"May I disturb your reverie?" light indigo eyes twinkled politely.
"With food? Always." The quick reply. "What are we having?"
"ummmm smoked fish, fresh bread, cheese, wine, water, song, nut bread, and perhaps some love if you are lucky, " The dark eyebrows waggled, and she inventoried the meal.
"Sounds like a brilliant menu," chuckled the bard leaning back for a stretch. "It was time for me to move."
"Been here awhile, then?"
"So this talking to Hope---it's a good thing for you?"
A deep breath was taken and released.
"It is. I didn't realize that there was so much that I wanted to tell her. After, 'sorry I poisoned you'.. You know." Green eyes fluttered down.
A loaded silence.
The warrior recovered gracefully,
"Don't be. I was wondering if you would rather eat before we have this discussion though."
There was a quarter candle mark of companionable munching.
Another stretch, leaning back, and a deep breath, this time from the warrior--- first jab.
"So. After you apologized for poisoning Hope, what have you talked about??
"Your words, Bard."
"Your inflection, Warrior. It cuts like a blade."
A lean and long warrior's arm moved behind the smaller shoulders and snugged the bright haired poet closer to touch dark hair with light.
"Shall we start over?"
Double Deep breaths.
Tears fell from forest eyes.
The bard eased into the leathered shoulder where she knew there was always comfort and strength for her. Except…
The Conqueror felt it in her; a cold still place even after so much time.
"I am so sorry I didn't do this for you on that horrible day, Gabrielle. I was paralyzed by my own rage and grief."
Pensively, quietly, "There is no space for me to hold anything against you, Xena and I don't. We both made terrible mistakes."
"But I left you to nurse a grudge, and I was older, and had I been wiser, might have headed off the entire debacle."
"Xena, that's hindsight. Everyone has perfect vision in hindsight." She adjusted her head against the shoulder. " It was the worst day in our history. I have moved past it ---mostly. It catches up with me sometimes."
"I wish you could forgive yourself, Gabrielle."
"Why not? What purpose does it serve?"
The fair hair came off the shoulder to gaze at the Conqueror.
"Pardon me; Look who is talking?"
The arm was removed.
"That's different." "How?"
"It's just different."
"Why? Because it's my sin and not a 'Sin of the Warrior Princess'. Does that make it any less of a sin?"
The Warrior sighed and leaned forward to retrieve a medium sized branch from the grass. She slammed it into the ground, removed the Tide from its scabbard on her back, and commenced to shave the branch of its bark and leaves methodically, but with cold efficiency on every side. Then she split the sick in half, then in quarters, then…
"Yeah." She was chopping the stick into small pieces beginning at the top now.
"What are you doing?"
"Wondering why I even try to engage in these conversations with you."
The Bard snorted-- snickered through her tears. Then she punched the warrior on the arm.
Gabrielle leaned across the Conqueror and retrieved the sword with authority, "Give me that."
Sniffing and shaking the final tears away, the Amazon Queen slid the legendary sword back into its sheath on her soul mate's back. She took the callused hand in her own and raised it to her lips.
"I love you; my behavior doesn't show it. Forgive me?"
The clear sky eyes were steady meeting hers. And her smaller hand was raised to the warrior's lips with a promise.
"You've done nothing to forgive; I love you. Nothing will ever change that Gabrielle. Nothing in our history; nothing in our future, will ever change that."
The Bard's eyes told her Warrior that she had chosen the right words.
Hands clasped, they gazed at the young trees bending with the directing breezes.
"So what do you tell Hope?"
The green eyes considered deeply, looking at the trees.
"Well, there is only a small part of Hope that isn't consumed by the demon, and I don't know when she listens. It's odd, Xena. I feel like I speak to a candle in a cave, but it doesn't matter, there is a flame there nonetheless, right? I always thank her for helping Birdie… and then I tell her stories."
That brought the rare radiant smile.
"I think that is wonderful, Gabrielle."
"Fantastic. I bet Solon is listening as well."
" I hope so."
Another quiet moment. Then the warrior spoke.
"Shall we make a new promise?"
"No more regrets?" The bard read her mind.
"Stories of love and courage."
"I like that idea."
The Conqueror rose quickly and in the same motion, swept her soul mate from the bench completely into her strong and loving arms. The Bard took the face that held the sapphire eyes into her gentle hands, and gazed into her lover's soul as the warrior began to turn slowly in a circle that further tightened their embrace and dismissed the rest of the world.
The young oaks bowed and waved approval.
We followed water out of habit. Just trekking off willy nilly into the woods was a very good way to become lost and water is food, direction, and company. The chilly breeze and the steady complicated rushing sounds of the cold river always sooth the heated flow of my thoughts eventually. How had I managed to leave my bed with such good intentions early in the day, and before lunch, create total disaster?
Zephyr padded along at my side giving me an occasional inquisitive stare.
"You and your optimistic "fairy fox dance," I grumbled at her. "It was certainly no prediction of how MY day was going to play out; I might as well not even go home tonight, Zephyr. Mama G and Baba Xe might have managed the 'vines' indiscretion' but the vines plus the broken arm on Arrot? I don't see a good end to my day at all."
The fox came nearer to me and put her head under my hand, gave it a little toss and a gentle lick.
I looked down at her.
"Oh Zephyr, it's not your fault at all."
She knew that; she just felt bad for me.
"Well, do you have any suggestions?"
"Always the girl with the simple solution, aren't you?"
"Suppose we might as well."
"I'll have to do this the hard way, you know. You be ready."
We found a relatively quiet place where the water was pooling. I pulled off my boots and rolled up my pants above my knees. In my haste to depart the Amazon practice fields I did not bring an archery set, so it was fishing "Baba's Way" or bare handed, and it was not my favorite method. I took off my vest, pulled the long tails of my shirt out , tied them to keep them dry, and waded into the cold water.
All right. Focus. Be one with the water- one with the fish. Be absolutely still. Meditate. One with the water-one with the fish.
Zephyr, if you are hungry, you better quit laughing!!"
That black fox was sitting on the bank showing every one of her teeth in an enormous foxy smile. She knew how hopeless was at this.techique.
One with the water, one with the fish. Absolutely still. Feel the energy of the fish as it fins into my space. Feel it ,… patience…. feel it. THERE!!
I stuck my head underwater.
"Minotaur SHITE!!! ALMOST!!" Sputtering and spitting.
Zephyr was rolling over and over now laughing. I know she was.
She sat up at attention.
"Well you ought to be."
I pushed my wet hair back. Concentrate, gods, I hated fishing this way!! Again… one with the water, one with the fish… patiently, wait for it, wait for it, GOTCHA!!!!
I threw the fish right at Zephyr. She ducked and gave me an offended look.
"That will do for both of us, girl; that is the sum total of my bare handed fishing!"
Zephyr fetched the fish, and carefully tore the head off, and it was yet big enough for both of us thanks to the merciful gods.
Firewood next. Zephyr was good at that. She would eat fish raw, but I wouldn't, so she had learned that I needed firewood, and it was a variation on the game of fetch. She brought several midsized sticks to make up for her laughing.
I had my flint in my small pack and it wasn't long before we had a cheery flame, which helped dry my hair and pant-legs. I filleted the fish, added the touch of salt I found in my pack, and lay it on a frame of green sticks, that I fashioned with my boot knife.
"Seems like old times, Zephyr."
Well not the best of old times.
We shared the fish and had a drink from the stream. I stretched out to rest a while and ponder the next step. There was a rustle nearby. Zephyr's head rose in high alert.
"What is it girl?"
I sat up looking. Neither of us moved. Silence in the forest.
At the narrowest part across the river, first dark linings, then the silver rims of large ears, a black muzzle, and then yellow eyes appeared.
"Well hello fellow."
He wasn't looking at me.
"Well, go see about him then."
She crossed the river in one bound.
She looked back.
"Will you catch up later then?"
I was on my own.
"She will return, Birdie; you are her first love."
"Tis I, little friend."
"You show up at the oddest times."
"I think my timing is perfect."
"Impeccable timing, Marcus. I was wishing for you."
"Thank you my friend."
He appeared sitting by me, arms resting on his knees.
"You look well, Marcus; how is the afterlife?"
"It's good, my friend. I stay busy, healthy, happy. It far exceeds anything I ever had in the former life."
"I'm glad." I said to him. I truly was.
"You are doing wonderful work with the stars. There are nights I could look forever at the patterns, Marcus."
"Well, it was your idea after all."
"How does that work out, Marcus? I wrote the story and you now have the job?"
"Fortunately, not EVERYTHING happens just that way, Birdie, or all of us in the afterlife might be performing some very funny functions. But there are some myths that are spoken, and they become well, they BECOME."
"Wow. That is mind boggling, Marcus."
"Did you ever find out if you were accepted to the Academy of Bards?"
"You'll get in."
"I don't know, Marcus."
" I don't know about much." I drew in the dirt with a stick.
"Are you talking about that trouble you had at school?"
"I messed up, didn't I Marcus?"
He thought a moment.
"I'd have to go with a yes, and no,, Birdie."
"Well, at least I wasn't completely wrong."
"You were right to stand up FOR Evaline, and right to stand up TO Arrot. You didn't mean to injure her."
"Marcus, that sounds good to me."
"But where you went awry was when you left the premises."
"But I had to leave, Marcus; I was overwhelmed. It was a frustrating morning."
"The too much tea, the vines, then the broken arm…"
"But now you have skipped school, and no one knows where you've been, and you know that is always brings a price."
"Yes, I know."
"So why do you do it, Bird?
I threw the stick at the water.
"Ohh, I don't know, Marcus! Situations become pile up at the door, and I have to find some space to think. I know it's not the best decision, but it just happens. There is too much, and I need to get off alone with just Zephyr in the quiet."
"Well, you must decide if the solitary time is worth the consequences you must pay, Birdie."
" But I do feel kind of somewhat a little bit calmer."
It was lame; the truth is, I run when I am overwhelmed; I panic.
"That makes no sense."
"I know it; but it's the best I've got right now, Marcus."
We both laughed then.
Zephyr returned and sat quietly.
"Have fun, girl?"
She gave me a withering look.
"That is a definite 'none of your business', Birdie."
"Did your Grandba ever make anything of my silver ring?"
"Not that I know of, Marcus. Actually, I need to give it to her again. Think it slipped her mind."
"Tell her to look in a leather pouch under the clothing in the bottom drawer of the green chest."
"I will, Marcus. What will she find?"
"Ah ah ah, Patience, my fledgling friend. There are things we celestial beings are privy to a bit sooner than you earth bounds, that's all."
"Patience. Work on patience, little girl."
"Marcus. You are annoying. It's a good thing that I am so very fond of you."
"And I of you, my little bird."
"You have that 'time's up' sound in your voice, Marcus."
"You are perceptive."
I touched my head to his.
"Any advice for my trouble, old friend?"
"My usual, little sister. Be brave, be honest, be responsible for your actions, be loving, be strong, be humble."
"I try, Marcus."
"I know that you do, Birdling. And you do a good job.. I watch and listen, and I am proud of you."
"Are you really, Marcus?"
"Yes I am; when I am not, I will tell you. Don't worry. Now be good, my girl."
One cannot hug a ghost, so I closed my eyes and just felt his spirit fill and move within me for a moment.
"I will Marcus. Thank you for coming, and come back to me, soon."
"Love you, Birdie…."
The stars in his dark eyes were the final things to fade.
"Love you, Marcus."
Zephyr and I sat quietly listening to the rush of the river for awhile, allowing our acclimations to return to reality.
"Well girl," her eyes closed under the brisk rubbing my hand gave to the top of her head," Reckon it's time we made our way home to face the various kinds of music that await me, right?"
She gave me an affirmative look and a touch with her nose. Time to go home to Amphipolis, a nice dinner and an evening by the fireplace for black foxes. It probably wasn't going to be that pleasant for me, but I would handle it. Be brave, be responsible for my actions, be strong, be humble, that was what Marcus said. I re-adjusted my sword and scabbard, and then slung the strap of my smaller sling pack going across my chest the other way. We turned our noses toward Amphipolis. Only a dozen steps from the river, Zephyr stopped; her ears went straight up.
"What is it now, girl?"
My feet were quiet and I listened carefully, my ears dissecting sounds of the woods, one at a time. The river on the stones, the wind in the trees branches, a squirrel scampering in the dead leaves beside us, an unidentified bird call, the low rumbling purrrrr of a mountain lion watching…
My hand played with Zephyr's furry head and I looked down at her.
"It was YOUR idea that we get out of bed today, wasn't it?"
"Eph!" The Amazon Queen gave the formal salute to her Regent, fist on heart, then warrior's handshake, then the very Gabrielle signature warm hug.
"Ephiny, it's been far too long, my friend. But you look sound and healthy."
"My Queen, I am happy to see you as well." the regent returned the emotion deeply, fondly, and continued, "It seems as if there is always so much to do in the camp, and it keeps me from coming to the fortress as often as I would like, or at least for the REASONS, that I would like." She looked down and toed the dirt with her soft boot a bit.
"That doesn't sound good," Gabrielle picked up the signal immediately. "You are the bearer of bad news aren't you?"
"Well, that depends on how your majesty wishes to handle it," The hazel-eyed officer spoke quietly but not without a smile, "The situation exists mostly between me and my goddaughter."
Gabrielle sighed, "Why I am not surprised? She tumbled a little out of the wrong side of the bed this morning. Something happened at school?"
The Amazon shook her head, "The kid is the product of her parents, I will give her that; and she is truly growing up, Gab. You will be proud of most of this."
"Just tell me, Ephiny." Mama G's eyes closed patiently.
"Well," The Amazon led her Queen to a fallen log and they sat down together, "Birdie put a minor fracture in the school bully's arm, but following that, she practiced her first aide, and applied a light pressure point for pain."
Gabrielle's eyes were closed and her hands were folded in her lap.
"There's more, "the regent smiled, "Arrot, the bully, told me herself that she deserved what Birdie gave her. Told me that she was picking on another girl, and that she, (Arrot) was calling Birdie names. Birdie took her down easy, and she is also going to do her scroll work and chores that Arrot will struggle with while she is mending. In other words, the bully is now a fan of Birdie. The kid has the diplomatic skills of her mother the bard wouldn't you say?"
"I would have to say that's not bad at all. I was able to talk and squirm my way out of quite a lot of trouble in my youth, even before Xena." Gabrielle rolled her eyes heavenward with a sheepish grin.
"But Gabrielle, I am here because Birdie then left school without permission-without notifying me; and that, I cannot abide." Ephiny's voice had gained an edge to it.
"I understand completely, Eph, and Xena will skin her alive for doing that. It's an unfortunate habit Birdie has; she would never run from a fight, but she panics when emotions or people become too complicated. It's actually a trait I believe that comes from our warrior princess, that's why she is trying to teach her better ways. So far she hasn't succeeded."
"Well, Xena doesn't need to deal with it if I am here; it's a school related issue. Where is the kid?"
The bard's eyes froze along with her heart, "You mean she never returned to school?"
The regent's eyes understood, "and she hasn't come home?"
As the mutual realization dawned on the two women, the long shadow of the conqueror approached with her easy gait and smile.
"Welcome Ephiny, "she clasped the Amazon's arm in the powerful warrior's handshake, "It has been too long; I am glad to see you."
Blue eyes took brief account of green.
"What is wrong?"
I turned both my sling pack and my scabbard forward so they made a kind of X carrier in front of my body. Zephyr was looking dubious.
"Sorry girl, it's the best I have right now, unless you can climb a tree on your own."
Well, of course foxes don't climb trees, how ridiculous.
I picked her up, fortunately Zephyr is a small black fox, and threaded her through the X of the carry straps. She grunted and licked my face.
"I know it's uncomfortable, but it's only until I can find you a good fork in the tree."
She groaned and whined as I began to climb. We were perhaps sixty hands from the ground when the mountain lion came into view. My speed increased, which was fortunate, because our predator quickly caught our scent. She looked up, licking her lips and exposing long teeth.
"And then she left? I will kick her butt," the Conqueror said, pacing.
"No, that's why I'm here,"Chuckled the Amazon Regent.
"I wonder if any other local kid has so many big names after her," mused the mother/ bard. "That would be tough. Xena the Conqueror, the Battling Bard of Potidaea, and the Regent of the Amazon Nation, all after the same little thirteen winters old butt."
"Gabrieeeelllle. How many times has she done this? Disappeared without notice?" The sapphires flashed.
"I know my love, but again, she is THIRTEEN. Let's remember that as well. And there are three of us. We can't all clobber her."
"I don't believe that Birdie left school because she was afraid that I would punish her," Ephiny spoke thoughtfully. "Birdie left camp because the day just wasn't working out well for her. I had already chewed her ears for taking the vines route in."
"Oh, she broke the vines rule as well? She really was having a prize winning day," growled the Conqueror. "That kid!!"
"Xena." Said the Bard very softly, "Who TAUGHT her to take the vines route? Who took her swinging on it when she was just old enough to walk?"
There a brief pause.
"Regardless," spoke the bard in the continuing voice of reason, "You two take a walk; give ME a little space, so that I can meditate a moment and make sure that Birdie is ok."
"C'mon Eph, we'll walk ahead to the tavern and begin our plan." Xena took her arm. "Actually, if I know my kid, she's on her way home before dark. She is pretty good about that."
Gabrielle breathed very deeply, one, two, three breaths. Focused, concentrated…The verdigris eyes closed; the vast blue ocean washed calmly in and out…slowly, flowing up on the sand and back out… Longer, quieter, focus….. a small blue star on the horizon.. Present, but flickering. Fine, but possibly in danger.
"Zephyr, we have a problem."
The lion completed a third leap up the tree during which she stretched a huge paw with deadly extended claws. I had managed to put Zephyr in a wide fork in the tree and thus relieve her of her uncomfortable seating in my makeshift harness; however, she was shaking so badly at the threat of our attacker, I was afraid she might actually fall out of the tree.
She called to me with a little whimper. When I looked at her, Zephyr's eyes had the fiery flare of her god-fox form.
"It won't help in this situation, Zephyr, but thank you."
If Zephyr were human, she would have shrugged. Instead, she made a sound part way between a snort and a snert, and I laughed. It is wonderful, even in the worst of times, to have a black fox as one's soul mate.
The lioness leaped again and would have had my foot but I lifted it watching her. My sword was ready, but I did not want to hurt the lioness. Our choices were limited. Her last leap caused her to fall back on her side though, and I could see the milk buds on her belly. Never mind. I could not hurt her. So-Plan beta.
"Lady," I called down to her, "Please do not attack us. I see that you need to feed your young, but we would not be a good meal for them. I have no wish to harm you and I will help you to catch fish to feed your babies if you will allow us to come down without killing us."
The lioness made one greater leap and her claw ripped into my pants, but I rapped her nose with the flat of my sword, and discouraged her once again.
She lay on the ground looking up at me.
"Please Lady," I kept talking to her, and she rolled up to look at me. "If you spare me and my fox, I will bring you milk from the Inn for your babies."
"Portia, stand away."
The rich commanding woman's voice floated across the evening breeze. Soft boots appeared beside the lioness, who stood quickly and took her place beside them as if she were a simple house cat. I could see that the boots were embroidered with beautiful metallic threads, and that they housed dark toned lengthy legs. A light colored soft skin tunic, embroidered with more of the incredible thread, covered a slim muscular body. The hair was dark with silver streaks like moonlight shining in it, and the eyes were an untamed flecked golden color-the eyes of the lioness. An Amazon sword set with flashing jewels was at her waist and an ornately carved archery set was at her back.
The voice spoke again, "Come here, little sister, "and Zephyr leaped from nearly seventy hands high in the tree to land safely in the woman's arms. She spoke once more,
"Robin of the Warrior and the Bard, do you know who I am?"
I remained in the tree but bowed my head respectfully,
"Yes, My Lady," my voice shook with involuntary fear.
"You can only be Artemis, Goddess of the Moon and the Hunt, Protector of Expectant Mothers, young children and animals, and Keeper of the Amazon Nation."