Copyright notice: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong to Renaissance Pictures-StuiosUSA or somebody with more clout than we have. No copyright infringement is intended. The story and all other characters are ours. Handle them gently and return them to us undamaged.
Disclaimers: Some violence - but a lot less than in the real world! There are references to incidents that took place in earlier Fables; while it is not necessary to read those stories to enjoy this one, the authors will be giddy with joy if you do.
This Fable, like all of the earlier Fables, while not written with children in mind, is suitable for the childlike of all ages.
One of the authors, in her role of carping editor, makes a cameo appearance in this story.
Any comments, feedback, praise, constructive criticism may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Xena was sitting in the shade of an oak tree, quietly enjoying the stories told by the most talented bard in the world (in her humble opinion). She had a slight smile on her face as she listened to another retelling of one of their adventures. It never failed to amaze her how Gabrielle could take the simplest action and make it seem earthshaking. For instance, in the tale the blonde bard was weaving at the moment, she could have merely said - we beat up the bad guys. Instead, she was making their fight with half a dozen highwaymen into an epic battle on the scale of the Trojan war.
The Warrior Princess settled herself more comfortably against the tree, and casually scanned the bard's audience. It looked to be the usual mix of people, except maybe more children than you might expect. Then, as Gabrielle was coming to the climax of her story, and Xena was wondering how she defeated the highwaymen this time, a child sitting right in front of Gabrielle piped up.
"This story is the same as the last one with Xena! Tell us an adventure of Billie, and her friends Ergo and Aquila."
It would be difficult to say who was more surprised by this demand - Gabrielle who had her arms up as if striking a blow and her mouth open but not able to say anything; or Xena whose life had never been boring and who now found herself taking second place to a talkative yellow chicken.
By this time, all the children and several of the adults were clamoring for a warrior chicken fable. Gathering her scattered wits, the versatile bard smiled at her audience, abandoned the Warrior Princess to the highwaymen, and began a fable of chickens and horses and various other wildlife.
Xena folded her arms across her chest and scowled at the world in general.
"I sure hope you know where you're going, Ergo, 'cause all I can see is grass ... but I'm down here on the ground and you can see over the grass ... it ruffles my feathers and feels kinda funny, in a good way I mean ... why aren't there any trees ... what do people build their houses out of if they don't have trees ... are there any people who live here we haven't seen anybody for days maybe we're the first folks to come this way ... hey, Aquila." The chatterer turned to her walking companion. "Do you think we're the first ones to see this place?"
As usual the black-feathered chicken had been only half-listening to Billie's commentary. She had been keeping an eye on the little chick to make sure she didn't get lost in the tall grass. And she had been trying to see over the grass herself. They could have ridden Ergo, but she felt she and Billie should walk some of the time at least.
Before she had a chance to respond to any of the chick's questions, the third member of the party said, "We must be getting close to where my mother grew up. She talked about running free across prairies with her herd. She said she never got used to all the trees around the farm; she had only seen a few trees here and there before." The pale, gold horse lifted her head eagerly. "I see a little sort of hill up ahead, and a couple of trees," she paused and sniffed the air, "and I smell water. Should we camp there for the night?" Ergo looked at her friends. She thought to herself, 'It was the best day of my life when those two crazy chickens ran into my farm. I had no idea what I was missing until then.'
"Sounds good to me," Aquila agreed. They moved off in the direction Ergo had indicated.
Billie hopped with renewed vigor. Except for having adventures, camping for the night was her favorite time of day. "It's a good thing you're so tall and can see over this grass and know where there's water," she complimented the horse. "But I'll be glad to stop for the night ... maybe we'll find your mother's family tomorrow." Since she had said the same thing every day for the past week, the other two just nodded and kept walking.
For the next few minutes the prairie silence was unbroken except for the swishing noises Billie made as she waved her wings to push the grass out of her way. Earlier Aquila had offered to walk in front, since she was bigger and could make a wider path, but her little friend wanted to see everything first.
Ergo pulled her mind back from memories of her mother's descriptions and looked down at her travelling companions. She smiled and said, "Why don't you two ride on my back for a while? You've walked enough for one day."
The yellow chick looked up at the smiling mare. "Are you sure?" She was getting a little tired of not being able to see where she was going.
Ergo merely said, "Hop on," and bent down.
"Go on, Billie," Aquila said. "We'll get to the stream faster and camp for the night sooner." She gave the little chick a boost onto Ergo's back, then jumped on behind.
Billie gave a sigh of contentment. Finally she could see more than two inches in front of her. She began talking, "Thanks, Ergo, I was getting a little tired fighting my way through all that grass ... there's a nice breeze up here I didn't feel it before ... Are we close to the water you could smell ... how do you smell water I never can unless I'm practically standing in it can you smell water, Aquila ... of course you can, it's one of your skills I bet ... oh is that a tree?" She pointed at the lone sentinel a short distance ahead of them.
The warrior chicken put a steadying hand on her friend's back. "It looks like a tree alright. That's where the stream is." She hoped she had guessed right. She couldn't smell water any better than Billie could, but she didn't want to shatter any of Billie's illusions about her mystical powers.
Ergo replied, "Yes; we'll be there in a couple of minutes." She picked up the pace.
When they got close to the tree, the two riders could see a creek cutting its way across the plain. Ergo stopped on the bank and bent down to let the chickens off. They had just taken a few swallows of the cool water when they felt a vibration in their feet.
"Is it an earthquake," Billie cheeped fearfully, remembering her only other encounter with shaking ground.
Aquila had cocked her head to one side. "No. Listen. Don't you hear it?"
Then Billie heard it - a rumbling noise, and the earth was shaking harder. Casually easing herself behind the warrior chicken, Billie whispered, "What is it?"
Ergo was looking in the direction of the noise. "I see a dust cloud," she informed the others. "Maybe you should get on my back in case we need to make a quick getaway."
"Come on," Aquila grabbed one of Billie's wings and pulled her onto the pale gold mare. She kept her other wing on her throwing ring, just in case.
All three of them watched the approaching cloud intently. It wasn't long before they could see figures of horses in it. Then suddenly they were surrounded by a herd of horses. Ergo was turning in circles, trying to keep all of the other horses in front of her. Billie and Aquila held onto her mane to keep from falling off.
None of the other horses said anything as a big, chestnut-colored stallion walked up to our heroes. He stared at Ergo for a minute. The mild horse stood her ground and looked him in the eye. Travelling with the warrior chicken had allowed Ergo's own brand of quiet courage to develop. Tossing his head, the stallion asked, "What are you doing here? This is our water."
Ergo answered him, "We have been walking all day and this is the first water we've seen. If we had known it was yours, we would have asked first. But no one was here. May we have some of your water?"
The stallion wasn't quite sure how to take this polite answer. To hide his uncertainty he said, "What are you doing here? And why are those chickens sitting on your back?"
Again Ergo answered him before her companions could say anything. "My mother was born somewhere around here, and my friends and I have travelled a long way to see this country. Maybe you can help us. Have you ever heard of Zhuzhat?"
The stallion got a wary look on his long face. "Your mother was Zhuzhat? Where were you born?"
"I was born in Macedonia, where my mother was bought by a farmer. I grew up on a farm."
"I always wondered what happened to her after she was caught by traders," the stallion said thoughtfully. "She was my sister."
Aquila and Billie were sitting quietly under a tree. They were enjoying watching Ergo being the center of attention. For once Billie was letting someone else do most of the talking. Ergo had been surprised, and then overjoyed, to finally meet her family. And her uncle, Eric the reddish-brown stallion, was happy to welcome a niece he didn't know he had.
It had grown dark while the horses talked. Ergo had told them all about her life on the farm, and the stories her mother had told her while she was growing up. She said that she had been content with her life since she didn't know any other. Then Billie and Aquila had come along and turned everything upside down for her. She told about their adventures and misadventures on the road. She ended by telling them that another horse she met in a town had told her about these grasslands, and hearing about them made her want to see where her mother was from.
While Ergo was describing their travels, the other horses, especially Ergo's uncle, would look wonderingly at the two chickens. It seemed impossible to them that chickens could do all the things Ergo said they did. But they were too polite to say so. Once, when Ergo was describing in detail one of their enthusiastic encounters with bad guys, Eric looked over and caught Aquila's eye. What he saw made him think that maybe everything Ergo said was true; the black-feathered chicken looked like one tough bird.
Billie shifted into a more comfortable position, leaned against Aquila's shoulder, and sighed contentedly. "Ergo looks really happy ... I'm glad we ran into her uncle and his herd or they ran into us I guess is what happened ... you know Ergo tells a good story she's so quiet most of the time I didn't know she was keeping track so closely of all we did and everybody we've helped and she makes it all sound real exciting not that it wasn't exciting when it was happening but when you're in the middle of things you don't think it's that exciting ... you know what I mean."
"Yes, you're too busy helping folks to realize you're having an adventure," Aquila said.
The little chick smiled. Before she could say anything more, she saw her friend look up at the night sky. She looked too but only saw stars. Then she saw it. Something was flying very erratically toward their camp. The two chickens stood up and began to walk toward the center of the herd where the unidentified flying object was heading. The horses were intently listening to Ergo's tales and were startled when a flying figure suddenly nose-dived into their midst.
When Aquila and Billie arrived, the horses were milling around and looking at the heavens, not sure if there would be more falling birds. Only Ergo and her uncle had bent over the casualty to investigate. When the chickens dodged their way through the disturbed herd, Ergo said, "Now that Billie's here, we'll find out who this is and what happened to him." She moved back to give the yellow chick room.
Billie had already started her soothing talk. She had a natural flair for putting folks at their ease and getting them to tell her all their troubles. If it weren't for her sympathetic nature, Ergo realized suddenly, their adventures would have been few and far between.
The kindly chick helped the downed flyer to sit up. That's when she saw that it was a duck who looked like he had been caught in a whirlwind. His brightly colored feathers were tattered, and one wing didn't seem to be working right.
"Hey are you okay ...what happened to you did you get caught in a storm ... we've been walking across this prairie for days and it hasn't rained at all ... have you flown a long way you look kinda tired ... you sure have pretty feathers even if they are torn a little now ... oh your wing doesn't look right ... Aquila, his wing is hurt, can you do something for it?"
The former free-range chicken had already taken the wing gently in her own. She examined it as well as she could in the dark. After a couple of minutes, she said, "I think it's just sprained, not broken. He'll have to rest it; no flying for a few days."
Once they realized that there would be no more falling ducks, the rest of the herd calmed down and gathered around the gatecrasher. Eric, as leader, began the questioning. "What is a marsh duck doing this far from home?" He had recognized the distinctive colors of the duck's feathers.
Aquila put a wing over Billie's beak before the chatty chick could ask what a marsh duck is. The warrior chicken didn't know either, but figured the quickest way to find out would be to let the duck do the talking.
Sitting up straight, the duck looked at the eager circle of listeners. He did wonder briefly what two chickens were doing in the middle of a herd of horses, but decided that was a question for later. He began his story.
"I am the only son and heir of Pei, king of the marsh ducks. My name is Pei also." He tried to sound modest, but a slight regal air had crept into his voice as he told his story. "My father sent me to make a treaty with a distant branch of marsh ducks. My bodyguards and I were on our way there when we were attacked by a band of robber ducks. We fought them off, but in the battle I was separated from the others." The royal duck paused for a moment before continuing with his tale of woe. "I wasn't sure what happened to the others. I kept flying, even though my wing was hurt in the fight. I saw this stream and aimed for it; but with my bad wing, I couldn't quite make it."
While the duck talked, Billie had been making sympathetic clucking noises. But it was Aquila who asked, "What are your plans now? And what about the others in your group?"
Pei, the royal duck, looked a little uncomfortable as he answered these questions. "I could not find any of my bodyguards after I got away. Since I did not know what had happened to them, I thought I should go back home as quickly as possible and tell my father. He will know what to do."
"It's going to take you a while since you can't fly on one wing," the practical warrior chicken said.
Her little companion perked up, "Maybe we could go with him, Aquila, you know keep him company and help him out 'til his wing is all better ... and take care of those robber ducks if they come back ... besides I've never met a duck king ... what do you say, guys?" She looked confidently at Aquila and Ergo.
Aquila knew this was coming as soon as the duck had fallen into their camp. She had long ago given up protesting at Billie's offers of help to everyone who crossed their path. Besides life was boring without its minimum daily allowance of adventure. "Sure, Billie, we'll escort him home," she said. "Tomorrow we'll rest and make plans. And I can get a better look at that wing in the daylight."
Ergo, on the other hoof, was shuffling her feet and tossing her head. Having just found her family, she didn't want to leave them right away. Aquila, who was more sensitive than folks gave her credit for, realized this. She continued, "I think just Billie and I should go; we'll be alright. Ergo can stay here with her uncle. After we've taken this duck home, we will meet back here. How does that sound?"
Billie was surprised. Since they had been travelling together, they had never separated. Then she looked at the pale gold mare. Ergo was looking gratefully at the dark chicken and nodding her head. "Well okay if you think so, Aquila, I guess Ergo will be safe here with her uncle and the rest of the herd ... but the three of us are such a good team ... oh well it won't take us long to get Pei home then we'll be back and we'll have new stories to tell."
Ergo laughed. "I will be fine, but how will you get along without me there to help, Billie?" She bent her head down and nuzzled the little chick.
Aquila looked on indulgently while her two friends argued over who was the biggest help in a fight.
Ergo's uncle finally broke in and said, "We have had more than enough excitement for one day - finding my niece and her friends, and falling ducks. I think it's time we all got some sleep. We can decide who is doing what tomorrow." He turned to the two chickens. "I am very glad to know that Ergo has such good friends." He smiled at them.
Taking their leader's advice, the herd settled down to sleep. Eric took Ergo with him. Billie and Aquila helped the marsh duck back to the tree and got him settled comfortably before lying down themselves.
Soon silence settled over the quietly flowing stream.
The next day was a busy one for everybody. Even Billie got an early start, but that was mostly because the others were making too much noise for her to be able to sleep. Pei, the marsh duck princeling, wasn't used to early hours, either. At first he acted as if he expected to be waited on, as befit his rank, but he soon realized this wasn't going to happen. Except for what help he needed because of his hurt wing, the others left him to fend for himself.
After breakfast, Aquila took a better look at Pei's wing and saw that it was sprained worse than she had thought the previous night. Calling on her medical knowledge, the warrior chicken wove some of the prairie grass into a rope and used this as a sling to hold the wing still until it could heal. She had an eager audience of Billie, Ergo, and several of the other horses.
When she was finished, she told the duck, "There, that should keep it from hurting too much. You're lucky it wasn't broken; and you're lucky you got away from those robbers."
The royal duck looked at the black-feathered chicken's handiwork. "Thank you," he said in a quiet voice. Seeing the warrior chicken in the daylight, he was a little intimidated by her; and he wished she had been with him when his party was attacked. "May I ask a question? What are two chickens doing with a herd of horses? I didn't know there were any chickens in this part of the country."
Billie, who had managed to be quiet for two minutes, peeped up, "We came here with Ergo, that pretty golden mare is Ergo ... she came here to find her family since her mother lived here until she was taken to Greece that's where Ergo was born ... and the three of us travel together and have adventures and help folks ... we found Ergo's uncle and his herd yesterday afternoon and everybody was talking and hearing about each other's lives and having a good time when you flew in ... that sure was a surprise ... but now we'll help you get home me and Aquila anyway Ergo wants to stay here with her family ... if I had just found my family for the first time, I'd want to stay with them too. What?" She finally paused when the laughter from all the horses was about to drown out her voice.
Aquila smiled at her little friend. "If we're going to help this duck, we had better start making plans. He can't fly, but he can swim. If we follow this stream, will we get to your marsh?" She looked at the marsh duck and saw a puzzled look on his face. The free-range chicken sighed. 'Why is it,' she thought to herself, 'that rulers are always so hopeless when it comes to every day life?' "Does anybody here know where Pei's kindgom is?" She looked around at all the horses.
Ergo's uncle answered her, "I do. If you follow the stream, you'll get there; but it will take you a few days since it meanders some. I know the duck can swim, but what about you chickens? Are you going to walk all the way? That will take even longer."
Billie looked down at her feet and let out a small sigh. She was getting used to all this walking, but she was glad that they rode Ergo as much as they did. This time they would be on their own, though. Maybe she shouldn't always be so eager to help folks.
While Aquila was thinking over their options, another horse spoke up, "I was grazing over there," he tossed his head in an upstream direction, "and saw a broken reed basket on the bank. Maybe the chickens can ride in it - you know, like a boat."
"That's an idea," Aquila said. "Let's take a look at this basket and see if it will float."
The horse ran over to where he had seen the basket, picked it up in his mouth and brought it back to the group. Everyone eagerly examined it. It had a few small holes in the sides, but otherwise looked okay.
"There's only one way to see if it will float." Aquila picked up the basket and carried it to the stream. She placed it in the water and hopped in. The basket began slowly moving with the current.
Billie called to her, "Hey! Don't go without me." She was laughing at the sight of her floating friend.
Aquila had been looking at the bottom of the basket for any leaks. She didn't see any. She yelled to the spectators on the bank, "No leaks. This ought to work. Now will one of you bring this basket to shore; I can't steer it."
Ergo quickly jumped into the stream and guided the makeshift boat to shore, where Aquila was happy to get back on dry land. Billie ran over and hugged her daredevil friend, much to the surprise of Pei, who didn't think anybody would be brave enough to hug the warrior chicken. He looked at the marathon talker with new respect.
"Well, all we need to do is figure out some way to steer it," Aquila said after Billie had released her.
Before any ideas occurred to them, the royal prince said, "Maybe I could pull it behind me. You could make a rope out of prairie grass and tie it to the handle. Since I will have to paddle all the way anyway, this will be best for all of us." Pei felt that since everyone was helping him, he needed to contribute something to the effort. Besides he was getting into the spirit of adventure that hovered over the two chickens.
Billie was enthusiastic. "Yeah, that'll work. I really wasn't looking forward to all that walking and we can't swim like you ducks can ... you sure do have pretty feathers ... do all marsh ducks look that pretty or is it because you're a prince?"
Aquila was pleased too. If Pei could think of others instead of his own comfort, maybe the marsh ducks would have a good ruler.
They spent the rest of the day making a tow line for the basket-boat and other preparations for their mission of mercy. Pei rested his sprained wing, and thought how lucky he was to have fallen out of the sky where he did.
The next day everyone rose early, even Billie who was eager to start on another adventure, although this looked to be a tame one. Aquila was busy tying the prairie grass rope to the handle of the basket and making sure it was tightly secured. She didn't want it breaking with her and Billie in it. She had many skills but steering boats wasn't one of them!
Ergo and Billie were saying good-bye to each other. This was the first time they had been separated since they had met and began to travel the world together with the warrior chicken. Ergo had bent her head so she was at eye level with the little chick.
"You'll be alright, won't you?" Billie asked, seriously. "Your uncle's here and all the other horses in his herd so you should be safe and you can tell them more stories about what you've done and seen and you can find out what it's like living out here in the grasslands away from farms and trees and stuff ... if you have any adventures while we're gone, you can tell us about them when we get back from taking Pei home and we'll tell you all about the marsh ducks." She finally paused to wipe away a tear.
The big horse smiled at her friend. "I'll be fine. You take care of yourself and of Aquila. You'll be back in a few days. I'm sure you will have lots to tell me about too!"
At this point Aquila walked over. "The boat's ready. Eric put some grain in it for us, Billie. We can use the bags as seats. Pei's anxious to get started." She put a wing on Billie's shoulder.
"I guess we better go." Billie patted the horse's head with her wing.
The two chickens were escorted to the stream by the entire herd, with Ergo leading the way. Pei was already in the water, with the grass rope tied around his waist. Aquila helped Billie into the basket-boat, then hopped in herself.
"We'll be back soon," Billie called, as Ergo's uncle gave the basket a push out into the stream. Pei began paddling, and they were on their way. Billie waved at all her new friends. Aquila smiled at Ergo as they floated past.
"Don't fall in the water," Ergo gave some parting advice.
Billie looked indignant - as if they would do anything that silly!
It took Billie a little while to get herself settled comfortably and to feel safe in their floating transportation. She looked at Aquila, who was sitting still and keeping an eye on both sides of the stream; she tried to sit still also. This wasn't easy for someone as hyperactive as the yellow chick. But since every time she moved the basket rocked, she had incentive not to move around too much. Once she stopped squirming, she felt in the mood for talk. Of course she usually felt in the mood for talk.
"Hey, Aquila, this is fun floating on the water as long as I don't move it's nice and smooth and it sure beats walking especially in all that grass ... I didn't want to say anything before but I miss all the trees and houses and all the folks in the woods back home ... I'll be glad to get back there ... I wonder what Pei's marsh is like ... he sure is a good swimmer I wonder how fast we're going ... Pei," she called to their tour guide, "can I ask you a couple of questions about your kingdom and your father?"
The free-range chicken looked up at the sky to hide her smile. Billie could never ask only a couple of questions!
The royal duck turned to look at the questioner for a second. "What do you want to know," he said, as he continued paddling.
Billie eagerly leaned against the front of their boat as she began finding out all she could about marsh ducks. Aquila kept an eye on her curious friend to make sure she didn't fall into the water.
Under the chick's questioning, Pei found himself describing the wetlands his father ruled. He talked about life in the royal compound; this was very different from Billie's experience in the farmyard and she found it fascinating. But when she asked about how the ordinary ducks lived, he wasn't able to satisfy her curiosity. Dropping this subject, Billie asked how his father got to be king. The paddling princeling described how his ancestor, called Ting, had managed to unify several large families of ducks in the wetlands and led them as king. His family had been kings ever since of the Ting dynasty.
When the history lesson reached this point, Billie's stomach started rumbling. Turning to look at Aquila, she asked, "Is it time for lunch yet?"
The warrior chicken had been listening to Pei's answers, as interested as her young companion in the activities of marsh ducks. Now she sat up and replied, "Your stomach thinks it is. Pei," she addressed their driver, "pull over to the bank, please, so we can get out and walk some. And you can dive for your food more easily without pulling this basket."
Prince Pei nodded and moved swiftly to the riverbank. When the basket-boat was partially on the mud, Aquila helped the duck untie the tow rope, and Pei swam off and began diving underwater for food. Then she got some grain out for their lunch, which they ate sitting on the bank.
After eating and resting a while, Aquila retied the rope to Pei's waist; she helped Billie back into their transportation. She gave the basket a push while the duck began pulling it, and jumped in beside Billie.
What with eating her fill, and the warm sun shining on them, and the gentle motion of the boat as it floated down the stream, Billie soon fell asleep with her head in Aquila's lap. This gave the moody warrior chicken a chance to ask Pei some questions herself.
"Pei," she called softly so as not to disturb her sleeping companion, "tell me more about the ambush. Do you think they attacked your group deliberately or were you just in the wrong place at the wrong time?"
The royal duck didn't answer right away; he was picturing the attack that separated him from his bodyguards. "At the time I thought that it was a random attack, not aimed at us in particular. But now I'm not sure. There were a dozen of us in my party; we thought we would be safe with that many. I don't know how many ducks attacked us - they seemed to be everywhere." He paused, thinking. "Maybe it was aimed at us. Several of them came straight for me, and I thought it was because I was the richest looking one. I was trying to fight them off and get back to my group when one of them grabbed my wing and spun me around. I couldn't contol my flying and fell into some low bushes. I was stunned for a while. When I got up and looked around, I couldn't see anyone - not my bodyguards or the robber ducks." Pei paddled in silence for several minutes.
Aquila asked, "What did you do then?" She was curious how a spoiled member of royalty would act when suddenly all on his own.
"There was no point in making a treaty now," he replied. "All I could think was I needed to go home and tell my father what had happened. I couldn't fly very fast with my hurt wing, and I was afraid the robbers would find me. When I saw that stream, I was overjoyed since I figured I could swim home from there. That's when I fell into your camp." He turned and smiled at Aquila. "I am very grateful to you and your friends for helping me. My father will reward you handsomely, I promise."
"That's alright," the free-range chicken muttered. "We aren't doing this for any reward."
Pei continued paddling. Aquila was thinking. There seemed to be more to the ambush of Pei's group than even he realized. The warrior chicken wondered what things were really like in the marsh duckdom. She planned to find out before she let Pei walk into a dangerous situation. She sighed. Political intrigues always irritated her.
The afternoon passed quietly with both Aquila and Pei thinking their separate thoughts, and Billie peacefully napping. When it was getting close to sunset, Pei headed to the side of the stream and brought the boat to a stop. While he was untying the tow rope, the fierce warrior chicken gently shook Billie.
"Wake up, sleepyhead, it's evening and time for dinner."
Billie blinked her eyes several times and stretched her little wings. Then she gave a big yawn. "Why did we stop ... are we in Pei's kingdom already ... I didn't sleep all afternoon did I ... did I miss anything ... why didn't you wake me ... oh that grain looks good thanks for getting it out." Billie started eating.
Aquila smiled and began eating too; she didn't want to let Billie get all the food.
The next day was a repeat of the first day on the river. Only this time Billie did most of the talking, telling Pei all about their adventures and how they went about the countryside helping folks who were in trouble and taking care of bad guys. She built up Aquila's fighting abilities until her hero told her not to exaggerate so much. Billie just laughed and told another story.
Pei didn't take everything Billie said as true. But if even half of what the little chick said was accurate, then he had some real help if they ran into any problems before he could get home.
That afternoon their peaceful cruise was rudely interrupted by loud splashing sounds. Aquila and Billie both looked over the side to see what was making all that noise. Pei wanted to duck under the water but was hampered by the tow rope tied to his waist. Suddenly a carp poked its head out of the water right in front of the boat. Pei quacked at the fish and tried to kick it with his feet, but the carp grinned, dove under the water and resurfaced beside the basket.
"Hi," the carp gurgled. "What are you doing in my river? What a sight - two chickens in a basket! And a royal duck finally doing some work. Where are you going?"
Pei tried to kick the carp again but all this accomplished was to make the basket rock precariously. Aquila had hold of Billie to keep her from falling out. Her other wing was holding he magic throwing ring, just in case.
"Hey!" Billie exclaimed. "Pei, be careful we can't swim like you can ... look at the fish, Aquila, what kind is it ... and what do you mean this is your river I thought the river didn't belong to anybody or belonged to everybody or something like that ... anyway we aren't bothering anybody just floating along so you can leave us alone now. Go away." She waved a wing at the fish.
The carp splashed a little water into the basket as it dove under the surface and came up again on the other side of the boat.
"Does this thing you're in have a name," he asked from behind the two chickens. They moved to the other side of the basket to look at the intruder. "And do you call that a rope that his highness is pulling you with? I could make a better rope with my eyes closed. Wait till I tell my friends that I saw a royal marsh duck pulling a basket with two chickens in it. I should sell tickets."
Pei had stopped trying to kick the carp and now contented himself with saying loftily, "Mind your own business, carp. We are doing you no harm so leave us alone."
Billie piped up, "You're a carp? That's the kind of fish you are? What's your name?"
The carp ignored her attempt at politeness; he was examining the basket-boat closely. "What a joke this thing is. I see it has several holes already. I bet I could tip it over without half trying."
"You do, and you'll be somebody's dinner tonight," Aquila promised as she poised her throwing ring.
Looking offended, the carp moved away from their boat. "Okay, just be that way," he said huffily. "Let me give you some advice. When you come to a fork in the stream, don't take it."
Grinning at them he sank under the water and was gone. Billie thought later that his smile seemed to linger on the surface of the water for several minutes.
What with the disturbing encounter with the carp, and the good time they were making, the three of them decided to make an early stop that day. Pei had begun to recognize some landmarks so they knew they were close to his kingdom. They all felt that a good night's rest would do them good.
It was midmorning the next day when Prince Pei, who had been acting as a cruise director and pointing out the interesting features they were sailing past (his wing was healing quickly and he didn't need a sling any more), began to quack loudly and paddle faster. Billie and Aquila looked at each other in surprise; they wondered what had excited the marsh duck.
Before Billie could say anything, Aquila asked, "What's the matter?"
After several more loud quacks, Pei calmed down enough to exclaim, "That's the border of my kingdom ahead! We're almost home. You see how the river forks and leaves the land marshy. If we leave the water and go straight, we should reach my father's house in a couple of hours. I will be so happy to see him! A few days ago I had given up hope of ever seeing my marsh again." He quacked a few more times in his joy. By this time he had reached the fork in the river and was pulling the basket out of the water.
Billie was smiling, joining in the duck's happiness. Also she was secretly glad to be back on more or less dry ground. Sailing had been fun at first, but the constant motion had upset her stomach a little. She said, "I guess this is what that silly carp meant when it said to go straight at the fork in the river ... are you sure that's ground you're heading for it looks kinda soggy ... will we be able to walk on it I don't want to get stuck now that we're so close to your home ... well, if you think it's okay, Aquila, it must be ..." A short pause while she watched the black feathered chicken jump out of their boat and feel the ground, checking to see how solid it was. Billie climbed up and sat on the side of the basket. "Help me down." She held out her little wings to her bigger friend.
The free-range chicken reached up and swung Billie down onto a tuft of grass. Once again Pei was surprised at how easily the chattering chick handled the fierce warrior.
Billie looked around her and took a few tentative hops. "Hey this is better than I thought it's springy and not as wet as it looks ... I can hop higher too ... look!" she called as she bounced along on the ground. "Whoops," as her last hop missed its mark and she stumbled. Aquila managed to grab her before she fell on her little behind.
"Careful! I think you need to practice some before you jump all the way to Pei's home." Aquila smiled at Billie as she steadied her.
Then the suspicious chicken turned to Pei, who had been looking with pleasure at his domain, and said, "I've been thinking about that attack on you, Pei. Maybe there's more to it than a random attack by a robber band. I think we shouldn't be in too much of a hurry to get you home. We need to find out what has happened here since you left. If we run across any ducks, we can ask them for the latest news."
Pei had looked increasingly worried during this speech. He had been so happy to get home that he had almost forgotten about why he was in the company of chickens. "Do you really think that there is still danger? No one in my kingdom would raise a feather against me; I am sure of that."
Billie was looking from one to the other, confused by their attitudes. This was her first encounter with palace intrigue and she was finding it as hard to get her footing in that situation as she was on the marshy ground.
Aquila continued, "There may not be anything wrong here. But we need to be sure of that first." She looked speculatively at the duck for a few minutes.
Pei grew restive under the scrutiny and started to hop from foot to foot. Before he could say anything, the warrior chicken resumed, "I was wondering. Will your subjects recognize you? Do we need to disguise you before we go to your home?"
Pei cleared his throat. "Well, as to that, we don't like to admit it, but all us marsh ducks look pretty much alike. We sometimes have trouble telling each other apart. To distinguish the royal family, we wear a gold chain around our necks." He put his good wing up and touched his gold chain.
"Can you take it off," Aquila asked.
"No; once it is put around our necks as babies, it cannot be broken or taken off. Our magician puts a spell on them. Sorry."
Aquila frowned in concentration. "We'll have to cover it somehow."
A short time later three figures could be seen [at least by the omniscient narrator in her fevered and unregulated imagination] walking - or in the case of the smallest figure hopping merrily - across the landscape toward the main nesting area of the marsh ducks. They saw other ducks ahead of them, and hurried to catch up with them. When they got close, they could hear what the ducks were discussing.
Much to Pei's dismay, he heard that everyone thought he was dead. Apparently some of his bodyguard had survived and managed to return. But since they had not been able to find any trace of the duck prince, they reported that he had been killed in the attack. The king had punished the bodyguards by sending them to a work camp on the edge of the marsh. Now the king's brother and chief advisor was urging Pei the Elder to name his son the new heir. All the ducks in the marsh were going to this ceremony.
Having heard all this, Pei started walking faster; he had to get to his father before the ceremony. Aquila and Billie were barely able to keep up with him. They quickly passed the other ducks, who had given the companions some strange looks - either because chickens were a rare sight in the wetlands or because the reed necklace around Pei's neck to cover his gold band was an unusual accessory for ducks. Once they were out of earshot of everyone, Aquila called to Pei to slow down. Billie for once had to use all her breath to keep up the fast pace.
Pei looked back when he heard Aquila call to him. He waited for the chickens to catch up, then started off again a little slower. "I must get to my father before he names my cousin the new heir. That would be a disaster for the marsh ducks. My cousin has never cared for anybody but himself; besides he is afraid of his own shadow, and has always done whatever his father, my uncle, told him to do. He does not deserve to be king." Pei looked worried.
Billie had caught her breath by this time. "If your cousin is so bad, your father must know that so why would he name him the heir ... he should name someone who would be a good king and take care of all the ducks ..."
Pei interrupted, "My father has to name him the heir because he is the next closest relative. It has been our tradition for many generations. Up until now it has been a good system."
Unconsciously the anxious duck started walking faster again.
"Stop a minute," Aquila said in her most authoritative voice.
Reacting to the tone, Pei stopped and gave the black-feathered chicken an exasperated look.
Ignoring it, Aquila continued, "Has it occurred to you that your uncle might have been behind the attack on you? It would be one way to get you out of the way so that his son could be named heir. Then eventually your uncle could take over the kingdom."
The princeling thought that over for a moment. "My uncle has always been jealous of my father. And once I overheard him saying that he would have made a better king than my father. What do you think I should do?"
"I think we should show up at this ceremony, but stay in the background. Then you can come forward before your father names a new heir. That should cause a little excitement."
"Alright; but let's hurry." Pei began walking quickly.
Billie smiled as she bounced along. The world was full of so many new experiences for her!
It wasn't long before they joined a large crowd of ducks milling around the center of the village. As stealthily as they could, they worked their way close to a raised platform. From this vantage point they could see most of the area. Aquila looked around her, assessing the offensive and defensive possibilities of their situation. It never hurt to be prepared. Billie was happily taking note of everything so she could give Ergo a full report later.
Suddenly Pei stiffened, then moved behind the free-range chicken.
"What is it," Aquila asked.
"That's my uncle who just came out on the platform," Pei whispered. Aquila saw a duck with a gold band similar to Pei's around his neck. "And those ducks with him are some of the ones that attacked us!" He took a deep breath to calm down. "You must be right; my uncle wants to take over the kingdom. That means my father is in danger too." He started to move off, but Aquila grabbed his wing and stopped him.
Before the anxious duck could say any more, there was a stirring in the crowd. Pei, king of the marsh ducks, was making his royal progress through the crowd. Once he mounted the platform, he raised his wings to silence the cheering throng.
He had a somber expression on his face as he began his speech. "This is a sad occasion for all of us. My only son has been most foully killed in a cowardly attack. While I mourn his loss, I must do my duty for our kingdom. Less than a year ago I named Pei, my beloved son, as my heir and your next king. Now it is my unhappy task to name a new heir. I know that you will be as loyal to him as you would have been to my son." The king looked to his right. "Mordred, come forward."
A foppish-looking duck waddled to stand before the king. The crowd stirred uneasily; they were unhappy but couldn't do anything about it. Mordred's father, the king's brother and advisor, wore a self-satisfied smile. All his plans were about to be fulfilled.
The king placed his wings on Mordred's bowed head.
Aquila pushed Pei forward. "Now!"
Prince Pei jumped up onto the platform. Frowning, the king looked up at the interruption and glared at the intruder. Pei reached up and pulled the reed necklace from his throat, revealing his royal band. "Pei," the stupefied king said hesitantly.
"Yes, father. I am alive. And there are the ones who attacked us." He pointed at the ducks who surrounded his uncle.
Before anyone could move, the uncle ordered his henchducks, "Kill them!"
With loud quackings, the treacherous ducks charged the two Peis. When he saw this, Pei the younger ran to his father's side. They exchanged brief smiles; then prepared to defend themselves from the attackers.
Mordred had run away at the first sign of trouble and took refuge under the platform, hoping no one would notice him. He had always known his father would go too far some day.
Aquila, grinning broadly, gave her batttle cry as she leapt onto the platform. The eerie sound echoed over the wetlands. It caused a few of the robber duck band to pause in their attack. The warrior chicken had realized long ago that her batttle cry was one of her strongest weapons.
She stood several feet in front of the royal Peis and fought any duck that tried to get past her. Using all the tricks she had learned in her hard life on the road, she made short work of the less skillful ducks. A few attackers did get close to the king and prince, but these had been flung over Aquila's shoulder and were too dazed to be any more of a threat. The king and prince had no trouble subduing them.
The leader of the robber ducks realized they didn't have a chance against the wild looking black-feathered chicken. He yelled to his followers to get away. Aquila was ready for this move. As the ducks were barely airborne, her throwing ring whizzed over their heads. This caused them to twist to avoid it; they couldn't keep their balance and all of them fell into the marsh. The crowd of common ducks had been watching all the activity on the platform in fascination. Now they saw that they could do something to help their king. Many willing wings grabbed the attackers and held them.
While all this was going on, Billie, who wasn't able to leap quite as high as her mentor, had got onto the platform using the more conventional stairs. She had seen Mordred cowering under the platform; since he didn't look like he would be going anywhere any time soon, she ignored him. Once she was on the platform, she looked around to see where she was needed. Aquila seemed to have everything under control, as usual. And Pei and his father weren't in any danger either. She let out a small sigh. Here she was, eager to use the fighting skills she had learned from her hero, and there was nobody to fight. Darn!
Then she saw Pei's uncle. He had stayed at the edge of the platform when he ordered his minions to atttack. Now, realizing that all his plans were falling apart, he moved toward the side stairs and escape. Billie ran to stop him. She had to avoid or jump over several of the robber ducks who had had more than enough of the warrior chicken. Just as the uncle reached the top step his feet went out from under him , and he landed on his ample stomach. He tried to get up, but found that a yellow chicken had grabbed his wings and was holding him down. She might not be able to jump onto platforms, but the little chick could tackle.
The battle lasted only a few minutes. Quickly the quackings died down to mournful moans from the routed robbers.
Aquila caught her magic ring as it returned to her. She looked around. The first thing she saw was Billie sitting on Pei's uncle, holding him down. She smiled. Then she turned to make sure the prince and his father were alright. They were standing over several ducks who looked like they might wake up in another day or so. Next she looked at the rest of the robber band that had been captured by loyal ducks. She thought to herself, 'Everything seems to have turned out nicely.' She walked over to check on her friend.
Billie smiled happily when Aquila stopped next to her. "Here's Pei's uncle I caught him before he could get away ... and the would-be king is hiding under the platform ... it's sure good that he won't be king now that Pei is back ... he and his father weren't afraid in the fight at all I guess that's how a king should act but this is the first king I've seen so I don't know for sure ... Hey!" she said and swatted the back of the duck's head as he tried to squirm away.
Aquila took hold of the duck's wings. "Let me help you, Billie. It's time the two brothers had a reunion."
With a chicken on either side, the defeated duck was led before the king. He kept his head down, not wanting to look his brother in the eye. Pei the king was more sad than angry. He had always known of his brother's jealousy and had given his brother high office and power, hoping he would get over it. Obviously that hadn't worked. The king ordered his guard to take all the conspirators and hold them until he decided what to do with them. It was several more minutes before Mordred could be coaxed out of his hiding place and added to the prisoners.
With one wing around his son's shoulders and the other held out to the two chickens, the king turned to his relieved subjects. "This celebration was planned to name a new heir. But now we have something better to celebrate. My son was dead and is alive. Let the celebrations begin!" The royal pair, followed by Aquila and Billie, left the platform to be engulfed by the exuberantly cheering ducks.
Very late that night Billie and Aquila were settling down to sleep in the very comfortable room Prince Pei had led them to. Earlier at the homecoming celebration, Pei had told his father all about the attack on his diplomatic party; about how he had got separated from his bodyguards and had injured his wing. He described his abrupt arrival at the horse camp by the river. He told how Aquila had made a sling for his wing. He went into great detail about their travel arrangements, describing the basket-boat to much laughter by the ducks and indignant looks from the chickens. He ended by thanking Aquila and Billie for helping him. And said that if he were ever in another fight he hoped they would be by his side.
At this praise, the warrior chicken looked a little uncomfortable; she still was not used to the role of hero. Billie beamed at everyone.
Now, although it had been a very long and exciting day, Billie was still too wound up to go to sleep immediately. She hopped around their accommodations, examining the low chairs and tables that were just right for ducks. She had never seen anything quite like them. Finally she fell onto the down-filled mattress on the floor. She bounced around on it for a few minutes, enjoying herself. Then she sat up and looked at Aquila who had been watching the game.
"This is really fun you should try it." She bounced a couple of more times before lying down. "That was a great party chickens never have parties like that at least we never did back on my farm ... and now we're heroes again do you really think they'll tell stories about us forever like the king said ... I wonder what will happen to all those robbers and Pei's uncle and cousin ... Pei was glad when his father forgave his bodyguards for not protecting him - like Pei said they were outnumbered and it was a surprise attack ... they were sure a lot of mellow marsh ducks by the time the party ended ... Are we going to leave tomorrow to go back to Ergo ... I can't wait to tell her all about this and how royal ducks live she won't believe us ... do you suppose we'll see that silly carp again I'm glad Pei told me what it was because with the sun on the river I thought it looked decked out like a rainbow trout ... This has been fun but I'll be happy to get Ergo and we can all go back home."
During her dissertation, Billie had been yawning. With one final yawn she turned over and was asleep. Aquila got into bed. "I hope we will all want to go back home," she said quietly before settling down to sleep.
The next day, King Pei held court. He sentenced the robber gang to an indefinite term at the work camp on the edge of the marsh. When and if they reformed, they could be released. Mordred, left to his own devices, was no threat so the king confined him to his own home and ordered him to have no more contact with his father. Finally he looked at his brother. This was going to be hard, but this outright attempt to take the throne could not be overlooked. The king commanded his brother to leave the marsh duckdom and to never return. Glowering, the chief conspirator was led away.
After he had dismissed the court, Pei, accompanied by his son Pei, took the two chicken heroes for a tour of his city. Their progress was slow because everywhere they went, the other ducks cheered and applauded them, and because Billie had to ask about everything she saw. She wanted to be able to tell Ergo all about marsh ducks. This was a great adventure! She only wished Ergo had been there to help them.
That night Aquila and Billie were the guests of Prince Pei at another feast. If they didn't leave soon, Aquila thought, they would soon be as fat as Pei's cousin.
The next morning, a large group of ducks, with Prince Pei in the lead, could be seen escorting a yellow and a black chicken. With many congratulations and thanks on all sides they made their way to the border of the marsh. Billie hugged Pei and gave him some advice to take care of himself and not get caught by ambushes.
Aquila and Pei shook wings. "You'll make a good king when your time comes," the warrior chicken said. Pei stood a little straighter; he knew praise from the black-feathered one was rare.
Billie and Aquila began their walk back.
It was evening, and our two favorite heroes were sitting by their campfire. Xena was in stoic mood, poking at the fire with a stick. Gabrielle was happily burbling along, completely oblivious to her companion's mood.
"That was a nice town; it's too bad they didn't have an inn so we could stay there longer. There was that woman with the cute kid who offered to let us stay with her, but you were probably right that they didn't really have room enough for us. Besides if we have to be in Athens by next week, we don't have time to dawdle. By the way, what's this big emergency, and why didn't you tell me about it before?"
No response from her companion who continued poking the fire.
"You know, Xena, my warrior chicken fables are getting popular, and not just with children. It was funny how that little boy broke into my story about us and asked for a chicken fable. Although I don't know where he got the idea that Billie is the central character."
Gabrielle stopped talking when she heard a sharp snap. Xena had broken her fire-poking stick. It slowly dawned on the bard that something was bothering her partner. She asked solicitously, "Xena, what's wrong?"
"Oh, nothing," was the short reply.
Gabrielle moved over to sit next to the warrior, and put an arm around her shoulders. "Come on," pleadingly. "I know when something is bothering you. Is it this emergency in Athens? You can tell me."
Xena shifted a little uncomfortably. "There isn't any emergency in Athens," she muttered.
"What?! Then why did you say there was? We could have stayed in that village longer and been sleeping in beds instead of on the hard ground." She tried to look into Xena's face and finally had to reach over and turn her friend's head. "Didn't you want to stay there?"
Their eyes met. Gabrielle smiled hopefully, and met an answering smile. "What's really bothering you." she asked quietly.
"It's silly," the fierce warrior looked embarrassed.
The sympathetic bard took Xena's hand. "If it's bothering you, it's not silly. Come on; tell me. Please."
"Oh all right!" Xena looked around for inspiration. Not finding any, she blurted out, "I just think you're spending too much time making up fables about those dumb chickens." She looked anxiously at her partner, not sure how she would take this criticism of her art.
Gabrielle tried to keep from laughing, and managed for about three seconds. "Xena, you're not jealous of a warrior chicken, are you? I'm glad people like them, and it is fun making up fables, but they aren't real. You are the only warrior in my life." She hugged her reassured friend.
Some time later, Gabrielle asked, "What did you catch for our dinner?"
Xena got a wicked smile on her face. "Chicken."