Birdie, Rachelle, Xena, Gabrielle are on their way to Athens for the yearly convention of the Royal Academy of Bards. My eternal gratitude to my beta reader, Trace, who stays on me until I get it right…
Birdie’s Song IX- The Road Trip Part 2
I am Robin…
The second and third days were much like the first. We awakened early and took a warm wash in the hot water that Mama always had going on the fire that Baba brought back to life in the pre-dawn darkness. Then there was a bracingly cold rinse in the nearby stream or lake which bordered our campsites. By the gods I hated those rinses and actually developed quite a good war cry when taking the icy plunge. Baba Xe said a cold rinse prepared one for the day ahead; it made a warrior properly alert, but I never really bought into that theory. It was just cold. However, Mama complained little by habit of many seasons, and Rach almost never complained by virtue of growing up by the sea. So eventually, I was shamed into toughness.
A mug of good hot tea, and drying my hair by the fire warmed me quickly. We nibbled on fruit, nuts and bread as we struck camp, and by the time we were mounted and setting off, I always felt great. But my Baba Xe was positively glowing; she had terrific energy; her sky blue eyes were flashing, and even Argo danced lightly. Mama G was energized by watching the warrior princess, and soon the whistle came from Thomas and Galto and we began, staying mostly on the big main road to Athens, veering off only to the special campsites which had history with my parents.
We had pheasant the second evening with some wild mushrooms Mama G had found: I had to admit that the crispy meat was delicious, even though I tried to stay away from hunting birds. The third evening Rachelle, Zephyr and I fished. We did rather well and had a fair sized feast, with wild greens Baba had gathered and crunchy cornmeal bread dumplings that Rach knew how to make. She said they were popular in the coastal Amazon camp. It was rather exciting to wonder what the next meal might or might not be; it kept a person on her toes.
The fourth day we ran into brigands. Such was always a possibility, just as surely as running into pirates was on the open sea. There were people in the world that could make no honest living and so laid in wait to take others’ honest livings from them. And there were those would take more than that, particularly if their victims were women. Xena the Conqueror took particular issue with that type of raider. The troop who came upon us was a vicious group of reprobates; one could tell from their smell, their unkempt clothing, their general nastiness. Baba Xe had spotted them from some distance away, when they were still just a thundering cloud of dust.
“You, Birdie, Rachelle, climb up into that tree,” she directed, “ and you will not leave it, no matter what you see occur, do you understand? Do you understand me, Birdie?”
“Yes, Baba Xe.”
She whirled Argo who had already taken her warhorse persona. I had never considered how Argo managed that personality change, but she did it well. Perhaps she was Ares’ chosen too.
“Thomas! Galto!” My Baba’s voice was the one that could ring across an army. Her soldiers were beside her immediately.
Hades and Lucy cantered away from the fray for the moment. I boosted Rach’s butt ahead of me quickly through the branches and then perched myself lower as look out. I was terrified for my parents for they were greatly outnumbered and there was no doubt that these men were dangerous.
He who fancied himself the leader was riding straight at Baba Xe like a madman; he was heavily built and had long dark greasy hair which blew behind him and a matching beard, braided with leather. He was bellowing, “Come to Papa, Beautiful!” He threw hairy meaty arms open wide from a sleeveless jerkin a dagger in each hand, “Papa will dine well tonight.”
I shook my head at his hubris, for the man was a fool; he had no idea with whom he toyed.
As she rode toward this grizzly fellow, my Baba Xe became Xena the Conqueror of old, a warrior as formidable as any man who thought he might take her down. Her eyes narrowed into slits of ice, and the smile that formed on her lips was primal, predatory. She was no man’s victim.
“Stay behind me, Gabrielle,” she shouted, “Watch yourself!”
Her pass with the leader was brief; her sword sang; half his head flew into the air, bloodied from the gash that drove a ditch into his chest and sliced upward; he would not be dining on Xena Warrior Princess tonight. The second horseman behind the leader caught the Tide’s blade in his groin, and he screamed as the weight of her body slung itself over his head and her boots landed straight in the face of the third rider which snapped his neck. Argo had watched her rider’s actions and galloped into position for Baba to land quite nicely in the saddle without a hitch. The man with the groin injury bled to death in moments, saturating his horse. It was ghastly and I closed my eyes. Three down in a matter of a dozen breaths.
Mama was behind and had taken out a more fortunate fellow with two quick cross slashes of her staff and was binding him securely with some cord she had taken from Wendy’s saddlebag. Thomas and Galto had dragged lesser members from their respective horses and laid them out with no more mercy than Baba Xe.
Baba had leaped from Argo again and dragged another fellow from his horse to first kick him silly, and then pummel him into complete unconsciousness. The two others had simply turned their horses and fled. Baba whipped rope around the unconscious one. The last chap, a bit slower or more stupid than the others was riding toward our tree. As he passed under it, Rach swung her legs and booted him in the head, and I leaped from high up, completing the head kick and stomped him down to the ground. He tried to rise once, but I executed the perfect Baba Xe spinning kick to the chin and he dropped like a stone. I quickly straddled his back and began tying his hands together with rawhide cord that Rach dropped down from the tree. Zephyr watched as I completed my knot.
I sprang to my feet triumphantly from the conquest only to have my hop arrested in mid air by a firm grip on the collar of my tunic. This did not feel good.
“What was the last thing I told you to do, Birdie?”
Baba’s voice. Low and dangerous. Minotaur Shite.
“Don’t be mad at Rach, Baba. It was my fault.”
“Birdie, Rachelle is still in the tree.”
The Warrior Princess felt a familier cool hand at her back.
She inclined her head, “Gabrielle.”
“The Conqueror has receded, right?”
Xena took a deep, cleansing breath. She focused, eyes closed. She was a parent.
She smiled at her lover, “ Yes, Gabrielle, the Conqueror is gone. Shall we plan on camping at that wide place in the river we noted before we were attacked, about a quarter candlemark back? We can walk.” She turned to her queen so that Gabrielle would know she was completely calm. “Will you please speak to Rachelle about this judgement error the girls have made?”
“I will.” The emerald eyes held the saphire for a moment longer and the hand gave the back a pat. “Talk to you later. Love you.”
“And I you.”
They parted, each with a youngster in mind.
“Walk with me , Birdie.”
She didn’t seem quite so angry, but that didn’t mean I was out of the woods at all. I followed her silently to Argo, whom she checked carefully for any injuries, running her hands down the tan legs of the horse, fluttering delicate fingers over the fetlocks, and even checking her hooves. Then she held Argo’s head still and looked straight into the dark eyes and found the gaze as steady as ever.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Mama G hold out her hand to Rach, and then her other hand to Hades and Lucy, as they galloped to join them. I sighed and returned my attention to Baba expertly pouring a drink into her cupped hand from the water skin and allowing her horse a few sips of water.
“That will hold you until we find the stream, Argo. Are you thirsty, Bird?”
I was, I took the skin, and drank deeply; then she did. We stood there silently.
With a weak attempt at courage, I offered, ”If you are going to wallop me, Baba Xe, I wish you would do it here and not do it in front of Rach.”
I felt her gaze on me steady, calm, appraising, “Do you think that is what I should, do, Birdie? Take you across my knee and tan your hide properly?”
Tears came unbidden; never with my Baba Xe would I be “too big” for this feeling, “Yes, Baba, probably.” My head dropped.
Her hand came around my shoulders then; it surprised me. “Let’s walk. Though I am not disagreeing with you, tell me why you should be disciplined, Bird.”
Well, this was a new approach; couldn’t say that I cared for it. Too much like Mama G, only with the Baba Xe whip-sting.
“I disobeyed you. You told me to stay in the tree.”
A few quiet steps. She walked ahead of me looking out into the distance arms akimbo.
“And why did I tell you to stay in the tree, Birdie?” her voice was still too mild.
“To stay out of danger, but Baba, I wanted to help, and I could, and I did!”
She did a quick about face, returned, clamping her hands on my shoulders very firmly.
“Wrong! I know your skills Robin of Amphipolis; I trained you. I ordered you to stay in the tree to protect Rachelle - whose skills I do not know.”
She might as well have struck me in the face; I had no answer for her; it had not occurred to me that such was her intent.
She strode away a few steps and then turned back to me, “ Birdie you were to guard Rachelle against the failure of your parents to protect both of you! I gave Eponin my word ,and there’s nothing more important, Birdie, nothing!”
There was silence between Rachelle and Gabrielle for nearly a quarter candle mark, only the sound of hoof beats following boots on the hard ground.
“I’m sorry, Lady G, about our behavior,” Rach ventured softly, “We disobeyed you. We were wrong.”
Gabrielle swallowed and then fixed her young friend with a full dose of her stormy sea foam eyes. Rachelle immediately dropped hers from the intensity.
“Well, you at least stayed in the tree, Rach.” She said calmly. “But I would like for you to use your imagination for me, a moment. Will you do that?”
“Yes m’am,” Rachelle felt herself blinking back tears. She could not believe the emotional power the bard could wield using only her eyes and tone of voice. Auntie Pony always bellowed a bit or sometimes even smacked her backside, but it was over quickly. Rach had no idea what Gabrielle had in store for her.
“I want you to imagine me riding into the Amazon camp and telling your Auntie Pony that great tragedy had befallen you.”
I had walked behind Baba for many moments, head hanging; she turned back to me again.
“Birdie, what will you do when you grow up?”
The question came completely out of nowhere, and I was completely unprepared for it.
“Uh, Baba?” Stammering. “What you do, I suppose.”
She had halted and had fixed me with her blue glare again. Those gods be damned eyes; I couldn’t look at her.
“What is it exactly, that I do, Birdie?”
I tried raising my eyes, but couldn’t. “You look after Amphipolis.”
“I maintain the fortress.”
“Yes My Lady.”
“I run the army.”
“Yes, My Lady,” a whisper.
“Birdie, right now I wouldn’t want you in my army.”
My vision blurred; a ringing began in my ears.
“Do you know why, Birdie?”
“I don’t follow orders.” My voice barely audible.
“Pretty piss-poorly, girl.”
She put her hand on my shoulder, not unkindly.
“I want you to think about that, Birdie. Think about it hard. I issue orders for a reason.”
She turned me towards my mother and Rach and dismissed me with a little push.
“Go see if you can help your Mama now.”
My vision was greatly hampered by my self loathing; I was in a dense fog of shame. Mama G took one look at me stumbling into the neat campsite that she and Rach had made, and she rose to place a guiding hand on my arm.
“You have the look of a person in ‘bistrace’. “ That brought a bare brief smile from me.
“Rach, can you manage here?”
Rach’s granite eyes shot sympathy to me, “Of course, Lady G.”
Mama G steered me along the clear stream for a ways then turned to look at me with gentle eyes. She simply pulled me into her arms, settling my head on her shoulder. We listened to the music of running water over stones.
“I know what you need,” she whispered.
I sniffed a little on her shoulder as she moved me on to her arm but kept me in her embrace. Mama’s hand lifted a bit and fell softly on my backside.
“One,” she said quietly, “for impulsivity, correct?” The tears finally fell from my eyes, and I dropped my head onto her shoulder with an affirmative nod.
The palm fell again with no sting, her voice low and loving; the salty water flowed generously from under my lashes.
“One for disobedience—you must work on that, Honey.” The same hand came up to stroke my hair and guide my eyes to meet hers.
“I know, Mama,” the words spoken in a sob, but spoken, “I will.”
Her hand made a third gentle connection.
“One to make certain that you have grown up a little today; have you done that, Birdie?” It was a question that demanded an answer.
“Yes, Mama, I have.” I laid my head back on her shoulder, which was quite damp now from my sorrow.
“And one,” with some firmness, “because- I- love -you.” Her words were carved in stone and they anchored me, even as her arms surrounded me.
I straightened my shoulders and wiped my sleeve across my eyes. She pushed my hair back and stroked the tears away with her thumbs.
“I love you too, Mama.” Get a grip, Bird.
She searched my soul through my eyes. “Better?”
Deep breath. I would manage.
“Yes, Mama. Better. Thanks.”
“Then go help Rach; keep chopping up ingredients for the soup, ok? I am going to talk to your Baba.”
“She didn’t wallop me, Mama.” My eyes lowered, “She should have; I really messed up.”
“I know that, Birdie. I just need to talk to her. Go on now.”
I hugged my precious mother and went to snuggle under the comforting arm of my girlfriend.
Xena knew who it was by the sound of the light step in the gravel. So she waited. And she was expecting her.
“Xena, what did you say to Birdie?” It was a mild inquiry from her lover, but there was no doubt that it demanded an answer.
The warrior turned from her horse, “I didn’t lay a hand on her Gabrielle.”
“I know that. Still, she was fairly destroyed; what did you say?”
Impatient sigh, blue rolling eyes.
“The wrong thing. I said the wrong thing.”
Silence from the bard.
“I told her that I wouldn’t want her in my army. She can’t follow orders.”
“Well, she can’t!”
“Gabrielle!” Howled softly at the sky.
Quietly, “Xena, I wouldn’t want Birdie in your army either. She’s a kid. She’s thirteen winters old. Do you remember the trouble I had following your orders at seventeen winters?”
The taller woman considered.
“Xena you told the child- your favorite squire- who worships the ground you walk upon that she wasn’t good enough for your army. That you didn’t want her in it.”
“I was trying to make a point, Gabrielle.”
“Well, I guess you did that.”
The sky blues lifted. Another sigh and the strong hands rose in a plea and then fell again. The warrior’s boot drew circles in the dust.
“Gabrielle, there is a new breed of brigand out there. I have heard the word, and now we’ve seen them. A new kind of gang mentality, mostly younger men, tossed from society or their families because they don’t measure up and don’t want to play by the rules. They join and ride together and take what they want from the weak because they don’t have the honor to earn it, these gangs. They have their own systems, their own initiations and leadership. They are ruthlessly powerful in their own ways and they are frightening. Such a gang would love to feed on young girls.”
“And this requires Birdie to behave as a soldier at thirteen winters? Honestly Xena, I’d much rather you tan her little backside than break her heart in the manner I’ve just witnessed.”
The bard spoke softly, carefully, for her words were hard, “I want her to grow up to be like her Baba Xe, but I must tell you that I do not wish her to be the Conqueror or the Destroyer of Nations. I hope that she will not ever need to be so ruthless.”
It was a center strike. Sky blues flicked tears and looked away. The Conqueror walked over to Argo and placed her hands on the saddle looking at the ground. Dark spots appeared in the dust; a tall boot kicked at a buried rock repeatedly.
Gentle arms embraced the warrior from behind, and Xena straightened and held onto the smaller hands. Then she turned to face her lover.
“Birdie scares me Gabrielle; I do need for her to do what I tell her to do especially in a situation like today.”
“She is your child, not your enlisted man.”
The raven tresses drooped. The bard knew that the ice was broken.
“Xena, remember how much time it took with me, and I was older than Birdie?”
“Yes, and I had to smack you a couple of times.”
“Only a few times.” The forest eyes twinkled mischievously. “But you loved me and you were patient, and I adored you and wanted to please you.”
“You did,” the warrior smiled to herself, “you were a stubborn little thing, but you learned.”
The bard’s gentle touch stroked the warrior’s stiffened back soothingly up and down. “So will Birdie.”
The warrior’s chin came to rest upon the bard’s head gently.
“I was too hard on her.”
“Birdie deserved a reprimand, Xena; I am only asking if you intended to destroy her.”
“No.” A pause. “Can you and Rach do dinner?”
“Of course.” Another silence, “Xena.” Only Gabrielle could note the shakiness of the cobalt orbs. “Come here.” The smaller woman led her warrior to a convenient stone and stepped up on it which brought her eye to eye with her lover.
The bard then put her arms around the warrior and held her closely. “How is my big warrior?”
“Fine.” A sigh.
“Do you need a Mama G smacking?”
“No.” A mischievous light in the blues. “Well not in that sense.”
The warrior’s butt felt a bard swat.
“Will you send Birdie?”
The hands drifted apart.
“I love you, Xena.”
“And I you, Gabrielle.”
Mama G returned to the fire and looked at me. Her eyes looked toward the direction of Baba Xe.
She hunkered down beside Rachelle and elbowed her, “I promise we’ll eat soon.”
I followed the creek bed until the silhouette of the Conqueror came into view. Her eyes raised, grabbed mine, and she extended her long arm. I fell gratefully under the sheltering wing and she held and rocked me gently for a little while. Despite the pain between us, I could feel the love in the enveloping strength of her arms and the warmth of her body.
“I shouldn’t have said what I said to you, Birdie,” She sighed softly.
“I shouldn’t have done what I did, Baba.”
She chuckled and pulled me even closer, tucking my head under her chin. I wrapped my arms around her waist, burrowing into her chest listening to her steady heartbeat, a favorite pastime of mine since I was very small.
She took a breath, “You are such a wonderful kid, and you do nearly everything right, do you know that?”
I shook my head back and forth in her chest. It didn’t feel that way.
Baba pulled my head out to make me look at her then, “I made the mistake that parents make, and perhaps soldiers make when they are given wonderful kids. I expect you to be perfect.”
I dropped my eyes and remained silent.
Baba tugged my hair, “And that is wrong of me, Birdie. You are allowed to make mistakes and you are allowed to be imperfect.” She kissed my head. “Just not too often, and you must never ever make mistakes that will get you…..” Her voice faltered….”hurt...”
I hugged her hard. “I’m sorry, Baba; I’ll do better.”
She returned me to the close embrace, “I know you will, and we are good now. I want us to learn from this and move on. That is an order.” She kissed me again. “Hear me?”
I pushed back straightening. “Yes, My Lady.”
“Good, then let’s go EAT!”
We stumbled back like two drunken comrades, walking awkwardly wrapped around each other. But neither of us wanted to break the contact.
I was afraid it would be a completely silent soup dinner, but my dear girlfriend came through once again.
“So, Ladies G and Xe,” she smiled leaning back on her hands, “Tell us what happened at this camping spot.”
They both stopped chewing and gazed at her.
Baba made a circle with her utensil, “Now why are you so certain, young lady, that every campground has a story?”
Rachelle had a little bit of stretchy rope with Baba Xe, much like my mother, an ability to tease her, that few people were given. Now her eyes twinkled at the warrior.
“Because, Lady Xe, every campsite thus far, has told some kind of story, no matter how small.”
My parents regarded each other in the crackling firelight.
“Wellll….” Grumbled Baba.
“I don’t like to remember.” Mama looked away. “You tell it.”
Baba chuckled some, “We had stopped a little late; I don’t remember why.”
“We helped that family tug their wagon out of the mud.” Mama was still looking away, “They had buried a wheel nearly to the axel.”
“Ah yes, that was it…” Baba smiled. “Well, it had been a rather frustrating day, but I had managed to catch a couple of nice fish in the river, and we were set for the evening.”
“Yes, the fish were cooperative.” Mama grumbled. She was acting most un-bardly.
Baba Xe looked at the ground now. “Yes, we were set except.” She looked over at Mama. “The love of my life here, decided that we needed a side dish, perhaps some berries, or mushrooms. I told her that it was too dark.”
“I just wanted to make a nicer dinner; it was a hard day…” Mama’s voice had a little bit of a whine to it now.
“Anyway, off she went.” Baba continued. “I went ahead and fixed the fish; I was fair enough at that on my own from watching her. Well, after a time, the fish were nice and brown and smelling wonderful, and guess what…? No Gabrielle.”
Granite eyes met mine in the firelight. “Uh oh.” We said in chorus.
“I was becoming very concerned.” Baba Xe’s voice took that low dangerous tone, “Very concerned. It was quite dark.”
“Then…” Mama mumbled, “Argo kicked up a fuss.”
Baba cut a long low blue glance at her. “Tell them why.”
“sssshhhnnnk…” came from a buried blonde bard head.
“I can’t hear you.”
This was obviously not Mama’s favorite story. I had never heard it before.
“Skunk!” Said Mama G emphatically, “Skunk! Skunk! Skunk!! I was attacked by a skunk! We had a disagreement over some very nice blackberries and the skunk won. By a very large margin!”
My hand was over my mouth holding my breath. Rach had covered her eyes with her hands out of courtesy.
“Oh go head and laugh your little butts off!” She said.
It felt so good. I had tears in my eyes again. Even Baba lay back on the ground, and after an indignant moment or so, Mama G joined us.
“So Birdie, I learned many lessons the hard way too, Honey.” Hher eyes smiled at me in the firelight.
“The very hard way.” Baba joined the story again. “That was grounds to send you home, if ever there were any my love.” Cuff on the arm… Hard one. “You are lucky that I let you sleep anywhere near me that night.”
“It was awful.” Mama sighed. “You cannot know how awful it was.”
“Argo wouldn’t go near her.” Baba was laughing again. “The following day, she had to walk either far in front of us or far behind us depending on the wind direction.”
Green eyes could have killed. “You always blame Argo.”
“It was Argo!”
“And I suppose it was Argo who made me take a bath in lemon and tomato juice in a horse trough in the village stable that night!”
“Gabrielle, you were lucky we were that close to a village, and we were lucky they had the vegetables!”
“You nearly scrubbed my skin off!”
Baba was silent a moment just watching Mama G and smiling. “It worked didn’t it?”
A sigh. “Yes.”
“Got you back in good with me and Argo, didn’t it?”
“Argo! Always with Argo!!”
Oh it was good to laugh.
It was Rach who suggested that Baba and Mama go for a walk, and that she and I would clean up.
“Thanks, Rachelle,” my mother’s eyes warmed on her,” that’s a lovely offer.”
“We are glad to do it, aren’t we Birdie?” Rach smiled elbowing me.
“Baba wasted no time at all but rolled up a smaller fur and tucked it under her arm.
“Birdie, you know the alarm whistles.”
She winked at me and took my mother’s hand. Mama looked back,” We won’t be gone too long.”
“Take your time.”
It didn’t take us long to wash up; our appetites had been light after the drama of the evening. We put all the cooking gear away and then Rach and I sat looking at each other.
“Come,” she dragged me to our packs and drew out our nightclothes, “I think it won’t hurt for us to bed down early tonight. We have some talking to do.”
“By the gods, that’s all I’ve done,” I sighed.
She looked at me directly and captured a front lock of my hair. “You, Robin of Amphipolis have the most extraordinary parents; you are so fortunate; I hope that you realize that.”
“I do,” my nightshirt felt cool on my back. “But at times it can be exhausting.”
They had made a soft bed of leaves near the creek and unrolled the fur.
“I thought you might be rather tired,” Gabrielle said quietly as she unlaced the buckskin tunic in front of her.
“Never too tired for this,” growled the warrior, reaching for the bottom edges of the bard’s shorter tunic and stripped it off over her head, complete with undershirt. “C’mere, little skunky.” She drew the smaller woman to her.
“You… are… so… bad….soo… I.. will…” Gabrielle stripped the warrior in similar style so they could embrace skin to skin, “Yes. There. Nice. Brrr. Little bit chilly.” She leaned back looking at the sky.
The warrior’s hands came up her spine, cupped her breasts, around her neck and curved her face pulling it in for a kiss, “Let’s remedy that right now.” One hand fell to unlace the bard’s britches as they sank to the fur.
Tonight Rach had tucked my head under her arm. That was a really good feeling because my emotions were about spent by the day. Of course my emotional state was my own responsibility, but it was nice to lean on Rach’s shoulder and very nice that she took me on.
“My little childhood must have been very quiet compared to yours,” she spoke in a quiet relaxing tone. “My parents died so early, and my life with Betha was relatively peaceful. I learned about healing herbs, helped her gather and mix them into pastes and tonics; there wasn’t too much adventure for me.”
“You mean you didn’t get into trouble at every turn like I did and still do?” I chuckled.
“Right,” she smacked my head gently. “I used to believe that it was just you, but now I realize that you live in a trouble prone environment. I grew up in a fishing village with a gentle healer as a primary guardian. If I wandered astray, there were a hundred Amazon aunts to find and restrain me safely. The greatest danger was the sea, and that information wasn’t difficult to drum into me; after all, it took my parents.”
“That does sound comparatively peaceful.” I admitted. “There was trouble for me as soon as I could walk so many places to explore and things to look at. And the army. Wow.”
She knocked the top of my head gently, “What is ‘bistwace’, Birdie?”
I recollected, “That was the first time major trouble came my way. Age around four winters. There was an unguarded sword in the main yard. I found it and somehow dragged it to the top of the fortress wall to brandish it as if I were the Conqueror herself. It had to be heavy, so who knows how I managed it. But it was short lived, because Baba did one of her flying leaps up there and disarmed me in record time.”
“I would expect so,” Rach stroked my hair.
“We flipped and flew back down, she handed me over to my mother, and she went in search of the soldier who had so carelessly abandoned his sword,” I continued.
“I would not want to have been that soldier,” the hand stopped in my hair momentarily. “Bet she kicked his arse.”
“Bet she did.” I sighed. “But meanwhile, my mother kicked mine.”
“Your mother is rough isn’t she?” my love whispered, “Well, not rough at all physically, but emotionally… you know what I mean.”
“Exactly, it’s easier to take three lickings than meet one of her disappointed looks. It’s easier to take six lickings than hear her words of disappointment.”
“But you were only four.”
“Yes, that day, she laid me across her lap, applied a few gentle spanks, told me I was a naughty girl and that I must never ever touch a sword. Then I had to sit on a stool for a quarter candle mark or so. She said that I was in “disgrace”. I cried and cried; it hurt my feelings to be in ‘bistwace’. Ever since then…”
“You are in ‘bistwace’ on occasion.” Rach smiled. “I’ll have to remember that.”
“I took it very hard.” I sighed into her shoulder, “Still do. My mother’s displeasure is tremendously difficult for me. Baba Xe is very tough, very strict at times, but somehow, it is always over quickly, and I know that she loves me and she improves me; I…” my voice dropped away, “ Of course I know that my mother loves me as well, but I cannot bear to hurt or disappoint her. Well, actually, “I paused for breath and thought, “I am coming very close to feeling that way about you.”
There was silence while her hand traveled through my hair thoughtfully, “That’s good,” her voice was quiet, “and I’ll try not to be too hard on you. Except…” She lifted her head, and I felt her lips touch the top of her head gently, “It’s time we go to sleep now. It’s been a tiring day.”
“Right,” no argument from me. “Love you, Rach.”
“I love you back, Robin of Amphipolis.”
As I snuggled further under that gentle, protective arm, listened to her heartbeat and steady breathing, I felt very certain, that except for possibly the company of my parents, there was no safer place for me to be than with Rachelle of the Amazons by the Sea.
The following morning, Baba Xe climbed the bare hill where I stood stroking the soft head feathers of my little hawk, Icarus. She was eating a few tidbits of dried fish that I had saved for her from our catch a few evenings previous.
“What message have you readied to send to Amphipolis, Bird?” Baba Xe’s voice was mild, but commanding.
“Only that ‘all is well’, Baba, “I raised my eyes reluctantly to meet hers, “Is that all right?”
Her big hand clapped my shoulder and then fell to swat my backside good naturedly, “That’s perfect, Baby,” she drew my head to her lips and then turned away, “We are departing soon.”
My eyes watered at the diminutive endearment; she never called me ‘Baby’ except on those rare occasions when she had sung me to sleep when I was very small. It was forgiveness. My shoulders straightened.
“Be safe on your journey, Icarus,” I spoke to my bird, “Artemis will guide you to me in Athens I hope, and if not there, then later on.” I gave her a little toss into the air and watched her soar away. A softness at me legs drew my attention.
“It would be wonderful to fly, don’t you agree, Little Mistress?” My hand felt thick black fur arching through it.
“Yes, Zephyr, it would.” I ran my hand down the length of her bushy tail to the silver tip. It was as long as her entire body. She stretched lazily, sleek legs to big furry feet and haunches.
“Did you have a good night out?” I inquired with a smile. Zephyr didn’t stay out often when we were in Amphipolis, but there was too much temptation on the road.
“I had a lovely evening, Little Mistress,” she gave me a slightly haughty look.
“Zephyr, I was not being nosy.”
“For your information, I returned quite early to sleep beside you and Lady Rachelle. You had a trying day, my dear one.”
“I did, Zephyr.” My knees gave way easily and I sank to her level. The wise golden eyes regarded me with quietly. I wrapped my arms around her warm soft neck and she leaned into me. Thus, my fox loved and comforted me in her fashion, just as she always did.
“We’ll enter Athens today, I suppose?” She trotted easily at my side as we approached Hades.
“I suppose.” My own reservations entered as I began the automatic check of straps and fastenings on my horse.
“It seems a poor place for a fox.”
“Perhaps,” I looked down at my friend, “If you are uncomfortable in the city, you may retreat to the outer circles, Zephyr. I can call you when we depart.”
“That may be the way for me, Little Mistress,” my fox looked thoughtful, “However, I shall give it a try.”
Athens rather overwhelmed me.
I had always considered Amphipolis Fortress to be the greatest human construction that could possibly exist. But then, I had never been very far from home.
Hades waited patiently as I sat staring at the Acropolis and its crowning Parthenon. My mother rode from behind me and gently reached to push my lower jaw up to close my mouth.
“Bugs will fly in there, Sweetheart,” she laughed.
I just blinked at her.
Her emerald eyes sparkled at me and she turned her head to behold as well, “It truly is quite something though, isn’t it?”
“Lady G, may we go to see it?” Rachelle voiced what I could not.
“Of course, but let’s go to our inn, stable the horses and clean up a bit first,” She put her hand to my back to restart Hades, “ Go.”
A sardonic sniff from Baba Xe, “The goddess Athena will still be there I think, and she will like it if we smell better I am sure.”
This drew a dirty look from Mama, “Xena.”
Lucy and Rach trotted up beside me, “Your Baba Xe doesn’t like Athena?”
I smiled just a little bit. “My Baba Xe doesn’t place much stock in the deities. She prefers doing jobs herself.”
“Oh.” Said Rach, “I think I knew that.”
I did my own study of my Conqueror parent. This morning she had fashioned her hair behind in a low braid and covered it with a buckskin scarf. Even the way she sat Argo was different. Galto and Thomas sat their horses differently too, although they kept their usual wary eyes alert. We had a campfire meeting a few nights previous to discuss our entry. Baba Xe came to Athens quite often enough for political and military events. This was the one time, one season, for the Academy of Bards convocation, that she came to the city for pleasure, to see old friends, and to eat good food. While it was difficult to keep Xena the Conqueror incognito, we were going to give it a good try; she had made it clear that it was very important to her.
Our Amazon travel garb was taking its share of curious stares. We were difficult to ignore, I guess, as most of the natives walked about in light colored togas and sandals. After studying the garments, I decided to prefer my own buckskin and boots, even though they were hot in this warmer climate. A toga was no protection in a fight.
Activities abounded. Beggars and performers vied for our dinars. Stands and booths selling food, fortunes, musical instruments, art, fabrics, and love lined the street. I paused to watch a man play a horn at a round basket. In a moment, a horrid looking serpent rose from the basket and spread a hood behind its neck. It swayed with the motion of the horn.
“Little Mistress, I will leave you now,” Zephyr did not like that snake. Neither did I, but I was not a fox.
I dropped to one knee and took her head in my hands. “Zephyr, will you be safe?”
“Of course, I will simply join the goddess, little one. If you want me, you need only think of me.”
I rubbed her ears gently,” I understand your discomfort in the city, but selfishly, I dislike to be without you, Zephyr.” My head dropped to hers.
The soft black head touched mine, “You are never without me, Little Mistress.”
And she was gone.
“Where is Zephyr?” Rach missed her immediately.
“She cares little for city life and will rejoin us as needed,” the sigh in my voice was apparent.
Rach slid her arm into mine, “I hated that snake too.”
“I will see to the horses,” Baba commanded, “Everyone collect your saddlebags.”
We unburdened our horses and approached the tidy building, a two storied affair of brick and adobe with a wooden sign that stated, “Zoe’s Best of Athens”.
“Is it as good an inn as Grandba’s?” I turned to my mother.
“No,” she paused, “But it is the best in Athens”
Inside, it was dark, and thankfully much cooler. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I watched a sturdy, roundish woman with bright white hair leave a group of people at a table and come to take my mother’s hands in hers.
“Queen Gabrielle,” the woman had grey eyes which held the wisdom of experience, “a four season’s round passes quickly.”
An elbow went into my side. “Is that “The Zoe” of the Amazons of the Rock?” Rach whispered, “She is legend.”
“I don’t know, Rach,” my answer, “but she has a look about her, doesn’t she?”
At that moment, Rach caught sight of the woman’s powerful arms embracing my mother. On the left was a small tattoo of a woman warrior with bow and arrow, one breast bared.
“It is she!” Rach couldn’t contain herself then.
My mother turned to flash a warm admonition and we quieted.
“Zoe, may I introduce our daughter, Robin of Amphipolis, called ‘Birdie’, and her friend, Rachelle of the Amazons by the Sea, fostered by Eponin and Ephiny.”
I bent to kiss the short woman’s hand, but Rachelle went down on one knee, fist over breast, her head bowed.
Zoe laid both hands on Rach’s head and then brought her to standing and kissed her on each cheek.
“It is such an honor, Queen Zoe,” Rach murmured.
“You honor me, my sweet girl,” Zoe said, “But now I am an innkeeper and so it must remain, or I am forsworn; remember that child.”
“Yes, My Queen,” my girlfriend said her eyes shining. I was proud of her.
“Let me show you to your room; it’s the biggest in the inn,” Zoe took my mother’s hand.
Xena the Conqueror strode into the inn and glared around the room quickly. Zoe rose immediately and her grey eyes clashed with the cobalt in immediate challenge.
“Where are they?” The tall dark and dangerous road traveler demanded.
The shorter, but no less intimidating woman moved to meet her in the center of the lobby, “I have no idea what you are talking about, warrior.”
Azure slits accompanied a growl, “Yes, you do, Amazon, and you’d best tell me.”
“Make me, warrior.”
Their hands slammed together and remained clasped as they walked to a table and sat across from each other elbows resting, hands pressed in a clash of will. A small crowd began to gather as the veins on the arms and wrists showed with the strain, and beaded sweat formed on the brow of the dark headed stranger and equally on the white headed local woman. Money exchanged hands as the blue eyes remained locked with grey and teeth were bared.
Finally with a groan and a curse, the Amazon’s hand slammed backwards into the table. Zoe laughed.
“Xena, you Cyclops, you are stronger than ever!”
A grin exploded on the Conqueror’s face, “You had me trembling, Zoe. Are you working out?”
The crowd dissipated, exchanging coin, as the two old friends, rose, exchanged the warriors’ grip and followed by a quick, intense back slapping hug.
“It’s good to see you, Xena.” The greeting was warm.
“Always good to see you, Zoe,”
“Your family is upstairs, final door to the left, small adjoining room, views of the stable and street, just how you like it.”
Zoe was rewarded with the warrior’s rare bright smile.
“Thank you, my friend.”
“A pleasure for the warrior princess, my friend.”
“So what is the story of “Zoe of the Rocks?” I asked Rach as we unpacked our gear in the small adjoining bedroom of the inn. The accommodations were impressive. The primary bedroom contained a huge bed with down covers and a small end table at either end for reading or writing. Mama would like that and Baba always sharpened her weapons. The walls were freshly whitewashed, and there was a large window which looked down on the street and stables below. A short hallway kept a bathing tub with towels and something I had never seen, an indoor latrine. Looking down into it, I saw flowing water below.
“Whoa, Rach, lookit this…” I called her into the loo.
Mama G entered, “You two sound fresh from the farm. Athens has indoor plumbing. And now you have experienced it, so your education is complete.” She rolled her eyes.
“Well, I haven’t truly experienced it yet.” That got me a cuff in the head.
“Zoe of the Rocks?” I tried again, as we re-entered our snug bedroom.
“I don’t really know that much, Birdie,” Rach carried her tunics to a small chest, “I’ll take the right side, ok?”
“Sure. Tell me what you do know.”
“Only that she was the leader of an Amazon tribe which single handedly held an entire legion of Romans for a seven day straight, while a valley of villages escaped their capture.”
“It was rather an epic battle,” my mother frowned at my selection of clothing as she took it from me and carried it to the chest, “Birdie, didn’t you bring anything nicer than this?”
“Yes, Mama,” I sighed, “I brought my black tunic with the silver piping, don’t worry.”
“I felt your eyes roll, kiddo,” she didn’t turn around from the chest.
“Mama I didn’t roll my eyes,” I did protest.
“She did too, Lady G,” Rach laughed as she snapped me with a towel.
“Traitor!” I nailed her with two balls of socks, once then twice.
“This one,” Unfolding the black tunic, I showed it to my mother for approval. She cocked her head to the side.
“It’s almost too small for you, Birdie. Good thing you have a birthday coming up.”
“Back to the story, please?” I redirected, as I fetched my socks from across the room.
“What you don’t know,” my mother paused at our bedroom door, “is that Zoe of the Rocks was aided by none other than Xena Warrior Princess.”
Who appeared through the door, as if on cue.
“What?” She said gruffly, then. “Nice room isn’t it?”
“Zoe always takes care of her friends,” Mama G drew a circle on Baba Xe’s belly and pushed her back through the hall. “Let’s unpack, love.”
Baba Xe said nothing as they turned back into their bedroom.
Rach rolled her eyes, “I should have guessed.”
“So should I,” the bed bounced under my tired body. “What a different world this Athens is.”
“It’s a little bit intimidating for me,” Rach observed as her warm body joined mine on the bed.
“Me too,” my voice drifted away from my own hearing, and I felt her arm settle gently across my belly, as our breathing synchronized quietly. “I’m glad that you are here, Rach.”
She raised up to regard me, “Are you?”
The granite green eyes looked deep into my soul. “What is it about you, Robin of Amphipolis?” Her fingers played with my bangs. I reached across my chest to capture her other hand in mine.
“I don’t know, Rach. But there is definitely something about you.”
She closed her eyes and brought her lips to mine. The joining ignited flame from my lips spreading down my arms in my belly, in my legs, in my…..
She released me. My heartbeat accelerated. I placed a gentle hand alongside her cheek.
“Yes..” a whisper.
“Do you feel like I do?”
“Kind of crazy inside?”
“What shall we do about that, Birdie?”
I rose up to kiss her again, to feel the fire expand; she sat back as I ran light fingertips along her side and up her neck and collarbone. Her hands fell around my waist and hips. The warmth flooded my body; this was nice; this was very nice; I could become lost in this feeling. But the heat was becoming too concentrated on my …. Head?
I fell back with a sharp burn to my forehead. Rach did the same. Reaching up under my hair, the stylized “A” glowed hot. Ouch.
“Birdie, did you do that? My head hurts.”
I sighed and turned over. “Is it better now?”
She joined me again at the headboard leaning on my shoulder quietly. “Yes, but what was it? It was sharp, but it went away.”
I kissed her hair and wrapped my arms around her. Once again our breathing fell into rhythm.
“It would seem, Rach.” I whispered. “That we have an omnipotent chaperone.”
“Great, that’s just great,” she murmured.
Then it was quiet.
“So many stairs!” Nearing the peak of the Acropolis, I bent over to catch my breath and was immediately straightened by a brisk swat to the backside.
“Are you out of shape, Birdie?” Baba Xe took the final six stairs in one bound.
Shook my head and sighed; should have known better. “No Baba, I’m fine. It’s just a bit hotter here, isn’t it?” Suck it up Birddog.
“I think that it is both hotter and there are a gods be damned bunch of stairs!” My mother was panting. She could get by with it.
Baba Xe smiled and strode to lend a hand to her for the final few. She was rarely ever made tired by a mere physical challenge such as a hundred stairs.
I did the same for Rach, but she was already recovered and completely mesmerized by the Parthenon. It was a sight beyond anything in my experience. I took her hand and we approached the massive temple in silence.
“So much marble, so much wealth,” I murmured.
“This city wanted Athena as their goddess, and they spared no effort in winning her favor,” Mama G spoke in hushed tones as we entered the edifice. “No matter how many times I see this building, it always amazes me.”
Our boots echoed in the vacuous darkness. There were other visitors perambulating about the temple, but they were lost in the immensity of the place.
“There, at the back. There she is. Well, it’s not really Athena, but…” my mother continued.
My exposure to sculpture was rare; actually, I had seen more during this trip to Athens then during the entirety of my short life. Athens had a little jump on Amphipolis with regard to the fine arts.
Beginning with and ending with its namesake sculpture. It was nearly as tall as the ceiling of this massive Parthenon. I felt like an insect in its presence. Created of white and golden marble, the goddess Athena herself gazed at her people with her famous wise and calm regard. She was all at once beautiful, overwhelming, intimidating.
“The Goddess of wisdom and of just wars,” Rachelle said.
“You have done your homework,” my mother sounded approving.
Baba Xe snorted as she nearly always did when the deities were a topic. She received the usual cuff to the stomach from Gabrielle the Bard.
“Xena, we are in Her Temple? Can you control your sarcasm?” She admonished.
Another eye roll and another cuff. I hid a grin; I would have received worse than a cuff for the smart arsed attitude exuding from my warrior parent at the moment.
“Well, you come by that honestly,” Rachelle whispered.
Mama G continued to glare at Baba Xe.
Baba sighed, “It’s only that Athena and I have disagreed at times on just exactly what the definition of a “just war” should cover. You should appreciate that Gabrielle; it’s a matter of semantics.”
She squawked when she received the third cuff.
During this exchange, Rachelle had walked closer to the sculpture. She stood quietly looking up at the serious countenance of the wise goddess and then dropped to one knee, bowed her head and placed her right fist over her heart.
My mother joined her in the same position. They both held for a few moments and then began walking toward the exit pillars.
I had fallen back with Baba, somehow needing to stay beside my warrior parent. She gave me a little push following behind me.
“Pay your respects, Birdie,” her voice was quiet. I turned to look at this sudden change in attitude and received a firm nod of the dark head.
Dropping to one knee and lowering my eyes, I crossed my heart with my right fist and held it. A strange charge came into the atmosphere, my heartbeat increased; it was not unlike the sensation I experienced when my Lady Artemis appeared.
Just a little frightened, I rose quickly and stepped back under Baba’s arm. To my surprise, she was standing rather submissively, right fist over her heart. I looked at her, and then at the sculpture. The huge eyes had taken on life; they were a stormy thundercloud grey with lightening bolts flashing them; I began trembling.
She drew me in, “It’s all right, Birdie. Athena is only recognizing you. Bow again, Little Bird.”
We both did so again, fist over hearts, and then we turned and departed.
“Baba,” I began outside, but only caught a wink from the sapphire eyes.
“I’m hungry,” my warrior parent announced to our significant others, “Let’s go to Sybil’s.”
Sybil’srather like Zoe’s was a tiny unassuming location which one would pass by if one were uninformed. I was thirsty; Athens was much hotter than Amphipolis and the Acropolis stairs had exacerbated that thirst to raging.
“Athena keeps her people perpetually thirsty.” I remarked as we entered the cool shade of the adobe dwelling.
Rach had my arm and squeezed it to a pinch. “Respect, Birdie; be respectful.”
“Do you think she can still hear us, Rach?”
That brought me a cuff to the head. I grinned at her.
We were escorted to a back corner table. We always sat at a rearward corner table. Later in my life, I would request those tables as well; a wise warrior wants her back to the wall and full surveillance of the room and entryways. I drained my clay water mug and it was quickly refilled.
There was a tall red headed woman making her way back to our position.
“Sybil,” Baba Xe rose, shook her hand graciously and allowed a brief hug. “How are you?”
“I am well, Xena,” the woman had a low melodic voice and her eyes were a creek bed brown with sunlight highlights framed in pale skin.
“Sybil,” my mother had made her way from the other side of the table to embrace the woman fully, “you look well. How are the twins?”
Sybil laughed, “Difficult!” But then she softened into a smile, “But also wonderful.”
Mama G looked at the ceiling calculating, “They are what, eleven winters?” She kept track.
“Yes,” the woman closed her eyes, “a challenging age.”
“I don’t know; we’re surviving, “Baba Xe pulled me up and in front of her, “Here’s our Birdie, age thirteen winters; she’s still intact, and so are we.” She ruffled my hair.
I nodded and grasped Sybil’s hand gently, “My Lady.” Best manners.
“And this is Birdie’s best friend, Rachelle, same age, also intact,” my mother tugged Rach to her feet.
“Lady,” Rachelle smiled.
“See?” Baba Xe grinned, “There is hope. There is struggle, but there is hope.”
“So you’re here for the convention at the Royal Academy of Bards?” Sybil asked looking as if she might sit and talk a little while. She seemed very nice.
“The one and only,” Mama took a deep smell of her pie and closed her eyes, “and it’s extra special for us this year, because our Birdie is now a member as well.”
“Really?” Sybil’s eyes turned immediately to me, “You are a bard as well?”
I felt the heat in my face. “Well I try my best.”
“It’s no surprise considering who your mother is,” she patted my hand. “I will look for your scrolls, Birdie. “ Are they under ‘Birdie’?”
“No, they are under Robin of Amphipolis,” my mother told her.
“Birdie is a nickname,” I said, wiping my mouth, “but I like it.”
Sybil smiled again, “It suits you.”
At that very moment a commotion began in the kitchen which sounded as if bandits had attacked it, or that a small war had begun. Pots and pans clanged and fell, chickens clucked, women screamed, men cursed, kettles whistled, and voices shouted in every octave.
Sybil closed her eyes, “That would be Tobias and Timothy now.” She placed her hands on her hips and did an about face. With the timing of a trained fighter, she dropped her hands at the perfect moment to corral the forward motion of two fast moving, little red headed boys.
“Boys,” she said quietly, “Look who is here.”
Two pairs of hazel eyes widened immediately, “Xena!” They looked at each other, “It’s Xena! Hi, Gabrielle.”
Baba Xe strode forward and gathered a boy under each of her arms, “Hi boys,” she said it as cheerfully as when she rode into bandits, “lets go see what you did to the kitchen.”
“Ah, Xena…” But she was already at the doors.
Our server brought our food then, and Sybil sat down with us for a moment.
“This spinach pie is as superb as ever,” Mama G managed with her mouth full.
“Wow!” I mumbled, and bit again into the hot cheesy delight.
“It’s what keeps me open,” But Sybil looked pleased.
Baba Xe rejoined us and took two wolf sized bites, “That Acropolis will give you an appetite. Yum!” She said appreciatively. Her eyes paid the compliment.
“So will tackling my twins,” Sybil sighed, “Thank you Xena; we miss their father so much.” Darkness marred her pretty eyes. Mama reached for the pale hand, and Sybil returned the empathetic squeeze.
“They just needed a little firmness,” Baba swallowed and took another bite. “They are mopping up in there good as gold.”
We ate contentedly for a few moments more. I was feeling like I might begin to rather like Athens after all.
To be continued….
Some days the road climbs high,
And some the road runs low.
And what we next might meet,
That we cannot know.
Some days are full of laughter,
And some a share of strife,
Or even those who’d deign
To threaten our good lives.
But round the evening campfire,
There are great tales to tell
And many lessons learned
And so we listen well.
And now this giant city’s
So full of power and grace,
And yet searching within it
I really find no place-
For Robin, child of the
Fighter who flashes sapphire eyes.
And also the poet who guides
With her heart that’s deeply wise.
I long for gentle sleep
Under the silent stars.
Back out on the road again,
With the warrior and the bard.
Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and thanks, as always, for reading…. (I will try to be faster with part III.)Return to the Academy