My apologies for taking so long; real life is taking time this year. And then there is this lady with the big stick, Trace my beta reader who stands over me until I get it right. Thanks Trace…
In case you have forgotten, the family is in Athens for the annual convocation of the Royal Academy of Performing Bards….
I am Robin of the Warrior and the Bard.
There was movement on the right side of the bed. Finally. Granite green eyes gazed sleepily at me framed in adorably tousled ash hair.
“How long have you been awake, Birdsong?” Rach yawned, then flipped over on her back and stretched her arms over her head as her toes extended long and white.
I returned to my study of the ceiling, “A little while.”
She rolled back over immediately pinning me with her gaze,” What’s wrong? Are you nervous?”
My smile formed easily as I played the strands of hair from her eyes, “You are so cute.”
My girl looked annoyed. “Don’t change the subject, Birdie.”
“Yes. For some reason, a little bit.”
I turned on my side to face her.
“I don’t know, Rach. Being a warrior is ….. So straightforward. One has an issue, one draws the sword and slam, blam, and it’s over, Sam.” My fingers drew circles in the bedsheets pondering. “Whereas with writing, minotaur shite, if there’s an issue with writing, Rach, sometimes not all the gods on Olympus can help a person. Sometimes there’s more blood with writing than with war.”
“Really?” She looked puzzled.
“I had no idea, “the blond head lay down beside me and her hand stroked my belly soothingly. “I am glad I am a healer then.”
“Don’t misunderstand, I enjoy writing, “ this from me with a sigh, “but it’s also my first time to meet my mothers’ …. Well…. ‘army’ of writers.”
“Her people, Rach. The other writers in Greece that are her old friends—those whom she admires so much. It would be a very good day for me to not mess up.”
Rachelle sat straight up in the bed . She reached for my nightshirt, and yanked me up firmly to face her. Her eyes were snapping.
“Robin of Amphipolis, Look at me.”
When I didn’t right away, she caught my chin and raised my head so that our eyes met.
“Birdie, you will be fourteen winters old very soon. You have matured since I have known you, and you will not make so many mistakes. Actually, you don’t make many at all; you just live a life that is fraught with high expectations.”
I swallowed silently.
She kissed my forehead, “ You are too hard on yourself, Birdie.” Her hand moved gently from my bangs down the side of my face. “It’s one of the things I love about you, but you also need to go a little easier on the Bird girl, do you hear me?”
She moved my errant bangs from my eyes. “We need to be up and about.” Then she put her arms around me. “Besides...”
I rested my head on her shoulder and allowed the tension to drain away. “Besides what, Rach?”
Her hand had travelled up the back of my head into my hair and now it gave me a light slap, “Now you have me, and I will let you know if you mess up.” She pulled back and we touched foreheads. I chuckled as we rocked together a moment.
“Right, Rach. I forgot.”
Another light head smack, “Well don’t ever forget it. Now wash up, we need to be ready.”
She swung her legs to the side of the bed and rumbled through and retrieved a small wooden box from her pack.
“Would you like to see my most prized possession? Besides this, I mean.” She twirled the silver ring I had given to her a few moons previous.
Rachelle scooted her bottom back into the covers and opened the box. “These were Betha’s; the most valuable thing she owned, and she left them to me.”
Glowing softly in the dark wood were a pair of silver coin earring studs.
“May I?” Rach nodded , and I gently scooped out the small disc to study it. “Is it a boy on a dolphin?”
“Yes, thought to be a son of Poseidon.”
Now I studied her closely, “ Hadn’t realized that you had pierced ears, Rach.”
“Well, Birdie you aren’t the best at noticing finer details,” she laughed and ruffled my hair. “ Now if it’s a swordfight..”
She kissed my hurt feelings on top of my hair, “its fine sweetheart, and I only wear very tiny earrings otherwise.”
“You should wear these all of the time, Rach; they are part of who you are; a seaside Amazon.”
Rachelle’s brows furrowed, “ I would hate to lose one.”
“We’ll figure out a way to make grooves and a screw back. I bet Talus or Baba can think of something. Put them on. “
They were magnificent; she looked like royalty.
My head was immersed in the washbowl when I heard the door between bedrooms open.
“Hi Lady G,” Rach was tying the laces on a beautiful dark brown silk tunic with gold embroidered starfish on the cuffs and collar. It matched her dress buckskirt and soft boots perfectly.
“Good morning little Amazon girl; you look nice.” Mama drew Rach’s head to her lips and kissed her softly. Rachelle blushed a little; she and Mama both knew that Rach cherished the little bits of love that Mama gave to her more and more often.
My smaller parent approached me as I toweled off my hair and face. She was wearing a long silk cloak of sage green over matching trousers and tunic. There was golden piping of leaves at the collar and sleeves and the same down the edges of the cloak. In her hair was a circle of laurel leaves. Gabrielle the Bard had arrived in Athens . It was a fine sight to see her in her true element.
“Birdie,” she looked at me appraisingly, “I want you to try this on.” She handed me a cream colored silk shirt. I took it and ran my hands over it. The material was heavy and there were silver birds embroidered at the cuffs and on the collar.
“Mama, what’s wrong with my black tunic?” I protested.
“You’ve outgrown it, and this one is much nicer. I only wore it three times and it’s perfect for you. And try these.” She handed me a pair of silk trousers.
“Ma-ma! I don’t wear sissy pants!”
The forest eyes flared. “Sissy pants? Do you call what I am wearing, ‘sissy pants’?”
Behind her, Rachelle made the sign of cutting her throat with her hand across her own, quickly. Right.
“No Mama,” I looked at them, “But there are no laces on the sides.”
“Exactly." The Royal Academy of Bards is not a battlefield.” My mother’s hands were on her hips, always a bad sign.
I looked up to see that Baba Xe was leaning in the doorway. The silk shirt she was wearing was an aqua blue and the gold trim on it depicted swords. Her dark silk trousers were belted in dark leather with a golden chakram shaped buckle. She still wore her hair back, but Xena the Warrior Princess would always capture every eye in a room.
“Would you like to wear a dress, Birdie?” Baba Xe asked in that dangerously low voice she employed when her statement or question was to be considered final.
A DRESS? My vision blurred ; my breathing stopped.
“This blouse will be fine, Mama G,” I murmured humbly. “I will be ready very soon and we can have breakfast. Sorry, the clothes are lovely.”
Mama smiled at me and gave me an encouraging swat, “That’s my little bard.”
I sighed and slipped into the shirt which was very nice. But I could still feel the blue gaze on me so I looked up.
Baba Xe was smiling at me, and she winked as she vacated the doorway, “Bird,” she chuckled, “a wise soldier learns to pick her battles.”
“Where is Mama?” I asked a few moments later as butter slopped down my chin having leaked from Zoe’s hot muffin. The shirt did look splendid on me and I owed her a bit of contrition.
Baba Xe was finishing her third muffin and sipped from her tea mug, “She went to have breakfast at the Academy with the “boys”. It’s an annual reunion for them; she really looks forward to it.”
Gabrielle arrived at the scratched and scruffy door of the servant’s quarters of the Royal Academy of Performing Bards. Her fingers played a moment with the rough wood remembering the few nights she had spent there in the primitive quarters telling stories with her friends. Since those days, at every convocation of the bards, the old group met for breakfast in this humble room where they had shared their stories as youths. She pushed the door open.
“Gab Gab Gabrielle!” The tall darkheaded man leaped across the room to embrace her-- first picking her up and then swinging her about in a circle.
She threw her arms around his neck, “Twickenham, it’s so good to see you! How are your wife and kids?”
“Just had number three, “ he set her down gently, but they remained with arms clasped. “And Gabrielle, none of them stutter.”
“Well, yours has improved with age, “ she said with a pat on his shoulder, “The gods give us challenges to overcome for a reason, you know. Your children’s scroll about the cat in the hat who helps the little boy with his stutter is still one of my Birdie’s favorites.”
“Truly, Gab.. Gabrielle?” he asked quietly pleased.
She took his face in her hands,
“Absolutely. And what is more important, my Birdie has never made fun of anybody with a speech, or hearing, or any kind of issue such as that to face in life, Twickenham. Oooooffff!!”
The small bard was seized from behind by a mighty force and raised into the air again.
“Let me guess, “ she laughed, “ I guess---- Stallonus!”
“AHHH !! How did you know??” He put her down and immediately danced away doing a one two punch.
“Just your energy, old friend, “ she laughed, “How is your work in the ‘action/visual scroll’ business?”
“Better all the time, Gab.” The hyperactive man actually stood still for a moment. “Actually I have two new ideas for superheroes, one about a man with super strength…”
“Nah, this guy can fly.”
Gabrielle and Twickenham rolled their eyes and laughed. Good old Stallonus.
“And another about a regular guy who fights dressed as…..”
“No a bat.”
“Well, “ Gabrielle looked at Twickenham tactfully, “it could work. Birdie still reads your scroll about the man who could shoot spider webs out of his hands. You have a wonderful imagination, Stallonus.”
“Well, neither of us are in the hall of scrolls like y.. y… you,” Twickenham ducked his head a little.
Gabrielle grabbed his arm emphatically and after an instant, she grabbed Stallonus’ arm just as emphatically. “Now you two listen to me,” she spoke firmly. “Writing is not just about being in the Academy Hall of Scrolls. You two fellows have influenced many many kids, including mine for the greater good. Never ever undervalue that contribution.”
They smiled at her and joined in a three way hug. The old door opened and two more of the party entered, this time with the aroma of baked goods.
“We are arrived with the means to satiate ravenous appetites, “ quoted Euripides.
“He means the food’s here, “ said Homer.
Gabrielle went to put her arms around the two men. “Welcome.” She said, “Let’s eat.”
We ambled amiably along the streets pausing here and there to look at a vendor’s wares. It was very out of character for my Baba Xe.
“Baba, are we actually shopping?” I finally asked.
She laughed with a genuine look of confusion in her eyes, “ I’m sorry Birdie, should have told you. Yes. We have three quarters of a candle mark or so before the convocation begins, so your mother told me to select some gifts to take back to Grandba. The only catch….” She sighed wearily, “ Is that I haven’t the slightest idea what to take to her.”
“Lady Xe, “ Rachelle called from two stands ahead, “Isn’t this silk from Chin?”
Baba’s eyes sparkled and she strode ahead quickly, “I like that girl, “ she said.
Gabrielle sat back from her pastry and took another sip of tea. “Excellent choices, fellows.” She complimented, “and speaking of excellent, Euripides….. Your Medea… what a stunning piece of work, big guy.”
“You perused the tome,” the bard looked pleased, “most of the common populous does not imbibe.”
“Euripy, guy, it’s too freaking’ hard ta read. You need pictures,” Stallonus piped up.
“Not so difficult to read, this one, “Gabrielle’s tone was thoughtful, “it was, however, extremely dark; Jason paid dearly for his adultery.”
“One cannot make light of adultery resulting in the demise of progeny or any event resulting in the demise of progeny.” intoned the erudite poet.
“No…. one cannot, “ the emerald eyes went far away and then returned. “Homer, The Iliad was brilliant, and you have begun The Odyssey?”
“I have,” the handsome and perhaps most famous of them all reached for her hand. “And I owe it all to you, Gabrielle.”
“Please, “ she took it away.
“No, you please,” he grabbed hers with both of his. “If you hadn’t chased me down that day and talked me into returning… I would never have become who I am. “
“Be sure to check your scrolls in the hall, Gabrielle, “ chimed Twickenham, “they are always being read.”
“Well, “ Gabrielle leaned back looking at all of them, “I guess we did pretty well to come from the servant’s quarters, didn’t we?”
They laughed and toasted old times with their tea mugs.
After the splendor of the Parthenon, The Royal Academy of Performing Bards appeared a little ordinary, really not much more remarkable than Zoe’s Inn.
Baba Xe looked up at the edifice, “But great tales are both told and written down here, girls. Without our storytellers, there would be no heroes; there would be no history.”
“That is why you think that ‘barding’ is as important as fighting, Baba Xe?” I asked her quietly. I had never really asked her that question before.
She looked at me a long moment and then wrapped her long arm around me, “Actually, Birdie, I believe that ‘barding’ is more important than fighting. Unfortunately, it is in humankind’s nature to always be in conflict. And so we must protect our bards , because they recall, record, and recount the lessons we learn from our victories and from our mistakes.”
I blinked at her and committed her words to memory, because I still believe those are the most important words my Baba Xe ever said to me. Neither of us realized it at the time, but the words chiseled into my brain and I think of them often. Xena the Conqueror was known as a warrior and fighter without equal; few knew that she was also a sensitive, thoughtful, and wise woman.
We entered the building which had as its main room, and amphitheatre much like those found outside around the city. This one was a little smaller and of course under roof. Baba said that it had marvelous acoustics.
“Do you see Lady G?” Rach was taking it all in with big eyes.
“Look for the largest gathering,” my Baba was smiling, and she was right. I caught the flash of Mama’s hair surrounded by a group of tall good looking men. Baba Xe waved and the little group moved our way.
“Here’s my family, “ Mama had laughter in her eyes; the fellows surrounding her seemed like a happy crew. “This is my Birdie,” she put her hands on my shoulders, “You know Xena of course, and here,” she drew in Rach with an arm, “is Birdie’s friend Rachelle. Birdie, prepare yourself, ok?”
The guys laughed.
“Birdie, this is Twickenham.”
“Hello, Mr. Twickenham, “ I was polite.
“Twickenham wrote TheCat in the Hat and the Boy who Stuttered”.
My grip on his hand changed. “REALLY? I am honored to meet you , Mr. Twickenham!! That was my favorite scroll! The first one I could read all by myself.”
His dark eyes laughed at me, “And I am honored to meet y… y… you.. Birdie.”
“And this…” my mother steered me again, “is Stallonus.”
“Who writes the visual scrolls? The one about the fellow who shoots spider webs from his hands?” I finished for her.
Stallonus did a little dance and shot invisible spider webs at me; I did a spin and shot them back. “I love your stories!” I shook his hand.
A tall rather imposing figure was next.
“This is Euripides, “ Mama G introduced, “You won’t have read any of his writing yet.”
I shook his hand.
“But you may, should you ascend into esoteric echelons of education,” said Euripides.
I didn’t even try but only shook his hand gravely.
“And this, “ my mother turned me to a kind looking man with an intelligent face, “ is Homer.”
His grip was warm and friendly. “I am so pleased to meet you at last, Birdie.”
“I am pleased to meet you as well, “ I said, “ I have just begun reading The Iliad on my own, but Mama told me the story long ago when I was very young.”
Homer looked at my mother. “The kid’s a bard.” He said.
“I do my best, “ my mother returned.
Baba Xe’s hand fell on her shoulder. “They are trying to begin the meeting now.”
So we all sat down together.
I wasn’t exactly asleep.
My mind was simply roaming elsewhere, anywhere actually. The presentations had gone on awhile, with awards given for epic poems, drama, short stories, comedies, on and on. The winners went to the front and received laurel wreathes like Mama G was wearing. As I considered it, there were quite a number of those wreaths about the fortress.
Baba Xe had sat between Rach and me after the first candle mark because we were whispering too much. She had given me the icy evil eye as well, but it was followed by a wink. She knew we weren’t used to sitting still so long. Mama G put her hand on my knee and squeezed still keeping her eyes forward. I settled down. A knee squeeze from Mama meant all kinds of dire consequences could follow later.
An elderly man rose from a seat on the stage and hobbled to the podium.
Mama leaned back. “That is Gastacius,” she whispered, “He was the judge who was responsible for my chance to compete the very first time all those years ago. “
When the man arrived at the podium, his carriage straightened and his voice rang across the crowd, “We have a new award to present this year. It is for two different accounts of the same event. If you go to the hall of scrolls, I would very much recommend that you read the accounts of ‘The Battle of Wild Horse Canyon,” . There is a version written by a well known bard, Gabrielle of Poteidea, and a version written by her daughter, Robin of Amphipolis. They are both superb scrolls. And so the Academy is proud to give its first awards to bards that happen to be mother and daughter: Gabrielle and Robin of Amphipolis.”
Baba Xe finally reached under me and shoved my butt up to assist my mother tugging at my hand. I stumbled out into the aisle and followed my mother up to the podium.
She shook hands with Gastacius, then kissed him on both cheeks.
“I am so proud of you, Gabrielle, “ he said, as he placed the laurel on her head, then his dark eyes fell on me, sparkling brightly. “And this is Birdie. At last.”
I shook his hand as he placed the laurel wreath on my head, “Thank you sir,” I whispered.
“Work hard at your writing, little bard, “ his voice was raspy, “ You have talent.”
My shoulders straightened a little and the warmth of my mother’s hands on my shoulders came through that dressy tunic she had insisted that I wear.
Then we turned and faced the crowd; I was shaking, and Mama G could feel it, because she now squeezed my shoulder gently and leaned forward, “Look back at Baba Xe and Rach, “ she whispered in my ear.
Baba Xe and Rach had joined hands and were holding them in the air triumphantly. It made me feel good to make them proud.
“So this is the famous Hall of Scrolls?” It was the place I had most wanted to see at the Academy. The enormous room had a musty smell, but that was to be expected. It was indeed, a great hall that seemed to go endlessly.
“They add rooms constantly, “ said Mama G, “ I suppose they always will as long as there are bards.”
“Where are your scrolls, Lady G?” Rach was taking it all in, just like she always did. My girlfriend missed very little.
“There, “ Baba Xe pointed to an area . There were a few people there and a scribe seated at a desk , feather quill in hand, writing. We walked over to the shelves.
I looked at the dozens and dozens of long stories piled on shelves with the golden handles sticking out. A young man selected one and checked it out with the young scribe who sat there. Rach had been watching the scribe work and she returned to my side.
“The scribe is recopying a story, “ she said. “Your mother’s scrolls are read so often, it takes a full time scribe to keep them in repair and readable. It’s awesome. Oh!” she drifted to the left of my mother’s work. “Birdie, come here.”
There was a single shelf with eight divisions in it. Two were empty. On the shelf top was lettered neatly, Robin of Amphipolis.
My grin was hurting my face.
“Look, someone has checked out two of your scrolls! That is just soooo. “ my girlfriend put an arm around me and kissed my cheek, “I am proud of you, and now I need to read all of them as well. Look, the others have been read, see the smudges?”
My head took a bit of a cuff. “Birdie!” my girl was growing impatient with my silence. “Can you only write and not speak?”
Mama G chuckled gently, “ I think that our Birdie might be a little overwhelmed Rachelle. It’s been a big day for her. “ She ran a gentle hand up the back of my hair. “Now you know why I work you so hard?”
I turned to look at her, “ Yes ma’m, and you will continue to do so, won’t you, Mama G?”
The emerald eyes gave me her answer.
The following morning air was uncharacteristically cool in Athens and it seemed to bring a quieter atmosphere to the city as we performed out final checks on the horses.
Zoe stood eyeing my Baba Xe as she ran an expert final check on Argo, then paced by all of our horses a doing a quick inspection without really being aware that she did it.
“Always the Conqueror, eh Xe?” Zoe poked her hand into my tall parent’s ribs.
Baba turned to her, “Old habits die hard." Her azure eyes were serious. “And some old habits are very handy, wouldn’t you agree, Old Amazon?” She held out her arm.
“Indeed I do agree, my friend, “ Zoe grasped the muscled arm warmly. “Don’t forget us here.”
Mama G had walked over then, “How could we?” she kissed Zoe on the cheek, “We love it here, Zoe.”
“You have a standing reservation.” The little innkeeper shook her hair back. “Always.”
Rach and I waved at her from our horses.
“Where the devil is Galto?” Baba Xe’s voice took the true Conqueror’s tone then.
Thomas took to his saddle and bowed his head apologetically. “On his way, M’Lady, I can see him up the road.”
We all looked and noted that Galto walked toward us arm in arm with none other than Sybil. The company parted at about a block from us with Galto and Sybil engaging in a long kiss. Then she and the boys waved as Galto ran to his horse and vaulted upon it.
“Sorry M’Lady, “ he said, shyly.
Baba Xe shot him a flash of cobalt ice that should have frozen him stiff. But then she snorted and growled, “Your next leave may be in Athens, Galto?”
He blushed a very deep red.
We all waved at Sybil. Then we saluted Zoe once more and rode out of Athena’s great city.
As soon as the road opened in front of us, there was a black dot on the horizon. It was approaching quickly and I nudged Hades to part from the crew and sped to meet it.
“Bird,” Mama G managed to say, before I left the group.
Hades took a good three dozen strides and then I slid out of the saddle and continued at a fast sprint. We collided in a great, fond furry laughing embrace—my fox and I.
“Oh Zephyr, how wonderful it is to see you!” I lay back on the ground and she placed her head on my chest while I ran my hands through the thick ebony fur. “I missed you!”
“Indeed, Little Mistress.” was my fox’s thought, “I missed you as well.”
“Have you been watching?” I held her nose to mine, “ Were you with Lady Artemis when she stopped my kissing Rachelle?”
“Little Mistress,” my fox looked offended, “do you think that I have nothing better to do among theduties of the goddess than to spy on my mistress? You do me an injustice.” She grasped a shock of my hair in her teeth and pulled.
“Ow, I am sorry Zephyr, OW! It was an inappropriate question.” I tumbled back again and resumed stroking her.
“Hey,” The rest of the party was sitting in their saddles amused.
“Right.” I clambered into Hades’ saddle, and we resumed. Zephyr took the lead.
Rachelle inclined her head at my happy sigh. “That fox is so very much a part of you, isn’t she? I hadn’t quite realized it until just now what a large chunk of you had been empty.”
“She’s my soul mate , if an animal can be such, “ I looked at her seriously, “I have more than one soulmate you know.”
Rach smiled and returned her eyes to the road.
Our first night was uncharacteristically quiet. I believe that we were all very contented to be out of the noisy city and enjoyed the silence of nature once again. We had brought our first night’s meal from Zoe’s, a rich mutton stew with her ready side of chewy dark bread and it was deeply satisfying. Baba Xe had frowned at the weather conditions all day however ,and as we cleared away our dinner, she hustled us to bed under a good sized hanging ledge of boulders that were conveniently arranged for our shelter.
“Birdie, Rach, go and gather wood to keep the fire fed tonight and for in the morning, “ she directed, “It will rain tonight, and we will want warmth and tea at daylight. I imagine we will have a later start.”
In the night it did rain and chilled the air. I felt Rachelle trembling and pulled her closer so that we were spoons together and after a few moments her body quieted. Zephyr’s breathing brushed her warm fur in a comforting massaged at my back. Across the low glow of flames, I could see the dark and light heads of my parents, cuddled together in their furs, while Galto and Thomas watched over us in the outlying rocks. I wondered if any girl in Greece could be happier than I was at that moment.
The sun reappeared the following morning and sped our departure somewhat; the thought of returning to Amphipolis was cheering everyone; it was definitely time to go home.
We had just taken our midday break and settled into the afternoon pace when Baba raised her hand at the lead of our procession. That was her signal for the rest of us to stop behind her and maintain absolute silence so that she could concentrate all of her keen senses on what had disturbed her. When she turned back, she was agitated.
“Thomas, Galto, prepare. Gabrielle, with me. Birdie, Rachelle..”
I inclined my head toward a large oak, perhaps ten horse lengths to the left, “That tree, Baba Xe?”
The icy blues appraised it, “Yes, and remain there, unless I give you word.” Her eyes flicked at me with lightning quickness and message.
“I understand, Baba.”
She and Argo whirled as one to face the cloud of dust that heralded the approaching gang.
“Hades, don’t go too far away, “ I said softly to my horse, as I caught the lowest branch behind Rachelle who was already four branches ahead of me.
“Birdie, who do you think it is?” Rach whispered as I joined her on a high perch.
“I don’t know, Rach, could be anyone; minotaur shite there’s enough of them.”
A dozen men rode hard at my parents’ tiny defense. Even though I knew that Xena the Conqueror was a match for ten or even a dozen men alone, the numbers worried me. The attack was wide open , extremely aggressive, and I wondered if they were related to the other gang.
It was no matter to The Conqueror. She rode with equal aggression into the dead middle of them at top speed without drawing the Tide; had she lost her mind? At a measured moment she stood in Argo’s saddle and grabbed the men’s hair on either side of her. Then with her “yiyiyiyi”, she leaped down and then up into the highest backward flip I had ever seen her perform. The momentum of her decent tossed both men over the heads of their horses so that they were trampled by the oncoming gang’s mounts. To recover, she simply waded her way dancing on the backs of horses, now with Tide drawn taking off two more heads before Argo found her, and they were reunited.
“By the gods,” Rachelle’s voice was soft with awe.
“Sometimes," I offered shaking my head, “I believe that Baba Xe creates her fighting moves on the spot. I have never seen that one before.”
Thomas and Galto were taking the men on the perimeters and Mama G fought the stragglers. But she was in trouble; too many were coming through. The bright hair flashed and fell into place with the swinging sais, but two of the brigands broke away and rode in our direction.
I folded my tongue a certain way in my teeth and blew an ear splitting whistle. Baba Xe turned her head in my direction, then in Mama G’s. She whistled back. It was consent.
“Hades!” My horse was there immediately and I dropped into his saddle. We thundered toward the approaching men. They were young, strapping, and strong, and thus gave me some pause as they drew near.
“Hades, you must take one of them,” I whispered into my horse’s ear. There was a short bark below, and my heart was filled. “Thank the gods you are here, Zephyr.” I breathed. “Now we are even.”
Mama had disabled the man who was troubling her and leaving him unconscious, urged Wendy toward us. As my animal kingdom partners and I greeted our attackers; I drew the Baby Tide and pulled my boots from the stirrups. When the first bandit and I passed and we clashed swords, I left my saddle, stepped to the rear of his horse and dislodged him by wrapping my arms around his neck and pulled him from the saddle with my weight. We both hit the ground hard, and I lay a moment too long gathering my wits. A fiery pierce split into my upper left arm, and I howled with both anger and pain. He had taken the risk however, of his sword was sticking into the soft earth along with my sleeve. Rolling to the right, I ripped the sleeve from my shirt, and rammed my boot into his crotch hard as he struggled to free his sword, and simultaneously slung the Baby Tide back right to slash his throat deeply as he hung over me. I rolled away from the spurt of his jugular vein and the collapse of his large body and without a look back, went to check on Hades and Zephyr who had the other bandit squirming and screaming on the ground; Hades was standing over him like a stone horse and Zephyr had sunk her teeth deeply into his arm.
Mama G joined us dismounting Wendy and striding to the scene in one motion, “Zephyr, let him go.”
My fox always obeyed my mother as she did me.
I walked to join her, but spared a look at the tree which Rachel had descended. She was jogging our way now as well, unhurt.
Mama G looked very tall standing over the gang member. “Who are you?” She demanded.
The man shook his head.
“Zephyr.” My fox was as good as the pinch. Her teeth went t right back into the arm.
“Haugh!” Call the beast off! I’ll tell ya!”
“Zephyr.” I hunkered down beside my fox and stroked her head until the amber fire left her eyes; but she only just lessened the bite.
“You had better begin talking, sir.” My mother was formidable in her fashion.
“Tell the dog... yeouch!”
“Answer the question, meatball. Who are you?” Xena the Conqueror had arrived, and it was her sultry tones which asked the question.
The man shriveled considerably. Zephyr increased the bite.
“We ride for one man. Calls himself Rankor.” The man ducked his head ashamedly. “I got nuthin’ against you personal, Conqueror. It was a job, s’all. Rankor pays.”
Baba walked closer and stood very tall over the fellow, “So you do know who I am and Rankor pays well to kill me, eh..?” She extended her hand down and after a furtive glance, the man took it. She hauled him up with such power; he flew into the air and had to scramble for his footing. She continued to appraise him, and he continued to scuff the ground with his boot. He was actually very young, no more than sixteen winters, with dirty blond hair and almost violet blue eyes which were quite beautiful when he found the courage to raise them. Baba continued to wait him out.
He found some shaky courage, “I got no ‘ome, Lady Conqueror. Took to drinkin’ and partyin’ with my friends too much. My parents give me the threat of straighten up or ship out. I shipped. Kicked around for awhile, but was nearly starvin’ when Rankor found me. At least he fed me and gave me a place to sleep.”
Baba Xe said nothing, but she leveled her icy blues at the boy. I began to feel rather bad for him.
Rachelle had joined us by now, had taken a handkerchief from her pocket, and was tying it off above the cut in my arm. It was throbbing with every beat of my heart. She had spared me a look that wasn’t relaxed.
Mama G had crossed the distance and stood by Baba.
“What is your name, son?” My mother said in the gentle encouraging way she had which put friends and enemies at ease.
“Caleb.” Tears ran down his face. Zephyr pushed her nose into his hand. “What’s this?” He stroked her head.
“Zephyr is an excellent judge of people,” I offered.
Baba crossed her arms on her chest. “Well, Caleb, you have three choices. You can continue this fight and likely die. You can ride on back to Rankor and report what has happened here, and he will kill you. Or you can come to Amphipolis, find a new life, and one day return home with some pride returned to you.”
“I like the third option, if you will have me.” Caleb said softly.
The slightest smile came into Baba Xe’s eyes. “Kneel then.”
The lad dropped to one knee immediately. This was my first time to witness such; I supposed she didn’t quite trust the kid yet. But my Conqueror parent stepped back looking at my mother who smiled and placed her hand on Caleb’s head.
“Caleb, “she said softly, “Do you pledge your life, loyalty, and strength to the service of the Amphipolis militia under the command of the warrior and the bard?”
Caleb raised his head and looked into the bard’s knowing eyes. “I do so pledge, My Lady.” He kissed her hand, and she took both of his hands in hers and lifted him to his feet.
Baba Xe then stepped forward and clapped him on the back,” Come let me introduce you to Galto and Thomas,” she said. “They will take you on.”
“And, Birdie,” she paused and turned, grabbing me with the eagle edged vision, “Good job. You are back in my army.” She pointed a long finger at me. “See to that arm little girl.”
I looked down; there was a small pool of blood collecting in the dirt which had run from the gash on my arm down dripping from my hand, but it didn’t hurt; it didn’t hurt one bit. I was back in Baba Xe’s army.
Rachelle finished the last of the twelve stitches she had sewed into the meat of my upper arm. It was a tender spot, and I couldn’t help but pull away from her.
She cut the thread, carefully replaced the delicate instruments into her kit, and began tearing strips of clean white cloth to wind around my arm.
“What have you to be sorry for?”
The tone of her voice was almost a blow. There was coldness- a distance in her even as she expertly wound the bandage around my arm and tied it off.
“What do I have to be sorry for, Rach? Please tell me?” She could feel my arm begin to shake.
“Here, quiet yourself.” She reached behind and brought forth a cup with a warm drink, “Drink this, it will take the edge off the pain.” When I took it, she handed me a piece of nut bread as well.
“I know that you aren’t very hungry, but you need something in your stomach to drink this medicine.”
“It doesn’t hurt that much, Rach.”
She sighed and looked directly into my eyes, “Don’t lie to me Robin of Amphipolis. That wound was close to the bone. It hurts. Now drink!”
The warm liquid was soothing, and took the tension from all over my body. It brought a slight numbing sensation to my arm which was indeed hurting more than a warrior wanted to admit. The bread tasted good, grainy and chewy.
Rachelle pushed the hair back from my eyes gently. “Now you need to get into the furs. Your bath will need to wait until morning. Healer’s orders.”
I didn’t argue. It sounded heavenly to me.
“Are you coming with me?”
“I’ll be along soon. I want to help Lady Gabrielle clean up the supper dishes. Go on now.” She gave me an encouraging pat.
“Yes’m.” Trying to be my most obedient, I headed for our bedroll. “You won’t be too long?” Don’t be pitiful, Bird dog.
“I won’t be long, Birdie. I’m tired too.”
The bedroll and the warm fur reached for me like the arms of Gaia herself were taking me to her bosom. That tea/potion was good stuff.
“Lady G, may I offer some help?” The slight Amazon approached the Amazon Queen at the flickering firelight.
The warm evergreen eyes surveyed the troubled adolescent and guided the girl to a seat beside the bard. Both stared into the flames for several moments.
“Here, Rach, see how this set of bowls stacks together? Can you do that?” Gabrielle demonstrated by taking Rach’s hands in her own, and then kept the hands in clasp.
“What is it, Rachelle?” The bard reached up and ran a gentle hand down along the thick ash locks of hair. “What’s bothering you, honey?”
The youngster’s head drooped and silent tears began treks down the pale cheeks. “Lady G, doesn’t the killing bother you?"
The bard sighed and leaned her head in to touch the girl’s head with her own. “Of course the killing bothers me, Rachelle. It bothers me a great deal.”
Rach gave a shuddering sigh. “Today was the first time I have seen Birdie kill. Well, kill in cold blood. It bothered me.”
The bard leaned back and put a warm arm around the girl and drew her close. Rach dropped her head onto the soft shoulder.
“We should never feel good about killing, Rachelle, “Gabrielle’s voice was soothing and serious. “Nor should we fail to defend ourselves when our lives are threatened either. Do you understand that those men would have hurt and raped us before they killed us today?”
“I know they would have done so; I know that.” A slow trickle of tears meandered down the young Amazon’s face. “I understand, Lady G, that such things... such violent actions are necessary to keep us safe, but it doesn’t mean that I have to like it.”
The battling bard kept a comforting hand running through the girl’s hair, “No honey, you don’t have to like it. However, if you intend to be a part of this family…. And I believe that you do…. Yes?”
The smaller ash head nodded affirmatively without hesitation.
“Then you will need to come to your own terms with the violence. We live in a violent world, Sweetheart.”
The tears were running freely down the youthful countenance, and the bard pulled the girl’s head to her shoulder and stroked her soft hair until the shaking had eased. Then she spoke again.
“That does not mean, Rachelle,” the bard paused for effect, “that you accept all violence without question.”
The patina colored eyes moved away from her shoulder and gazed at her directly. “What do you mean, Lady G?”
Heavy jingling boot steps approached, and I turned over to find the expected black variety with silver buckles stopping near my head. They hunkered down and my Conqueror parent plopped back on her elbows rather inelegantly, giving me a long studious regard.
I sat up too quickly, “Baba Xe?”
Her big hand caught me center chest. “Easy kiddo.” She pulled me a little closer to her. “Let’s check the arm.”
I unbuttoned my nightshirt and shrugged out of the sleeve to present my wound for appraisal.
My Baba Xe’s hands always fascinated me. She was an unusually tall woman—Amazonian tall, though not an Amazon. She was more like a goddess, so larger than life was she, a dangerous killer, with large strong hands that could kill a man without a weapon. I was only too familiar with the fact that one hand could flip me over and the other could blister my backside faster than I could blink an eye if my attitude was not to her liking as well. Maturity and wisdom were sparing me that experience as often now, thank the gods.
Now her hands were feather light as they unwound the bandage that Rach had secured around my arm. Her fingers evaluated the stitches with an airy touch.
“Rachelle has an incredible natural ability, and she has been taught well, “Baba murmured. “I doubt there will even be much of a scar.”
I grinned; could hardly wait to tell Rach; Rach knew that she was gifted, but it never hurt to hear it again.
“Baba. Rach is upset with me.”
“She is, hummmm?” the blue eyes met mine as if she had perfect knowledge of my problem. “Why would Rachelle be upset with you?”
“I don’t know, Baba.”
“You... don’t... know...?" she helped me back into my sleeve and rebuttoned the shirt for me. She looked away with a little sigh, and then gazed back at me with very direct icy eyes.
“What was different about today, Birdie?”
“Well, we were attacked.”
“And we were victorious of course, Baba. You were amazing.”
The azure eyes snapped; the compliment seemed to irritate her.
“And what else, my Little Bird? THINK.”
“I killed someone.”
“I think it was the first time that Rach has seen me kill it in battle.”
Baba Xe twisted her body around so that she was pitched up on one elbow.
“That’s my girl. Now how do you think Rachelle felt about seeing you kill someone, Birdie?”
Oh. What a slow slow birdbrain. It made me sick. Tears came quickly. Baba Xe reached out to catch them on her fingers and then she pulled my head to her lips.
“What shall I do, Baba?” a somewhat panicked whisper.
She drew circles in the dirt with a finger. It alarmed me; my Baba the Conqueror had no easy answer. She sighed.
“Birdie, that is something which will take time to work out between the two of you. There will be occasions that call upon you to kill. It is part of your nature, and at times something that you must do to protect those whom you love. But you can be assured, that Rachelle, especially as a healer, will never much care for that side of you.”
“But I care so much for her, Baba.”
Baba’s cobalt eyes softened, a rare emotion for me to see in her, and she laid her big hand gently on my head.
“Honey, I know that you care for Rachelle. I wish that I had an easy explanation for you.”
The tears kept coming and I wished they would stop. Crying in front of Baba Xe bothered me. I did it often enough in front of my mother, but I wanted to be a warrior with Baba Xe.
“C’mere.” Baba stretched all the way out on the furs beside me and took my head under her arm. I snuggled up close to her long body and felt her hand drift through my hair. Her heartbeat was soothing to me.
She pointed skyward. “What do you think that is, Bird?”
“That is Marcus, Baba. Marcus on Bartholomew, arranging all of the other star pictures.”
A chuckle came from deep within her.
“Sometimes, kiddo,” she said softly, “I think you may have your mother beat at imagination. But never tell her that, hear me?”
“Never, Baba. But thank you.”
“You know, Birdie, that your mother hates killing as much if not more than Rach.”
I sighed into her shoulder, “I know that, Baba. I think that is why Rachelle is talking to her.”
“So it has always been part of my path, to not only walk beside Xena, but at times to guide her. And believe me, it isn’t easy.” The bard stood to put away the last of the dinner utensils. “But with time and experience, and because Xena actually values my opinion in every situation, we get on very smoothly now.”
“So what you are saying is that Birdie will need my guidance at times. Guidance to help reign in her extraordinary skills as a warrior. And when I think that she is wrong, I must tell her, even if she doesn’t like it.” Rach was intensely watching and listening to every word of her new mentor.
Gabrielle turned from the cook site. “Yes, and today, Rach, was she wrong?”
“No Lady G, those men were coming for us. She did what she had to do. And,” Rach paused to consider, “Actually Birdie was very efficient about it; she caused no suffering.”
“Then you must accept that these things happen, “Gabrielle sat down again by the girl and looked deeply into her fire lighted face. “Now if you see Birdie go into some kind of war rage and off on a demented killing spree, that is different and you will also tell ME.”
Rachelle laughed a sad little laugh and then looked into Gabrielle’s eyes. “Thank you so much for talking to me, Lady G. I was very confused.”
Gabrielle simply pulled her into a hug and felt the girl relax into it quietly. “I love you, kiddo; don’t you know that yet?”
Rach pulled back from her long enough to flash her huge smile; then she returned the hug fiercely. “I love you too, Lady G.
“Do you really want my suggestion?” Baba was saying as she rolled up to leave; it was becoming late now. “Write something for her.”
I blinked at her; it was the last suggestion that I expected from the Conqueror.
“We all find our own ways, Birdie. I had to find the way with your mother. You have a gift that I didn’t; you are a bard. Write of your feelings for her, so she will know that both the warrior and the bard in you love and need her.”
It was a good idea. I rolled over and retrieved my journal from my pack.
“Thanks Baba, I’ll do it.”
“Don’t stay up all night now. You fall out of Hades’ saddle tomorrow and hurt yourself worse, I’ll skin you alive, little warrior.”
“Yes, My Lady,” I grinned at her, and began to write. The bootsteps began their retreat.
A turn. “Yes, Birdie,”
“Baba, thank you.”
Her teeth flashed in the darkness. “Anytime kiddo, anytime.”
Rachelle appeared with a lighted candle soon after. I turned to her for a hug.
“Are you better, Rach?”
She kissed my forehead, “I am, Birdling.”
“Are you still mad at me?”
She snuggled down into the furs with an arm around my waist.
“Birdie I was never mad at you. I was just conflicted; I still am, but your mother helped me with it.”
“Yes, Mama G is good at that.”
“That she is. My Baba Xe is quite remarkable as well, in ways and when, you least expect it.”
Rach rolled onto her back and sighed up at the sky. “And I love the child with characteristics of both.”
“Not my fault.”
That fetched me a serious elbow jab in the ribs.
“OOooFF, Rach, I’m injured!”
“You are just barely injured; I will injure you seriously!”
I met those beautiful sleepy eyes. “I love you, and may I borrow your candle for awhile?”
“Yes, but you need your rest.”
“I have been so ordered; just a little while.”
I took the candle and turned to my writing. Rachelle spooned herself close to me. There was a gentle pat to my backside.
“Night Birdbutt. Love you.”
“I love you, Rach.”
The weather was almost too beautiful to believe. My arm was stiff, but the pain was bearable. I completed the tiny missive to Amphipolis and attached it to Icarus’ leg. Baba strode to me after doing her final check of the horses.
“I said three more days, Baba Xe, is that a good reckoning?”
“I think so, Birdie.” She said, following my little hawks ascent to the sky. "We should be home barring any kind of trouble. How’s the arm.”
“Did you sleep?”
I avoided her eyes, and she laughed. “Just remember what I told you, little Bird.” She gave me a swift affectionate swat to make sure I remembered.
“I’ll stay awake, Baba Xe.”
“Ah yes," she continued to chuckle. “Nothing like love to keep a person wide awake.”
“Lady G,” Rachelle said softly so only the bard could hear.
“Yes, dear, is everything ok?” the bard was instantly alert fearing that the young people might have had words over their dilemma.
“No, everything is fine, Lady G. I just wanted you to see the extraordinary gift that I received this morning.” Rachelle’s cheeks blushed a slight pink as she handed the bard a piece of parchment.
“Are you sure, Rach? It looks personal.”
“It is personal, but I want to share it with you, “the young Amazon said decisively.
“Very well,” the bard, warrior, mother opened the parchment and began to read.
Where the sky touches earth,
You meet me.
Like death follows birth,
You greet me.
Like raindrops kiss the flowers,
You feed me.
And the source of all my power,
You lead me.
As the river ever runs,
You cleanse me.
Till the stars turn into suns,
You’ll mend me.
If darkness swells and threatens,
You hide me.
Like a cliff will stay the wind,
You guide me.
With a soft word or a sigh,
You touch me.
Or a flame-glow in your eyes,
You love me.
I must be forever near you,
At whatever cost
Because without your hand in mine,
I am truly lost.
Robin of Amphipolis
To be continued.
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