly and the figure pitched forward sliding off into the dirt.

Jorry ran to the figure taking his head in her lap. “Jongo.”

He smiled up at her. “Fine Jorry.” He shook his finger at the horse. “Smart horsie, you are!”

“Jongo have you seen Birdie?”

He rose gracefully and took the horse’s bridle. “No Jorry, no Birdie. Come horsie.”

Jorry returned to the kitchen at a light jog.

“She looks happy, Mother Cyrene.”

“I believe that Jorry will be ok, Gabrielle. Better off than Birdie if she has…”

Cyrene knew her Grandbirdie only too well.

“I hope that she is wiser by now, but I will keep you informed,” Gabrielle smiled as she moved up the stairs. She would grab her gear bag and take Wendy to the Amazon camp before sending up a signal. Zephyr would show, and Xena would soon feel the bard’s anxiety .

“Birdie,” She whispered shaking her head as she passed her child’s room.

Wait.

A medium-sized furry fox shape was curled by the bed. A tall, reclining, dark headed, warrior shape, was in the bed. The cobalt eyes caught her lover’s sea green orbs and bade her to be quiet. Both of the warrior’s large hands were under the tunic of the smaller warrior who was sprawled asleep half on top of her Baba Xe. The fighting hands were engaged in a gentle circular stroking motion on Birdie’s back, steady and silent. Occasionally, the fingers drew long lines under the shirt from the shoulders to the lower back. The soothing ministrations had put the youngster at ease and at rest, for she was deep in the land of Morpheus on her warrior pillow. The hands never stopped the gentle motions though.

Gabrielle crept over and sat on the bed, taking Xena’s head into her lap. “Hey.”

The blue eyes blinked sleepily up at her, “Hey.”

“Looks as if you are providing a good remedy for the cramps, Baba Xe.”

She was rewarded with a quiet smile. “My mother used to ‘tickle my back’ when I had bad cramps. Those were peaceful times for us. “

The Conqueror swallowed, “I came up here and found Birdie curled up in bed hurting, and the memory returned to me. So I got her down with me, tickled her back, and sang to her a little bit. Pretty soon, she was out.” The dark veined hand that could kill more than one enemy at a time moved to brush the hair from her child’s forehead.

“And I guess it worked.”

Gabrielle scooted back on the bed to lean against the wall and brushed the hair from her warrior’s forehead. “We must treasure these simple times you know; our Birdie is growing up.”

The Conqueror twisted her dark head in the bard’s lap, “I know.” She was pensive.

“Do you think that she will leave us, Gabrielle?” The strong hand reached back to clasp her smaller one.

Gabrielle squeezed gently and ran her fingers deeply into the dark hair in her lap. Zephyr rose suddenly as if she heard the question and laid her nose in the bard’s lap as well.

“Not for awhile, but Birdie will leave us, as all children must leave their homes to find their own ways and their own lives. I am thinking that Rachelle may be part of Birdie’s way,” the words came from that great heart of wisdom that was the Bard of Potidaea. “But part of her will remain with us, and when she finds the answers she needs for her life, Birdie will come home.”

“Do you believe that truly,” The Conqueror’s eyes were pleading like a child’s, almost sad, almost hurt.

The bard interlaced her fingers with the warrior’s one by one and held tightly. “I do.”

“How do you know, Gabrielle?” It was unlike the Conqueror to be so unsure.

The bard and mother kept a watchful gaze on her sleeping child as she kept a strong and sure grip on the warriors hand. She leaned down and kissed Xena’s forehead in her calm commanding way as she ran gentle fingertips through Zephyr’s fur.

“Because Xena, we are her source. 

@@@@@@@@@@

But what is common to the

Human condition

Is the search.

A lonesome journey

Through life.

The strong will demand

From the weak.

Kings from captains,

Captains from enlisted,

And soldiers from peasants,

By their might,

By their ability

Is it right?

Take the hand

Of one in need

Forget for once

The force of greed.

And love.

If we are wronged.

Forgive.

There is no greater love given.

No greater peace received.

The only way to break the cycle of hate and killing is through love and forgiveness.

How long before we learn?

For each

There is a source,

A hope for grace.

For each

It all begins

There is a place.

I am Robin,

The road is high

My road is hard,

I have no fear,

I have my fox,

I have my friends,

I have my source

Within the warrior,

And the bard.

The end

Continued in Road Trip 

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