Xena the Conqueror, Gabrielle the Bard, Birdie and Rachelle set off for Athens to attend the annual Academy of Bards convention. And a road trip always brings adventures, learning experiences, romance, and surprises.
Special thanks to VX, my first reader, who always says, “wonderful”, and very special thanks to my beta reader, Trace the tyrant, who always makes it better.
I am Robin of the Warrior and the Bard.
“Baugh!” The latrine door slammed behind me; Zephyr joined my swift disgusted pace in short measure.
“Little Mistress, are you ill?”
“I am neither ill nor am I well, Zephyr, “it’s the gods be damned moon cycle. My body is not adjusting nicely at all.”
“Feeling poorly then?”
“Rather. Crampy, crabby, generally icky and messy. Why does it have to be this way, Zephyr?”
“That isn’t my question to answer Little Mistress. Nature works in wonderful ways to procreate. I do not believe that my reproductive process is as uncomfortable as yours.”
“Well, I should hope not for your sake, Zephyr.”
We were well up the path to the fortress when the energy in the air changed; I had not experienced the sensation in some time, and so it escaped me for a moment exactly what the feeling heralded. Then I remembered with a lurch and fell to my knees.
“My Lady Artemis.” Zephyr sat down quietly, head bowed.
She seemed larger than my memory had kept her, or perhaps it was the anger snapping in her flashing amber eyes.
“You do realize, Robin of the Warrior and Bard, that the cycles you curse are a gift from me?”
Minotaur shite. Goddess of the Moon. Idiot, idiot, idiot.
“I humbly ask your pardon, My Lady; it is only my second time and I…”
My body then bent almost prostrate on the ground. The combined results of acute embarrassment and a killer cramp.
There was heat on my head; her large hardwood hand brought immediate relief of my physical discomfort. Sizable fingers then tugged at my mop of hair and brought me to my feet. I dared not meet the golden eyes.
“Birdie, my moon cycles are one of the great miracles of the human race, child. The moon cycles make it possible for you to carry, nourish a baby in your body, and eventually give birth to another human being. “
And I had just been complaining. Tears came unbidden.
“My apologies, My Lady.”
The hand pulled my head to her tunic. The energy from her body caused my hair to stand out in little strands. The goddess had learned patience since our first encounters. I wondered if she were patient enough to hear what I would tell her. But I must tell her and steadied my voice.
“My Lady Artemis.”
“Yes, child.” Her voice rumbled throughout her body.
I swallowed, “Though there are men, boys, in my life that I would die for, but I …. I have no wish...”
“To ever lie with one?” She completed my thought.
“Yes, My Lady. I have known Talus from our youngest days, and I love him, but I do not wish to mingle our parts.”
Her rare deep chuckle put my mind at ease.
“Birdie, there are other ways of having children than by “mingling parts” with males. You should know that.”
“Yes, My Lady.” I should know that.
“You love the girl, Rachelle.”
There are no secrets from a goddess so I looked straight into the amber eyes.
“Yes, My Lady Artemis, I do.”
“You love her well.” She paused. “You and she made silver leaves on the Telling Tree together didn’t you?”
“Yes, My Lady. Is there significance?”
She put her arm around my shoulder then. It felt somewhat like Baba Xe’s manner only the Goddess of the Moon’s arm was much larger and the weight was dense. The tawny eyes looked to distances and times that I could not see.
“You and Rachelle will walk a path together. At times it will be difficult.”
I did not think that was so helpful but remembered to be careful with my thoughts.
The energy was beginning.
I took the great hand in both of mine and kissed it.
“My Lady Artemis, it was good to see you. I will remember to revere my moon cycles.”
She enjoyed the kiss.
“Good bye for now, Little Robin.” She smoothed back my bangs and kissed her mark on me right at my hairline. It burned again slightly, and the goddess was gone.
Zephyr and I resumed our trek toward Amphipolis fortress.
“Zephyr, one thing I never am, “my hand reached down to travel the thick fur of my fox’s head, “is bored. I am never ever bored.”
“Road trip!” The tone of the words was a whoop. There was really no other description, and it was a very unusual sound coming from Xena the Conqueror. The “Whoop” was followed by the door to Granba’s kitchen banging shut with a force that would have merited a reprimand for me. I looked to my mother with inquiry on both counts.
“It never fails. She anticipates it every seasons’ round. Poor thing.” My mother sighed after the Conqueror. “She needs to get away more often; the Fortress responsibilities weigh on her.” The sunlit sea eyes lighted on me, “Even though most of them are a labor of love for her.”
Planning was just completed for our twelfth moon trip to Athens to attend the convention at the Royal Academy of Bards. My mother’s scrolls had been stored and highly regarded there for many winters. My acceptance as a junior contributor, an apprentice of sorts to my mother had been recent. Actually, I had been an apprentice bard to my mother from birth, but the Academy recognized it “officially” four seasons ago. “Officially” was meaningful to my mother, but less so to me; I had already known well that the mentorship of Gabrielle the Bard was the most precious teaching that any young writer could hope to have.
Zephyr and I were striding past the master bed chambers when a motion inside caught my sight. Curiosity led me quietly into the warm room, rich with woven reds and wooden furniture where I was treated to the vision of Baba Xe admiring her reflection in the highly polished shield which hung on the wall. The Conqueror was taking a walk down memory lane.
I had seen the famous “warrior princess” outfit hanging in its place of honor in her study for many seasons, but I had never seen it actually on the body of the Warrior Princess. Today I witnessed the living legend. High boots were topped by greaves which protected her knees. The leather “skirt”, (a rare garment in our household) was made of riveted straps, and the bodice was soft leather which protected her skin from the ornate breastplate, which also covered her back. Gauntlets and armbands emphasized the well toned muscles of her upper and lower arms.
What gave me away wasn’t exactly a snicker. But she must have thought so by the force of her grip on my ear. It was as if a snapping turtle had laid hold of it and I was dragged from my place of concealment. Zephyr wisely made a quiet nest under the shield. I witnessed our similar images in the reflecting shield: two figures with very dark hair, (mine was cut short, though, and shaggy) tan skin, and bright blue eyes, only I was not nearly so tall. And my face was grimacing as her pinch on my auditory organ intensified.
“And just what is so funny, Robin of the Warrior?”
I looked contrite. “Nothing, Baba.”
Up on my tiptoes then.
“Shall I cut off the oxygen to your brain?” The growl was not quite serious.
“No, Baba. I will tell the truth.” I giggled then.
She released me with a quick smack to the head.
“Yes. “ She looked at herself a moment longer. “You are wondering how anyone conquered anything at all in such a get up.” She gave me a sultry look. “Remember Birdie, I had many skills. There are ways of gaining men’s loyalty other than by a sword.”
I looked at her differently then. My Baba Xe, tall, tan, raven tresses, eyes like the sky, dangerous, deadly even, a champion in the fighting ring, and, I was only beginning to understand, a champion of seduction? Xena Warrior Princess, Xena the Conqueror. Xena the Man Killer. Her stature increased even more in my eyes.
Embarrassed, I cleared my throat. She put her hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry Birdie; those days are long gone by. Your mother changed all that. Well, I was changing before...” She stammered a bit, finding herself in corner “Well... Gabrielle changed everything…”
We rarely went into these waters, my Baba and I. She would never need to tell me how much she cherished my mother; one had only to watch them together for a little while. Somehow I knew that Baba understood that I shared her capacity for passionate love and likewise an inability to express it. But Baba and I didn’t speak of these subjects. Perhaps someday.
We were both looking at our feet, so I changed the subject.
“Baba, how did you manage to ride your horse all that time without pants?”
She laughed. My Baba Xe rarely laughed in her deep heart-felt way; she was always preoccupied. I loved to hear the sound and joined her.
“Birdie… It was damned uncomfortable and it was cold. “Baba Xe fingered a flap thoughtfully, ”Sometimes we wore cloaks, but never on our legs. I used a great deal of skin salve. I am very glad to lead an army now based on my attributes as a leader and not just on my fighting and ahem, various other skills…” She turned a circle causing the flaps on the skirt to splay out. “Well, so what do you think?”
I was very careful. “It is a stunning outfit, and I am certain that it served its purpose in the day of the Warrior Princess, Baba Xe.”
The cornflower eyes studied me as the leathers dropped to the floor and I was treated to a view of my warrior parent’s godlike physique clad in her loin garment and upper wrap.
“Good answer,” She strode to her desk began lifting new sets of traveling clothes from their wrappings. Piece by piece was held up and scrutinized carefully. We always traveled in modified Amazon golden buckskin shirts and ponchos. The leathers were light, but the Amazon tanning method made them withstand nearly every sort of weather and they washed and dried quickly. Undergarments were long or short depending on the temperature of the day.
Baba Xe rifled through the short stack of regulation tunics in sizes for herself, Mama, and for me. There was something special at the bottom of the package and I caught my breath as she lifted it from the wrappings. It was a longer leather tunic with ornate tooling on the front, which I recognized as the heart-shaped patterns in the armor of the Warrior Princess. The work was intricate, yet understated; it surely took the patience of many candle marks.
“Nice, isn’t it Birdie?”
She slipped it over her head and tied the lacings at the chest while I fastened the hand hammered silver buttons at the sleeves. The heavy lacings had silver ends, and there was an attached belt with once again a handmade silver buckle. The skin had been dyed an indigo blue. The wide cuffs turned back at the sleeves and on one was tooled a chakram, on the other the Conqueror’s dragon.
“It’s beautiful, Baba.”
She twitched her shoulders around in it impatiently, “Step back, Birdie.”
She executed a back flip, landing lightly a body’s length away from me. She threw quick punches out one right and one left, then sniffed critically.
“It seams sturdy enough.”
“It matches your eyes, Baba.”
She rolled them at that. “Yes, well, your mother had it made.”
“My mother has good taste.” My smile completed the tease.
Her hand breezed through the top of my hair as I ducked grinning. Her teeth returned a good natured flash.
“So, Little Bird, would you care for a tunic such as this?”
I fingered the soft leather. ”Who wouldn’t, Baba? It’s as fine a garment as one could come across. Did The Amazon tailors make it?”
“Yes, by special order of the Queen. We had one made for her in sea green, of course. We were thinking of having one made in ’Robin red’ for your birthday if you liked it.”
“Gosh, Baba, it’s so nice.”
“It is very nice, but you are growing up, and you need some fine things, Birdie. Now, my fledgling; Do you like it?”
My nails outlined the tooling, “Yes, Baba, I do.” My answer was shy.
“Then it’s done. Should be ready in a couple of moons, right?”
My eyes met hers. “Right.”
Her hand fell gently into my hair, “When my little Birdie girl turns fourteen winters.”
There was a lump in my throat for no reason that I could explain. “Doesn’t seem possible, does it, Baba? That my boots, scabbard and sword have been in play for a four seasons’ turn now?”
“No it certainly does not.”
She did not elaborate; I stood up straight and met her eyes, trying to be all that she wanted to see in her daughter of fourteen. There was no immediate disappointment in her eyes. I wondered, because it seemed as if I had been in little else but trouble over the past several moons, most especially with my Baba Xe. But the clear azure orbs were gentle in their appraisal, and the warrior’s hand, which could sever a man’s head, pull a brace of horses to halt, or leave an errant Birdie part stinging was now moving the silver strands of my hair behind my ears.
“You never did grow any more silver hair much after that nightmare episode, did you?” she asked, studying the top of my head carefully.
“Not that I have noticed, Baba. But then my nightmares since have been mild by comparison.”
“Well.” She gave my shoulder a little pat. “Get on with you. Road Trip coming!” Her eyes sparkled again.
I stepped back and bowed, “Yes, My Lady Conqueror.” Executing a perfect about face, I ran full into my mother who had made a quiet entry.
“‘Scuse’ me My Lady Mother.” My bow was hasty.
“What is the hurry, Birdie?”
“Haven’t begun to pack.” Sheepish look time.
“Birdie….. Get in there girl and get busy! Have you forgotten we leave in the morning?”
I winced a little on reception of a painless smack as I trotted past her.
“No, My Lady; I haven’t forgotten.”
First the goddess and now my mother. Exquisite manners were always a tactic that I employed when in trouble even though they bought me little pardon.
“Well march in there and make the fur fly!!” Mama received a reproachful look from a certain furry source at this last command. “Not yours Zephyr.”
“You have everything you need on your back, Zephyr,” I grumbled.
“Except for this delightful company, Little Mistress.”
That brought a snicker.
“You sly fox.” My muttering as we exited.
Strong and gentle arms encircled the Conqueror; the dark head bent forward for a kiss. “I like the look of that new leather tunic, Warrior.”
Indigo eyes closed and remained relaxed in the embrace, “I was hoping to do it justice. It is a beautiful garment, Gabrielle.”
She received a pat on the belly, “Xena you could do justice to a filthy turnip sack.”
A tad of a tease, “So you would love me were I not the Conqueror clad in designer leathers?”
The patina eyes turned a shade, “You know better than that, Warrior Princess. You know that I would love you in, Amazon buckskin, in peasant wool…” her hands began to unlace the leather strings, “in aristocratic silks…”
Her hands were clasped in the larger hands, “How about in the tree bark and leaves of a madwoman?”
“I would love you still…”
“How about in the untreated, smelly furs of an aboriginal?”
The hands continued to unlace… one finger fell gently over the full slightly pouting lips as the blue eyes formed a question.
The softest chuckle from the bright haired poet, “And yes, I do love you best in nothing at all…”
A deeper chuckle answered, “A pleasure to oblige, my Queen.”
The bard paused, her eye caught by something else. “You didn’t tell me that you had the Warrior Princess leathers out.”
Xena walked to the bed, preparing to rearrange the brown outfit for display. “I was only just experimenting a bit.”
Gabrielle looked at her lover with a mischievous glint. She crossed and crawled into the middle of their massive bed.
“Put the leathers on, Warrior.”
“Put them on piece by piece, casually, carelessly, the way you did every morning in front of me for all of those moons while you thought I didn’t watch.”
A smirk began on the lips and spread to the cobalt eyes. “Like this?” The leather shift slid with a ‘slish’ sound over the sleek body. Long fingers tied the lacings at the bodice which reined in the breasts and waist was only secured.
“Yeessss…” olive eyes watched.. “more please.”
“Gab,” the strong hands were raised helplessly, “the entire outfit?”
“Hummmm,” the little bard purrred, “the boots, perhaps?”
The Conqueror sighed, gave her lover a slightly beleaguered look, scooped up the boots, trudged across the room, leaned on the bed, and commenced tugging on a skin tight brown boot. During the third tug, her hands were caught by smaller hands.
“Lay back, Warrior.”
Xena did so and found her torso straddled by the bard who began to unlace the bodice of the brown leather slowly.
“You are right, my love, “her green eyes were dark with desire now,” all I truly want to do is rip it off of you.”
“Well, we best make good use of the bed,” grinned the warrior, “it is rougher on the road if you recall.”
“Two pairs of pants, two tunics, three undershirts, and nightshirt, three sets of undergarments, soap, teeth cleaners, powders, and lotions. “ I closed the lids on my clothing trunks and carted my selections to my bed.” What do you think, Zephyr?”
“My cloak is with Hades.”
I flipped the pants into triple folds smoothing the wrinkles out carefully. Then I laid out the shirts on the bed and began smoothing out the wrinkles with both hands one sleeve at a time. These would be tucked carefully into Hades’ saddlebags.
“Weapons, Little Mistress, and your writing/sketchbook. You have promised Rachelle that she may read one journal, do you remember?”
“Which one first, Zephyr? This is difficult, you know.”
“Yes, Little Mistress, but there is no better way for her to know you. You wish for Rachelle to know you, do you not?”
“Yes, I do Zephyr.”
“Then she must read what you write.”
My boots made a tha-dumping sound across my room to my book shelf where the leather bound diaries were stacked chronologically.
Silence from the fox.
“It’s a little frightening, opening these to her.”
A soft cool nose came into my hand then, and the warmth of her body leaned into my leg.
“Come here to me.”
I crumpled into the floor and the ever changing hazel-golden eyes of my god-fox stared deeply into my own. Then Zephyr reached forward with her head and licked my face lightly, one cheek and then the other. Her small tongue felt like the touch of a child. It was a blessing; Zephyr never smelled like an animal; she had her own clean sweet scent - like warm cedar-natural and comforting. I sat with bowed head while she watched me knowing that the fox would speak now as my true soul mate.
But she simply rose to four feet.
“Have her read our first adventure, Little Mistress.”
“Our seven day ‘in the rough’? When I thought Mama had been killed?”
“Yes. We were both very young, and we learned a great deal, didn’t we, Little Mistress?”
“By the gods, Zephyr; we learned much the hard way on that little odyssey.” Her fur was soft under my hand as I contemplated it. “I wouldn’t trade it though, not really.”
“Even the tears, Little Mistress? There were many, as I recall.”My eyes stayed on the wood planked floor tracing the knotted pegs, ”Sometimes I think we learn the most from tears, Zephyr, even though they are painful teachers.”
“Some tears are joyful, Little Mistress.”
“Some.” I collected the slim collection of parchments wrapped in leather and tied the string around them.
“This is rough writing, Zephyr.”
“It is truth, Little Mistress. In the beginning, there must be unadorned truth.”
“You are a wise fox.”
Her nose moved into my hand and she nuzzled my hand gently.
“Will you ever ’talk’ to Rach?”
“That is not my decision, Little Mistress.”
“You would like to?”
“Yes, I would. Rachelle is a gentle and loving person.”
I snickered, ”She’s rather rough on me at times.”
“Only if you deserve it, Little Mistress.”
I grinned at her,”Only if?”
“This discussion was about Lady Rachelle, I believe?”
“Oh, she is now Lady Rachelle? Ha!”
A fox snort.
“It is in the hands of our Lady Artemis, as you must know, Little Mistress.”
“I do know, Lady Zephyr.”
That silly fox nipped me then.
All was quiet on the grounds between the fortress kitchen and the stable. For some reason, all momentous events had their advents in this innocuous little strip of grassy land. Here had been the great circle of joined hands before the Battle of Wild Horse Valley; here had Gabrielle been injured soon after the victory. It was an entry way to the stables of the Conqueror’s family horses. It had been the walk to the home of Zephyr’s nest of kits.
In this small yard, everyone picked up their food stuffs and said good-bye to the fortress. On these grounds everyone returned to the fortress and was welcomed home. It was only an humble patch of ground with the grass beaten down. But it was the pathway to good beginnings and to good endings.
The sturdy woman with the iron grey hair and Aegean eyes left the fortress kitchen and walked out into the grounds to watch as her tall daughter rearranged the palomino for the fifth time in a candle mark.
“I will miss you, Xena,” her voice was soft. But she approached her daughter.
A little surprised, the warrior turned to behold her mother. “I’ll miss you too, Mother,” she tilted her head and took the rough hand in her larger one. “Since Birdie has trained Icarus you know, we will try to send word occasionally, however brief, so you will know that we are safe. That is an improvement over the old days, isn’t it?” Xena stepped away from her horse, her duties, in the cold morning light to attend to another woman that she loved with her whole heart.
Tears filled the old eyes, but they didn’t fall and strong arms encircled the Conqueror and Defender of Amphipolis and all lands surrounding.
“There is so much improvement over the old days, Xena. I never tell you, but it has meant everything to have a daughter again; it has filled my heart so to have you and Gabrielle and Birdie. I will miss you dreadfully.”
The Conqueror stood by her horse and looked around a bit. There was no one in sight, but then she decided that she did not care. Strong arms embraced the little woman warmly. The warrior’s lips touched the top of the sturdy woman’s iron hair.
“And I love you, Mother. You cannot know what it has meant to me to have my mother’s love returned to my life. I will think of you every day; I will keep everyone safe.”
The mother’s arms squeezed and then pulled back to shake the warrior lightly, “You see that you keep my daughter safe, do you hear me, Xena of Amphipolis?” The voice was gruff, but the hands that reached up then to pull down the strikingly beautiful face to meet her mother’s eyes were gentle hands.
Cyrene kissed one cheek and then the other.
“I will, Mother. I promise.” The warrior stepped back and crossed fist over heart.
They separated then sapphire eyes focused; each had her job to do.
“Hold still, Hades!” But my sable horse snorted fog in his excitement to be off in the exhilaration of the bright cold morning. I buckled a final strap, gave him a stroke on the nose, and cast my gaze toward the direction of the Amazon camp. My impatience was eased. Three horses approached, but my eyes were only for the slender chestnut that carried Rachelle, the young Amazon princess from the sea. During the past several moons Rach had become as important in my life as my family. Recently, she had admitted that my love was reciprocated. But as love was a new journey for both of us, we followed each other’s footprints and took turns leading the way.
This morning she wore a heavy woolen poncho over her Amazon buckskins in a greenish grey color that set off her eyes. There was a cream colored design threaded throughout that I recognized as the constellations, but not our Amphipolis sky. Perhaps it was a view from the sea. I placed my hand on the soft buckskin leg and met the quiet marble-hued eyes regarding me.
“Good morning, Princess,” I kept my voice soft and serious.
“Robin of Amphipolis, right?” her voice was aloof. “I have come to travel to Athens with her.”
“And she is most grateful indeed,” I offered a hand up, and Rach swung her leg over and slid down Lucy into my arms for a warm embrace and a quick kiss which spread tendrils of warmth throughout my body.
We looked into each other’s eyes. “Are you well packed?” was all I could think of to say.
“How is Lucy feeling?” Soft lips nibbled the palm of my hand as the horse took some chopped dried apple I always kept in my pocket as treats for Hades.
“Lucy is anxious to see the world.”
“Let’s give her a drink,” I took the reins from Rachelle’s hand and offered my arm to my friend. It was accepted. “We will be riding out soon.”
Gabrielle placed her hands on the shoulders of her old friend, “What is it, Eph?”
A soft Amazon boot drew circles in the dust. “Pony is having quite a difficult time with this you know, Gabrielle.” The laughing dark eyes watched her stocky partner talking with the Conqueror a short distance away. “She won’t say as much, but this is very hard on her; she adores that child; even after only a four seasons of having her about the camp.”
Gabrielle chuckled, and she watched the same pair, “You need not sell me on the size or capacity of a warrior’s heart for love, Ephiny,” she placed her own foot to stop the motion of her friend’s uneasy circling and patted the foot with hers affectionately. “You know that we will take care of Rachelle like she is our own child; we have come to think of her as such. And Mother Cyrene will send word of our good health as often as Icarus brings it.”
“I want to hear of it,“Ephiny raised shy eyes again. “I love all of you, you know, and I will worry a bit.”
The warm arms of her Queen and longtime friend embraced and held the steadfast Regent long and lovingly then. “I know that you will, Eph; I wondered if you would speak for yourself, for you and I have no secrets.” She stepped away and tried to meet the eyes of the discomfited Amazon warrior, then surrendered. “We will do our best. You know that running with our Birdie will give Rachelle an adventure or two though.”
“That, I do know,” a shake of the curly hair. The Regent took her Queen’s head between her hands and bestowed a kiss upon her forehead as she would a younger sister then, “Be well, and travel safe, Gabrielle. Return to us, wiser and happier; I know that you and your partner there do yearn for the open road.”
The emerald eyes twinkled at her, “I will.”
Pony clasped arms with the Conqueror; the grip was very firmly returned, “Xena.” Her voice was hoarse.
“Pony, I will watch over her as I do my own Birdie. I swear it.” The Conqueror’s words were soft but the cerulean eyes flashed with intensity—warrior to warrior.
Arms were squeezed, no more was said. Eponin spun from the Xena the Conqueror to meet her Queen. She knelt formally and gave the fist over heart salute. Gabrielle knelt and raised the weapons master to her feet, silently kissing one cheek, then the other. Then she only gazed steadily into the warrior’s eyes. They exchanged smiles. Gabrielle then looked to her daughter and her friend.
“Birdie, Rach, let’s go!”
The six travelers mounted their horses and began a slow exit of the city gates. After an extended argument with her officers, the Conqueror had reluctantly conceded to taking an extra guard of two soldiers. Atticus had volunteered, but the Conqueror had insisted he remain behind and take command of the fortress along with Ephiny and Eponin. Thomas and Galton were selected and admonished to stay on the parameters as much as possible. They assured their commander that she would hardly know of their presence.
Rachelle and Birdie both turned to wave as they exited, Rach to her parents, and Birdie, to her beloved Grandba. The Conqueror and Gabrielle waved as well as the mighty fortress gates closed behind them.
“Gods’ speed, my children,” Cyrene whispered, and then she turned and went inside the inn’s kitchen to work.
“You sound like air going out of a … I don’t know, a cloud or something.” Rach teased me as we dismounted. Then sun was hanging low at the end of a long day; however, Baba Xe had traveled to Athens many times over the seasons and she had set a goal for us each day. This was a place that she or she and Mama G were familiar with, and so it was selected.
“My backside is both numb and sore. I guess I have never actually been in the saddle literally from daybreak to dusk. Ouch.”
“Mine is in a similar state if that is any comfort, Birdie,” I could just catch the flash of her teeth in the remaining daylight.
“We had better go see if we can be useful at the camp,” she flicked her head toward my parents who were quietly going about setting up the cozy hideaway as if it were something they did every night. Well, they had lived on the road for many seasons together before settling down in Amphipolis. Before settling down and having me.
“Go on, I’ll see to the horses,” I nodded to her as I pulled Hades’ saddle from his back staggering under the weight a little. He looked back at me questioningly.
“Feels better, huh big guy?” Hades snorted, as I settled the leather gear under a tree nearby. I took a curry brush out of the saddlebag and began to run it briskly down his sides. He walked out towards fresher grass and I followed.
“Find some good stuff there, Hades? Hmmm?” I quickly brushed him all over and untangled the snarls in his mane.
“Ok, buddy there is a burr here,” I carefully picked a sticker from his tail. It twitched a little, but the big horse did not kick me into tomorrow.
“Thanks, Hades.” I stroked his nose and fed him some dried apples from my stash. His beautiful dark eyes favored me a moment with a soul searching look. I hugged him.
“I love you big horsie. Have a good night.”
Rachelle’s mischievous mount looked at me. I fed her right away and removed her saddle. She was perfectly cooperative. It took no time at all to brush her smaller physique, and she had no tricky burrs or stickers. As I finished with her, I felt a warm presence moving around my legs.
“Zephyr.” I knelt to hug her, “How are you girl?” I picked up her paws. “How are your feet? Do they hurt?”
“I am fine, Little Mistress. My god fox blood enables me to travel far and fast without tiring too much. Your family awaits you for dinner.”
“Guess it is time to wrap up the chores and go to the fire, huh?”
I walked up to the firelight with an extra armload of wood and my black fox in tow. It was a lovely peaceful spot with ancient trees to stand guard and give us some shelter. Also nearby was a clear running stream which provided water and a soothing song. In the distance I could see the small fire of the Conqueror’s guard. They had kept their word to respect our privacy, and yet their cheerful little fire was oddly comforting.
Baba Xe reached out and slapped my leg. “Late as usual.” But it was not a reprimand. Her face was relaxed and her cobalt eyes were gazing peacefully into the fire. Her countenance held a mood that I had rarely seen – serenity. She was running a whetstone along the sides of her sword methodically. At a nudge from my mother’s knee, she set those aside, and smiled adoringly at the hands which gave her a smallish but deep clay bowl of steaming stew and a sizable hunk of dark bread.
“We eat tonight, courtesy of Cyrene’s Famous Inn,” Mama G said almost reverently as she twirled the large spoon in the black kettle, “Enjoy it girls, because every night hence will be hunter’s pot luck.”
Baba Xe snorted.
“Hey,” I said, “ I can provide.”
“And I am fair enough with bow and arrow Lady Conqueror,” Rach said a little shyly.
Mama G put her bread down on the plate beside her own clay bowl. “I’ve been thinking about what you should call us, Rachelle. ‘Lady Conqueror’ and ‘Lady Gabrielle’ are just too long and we are going to be together for a good while. We are not exactly your mama and baba either.”
“How about ‘Lady G’ and ‘Lady Xe”?” I asked.
Moments passed while this was chewed upon carefully.
“Works for me,” the low tones of my Baba Xe’s voice came muffled with bread.
“I think that its’ fine,” Mama G agreed. “Rachelle, can you manage those names?”
“I will try My Lady G,” my Rach answered. “Will you call me ‘Rach’ sometimes, as Birdie does? Rachelle is used mostly if I am in trouble.”
“Rather like ‘Robin of the Warrior and Bard, or Robin of Amphipolis’?” from my Baba Xe again. She put that special “You’re in trouble” tone in the words perfectly.
“I would imagine so,” Rach chuckled. “Will you tell me, Lady G, and, Lady… Xe…”
“Yes?” My parents were being nice to her; they seemed to like her.
“The story of Birdie’s birth?”
I snorted on my stew…
“That one there?” My Baba Xe growled. “There’s a tale alright.” She looked up at the stars.
“Indeed,” my mother’s eyes laughed, “I can probably tell it.”
I sighed and stuffed the bread in my mouth. Zephyr gave me a sympathetic look.
“We were settled in Amphipolis,” Mama looked at Baba Xe, who finished chewing, swallowed, and settled back on her elbows. The firelight cast a golden glow on my mother’s face and set her into her storytelling mood.
“Several season’s past Japa,” the mood darkened momentarily.
“That is the story I want to hear,” I said quickly.
Both sets of eyes regarded me quietly. Everything in the evening stopped, the breeze, the crackling of the fire, the rhythmic swishing of Zephyr’s tail. It was as if Zeus reached down and stopped all of natural motion.
“We will tell you that story some day, Birdie,” my Baba Xe said softly, “When the time is right for the telling of it.”
My mother didn’t look up at me, “When we are right to tell it you mean?” Both sets of eyes were lost in each other for a moment. Then Baba Xe’s big hand reached to envelope Mama G’s smaller one. “When everything is right.” She finished.
“Anyway,” Mama G regained herself, “I had been wishing for a child…”
“As had I,” Baba chimed in, “Though neither of us had spoken of it; our history with children had been... Unfortunate.” My parents met eyes again, tears immediate. But they took strength from each other and worked through it silently. My parents were amazing.
“Again, another story for another time,” Mama reached for Baba’s hand and held it tightly.
“I will tell you someday,” I leaned into Rach speaking softly.
Rachelle leaned back and looked up at the stars, “My life seems so simple when compared to yours,” her eyes sparkled with her compassion.
“It’s just different,” I rested my head on her shoulder; “You will share your life at campfire one night, won’t you?”
“On a night of a short fire,” she chuckled, “I am no bard.”
“Good,” came the wry tone of my conqueror parent, “two bards in a family are quite sufficient.”
“Hey!” Both my mother’s and my own voice chorused at her.
“To continue…” My mother’s voice took authority at last. “The Amphipolis Fortress was well set, and we were returned in connection with your aunty Pony, Ephiny and the Amazons.”
“Yes,” The Conqueror intoned, “life was settling down to a comfort level for once.”
“It was the end of a seven day, and we decided to go camping,” Mama’s eyes looked far away from us, seeing another campfire, another sky, and another time.
“You miss the road, don’t you?” The bard took Xena’s hand as they walked the circumference of the small lake.
The taller woman was pensive, “Don’t you?”
“Yes,” her hand was squeezed and the bard watched her feet a moment, “I love our life, don’t misunderstand me, but it seems as if something is missing.”
“And that would be?” The warrior didn’t beat around the bush.
Gabrielle wouldn’t look at her, “I’m not sure exactly.”
Xena had stopped and taken both of the bard’s hands in her own. “Yes, you are sure, Gabrielle. Don’t try to sidestep me.”
The bright head remained lowered.
Xena stooped a little and raised the chin to find tears, “Gab?” She enveloped the smaller woman into her arms closely. “Tell me.”
After a moment, the bard was quiet. “I would like a child,” she spoke softly into the warrior’s chest.
“I know that, Gabrielle,” Xena put her chin on top of the blonde head, “You would be a wonderful mother.”
A cynical snort came from underneath her chin, “Xena, I don’t deserve a child, after what happened to our children.”
She was firmly pushed away from her lover’s body and pinned by icy blue eyes.
“Gabrielle, I have said this before, and this is the final time that I will say it. What happened to Solon and Hope is on both of our heads. We have forgiven each other, and that tragedy is in the past. You must leave it there. Promise me.”
The bard wouldn’t meet her eyes.
“Gabrielle, if you cannot forgive yourself, how can you raise another child? How can you pray for a miracle?”
Silence. Desperately, the warrior shook the smaller shoulders.
“Gabrielle, are you listening to me?”
The sea foam eyes raised then full and beautiful. “You are right, Xena.” She sniffed and leaned against her steadfast companion. “Perhaps I have flogged myself long enough, and I do want another child. Do you truly believe we might be blessed?”
She was pulled back into an intense embrace and then the walk was recommenced. A breeze came up and the moon was rising.
“Gabrielle, when I am with you, I believe that all things are possible.”
Mama G’s eyes returned from the fire to us. “Well, Rachelle, I know that you and Birdie are feeling some of your first… ‘stirrings’ for each other.”
“Maaaama…” my ears burned and I tried to find a treasure in my bowl of stew.
“Relax, that’s all I am saying, Birdie. Your Baba Xe and I had a big case of ‘stirrings’ for each other that evening.”
“I like romance, Birdie.” Rachelle gave me a big nudge. My eyes didn’t leave the stew.
“The stars fell from the sky that night,” Baba had been lying on her side, but now her eyes lifted to find my mother’s eyes almost shyly.
“That, my love,” my mother’s hand joined hers, “they did.” She closed her eyes. “Indeed they did.”
“We best head back to the camp,” Xena wrapped her long arm about the bard’s shoulders. “The wind is rising and night is coming.”
“Look at the moon, Xena,” the young poet was nearly fixated on the sphere in the sky, “It’s blue; it’s nearly the color of your eyes.”
“I believe that you must have dust in your eyes, Gabrielle,” the warrior muttered as she hustled her bright haired friend along.
Their camp was welcoming and they rolled out their furs near the fire. The breezes had died down and there was a sharp chill in the air.
Gabrielle snuggled down, “Come to me Warrior, “she smiled.
“Gladly, My Queen,” Xena’s lean physique joined the bard’s under the furs.
“The stars are falling,” the bard whispered, “as soon as one disappears, another one begins at a different point in the sky; it is amazing Xena.”
“Perhaps it is a miraculous night,” the warrior said softly as her fingertips began a familiar journey which began at the bard’s cheek, moved down the neckline and collarbone, stroked the curves of the breast and waist, rolled into a gentle palm cupping the hip and thigh, and became intimate finger feathers as the motion journeyed back up the belly.
The bard’s breathing caught and she took her warrior’s face between her hands. “Every day and every night is miraculous with you, my love,” she whispered. Then she frowned.
“Am I hurting you, Gabrielle?” Immediately the warrior was alert.
“No! No, Xena, of course not, I adore your touch, but Xena,” she frowned again, “I have never noticed that your eyes have flecks of gold color before.”
The Conqueror sighed in relief and lay down quietly beside the bard, “That is because my eyes do not have gold flecks in them, Gabrielle. You looked into the sun too long today, my little love. First the moon is blue and now my eyes are gold.” She kept the stirring motion on the bard’s belly.
The stars continued their travels across the sky and the eyes of the warrior and the bard followed them.
The bard turned to her warrior, “I won’t interrupt anymore,” she said silkily, “where were we?”
“We know now that the moon, the stars, and even Xena’s eyes were the blessings of our goddess Artemis, “ whispered Mama G with a smile. “We didn’t know the specific goddess for quite some time, but then she revealed herself to Birdie.”
One can only hear so much about one’s own conception; I rose, fetched everyone’s empty bowls and carried them to the big pot of hot water on the fire. Squatting down by it, I quickly ran the cloth and cleaning soap around each bowl and then rinsed it in the hot water. A cold nose appeared under my arm.
“Hey girl.” The head came up by mine and licked my face.
“Mama, there’s a bit of stew here, may Zephyr have it?”
The affirmative nod made both of us happy, so Zephyr cleaned the pot so I washed it easily, and then made my way back to the fire.
Rach was sitting up enraptured, (as are all listeners to my mother) to the continuing tale. I dropped down beside her with a sigh.
“Here, good washer girl,” she patted her lap, “right here.”
I was hoping that she would offer; my head hurt a little just from the long day in bright sunlight.
“The moons of my pregnancy were easy until the final two,” my mother telling the closing chapters of this story. That was ok as it was familiar to me.
Baba Xe took over, “During the eighth moon, the DOZ attacked.”
“It’s difficult to believe that they were ever our enemies,” Rach’s fingers danced lightly in the locks of my hair smoothing them all the way down into my tunic collar where her fingers rubbed my neck.
Baba smiled, “It is, isn’t it? And we’ve had the truce for only a four season’s round, but they have become such valuable friends and allies. Jom is one of the wisest men I’ve ever known.” She looked into the fire a moment and I noted a shadow of regret in her face, “I can never learn all he has to teach me because of an ancient feud.” She tossed a small stick at the flames.
“Xena, that isn’t your fault,” my mother pulled my Baba’s head into her lap and my warrior parent accepted and took comfort from her gentleness. It warmed me; they were rarely this publicly demonstrative. The campfire was a sedative, especially for my Baba Xe.
“It was a fairly straightforward battle,” my mother continued the story, her hand running through Baba Xe’s dark tresses.
Baba sat up again to remember, “Yes, very typical. We defended the wall, like we always did, and things were going well, until I found myself in the west tower with eight DOZ’s on me. I still don’t know how so many got to me at the same time, unless it was planned.”
“It very likely was, Xena,” Mama G said quietly, “In those days; the assassination of the Conqueror would have been a really big feather in a DOZ’S cap.”
“I was fighting full out, but faltering; it was at the end of the battle and I was tired. Suddenly two of my attackers were down, and who had taken them out but… Little Lady eight moons pregnant, Queen of the Amazons Gabrielle with her trusty sais.”
I shook my head, “Mama.”
My mother gave my Baba Xe her best innocent look, “The DOZ wouldn’t hit a pregnant lady and, you needed me, Xena.” I recognized the attitude as one I have tried. It never works with my mother.
My Conqueror parent blew out a big sigh and lay her head back down in my mother’s lap, “Talk about wanting to tan someone’s hide. It’s a good thing you were pregnant.” The blue eyes shot a killer look up into the green ones.
“Soooooooo…” my mother continued dramatically, “and then in the ninth moon of my pregnancy I fell into the river!”
I felt Rach’s body start violently, “You what?”
Mama chuckled, “I was actually fishing…”
There was a snort from her lap, “She never fishes.”
“But I had a random urge,” Mama continued, “One is allowed random urges when one is pregnant, and thus I was fishing.”
“I was out with the men on the drill fields.“ Baba Xe sat up from the lap again; her eyes were flashing, but she was smiling with the memory. “And suddenly a chill went all over my body. As if…”
“As if you had been plunged into icy cold water,” I finished from Rach’s lap.
“Yes,” hissed Baba as she leaned forward, “And I ran for the river with Hermes’s wings on my feet.” Not bad storytelling for Baba.
“Where I was merrily bobbing along,” laughed Mama.
“Ha ha ha,” another snort as the warrior settled back into her lover’s lap.
The bard’s hand soothed ruffled hair, “It would not have been so bad had the water not been so gods be damned COLD. Brrrr.”
“I still prefer cold weather,” I chimed in.
Baba Xe had rolled to her feet now, poured tea from the kettle, and distributed it. The night was chilly and the warm mug felt good between my hands.
“Here, I brought a treat,” Rach raised my head, and hopped to her feet. She fetched a small tub from her rucksack which contained a white substance and gave us each a piece of nut bread with the spread on it.
“This is wonderful, Rach,” my mother was first to comment, licking a drip from her thumb.
“It’s a kind of cream cheese our cooks have concocted,” Rach explained. “With the touch of honey in it, they can’t make enough for the tribe now.”
“My mother will want to order it for the Inn,” Baba said with a full mouth. “The Amazon cooks have finally hit on something. You may be rich.”
Rach sat back down cross-legged and smiled, “So, Lady G. You were in the river.”
“Quite helpless, really. All I could do was send the mental message to my warrior,” Mama G gazed fondly at the dark head in residence in her lap.
“Yeah and I got it.” The lap voice mumbled sleepily.
My mother’s gentle fingers played with the silky black strands, “Like a vision I saw a figure hanging upside down from an overhanging branch a little ahead. I knew that I had to grab her hands.”
“I bellowed ‘Gabrielle!’ just to be sure,” the yawning warrior added, “scared all of the cows in the field.”
“I sent a little prayer to Artemis for good measure,” the bard’s voice teased.
“And the rapids seemed to lift you right into my arms, thank the gods,” Baba Xe sat up now looking at my mother.
“I believe you had some strength from Artemis to haul me into that tree, hustle me across the branch and down it,” my mother said quietly. “I just remember returning to my senses in a warm bath and your face finally relaxing. Although I do recollect receiving a good smack on the butt for that trick.”
“Yep,” The Conqueror kissed the blonde hair and pulled it under her chin rocking her slowly.
Rach gazed at me a moment, “You look so like your Baba Xe, but you are so like your Mama G, aren’t you?”
“Yep.” I ducked my head a little; Zephyr put her head in my lap.
“So then the birth?” Rach pushed on.
“Was by comparison, quite easy.” My mother chuckled. “One night shortly after, I awakened and said, ‘Xena, it’s time.’ And it was.”
“Birdie arrived within a few candle marks.” Baba Xe smiled, “No trouble at all. Of course she’s been trouble ever since.” Now she reached for my head and pulled me across the space to kiss it.
Mama was staring into the fire, “Xena gave me some easing tea, numbing weed, and local pain relief. I felt so sure with her, we didn’t call a second healer.”
“It was…” I could hear a tremble in Xena the Conqueror’s voice her eyes dark cobalt staring into the fire, “among the greatest miracles of my life... to deliver my child, of the woman I love, more than my life.”
I said nothing but blinked away tears. Zephyr nosed my hand gently.
“We cleaned her, swaddled her, I fed her a little, and we put her into the bed with us, “Mama G went on in a hushed voice. “She went right to sleep; she was really a good baby.”
“At daybreak, I got up to change her swaddling and I heard birds singing on the ledge outside the chamber window,” Baba Xe took over the story, “I opened the window so the sound would wake Gabrielle. We had talked about names, everything from Hecuba, to Hercules, Cyrene, and of course, Lyceus.”
“The robin’s singing woke me, and it was the sweetest sound,” Mama spoke dreamily, as she adjusted her head on Baba’s shoulder. “I watched Xena in the silvery new morning light, holding up our baby daughter, showing her the little mother bird. It was so peaceful.”
“It was,” Baba took up the tale, “and the name came to me. How about ‘Robin’?”
“’Robin’ had entered my mind at exactly the same instant,” my mother completed the tale, “and so our baby was Robin of the Warrior and Bard.”
“And ‘Birdie’?” asked Rach.
“Baba’s army named me ‘Birdie’,” I squeezed her hand. “Baba Xe took me out to show me the next day and they passed me around. I was the ‘wee birdie’, and then, when I was old enough to scamper around their feet and they were shouting it constantly, the nickname became permanent.”
“And now it’s time,” Mama G smiled, “for all good little Birdies, bards, Amazons, and warriors to go to bed. Enough story telling for tonight.”
“Right,” I groaned, “I’m tired.”
“No one goes to the bushes alone, got that?” Baba said her eyes crisp.
“Good night, Lady Xe.”
The cornflower blues gave us a glance with a smile.
Mama walked over to us. She put her arms around Rach and kissed her forehead gently, “you are not too big to be kissed’ good night’, are you, Rachelle?”
“No, Lady G, I never will be,” Rach accepted the gesture gratefully. Rach’s mothering had been rather assorted, and I realized how fortunate I was, even as my backside received a gentle smack.
“Are you too big my little Bird?”
I put my arms around her and laid my head on her shoulder a moment. “Think that we established that a long time ago, Mama.”
“Good.” She kissed my cheek and I kissed hers. “Good night. Sweet dreams.”
“Good night.” Mama walked away to the other side of the fire and to her warrior.
We spread our furs out under the stars. Rach snuggled up under my arm, her head on my shoulder. Zephyr curled up down by my legs and was almost immediately asleep. The stream sang; the fire flickered.
“See there?” I pointed and my finger worked out a pattern in the starry sky. “That is my friend Marcus and his horse Bartholomew. They build all of the other star pictures.”
Rach sat up and looked at me, “How you do go on, Robin of Amphipolis.” She said a little sternly, “That star formation looks like nothing more than a simple bear to me.”
She poked me in the ribs and I clutched her to me giggling. That brought a stern “Hey.” From the other side of the fire, so we settled back again and matched our breathing quietly.
Just before I dropped away Rachelle whispered, “Birdie?”
“I love this.”
I pulled her closer, “I do too, Rach.”
We entered the realm of Morpheus together.
A goddess moon
In the chilly sky.
Peaceful smile from
My love’s face.
The Bard and Warrior
Find their rest
With trees and stars
They slumber best.
I move the hair
From her eyes,
All I love sleeps,
Under silent skies.
@@@@@@@@@ To be continued @@@@@@ comments, questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and thanks….
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