I believe this story has spanned now two and a half years, lasting through major changes in my life which really kinda had me down for awhile. I appreciate so much, all of the encouragement and notes; they kept Birdie flying, if not very straight at times. But I can say truly that I am in a far more positive mind space and intend to keep our girl going. I have had the next story arc in mind, so it will come. “GONE” has been a journey for me. I am arriving and yet understand that it is always about the journey… My heartfelt thanks to VX, The Tyrant, and to Seal for helping me along. However, it was Frodo, my faithful rescue pup, who decided it was time for me to write, by making a nest under my desk and refusing to leave. My own Zephyr.
Since you may have forgotten, Birdie and Baba Xe are heading home from the Amazons by the Sea. The separation has been agony for Birdie and Rachelle, but reality does that sometimes. Rachelle finds comfort in her role for now, and Gabrielle leaves Amphipolis to meet Xena. Rankor and his gang are in the middle of the two journeys and will have to be faced by all.
Part 10 of The Birdie Series
I am Robin of the Warrior and the Bard….
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…..
“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.”
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.
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.”
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
“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'”
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
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.
When tribulations were loosed upon existence,
A single word endured deep within
The broken box.
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,
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
…..comments or curses about how dang long it takes me—may be directed to email@example.com
Next is the “Epilogue”…
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