DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, the Amazons, etc and their back stories are owned by Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No infringement is intended and no profit is being made.
CHALLENGE: Written for the first International Day of Femslash.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Amazon Queens Don't Fall In Love
By Del Robertson
"Are you cursed by the Gods . . . " asked Ephiny as she struggled against the thick leather thong tied about both wrists " . . . or does trouble just naturally follow you on its own?"
"Hey!" Gabrielle committed the eye roll, even knowing Ephiny couldn't see it from her position on the other side of the pole, "You're the one who invited me, remember?" She gasped sharply as Ephiny's continued struggles caused the rope about her waist to tighten uncomfortably. "Come for Cupid's Day; it'll be fun!, you said."
"Yeah, and you looked like you were enjoying yourself, too," grunted the Regent of the Amazons, feeling the leather biting into her upper arms as she flexed in an effort to turn her head so she could see her Queen, "Up until the time your sneaky little scheme backfired!"
"Excuse me?" Gabrielle snorted, "If I remember correctly, you're up to your feathers in this caper, my loyal regent."
Gabrielle heard something akin to a wolf's rumbling growl behind her back. Tied back to back against a pole with Ephiny, helplessly staked out in the center of a valley somewhere beyond the borders of the Amazon Nation, her imagination could almost convince herself that it was a pack of hungry wolves coming for a mid-morning snack. Hades! After the past few days, it would surprise me more if it wasn't!
Five Days Ago -
"Are you enjoying yourself, my Queen?" a slightly inebriated Ephiny leaned over too far, nearly landing in Gabrielle's lap as she sat down on the grass beside her.
"No use, Eph," Solari supplied, awkwardly balancing a wineskin and two mugs as she sat down cross-legged on the other side of Gabrielle. Experimentally, she waved a hand in front of her Queen's face. The blonde didn't bat an eye. "Don't think she's even breathing."
As if to test her theory, Solari held her hand in front of Gabrielle's nose and mouth. With a mock-saddened expression, she morosely shook her head. Ephiny moved in, laying her ear against her Queen's chest, as if checking for a heartbeat.
Feeling blonde curls tickling at the expanse of flesh not covered by her too-skimpy Amazon top, Gabrielle was abruptly startled. Blinking rapidly, shaking the cobwebs from her mind, she frantically shooed Ephiny and Solari away. "What do you two jesters think you're doing?" she snapped.
Ephiny shrugged a set of tanned shoulders. "Just wondering if you'd checked out on us. Gods knows you haven't so much as blinked in the past half-candlemark."
"Well, what do you expect?" Gabrielle gestured towards the fire circle where scantily-clad Amazons were energetically maintaining a frenzied pace. "Artemis knows half the dancers aren't wearing anything beneath their loincloths."
"Yeah," agreed Solari, mahogany eyes twinkling as her gaze followed a lithe blonde's body as she performed a graceful leap and twist that sent her loincloth twirling about firm thighs. "Isn't it great?"
"It certainly is, my friend," agreed Ephiny, stretching across Gabrielle, clinking her goblet against Solari's in a toast. Settling down on her side, she decadently stretched out on the soft grass, crossing her feet at the ankles. Propping her head up with her hand, she turned her gaze back to the fire, mesmerized by the dancers' performance.
"The next few nights are just warm-up sessions. If you like this, your majesty," Solari winked at the woman beside her, "just wait until the night of the Cupid's Day feast." Her grin widened as the blonde she'd been eyeing performed a gyration that flashed an expanse of her tailfeathers. "Now, that's something to drool over."
"You'll get no argument from me, Soli," Ephiny couldn't keep the mirth out of her voice or the smirk off her lips as she added, "But, the dancers aren't what Gabrielle's been salivating over."
"Oh?" Solari turned to look at her Queen. Gabrielle looked suddenly uncomfortable, squirming beneath the chief scout's gaze. Confused, Solari glanced about the celebration field, searching for what - or who - had so completely caught her Queen's eye. "Ohh!" she exclaimed, spotting the two warriors standing near the perimeter of the field.
Gabrielle felt the heated blush rising to her cheeks, blindly reached for the skin of wine Solari had brought back with her. Uncorking it, she upended the whole thing, drinking heartily to hide her growing embarrassment at having been so easily caught.
Should have known, the chief scout thought as she observed Xena and Eponin standing in relaxed warrior poses; feet slightly spread apart, arms folded across their chests, wineskins clutched in their grasps. Although they were standing directly across from the fire circle, neither one of them seemed to be focused on the dancers. Comparing battle tactics and old war stories, she assumed, knowing what most of the warrior princess' and weapons master's conversations centered around. Her suspicions were confirmed when she saw Ep reach for the bone-handled dagger at her side and pass it to Xena. The warrior princess hefted it, turning it this way and that, examining it before passing it back to the Amazon.
Solari couldn't keep the smile off her lips as her gaze flitted back to her bashful, young Queen. "Don't worry, Gabrielle." Solari reached over, reassuringly patting the nearest knee, "I'm sure Xena will be happy to show you a few of her dance moves later."
"I wasn't aware Xena danced," interrupted Ephiny, turning to Gabrielle for confirmation. The Queen's brows furrowed in response. "What moves does she specialize in?"
Solari gave a sly smirk before answering, "The horizontal kind."
Gabrielle sputtered, the wine she'd been drinking spewing out of her nose and mouth, liberally spraying Ephiny in the process. "Solari!" she managed to wheeze out between the coughing and choking.
Dutifully, Solari patted her majesty on her back. "Sorry," she apologized, wincing at the reproachful look her regent was sending her way as she wiped a hand over her drenched cleavage. "Sorry. Didn't know you were so sensitive about your and Xena's bedroom habits."
This statement sent Gabrielle into another fit of coughs. "We're not - we don't - I mean - " Her face turned a brilliant red beneath the scrutiny of the two concerned Amazons " - that is - " Her voice lowered to almost a whisper " - Xena and I aren't together."
Dead silence. Then, a raising of blonde and brunette eyebrows in tandem. Two sets of jaws dropped as they open-mouthed stared at their young Queen. "You mean . . . you and Xena aren't . . ." Solari waggled her hand back and forth in suggestion.
"No," answered in a tiny, timid voice as emotions began to well up.
"Not even a little bit?" Solari eyed her suspiciously. "A roll in the hay? A grope in the bush? Maybe a little rockin' in the saddle?"
Ephiny downed her head, hiding her face in her hand at Solari's tact.
"NO!" said with a lot more force this time. "Xena and I aren't lovers!" Despair settling in her voice, tears streaming down both cheeks, she leapt to her feet and declared, "And, we never will be" before turning on her heel and storming off the celebration field in a huff.
Solari turned to look at Ephiny, both eyebrows still suspended in surprised disbelief. "No centaur crap?"
Snatching up the wineskin Gabrielle had thrown down during her hasty departure, Ephiny used it to hit Solari in the back of the head with a resounding thwap! before stumbling to her feet in an effort to chase down her distraught Queen.
"Come on, Gabby," Ephiny stroked her fingers through silky blonde hair, "It's not the end of the known world."
"It may as well be!" Gabrielle raised her head from her tear-soaked pillow long enough to plaintively wail, "I'm in love with a warrior princess that doesn't even know I exist!"
"Oh, sweetie." Ephiny frowned, readjusting her position where she was sitting on the royal bed, trying to reassure her heartbroken friend. "Believe me, Xena most definitely knows you exist." At the sloppy, disbelief-filled snort echoing from the depths of a sodden pillow, she added, "You can see it in the way she looks at you, the way she talks to you."
"You mean the clenched jaw and the barely restrained eye roll as she tells me things like Don't be sorry, just improve and love is a weakness that should be avoided at all costs?" Stretching out on her stomach, clutching her pillow beneath her body, she confessed in a tiny, tremulous voice, "I thought given enough time, that if I followed her around long enough, she might come to love me. The way I've loved her since the first time I saw her." Reaching out, capturing Ephiny's hand in her grasp, she turned to look at her regent through tear-filled eyes. "Oh, Ephiny. What am I going to do? It isn't enough for her to simply know I exist. I need her. I need her to want me like I want her."
I need her to want me like I want her.
Those words reverberated in Ephiny's skull as she continued to struggle against her bonds. What I wouldn't give for a breast dagger right about now. She could feel the hilt of her boot dagger where it was rubbing against the inside of her leather boot and the flesh of her leg. Completely concealed - and utterly useless - in her current position.
Glancing at the sun edging higher into the sky, she wondered what Eponin was doing now; if she realized they were missing and was mobilizing a war-party to rescue them. Or, was she and Xena still sleeping off a drunken binge? Feeling the tightness in her aching muscles and the crick in her neck from spending an entire night tied upright, she leaned her head back against the post, pondering How in Tartarus did I ever get into this mess? Closing her eyes against the brilliance of the rising sun, she recalled, Oh, yeah. All for the sake of my lovesick Queen's aching heart.
Four Days Ago -
"Are you out of your mind, Eph?" Gabrielle winced as Solari's voice rose in pitch.
"No, I'm not. There's four days left until the final eve of the Cupid's Day feast, right? It's one of the most romantic celebrations ever held. More couples come together on that one night than on any other. And, as Artemis is my witness, we're going to get Xena to confess her love for Gabrielle before the end of that feast." A steely gaze met and held Solari's. "And, you're going to help."
"Hera's tits, Ephiny!" Solari threw her arms up in frustration. "An evening of revelry is one thing; Hades, I'm all for a night of drunken debauchery. It probably wouldn't even be a challenge to get half the Nation's warriors plastered enough to try anything to bed her!" At the insulted looks of both Queen and Regent, she hastily amended, "No offense, your majesty. But, come on!" she was fairly pleading by now, "Amazons don't just go around falling in love!!!"
"Really, Solari?" Gabrielle peeked out from around Ephiny's shoulder, asking with a complete air of innocence, "Then, how do you get all those little Amazons?"
Solari's mouth fell open and stayed that way. Dropping her head into her hands, she mumbled, "Sweet Artemis preserve us!" Looking up from between splayed fingers, catching the silent plea in Gabrielle's eyes, she fairly whined, "Tell me what I did to deserve this?"
"You - " Ephiny enunciated with a stinging jab of a finger to Solari's chest " - made our Queen cry."
Gabrielle settled back on her haunches, admiring the spread before her. She had paid an unexpected visit to the dining hut this morning, surprising the head cook after breakfast with a request. A special request for the most decadent treats she could possibly stuff into a basket. A request that wasn't that difficult to fulfill, as it turned out, as Mytilda had been steadily cooking and baking in anticipation of the quickly approaching Cupid's Day feast.
Then, Ephiny had directed her to a little bower hidden deep in the forest. A cool, grassy clearing surrounded on all sides by thick, leafy vegetation and tall pines, it was as secluded a haven as she'd ever seen. When Gabrielle asked her how such a fierce Amazon warrior knew about such a romantic spot, the regent had merely turned a remarkable shade of crimson and hastily excused herself with some mumblings about checking to see that Solari had completed her phase of the plan.
It had been sheer brilliance on her part, she reflected. A plan truly inspired by the Goddess of Love herself. After all, what could be more romantic than a picnic lunch? Xena herself had already told Gabrielle of her plans to meet with Eponin and an Amazon hunting party at the break of dawn in the woods to the south of the main village. At Gabrielle's insistence, Solari found herself leaning against the tree outside the royal hut in the ungodly wee hours of a chilly predawn morning, grumpily waiting to join Xena on her great hunt.
As the chief scout and the best tracker in the nation, Solari would naturally take the lead in the hunting party. She'd lead the Amazons around for several candlemarks, then suggest she and Xena and Eponin split into a smaller party to look for additional game. Her suggestion wouldn't arouse suspicion as the warriors often divided into smaller factions to continue hunting even after an initial kill had been made.
Then, she would lead the warrior princess straight for the clearing where Gabrielle was conveniently waiting with their picnic lunch. She'd delay Eponin, holding her back on some pretense or another while Xena entered the glen alone. After a hearty meal with all her favorites, Xena would lay on her back, her head in Gabrielle's lap as bardly fingers stroked through raven tresses. Then, while the warrior was completely at ease, Gabrielle would coax a sated Xena into admitting what was really in her heart.
Kneeling on the blanket she had perfectly smoothed out on the grass, Gabrielle tried out several different poses. First, she placed both hands in her lap, primly bowing her head. Then, she arched her back and thrust out her chest in what she thought was a sexy pose. Frowning, not completely satisfied with that either, she flipped her hair back over one shoulder and pushed down one sleeve of her bilious green blouse and attempted a seductive pout. She held it for several heartbeats, before with a frustrated huff, both her shoulders slumped.
She perked up as she heard the rustling of leaves, the crashing sound of footsteps coming nearer. Thrusting her shoulders back and her chest forward, smiling demurely, she awaited her warrior. A stiff breeze ruffled her hair. Her smile faltered as a horrible stench assaulted her nostrils. Then, something big and hairy ran past as quickly as its cloven feet could carry it.
That was a wild boar! her mind barely had time to register before a large set of black boots trampled through the setting, firmly stepping in and squashing every peeled grape in a wooden bowl before kicking it to the side and continuing on. Pushing wild wisps of hair out of her eyes and mouth, leaning forward to see the backside of a leather-clad, sword wielding figure madly dashing into the underbrush in pursuit, she realized And . . . that was my lunch date . . . before she was roughly jostled and pushed aside by her weapons master and a half dozen more Amazons rushing after her warrior and the wild boar.
As she thought she heard the last sounds of heavy warrior boots run past, Gabrielle slowly pushed herself up from where she lay sprawled across the grass and blanket. Wiping at her face with one hand, she cleared her eyes and gave a disgusted flick of her fingers, trying to shake off as much chocolate sauce as humanly possible. As she glanced up at the sound of approaching footsteps, she saw Solari burst through the shrubbery and skid come to an abrupt halt at the edge of the blanket.
Big brown eyes widening at the trampled blanket, food and Queen, all Solari could utter was, "Oh . . . my."
The Amazon Queen had long since given up trying to break out of her bonds. She was only wasting energy . . . and her wrists were already rubbed raw from countless candlemarks of effort already. Licking her dry, parched lips, she glanced about, hoping for someone who might bring her a skin of water.
All total, she was sure she'd counted no fewer than twenty mercenaries in the camp, ranging from young lads who were probably having their first taste of adventure to seasoned warriors that'd just as soon kill you as look at you. Even though she'd shouted out numerous times for something to drink, she had been steadfastly ignored. Upon arriving, the men who had nabbed them had dutifully tied her and Ephiny to the post and checked to make certain their bindings were secure before abandoning them to join their cohorts around a fire for an evening of drinking and bawdy jokes. No one had been within thirty paces of them since.
Which is probably a blessing in itself, considering the way Ephiny was casting about disparaging remarks regarding their manhood.
A thug with at least three days worth of facial hair and stench on his body was surreptitiously sharpening his dagger and giving her the eye. Catching the young blonde looking at him, he flashed her a dirty smile, flicking his tongue out of his mouth and making suggestive thrusting motions with his dagger. Gabrielle reflexively recoiled at the offer.
Feeling Gabrielle's body go rigid with tension, Ephiny sought to reassure her. "Don't worry, Gabrielle. When Ep and Xena get here, there won't be a single one of these fools left standing. Artemis' bow, they'll probably take 'em all on by themselves while the rest of our sisters stand back and watch."
Thoughts of the combination of the deadly warrior princess and the equally lethal weapons master riding into battle together caused Gabrielle to once again wonder why Xena hadn't arrived, yet. Then, recalling the vast amounts of spirits she and Eponin were downing at the Cupid's Day feast, she realized her warrior had probably stumbled back to the Queen's hut and fallen into a drunken stupor on their bed, not even realizing her sleeping companion wasn't there.
Her bard's imagination conjured up a vivid scenario of Xena waking up that morning, a herd of wild stallions thundering inside her head and rolling over to find Gabrielle's side of the bed empty. A splayed hand would reveal the coolness of sheets that indicated her partner hadn't come home last night. A thorough search - during which time Xena would manage to successfully tear up the sleepy Amazon village - would reveal that both Queen and Regent were missing. Immediately suspecting something sinister, Xena would roust a slumbering Pony and Solari from their beds. Between the three of them, they would pick up the trail and come riding in to rescue them . . .
And right into a trap!
The warriors in the camp were gearing up for battle, donning their armor and readying their weapons. They were choosing strategic positions in the field, kneeling on the ground, using the tall salt grass to camouflage themselves and mask their numbers. Gabrielle frantically resumed her struggles against her bonds.
Glancing in the direction she knew the village lay in, Gabrielle could just make out the line of trees bordering the great forest in the distance. Desperately, her eyes searched the trees and brushwood alike, looking for any sign of Xena or her Amazons. Fortunately, their kidnappers hadn't bothered to gag either of them. If she could just shout a warning before her friends left the sanctuary of the forest
But, my throat's so parched and we're so far away; by the time Xena hears me, she'll already be out in the open - and it'll be too late. Redoubling her efforts, she felt the stinging bite of leather cording into already chafed flesh, heard the grumbled protest from Ephiny as her continued struggles caused the bonds about her regent's midsection to tighten.
"Are you cursed by the Gods . . . or does trouble just naturally follow you on its own?"
Even though Gabrielle vehemently protested her regent's somewhat caustic remark, she had to admit that Ephiny might have a legitimate point. I certainly must have been plagued by the Furies when I agreed to Solari's half-baked idea.
Three days ago -
"I don't know about this," protested Gabrielle with more than a hint of trepidation lining her voice.
"Don't worry," Ephiny reassured her as she reached one hand up to firmly pat Argo's golden mane. With the other, she passed the reins to Gabrielle, squinted up at her Queen sitting astride the mare. "Argo's a good girl. She won't hurt you."
"It's not Argo I'm worried about," quipped Gabrielle. Although, truth be told, she was more than a little surprised when her nemesis for Xena's affections had allowed her to lead her from the stables and away from the village. Course the apples I bribed her with all the way out here probably had something to do with her suddenly cooperative attitude. Either that, or she enjoys seeing me making a fool of myself.
Argo softly nickered as if in agreement to Gabrielle's tumultuous, unspoken thoughts.
"Then, what are you worried about, my Queen?" Ephiny inquired.
"Saddle sores." There was a brief pause, then "And sunburn."
The regent looked positively stunned. Then, recovering with a shake of her riotous curls and a quirk of her lips, she broke out into hearty laughter. Hearing the sounds of amusement from her perch in one of the treetops lining the worn path, Solari somersaulted off the limb she'd been perched on, landing squarely behind her regent. Curiously, she peered over Ephiny's shoulder.
"What's up?" she asked.
Ephiny glanced back at her friend, jerked a thumb towards Gabrielle. "Our Queen's getting cold feet."
"Your Queen's getting cold everything!" Catching the speculative gazes, she hastily switched the reins to one hand and strategically placed her free hand and forearm across her chest, working to discreetly cover both erect nipples. "Explain to me again why I agreed to this?!?"
"Because you look magnificent." At the rising blush quickly spreading over Gabrielle's entire body, Solari amended her answer. "By the accounts of the ancient scrolls, our greatest military Queen who fought at the Battle of Damascus found herself outnumbered ten to one by an army of men. Instead of surrendering at dawn like the opposing General expected, she surprised her enemies by leading an unprecedented charge against overwhelming odds. The enemy was astounded by these fierce women warriors riding in on horseback, screaming like banshees and brandishing their weapons, clad in nothing but feathers and warpaint. Our warriors tore through their forces, bringing the fight right to the General's tent. The battle was over within a candlemark."
Ephiny passed the Queen's mask up to Gabrielle. The bard tentatively placed it upon her head, settled it atop blonde tresses. Reaching down, she accepted her staff from the regent.
"Xena's a military tactician," explained Ephiny, "She'll appreciate the historical significance."
"That's not all she'll appreciate," murmured Solari.
Solari shrugged, gave a sheepish grin as she gazed up at her naked Queen. Her young, gorgeous naked Queen. "Look, when you first showed up here, you were wearing that dowdy peasant dress that covered up everything. Then, thank Gods, you switched to something more practical. My point is, Xena hasn't seen you naked before."
"Xena's seen me naked plenty of times," Gabrielle protested with a fist on a hip and an air of defiance in her tone. At the dismayed looks and incredulous raising of brows, she amended, "We travel together. We change clothes in front of each other. We bath together all the time!"
"But, she hasn't seen you."
"I get what Solari's saying," Ephiny spoke up, nodding her head in agreement. "The first impression Xena had of you was as an innocent peasant girl. And, even though you've changed your - " The blonde Amazon pointedly glanced at Gabrielle's prominently displayed abdominal muscles " - image, she still tends to think of you as that little tag-a-long she picked up in Potadeia."
"Exactly. If you want Xena to fall in love with you, she's got to stop seeing you as this naive, innocent girl and start looking at you as a woman." Eyes sparkling with appreciation, Solari allowed her gaze to freely roam over Gabrielle's nubile body. "Believe me, one look at you sitting astride her warhorse in all your glory as the Queen of the Amazons, and Xena will never see you in the same way again."
That had been the logical argument that had Gabrielle now sitting astride a rather impatient golden mare on a shaded forest path, awaiting the arrival of one warrior princess. After reassuring her countless times that this was indeed the path Xena and Eponin would be traveling upon when they returned from their trip into town. And that they were absolutely positive no one else in the village would be traveling this route today. Nervously, Gabrielle glanced over to the bushes where her regent and chief scout were concealed.
Noticing the way Gabrielle was anxiously fidgeting in the saddle, the Amazon Regent flashed what she hoped was a reassuring smile and a thumbs-up signal. To her relief, her little Queen offered up a half-smile and resolutely held Argo to the center of the trail.
Last night, Ephiny had coaxed the warriors' plans for the day out of Pony during a session of pillow talk. A kiss here, a lick there, a well-placed bite somewhere else and her lover was confessing their entire itinerary of places Xena planned on stopping at in town. And the fact that they agreed to travel on foot; both to stay out of the village and avoid the decorating and frou-frou stuff that went along with any celebration and to measure each others' endurance on a cross-country run.
Given traveling time there, the in-and-out speed of warriors that barely knew how to shop by a list let alone haggle, a stop-off at the local inn for a drink or two or six, plus travel time back, coupled with the size of warriors' egos . . . Ephiny figured she had calculated more or less within a candlemark of when the weapons master and the warrior princess would round the bend in the path. Given the way Gabrielle's fidgeting, I wish I could have timed this closer.
Nestled in the bushes beside her regent, Solari let out an exasperated huff as her Queen frantically motioned for them once more. "It's your turn," she nudged Ephiny, the force of her forearm against the regent's back strong enough to send the blonde Amazon stumbling out of the underbrush. Tugging a tangled leaf from her hair, she scowled at her scout. Unperturbed by the scathing look, Solari shooed her towards the Queen.
"What is it now?" Ephiny hissed through clenched teeth in a whisper as her eyes darted from her naked Queen to the path.
"I can't do this." Gabrielle's grip upon the reins visibly tightened. Argo whinnied in protest.
"Of course you can." Hazel eyes met and held green, daring Gabrielle to find the courage not to bolt. "They'll be here soon."
"I know." More than a hint of nervousness made the bard's voice crack. "I can't - I don't - " dropping her tone to an embarrassed whisper, she confessed, "I don't want Eponin to see me - - " a frantic motion at herself supplied the unspoken word naked.
"Gabrielle." Ephiny's tone mirrored that of a mother speaking to a particularly stubborn child. "Eponin's a fully-grown Amazon warrior. She's seen plenty of naked women in her time."
"But . . . but . . . " Gabrielle looked almost comical in her frenetic state " . . . she's never seen me naked before."
"Ah, I see." A small smile tugged at the corners of Ephiny's lips. She found the young woman before her almost charming in her bashfulness. Queen of a nation of Amazons and she's so modest about her body. Looking up, meeting Gabrielle's worried gaze, Ephiny made her a solemn vow. "I promise you, my Queen, as soon as they round that bend and Xena spots you, you'll forget all about being shy."
"Positive. And, if that doesn't work, you can always hide behind your mask," was suggested in a droll voice. A rustling sound made Ephiny cock her head to the side. With a confident pat to Gabrielle's leg, she announced, "They're coming. Remember, you stay focused on Xena. I'll see to distracting Eponin."
Gabrielle felt a wave of anxiety rush over her. Her grip tightened upon Argo's reins until her knuckles were clenched white. Rapidly breathing in and out, she tried to calm her racing heart. She heard footsteps upon the path now. A frantic look to the side revealed Ephiny diving for the cover of the bushes and coming up beside Solari, leaves liberally peppering her blonde hair.
Channeling her inner bard, Gabrielle imagined herself to be that legendary Queen that Solari had described. She felt herself noticeably straightening her posture, her regal bearing manifesting itself as she sat taller in the saddle. Her grip on the reins loosened, the one on her staff tightened. Squaring her shoulders, chin held high, she looked straight ahead as the travelers came around the bend.
Eponin was in the lead, walking slightly ahead of Xena. As she noticed the vision sitting astride the horse in the middle of the path, she abruptly stopped in her tracks. So suddenly that Xena ran right into her, knocking them both senseless.
"What'd you stop for, ya - " Xena's words stopped mid-insult, her mouth hanging open, her eyes going as round as twin chakrams.
Gabrielle's own eyes were trying to bug out of their sockets as directly behind Eponin and Xena, thirteen women stood staring in equal parts shock and stunned dismay. Her gaze zeroed in on the leader of the pack of young women all dressed in identical bilious white gowns; Leah, head priestess of the Hestian virgins.
Releasing the grip on her staff, reaching up with one hand, Gabrielle very slowly lowered the mask of the Queen over her face. In the eerie silence of dumbstruck warriors, virgins and Amazons, the only sound in the forest to be heard was a muffled, "Oh . . . my . . . Gods. . . "
"I still don't understand what you were doing on my horse. In the forest. Naked." There was a ragged indrawn breath as Xena mumbled, "Gonna take me candlemarks to oil the saddle."
Gabrielle was so embarrassed, she was beyond the point of any further blushing. Suddenly angry at herself - Xena - the situation; she turned the argument back around, "And, I don't understand what you were doing with a herd of Hestian virgins in the middle of the Amazon Nation!"
"Shhh!" Xena warned, using hand motions to urge Gabrielle to lower her voice. "Do you want them to hear you?" she asked, poking her head around the corner, looking into the council hut. Priestess Leah and her . . . devout followers . . . were standing demurely in the center of the room while the Amazon elders eyed them with a mixture of suspicion and disbelief.
"If it means I'll get an explanation, yes!" Both Gabrielle's hands were braced on her hips and there was a defiant cast in her eyes that Xena had come to recognize as her bard's brewing temper. But, she did lower her voice to a scathing hiss. "What were you thinking?!?"
"Pony and I ran into them on our way back. According to Leah, Hestia appeared to her in a vision, telling her to gather her most devout followers and come to this town that was in dire need of their moral guidance."
A frown marred Gabrielle's features. "Xena, remember the last time Hestia spoke to Leah in a vision?" she asked in a subdued tone, glancing around to make sure no one overheard.
"Yeah. But, thing is, this local priest doesn't seem to want her there. So, I don't think it's a plot to kill the followers of Hestia." The warrior princess' eyes narrowed as she rubbed her chin. "Matter of fact, he convinced the locals to drive the Hestians out on the grounds of the chaos that happened the last time the Hestians had a big gathering in the province."
"You mean the incident with them nearly being rustled up and sold off to a slaver? That was hardly their fault." Gabrielle snorted. "Besides, you stopped that."
"We," Xena emphasized with a hand on her sidekick's shoulder and a meaningful look, "stopped that. But, gossip spreads like wildfire. And, the locals are scared that if they harbor the Hestians, trouble will come to their doorstep."
"So, they just tossed them out; ran them out of town?"
"In a heartbeat."
"And, you and Pony stumbled across them and decided to bring them home with you?!?" was nearly shouted in disbelief. "Xena, these are virgins, not strays! You can't just go bringing home any that you find!"
Xena let out an exasperated huff. "They're innocents with nowhere else to go. I couldn't just leave them on the open road like a sacrifice." Seeing the unspoken "and" screaming in Gabrielle's eyes, she laid a hand upon the bard's shoulder, looked her in the eye and asked, "If we don't save the virgins, Gabrielle, then who will?"
"So, your idea was to hide these - " Gabrielle glanced through the doorway, eyes nearly doubling in size as she saw two Hestians flanking her weapons master, hands frequently straying to muscular biceps as they looked at her in wide-eyed appreciation. " - innocents in an Amazon village . . . during the Cupid's Day celebration?"
"Last place I'd look for a bunch of virgins," Xena smirked. Taken aback at the sight of a miffed regent pulling her lover out of the clutches of two Hestians, she added, "Just lay down a few ground rules with the Amazons and things should be fine." At the displeased look, she suggested, "Don't worry; their precious feast won't be ruined. Just keep the dancing - and um - more adult activities - under wraps until the virgins turn in for the night." At the eye roll, she added, "Hey! They're Hestians; I'm sure they'll have dinner and prayers and turn in early."
"Okay," Gabrielle relented, although she sounded like a petulant toddler being told she had to share her favorite toys with an annoying sibling. "I guess if they really don't have anywhere else to go, the Amazon Nation can host them for a few days."
The little Queen was already moving towards the open door of the council hut when Xena caught her and tugged her back. "That's very diplomatic of you, Queen Gabrielle." Xena reached an arm about her bard's shoulders, pulling her in for a hug and dropped an affectionate kiss on top of her head. They stayed like that for a few heartbeats before Xena's brow arched at the sight of the chief scout encroaching upon the head priestess' personal space as they spoke together in subdued tones. "Umm - " Xena pointed out the sight to Gabrielle. " - might wanna tell the Amazons not to flirt with the Hestians."
Catching the ardent cast in Solari's eye and the oblivious look on Leah's face, Gabrielle couldn't suppress a groan. Stifling her chuckles, Gabrielle lowered her face into Xena's breastplate and mumbled, "Don't worry. I'm sure your innocent virgins are capable of resisting the advances of a few amorous warriors."
"I'm certain of that," Xena agreed, remembering Priestess Leah's speech to them about infidels and heathens catching a speeding chariot straight to Tartarus. With a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, she nudged Gabrielle, "Just in case, though, might be a good idea for their Queen not to go riding bareback around the Nation." She grunted at the sudden elbow to her ribs as Gabrielle pushed past her and into the council hut. Watching her go, Xena added beneath her breath, "At least not in front of the virgins."
"You know," Ephiny's voice drifted over from the other side of the post, "I don't recall the part of the plan that included us being kidnapped by a band of smelly warriors, do you?"
"Ephiny." Gabrielle's tone held more than a touch of irritation.
"I'm just trying to clarify what the plan was - "
"Ephiny!" The bard fought down the urge to scream. "Just -- please -- give it a rest."
Feeling the rising heat itching at her scalp and the sweat trickling down the back of her neck, Gabrielle tried to ignore the uncomfortable sensations. Closing both eyes, she forced herself to concentrate on becoming one with her surroundings and feeling what was around her, rather than relying just on her eyes to see with. Just like Xena had been training her to do.
Calming her breathing, willing herself to relax, Gabrielle felt a sense of inner calm wash over her. She could hear the slight wind rustling the blades of salt grass that were just tall enough to tickle the flesh of her thighs. The absence of wildlife sounds echoed loudly in her ears, followed by the squeaking of new, not quite worn in yet leather breeches as a thug adjusted his crouching position in the tall grass somewhere in the vicinity of roughly a hundred paces to her left. The methodic rasping of leather against wood and the repetitive up and down movements of Ephiny's forearms against her back gave testament to the regent's continued efforts to break through their bonds.
So intent was Gabrielle on becoming one with her surroundings, that she was surprised by the sudden press of something against her lips. Feeling the cool liquid, recognizing the feel of the spout, she greedily sucked the water into her parched mouth. Unnerved by the fact that she hadn't heard anyone's approach, her eyes blinked open.
"So, what's a nice Amazon like you doing in a place like this?" asked the highly amused voice as her captor held the waterskin to the blonde's lips, watching in rapt fascination as her throat muscles worked to draw in as much of the liquid as possible.
"Draco!" The water spewed out of her mouth, solidly landing on the warrior's face and armor. "Let us loose, you sadistic louse!" Gabrielle kicked out in frustration.
"That would be rather redundant, wouldn't it, my sweet Gabrielle?" Draco grinned smugly as he calmly wiped his hand across his cheek, then brought his wet fingers to his mouth and sucked the lingering drops off each digit in turn. "Especially since I went to such great lengths to kidnap you."
"Gabrielle!" Ephiny's head whipped around, sending her blonde curls flying as she fruitlessly tried to see what was happening behind her back. "Do you know this - this - warlord?"
The response was instantaneous. Draco was at her side in two long strides. Immediately, Ephiny's head snapped back from the force of the backhanded slap across her face. She felt thick fingers curl in her hair as her head was lifted until her eyes focused on dark brown filled with something between a mixture of mirth and malice. "Now, now. You say that as though it were an insult . . . " He made a point of curling up the edge of his lip as he added " . . . Amazon."
Wincing at the sound of the strike, Gabrielle prayed that Ephiny would keep her fierce temper in check and not say something that would set Draco off. Despite his promise to Gabrielle to turn over a new leaf, it was obvious that the warlord was nowhere on the path of redemption. Should have known that with rumors of slavers in the area, there was a good chance Draco was involved.
"Amazons fight with honor and courage, warlord!" Ephiny vehemently spat out the words around the blood pooling in her mouth. "We don't tie our enemies to stakes and then strike at them with coward's blows."
Gods, Ephiny . . .
An amused laugh from Draco and another resounding blow that echoed with the slap of a studded gauntlet meeting flesh and bone made Gabrielle's insides clench and her throat tighten. She heard the expected response from the tough warlord, "You're lucky I still need you alive, Amazon." A pause as Gabrielle caught the sharp gasp from Ephiny's lips, pictured Draco with his hand about her regent's slender throat. "Otherwise, I'd untie you and show you how a real man deals with his adversaries."
Knowing she needed to diffuse the situation and draw his attention away from Ephiny, Gabrielle called out, "I thought you gave up the slave trade, Draco."
"Don't worry, my sweetest Gabby." Draco swiftly moved about the post, leaning towards Gabrielle, his lips so close to hers they were breathing the same air. "There's no profit in selling Amazons as slaves." He pointedly flicked a look over Gabrielle's shoulder at the agitated, struggling regent. "Too willful and disobedient." Turning his gaze back to Gabrielle, he boldly ran a fingertip from jawline to chin. A savage leer appeared on his face as she involuntarily shuddered beneath his touch. "I have something else in mind for you, my dearest."
Two days ago -
"As the Gods are my witness, I'll never step foot outside my hut again."
Ephiny rolled both eyes at the over-dramatics. She understood why Gabrielle might be slightly embarrassed, especially given the fact that the head priestess that she had flashed was such a dead ringer for Xena. But, she thought the notion of the Amazon Queen cowering in her own hut in fear of a group of virgins was slightly more than ludicrous.
"You know, you should give them a chance. They're really very nice girls." A slight quirk of her lips as she added, "For a group of virgins, that is."
"I know. First time I met Leah, we were trying to protect her from a zealot attempting to kill her and her flock. Xena had me disguise her and hide her in a brothel. You know, she was out of her element at first, but then she just adapted. She was teaching the bordello girls Hestian hymns before the day was out."
"Guess I'd better keep an eye out, then. Make sure those virgins aren't trying to corrupt our Amazons."
Suddenly feeling guilty about neglecting her guests, Gabrielle inquired, "How are they handling themselves?"
Ephiny quirked an eyebrow, but let that one slide past unchallenged. Instead, she answered with, "Actually, surprisingly well. Hestians and Amazons both basically interact in communities devoid of men." There was a sobering pause before Ephiny added, "Naturally, they're a little nervous. Don't know if that's due to the rumors in town about the possibility of slavers or if they're skittish around," Here, Ephiny mimicked Priestess Leah's voice, "Half-clad wanton women who shamelessly display their bodies to any who would care to look."
Gabrielle grimaced. "And, how are the Amazons taking that?"
Ephiny shrugged. "They're giving the virgins an eyeful."
"Umm, Eph - " Gabrielle pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers in an effort to ward off the headache looming right behind her eyes. " - I know a lot of the Amazons here are couples . . . and it is the Cupid's Day feast and all but, I was wondering -- maybe while the virgins are here, it might be a good idea to cut down on the -- umm -- " Gabrielle squirmed even as she suggested it " -- public displays of affection?"
"Gabrielle!" Ephiny looked like she'd been slapped. "If we can't be ourselves in our own village - "
The Queen held up a hand to cut off the tirade. "I'm not saying you can't be who you are. All I'm asking is that you spread the word that the Amazons don't do anything that might be considered . . . gratuitous . . . while the Hestians are our guests."
"You're risking having a lot of frustrated Amazons on your hands. You know that, right? I mean, some of us really look forward to the Cupid's Day celebrations."
"I'm not suggesting we alter the celebrations. Or, do anything to dampen the atmosphere leading up to the main feast. I'm just asking the tribe be - - discreet."
"Okay, fine. You want a nation full of sexually frustrated, discreet Amazons, that's your business." There was a noticeable growl coming from the regent as she was already imagining the sort of reception this decree was going to receive. "Just don't come crying to me when someone gets maimed." There was a half-pause before Ephiny added, "And, you get to tell Solari. I hear she's already taken three different virgins on nature walks."
"Oh, gods." Cradling her aching head in both hands, Gabrielle let out a long-suffering sigh. "I'll speak with priestess Leah, see if I can convince her that not all Amazons are purveyors of sin living in dens of iniquity."
"Gee, thanks, my Queen," Ephiny saucily ran a hand beneath her halter, cupping her full breast, "Just try to ruin our reputations, why don't ya?"
"It's the least I can do," Gabrielle giggled, slapping at Ephiny's hand in mock-reprimand, "Especially since it was the Amazon Queen that initially traumatized them by appearing on a warhorse with nothing on but a mask."
Unable to resist teasing, Ephiny mentioned, "Eponin said she's never seen a nicer set of - " Seeing her Queen's blush rapidly rising to the tips of her ears, she settled on the word " - feathers."
"Gods, Ephiny." Gabrielle forced down her blush. She'd been doing entirely too much of that over the past couple of days and she was beginning to grow weary of it. "If after all this, I can't find some way to make Xena fall in love with me . . . I may have to run away and become a virgin myself."
"You know, instead of trying to think of some elaborate plan; Why don't you just tell her how you really feel?" Ephiny asked from where she was laying sprawled across the Queen's bed, lazily watching as Gabrielle paced back and forth across the length of her hut.
"I - I just can't find the words."
A twin set of blonde eyebrows shot towards a hairline. "You - the battling bard of Potadeia . . . the woman who follows Xena from town to town, singing her praises in taverns and who-knows-where-else . . . you can't find the words?" A slightly perturbed look crossed Ephiny's features. "You're a bard; words are what you do."
"I know that!" snapped Gabrielle. Then, instantly feeling guilty for her outburst, she crossed the hut to sit on the bed beside Ephiny. "It's just that those are stories about Xena. And, all the good she's done." Lowering her head, fingers playing with the hem of her skirt, she confessed in a tiny voice, "I can talk in front of a tavern full of people, but I can't get the words out in front of Xena."
"So," Ephiny shrugged, "Write it down. Tell her in a scroll."
A wry grimace crossed Gabrielle's lips. She mumbled something too low for Ephiny to hear. Then, suddenly found something very interesting on the floor in the far corner of the hut to stare at.
"What was that?" Ephiny asked, almost positive she couldn't have heard what she thought she'd heard. "Did you just say you - "
"Tried that," Gabrielle repeated, frustration getting the better of her. "It was horrible!"
"Gabrielle," Ephiny placed a reassuring hand on her Queen's shoulder. "I've read your scrolls. I'm sure it was just fine."
"It came out as a dirty limerick!" Gabrielle exclaimed in a plaintive wail. Seeing Ephiny's doubtful look, she immediately reached beneath her bed, pulling out a rolled scroll and tossed it at her friend.
Laying on her back, holding the scroll at arms length and unrolling it, hazel eyes scanned the words scrawled across the parchment in Gabrielle's flowing penmanship. "Wow," she murmured, eyes traveling the length of the scroll, "I never would have thought you could work chalice and palace into the same verse with phal - "
Gabrielle slapped a hand over Ephiny's mouth, snatched the scroll out of her hands, hurriedly rolled it up and flung it beneath the bed. "Yeah? Well, have you ever tried to rhyme anything with chakram?"
"Gabrielle! Ephiny!" A winded Solari burst into the royal hut, eyes darting from Queen to Regent. "Patrol caught two men trespassing on our lands."
Immediately, Ephiny and Gabrielle sprang to their feet. Ephiny snatched up her sheath and sword, adjusting the leather shoulder strap across her frame. Rushing towards the door, she grabbed up Gabrielle's staff, tossing it to her in one fluid movement. The Queen deftly caught it in one hand, sped out the door after her regent.
"Where?" she asked, already racing through the village.
"The jail. Xena's interrogating them."
"Mercenaries? Slavers?" Gabrielle asked, peering over Xena's shoulder at the two men sitting together on one cot in the same cell.
"I don't think so."
"They certainly aren't dressed like slavers," Gabrielle observed, noting the obvious lack of leather and armor. Both men wore faded tunics and breeches, dust-covered boots upon their feet. They were both dark and swarthy looking, long black hair falling in unwashed, tangled strands about their shoulders and down their backs. "Don't look like typical farmers or sheepherders, either."
"They were caught trespassing on Amazon land. It's our right to execute them," Eponin growled from her position leaning against the wall. One leg was behind her, the sole of her boot propped against the wall, her back pressed against the cool stone, massive arms folded across her chest as she suspiciously eyed the two men. Weaponless or not, behind bars or not, the weapons master to the Amazons inherently distrusted any man.
The threat was loud enough for both prisoners to hear. But, their reactions to the gruff Amazon were decidedly different. One of them averted his gaze, staring at the floor as he shifted on the cot, attempting to get closer to the wall of the cell in an effort to make himself a smaller, less obtrusive target. The other man's head snapped up. He stared defiantly, his lip curling in disgust as he glared at the muscular Amazon standing outside the cell. He loudly spat, purposely aiming in Eponin's direction. His spittle didn't even make it half the distance required to reach the warrior.
Sensing the growing hostility emanating from Eponin, Ephiny cautiously approached. Stopping just beyond the warrior's personal space, Ephiny spoke in a voice too low for anyone else to hear. There was a hesitant sidelong glance as the weapons master guardedly eyed her regent. Then, so slowly it seemed as though the movement took forever to complete, Eponin gave an accepting nod. Moving in, laying gentle fingers on a massive forearm, Ephiny lightly caressed tense flesh.
Satisfied Eponin wasn't suddenly going to unlock the cell and go after the scum, Xena turned her attention back to the business at hand. "They say they're locals from the town. Only weapon they had between them was a hunting knife," Xena supplied, her gaze never leaving the interior of the cell. "Claim they'd heard rumors about the Amazons having a Cupid's Day feast and thought if they were conveniently in the territory when the celebration rolled around, they'd get lucky with some of your girls."
The more aggressive of the two stared through the bars at the women as Xena related their story. He'd heard all sorts of rumors about the harlots. And, quite frankly, more than a few of them scared him. Especially when he saw the really muscular ones like the warrior that had dropped his buddy with one punch. But, watching the cute blonde with the long legs and short skirt sidling up to her, running a distinctly feminine hand along corded abdominal muscles in a soothing manner that had the fierce warrior practically purring - - the sight stirred his libido and made him throw caution to the wind.
Hades, if there was a chance he could get something out of this after all, the risk would be more than worth it. "So, how about it, ladies?" He asked, openly rubbing himself through his breeches, "It's a Cupid's Day celebration; got a place I can put my quiver?"
"Ewww." Ephiny immediately felt every muscle in Eponin's frame tense back up again. With an exasperated huff, she pronounced, "Not on your best day, Cyclops breath." Eyes pointedly traveling over both mens' crotches, she proclaimed, "I've got phalluses bigger than you."
"Yeah, and I know how to use them, too," Eponin growled, her lip curling into a derisive sneer as she sized him up.
This time, neither of the prisoners responded to the Amazons' taunts.
Ignoring the comments, Gabrielle peered into the cell, studying the two prisoners. "What do you think, Xena? Are they lying?"
"Nah," Xena shrugged, "I've wandered past your regent's hut late at night. I'd wager good dinars Pony's phallus is bigger than anything those two got."
"No!" Gabrielle slapped Xena's arm. "I meant, them. Are they lying about being here to -- umm -- you know - "
"Get friendly with your Amazons?" Xena supplied. "Nah, they're just a couple of misguided souls out looking for a good time. They just picked the wrong place to try to find it."
"Are you sure?" Gabrielle asked again, "I mean, I know you're Xena and everything, but they still could have lied, you know."
Arching an eyebrow at her bard, she answered, "I put the pinch on them before I asked."
"Good enough. Leave them here until after the feast so they don't get themselves hurt, then turn them loose outside the border." With a strong look in Eponin's direction, she added, "In as healthy a condition as they're in now."
The two men warily watched and listened as the shortest of the Amazons issued her directives to the other harlots that they be made reasonably comfortable during their stay. "It's really for your own good," she'd said as she apologized again for not letting them loose until after the celebration. "I don't want you risking further injury by trying to sneak back in."
The warrior princess and the other two Amazons single-file followed the little blonde away from the cell. The big one that had broken his friend's nose paused on the way out, throwing one last glare in their direction. Then, pointedly wrapping her arm about the taller blonde's waist in what was meant as purely a display of possessiveness, she turned her back on them.
As soon as he heard the loud echo of the outer door slamming shut, the man immediately tugged off his left boot. Twisting the heel sharply, opening the hollow compartment designed for specifically that purpose, he deftly removed the hidden set of lockpick tools.
"Easy with that," His companion cautioned him, laying a stilling hand upon his shoulder. Scooting off the bed, crossing to the bars, he peered between the thick iron rods and down the corridor. "I don't want to risk walking right out of here and running into them again."
The other man curtly nodded, palming his lockpick tool. Settling back on the cot, propping both feet up, he folded his arms behind his head and closed his eyes, biding his time.
"That's the thing about Xena's pinch," Draco chuckled. "Only makes you tell the truth if you're too scared to lie." At Gabrielle's incredulous look, he expounded, "Thanks to you, Xena's gone soft. When's the last time she's killed anyone by cutting off the flow of blood to the brain? Quite frankly, it's a threat that no longer works."
Draco stepped back, making a motioning signal with his hand. Almost immediately, two men rushed to his side, sharply saluted. Looking past the heavy leather armor and weapons, Gabrielle recognized them as the two misguided souls that were previously locked in an Amazon cell.
"My men are more afraid of what I'll do to them if they tell the truth than they are of Xena's pinch."
"Draco!" Gabrielle tried lunging at the warlord, only to find her movements thwarted by the steadfast bindings about her body. "When Xena gets here - "
"When Xena gets here - " Draco taunted in a sing-song voice as he rushed at her, pressing his nose to hers, staring her in the eyes with unbridled glee " - she'll do exactly as I say." Stepping back, turning in a circle, swinging his arms wide, he proclaimed, "We're in an open field, nothing but wild grass as far as the eye can see." He returned to the spot right next to her, draping his arm over Gabrielle's shoulders as he gestured across the valley. "No forest, no trees. No place for your Amazons and your hero to hide; no way for them to sneak up on us. Not even your best archers could pick off a target from this distance. Xena will have no choice but to meet me out in the open . . . one on one . . . and then, at long last, I'll have my revenge on her for what she did to me."
"You're a ruthless, bloodthirsty, murdering warlord that would do anything for a dinar, Draco. What exactly do you think Xena did to you that you didn't deserve?"
The warlord studied Gabrielle through narrowed eyes. "She made me fall in love with you," he countered. Leaning forward, he brought his lips to hers.
Ephiny bristled as the distinctive sound of a kiss reached her ears. She knew the warlord was infatuated with Gabrielle, remembered reading her Queen's scroll about her last encounter with him. Apparently, Cupid's son had played havoc with a couple of enchanted arrows. Xena had lusted after Draco, Draco had fallen for Gabrielle and Gabrielle was head-over-heels for Joxer. In the end, Cupid had taken the spell off everyone except Draco. In a fit of inspiration, Xena had thought Draco would be less of a menace if he was still infatuated with Gabrielle.
Bet Gabrielle doesn't share that vision of yours now, Xena. Hearing the hardened warlord slobbering over Gabrielle, trying to entice her to give up the throne and travel the known world with him, she knew she had to intervene before things got even further out of hand. Even if it meant setting herself up as a target again.
"The Amazons will never let you take our Queen."
Draco drew back, touching his fingers to his lip, grinning as his eyes fell upon the bit of blood from where she'd nipped him. "Queen, huh? That's new. Last time we met, you were a princess."
"They gave me a promotion."
"I noticed the change in costume. It suits you. I like your - " Draco's eyes eagerly swept over Gabrielle's body. " - feathers. Wonder how they'd look fanned out on my silk sheets."
"Lay a hand on her and the Amazons will track you to the ends of the known world!" Ephiny was becoming almost desperate in her attempts to draw Draco's attention from Gabrielle. "There'll be nowhere you can hide from us! And, when we find you, we'll do things to you that'll make it impossible for even your own mother to recognize you."
"You again?!?" Draco walked around the post until he was standing even with Ephiny. "Thought I put you in your place already, harlot." Grabbing a fistful of hair, yanking her head back until she gasped out loud, he taunted her, "Wasn't enough for you? Need another lesson, huh?"
"Let us, Draco." One of the men from the jail spoke up, stepping forward. At his commander's surprised look, he gestured back and forth between himself and his buddy. "We'll be glad to - " his eyes boldly raked over Ephiny's body " - teach her a woman's proper place."
Hesitantly, the head priestess of the temple of Hestia looked about the communal dining hut. Her virgins had been invited to and had accepted the offer of sharing in the midday meal with the Amazons. Up until now, they had taken all their meals in the privacy of the living quarters they had been assigned to; a bunkhouse that Eponin had ordered cleared out, the warriors reassigned to other sleeping quarters for the duration of their stay.
As the head priestess, she was, of course, escorted to the Queen's private table. There, she was seated in a place of honor to the left of Gabrielle. Xena was seated on Gabrielle's opposite side. Directly across the table were three more scantily-clad Amazons. The rest of the Hestians were seated at a long table at the far end of the dining hut. All about them were tables full of Amazon warriors, all casting inquisitive looks at the young women dressed in sandals, short white robes and veils lifted over their hair.
She had mixed feelings about her charges spending more and more time with these independent women. She knew it part of Hestia's grand design that led her on the journey to this particular town. And, although it was true she had worried for their safety when they were turned out, she truly believed it was Hestia's infinite wisdom that guided them along the same path as the warrior princess that day. And, there was no doubt good reason why their benevolent goddess wanted them to spend time communing with these half-naked savages. Perhaps it was Her intent to lead them to the hedonistic Amazons all along. After all, Hestia worked in mysterious ways . . . and it was hardly her place to question those ways.
Actually, they really are quite pleasant; for a group of brazen heathens. She had been struck in particular by Eponin's devotion to her duties. She had spied the weapons master entering the regent's hut at dusk and then again leaving by the light of a grey, predawn sky. When she had made casual reference to the bleary eyed warrior burning the late night oil, the Amazon had gotten this dumbfounded expression on her face. Then, looking back at the hut she'd just exited and seemingly comprehending the remark, she'd mumbled something about tactical reports.
And, Eponin wasn't the only devoted Amazon, either. She'd marveled at the complex training regime she'd seen on the practice fields, their sparring efforts intense as they engaged in staffwork and swordplay, and even hand-to-hand combat. She'd never realized there were so many different holds in wrestling. And, she couldn't count the number of Amazons she'd spied coming out of the bushes where they'd been practicing forest maneuvers. Although, some of them really need help with their stealth. The way that one bush was shaking so violently as those two warriors were crawling through -- why, someone would have to be both blind and deaf for them to be able to sneak up on them like that!
And, she was awed with how friendly and concerned about others they all were. Why, Solari had stopped by at the bunkhouse several times to inquire about their comfort and to solicitously offer to assist any of the Hestians with anything they might need. She'd even volunteered to escort several of them down to the river to bathe after their morning prayers.
"I can't thank you enough for allowing us to find sanctuary with your people, Gabrielle." Recalling Solari's offer to stand along the bank of the river and wait to ensure both their privacy and protection, she suddenly turned to Xena and asked, "Are we in any danger? I mean, I heard about those men being found on Amazon land - "
Xena held up a reassuring hand. "Gabrielle has already addressed that issue, Priestess. Perimeter guards have been doubled in all areas and tripled in the section we believe the men crossed at."
"And, my scouts are out on extra patrol," Solari volunteered that additional information, "Trust me; no one who isn't an Amazon," A meaningful glance at Xena as she cleared her throat, "or a warrior princess," she amended, "will be able to step foot on Amazon soil."
"You really are safe here." Gabrielle placed a hand atop Leah's, gave it a reassuring squeeze. "And it really isn't necessary to thank us. You'd do the same for us if our positions were reversed."
"Of course. Hestia would never allow us to refuse any misguided soul refuge at Her temples, for whatever reason." Intentionally or not, her gaze swept over the seated women. "I do hope some of you can be enticed into giving up your ignominious ways and join us at the next temple Hestia guides us to. I'm convinced with a little discipline and training, several of you would make respectable virgins."
At the Queen's table, there was a noticeable bristling of Amazon feathers. Solari hurriedly shoveled a spoonful into her mouth to keep from saying something that might get her into trouble. Eponin's grip upon her spoon increased so much that her knuckles were clenching white as she bent the steel in two. Beside her, Ephiny's jaw was firmly locked, her hazel eyes intensely focused on the Hestian sitting across the table from her. If looks could kill, the virgin would be dead.
"We'd hate to delay your quest to promote chasteness and piousness. As soon as the feast honoring Cupid's Day is complete, an armed Amazonian envoy will be made ready to escort you to any temple you desire."
"I hope you'll understand if we refrain from the celebration and instead spend the time quietly reflecting and praying to Hestia to guide us on our journey?"
"I think that would probably be for the best."
Even though Gabrielle's smile never wavered, her tone did little to disguise her agitation. She had thought that surely after their encounter with Meg and her girls, Leah had become a little more open-minded when dealing with others' lifestyles. Guess her enlightenment didn't last long.
She felt Xena shift on her seat beside her on the long bench. Calloused fingers reached out, capturing Gabrielle's hand beneath the table and offering a supportive squeeze. Gabrielle returned the gesture, conveying to her warrior without words that although her feelings were bruised, she was still okay.
"So, my Queen," Solari desperately tried to dissipate the palpable tension at the table, "It must have been really unnerving to come across Xena tied to a stake in the middle of a town square, about to be set on fire. Then, once you rescue her, she turns out to be a nearly identical double."
Eponin snorted around a mouthful of mutton stew, "As if one of her ain't trouble enough!"
"Watch it, ya over-muscled, under-grown Amazon, or I'll show ya what trouble is!"
With a dangerous smile and a cracking of her knuckles, Eponin offered up a cocky, "Let's go . . . princess."
Both warriors scrambled off the bench, eager for a chance to get to the practice fields and work off some pent-up energy. This being good and minding their manners around the virgins was exhausting work and they needed a chance to just let loose. As they started off, Ephiny reached out, just managing to hook her fingers into the back of Pony's belt. Tugging her back, she kept her firm grip on the waistband of Eponin's leathers. Eponin turned to look at her regent in dismay.
"Play nice," Ephiny urged. Then, casting a look at the warrior that was patiently waiting with her arms crossed over her chest, she added, "And, don't let her wear you out too much." Lowering her voice, she reminded the weapons master, "We still need to finish - "
"Our discussion on battle tactics?" Eponin helpfully supplied, with a covert glance towards the head priestess.
"Right; battle tactics," Ephiny agreed with a wink. "I'd like an in-depth discussion on your theory about frontal assaults."
"Yes, my regent," Eponin husked out in a slightly strangled voice, suddenly unable to maintain eye contact, a hint of a blush reaching all the way to the tips of her ears.
"Oh . . . sweet Hestia!" Leah exclaimed, so overwhelmed by the realization of what had been occurring on those occasions when she'd spotted the weapons master at the regent's door, she nearly fainted. Managing to recover by rapidly fanning her face, she declared, "There just isn't a speeding chariot big enough to take all of you straight to Tartarus, is there?"
A variety of emotions spread across the faces of the assembled Amazons and warrior princess as the priestess rose from her seat and hurriedly exited the dining hut. Gabrielle looked like her tongue had been tied in knots and it was too painful to talk. Solari was absolutely puzzled, whether by the attempt at veiled innuendo or the priestess' reaction. Xena whistled a catchy tune as her gaze innocently drifted towards the heavens. Ephiny offered up a wry expression and a little shrug that suggested she had no idea why a priestess might be offended by her actions.
It was Eponin who finally recovered enough to voice her opinion. "That Hestian is really starting to rub me the wrong way."
There was a crowd gathered about the fence encircling the practice fields. Whenever Xena was sparring, there was always a pretty good turnout. Whenever it was the warrior princess squaring off against the weapons master, though, it seemed like nearly every Amazon in the nation wandered over to watch them practice.
This time was no exception. Gabrielle felt herself jostled from behind as she leaned against the fence, Solari and Ephiny flanking her on either side. Gabrielle watched the complicated staff maneuvers they were performing, the sweat glistening as it rolled down and off their well-toned biceps and forearms. Xena's hair fanned out as she twirled, coming down on one knee, aiming low with her staff. Eponin easily jumped it, landing adroitly on both feet.
As they circled about the field, neither gaining a clear advantage, they drew nearer the Queen and her companions. Seeing her lover at the fence line, Eponin gave a bold wink before swinging the staff at Xena's midsection. Smoothly and efficiently, Xena flipped over Eponin's head, coming to land behind her. Flipping her staff, catching it behind her back, the weapons master double-hand gripped the wood, successfully deflecting the incoming strike.
"Hey, Eph?" Gabrielle asked, giving her regent a sidelong glance. "How did Ep finally tell you?"
"Tell me what?" Ephiny asked in a distracted tone as she intently watched as Eponin smoothly tucked and rolled out of range of one of Xena's horizontal strikes.
"That she's in love with you."
On her other side, Solari laughed, slapping the wooden fence in clear amusement. "Big, tough warrior didn't. Eph had to tell her!"
"That's not exactly how it was," Ephiny rolled her eyes at Solari's version. "She tried to tell me. But, you know how shy warriors can be with their words."
"Isn't that the truth?" Gabrielle thought of her own warrior. Oh, blessed Aphrodite, I pray she feels for me the way I feel for her.
Ignoring the little jibe, Ephiny continued, her voice taking on a noticeably softer tone as she spoke about her weapons master. "Whenever I came home from a council meeting one day, there was this brand new staff waiting in my hut. Then, one day, it was a shiny, new dagger. Then, a set of chobos. It got to the point that I had to confront Eponin and put a stop to it before I had the entire armory stored in my hut. We calmly discussed the issue and she explained her feelings and we agreed that we should give it a try."
Solari fairly snorted. "That's not quite how it was, either," she confided to Gabrielle. "The way I remember it, we were out at the archery field when Ephiny came storming up, demanding to know what in Tartarus Ep was thinking." Solari chuckled at the memory. "You were yelling something about how you had enough weapons to outfit an entire Amazon war-party and that if she was interested, she needed to warrior up and just tell you." Gaze darting from Ephiny to Gabrielle, she related, "Then, she just grabbed Pony and kissed her right there on the field in front of everyone. Ep was so taken off-guard, she let loose the arrow she had nocked." Eyes bounced back to Ephiny accusingly. "It was moons before I could sit down again."
"As I recall, there was no shortage of Amazons offering to kiss your boo-boo and make it better." Ephiny grinned wildly. "Seems I walked in on that cute little healer's assistant in the process of trying to do just that."
"Something else I owe you for, my friend," Solari shot her a mock-indignant look.
"That won't work with Xena. I like the idea of giving her something, but she already has enough weapons," Gabrielle mused. "And, a direct confrontation will only make her bolt. It's taken me seasons just to get her to form complete sentences. I don't want to scare her back into monosyllabic conversations."
"What about flowers?" suggested Ephiny.
"Nah, too generic. Besides, she wouldn't appreciate them unless she could weave them into some sort of weapon."
"Nah. Too easy for a foe to rip out a pair of earrings in a fight."
"I think the key is to find something that she likes. A gift that she'd appreciate," suggested Solari. "What else does she do?"
"Besides pounding bad guys and putting the pinch on evil?" Gabrielle tapped her finger against her chin as she watched Xena get in a jab to Pony's ribs with the end of her staff. "She rides around on Argo, righting wrongs and . . . " Here, her entire face lit up as she was suddenly struck by an idea " . . . rescuing people. She likes to help people who are in trouble."
"Aww, come on, Eph. Do I haf'ta?" Solari was fairly pleading, beseeching her regent with puppy dog eyes.
"Yes, Solari, you do." The regent was firm in her resolve. "And, Solari? Warriors don't whine."
"Still don't see why you don't recruit Ep to do this," she glared at Ephiny, "She is your mate, you know."
"She's also the closest friend Xena has in this village. Pony respects Xena. She would never do anything to jeopardize her trust." She glanced to where Eponin and Xena were seated at one of the tables, engaging in what looked to be a combination arm wrestling, drinking contest. "Believe me, if Ep knew what was going on, she'd feel compelled to tell Xena."
"She's right," agreed Gabrielle from her place seated on the ground in front of the large fire ring. "Whether she knows it or not, Pony's aiding us by keeping Xena occupied."
"Yeah." Ephiny covertly glanced at Xena again before looking back at the scout. "If Pony wasn't distracting Xena, she'd be hanging here with us instead of being halfway across the ceremonial field." She let that sink in a bit before pointedly asking, "You really wanna try to kidnap the Queen right in front of her champion?"
"Umm - " Solari cast a glance across the field just in time to see Xena slam Eponin's arm down onto the table. Brown eyes widened to the size of saucers. " - Nooo. Don't want that." Then, beneath her breath, she mumbled, "All I really wanna do is sit here and enjoy the celebration."
Hearing the grumbled reply, Gabrielle responded with, "The big finale is tomorrow eve. Everything will be over and done with before then." Seeing the unconvinced frown, she explained, "Look, it's really simple. In about a candlemark, after they've belted back a few more, Eph and I are going to get up and leave. We'll take a leisurely stroll back towards the huts, stopping to talk at the big oak tree; the one that's gnarled and twisted from being struck by that lightning bolt. You'll come along, disguised of course, in case someone sees you. Make a showing of pushing Ephiny to the ground and grabbing me and carrying me off. After a suitable amount of time's passed, Ephiny will rush back to the celebration, telling Xena what's happened. She'll track us to a cave and find me bound and gagged, scared but unharmed."
"And completely unable to identify your kidnapper," Ephiny chimed in.
"Xena will think she's rescued me and I'll say something witty about second chances and making up for lost time and she'll profess her love for me."
"Sounds real simple." Solari snarled, her voice dripping with skepticism. "And, what makes you think this is going to work? Xena's rescued you lots of times. And never been compelled yet to tell you what's in her heart."
"True. But, this time, " Gabrielle held up her finger to make her point, "Ephiny will be guiding Xena in tracking me and making helpful suggestions to her about how it would be terrible to be in her position, to love someone, taking for granted they'll be around forever, then suddenly to have them gone, not knowing if you'll ever see them again, without having told them how you truly feel."
"This plan of yours sounds incredibly complicated, wicked and devious, my Queen."
"And, a complete stroke of genius!"
"Still, how do you think Xena's gonna feel about being manipulated?"
"Look, no one's gonna get hurt." Gabrielle's eyes sparkled wildly. "And, it's not really manipulative. I'm just trying to help her to find a way to express her inner feelings." Green eyes strayed as one of the dancers sashayed by them. "Do this and I promise I'll put in a good word for you with that dancer you've been eyeing."
As expected, Solari's gaze drifted to the dancer she'd been watching for the past several nights. She was a very striking woman with long blonde hair and soft, blue eyes. And so far, every time Solari had tried to approach her, she'd been turned down flat. But, perhaps with an endorsement from her Queen -
"Okay, I'll do it," she stated, resolutely. "But, just so you know, I have a very bad feeling about this."
"You worry too much, Solari," Gabrielle admonished her scout. "Admittedly, I can see the flaws in the last few plans we've tried. But, I've thought this one through. And, there's absolutely nothing that can go wrong this time."
Except that I've obviously been cursed by the Gods. "Draco!" Frantically, she twisted her head this way and that, attempting to see what was happening on the other side of the post. "Draco, please! I've changed my mind!"
"Yes, my sweet?" The warlord grinned as he placed one hand on the post and agilely swung his form around beside his beloved. "You called?"
"Draco . . . please." Gabrielle poured everything she had into her plea. "I'll do anything you want. Just -- please -- don't harm the Amazon."
Draco pulled a large knife from his belt. Digging at the dirt beneath his nails, he speculatively eyed Gabrielle. Then, placing the blade against his chin, he repeatedly tapped the steel against his flesh as he pretended to give deep thought to her request.
"Oh, okay." He agreed with a smile and flourish of his hands. Looking past Gabrielle at the two men lingering in the background eyeing Ephiny up and down like hunting dogs would a cornered deer, he snapped his fingers at them. "Leave her alone. Take up your positions."
The men gave disgruntled looks and moans of protest. "Hey!" Draco flicked the knife, flinging it with deadly precision, the blade finding its mark in the throat of one of the thugs. "Don't make me ask again," he warned.
The other ruffian scrambled to his post. Pleased, Draco turned with a satisfied smirk back to Gabrielle.
"Thank you," she acknowledged, forcing a grateful smile in return.
"Think nothing of it." A wider grin. "I didn't do it for you."
Gabrielle's plastered on smile fell.
"You see," The warlord's fingers found their way into Gabrielle's hair, stroking tenderly through her silken locks, "I came to terms long ago that Xena was right. You won't give your heart to someone who can't do good. And . . . " There was an almost remorseful cast to Draco's eyes, "I can't be good." His fingers fell away from Gabrielle's hair, trailing slowly down her cheek. Suddenly jerking his hand away as if he'd been scalded, he agitatedly paced up and down. "So, I've just got to - - " A ragged shudder rocked his frame as he found his resolve " -- suppress my feelings for you and get on with my life and be who I'm supposed to be." Spinning on his heel, looking straight at Gabrielle, he declared, "What I said earlier was true; Amazons make lousy slaves." A roguish grin. "But, they make for excellent bargaining chips."
This morning -
Xena snatched the piece of parchment pinned to the tree with a hunting knife down with one hand. Holding it out at arms length, she read the demand.
Xena - We have your friends. Will trade for the virgins. You alone, no Amazons. Or, their rulers die.
"This is ridiculous!" Solari vehemently spat out. "Let me gather up a party of scouts. We'll find their trail in no time. Two dozen warriors in full armor - "
" - will get them killed." Xena vetoed the idea with a flat tone and a swipe of her hand.
She knew Solari was wracked with guilt over what had happened. The scout was beating herself up over the fact that she didn't realize sooner that something had gone wrong with Gabrielle's plan. When she arrived at the gnarled tree last eve and Gabrielle wasn't there, she just assumed her Queen had backed out. But, as soon as morning came and she'd realized the truth, she immediately came to find Eponin and Xena.
I know she feels responsible. But, an Amazon war party charging into a warlord's camp in full battle armor isn't the answer.
"Then, what'll we do?" questioned Eponin. "We can't just let them . . . " Her voice cracked, her words trailed off as an image of her queen and her regent at the mercy of those men flashed before her eyes.
"Easy there, Ep." Solari reached out a steadying hand, supporting her distraught friend. Looking to Xena, she repeated the weapons master's question. "What do we do, Xena?"
"Exactly as they say," Xena's jaw clenched as she crumbled the parchment in one strong fist, "We give them the virgins."
"Xena cost me the biggest score of my life, made me a laughing stock, ruined my reputation." Draco paced back and forth in front of the post where his two captives were tied. "I've spent seasons pillaging and plundering, scraping out a meager living looting and killing, slowly trying to rebuild my good name." He paused in front of Gabrielle, speculatively eyeing her. "And, it still doesn't compare to what she cost me."
"What about the cost of the innocents whose lives you've ruined, Draco?" The bard asked, covertly trying to loosen her bonds. She simply had to do something - anything - before Xena was lured into a trap, possibly killed, because of her. Think, Gabrielle. You're a bard; use your words. "Think of the lives you've taken, the families and homes you've destroyed, the dreams you've shattered."
"It's as nothing compared to the debt Xena owes me!" Draco shouted, two long strides bringing him to tower over Gabrielle. Breathing heavily, he inhaled her scent, finding an intoxicating headiness in her presence. Even after all this time, just being next to her nearly consumes me - Shaking his head, recovering his senses, he lowered his voice to a controlled level. "A warlord is only as effective as his reputation. I've built mine on keeping my word, Gabrielle. I made a deal with Pinullus to deliver those Hestians to him. By Xena thwarting my plans and forcing me to renege on my deal with Pinullus, she's sullied my good name."
"I don't know which is more ludicrous," Ephiny snorted through a bloody nose, "A warlord worried about keeping his word . . . or him being more worried about his reputation."
Draco's brow arched, his fist tightened, but he let the comment slide past unchallenged. He'd already stated in his note that he'd trade both Amazons for the Hestians -- and he was concerned about how much more abuse she could take. Just as he wanted to keep his pact with Pinullus, he was equally determined to honor his word to Xena. And, that didn't include ransoming dead Amazons.
"Don't you see, my beloved?" he cooed in Gabrielle's ear, "It all went wrong at the temple. That's where I lost the biggest score of my life - ruined my reputation - fell in love with you. That's when I lost my way and tried to be g - g- good." The word obviously left a bad taste in Draco's mouth even as he managed to finally stammer it out.
"So, all of this - kidnapping me and Ephiny; holding us for ransom . . . This is all about evening some kind of score?"
Draco imperiously stood with his hands behind his back, his chin held high as he declared, "This, my sweet Gabby, this is about getting back to basics. This is my second chance. By rustling these Hestians and making good on my promise to Pinullus, by paying Xena back for what she did to me, thereby severing my ties with you; I'll have finally finished what I started." There was a swarthy grin as he boasted, "After I leave here, I'll be my old, rotten self again."
Gabrielle's complexion paled as she realized it was all because of her that Draco would finally get his clutches on the Hestians. Xena's name would be sullied, her recently acquired new reputation as a hero shot to Tartarus when word got out that she'd surrendered the virgins to the warlord and allowed them to be handed over to a ruthless slaver. Unless, of course, she didn't agree to the ransom. In which case, she was certain Draco would kill both her and Ephiny. Then, the Amazons would surely kill Xena in retaliation. But . . . if Xena did rescue her . . . how could she ever look her in the eye again, knowing that it was all her fault?
Oh . . . centaur's balls! How did I get us into this mess?
Last Evening -
Ephiny and Gabrielle walked side by side down the path intermittently lined with lit torches, their shoulders and hands brushing at the narrowest points. Behind them, they could hear the fading sounds of the drums still beating out in strong cadence at the ceremonial field. Somewhere ahead of them, the faint sounds of women harmonizing "Onward Hestian soldiers" filled the night air. A glance at the night sky confirmed Artemis' moon was at its zenith; the celebration would continue on for at least another three candlemarks. Ephiny only hoped that the singing wouldn't last as long.
"Thanks again for agreeing to do this, Ephiny."
"Anything for you, Gabrielle. You know that," Ephiny smiled at her friend and Queen. "But, I still think you should just be honest with Xena and tell her how you really feel. Someone like you doesn't need all of this - " Ephiny waved her hand as if to encompass everything about them " - this trickery and scheming to get someone to love her. Anyone would consider themselves lucky to be with you."
The moon slid behind a cloud, casting the path into almost complete darkness, save the flickering of light given off by the torches flickering with the steady breeze drifting through. Gabrielle felt her despondency grow with the waning moonlight and the lengthening shadows of darkness. It seemed no matter what she did, the warrior princess still didn't know she existed.
Gabrielle dejectedly kicked a loose stone off the path. "Eph, she's enthralled generals and empresses and even Gods. I've even heard Sappho herself was so enraptured that she wrote an ode to the warrior princess." At the arched look from her regent, she explained, "What would someone as magnificent as Xena see in someone as plain as me?"
"Listen to me." Ephiny abruptly stopped upon the path, a well-placed hand upon her shoulder tugging Gabrielle to a stop beside her. Turning her so they were standing squared off against each other, she locked eyes with the shorter blonde. "You're the Queen of the Amazons." At Gabrielle's downcast glance, she gave her a little shake, forced her to meet her gaze again. "You rule the world's mightiest nation of warriors, all sworn to live and die at your command. The better question would be what would Xena not see in you?"
Gabrielle mutely nodded, continued upon the path she had set herself upon. As they walked in silence towards the gnarled oak, she played over in her mind what Ephiny had just said. A self-depreciating smile ghosted Gabrielle's lips. "Guess I'm a pretty good catch, huh?"
"Well, you're no regent. But, since I'm already taken," wheedled Ephiny.
"Yeah, what's all that about?" Gabrielle teased. "I go away for six moons and when I come back, you're holding hands and making doe eyes at the toughest warrior in the Nation."
"Uh, yeah. Think I surprised half the tribe with that one." Chagrined at the way she'd acted earlier in front of the Hestian priestess, she apologized, "Sorry if my libido embarrassed you. It's just that our relationship is still new and I look at her and sometimes I just forget myself."
"I noticed." Gabrielle waved off the apology with a flick of her wrist. She'd seen the lusty stares, the dopey expressions, the way one or the other's hands would stray when her lover was in close proximity. Unknown to the regent and the weapons master, there was currently a running bet within the tribe wagering how long the two could go without having their hands all over each other. Unable to keep her teasing at bay, she asked with a waggling of eyebrows. "So, I take it the sex is really good, huh?"
"Gods, Gabrielle. She's unbelievable." Ephiny couldn't keep the lusty tones out of her voice.
"Yeah," A wistful expression stole over the bard's face. "I guess all that working out with weapons all day really builds up the stamina."
"Well, there's that," agreed the regent. "But, there's also so much more. She's got all this strength. I've seen her crack walnuts with her bare hands. But . . . but when she touches me, that power's tempered with such incredible tenderness. And, when she lets down her defenses and allows me to reciprocate " Ephiny's words trailed off as she drifted into a private memory of Pony stretched out on her bed, eyes closed in ecstasy, mouth open in rapture, thick fingers twined in corkscrew curls as her regent's tongue -
"Eponin?" Gabrielle's mouth dropped open in dismay. "We are talking about the weapons master here, right? The same too-tough-for-my-leathers, I can go toe-to-toe with Xena Amazon warrior?"
"Ye-ah," Ephiny drew out the word, chewed her bottom lip as she admitted, "Couldn't hardly believe it myself at first. But, beneath that tough warrior exterior, there beats a very real, very tender heart. I've learned a lot since meeting you, Gabrielle." Casting a meaningful look at her Queen, she urged, "And, one of those things is that you can't always judge a scroll by its cover. If you do, you're liable to miss out some pretty good stuff on the inside."
"Ephiny," Gabrielle snorted, "If you're trying to tell me that beneath all that leather and armor, there's a romantic poet just dying to get out "
"Listen, Gabrielle. I know you may doubt it, but I've seen it. What Xena feels for you is love. Sometimes," she looked off into the darkness, "Sometimes, it's just hard to make the words come out, ya know?"
"Speaking from experience there, Eph?" Gabrielle playfully nudged her regent as they paused at the oak tree and she found a low-slung limb to settle herself upon.
Ephiny gave a shrug, pushed windswept hair back from her face, revealing hazel eyes that shone with moisture. "Ep and I wasted a lot of time not admitting our feelings for one another," she confessed through a voice husked deep with emotion. "I just don't want to see the same happen to you and Xena."
"Well, with yours and Solari's help, it hopefully won't come to that." Glancing about, she asked, "Speaking of, shouldn't Solari be here by now?"
"Knowing your lead scout," Ephiny admitted with a smile and a shake of her head, "She's probably lost all track of time and is still right where we left her at the bonfire, drooling over scantily-clad dancers."
"That's our Solari; ya gotta love her." Verdant eyes peering into the darkness, she spied two Amazons coming across the field from the stables, leading a couple of saddled horses. "Here she comes. Guess she decided to bring someone to help her with the horses."
Puzzled, Ephiny looked in the direction Gabrielle had indicated. The Amazons were now stepping into the stirrups, hoisting themselves into the saddles. The horses ambled towards them at a steady canter. "We never agreed to using horses. The cave we decided on using is too inaccessible by horseback." Her gaze swept over the approaching Amazons, taking in the usual attire of halters and leather skirts. Immediately, she realized the riding posture was all wrong for that of the scout. If that's not Solari, then who left the celebration early - eyes widened as the moon emerged from behind a cloud, clearly illuminating a day's worth of facial hair and an Adam's apple.
"Gabrielle, run!" Ephiny shouted, reaching over her shoulder for her sword - and cursing herself for leaving it in her hut. Grabbing for the dagger at her waist, her fingers had just closed about the hilt when one of the riders was upon them, slamming a boot into her chin.
Gabrielle didn't waste time arguing. She hadn't even carried her staff with her tonight; she had no way of defending herself against an armed adversary. As she turned and ran, she caught a glimpse of one of the riders leaping off his horse and lunging at Ephiny. The sounds of a struggle reached her, vying for dominance over the echo of her own heart pounding in her ears.
She heard the galloping of hooves, felt the hot breath from a horse's nostrils upon her back, could smell the breath of both horse and rider. She tried to duck out of the way, angling off the path and across the field. A large boot caught her upon the back, sending her stumbling over the uneven ground, landing upon hands and knees in a tangled heap. The sound of a horse skidding to a halt beside her reached her ears, then the sound of heavy boots landing upon the wet grass. And finally, darkness engulfed her as something solid connected with the back of her head.
Xena knelt on the ground at the edge of the forest, one forearm braced against her thigh, a thick length of rope held loosely in her grasp, the fingers of her other hand tracing the outline of a bootprint in the dirt. Pushing aside and holding back the leaves of a bush, she peered out from the thick foliage. She chewed her bottom lip in contemplation as her gaze swept along the open field and the tall grass being gently stirred by the wind, the blades moving in unison, rolling like the waves upon the ocean. Blue eyes narrowed as they honed in on the warlord's camp and the post staked out along the perimeter.
"It's definitely Ephiny and Gabrielle," she murmured, recognizing the unruly corkscrew blonde locks of the regent and the queen's unmistakable midriff.
Eyes traveled to the man standing next to them, one hand on his sword hilt; his thick, black hair and studded, leather vest instantly confirmed his identity. "Draco," she growled, "I suspected as much."
Standing in formation beyond the post, she counted ten of his men, hands on their weapons and eyes alert as they watched their surroundings. "And, it's definitely a trap." Letting loose the bush she'd been peering through, the leaves rustling as they snapped back into place, glanced over her shoulder and grimly declared, "Let's get moving."
Standing up, absently brushing the leaves and dirt off her knees with one hand, she firmly tugged on the rope she was carrying and moved forward. One in the lead, then two by two, slowly trailing behind her, thirteen women emerged from the thick camouflage of the forest. The warrior princess cut a swath directly through the tall grass, taking the most direct path to the warlord's camp. Feeling the slack in the rope she was carrying, she tightened her grip, giving a firm tug.
Behind her, thirteen sets of eyes glared at her back through thick, white veils. One of the women's sandals twisted, nearly causing her to trip. Instinctively reaching out, her fingers latched onto the robes of the woman directly in front of her, eliciting a tearing sound.
Xena heard the noise, glanced back over her shoulder. A single look confirmed that they were all still there, hands tied in front of them, attached to the thick rope she was carrying. Giving a tug for emphasis, she smirked, "Pick up the pace, you virgins. We've got some Amazon royalty to trade you for."
"You have to admit," Draco boasted, congratulating himself, "It was a stroke of sheer genius on my part." His eyes sparkled as he stroked a hand along his goatee, "You see, I knew that by Xena bringing those Hestians into the Amazon Nation, they would be too well protected. Sending in my army would've only resulted in a bloodbath."
"So, our own scouts brought your army in for you," Gabrielle concluded, suddenly seeing the plan.
"Yep. I knew Xena would be suspicious of any trespassers suddenly showing up and would imprison them until after she was certain the danger to the virgins had passed. I even anticipated her doubling the guards at the border in an attempt to keep anyone out."
"But, not to keep them in, right?" She felt Ephiny's fingers subtly tapping at her spine, signaling that she had worked her way free of her bonds and was now attempting to undo her Queen's. Gabrielle stoically kept her calm facade up, doing her best to not give her regent away. "Pretty clever, having them break out of jail and disguising themselves in Amazon clothing before having them grab us. I'm impressed."
"You should be," boasted Draco, his ego keeping him from realizing that she was humoring him only to distract him. "While everyone was busy watching for my men to try infiltrating the borders; who would've thought to stop four Amazons leaving their own land?"
"Unless - " Gabrielle threw out " - Xena knew you'd be the only warlord reckless enough to try something like this . . . nabbing Hestian virgins on Amazon land . . . and she just let you snatch us as part of her plan."
Draco's smile momentarily faltered as he considered her words. Tilting his head to the side, he studied her expression, her body language. Eyes narrowing, rubbing his chin, he contemplated on whether or not she was actually bluffing.
"Lord Draco - " came the call from one of his men standing at attention several paces distant. Seeing his commander glance in his direction, he lifted a finger, pointing at the horizon.
Draco's smile reemerged as he turned and saw the warrior princess marching determinedly through the field of tall grass, leading a bevy of women in white robes and veils, their hands tied in front of them, securely fastened to a length of rope she was carrying. As the distance between them closed, she looked up, her blue eyes locking with his brown ones. Her step momentarily hesitated, her stride faltered, then she recovered, giving a firm yank on the rope.
"Gag them," Draco negligently tossed the order over his shoulder. "We wouldn't want them trying to warn Xena now, would we?" His smile widened into a grin as the shouts of protest from the two Amazons were quickly muffled as bandanas were secured about their mouths. Stepping forward, he eagerly awaited his enemy's arrival.
"Xena - "
"I see them."
Blue eyes covertly scanned the field, a keen mind mentally marking and committing to memory the location of each of the ten additional warriors she noticed crouching in the tall grass. As she past them, the hairs on the back of her neck bristled in reaction. Acute hearing detected the rustling sound of each blade of grass as the warriors adjusted their positions so they were once again able to watch her.
Her fingers were twitching, her palm itching to close about her weapon. She swallowed against the parchedness in her mouth. A growing knot tied itself in her stomach as she passed the point of no return. There were now ten armed warriors at her back, hidden in the tall grass. Ten more - plus Draco - squared off face to face with her. She was surrounded.
"Draco." She forced the sickly sweet smile onto her lips as she drew to a halt in front of the warlord. "I think you've got something that belongs to me."
"I might say the same of you." He couldn't keep the glint out of his eyes as he mentally counted up the number of veiled Hestians before him. Twelve disciples plus their head priestess; he had them all within his grasp. "You ready to trade?"
"Looks like you're getting the better deal," the warrior princess drawled, eyeing the two Amazons tied to the post. "These are in better condition," she pointedly jerked the rope, earning another searing glare from thirteen sets of eyes.
Draco's eyes drifted once again to the virgins. "I just promised you two living Amazons. I didn't specify what condition they'd be in." He grinned as his words unsettled the Hestians enough to cause them to shift uncomfortably. Oh, he was going to have some fun making these virgins squirm before he turned them over to Pinullus.
Gabrielle's entire face was red. She was struggling, trying to scream through her gag, attempting to warn the warrior princess. Xena's keen eyesight noticed the slack in Gabrielle's rope, caught the way Ephiny's arms were flexing as her fingers covertly worked. She judged it would be less than ten heartbeats before both Amazons were untied.
"Let's do it," the warrior princess demanded.
"My, my. Eager, aren't we?" Draco couldn't keep the amusement out of his voice. "First, a show of good faith. Drop the rope and step away from the virgins."
Hesitantly, the warrior dropped the length of rope. Slowly, she reluctantly stepped forward, her eyes darting back and forth between Gabrielle and Draco.
"That's far enough," the warlord instructed when she'd taken a half dozen or more steps out into the open. He didn't want Xena close enough to the Hestians for any tricks. But, he was also cautious enough to not want her too near himself, either. Taking his dagger from the sheath at his waist, he stepped towards Gabrielle. With the blade to her throat, he demanded, "Drop your weapons."
With ever-so-slow determined movements, she raised her arm, reaching over her shoulder for her sword. Her hold tightened upon the grip, fingers firmly tugging the sword from its sheath upon her back. Draco's free hand slipped to his waist, fingers twitching against the pommel of his sword. Behind him, each of his men's hands closed upon their weapons.
The warrior princess held her sword in her grasp for several suspenseful heartbeats before letting her fingers go slack, the weapon falling from her limp grip.
"Now, the chakram," Draco directed his gaze to the infamous weapon hanging off the warrior's hip.
With even slower, more precise movements, she drew out the moment, making everyone catch and hold their breath in suspense as she lifted the chakram off her hip and held it in her grasp, eyeing it. Then, with almost negligent ease, she tossed it behind her, hearing the sharp edge slice through several blades of grass before rolling to a stop on the ground.
Almost immediately, Draco took the knife from Gabrielle's throat. He advanced on the warrior princess, determined to retrieve her weapons before she could try anything. As per his plan, his men that had been standing at attention moved their line forward.
The warrior princess held her ground as the warlord made long, determined strides towards her. She looked decidedly nervous, but made no move to retrieve her weapons. He came to a halt inches in front of her, so close she could see the taunting cast in his eyes, smell the scent of arrogant victory upon his breath. "Glad to see you decided to be reasonable," he husked out, his lips almost close enough to brush hers.
She took a reflexive step back. Draco's held tilted, his eyes narrowed. He wasn't used to such a passive response from Xena.
"NOW!" came up the shout from the lead Hestian.
Draco's head snapped up at the sound of the voice as the Hestian priestess grabbed up the chakram that was laying in the grass at her feet. "Hold your hands up!" An unmistakable battle-cry went up as she deftly sent the chakram sailing through the air, cutting the ropes of every virgin in the line and catching it on its return trip.
Draco's eyes widened in disbelief as his carefully laid plans dissolved into complete chaos. Gabrielle and the Amazon he'd thought secured to the pole as hostages were free and had managed to catch two of his men off-guard enough to incapacitate them and take their weapons and were now cleaving a path of destruction in an effort to get to him. The Hestians had charged at his men emerging from their hidden positions in the tall grass, startling them enough that they were caught flat-footed and were being pummeled senseless by the virgins.
Not knowing what else to do, Draco drew his sword, charging at the warrior princess who was steadily backing away from him.
A figure clad in a white robe stepped between him and the warrior. A sandaled foot edged its way beneath the hilt of the sword laying in the grass and flipped it into the air. Brown eyes followed the weapon as it reached its apex, then came back down, a woman's hand catching it solidly within her grasp. Looking up, he saw the smile play over her lips as the head priestess pushed back her veil.
"Xena!" he shouted. Then, eyes darting to the warrior princess, "And, Xena?"
"Amazing, isn't it?" The woman dressed as the priestess deftly twirled Xena's sword. "Draco," she used her eyes to direct his attention to the woman dressed in her leathers, "Meet Leah, head priestess of the Hestian virgins."
Draco helplessly watched as his men were pummeled. One woman ran at one of his soldiers, lifting her robes high enough so she could get in a solid kick to his groin area. Clutching his crotch in agony, he went to his knees. Snarling, she pushed her veil back and head-butted him.
Eyes widening, Draco admitted, "I can't believe you disguised the harlots as Hestians."
Now that he knew what he was looking for, he could see past the veils to the feathers twined in the hair and beneath the robes to the daggers strapped to well-toned thighs. Not that it did him any good in the position he was in now. Xena had quickly disarmed him. The Amazons had subdued his men. And they were all now stripped of their breeches, their hands bound behind their backs, securely tied with their own trouser legs.
"That's the last of them, Xena," Solari confirmed, pulling the bonds on the last man so tightly that his entire body stiffened and he cried out in pain. "We're gonna take a detail and march these wimps down to one of the towns in the area. Let the magistrate there deal with them. We don't want these - " her lip curled derisively as she spat out the word " - men on Amazon land, you understand."
"Mmm. I'm sure the local authorities will be happy to take charge of them once you explain about how they tried to sell the Hestians into slavery." She eyed the Amazon scout, her eyes twinkling, "You might want to change before you - " she gestured with the tip of her sword.
Solari's gaze flicked down and she grimaced as she saw her own body clad in the distinctive white robes of a Hestian virgin. Well, off-white robes, anyway, she mentally added as she took in the amount of ground-in dirt and blood marring the fabric. In addition, one sleeve was torn and hanging off her toned shoulder.
"I'll escort them," offered Leah, stepping up beside Solari. The head priestess had already swapped clothing with Xena and was now comfortably sequestered beneath her own robes again. "Just to make sure there's no misunderstandings."
Xena nodded her approval, watching as Solari and Leah recruited several of the Amazons to help them take Draco and his men away. They were struggling and grumbling as cursing up a blue streak as they were pushed and shoved along. And, Xena was quite certain if any of those Amazons were the virgins they were pretending to be, they would have fainted dead away from shock.
Speaking of which -
Xena turned an amused eye towards one of the few virgins that hadn't left with Solari and priestess Leah. Eponin was standing before her regent, her muscular biceps clearly bulging beneath her robes as she gently cupped Ephiny's battered face in her strong hands. Xena had checked her over earlier and discovered that most of her injuries were superficial. Broken noses and split lips bled the worst and looked horrific, but she confidently assured Eponin that her lover would make a full recovery in no time.
Understandably, Eponin still wanted to check things out for herself. And, apparently, part of sufficiently checking her regent over included drawing small, sipping kisses from Ephiny's lips. Judging from the contented sighs coming from Ephiny's throat and the way she ran an experimental tongue over her swollen lips, and into Pony's mouth in return, the pain was negligible.
The warrior turned her head, attempting to give them some privacy. However, her acute hearing couldn't help but pick up on bits and pieces of their conversation.
"You know," Ephiny drawled out in a husky timbre, "you make an incredibly sexy virgin."
"Yeah?" came Eponin's eager reply.
"Oh, yeah. Can't wait to get you back to my hut and deflower you."
"Why, you wicked, wicked Amazon; I do believe you're trying to take advantage of me."
"You bet your short Hestian robes I am."
That's enough of that, Xena determined, hearing Eponin's decidedly unwarrior-like squawk as her regent's hand found its way beneath the aforementioned robes. Turning her attention elsewhere, she picked up on the muffled sounds of a woman weeping. Following the noise, she tracked the sobbing to Draco's tent. Peering inside the flaps, she spied Gabrielle sitting on the bed, clutching a pillow to her chest, her tears soaking the expensive silk covering.
Immediately, she ducked inside, coming to kneel on the floor beside the bed. Reaching out, she tentatively placed a hand upon Gabrielle's flesh, cupping her knee. "Hey," she determinedly kept her voice soothingly low, "Did you get hurt in the fight?"
A resolute shake of her head sent golden strands flying.
"Were you scared?"
This time, there was a nod.
"Hey, you've been in tough spots before." Xena reached up, stroking thick fingers through those golden strands, "This is no different."
"Yes, it is!" Gabrielle fairly screamed, clutching the pillow tightly in her grasp.
"How?" pressed Xena. "How is this different?"
"Because - " Verdant eyes met blue, tears streaming, rolling unheeded down her cheeks. "Because this is my fault! All of it. The trap, everything. You could have been seriously hurt - "
"Shhh." Large fingers moved to Gabrielle's mouth, pressing against trembling lips. "I know all about the scheme you cooked up with Ephiny."
"How?!?" Puzzled eyes rapidly flicked over Xena's face.
"Solari," confirmed the warrior princess. "She was concerned when you went missing. Rightfully so, as it turns out."
"If Solari told you," puzzlement clearly lining Gabrielle's voice, "What took so long for you to get here?"
"Had to come in on foot. Would have ridden in on horseback," Xena smirked, "But, I couldn't teach your virgin Amazons to ride sidesaddle."
Gabrielle abruptly laughed. "I still can't believe Draco couldn't tell you'd waltzed right into his camp with Amazons dressed in Hestians' clothing."
"Yeah?" Xena smirked, "Well, you were fooled, too, ya know? Don't think I didn't see you struggling against those ropes, trying to warn the Xena that was squared off against Draco of a trap."
"Well, sure. That's when I thought you were Leah. Or, she was you. Or " Gabrielle trailed off, ruefully shaking her head in confusion. "Anyway," she chuckled, "I'll admit I was fooled. At first. And, I can see how Draco was caught flat-footed with Leah being your exact double and all. But," she struggled to fight down the rising waves of laughter. "I still don't understand how he couldn't see the burly, muscular forms of warriors hidden underneath those robes."
"Yeah, well sometimes people don't want to see what's beneath the surface."
Suddenly sobering, the smile slipping from her face, "Xena, I'm so sorry - "
"So am I." Rising to her feet, Xena resettled herself on the bed beside Gabrielle. Taking the pillow from her clutching fingers and tossing it across the room, she reached out, holding hands with her bard. "I'm so sorry that you thought you had to resort to those kind of measures to get my attention."
"I - "
"Let me finish." Her words would have stung more if there wasn't a timid smile behind them. "Conversation isn't exactly one of my many skills." An eyebrow arched as she expected Gabrielle to interrupt again. She was mildly surprised when she didn't. "Anyway, I figured out long ago how you felt about me." There was an almost bashful look as she added, "And, how I feel about you. But, I didn't know what someone like you could possibly see in someone like me. And, I was afraid to tell you." There was a long pause as Xena harshly swallowed. Long fingers traced complex patterns upon Gabrielle's hands as she searched for the words. Taking a deep breath, eyes finding and holding Gabrielle's gaze, she confessed, "I love you, too."
It seemed like days had passed with them just sitting there, staring at each other. Although, both knew in reality, it had only been several heartbeats of stunned silence. Several very long heartbeats. Gabrielle was staggered by Xena's admission, unable to believe she had heard the words that had come rolling off her warrior's tongue. And, Xena was astounded that her bard had gone so long without uttering another word. As the silence stretched on, Xena began to squirm, wondering if perhaps Gabrielle really didn't feel love for her after all.
"Oh?" she decided to test the waters. "Is that all you have to say?"
Gabrielle looked up at Xena, eyes sparkling with more unshed tears and love. Biting her bottom lip in contemplation, she hesitantly ran a finger along the edge of Xena's armor. "I was just wondering - "
"Yes?" pressed Xena, already envisioning Gabrielle asking her for their first kiss.
"Well, I was just wondering - " Gabrielle fidgeted beneath Xena's expectant gaze, "I mean, if it was possible - "
Looking up, resolutely meeting Xena's gaze head-on, she asked, "Do you think Leah would let you borrow her robes again sometime soon?"
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