" Zephyr, you are ready to go out, right?"
Zephyr is patient.
Quiet licking of her chops. Then the return of intense gazing. Hazel eyes with more intelligence than most humans framed by scatterings of white hairs in silky black fur. How was I so lucky?
"Ohhh Kay. BRRRRR."
"Quick quick quick, Zephyr?" I rolled out, tugged on my trousers and heavy socks which stuffed into my boots, threw on my wooly mid length coat, scrubbed at my face and scratched hair, trying to wake up. At the doorway to my room my travel pack awaited my departure. In addition to its usual items, it contained a towel, soap, and other toiletries which I tried my best to organize the evening before. From a strap on the pack there dangled my small sized bow and quiver set; one I had received from my parents when I was but seven winters old, but easily portable and quite lethal.
Zephyr scampered down the stairs ahead of me and out into the crisp frosty morning. Grandba as usual had already been up for a candle mark or so fixing breakfast for the inn guests connected with the fortress. I captured a clay mug of steaming tea on my exit from the kitchen.
My Grandba's voice followed me as I trotted out to catch my fox.
"I'll be back for the rest, Grandba! " I threw back over my shoulder.
Grandba Cyrene fussed at me for drinking too much tea. She thought I should have more milk to grow up big and strong like Baba Xe and Uncle Toris. But while I had my Baba's features and many of her characteristics, most thought I would achieve the smaller stature of my mother, Gabrielle the Bard, milk or none. Since arriving at the grand age of thirteen winters, I had grown not at all.
Zephyr was in a rare mood and performed a circular chase of her silver tipped tail in the sunlight a few paces in front of me. She was Queen of the Fairy Foxes dancing to my laughter. It was a perfect morning at the Fortress of Amphipolis.
I entered our family latrine and Zephyr headed for the bushes behind it. A private latrine was one of the few luxuries the Conqueror status provided us, but it was a greatly appreciated one, especially on" chili night" for the army. And even then if the wind was right we weren't spared the aroma of one hundred men and Cyrene's special chili. It was enough to make the gods cry.
But a private latrine was no warmer, and I was quick and sprinting for the creek where I made short work of shooting Zephyr's breakfast with my bow and arrow. She ate Cyrene's Inn food the remainder of the day but in the mornings, she loved a fresh fish, and I loved Zephyr. She then enjoyed her breakfast while I bathed in the section of the creek which was fed by an underground hot spring. That was also a private Conqueror family section, secret and a wonderful luxury. On a chilly morning like this, to not freeze one's arse becoming presentable for the day was a preferable beginning. I did a quick but thorough wash all over, and a final plunge in the colder water to rinse my hair. Baba Xe always said a warrior must take the cold water. I am not sure why, but the shock was invigorating, so the theory must have held some merit. I was reaching for the remainder of my mug of tea, when it was pulled away and replaced with a mug of hot cider.
"Ahhhh, Birdie!!!" Was the return.. "You know better."
"But Maaa Maaa!!"
"See? You are whining, and that's too much tea..."
" That's final, "in her tone. A gentle, directive pat to my backside. I butted my head to her shoulder took a breath and sought acquiescence.
A pause and then the sing song voice vibrated softly.
"Good morning, Little Bird."
She always won. Sigh.
Arm around me and stroking my hair? this was a better way to begin the day anyway.
"You are going to school today, aren't you?"
"I don't want to."
Wasn't arguing with her anymore. The Amazon school required that I attend so many days per season's rotation to be properly educated. I was being quite properly educated by my mother the Bard; however society had its thoughts and requirements as well.
"You can manage. It's the last of this seven day," she kissed my hair. "Be a good Bird now."
How could I maintain moodiness with that sweet talk?
Radiant smile and hair tousle. Approval lightened my heart.
We both turned to witness the view of my Baba Xe emerging from the cold rinse.
A raven h aired goddess, walking in a slow motion; she didn't seem to mind the chill of the water or air. Sparkling drops of water caught the sunlight from her tanned skin which covered the perfectly toned and knotted muscles of her warrior's physique. There were two sketches in my book which tried to capture that "Ares Chosen" mystique, but I've never shared them. They would probably only get me into trouble. When I am older, and everyone can realize that I am only an artist trying to capture the beauty of my parent and hero. Mama would understand. I am not sure Baba would because she doesn't realize her stunning effect on us ordinary mortals.
She wrung water from her hair over a shoulder and began to pat herself with her towel, ending with wrapping it around her blue/black tresses and slipping into her leather pants.
The azure eyes flicked to us, "What?" She growled.
I hurriedly kissed Mama G, "Got to go get breakfast. Bye Baba, Bye Mama, Come, Zephyr."
A touch to my hair arrested my flight and drew me back for a kiss,
"Be good, Birdie."
"Yes, My Lady Queen." I flashed a quick smile.
"What was that all about?"
The Conqueror finished dressing and sat down on the bank as the Bard entered the warm water.
"In what order?"
The sunlight hair shook a little, ducked under and began to scrub. Then she choked, as suddenly she was pulled under again by a second body that had entered the pool with her.
"Weren't you finished?"
"Decided I wasn't clean enough."
The sky blue orbs twinkled as strong fingers skipped lightly down the bard's ribs one at a time.
Gabrielle leaned back comfortably in the powerful arms.
"There are times that I would gladly return to the 'terrible twos' with our kid. Then I was pretty sure I had the upper hand PHYSICALLY anyway. Everything must be debated these days."
"Such a wonderful age; I remember it well. I believe that is why my mother always kept a switch in sight until I was at least sixteen seasons."
"Didn't say she used it. But I knew that she would. Do you remember much about your first visit to Amphipolis, my bard?"
"I would hope that I could, since it was the most important day of my life." The light and the dark heads touched in fond remembrance.
"When you came upon that little scene at the Inn--"
"You mean when the villagers were ready either to stone you or to rip you limb from limb?"
"Yes love; DO YOU REMEMBER who had taken possession of my sword?"
"Exactly. And how did you think she came into possession of that sword?"
The Bard turned around and faced the Conqueror,
"Well, Xena, I guess I've never given it much thought."
"I can tell you; she held out her hand, and she gave me THE LOOK."
"And the 'Destroyer of Nations' surrendered her sword."
"Absolutely. Figured she still had that switch somewhere."
The Bard strangled on her bathwater laughing, "Oh Xena, that's priceless; you have to let me write that in a scroll."
"Not on your life."
"NOPE. That was merely an example of the unlimited power of motherhood ? meant encourage you with Birdie."
"Oh, the never-ending battle to keep the little warrior properly afraid of her mother."
"It's really not that difficult. Just requires a good bluff most of the time, and I think you have that part down rather well."
"You are right. But it's exhausting sometimes, isn't it?"
The Conqueror settled back for a soak.
"I think it's easier to run the entire Amphipolis Militia myself."
The warrior's fingers again walked up the bard's sides, turned to gentle palms and traveled over the firm breasts under water, causing chills despite the warmth of the spring.
"You? The world's champion bluffer? You could bluff the Gorgon Medusa."
"I could bluff Medusa, but I can't always bluff Birdie."
The bard did a lazy float over to face the warrior nose to nose.
"How about me? Can you bluff the bard?"
"Bluffing the bard is not my wish."
A low chuckle. The lips met in a lazy kiss and the bard brought her compact body down to wrap her legs around the waist of her warrior, as her own hands moved forward to cherish the beautiful breasts under her finger tips.
"Then by all means," she dropped all pretense, "Let's play."
The water temperature rose even more after that.
The Amazon camp was a candle mark's walk back of Amphipolis Fortress. I nearly always took the "emergency or fast route" which was against the rules for me, but I hadn't been caught very often. There was a set of swinging vine/ropes that ran among a dozen trees between the fortress and the camp. I took the first from its holder, standing at the top of the fortress wall and look down at Zephyr.
"I will meet you at the camp, girl."
She gave me an affirmative look, turned and ran. She would make the camp more quickly than I; her broken foreleg was back to normal function now. Baba was an excellent healer of animals as well as humans.
I leaned back to gain momentum, and took the deep swing to the first tree. It was the most difficult flight, because the wall didn't have good height from which to reach the first branch. Consequently, there were camouflaged steps of bark in the tree trunk which I climbed higher into the next swing tower. I threaded the vine through the stone weight to send it back to the wall. That was the tricky part; the throw back. I had to hit the wall at the catch place for the next traveler. It was the difficulty for the entire route, the resetting of the ropes. Back when I first began taking the vines, I had to climb down many times and trees to carry the ropes back on foot. After a few such episodes I practiced my marksmanship, and it took a big distraction to make me miss. This one was perfect.
Dropping down two branches, I unwound the next length of vine/rope for the next swing. I checked my sword, secured a strap on my scabbard, leaned back and felt the quick breeze blow back my hair along with the belly drop before I slammed my boots on the next small platform, and wrapped my forearm about the catch branch. With half a dozen of these swings to make to the Amazon camp, it was not an easy trip to make, but it certainly beat a candle mark's uneventful hike.
Zephyr sat waiting for me at the final tree, her tail flicking back and forth, as I sent the final vine back to the former tree, and dropped down the join her.
After a casual loiter to make sure nobody had taken hard notice of my method of entering the Amazon camp, I walked in the direction of the school hut. My arrival should have blended in fairly well with the ordinary bustle of the camp; many dwellings in the camp were tree homes, and there was always a great deal of tree activity. My Mama G's tribe had been fairly nomadic until she and Baba Xe had settled in at Amphipolis Fortress. The tribe had taken up a semi-permanent residence in the heavy forest out side. It was a beautiful forest, rich with game and hiding places. Different patrols of the Amazons rotated by quarters scouting hunting, serving in the Conqueror's Militia, and governing the camp. And when the Amphipolis army needed the Amazon warriors, of course they were there in full number.
The school hut was a ground level dwelling. Entering, it came to my attention that Regent Ephiny was our teacher today. That brought joy to my heart. The Amazon warriors also rotated the duties of instructing the youth, and Ephiny was my favorite teacher. She was also an old family friend since long before I was born, and my godmother.
As the before school preparations were going on, and I was taking my scroll and quill from my pack, she walked over to me.
"Took the high road Birdie?" she looked at me with just a hint of a smile in her crisp dark eyes.
"Uh, hi Effie, "I spoke just above a whisper. 'Effie' was my name for Ephiny when I was first learning to speak, and it had remained, like so many pet names in my life. But it was a private name; we were formal in school.
She removed a thin twig with a growth of leaves from my shoulder and hit me lightly on the nose with it, and fired sharp snaps from her eyes.
"It's a dangerous route to come by yourself, Birdie, no matter how well you think you have it mastered. That's why we have the fifteen winter rule, which is?"
The twig tapped me again, and I recited dutifully,
"'Every Amazon under the age of fifteen winters must have an experienced adult with her in order to use the vines route to and from the camps'."
My hair fluffed forward into my eyes with the brisk smack that was applied to the back of my head.
"GOOD! You know that rule! How old are you?"
"Just turned thirteen winters, Regent Ephiny." I tried a sheepish grin.
She crossed her arms and continued, "The Look."
"Broke the rule, Regent Ephiny; sorry."
The grin wasn't working.
She gave an exasperated sigh and brought her hands to her hips.
"Birdie, I know that you are as good at the vines as the rest of us, but you mustn't take them ALONE! Even most adults don't swing them alone, because a fall is a guaranteed injury, and one might not see any help for candle marks when another Amazon may happen by the vines ."
She was right of course; my gaze dropped.
"Birdie, look at me."
Head up, take it like a warrior.
"This is your last warning on this rule, babe. Next time, I will not only tell your parents; but also I will tan your hide myself, are we clear?"
It was a pretty formal threat.
"Yes m'am, Regent Ephiny."
She pulled my head under her chin briefly and gave it a gentle knock, "I love you, kid; you know that?"
"Yeah, Effie." I sighed; it wasn't working out to be my day.
She pushed back and looked at me.
"All right then, where's Zephyr?"
"Thanks, Regent Ephiny." Not all the teachers would allow Zephyr; I turned my head, "Hey girl!"
Zephyr had been waiting for the invitation. She was by my side immediately, and lay down, with her dark head on her paws and her tail wrapped neatly around the whole of her.
Ephiny pushed me back down on my student's stool with a smile and she strode to the front.
She merely waited until everyone gave her full attention. She had mine even though Evaline wanted my attention as well.
Evaline was a young fourth level Amazon, who would probably never make first level warrior, and she had an enormous crush on me. There was nothing particularly WRONG with Evaline, but she was NOT my type; I didn't even have a type yet, but it was not Evaline. Evaline would always be a guard, a cook, a mender of armor and weapons but never a user of those items. Since I considered myself practically a warrior, (well, nearly) my type would need to have some leanings towards that ability.
I could feel her pasty blue eyes boring in on me even as Ephiny waited for us to settle down.
"Hi Birdie!!" Her whisper was subtle as a donkey's bray.
"Hi Evaline, hush. Regent Ephiny's looking."
All I needed was more trouble from my godmother.
"How have you BEEENN BIR-DIE?" She kept it up. I rolled my eyes inwardly.
My parents are a double edged sword when it comes to the general treatment of the public. My Mama G demands that I be more than civil and display good manners to everyone we meet. The Conqueror says I don't have to like anyone that I don't damn well want to like.
It's an issue. Baba has an innate suspicion of most people, and Mama has an innate trust of most people. But the bottom line is that while I do have a warrior's instinct about whether or not the folk I meet on a daily basis are trustworthy or not, I am still quite young; Mama G will skin me if word should come to her that I have been rude to someone with no provocation. And Baba Xe agrees that I should do nothing that will cause my mother to skin me.
That simplifies matters.
"I've been fine Evaline; now we better pay attention before we get into trouble, ok?"
Gods help me, I winked at her.
That was probably a mistake, but she had to be quiet. Ephiny was beginning the Morning Prayer to Artemis and to be called out during Morning Prayer was very serious. So she hushed and bowed her head.
"Archery this morning." Said Regent Ephiny, and there was quiet rejoicing. A "hands on "day!
"But first on a small piece of parchment, write down for me at least three different kinds of arrows and their purposes."
That was easy for me as I had been working in archery since I was five winters old. There were all kinds of arrows made from light and heavier weights of wood, different types of feathers which affected faster or slower flights and or different colors or entire breeds of bird feathers to denote different tribes of Amazons, and finally arrowheads, hunting arrowheads, target arrow heads; I knew all of them. The challenge was to write it all on a very small piece of parchment. I was still writing when Regent Ephiny called time, and I hadn't even begun how to put arrows together.
She bopped me on the head with the collection of parchments saying, "Time's up, Birdie; you hold the rest of us from going outside." When all eyes in class were glaring at me, I surrendered the page, even though I wasn't satisfied with my answer.
She placed the parchments in her bag, smiled, and said, "Go-"
and we flew for the practice course.
It was a beautiful day, sunny breezy and bright. . Ephiny had divided the class into two groups so that one group was shooting under her instruction while the other was changing arrows and cords for the next target. We then waited in line while Regent Ephiny worked with two at once, checking our form and stance at the targets. We had been through one time at the kneeling position, and were working back through a second round, when it happened. Evaline and Arrot.
Arrot was the bully of our Amazon training class. Everyone knew it; she was bigger by nearly half than most of us; her mother was a warrior scout, which meant she was gone a good bit of the time, and her father was rumored to be a "hairy fella". So while there were defendable reasons for Arrot to be a bully, we were no longer little kids, and we wished she could temper some of her unkind personality traits. Arrot began to bother Evaline, during the slower space when we were changing bow cords and arrows for the next round. In hindsight, perhaps Arrot liked Evaline, but she had a very poor method of showing it.
"Hey Evalinny, "she said, bumping into her hard, "do ya still like old dumb Birdcrap of the Conqueror?"
"Quit it Arrot."
Evaline didn't much care for her.
"Waaaat, Evenline?? Too good for me?"
"Not that, Arrot, just don't bother me," Evaline tried to walk away.
"But Evaleeeeene!!" Arrot bumped her again with a big whine; Evaline was knocked to the ground.
I stepped in then--damn hero package.
"Just leave her alone, cantcha, Arrot?"
Grateful eyes from Evaline, and a very sarcastic tone from Arrot.
"Oooooh.. now we all must tremble. Birdturd of the Warrior and Bard has spoken!"
I don't know exactly what happened. But the girl who was half again larger than I, was left sitting on the ground rocking back and forth holding her arm-very likely broken.
And I was standing over her.
I took a sheet from the pad in my scabbard. Quickly scribbling a note on the parchment my mother had meant for poetry, I handed it to Evaline.
"Will you please give this to Regent Ephiny for me Evaline, and tell her what happened?"
"'course Birdie, you was defendin' me."
"Yeah, suppose so, Evaline, but I was wrong. I am sorry, Arrot."
I knelt beside her.
I knew some of the pain relieving pressure points from Baba Xe, and I pushed one lightly just above her elbow.
"Does that help at all?"
"Abit, Birdie, thanks."
Arrot managed a little smile.
I looked at her seriously; this deed would forge a bond.
"Arrot, I will take all of your class notes and stay to do any of your village chores that you cannot perform because of this injury, ok?"
I helped her sit up to support her arm better.
"Even though you were being very unkind to Evaline , and you were calling me rude names, I should not have lost my temper, and I regret that you are hurt."
"S'ok Birdie, I kinda brought it on." She murmured. "I'll tell the Regent; don't worry."
"Well, obviously this wasn't my day to come to school, so I'll be leaving now."
"Birdie, should you leave?"
Evaline asked- a perfectly good question.
"I just can't take anymore right now, Evaline; I need some personal space to think. All this trouble will be waiting for me tonight when I arrive at home, you can be sure of that."
"We'll explain for you, Birdie," she smiled at me.
I hoped that this hadn't increased her crush.
"I"LL EXPLAIN. " Arrot spoke up.
I knelt beside her again and offered her warriors' arm grip to her good arm. She took it.
" Thank you, and I am truly sorry to have hurt you, Arrot."
"It's ok, Birdie. Really."
She appeared to mean it. But it was no excuse.
I stood and adjusted my equipment.
"Come on Zephyr."
We left the Amazon camp at an easy jog going north toward the mountains.