First, I would thank my patient , loyal, and encouraging readers. Thank you for loving our Birdie Girl. She and you have kept me going.
I am Robin….
"Cook, you reckon we'll ever leave?" Caleb asked the old man as they did their river duties. The old man turned from his washing.
"Yawanna know what I tink?"
"I tink Rankor is awaitin'."
"He's waitin' to meet the Conqueror HERE. She'll be tuckered from tha' journey.Might give him some advantage."
Caleb considered the notion. Not a bad one, if one knew absolutely nothing about the Conqueror. He wanted to remark that the Conqueror was rarely if ever, "tuckered"; the Conqueror kept herself as well-honed as her chakram- that was what the guys in the barracks said. They always mentioned it if one had actually SEEN the woman go out for her morning run, when apparently began long before sun up.
"Well, I s'Pose that idn't a bad idea, " Caleb measured his return, even though he trusted Cain completely. "She keeps 'erself in mighty good shape- likely better shape than a week of drinkin'."
"Now that I'll give ya lad, " Cookie chuckled. "Rankor does 'imself no favors by his lifestyle." He reached for the boy's face. "How yafeelin'?"
"Better, Cook. I'm fine, " Caleb returned the gaze to the old man's eye, "And yerself?"
"Ah, not much this old hide can't take, lad," He finished up the last pan and hung it from the yoke across Caleb's shoulders. Then he gripped the big main cooking pot.
"Hades, ya get enough of a workout just doin' this, " he chuckled as they started up the hill.
"Aye, yer right about that," Caleb had felt his strength increase by this thrice daily routine. But that was good. He wanted to be ready.
Only Zephyr ran ahead of me and Hades for the first half candle mark. My head, heart, hands, thoughts, had gone numb and if it weren't for my animal guardians' vigilance, any danger could have taken me without notice.
Argo's galloping pattern was distinctive, and I shook that last of my tears away as Baba came alongside.
Peripherally I was aware of the dark mane tilting my way. "How you doing, Little Bird?"
I sniffed and dragged a sleeve across my eyes.
Argo slowed to a gentle stroll, "It's tough; I know Bird, it hurts so badly that we think no one else could begin to understand.."
We continued to amble on a while.
"Bird, I know the pain; you know that I DO understand and so does your mother."
I managed a nod; I knew both "short versions" of both the "Rift" and Baba's death. Mama had told me that she would allow me to read her scrolled accounts of those experiences when she felt the time was right. I felt the time might be approaching.
"Catch," A small skin of tea sailed between horses; it was followed with a wrap of biscuits and fruit. "Eat; I know that you didn't eat this morning."
"Yes'm," I nodded; the tears were coming again; Baba knew it. Her long arm reached across the space to cup the back of my head.
"I love you, Birdie. I am going to just leave you alone, because that is how you need to be right now. But if you need me for ANYTHING, kiddo, anything at all- fall back to me, ok?"
"And you doknow that you had better stay in MY sight?" Conqueror's edge to that statement.
I looked at her and willed the tears not to leave my eyes, "I know, Baba. Thank you."
She fell back with a little smack from those exceptional eyes.
By the gods, more hoof beats; could they not leave me alone? A sting of long reins to my backside caused me to turn.
"Hey stranger; long time no Bird."
Viewing my striker, I almost fell from Hades offering the warrior grip; it was accepted by the paw of my dear chum, Arrot.
"Arrot, my friend, have you been here all along? And Evelin," the quiet girl took my hand, "Where the Hades have you been?"
"Where have YOU been?" Evalin's question was quiet but direct; she was the perfect foil to Arrot'sextra-large personality.
Well, sigh on that Bird, "Everyone knows that but me," the response lowered my head.
"Ahhh..No worries, " Arrot's big hand was gentle on my back, "We know yar given to escapades, Bird. And believe me, " there was a glance between her and Evalin, "We unnerstand."
"But why are you only now making yourself known?" an obvious question.
"Sorry, Bird," the massive curls ducked. " Ya were very sick, ya know? Ephiny had us workin' with the seaside Amazons, nearly all the time."
"We learned a great deal from them, " Evalin's quieter voice added.
I turned to regard her long blond hair, "Good. There is so much to learn."
"An then when you were better, ya always needed to be working with Rach..Excuse me, Queen Rachelle, or the Conqueror. We didn' want ta interfere with that going on."
Hades carried me steadily, no hands as I joined with my friends on both sides, "I am so glad that you are here ."I need you more NOW. Your timing was perfect."
"We know it," Arrot hooted at her own reply, and I couldn't keep from chuckling.
A new day always began in chilly darkness for Cyrene. She put in a half day's work before others rose for breakfast. She had never minded, or if so just accepted that thus was the pattern of her life, and she rather enjoyed the time of silence. This day however, water was boiling in the big kettle over the fire, and her pride and joy- an oven the size of an ox -had been wood stoked making the kitchen warm.
The diminutive innkeeper parked herself on the corner stool as was customary when she found Gabrielle commanding the kitchen ahead of her. A large mug of steaming tea slid down the long prep table stopping exactly in front of its customer. The blue eyes closed with pleasure as the first sip of orangey cinnamon tickled her pallet and nose.
Blonde eyebrows were raised, and she answered, "Perfect luv."
"Good," the bard sighed, " I fear losing my touch, Mother C."
"Not a chance, Dearie," Cyrene sipped again; give the girl time, patience was due even this most patient of people.
"Bacon is sliced, the dough is rising, the eggs are gathered, and…"
Gabrielle smiled as she heard the Conqueror's authority in the Conqueror's mother. It was only natural. She took the stool which lent good eye contact.
Cyrene took one more sip before she raised her own eyebrows.
That brought a chuckle from her 'daughter'; she had been called upon, "Sorry Mother C; you ARE the actual originator of "The Look".
"I am," another leisurely sip, "My daughter just made it famous. However, this time there was no sidetracking "the look", "I need to know what is going on, Gabrielle; I know this pattern, Love."
The bard kicked a stool leg thoughtfully, one, two, three times.
"It's not so much what is going on as it is just… feelings," Very vague for a bard. Cyrene waited for clarification.
She elected to confess, "Icarus delivered a message last night that Xena and Birdie are starting home."
"We knew that would be happening soon, love. Don't know why it has you up at the crack o' dawn."
The bard walked to the kettle and poured herself a cup of tea. "Yes, we do know that, and it doesn't concern me… yet."
"All right," Her mother in law could be very patient, but Gabrielle could see the faint lightning bolts in the cerulean orbs which heralded an end of patience.
"Well, you know that Icarus keeps watch over our Caleb as well," the innkeeper did know that but she waited.
Shining diamonds dripped from the bard's eyes, "Yes, but Caleb doesn't know it."
The innkeeper set down the mug, "if Caleb doesn't know it, then how can you receive messages about him?"
"It is different with Caleb, Mother C, it is more….." the bard was actually struggling for words. "It is more about time and instinct."
"Sweetie, you have the best of instincts," blue eyes smiled above the mug. "Now, Tell me."
Eyes lowered as the tears fell, "Icarus is always gone a few days when she brings word from Xena."
"Right, makes sense, " she was encouraged
"But when I send her to Caleb, she's back in an afternoon; if I think time and flight, " now the tears fell freely, " I know that Rankor is not so far from here, Mother C."
She felt the innkeeper's rough hands cupping her face, "Sooo? More to tell."
"I fear that Rankor either lies to ambush Xena on their return, or he will wait and challenge her when she has been travelling for several days. It will give him an advantage of 'freshness'."
Now tears fell from the blue eyes so like Xena's, Gabrielle wiped them from the weathered cheeks with her thumbs just as she would have done to Xena.
"We best get at breakfast, Love," The little woman commanded, "But trust me, I shall give careful ponderin' to this development."
She was embraced in a hard bard hug. "Thank you Mother C," she sniffed back her tears. "That will help."
"I trust you completely, Birdie in every single situation imaginable. All but one."
I knew the answer and merely hung my head
Slender fingers lifted my chin." I must be able to trust you when it comes to my safety. AND….."
My chin was re-chucked to face spring green orbs held very steady, "that means that you cannot go…"
"Honking off, every time I miss you or feel that you might be endangered."
"Good girl, but will you explain to me the expression, 'honking off'? My bushy hair was given a light pat.
I returned a weak smile, "It refers to geese, actually. Geese are not well known for high intelligence. Your shore birds are much brighter… Believe me, Rach, when they are done with me at home, I KNOW that 'honking off' will no longer be in my vocabulary."
"And as your Amazon Queen, I expect you to accept Amazon discipline with your usual fortitude."
"I will," the thought of my primary queen, the scribe of my life, the gentle guide of my wanderings in words and on foot.
I neither cared to upset my mother nor disappoint her, and both were done, along with a big helping of fear and worry on her part.Stupid tears.
Hoof beats caught me; a strong hand grabbed the back of my hair.
"HEY, Dream Bird," My hair was tugged breaking my revere. Do I really NEED to tell you to stay within MY sight, AGAIN, dear Birdie daughter?" This was accompanied by a cuff to the back of my head.
"I am sorry, Baba," tears were already running, "It was unintentional."
Xena the Conqueror's voice softened, "You weren't too far from sight, Birdie, but you are not keeping your mind on your actions. That can always land a bird in trouble."
"I know," my elbow raked my eyes. We were all still clad in warm weather Amazon gear. "I will be more careful, Baba."
Argo kept pace with Hades for several moments, "Birdie, Honey, I know that your heart is broken."
Well, that didn't help the tears at all; the dam cracked, fell apart.
Baba's eyes were full as well. She sat up in the saddle, "Aren't we in Ochia country?"
"Yes, " I rose to the change of subject. "See the tall grass ahead? It lines the stream that kept my arm cold while Zephyr went for Rachelle."
"Hmmmm," Baba's eyes travelled the stream up and down, "You would have been in a fair fix without your animals, wouldn't you?"
I stared at Hade's midnight mane, "I'd have had to pay the boatman, Baba Xe."
We allowed the clop clop of our horses beat the thoughts on that topic.
"Ay, and it woulda been a nasty way to go, Birdling," her voice floated lightly across. "Not the warrior's way at all."
That struck a note which reverberated in my brain, "No, Baba Xe, not much honor in dying of snakebite on a fool's venture."
Now she leaned down and grabbed Hades's reins to lead us aside. The others were keeping a discreet distance and I saw them halt and tend their horses.
I felt no fear of My Baba Xe; I would not have feared her even if she had beaten me like the Roman Tiberius had done, moons ago. If she walloped me, it was no more than I deserved.
"Dismount." Though the voice was soft, it carried that Conqueror's steel- the edge of command.
I bowed my head, "My Lady." And obeyed, feeling no more to her than her worst soldier at the moment.
Her presence literally backed me against Hades who stood firm.
"Now hear me, and hear me well, Robin of Amphipolis," same voice commanded my eyes into the glacial blue of Xena the Conqueror. She was very angry, but I felt only a numbness of body and mind.
Her hand swept through my shaggy bangs and took hold. "You will NEVER EVER disrespect ME, your MOTHER, Gabrielle the Bard, or your patron goddess Artemis by referring to yourself as a 'fool' again."
I nodded and lowered my eyes. An ironwood hand took either side of my face firmly, "Speak the words, Birdie."
My eyes went into deluge mode, "I will never ever disrespect you, Mama G, or our lady Artemis again by referring to myself as a fool again."
Crushed to her tall body in a bear's embrace, I felt the mildest swat to my backside- a Mama G smack, really.
"Say it again, Bird," a second gentle swat. Another.
"Baba…." I broke down completely, silently into her soft shirt, "Baba, I'm so sorry…."
Her hand fell again, "Say it Baby, and swear it."
"I…." I sniffed, stepped back and did my best to look at my greatest hero in the eyes. Her eyes were filled which shook my resolve but I gained it back, "I SWEAR to never disrespect those who are responsible for my life and upbringing, by referring to myself as a fool again."
The olivewood colored arm was extended and I grasped it as tightly as I could. A beautiful arm, scarred and hard and noble. She had been absolutely correct to call me out for disrespect.
"I swear." My voice was steady.
"Good girl," she took me into a gentler embrace, I heard the words form in her chest as they spoke above my head. "You have done your share of foolish things, Little Bird. So have we all. But you are no fool. And you are no coward. Neither. Never."
"Yes, My Lady," I breathed easy into her cedar scent. "But Baba, I am sorry."
"I know that," she said gently now, pushing the hair from my eyes, "We will talk more tonight. Your mother is going to cut this hair; by the gods, I am surprised that Rach let you walk around looking like a windblown sheep."
"We didn't really discuss, 'grooming'," I chuckled, "But we had many other things to discuss."
She put a boot in Argo's stirrup; "Mount up again and let's get moving. I would like to reach the foothills tonight."
"Yes, M'Lady," There was a load off, and I sprang into the saddle.
We rode back to the path and Baba Xe put two fingers in her teeth and blew a whistle that could fell birds from the sky. We watched our little group remount and get moving.
I wiped the last of my tears on my arm, "Thanks, Baba," I shot her a grateful look.
Tall in the saddle, Baba became the commander again watching her party approach, but she held my eyes for a brief moment, "I love you, Birdie."
And we clucked signal our horses.
Cyrene crossed quickly to block the staff blow aimed at her daughter's head. Then she whacked the offender sharply behind the knees and again to the back of his head. He fell groaning into the dust.
"Mind who you are slammin' there, laddie," Fierce blue eyes glared into the top of the young man's bowed head. "What's' the matter with you?"
Gabrielle shook clouds from her mind and lay a gentle hand on her mother's shoulder, "My fault, Mother C; I was distracted."
"I am fully aware of that, Lass, and WE shall talk later on. But first I need to ask this fella if he needs a lesson in manners?"
The man remained on his knees, "I apologize deeply My Ladies; I was carried away by the moment."
Gabrielle kept a quiet gaze on him, "You are Miguel; you came to us from far west of here, didn't you?"
"Yes, My Lady; I am so sorry to have given offense," he would not look at her and she spied wet drops appearing in the dust, a sign she was very familiar with.
"Uh, I come to serve Conqueror and da rattling bard," he stammered with a new language to him.
The innkeeper and the bard exchanged silent looks, "Rise, Miguel; you have done nothing wrong," the queen commanded softly, "however it is BATTLING, not rattling. You know the word 'battle'?"
"Ah, losiento, My Ladies," Miguel had skin the color of cherry wood, and he raised eyes of endless midnight. Cyrene extended a hand which was accepted with reverence.
"He's not much taller than I am," Gabrielle thought as she approved the lean muscle encased in dark skin and tightly curled hair.
Miguel was only raising his glance when he was rammed from the side into the dust again.
"How dare you?" It was Jacob, "HOW DARE YOU ENDANGER THE QUEEN?" He raised his staff.
Cyrene delivered a fast bat to the side of Jacob's head, putting him face down in the dust.
"HOW DARE YOU---- You nosey little hot shot; how dare you intrude on business which is not your own?"
Locking eyes with the innkeeper, Jacob collected his feet and staff. "Sorry," he muttered, and quickly left the scene.
Miguel took Gabrielle's hand up this time. "I am sorry Miguel; Jacob is… over protective."
"Yes, My Lady," she loved the softness of his voice. "Again, I make,sorriness. Will you dismiss?"
"Yes," she replied, "And do not worry, there was no harm done."
"Gracias My Lady," Miguel bowed and moved away in an easy trot.
"Sweet boy," she remarked to Cyrene, who stood retying a piece of twine on her staff. The bard followed with a sigh, "Does it seem to you that our recruits are becoming younger all the time? He can't be but seventeen or so full seasons."
Her dear friend and 'mother' put an arm around her waist as they walked to the fortress, "ay, just boys, just lads," she agreed, "But lass, that Jacob may be trouble."
"He is impulsive and in the grip of a desperate crush," Gabrielle answered, " but I must agree, Mother C, Xena may be the only one who sets him right. Otherwise he will not reach his potential. Such loyalty and passion are precious, but he needs a little bit of 'sorting out'."
"I hope for his sake that he can do the sorting," Cyrene commented, lifting her eyes to the Amphipolis fortress; a result of her daughter's and her own hard labor. "He has some troubles coming otherwise."
"Easy girl," I undid the soft leather wrapping on the left leg of my hawk. Icarus bore it well, and I immediately gave her a bite of dried venison. She took it eagerly; raptors rarely catch deer. "Go on and stretch your wings." I rubbed her soft head feathers and treated her again. She launched from my arm, and I watched her spiraling climb feeling a bit envious. Flight is fast.
I took a draw from my water skin and unrolled the miniscule message. "I am afraid that time and distancehas hurt our bond irreparably." A battering ram slammed my chest. "I am sorry... Rach."
"WHAT?"I sank to my knees unable to breathe.
And sat up suddenly in my bedroll, in mental free-fall with a rain of tears, but slowly the coals of the campfire, the stars overhead, and the quiet breathing of my companions escorted a slow focus to the present. But the tears would not stop.
A hand brushed the back of my head, "Hey Kiddo." Ephiny slept beside me; Baba Xe was on watch tonight.
My godmother brushed my face finding my tears. "Bad dream?"
I choked on the word, "Very."
She left her bedroll and came to sit cross-legged behind me. I leaned back into her chest and she encircled me with both arms and legs. My breathing had not steadied.
"You're shivering, Sweetheart. Easy now….. It was just a dream."
"If it's 'just a dream' Ephie, why does it hurt so inside?" How can a dream do that?"
She leaned behind her bedroll and dropped a water skin into my hands. Then she tightened her arms about me again with a sigh, "I have heard it said that our brains don't know the difference between reality and dreams. That would be why some people walk or talk in sleep. "
"I would agree-," the shivering recommenced.
My godmother increased the ferocity of her embrace. "Let me guess: somehow you lost Rachelle."
I could only nod.
She sighed, "Ah my Little Bird," she said softly, "You will find that love has many branches."
"Like a tree or a river, Ephie?" I tried to focus on her words.
After a silence she said, "Both actually."
"I knew you would say that, Brat." Fingers dug into my ribs and winced and chuckled weakly as she tickled me. "It is late to wax poetic."
"Ephie, please try."
A deep sigh, "Give me a minute to think."
We did and she began a slow rocking motion, side to side, side to side.
"A tree may have hundreds of branches, " her vocal tone was different than I had ever witnessed; rather like Mama G's "bard" voice. But then, often Ephiny had cause to be annoyed with me.
"The branches may reach far from the tree and sprout other smaller branches providing the tree with water and light."
"Ok… I am with you." The rocking was soothing, "and rivers?"
"Are fed by branches as well, " she continued, "Creeks and streams, large and small, and also snowmelt feed the great rivers."
I nodded into her chest; the Amazon regent paused again, but I did not push.
"Love comes with many branches, Kiddo. The branch which bleeds you at the moment is heartbreak."
Minotaur shite.Stupid eyes.Stupid tears.
"When bound souls must be separated, and that is necessary at times, " even the words were painful to hear, " the branches can feel like flogging switches, Bird. Heart break, separation, insecurities, doubt-all of those branches HURT."
"They do, Eph," a hiccupping sigh.
"That is because you are feeling the separation from the common ground. You are a branch now set in its own direction."
That was the feeling. Beyond the dream, and it was a dream, my mind said sternly, I was seized by echoes.
"We learn that great love can bring great pain, but we grow from the pain if we are wise."
"How?" bitterness crept into my voice. The old 'no pain, no gain' thing was not going to work for me with this.
"By remembering that without its branches, the tree would die. The tree is the core and strength of love and the tree will stand steadfast-- longer than humans live."
She felt affirmation in my body, "And so river runs, Birdie. Nothing dams the river which carries life and love. We just have to accept that the river demands feeding as well even to the point of heartbreak."
"I get it."
The amazon sighed, "Good, because I am not at all sure what I meant. I am a warrior, not a poet. Blaaaaap!" she tickled me again. "Now, back to sleep or we'll be in trouble with the Conqueror for sleeping on our horses, kiddo. You're better?"
The bedroll was warm and soft. I wormed further down warming my toes. My godmother's eyes were unusually soft in the moonlight.
"I'm fine, Ephie; Thanks. You gave me a lot to think about. I must trust Rachelle and trust the bond which Artemis forged between us."
"Exactly.Now open dreams to a gentler Morpheus," she adjusted my covers. "That's an order."
I smiled at the faux gruffness of a warrior. "Love you, Ephiny."
The answer was gruffer and a calloused hand ruffled my hair. "Love you too, Kiddo."
Caleb kept lugging dirty utensils to the river and washing everything meticulously. The gang was full "into their cups", and he wanted to stay out of sight as much as possible. Cookie had remained in the middle of camp to hand off the pots mugs to Caleb's yoke carrier, keeping the boy out of sight as much as possible.
With a heavy sigh, Caleb saw the long blonde hair of his father approaching Cook.
"Wherztha' muthr-killin' son o'mine, Cain?"
Caleb paused; perhaps this could be just "let go".
Cain's answer was of equal bluster, "Ay, ya know kids, Rankor. 'E's still atta creek washin'."
"Well, 'e's too damn slow, Cook; yer doo easy on'im! Guess 'e won't be happy if he fin's 'is Cook all scarfed up." Rankor's voice was on an ever ascending pitch which Caleb recognized too quickly. He dropped the yoke and ran toward the fire, full on.
"Ye'll not be hurtin' the most decent person in yer gang. Sorry, Da. A' can' allow it." Caleb pulled up and set his shoulders back.
The tall man turned finding his true goal, "Well, ah can say yaain't a coward, boy, " his speech was slurred and he swayed on his feet. "Ah mi'tebeeven ateeeeeeeny bit," he measured with index and thumb, "proud ah'yafer dat."
"Good." Caleb's single reply, but his heart went to Artemis; "Please My Lady, Help me to be strong; Please My Lady, 'elp me take what 'e will dish out t'a me without a sound. I would not giv' 'em the satisfaction."
"Ya' mutherin' lit'lson of a gorgan," His father advanced, unbuckling his heavy leather belt and formed the double loop that Caleb was too familiar with. He set a stance, feet firm, no cowering, never again would he cower like a beaten dog.
Rankor snapped the belt with a menacing chuckle; Cain closed his eyes and waited for the first blow. It was the worst, always the first, because soon after he could numb himself, retreating to a happier place-Amphipolis came to mind.
He waited, but no blow fell. Instead there was a loud "Bong"; his father grunted, and Caleb peeked through his eyelashes.
Cain stood over Rankor the Rioter wearing the biggest grin Caleb had ever seen on the old man's face. The worn and wrinkled right hand held a good sized skillet. Rankor was out cold.
Caleb's eyes grew big, and Cook answered his unasked question. "'s about time, don't ya think, kiddo? That was a whack long overdue." He began to laugh, and others of the gang joined in.
"Way ta put 'im down, Cookie." Someone shouted and there was general applause.
Caleb was amazed both at Cook's action and the following reaction. It had never occurred to him that perhaps some of the gang hated watching their leader beat his son.
"Cook," he managed to gasp, "What've ya done? 'E'll kill yatomorrow."
Rankor's second in command, a giant of a fellow called "Tiny" of course ,stumbled over to clap Cookie on the shoulder.
"S'no worry, there, " Tiny spoke in an amused voice, "Rankor's suh drunk, 'ewon't remember nuthin' at all, and I am SURE, " dark eyes glanced through the gang, "That there'll be no one tellin' 'im."
"Here's ta Cook!" someone yelled and Caleb found a mug of ale thrust into his belly. "'s ok, lad; ye'll be ok."
Caleb then raised the mug, "Here's to Cookie!!"
"Aye aye!!" a chorus of agreement followed and Caleb, just this once, found the ale to taste pretty dadgumgood.
"Easy girl," Gabrielle patted the paint's neck, "Been awhile since we've been out, huh?"
With an involuntary glance about the stable, Gabrielle slipped a warm cloak into Wendy's saddle bag which hung on a nail in the horse's stall.
Someone cleared her throat in a very familiar manner. Gabrielle felt sixteen again and "caught" red handed at doing something dreamy and ditsy or dangerous. It hadn't taken the young bard long to realize that once Xena had accepted her company; she rarely took her blue hawk eyes off the girl.
"So whata we doin', Lass?" Cyrene strolled into the stable casually.
"Ummmmmm…." Gabrielle buried her head in Wendy's blanket.
"Mama, Mama dear….. we always seek truth…." The bard stared at the small swelling of her belly.
"You are going to be a real smart aleck, aren't you, baby?"
The child's laughter was thetingling of tiny bells, "Mama, dear Mama… you are blessed, or not blessed to be carrying a "she who knows" baby."
An Oracle?Well, that was a shot to the gut. The mother stomped down panic. "That explains a lot," she admitted. "But I do feel only blessed, Singer."
The blue eyed throat was cleared again. Louder.
Hit from all sides. Gabrielle sighed, "I am considering riding out to meet Xena, Birdie and company, Mother C. It's not like that will come as a surprise."
"It doesn't," the blond queen felt the warmth of her mother in law coming nearer, and a firm hand fell to her shoulder. "But I's wondering if you're 'considering' doin' such alone? That would not be wise, my love."
"My Love". Xena's words and darn near to Xena's voice. Well it wasn't a lie if it had not been yet told, right? Fortunately the baby was still within, or she might have tattled.
She turned to meet the wise cobalt gaze. "No, Mother C," now why were tears coming? "Not alone. But without full plan in mind."
The hand which caught her tears smelled like warm bread. "I must admit to be of similar mind, " Cyrene chuckled, "so when you're finished out here faking with Wendy, come to the kitchen and we will plan."
The evergreen eyes couldn't meet hers, so the older woman took her girl into her arms, "and if you ever try something like this again, don't think I can't whup your little Amazon butt." She felt the bard relax some and sigh into accountability and relief. "You've seen me with a staff, 'aven't you?"
Gabrielle pushed back and now laughed softly through her tears, "I have," she said, "And I promise, Mother C."
She received a smile and a gentle kiss to her forehead. She couldn't help but notice that Cyrene had to raise tiptoe to kiss her while Xena merely kissed the top of her head without effort. The innkeeper made her exit, "when you're ready, there are hot biscuits and honey in the kitchen," floated behind, "and I also think you owe me one, Lass. You wouldabeen in a world a hurt with the Conqueror."
Gabrielle cast an admonishing eye to her belly once again as laughter emitted, seeming so loud that others should hear it.
"An Oracle, by the gods," she thought to herself.
Except at this stage there were no thoughts to herself.
"By the Goddess, Mama," entered her ear softly.
The bard's hands rested on the child. "How shall I raise an Oracle, Baby?" she sent, "I am not sure I am worthy or capable."
"Our Mother Goddess would not have chosen you, dear sweet Mama," was the answer, "if you had not been worthy, capable and wise."
The bard closed her eyes, "Oh, Mother Artemis, I hope I can be all those things," she breathed.
We had picked up supplies in Abdera; I came to this knowledge late. Actually, I could not remember even passing through Abdera. My broken heart had taken all energy, and then the confrontation with Baba Xe had put me into a waking unconsciousness. I can explain it no better than that; Hades carried me, I was vaguely aware of Zephyr's anxious glances, but otherwise, darkness.
Baba Xe had come alongside and slapped my knee, "Pay attention, Little Bird, we will begin the ascent soon. I can't have you asleep in your own head."
So we had reached the mountain? I shook myself back into reality.
"That was quick," I murmured.
"I need your head out of your---- wherever it is, Little Bird. You know that mountains can be tricky."
"Yes, My Lady," I was not back with her completely and she knew it from the flash of blue ice I caught. Get your head out, Bird.
She took the lead, and I was surprised to see an actual horse path carved into that side of the mountain. Where had my brain been on my first trip? Hades, Zephyr and I had scooted and scrambled our way down that mountain on our relative butts. My only consideration had been speed. Need to work on that Bird. Need to work on that "considering" process.
"Little Mistress, you were in no state…" Zephyr's mind spoke to me, "You were in no state which could be reached. I have never seen you in such a mental place."
We dismounted to lead the horses. Zephyr came to my side at once, and I ran my hand through her thick silken coat. "Zephyr, I owe you the greatest apology of all; you did your best to advise caution, and I would not hear it. I am sorry, My Greatest Friend."
She trotted a few paces, picking her way delicately among stones loosened by the horse's hooves.
"Little Mistress, it is not about offense towards ME." She sent silently, "You know that I forgave you as soon as it happened, but Our Lady Artemis," she paused, "may not go so lightly with you."
I sighed, and tightened Hades' lead as we scrambled around a curve to continue the ascent.
"I have no expectation that anyone will go lightly with me, Zephyr. I messed up. Very big time."
She stopped and gazed back at me with penetrating amber eyes. "Yes, my beloved kit; you did not show the best of judgment."
Such a mild reproof, but from her, from my beloved Zephyr; I wished that she had bitten me instead.
She returned in one bound to put her nose gently into my hand. "Is it so terrible," her thoughts came clearly, "that everyone LOVES my Little Mistress and want to keep her safe?"
That filled my eyes; I HATE that; if I knew which part of my body allowed such unpredictable tears, I might run it through with the Baby Tide.
There was a curve ahead, cut wide so if one needed rest, and others could pass. Zephyr tugged the cuff of my shirt, (we were in long sleeves now as we came into cooler weather) and successfully halted the three of us in the curve.
"Child, come," she commanded. I knelt to gaze into her soft amber eyes.
"It is time for you to stop hating yourself, Birdie. No one hates you; you make mistakes; you learn."
"Yes, Zephyr," my head fell but she seized my bangs in her teeth.
"Look at me," the authority of the goddess rang in my mind.
"It has been my experience that you …." I could tell that she was being tactful, but Zephyr was always tactful, "do make some rather large errors in judgment, however, you rarely make the same error twice. "
"As Baba Xe always says, "my voice was low, "I go honking off .Brain power of a goose."
Her nose touched my cheek and my tears fell into her fur.
"I love you my little one, my Little Mistress," her thoughts were as soft as her fur. "Remember when you are called to account for your actions, that you are greatly loved, child; you are loved by all who know you and you are especially loved by our Lady Artemis."
"I will, Zephyr, thanks."
"HEY!!" uh oh, Baba Xe's "conqueror voice" was employed. "Look alive down there."
I rose and waved to her, "Yes, My Lady," and to my animals.. "Let's move it before we are all in trouble."
Obviously, we went far beyond the foothills of the mountains and settled down to camp just the other side of the summit fairly close to "my cave". Everyone was relieved to have the climb finished and the militia "guys" immediately set to work, unloading firewood which had been purchased earlier when I was engulfed in my "fog". Someday soon, when Baba Xe allows it, I want to take the militia training. I know that it is quite intense, but it would be good for me. Every time I have asked to take it, however, Baba Xe just casts the request to my mother with her eyes. So far a big evergreen"N.O."
It is not a decision for discussion; she will allow it when she thinks that I am ready. Of course I think I am far beyond ready, at least as far as my fighting skills, but Mama G has more in mind. Thus far, I cannot discover her thinking. Baba Xe never explains, but she will not go against my mother's will. That is clear.
It was not nearly so cold this time on the mountain, but it was quite cold enough. I ate enough of the hot soup to satisfy the ice blue eyes. The Conqueror was adamant about the health and hygiene of any party she commanded. She always said it could take only one bite of rancid meat, or one person failing to wash his or her hands to wipe out an army. In such close proximity, the army was as one, and could be killed collectively. Though I didn't quite understand all of it, I was a good soldier and tried to have good appetite. She said that health was strength. That much was true, as I had learned from my recent experience with the ochia bite. I could not have defended myself or anyone I loved, from an enemy of even one person in that weakened state.
However, sleep did not come tonight. My hands locked behind my head, I noticed that the stars seemed even brighter than my first trip over the mountain. Rolling over, I took the notebook from my scabbard, scratched a note to Baba Xe, slung the Baby Tide over my shoulder and walked toward the cave.
Zephyr trotted beside me; I felt her disapproval, but she understood my need and so did not reproach me. I had not taken two hundred steps before strong hands landed on my shoulders, and I was spun sideways to receive a powerful wallop to my backside.
"Birdie," Baba's whisper hissed even as her warrior palm connected again.
"Baba," I managed, the swat had put me on tiptoe.
"What am I going to do with you, Birdie?" She let go and paced, head in hands.
"Baba," my voice choked and squeaked, "Baba, I left you a note."
She turned back to me, "You did?"
"Yes, My Lady, a note from my scabbard notebook."
She hunkered down, head still in hands. After a moment I carefully joined her.
"So if we go back, I will find a note? You did not go off honking?"
"No, Ma'am," had to chuckle at the "honk" word. It was a good word. "I only wanted to look at the stars, Baba. I am sorry," now I couldn't keep the tremble from my voice, "I promise."
She sighed deeper than a valley and then rose to tower over me. The carved warrior's hand was extended and I grasped it with both of mine, and was pulled close to her warm body.
Now I couldn't hold it back, "I'm sorry, Baba. I have truly learned my lesson."
Her voice growled into the top of my head, "I would hope so, Little Bird. I am sorry that I reacted before I knew the entire story."
Tears dampened my hair, "I shouldn't have walloped you, " she whispered.
I squeezed her as hard as I could, "They were deserved."
"Perhaps," she released me but kept my hand. "You were going to the cave?"
"Yes, Baba.The one which sheltered me coming."
"I was curious about that cave myself, "We were nearing it.
"Stay back," she insisted on entering first. "Huh!"
"Can I come in, Baba?"
"Yes, come in."
The cave was empty; the meteorite was gone as well as the troughs that Marcus had created for my animals and the wall which had blocked us from the intense heat.
She turned to me, "Is there something missing here, Birdie?"
"A_ummmm…" Minotaur shite, how could I answer that?
Truth was best. "Yes. "Carefully intoned.
"And?" she waited.
"And I can't explain it, Baba, honest." That was truth as well.
She put her hands on her hips. "Well, fiddlesticks, I had plans for that star iron."
"Isn't star iron extraordinarily heavy, Baba? Mama G has told me about Excalibur."
"Well, according to myth, yes, Bird. But I wanted to see if I could fashion swords for the militia."
"If you might have moved it?"
She cocked an eyebrow, "Since when did 'impossible' enter your head, Kiddo?"
"Rarely, Baba Xe."
That seemed to satisfy her and she slung her long arm around me as we turned to go camp bound.
"You cold, Little Bird? You are shivering."
There were any number of reasons for my shivering, but I just butted my head in closer to her. She wrapped her other arm around me, and we shared warmth and silence on our star lighted walk.
Caleb lay in the same fashion as the others, arms locked behind his head - traditional "sleep isn't coming" position.
The stars were brilliant in the chilly night sky. He looked over at Cookie, whose gentle snore was cause for Caleb's insomnia, and his eyes warmed. The best among "old fellers" as he liked to refer to himself. He thought of how often the good cook had protected him in childhood and still tried to do so. He lay back again … pondering. What would happen? Should he run? No, Icarus had circled him almost every day, so he needed to trust the good queen and the warrior. His palm rubbed a very sore cheek and ear. Rankor had managed to land a heavy head slap tonight, but then the rest of the gang had dragged him away. He had roared with typical Rankor ferocity, but it was evident now that there were decent fellows in the gang who were tired of useless abuse. Whatever the reason, it was received with gratitude. He turned on his side. Could he ever fight back?
No, the answer entered his mind immediately. It was a sin to harm family, and killing would bring the Furies. Better to shift back into patience.. Better to wait. He closed his eyes.
Gabrielle felt the warmth behind her.
"Stargazing, child?" Cyrene's arm encircled the woman whom she still considered a girl.
She nodded silently.
"What ar they tellin' ya?"
The shaggy blond head fell, "Tomorrow, Mother C. I don't know whether to be relieved, or anxious."
"S'always good to be takin' action, lass. We've been ready for days."
"I know," Cyrene witnessed diamonds flickering on the youthful face. She squeezed harder.
"How many are we takin'?"
"Tough call, " the queen muttered, "They all want to go, but I can't leave the fortress either untended or undefended."
"Right," her mother in law agreed.
"So I am thinking, the first patrol and last."
"Ah, the experienced for reliability and the greenies for experience."
"That means that Jacob character," the tone lowered.
Gabrielle chuckled, "He definitely needs to see Xena in action. Then he will either take the wisdom or continue the fool."
"Ay, Lass, we'd a done all we could to warn him," Cyrene snorted softly. "If he's a stone head, 'e's a stone head."
"I prefer to be positive," the queen said, and then the blond locks ducked down covering the emerald eyes, "about everything."
"Of course yer positive, Gabrielle, " the older woman brushed the hair gently from the sad face, "It has just been a long haul… I might have even given up."
"Ah, now, you never give up Mother C; I know better."
The spark that Cyrene sought was present, "Good girl," she kissed her daughter's cheek. "Scrubby's got the wagon loaded, and I will send word to the patrols."
"I think Atticus may be well ahead of us, " Now the queen was smiling.
"So we go at first light?"
"Let's go for that; it won't matter if it takes a little longer."
She was pulled into a warm embrace which always smelled of kitchen warmth, "We are on it Lassie. You just get yourself and the wee one inside ready."
"Oh, we are way beyond ready, " Gabrielle returned the embrace, "'We' are about to run dry of patience."
"Action is always good, " the iron grey head nodded. "We've waited long enough." She gave the queen a gentle pat on the backside, "Get you to bed now."
"Yes Ma'am," she was rewarded with a smile, "Very soon now."
"G'night then Sweetie the morn will find us moving."
"Good night, Mother C, " Gabrielle turned to regard the stars and then turned her head back, "I wouldn't have made it without you."
"Ah yer a tough little lass, " was the reply, "But it's nice to hear."
"Well, you are hearing it."
Cyrene blew a kiss and descended; Gabrielle returned her gaze to the cosmos.
Xena the Conqueror: none is her match.
But it is speculated, she is human,
There must be some Vulnerability,
A bad knee or a creaky thumb, indigestion?
They may wonder all of eternity.
Only soul mates are gifted with truth
And I only know the Conqueror's tears,
The Conqueror's fears, stirred by her
Powerful, passionate and loving heart.
Which thunders beneath the Silver breast plate
Is delicately stitched in a hundred places,
and bears equal scars-for when it shattered
beyond proper healing became tougher.
Too strong and proud and responsible
To surrender to neither battle nor demons.
I am Xena the Conqueror's Soul mate.
I am the keeper of her heart.
My Love, I come…..
Gabrielle the Bard of Amphipolis
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