Birdie’s Song X Gone by Onesockbard

Birdie’s Song by Onesockbard

X

Gone 

Part 1

 

I am Robin of the Warrior and the Bard.

It was evening and the militia had been dismissed for almost two candle marks. I watched and tried hard to read the program as Baba Xe walked about, setting up with deliberation the final chakram challenge for this day.

She had been true to her word about the training, true to the point of nearly confiscating my beloved birthday present one rainy afternoon when she had caught me striking warrior poses in my bedroom. Utter mortification.

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“Even more so than a sword, Birdie, a chakram is NOT A TOY.” The icy blues had flashed at me. Droopy boots carried me over to my bed, chagrined. Zephyr slid quickly underneath in a show of support.

“Baba Xe, I know that,” My downcast eyes filled, but remained hidden from her.

Three jingled strides crossed the room and my bed sank a little as her weight pitched back against the wall. The Conqueror tugged my hair from behind.

“C’mere, Birdie.”

I scooted my butt back to lean against the wall beside her. One long strong arm came around me pulling me closer as the other big hand turned my chakram carefully in every direction while the commanding countenance gave it full regard.

“I wondered if I would ever give you this type of weapon,” she spoke to the chakram reflectively, “But then when you displayed,” she nudged me with her elbow eliciting a giggle from me, despite my sulk, “such talent,” she sighed, “I knew it was inevitable.”

I said nothing, but accepted the tightening of her sheltering wing, which told me that she too, was recalling the blazing backside she had administered after catching me in during my first ‘experiments’ with her chakram. I knew with certainty, that Baba Xe would be very strict in my training with this weapon.

She peered at the top of my head and suddenly plucked a hair

“Ouch! Baba!”

A snort. “Quit fussing and watch.”

She held the thick black hair in a sunbeam just breaking through the rain showers and brought the edge of my chakram straight down so that it was split neatly in half. I was awed.

“MInotaur sh–, I mean gosh, Baba, I knew it was sharp, but…”

The chakram fell to the other side of the bed and suddenly I was across her lap looking at the disc closely. Minotaur shite, was this a walloping offense?

It was not.

My Conqueror parent’s voice was low and calm, “This is only to remind you, Little Bird, ” her big hand fell in one firm swat and remained in possession of my arse, ” that though you are now fourteen winters old, you are a fine warrior, and you have a new chakram– who is in charge of you?”

That was easy. “You are Baba. Always you.” I hoped she felt no need to prove it further.

“And?” her long fingers tugged the back of my hair.

“The chakram is not a toy.”

“Good girl.” She turned me in her lap and wrapped me in a rare, fully encompassing embrace. Somewhat surprised, I snuggled in close, listening to her powerful warrior’s heartbeat, just as I had done when half my age. It seemed like forever since we had done this, now that I was older, and it felt safe warm and it nurtured parts of me that had been craving it, though, neither of us had realized it.

Her voice resonated from deep within, quietly, “You know that I love you more every day, Little Bird, don’t you?”

I stayed burrowed, “Really, Baba?”

“UmmHumm, I do. And I’m very proud of you.”

The rare “p” word. My squeeze on her waist tightened, “I want you to be proud of me, Baba.”

“But I cannot bear the thought of you being hurt, Birdie.”

She uncovered my head so that our eyes met; there was water rising in the icicle orbs of the Conqueror.

“I know Baba; I’ll be more careful.”

She pulled me back in and her voice became an intense whisper, reminding me of Mama G.

“That’s why I’m hard on you. It’s protective, Birdie, it’s not anger, even though it sounds like anger; it isn’t. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Baba, I understand.” I could feel the closeness ending, and I didn’t want it to.

“You know very well when I am angry.” She jostled me teasingly.

“Yes, Ma’am, I do know that for certain.”

She tickled me unmercifully then and left the room, with both of us laughing.

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I cleared my head as her tall figure made quick strides back. The course was simple, yet the course was always different. There were several hand tied bales of hay that we had ‘borrowed’ from my Uncle Toris, and we had tied together as many rough brooms from fairly straight tree branches and longer pieces of hay and straw. They weren’t fit to sweep a floor with, but they suited our purposes. I studied what the Conqueror had set for me, thinking that if I could only anticipate; but I never could. And that was part of the lesson of the chakram; one couldn’t really anticipate the need or course; one really never had time.

Baba Xe put her hand on my shoulder ready to instruct. “Hit the tree to the right, take off all three heads, ricochet it from the stone to the left, “I followed her finger to the stone; it wasn’t very big. “and bring it home to you, Birdie.”

Three heads meant the tops of three brooms stuck in three hay bales she had set up. Shouldn’t be too difficult, but she had set them a distance apart. I would have to throw quite forcefully, and that was a little frightening because when the chakram returned hard and fast I had to be certain to catch it by the inside edge if I didn’t want my hand taken off.

Focus and one-step, two -steps, FLING! We watched as the bright silver circle sang airborne. ZING! It hit the tree perfectly, Slash, Slash, Slash, through the three heads, and SNOCK from the rock and ….. CLUD. It stopped. Fell into a clump of grass. Minotaur Shite.

“Watch your language, little girl!” followed me, as I stomped over to retrieve my errant disc.

Had I said that out loud? “Sorry, Baba!” I looked at the beautiful weapon a moment lying innocently in the grass. “Why didn’t you come back?” It had no answer, so I fetched it, clipped it to my belt, and returned to my teacher.

She stood, arms folded, grinning, “It’s ok, Little Bird, that was a difficult throw. It was beyond your strength at this point. However,” she ruffled my hair, “you did come very close, Bird; in fact, you threw it better than I thought you could.”

That made me feel better. “Really Baba?”

“Sure, watch.” My Conqueror parent took one step back and unwound a powerful catapult shot of her chakram. ZING! When it hit the tree, birds flew out of it, SLACKSLACKSLACK, the mighty yin and yang disc carved through the MIDDLE of the hay bales; she had cut three men in half. Then SHOCK from rock and ZANG. It snapped quietly into her hand as if it had never left it.

“Baba, that was awesome,” I admired, “I’ll never be that good.”

She clipped the weapon to its hook on her belt and steered me by the back of my head towards the fortress. Grand. I was tired and hungry.

“I believe that you will be that good, Birdie,” Her hand ran up and down my hair gently, ” I don’t know if you will ever be as strong, simply because you are smaller, but you are clever and creative, and you will find ways to compensate athletically, just as you do with the Baby Tide.”

I shyly ran my arm around her waist trying to match her long stride, “Do you truly believe that, Baba Xe, or are you just trying to make me feel better?”

“Birdie, Birdie…” she sighed, and kissed my head, “Don’t you know by now that I do not waste words on what I do not mean?”

I shifted my gaze up at Xena Warrior Princess, The Destroyer of Nations, Xena the Conqueror, aka, my very own Baba Xe. Her long dark hair blew behind her in the breeze, the silk shirt matched the icy blue of her eyes today, and it was just chilly enough for her to wear black leather laced vest. By the gods, she did look like a goddess herself. And she had been very patient with me today.

I chanced leaning into her side just a bit. “Yes, Baba. You always say what you mean.”

“Well, then….”

The lights of the fortress were in sight, cheerily inviting us home. Soon I’d be sitting at the big wooden table in Grandba’s kitchen ready to eat whatever delicious surprise she had created to serve her family. The smells would be rich, the fireplace glowing warm, laughter plentiful, and contentment abundant.

Baba Xe threw back her head and smiled, “Looks welcoming, doesn’t it Bird?” She was reading my mind. Her hand came up into the back of my hair.

“Yes, Baba, it does.”

“I love being on the road, but I love being home too. There’s something very satisfying about working hard at honing my skills, the army’s skills, taking care of the occasional ‘problem’ horse, or soldier”, she smiled to herself, ” all the day’s work, and then coming home at night to put up my feet and enjoy my family and the fire.”

“Well, you deserve it , Baba, you work the hardest of all, and then you work with me.”

She smiled down at me, “That , Little Bird, ” she gave me a little head swat, “is because, you are the most important of all.”

I hugged her all the way to the light greeting us from the kitchen. Then I let go. Warriors shouldn’t be mushy in public.

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There was a soft knock at my bedroom door rather late. I turned from just wrapping a dagger in heavy cloth, slipped it into my pack, and called, “Come.”

Mama G slipped inside. “You’re up late.” She padded across my room barefoot to peek into my pack.

“Have you forgotten that I have permission to spend sixth and seventh days out at the camp with Rachelle, Mama?”

She looked up at the ceiling and rolled her eyes, “Hummm, Birdie is going to see Rachelle, do I remember giving permission?”

“MAMA.”

That broke down her attempt at bluff and she wrapped her arms around my waist, laying her soft blond locks on my shoulder for a moment.

“Yes, my Little Bird is off restriction,” (I had been grounded last sixth and seventh days for using a very snappy tone with her, which I immediately regretted. Adolescence was Minotaur shite at times.) , “and I know that she is just about crazy to go and see her Rach.”

My mother turned me to face her then straightening my hair and moving it back over the ear which held the softly shining earring.

“Birdie,” she looked straight into my eyes; I was just a hair taller than she now, “you are quite serious about Rach, aren’t you?”

Serious? I wasn’t ready to tell her about the chosen consort business. I was deliriously happy to be Rach’s chosen consort, but somehow I knew my mother wasn’t ready to hear that news.

“Pretty much serious, Mama. You know that I love her very much; I have for some time now.”

The Bard’s gentle hands locked behind my neck and squeezed, “I do know that, Birdie. But you are very young to be seriously involved with anyone just yet. I just don’t want you to grow up too fast.”

I knew what she meant but decided to play with her turning back to my pack, “Growing up too fast, Mama? Do you refer to the fact that I am taller than you now?”

I was spun quickly back around by the rear waistband of my pants. Flashing emerald orbs met my own at exactly eye level. I grinned. Don’t ever turn your back on the Battling Bard.

The Queen’s arms were akimbo, “I believe we are exactly the same height, Birdie, ” she continued the evil eye on me, “so let’s watch our getting too big for our britches, shall we?”

I resisted the temptation to tug at my pants which were quite loose. Being a smart ass would only find me grounded again and I wanted badly to see Rach.

“Mama G,” I folded my heavy cloak and laid it upon the pack. “Don’t worry. Didn’t you tell me that Amazons have to be…. What age did you tell me, anyway?”

Mama looked sheepish, “I forgot to research that ; I will in the morning, Bird.”

I shrugged as I hung up my tunic and slipped into my nightshirt. “It doesn’t matter. Pony says eighteen winters. PERIOD. And then there’s Artemis, the goddess chaperone; her mark on my head catches fire if we even kiss very long, so I really don’t know what you are worried about.” With a properly aggrieved adolescent sigh, I sat down on my bed, took off my boots, and slid under the covers. Zephyr turned her three circles before she relaxed on her rug.

Mama G walked across the room, sat down on the side of my bed, took my head in her hands and gazed into my eyes for a long moment.

“I’m worried about my Birdie’s heart,” she said quietly. The bard then kissed my forehead, rose, and made her departure.

“Mama,” just as she was closing my door.

“Hum?” the bright hair was back in my presence.

“I love you.”

Her smile. It was dark, but it came across the room to me. “I love you, too, Little Bird. Sweet dreams.”

The door closed. I lay there wondering how long it had been since I had told my mother that. Perhaps I was getting a little big for my britches.

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Bright and early, cool and gorgeous. “Perfect.” I said to Zephyr as I fastened the last of my gear in place on Hades’s saddle. “Now there are just good-byes, and we are free!”

I stepped into the kitchen where my parents sat enjoying their morning tea with Grandba. Sixth and seventh days were leisurely at the fortress.

“Are you off?” Baba Xe grinned at me. ” Not in too big of a hurry are you? I think the sun’s been up a whole candle mark.”

“You are taking Hades and not the vines?” Mama G asked, ” You are finally old enough to use the vines by yourself legally, and you don’t take them.”

“Rach and I might ride a little, ” I explained, ” and it’s dangerous to take the vines with extra gear, you know.”

“See? Good head on the girl, ” My Grandba beamed at me, “Here Birdie, ” she slipped a biscuit spread with cheese wrapped in paper into my pocket and patted it. “In case you get hungry before you get to the camp.”

I wasn’t hungry, and it was under a candle mark’s ride to the Amazon camp. “Thanks, Grandba,” I kissed her cheek.

Mama G and Baba Xe had left their seats and come to see me off as well. Minotaur Shite. Such a big deal, so much drama about every little thing. I acquiesced to a family hug.

Baba held my eyes a moment. “Home before dark tomorrow, Birdie. That’s an order. Right?”

“Yes, Ma’am, ” I agreed quickly, trying to depart, “I will be home before dark tomorrow. Promise.”

“Go on then, have a good time,” my mother turned me around and gave me a little swat out the door.

“Bye!” I called as I climbed aboard Hades and we left the courtyard.

“Good-bye Birdie, behave!” , came from the kitchen.

Outside the gates near the giant oak, I stopped, and dismounted. From under the blankets of my saddlebags, I threw the Baby Tide across my back and clipped the silver chakram to my belt.

“Little Mistress, weapons? Was this not to be a friendly visit?” Zephyr cocked her head at me.

“It is,” I said to her as I remounted Hades, “but a warrior should always be ready.”

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“I love sixth and seventh days” the Conqueror took a flying leap at the huge bed and sank into it body and soul, “I can be lazy.”

“But do you want to be completely lazy?” the little bard with the bright hair closed the heavy wooden door to their chambers and slid the bolt into its keep.

“Are you totally good for nothing, Big Warrior?” the question was a purr as she padded to join her closed-eyed partner.

The smaller body curled up beside the reclining Conqueror in repose and nuzzled her in just that certain way.

The blue eye opened, “What do you have in mind?”

“A little intimate recreation, perhaps?”

“Continue.”

“Oh, I was thinking…” the bard’s words were whispered into the warrior’s ear, followed by a delicate circle of the tongue around the area.

-The result was a fully awake, decidedly not lazy Xena the Conqueror executing a lightning quick-raise up-grab the arm- and suddenly, but gently, the bard was lying beneath her lover, and there were embers smoldering in the icy blues.

“I think that’s a good idea, Gabrielle.” It was an understatement after that move. Gabrielle could not keep track of the warrior’s moves either on the field or off. Life was never boring with Xena. And that kiss……looong and deeep and penetrating to every- single…

“Xena…” the smaller woman took the dark head in hands.

“Gabrielle, I’m on a roll here that I’m not sure you want to stop…” The black hair curtained the light head again..

By the gods this woman… willpower.

“Xena, I need to tell you something,” breathe deeply, bard. This is important.

“It can’t wait?” the voice was an impatient growl.

“We’ve been known to spend the occasional entire sixth or seventh day in here,” the poet reminded her.

Very occasionally, especially with the kid,” Xena was deep in Gabrielle’s neck.

“Let me tell you what I need to tell you, and then we have all day,” always the bargainer.

“All RIGHT!” The warrior collapsed on top of the bard.

“Xena, I can’t breathe,” muffled words from underneath.

You, my dearest love, can be such a pain,” The former Destroyer of Nations rolled over and looked at the ceiling, arms folded across her chest.

Gabrielle crept over to her pouting warrior, “I’m sorry, Xena, I don’t mean to be a pain, but I’ve been a little perplexed by what I am about to tell you, too.”

At the tone in the bard’s voice, Xena immediately raised her arm so that her lover could come under the familiar shelter.

“What is it, Gabrielle?” Now the Conqueror was perplexed at what could have her Queen acting so strangely.

The bard sighed, “I am not ready to make it public yet; it may mean nothing at all. But Xena, I missed my last cycle.”

“WHAT?”

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“WHAT?”

I quickly dismounted Hades and strode to the outer guard of the Amazon camp who happened to be my old friend Arrot. “She’s WHAT?”

Arrot looked at me sympathetically. We were really very close friends after our rather rough beginning.

“Aye Bird, it was her cuzin from da sea; wat’s er name-da good-lookin’ one?”

“Tosh.” My gut roiled. Rachelle, gone?

“They come yesterday and said that the old regent of the Amazons by the Sea ha’ died. And Rach hadda come an be Queen until new arrangements cud be made. Pony was crying all night. Evryone cud hear her. Eph was tryin’ but she waz inconsol’ble.”

The blood pounded in my ears, suddenly everything was going black; Zephyr whined worriedly.

“‘Ere, Bird, take a sit down, will ya? Yer scarin’ me!”

I sank to my knees.

“Breathe deep, ol’ chum. It’ll be alright, Bird. It’s a temp’ry thing.”

My eyes returned to the intense concern hazel concern showing in the eyes of my big Amazon pal.

“Breathe, Birdie. That’s it, friend. Breathe. ‘Ere, take a sip.” She handed me her water skin. Zephyr had laid her head in my lap. I stroked the sable fur, and calm begin to return. The water tasted good.

“The last thing Rach said to me as they rode away was, ‘Tell Birdie’,” Arrot was saying.

I reached for her arm and she clasped it entirely, immediately, in the warrior’s exchange of love, loyalty and friendship. It bolstered my courage.

“And so you have my friend, and thank you.” I rose to my feet.

“What ‘r ya gonna do, Bird?” Arrot looked mildly alarmed now. So did Zephyr.

Hades seemed to know as he turned in the right direction when I mounted him. “It will be better for you, Arrot , if I do not tell you.” I looked down at Zephyr, ” Let’s go, girl.”

Arrot came to attention then and placed her fist over her heart in a salute, “Best o’luck and safety to ya, my Birdie friend.”

I returned the salute to her, ” Thank you Arrot, my good friend. I will see you again.”

Then we rode.

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Xena the Conqueror lay flat on her back staring at the ornately carved ceiling in the royal bedchamber. She had not uttered a single word for what had to be at least a quarter candle mark, and Gabrielle had had enough. The forest eyed beauty turned so that her head lay upon the warrior’s rippled abdomen and regarded her carefully, “Xena, I think you have spent enough time in shock and awe.” She smiled.

The raven tresses hoisted the head further upon one of the large pillows and the warrior raised her evil eyebrow at her partner. “Gabrielle, I can spend as much time in shock and awe over this little Greek fire ball that you just dropped on me as I want to; I am Xena the Conqueror.” She rolled the cobalt eyes upward, “No matter what the challenge.”

The bard scooted closer, beginning a soft soothing rubbing of the mighty chest, “Well, we had talked about another child, remember?”

“Yes, I do remember TALKING about another child, Gabrielle. That is not the same as actually bearing and raising another child. By the gods”, she fell back gazing at the ceiling again, ” and here I thought we were finally about to have Birdie sorted out.”

Gabrielle pulled away and reclined on an elbow, “I would seriously doubt that we have Birdie ‘sorted out’ just yet, Xena; she’s fourteen now, and that is not exactly an ‘easy’ age either. “

“Well, how, where , when…. ?” the warrior sputtered, then fell back again. “Stupid questions, I know.”

The bard looked wise, “I can tell you what I believe may have happened.”

“Please tell me, Gabrielle.”

“I believe it happened that final night on the road. Your eyes were golden again, remember? I called you ‘my warrior of the gods’? Artemis must have been nearby. She may have blessed us again. Actually,” the bard looked down, and when she raised her eyes, there were unshed tears, ” I am very happy.”

The former Destroyer of Nations then sat all the way up and rested her arms on her knees looking far away for a moment. The she returned the intense saphire gaze to her lover. “Gabrielle, you are telling me that you ARE REALLY QUITE CERTAIN that we are going to have another child? There is no doubt?”

The tears did fall down the beautiful skin of the bard then, “No Xena, personally, privately, I have no doubt.”

“Well then,” The Warrior shot straight up, nearly to the ceiling executing a perfect flip and landed flat on her ass beside her soul mate, “What in Hades are we waiting for, Gabrielle? Let’s go ring the bells, toss some tankards, tell MY MOTHER!! Oh she’ll go crazy!!” She bounded off the bed and sprinted for the door. “I wish Birdie hadn’t left.”

“XENA!!! “

The bard’s voice could always arrest any charge of her partner, be it angry or joyful.

“What?”

“Come back, you can’t.”

“Why..” The tall beauty looked crestfallen as she padded back over to the bed. Gabrielle chuckled and took the goddesss gorgeous face in her hands. “Well, for one, you are buck naked. “

The icy blues looked down, “Oh. Forgot.”

The bard was beginning to laugh, gently but constantly, ” And I would just like to wait a little.. There is more to tell you before we go public. Ok, Big Warrior?”

The Conqueror’s heart belonged to the bard, and she returned to the bed and cradled her lover, her life closely, “Ah, Gabrielle, ” she sighed deeply, “What did I do to deserve the sweetness of you?” She began to laugh, ” Never one dull moment in Amphipolis is there? A wee baby… by the gods!”

And the warrior and the bard remained embraced and kept laughing together.

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We had been riding for close to a candle mark when suddenly I missed Zephyr. “ZEPHYR!”

Giving Hades the slightest tug left turned him full circle. Hades didn’t “talk” to me the way Zephyr did, but he knew my mind.

“Minotaur Shite, that foxy fox!”

We reversed and trotted back. It wasn’t long before her sitting form became visible, sitting calmly in the middle of the wide and worn trail, apparently waiting for me. I dismounted at once and came face to face with her kneeling; Rach mattered to me, meant everything to me, but so did this fox.

“Zephyr,” my words were soft, for there was an aura of aloofness about my companion; one I had never felt. “Zephyr, tell me.”

She dropped her head, revealing the white blaze that matched her tipped tail and feet. My head touched hers.

“Little Mistress….Robin…never in all of our adventures or pursuits have I questioned you. I have always followed or led or stayed by your side to serve, assist, comfort, or guide you.”

I wrapped my arms around her tightly stroking her soft sable fur, breathing in her cedar essence, and then bringing her golden eyes to meet mine, I asked again, “Tell me , Zephyr.”

She lowered her head, “This is the most rash, unplanned, dangerous, and reckless undertaking yet, Little Mistress. I understand your desire and drive; I love Lady Rachelle as well. But would we not be better suited to return to the fortress and ask for help from your parents?”

I sighed. She was right, of course she was right. But, “Zephyr, they wouldn’t allow me to go. You know that they would say no.”

“They might come with you.”

I shook my head. “It would take too much time. Zephyr, I am Rach’s consort. She needs me.”

Zephyr gave the equivalent of a fox’s sigh of acquiesce, “Very well, Little Mistress, we will travel until tonight. I serve another Mistress, you know, and we can expect a visit. She will make the final decision.”

That meant Artemis. Oh Bird dog. That goddess did make me nervous.

“Little Mistress, do you have any idea where you are going?”

“Yes, I will show you tonight. Rach scratched it out on the ground for me one night on the road by the campfire. I have a very good idea how to find the way to Abdera. It’s a good three or four days’ ride, barring any problems.”

“Well we best make some progress and have some food for our visitor tonight”, my fox licked my cheek.

“So you are with me, Zephyr?”

“Always, Little Mistress.”

“I love you, Zephyr.”

“And I, you, Little Mistress.”

As I climbed back into the saddle, I looked down at the beautiful animal, “The truth is, Zephyr, I know that this is probably not the wisest choice I’ve ever made in my history of unwise choices.” The open sky took my gaze for a moment and then lowered it to reality with it a sigh. “I know there will be consequences.” Then I returned my address to Zephyr.

“I feel so strongly that I must be at Rachelle’s side; she needs her consort now. I feel it in here.” My fist thumped my gut. The distance beckoned to me, but I needed to be honest, ” Regardless of that strong draw, my friend, I don’t believe I could go without you. We are too deeply connected.”

My fox just cocked her head at me wisely, “We lose daylight, Little Mistress, let’s run.”

So we began again headed east toward a dry hilly region.

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“Why don’t you want to make it public?” the warrior asked. She sat straight. “You do have doubts? If Artemis is involved, I would think there is certainty.”

The bard had joined her partner against the pillows and now she studied her own belly. “Oh, Xena, I am certain.” She smiled. “It’s just that I have an entirely different feeling about this child. She…”

“Another she?”

“You have your warrior, I believe?”

“You have a bard, as well.”

Gabrielle smacked Xena’s gut. “Hush a moment and listen. I have a feeling that Artemis has definite plans for this child. This child will not be so like us.”

“Great!!” The Conqueror rolled her eyes, “A special needs child. As if Birdie isn’t ‘special needs’ enough!”

The Conqueror found herself in a firm headlock rather suddenly, by none other than the Battling Bard, who had lost none of her skills, “Whatever her needs are, we will LOVE her, Xena.”

“Of course we will, Gabrielle, I was only kidding.”

“Try something for me?” The bard let her up.

The blue eyes softened, “Anything love.”

“Listen to her…”

“Any special reason? It’s so soon; there is something to hear?”

“Well,” The bard looked down at her fingers on her belly. “I can hear her already within. I need confirmation.”

“Very well, ” The warrior lay her head against her lover’s belly and they were both silent. Time passed.. Silence. Gabrielle wondered.

“Well?”

The warrior sat up shaking her head, puzzled.

“What did you hear?”

“Gabrielle, tell me what you hear.”

Her blonde lover shifted uncomfortably a moment, and then admitted, ” What I hear… well, not really hear, but what resonates in me, is a kind of singing… no words, but it’s definitely singing.” The jade gaze awaited judgment.

The cobalt eyes blinked. “That is what I heard, Gabrielle.”

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The weather held fine for our first campfire. I caught fish quickly with a small fishing bow and arrow set that I had fashioned soon after my first adventure in the rough. It was a permanent part of my gear now, along with a small assortment of my favorite cooking herbs now in my trail pack. There was also a rudimentary healer’s kit meant for only slight injuries. The road trip had been an excellent education. We had selected a comfortable spot, far enough from the main trail, near a small creek, in which I had already bathed . (BRRRRR!!!)

Zephyr and I sat together and I drew her map to Abdera with a stick in the dust while our fish cooked.

“See Zephyr? We follow this run of water northeast around this mountain to Philippi. If we need supplies, we can pick up a few there, because then we must cross the next mountain. That will not be easy, we will walk a good bit, I imagine, and we won’t eat so well. But barring that, it’s a straight run across a great plain to Abdera, and the Amazons are near there.”

As always, I felt the energy first.

Zephyr picked up her ears , “Little Mistress, I told you to expect this.”

The hairs on my arms became brittle with static, and my hair probably went porcupine status. One does not become accustomed to the appearance of a goddess, even if she appears with some regularity, even if she is responsible for one’s birth.

“Robin of the Warrior and Bard.”

I stayed kneeling near the campfire and kept my gaze lowered. “Yes, My Lady Artemis.”

Her hardwood colored feet in their jeweled sandals strode across to study my little map drawn so painstakingly in the dirt. Her amber eyes studied, appraised, and concluded. Zephyr had assumed her god fox form without a sound. She had become the size of a small wolf, sleek, sable, with the same amber eyes glowing; nothing one would have as a pet.

“You may rise, child.”

I may have turned fourteen, but we are all children of the gods. My eyes did not rise.

“Robin, child, some would call this a very foolish quest, especially without obtaining PERMISSION from your parents, am I right?” The heat increased as her presence moved closer. Soon I would have to meet the amber eyes, which could flash and burn like the sun.

“My Lady Artemis,” I found myself on one knee again, “I am certain that you know, I am the chosen consort of Rachelle, now acting Queen of the Amazons by the Sea. Since she was taken, I have a tremendous urge to go to her and stand by her side at this challenging time. I feel that she needs me.”

My chin burned as the goddess raised my eyes to meet her wise, ageless, amber. “Why did you not secure permission from your parents to make this journey? I understand your drive very well, but I cannot say that I approve of your methods, young Robin.”

“My Lady,” I cast my gaze to Zephyr, “My parents would not have allowed it, and even had they agreed to come with me,” Here I ducked my head again, “I was in too much of a hurry; I had to begin the journey as soon as I heard.”

Zephyr took her regular fox form and came to sit by me. I fell back on my heels. “Lady Artemis, I know there will be consequences that may be dire. But I can do this; I can make this journey alone and be with Rach. She needs me; I can feel it!” Now the tears came. Minotaur Shite. Didn’t want to do that.

There was a very long silence, which I bore, while the goddess walked in circles around me. Finally she spoke.

“Robin of the Warrior and Bard, I , Artemis, Goddess of the Moon and Hunt, and Goddess of the Amazons, will allow you to make this journey.”

I sighed.

“However.”

The breath was held again.

“You would do well to hold straight to the plan and go directly to Rachelle’s side. I will dispatch Icarus to you, so that you may send word of your well being to your parents. As for the consequences, I shall decree that any punishment of you for carrying out this heroic, but rebellious mission, will be dealt by Amazons only.”

I didn’t know about that, “That means Baba Xe can’t tan my hide, My Lady; I would d expect it first from her.”

“Xena the Conqueror is not Amazon Nation. This may be a learning experience for her as well. She will cope. There are many Amazon issues in play just now. Rise, Birdie.”

I did so with eyes cast down. Hubris was never appreciated by this goddess. Her hand was heavy on my hair, and then her lips left that familiar burning sensation on my forehead.

“Be wise and be safe, Little Bird, on your flight to the side of your princess, for she does indeed need you. I will watch over you, and I will also appear to your parents and offer explanation. You should expect your Godmother Euphiny and Rachelle’s Aunt Eponin within the next several days. You WILL RETURN with them, Birdie, no arguments, no scenes. Is that UNDERSTOOD?”

“Yes, My Lady. Thank you, My Lady.”

The mahogany hand rested on my fox. “Take care of her, Zephyr.” Something passed between them.

Then the golden light was gone, and we had only the campfire.

I looked at Zephyr, “Doesn’t she scare you at all?”

The fox laughed silently inside my head, “Perhaps, Little Mistress, you need a good healthy dose of fear at times. Perhaps you ARE too big for your britches, as your mother suggests.”

“Perhaps,” I lay back and looked at the endless stars. Maybe Marcus would visit me on this trip. It had been a very long time. Zephyr settled in closely with her back to me, I turned on my side, put my arm around her, and we slept.

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Lady Artemis, Zephyr,
What have I done?
Why have I run?
When I know better?

Shall I blame this shining
Silver piercing in my ear?
Does it beckon me near
To the piercer?

She needs me, no doubt.
The thunder reverberates,
Within and without.
I must go to her.

I forsake all that I know,
Of what is right and wrong,
To seek her siren’s song,
But there is no choice.

Dear Artemis, I pray
With your powers divine,
Tell the Warrior and the Bard.
That I’m capable and I’m fine,
And that all of you guide me….

Robin of Amphipolis

Part 2

 

I am Robin of the Warrior and the Bard.

It was mid-afternoon on the seventh day.

“Pone,” The hand that shook the sturdy Amazon warrior was rough, as was the voice. “Pony, Enough. Eponin. Look at me. Come on now. Where is my Warrior?”

The older woman groaned to a sitting position. “Augh, me ‘ead, ‘Fin, what have you let me done?”

Her dark eyed lover shook her head and put an arm around the warrior as she made her take sips of cold water from a clay cup. “I haven’t ‘let you done’ anything Pony. You’ve quite ‘done ‘it to yourself, you old fool.”

“Hey,” the pale grey eyes shifted quickly, “Notsa old as I can’t take you down, sassy mouth.”

“I doubt it,” Ephiny smiled at the bit of swagger returning to her beloved. “You’ve been crying for the past ten candle marks and then drinking for at least six.”

“That explains why me ‘ead feels sat on by a Cyclops,” Pony sighed and leaned against her partner. “Sorry, Fin.” The tears welled, “But they took my kid, and I had no idea how much I luved ‘er.”

Ephiny put her arm around her Pony, “I know that, love.” She held her Pony closely. “That is why, while you have been in here a wallerin’, I have been packing up Otto and Mabel, AND calling for a voluntary cadre to go to the camp of the Amazons by the Sea.” The dark eyes studied the floor of the small hut they shared. Ephiny hadn’t been completely certain of Pony’s reactions to her preparations, but there had been nothing else to do.

Eponin sat quietly and stared at the love of her life for a few moments. “Ephiny,” she said the name in a near whisper, which was quite out of character. Pony was known for her bellowing. Then she leaned forward and wrapped the striking younger warrior in a close embrace. “What did I do to deserve the likes of you?” Ephiny returned the embrace with the same intensity.

“Pony,” she whispered, “love isn’t ‘deserved’, it’s only offered, given, accepted, growing and ever changing. You chose to love an outcast Amazon and her Centaur son. How could I not return that love, and come to adore you for your amazing open heart?”

There was a long kiss, and Pony found her warrior composure. “Let’s go see about my kid,” she said.

“Let’s do that,” agreed the Regent of the Amazons of Amphipolis. “But I want to stop by and talk to Xena and Gabrielle first.”

“Of course,” said Pony. “But I don’t wanna be da one to tell Little Birdie.”

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I stood atop the tallest hill looking down into a valley. Hades was taking a well deserved break and drinking long from a cold stream we had come upon, and serendipitously, there was lovely green grass as well, so I had decided to let my horse rest after the laborious climb.

“Down there, Zephyr,” I pointed to the slightest bit of shine in the valley, “I believe that is Philippi, where we shall pick up supplies for the next leg of our journey.”

“How do you come by so many dinars, Little Mistress, if I may be so bold?”

“I make a little bit here and there, polishing the soldiers’ boots and armor when they are too lazy to do it themselves, and Grandba gave me some for my birthday. It should be enough to last until we arrive at Abdera.”

My fox cut her wise eyes at me, “So the first part of the trip is well planned. The second part will be something of a guessing game?”

“Something like that, Zephyr.” I gave my smart aleck fox a little nudge in the ribs with my foot. She was so human, actually so very much more than a human companion…

“You know that your parents will catch up to you at some point.”

Hunkering down beside my ebony friend, with a contemplative finger, I drew the chakram of Xena the Conqueror in the dirt.

“Yes, I know that my parents will catch up with me at some point, Zephyr. They always do, and…..” I drew the shape of a quill next to the chakram. “I am prepared to face them.”

“Are you, indeed, Little Mistress?”

I met the golden eyes. “Yes, Zephyr, I know the consequences of this choice. But I am consort to Rachelle, and she needs me. I am no longer just a child, just Robin of the Warrior and the Bard.”

My fox tilted her head slightly as if hearing other voices, “I am not certain EVERYONE will see it quite that way Little Mistress. However,” She gave my face a light kiss of her tongue, “I am with you always, right, or almost right.”

I put my arm around her and leaned my head into her fur. “Thank you, Zephyr. That means a great deal to me. Hey, Big Horsie… You rested enough?”

Hades gave me a look that said he was rested and ready to barrel on.

Suddenly my fox went very still; I followed suit, as her ears were extraordinarily keen.

“What is it, Zephyr?”

“Lead the horse out of sight, Little Mistress, and do it quickly.”

I hopped up and followed her directions immediately. Then I returned to her side, lying low.

There was a large fast moving dust cloud at the foot of the barren mountain we had just scaled. As we watched without moving at all, the shapes of at least two dozen riders came into view. Rough looking fellows they were, carrying an assortment of weapons, obviously won from an assortment of skirmishes – no noble army, this crowd. I focused on the banner carrier, and thought the symbol on the dirty white flag to be a ragged blood colored, “R”.

“I wonder if it’s Rankor,” I whispered to Zephyr.

“Possibly,” my fox’s bright eyes had not moved one bit. “Stay very still, Little Mistress. Whoever they are, we would stand no chance against them.”

“But I must warn Amphipolis,” my whispered increased with my fear. “You know it’s where they are going, Zephyr!”

“Yes, we must, Little Mistress, be patient, however.” My fox thoughts came to me. “Remember our lady promised to dispatch Icarus, and she will warn Amphipolis.”

I sat back in the grass. “Well it would be a very good time, MY LADY!”

“Hush, child,” My fox nipped my ear. “Our Lady will take care of things and you know it. Have faith.”

“I know,” my head bowed in chagrin. “Patience is not one of my strongest points.”

“No it is not, Robin of Amphipolis.” And the goddess was there. No warnings, nothing. I would never get used to that. I rose on one knee.

“Here is your bird. She will bear word…” The goddess studied me for a few long moments. “Robin, I want you to be very careful on this trip.” She put her hand on my hair. “Take care every step of the way, do you understand? You may believe that you have it all sorted out, but there are always surprises. Promise me.

“I promise, My Lady,” I looked straight into the amber eyes. She held out her arm and I took it in the warrior’s clasp. Her hand and arm were charged with lightning, and I felt the energy move through my body.

“Then write the missive to Amphipolis, and send it on via Icarus!”

The bird appeared, “Hey girl, great to see you.” I extended a confident arm, and the little hawk alighted waiting for a treat of dried fish.

“Icarus, I need of you to take this message to my Baba Xena the Conqueror, or Mama G, Queen of the Amazons as quickly as you can fly!”

The bird tilted her head at me, as I fastened the small message about her leg. “Godspeed to you, girl. ”

I lifted my arm and she flew high into the blue sky.

“Thank you My Lady.” I said most humbly. “I needed you, and you came.”

She kissed my forehead, “I will keep watch over you, Robin of the Warrior and the Bard. But mind yourself.”

Then, she was gone leaving only the shimmer of energy.

I looked at my companions.

“What do you think, Hades, Zephyr? Shall we try to make it down this mountain a little bit before sunset? We can follow the stream.” I looked up, “The night promises to be clear, and we can make our way into Philippi early morning and launch a quick attack on that difficult mountain yet to come. Shall we do it that way?”

My friends gave consent; I took Hades’ reins in my hand, and led him, with Zephyr at my side down the steep incline.

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

“NO!” the flashing cobalt eyes made the Amazons and their horses wilt like roses in fire, “NO! NO! NO! NO!”

The Conqueror stalked away into the approaching evening.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, “Give her a moment,” She put her hand on Ephiny’s arm, “You know how she is; she just needs to blow off a little…”

“Wham!” This was the sound of the Tide being hurled like a dagger into the thick boarded side of the stables. The startled horses inside came to life stomping and snorting.

“Steam…” The Queen finished.

Ephiny actually laughed, “I understand completely, Gabrielle.”

Pony said nothing at all but straightened Mable’s shaggy mane. Gabrielle took note of this and immediately walked to her side to hug the big warrior’s thigh.

“Pony this must be dreadful for you, ” The soft blond hair against the bare skin, brought a few tears back, “Aye My Lady Queen, that’s why we came in tonight, to pick up supplies from town ‘ere and get an early start.” She sighed, looking into her Queen’s gentle face, “We shuda known that Birdie would go.”

Gabrielle shook her head, “We should have known that Birdie would go, but it is unacceptable that she failed to notify US!” She watched as her own warrior strode back toward the group; her features somewhat calmer. “That is why Xena is so angry. This is a repeating issue we have with Birdie.”

The inn door banged open then and Cyrene entered the convocation, “I’ll be! Whatever is all this commotion ladies? Can’t a lady prepare for bed without a ruckus outside that brings to mind a competition amongst the gods themselves?”

The Conqueror cast a slightly sheepish look at her mother, “Sorry Mother– that was me.”

Hands went to hips, “And why Xena, are you throwing such a tantrum?”

Gabrielle, ever protective, answered, “We just found out that Birdie’s run away.”

“What? That little scamp! I thought we had her broke of that. Where’s my switch? Oh just wait till I lay hands on that grand birdie of mine,” the short woman stopped short in her talk. “But, she musta had a good reason.”

“She thought she did,” the sultry voice of the Conqueror entered the discussion for the first time. “Rachelle was summoned home to the Amazons by the Sea to be acting Queen until a proper Regent can be appointed and trained”

The grandmother put her hands on her ample hips, “Well, Athena’s Arse!” she commented, “If that don’t beat all I ever heard. That grand birdie of mine can get herself into the awful lest pickles.”

“She has the blood and comes by it naturally,” Ephiny spoke with a wry grin and earned herself a smack on the leg from her Queen, and a very evil eye from the Conqueror. “Well, it’s the truth; you know it, and I shan’t take it back.”

“It’s quite a long ride to Abdera,” Gabrielle was looking into the distance. “It will take a few candle marks to prepare, and she has a good lead on us.”

The Conqueror led her aside to privacy with a hand on her shoulder.

With a long practiced senstivity for the couple’s needs. The Amazon contingent followed Cyrene into the inn kitchen and pantry to purchase goods for the road.

“Gabrielle, I am not sure that you should make such a journey.” The sky colored eyes were dead serious.

“Oh, Xena, don’t be silly. I am barely into my first trimester of moons; I am perfectly capable of riding a horse, besides, don’t you need me in order to tell if Birdie is healthy?”

“Gabrielle, I know you can take care of yourself, but I just…..” The Conqueror paused and kicked a stone. “What if we were attacked and you took a bad hit or were thrown from Wendy? You know the dangers of the road. I would just rather you stay here and run the fortress and the local Amazons.”

“And I would rather go find my wicked little daughter.”

“Gabrielle!” An exasperated tone came into the sultry voice.

As if on cue, the electric stinging energy in the air surrounded them, and Artemis appeared with Icarus perched on her arm.

Gabrielle went to her knees at once, and Xena inclined her head. “Artemis.”

Gabrielle spoke, “Good evening, My Lady Artemis.”

“Good evening to The Warrior and The Bard.”

Gabrielle looked up, “Lady Artemis, I do hope you bring us news of Birdie.”

The goddess took a stalwart stance, “Yes, I bring news, and I bring my wishes on the manner I would see this situation handled – thus gaining maximum knowledge for all, and sustaining minimum damage.”

Xena walked away, “She is OUR child, Artemis.”

“I beg your pardon, Conqueror; she is partly MY child, just as is the little one who sleeps in your Queen’s belly. They are Your Children, to bear and to raise, but I, Artemis have made them possible, and therefore, I do have a say on occasion. This is such an occasion.”

The Conqueror stood a moment with her back to the goddess, just to make her own strength known. Then she turned and walked back to stand by her Queen.

“Alright, what is the news?”

Gabrielle could feel the tension in the warrior’s hand which clutched her shoulder.

The goddess was silent; Icarus flew instead to the arm of the Conqueror. Bird and Warrior gave each other skeptical regard.

“What message do you bring to me, Icarus? It better be good.”

The little hawk glared back at the sapphire eyes, clearly communicating, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger.’

The gaze of the raptor won; the Conqueror sighed and gently removed the tiny tin canister which contained Birdie’s message. She read it with a scowl.

Mama, Baba, Please don’t worry about me. I am off to Abdera to be consort to Rachelle. We will explain everything later. Love, Birdie.

“CONSORT?”

Gabrielle’s eyes had enlarged by half again, and her voice level (nearly a shriek) brought the Amazons and Cyrene running back outside. “Consort? How and when did I miss that little choosing and title?” She came to her feet in righteous indignation, “Consort? I had no idea Birdie even KNEW the word.”

Ephiny tried to hide her rolling eyes, while Pony walked away snuffling into her hands.

Xena exchanged a secret look with Artemis then, and their chuckles were not subtle. This made Gabrielle even more furious, and she whirled on the warrior.

“And how do YOU know so much, Xena? And why pray tell is this so so so ….. Minotaur shite-ting funny?”

This caused even more laughter, but the Conqueror was brought to control with a rather stiff backhand to the gut. She wiped her eyes and calmed down.

“I’m sorry, Gabrielle, I know it isn’t funny. What is funny is that you would believe that Birdie didn’t know what a ‘consort’ was. You had ‘the talk’ with her, after all.”

“Obviously, our little lovebirds neglected to tell you that it is customary among the Seaside Amazons to pierce the ear with a treasure coin of the one she chooses as consort for life. Rachelle and Birdie kept that ceremony between the two of them at the birthday celebration.” The goddess bowed her head to hide a slight smile.

Xena caught her bard as she sank into a bewildered heap. “Easy there my love,” she whispered. “It is not the end of all things.”

“They are only fourteen. Isn’t Rachelle fourteen as well?” The Queen demanded and was given an affirmative nod by Pony. “Fourteen is far too young to make such major choices. Mind you, I have no quarrel with the fact that they have chosen each other,” the evergreen eyes mused and wandered just a tiny bit, “but they are much too young! Xena, I can stand.” The Amazon Queen came to her feet.

“Well, there is a good deal here to be addressed,” Artemis regained control. As the group composed itself for discussion, they were all surprised by the sudden departure of Icarus. All eyes were on the hawk pensively, for it was felt, though not expressed, that Birdie must need the hawk again.

“When I spoke with Birdie, and yes, I am sorry I neglected to say that sooner, I told her that this situation was uniquely Amazon and therefore would be dealt with by Amazons only.” The goddess allowed that statement to soak in, and she was not surprised to feel the fire of sapphire eyes upon her.

“However, it is my wish that Xena and not Gabrielle go with Ephiny and Eponin to fetch and return our wayward Bird…Gabrielle…” the goddess met the patina shaded eyes, “Please trust me in this matter; I know what is best. And Xena…”

A sullen glance from the Conqueror was her acknowledgement, “I meant it when I decreed that this was an Amazon situation. I know that as Birdie’s parent, you feel that you should discipline her. You must trust me as well and allow only Amazons to discipline her for this transgression.”

The warrior said nothing but turned her back. The goddess continued softly, “You don’t see it now, but I have other lessons in mind for you to teach our Birdie girl. I intend to upset the cart somewhat in this matter.”

The Conqueror spun to face Artemis. All breath was held for an instant as mere mortals wondered how the standoff would end. Surprisingly, Xena gave a blue shouldered shrug. “You’re the goddess,” she muttered.

Even the goddess looked startled.

But it was the Queen of the Amazons who took over from there. “Well, now that you warriors have had your power allotment,” Gabrielle spoke with not quite a wry smile. “Let’s MOVE IT! There is a kid out there to catch!”

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Morning came quickly. The night had not been an easy one, not for me nor my animal companions. Each day brought more to keep in mind and frankly, more to fear. Fortunately, the weather had remained good, but I knew better than to think conditions would remain in our favor.

Hades and I made our way into Philippi anonymously. Zephyr had chosen to bypass the village and join us on the other side; pet foxes were a rarity, and someone might want to buy or even try to take her, so it was a wiser decision to keep her out of the picture.

Hades and I strolled through the market place, and I made careful selections, a good sized lump of cheese, four large strands of dried meat, (I wasn’t sure what), two loaves of dark chewy bread, a small tin of olive oil and a sack of breading mix, should I have the luck to actually catch some type of fish or meat, and a varied assortment of smallish fruits and three large apples for Hades.

This would be the challenging part of our trip. I hoped we would be fortunate in finding water, but I bought two extra skins, just in case. I did not know this mountain at all.

Just as we were exiting the village, there was an arms kiosk. I couldn’t help but stop and look.

His arrows were extremely fine. Something told me to buy a few, even though it took nearly all of my dinars to purchase half a dozen of them. Why might I need them, I didn’t know, but I bought them and placed them carefully in the quiver which rode in the gear bag on Hades’ side.

It was near midday, and I spotted the figure of an ebony fox waiting for us on the outskirts of the town. She was ready to begin our ascent.

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Cyrene was legendary in Amphipolis for being an early riser. It didn’t matter if a guest or a family member had to be on the road at midnight, Cyrene was up preparing food for the journey. Some said she never slept at all. Morpheus took care of Cyrene though. She was gifted with the ability to take a dozen tiny naps in a twenty- four candle mark period, and she was always fresh, a product of being a single mother who ran a full time inn, and who also had three children.

So when Xena and Gabrielle came downstairs to commence the departure, Cyrene was up, preparing tea, wrapping dried meat, taking bread from the ovens; her day beginning as if it never ended. An amazing woman.

“Mother,” Xena cleared her throat. Gabrielle smiled to herself. The ex-warlord, the Destroyer of Nations, Xena Warrior Princess, Xena the Conqueror, could falter like a teenager when faced with her mother.

The older woman didn’t stop her working.

“Mother,” the tall daughter spoke with more force. Almost with a “tone.”

The little woman whirled, ” Honey, what is it? Can’t you see that mummy is very busy? Speak your mind, child.”

“Child, that’s the word, child.” The warrior was actually swaying in her stance.

With her own eyeroll, Gabrielle led the warrior to a stool and took over. “Mother Cyrene, what Xena wants to tell you and apparently cannot find the words right now is that… well… I am with child again.”

“That’s it,” Xena muttered, “with child. We….. well, actually only Gabrielle, however, it sorta is, we ….. because both of us will raise her… are with … child…” the warrior actually blew a rasberry. She sounded like Argo.

Gabrielle looked at the love of her life, “So delicate,” she said wryly, “That is what I love about you.” Xena only leaned into the blond’s side to have her hair caressed.

Cyrene had taken a seat by now and her face and hair were white from where she had clapped her hands, first against her face and following, her hair.

“By the gods, ” she said softly.

“Yes,” said Gabrielle simply. “Artemis, to be specific. She has blessed us again. You are going to be a grandmother again.”

“And you know already it’s to be a little girl?” the older blue eyes were filling now.

“Yes, Mother, another wee girl,” Xena rose now and went to wrap her mother’s body in her strong bronze arms from behind. Cyrene clung to them and they rocked a bit. “That is why Gabrielle is staying behind, and why you must take extra special good care of her.”

“I will,” the grandmother whispered, her tears flowing steadily now, “Come here Gabrielle.”

The bard obeyed and the three of them had a quiet, tearful, joyful moment in a three way embrace.

Other boot sounds were moving about ; the time was coming.

“Nobody else knows,” said Gabrielle, “You are the first.”

“I’ll tell Ephiny on the way,” the warrior straightened and looked outside, her mind already shifting toward the road. “Gabrielle, do you want me to tell Birdie?”

The bard was pensive, considering. Then, “Yes, ” came the answer, “You will know the time.”

The warrior looked deeply into her partner’s eyes, “I will feel the time from you.”

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

It was so dark, one could barely call it day, and everyone gathered where everyone always gathered before important events – the area between the inn and the stables.

It was unnaturally quiet; the away party was taking a cue from the tall and focused Conqueror, who seemed fixated only on readying Argo.

Gabrielle and Cyrene could only watch. “This is what it feels like to want to wring one’s hands,”

Gabrielle thought to herself, almost amused. “One does it when one feels helpless. I do not care for the feeling.”

Time for action then. She walked to the side of her warrior. “Xena.” Almost a whisper.

Even in the darkness the bard could feel the concentrated steel of blue. “Yes, Gabrielle.”

“How are you?”

“How do you think I am, Gabrielle?” the tones were quiet and measured, as the big hands gave a final impatient tug to an uncooperative strap.

“Xena, you know I hate it when you answer a question with a question.”

A soft chuckle then and she was taken into strong warrior arms. “I am sorry, Love. The truth is, I don’t know how I am; how should I be? It would appear that I am only along for the ride on this one.”

Gabrielle sank into the warmth of the familiar strength. “You must feel strange, allowing an Amazon lead, when Birdie is guilty of,” the little blond sucked in a breath and released it with force, “something that makes you, well both of us, most angry and frightened for her.” She sighed into the breastplate. “It will be hard for you.”

She was a little startled to be pushed back then, and the mighty hands gripped her shoulders, “Gabrielle, people are wrong about me, and I would like for you to set them straight while I am gone. The multitudes…” her voice intensified, “seem to think that I can hardly wait to tan the hide right off our Birdie’s backside for this latest bit of misjudgment.” The Conqueror sighed and looked down kicking the grass, “and while that may be what she has earned, and what I ought to do, I would be as miserable as any parent who loves her child in carrying out that action.”

She allowed that to settle into her companions ears. “Discipline is necessary in child rearing, but it hurts me to be hard on Birdie as much as it hurts anyone else to have to deliver tough love to my child. Frankly, I am glad for the break, though I will certainly spend a good deal of time in conversation with my daughter. That being said, shall we depart?”

“Oh Xena,” the bard gently, softly took the great warrior’s beautiful face between her hands and forced an eye to eye confrontation. “I am sorry; but you know that I would never think that you would in any way look forward to disciplining Birdie. I do know you better than that, my Love. I know how much you love our girl, and how much you hate to punish her, regardless of her transgression.” Gabrielle’s lips touched the forehead of the Conqueror. “I trust you completely in dealing with our daughter; you know that.” The Queen chuckled a little. “However, as her mother and as an Amazon, I intend to skin her alive!”

This brought a deep laugh from the warrior princess, and she lifted her love and swung her in a circle, stopping and brushing the golden wheat hair back from the diminutive queen’s eyes. “Try not to lose control of things here.” She grinned.

“I will try.” The bard said with a smile, “I will miss you, Big Warrior, so be safe.”

The big warrior brushed her lips lightly across the bard’s own soft waiting ones. “Gabrielle, I will miss you with every heartbeat. You know that I am always near you, and that I love you.”

The jade eyes filled, and she simply answered with a nod, as the Conqueror swung her tall body up into the saddle. She dropped deeply from the saddle one more time, “You take care of everyone just as you always have, Mother.”

The faithful innkeeper said nothing but clutched the powerful leg muscles in the thigh, as Xena kissed the silver hair.

The Conqueror then took over. Artemis had said nothing about her being the leader of the away party, and by the gods she would be that.

“Let’s MOVE!” Her voice rang in the calm stillness of the coming dawn, “I want to find my daughter and return to Amphipolis as quickly as possible and without incident. Everyone look sharp!” The tall warrior rode out then and she was followed without question by Ephiny, Eponin, two other Amazons, and two of the Amphipolis militia, each leading a pack horse.

Gabrielle stood arm in arm with Cyrene allowing her tears to flow without check. Cyrene handed her a clean hankie from her apron.

Gabrielle chuckled, choked and took it. “What a mess.” She managed.

“No, darlin’,” the older woman mused, “I know how badly ya want to be with them; if I was ten or twelve winters younger, I would be with them myself. Tell me,” she asked out of curiosity and to distract the bard a little. “Who are the others? I didn’t know any of them.”

“Oh, sorry I made no introductions, Mother Cyrene, and Xena was so preoccupied. The two Amazons are Arrot and Evaline. Ephiny did not want to take them because they are Birdie’s age, really too young to be on a mission which might be dangerous. But they are devoted to Birdie, and they are excellent archers, so we finally consented. They are close to the age of being tested as warriors, but I do worry a little.” The pale eyebrows knitted together slightly. “The men from the militia are on their first mission as well. Claiborne is a fine soldier, however and so is Abstrong. Xena wanted to leave Thomas, Galto, Atticus, and the more experience militia here. For us.” She didn’t need to say why.

The distraction had worked. Cyrene gently steered her adopted daughter around and into the inn kitchen. “Come child, it’s time for breakfast,” she spoke softly, “I know you haven’t eaten.”

Gabrielle allowed the guidance, and then she smiled to herself as she followed the innkeeper into the warmth of the cheery place. “Well, Mother Cyrene, we have a great deal to plan for now, don’t we.”

The innkeeper stopped and wrapped an arm around the bard’s waist, “Indeed we do, dearie. Indeed we do…”

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“Whose idea was it to climb this mountain?” I demanded of my animal friends as we clambered against the constant falling of loose rocks and dirt under an unrelenting sun.

Neither of my companions answered me but kept a steady plodding along. Animals are more resilient than humans; they accept the earth, Mother Gaea, and the challenges she gives.

“Water break,” I stopped. Two sets of animal eyes regarded me patiently. In truth the water situation was worrisome. We were close to emptying our first water skin, and there had been no sign of natural springs anywhere since the beginning of the climb.

That didn’t matter.

I fetched a bowl from a side flap of Hades’ gear and poured him a full measure. I had not ridden him for quite some time, but he was still quite thirsty. His big dark eyes looked into mine.

“Ok, Hades, but only one more,” I couldn’t deny him. He finished it quickly.

“Zephyr.”

“After the horse, Little Mistress?”

“Oh Zephyr, don’t be such a fusser,” I wiped the bowl with my undershirt grinning at her.

She drank her bowl daintily, and I returned it to the saddle.

“Now,” I finished the skin.

“Little Mistress, night is coming and it will be very cold up here. I will scout ahead for shelter.”

“I like that plan, Zephyr.”

She was gone in a dark flash.

I exchanged a look with Hades, “Oh to be a light-footed fox.”

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The Conqueror didn’t have to look back to know it was the hoof beats of Ephiny and her grey Otto trotting first to overtake her and then to ride beside her a moment.

“Have you made this journey previously, Xena?” Ephiny ventured quietly.

The icy blues flicked sideways at the Amazon,” I had a little time last night to study, and Gabrielle drew the way for me.” She sighed, “It isn’t an easy trip.”

“No it isn’t,” her old friend agreed, “not at all.”

The Warrior Princess studied Argo’s saddle horn for a moment, “I hope that we catch Birdie sooner,” she spoke into the leather. Then she looked straight ahead, “But if I know my daughter, we can be prepared to enjoy a few days by the sea.”

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Gabrielle smiled at the evening sun as she returned from her daily walk. Telling Cyrene that she was with child again had been the most fun the bard had experienced in a long time. Well, except for telling Xena.

It would be great fun to tell Birdie as well. When the kid’s butt skin grew back; Gabrielle could feel the heat in her own eyes flash. Whatever had possessed her Birdiegirl?

Love. Ah.

Well, love swings a big staff, she thought. But so do mothers.

The bright green eyes squinted at a tiny dot advancing in her direction. She strode towards it, realizing its aim was she. Icarus. The blond queen held out her right arm and the little hawk alighted gently. Gabrielle immediately searched in her pocket for a treat; fortunately she found a bit of dried meat.

The hawk ate hungrily as the bard unwound and perused the tiny message, which she knew was Birdie’s script. “I am fine, but Rankor comes.”

By the gods.

“Icarus, you can find Xena, can’t you?” The little hawk gave her a haughty, offended look. “Good, Xena rides six or seven candle marks from whence you’ve just flown. Here.” She gave the bird another larger tidbit of food. The bird took it in beak and flapped her wings.

“Godspeed, Little bird, “Gabrielle was momentarily caught in the irony of her words. Then she began to act like a queen.

“Thomas!” She spotted him as he strode toward the barn.

“My Lady?”

“Would you please find and send to me, our young Caleb?”

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By the time we reached Zephyr’s cave we were a motley frozen crew, horse, fox, and warrior, no, just a kid by then, who was beginning to have serious doubts about her decisions.

“Little Mistress, it is safe inside. I checked, and it is large enough for Hades as well. At least it will block the wind.”

The wind. Minotaur shite, I had never felt such wind. It cut like blades through my clothing, my boots, my cloak, even my thick hair. My ears and nose had lost feeling. I had remembered to bring my fingerless gloves, but they were little help.

“Good job, Zephyr. Perhaps I can start a fire and we can have some food.” I rubbed my stinging hands together and went to my pack.

“Little Mistress.”

“A fire is going to be a godsend tonight; I just need to find my flint here..” I kept rummaging through my gear, “It’s in here, I know that I put it in here.”

“Little Mistress… Robin.”

Why couldn’t I find it? I jammed my hands into my pockets. Had to warm them just a little more.

“Little…”

“WHAT?”

Silence.

Hades began folding like a paper horse, something he rarely didBut I watched him lower, leg by leg, until his great body relaxed on the ground, and so he remained, giving me his great-eyed, patient regard.

Zephyr trotted over and lay close beside him.

“Little Mistress, there is no wood. We cannot have a fire, my little one.”

How stupid of me. What a sorry warrior. Tears came quickly, but so did Zephyr. She tugged at my sleeve.

“Come.”

My faithful fox led me to the space between herself and my horse. In that small nook, their combined body warmth might not protect me from complete misery, but it might keep me alive.

Zephyr’s gentle tongue cleaned my face of tears, as it had done so many times in my life.

“There my girl, we will be just fine. Don’t worry.” She snuggled in closer to me.

I opened the flap on Hades’ bag. “Well, we can eat something.” I tore a piece of dried meat in two parts and gave one to my fox. Chewing on the other piece, I came up with an apple for Hades.

“Ambrosia, right, my friends?” I settled back against Hades and tucked my boots under Zephyr.

It was so very cold. At the entrance of our cave, the stars shone like sparkling ice in the blackness.

The height and the cold sharpened the vividness.

“Zephyr, how high do you reckon we might be? I know this is a higher place than I’ve ever been. But to go around this mountain would have added two or three days.”

My fox stared out at the sky, “I can’t fathom, Little Mistress. I know that when one is above the tree line and there is no life, only cold and wind, one is many thousand footsteps nearer the stars.”

When I shook my head, I could hear my hair crinkle from the condensation of my breath. Zephyr and Hades both had white muzzles. I wondered if we would live through the night. But the sky was mesmerizing. It didn’t matter if we died here; there was unsurpassed beauty, and I was with beloved friends. I cuddled even closer to Hades who whickered gently and touched me with his nose. Zephyr was curled nearly in my lap.

“Look, a shooting star!” I pointed. “Up here one appears to be so much closer!”

And closer and closer the star came.

“Little mistress!” Zephyr was alarmed and so was I, but we couldn’t move out of the way; we were frozen in place. If it was death, it would be quick. I wrapped my arms around her.

The light became unbearably bright in the cave for a moment, and I shut my eyes. When nothing else happened, I wondered if death was always so quiet.

Then a voice, “I see once again, my Birdie Girl that you need me to rescue your little butt from certain DOOM, do you not?”

I knew that voice and opened my eyes.

In front of a gloriously warm and blazing fire which burned from the ore of the star, stood Marcus.

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For Zephyr and Hades…

When the night is cold,
You come to me
And give me silent shelter
From the icy wind.

If I am too bold
You gather me in
And gently, firmly
Protect me from myself.

When I can no longer cope
Your love sustains me
As constant as starlight
‘Til morning comes.

Robin of Amphipolis

Part 3

 

I am Robin of the Warrior and the Bard…

“M-mm-Marcus?” my first reaction was disbelief. It could be some kind of hysterical mirage; our circumstances were fairly dire after all.

But he put his hand on his hip, tilted his head and allowed his gorgeous dark eyes to smile at me.

“At your service, my mischief-loving kid sister.”

He had matured. His shoulders were wide and strong; he was taller, his silky dark hair was much longer, and he sported whiskers. But I had met him when he was yet a boy. Now he would be seventeen winters or so in earthbound terms.

I rose to approach the fire and felt the neck of my tunic tugged by my horse, and Zephyr’s body leaning gently into my legs. Marcus took a step towards me, a protective hand out.

“Meteor fire is deadly hot, Birdie, ” he warned. His voice was deeper as well. Coming to stand beside me, he removed a golden dagger from his belt. Directing the tip at the stone about seven paces in front of us, it began to bubble and glow with heat. Gradually, gracefully, Marcus erected a partition of stone between us and the fire, yet there was still sufficient warmth to be had. I could just see the tops of the flickering white flame.

“That feels good, Marcus,” I said humbly. “Thank you.”

He finally smiled down at me, and placed his arm around my shoulders, “You little brat.”

The dagger made another sweep across the wall. This time three bowls appeared made of polished granite. They were of descending size: the smallest held a spoon.

Marcus strode to the largest.

“This for Hades,” he said, placing it on a rock ledge where my horse could eat it easily. “A warm sweet feed of oats, barley , corn, and molasses.” Hades twitched his ears with enthusiasm and began to eat steadily.

The second bowl didn’t smell so good, but Zephyr greeted it excitedly, “For My Lady Zephyr, ” Marcus placed the smaller bowl in front of the fox, ” a warm stew of frogs and fish. Ish!” He looked away. Zephyr gave him a stare before she began to eat daintily.

“And for my own wayward Birdie,” He put the warm reddish bowl into my hands, “Soup of beef, potatoes, and barley.” It smelled divine, and I was ravenous.

“Thank you, Marcus,” I whispered. “We would have been doomed without you.”

“Oh and…..” he made a graceful left sweep of the dagger and water came from the side of the cave, falling into three separated levels, a high one for Hades, mid level for me, and lower for Zephyr. I rose to fetch the water skins.

“Don’t worry, Bird, just eat.” He arrested me with a hand. Instead he formed a granite mug out of something or nothing and went to fill it. He brought it back to me. When I emptied it immediately, he filled it again. Then, he sat beside me, and allowed himself to relax.

“You are going to say, ‘It’s a fine one this time, Birdie,’ aren’t you?” I scraped the very last possible drop of soup from the bowl and relinquished it with a sigh. He was already on his feet and fetching empty bowls from my animal companions; they both retired to the water, and seemed to think this was the time for human talk.

Marcus carefully situated the bowls along the stone wall as they had first appeared. “In the morning, you will find your breakfast in them, ” He returned to me. Somewhat different fare for you, but the same for your friends.”

“Thank you, Marcus.” I looked up and held his eyes. “We would have likely frozen to death without you. I didn’t plan….. I never…” my eyes filled suddenly, and I couldn’t look at him.

Marcus sat cross-legged beside me and pulled my head into his lap. First he gave my head several light knocks with his knuckles; he ruffled my hair vigorously, and he finished his big brother reprimand with a short round of merciless tickling. I rolled and giggled, but there were still tears, and he wiped them away. When he sighed, it sounded like the wind outside.

“My Birdie girl, whatever shall I do with you?”

I didn’t look at him, “You are tired of always having to come to my rescue, aren’t you Marcus?”

His long arm wound itself around me then and he pulled me in closely. His body was warm.

“That’s not it, Little Bird.”

“You could come to see me when I am NOT in trouble, you know. There are times…”

The chuckle came from deep inside. I could feel it resonate. “Who would mind the stars, Birdie? That’s all I do. I mind the stars and I mind you.”

“Really?” I sat up and turned to face him. “You can’t ever just come for a visit?”

“Wish I could,” He leaned his forehead against mine and then twisted it so we looked above the wall and flames to the black and sparkling sky beyond. “It’s quite a universe out there, Birdie.”

“Can you show me someday?”

He put his hands on my shoulders and shook them slightly, “Perhaps, if you live long enough. Birdie, what is this latest …… I don’t wish to call it a fiasco, because your intentions are from the heart, but had I not come tonight, fiasco would be the word, would it not?”

Hades and Zephyr had returned from their refreshment and both stood silently as if they would to hear my explanation as well.

I rose with some indignation. “The trip was going well until this stupid mountain. I miscalculated it.” My knees gave out and I sank among them again, “I miscalculated everything about it, the height, and the cold, the lack of food or wood. I messed up badly.”

Marcus slid his big hand into my hair and gripped the back of my head, “You are honest, Birdie. But you didn’t say that perhaps your first mistake was leaving without consulting your parents, did you?”

“Oh Marcus, I know that was wrong. But try to understand; they would not have allowed me to come, and Rachelle really needs me at her side.” My passion flickered and my head drooped, “I am prepared to face the consequences of my actions.”

He looked out at the stars. “Many things are set in motion now, Birdie and there will be many consequences, and not just for you, kiddo. Follow your heart, AND your mind.” He knocked on my head. “You have an extremely good mind, you know. Adolescence can interrupt its workings at times, but do try to wrestle it away from your heart and emotions.”

There was a shifting of shadows and a whinny from far outside the cave. Marcus came to his feet.

“Bartholomew calls,” he said. “We have far to go yet this night. ” He pulled me up and into an embrace. “For the next candle mark, the water in your fount will be warm,” he said. “You might use it to wash up a bit. And be certain to make your way down this mountain at first light.”

I wrapped my arms around him tightly. His scent was of cold clean air. “Thank you, Marcus,” I muttered into his tunic. ” Wish you didn’t have to go.”

“I wish the same, Birdie, ” he whispered, ” I do love you, my Birdiegirl.”

“I love you, Marcus…”

He faded from my arms.

I blinked and sighed. Then I thought of Rachelle.

“Ahem, ” I addressed Hades and Zephyr, “Turn your heads, this girl is going to take a bath.”

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The group had learned to wait quietly on the Conqueror, regardless of how odd her actions might seem. Sometimes, she just dismounted Argo and stood beside the golden horse, and closed her eyes in the wind, allowing it to consume her, as she gathered information from it.

But now she was sifting through the ashes of a small campfire.

Arrot couldn’t hold her curiosity any longer. “‘Tis Birdie’s, right, My Lady?”

Xena stared back at the inquisitive youngster with surprising patience. “It is. ”

“Howdaya…”Arrot’s next, rather silly question was stayed by a backhanded swat in the gut from Ephiny.

However, the Conqueror only smiled, ” Because this fire was laid and struck exactly as I taught Birdie to build campfires, Arrot. And if we look very closely…” the tall dark headed figure hunkered over a pile of small white stones. “She left me a message.” The tiny stones had been shaped into an unassuming “X”. A shake of the head followed a quick smile at the stones. “We’ll camp here.”

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“My Lady, you sent for me?” The boy entered the renowned “Conqueror’s Conversation Room” with some trepidation. Caleb had trained hard in the Amphipolis Militia, and he had flourished in the firm and fair discipline of the military framework set by the Conqueror, and enforced by her officers. Still, to be called singularly to the “Conversation Room” that a soldier, especially a young soldier, often meant a reprimand.

Gabrielle studied the young man that she had personally sworn into the service of the Warrior and the Bard only a few moons previous. She had kept very close tabs on his progress, both she and Xena were proud of his progress; it had surpassed their expectations. Still she was in a position of command at this point, so she tried to keep a certain attitude.

She stood, leveling a pointed jade gaze at the kid from across the enormous wooden table. It had taken eight stout men to carry it into the room.

“Caleb,” she gestured with an arm, “Sit.”

“After My Lady, Please?”

Hum, the thoughts entered under the light hair… manners now..Very nice.

“Very well.” She waited while he scrambled around the table and pulled the chair out for her, allowed her to sit, and then gently pushed her comfortably inward. Cyrene, as always had left a pitcher of cider, and Gabrielle filled the two mugs as Caleb quickly moved to his seat across from her.

“Drink and be at ease, Caleb, you are not in trouble.” The bard smiled as she noticed the tension leave his shoulders. He drank thirstily, and she refilled his mug.

“Careful with that stuff, it sneaks up on you.” She sipped her own, and watched him slow down on his second mug.

“Caleb, it’s all right to look at me,” the Queen spoke softly, “Don’t be afraid.”

He stared into the cider, “But us’ly, M’Lady, a feller’s in truble when ‘e’s in here.”

Gabrielle chuckled, oh that Conqueror. But she had to command; it was necessary. And now she was in command, so keep the bearing, little bard.

“You are not in trouble, but I need your advice,” she added a little force to her words.

He raised his beautiful violet eyes then. Before he left, she would call Cyrene up and they would cut that hair. It looked like a poorly tied wheat stack.

“Ya need MY advice, M’Lady?” he looked incredulous.

“Yes, Caleb. You see,” she toyed with her mug, “I have word from the road that Rankor is coming to Amphipolis.”

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“Little Mistress, there has to be a place to ford this kind of water barrier,” my fox spoke in my mind as we studied the formidable place that the water came into the land from the sea.

We had slept well, and warmly, awakening just as the fire began to slow, discovered our three bowls again, lined up steaming on the wall. My animals feasted on the same menus as they had the night previous, but my bowl, was filled with hot, sweet oatmeal. We had not been so well fueled in days, and we had descended the mountain like a bolt of lightning Zeus himself might have thrown .

“We are on the home stretch to Abdera now!” I sang cheerfully to my companions as we ran. I could almost feel the soft strength of Rach’s arms and then winced as I imagined the whack in the head she would administer because I HAD made the journey. But I was her consort after all, and my duty was clear. My heart swelled in my chest with my thoughts.

Zephyr skidded to a stop and Hades and I did the same. Recalling Rachelle’s “dirt map”, I remarked, ” Of course we do have a few water crossings.”

“Did this water barrier escape your memory, Little Mistress?” My fox didn’t quite growl.

“Only for a moment, Zephyr. We can take care of this, no worries.”

“May I remind my Little Mistress that it is, in fact, the sea?”

“Zephyr, you run for a quarter candle mark’s time in that direction, and I will ride the same time in the opposite. On a body of water this large, there should be a way to cross within close ground.”

One would think so,” my fox gave me a slightly haughty look, ” Of course, you are on a horse.”

“And you have Godfox ability,” I retorted as Hades danced in a circle, “Shall we race?”

Zephyr lost her attitude quickly and became sable lightning. Hades had accepted the challenge as well. I realized quickly, though that Zephyr would win the race, for I had sent her in direction of the land, where the water narrowed. My direction was towards the sea, and therefore, of course, the water only became wider. “Idiot.” I thought to myself; “This makes no sense, Hades, we might as well head back; Zephyr will win this one.”

The dark shape of a sitting fox came into view very quickly.

“I’m sorry, Zeph, ” I began, riding up..

You weren’t thinking..” she finished the thought.

“No, I didn’t think it through,” I admitted, patting Hades’s broad neck.

“No harm done, it isn’t far.” She turned on a dinar and we followed her merrily waving tail.

The bridge was a low water type, the best kind for boats, but not always handy for those of us on foot. There were two pillars, a road’s width apart, and across the water, two more.

I dismounted, ” Let the human check it out, my friends,” Rolling up my sleeve I ran my hand down the length of the pillar. I felt a ridge just as my face went under.

“We’ll be waiting just a little bit,” I sputtered.

I swear that horse and fox were laughing at me.

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The search party halted again and formed a semi circle. Argo and her rider faced the group.

“As we pass through Philippi, pick up any personal supplies you may need to last until Abdera,” the cobalt eyes were level in command mode. “We will meet at the ascent of the mountain on the other side of town in about a candle mark. Ephiny, Pony, and I will purchase extra food and firewood.”

The dark eyebrow rose at the unasked question. “We will be at an elevation above tree line and with therefore no wood to burn, ” she smiled at the dawning in her groups’ eyes, “It will also be damn cold.”

“We should stock extra water as well, My Lady Conqueror?” a shy hand raised from the circle.

“Correct and thank you, Abstrong. Each of you should gather at least four extra water skins, two for yourself and two for your horse. It will be cold, but one can dehydrate very quickly on high. Is everything clear? Any questions?” She looked about, meeting the eyes of each of her party. ” Move out then, one candle mark.”

Her group split into the many avenues of Philippi, but something held Xena in place for a beat. She scanned the skies. There. “Icarus!”

The little hawk landed easily on the Conqueror’s leather clad arm.

“Hey girl,” the bird was given a large fishy reward. Everyone who was “in service” to Icarus always carried dried fish. The Conqueror gently massaged the head feathers and stroked the delicate wings.

“Not so easy being the messenger among us, is it?” As the bird relaxed from her hard flight, the warrior removed the tube from the taloned leg and read, “Rankor approaches now, but will meet U on return. LV-G”

She scowled, “Well Gabrielle, you know that I would rather be there, but you ARE a warrior in your own right.”

Turning the parchment over she wrote, “Be wise and safe, my Love, X”.

“Here little friend,” She fed the hawk another generous tidbit as she fastened the message to the leg. “Now you find a nice tree perch and catch some sleep, on this flight, hear me?”

The hawk looked at her quite seriously, as if she heeded the order, and then she launched herself from the Conqueror’s arm into the blue sky. The warrior watched the wings fade.

“Gods’ speed to you, little bird, ” she sighed.

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.”Well, M’ Lady, You might s’pose he would show up someday, I reckon.”

Gabrielle frowned; the boy wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“Why would that be, Caleb?” She kept her voice very soft.

The boy rose as if shot from his chair and began pacing the room nervously. Gabrielle allowed it; he would tell her.

“Well, duzn’t evr’one want to fight The Conqueror?” He spoke too loudly, waving his hands about.

She waited; he had stopped and was gazing out one of the four large windows in the Conversation Room. It looked toward the main gate.

Gabrielle sensed that it was time to approach the boy. She could see that he was shaking. His body tensed as she placed her hands gently, one on each shoulder.

“Easy, Caleb… I am your friend as well as your Queen. Trust me, take your time, and tell me whatever is you can tell me.”

The shaking stilled somewhat with the bard’s love. Little could against her gentleness.

“I know what to do, M’Lady,” he whispered, then cleared his throat, “Tell him the C’queror is on the road, and e’ll have to go lookin’ for her.”

“Why would he believe that?” Gabrielle asked, “He would want to search the fortress.”

“You give ’em me as co’llteral. E’ll believe ya.”

“You?” The Queen was a little startled at the importance Caleb placed on himself. It was far out of his character.

“Yes, M’Lady, ” his gaze never left the window, but she felt his shoulders sag. “Rankor is me Da.”

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“Battle On!” Actually, I just whispered the phrase.

I wondered at the sight we were just then. I had removed my boots and thrown them across Hades’ back, rolled up my pants as far and as tightly as I could and then taken the big horse’s lead.

After a mental argument which lasted nearly the whole of the time we waited for the tide to recede, Zephyr had finally conceded to my carrying her across the bridge. The water was still knee deep for me, nearly so for Hades, and foxes are not so fond of swimming. But she did not care for my “fireman’s carry” idea.

“Little Mistress, I can use Godfox.”

“Don’t use Godfox for ordinary challenges, Zephyr; there may always be a time in the future when we need it more.”

“I don’t care much for deep water, Little Mistress.”

“This is why I shall carry you.”

“Very well,” a long suffering sigh.

I hunkered down, “Come on.”

My furry soul mate was not heavy; she was just unwilling to ride across my shoulders like a lost lamb. Her dark fur felt soft and warm on my neck.

“Mind your step, Little Mistress!” Her thoughts were much louder at this close proximity.

“I will, Zephyr, I will. Now you watch Hades. This bridge will be frightening for him, because he has never crossed anything like it, and the footing is tricky; he could easily make a misstep.”

And so we commenced. With Hades’ lead in my hand, and a sable fox across my shoulders, I stepped cautiously into the water. There was a strong pull as the tide receded.

“Come, Hades, C’mon, boy.” He didn’t like it. I tried a gentle tug. “It’s ok, boy.”

My horse stepped carefully into the water. He gave me a look that said he was only doing it for me.

“That’s my brave boy; that’s my brave Hades…”

“And what am I, Little Mistress? Chopped liver?”

I picked my way carefully on the stumbly bridge. “You, dear fox, are my goddess-sent companion, my advisor, my friend, for whom I thank Artemis daily.”

“Artemis, please be with us.” The reply inside my head.

I stroked her paw, “I hope that she is listening, Zephyr.”

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“Rankor is your father?” Gabrielle spun the boy around as if he weren’t nearly a head taller than she. “I thought you had been turned out of your home, Caleb.”

The violet eyes dropped, “I was, M’Lady. Out of my foster ‘ome. I wuz taken from Rankor when I was three rounds of seasons,” The bard observed one, two, three teardrops falling on the wooden floor. “It wuz just as “e wuz formin’ the gang.”

The Queen waited. When she saw him lift an arm, she quickly offered a hankie from her pocket before he used his sleeve. Then she waited.

He filled the hankie, “Ma died birthin’ me,” a heavy sigh. She wondered if Caleb had ever told this story. “I think that’s why ‘e’s always hated me.”

Gabrielle could wait no longer. She pulled the boy into a warm embrace. Caleb stiffened at first; he was a grown man and soldier in his own eyes.

“C’mon,” the bard was well practiced with soldiers. “It’s all right.”

He sniffled a moment or two and returned the embrace haltingly. Not hugged enough, she reckoned to herself. Don’t push him.

Caleb stepped back and came to attention. “Thank you, M’Lady. Ya “onner me with your compassion.” He blew his nose again and rather absently stuffed it into his pants pocket. Gabrielle was grateful.

“Come and sit a moment more,” She took his hand and led him back to the table. Caleb consumed his cider in a quick gulp and reached for the pitcher.

The Queen took it, “Uh uh uh, You’ve had enough.”

Ah those eyes.

She sighed and gave-in, pouring half a mug, “I will NOT see you drunk, Caleb. Sip it slowly.” The boy watched as his Queen carefully poured his mug half full.

They sat quietly side by side; Caleb sipped his cider slowly, slurping every so often, and then casting her Majesty an apologetic look.

Gabrielle brought both elbows to the table and then leaned her forehead to clenched fists, as if such a position would help her to decide. Finally, she looked at him.

“Caleb, I cannot allow you to simply surrender yourself to Rankor. “And I know for certain it would be an unacceptable situation for The Conqueror.” The fists returned to her forehead.

Suddenly she felt a shift in the boy. He shyly moved his hand across to touch her arm.

“My “apologies, M’Lady, but you MUST. It is the only way.” His feelings were strong.

The bard sighed to the bottom of her soul. This was a tough one.

“Again yer pardon, M’Lady tell him where to find the Conqueror. She’s ‘hoo ‘e wants. I will just be a kind of payment for the information.” His eyes lowered, ” Yeah, I’ll get a few beatn’s but that’s nuthin’ new with him.” Caleb then took a large breath, as if he would make a wish. “If I’m very lucky, The Conqueror might fight for me.”

Gabrielle rose then and captured both of the young man’s hands in her own.

“I will consider your offer, BUT ONLY consider it,” she was almost lost in his beautiful eyes, which reminded her so much of a distant lover.

“I will find you later tonight and tell you my decision.”

He clicked his heels smartly and kissed her hand, “M’Lady.” He executed a perfect about face and departed.

Gabrielle returned to the window and watched him leave the inn.

“I know that it would work,” she spoke to herself, “but he’s only a boy.`

There was a stirring and she gazed downward.

“Oh, and you think you have a voice, little singer,” She smiled and gently ran her hands over her belly. “Singer,” she contemplated, “I like it.”

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“My Lady Conqueror, will ya come have a look?”

The party was afoot now and had been for quite some passage of time. When the air was thin enough to make a human struggle for breath, Xena had no intention of making horses carry on a double struggle.

Abstrong was assigned to the rear of the party, so obviously he had left the more dutiful Claiborne at that watch and done a little exploring.

Xena squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed her throbbing temples against the headache which had vexed her for at least two candle marks. A diversion would be good.

She touched Argo’s soft nose, “Let’s go, girl,” and led the horse in a more lateral direction to where her enlisted man beckoned.

“Here M’Lady,” Abstrong was about to rush inside a small cave. His leader stayed him with a hand to the back of his belt.

“Me first, kiddo…”

Abstrong sucked in a protest quickly; he had learned better and quickly stepped aside.

“Move the horses out of my light!” Was the next rather grumpy order.

“Whoaaaa,” he heard her low exclamation. “Well come in, Abstrong, I know that you are jumping out of your britches.”

He ran right into her, which drew a backward glare.

“Sorry, M’Lady, it’s dark,” he gulped, “Whoa! Ya think she was here, then?”

“Absolutely, and I believe she had company, “Xena kicked at the large slag of glittering black stone in the entry of the cave.

Game to please her, and proud of his strength, Abstrong slipped his huge hands into what felt like a good purchase on the thing. He strained until veins showed in his forehead and fell back panting, “Sorry, M’Lady.”

Xena had to TRY, but she achieved the same results.

“Minotaur shite,” she breathed. “Be nice to take it, but it’s too gods be damned heavy for any single horse.”

“What is it, M’Lady?” Abstrong leaned forward on his knees and wiped sweat from his eyes.

“That, my friend, is ore which falls from the sky. Weapons made from star ore are the finest possible anywhere, because of its strength.”

She drew forth The Tide from her back scabbard, “The Tide isn’t fully star ore; it’s only about half. It makes a heavy blade, but it cannot be broken by any other blade.”

The Tide was pitched casually to Abstrong and he caught it, but it put him flat on his back.

“By the gods, it’s heavy!” he admired the weapon. Few were allowed to touch the Tide. “I knew it was a mighty weapon, M’Lady, but I had no idea it was so fine.” He returned it. “So a sword of pure star ore would be impossible to use.”

“Practically, unless you were a Cyclops, or another kind of giant, “Xena rose and offered him a hand; he clasped it arm to arm, and then they both looked longingly at the ore.

“Wouldn’t it be fine for our milita…” she mused, and then met his eyes. “You know, the twentieth celebration of the alliance of Amphipolis is but about three seasons’ round away. Birdie should be seventeen…” The cobalt eyes closed momentarily, “I can’t imagine my girl being so grown up.”

Abstrong let her talk and continued to walk about the slab.

“I wonder if I sent you, our most stubborn men, a heavy duty wagon, and a brace of our strong horses with a set to spare… we’d need the smithies…”

“Still not likely we could budge it,” Abstrong shook his head at the unobtainable treasure.

“However, you might be able to break off enough chunks; the smithies have a few star ore tools themselves… Perhaps we could gather enough to make new swords for all the men and Amazons with some portion of star ore mixed in.”

Abstrong’s eyes grew wide and his youth betrayed him, “That would be so beyond AWESOME, My Lady Conqueror.” He whispered it reverently; his adoration for his leader had never ceased increasing since the day she first kicked his ass.

Xena grinned at him, “Keep it to yourself,” she muttered. “I want it to be a surprise for most and if you tell, I will take you OUT, Mister.”

He grinned, knowing full well that she would.

The icy gaze was on the slag again. ” You could only hope to harvest bits and pieces from the mass, Ab. The Tide was passed down from Athena; that is why it is so fine and balanced for a woman. This would be quite the undertaking.”

She turned, “We’d best return; the others are wondering I am sure.”

Abstrong tried his best not to show that it exhausted him to keep pace with her on the return.

The Conqueror entered the group and swinging her hands about, clapped them together in a motion which demanded attention and expressed her job.

“Abstrong found a cave where Birdie spent the night,” she announced, “We are on the right trail. Sorry to keep you waiting, but perhaps you grabbed a little rest. Now let’s MOVE.”

Claiborne surrendered the rear guard, and Abstrong turned to watch Xena the Conqueror, trot briskly to the front of the struggling line, as if she felt no altitude effects at all, as if she were only going for her morning run.

He closed his eyes, pulled his big warm chestnut companion close to his own shoulder, and whispered, “Ah, Charley, I thank the gods daily for that moment of foolishness which sent me to challenge Xena the Conqueror. ” He chuckled at the ground, “There was a blessed ass-kickin’ if ever there was one…”

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Cyrene was kneading bread when Gabrielle entered the kitchen. As was her habit, she sat on one of the tall stools and waited until Cyrene addressed her. The silence gave her time to study the older woman’s arms and hands; they had a few seasons on them, but both remained strong and capable. They reminded her of her warrior’s strength, and she knew one of the sources of Xena’s strength was her mother.

Finally the light blue eyes gave her audience, what’s on your mind, lass?”

Gabrielle studied her answer and before speaking and went to the stove where there was always tea available. She poured two cups, gave one to Cyrene, and reseated herself.

“I wanted to talk to you about planning for the arrival of Rankor; you know that he is coming,” she kept her eyes on the tea.

Cyrene wiped her hands on her apron and took a sip of tea. “So go ahead, Love.”

Gabrielle recounted her discussion with Caleb and the decisions she had made.

“Cyrene, you have met Caleb, haven’t you? Young boy, wheat hair and beautiful eyes.”

“I have.”

“He insists that I turn him over to Rankor, who is his true blood father,” Gabrielle shuddered.

Cyrene covered her face with her hands and sighed, “Ah Lass.” She didn’t realize that she had dusted her face with flour. “Well, he knows that Xena won’t stand for it when they meet.”

“He hopes for that. Caleb is very young and he’s never had any kind of nurturing; he doesn’t see himself as worth much.”

Cyrene nodded thoughtfully, ” I was thinkin’ to ask for his help in the kitchen for half days. Then he can train in the afternoon, or our Birdie can train him.”

“That is a wonderful idea, Mother C,” Gabrielle smiled. It felt good to smile. “It would give him a taste of maternal TLC to work with you, and he won’t feel so far behind if he has some private training.”

“Ay, I love the militia, Gabrielle; don’t get me wrong, but some of them are not the best role models,” Cyrene let the bard take her own meaning from that.

“I hate putting the boy out like bait for his father,” Her eyes filled, “There is no way to feel good about it. But it was his idea, I can think of no other, and even the baby…” she drifted a little, hoping she wouldn’t sound completely bonkers.

“What about the baby?”

“The baby let me know her thoughts, and that she was in favor of the idea.”

Cyrene returned to her bread and bided her time before answering.

“And how did she make her thoughts known to you, my sweet lass?”

When she addressed her by a pet name, Gabrielle always felt very young. Well, Mother C. would have to know sooner or later.

“She sings to me Mother Cyrene,” The Amazon queen looked down at her hidden passenger. “I can hear her; Xena can hear her. When she is older, you must have a try at listening to her. Her name is Singer.”

Cyrene deposited the dough in a pan and covered it with a towel to let it rise. She directed her attention to chopping up a large fish. The knife sounded violent against the cutting board. This did not seem to be a good sign to Gabrielle. Did Cyrene believe her?

“Gabrielle, the child is of Artemis, like our Birdie?”

An affirmative nod, “In some ways, Mother C, even more so, though I cannot define them yet,” the bard ran yet another gentle stroke across her abdomen.

The mother of the warrior princess finished chopping the fish. She bent underneath the big work table and spread a new mixture of flour and herbs. She coated the first piece of fish, expertly and then pointedly looked at her favorite bard, again drawing a smile. “If the little one is speakin’ to ya from the womb, Gabrielle, I expect that you best do as she says.”

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We were so close ; victory was in our grasp, when I missed the step. Consequences were swift: cold water pierced me at chest level like a spear, causing Zephyr’s exquisite face to be inelegantly dipped completely underwater. Her telepathic transmissions were quite unkind. Fortunately, Hades grabbed my collar with his teeth and kept us from losing the battle completely. I managed to find my footing once again on the bridge and, we stumbled to the other side.

Zephyr shook her head indignantly. I couldn’t keep back the chuckles which resulted in her coming closer to me to bathe me again in a furious and thorough shaking.

“Zephyr, Zeph, I’m sorry,” I rolled away from her, “Do you think these pants feel fantastic?”

They did not; I was soggy through to my undergarments.

“Let’s take a break and dry out.” My body splayed naturally into a position to best take the sun. After a few moments, Zephyr approached with a haughty air and laid her nose across my chest. We slept.

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Ephiny finally caught up with the dogged pace of the Conqueror using the last reaches of her lung capacity.

“Xe..”

“See that patch of moss ahead, perhaps two hundred paces or so?” the tall leader pointed, “That is an indication of some kind of water, so we will camp there.”

“No one’s complaining, but we all are staggering,” Her Amazon friend breathed in white puffs.

“I know, Eph,” Xena sighed, “I’ve pushed hard, but there will be water, and we are closer to the tree line, so it won’t be as cold.” She ground her teeth, “Maybe my headache will ease some.”

Ephiny noted the glassy eyed stare of a serious headache in the icy blues.

“Damn altitude,” she sympathized, “We have tea for headaches; you know that the Amazons have a tea…”

“For whatever ails ya? Yes, I know, my friend; I live with an Amazon, remember?” The long arm stretched to give her friend a rub on the shoulder. “I think a large pot of headache tea will sell very well tonight. There.” The seasoned traveler had guessed correctly. She led Argo to the clear running rivulet and allowed her to drink first. The other horses soon joined Argo; it was an unwritten Conqueror law to attend first to the needs of the horses. Then, as the equines were satiated and wondered away, the human beings hit their bellies to drink deeply. Altitude dehydrates.

Xena surveyed her party with an air of contentment. They were a good lot: Arrot hoisted the food bags from the horses and gave them to Evaline, who transported to Ephiny and Pony who were locked in a good natured spar as to what should go into the soup. Her men were ready to strike flint to a fire already. Completing that chore would move them to the next, assembling and arranging bedrolls. The party had slept close-like a family, and there had been no worries. The warrior snorted a memory that neither Claiborne nor Abstrong had entered her service easily, but now they were two of her finest.

Ah, bring on that tea. She sent a thought to the stars: “I MISS YOU, Gabrielle,” and a second thought followed quickly, “I miss you too, Little Bird of mine. You are a pain in my ass, but I love you.” Then a fierce scowl, “And by the gods, you better be all right, Birdie; you better keep yourself alive and healthy or it will be the very underworld to pay.”

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“UP! UP! UP!”

Caleb stirred and was brought wide awake when the enormous hand of his bunkhouse Master Sergeant whacked his blanketed butt.

“What is it, Tate?” He hung his head down to quiz his mate on the lower bunk.

“Dunno,” Tate was a good four season’s round older than Caleb, but he was kind to the kid, “Get yer britches on, Man; they are saying the Queen is outside.”

“Uh Oh,” Caleb nearly tumbled from the bunk, but recovered, clambered down, located his pants in the footlocker and stuffed his nightshirt into them. He was shouldering a suspender and stepping into his boots when the “Sarge” arrived at his location. He looked about at the uproar.

“The rest of ya go back to sleep, ” Sergeant Argus glanced at Caleb as if he were a mere lowliest slug, but such was his job. Secretly he harbored a very soft spot for the newest and youngest member of the militia. “Our Queen is asking for Caa-leb,” He prissed about in a circle.

Caleb felt the heat in his face. Enduring the taunts and guffaws of the few who didn’t return to sleep immediately, he arrived at the heavy planked door.

Argus flipped the latch and swung the oak open with a slight bow to the small woman who waited there, her golden hair reflecting the moonbeams.

“M’lady,” the big man said politely.

He received a smile for his manners, “I won’t keep him long, Argus. My apologies for the inconvenient time.”

“No worries, M’Lady,” Caleb felt a soft cuff to the back of his head. “Give us a tap when yer ready, lad.”

Gabrielle simply gave the boy her silent regard; even sticking out everywhere, his hair reflected the moonlight as well. He shifted his feet awkwardly.

“Though I dislike it very much, I have decided to follow your plan, Caleb,” her voice was quiet, “It is quite courageous of you to offer yourself, and I am grateful to you. I have a pretty good idea,” she smiled, “That the Conqueror will not stand for it.”

His eyes were still on his boots. Give him time; this was a youngster who was quite unaccustomed to sharing his feelings.

Finally, with a sniff, “I’d put ‘is ETA at tomorrow ev’nig, goin’ by what you said about the message.” He still wouldn’t look at her, ” Or the follo’n morning if they get drunk.” He shrugged, “Most nights they get drunk.”

There were teardrops showing on his dusty boots. Gabrielle almost reached for him, but he stepped away, jamming his hands deeply into his pockets.

“M’Lady,” his voice trembled, but she turned and walked in a small circle to allow him to articulate.

He swallowed; she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Perhaps angels looked like Queen Gabrielle.

“M’Lady,” he stood straighter, “it is my ‘onner to be able to serve ya.” He wiped his nose on his sleeve, “M’Lady.”

She caught his ears with both hands and gently pulled his face to her lips, leaving a soft kiss on his forehead. Then she made him meet her eyes.

“It is MY honor, Caleb,” her whisper was almost fierce in its intensity, “to have you in our militia.”

Then she was gone.

The entire bunkhouse became re-annoyed with Caleb as he staggered into at least six different bedding arrangements; bumping and banging the way back to his own.

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Ephiny sat up. She allowed her sense to take account; sky was clear and starry, companions all sleeping, no snoring since she had nudged Pony, fire was burning medium high; they had been able to stoke it well with extra wood from the nearby tree line.

Ah. The Conqueror sat apart; her Aegean eyes were on a journey in the cavorting flames.

Ephiny didn’t hesitate to join her tall and troubled friend. She whisked the blanket she carried around the two of them as she sat. She allowed Xena to remain lost only a few moments before she executed a gentle tap on the side of the tan temple.

“Hey, Gorgeous.”

That brought the warrior princess back to reality; she raised a warning eyebrow at her friend. Then she smiled, embarrassed at being caught so far away. That was Gabrielle’s area.

“Eph.”

“Is the mighty warrior princess suffering from insomnia? We have a…”

“Tea for that,” Xena chuckled and surprisingly, she snuggled a little closer to the Amazon. She looked at the endless stars. “Chilly night.”

Ephiny knew exactly where her friend’s mind dwelt, “Would have been far colder in that cave up yonder.”

Some of the tension in the warrior’s iron body and resolve melted away. She shook her head slowly, “Birdie has the good fortune to receive occasional celestial assistance,” the dark head bowed, “That cave was such a time, fortunately, or…”

Ephiny watched the dampness collect in her friend’s expressive eyes, “She…” the tears ran down without a sound, but the voice whispered, “Birdie would certainly have frozen to death.”

The slighter Amazon warrior ran a quick hand across the powerful shoulders and gave them a fast squeeze. Her voice was matter-of fact, “But she DIDN’T freeze, did she?”

Xena shook her head sharply, ridding herself of the pesky tears.

“No she didn’t,” the Conqueror was silent, digging through the tiny twigs and leaves at her feet. When she found a larger piece, she tossed it into the fire. “Bratty kid. I am often at a loss at what to do with her, Ephiny. Thus far she has always been lucky, or blessed, or divinely protected. However…”

“The day may come when those elements could be a ‘no show’,” Ephiny was doing a good job at reading the warrior’s thoughts. She caught and held the powerful callused hand. “Xe, I think that is why Artemis decreed that Birdie’s is an Amazon offense, and that the Amazons will discipline her for her carelessness. She has been careless with regard to Amazon rules and culture. And, with your permission,” the diminutive Regent tossed a larger stick on the fire, “I will discipline Birdie upon overtaking her. Gabrielle will handle the return.”

“I’d allow no one else to touch her but you, Eph,” calmness was coming to the sky blues now. “As her godmother, you are Birdie’s third parent.”

Silence ensued, “How many arrow strokes will you give her, Eph?”

“You know that I love Birdie as my own, and we have addressed this problem before,” Ephiny was now drawing in the dirt. This wasn’t a pleasant conversation, but it was necessary. “You tell me, Xe; I will do your bidding.”

“That’s what is so gods be damned HARD!” Ephiny caught her friend’s shoulder before she bellowed at the sky. “My Birdie has so many of my OWN impulses, and I understand them, yet I cannot allow her to take these risks with her life.” She quieted, “Short of chaining her in her room, I don’t know what else to do.”

“And that is why Artemis put the Amazons in charge,” Ephiny rubbed her friend’s shoulder. “Robin of Amphipolis is also Amazon royalty. And… Birdie knows better. She needs only a firm reminder.”

The warrior sighed, “Absolutely, I don’t care how deeply in love she is, this behavior will stop. What is the maximum number of strokes, Eph?”

“If she were adult, there is no maximum,” the Regent side appeared smoothly, “Obviously; we have very few problems among the adult sector of the Amazons.”

“I remember those days, running an army. One has to be very tough to keep respect.”

“But Birdie is not part of a warlord’s army, is she?” the question from her side was very soft.

“Yes, but you know that a great deal of being a warrior is discipline- discipline of the self. My Birdie is somewhat lacking there.”

Ephiny sighed, “For this offense I would usually recommend ten or twelve strokes.”

The Conqueror pondered. “Twelve then. Between you and Gabrielle..” she chuckled, “I know that Gabrielle will ground her for at least half of her remaining life after she smacks her silly,” she smiled and tossed her stick into the fire. “The kid is so hardheaded; now from whom could she have gleaned that characteristic?”

Ephiny chuckled and leaned far away from the raven-haired warrior, “Do you honestly think that I would touch that?”

It brought a soft chuckled from the speaker, “Right..” At least she smiled, Ephiny thought.

“And also with your permission, Warrior Princess, I would like for Birdie to believe she will receive an unlimited amount of arrow strokes, and then I will touch her with only my voice.”

“Really?” The leader looked slightly puzzled.

“Really so,” Her friend the Amazon Regent smiled. “I don’t want to discipline her corporally, Xe; I would like for her to suffer more than that. Whacking her little ass has let her off too easily; it is time to grow up, and Birdie is sensitive enough to receive ‘my point’ without physical discipline.”

Ephiny could actually see the warrior’s shoulders relax. “You are wise in the ways, Eph. Do what you think is best. I do not intend to talk to her very much for awhile myself. There are things far worse than lickings, and she will feel such for awhile.”

“UmHm,” The Regent stared into the fire.

“Course I can make no predictions about Gabrielle.,”

“Yes, you can,” her friend chuckled, “You know better than that.”

“Gabrielle has her own ways of dealing with hard heads,” now the Conqueror was shaking her own. “I will leave Birdie in the hands of the Amazon Queen when it is time. She can pierce Birdie with words like I would pierce butter with my sword.”

“And you know this how?” Ephiny was downright mischievous in her tone.

Bad idea. The Amazon had to duck a large dose of “The Look.”

There was amiable silence for awhile. Both women basked in the night sounds: the fire crackled; the insect singing was soft: an owl hooted for its mate. Contentment commanded now.

The pensive mood was shattered for Ephiny, when the warrior gave her a swift slap on the back.

“That reminds me, Ephiny. Would you like to be a godmother again?”

The Amazon Regent just blinked at the Conqueror, as the conversation took a steep bank.

“Well, would you?” Now there was a glint of mischief in the cobalt eyes.

Ephiny almost gulped in dirt and air, “Are you?”

“We are.” The warrior princess beamed. It was the happiest look she had worn the entire trip.

“Minotaur Shite, XWP, you could have told me sooner!” Ephiny’s whisper broke the whisper barrier.

“Shah, don’t wake the whole camp; we’ve only told Mother, and now I am telling YOU.”

Ephiny slapped her knee and laughed silently, “Artemis is blessed. That is wonderful news, Xe. I can’t believe that. Awesome awesome news.”

“Yeah,” The Conqueror’s countenance softened in the firelight, “perhaps a baby sister will help Birdie THINK a little longer about her actions.”

“You know it’s a girl?”

“We do.”

“Grand news, Conqueror, makes my night,” the Amazon rose to her feet. “On that happy note, I am going to retire, and you need to as well, my friend.”

She gave Xena a light tap on the head, “Do you need tea?”

“Nah, I’m good.”

Ephiny extended a hand, ” I mean it, Warrior, hit the bedroll.” She smiled at the familiar blue eyes rolling, just the way she often saw in Birdie.

But the Conqueror grabbed the hand and came to her feet. They stood a moment arms clasped.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Xena allowed laughter into her eyes. And under Ephiny’s dark eyed watch, she obeyed the command and walked soundlessly to her bedroll.

Ephiny returned to the furs she and Pony shared.

“Whereyabeen?” Pony spoke in a soft snore.

“No place,” her partner settled into the warm snuggle, “Just providing someone enough space to be human.”

Xena looked up at the stars for perhaps a quarter candle mark. Then she sighed, “I love you, Gabrielle.” Soon she slept.

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Gabrielle gazed at the moon, “Good night, my love.”

Her thoughts were running like wild horses, so she deliberately slowed her return to the inn to feel the moonlight enter and give her strength.

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Mother Artemis
Who hunts by moonlight,
Please keep watch on those
So far from me tonight.
My Birdie, my own,
Both foolish and brave,
Accountability waits when
I know that she’s safe.
My Warrior, my life,
My love, my friend.
Any time apart always
Aches without end.
YOUR Amazon warriors,
Our friends without fail.
Keep their eyes true and
Straight on this trail.
This brave boy, Caleb,
Who offers his soul,
Watch him My Lady,
As he pursues this goal
For the sake of all.
And last Mother Artemis,
Keep hands on your bard,
The decisions coming to
Me will be hard, to see,
To make, and see them all through-
Thus, Mighty Goddess,
I ask blessings of you…

Gabrielle the Bard

Part 4

 

….I am Robin of the Warrior and the Bard.

The sun was rising and Gabrielle raised a hand to shade her eyes against the glare. The diminutive queen was flanked by burly men, Atticus to her right, and Argus to her left. She noted that Talus had come with Atticus for his “coming of age” exposure to “diplomacy”. Atticus would send him running if the situation became unmanageable.

Caleb stood just in front of her, close enough for her to lay a soothing hand to the small of his back when she witnessed his trembling threatened to overtake his whole body.

“Pro’bly be a candle mark or so, M’Lady, “his voice shook like his body, “Since they didn’t come last night, they’ll be sleepin’ it off for a bit.”

The delay had been anticipated by Cyrene; Gabrielle felt loving warmth for the tough little woman as she manhandled a cart through the kitchen door and into the courtyard. It was laden with muffins and tea.

“Go give her a hand, Caleb. That cart is heavy.” The boy was gone before she finished her sentence.

Birdie’s best friend, Talus, widely considered the “artist in residence” of Amphipolis had presented the Conqueror and Queen with a set of one hundred mugs, hand ground from selected river stones, “S’os you can’t bust ’em, ” he had stated proudly. They had been used often, particularly in situations when the militia was “at watch”.

Fine as the mugs were, they made a heavy cart. Gabrielle smiled as the boy grasped the forward handle and began tug the load up the ramp to the wall. The bard didn’t miss smiles and sparkles in both pairs of eyes which stated their warm bond.

Caleb saw the cart to the top of the watch wall and then as Cyrene commenced tea service ladled from the huge kettle which rode beneath the cart, the rowdy haired boy appeared at his queen’s side again, more like a wraith child than human.

“M’Lady,” he was breathless, “Is it all right for me to ‘elp the Lady Cyrene?”

“Of course, Caleb; you will know when I need you.”

“Yes’m,” he was back at the cart within the next three blinks. Gabrielle cast a fond glance. Having Caleb work part time in the kitchen had been an excellent idea.

She caught herself gnawing at her thumbnail and gave herself a little shake. It was a deplorable habit, but it was life long, and she could not seem to break herself, no matter how much Xena hated it. This stressful waiting was perfectly conducive to her habit of beavering her nails to the quick.

So the queen reviewed. Along the top watch wall of the fortress, stood the finest archers from both the militia and the Amazon tribe. If Rankor were foolish enough to actually try an attack on the fortress, the archers would make quick work. However, if something catastrophic occurred, and the archers fell, the master swords players were the second line of defense, again a mix of militia and Amazon. The queen mused, mixing the warriors as had been done, had only seemed to strengthen the resolve of all. It was highly unlikely that the walls or gate would be breached, but if the gang had the unfortunate “luck” to do so, they would meet a swift and deadly response from Jom and the DOZ. The “hairy fellas” were positioned throughout the interior. Gabrielle felt the smile in her mind. Yes, Rankor and company would rue the day they had decided to attack Amphipolis.

“Don’t need to ask that one; I know what she takes, lad,” Cyrene’s voice had both a gruffness and warmth, which pierced the bard’s reverie and reminded her of someone tall, dark and beautiful as well.

“Ummm, nectar of the gods, Mother C,” Gabrielle held the stone mug in both hands warming them as she sipped. Perfect. Heavy on the honey, but she liked it that way; she was allowed a few indulgences even with battle on the horizon.

“Saved one for you, dear,” a dark chewy muffin was placed in her hand.

“Thank you, Mother C, I know that those are the first to go,” she filled her mouth with rich whole grain, nuts, butter, and yes, more honey.

She took an additional sip of tea, and her gaze returned outward again, fully focused.

Bring it on, Rankor.

Our final crossing was swampy; I had tasted the water and found that it was brackish. This was unfamiliar ground for all three of us.

“What do you think, Zephyr?” the fox was nearly always my first consultant. “This stuff seems very tricky to me. I can’t work out how deep or wide the water is at any certain place.”

She paced back and forth quickly. “Perhaps the answer is in the grass, Little Mistress.”

“Ok, but tell me.”

“Search for a spot where the swamp grass is of consistent height. See how it appears taller and shorter at places?”

“So a consistent height will give us a consistent depth, or that is your theory.”

“Yes.”

“I like it. It certainly makes more sense than I have been able to work out. Lead on.”

She ran ahead and I followed, leading Hades.

It wasn’t too far, before she was trotting back and forth, back and forth, her keen eyesight gauging conditions that as a human, I could not imagine. She stopped fairly shortly. “Little Mistress, what do you think of this?”

I dismounted and took Hades’ lead to my fox’s choice spot.

“It looks consistent to me,” I gauged the height of grass as best I could.

“Will you check the depth, please?” Her thoughts conveyed her anxiety. Zephyr would be very glad to see the final water crossing behind us.

Plunking down on my rump, I began to unbuckle my boots. A heavy weariness came over me as if it rode the breeze. That consort of mine had better be glad to see me. I looped the straps into opposite buckles and tied them to Hades’ saddle horn. Back down on my butt again to roll up my trousers to my knees. It would be good to greet Rach in a fairly dry state.

“NO!” the thought hit my mind before I asked Zephyr if she would need carrying.

“Your flood,” I shrugged back to her as I waded into the marsh. The water was oddly warm, and murky enough to hide my feet. Unsettling. I like to see what I am walking into. The good news was the water was shallow, just above my ankles; however, I did not care for the capricious bottom. An oozing mud combined with grasses and the random sharp stone made me very cautions. Zephyr followed closely, her steps very dainty, a very near prance, even for the fox. For Hades this was nothing, and he clopped behind almost impatiently. I hoped all on Mt Olympus were having a good chuckle.

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Xena hunkered down and studied the water. Go north to find a shallower spot She angled her head at the foamy wash. “The tide is going out.” She announced to the group as she rose. “It shouldn’t be long before we can cross here.” She bent to unbuckle her boots, stepped out of them and tried to roll up her leather pants. Impossible. With an irritated snort, she stalked over to where Argo waited patiently. Inside the first panel of her saddle bag was a towel. Stripping to her under wraps, she stuffed the pants inside the bag and then carefully laid her boots across the saddle.

Flashing her famous “LOOK” to her party, she wrapped the towel about her waist…

“Whadareyalookinat?” it wasn’t quite a bellow, but everyone jumped. “Didja think Xena the Conqueror didn’t wear skivvies? I would suggest that you follow my example!”

She stepped into the water, “There is an underwater bridge here, but it is only wide enough for a horse, so mind your step, and do not allow your horses to drink; I don’t much care for the quality of this water. Come.” This word assured Argo that her rider would not lead her astray. Xena gave a quick glance backward and chuckled softy. Amazon warriors and enlisted men were all stripping down to their, “unmentionables”. The looser clothing of the Amazons would have rolled up well enough, but nobody was taking any chances. If the Conqueror was crossing this barrier in her skivvies, they most certainly would too.

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“My Lady,” the soldier presented himself smartly before the queen. “The east watch reports a cloud of dust on the horizon. We have observed it for a half candle mark, and it is advancing.”

Though she was not near him, Gabrielle felt Caleb stiffen. “It’s ‘im, M’Lady.”

She turned to the messenger who was fiddling with his overlay, “Thank you….?”

“Tobe, My Lady. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” He kissed her hand and then tugged at the neck of the overlay.

Where did we find this one? The Queen asked herself, and did he ever wear clothing?

She smiled graciously, “Thank you Tobe. Please convey my apologies to the troops for requiring full dress uniform; it is a tad warm for them, but I wanted The Amphipolis Militia to communicate a very unified and sharp greeting.”

“Yes, M’Lady,” Tobe smiled then. “We look good, don’t we?”

“We look splendid. Tell them.”

“Yes, M’Lady. Your leave, M’Lady?”

“Indeed,” he did have extremely good manners. Never judge a man by an itch. “And also tell the troops; Caleb, you run the other wall… Tell everyone to be ready for an encounter in the next half candle mark.”

“My Lady?” Caleb’s eyes told her that he did not want to leave her side.

“Honey, you need to run off your nerves,” she placed her hands on his shoulders lightly, and then ruffled his hair. “It won’t take long at all; go.”

He was gone in a flash.

“Good call, My Lady Queen,” the bombastic voice of Argus was oddly gentle. “The kid worships you.”

Gabrielle shook back the feathers and leather of her full Amazon Queen regalia. She lowered her head and quickly scooped the tears away from her eyes with her fingertips. Her gaze followed the bright shock of hair, so nearly the color of her own as the boy trotted along easily, pausing to give the word.

Finally she addressed Argus, “Caleb will be our hero today,” her voice shook but she brought it under control quickly. A hard swallow, “I only hope that we can be worthy of him.”

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Jubilation filled my spirit; we had crossed the swamp without incident!

“Things are looking up, Zephyr,” the happy thoughts flowed from me. “Shouldn’t take more than two candle marks to Abdera.” I closed my eyes for a moment, searching for Rachelle. Yes, I could feel her spirit; consorts were granted the gift from Artemis. Did she know that I was close?

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“My Queen, are you well?” Tosh, the queen’s tall and striking cousin remained several steps away from the blond girl staring out to sea.

The sage colored eyes were lost in the waves; she selected a line of foam in the distance, watched it journey to the sand and then withdraw, leaving life and death in its wake. Tiny cochina shells were exposed by the wash, and they immediately began reburrowing into the wet sand. If cochina was slow, it was a quick snack for a foraging shore bird.

“My Queen?” Rachelle shook herself and brought her eyes and attention to her cousin.

“Tosh, don’t call me, ‘Queen’, you know that I dislike it,”

Her cousin’s dark eyes warmed, and she approached the large stone, which held the young queen.

“May I join you then, Cousin?”

“Of course,” Rach scooted over a bit, and her athletic cousin was beside her in one bound.

Rach gave her a disgusted look, “It took me many breaths and many thoughts to attain this position.” She looked down, “See, I ripped my fingernails.”

Tosh took the right hand which had one bloody nail into both of hers.

“Healer, heal thyself.” Tosh shook back her short golden hair. She was extremely soft spoken for a person who could easily compete in the Olympic Celebration in Athens, were she not female.

Rachelle took the liberty of leaning against the strong shoulder. “If only I could…”

“You miss Birdie?”

“With every heartbeat.”

“I’m sorry little coz,” Tosh’s arm wound around her relative, strong and warm.

“Missing Birdie is painful enough. But I actually miss Amphipolis. I miss Auntie Pony and Effie tremendously. They are good parents.”

Tosh was silent.

“I miss the Conqueror and Queen, as well. Xena isn’t half as scary as she seems. Well, most of the time.” Rach paused. “I miss them very much.”

“The life of the Seaside Amazons no longer pleases you?” Tosh couldn’t keep the hurt from her voice.

Sensing it quickly, Rach wrapped her arms around the rock hard waist. “Toshy, it isn’t that,” she gulped back tears. “I do love it here, and I love YOU best!” But she drew away and recommenced her study of waves.

“My relationship with the sea is love/hate,” she mused. “The sea gives generously to us, our food our home, and often, peace. However, the sea has taken my parents from me, and now it calls me home, from a different place that feels like home to me. Tosh,” the young queen steadied her nerves, “Tosh, Birdie wears my earring.”

The comforting arm was removed immediately, “Truly?” the word was dry in Tosh’s throat, “Truly that was a decision that you made entirely on your own?”

The blonde head hung down, “Yes. I knew it, Tosh. I knew and felt that it was right.”

“Rachelle… the elders…” there was a hush of fear in her cousin’s voice.

The little blonde puffed up like a guinea hen, “I am sorry, Tosh, but I AM the QUEEN, and the elders have no say in which I pick to love for life.”

Tosh shook her head gently at her rebellious cousin, “well, Rachy… they will believe that they DO.”

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The “rescue party” negotiated the low-water bridge with the exception of Pony, who went sprawling headfirst into the drink. She rose, furious as Poseidon himself to hear laughter from her companions.

“Whatare ya chowder heads laughing at?” she bellowed, drawing a sopping sword. There was instant silence. Eponin was a grieving mother, after all.

She held them a long moment, brandishing the blade in a slow circle.

“GOTCHA!” A louder bellow than the first. She threw back her mass of mahogany locks and cackled with evil glee.

She was still chuckling as she met the Conqueror away from the group.

Xena clapped her old friend on the back. “Good job,” the sky blues twinkled, “we needed a bit of mirth. You would think crossing the water in their skivvies would have sufficed, but they were an awfully serious group for folks in their underwear.”

Pony snorted, “I thought so as well, Xena. We needed a kick. Laughter is always a great kick of energy.”

Eponin of the Forest Amazons and Xena the Conqueror understood each other very well. Whether it was weapons, or battle, or kids, or volume of voice, they “got” each other.

“Look now my Equine friend,” the Warrior Princess draped a long arm across her friend’s shoulders.

“Lookatem'” Xena didn’t quite sneer, “They are waiting for us to put our pants back on,” she shrugged, “I guess.”

Their little party heard the remark, because foot shuffling and throat clearing ensued. But no action.

“GITCHERBRITCHES ON!” the weapons master employed her mighty roar once more.

This time, there were a few chuckles exchanged as the group began digging into saddle bags.

Xena’s “britches” were in place of course, and she sat astride Argo. “Hurry up.” Her voice was low, but as she turned the palomino’s head, she heard massive scuttling behind her.

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Tosh gazed toward the sun’s decent over the waves.

“Vix remains grieving for Phyn,” she murmured.

“She does,” Rachelle’s eyes followed her cousin’s to the solitary figure perched upon another of the large stones which scattered the beach.

“Her grief is deep and prolonged,” Tosh remarked, “Does she eat and drink now?”

“Yes, praises to Artemis,” the young queen’s were shadows of green granite. “I should talk to her. When one’s life mate is taken by the sea, it is customary to keep watch for one moon. Vix has remained watching far over that time.”

“Perhaps she hopes that Poseidon will take her as well,” offered her quiet cousin, “Artemis would never allow that to happen, even if she so wished.”

“I can only imagine,” Rach brushed away a tear as she thought of her own life mate.

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Wide open meadow. Perhaps three candle marks of travel in unencumbered space. It looked simple.

“We are on the home stretch now, my friends,” Leaning forward I patted briskly Hades broad neck. “I appreciate your never-faltering loyalty.”

“It is a good that you have certain loyalties, Little Mistress.”

I dismounted; we could take a short break. After two nights and three days of hard travel, some personal grooming was in order. I did not want to greet Rach smelling like my loyal friend, Hades.

I dismounted; we could stand a short break.

“You are becoming quite blunt with your opinions, Friend Fox,” my thoughts travelled.

“Do you remember my boys, Silver and Rain?”

“Of course, Zephyr,” I tucked the leads into a loop in the saddle and gave Hades a pat. He could graze freely, but remain within sight.

“I found that at a certain level in their development, gaining their attention required bluntness and perhaps even a bite on the head.”

“To?” my head buzzed.

“To encourage them to heed their mother who is older and wiser.”

“Oh,” I returned, “They were obviously in that ‘difficult’ stage of adolescence.”

“Obviously.”

“Point taken, Zephyr,” I didn’t want my head bitten, however gently.

Opening a water skin filled from the last crossing, I began scrubbing my “stinky parts” and then rinsed and applied sandalwood oil.

“Shall I check you, Little Mistress?”

Involuntary eye roll, “Yeeeesssss.”

Her nose scanned me quickly. “Enormous improvement.” She pronounced.

“Thank you, Mistress Fox,” I rolled my smelly clothing into a wad and searched out my “next to best” pants, (the best were of course, my leather pants), and my next to best tunic, which was the color of water at a distance, and clean under wraps. I then brushed my boots with my dirty clothes, rolled up my sleeves, and felt- presentable. Well there was my hair, but there was little chance of improving it.

“No offense to you, Hades, but shall we walk?” I took his lead; and of course a horse is not offended if his rider walks. This would take somewhat longer to arrive, but I would smell good.

A thought leaked into my brain as we began strolling: Rachelle would be glad to see me, of course, but the circumstances of my arrival would not meet her approval. She would very likely give me a few “whomps” to convey that. I did love the girl, but she could pack a swift whomp. A sigh. Rachelle accepted the whole of the package that made me Robin of Amphipolis, and so I did accept the entire package that was Rachelle of Abdera by the Sea.

“Little Mistress, are we going in the right direction?” my fox interrupted my musing.

“By the sun we are, Zephyr.”

“Only checking to make sure. You were in a dream world, Little Mistress.”

“Thank you for allowing that, Zephyr.”

“We are coming close; I can smell the sea.”

“And how is that, Zeph? I have never seen, touched, or smelled the sea.”

My fox padded several paces, “It smells somewhat like the rain, but there is a different element,” she sniffed the air again. “It smells endlessly large, and it smells of fish, many fish.”

“That is quite a bit of information from your snout,” I remarked, “I wish I had your heightened senses, Zephyr.”

“My senses are telling me that there are wildflowers ahead. Perhaps a greeting gift for our Lady Rachelle?”

“Fantastic idea!” I fairly skipped ahead to the large patch of yellow and purple. “The colors are beautiful!”

I worked out a bouquet of the two colors-needed something else. Ahead were purple daisy-like flowers with yellow centers. Perfect.

“I believe that those are weeds, Little Mistress.”

“Well, I think that they are pretty, Zeph,” My hand was entirely into the clump of color when a cold chill caused goose bumps to run my spine and body ; my mouth felt filled with dust.

All Greeks hate snakes: it is inherent in us. But our country has few snakes, and only a couple of those were venomous. I have always treated our fear as a near “race memory”, for as far back as anyone could recall, parents had threatened bad children with Medusa of the Snaky Locks. If a very naughty child did not improve his or her behavior, the parents just MIGHT call the Gorgon to come and take the miscreant child away. Medusa punished bad children with a glance, and the child would spend eternity as stone.

Of course, Mama G had never threatened me that way, but she did tell me the story of how Medusa’s hubris had brought her fate. My mother was not one to rule by fear.

However, it was by the lessons of my Baba Xe that I now judged myself to be in serious trouble. Occasionally, we had happened upon across the Ochia, but after Baba had killed one, we studied it thoroughly. I knew how to identify the snake by markings, movement, size, and what would cause the snake to strike.

This knowledge was a day late and a dinar short, as the snake had already sunk its fangs deeply into my left forearm.

“Minotaur Shite!!” The flowers tumbled from my hand, and I sank to my knees. Vertigo was immediate.

A throbbing cloudiness consumed all my senses, but I was aware that Zephyr had attacked without a sound.

“Zeph.” My thoughts could not connect, but the fuzzy vision of my fox shaking the snake came through. “Zephyr!” The snake’s body snapped against itself in the ferocity of the swinging head and gripping teeth.

Her thoughts were savage, primal, protective, and silent. She had bitten into the serpent behind its head, and as it wasn’t quite as long as I am tall, the god fox had appeared. My own Zephyr could not have killed such a heavy snake.

She dropped the body and it lay motionless. Satisfied with her kill, she grabbed the creature mid-point this time and carried it some distance away. Snakes alarmed Hades.

“Little Mistress,” the worried thoughts of my smallish sable fox returned. Her nose and tongue investigated me quickly.

“Zephyr, my dagger,” my arm felt three times normal size. A fuzzy glance told me the feeling was no illusion.

“No, child, you are much too disoriented and ill for that treatment. You risk further injury and illness. Come.” She tugged at my tunic; nausea had overtaken me.

“I cannot, Zephyr,” I retched the thoughts and words.

“Little Mistress, you MUST!” She scampered about and took my collar in her teeth.

“I will barf again,” The pain in my head had disoriented my bearings; Vision was very blurry, and all I could hear was a blacksmith pounding iron on the anvil of my head.

A firm push rolled me over, and again, and again. It was Hades. He knew what Zephyr wanted, though I did not and could not care.

My body continued to heave, producing nothing. My stomach began to hurt with the seizing. “Hades,” I whispered, “Good boy, but make it quick. I thought Perseus killed Medusa, Zeph.”

My dark coated friend had circled around watching Hades, and now she grabbed my tunic at the shoulder and tugged firmly, “Only a short distance more, Little Mistress.” Her thoughts pleaded.

I managed to tuck my boots against my butt and shoved.

“Good girl, now half again, child.”

Despite disorienting flames engulfing all of my senses, I complied. Death drifted through my thoughts; this was the pain of death, and I fancied the form of the “real” Hades standing, watching over me in his midnight robes.

My vision was fading to black, but I witnessed my fox drag a red-veined, badly swollen arm into a small creek. It sparkled brightly, which hurt my head, but the pain in my arm stabilized as a hot throbbing.

My fox was in my head, “Little Mistress, I must go for help. The cold will slow the spread of the poison for a short while. Do you heed, Robin of Amphipolis?”

The use of my formal name always made me attend promptly. I lifted my good arm to stroke the silky fur. “Not too far now, Zeph. Perhaps a quarter candles mark or a half.”

“I will bring help, Little one,” My state was such that it was nightmarish to see my dearest pet and friend shake herself slightly to become the size of a wolf with flaming eyes.

The god fox licked my cheek, “Hold tight Child. Use that stubborn will of yours to stay alive.”

I kissed the nose that was lowered to me, “Hades will guard me, Zephyr, and don’t worry.”

And then it was all darkness.

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“Easy….” Gabrielle felt the tension in Caleb’s shoulders as the approaching dust cloud detailed itself to be riders on horseback. “Count them,” she needed to occupy the boy’s mind. A tattered and dirty red banner identified the group under a black “R”.

“Thirty or so, M’Lady,” he whispered, “‘at’s always the size of ‘is band, give or take. Some are killed; some will join; none will quit.”

“Come, Lad,” it was the gruffness of Cyrene now calmed him, “Help me trundle the cart down for restocking.”

The relief washed over the boy’s body. “Yes’m”, he muttered and went to her gladly.

The Amazon Queen squinted at the group. “The glass”, she scolded herself and retrieved it from a leather pouch. It was another of the Conqueror’s inventions; certain combinations of glass could enhance distance sight. Xena had worked alongside the village glassblowers with her idea, and had brought it to fruition. Though all knew Xena the Conqueror was anyone’s equal and more in battle, few knew that she was actually very clever as well.

“Thirty of them- we should be more than able to protect Amphipolis…..” her thoughts roamed. Why are roving brigands always so filthy? No time, all men, don’t care. Some are killed, some join, no one quits.

Caleb’s remark struck her. Caleb HAD quit, hadn’t he? Would Rankor kill his own son?

He would NOT. She was decisive. She hoped the Conqueror’s wrath would be enough to protect the boy for a few days.

Eyes closed, she extended her mental energy, “Icarus.” The gang’s hoof beats grew louder. “My Lady Artemis, Icarus, please.”

A weight dropped lightly on her shoulder. “Good girl.” The hawk accepted the dried fishy tidbit. “Icarus, there is little time. Study the boy who works with Cyrene.”

Affirmation came as the hawk launched to circle the boy. Cyrene looked towards Gabrielle and nodded. She would tell the teen about the goddess sent bird.

The bard turned her attention to the situation at hand. The hoof beats were becoming more audible, like the distant thunder of a rising storm.

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Rachelle stood quietly surveying the huge stone which held Vix. Her patience was tried; it felt like a candle mark before the elder warrior broke her meditation and turned vacant eyes to the young queen.

“Who are you, child,” her voice was hoarse with neglect, “why do you disturb me in my grief?”

“May I join you? ” Rach was surprised to hear her own voice sound timid.

The woman’s gaze returned to the sea, but she gave a sharp nod of affirmation.

The rock was three times the height of Rachelle, but she walked to the rear and discovered the dents and protrusions which gave passage to the top.

The granite green eyes studied the iron grey hair for several moments. The woman wore her hair long; it extended almost to her hips. It was veined with silver and quite beautiful; Rach had seen few Amazon warriors with long hair. It was either cut short or braided; nothing could interfere with weapons handling.

Rach unwound the strap of her water skin and silently offered it to Vix. After a bit of suspicious eye contact, Vix took the skin and drank deeply. She returned the skin with a nod of thanks, and then the abyss of sorrow and loneliness recaptured her attention in the steady waves.

The young queen resolved to sit beside the wounded warrior for as long as it took to reach her. She settled her backside into a smooth place in the dark stone.

But what could she say to this warrior? At just over fourteen seasons round, Rachelle had experienced the death of loved ones more than some. Her parents had been lost at sea before she was aware. Others tried to tell her bits and pieces of memories, but she really knew only that her “provider/warrior” parent had been athletic and kind- much like Tosh in fact. Her mother had been gentle and patient. Betha had often told Rach that she thought perhaps Poseidon had taken them together, because they were so deeply in love.

When she was very young, that had seemed a cruel statement to Rachelle; couldn’t the God of the Sea have left her one parent?

But then Birdie had come into the young healer’s life, and also Auntie Pony, Effie, and the Ladies Xena and Gabrielle. She understood better now.

The flow, crash and retreat of the waves were hypnotic. The tide was coming in, and her footprints were already washed away forever. This activity gave her musing to the fact that while Artemis was the Goddess of the Amazons, Poseidon often ruled the Amazons by the Sea by proximity. There was little help for what forces beyond her grasp could decide. Rach shook herself from the revere.

“My honored tribe mate, my elder, how long have you been here? The tribe brings food and drink, I know, but these can only keep the body alive.”

The statement broke through the warrior’s tired trance, and dark eyes trained upon this unusual youngster. “Who are you, Child?”

The voice, low-pitched and hoarse with disuse grumbled with the waves crashing on the stone.

The girl inhaled deeply, but she did not need to answer.

“You are Rachelle, of the warrior Rush, and her life mate Shell; you’ve come to be our queen.”

Rach could only nod.

“They were taken before you were even one seasons round of age, and Betha the healer raised you as her own.”

This was important news.

“My elder, what were my parents like?”

A deep sigh, “Rush was as fine a warrior as any Amazon tribe could have. Her life mate, Shell the Queen, was noted for her sensitivity and people skills. Members of the tribe came to her for counsel, both community and personal. She was an extremely popular queen, and the grief was great when they were taken. Since then, we have ‘tried’ other queens, since you were very young, and then you were gone. They did not work out so well.” The dark eyes studied the girl. “You have the hair of Rush, but the eyes of Shell.”

The laugh lines in the warrior’s face shifted, “And please, Child, call me Vix. I have no need to be reminded that I am an elder, Little Queen.”

“Please then, Vix….do not call me Queen, I have no idea of the task.”

The tired gaze met the bright eyes of youth. “I would not think so. Haven’t you been near Amphipolis for eighteen moons or so?”

“Yes ma’am, I have lived with my aunt, Eponin of the Forest Amazons, and her life mate, Ephiny.”

“Hmmmmmmm,” the dark gaze returned to the sea.

Risky, very risky. Rachelle reached for the sun baked hand. There was tree trunk strength in it.

There was no reaction; Rach increased the pressure.

“Vix, my honored tribe mate, I have need of you; I will need your guidance in the coming moons.”

This time, the older warrior’s eyes registered surprise as she turned her regard back to her young queen.

“The dead never leave us, Vix. Is Phyn not with you ‘inside’? Do you not feel her heart beating next to yours?”

The larger hand finally returned pressure. “You know much of love to be so young, Queenie.”

Rach laughed and witnessed a dance of mischievous humor in the dark eyes. “I know about bonds, Vix, but not nearly as much as you do.”

Vix was casting a weary glance at the horizon again. “Phyn is with me, Child.” She closed her eyes and inhaled the salt air. “I was only hoping…”

“That Poseidon would take you as well? Not going to happen.” Rachelle surprised herself at the assertiveness in her voice.

That statement again gained the warrior’s attention, this time with a hint of amused surprise.

Rach untangled her legs and rose to her feet, still clasping the strong hand. “Come.” She met the older woman’s eyes without hesitation. “The tribe needs you; I need you.”

The response was a hoarse rumbling chuckle and the hand withdrawn, “I reckon I best obey my Queen.”

Both found their ways down the giant watching stone. On the sand, the young queen extended her hand and it was met with the exchange of the warrior to warrior grip to the elbow.

“Vix, my tribe mate,” Rachelle increased the squeeze of her smaller hand against the wood hard arm, “You honor me.”

“Ahh, lass,” Rach saw light come back into the tired eyes, “My Little Queen, it is you who honor me.”

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Ephiny leaned forward to whisper gentle encouragement to Otto. The party had been at a fast gallop for nearly a half candle mark now, and she could barely see Xena and Argo far ahead.

“It’s ok, boy… you are doing your best under the circumstances.”

They had been cruising along at a steady slow canter when suddenly the Amazon had witnessed her friend sit up sharply, almost as if she sensed a message in the wind. Without a word she had increased the speed by double. The party members behind were riding forward to cast quizzical glances at the Regent, but she had no answer. The Conqueror had received a clear message of fierce intensity. Whatever it was demanded speed. There was nothing to do but follow.

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“Zephyr,” something was causing my body to thrash and seize, but I couldn’t connect with it mentally; I couldn’t connect.

A gentle whinny and the nudge of a soft nose came through. Hades was concerned.

“Hades,” I tried to stroke his nose, but I could not command my hand. My horse was insistent on rolling me even further into the cold creek. My left arm was leaden and dead; it felt wooden and useless.

“Ok boy, I’ll drink,” Even turning my head slightly hurt as if there was a throwing ax splitting it in two. I could taste the water however and tried to take it in at every possible spot. Something in my mind told me to keep calm, and keep drinking and dunking my whole body as much as possible. But the effort was fast becoming beyond my ability.

“Zephyr?” Hurry, girl.”

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Rachelle couldn’t deny the good feeling of success as she walked arm in arm with Vix along the tide. She knew that she had cultivated a warm friendship with the woman which would come to her assistance, no matter the case. Her contented sigh was assaulted by a grim attack of clairvoyance and she stopped in her tracks.

“My Lady?” Vix was immediately sensitive to her queen’s change in mood.

“Zephyr,” Rach whispered to herself. “Vix, I must beg your leave for now; I am summoned.”

“Summoned?” the other woman was puzzled, but supportive, “Here, take the water skin, girl; I will catch up.”

“Thank you, Vix,” a final squeeze and Rach broke into a full sprint.

“Zephyr, I come!” she sent mentally, “Thank you Lady Artemis for this great gift.”

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Rankor had arrived. Gabrielle observed his easy dismount, his contained and remote countenance, and his tall and straight body. He dashed her good will away, when he hurled his dagger as hard as he could into the great wooden gate of Amphipolis. It vibrated audible challenge.

“I seek Xena the Conqueror!” His stance was as wide as his shoulders, arms akimbo.

Gabrielle removed her headdress and stepped upon the box which enhanced her stature. She was careful to keep her belly behind the stone.

“Xena the Conqueror rides the field, Sir.” She lifted her chin and her voice soared in command.

“And left you, little lady, in charge?” Rankor arrogantly turned away with a rude laugh. There was a collective sound, wooden clacks as bows came to hands and creaked with the sliding of arrows into the notches

Atticus drew his sword,” I’d watch that yap o’ yours, Bandit, ” his face was flushing red, “That little lady is Gabrielle of Potidaea, the Battln’ Bard, and Queen of the Amazons and Amphipolis!”

Gabrielle put a hand on his shoulder, “Archers, ease.” The order was shouted left and right by the bellows of Atticus and Argus. The archers came to half-draw, though Gabrielle noticed, as did Rankor, that every single arrow was pointed at Rankor and his band.

It would only take her word, “Loose”, and the gang of outlaws would be riddled with arrows, four or five each at the least. The leader turned quickly to his men and gave a nod; the attitudes of the group considerably humbled. When Rankor faced the fortress again, his demeanor was quiet.

“I beg your pardon, M’Lady,” he bowed his head respectfully, “Actually; I may have scanned a scroll or two of yours in Athens.”

“Archers ease,” the bard said quietly, and her captains echoed the order. But she said nothing to Rankor. He needed to prove himself as Caleb’s father.

The bandit walked closer to the wall. “Courageous,” Gabrielle thought to herself. He did look like Caleb. His hair was almost the same color as Caleb’s, only he wore it long, pulled back, and bound by a leather thong. She put the glass to her eye. Yes, Rankor had Caleb’s beautiful, almost violet eyes as well.

“I have been rude,” he continued. If the Conqueror is afield I cannot settle our issues; however, there is the second issue of my son.”

Gabrielle set her voice to royalty, “Caleb has made a home with us, sir, he……”

“HIS HOME IS WITH ME!!” Rankor lived up to his name. “GIVE ME MY SON!”

Another deep breath, “Caleb is a son of Amphipolis, now good sir. I believe you left him behind wounded, after our first encounter.”

The tall man stood silent. When he spoke again, he leveled his eyes at all which threatened him; his body language was puffed with power.

“If he is truly a son of Amphipolis, then Xena the Conqueror will answer my challenge. I demand he be released to me, and that you give me the direction of the Conqueror.”

Quiet. Gabrielle merely waited and watched, but her right arm stretched out to find Caleb in her embrace.

“And if I refuse to surrender, Caleb?”

The darkness of the smile was frightening; Rankor was Rankor, and he had not become so by backing down. “If you refuse to give him to me, my band will attack this fortress. We have no chance of winning, but there will be a mighty bloodbath.”

“M’Lady, I must go,” Caleb shook out of the queen’s arm. “Ya don’ want him to attack. He will lose his own life and those who ride with him before he be yieldin'”

The bard turned him to put her hands on his shoulders, “Caleb, I do NOT want to do this. We can fight them.” A stray thought noted that the boy was not only much taller than she, but also his shoulders were wide and proud. Cyrene was feeding him well body, mind, and spirit.

“Pardon, M’Lady, but no,” she felt the shaking under her hands. “I know he’ll do it, and I want no part of nobody dyin’ on my be’alf.”

The bard placed her hand in the small of the boy’s back, “I understand that sweetheart,” she said quietly. “You are braver than most, Caleb of Amphipolis.” She pulled his head down to kiss his forehead.

Caleb accepted the kiss as a blessing. “I’ll survive, M’Lady,” there was pride in his young voice, just changing into the deeper tones of a man. “I am Caleb of Amphipolis now, and I promise you, M’Lady, that all will be well.”

He turned smartly then and began descending the stone stairs. Cyrene grabbed him by an arm, and he stooped to kiss her hair, and then he lifted her off her feet in a slow loving circle. When he set her down again, Cyrene took Caleb’s head in her strong hands. They needed no words.

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The Robin falls;
Her wings are down,
The fox will fly
To Abdera town.
To seek a Queen
Though young she is,
And guide her back
Without crisis.
The Conqueror rides
Her senses keen
Swift Argo carries her
To the scene.
My favorite queen
Needs no advice,
She knows that love
Demands sacrifice.
I watch them all
Remained detached
For all do know—
I will help,
If asked.

Artemis, Goddess of the Moon

Part 5

 

PAIN… had Zeus struck me with his lightning bolt? I felt agony in my arm, but clarity still eluded me. Minotaur shite, Mother of all Minotaur’s shite, who was sawing through my arm?

“Good girl,” I heard a soft voice, familiar, but it could not be, could it? “Nasty stuff in there, eh?”

“Very nasty, Lady Xe; you won’t mind if I hope to never see worse.”

A low chuckle, “Well, kiddo, if you mean to be a healer, sometime’s healing is nasty. And it comes between the nastiness of living and dying. Such is the healer’s domain.”

“I know.”

THAT VOICE… I knew that voice…

“She’s trying to come out of it, Lady Xe. Should I dose her again?”

“Nah, the worst is over, there’s only healing now and that is mostly up to Birdie.”

MY NAME. THAT IS MY NAME.

“Will we suture it, Lady?”

“No, I want it to drain for a day’s round of candle marks. Do you have the bandages?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Something cool was pressed against my arm and it was held by the wrappings being administered.

“Go ahead and ask…”

BABA? Was it Baba?

A giggle I knew well. ” About the potato, My Lady…?”

“Actually, it’s a technique I picked up in Britannia. The potato draws infection out.”

“Really, Lady Xe. I have heard of it, but I always thought it was an ‘old wives’ tale”.”

I could feel the eyes though mine were closed.

“Are you calling me an ‘old wife’, Rachelle?”

“Absolutely NOT, Lady Xe!”

A cool wrap was placed on my forehead as my head was moved into someone’s lap. Was it really Rachelle?

I heard the deep chuckle that was singularly my Baba Xe’s. But why she here, and wait, my thoughts were clearing. I would be in such trouble.

“Hey,” the voice was Baba Xe’s, “Hey Little Bird, come back to me now.”

“Baba…” my voice sounded very far away. “Baba Xe, is that you?”

Her strong hand was in my hair, “Yes, Honey… it is I… Baba Xe.”

I heard another voice.. “And…” the tone was expectant as usual.

“Rach.” Tears began to flow. She held me tightly. “No tears Birdie; not good for healing.” But I could feel her tears in my hair.

Baba Xe rose. I felt panic, “Baba, you’re not leaving?”

“No, sweetie, I’m not going ANYWHERE without YOU.” She leaned over to kiss my forehead. Then she held Rach’s eyes, “I think that I am going to find Vix, and some food and drink, and perhaps a soak …”

“Don’t worry, Lady Xe, you know I won’t leave her.”

“Rachelle.” The warrior paused at the door.

“Yes, My Lady?”

“Call me, Xe.” I could feel the blue twinkle.

“Are you certain, My L…? Xe?”

“Ummm Hmmm, ” she left the girls with a glittering smile.

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Ephiny had ridden past the guards by privilege of the Regent Tassels on her saddle. It didn’t take long to scan and find Xena, who was standing next to an older warrior who was a close match for height.

“Don’t even say it, Xena,” she reigned in Otto and slid quickly to face the women. “Don’t!”

Vix gave the Conqueror a quizzical smile, “Are you so informal with all of your followers, Conqueror?”

“No,” the warrior princess stepped forward to grasp the Regent’s arm and then pull her into a hug. “Only my oldest friends may speak so rudely.” She chuckled and put a hand on Vix’s shoulder.

“Ephiny, Regent of the Amazons of the Forest, meet Vix,”

Vix stepped forward to clasp the arm, “Actually Vix of Vix and Phyn of late.”

Ephiny’s eyes widened, “Vix and Phyn… we teach of you in our Amazon history classes don’t we?”

A slight blush colored the older warrior’s face. “Yes, that was me and my life mate.”

“You turned the battle for Zoe of the Rocks, did you not?”

The pewter- haired Amazon kicked a rock, “Aye, we happened along at the right time.”

“You did indeed,” the Regent tightened her clasp, “Vix, I am so sorry for your loss of her. She must have been quite somebody.”

There was the typical shake of the head which cleared a warrior’s eyes of tears. “She was that, Regent… she was quite something.”

“So,” Xena cleared her throat dramatically, “What took you so long?”

Ephiny kicked a dirt clod onto the black boot with buckles. “Not all of us have god speed horses.”

At that moment a second Amazon warrior arrived, in a leaped dismount before the horse stopped. She looked at Xena who cast her eyes at the healer’s hut.

The warrior didn’t quite tear off the door by its leather hinges, but she put a strain on them.

“That would be Eponin, our young queen’s aunt?” Vix commented.

There were quiet squeals from the interior.

“Yes,” Ephiny smiled at the hut, “she is Rach’s aunt. But she belongs a little bit to me as well.”

“She’s a fine girl and she will be a great Amazon Queen, I think,” Vix tempered the compliment, “She is young.”

“She is a fine healer, young or not,” Xena chimed in, “We might have lost Birdie if not for Rachelle.”

“Sooooo that was your signal that made you ride all Hades away from us?” Ephiny tried to keep the tone light.

“Yes, Eph….” The Conqueror began kicking rocks again.

Vix observed the regent simply wait. The Conqueror and the Regent were old friends indeed, it was easy to note.

“It was, ahhhh,” Xena wouldn’t look up at all, “an Ochia bite.”

“By the gods, Xena!” Ephiny grasped her friend by the shoulders, “and she is recovering?”

Vix intervened as she saw teardrops in the dust, “Yes, Regent, Birdie will recover fully, I think, though there may be some scarring. Our, YOUR little Rachelle did the initial treatment, and the Conqueror did the rest.”

“Thank you, Vix,” Ephiny moved beyond Xena giving her a friendly slap on the shoulder.

The Conqueror finally shook away the tears. “Thanks Vix, ” her voice was hoarse and shaking.

“Come, Conqueror,” Vix took hold of the legendary sword arm, “I will buy you an Amazon ale.”

“Oh, gods!” now the warrior princess could laugh, “That stuff puts me on the ground!” But she allowed herself to be led away.

“Oh, the Seaside version is far smoother that typical Amazon ale, ” Vix chuckled a little, but kept the arm. Rach had been right. She was needed.

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“Icarus,” Gabrielle could hardly unwrap the message tube she was so anxious. But she finally succeeded. Cyrene was standing nearby; she knew whatever the message’s words, the bard would need a hug.

“All fine, Birdie fine.” Exasperated, Gabrielle leaned into the sturdy mother in law. “Perhaps we should try to engage Pegasus for our message boy. Oh, not you, sweetie, you do a fine job,” Cyrene fished a morsel from her pocket that was pleasing to the hawk and wrapped an arm around the blonde.

“Believe Pegasus is taken, sorry lass,” She squeezed the compact waist.

Gabrielle sniffed back a tear, “Oh, Mother C, you know that Hermes himself could not bring enough information.”

“I know dear, I know…” Cyrene stroked the stressed head. “But we know that everyone’s ok, right?”

The evergreen eyes brimmed; the thick blonde locks fell forward to hide tears streaming down perfect cheekbones. “Mother C., has Xena never told you about my ‘sight’?”

The workworn hands covered both of the bard’s while she gathered herself. There was the warmth, strength, and unconditional love in the touch. Cyrene was mother to her as well, and she simply waited.

Gabrielle swallowed, “I have a-connection-to both Xena and Birdie, Mother C. It’s rather abstract, but it allows me to know things.”

Older saphire orbs ragarded her seriously, “Tell me.”

“I can put myself in a very still part of my mind,” the tears were slowing,” doing this takes me to a beach, oddly, and on the horizon are two stars. Birdie’s life force is a white star, and Xena’s is a larger blue star.”

Cyrene blinked, “That is extraordinary, Gabrielle, what a precious gift.”

“I know. It’s most likely from Artemis because I am Birdie’s mother, but later on Xena appeared as well. Xena and I transcend earth, life, death, and beyond, so it wasn’t greatly surprising.”

“I know that dear, ” Cyrene kept her voice low and quiet, “So tell me now what Xena isn’t telling us.”

Tears returned, “I went to the beach last night, Mother C. Xena’s star was bright and strong, though the blue was slightly dull; I know that she is tired, weary.”

“And our Birdie?”

Gabrielle dropped her eyes again, struggling with sobs, “Birdie’s star is barely flickering, Mother C.”

The innkeepper simply extended her arms then to catch her faltering daughter. The Amazon Queen knew the bedrock strength of those arms, built in a lifetime of work and struggle.

After a time, the bard quieted and Cyrene pushed her back, lifting the chin with a finger so eyes were met.

“Sweetie, both of them are ALIVE. If Birdie were……” she choked on her own thoughts, and now the bard put her hands on the smaller shoulders, “You would know, right?”

A heavy sigh, “Yes, Mother C. I would know.”

They embraced fully then, “We will have to trust them with patience, my girl.” The mother of the warrior rolled her eyes a little at her own statement.

“Ohh, you know that I TRUST them, Mother C. It’s not about trusting them; I just don’t trust the rest of the world’s reactions or distractions for them.”

This brought a full laugh from the innkeeper.

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There was a silhouette framed in the doorway of the hut. I couldn’t identify it, and the sun blazed into my headache.

She realized that, “Sorry kid,” The door was closed quietly.

“Eff__Effie?” I struggled both to heist myself on my elbows and contain the immediate tears that came.

“Yes, Birdie, it’s me, and you lie back,” She sat on my cot and taking my bad arm, gently pushed me back down.

“No,” my emotional need for her was too great; I pushed back up to lean against her.

“Here, tell me if this hurts,” she managed my weak body about and carefully into her lap. I gazed into the familiar dark eyes which held tears as well.

She squeezed, “you’ve lost weight; you feel like a little bird.”

“Do I? It’s all so blurry to me, Effie.”

She put my head on her shoulder. I wasn’t used to “Mama G” gentle treatment from my Amazon warrior godmother. Her arms tightened the hug.

“Too blurry my god daughter, to realize that you are in trouble in just about every possible way there is to be in trouble.”

Big sigh, “Well, I had hoped to keep that part blurry just a while longer.”

Her hand came up into my hair. “You can remain blurry for a little while longer, Birdling.”

Tears began again and I burrowed my face into her shoulder.

“Shhhh.. hey, don’t cry, kiddo,” she tightened the embrace and gentled her voice, “You still have some fever and crying will make that worse.”

A losing battle. I cry easily when I run fever.

“Robin of the Warrior and Bard, rein those tears in, NOW.” She gave me a slight shake.

Some part of me obeyed my Regent’s command with a shuddering sigh.

“Effie, where is Baba Xe?” the tears threaten again.

Effie’s voice was soft in my ear, “she’s here, kiddo; she and Rach worked on you for a while. Think that Pony has taken Rach to her hut for a talk and nap, and your Baba went for ale with Vix.”

“An older Amazon? Very strong?” My mind was clearing.

“Yes, she is a good friend to Rachelle, even though she is recently acquired.”

“Right, Kiddo. Now ease this way, ” she gently moved my legs from her lap, “Can you sit?”

I grabbed the edges of the cot and nodded though the tremble in my body was on my nerves.

Effie quickly crossed to dip mugs of fresh cold water from the large skin in the Healer’s Hut.

“Good girl, now.” She placed a bracing arm behind me, “Drink.” I emptied the mug in one drink; it tasted wonderful.

Effie rose again to refill the mug for me, “Thanks Effie that is good stuff.” She finally drained her own and crossed again. I shook my head no when she waved the question to me with t he ladle. She pointed at my mug, “Keep drinking.”

She sat down again so I could lean against her. “We’ll be pouring water down that throat at every chance, so get used to it, kid,” Tears were coming again, I sniffed them back. “Look at me,” My Effie, firm and kind, like nearly all the adults in my life. “There is some bad stuff we need to wash out of you, clean out your gizzard,” This came with a gentle poke at me and I managed a smile at our old joke.

“Let me look, now,” I was eased back into place on the pillows.

“I haven’t been aware of much, Eff. What is the candle mark?”

“Ummmm,” she was concentrating on unwinding the bandage, “way after mid-day. I would think that it’s time to look at this.”

“You smell good, Effie.”

A deep chuckle, ” Birdie if I smell good after spending the past three days on a horse, than you are still in danger kiddo.”

“You smell familiar.” Mutter the explanation.

Her feathery touch was interrupted by a shadow at the door. She stood immediately saying, “I will be back later with Rach and some chow.”

No words were spoken as I was enveloped in the cedar/rubbed leather smell of my Baba Xe. I tried very hard not to cry, but she didn’t try at all. Baba cried like a warrior, no sounds but breathing and sniffs. Her hand held the back of my head to her chest, minding carefully the injured arm.

“Oh Birdie, ” I could feel the strength of the Conqueror regaining control. When she pushed me back, I could not meet her eyes.

“Baba,” I felt so tired, “Baba I was so stupid…”

Didn’t need to see her eyes to feel them, “Indeed, Little Bird, I had hoped that you would mature over time and learn to make better decisions.” Her quiet voice cut into me.

“I was an idiot. I am so hung up on Rach, Baba. I was an idiot: I am so sorry…”

“Here Baby, no… don’t cry,” she took me all the way into her lap, and began a slow rocking motion, “Don’t worry about anything now, Little Bird. I need for you to focus on being well.” The rocking soothed me.

I sighed into her chest weakly, “But Baba I know that you are mad at me and that makes my health more ‘hazardous’.”

A good sound to hear then, the chuckle beginning deep until it flowed out in her easy laugh.

“Later for that, Birdie.. I do believe you are up for a bandage change….”

“Yes, Ma’am,” very meek.

“Ephiny began, didn’t she?”

“Yes, Baba, and she made me drink water.”

“Good for her,” Baba’s hands were so large but so gentle when she was healing. “Hold on, here.”

I obediently held the end of the bandage while she fetched another mug of water for me, some liquids and a clean bandage from a shelf near the water.

“Drink,” she continued unwrapping.

I had to ask, “What does the potato do, Baba?”

“It draws out infection among other things. We worked pretty hard to suck the venom out of you, kiddo. If Rach hadn’t arrived so quickly, you would have been gone, Birdie.” Her eyes filled again, “I have sent word to your mother that we are O.K. It’s really neither a lie nor the truth, but she will know, and your Grandba is there to help.”

“Baba, I’m so sorry,” My eyes were tearing again.

“Stop it, let’s concentrate on this arm.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” the arm looked horrific, redness and pus oozing about three quarters of my forearm.

“I think that your arm will eventually be healed, Bird. Rach treated the bite well and quickly. You don’t know how sick you have been though. You owe that girl.”

“I do, Baba,” tried not to wince as she poured a liquid on the arm that bubbled and stung.

“Easy, I know it hurts, but it’s better than losing your arm, right?” She took a clean cloth then and began drying it. “See the blackened skin, Birdie? I have to keep removing it and cleaning out the infection for a good while. The bite tried to kill your arm, but it didn’t kill you.” She looked at me directly, “You are one puny looking kid though. Guess I need to postpone whipping your little butt for all this.”

Though it made my heart tremble a little, the warrior in me responded, “I would appreciate it if you did wait for awhile, Baba. I am not up for much.”

She chuckled again, “not to worry, little Bird, Artemis declared this an Amazon offense and any discipline you receive will be by Amazons.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

“Yes, it should, somewhat…” she was snipping away dead skin, “But you know that even the Conqueror is not so hard hearted as to add futher punishment to what you have brought on yourself. Birdie. Hold still, now.” She was snipping away the black dead skin. It didn’t hurt too much. I was strangely distanced from the fact that this was my arm.

“I don’t know what Ephiny and your mother have in mind for you, but I will tell you that your mother is very upset.”

“I know that, Baba.”

“And you know that of any trouble you manage to get into, what I find most difficult to forgive is if you put your mother through Hades.”

Tears formed again, “I know, Baba.” There was no excuse to offer; there was only taking responsibility for my actions.

“Enough for now, Little Bird. You know you needn’t ever fear either myself or your mother.”

“I know that, too, Baba.”

She sighed as she crossed the hut again taking my mug with her. After adding another assortment of herbs to the mug, she stepped outside. When she returned, the mug was steaming.

“Let me sit behind you,” I propped up and she slid in behind me so I could lean against her chest, very like Vix had done.

“Drink.” A soft command and I tried to comply, but, “YUK, Baba that tastes like Minotaur….”

“And you will drink it without a word every time I hand it to you.” I felt the steel of her body and the slight edge in her voice.

“Yes, Ma’am,” meekly I sucked down another slurp without complaint.

She relaxed against the pillows and I relaxed against her. “To be completely honest Birdie, you come by your hair-brained, impulsive, heroic tendencies quite naturally.”

The tea was easing everything about me, “What did you do, Baba?” Couldn’t stifle a yawn.

“I think there will be plenty of time to tell you some tales, Birdling,” she wrapped her arms around me tightly. “You just lie still, turn that brain off, and let the tea work its sleeping magic.”

“Yes, Ma’am, “I whispered as my head nodded against her shoulder. I was in “very respectful” mode even as the night took me. No sense in making things worse.

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Rankor raised his right hand to signal all stop for evening camp. Caleb had to admire the discipline with which a band of killers and thieves set about the settling for the night.

“Come Lad,” Cookie appeared at his mount, “I got permission for ya to ‘elp me.

Lids covered the violet eyes in gratitude to the gods, “thanks, Cookie.” He began the painful task of dismounting. Yesterday he could barely slide from the horse; the swelling and sorted bruises from the beating did not fare well in the saddle for a day. He slowly swung his right leg across the saddle. Cookie’s hand steadied him as he dropped to the earth.

“Ahhhh,” he blinked, “Think I’m abit better, Cookie, not nearly so stove up.”

“Aye, well walk stove up if ya know what’s good for ya,” The old man’s graveled voice cautioned, “Don’t need ta be signalin” Rankor that ya can take another one.”

Caleb added an extra hitch to his steps, yet he could not take his eyes away from his father. Since the initial beating, (which was the rule for a deserter to the band) Rankor had been strangely lenient with him. This was in some ways, more frightening to him than any physical harm Rankor could deal. No hope; never hope.

“Taters,” the old fellow pointed to a rumpled sack and handed him a small knife. Dragging the dusty sack to perch carefully on a log, he began rooting through the potatoes, cutting off any parts that were still good, and tossing them into the main pot already steaming on a well laid fire. Though the work was simple, for the first time since he had been taken at Amphipolis, Caleb felt some easing of the tension which had gripped him like the hand of Zeus himself. This was familiar, and Cook was standing for him; perhaps he might survive. He watched the band practicing sword play; if he had his sword, he could show them some moves. Nah, his sensible side spoke, that would only annoy his Da. Da was alpha wolf of this pack; that could never be challenged. Best leave that thought behind. Caleb raised a dusty hand to move his unruly hair out of his eyes. There, a small golden hawk circled. Ya, send that thought wit da bird.

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Gabrielle stood alone on the city wall watching the night come. The numerous and varied birds that made the giant oak their homes were landing on different branches. Ok. patina eyes fluttered closed and the bard slowed her breathing.

At first she was startled by the soothing Ohummm which resonated throughout her body. Her sight had never used sound effects before. The expectant mother opened her eyes as she steadied herself on the wall with one hand and allowed the other to fall gently to her belly.

“Thank you, Little Singer,” she whispered, ” You have become quite a source of comfort to me and quickly.”

No words this time, only the steady ohmmmmm, and Gabrielle walked the beach of her sight barefooted in the waves. Xena’s star the highest and largest was brighter, but thank the gods, so was Birdie’s. Tears seeped through her closed lashes….. something new? Yes, a tiny emerald colored star.

Her own emerald orbs opened to give gentle regard once again to her belly. She was beginning to show now, and she caressed the tiny lump tenderly, “Is that you, My Little Singer? Is that your life force glittering now on my beach?”

“Yes, Mama,” no resonation from her belly, but she was sure the wind whispered the words as it tousled her own wheat hair.

The words came quickly then:

Good night, My Love, My Soul, My life,
Come home soon and into my arms.
May Artemis keep you as you ride.
Good Night, My child, My heart, My own,
Please know that your mother loves you
And needs you safe, so far from home

Good Night, Little Singer, My Comfort, My light,
I had no idea of the gift I carry.
Your presence steadies me deep inside.

Good Night, My Goddess, My teacher, my guide
My family, my friends, and our Caleb too,
Please spread your great arms over all tonight

Good Night, Good Night all stars shining bright
Let none forget the power above and trust that
To guide all home under the same starlight.

 

Gabrielle looked then to the stars, studying every single star within her vision, “Good Night, My Love, Good Night My Children, and all thanks to you, Mother Artemis.” The bard turned and descended the stone stairs into Amphipolis.

Part 6

I am Robin of the Warrior and the Bard.

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“Hey,” Ephiny’s voice was gentle as she approached her old friend who had retired to a small rise not far from the camp. The Conqueror appeared frozen in her regard for the stars which were brilliant in the cold sky.

“Hey,” after a moment, Xena broke her intense stare and turned to the Amazon.

“Wow, it’s beautiful out here, Xe.” Ephiny’s dark eyes scanned the endless celestial display.

“See, there is Draco, there is Orion, many patterns are unusually clear tonight,” The cerulean orbs followed her own long finger pointing out the constellations.

“So all that ‘it’s a bear, it’s a pig, it’s a bird’ stuff that you and Gabrielle carry on is just teasing?”

“My, aren’t we the observant little Amazon,” a wryness in the response.

“I’ve known you longer than dirt, oh Dangerous One,” Ephiny was in a mood, but she shifted when the sapphire eyes cast downward.

“Yes, you have,” her friend’s voice was lower than usual.

Ephiny decided on time, “You can see so much more of the sky, than in the hill country, can’t you?”

“I love the addition of the music of the waves washing too,” admitted the Conqueror.

They both soaked in the quiet show of nature for a time.

“Well,” Ephiny kicked a sand clod, “Are you going to share with an old friend or shall I just mosey on back to camp?” Silence. “Kick a seashell if it helps.”

Xena found a good sized clam shell and sent it to the sea. “Nothing so much, Eph; I miss Gabrielle.”

“Ok, how about sharing things that I DON”T know?” the Amazon backed a step away; she was pushing, but she met the lightning gaze steadily. “Of course you miss Gabrielle; I miss Gabrielle which is why I am bugging you. She would want me to.”

The warrior kicked another shell; the Amazon was relieved that she wasn’t the shell.

“Sometimes…” kick. “Gabrielle and I spent all those seasons on the road star-gazing.”

Now the boot was drawing circles in the sand, “Sometimes, when I look at the stars, I can feel Gabrielle is looking at them too.”

Ephiny chuckled, “No surprise there, my friend. You two have an uncommon bond. Let me guess; Gabrielle misses you too.”

A snort.

“Come,” Ephiny stretched a bit to place her arm around the tall warrior’s shoulders, “Let’s go back to camp and eat. I think we are allowing Birdie out of the healer’s hut for dinner tonight.”

“Can’t miss that,” Xena endured the touch. “Little Brat.”

“Yeah, but she’s OUR little brat,” Ephiny steered her friend. “We need to bring her out here before we head back to Amphipolis.”

“Yeah, we do,” the warrior walked head down, “We will do quite a lot before we head back to Amphipolis. Have to get the kid, ‘road ready’.”

“She is weak,” the main fire at camp was in view, “but she’s a tough little gal.”

“She is that,” Xena finally placed her arm around her friend, “must be that Amazon influence.”

Two sets of chuckles echoed in the silent evening as they returned, kicking whatever unfortunate item in the path out of sight…

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I couldn’t ever say exactly how many days recuperation were spent in the healer’s hut.

My blunted awareness noted the comings and goings of the Amazons: a fish hook in the thumb, the “bad hop” of a practice arrow, a jellyfish sting. (Not even an Amazon warrior can pretend there is no pain with that.)

Rachelle seemed to be everywhere between her duties as healer and as queen. She attended to me regularly, but she kept her attention strictly on the snake bite. I knew better than to push; I was meek and cooperative. But the fall of the other “buckskin boot” would come.

When I was allowed to attend the evening campfire to eat “regular” food, my strength began to mend. It was difficult to be patient with my body; I was sick of being sick and the hut had begun to feel like a prison. But I did not push; it was not my decision. Oddly, I often have these gains in wisdom after an episode of utter foolishness.

Ephiny was the first. I was finishing my breakfast of dark chewy, fish shaped muffins with Rach’s wonderful spread when my godmother’s silhouette darkened to hut door.

“Feel like a bit of swordplay?”

By the gods, yes, but again… slow, Bird… slow.

My primary concern receded when she tossed me a wooden sword which was practically weightless.

I rose and examined the piece.

“Gorgeous, isn’t it? Driftwood.” Effie was reading my mind.

“Awesome,” I ran my hand over the oiled wood, “It’s more a work of art than a weapon. Do you think I can make one to take to Talus?”

She held hers to the sun and squinted a practiced eye on the workmanship, “I doubt that, Birdie, but we can certainly gather a few likely pieces. Driftwood carving is about finding the object in a medium which has been shaped by the sea. Fascinating.”

I pulled on my soft boots, “It feels wrong to fight with them; they are too pretty.”

“Not to worry,” she slammed her sword into the doorframe and checked, “Beautiful and tough, just like…”

“An Amazon warrior,” I finished her thought.

“Come along, Birdling.” I followed her into the worst possible place – the center of the village near the fire pit.

Focus, Bird. Most will not even care how rusty your skills are.

It felt good to MOVE. I parried four of her advances but missed a thrust which awarded me a smart whack with the flat of the wooden sword.

“Minotaur S…'” an eyebrow was raised in a fashion I was too familiar with. “Shhhtings! To be so light, the thing stings!”

That brought a smile and we recommenced. Roughly a quarter candle mark and three “shhtings” later, the Regent held her sword in front of her eyes and bowed her head. I returned the respectful end with profound gratitude. As I bent catching my breath, a rough hand went through my hair and a water skin was presented.

“Drain it,” was the command, “I have another.”

Since the snake encounter, water seemed the very stuff of life to me; I felt the cold wash through my body.

“Pretty bad, right?” I panted.

Her hand pulled at the back of my neck and remained in light control as we returned to the healer’s hut.

“Could be worse,” she remarked, “could be so much worse.” The strong fingers squeezed my neck at the door, “Lie down.”

No argument from me..

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

The next morning, I felt the price…After a lengthy conversation with myself; my body did roll from the cot. Fortunately no one was at the main fire to witness my limping arrival and departure, so I took the food and returned to the hut. After eating, I began a series of stretches which Baba practiced daily; she had been after me to incorporate the series daily as well. Now I saw the need. Slurping the cooling tea, my eyes were caught by a new shadow.

“So you are released to collect your breakfast in camp now, and you prefer to eat alone?

The young queen’s voice followed the shadow.

“Ephiny drilled me yesterday,” I tried a smile.

“And now you are embarrassed to show weakness in public?” She tossed a pine staff into the air, “Well bad news my beloved, I am here to put your through the same.”

I studied the staff admiring the ocean-themed carvings, “This tribe is very artistic, Rach.”

She tossed the answer over her shoulder, “The sea inspires, I suppose.” She stopped by the well to sling three skins across her body. Her strides took us toward the beach.

I finally found the legs to catch her, “Rach.”

She didn’t ignore me, but her distance was evident. I felt the familiar fretting in my stomach.

When we reached a clean stretch of beach, she dropped the skins and surveyed the area. Then she stripped off her outer tunic and boots. Feeling even more nervous, I followed suit stealing a quick drink .

She saluted, her staff in “ready”, “Glad to see that you are staying hydrated,” she remarked.

“I am either drinking or in the latrine.” a tiny sparkle showed in her eyes.

“Good Girl,” you can’t flush your system enough this next moon.”

“Yes’m” I groaned as she dumped me on my butt the first time. Sigh. Time to deal with the queen.

My mother had made no slouch of a staff fighter of me, but Rach was, of course, an expert. I made a mental note that she and Mama G should spar sometime. Staffing in the sand was a different experience though, and I wondered if even my mother would need to adjust. Sand was soft to land upon, but there was a slight drag in foot motion which needed accommodating.

Rach was merciless. Every miss was answered with a rap on my rear. By quarter candle mark’s end, I was holding on raw gut power. She finished me properly, putting me flat on my rump, sopping wet from a combination of seawater and sweat, and staring into icy granite eyes behind the ornate staff on my chest. Conquered.

She sighed, went to ready position, and extended a hand. I took it silently and was reminded that Rach was very strong. It was not something she emphasized, so I did forget at times. I was resolved to take whatever she needed to “dish out”, as she HAD saved my life, and she was… the love of my life.

“Drink,” A command I was accustomed to hearing from the tribe members whom I hadn’t been introduced to yet. They all knew who I was.

I gazed at her mid drink, “Drain it,” she commanded, “I have more.”

We gained the summit of the dune and paused as she surveyed her tribal home.

“It’s beautiful here,” I said softly, “But I would miss the winters.”

She stared straight ahead, “Change can be good. One grows from change.”

She was keeping a chilly distance, which I didn’t push. Just wait.

“One more thing, Birdie,” she was in full queen mode; I recognized it easily. Deliberately, she set down the skins and took my staff, tossing it to the group. She brought her staff to ready, and I just caught the tears accumulating in her patina eyes.

Whap, whap, whap, whap, the staff rapped my head, my butt, my head, my butt, not hard, but smartly, and tears came to me as well.

“Rach, I’m sorry,” that was all; there were no excuses or explanations from me; I only waited.

Her decision came quickly; she pulled me into a fierce embrace. For several moments, there was just shoulder sniffing.

“Birdie, I have never been so frightened in my life,” she whispered, “you realize that ‘Queen’s Consort’ is a lifetime commitment?” Her embrace squeezed more tightly.

“Yes,” It wasn’t a sob, exactly.

She pushed me away, “Well, you don’t act like you know it.”

“Rach… it was stupid. I know….”

“Then, WHY?” her hand smacked across my head pushing a curtain of hair into my eyes. I was slow to put words together, so she smacked my head again, “WHY?”

“I…. I couldn’t stand it, Rach…” my voice cracked. Very uncool voice, very un-warriorish voice. “You.. were..just… gone, and I couldn’t stand it…” Great reason, Bird dog, speaking it aloud made it seem more immature. But it was all I could offer.

She took me in her arms again, and we sighed together reaching “our place”, our peace. Her hand ran up the back of my head.

“Birdie, I’ve never doubted your heart; it’s why I love you. Your head, on the other hand,” she released me with a final light smack to the offending part, “your head needs work.” We smiled at each other, “Birdbrain.”

I walked over and retrieved the items. She shook her head and extended her hand again, “Come,” she had this queenly command thing down well. “Let’s clean you up; I have to go be Queen.”

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Caleb had made his way around half the camp picking up various cutlery and a few generic gourds for drink, when Cain hobbled to join him.

“Sorry Lad, I didn’t tell ya, but yer Da decided late last night we would stay over a day or two to hunt and smoke some meat. We are going abit low on it.”

“Oh, that’s fine Cookie, “the tall boy smiled, “I had only just started…”

“We need to gather the mess of ’em anyway, Lad, “the old man placed a gentle hand on the sturdy shoulder, “I like to give the stuff an extra wash when we stay over. You know… hot water. The boys don’t fall sick so much it seems to me.”

“Makes sense,” Caleb kept his voice low, many of the bandits were still snoring away their evening intake of ale. “The Conqueror is very strict about hygiene; baths no less than three times a week— course,” he chuckled softly, “I take one as often as I can; most days are sweaty and smelly.”

“Well, ya were a mite ‘under bathed’ as a youngin’, “the cook sounded apologetic,” I did the best I could wit ya.”

Caleb went on, missing the tone of the old man, “But you would be surprised at how many get the “tap” for not bathing. The second time yer ‘tapped’, they say the Conqueror herself drags ya from yer bunk, throws ya inna bath, and SUPERVISES!’

Cain let out a guffaw at that, covering his mouth, “Oh thadda cure ya inna hurry, wouldn’t it? I can’t imagine what it would be like to serve a woman warrior.”

Caleb stopped, “She’s no woman, Cookie; she’s the Conqueror. Well, she’s no different than a man, no….. She IS a woman… a gorgeous woman, but ya better not say so.” The boy’s fair skin was radish red; he sighed, “She’s Xena the Conqueror and she’s earned the title and the respect of all of us.”

“You’ve found a place there, ‘aven’t ya, Son?” the question was gentle.

“Ay, Cookie, I have,” Caleb straightened, “I am chief assistant cook and junior militia in training.”

“Like to cook, do ya?”

“I do. Didn’t know I liked it, but I do.”

“Well, pr’aps ya come upon that natural.”

“Think so, Cookie?”

“Yah,” the old man paused, “Growing up in the gang here, with nought but me doin’ yer nappies and yer feedin’.”

“Hey,” Caleb laid a gentle hand on the stooped shoulder, “You did good with me, Cookie.”

“Only did m’ best, ” the boy saw tears in the old man’s faded blue eyes, but he knew better than to acknowledge what might be a weak moment. Such were not allowed in Rankor’s gang. “Wish ah coulda done more fer yah.”

“Cookie,” now the boy raised the old man’s chin to meet his violet gaze, “You did just right with me. Don’ ya think I turned out all right?”

Now the tears did run down the wrinkled face. “I’m proud of ya, son. I am. And…,” his voice dropped to a much lower pitch, “I think perhaps yer pa might be somewhat.”

“He’s got a strange way o’ showin’ it if he is,” steel entered the boy’s voice and he looked away.

“He weren’t always so bad, ya know.”

“I know, Cook. He went bad when my mother died in birthin’ me; it’s why ‘e hates me.” A melancholy note entered soft voice, “I wish I’d known her.”

“You woulda adored her, just as he did, “the old man’s eyes were far away. “She was gorgeous lookin’-you have her hair,” He gave the taller boy’s wheat hair a stroke and they began walking again. “And SMART, she was a whiz, she was…”

Caleb paused, “Do you know her name, Cookie? Pa,” his throat went dry saying the word and he swallowed hard. “Pa would never tell me.”

“Her full name, I nv’r did know,” Cain was seeing the beauty in his mind. “We all called her ‘Cally’; yer abit named for ‘er, Lad.”

Now the boy’s eyes were damp, “He named me for my mother, ” he whispered, “He could ‘ardly stand the sight o’ me, but he named me for her.”

“Aye, Lad, ‘e did.” Was the confirmation.

“she musta been really somthin’, Cook.”

“Oh, she was, Lad, she was…”

They had both made the camp circle now and collected the gear. “I’ll go fetch water in the big cauldron, Cookie.” Caleb made his way closer to the fire pit and picked up the heavy pot. He took long strides toward the large stream nearby but turned back, “Tanks for the talk, Cookie.” He held the old man’s eyes steady and then turned back to his chore.

“Anytime, Lad,” Cain began sorting the pots to be boiled but he watched Caleb depart, “I luv ya, Ladies.”

But no one heard the soft confession.

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Clad in Amazon work-out gear, Gabrielle sauntered into the kitchen and drew the eyes of the Amphipolis innkeeper. “You still have your staff, don’t you Mother C?”

Stunned and perhaps alarm showed in her mother-in law’s ever bright blue eyes. “Well, yes, My Dear. What do you have in mind?”

In answer, the queen plunked a stack of neatly folded clothing on the counter.

Amazon work out gear. “These should fit.”

“Gabrielle, you know how much I love you, but have you gone completely daft?”

It was the first time Cyrene had heard laughter come from her beloved girl in far too long.

“No, Mother C. I am trying to save some sanity as best I know how.”

“By?” the innkeepers arms were akimbo now. It was plain that the sanity issue was still in question.

The fair haired queen executed a perfect routine which could put a person down ; head, neck, waist, crotch, knees. Five swings. “I would like for you to help me work the troops.”

Cyrene turned back to the dishes, “So you are daft,” she chuckled into the suds, “My Lady Queen.”

The verdant eyes were turned on her full force, “Mother C, please? I think it would be good for both of us, and it would surprise the ‘shite’, (sorry) out of the militia.”

The silvery head lifted and stared out her window briefly, and then she turned to her Daughter with her own wicked smile, “Well….. When you put it THAT way, dear.” She dried her hands, “Jorry?”

The tall quiet girl appeared from the dining hall, “Jorry, Love would you mind finishing the breakfast dishes? Our Queen wants me to help her work the troops.”

This brought a rare smile from the solemn girl, “One condition, Ma’am if I may be so bold?”

“Of course, Sweetie, “Cyrene extended an arm and Jorry moved in quickly to the waist hug. Gabrielle felt her heart swell; Cyrene of Amphipolis never ran out of love. “There aren’t too many dishes left; do you have an appointment?”

“No, Ma’am, “Jorry lowered her eyes; she was so shy, “But I would luv to come and watch when I’m finished.”

Cyrene collected the bundle of clothing, “You best should come, child,” she tossed over her shoulder, “It should be very interesting, including the last time you see ME alive.” She retired to her bedroom with a single braying honk.

Gabrielle joined Jorry at the sink, grabbing a dish towel. Jorry was still surprised at the “unqueenlyness” of her queen.

“I take it, Cyrene has lost none of her skill,” she spoke very quietly.

“Oh No, My Lady, she has NOT,” Jorry hummed her own tune as she worked on the egg pan. “Actually, she makes Scrubby work with her at least every seven day.” The clean pan went into the rinse water, “She is a wonder, she is…”

Gabrielle paused drying the pan, “She would train you, I am certain, Jorry. Or you can come to my next class.”

The head bent to scrubbing, “Oh, no, My Lady,” she murmured, “I got no skill.”

The queen put a soapy hand on her hip, “Jorry, do you think that I began with skill?”

Jorry continued scrubbing; Gabrielle realized she had put the shy girl in a bad spot. So she laid the soapy hand gently on the tall girl’s shoulder. “Jorry, we all begin at nothing. Every woman needs to know some kind of self defense. Actually….” She reflected, “I believe that such is a law of Xena the Conqueror.”

Jorry said nothing, but Gabrielle ascertained a twinkle in the girl’s eye.

“Which shall it be then?” the queen pursued, “I will collect clothing and staffs for you-practice and weapon.”

The last pot was cleaned, “If it suits My Lady and doesn’t offend, I would like to learn from Lady C.”

“Done!” Gabrielle felt genuine warmth from the girl. Good. Get the girl out of her shell.

“So we’re ready then?” an authoritative voice rang above the kitchen. The girls turned to regard the entrance of their elder.

Cyrene of Amphipolis was well past sixty five seasons round now and though she was not tall, she remained as fit and trim as ever. She carried a staff, darkened by time and the natural oil of hands. It was adorned at either end with carved owls of bone, Athena’s bird.

The bard’s expressive eyes widened to the point that Jorry tried to cover a sudsy snicker. It cost her a light snap with the dish towel.

The diminutive woman executed a very complicated ten spots maneuver with her staff, “I like these clothes, Gabrielle; any chance that I might keep them?”

“They suit you perfectly,” an admiring response, “I will see that you have some soft boots as well.”

“Actually,” Cyrene ducked her head in a manner that reminded Gabrielle greatly of Xena, when she announced a “skill”, “Actually, I staff fight barefoot.”

The queen and Jorry exchanged another look as the innkeeper marched out the door. “C’mon then,” she commanded.

“I will be there as soon as possible, My Lady, ” Jorry’s eyes were shining stars.

The emerald eyes met the girl’s with laughter in them, “Better hurry,” she trotted out the door, “Cyrene may take all of them down in the first quarter candle mark.”

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I hurriedly slurped my morning tea to wash down the muffin, for I had a good idea of what this day would bring.

The shadow in the door way, stooped as she entered. Like the others, Baba Xe carried three water skins, but they were larger. She also carried the Tide.

I ducked under my cot and Zephyr pushed the Baby Tide out to my hands, “Thanks Zephyr, ” The scabbard went across my body and I realized that Zephyr had “said” very little to me since the snake bite. She had been a constant underneath the cot of course, and she had comforted me often when I had nightmares about snakes. She left once a day making short trips to feed and run, and I knew that she was there, but she had not spoken to me. I resolved to ask her later.

Baba said nothing as we walked toward the beach. I knew it would be wiser to speak when addressed. It was a relief to be somewhat familiar with the beach; I might not make a complete fool of myself in the different footing sand required.

Baba dropped the skins, kicked off her boots and stripped to an Amazon fighting shirt, a sleeveless shell woven of light leather and soft netting line.

I mimicked her motions and a similar shirt hit me in the gut, as I tugged at my boots. “Thanks,” I quickly slipped out of my tunic and into the shirt. The Baby Tide felt heavy. Deep breath, Bird dog, you are out of shape and likely to get your ass whupped.

A water skin sailed in the air, and I caught it.

“Drink before we begin,” she commanded, “Promise me that you will drink every time you feel thirst; I won’t return you to your mother both dehydrated and ‘snake bit’.”

“Yes, My Lady,” Four big swallows, and I assumed a ‘ready’ position.

“And, settle yourself, Birdie,” Baba’s eyes were gentle, though her body language was every bit Xena the Conqueror, “We are going to keep it very simple, and then just run the strength exercises.”

I nodded nervously despite her words; how is one meant to “fight” or even “work-out” with the Conqueror and not be a little stressed?

“All right, ‘defend one’,” she brought the Tide straight down at my head, and my body reacted automatically swinging the Baby Tide into a horizontal block.

“Defend two, ” this was a side to side slash meant to cut a person in half; I did the slight stomach suck, went on tiptoe and blocked with the Baby blade down.

“Good,” eyebrows rose. She lunged at me with an overhead swath which demanded that I tuck and roll, coming quickly to my feet behind her. I needed a drink.

“What are you waiting for, Bird? Press your advantage!”

…I didn’t want to.

She turned her head slightly, jarring me with one icy eye. “Robin of Amphipolis, you WILL fight as you have been trained to fight.”

With a breath that was part sigh, I ran at her back with a two handed grip coming down toward her right shoulder. She left the sand into a back flip, over my head and landed behind me. I felt a slight sting of the Tide’s blade smack my backside, “You’re dead,” she chuckled.

Her big hand fell on my neck, “Get a drink,” we both partook, and she sensed my discomfort.

“It isn’t as bad as it feels, Birdie, Really,”

“It doesn’t feel very good, Baba.”

“That is because you are at about seventy percent of normal, kiddo. I have no doubt that you would manage in a brawl. Your one hundred percent fighting skills would beat nearly anyone.”

“Do you think so, Baba?” I didn’t want to cry, but tears gathered.

“Birdie, I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it true; you know that.”

Nothing but tears.

“Hey,” she put both hands on my shoulders, “Look at me. Birdie…. Look… at… me.”

I just managed it.

“Birdie, I don’t tell you often, but you are an extraordinary fighter. Extraordinary.” She looked out at the sea, “Fortunately, you haven’t had many encounters that call for your premium skills; your mother would kill me.”

We both chuckled then, and my tears made spots in the sand. Her hand was gentle in my hair.

“We are likely to meet Rankor on our way home,”

My eyes snapped up to hers at once, “Rankor?”

“Yes,” she sighed, “I will tell you more about it later on, but suffice it to say, Birdie; I will need you at one hundred percent.”

I looked at her straight on, as one of her militia, “I will be ready, Baba.”

Both swords fell to the sand; she picked me up in a Conqueror- sized bear hug.

“Baba, I’m so sorry.” I whispered.

She stroked my hair and swayed back and forth, “I know you are sorry, Little Bird.” After a moment, she put me on my feet.

“Ephiny and I have been talking, and we think it best that she carry out ‘part one’ of your ‘discipline by Amazon only.’ Your mother, of course will handle ‘part two’. See, she comes…”

I hadn’t noticed my godmother’s approach. Baba surrendered me with a clap on my shoulder. But she held my eyes for another moment. “This is meant to help you, Birdie,” she said quietly, “I know how much guilt you feel, and that must be addressed before we journey back. Like I said, I need….”

“Me at my best,” I said steadily, “Baba Xe, I will be ready.”

Baba’s hand lingered in my hair until Ephiny arrived. Zephyr was with her.

“Eph, she is all yours.” Baba began striding away from the beach, whacking at sea grass with her sword ; Zephyr silently fell in beside her.

Ephiny put her arm around my shoulders. “Let’s take a walk, kiddo.”

My arm encircled her waist out of habit despite my sure knowledge that the Amazon arrow was coming. My head stayed down; I had no words.

We walked a long while down the beach, and then up into a more wooded area. “This has been so difficult for your Baba Xe,” Effie said quietly, “Artemis declared your actions to be Amazon offenses, and therefore all disciplinary actions should be carried out by Amazons only.”

I thought of my Baba Xe walking on the beach alone, “I bet she would be skinning me alive right now, wouldn’t she? No, I know she would be skinning me alive.”

Effie turned me and took me by the shoulders directly, “It’s not even that, Birdie; it’s the disappointment, the worry, the hurt that both of your parents suffered because of YOUR thoughtlessness. Consequences are only a small part.” She gave me the slightest shake, “Why did you do it, Bird? Why didn’t you ask?”

That was fairly easy to answer, “Heard one of the men in the army say it once, ‘easier to ask forgiveness than permission’. … they wouldn’t have let me come, Effie.”

Ephiny shook her head slowly, her dark eyes very serious , “There is some fault in that line of thinking Little Bird, as you will find out.”

“Effie, I know it was wrong, and you are going to give me the arrow…”my voice trembled against my will.

She sighed and steeled herself, “Yes, I am. A dozen of the best.”

Minotaur shite and yipes that would hurt. It was warrented. Be a warrior.

“C’mon.” I had heard that voice before.

I followed her to a fair sized stump on which she propped a boot. She patted her strong knee, “According to Amazon laws of conduct, one who commits this type of inconsiderate ‘boo boo’ would be restrained to a branch of a tree. But since you are my goddaughter, and I happen to love you very much, we will make this more personal.”

I didn’t know if that was good or bad for my backside; didn’t matter, the shame was paramount.

“Hurry up, kid, and drop those britches while you’re at it.”

So it was going to be some really tough love. I did as she asked and came to stand to her right side in my loin wrap. As she pulled me across her knee, she said quietly, “I love you, Birdie.” She drew the thin rod from her quiver.

Closing my eyes, I awaited the sharp sting.

It did not come. Instead, my britches were yanked up, and the rest of me yanked front and center locked in by Effie’s snapping dark eyes.

“SIT.” She pointed at the stump. I fastened my pants and stumbled backward onto the stump. There was a LOADED silence while I waited and watched my godmother pace back and forth. Had this been Baba Xe, I would know certainly that she was angry. So I was quiet in the presence of my godmother’s anger.

“Be very glad, young Robin that you are NOT in the Amazon camp; I would hate to see our strongest warriors draw blood on you.” Yes, she was angry.

My breathing already labored, caught, and I choked. It would not be checked until Effie looked at me, sighed, and brought her water skin to my lips.

“Drink.” One gulp, two… She pulled it back. “Settle down, kiddo. Drawing blood was the old Amazon way. It can be difficult to get your complete attention at times.”

Her hand rubbed my back. I tried, but now the tears were flooding my face; I hoped I wouldn’t wet my pants; my body was acting independently of my mind.

My dear godmother, a leader and a warrior in her own right, cast her gaze heavenward for help, “Dear Artemis’s arrows..” But she was on her own.

“Come on. Up.” Her strong grip pulled me from the stump, and she took the seat. Just as efficiently, she pulled me down between her knees and wrapped her arms around me.

“Effie, I’m so sorry,” just managed it before she could hear the sob. She felt it though and began a silent, rubbing of my shoulders and head, which gradually eased me, but I hung on to her gauntleted arms. They were not as big and strong as Baba Xe’s, but they served very well.

Her voice was quiet in my ear, “Artemis called all of us out on this one, kiddo. Amazon discipline only.”

I sniffed, shaking my head. “That’s why Baba will barely talk to me?”

“She is in a bad spot, Birdie. You are her child, and she must find a way to deal with you without offending the goddess. But I can assure you, your Baba Xe would take no pleasure, no satisfaction, no feeling of … well, ‘revenge’ for lack of a better word, from punishing you.”

“Oh Effie, I know it’s not any of those things. I know that.”

“Think for me, Bird. How many times have you been spared disciplinary action, because while you often TRAIN with the militia, and you possess even better skills than most, you are disciplined lightly– because you are NOT an enlisted member?”

My heart pounded; new tears threatened.

“Bird.”

“I don’t know Effie, lots and lots of times…” my misery approached again.

She ran her hands beneath my arm pits, “Stand up… do it…” She spun me about to face her.

I didn’t feel like standing, and I could not meet her eyes.

“I would subtract one ‘lots’,” she chuckled quietly, “however, you are aware.”

“Yes ‘m,” I didn’t feel like talking.

“Birdie, your Baba Xe is so proud of you,” Ephiny took my shoulders now and shook gently. She could shake me till my head snapped off; I was deep in despair with myself.

“I…. I make a lot of mistakes, Effie. I don’t think things through to the end. And I am too young to enlist.”

“EXACTLY,” I found myself wrapped in a fierce embrace. “You are a KID.” She allowed that to sink in somewhat before she struck next.

“My question to you right now, Birdie is, ARE YOU AN AMAZON?”

It was a gut punch. By the gods, how many holes were in my head? I am an Amazon as surely as I am a trainee for the militia. I am Amazon by birth; I am —oh Artemis– meant to be royalty…The race of my thoughts was checked.

“You are an Amazon, kiddo, and we live by a very strict code.” Her embrace grew stronger, “I swear to Artemis, if I wasn’t quite certain that your Mama G is going to give you quite a dose of tough love, I would so whip your little butt…” her voice faded into a growl. I had to smile through my shame and tears. She was very like my Baba Xe.

Finally I managed to speak into her chest, “Eff, I know I was wrong. It was wrong to just leave… but…”

She sighed into my hair, “Birdie, I know that you are in deep with Rach; I know that this coming separation will make you feel as if your heart is torn out.”

My head fell; tears were silent now.

She pushed me back and lifted my chin with a calloused hand, “But that is no excuse for what you did, kiddo. You had us worried sick.”

I tried to escape her eyes, but she would have none of it. “It was very poor behavior, Birdie, neither worthy of an Amazon princess, nor worthy of Robin of the Warrior and Bard. You are better than this.”

I wished she had whipped me; it wouldn’t come close to hurting as much as her words.

But what are you Bird dog? Time to find out.

“What can I do, Ephiny?”

She pushed me back from her and held out her arm; instinctively, I grasped it tightly with my return of the warrior’s sign of agreement, of friendship, of loyalty, and of powerful love.

She seemed to grow taller then, and it was Ephiny, High Regent of the Forest Amazons who held my eyes and said, “Do you swear to me, Robin of Amphipolis, and Amazon by birth, that you will mind your personal behavior to the best of your ability from this day on? No excuses.”

Her hand trembled on my arm. “Do you swear in front of our Goddess Artemis? Amazon and Warrior’s Honor?”

I squeezed her arm tightly and placed my right fist over my heart, “I swear.”

“Good enough then,” Her eyes sparkled and she tousled my hair. “Let’s go find Xena Warrior Pudding Cup and eat. I am starving.”

That brought a slight chuckle at last, “Effie,’ Pudding Cup’?”

She stopped and cocked a familiar eyebrow. I sometimes forgot that my godmother had a very long history with my parents.

“Warrior’s Honor, Bird.” She blew a raspberry into my hair.

We returned in the same manner that we had departed her arm around my shoulders and mine around her waist. It felt so good, I could have walked forever.

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

It was night again, and again Gabrielle the Bard stood on the fortress wall stargazing. The “work out” with the troops and Cyrene had been quite a “hit”, she smiled to herself. Cyrene had whacked more of the guys off their feet than she had. It had taken any lingering hubris out of the younger troops in a big hurry. The older members knew better than to underestimate anyone, any WOMAN, and in Amphipolis, any WOMAN WITH A STAFF.

The queen had announced that staff work would be conducted once a week for those who wished to improve. She felt there would be good attendance, and Cyrene was going to assist. Despite what they had just endured, the announcement brought cheers from the boys.

Of course all of the militia revered Cyrene as their cook and as a mother figure at times. But now, there would be a new respect. Gabrielle shook her head again; she had never seen Jorry laugh so much. She wondered if Jorry had ever laughed so freely in her life. It had been a successful idea all around. She only wished that Xena and Birdie could have seen it.

The evergreen eyes stared at the half moon and closed ; she could feel that her warrior was doing the same. The poet’s hand brushed her belly gently; she had fancied a time or two that the child within her was giggling during the staff exercise. It was going to be a new experience with this little Singer; she was glad that she would have help.

The feather nib stroked ink on the parchment.


The days’ cycles turn -waking, working, eating, sleeping,
But every walking, talking, breath of me misses you.
A tree struck by lightning may survive,
Though hollowed, disfigured, charred and scarred.
Does it live or despair? Its limbs cannot reach
For light; the branches do not bloom; phantom memories
Cannot flower; they ache for what is absent, what
Is taken. My soul is lonely, it needs its mate.
A solitary search through forsaken fog,
Like a compass sans star, functional,
But the aim is not true; it endures, but it is lost.
Words are inadequate to capture and convey
The echoing ache of life without you.
But words and thoughts through star light,
Are all that I can send,
From this distance.
************************

The bard read through her words, rolled up the parchment and took a last look at the stars.

“Good night, my love, “she whispered. Then descending the stairs she looked back once with a wicked grin.

“I think it’s a pig. Don’t you see the snout and tail?”

Part 7

For the past several days, Caleb had been focused on rubbing and wrapping venison. Cookie had a special recipe of herbs that were applied before the slabs went into the smoking pit. After the smoking process, he rubbed the meat again before wrapping it in clean leaves which were coated in special oil. Caleb was glad to learn the process; he knew that it would be handy information if he was ever out on patrol with the militia. Caleb smiled to himself. His Lady Cyrene likely already knew the process, but it couldn’t hurt to present the method.

“Poor fella,” he stroked the nose of the “chow horse”. “You carry the burden of our eatin’; the better we eat, the harder your job.” He held a small apple flat handed and enjoyed the caress of the velvet lips consuming the treat. “Cook is doing a final walk about for gear, and then your load will be complete.” The blonde boy was feeding a similar treat to the second chow horse when he felt the fine hairs on his neck rise. A hand like ironwood clapped his shoulder; Caleb turned cautiously to meet the gaze of Rankor.

“Da,” Caleb nearly swallowed his tongue.

“Did’unt mean ta scare ya.”

“Ya did’unt,” Caleb steadied his voice quickly, “Only startl’d me a mite.” Be bold. Be a man. “Looks like the guys ‘ad a good hunt.”

“Yah, we’uz lucky fer once,” His father watched him straighten and level the load on the chow horse. His hands must not sweat. Wipe them on the britches.

Another heavy clap to the shoulder. Caleb interpreted the gesture as affection, in his Da’s own manner.

“Well, yer doin’ good, boy. Pr’haps next time we’ll take ye on the hunt. Are ya a fair shot?”

“Fair,” the boy tightened a strap one more hole. He had to remain busy; he did not want to look into his father’s eyes and think the man, Father. No commitment.

“Whal,” his father turned to strut away thumbs in suspenders, “ justcheckin’.”

Caleb put his face in the horse’s saddle blanket to regain composure. “Bye, Da.” He whispered.

Cookie appeared at his side. “’E didn’ ‘urt cha, did ‘e, lad?”

“Nah,” Caleb straightened, “Worse dan dat; ‘e tried talkin’.”

****

Sweat dripped from the end of my nose as I rested my hands on my knees panting. I was up to nearly a half candle mark running time, but that was far from the 100% readiness that Baba Xe, the Conqueror required. Half candle mark was not nearly good enough. Swishing through the sea oats, I found the water skin I had stashed earlier. I surveyed the area as the nourishing water ran through me. This morning run was something I would miss, the soft lapping of the waves, the shore birds scattering at my approach, the crabs diving for their holes. Zephyr would miss chasing the birds. She would never kill a bird in my presence, but I could not deny her the exercise and joy of chasing them.

“You have a visitor, Little Mistress,” I welcomed my fox’s voice in my brain. She had been too quiet lately.

Gazing down Gaia’s peaceful beach, I witnessed a tall ant sized runner. The figure grew quickly, so it could only be Baba Xe. I quit snogging the water, in case she needed a drink.

Baba Xe was over forty season’s round; no one was privileged to her exact age except perhaps Mama. But she ran like a young colt. A wild, strong, dangerous, gorgeous colt. I felt like a badger in comparison, but Mama had always assured me that badgers had their dangers.

“Hey,” she slowed her gait. “How is the Birdie run?”

“Not yet what it should be, Baba,” I offered my water skin and she took a swig.

“Here,” she returned it, “You drink the rest. So how bad is ‘not what it should be’?”

I covered a scuttling sand crab with my toe; he escaped; Baba’s foot produced a landslide for him.

“Half a candle mark,” I didn’t look up. Strong fingers went beneath my chin.

“That’s not bad, Little Bird,” our eyes met. “You were bitten by an ochia after all; you could have die…..” The word made her cough.

“The milita must run nearly two candle marks,” I protested both trying to change the subject and relishing in the first time I had heard my ‘pet name’ in a while.

Baba’s fingertips smacked the top of my head lightly, “You are not militia, and you have been very sick. Patience, Birdie. Hear me?”

“Yes, M’Lady,” she had not released my eyes.

“When you can go three-quarter candle mark, we will leave.”

Oh those mixed emotions… I was anxious to return to Amphipolis, yet the thought of leaving Rach was a spear in my side. Three spears, actually.

“So no holding out on me,” Baba was reading my thoughts.

“I wouldn’t do that, Baba. My ‘lovesickness’ has brought enough trouble.”

My warrior parent cupped the back of my head with her ironwood hand; I leaned into the low key embrace. Baba’s hands were so strong and capable, I always felt comforted, even if she was going to use a hand on the place opposite my head. Or lately, the place my head had been stuck.

“Grown up abit, have you?”

“More than a bit,” I answered looking at her again, “less than a lot, or at least I am afraid to say.”

“I will take whatever amount you have gained, Birdie,” the finger went beneath my chin to encourage eye contact. Actually, she forced eye contact.

“Look at me, Birdie,” I obeyed, though it was difficult.

“I am going to say this one last time, and we can only hope that you have learned enough from this venture.”

“Yes, M’Lady,” I whispered.

“Your mother and I cannot STOP you from this little, ‘habit’ you have of going off willy nilly over just about whatever situation sends you spiraling.”

She paused and I nodded, lowering my gaze, but it was retrieved quickly by the hand.

“Short of chaining you in your bedroom; which I have considered, but your mother disapproves,” she smiled to herself, “ the bottom line is that you are old enough to make most of your own decisions, whether we approve or not.”

“Yes, M’Lady.”

“So…… I can only hope that the consequences of this latest impulse have convinced you that perhaps a person should think, and then think some more, about her actions very carefully. And frankly, Birdie……”

Seems like I should have been old enough to keep the tears back, but it wasn’t working at all.

She sighed. I looked up at her. For the first time in my life, I saw the tears in her sapphire eyes and beheld the woman I worshipped, the Conqueror, as only a person. A remarkable person, nonetheless, truly only a human being, no more or less than I or my friends.

“Frankly, Birdie, if going missing for days and days, nearly freezing to death,” (how did she know about that? I had not told her) and coming close to death from snake bite doesn’t do it for you, I don’t know what will.”

I …. Don’t…. Know….. I tried to remember if I had ever heard those words from Baba before. If so, it was rare. The Conqueror must know.

Her thumb came across my cheek to wipe away the tears. Then her hand fell to the back of my neck.

“Baba,” my voice wouldn’t work.

“Shhhhh…. No, Little Bird, you needn’t say anything; I know that you are sorry; I know that….”

Great, I was close to blubbering now. She began walking, steering me back to camp.

“It’s ok, kiddo,” she was using that low soothing voice which worked for everyone who knew her, and especially horses.

“Go on now; wash your face,” she sent me into the hut with a light smack. “We will talk again.”

I did manage to compose myself a little, “Thanks, Baba,” was about it.

“Just keep thinking, Little Bird. I like to see that.”

****

The bed was too damn big for one person. Gabrielle had opened the ceiling slats which revealed a clear night’s stars. The bard lay awake knowing the moon would come into view soon.

“Mama lonely?” the twinkly voice spoke inside. The bard placed her hand on the small belly bump and stroked it gently.

“Yes, Singer.” She fought tears. The acute sensitivity of her unborn child was still startling, if not alarming at times. “I miss your Baba and your big sister. But I am very glad that I have you.”

“Birr-Dee.”

“Yes, Sweetie.”

“Sistsssser?”

Gabrielle began to relax into her pillows; the sky was becoming brighter. “Sister—yes, little one. A baby like you but bigger and older.”

“Birr-Dee.”

Gabrielle was smiling now, “Yes, like Seeen-ger.”

When the baby laughed, it tickled inside, and the bard laughed out loud.

“Mama, Baba all right.”

Now there were tears in the emerald orbs to accompany a gentle pat, “Thank you, Honey. You have helped Mama, but now you must sleep.”

“Night, Mama.”

“Night, Baby.” Gabrielle closed her eyes and offered gratitude to Artemis for this gift.

Moonbeams were shining through the ceiling now, illuminating the empty space in her bed.

“Hello, My Love,” she whispered and settled into the space that did not seem so empty now.

“Be Well, My Love.”

****

Caleb was confused by the general lack of “moving on” regarding his father’s band of bad guys, but he asked no questions. Cookie had said, “Boys been ridin’ while; sometimes Rankor takes a rest.”

At the present rate, however, they would eat all the meat they had acquired recently.

“’Appens,” said Cook, “We’ll likely be movin’ when we’re outa ale.”

Ale…. Some folks based their lives around the stuff. As Cyrene’s part time helper, he knew the

“Regulars” of the inn. Though he would never give up his knowledge, especially in present company, Caleb had gained a fair idea of how to make ales. He never imbibed himself, and when he considered all the people he most admired in Amphipolis—well, they were light drinkers.

Lady Cyrene made the best ale in Greece, but very rarely drank beyond the initial taste of a batch.

The Conqueror and Lady Gabrielle only drank on special occasions, as did his ranking officers in the militia.

As for his Da, ale so affected Rankor’s disposition, that Caleb had taken to helping Cookie wash the “vittleware” in the river which was a quarter candle mark’s walk. They loaded the chow horse, and the chore could usually last until the drunks were out. He had begun the precaution, when he accidently crossed in front of his father and had been awarded a black eye.

Caleb noted the flames in the tired blue eyes which focused Cookie’s wrinkled face. Cain had treated the boy with cold compresses from the river, and also packets of tea.

“S’nothin’, Cook,” he had tried to wave it off and not draw any attention to either of them.

“A’ don’ know which vexes me more, Boy.”

“Really Cookie, I am fine. Your tea is better to sip as we do sometimes; I know that it’s precious stuff.”

“That cursed Rankor. I don’ know if it vexes me more that ‘e ‘it you, or that ‘e was so drunk ‘e didn’t even know ‘e ‘it ya.”

Caleb gripped the shaky hands in his own and kept the cook’s eyes, “Don’t want ‘im ta know, Right? Best he don’t find out.”

“Aye, Lad,” the old man squeezed his hands, “Yer right, Caleb; better to just keep movin.”

The day approached; I could feel it and it made my stomach knot like ancient cypress. But even though I dreaded departure, I worked hard at regaining my warrior status. It was the least that I could do.

My feeling was verified when I met Baba Xe once again on the beach. We stopped to breathe together a moment.

“You seem much better, Birdie. You are gaining ground.”

“I am, Baba.” My soft boot scuffed at a sand crab who immediately burrowed.

“How do you feel about that?”

I raised my eyes to make sure that it was MY BABA XE who had posed the question; the “how do you feel?” questions were far more Mama G’s territory.

But it was the Conqueror who awaited my response. I took a long swig on the water skin.

The warrior’s hand cupped the back of my head, “Mixed emotions I am sure, Little Bird.”

I could only nod; the words were too loaded with tears of all kinds to speak aloud.

“I understand, kiddo,” her words were gentle, “but realize that you HURT, because you love, and you are loved. Yes it is painful to the heart, but you wouldn’t trade the heartache, would you?”

“No, Baba, I wouldn’t,” my voice squeaked a little; She gave me an affirmative pat.

“Good girl,” we took a few more strides; she had something else to tell me. “Birdie, you must find the warrior inside and gird your emotions for travel and possibly battle.”

“Battle?” This was new information for me.

“Rankor rides to meet us on our way home. He has taken Caleb from Amphipolis, and I will challenge the warlord for his return.”

“Why Caleb?” I liked the fellow very much but did not make the connection.

“It seems that Rankor is Caleb’s father.”

“Whoa! Minotaur S—… uh, I never made the connection, Baba Xe!”

She began swinging her arms, ready to run again. “Father or not, Caleb is OURS now.”

I started jogging; we both needed physical release.

“I agree fully, Baba. Caleb is OURS, and I will be honored to fight for him.”

A flash of the perfect smile and brightness in her blues. “I appreciate that, Birdie. Hopefully, any fighting will be between Rankor and ME ONLY.”

“Well, you will have backing,” this threat removed some of the melancholy of leaving Rachelle. I was a warrior, and warriors have duties.

Her hand swiped across my hair,” I know that, Bird, but it is always nice to hear. Especially from my own Birdie girl who is as good as anyone else in a fight.”

My cheeks warmed; I don’t know why it always embarrassed me when my Baba praised me, I suppose it was because I felt that my skills would never come close to hers.

“One more thing,” she slowed to a pace, reaching into a hidden pocket. “This is for you. Well, not for YOU, but for you to use as you wish.”

She handed me a framed gold coin on a silver linked chain. Close study revealed my own Baba’s profile, with the lettering “The Conqueror”. The reverse of the coin was her chakram.

“This is beautiful, Baba,” I was in awe; I had no idea such coins existed.

“There aren’t many of them,” Now Baba was a little blushed about the ears. “Just a few prototypes; they were never put into circulation. I met your mother, and the Conqueror changed. She had no need of her own coins.”

“Wow,” I murmured, “Thank you Baba.”

“You are welcome, Little Bird. When the time comes, you will know what to do with it.”

Her arm fell about my shoulders as we entered the beach camp. I reflected that my Baba Xe was treating me differently now, even though I had committed a grievous error. She was treating me like I was grown up, not an equal, but no longer a kid. And I felt that I had come to know my Conqueror parent better in the past few seven days, than I ever had before…. It was a good thing.

****

Gabrielle and Cyrene were the last “men” standing at their second staff class. Gabrielle smiled at the dark headed young man sprawled in front of her. She extended a hand which the kid took gladly.

“I am learning,” he wiped sweat from his eyes, “Staff fighting takes more finesse than just brute strength, doesn’t it?”

“Umm, Yeah,” the bard grinned at him again, “But you are doing much better Jacob, really…”

Jacob came to his feet, “My Lady, are you certain of that or are you just practicing your legendary kindness?”

Points for the kid. The Queen cocked her head, “Perhaps somewhat,” she punched his muscular arm good naturedly. “But I would not tell you that you are improving if you weren’t.”

Jacob clicked his heels together and executed an exaggerated bow. “Thank you, My Lady. Till next class then…”

Gabrielle inclined her head, “Till then. Practice.”

A jaunty grin flashed back at her, “Yes, M’Lady.”

An arm locked with hers, “He seems like a nice boy,” Cyrene commented.

“Well, he has very good manners and knows when to use them at least. That is better than many,” Gabrielle watched the “boys” leave. “Did anyone ‘fell’ you, today Mother C?”

Deep chuckle, “Not even close, Lovey.” They walked toward the inn entrance to the fortress.

The bard stopped and turned the little woman to face her, “I truly had no idea you were so handy with a staff. You are awesome, Mother C.”

“Well, Dearie it IS in the blood, you know,”

“HA! Is it ever. You have loosed your secret, Mother C.”

The innkeeper took her “daughter” firmly by the arm and continued their movement.

“Well?” Gabrielle was fairly indignant now. A light pat on her butt cooled her quickly and the Arms were interlocked again.

“I have many skills, Dear.”

The rest of their walk was silent. Cyrene’s eyes glowed wickedly with secret delight.

I stopped and gazed down the beach at what had become known as “Phyl’s Rock”. Rach had told me the story of how many days Vic had sat on the stone looking out to sea-wishing that Poseidon would take her too.

I hoped that Rach wasn’t feeling that same way, though I had entertained some of those feelings myself. My wish was to be strong. The new Birdie was stronger , but I sought a person who could always topple my strength.

“Hey,” she said without distracting her gaze.

“Hey,” I began to search the climb; the stone stood thirteen or fourteen hands high.

“The back.” My instructions.

Every hand and foot hold was perfectly placed, as if the God of the Sea had made it so.

I offered my water skin.

“Thanks, mine was becoming too warm,” she gulped three times. She still hadn’t looked at me.

We sat in silence listening to the soothing rhythm of the waves. Needed to make an effort.

“A clam for your thoughts?” I extended the shell- a lame offer.

“I believe that my thoughts are free to you…”

Bird, Bird, Bird…. You are addressing a Queen now. Though she has been the love of your life for quite some time; grow up, Bird.

The markings on the rock held my study. The waves washed on.

“You will be leaving soon.” A fact.

“Yes,” stay focused on the rock; ignore the dampness in my eyes.

“How do you feel about that?”

Oh, Artemis. Help me be strong.

“How long will you be here? Is it forever?”

“No, but it will be awhile, Birdie.” The sea kept her gaze.

Remain calm. I am this girl’s consort; be worthy. “Ok. ‘Awhile’?” So far, so good.

“Six moons- long enough to train Tosh to be my regent. Auntie Pony and Ephiny are returning to help with the training after— after they see you and the Conqueror home safely.”

Not a big surprise there. We’ll need them if Rankor rides in. Zephyr’s nose settled on my knee.

Finally Rach moved her gaze from the sea to level at me. “I need something from you, Birdie” The sage colors of her eyes were as resolute as granite.

“Anything.”

“Look at me.”

I complied, though it was not easy. Deep breath.

“Please don’t come here. Please, no matter how much you miss me and I miss you; please don’t do anything idiotic. I MUST concentrate on my role here; I am still responsible for this tribe, and I cannot fulfill that duty if I am worried constantly about you.”

Eyes went down again. “Ok.”

“No, Birdie; you LOOK AT ME AND PROMISE.” She grabbed my bangs and hauled my eyes to hers.

Swallow. She’s waiting; make it good, Bird; make it real.

I pulled back my shoulders and gripped her forearm. “My Lady Queen, I swear, on my honor as an Amazon and as your consort, that no matter how much I miss you, and I WILL miss you every breath -that I will hold true to this promise and not be an idiot.”

Her hand fell to cup my cheek. “Do you need a threat of some kind? I am a Queen now and I can really hurt you.”

Chuckled, bet she could, too. My hand joined hers, and we drew our heads together. “I need no more threats, Rach. I have finally learned my lesson. And if I am to be your Consort, I need to and I will grow up enough to be an asset to you and not a hindrance.”

Both hands took my head firmly but gently. “Birdie, you know that one of the things I love about you is your wild and brave heart. Remember when you rescued me from the Romans? You have gifts, Bird. That was some kind of ride out of that valley.”

“It was,” I agreed. “But mostly that was Hades and a little help from friends in high places. I recalled Marcus and Bartholomew coming to help speed my horse. Someday I would tell her.

“But the part I call on now is the BRAVE.” Now she had tears. My tough little Queen.

I scooted over beside her and pulled her close. “You must be brave too, Rach. But you have never lacked in that trait.” I had to smile to myself, “Remember how we couldn’t stand each other at first?”

“I think it was ‘you couldn’t stand me’ to be accurate.”

“And that was wrong of me; I just didn’t know you yet.” I pulled her closer, “My Baba Xe thought that Mama G was a pretty big pain when they first met. They sort of grew into and inside each other.”

“It is difficult to imagine that your parents would ever be anything but deeply in love.”

“Rach,” I snickered, “remember the skunk story?”

Now my little queen giggled a melodic run that I dearly loved to hear.

“And that river ride threw us together in a hurry. I would have been in trouble if you hadn’t been there to stitch me up.”

“I would have done something crazy or stupid at the appearance of Zon and the ‘hairy guys’ had you not been there to stand in front of me with your ‘forbidden’ sword.”

I sighed, “Got in some trouble for that stunt.”

Zephyr’s eyes followed our conversation as if we were tossing a ball back and forth.

“Birdie, your ‘stunts’ are well meaning and from the heart.” But she smacked the back of my head lightly, “But you need to think a little bit longer before you attempt some of them.”

“Yeah. I will.” This had been the Minotaur’s Mother of all stunts. I would be incredibly glad to see my mother and rather glad to have our reckoning over with as well.

“Rach. I promise. I will be a worthy Consort; I want to be the greatest consort you could have picked.”

“Oh Birdie. You are,” we fell into an embrace, “I just don’t ever want to see you so near death again. It was as if part of my soul was dying.” She sniffed into my shoulder. You are the only one for me; I DO love you so. “

When I could contain my voice my heart led me to words: “My mother tells a story pretty often. It claims that we are created with only half of a soul. We spend our lives searching for the other half; we search for our ‘Soul Mates’.” Swallow, “I guess that you and I are fortunate to find each other so soon.”

“We are,” she agreed, “But that also gives us a lifetime to keep each other safe. Birdie,” her voice faltered again. “How will I know that you are safe? Six moons is so long.” Her vulnerability encouraged my strength. She needed me.

“We’ll know,” I assured her stroking the heavy wheat locks from her eyes.

“You shall both know,” my foxes thoughts intervened and we both attended to her. “ I am being given new instructions about communication regarding both of you, as you speak.”

“What will happen?” Rachelle moved her hand to Zephyr’s head again.

“All my new orders are not completely clear, Little Queen,” It was such a blessing now that both of us could hear Zephyr, “but I will be the connection.”

Rach left my arms and pulled Zephyr into her lap. Zephyr did not suffer such affection from many and quite rarely from me. She was an independent fox- a god fox.

“Thank you, Zephyr,” she whispered. “That is such a comfort.”

I closed my eyes and thanked Artemis.

“Best I can figger,” Cook squinted into the sun, “Yer Da wants to meet the Conqueror this side of Philippi. The land is better suited fer fightin’ and the Conqueror’s party is likely ta be more travel weary. Ther’s a distance and a mountain afore they come this side.”

Caleb’s eyes dropped, “By the bolts of Zeus, Cookie, I wish w’ all my heart they wouldn’t fight.”

The faded blue eyes dampened, “Ay Laddie, ya know I wish the same.” His dry rough hand found the boy’s shoulder. “Ya can take or leave m’ thinking on this, but I suspects yer Da is trying to prove his love fer ya… In his own way.”

“Yer right, Cook. Tha’s difficult ta believe.”

“Ay, sum folks have da strange ways, I know,” agreement from the elder, “But I’v known yer Da a long time, and tha’s my hunch.”

“How long have you known my Da? “ the boy realized he had never asked the question.

The old man chuckled softly, “Tha’ my boy is a longer tale than we ha’ time fer now,” he squinted again. “I think I’m making out or hearing or feelin’ the boys are comin’ back from the hunt.”

“He sent a few into Philippi, didn’ he?” Caleb was picking up the expressions of his oldest friend.

“Ay, he did that. They are bringing back fres ‘arbs and such will put you and me ta work. Finish yer biscuit thar, Lad. They’ll be bringin’ ale with ‘em too.”

Ephiny arrived on the dusky beach just as Xena yelled in her Conqueror’s “Battle Orders to the troops” voice, which was most definitely not an “inside” voice.

“Hey Love birdies! Getcher butts back to camp before the sand bugs eat you alive!”

The Amazon’s dark eyes could see two small figures scramble down from Phyl’s Rock.

“Guess they heard you.” She gave the Conqueror, her friend, a wry smile.

“They’ve been out there for candle marks. It’s time.” Keen blue eyes watch the girls descend carefully, and then four hands joined to catch their furry companion.

Ephiny watched quietly. “I feel for them- this separation- it will seem like an eternity to them, Xe.”

“I know that too well,” the warrior admitted. “We’ve been gone what—almost three seven days round now?”

She kicked sand, “The hole that forms in me when I am away from Gabrielle feels like a bottomless well.”

Amazon hand clapped the rock hard shoulder, “Won’t be too long now, my friend. We will pack all day tomorrow and depart the following morning.”

Dark hair curtained eyes, and a sand crab suffered a gentle nudge from a conquering toe.

“We’ll be dealing with a heavy load of Birdie heartache then, “ She sighed her sympathy.

Ephiny aimed a gentle kick from the unfortunate crab, “It’s part of life, Xe, she has to learn to manage it.”

“Yes,” firmness in the answer, “Thus far she has fairly low marks in that category.”

The Amazon warrior turned away, “I have faith in her,” she remarked, “I think this little caper is the swan song for Birdie’s bouts of poor judgment. And besides, now,” she paused, “She answers to two Queens.”

The Conqueror laughed then, “By the gods, Eph, if that doesn’t do it, I am out of ideas.”

Ephiny was moving back to the camp, “Gechyer butt back to camp soon, Friend. The sand bugs’ll carry you away.”

The warrior snorted. Ah Amazons, Queens, old friends. Nothing to be done about it. She sighed and scanned the skies until she found the two stars which were sparkling emerald green.

My Dearest Love, My Queen, My Life,

My soul seeks yours in a cave so vast,

It smothers light. My lonely heart turns

At phantom echoes. I burn to feel

Your heartbeat in the breast I caress.

I ache without your gentleness,

Your strength, your love which gives

Me strength. My Gabrielle, My Soul

Mate, all of this weary warlord

Belongs to You.  I return soon.

Xena the Conqueror.

Part 8

The shore birds scattered in the morning’s receding tide; their different calls accompanied by the swii-sssh sound of surf and the slaps of bare feet on wet sand.

Running with my Baba Xe was like running with a wild horse. Thus far I had kept stride but my internal monologue was shouting: breathe , pace, relax !! It would take many seasons to reach Baba Xe’s effortlessness.

“Whoa, look it…” Baba turned on the speed toward a shape which was rolling in the wake. She captured a fist sized shell before the sea took it back again. It was colored a pure white with shiny brown markings.

Baba passed it to me-a silent question. “I think it is a nautalus, Baba.” Shell tutorials from Rach and Vix had made me somewhat literatein the treasures. “Good, the animal is gone.”

“Animal?” Baba waited further edification.

“Animals create these shells as their homes. Most of them are mud ugly and mean. We have eaten conch fritters?” My tall parent nodded. “Those guys are good to eat, but they do not care to be messed with. That is why they call them ‘fighting conchs’. Actually many shell animals are cannibals and just unpleasant.”

I returned the shell, “This Amazon tribe uses the nautalus as a major symbol. It’s actually called a ‘chambered nautalus”.

Baba nodded and retrieved the shell. It was no burden to her and rode easily in her curled fingers.

“Is it the symbol which resembles a spiraling staircase?” she queried not breaking stride.

“Perhaps,” I had seen few staircases in my life. “the symbol is a ‘cutaway’ version, so one can view the chambers. That’s a nice shell, Baba; one doesn’t find many which are of size and quality.”

“I can have something done with this then?”

“For Mama G?”

“Yes, and your Grandba as well. Push little Bird, it isn’t much further now.”

Minotaur shite, so much for hiding the labor.

“ Tosh and Vix do beautiful work with shells. Take it to their ‘shell hut’.”

By the gods, gorgeous water skins at last.

“Not so fast; you will cramp,” Baba tapped the back of my head lightly, checking my rapacious slurping.

We turned back toward camp, stopping to clean the sand from our legs and feet in an Amazon made freshwater pool.

“Give it here,” That command was always the same. I relinquished my arm with a quiet sigh; this was a demand at least four times a day.

“Not bad, “ Baba ran her hands over the affected area of my arm.

“It doesn’t hurt at all now, Baba—well, it hurts if I bang it on something, but it no longer throbs from the inside.”

“Good, “ my warrior parent thrust my arm under one of the reeds spilling clear water, “ As long as the skin is this pink, there is danger of re-injury and infection. That snake took quite a hunk from your arm and your life.”

Time to change the subject.

“I have learned much from this tribe, even in so short a visit, “ Baba regarded the system of bound reeds which carried water from one of several streams near the camp.

“It is a different environment, and I love it, but I also miss the mountains and cooler air.” My thirst was insatiable, and I felt I could never leave the “drink” reed which worked something like an artesian spring.

“We must bring your mother, “ Baba shoved me aside gently and drank deeply.

“Can it be soon, Baba?” Predicting the arched eyebrow, I presented my best wistful smile.

She ruffled my hair, “Your mother will be quite busy for a while, kiddo. But yes, we will come.”

$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

Gabrielle looked around the field of flattened “newbies” , victims of their first staff practice. “Well, troops, you may know where improvement is needed.” She did not mention ‘ego’ as an area out loud; that was apparent, since the guys were splayed about, hands on heads and backs. Two extra cocky kids placed hands on their ‘cockiness’. The bard cast a glance to her far left and noted that Cyrene was in the same position. The innkeeper winked at the bard.

Gabrielle found her gaze held by a handsome dark haired fellow with bright green eyes.

“You will improve, Hektor, I do mean that,” she extended a hand. He received it with a smile that could stop a horse.

“Staffing is much more about finesse than brute strength, isn’t it, My Lady?”

“Very much so,” his queen agreed. “Staffing appears to be quite simple, when it fact, it takes as much practice or more than swordplay. A staff fight can go quite some time because it is NOT necessarily lethal.”

Hektor hopped up, “Well it sure doesHURT.” He grinned rubbing his legs and butt.

“Just keep practicing,” What a charmer, she thought.

He clicked his heels together with a little bow. “That I will do my lady. See you next week?”

“Yes,” Gabrielle’s attention was taken by a group of four militia carrying a halved ale keg suspended on sticks by a long rope. She knew that a recent request had been filled and she was not at all certain that she really wanted to see the results.

“We got one, My Lady,” Atticus called, “it’s a big fellow too; brace yourself.”

“What have you got the lads doing?” Cyrene strolled over from her crowd of bodies.

The big red headed man stopped, “It is nasty, my Ladies. Be cautious.”

Gabrielle peered into the deep bucket and turned away, her hands immediately covering her eyes, and Cyrene recognized the onset of hyperventilation.

“By the gods, what have you shown my girl?” The queen mother came to protect quickly.

Gabrielle cast a staying hand, “I asked them to, Mother C; they were under orders.”

Nonplussed, Cyrene took baby steps and dropped her eyes. She jumped back more quickly than Gabrielle had done.

“By Medusa’s head herself, where did you find such a monster?” her voice took a Conqueror’s edge. She whirled to her daughter, “And why would you ask?” The blue eyes softened as she detected tears on the bard’s face, and she encircled a gentle arm to Gabrielle’s waist, “Why would you ask, love?”

The small blonde’s shoulders shook a moment longer. Then she composed herself, “Intuition.” Cyrene noted the bard shook tears from her eyes the same way her Xena did.

“Regarding yours, mine, and ours I suppose?”

“Ahhh, yeah.”The answer. Gabrielle rubbed her temples; lilting music moved in her.

“Mama, sweet Mama, Birrrdeee fine. No hurt Ma-ma.”

“Thank you sweet baby,” She returned the thoughts and turned to face Cyrene.

“I had a ‘feeling’, Mother C,” she steadied her voice, “and then I was curious.”

The older woman shook her head and didn’t quite say, “tsk, tsk, tsk,“ but her hand steered the bard’s elbow. “Best take a GOOD look then, girl.”

As they approached, Atticus extended a halting hand, “Careful my Ladies, ‘e’s a nasty one.” He drew an altered sword from his scabbard. It had been split at the top to make two deep points. He watched closely and then slammed the sword into the container.

“Got him pinned, take a look now.”

The snake was thin but strong; its body kept wrapping up the sword blade despite the sharp discomfort it must have caused.

“By the gods, the head on the beast, “Cyrene muttered.

Hektor had joined the group by now; he was a curious kid.

“AHH Medusa’s head, that is a big ochia,” he said. “Where’d you find him?”

“Couple of candle marks south,” Atticus watched the captive carefully. “They are a bit scarce around here because of our cooler climate. Won’t hear me complaining.”

“They were plentiful where I grew up, south of here,” Jacob offered, “They seek grass and sunlight.”

“This fellow was takin’ the sun,” Atticus reported, “Shall we destroy the beast now, M’Lady?”

“Please. But be humane.” Only Gabrielle…

Hektor stepped forward, “I’ll do it sir. You keep him pinned.” The young man retrieved his sword. “It is essential to cut off the head, “ he explained. “Otherwise, the freaky things’ll regenerate.”

“Too much information,” the bard dug fists into her squeezed eyes once more.

“K’ Ready?” Hektor locked eyes with his superior, “Pardon my giv’n the orders here, please.”

Atticus nodded. Cyrene noted sweat beads on the big man’s forehead.

“Move your forked sword about two fingers’ length behind the head.”

The snake was very angry; its heavy body thrashed rocking the bucket.

Cyrene kept her arm about Gabrielle, “Wish they would hurry up, “ she muttered, “The monster is givin’ me chill bumps bigger than apples.”

Gabrielle was in worse shape; her head was ringing and her breath was coming faster, “I really , really, hate snakes.” She whispered.

But something else began to work its way into her mind. A simple humming tune in a child’s voice, very like the resonation of a bell-soothing her nerves; again the baby comforted her mother. And the mother placed a gentle hand on her belly. “My sweet Singer.” The bard sent the thought and meditated on the fact that she and this child would know each other well before the girl was born.

Atticus’s big paw on her shoulder sent the battling bard straight up in the air.

“We’re done, M’Lady,” Gabrielle could feel the shaking in the man’s hand. “’E is one snake that’ll bother no one again. Think I should save the skin for the Conqueror? Might make a dashing belt or the likes.”

“That’s ok, do as YOU like with it,” the queen tried not to obviously shudder. Xena did not like snakes either, but Gabrielle would not go near the warrior if she were wearing a snakeskin belt.

“Think I will slice ‘em up and feed the lads later on, “ Hektor held up the body by the tail blood dripping.

“By the gods, I don’t care if ya dance with him, just get it outa my sight, “ Gabrielle heard the authority in Mother C.’s voice. She began walking her little blonde girl back to the fortress.

“I don’t suppose you’d care to divulge what the hades that was all about?” Same authority.

Gabrielle blinked and tears streaked her cheeks, “Mother C, it’s nothing personal. I am not completely certain why I wanted to see the snake. I think I know and if it comes clearer to me, I will tell you.”

“’Ave a feelin’,” the ironed haired woman spoke as she accelerated their strides, “an’ I think I don’t want to know.”

No more words passed between the two women as they returned, but the walking embrace held tightly.

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Caleb regarded the stars, “I ‘ope one of you folks up there’s watchin’ tonight, “ his silent prayer rose from his thoughts, “An’ if it’s not too much trouble, could one ‘o ya’ please make the ale do its work quick.”

The gang was entering what Caleb classified as the “singing stage”. It was a bad sign and sound as not one of the grubby bearded guys could carry a tune. It would be much nicer as well if a few of the fellows took a bathe in the river, but Rankor had not done so, and they followed their leader.

“Lay low, son,” Cookie whispered as they bagged the dirty dishes.

“Wish I could collect the cursed ale mugs, as well,” Caleb kept an equally low tone.

“Ay, well ya’ can wish in one hand andsh….”

“I remember, Cookie, ‘poo’ is the polite term,” Caleb didn’t look up but smiled when he heard the old man laugh.

“All right, ‘poo’ in the other and see which one fills faster.” Cain was still chuckling. It was silenced as he heard the boy’s sudden intake of breath.

A figure had appeared not realizing that whenever he approached, his son felt a chill, as if a large reptile had crossed his path.

“Lesh’ see,” Rankor threw back his head and drained his tankard. Then he grabbed the thick wheat hair. Caleb rose with the tug knowing from experience that submission was his only chance.

“What uh yatink ‘bout a boy who kills ‘is mudder, Cook?”

The old man had risen as well. “I dunno any boy who’s dun sech.” Caleb tried to warm his friend with his eyes. Cookie felt the gaze, but was in no mood.

“Why dis’ un, Cook. ‘E killed ‘is mum.”

Cook stood nose to nose with Rankor. Caleb closed his eyes. “In my opinion, a newborn babe is the only critter on Gaia ‘ose without sin atall.”

“’ell I begs ta differ,” Caleb saw a bright light as the heavy wood and iron tankard crashed against his head.

“No, Cookie, plee….” His vision went dark as he saw the old man swing the stew ladle at Rankor.

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Nausea had plagued me since sun up. I thought it might have been the heat of my morning run, but no amount of water eased the sickness. I couldn’t eat for fear of my belly’s reaction, but sipped tea. Rachelle, good Amazon healer she was, knew a tea to cure what ailed a person.

I left the hut taking the Baby Tide and my chakram with me. This had to be worked out, and doing so physically was the best cure. The beach provided all kinds of “foes”. I slashed the sea grass in front of me and mowed down the next clump with a sling of the chakram. Its return stung my hand. Out of practice, Bird.

Zephyr ran ahead of me to sniff out good ‘enemies’ and to indulge in chasing the shore birds. I heard her sharp high bark; she sat beside a large tree, the drift had brought overnight. Perfect.

Every branch was Rankor’s face, and I beheaded the man four times while again sending the chakram to cut the incoming waves. This time I caught it by pure instinct and no pain; it was an important skill to keep for a chakram if one did not want her own head shorn.

Salty perspiration dripped into my eyes and I ran a sweaty forearm across them.

“Here, Dodo,” I turned to catch a wet rag. It was soaked in spring water which helped the burning.

“Thanks,” I shut my eyes to clear the blood red, supremely focused mentality which took me when I used my weapons.

“You have extraordinary skills, Robin of Amphipolis,” the compliment made my cheeks burn.

”Don’t be bashful, now,” seeing my face color, my young queen tossed her water skin.

“Thanks, “ a deep swig helped to further clear my head.

“Who will give you water when you engage that dark warrior?”gentle arms encircled my waist, “How will you manage it.?”

“I stink, Rach,” tried to break away.

“I know that,” a snicker. “You smell like a warrior. My consort is well chosen.”

Ok, now completely embarrassed.

“You will have to think of these things on your own for a while, Birdie.” She laid her head on my shoulder.

That bad? Yeeessss bird dog. Be strong and reliable; Posture straight and strong.

“I will Rach; trust me.”

She lifted her head, “Birdie, I DO trust you in just about every situation imaginable, save one.”

She needn’t have said it.

“You are not very trustworthy when it comes to ME.”

I stiffened; even expected, that stung a bit.

She read my eyes, “No, Silly, What I mean is that I trust you with all of myself, my life, my secrets, my sorrows, but…… well… “

“My judgment is lacking with regard to your safety?” Time to mature and accept my responsibility.

“Yes, in a sense, though you have saved my life, I mean…”she sighed, an action which shuddered all her body.

I pulled her head to my shoulder again, “You mean that I must never do anything like honk off to Abdera without …. “ Now I was stuck.

“Yes. You know that I am safe here,” she grabbed my bangs to force eye contact, “you put yourself in far greater danger by your impulsivity than anything that could happen to me here.”

I lowered my head again. “I get it.”

“Good,” tears dampened my shoulder, “Birdie I love you more than my own life, but I have a duty to fulfill here and I want to do it WELL.”

“And as your consort, I must allow you to be a Queen, “I replied, finally understanding that this was not just about me. It was not just about any personal fears I had for Rachelle. It was about dedication to the greater good of our Amazons, and our sworn duty.

“Right,” Rach simply took my hand then and we walked the beach in silence.

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Gabrielle stood on the fortress wall and watched the sun descend into distant mountains. She had parchment and nib, but words were not coming.

“Evening, My Lady.”

Hektor stood below. Gabrielle shook her head. Kid had a serious crush.

“Hello Hektor, pretty night, yes.”

“Shall I ascend the wall to join you?” Let’s not be fresh, kiddo.

“Hektor,” she added firmness to her soft reply, “you do know that I am not at all available, don’t you?”

He lowered his gaze, “I do, My Lady. I am also an incurable dreamer.”

That made her laugh, “I like dreamers, Hektor, I really do. So you and I can be dreamers and FRIENDS. 

“Yes, My Lady.” He was cute, and undeniably charming.

“But for now, please slow down. Friendship takes time; you are young and you will learn.”

“Thank You My Lady.”

“And please keep foremost in your thinking that I belong to The Conqueror and to no one else. You are probably fortunate that she is not here right now.”

“I know, My Lady,” he was a little chagrined and needed to be.

“I will call you when I need companionship, ok? No more mooning at me in the moonlight.”

He laughed then, “Yes, My Lady. I understand. Your kindness is legendary and you have upheld your legend.”

Her answer was a nod.

“G’night, My Lady,” Hektor turned and trotted back towards the barracks.

She watched him go. He was pleasant on the eye and he made her laugh. She had been short on those pleasures for a time.

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By the gods, was there an axe in his skull? Opening his eyes to the sunlight was agonizing; Caleb rolled over on his side, though the movement was excruciating; his head felt full of rushing boiling lava.

“Ah dereya are lad,” Cook’s cool hand rested on the forehead, “I was fraid ya weren’ comin’ back.”

“How long?” Caleb mouthed through dusty mouth.

“’Ere,” a water skin with fresh river water helped.

”Not too much, lad. Ye’ll be sick.” A river soaked rag was place behind his neck. It settled the discombobulation.

“Ye were out all night, lad. I was worried,” Caleb had always marveled at the gentleness of Cook’s work worn hands… He squinted.

“Cook,” he tried to sit up but the hand held his chest, “Damnit Cook, did he give ya that eye?”

His friend’s left eye was swollen almost shut and displayed colors of purple and light green.

“Aye, son. ‘Snuthin’.”

“By the GODS,” but Caleb could not match his movements with his anger.

“I tol’ ya, wuznuthin’, lad. Now lay back down or does I hafta crown ya?” The old man managed a chuckle.

The boy was forced to obey, “I tol’ ya I could fight my own battles now, Cook.”

“Ya can’ fight much of a batt’le if ya’s knocked out cold, lad,” The hand pushed him back again; the other straightened a rough made pillow. “Just rest, son. I got ya in the coolest spot and will return to chekya.”

Caleb laid back. As soon as his head cleared he would ponder revenge. That Rankor had even struck the beloved and defenseless old man was the last straw beyond on a lifetime of straws. Rankor would be accountable, even if it cost Caleb his own life.

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The Amazon tribe had ceased their wild dancing, another shared that custom with their forest sisters. The thought wandered into my brain as I tugged on a scratchy feather at my neck. They also shared the “feather” thing unfortunately, just different birds. The meeting of our tribes would be educational.

“And now the Amazons by the Sea and the Amazons of the Forest will join in a bond that cannot be severed.” Vix had a good formal ceremony voice- wandering thoughts.

There was a sharp nudge in my ribs. “I know these things can drone on a bit, Bird, but you best heed every word,” Baba whispered without moving her lips. Remarkable, the practice of many ceremonies I decided.

“Thanks, Baba,” I found I had the talent as well. Good.

Just in time- energy filled the camp ring that was familiar to me.

“In deed, this historic day among my Amazons; I am pleased.” Artemis was the only woman, or man, or anyone to make my Baba Xe seem comparatively small in size. Note I did not say presence; Baba Xe could hold her own with anyone in that category. Bird, mind wandering again!

“The chosen two -step forward please.”

That would be me, right? Rachelle locked eyes with me from the opposite side of the ring. Yes.

I walked to meet my queen in the center with the goddess.

Artemis took my right hand and Rachelle’s as well. She folded them within her hands like an ironwood shelter. I could feel the heat of the immortal.

“ My sisters The Amazon world is full of vows and traditions, but none are greater than ‘Queen and Consort’” the goddess’s voice was thunder. “Do you both understand this bond? It means that not only are you true and faithful to each other, but also that your respective tribes must keep the same promises. This is a great responsibility. Even though you are young, can you say that you will guard this bond- to each other, and to your tribes, forever and always… even to death?”

“I will do so as my life’s work, My Lady Artemis, always and forever, “Granite green eyes pierced mine. I swallowed.

The goddess then chuckled- unexpected.

“Robin of Amphipolis, we are all only TOO aware of your devotion. Still, I ask the question, will you, as Rachelle’s consort, guard the bond to her and to your tribes, forever and always, even to death?”

“Yes, My Lady Artemis, “ I replied steadily.

“ Then the symbols of bondage.”

Rachelle stepped forward and draped my neck with thin woven leather. I looked down.
“It is sting ray leather, “ she said, “The finest and strongest material we know of.”

Hanging from the leather was a coin; it was the same image of the boy on the dolphin as the one in my ear, but larger. Oh gods this was embarrassing; I had nothing to give.

A loud cough brought my gaze to Baba Xe; she winked. There was one pocket in the dress buckskins. Ah ha.

I draped my love, my queen, in the silver chain and Conqueror’s coin. Artemis lifted the chain, “I recognize this as a chain of my own making. It is indestructible.”

“Thank you My Lady, “we said in chorus. I sent another thanks to my Baba and to Artemis for the fashioned chain in my pocket.

Artemis took our hands again, “now the final seal.” She handed me her dagger; I was warrior. Artemis’s weapon was heavily ornate, yet very light. Gently I sliced across Rach’s hand until a thin line of blood appeared. She smiled at me; it didn’t hurt. I cut my own a bit deeper; it seemed proper to do so.

The goddess pressed our bleeding hands together, first enfolding them in her own hands. “Now declare your bond,“ she whispered , “You need not make a sound.”

And so we stood, hands raised high, Queen and Consort, tall and proud, our bloods blended with one another’s and thereby our tribes. We met the eyes of each person in attendance.

There were yelps , drumming, and applause from the tribe. A glance at Baba Xe revealed tears running down her strong features. Then I realized my eyes were flooded as well.

“Mama G, “ I whispered, “ I hope that you can see.”

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Anyone passing by would not have noticed the bard sitting on the fortress wall, in lotus position, eyes closed.

In a moment she opened her emerald eyes to release diamond tears, like

Star shine on her cheeks.

“Mama sad?”

This little miracle never failed to startle her slightly. The child made inquiry when she sensed emotion in her mother.

“No, Sweet Singer, Mama isn’t sad; Mama is proud.”

“Of Birrrrr—dee?”

“Umhum, and of your Baba Xe, as well.”

“Want to see them.”

Gabrielle smiled as she sensed a headstrong timbre to the baby’s tone.

“Be patient, little one, you will see them soon.”

“Want to see them NOW.”

The bard’s melodic chuckle sailed upward to dance with the stars.

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“You are in a good mood,” The tall dark haired beauty addressed the stars, “I am too. You would have been so proud of our Birdie, Gabrielle. Something was just busting my gut, and I realized that it was pride, such pride in our little Birdie. It was a good feeling.”

Her head dropped, eyeing the flickering illumination the moon gave to gentle waves.

“You would love the sea, my love; we must come.” Cobalt sea eyes released tears on the high cheekbones. “I dread this separation for Birdie, Gabrielle. You and I have not been separated six moons ever… Well,” the warrior drew sand patterns with a toe, “Well, except for when I ‘died’.” She sighed, “Wish I hadn’t brought that up.”

Now she would have to run to shed the sudden abyss in her gut. Long easy strides began to pass sand gaining momentum.

“I am sorry,” the warrior thought as she increased her speed, “You, Gabrielle will be the one to teach Birdie about inner strength. I have done fair enough with her warrior skills. But what comes will need your expertise. How to keep a broken heart functioning. That is your area.”

Crabs scuttled, and even a sea turtle sensed the power of the approaching being, and she flippered herself back into the shallow water to hide from the oncoming threat.

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Hades was loaded; Baba and the other Amazons had bid their farewells; I wished this didn’t have to be so public. But what difference would it have made..

Rachelle’s fingers lifted my chin to meet my streaming eyes. Her tears were a graceful water cascade from granite rocks. She had such royal poise, and I struggled to keep my own.

Her fingers travelled down the lanyard which held the dolphin coin, and she examined it,

“This is a forever thing, you know,” she chuckled, “there may come a day when you look at this coin and think, ‘what in hades came over me?’”

I reached for the Conqueror coin on its stunning chain. “You will think that long before I do…” big sigh, “You know what I am capable of.”

Her hand chucked my head up firmly, “Robin of Amphipolis, you made me a promise…”

“And I will keep it,” teetering dangerously near a very unwarriorish sloshy crying fit. “I will keep to it, My Lady Queen, though there will be times it feels unbearable. Like now.”

Her arms came around my neck then and we hugged so hard, I fancied feeling our hearts beating together.

“We will be ok, Birdie,” she whispered, “I know that even though this…. Hurts…” she hid an unqueenly sob in my shoulder.

“My parents have an odd trick, “ I whispered. “When they are apart, they look at the moon every night, and somehow, Artemis allows them to share thoughts. They don’t think that I know, but I have put it together over time.”

“I will try it tonight,” Rach pulled away and assumed her royal continence.

“As shall I,” carefully level your gaze, Consort.

Artemis help me, it was time. She kept hold of my hand as I swung up onto my big horse. She released my hand and let hers grip my leg. “You take care,” she squeezed my leg hard, “By the gods Birdie, if you do anything stupid, I promise you will see stars, and not in the sky.”

I leaned down and kissed her hand gently, “I promise, My Lady.”

One more squeeze to my leg, “I love you,” she sounded hoarse.

“And I love you,” I was picking up a little bit of strength, “Look at the moon, Rach.”

“I will. Now Go. Go My Dearest Love, My Birdie…”

Hades obeyed the command without my urging. The black horse ran as if Artemis herself sat his back in command. It was just as well, because I rode blind, one hand clutched to my breast as if I could keep my heart from breaking sending shards through my chest.. It did not help. After a moment’s hard gallop, I looked back to the Amazon camp.

But Rachelle was gone.

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That night the stars heard a family apart, singing to comfort one another. Artemis did bless her own. Singer began, her sweet singing bowl voice sang to her mother alone, as she sat on the fortress wall walkway.

Singer:

Mama Dear

Can you hear me?

‘Tis your baby deep inside.

Goddess blessed, I am to have you

As my keeper and my guide.

Gabrielle:

Singer child, you are the blessing

You can’t know the love I feel..

For your songs and for your sweetness

This our bond forever sealed.

Birdie:

Rachelle, Rach, I am your consort

And I shall not let you down

Know that I will wait forever

To be with you and serve your crown.

Xena:

Artemis, I don’t pray often

Here me now; a warrior kneels.

Guard my family through this distance

Trust to You, this time I yield.

Part 9

“Cook, you reckon we’ll ever leave?” Caleb asked the old man as they did their river duties. The old man turned from his washing.

“Yawanna know what I tink?”

“Sure, always.”

“I tink Rankor is awaitin’.”

“For?”

“He’s waitin’ to meet the Conqueror HERE. She’ll be tuckered from tha’ journey.Might give him some advantage.”

Caleb considered the notion. Not a bad one, if one knew absolutely nothing about the Conqueror. He wanted to remark that the Conqueror was rarely if ever, “tuckered”; the Conqueror kept herself as well-honed as her chakram- that was what the guys in the barracks said. They always mentioned it if one had actually SEEN the woman go out for her morning run, when apparently began long before sun up.

“Well, I s’Pose that idn’t a bad idea, ” Caleb measured his return, even though he trusted Cain completely. “She keeps ‘erself in mighty good shape- likely better shape than a week of drinkin’.”

“Now that I’ll give ya lad, ” Cookie chuckled. “Rankor does ‘imself no favors by his lifestyle.” He reached for the boy’s face. “How yafeelin’?”

“Better, Cook. I’m fine, ” Caleb returned the gaze to the old man’s eye, “And yerself?”

“Ah, not much this old hide can’t take, lad,” He finished up the last pan and hung it from the yoke across Caleb’s shoulders. Then he gripped the big main cooking pot.

“Hades, ya get enough of a workout just doin’ this, ” he chuckled as they started up the hill.

“Aye, yer right about that,” Caleb had felt his strength increase by this thrice daily routine. But that was good. He wanted to be ready.

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

Only Zephyr ran ahead of me and Hades for the first half candle mark. My head, heart, hands, thoughts, had gone numb and if it weren’t for my animal guardians’ vigilance, any danger could have taken me without notice.

Argo’s galloping pattern was distinctive, and I shook that last of my tears away as Baba came alongside.

Peripherally I was aware of the dark mane tilting my way. “How you doing, Little Bird?”

I sniffed and dragged a sleeve across my eyes.

Argo slowed to a gentle stroll, “It’s tough; I know Bird, it hurts so badly that we think no one else could begin to understand..”

We continued to amble on a while.

“Bird, I know the pain; you know that I DO understand and so does your mother.”

I managed a nod; I knew both “short versions” of both the “Rift” and Baba’s death. Mama had told me that she would allow me to read her scrolled accounts of those experiences when she felt the time was right. I felt the time might be approaching.

“Catch,” A small skin of tea sailed between horses; it was followed with a wrap of biscuits and fruit. “Eat; I know that you didn’t eat this morning.”

“Yes’m,” I nodded; the tears were coming again; Baba knew it. Her long arm reached across the space to cup the back of my head.

“I love you, Birdie. I am going to just leave you alone, because that is how you need to be right now. But if you need me for ANYTHING, kiddo, anything at all- fall back to me, ok?”

Nodded.

“And you doknow that you had better stay in MY sight?” Conqueror’s edge to that statement.

I looked at her and willed the tears not to leave my eyes, “I know, Baba. Thank you.”

She fell back with a little smack from those exceptional eyes.

By the gods, more hoof beats; could they not leave me alone? A sting of long reins to my backside caused me to turn.

“Hey stranger; long time no Bird.”

Viewing my striker, I almost fell from Hades offering the warrior grip; it was accepted by the paw of my dear chum, Arrot.

“Arrot, my friend, have you been here all along? And Evelin,” the quiet girl took my hand, “Where the Hades have you been?”

“Where have YOU been?” Evalin’s question was quiet but direct; she was the perfect foil to Arrot’sextra-large personality.

Well, sigh on that Bird, “Everyone knows that but me,” the response lowered my head.

“Ahhh..No worries, ” Arrot’s big hand was gentle on my back, “We know yar given to escapades, Bird. And believe me, ” there was a glance between her and Evalin, “We unnerstand.”

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

“But why are you only now making yourself known?” an obvious question.

“Sorry, Bird,” the massive curls ducked. ” Ya were very sick, ya know? Ephiny had us workin’ with the seaside Amazons, nearly all the time.”

“We learned a great deal from them, ” Evalin’s quieter voice added.

I turned to regard her long blond hair, “Good. There is so much to learn.”

“An then when you were better, ya always needed to be working with Rach..Excuse me, Queen Rachelle, or the Conqueror. We didn’ want ta interfere with that going on.”

Hades carried me steadily, no hands as I joined with my friends on both sides, “I am so glad that you are here .”I need you more NOW. Your timing was perfect.”

“We know it,” Arrot hooted at her own reply, and I couldn’t keep from chuckling.

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

A new day always began in chilly darkness for Cyrene. She put in a half day’s work before others rose for breakfast. She had never minded, or if so just accepted that thus was the pattern of her life, and she rather enjoyed the time of silence. This day however, water was boiling in the big kettle over the fire, and her pride and joy- an oven the size of an ox -had been wood stoked making the kitchen warm.

The diminutive innkeeper parked herself on the corner stool as was customary when she found Gabrielle commanding the kitchen ahead of her. A large mug of steaming tea slid down the long prep table stopping exactly in front of its customer. The blue eyes closed with pleasure as the first sip of orangey cinnamon tickled her pallet and nose.

Blonde eyebrows were raised, and she answered, “Perfect luv.”

“Good,” the bard sighed, ” I fear losing my touch, Mother C.”

“Not a chance, Dearie,” Cyrene sipped again; give the girl time, patience was due even this most patient of people.

“Bacon is sliced, the dough is rising, the eggs are gathered, and…”

“SIT.”

Gabrielle smiled as she heard the Conqueror’s authority in the Conqueror’s mother. It was only natural. She took the stool which lent good eye contact.

Cyrene took one more sip before she raised her own eyebrows.

That brought a chuckle from her ‘daughter’; she had been called upon, “Sorry Mother C; you ARE the actual originator of “The Look”.

“I am,” another leisurely sip, “My daughter just made it famous. However, this time there was no sidetracking “the look”, “I need to know what is going on, Gabrielle; I know this pattern, Love.”

The bard kicked a stool leg thoughtfully, one, two, three times.

“It’s not so much what is going on as it is just… feelings,” Very vague for a bard. Cyrene waited for clarification.

She elected to confess, “Icarus delivered a message last night that Xena and Birdie are starting home.”

“We knew that would be happening soon, love. Don’t know why it has you up at the crack o’ dawn.”

The bard walked to the kettle and poured herself a cup of tea. “Yes, we do know that, and it doesn’t concern me… yet.”

“All right,” Her mother in law could be very patient, but Gabrielle could see the faint lightning bolts in the cerulean orbs which heralded an end of patience.

“Well, you know that Icarus keeps watch over our Caleb as well,” the innkeeper did know that but she waited.

Shining diamonds dripped from the bard’s eyes, “Yes, but Caleb doesn’t know it.”

The innkeeper set down the mug, “if Caleb doesn’t know it, then how can you receive messages about him?”

“It is different with Caleb, Mother C, it is more…..” the bard was actually struggling for words. “It is more about time and instinct.”

“Sweetie, you have the best of instincts,” blue eyes smiled above the mug. “Now, Tell me.”

Eyes lowered as the tears fell, “Icarus is always gone a few days when she brings word from Xena.”

“Right, makes sense, ” she was encouraged

“But when I send her to Caleb, she’s back in an afternoon; if I think time and flight, ” now the tears fell freely, ” I know that Rankor is not so far from here, Mother C.”

She felt the innkeeper’s rough hands cupping her face, “Sooo? More to tell.”

“I fear that Rankor either lies to ambush Xena on their return, or he will wait and challenge her when she has been travelling for several days. It will give him an advantage of ‘freshness’.”

Now tears fell from the blue eyes so like Xena’s, Gabrielle wiped them from the weathered cheeks with her thumbs just as she would have done to Xena.

“We best get at breakfast, Love,” The little woman commanded, “But trust me, I shall give careful ponderin’ to this development.”

She was embraced in a hard bard hug. “Thank you Mother C,” she sniffed back her tears. “That will help.”

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

“I trust you completely, Birdie in every single situation imaginable. All but one.”

I knew the answer and merely hung my head

Slender fingers lifted my chin.” I must be able to trust you when it comes to my safety. AND…..”

My chin was re-chucked to face spring green orbs held very steady, “that means that you cannot go…”

“Honking off, every time I miss you or feel that you might be endangered.”

“Good girl, but will you explain to me the expression, ‘honking off’? My bushy hair was given a light pat.

I returned a weak smile, “It refers to geese, actually. Geese are not well known for high intelligence. Your shore birds are much brighter… Believe me, Rach, when they are done with me at home, I KNOW that ‘honking off’ will no longer be in my vocabulary.”

“And as your Amazon Queen, I expect you to accept Amazon discipline with your usual fortitude.”

“I will,” the thought of my primary queen, the scribe of my life, the gentle guide of my wanderings in words and on foot.

I neither cared to upset my mother nor disappoint her, and both were done, along with a big helping of fear and worry on her part.Stupid tears.

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

Hoof beats caught me; a strong hand grabbed the back of my hair.

“HEY, Dream Bird,” My hair was tugged breaking my revere. Do I really NEED to tell you to stay within MY sight, AGAIN, dear Birdie daughter?” This was accompanied by a cuff to the back of my head.

“I am sorry, Baba,” tears were already running, “It was unintentional.”

Xena the Conqueror’s voice softened, “You weren’t too far from sight, Birdie, but you are not keeping your mind on your actions. That can always land a bird in trouble.”

“I know,” my elbow raked my eyes. We were all still clad in warm weather Amazon gear. “I will be more careful, Baba.”

Argo kept pace with Hades for several moments, “Birdie, Honey, I know that your heart is broken.”

Well, that didn’t help the tears at all; the dam cracked, fell apart.

Baba’s eyes were full as well. She sat up in the saddle, “Aren’t we in Ochia country?”

“Yes, ” I rose to the change of subject. “See the tall grass ahead? It lines the stream that kept my arm cold while Zephyr went for Rachelle.”

“Hmmmm,” Baba’s eyes travelled the stream up and down, “You would have been in a fair fix without your animals, wouldn’t you?”

I stared at Hade’s midnight mane, “I’d have had to pay the boatman, Baba Xe.”

We allowed the clop clop of our horses beat the thoughts on that topic.

“Ay, and it woulda been a nasty way to go, Birdling,” her voice floated lightly across. “Not the warrior’s way at all.”

That struck a note which reverberated in my brain, “No, Baba Xe, not much honor in dying of snakebite on a fool’s venture.”

Now she leaned down and grabbed Hades’s reins to lead us aside. The others were keeping a discreet distance and I saw them halt and tend their horses.

I felt no fear of My Baba Xe; I would not have feared her even if she had beaten me like the Roman Tiberius had done, moons ago. If she walloped me, it was no more than I deserved.

“Dismount.” Though the voice was soft, it carried that Conqueror’s steel- the edge of command.

I bowed my head, “My Lady.” And obeyed, feeling no more to her than her worst soldier at the moment.

Her presence literally backed me against Hades who stood firm.

“Now hear me, and hear me well, Robin of Amphipolis,” same voice commanded my eyes into the glacial blue of Xena the Conqueror. She was very angry, but I felt only a numbness of body and mind.

Her hand swept through my shaggy bangs and took hold. “You will NEVER EVER disrespect ME, your MOTHER, Gabrielle the Bard, or your patron goddess Artemis by referring to yourself as a ‘fool’ again.”

I nodded and lowered my eyes. An ironwood hand took either side of my face firmly, “Speak the words, Birdie.”

My eyes went into deluge mode, “I will never ever disrespect you, Mama G, or our lady Artemis again by referring to myself as a fool again.”

Crushed to her tall body in a bear’s embrace, I felt the mildest swat to my backside- a Mama G smack, really.

“Say it again, Bird,” a second gentle swat. Another.

“Baba….” I broke down completely, silently into her soft shirt, “Baba, I’m so sorry….”

Her hand fell again, “Say it Baby, and swear it.”

“I….” I sniffed, stepped back and did my best to look at my greatest hero in the eyes. Her eyes were filled which shook my resolve but I gained it back, “I SWEAR to never disrespect those who are responsible for my life and upbringing, by referring to myself as a fool again.”

The olivewood colored arm was extended and I grasped it as tightly as I could. A beautiful arm, scarred and hard and noble. She had been absolutely correct to call me out for disrespect.

“I swear.” My voice was steady.

“Good girl,” she took me into a gentler embrace, I heard the words form in her chest as they spoke above my head. “You have done your share of foolish things, Little Bird. So have we all. But you are no fool. And you are no coward. Neither. Never.”

“Yes, My Lady,” I breathed easy into her cedar scent. “But Baba, I am sorry.”

“I know that,” she said gently now, pushing the hair from my eyes, “We will talk more tonight. Your mother is going to cut this hair; by the gods, I am surprised that Rach let you walk around looking like a windblown sheep.”

“We didn’t really discuss, ‘grooming’,” I chuckled, “But we had many other things to discuss.”

She put a boot in Argo’s stirrup; “Mount up again and let’s get moving. I would like to reach the foothills tonight.”

“Yes, M’Lady,” There was a load off, and I sprang into the saddle.

We rode back to the path and Baba Xe put two fingers in her teeth and blew a whistle that could fell birds from the sky. We watched our little group remount and get moving.

I wiped the last of my tears on my arm, “Thanks, Baba,” I shot her a grateful look.

Tall in the saddle, Baba became the commander again watching her party approach, but she held my eyes for a brief moment, “I love you, Birdie.”

And we clucked signal our horses.

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

Cyrene crossed quickly to block the staff blow aimed at her daughter’s head. Then she whacked the offender sharply behind the knees and again to the back of his head. He fell groaning into the dust.

“Mind who you are slammin’ there, laddie,” Fierce blue eyes glared into the top of the young man’s bowed head. “What’s’ the matter with you?”

Gabrielle shook clouds from her mind and lay a gentle hand on her mother’s shoulder, “My fault, Mother C; I was distracted.”

“I am fully aware of that, Lass, and WE shall talk later on. But first I need to ask this fella if he needs a lesson in manners?”

The man remained on his knees, “I apologize deeply My Ladies; I was carried away by the moment.”

Gabrielle kept a quiet gaze on him, “You are Miguel; you came to us from far west of here, didn’t you?”

“Yes, My Lady; I am so sorry to have given offense,” he would not look at her and she spied wet drops appearing in the dust, a sign she was very familiar with.

“Uh, I come to serve Conqueror and da rattling bard,” he stammered with a new language to him.

The innkeeper and the bard exchanged silent looks, “Rise, Miguel; you have done nothing wrong,” the queen commanded softly, “however it is BATTLING, not rattling. You know the word ‘battle’?”

“Ah, losiento, My Ladies,” Miguel had skin the color of cherry wood, and he raised eyes of endless midnight. Cyrene extended a hand which was accepted with reverence.

“He’s not much taller than I am,” Gabrielle thought as she approved the lean muscle encased in dark skin and tightly curled hair.

Miguel was only raising his glance when he was rammed from the side into the dust again.

“How dare you?” It was Jacob, “HOW DARE YOU ENDANGER THE QUEEN?” He raised his staff.

Cyrene delivered a fast bat to the side of Jacob’s head, putting him face down in the dust.

“HOW DARE YOU—- You nosey little hot shot; how dare you intrude on business which is not your own?”

Locking eyes with the innkeeper, Jacob collected his feet and staff. “Sorry,” he muttered, and quickly left the scene.

Miguel took Gabrielle’s hand up this time. “I am sorry Miguel; Jacob is… over protective.”

“Yes, My Lady,” she loved the softness of his voice. “Again, I make,sorriness. Will you dismiss?”

“Yes,” she replied, “And do not worry, there was no harm done.”

“Gracias My Lady,” Miguel bowed and moved away in an easy trot.

“Sweet boy,” she remarked to Cyrene, who stood retying a piece of twine on her staff. The bard followed with a sigh, “Does it seem to you that our recruits are becoming younger all the time? He can’t be but seventeen or so full seasons.”

Her dear friend and ‘mother’ put an arm around her waist as they walked to the fortress, “ay, just boys, just lads,” she agreed, “But lass, that Jacob may be trouble.”

“He is impulsive and in the grip of a desperate crush,” Gabrielle answered, ” but I must agree, Mother C, Xena may be the only one who sets him right. Otherwise he will not reach his potential. Such loyalty and passion are precious, but he needs a little bit of ‘sorting out’.”

“I hope for his sake that he can do the sorting,” Cyrene commented, lifting her eyes to the Amphipolis fortress; a result of her daughter’s and her own hard labor. “He has some troubles coming otherwise.”

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

“Easy girl,” I undid the soft leather wrapping on the left leg of my hawk. Icarus bore it well, and I immediately gave her a bite of dried venison. She took it eagerly; raptors rarely catch deer. “Go on and stretch your wings.” I rubbed her soft head feathers and treated her again. She launched from my arm, and I watched her spiraling climb feeling a bit envious. Flight is fast.

I took a draw from my water skin and unrolled the miniscule message. “I am afraid that time and distancehas hurt our bond irreparably.” A battering ram slammed my chest. “I am sorry… Rach.”

“WHAT?”I sank to my knees unable to breathe.

And sat up suddenly in my bedroll, in mental free-fall with a rain of tears, but slowly the coals of the campfire, the stars overhead, and the quiet breathing of my companions escorted a slow focus to the present. But the tears would not stop.

A hand brushed the back of my head, “Hey Kiddo.” Ephiny slept beside me; Baba Xe was on watch tonight.

My godmother brushed my face finding my tears. “Bad dream?”

I choked on the word, “Very.”

She left her bedroll and came to sit cross-legged behind me. I leaned back into her chest and she encircled me with both arms and legs. My breathing had not steadied.

“You’re shivering, Sweetheart. Easy now….. It was just a dream.”

“If it’s ‘just a dream’ Ephie, why does it hurt so inside?” How can a dream do that?”

She leaned behind her bedroll and dropped a water skin into my hands. Then she tightened her arms about me again with a sigh, “I have heard it said that our brains don’t know the difference between reality and dreams. That would be why some people walk or talk in sleep. ”

“I would agree-,” the shivering recommenced.

My godmother increased the ferocity of her embrace. “Let me guess: somehow you lost Rachelle.”

I could only nod.

She sighed, “Ah my Little Bird,” she said softly, “You will find that love has many branches.”

“Like a tree or a river, Ephie?” I tried to focus on her words.

After a silence she said, “Both actually.”

“How?”

“I knew you would say that, Brat.” Fingers dug into my ribs and winced and chuckled weakly as she tickled me. “It is late to wax poetic.”

“Ephie, please try.”

A deep sigh, “Give me a minute to think.”

We did and she began a slow rocking motion, side to side, side to side.

“A tree may have hundreds of branches, ” her vocal tone was different than I had ever witnessed; rather like Mama G’s “bard” voice. But then, often Ephiny had cause to be annoyed with me.

“The branches may reach far from the tree and sprout other smaller branches providing the tree with water and light.”

“Ok… I am with you.” The rocking was soothing, “and rivers?”

“Are fed by branches as well, ” she continued, “Creeks and streams, large and small, and also snowmelt feed the great rivers.”

I nodded into her chest; the Amazon regent paused again, but I did not push.

“Love comes with many branches, Kiddo. The branch which bleeds you at the moment is heartbreak.”

Minotaur shite.Stupid eyes.Stupid tears.

“When bound souls must be separated, and that is necessary at times, ” even the words were painful to hear, ” the branches can feel like flogging switches, Bird. Heart break, separation, insecurities, doubt-all of those branches HURT.”

“They do, Eph,” a hiccupping sigh.

“That is because you are feeling the separation from the common ground. You are a branch now set in its own direction.”

That was the feeling. Beyond the dream, and it was a dream, my mind said sternly, I was seized by echoes.

“We learn that great love can bring great pain, but we grow from the pain if we are wise.”

“How?” bitterness crept into my voice. The old ‘no pain, no gain’ thing was not going to work for me with this.

“By remembering that without its branches, the tree would die. The tree is the core and strength of love and the tree will stand steadfast– longer than humans live.”

She felt affirmation in my body, “And so river runs, Birdie. Nothing dams the river which carries life and love. We just have to accept that the river demands feeding as well even to the point of heartbreak.”

“I get it.”

The amazon sighed, “Good, because I am not at all sure what I meant. I am a warrior, not a poet. Blaaaaap!” she tickled me again. “Now, back to sleep or we’ll be in trouble with the Conqueror for sleeping on our horses, kiddo. You’re better?”

The bedroll was warm and soft. I wormed further down warming my toes. My godmother’s eyes were unusually soft in the moonlight.

“I’m fine, Ephie; Thanks. You gave me a lot to think about. I must trust Rachelle and trust the bond which Artemis forged between us.”

“Exactly.Now open dreams to a gentler Morpheus,” she adjusted my covers. “That’s an order.”

I smiled at the faux gruffness of a warrior. “Love you, Ephiny.”

The answer was gruffer and a calloused hand ruffled my hair. “Love you too, Kiddo.”

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

Caleb kept lugging dirty utensils to the river and washing everything meticulously. The gang was full “into their cups”, and he wanted to stay out of sight as much as possible. Cookie had remained in the middle of camp to hand off the pots mugs to Caleb’s yoke carrier, keeping the boy out of sight as much as possible.

With a heavy sigh, Caleb saw the long blonde hair of his father approaching Cook.

“Wherztha’ muthr-killin’ son o’mine, Cain?”

Caleb paused; perhaps this could be just “let go”.

Cain’s answer was of equal bluster, “Ay, ya know kids, Rankor. ‘E’s still atta creek washin’.”

“Well, ‘e’s too damn slow, Cook; yer doo easy on’im! Guess ‘e won’t be happy if he fin’s ‘is Cook all scarfed up.” Rankor’s voice was on an ever ascending pitch which Caleb recognized too quickly. He dropped the yoke and ran toward the fire, full on.

“Ye’ll not be hurtin’ the most decent person in yer gang. Sorry, Da. A’ can’ allow it.” Caleb pulled up and set his shoulders back.

The tall man turned finding his true goal, “Well, ah can say yaain’t a coward, boy, ” his speech was slurred and he swayed on his feet. “Ah mi’tebeeven ateeeeeeeny bit,” he measured with index and thumb, “proud ah’yafer dat.”

“Good.” Caleb’s single reply, but his heart went to Artemis; “Please My Lady, Help me to be strong; Please My Lady, ‘elp me take what ‘e will dish out t’a me without a sound. I would not giv’ ’em the satisfaction.”

“Ya’ mutherin’ lit’lson of a gorgan,” His father advanced, unbuckling his heavy leather belt and formed the double loop that Caleb was too familiar with. He set a stance, feet firm, no cowering, never again would he cower like a beaten dog.

Rankor snapped the belt with a menacing chuckle; Cain closed his eyes and waited for the first blow. It was the worst, always the first, because soon after he could numb himself, retreating to a happier place-Amphipolis came to mind.

He waited, but no blow fell. Instead there was a loud “Bong”; his father grunted, and Caleb peeked through his eyelashes.

Cain stood over Rankor the Rioter wearing the biggest grin Caleb had ever seen on the old man’s face. The worn and wrinkled right hand held a good sized skillet. Rankor was out cold.

Caleb’s eyes grew big, and Cook answered his unasked question. “‘s about time, don’t ya think, kiddo? That was a whack long overdue.” He began to laugh, and others of the gang joined in.

“Way ta put ‘im down, Cookie.” Someone shouted and there was general applause.

Caleb was amazed both at Cook’s action and the following reaction. It had never occurred to him that perhaps some of the gang hated watching their leader beat his son.

“Cook,” he managed to gasp, “What’ve ya done? ‘E’ll kill yatomorrow.”

Rankor’s second in command, a giant of a fellow called “Tiny” of course ,stumbled over to clap Cookie on the shoulder.

“S’no worry, there, ” Tiny spoke in an amused voice, “Rankor’s suh drunk, ‘ewon’t remember nuthin’ at all, and I am SURE, ” dark eyes glanced through the gang, “That there’ll be no one tellin’ ‘im.”

“Here’s ta Cook!” someone yelled and Caleb found a mug of ale thrust into his belly. “‘s ok, lad; ye’ll be ok.”

Caleb then raised the mug, “Here’s to Cookie!!”

“Aye aye!!” a chorus of agreement followed and Caleb, just this once, found the ale to taste pretty dadgumgood.

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

“Easy girl,” Gabrielle patted the paint’s neck, “Been awhile since we’ve been out, huh?”

With an involuntary glance about the stable, Gabrielle slipped a warm cloak into Wendy’s saddle bag which hung on a nail in the horse’s stall.

Someone cleared her throat in a very familiar manner. Gabrielle felt sixteen again and “caught” red handed at doing something dreamy and ditsy or dangerous. It hadn’t taken the young bard long to realize that once Xena had accepted her company; she rarely took her blue hawk eyes off the girl.

“So whata we doin’, Lass?” Cyrene strolled into the stable casually.

“Ummmmmm….” Gabrielle buried her head in Wendy’s blanket.

“Mama, Mama dear….. we always seek truth….” The bard stared at the small swelling of her belly.

“You are going to be a real smart aleck, aren’t you, baby?”

The child’s laughter was thetingling of tiny bells, “Mama, dear Mama… you are blessed, or not blessed to be carrying a “she who knows” baby.”

An Oracle?Well, that was a shot to the gut. The mother stomped down panic. “That explains a lot,” she admitted. “But I do feel only blessed, Singer.”

The blue eyed throat was cleared again. Louder.

Hit from all sides. Gabrielle sighed, “I am considering riding out to meet Xena, Birdie and company, Mother C. It’s not like that will come as a surprise.”

“It doesn’t,” the blond queen felt the warmth of her mother in law coming nearer, and a firm hand fell to her shoulder. “But I’s wondering if you’re ‘considering’ doin’ such alone? That would not be wise, my love.”

“My Love”. Xena’s words and darn near to Xena’s voice. Well it wasn’t a lie if it had not been yet told, right? Fortunately the baby was still within, or she might have tattled.

She turned to meet the wise cobalt gaze. “No, Mother C,” now why were tears coming? “Not alone. But without full plan in mind.”

The hand which caught her tears smelled like warm bread. “I must admit to be of similar mind, ” Cyrene chuckled, “so when you’re finished out here faking with Wendy, come to the kitchen and we will plan.”

The evergreen eyes couldn’t meet hers, so the older woman took her girl into her arms, “and if you ever try something like this again, don’t think I can’t whup your little Amazon butt.” She felt the bard relax some and sigh into accountability and relief. “You’ve seen me with a staff, ‘aven’t you?”

Gabrielle pushed back and now laughed softly through her tears, “I have,” she said, “And I promise, Mother C.”

She received a smile and a gentle kiss to her forehead. She couldn’t help but notice that Cyrene had to raise tiptoe to kiss her while Xena merely kissed the top of her head without effort. The innkeeper made her exit, “when you’re ready, there are hot biscuits and honey in the kitchen,” floated behind, “and I also think you owe me one, Lass. You wouldabeen in a world a hurt with the Conqueror.”

Gabrielle cast an admonishing eye to her belly once again as laughter emitted, seeming so loud that others should hear it.

“An Oracle, by the gods,” she thought to herself.

Except at this stage there were no thoughts to herself.

“By the Goddess, Mama,” entered her ear softly.

The bard’s hands rested on the child. “How shall I raise an Oracle, Baby?” she sent, “I am not sure I am worthy or capable.”

“Our Mother Goddess would not have chosen you, dear sweet Mama,” was the answer, “if you had not been worthy, capable and wise.”

The bard closed her eyes, “Oh, Mother Artemis, I hope I can be all those things,” she breathed.

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

We had picked up supplies in Abdera; I came to this knowledge late. Actually, I could not remember even passing through Abdera. My broken heart had taken all energy, and then the confrontation with Baba Xe had put me into a waking unconsciousness. I can explain it no better than that; Hades carried me, I was vaguely aware of Zephyr’s anxious glances, but otherwise, darkness.

Baba Xe had come alongside and slapped my knee, “Pay attention, Little Bird, we will begin the ascent soon. I can’t have you asleep in your own head.”

So we had reached the mountain? I shook myself back into reality.

“That was quick,” I murmured.

“I need your head out of your—- wherever it is, Little Bird. You know that mountains can be tricky.”

“Yes, My Lady,” I was not back with her completely and she knew it from the flash of blue ice I caught. Get your head out, Bird.

She took the lead, and I was surprised to see an actual horse path carved into that side of the mountain. Where had my brain been on my first trip? Hades, Zephyr and I had scooted and scrambled our way down that mountain on our relative butts. My only consideration had been speed. Need to work on that Bird. Need to work on that “considering” process.

“Little Mistress, you were in no state…” Zephyr’s mind spoke to me, “You were in no state which could be reached. I have never seen you in such a mental place.”

We dismounted to lead the horses. Zephyr came to my side at once, and I ran my hand through her thick silken coat. “Zephyr, I owe you the greatest apology of all; you did your best to advise caution, and I would not hear it. I am sorry, My Greatest Friend.”

She trotted a few paces, picking her way delicately among stones loosened by the horse’s hooves.

“Little Mistress, it is not about offense towards ME.” She sent silently, “You know that I forgave you as soon as it happened, but Our Lady Artemis,” she paused, “may not go so lightly with you.”

I sighed, and tightened Hades’ lead as we scrambled around a curve to continue the ascent.

“I have no expectation that anyone will go lightly with me, Zephyr. I messed up. Very big time.”

She stopped and gazed back at me with penetrating amber eyes. “Yes, my beloved kit; you did not show the best of judgment.”

Such a mild reproof, but from her, from my beloved Zephyr; I wished that she had bitten me instead.

She returned in one bound to put her nose gently into my hand. “Is it so terrible,” her thoughts came clearly, “that everyone LOVES my Little Mistress and want to keep her safe?”

That filled my eyes; I HATE that; if I knew which part of my body allowed such unpredictable tears, I might run it through with the Baby Tide.

There was a curve ahead, cut wide so if one needed rest, and others could pass. Zephyr tugged the cuff of my shirt, (we were in long sleeves now as we came into cooler weather) and successfully halted the three of us in the curve.

“Child, come,” she commanded. I knelt to gaze into her soft amber eyes.

“It is time for you to stop hating yourself, Birdie. No one hates you; you make mistakes; you learn.”

“Yes, Zephyr,” my head fell but she seized my bangs in her teeth.

“Look at me,” the authority of the goddess rang in my mind.

Obedience.

“It has been my experience that you ….” I could tell that she was being tactful, but Zephyr was always tactful, “do make some rather large errors in judgment, however, you rarely make the same error twice. ”

“As Baba Xe always says, “my voice was low, “I go honking off .Brain power of a goose.”

Her nose touched my cheek and my tears fell into her fur.

“I love you my little one, my Little Mistress,” her thoughts were as soft as her fur. “Remember when you are called to account for your actions, that you are greatly loved, child; you are loved by all who know you and you are especially loved by our Lady Artemis.”

“I will, Zephyr, thanks.”

“HEY!!” uh oh, Baba Xe’s “conqueror voice” was employed. “Look alive down there.”

I rose and waved to her, “Yes, My Lady,” and to my animals.. “Let’s move it before we are all in trouble.”

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Obviously, we went far beyond the foothills of the mountains and settled down to camp just the other side of the summit fairly close to “my cave”. Everyone was relieved to have the climb finished and the militia “guys” immediately set to work, unloading firewood which had been purchased earlier when I was engulfed in my “fog”. Someday soon, when Baba Xe allows it, I want to take the militia training. I know that it is quite intense, but it would be good for me. Every time I have asked to take it, however, Baba Xe just casts the request to my mother with her eyes. So far a big evergreen”N.O.”

It is not a decision for discussion; she will allow it when she thinks that I am ready. Of course I think I am far beyond ready, at least as far as my fighting skills, but Mama G has more in mind. Thus far, I cannot discover her thinking. Baba Xe never explains, but she will not go against my mother’s will. That is clear.

It was not nearly so cold this time on the mountain, but it was quite cold enough. I ate enough of the hot soup to satisfy the ice blue eyes. The Conqueror was adamant about the health and hygiene of any party she commanded. She always said it could take only one bite of rancid meat, or one person failing to wash his or her hands to wipe out an army. In such close proximity, the army was as one, and could be killed collectively. Though I didn’t quite understand all of it, I was a good soldier and tried to have good appetite. She said that health was strength. That much was true, as I had learned from my recent experience with the ochia bite. I could not have defended myself or anyone I loved, from an enemy of even one person in that weakened state.

However, sleep did not come tonight. My hands locked behind my head, I noticed that the stars seemed even brighter than my first trip over the mountain. Rolling over, I took the notebook from my scabbard, scratched a note to Baba Xe, slung the Baby Tide over my shoulder and walked toward the cave.

Zephyr trotted beside me; I felt her disapproval, but she understood my need and so did not reproach me. I had not taken two hundred steps before strong hands landed on my shoulders, and I was spun sideways to receive a powerful wallop to my backside.

“Birdie,” Baba’s whisper hissed even as her warrior palm connected again.

“Baba,” I managed, the swat had put me on tiptoe.

“What am I going to do with you, Birdie?” She let go and paced, head in hands.

“Baba,” my voice choked and squeaked, “Baba, I left you a note.”

She turned back to me, “You did?”

“Yes, My Lady, a note from my scabbard notebook.”

She hunkered down, head still in hands. After a moment I carefully joined her.

“So if we go back, I will find a note? You did not go off honking?”

“No, Ma’am,” had to chuckle at the “honk” word. It was a good word. “I only wanted to look at the stars, Baba. I am sorry,” now I couldn’t keep the tremble from my voice, “I promise.”

She sighed deeper than a valley and then rose to tower over me. The carved warrior’s hand was extended and I grasped it with both of mine, and was pulled close to her warm body.

Now I couldn’t hold it back, “I’m sorry, Baba. I have truly learned my lesson.”

Her voice growled into the top of my head, “I would hope so, Little Bird. I am sorry that I reacted before I knew the entire story.”

Tears dampened my hair, “I shouldn’t have walloped you, ” she whispered.

I squeezed her as hard as I could, “They were deserved.”

“Perhaps,” she released me but kept my hand. “You were going to the cave?”

“Yes, Baba.The one which sheltered me coming.”

“I was curious about that cave myself, “We were nearing it.

“Stay back,” she insisted on entering first. “Huh!”

“Can I come in, Baba?”

“Yes, come in.”

The cave was empty; the meteorite was gone as well as the troughs that Marcus had created for my animals and the wall which had blocked us from the intense heat.

She turned to me, “Is there something missing here, Birdie?”

“A_ummmm…” Minotaur shite, how could I answer that?

Truth was best. “Yes. “Carefully intoned.

“And?” she waited.

“And I can’t explain it, Baba, honest.” That was truth as well.

She put her hands on her hips. “Well, fiddlesticks, I had plans for that star iron.”

“Isn’t star iron extraordinarily heavy, Baba? Mama G has told me about Excalibur.”

“Well, according to myth, yes, Bird. But I wanted to see if I could fashion swords for the militia.”

“If you might have moved it?”

She cocked an eyebrow, “Since when did ‘impossible’ enter your head, Kiddo?”

“Rarely, Baba Xe.”

That seemed to satisfy her and she slung her long arm around me as we turned to go camp bound.

“You cold, Little Bird? You are shivering.”

There were any number of reasons for my shivering, but I just butted my head in closer to her. She wrapped her other arm around me, and we shared warmth and silence on our star lighted walk.

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Caleb lay in the same fashion as the others, arms locked behind his head – traditional “sleep isn’t coming” position.

The stars were brilliant in the chilly night sky. He looked over at Cookie, whose gentle snore was cause for Caleb’s insomnia, and his eyes warmed. The best among “old fellers” as he liked to refer to himself. He thought of how often the good cook had protected him in childhood and still tried to do so. He lay back again … pondering. What would happen? Should he run? No, Icarus had circled him almost every day, so he needed to trust the good queen and the warrior. His palm rubbed a very sore cheek and ear. Rankor had managed to land a heavy head slap tonight, but then the rest of the gang had dragged him away. He had roared with typical Rankor ferocity, but it was evident now that there were decent fellows in the gang who were tired of useless abuse. Whatever the reason, it was received with gratitude. He turned on his side. Could he ever fight back?

No, the answer entered his mind immediately. It was a sin to harm family, and killing would bring the Furies. Better to shift back into patience.. Better to wait. He closed his eyes.

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Gabrielle felt the warmth behind her.

“Stargazing, child?” Cyrene’s arm encircled the woman whom she still considered a girl.

She nodded silently.

“What ar they tellin’ ya?”

The shaggy blond head fell, “Tomorrow, Mother C. I don’t know whether to be relieved, or anxious.”

“S’always good to be takin’ action, lass. We’ve been ready for days.”

“I know,” Cyrene witnessed diamonds flickering on the youthful face. She squeezed harder.

“How many are we takin’?”

“Tough call, ” the queen muttered, “They all want to go, but I can’t leave the fortress either untended or undefended.”

“Right,” her mother in law agreed.

“So I am thinking, the first patrol and last.”

“Ah, the experienced for reliability and the greenies for experience.”

Another nod.

“That means that Jacob character,” the tone lowered.

Gabrielle chuckled, “He definitely needs to see Xena in action. Then he will either take the wisdom or continue the fool.”

“Ay, Lass, we’d a done all we could to warn him,” Cyrene snorted softly. “If he’s a stone head, ‘e’s a stone head.”

“I prefer to be positive,” the queen said, and then the blond locks ducked down covering the emerald eyes, “about everything.”

“Of course yer positive, Gabrielle, ” the older woman brushed the hair gently from the sad face, “It has just been a long haul… I might have even given up.”

“Ah, now, you never give up Mother C; I know better.”

The spark that Cyrene sought was present, “Good girl,” she kissed her daughter’s cheek. “Scrubby’s got the wagon loaded, and I will send word to the patrols.”

“I think Atticus may be well ahead of us, ” Now the queen was smiling.

“So we go at first light?”

“Let’s go for that; it won’t matter if it takes a little longer.”

She was pulled into a warm embrace which always smelled of kitchen warmth, “We are on it Lassie. You just get yourself and the wee one inside ready.”

“Oh, we are way beyond ready, ” Gabrielle returned the embrace, “‘We’ are about to run dry of patience.”

“Action is always good, ” the iron grey head nodded. “We’ve waited long enough.” She gave the queen a gentle pat on the backside, “Get you to bed now.”

“Yes Ma’am,” she was rewarded with a smile, “Very soon now.”

“G’night then Sweetie the morn will find us moving.”

“Good night, Mother C, ” Gabrielle turned to regard the stars and then turned her head back, “I wouldn’t have made it without you.”

“Ah yer a tough little lass, ” was the reply, “But it’s nice to hear.”

“Well, you are hearing it.”

Cyrene blew a kiss and descended; Gabrielle returned her gaze to the cosmos.

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Xena the Conqueror: none is her match.

But it is speculated, she is human,

There must be some Vulnerability,

A bad knee or a creaky thumb, indigestion?

They may wonder all of eternity.

Only soul mates are gifted with truth

And I only know the Conqueror’s tears,

The Conqueror’s fears, stirred by her

Powerful, passionate and loving heart.

Which thunders beneath the Silver breast plate

Is delicately stitched in a hundred places,

and bears equal scars-for when it shattered

beyond proper healing became tougher.

Too strong and proud and responsible

To surrender to neither battle nor demons.

I am Xena the Conqueror’s Soul mate.

I am the keeper of her heart.

My Love, I come…..

Gabrielle the Bard of Amphipolis

Part 10

Vix paused in her sand scuffing beach walk. The girl sat on the watching rock, the same rock which now seemed eons ago, Rachelle had come to coax her from loss. Now Vix must do the same. Even had she not felt the command of the goddess, she would have sought out the girl first from affection, and then from duty.’

This she thought to herself, is a girl who has had to grow up much too quickly. Vix had been close with Betha the healer and knew her to be a gentle and wise parent to the girl. Raising a child was a responsibility that Vix had never chosen personally, though she enjoyed the company ofand had played a few games with the girls, among them tiny Rachelle, before the girl could remember. Of course being twice orphaned, and suddenly at fourteen seasons round Queen of the Amazons by the Sea; the girl had only forward thinking thrust upon her, not memories.

The older woman still wasn’t certain if it had been a dream which had visited the previous night,;the Goddess Artemis herself had appeared in her hut. Xena the Conqueror look like a gangly teen by comparison. Taller than any horse, rich mahogany skin stretched across a lean but powerful body, crowned by hair blacker than night, which fell in ringlets to her waist. Vix knew at once who she was; rose from her cot and sank to her knees in the light of the goddess. The robes were scarce, but tasteful, and draped in silken folds of purple and turquoise, trimmed by silver stars. The great bow was in her right hand, and a solid silver circle of stars graced the head seeming to flow their silver light into the goddess’s temples. Never had Vix imagined such a woman. And even so, the amber eyes flashed directly into the soul of Vix. There was heat in the goddess’s tap to the shoulder. “Rise, Warrior.” The voice was surprisingly soft.

Vix did so, but found herself trembling . The warm hand lifted her chin.

The amber gaze of the goddess was also fire, but only to the point of minor discomfort.

“You know who I am?”

Vix lowered her eyes, “I do, My Lady, or I b’lieve I do.”

“You are correct, Warrior,” even the breath was warm. Artemis was Goddess of the Moon, but her twin was Apollo after all. Must take in a little sun.

“By the gods, Vix, PAY ATTENTION!!” Vix’s thoughts came in the voice of…..

Phyn?

“Yes, my love. The ‘dead’ can hear your thoughts, remember? Now pay attention to the GODDESS, Sweetheart. We will chat.”

Vix rolled her shoulders back and faced the Goddess. She felt new strength.

There was a low chuckle, “there is the Warrior I seek; I have a job for you Vix.”

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Gabrielle was lost in her own head. It felt like forever since she had seen Xena and three forevers since she had seen Birdie. Oh my little girl. How can I impress upon you that these ways MUST STOP?Even though I completely understand; a counter voice whispered. She had been… sixteen seasons round when she ran away to follow Xena. The bard smiled looking into Wendy’s sienna and white hide. Xena was only half a dozen seasons’ round older, but the Fates had caused her to grow up fast. Gabrielle had felt a few wallops of the warrior’s hand for complete foolishness… That time with the Titans, now that was adolescent foolishness, no doubt. She had been so afraid Xena would send her back home. But after she had been given two hard smacks, placed on a tree stump, and told to THINK about what had transpired. The sting of her backside had subsided quickly, but stinging realizations arrived. Xena had simply gone about, rubbing down Argo, finding firewood, (usually Gabrielle’s job) and rummaging through their food gear. It was at least a candle mark before the Aegean blues came to rest on her young companion. She witnessed tears streaming and so had been for a while by the red nose and eyes.

Gabrielle was looking at the leather leg greaves until her head was taken in two hands. The warrior’s ice melted at the sight of rivers running from sweet grass orbs. She immediately hunkered down to look directly into those eyes.

“I see you have been thinking,” Her voice was low and her hands stroked the blond locks as if easing a frightened horse.

“I…….have,” the head ducked again as the voice shook, “Are you going to send me away?”

Xena jerked back as if struck, “Why would I do that?”

“I………….. Was so stupid.”

No more of this, the warrior slid her powerful arms under the pale armpits and lifted Gabrielle from the stump. She couldn’t help throwing her arms around her hero’s neck.

Xena felt dampness on her shoulder and simply did a standing circle holding her young friend off the ground. When she set her down, she kept a gentle hand on the bard’s cheek.

“Gabrielle, when I was your age, I had already done so many stupid things….” She sighed, “It’s a wonder…” her voice drifted…

“Shall I tell you what came clear to me?”

“Yes…. If you quit flogging yourself.”

“I learned that power is intoxicating.”

“Right… it is,” Xena had her own memories

“And to become ‘drunk with power’ is neither wise nor attractive.”

“Excellent, “ her tall companion slung a long arm around her friend, “Why don’t we continue this discussion while you cook?”

The long arm jabbed fingers into the young bards ribs; Gabrielle giggled, “No Xena, don’t….”

“Oh, but this is such an effective punishment… “Gabrielle ran from the tickly fingers to the campfire and around it again and again until they both collapsed in helpless laughter.

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We were entering the “home stretch”. Hades was finding extra energy, as was Zephyr. It has never occurred to me that animals, especially MY animals would miss “home”.

My thoughts roamed that gambit. Yes, I missed my bedroom, the view from the window, (will probably be spending quite some time there), My desk, my ink and feathers, my little bunk, Grandba’s cooking, Talus and my Amazon friends and most of all…… My mind paused in its list.

My mother. The heartache of missing Rachelle had dulled with the tasks at hand. Suddenly I felt desperate to see my mother and fully ready to face her discipline. It would be over; No more guilt, no more anxiety, I could bear anything she felt necessary, but I yearned to come back into her grace. To come home.

The hardwood strength of Baba’s hand rested on my shoulder.

“You are lost again, Bird. What if I had been an attacker?” The long fingers thumped my head gently.

She was right. “I’d be Minotaur Shite.”

“Yessssssss.”

“Sorry, Baba Xe, my mind is a skipping stone,” She should have thumped me harder; The Conqueror had been very gentle with me of late.

Argo pulled back of me; the path narrowed on and off as we approached the hills leading to Amphipolis. Then she came forward again.

“There’s something I need to tell you; well, there are many things I need to tell you, but one at a time…”

An uncharacteristically wandering statement from my sterner parent.

“Yes, Baba?”

“We’ll have a fight before we arrive home.”

“Ok… “ easily accepted.

“Is that complacency I hear?” an edge in tone.

“Not at all My Lady,” the path from trouble was marked by extreme courtesy first. Then the obvious, which had come clearer to me by time, “You are Xena the Conqueror after all; life is a constant challenge of some kind.”

The dark eyebrow cocked, “Don’t tell me that you are growing up, Little Bird.”

“Perhaps. No confirmation yet, Baba.”

That elicited a chuckle. “Well, it’s Rankor.”

EEee. “Well, I guess we knew he’d come back one day. Why are you constantly challenged, Baba Xe?”

She sighed, “There are those who have a misguided view of power; they believe that power brings, happiness, and easy living,” she said. “They don’t realize the other trappings of power- the physical demands and the responsibilities.”

“I am learning that, Baba Xe,” I admitted, “I will be ready, My Lady, focused.”

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Vix crept up the holds in the watching rock easily. Her young queen merely said, “Hello, Vix,” without turning her head.

“Oh and I thought myself completely silent, “ Vix chuckled and picked a seat beside the girl.

Rachelle didn’t look at her, “I knew that you would come, “ she said quietly.

“Well, then I’ve got no secrets a’tall, do I?”

“ I know that you care,” calm granite green eyes now turned their regard on her. “Is that to be held secret?”

“No, Lass,” Vix put an arm around the girl and felt the salty blown hair lean on her shoulder. “Poseidon’s flappin’ tail, yer chilled, girl!!”

The cloak was large, but it was soft with age and smelled of sandalwood like its owner.

“Thank you,” a single tear formed.

“The cloak? Child, I got plenty of paddin’ to warm me bones, “ Vix shrugged.

“No, “ her queen’s eyes pierced the chuckle, “the cloak is nice; thanks for coming for me, Vix”

Now the crusty demeanor cracked and she pulled the girl closer, “ah, ya know I love you, girl.”

Composure was not necessary with Vix; the blond head burrowed deep into the woman’s big arms and bosom.

“I love you too, Vix,” came from the soft Amazon leathers.

Tears ran down the old warrior’s face, “I’m by yer side, Lass,” she managed. “Fer anything, fer anything at all.”

They began a slow rocking back and forth which kept time with the waves. Vix felt Rachelle begin to relax, but she did not let go of the girl. She wondered if she ever could.

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My eyes opened before dawn, and I sat up in my bed roll to discover what had disturbed my energy.

A tall figure stood alone on a rise facing homeward. It was cold, but I slipped my feet into my boots and carried the roll draped blanket style, to join her in my under wraps. She was in deep meditation, standing, listening, and feeling every possible change in our location. I stayed silent, but my inner voice repeated what was so often said, ‘By the Gods, the Conqueror is a gorgeous woman. ‘ Long black tresses felt the breeze and her lake-ice eyes were illumined by the sunrise. She was Conqueror clad, leather pants, tall boots, blue blouse vested by her shiny chain mail shirt. She had allowed me to touch it once; it was incredibly light, like an undershirt. She would never tell me much about it, so I reckoned it was a long time gift from Ares.

Her voice smacked me from my revere, “Birdie, what the Hades are you doing up here? And near naked?” She yanked me in front of her adding the extra heat from her arms to my bedroll. “You will catch your death!”

“Just wanted to be with you, Baba,” I was very quiet. One had to allow the Conqueror to find her own way to my Baba Xe.

“I know, sweetie; you just startled me,” her entire manner gentled, and swung her hand in a gentle swat, “You know better than that.” Then she chuckled, so I relaxed into her warmth.

Silence again for a few heartbeats.

“Rankor is close,” she announced with an exhale.

“He is?” My eyes searched the horizon and there was no sign apparent to me. “I don’t see any smoke, Baba.”

“That’s because you are using only one sense, Little Bird. Work it out. Close your eyes; your eyes are the first, but also the laziest sense.”

I obeyed and held to the touch of her hands on my shoulders. “Work at it, Bird,” I repeated softly.

“I smell smoke, just barely,” I burst out embarrassing myself a little.

“Good,” she said tapping my shoulders; “you would be surprised how often I have to tell myself to be patient.”

“Sorry I interrupted your patience, Baba, “ lowering my head.

Spinning me about she lamented, “Birdie, don’t be sorry about that. You learned something and I am proud of you. There is plenty of stuff in the life to be sorry for; not this. Now,” She spun me in the direction of camp, “Go gear up; we will have a long day, Little Bird.”

I stumbled down the hill, my mind in a swirl.

“Hey, “ she called from the high point .

I turned back.

“Your mother is coming as well.”

No questions there; They always felt each other however distant. Perhaps one day, Rach and I could have that gift.

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Gabrielle raised her right hand signaling halt to her party. She stood in Wendy’s stirrups and smiled to herself. Singer was feeling like a “person” now, not only in voice, but also in weight. She looked down and gave the child a little pat. When Singer wasn’t talking, she simply lay within and grew and hummed. It was a sweet lullaby hum, and Gabrielle wasn’t certain with whom it had originated, but they often sang it to each other.

“What will Birdie think?” she wondered to herself. Hum. The Birdie girl would be considering many topics for … for… a long time, she answered. Her daughter had impulses which simply had to be tempered. Perhaps this long journey had taught her first born a few things about the grown up world.

The bard turned at the sound of creaky wagon wheels.

“What are ya gettin’ , Daughter?” Cyrene sat with a hand on Scrubby’s knee.

The remainder of the greeting party waited respectfully for their queen to speak.

“It’s coming,” she replied to her friends, “I smell smoke ahead, and I know that Xena is not far from it. Be alert,” she cautioned, “ We aren’t sure what we are riding into.”

Well, her inner voice continued as did the Wendy and all the other horses. “We do know it won’t be pretty.”

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“Whatcha gazin’ at, Son?” Cookie’s eyes followed the direction of the young man he was so fond of. “Is tha’ hawk, ain’t it?”

Caleb considered, “ Yeah, tis the hawk; you’ve noticed her?”

“I have. She’s special ta you aren’t she?”

“Aye,” Caleb chose not to elaborate, even though he trusted his old friend completely; it was better for him to have limited knowledge. He had become as protective of the elderly fellow as Cain had always been of Caleb. Love and safety, he pondered; those were valuable. Incalculably valuable.

So he leveled his eyes at his friend. “Watch yerself, Cookie. Somethin’s comin’”

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There they were. I lay on my belly next to Baba Xe; our heads camouflaged by weeds and twigs in the thick dark hair we shared.

“They sure do trash a camp spot, “ Baba muttered, “Animals are far cleaner than that lot.”

“I wonder how Caleb is doing,” I spoke softly.

They eyebrow cocked, “now how would you know about that?”

Good question. “I don’t know — just ran down my ‘list of possible issues in a given situation,’ and Caleb’s name showed up.”

She chuckled and rubbed my head through the sticks.

“That is as good a name for it as anything, I guess.”

We commenced a reverse crawl to our waiting party, but I found my neck pinned in an iron hand.

“Robin of the Warrior and Bard, hear me now and hear me well.”

I kept my head down—threat time.

“If you so much as sneeze without direct order from me in this coming encounter, “ she took a breath, “ I will hang your hide in my office until you are fifteen seasons round of age.”

Whoa that was several moons yet.

“Which means,” she spoke deliberately, very deliberately for a voice just above a whisper, “Every time your hide is healed enough, I will skin you again for a fresh piece. I hope you understand that, Birdie.”

“I do, Baba,” It was about as severe a threat as Baba Xe had ever given to me; even if she carried it out in reduced form, it would be unpleasant for all parties.

I offered her the warrior’s grip which she returned with warmth and a flash of teeth. “I swear it to my Conqueror, to my hero, and to my much loved parent.” I squeezed her arm, “But I do reserve the right to act if your life is endangered beyond your fighting gifts, which is not very likely.” Tears came unbidden, “But I will not stand idle while you die; I cannot do that, Baba.” Stupid tears fell on our grip. “If that happens, I will willingly take the hidings.”

I had expected blue ice lightning to flash from the famous eyes. Instead, Baba Xe kissed the top of my head gently and then released our warrior’s grip.

And that was all.

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Rankor raised blurry vision to the tall figure on a golden palomino.

“Hash, da Conkeror comes at last,” he slurred.

The women looked down on the famous brigand, “She does,” the voice was low, chilling in its innate power. “I do not fight drunks, Rankor. You have until evening to get yourself sober.”

“A’ll fightya right now, Bitch.”

The dark haired beauty cocked her head and an eyebrow,” Tisk, tisk, your manners are deplorable,” she continued in the same tone, “I am very grateful that we recruited Caleb and not you.”

“Aye, and there was yer f— up,” The man blustered. His gang was beginning to gather behind him. “E’s MY son.”

“No one is yours to use as a whipping post,” Xena said levelly. “NO ONE.” Her voice became softer.

Rankor studied his opponent for a moment, sobriety returning as he faced Xena the Conqueror.

“Jest cuz yor the Conkerer,” he said, “Don’ give you the right ta interfere in family doin’s”

“It does, “ the tall rider turned her horse away, “If it concerns one of my soldiers,” she cast a backward glance, “ Caleb is one of my soldiers. You have til’ sundown. If you won’t release my soldier to me, I suggest that you gulp some coffee and fortifying food.” She did not look back again.

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I realized that I had been holding my breath off and on since Baba had left. None of us wanted her to go alone, but she wouldn’t hear it.

“Rankor is a coward,” she spoke in the Conqueror’s voice, “I will not impress him if I approach with a battle party. The first step is to show more courage.”

I ran to Argo and took her reigns; Baba placed her hand on my head as she dismounted.

“It went well, Birdie; don’t fret. By the gods that man is worthless.”

“Grief can cause many issues.”

My mother’s voice assured; my knees buckled and I sank low to embrace her thighs. My parents shared an embrace and kiss above me. There was soft applause all around. It had been a long journey.

“I am so glad that you are here,” Baba whispered, “even though you shouldn’t have come.”

Tears from both parents dropped down the collar of my tunic; I did not stir.

“Then you finally know me well,” the response from the bard.

“Sorry, I keep thinking of that ornery sixteen ‘name days’ old kid who followed me like a wolf pup; she rarely obeyed me.”

“Speaking of pups,” strong and gentle hands rested on my shoulders, “let me look at my Birdling. My very very naughty Birdling.”

I rose, head bowed.

“Look at me,” the queen’s command; I did so with difficulty.

Verdant eyes flooded her cheeks. My own fall of tears began, but I refused to break down.

“Do-you-have-any- idea-of – how worried I’ve been? How furious I am with you? What your disappearance did to my heart?” the voice was steady.

“Mama, I am sure that I do not,” I whispered, head falling again.

She pulled me into a fierce embrace. “There will be a time to address that, Birdie. Now, we will support our Baba.”

She wrapped me in tightly. Thanks be to Artemis for the safety of my mother’s arms.

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

Caleb’s heart nearly burst from his chest when he saw the tall woman on the palomino.

“Thanks to all the gods,” he whispered.

“Eh?”, Cookie stirred from concentration on a pot.

“The Conqueror, Cookie; she’s come at last.”

“Well, ain’t she a sight, “ the old man sighed, “Ya didn’t tell me she was such a ‘looker’.”

“When ya see her fight, you will forget about her appearance, Cook. But, ay, she is a gorgeous one.”

“A livin’ breathin’ goddess, right ‘ere,” Cookie seemed to talk to himself. “I’m proud to live so long.”

“Ay,” Caleb’s thoughts continued, “As am I.”

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

Grandba’s stew was a blessing; I felt its nourishment flow through my body. Even more nourishing was the warmth I saw in the blue eyes of its server.

“This is wonderful, Grandba. The Amazons by the Sea are good cooks, but it’s always FISH.”

“Fish. Ugh.”, she chuckled, “I like fish a few times a year, but give me beef, barley and veggies. It keeps a body going.”

“I brought seed for planting wild rice,” I told her, “it’s a bit twitchy to grow.”

“Ha! Been precious few food stuffs that I can’t grow; we’ll just see about that,” Grandba ruffled my hair and returned to the fire.

I smiled and dug into my second serving, pausing occasionally to share with Zephyr, who definitely preferred it over fish.

+++++++++

“She looks well enough,” Gabrielle spoke to the tall warrior who was eating bits of beef and barley and then tossing the vegetables, “Xena… “

“I need endurance food, Gabrielle. I don’t need to be thinking about a latrine visit when I meet Rankor. There’ll be plenty of latrine time after.”

The poet chuckled in spite of herself. “All right, Warrior,” she landed a light punch on the ironwood arm, “Xena…..”

“Should we tell her? I been thinking on that too. I don’t know.”

Combined cobalt and emerald gazes went to the shaggy dark hair bent over her stew.

“She’s thin,” the bard whispered.

“She is a might puny,” Gabrielle gazed into her partner’s eyes, “That Ochia bite nearly had her….” Tears formed . “We were fortunate in that Rachelle is such a fine healer. Shhhhhhhh….” The Conqueror placed gentle fingers to catch emerald tears. “Birdie is fine, Love. Older, wiser, sadder, but that is called growing up , isn’t it?”

The head of wheat hair nodded and butted itself into the blue silk. “She was such a happy child, always playing with her imaginary friends and fighting imaginary foes.” The bard cast another glance, “ As annoyed, angry, worried, and Grrrr….. As I am with her, one cannot help but weep at her child’s first broken heart. A truly broken heart; I remember…”

“Then,” the edge of the Conqueror’s tone entered the voice, “ I am going to do some warm ups with the Tide, and you should go and tell Birdie our news. That should cheer you both.”

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“What is it child?” Vix had seen the slight body of her Queen go still, looking elsewhere than at the bandage she was completing on a young Amazon who had shot herself in the foot.

Rach bent to finish the dressing and then put her hand on the bowed brown hair, raising it to meet her firm granite green eyes.

“You were lucky, Mahi, weren’t you?”

“Yes, My Lady,” only seven season’s round, youthful eyes filled.

Rachelle pulled the head briefly to her chest, “No need for tears, Little One; we all make mistakes; but now,” she gazed seriously into the dark eyes riveted on her words, “Now you won’t make that one again, will you?”

Another nod, and the Queen kissed the slightly sandy forehead. “You need to return every day to soak this at mid-day, “She commanded, “ I will check and redress it. Puncture wounds bear watching.”

“Yes, My Lady. Thank you, My Lady, “ Rachelle gave the small bottom a light pat as her little warrior patient exited the hut.

Queen or not, she felt the steady eyes of her elder friend and guide. “You are good.”

“Need to be,” Rach tried to dismiss the other. “I am bound to Robin of Accident Prone.”

“Yer not good enough to hide all your thoughts, My Lady,” the voice was kind.

Deep sigh. “I feel the confrontation coming, Vix. The Conqueror can beat anyone in all of Greece at combat, but one still worries.”

“Ay,” the white haired warrior pulled the young queen into a warm embrace. Her body stiffened only for an instant before Rachelle leaned into the leather clad breast with a sigh.

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

The Militia had built a log cabin fire which would be still glowing at dawn. But it was coming to sundown now, and my stomach was in knots. Twisted cramps which had nothing at all to do with Granba’s stew or my (sigh) moon cycles. Those would be treatable.

“The “sweatin’ frets”, as Zephyr had called it. She rarely made me laugh, and I suspected that she had chosen those words carefully.

“Hey!” Arrot called to me, “Git off yer Birdie Butt and help!”

Right. She flung a broom my way and I began to assist her and Evaline with making a smooth fighting area away from the fire. A hardy slap greeted my back.

“It’ll take yer mind, Bird,” she said calmly.

“Thanks.”

She recommenced her sweeping, but by the gods could anything take my mind right now?

I settled into the rhythm, being extra careful to smooth any rough place and toss out stones which could trip a fighter. It did help still my windblown thoughts.

A baby sister? My mind would not wrap around that thought. In some cultures, I’d be old enough to be her mother.

Mother. Mama G and Baba Xe. I wasn’t accustomed to sharing my parents.

“BRAT”, my mind shouted.

“Little Mistress, you are far from a brat,” Zephyr had fallen into step with me, avoiding the broom.

I smiled into the dust, “Feels like it, Zephyr.”

“You are many things, Little Mistress, and many of them quite aggravating, but ‘spoiled brat’ is not among them. See?” Her voice was soft in my mind, “You already reproach yourself. You will be a splendid big sister.”

“Do you really think so, Zephyr?”

“I do. Now banish that thought from your head. You must focus; you must concentrate within.”

“You are right, Zephyr; you are always right. I am sorry that I didn’t heed your advice those moons ago.” Slung tears threatened.

“You were forgiven immediately.” She thrust her cool nose into my hand, and I squatted down to regard her amber eyes. “You did what you thought you must do at the time.”

“Even so, it was foolish.”

“Robin of Amphipolis. Robin of ARETEMIS, LOOK AT ME.”

A command. Rare from my fox.

“You are NOT…. Hummmm,” she thought for a moment, “You are NOT, a fool, a coward, stupid, a loser, or any of those negative thoughts you are voicing to yourself. You are NONE of those; HEED ME.”

Silence.

“You are at times………..…. Impulsive, rash, driven by your heart and not your head. A heart is always well meaning, but the brain must be engaged as well… or…trouble.” My fox sighed.

Tears fell into the dust now.

“But Robin, my child, my own heart, you are young and you are allowed to make mistakes. Besides, that is why you have me.”

“I know that Zephyr,” I pulled her in close to me; her sable fur always smelled of evergreen, “ That is why I am so sorry. You saved my life; I haven’t even thanked you for that.”

“It is permissible to be preoccupied, “ she said softly.“ Now I will hear no more negativity. Our energy must go to the Conqueror.”

“Right as always,” I allowed her to remove traces of tears with her gentle tongue, rose, and recommenced sweeping.

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

“Caleb.”

Should he dare hope? It was an unmistakable voice. Quickly he shuffled her behind a tree.

“My Lady, Ya mustn’ be seen here. My Da…..”

“Will not harm me, Caleb.”

She embraced him and he choked up, “My Lady, I am so glad to see you.”

“And I you, “ she pushed back to regard him, “You are taller I think.”

“Is it she, Lad, is it who I’s thinkin’?”

Caleb turned and drew Cookie up with a long arm, “It is Cook. Cane the Elder, may I introduce My Lady Gabrielle, Queen, Bard of Amphipolis, and Second Command of our militia.” Pride infused his voice.

Cane went to one knee and kissed the small hand. “It is m’ great honor, M’Lady.”

“Rise, Cook,” she held the old fellow with both hands, “I know how much Caleb loves you.”

Ancient hobnailed boots kicked dirt clods, “ Ah, ‘e loves me cuz Ah feed ‘em”

Caleb saw the small hands squeeze, “You have done far more than that, Cook. I hope that you will come to live with us in Amphipolis later on. You will like it there.”

Cane took one hand from his shoulder and kissed it again, “Ah will certainly consider dat, M’Lady. Ya best be goin’ M’Lady.”

She took a hand from each man then. “Till later then.” she said.

“Till later My Lady, “ they chorused.

And she faded into the forest.

“By the gods, son,” the old man breathed, “that woman fair radiates love.”

“She does that, Cookie,” Caleb watched what might have been her shape move like an Amazon in the trees. “She does that.”

“And,” Caleb turned violet eyes to his friend, “You will like Amphipolis.”

“Ah sure don’ think I can turn her down, “ Cook chuckled, and was joined by Caleb.

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

It was difficult to remember my training so long ago, but out of the entire ruckus, Baba’s voice was in my mind. “Breathe, Bird; focus on your breath. It is your very LIFE.”

So I breathed, but it was not very steadily and it wasn’t even my fight!

“Breathe…” this came from my fox. I felt her shove her soft head under my hand. I stroked it; focus, Bird. An arm encircled my waist, it was Grandba. I was startled to find that I had grown taller than she. So I kissed the top of her head. Her rough hands pulled down my head and she returned the kiss on my forehead.

And then, a second hand joined my other and squeezed; I could feel my mother’s fear in the intensity of her grasp.

Now there was focus. I returned the pressure with a smile. “How is Singer?”

“This one is far different from you, Birdie. She has never communicated anything but serenity,” she whispered, eyes straight ahead. “She told me her name.”

“She talks to you?” that was astonishing.

“She does,” another squeeze, “I feel fairly certain that you will be able to hear her as well, as soon as all of the dust clears above……. Everything.”

“Wow,” I whispered.

No more time for idle thoughts. The Conqueror had taken the sandy dirt in front of the fire. She was in full regalia, leather pants and boots, silver chain mail shirt with matching breastplate and greaves over sky blue silk. Mama G had told me once that when they visited Chin, Baba had fallen in love with this particular silk shirt and commissioned the tailor to send her a dozen shirts every dozen moons. She went through them pretty fast. The time she had spent in Amazon clothing would perhaps place her ahead a few this round, and….

I frowned at my thoughts. “Focus.” Why was it so hard for me?

Rankor appeared and he was respectively attired as well. He was not a bad looking man, but the ale had put years on his face and added softness to his belly. Nevertheless, he stood as tall as Baba Xe, and bore an enormous sword, almost “long sword” size. He wore it on his back, like Baba, but there was a large dagger crusted with red jewels at his belt.

“No Chakrams!” he yelled across the space. There was no sense of honor in this fighter ; perhaps that was what made him so dangerous.

“No daggers,” Baba replied. She stood like a mountain- his polar opposite. “Daggers are sneaky.”

He paused, “Fair enough.” He removed the dagger and handed it to Cookie. Caleb had never seen it, but it was obviously quite valuable.

Baba Xe unclipped her chakram and handed it to Mama G. “Kinda bangs on me in a swordfight anyway, “ she smiled.

“Terms ?” she again addressed her opponent.

“To the death,” Rankor swaggered forward drawing his long blade.

“For Caleb,” Baba said quietly.

“DONE!” he charged with a roar. Baba Xe sidestepped the charge as she would have done from a horse, but it swished her sleeve; Baba would adjust for the size of the Rankor sword.

Rankor checked his charge with a forward flip. It chilled my blood; he had a similar fighting style to Baba Xe.

The cobalt eyes narrowed; the Conqueror studied. I felt an unusual connection to my Baba Xe, and could see her map the battle in her mind, a deadly choreography of moves and thrusts coming.

Next was collision of strength like the Titans themselves; when Rankor’s sword met the Tide, it resonated in the ground and I was reminded of the power of a large ocean wave, how it could change the life-plans of the tiny sea creatures it swept.

Teeth gritted, muscles sweated and shook; the blades were face to face.

Rankor finally broke, forcing the Tide into a circle as he backed away. There was a visible toll on him; his breath came in heavy bellows, whereas Baba Xe danced clear of him, slung perspiration from her face and hair, and then returned to a catlike crouch. Ready.

“Good job, Love,” my mother whispered; she leaned her head close into mine, “She has every reason to kill this man and be done with it, but she is playing him like a fish. She will make him defeat himself.”

“Smart,” my return whisper.

“Experience,” the bard’s final.

Now Rankor charged again with a roar like the Minotaur and initiated an exchange of steel which bore down on Baba, quick sweeping blows and stealthy thrusts which came very quickly. The Conqueror blocked them, but a thin crimson line marred the silk of her left sleeve.

“YAHHHHH. FIRST BLOOD!!” The brigands chorused.

“Oh, now he’s had it,” Mama G murmured to herself. “Drawing blood on her only makes her stronger.”

I felt the stillness in Baba’s body. When she took the offense, she moved like a lightning bolt, as if one had to wait a breath to hear and feel the thunder of her strike. She took one step, and leaped into a tuck sailing easily over Rankor’s head. He winced as the Tide sliced his left calf cleanly though his boot.

“Ah now, ya BITCH,” he spat, and Mama G cringed at the word. This language was never heard in the whole of Amphipolis. Our Queen was a poet.

“Y’ell be sorry now,” he murmured, running full raging speed at her. She had attacked his pride.

“I fight them as I see them,” Baba Xe said casually. I smiled; she had just done the more literate version of calling him a name.

Mama beat her at it, “Richard Cranium,” she whispered.

That called for a nudge, “I heard that,” shooting her a smile.

“You may have heard it, but I better not ever hear it, “ she nudged back.

“Yes Ma’am.” It was the closest we had come to sharing comfort. It gave me hope on many levels.

“She looks good, “ I turned back to see Caleb.

He shrugged, “I thought I better show ‘oo’s side I’m on.”

Mama squeezed his hand, “Where’s Cook?”

“He’s close. Straddlin’ his ‘leegences’” he says.”

He didn’t know Xena the Conqueror like the rest of us did.

The fight shifted; Rankor extended his left hand and a gang member tossed him a short sword.

“Baba!” the Baby Tide sailed toward my parent; it might bring me trouble later on, but right now, I didn’t care.

White teeth flashed; she stepped back spinning the Baby Tide a little, remembering the weight and balance of it.

There was a gentle smack to the back of my head, “You are so …. Grrr… QUICK!” my mother whispered.

Both using two swords changed the fight completely. They ran at each other with blades crossed, a head caught in the scissor action would be neatly removed. But they met again in a struggle of shear power. Both bodies leaned in together at deadlock once again.

“He’s pretty good, “ I remarked to no one in particular.

“Yeah, ‘e’s good, “ Caleb hissed through his teeth, “But he’s no Conqueror; ‘e don’ understand the ‘eart of a warrior. ‘E’s just a monster.”

Baba Xe apparently tired of the dead lock and broke out with a standing jump that once again carried her clear of Rankor.

She took a few quick steps and slashed Rankor’s leather jerkin. As the garment parted, he remarked,

“Ah, now ya went and made me mad,” his teeth showed through his whiskered face—violet eyes cold.

“Good, “ Baba replied calmly, “I’ve been mad for a while.”

“Good, Bitch.”

I knew that if he called Baba Xe that name one more time, no punishment could contain me.

She only regarded him calmly, “Say it again, Rankor. Just once.”

“BITCH!!” he accommodated.

Baba sailed over his head in a flying cartwheel. The two Tides flashed and when she landed, Rankor’s long ponytail was gone.

Baba picked up the hank of hair with a tip and extended it to the owner, “Good hair,” she said, “Might bring you a dinar or two at market.”

The full primal animal was loosed from Rankor then. He roared and ran at Baba, both swords wind milling. She watched the approach. I still don’t know how she did this, but she inserted both Tides into his frenzy. When she parted the swords, he was sitting on his arse and his own swords had flown far from reach.

Baba put a Tide on either side of his neck. “I win.” She said softly.

Her swords were trembling; she was either holding her anger or very tired. Then she gave him her back.

“Perhaps it’s because I finally have my family back intact, “ she walked away from him and then spun back around, “But I just don’t feel like killing anyone today.” The ice in her eyes should have burned him to a cinder. She smiled as she approached us, “I will just take Caleb.”

“No, Lady, I DON”T THINK SOOOOOOOOO!!!!” Rankor screamed, reached into a boot and hurled a small dagger toward all of us, “’e’s MY SON, and if I can’t ‘av him, no one can!!”

I ducked as did Mama; Baba Xe moved too quickly for me to note.

The dagger sang with rage heading straight for Caleb.

I shouted his name, but heard another deep voice say it as well, “Ye’ll Not, “ it roared, “Y’ell not ‘urt the boy. Not now, ‘an not ever again.” The dagger struck flesh with a sickening “slucksh.”

When the dust had cleared from the event and our minds, Caleb had sunk to his knees, cradling the white head of Cookie.

“Ahh, Cook, ya shouldn’ of, “ silent tears falling into the old man’s white hair.

“Ah, don’t mind it, Lad,” the dagger had struck well, and the cook’s life blood leaked under Caleb’s hand.

“Caleb, “ it was Baba kneeling now, “let go, kid. Let me see; let me see.” Caleb lifted his hand and red rushed like white water. “I can stop the pain.” Cobalt eyes asked Caleb.

“Yah, Please, My Lady. ”Baba felt out a pressure point and stabbed her fingers into it. The old man relaxed immediately.

No one had looked at Rankor. But now we all heard the man.

“NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” he choked in panic and tears, “No, Da, how couldya? How couldya?”

“To keep yer good boy safe, “ Cook whispered, “I’m sorry, son; I ‘ad to choose.”

“Yer my Grandpap?” Caleb clutched a blood soaked hand, “I never knew, Cook; why didn’t ya tell me?”

The leathery palm reached up to cup his grandson’s cheek, “Ah t’ink ya knew, Lad. Didn’ya? Ya knew. And ya knows ‘ow much I loved ya.” The caress ceased with the old man’s heartbeat.

It was a few moments before Rankor’s wailing took center stage again.

“The Furies will come now,” he whispered kneeling in a pathetic panic, rocking back and forth. “They’ll come for me. By the gods is there any mercy? I allas knew I’d be on the dark side of the Styx , but the Furies, by the gods…. The Furies..” He hid his face to squelch sobs.

Caleb rose tall and strode a few steps to confront his father, “I wooda kilt ya, Da, fer dis. I wooda taken the Furies’ whips and claws for eternity to avenge Grandpap. “ He paused and sighed, “I’m sorry fer ya Da, but we reaps what we sows.” He turned his back on his father.

Xena’s eyes met the bard’s, “I don’t envy him one bit, “ she whispered, “In fact, I feel sympathy right now; I remember…”

“So do I,” Gabrielle whispered in return. “Even those few candle marks showed that the Furies were with you. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

“But Caleb is right, “ my Grandba entered the conversation. “Ya reap what ya sow, and Rankor has spent a lifetime sowing for this day.” Her blue eyes scanned the skies., “Close your eyes, everyone, NOW, and do NOT open them until I say. DO IT!!” I felt the Conqueror’s blood of command in her voice- a voice one could not disobey.”

We clasped hands, Mama, Baba, Caleb, Grandba and I and squeezed hard. It was difficult not to peek at the soft beating of leather wings. Rankor screamed as vicious claws dug in, and they became louder, higher, and more ragged in pitch, which climbed above our heads. There was sobbing and pleading and sharp cracks of whips. All was quiet after the schwup schwup of wings subsided.

“Ok,” Grandba spoke haltingly, “ Ok, we are clear.”

A violent sob was wrung from Caleb, “Oh Sweet Artemis, na’matter what he’d done to me, na’ matter how long he done it, I don’t want him to suffer so.” Grandba took him to her bosom and rocked him gently, “There now, son, there, there there….”

“Is there any hope?” His beautiful eyes flooded with the question.

Mama G spoke then. “There is always hope, Caleb. It’s all that was left in Pandora’s broken box. We know for certain that we can hope.” She looked to Baba Xe, as did I and the rest of our little circle.

“Why areya lookin’ at me?”

Mama G extended a soothing arm, “Because you have had some experience, Love. Did you learn anything from your brief Furies’ engagement or is it swept clean?”

“Frankly, I don’t remember much at all, only what you have told me,” Baba said, “but if the gods are kind, if Hades is in a good mood, and if Rankor serves his sentence with courage and honor, perhaps he will be given a bit more peace in the Underworld.”

I did not like Rankor; I came very close in fact to hating the man and so was surprised to hear my own voice speaking, “We can hope.”

“We can,” said my mother, “I will keep Rankor’s name in my early morning meditation and pray that he finds peace.”

“Thank you, My Lady, “ thin trickles of tears still travelled Caleb’s eyes. “That’s pretty good hope.”

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

Though I had not known Cane, “Cookie” of Rankor’s Brigand personally, my heart ached for our blonde headed boy/man as he watched the flames rise on his Grandpap’s pyre. Rankor’s men had shown nothing but courtesy during the preparations. It spoke of the respect they held for the old man who had for long years fed them and tried to raise Rankor’s son.

Grandba had announced earlier that everyone should bring his or her mug. She ambled about with her pitcher, treating the other gang like guests at her inn. Scrubby ran back and forth from the barrel so she never had to stop the flow.

Finally she approached Caleb, standing like a stone, torch in hand, captive of the flames. “You might say a word, Son, if you can.” She stepped back.

Caleb’s hand trembled with the weight of the mug, but then he raised it high, “To Cook!” he said, and it was echoed in the woods, “To Cook!”

“He was the best of us,” Caleb continued quietly, “I ‘ve no doubt that he is at peace in the Elysian Fields. I also know what he would say if he were here, and I ‘ope he’s listening.” The fair head took a sip of the ale, and then raised the mug again; “TO HOPE!” his roar echoed the spirits of his lost family.

“To HOPE!” The rocks and trees seemed to shake with intensity. Zephyr put her cool nose into my hand, and I stroked her gently.

There was a tickle inside my brain , “ Hope .”

I looked to my mother; she nodded in answer to my unspoken question.

“May I?” Her hands fell into my hair as I knelt, ear to her belly.

“You need a haircut, little Bird, “ Mama G mentioned gently.

But I had closed my eyes, concentrating on what had stunned me to tears.

“ Hope. Birrrr-deeee .”

I looked at my parents, “She knows my name? Singer knows MY NAME?”

I wrapped my arms around my mother to listen.

“Birrrrr-deeeeee. Sissssss-terrrrrrrrr. Love Birrrr-deeeee.”

I could not stop weeping. I could not.

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When tribulations were loosed upon existence,

A single word endured deep within

The broken box.

Hope.

Enfold it in the heart

Like the most fragile new birth.

Within the fortress of spirit,

Hold it steadfast with unceasing

Gaze into the celestial dome,

And hear the stars whisper, “Hope.”

Gaia, goddess of timeless faith,

Though Her children fight, curse,

And defile the earth

With hatred and blood,

Remains unfettered.

For blood, once shed,

Descends into the Great Mother,

And in Her is purged, filtered.

Renewed, she yields without condition,

So with every sunrise, and every sunset,

Hope returns .
Gabrielle The Bard

 

Part 11

Two seven days have passed since Baba Xe defeated Rankor, and we all came home to Amphipolis.

Perhaps because I had been gone so long; the fortress and city seemed smaller to me than when I left.

Perhaps it was my own growth.

Certainly my ROOM seemed to shrink by the day, and I have served only half of my confinement!! A full moon has been a long time to be grounded, but I cannot complain. Mama G works me for a candle mark in the mornings with the staff. Baba works me for two candle marks in swordplay, chakram, and hunting before dinner; so I am sufficiently exercised. I join the family for all meals and Mama G expects a single parchment page of writing every day which she inspects after the evening meal. My mother is an excellent writer, and she demands the best from me. There have been days when I have only managed to work out a rough draft which is acceptable, if it is fine-tuned the following day.

As I write this, suddenly two more seven days seems like a very long time, and yet I also know that it is good to have a home-a safe place. I have written about it at length and would HOPE that such lessons should chisel their ways into my head of stone. My heart of stone, however; is not working out so well.

I miss Rachelle; I miss Rach so much it feels like a great hole in my chest and I can’t fill it with any amount of activity, work or play or creativity. There are times I ask for Grandba’s special “sleep tight” tea and I just go to bed early to escape my sadness. The mornings are better-many activities keep me occupied. But evenings… Mama G says it’s a human characteristic: we go our separate ways until dinner time. Then we want everyone home and nearby. If someone is missing, like Rach is for me, it HURTS. I can’t bear it and the escape is to retire early. I wonder if Rach feels the same or if I am just a big ball of Bird mush.

I am a fortunate girl; well not so much a “girl” anymore, because my responsibilities are great. Singer has changed many of childish thoughts. In the evenings, Mama G allows me to listen to her for a time. This little soul growing within my mother already knows me well. She is a gift.

And speaking of Artemis, she was the ‘dealer’ of ‘Amazon discipline’. Great globs of Minotaur shite, give me a quarter candle mark in the armory with Baba Xe any day. But the Conqueror is not an Amazon. She believes in cleaning up after one’s own messes. Amazons are thorough, very thorough.

Mama G called me out after I had slept for a day and a half. The rest had boosted my strength and mind, and I felt ready to face the consequences of my numerous impulsive acts and poor decisions.

Zephyr accompanied us. My mother held my hand and paced along with her head down, lost in her own thoughts. We came to the center of a small practice field and she turned to me, cupping my face in gentle hands.

“My Little Bird, you are now accountable to Artemis for your recent behavior.” Tears filled tender green eyes; a sight which often was punishment enough.

It would be a falsehood if I did not say her words shook me; my encounters with Artemis could not be declared “moderate”. Though our relationship had improved, I had no reason to think the goddess would be gentle with me today.

“I am here as a consultant, Birdie,” my mother finished, which gave more relief than I care to admit, but there was little time to sigh, as the goddess materialized just then. Zephyr crossed to join Her.

I bowed my head, resolving to guard my mouth. But the glow of her power, the luminosity of her presence caught me, and my shadow was small.

“Robin of the Warrior and the Bard, do you know why I am here?”

Silence.

“Answer the Goddess, Birdie.”

“Yes, My Lady; I was just pondering a moment, My Ladies.”

This could be really dangerous. Speak carefully, Bird dog.

“You are here,” I began,” as the Goddess of the Amazons. I have committed grievous wrongdoings both in the eyes of Amazons, and also as a member of the Amazon nation myself.”

“You are no ‘member‘, Robin of Amphipolis. You are an Amazon princess and now you are bonded consort to Rachelle, Queen of the Amazons by the Sea. ”

The lesson I learn again and again, is that the repercussions of my foolishness are almost always worse than I can imagine. This was no different. Think MORE. My mother always told me to “write it from your heart and then give it to your brain”. Her wisdom would well apply to life. Brain, Bird dog, BRAIN. Too late now.

“No it isn’t, Little Mistress, “thoughts from Zephyr, “It’s never too late to think and LEARN.

“You are right” returned thoughts.

“Many moons ago, I gave to you this black fox, Robin, “the goddess was thundering again, “So the first step of your disciplinary actions to face will be… loss of her..”

The sob was wrung from someplace more abysmal than I had ever been, “My Lady….” I sank to my knees in total desolation. Zephyr, my first soul mate, no please, not Zephyr…

My mother’s hand lay cool on the back of my neck. “What length is this separation to be, My Lady?”

There was a chuckle which I felt in the ground beneath my knees. “A seven-day only, Little Bird; do not despair.”

The evergreen smell of my fox was near my ear.” I go to train a companion for Rachelle, Little Mistress,” she sent, “that will better the communication between you and your love during yourseparation.” Her velvet tongue cleared my cheeks.

“Thank you, My Lady, ” I managed to gain a grip on myself, “Zephyr is your gift, and I did not heed her when I should have. An absence will reinforce my need to THINK HARD.”

“We are not finished, Birdie,” was there any reassurance in the use of my diminutive name?

But the goddess extended an arm; a silver staff appeared in her right hand… Minotaur shite, here it comes.

Mama G brought me her own staff, ” I will stop her at enough, Birdie, ” she said in a low voice, “But mind you, Lady Artemis worked me to my expert level.”

I took her staff and studied it. There were marks of a thousand fights, but she sanded it, redid the bindings and rubbed wax into it every six moons or so, and it was good fit and a fine weight for me.

Thwack!! The first blow came as my mother retreated; I only just blocked it by ducking and instinctively throwing up the staff. But as I caught my breath, a second thwack, connected behind my thighs. It stung like a thousand bees, but I recovered quickly and blocked the following blow. It was going to be a long afternoon.

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

“Xena, you need to check on our lad, ” Cyrene eyed her daughter while kneading dough.

“He seems to be adjusting well enough, isn’t he?” The Conqueror had just begun her second cup of tea and wanted no interruption.

Her mother stood hands akimbo and delivered a “Look”. The warrior removed her feet from the table and sat up straight. She managed not to sigh- that would mean real trouble.

“He is totally dependable at his kitchen work, ” Cyrene, having seized her offspring’s attention, returned to her dough. But there is great sadness in him. I see it in his eyes when I can make him look at me, ” the little woman kneaded harder, “But think of Caleb, Xena. I know he’s a good soldier to you as well, but he did lose his family very quickly. And right in front of his eyes.”

The warrior quickly slurped her tea. “You are right, Mother. I found Rankor to be such a s— ” pause, ” sheep of a creep.” Saved but lame. Keep going, “and a jerk, I forgot he WAS Caleb’s father, and Cain, the cook was a fine man. I guess that is why Caleb is handy in the kitchen; he helped his grandfather from a young age.”

“He let me hug him once, ” Xena noted the fast blinking which heralded tears in her mother, “and he was stiff as a young tree. I know the lad’s heart is broken; he is such a sweet boy, ” there were tears falling now, ” ya know who he reminds me of…”

“I know, ” from behind the Conqueror wrapped her little mother in strong arms, “He reminds me of him, too. I’ll talk to him, Mother.”

Cyrene swiveled about and returned the embrace, “Thank you, Honey. I think if he knows it’s all right to be sad; if the Conqueror tells him it’s acceptable to be sad and that we love him, he will open up a bit more.” She gently released her girl and blew a kiss, “I love the lad, you know. There is so much TLC he can collect from me if we can soften his stone wall.”

“Wish me luck, ” Xena’s eyes twinkled, “You know this is really more Gabrielle’s department.”

“Posh, you’ll be fine, ” Cyrene’s eyes reflected the same twinkle. As she pushed her daughter out the kitchen door she clutched the warrior-hardened hand for a breath. “Xena-In case you need to hear it, I love you too.” She squeezed the hand gently, “And I am so proud of you.”

“I love you too, Mother, ” Xena exited the door before she turned into dough in her mother’s hands.

“Mother is absolutely right, ” she thought to herself, “Family, family of any kind, is essential, and our boy needs it.”

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

The Conqueror approached her youngest soldier on soft boots. She had watched him for some time, sitting under the giant oak outside the fortress. For the past candle mark, he had done nothing but draw circles in the dirt beneath the tree. He jumped up at the strong hand on his shoulder.

“Hey, Soldier,” His commander’s tone was soft, “How are you doing?”

Caleb refused to meet her eyes, but she noted the tear drops landing in the dust.

“All right, My Lady Conqueror,” he muttered and then choked, “Great to be ‘ome, idn’t it?”

“It is,” she began kicking on a nearby root of the tree worn smooth by kicks over the years. (Yikes, I am in a ‘sensitive chat’ situation… Gaa bri ellllllle, help me.)

The ever humble boy spoke, “I’m lucky to have such a ‘ome, My Lady. I am so grateful.”

“Hey,” Xena saw her opening and a little Conqueror growl infused her words, “Caleb, this IS your home and it will be so for as long as you desire.”

“Truly?”

She had calculated well; the boy suddenly without family, as no matter how shabby it had been, still felt orphaned.

She clapped his shoulder firmly, “You are my soldier, kiddo, perhaps a bit young, but then again…. You are also very special to me and to the Queen… rather… like a son, perhaps?”

(Too strong too soon?) She asked herself, (no matter, it was true)

He finally lifted his violet eyes, one tear running down each cheek. “Ya mean that, My Lady?”

“I do, ” his hero, clad in blue silk shirt, voiced an unspoken dream of his, “I do, Caleb. That doesn’t mean you can shirk any duties as part of the militia, ask my Birdie about that. But it does mean, ” She paused, “it does mean that you are invited to any ‘family’ event we have, if you choose to attend. My mother adores you. She lost her youngest son many seasons ago, my little brother, Lyceus. It left a hole in our hearts that you can fill, I think.”

His stance relaxed under her hand; good Conqueror, Gabrielle would be proud.

“I’d luv that, My Lady, ” his voice cracked, “I’d love that and always be my best for ya.”

She left his shoulder with a gentle pat, “good, it’s settled then.”

Not done yet there were new wet spots. Deep breath, Xe. You love this boy; you must show him your heart.

She reached across to capture his far shoulder and turned him to face her. He could not look up.

“Caleb,” she stooped to meet his damp eyes, “Caleb, it is ok for a warrior, a soldier, a man, to grieve, kiddo. It is ok.”

He resisted very little, and she tugged the blond mop to her shoulder, swinging a strong hand to cup the back of his head. He did considerable sniffing, but thank the gods, he had a handkerchief. When she felt him relax, she released him with a pat and, cocked her blue eyes at him with a mischievous smile.

“And as a family member, you best be ready for our Queen to cut your hair.”

He chuckled, “Ya, I could do wid’ a trim.” The tree root was kicked.

“I think Birdie is first in line, but you’ll be a close second.”

“I’d be proud, My Lady. Thank you My Lady.”

“No worries, ” she clapped his back again. “Go get your sword and prepare for a brisk lesson.”

His eyes widened, “From you, My Lady?”

“No, from Argo… YES, from me, and I won’t be easy on you.”

He flashed a gorgeous smile, “I wouldn’t expect that, My Lady”.

“Good, now run!” She whipped a hand across the wheat hair in a playful smack. He jogged away.

Gabrielle might be proud. She was rather proud of herself.

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

Every bone, every muscle below my waist was chorusing a high pitched song .Sweat stung my eyes and made them run; they were NOT tears, by the gods they were not tears. I pushed back my hair with a dirty hand and came to “ready” position again.

“I am almost finished, Queen Gabrielle, with your permission?” The goddess paused and looked at my mother.

I stole a glance and witnessed the tears I expected on my mother’s face. She shook back her head and said, “Yes, My Lady Artemis. I think our Birdie has had enough.”

WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! Firm blows of the Artemis staff nipped my backside and brought me to my knees once more. Sobs wrestled within me, but no way, not happening Bird dog.

A mahogany hand was extended and its grip brought me flying to my feet.

“You have been very brave, Robin of the Warrior and Bard, ” the thunder soft voice of the goddess spoke, ” I did not go easy on you; I have staffed many much stronger than you, and put them sobbing in the dirt. The unflagging courage you have displayed pleases me greatly.”

“It could have been worse, ” I managed to respond, “Thank you My Lady Artemis.”

The hand lay on my head gently then, “This was a first for me, Birdie, “she lifted my chin, ” I have disciplined many warriors, but never one so young. I hope that you know how special you are to me, Little One. ”

I could only nod into her hand. The amber eyes looked away, ” Your mother is right, Birdie, even loving discipline is difficult to deal.” A single tear traveled the dark face- a falling star, and Artemis began to fade.

But her voice returned, rumbling, “I could say I hope it is the last time, but somehow, ” her laughter was loud thunder, “somehow, I don’t quite… think… sooooo.”

My knees buckled and I caught myself with my hands, dropping the staff. I was exhausted beyond any idea I had ever had of exhaustion.

My mother knelt by my side. She hid no tears from me.

“Birdie, I hope I do not have to witness this pain for you again, ” my mother could always speak clearly through tears, “even though it was what you deserved, it was very grim for me to watch.”

“I’m so sorry, Mama,” in her arms now, the bravado broke and fell away, “I am so sorry…”

She pulled me in close and I sighed into her warm sandalwood scent.

“My Birrrr… dee…sad for Birr…dee.”

“I am ok, Little One, ” I whispered to my baby sister, “Thank you, but I promise to be your strong big sister, never worry.”

Mama G unslung a large water skin; after a deep draw, I leaned against her almost falling asleep with relief. She stroked my hair.

A realization pierced me, as sharp and as agonizing as the snake bite.

“Zephyr,” I cast my eyes about and then sobs came, “Oh Mama, Zephyr’s gone.”

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

“How’s our Birdie?” Gabrielle was deeply relieved to feel the towering presence approach.

“Exhausted, smarting, but smarter, I think,” The bard’s evergreen s met the cerulean blues. She stroked her child’s cheek with her knuckles gently, “She is sound asleep.”

“I am sure the dread of facing Artemis stressed her, ” The Conqueror said with a chuckle, “I would have been stressed, and I am ‘Xena the Conqueror.”

“You would have been proud of her, Xena, ” the bard looked down at the shaggy hair, “She took some rough stuff, but she never faltered. Artemis praised her courage.”

The Warrior leaned down and scooped her daughter into her arms easily, the dark head falling on soft silk. “I am proud of her,” she whispered, “No matter how annoyed or angry I am with her, the pride always comes in first. ” She kissed the slumbering forehead, ” She is a great kid.”

The pair began a slow walk to the fortress.

Gabrielle put her hand on the carved wood arm, “I feel the same way, ” she said, and then placing a hand on her belly, looked down, “I think Singer may be easier to raise but far far different to raise as well. I believe our Lady Artemis has her in mind for an Oracle.”

Xena inclined her head, “I cannot say that I am surprised; that little one has shown uncanny ‘sight’ ever since she came into that belly.” A sigh, “Oracle, huh? It will not be an easy life for her.”

Gabrielle ran her arm around the slim tree trunk waist, “Which is exactly why she has US, my love. It is quite an honor actually. Despite Birdie’s… ‘Challenges’ to us in parenting, Artemis loves her and thus we have been gifted and specially trusted with Singer.”

The Warrior blew her bangs from her forehead with a raspberry noise, “I believe our first duty now is to get this one to the bathing pool and clean her up. I wonder if she will even wake ; she is OUT.”

“She is healing, ” the bard said, “I think you have the perfect idea. A warm soak sounds wonderful to me.” She took her partner’s arm again, “It is a beautiful night, isn’t it? The full moon….”

The bright beams lighted their way to the baths. Artemis was watching.

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

Bright moonbeams through my bedroom window awakened me. A tall silhouette startled me until it turned and sat down on my bedside. Baba Xe.

“How are you doing, Little Bird?, ” her hand pushed my hair out of my eyes. I felt the cool softness of my sheets and the relief of clean hair and body.

” Better than I expected, Baba. How long have I been out?”

“Close to four candle marks.”

“Whoa. Wow.” I just shook my head.

“Artemis laid into you pretty good, huh?”

I shrugged, “No more than I deserved, Baba.”

“Smarts a bit, though, doesn’t it, kid?”

I shifted on a few bruises, “Yeah, pretty much. But I’m fine.”

In the next breath I was face down across her lap. Minotaur shite, would there be Baba Xe discipline on top of “Amazon discipline”?

Her big hand lay quiet on my backside, “What should I do with my errant little Bird?”

I could not keep my voice from trembling, but my resolve was as strong as it had been with Artemis.

“What you think best, Baba Xe; I can take it.”

Then I was back against my pillows fighting tears.

“And what do I intend for you to understand right now, Birdie?” Her hand was on my head again.

“That I will never be too big to go across your knee?”

“Perfect,” a low chuckle and her lips brushed my forehead, “Don’t ever forget it, Robin of Amphipolis.”

I couldn’t help but clutch her tightly around the waist, “I won’t Baba. Baba, I am so sorry.” Tears squeezed out.

“It’s ok, Little Bird, ” she rocked me gently, “You were actually incredibly lucky, my girl. Spending the night at a cold and high altitude, and the Ochia’s bite— either of those could have taken you….either could have killed you Birdie.” Her voice cracked. I listened to her heartbeat slow down, and she continued, “As long as you learn from your mistakes, and as long as you…”

“Remember.” I finished her sentence. ” I will; I love you Baba Xe.”

She pushed me back with serious regard, “I believe that you finally mean that. I love you too, Birdie. I will always love you.” She guided me back against the pillows and tucked the sheets under the mattress firmly like she had when I was little and might fall out of bed. It felt good… safe.

“Baba?”

My warrior parent turned back, “Yes.”

“Baba Xe, how do you manage when you and Mama G are apart?”

The Conqueror walked across my room to gaze at the moon from my window.

“I know it hurts; I know how much it hurts… ” Swallow, “because… of Rach.”

“Yes, it does hurt, Little Bird, ” Baba addressed the moon, “You have been very tough about it.”

“Not inside, Baba Xe. Inside it feels like… it feels like that story Mama G tells about people searching for the other half of their souls.”

“Half your soul is missing, ” Baba Xe whispered, “I know that feeling well, as does your mother.” She sighed, ” I wish there was an easy answer for you, Birdie, but the fact is… it is not easy.”

“I know, ” no more tears Bird, listen to Baba, “But you and Mama manage.”

“We have had experience, Little Bird. Too much experience, I think.”

“So you can’t help me with it, Baba?”

She turned, I could feel the blue gaze even in the dark, “You and Rachelle will find your own ways to cope. And you WILL cope; you must cope.”

“Yes, My Lady, ” I addressed Baba Xe in the respectful tone. It seemed appropriate.

“I can only give you a few words, Birdie. But you will know what to do; you are a bard’s daughter as well as a warrior’s daughter.”

“Yes, My Lady.”

“Time, Patience, Sensitivity, Love, and most of all Faith, ” the low voice crossed the room.

“Faith?”

“Unshakeable FAITH that you will be reunited. No matter the distance or time, you keep the faith in each other as bound for all time.”

“I see,” I whispered, “Work on replacing loneliness with faith. Rachelle and I are together forever.”

“Right.”

“Thanks, Baba…” That was some heavy head and heart work, and I was tired. A good writing assignment for tomorrow, “g’night.”

“Good night, Sweetheart.”

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

“She’s ok.” The warrior returned to her bedchamber where a blond head sat waiting. “She’s a little uncomfortable, but she should be.”

Gabrielle sighed into her soul mate as she joined her under the covers. “Artemis did not ‘staff’her any harder than either of us would have done.” She whispered into the dark tresses. “Reminded me of Tara and what you called ‘tough love’, however….” The Conqueror needed no light to know tears filled the bard’s eyes, “it was difficult to witness.”

Xena squirmed away and stood up on the bed. She opened one ceiling panel which allowed chilly air and moonlight into the bedroom. She rejoined her partner and looked up into the celestial display. “Tough love… My Love….” She breathed softly “is tough on everyone.”

She pulled Gabrielle in closely and brushed her lips across golden eyebrows. “I am thinking now of a different kind.”

The bard caught her breath as the lips moved to her own lips and began drifting down her neck and breasts. Her body began to rise in response, “I…” she managed to whisper, “….. liiiike it….”

And then the Warrior possessed her.

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

I awakened the next morning, feeling a peace which had thus far eluded me. I had faced Amazon discipline without fear and gained the praise of the goddess. I leaned over the side of my bunk- an automatic habit.

“Zephyr…..”

Further….head to floor, “Zephyr?”

Memory flooded my eyes. Gone.

Only a seven day, the goddess promised; you can do a seven day without your fox, Bird dog. Soldier up. But I lay back and felt dampness form pools in my ears. Zephyr was a constant conscience, guardian, friend and soul mate, both talking to me, and walking with me wherever I had gone, right or wrong, for several seasons’ round. Her absence was more painful than any I had endured physically. Turning back over to gaze at the wall, I allowed the tears freedom.

“Oh Zephyr…”

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

Rachel perched on the Watching Rock alone. She wandered about her consort- a constant activity of the mind since they had been joined. A soft smile formed as the sea breeze lifted her hair. Birdie had much to answer for. But she would do it bravely, Rach thought. It was something she loved about her impulsive consort; Birdie blamed no one else for her mistakes, and she was courageous in taking responsibility for her actions. That would take them far-courage. Oh but she missed that girl.

Her peripheral vision caught activity down beach; two small figures approached at a quick trot. Smallish four legged fellows, one all black.

“Zephyr?” She called and the ebony fox broke into a swift run. Rachel quickly descended the rock and ran to throw her arms around Birdie’s fox.

“Zephyr… Why are you here? Is Birdie with you?”

The fox stepped back to present her fellow traveler-a handsome fellow with a silver coat.

“Lady Rachelle,” the words were in Rach’s head. “This is my son, Rain. He is in training to be your companion, as I am Birdie’s.”

“Zephyr, ” Rach whispered still on her knees in the sand. “He’s is beautiful. Will you come to me, Rain?”

Soft pewter fur came between her hands. He gazed at her, “My Lady.” His eyes were sky colored, like Birdie’s. There was a stillness about him which linked Rachelle immediately.

“My own Rain-boy,” Tears spotted the sand from the sea green eyes of the young queen. “Thank you My Lady Artemis: thank you Zephyr.” Rain leaned into her and Rach embraced him fully.

Zephry flicked her tail and looked at the faintly forming moon. “It will be all right, Little Mistress,” she sent. “All is well, My Birdie…”

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

Dear Little Mistress, do not cry,Gaze up to the star strewn sky.

Find me in Our Lady’s moon, where

I serve the Goddess, as must you.

Loneliness-a path, so a hard to bear.

Hold close your heart, and I am there,

And know I shall never leave you…

@@@

The End

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