(highest regard and gratitude to Trace the Tyrant..)
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.”
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.
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!”
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.
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…”
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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?
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.
“Would you please find and send to me, our young Caleb?”
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.
“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.
Hades began folding like a paper horse, something he rarely did . But 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.
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.
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
(To be continued.)
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