For those of you who might not have the power of infinite memory, especially about the different Xena fiction you may read, please allow me to first: apologize, and second: review. I do apologize for my tortoise like pace this year with Birdie. I have seen as many changes and growing pains as my girl. But we are surviving, and we are becoming much better at it. My eternal thanks to Trace the Tyrant, my beta reader for her gentle nudging, and strict editing, and also to those of you who have written. I will try to pick up the pace, I apologize, and thank you for your inquiries.
To review, Rachelle has been taken back to her original Amazon tribe which resides by the sea. When Birdie learns of this, she is shocked, shattered, and then as usual, goaded into less than perfectly planned action.
We last left her sheltering in a cave, high above the tree line of the mountain she and her animal friends were ascending, with no wood for a fire, no light, no food, and dire circumstances except….
Part 10 of The Birdie Series
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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
.”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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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...”
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.”
“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.”
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.
Ephiny finally caught up with the dogged pace of the Conqueror using the last reaches of her lung capacity.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
“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?”
“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.
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.
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
(To be continued.)
comments to firstname.lastname@example.org thank you very much as always for reading…
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