DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, the Amazons and anyone else who might wander into this tall tale along with their back-stories are owned by Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No infringement is intended and no profit is being made.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To delrobertson[at]ymail.com
By Del Robertson
The chief scout sat motionless atop her mount, her heart in her throat as she and the other twenty riders beside her desperately tried to absorb the scene before them. When Metanira had burst in on her and a fitfully sleeping Ephiny in her hut back at the village, the small scout had been distraught and mostly incoherent. They'd had to wait until she'd had a bit of water and caught her breath before getting any further details from her, an agitated Ephiny pacing up and down the length of the hut the whole while.
At last, Metanira had been able to give a report. But, even that was somewhat sketchy.
"I followed the wagons like you ordered."
A hasty look in Ephiny's direction, confirmed by the regent's stony glare, revealed to Solari that she'd be expected to explain that one later.
"I fell behind." There was a look of panic in the younger girl's eyes as she confessed that to her leader. "It was snowing so hard and I was losing the tracks."
"It's okay," Solari reached out, giving the clearly distraught girl a reassuring pat on her arm. "I never intended for you to follow them the whole way to the outpost."
Metanira nodded absently, though Solari wasn't convinced she'd even realized what had just been said. Tears were beginning to form in her eyes, making their way down cheeks still chubby with youth.
"I was only going to go around the next bend, see if I could make out any sign of them before heading back."
Loud, wracking sobs drove Metanira to her knees. She repetitively rocked back and forth, arms clutched about herself, refusing to look up at the chief scout. Solari helplessly looked back at Ephiny, who was standing stock still, eyes frozen on the nearly hysterical Amazon.
The wagon leaned at a cockeyed angle, both wheels on the left side gone. The front wheel was broken in two, as if the axle had given way. The rear wheel was missing completely. The tarp that usually covered the wagon was down, appearing as though it had collapsed in on itself. At the front of the wagon, a large mass lay on the ground, its bulk covered by the continuously falling snow.
Solari felt the rider beside her shift in her saddle. She reached out, awkwardly catching the other horse's reins in her left hand. Egeria flexed her powerful thighs, giving her horse the command to stop. Shifting her double-headed labrys in her grip, she gave Solari a clearly impatient look.
"Let me go down first. Alone." Solari pointedly looked about at the other mounted riders, jaws setting, hands gripping their weapons, a crackling energy pouring off of them in waves. "Before you warriors trample any kind of trail."
Egeria bristled at the obvious jab. She firmly believed in the philosophy of ride in first, ask questions later. But, whoever had ambushed the supply wagons had clearly struck quickly and gone. And, Egeria was fully aware that if she indeed wanted answers, the scouting caste was her best bet at getting them.
Chewing the inside of her mouth, the warrior gave an exasperated sigh, then a curt nod. Solari jerked her chin in acknowledgement, then tapped her ankle against Thunder's flank. Egeria held up her hand, commanding the warriors hold their ground.
Nyxona waited a split heartbeat before nudging her horse forward, trailing after her leader. Likewise, Metanira and Admeta followed closely behind Solari's second in command.
Solari heard three horses behind her, guessed that they belonged to her scouts. She'd wanted to leave Metanira at the village, but knew that the fastest way to find the wagons would be if she were with them. And, of course, where Metanira went, Admeta was sure to follow. She'd allowed Nyxona to come along both because she trusted her second's abilities almost as well as her own and because she'd wanted someone from their own caste to keep an eye out for the girls in case things were really as bad as she thought they might be.
Didn't expect this, though. Solari had thought based on what Metanira had initially described was that perhaps the wheels had become locked with ice, causing the wagons to skid from the trail. She'd figured they'd have to search the wreckage for survivors after the accident.
This was no accident. Solari reined in her mare, waited until Nyxona rode up beside her.
"Keep them here," she ordered her second without ever taking her eyes from the bloated corpse of the wagon's lead horse.
"You sure you can do this?"
Solari tucked her injured hand in closer to her body in response to Nyxona's question. In truth, Solari was surprised Ephiny had allowed her to go. But, she was the leader of the scouting caste and for an assignment this important, Ephiny wanted the best.
"I'm fine," Solari answered in a terse voice that let her second know her concern was neither wanted nor appreciated.
Solari slid from her saddle, feeling the snow swirl about her calves as she dismounted. Despite Demeter's best efforts, even the goddess' snowstorm had been unable to completely whitewash the landscape. All about the wreckage, there were signs of horses - lots of them - having trampled through, their hooves tearing up snow and mud alike.
Trained eyes noted the subtleties of the markings; initially picking out no fewer than a dozen different mounts. Judging from the tracks, the attack had come from two directions; east and south. The riders had circled the wagon, cutting it off from the lead wagon. Then, after the attack, they'd continued on northward.
Cupping her hands to her mouth, Solari gave a shrill signal. Egeria gave a signal to the warriors flanking her. Three-quarters of their number immediately broke off from the rest, giving the wreckage sight a clear berth as they headed north in search of the other wagon. Lysippe approached Nyxona and the younger scouts. Looking back at her leader, she waited for Egeria to give her ascent. The warrior nodded once, agreeing that Lysippe could take the scouts with her party and she'd make do with just Solari.
Solari made note of the mounted warriors riding off, realized Nyxona and the youngsters had gone with them. The chief scout was both relieved and worried at the same time. Relieved because she didn't know what else awaited her inside this wrecked wagon. Worried because the Gods only knew if whoever had attacked the secondary wagon had also overtaken the first.
Egeria waited until the detail was out of sight before nudging her horse, guiding her closer to the wreckage. When she reached the point where Solari had dismounted, she also left her horse. Giving the signal for the rest of the warriors to hold their positions, she made her way towards the wagon.
She'd thought her approach was devoid of sound. Belatedly, she realized the rumors about the chief scout's sensitive hearing being nearly the equal of Xena's was true. A smirk tugged at her lips as she stared down the business end of a knife pressed to her throat.
"Real warriors carry knives, not toothpicks," Egeria drawled.
"It's not the size of the weapon that matters, only the sharpness of the edge," Solari rejoined.
"Point taken." The warrior used the tip of her index finger to divert the blade from her throat. "What've you got?"
Solari sheathed her knife, nodded her head towards the missing rear wheel. "That wheel didn't just come off and roll away." Kneeling on the ground, her fingers sifted through a covering of snow, revealing a clump of ashes beneath. "It burned off."
Egeria reached out, using her hand to sweep away the snow encrusting the side of the wagon. She frowned at the sight of the burnt remains of the side paneling. Solari was now at the back of the wagon, struggling to remove the tarp. It too, was partially burnt away, the remaining material singed black and weighed down by a thick covering of snow.
It took the two of them working together to lift it enough so they could crawl inside. The smell of charred wood and material assaulted them, causing their nostrils to burn. Crouching together in the bed of the wagon, scout and warrior waited for their eyesight to adjust to the dim interior.
Empty. Solari moved to the sidewall. All the chains were intact, still secure in the paneling. Except one. The one that Eponin had been secured to. Solari peered closely, running her fingers over the broken wood, realizing that Eponin hadn't been set free by the captain of the guard. Nor had she broken her chain. She'd simply tugged the mass of metal free from the wood, tearing the chain right out of the side panel. Sandalwood eyes locked on blood splatter on the wall and floorboards.
Egeria made her way to a snow-covered bundle on the floor at the front of the wagon. Kneeling, fingers slowly reached for the edge of the fur, she worried about whose corpse she would find beneath. Dragging the fur back, she breathed an audible sigh of relief when it was revealed there was nothing underneath.
"They took them," Egeria bit out through clenched teeth, tossing the fur down, "The bastards took them all."
"Better to be taken alive than - "
"I'd rather be dead than taken alive by - "
A slight scritching sound caught Solari's attention. She signaled for Egeria to be quiet. Cocking her head to one side, she followed the sound. Egeria followed, a puzzled look on her face as she hadn't heard a thing.
Solari crawled over the seat at the front of the wagon. Crouching down, she tried to block out the sounds of the skittish horses and impatient warriors in the distance. Then, the sound of the wind. Egeria's breathing. Her own heartbeat.
Catching the sound again, she followed it to its source. Working her fingers into a knothole located in a panel of wood beneath the driver's seat, she gave a forceful tug. Frowning when it didn't budge, she motioned for Egeria to come help her. The warrior shooed her aside, reaching for the panel with negligent ease.
If she hadn't been so cold and the situation weren't half as serious, Solari would have laughed her tailfeathers off at the dumbfounded expression on Egeria's face when she discovered she couldn't lift the panel, either. Reaching inside her cloak, the scout withdrew her knife and tapped the warrior on the shoulder with the hilt.
With a glare, Egeria took the offering and set to work on the bits of ice that had formed along the edges of the wooden panel, effectively freezing it shut. As the knife cleared the last crease, she dutifully returned the slender blade to its owner. Then, placing large fingers once again in the knothole, she brutally tugged.
The panel came loose, revealing a form covered in furs stuffed into the tight compartment. One hand was exposed, fingers tightly clutched about an owl-shaped clasp. Eyes closed against the unaccustomed amount of light trying to stream into the hidey-hole. A ragged sigh escaped nearly blue lips as the Amazon realized she'd been found by friends and not renegades.
"Hey. Hey." Solari lightly slapped her fingers against a cold cheek. "No sleeping now. Wait till Megara says its okay."
Solari and Egeria both smiled as eyelashes caked with ice struggled to open and the nearly frozen Amazon fought to form the name "M - Meg - "
"Yep. Just concentrate on that," Solari teased, "Our head healer bringing you hot mugs of broth, giving you warm sponge baths, climbing in bed with you to warm you up...."
"She...she...better...not..." Solari leaned in low to better hear the raspy voice "...give...that...bedside...treatment...to...everyone...."
"Nah," Solari winked conspiratorially, "Only to handsome captains of the guard."
"Damn...right..." Pelagia worked to get her lips to form a smile.
"Captain." Egeria nudged her way in front of Solari. "We've got warriors out looking for the scum that did this."
Solari frowned, making note of the fact that Egeria didn't mention that three of her scouts had gone with those warriors.
Reaching into the compartment, Egeria got a hand and arm beneath Pelagia, urging her to lift her shoulders and upper body. "What happened?" she pressed "Who did this?"
Her body taxed by the ordeal it had gone through, her mind on the verge of shutting down, Pelagia struggled to make sense of the questions being asked her. "Renegades..." Egeria's form was blurry, fading. Pelagia shifted her gaze to Solari, hoping she'd be able to better focus on her friend. "...Eponin...."
The snow was falling even faster now. Solari pulled her cloak firmly about herself, attempting to ward off some of the bitter chill she was feeling. Idly, she thought on how Pelagia had to have been blessed by the Gods to have lasted out in the elements for so long.
A look back over her shoulder confirmed that the warriors had put the last touches on a litter they'd managed to fashion from the remains of the gutted wagon. As many horse blankets as possible had been gathered up and spread out on the wooden slats making up the litter, fastened in place by rope. The captain herself had finally been lifted free of the relative safety of her hiding place and was being carefully moved, passed from one warrior to another until she was completely out of the wreckage.
Kneeling in the snow, Solari rested the forearm of her bandaged hand against her thigh as she examined the corpse of the lead horse. One of the horse's legs was twisted at an odd angle, clearly broken. Blood marred its lightly colored coat, freezing the dark substance in an eerie tableau that spoke of an edged blade being dragged across its throat.
The other horse was missing, an inspection of the buckles and harness revealing that the gear had been cut in two. Eyes narrowing, Solari edged forward, fingers digging down and moving aside freshly fallen powder to reveal packed down snow beneath. Fingertips traced the outline of a hoof print. Inching forward, Solari found the next print. And the next.
She lost track of time, unsure of how long she'd been at it, or how much progress she had made. She'd also managed to block out the stinging sensation of a thousand needle-pricks in her knees, ankles and fingertips as the cold thoroughly numbed her. Her sole focus was concentrated on following the trail.
Her nose bumped into something solid, sending her falling on her backside. Rubbing her nose with the palm of her hand, Solari looked up a solid body covered by a thick cloak until she met Egeria's steely gaze.
"Captain's loaded up. You ready?"
Solari scrambled to her knees, clamping her hand about Egeria's calf as she darted between the warrior's legs. With a bemused expression, Egeria half-turned watching as Solari edged herself all the way through and out the other side.
"Look at this." Solari commanded, brushing away more lightly packed snow.
Egeria leaned over her shoulder. "Packed down snow," she shrugged, not seeing the big deal.
"Caused by the wagon's other horse."
"So? Renegades killed one, took one with 'em."
"Renegades rode off north." Solari looked up, glancing around, getting her bearings. "This horse went south."
"Horse ran off on its own, then." Egeria knew by the look in the scout's eye that the horse had a rider when it left. "Okay, then. Maybe one of the renegades took off on their own."
"Or," Solari edged forward, trying to find another track, "perhaps this one wasn't with the renegades."
Egeria watched the scout digging around in the snow for several long candledrips. Her fingertips moved over a wide area, then back again. Solari's hand was bright red, her cheeks ruddy from the wind, her hair covered with so much snow that the normally lustrous brunette locks were now almost completely white.
"Come on," Egeria reached down, catching Solari by the upper arm and pulling her up. "Even you can't track in a blizzard."
"But - " Solari tried to extract herself from Egeria's handhold.
The warrior tightened her grip, tugging Solari upright. "Let it go, Solari. We've got to get Pelagia back to the hospice. And the rest of us warmed up before we all lose our sword hands to frostbite."
"The others - ?" Solari questioned, looking about, realizing the second party hadn't returned, yet.
"Depends on whether or not the renegades caught the lead wagon. If they didn't, Lysippe and your scouts will track it all the way to the outpost and re-supply there before heading back to the village." Egeria purposely didn't mention the scenario that included the renegades catching the lead wagon. "Lysippe's smart. Smart enough to know to hunker down until after a blizzard's blown over."
Egeria turned Solari about, propelling her in the direction of the waiting and mounted warriors. Pelagia was secured to the litter, the thick furs they'd discovered her bundled in wrapped tightly about her body. Heavy-lidded eyes blinked as Egeria and Solari passed her on the way to their horses.
Egeria settled herself in the saddle, smoothing her hand over her horse's chilled coat. "Extra oats for you when we get home," she repeated, remembering the promise she'd made her mare when she'd taken the horse blanket off her back. With a nickering sound and a sharp whistle, she gave the command to return to the village.
Solari let the warriors take out ahead of her, Egeria and the litter taking the lead. She purposely held Thunder back, her gaze fixed on the spot where she'd last had a clear bearing on the trail she'd been tracking. Hearing a muted birdcall in the distance, she gave Thunder a nudge with the interior of her ankle and a slight tug on the reins. Turning her mount, she raced after the others.
Everything was spinning uncontrollably about her. Pelagia blindly reached out a hand, trying to steady herself. Waves of dizziness overtook her, engulfing her, sweeping her feet out from beneath her. She felt herself falling.
Closing her eyes only made it worse. Her stomach did flips, threatening to send that afternoon's trail rations the wrong way. Swallowing with effort, the captain forced herself to open her eyes.
It was full-on night. She could see that much through the torn tarp that still clung to the back of the wagon. Snowflakes liberally littered her view, falling inside, haphazardly coming to rest on the thick furs that had become scattered when the wagon had turned over.
Snow. The thought suddenly occurred to the captain of the guard. Snow. It's snowing. I should be cold.
Instead, she felt . . . nothing. Save for the dizziness that crept to overtake her no matter if her eyes were opened or closed. Whether she was on her feet - or flat on her stomach.
Megara gathered the last of the blood-soaked rags, absentmindedly tossing them into a bucket to be disposed of later. Her fingers trembled as they closed about the thin herringbone needle she'd used. I'm not ready for this, yet.
She'd been sequestered in her office, taking refuge from the sympathetic looks, the compassionate hugs, the thoughtful words. Why couldn't they understand that all she really wanted was to be left alone? She'd done a fairly decent job of communicating that earlier, having stood in the main room of the hospice and screamed at the joined elders, Evanthe and Myrina, to stop. Stop hugging her, stop offering her shoulders to cry on, stop acting like they were friends . . . just stop.
She'd said her piece, then left them flabbergasted, staring after her as she retreated to her office and firmly drew the thick hide covering across the entrance. And, she'd had every intention of staying there for the rest of the day. But, then that fool hunter had brought her buddy in with her, crying and begging for help. Iphinome was still gone with the regent. And Hilaeira was, as per usual as of late, nowhere to be found.
Damn kids; how many of them do I stitch up every season because one of them thought another was a deer? It had been another senseless hunting accident that had demanded her attention. It was something her apprentices, had they been there, would have been challenged to handle by themselves. But, the head healer had been able to perform the surgery by rote, her fingers digging into flesh and tissue, clasping the arrowhead and turning it as she pulled it out between the third and fourth ribs so she didn't inflict further damage.
Time would heal the wound. Exercise would regain strength. Youth would speed her recovery. Relief had swept across the faces of both mothers when she'd appeared in the main room of the hospice, still wiping the blood from her hands, telling them of the news.
They were on their feet and inside the examination room before Megara could blink. Both mothers were kneeling by their daughter's bedside; holding a hand, brushing back brown hair as a weak smile answered their barrage of questions. Then, came talk of a new bow for next season and plans for a feast to celebrate her recovery.
Pelagia's recovery won't come so easily. Megara slipped from the room before anyone could think to include her in the celebration. Oh, she was certainly glad that the youngster had made it. And, they certainly had a right to be in high spirits. Megara wouldn't take that away from them.
But, she also couldn't stay and watch them be - - happy.
The head healer stalked the hospice, her feet carrying her through the corridors by rote. Her mind went on a tangent, choosing to cope by distracting her with other thoughts. Thoughts that still dealt with her role as a healer, if not with the knife's edge of pain that sometimes came with caring for a patient. Memories washed over her like the tide, sweeping her along to a not-so-distant past.
It had been a grim time, indeed, when that upstart Velasca had killed her adopted mother, Melosa, and then declared herself queen. But then, she'd gotten her hands on the food of the gods. She'd ingested the ambrosia and proclaimed herself goddess. And immediately aimed her sights on the new queen, Gabrielle, and her appointed regent, Ephiny. And, nearly completely destroyed the entire nation that she was professing to offer salvation to.
When Velasca had been properly dealt with and order restored, Queen Gabrielle resumed her travels with Xena. And, the Amazons were left to their own devices to rebuild their home. Not that they needed a bard-queen and a warrior princess to help them with the construction. But, given that Ephiny and the warriors had risked everything in an attempt to slow Velasca down long enough to buy their queen some time . . . well, more than one Amazon felt like their queen had slighted them by leaving.
Megara wasn't sure why . . . Gods knew she'd never really had any contact with their newest queen . . . but she was amongst those left feeling resentful of Gabrielle's abandonment. So much so that she'd been more resistant than usual when the regent had appeared on her doorstep with a set of blueprints for not just rebuilding, but also expanding the hospice.
She'd taken one look and immediately sensed the absent queen's influence. And, she made her objections vehemently known. After all, the hospice had been good enough during the reigns of both Queen Melosa and Queen Reyvanne before her. And, both of them had ruled during a time when the Amazons had been at war with the Centaurs. Now that there was peace once again, it was plenty big enough; no reason to go changing things now.
Ephiny had rolled her eyes. Then, crossed her arms. And, before Megara knew what had happened, she commanded everyone leave them. Everyone. The council members that had followed her with the intention of having a walkthrough tour before the work began, the construction workers that had been standing by with their tools at the ready, the guards that were no more than three paces away from the new royal at any given time.
The silence seemingly stretched on forever. She'd expected Ephiny to light into her even before the last Amazon had left the building. Given her fiery temperament, the action would have suited her character perfectly. The yelling, the screaming, the threats . . . Megara would have expected any of that. What caught her completely by surprise, though, was the way Ephiny just stared at her; not saying a word, only watching her. Those intense hazel eyes boring a hole into her until even she was beginning to crumple beneath her regent's stare.
Then, an instant before Megara was going to cave, Ephiny suddenly let loose a long-suffering sigh that sent her curly blonde locks ruffling off her forehead. And, she'd dropped to one knee, unfurling the blueprints on the floor. Kneeling there, quill in hand, she looked up at the head healer and asked her to show her the changes she wanted to make.
They were holed up in the hospice for candlemarks, time lost to them as they poured over the plans foot by square foot. Eventually, someone had grown brave enough to slide a tray of food beneath the hide covering at the main door. Ephiny and Megara had both smirked at that and a lively discussion ensued over dinner; the topic being who their benefactor was more afraid of, the regent or the healer.
In the end, Megara had begrudgingly agreed to nearly a full three-quarters of the suggested construction plans. There were just too many improvements that could be made to benefit her patients for her to completely discount every suggestion made. And, before she knew it, she was mentally picturing a larger work area, more available beds, better sanitary conditions.
The one improvement she was most grateful for now, though, was the solitude the extra rooms allowed. Before, with all the patients housed in one large room . . . there was no privacy. For the patients or herself. In the old hospice, she had no private office, no place to retreat to when things got too tough. No, just like her patients, she was exposed for all to see.
Megara was tough. Tough on her patients, tough on her staff, even tougher on herself. She couldn't allow them any of them to see her emotionally vested in a patient. Any patient. If she wasn't cool, calm and detached . . . how could she expect anyone else to maintain a level head? Or, be reasonable and allow her to make the decisions that sometimes had to be made? Decisions that sometimes required her to tell a valued warrior that she could no longer perform her duties. Or, deciding to choose a limb over a life. Or, even making the call in the middle of a surgery that there was just too much damage to the body to continue...
It was hard to maintain that level of determination, that masque of toughness and never let it slip. Gods knows that she tried to harden her heart to make things easier. But, just because she couldn't show it, didn't mean she cared any less.
That's why she'd suddenly come to appreciate the newer rooms added onto the hospice. Even if she wasn't sequestered in her office, she could still take refuge somewhere else. She could take a break, stop pretending and just be. If only for a little while.
Taking a deep breath, closing her eyes, Megara willed her body to be still. Despite her best efforts, her heart was pounding uncontrollably in her chest. And, although she desperately tried not to allow it, her thoughts went to her bondmate. Then, her heart leapt from her chest to her throat as she vividly recalled when Pelagia's had stopped beating.
When they'd brought the captain in on the back of a travois, she'd been delirious, mumbling incoherently. Megara had been at her side immediately, her experience urging her to see Pelagia through a healer's - and not a lover's - eyes. There were plenty in the village who respected, cherished and loved the captain of the guard. But, it wasn't love that was going to save Pel's life; it was skill.
If that made her appear cold to those around her, so be it. Megara didn't care what others thought of her; only about what she needed to be, to do, to save her bondmate's life.
She tugged back the thick furs that had been wrapped about Pelagia's prone body. Blood, sweat and grime matted down her blonde hair, plastering it about her face. Ash and bruises mottled her torso and upper body. Her skin tone was discolored, giving indication that she'd been exposed to the cold for an extended period of time. Blisters and scorch marks about the flesh of her lower legs gave testament to having been in a fire. The fingers of her right hand were clenched tightly closed, the knuckles scraped and bloodied.
Fingers that she felt were trembling, but could see that they were not, reached out for Pelagia's face. Fingertips briefly brushed across a cold cheek before prying open an eyelid. Practiced fingers moved to the back of the captain's skull, pressing against the lump that was there.
Blonde lashes fluttered. Pelagia's head lolled back on her shoulders.
"Pelagia?" Megara bent lower, nearly breathing the words into her lover's mouth as she asked, "Pel, do you know where you are?"
Brows furrowed momentarily. Then, a slight smile touched cracked lips. In a weak voice, the captain rasped out, "home..."
Megara bit her bottom lip, tears blurring her vision as an answering smile crossed her lips. Then, Pelagia's eyes closed. And her hand fell limply by her side. Megara stared in incomprehension as those around her hovered in stunned silence.
That's when she realized that Pelagia was no longer breathing.
Pelagia's entire world shifted. She was floating. Her body felt leaden and heavy, as if she couldn't move a muscle if her life depended on it. And, yet . . . she was . . . floating.
She somehow found the strength to move the arm that had been protectively cradled against her abdomen. Gravity took over and it heavily fell to the side. In confirmation of her earlier suspicions of levitation, her arm hung limply in midair.
Her head tilted back, she tried in vain to open her eyes. The lids were far too heavy to lift. She struggled to open her mouth, felt every vein and tendon in her neck tightening with the effort. Her voice weak and thready, she finally managed to rasp out, "Ar temis?"
Instead of her beloved goddess offering compassionate words of reassurance, the Captain of the Royal Guard heard instead what sounded distinctively like a derisive snort.
"I've been called a lot of things in my time," a gruff voice husked in her ear, "A goddess has never been one of them."
Pelagia's mind swam with that information. If not Artemis, then who? Would Hades' sister, Celesta, escort Amazons to the Land of the Dead? Or, could it be that an evil shamaness had ensnared her soul? Hadn't Queen Gabrielle spoken of someone who had that sort of power?
She had to know. In a voice that trembled with unaccustomed fear, she asked, "Am I dead?"
She'd seen death before. What healer hadn't? Feeling the specter of death constantly watching over her shoulder, waiting for her to make a mistake. And, even when she hadn't. Death was always there; ready to steal a life away - and she imagined that theft was always so much more sweeter when that life was snatched from beneath a healer's nose.
In all her seasons as a healer, Megara had never felt her heart wrenched from her chest the way it was in that instant. Not when she'd gone into her grandmother's hut as a child and crawled in bed with her, only to discover that she'd stopped breathing in the dark of night. Not when the coughing disease slowly robbed her mother of her strength. Not even when her first mate had died, leaving her to raise three daughters on her own.
She could feel the hot tears upon her cheeks, see them falling, landing upon Pelagia's still face. There were hands at her arms and shoulders, urging her away, even as she dug her fingers into her bondmate's shoulders, refusing to allow her grip to be broken. She felt the whisper of warm breath at her ear, heard a voice from far away telling her that Pelagia was the captain of the royal guard, promising her that she would be honored with a royal funeral pyre.
Some part of her mind that was still functioning acknowledged that it was Ephiny at her side, Ephiny's voice in her ear. Her regent-queen. How many royals had she witnessed take their last breath? She'd been there for her queens - first Reyvanne, then Melosa as they'd succumbed to death. Terreis' spirit had left her body before it had been brought to her. But, she'd witnessed first-hand the grief of Melosa as the Queen had fruitlessly carried her only blood-sister into the hospice and laid her in Megara's arms.
Megara's mind churned, memories of the tale Ephiny had told her; how she'd been in a Thessalian temple and witnessed a distraught, desperate Xena crumple against Gabrielle's still chest. Then, becoming angry, shouting for Gabrielle to not leave her, pounding on Gabrielle's chest with her fist...and how Gabrielle drew in breath again.
She'd thought the tale was just that; a tale. But, Ephiny had sworn it was true. Megara had thought on the subject more, mulling over in her mind how it was that the warrior princess could force someone to overcome death through physical force.
Not knowing what else to do, but unable to give up her bondmate's life so easily, Megara placed her palms together against Pelagia's chest and pressed down. Again. And again. And again.
"Breathe into her mouth," Ephiny advised, "Get air into her lungs."
The rest of the Amazons backed up, giving her room as she covered Pelagia's mouth with her own. She breathed several times into her lover's mouth. Then, feeling she was doing more good there, she moved back to Pelagia's chest, pressing down firmly where she knew the heart would be. Ephiny moved into position, breathing into Pelagia's mouth as Megara paused in her compressions.
They alternated back and forth, both refusing to give up even as the elders finally appeared. There were murmurs, urges to let Artemis take her to her rightful place in the Amazon Land of the Dead. Still, Megara refused.
And, then Pelagia's body jerked in reaction. And her chest began to rise and fall on its own. Ephiny sat back on her haunches, marveling that twice now she'd witness love bring someone back from the dead.
Tears were streaming down both Megara's cheeks in earnest now. As she looked around at the other Amazons, she saw that many of them also had moisture in their eyes. Almost unable to speak around the lump in her throat, her voice thick with emotion, Megara looked at Egeria and commanded the warrior, "Well, what are you waiting for? Get the captain off this litter and into the hospice."
"Am I dead?"
"No, Pel, not dead. Not yet." There was a shifting, Pelagia felt her body being lowered, felt something solid beneath her, then hot breath against her ear as the voice dropped an octave and whispered, "Not for a long while, yet. Not if I can help it."
This time, she did manage to open her eyes. Slowly, she was able to see through cloudy vision a blurred figure with dark hair falling about her face hovering over her. The person moved, shifting out of her line of sight, leaving her staring up at the skyline. Heavy winter clouds hung thick overhead, making it impossible to tell the time of day.
Something dark appeared over her, then she felt a weight descending upon her legs. Hands tucked a fur beneath her lower body before moving away again. Pelagia tried to move her head to follow, but found her own movements impeded. A momentary surge of panic rose inside her as she thought she might be paralyzed. A cold sweat broke out on her body, her breathing increased drastically and she could feel her heart racing in her chest.
She willed herself to calm down. After all, she had felt the weight of the furs upon her legs. If she were paralyzed, she wouldn't be able to feel that, right? She conjured a mental image of Megara, imagining what her bondmate would tell her to do if she were there with her now.
One by one, Pelagia began to take stock of her limbs. With some difficulty, she tried to move each of her toes and fingers. Then, she moved on to the larger extremities. In the end, she discovered that she could more or less move everything. And, even the parts she couldn't move, she could feel pain in.
She heard a noise to her right, tried to move her head in that direction. Again, she felt her movements impeded. This time, though, she realized it wasn't her own body that was thwarting her commands, but rather, an external source. She tried to move her arms and legs, found she could only wiggle an inch or two in any given direction.
A rugged face came into focus. There was blood on her face and across her neck. Large hands draped another fur over her body, thick fingers working to tuck in the edges about Pelagia's torso. A calloused hand reached out, almost tenderly caressing her cheek before moving down her torso to her waist. Pelagia felt a tugging at her belt, saw her purse pulled free. The drawstring was undone, the contents roughly shaken out into an open palm.
"Sorry, Pel." There was an apologetic shrug of muscular shoulders. "But, I'm gonna need some spending money for the road."
"The village must warn --"
"Can't." Eponin sifted her fingers through the contents in her hand, pouring the coins back into the pouch. She leaned in near Pelagia's face, her visage grim as she confided, "They're going after the Queen's family."
Eponin began to move away, but stopped when she felt a weak grip on her forearm. "Don't leave me here..."
Ep turned her head, amber-hued eyes worriedly scanning the horizon before she turned back to Pelagia. Pony mustered up a reassuring smile and announced in what she hoped was a voice ringing with confidence, "One of Soli's scouts was trailing us. She'll fetch help before you've gotten so much as a runny nose."
As Eponin backed away, more of her body came into Pelagia's range of vision. The former weapons master was loaded for bear. A chill ran through the captain of the guard as she finally fully realized what Eponin had done. She'd removed the weapons from the stash hidden beneath the loose boards beneath the wagon seat and deposited her in their place.
She made a renewed effort to sit up. Strong hands easily pushed her back down, shoving her back into the cramped box.
"Easy, Pel." Pelagia felt something pressed into her palm. "You'll be fine."
Eyes widened as Pelagia saw the discarded floorboard come into view. Frantically, she shook her head. "Eponin, Ep, please..."
"Just hang in there, Pel."
Darkness encroached as the board was firmly secured in place. Hands came up, elbows braced against wood, palms pressing up as hard as they could.
She thought Pony would come back, if she heard her plea. Listening, she heard nothing, save her own breathing. Then, she felt the wagon jostle. And finally, the sound of fading hooves.
"Eponin!" Desperately, Pelagia pounded on the wooden lid that was keeping her prisoner. "Eponin!"
Alcestis felt something pressed into the palm of her hand. Questioning eyes looked up, meeting Symaethis' steady gaze.
"What's this?" The redheaded Amazon asked, realizing she had missed something.
"A dinar," Symaethis clarified, "For your thoughts."
"Oh, of course." Alcestis shook her head. "Sorry. Guess poor company wasn't what you had in mind when you invited me to dinner."
"I've had worse," Symaethis shrugged, then added with a tiny smile, "Although, most of those have been spent with clients, pouring over the details of their cases as we ate."
"Ah." Alcestis picked at the vegetables on her plate. Distractedly, she glanced around Symaethis' private hut, noting the décor, the intimate lighting, fully acknowledging for the first time that the other counselor had obviously asked her here with personal intent. She returned the dinar to the older Amazon. "Then, I'm sure you don't want to know my thoughts."
Symaethis laid the dinar down on the table, pointedly used the tip of her index finger to push it back to Alcestis' side of the table. "I already know." At the startled look, she simply said, "Eponin."
Alcestis exhaled loudly, pushed herself away from the table. "I'm sorry."
"I thought we agreed you needed to step back from this," Symaethis urged. "It's not healthy for you to obsess over this. You've lost cases before."
"It's not just that I lost," Alcestis protested. "It's that you won." At the amused look from the Counselor for the Nation, she attempted to explain, "There's no way you could have won that case. She wouldn't have been convicted. We both know it. Eponin threw away her freedom."
"Guilt," Symaethis surmised. "She couldn't live with what she had done. Maybe she figured if we couldn't punish her, she'd punish herself."
Alcestis moved to the open window, stared up at the early evening sky, watching as the snowflakes lazily drifted down.
"Then, why'd she just up and disappear in the middle of a blizzard?"
"I don't know," Symaethis admitted, "But, it doesn't matter. You were there, you heard the same thing I did."
Alcestis nodded numbly, thinking back to the scene that had unfolded in the hospice. Following Pelagia's rescue and her dramatic return to life, she'd been mostly non-responsive, having not fully awakened since her ordeal. Still, she had moments in which she hovered on the verge on consciousness. It was during these nearly lucid moments that Pelagia was pressed for answers. The regent, the elders, the counselors . . . Hades, anyone with a vested interest in Eponin's apparent escape and subsequent disappearance had tried to get through to the captain of the guard. Never completely regaining consciousness, Pelagia had nevertheless tossed and turned, murmuring her answers.
"Testimony from an incoherent witness isn't admissible."
"No. And, if we were before a court of law, you'd win that argument," Symaethis agreed. "But, anything Pelagia says right now can be treated as a deathbed testimony."
"It doesn't sit right with me." Alcestis hugged her stomach, feeling a clenching in her gut as she recalled the way the elders had pressed the captain of the guard, asking her who had done this to her. And, of course, Pelagia had murmured, "Eponin". Then, had come the nearly delirious murmurings about the Queen's family being in danger.
"Don't worry. The regent and the others will find her. Eponin won't have her freedom for long."
"I wonder." Alcestis stared at the increasing flurry of snowflakes, worrying her bottom lip as she contemplated, "Given who's gone with the regent, will Eponin make it back alive for a second sentencing?"
Her lover's cries drew her attention. Megara helplessly watched from the doorway as Pelagia thrashed about on the bed. Bandaged hands blindly reached out, fingers clawing at an unseen plank of wood.
Megara had made every attempt to remain at her mate's bedside. She'd thought the first days had been the worst, when Pel hadn't responded to any outside stimuli. She'd heard the rumors, the whispers that Megara should have allowed her to pass, that by not doing so, she'd sent her mind into the land of the dead, if not her spirit. Despite her firm belief that she had done everything right, Megara was haunted by the thought that she'd doomed her bondmate to a vegetative state.
Then, the mumbling had started, incoherent at first, then growing in intensity. Suddenly, instead of anxiously waiting at her unresponsive beloved's side, she now found herself being forced to place her in restraints to keep her from harming herself as she thrashed about in the throes of unseen nightmares.
Although, based on the murmured snippets, followed by the anguished screams and confirming reports of what the rescue party had seen, she was soon able to piece together at least part of what had happened to the captain of her heart.
She was injured. And, placed in that that box. The lid secured into place. With the drop in temperature, the lid was encased in a layer of ice. No matter how hard Pelagia pummeled the board, scratched at the wood, she was unable to free herself. If she hadn't been found when she was, she would have died of exposure or lack of air or dehydration. Small wonder even Pelagia's unconscious mind was plagued by nightmares of her ordeal.
An ache in her chest, Megara approached the bedside on trembling legs. She sat down heavily in the chair beside the bed. Biting her bottom lip, she reached out, brushing her hand through Pelagia's hair, pushing it back from her forehead. Leaning in, she pursed her lips, placing a tender kiss upon her lover's temple.
Drawing back, her eyes drifted to Pelagia's arms where thick rawhide strips held her securely in place. The flesh around her arms was rubbed raw from repetitive straining against her bonds. Megara reached for the bowl beside the bed, coating her fingers in a thick, creamy mixture. Withdrawing her fingers, she liberally coated her lover's raw flesh in the aloe cream.
Pelagia's movements slowed, but didn't cease altogether. Her hand weakly clawed at the air, knuckles weakly rapping against a board only her mind could see. Megara's hand trailed the length of Pelagia's arm, moving onto the back of her hand. She murmured soothing words in her lover's ear as her fingertips lightly stole over the bandaged flesh of Pelagia's fingers. Subtly, she applied just enough pressure to cause Pelagia's hand to open, her fingers to release what she had been so desperately clutching in her grasp.
It had been clenched in her hand when Solari and Egeria had lifted the lid off her coffin, the metal slick with Pelagia's blood from where she had scraped and clawed at the wood. She'd maintained her grip on it during the long trek back to the village and into surgery. Even as she'd been moved to a private bed, she refused to relinquish her grasp. Now, at last, it fell free from bent fingers, landing in Megara's open palm.
Megara's throat tightened as her vision clouded over with tears. Heart-wrenching sobs tore from her chest. At last, she brought the owl-shaped clasp to her lips. She kissed it once, then placed it once more into Pelagia's palm. Instinctively, the fingers curled about the bit of metal, once more securely hiding the clasp in her grasp.
Laying her hand upon her mate's bandaged one, she made her a solemn vow, "Eponin will pay, my love. This I swear. Eponin will pay."
The sun was just edging over the horizon, Apollo's chariot heralding the dawn of a new day. Head lowered, a lone horse trudged along the well-traveled road, hooves kicking up a fine dusting of powdered snow with each labored step. A set of reins dangled loosely about the mare's neck, allowing her the freedom to roam where she willed. Without human direction, she instinctively continued on the path leading south towards warmer temperatures.
She was well past the faded wooden sign leaning at a haphazard angle on the outskirts of the town and nearly to the first outcropping of ragtag buildings when her nostrils flared. There was something in the air. Something wrong. The odor grew stronger with each step and she nervously whinnied.
Her rider was hunkered down low on the mare's back, wearing a wolf hide wrapped like a cloak about the head and upper body in an effort to keep the biting winds at bay. Shoulders were slumped, head bowed, eyes closed, body swaying with each step the mare took.
The unexpected whinny brought the rider out of a restless slumber. Powerful thighs tightened upon the fur draped across the horse's back in reaction. One hand reached for the reins even as the other appeared from beneath the cloak with a firm grip tight upon the hilt of a sword. Eyes narrowed with suspicion, she gave a tap of her heel against the horse's flank. Obediently, the mare meandered along the main road leading into the center of town.
The streets were deserted, the town eerily quiet. Gone were the customary noises of everyday life. No blacksmith's hammer ringing out on an anvil, no women chattering in the street, no men's voices raised in drunken chorus as she passed the local tavern. Even more conspicuous, no children laughing, playing or crying. Not even a dog barking.
She'd seen this sort of thing before outside the Amazon Nation. Thriving towns that for whatever reason suddenly dried up. Farming communities that just couldn't survive one more failed harvest. Fishing villages where they'd not allowed the marine life a chance to replenish itself. Mining towns where there were rich veins of ore one day, then none the next. Wars, disease, famine. And, of course, the plague of warlords. Entire villages had been known to disappear under the threat of having to pay tribute to a single warlord.
Eponin kept a tight grip upon her sword and a wary eye out. The town appeared deserted and she'd seen no sign of life. Still, her instincts screamed at her to be on guard. Bandits had a tendency to think that a woman traveling alone - even an Amazon - meant easy pickings.
And, hadn't Xena herself spoken of warlords taking over entire towns? She'd even told her how Callisto had once taken Gabrielle hostage, chaining her to a statue in the town square and sending a message instructing her to come alone and on foot if she ever wanted to see Gabrielle alive again. Xena had confessed over a mug of Amazonian port how difficult that had been; walking through the main street, seeing Gabrielle with Callisto's sword pressed to her throat, feeling sets of eyes watching from every door and window each step she took, waiting for Callisto to signal them to attack her from all sides.
Ep supposed it would be an easy matter for outlaws to post a sentry some distance out to signal a traveler's approach. Then, the rest of the gang could hide in the shadows and wait for their prey to step right into their trap. But, she hadn't seen any sign of that.
It would be difficult to send up any type of signal that someone trained as an Amazon wouldn't immediately recognize. Even more difficult to completely mask a fresh trail. No, Eponin was confident there were no recent signs of life in this little town. Not even a single footprint in the light dusting of snow that covered everything.
But still - - something just didn't feel right.
Tired and hungry as she was, Eponin decided she wouldn't be able to rest until she was well away from there. Tapping her heel against her horse's flank, she gave the command to increase the pace. Obediently, her mare responded, carrying them at a much quicker gait. So intent on leaving the ghost town far behind, Eponin scarcely noticed the lettering on the wooden marker as they rode by.
They were miles past the outskirts of the town and Eponin felt herself breathing a little easier when she spotted a farmhouse in the distance, thick smoke rising from a chimney into the grey sky. Thinking it a likely place for food and answers, she turned her mare down a little, rugged country road.
"Hello?" she called out as she dismounted in front of the house.
She was mildly concerned when she received no answering call. But then, the barn door swung open a few inches and several chickens ran out into the yard. Remembering the earliness of the day, Eponin figured the mistress of the house must be tending her chores. Noting a path of snow had been cleared from the house to the barn, Eponin concluded that would be the best place to look.
Fingertips stroked the pommel of her sword for reassurance, even as she kept the weapon hidden beneath the wolf hide she was wearing. No reason to unnecessarily frighten the woman and any small children she might have. Bracing the palm of her hand against the aged wood, she called out again, "Hello? Anybody there?" as she pushed the door open.
Loose hay scattered beneath her feet, sending up a cloud of dust particles as she stepped completely inside the barn. Eponin left the door ajar, rays of sunshine streaming in behind her, bits of dust and hay shimmering in the beams of light. Coupled with the dim lighting coming in through the second-story loft, Eponin could just make out the silhouette of a woman kneeling beside some wire hutches, her back turned to the door.
"Any chance of breakfast?" Eponin asked, spying the basket of hen eggs on the ground beside the woman. Her stomach grumbled loudly as she approached, "I can pay you; I have money. Or, I could work for my meal?"
Seeing the abundant amount of grey in her hair, figuring the old woman was no doubt hard of hearing, Ep stepped up right behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. A strangled gasp nearly escaped the weapons master as the woman's head lolled to one side and then completely rolled off her shoulders. It collided with the basketful of eggs, knocking them over before coming to a stop, lifeless eyes staring up at the Amazon.
Ep hastily scrambled backwards, drawing her sword free in the process. Warm breath sending heated puffs into the chilly air, she spun around in a tight circle, weapon at the ready.
There were other people in the barn. She could see their silhouettes in the ever-increasing light, their features becoming clearer by the heartbeat. A man was standing against the opposite wall, the metal prongs of a pitchfork pinning his body in place. A girl lay nestled in a bower of hay, looking for all the world as if she were merely sleeping. Until sharp eyes detected the dark blood matting her black hair to her temple.
A creaking sound caused Eponin to look up. Standing at the foot of the ladder, eyes narrowed as she scanned the bundles of hay lining the upper floor. Unable to discern anything of significance in the muted lighting of the barn, she knew she'd have to climb up. Especially when a faint moan drifted down to her ears. Maintaining a firm grip on her sword, she began a one-handed ascent up the rickety ladder.
Reaching the top rung, half expecting a sword to lob off her head any heartbeat now, amber-hued eyes peered over the ledge. Another soft groan met her ears and she scrambled onto the upper level without hesitation. Soles of soft Amazon leather boots made only the faintest of sounds as they moved quickly over rotten boards littered with strands of hay.
She followed the light moans into the farthest recesses of the loft. Then, abruptly drew up short as she finally discovered what - or rather, who - she had tracked. Familiar boots and long legs came into view first. Followed by the customary leather battle dress and the metal breastplate. Blood was everywhere. On the wooden boards her broken body was laying on, soaked into the bales of hay that had been scattered in the battle; and most definitely, on her sword.
Her sword that lay just out of reach of her feebly searching fingers. Likewise, her chakram was also beyond her grasp; firmly embedded in a wooden support beam a good five feet above her head. Eponin imagined if Xena had still been standing, she'd have been in the right position to catch her weapon on the return arc. Blue eyes filled with despair looked up into amber.
Dropping to one knee, she placed a hand behind Xena's neck in an effort to support her. Her entire body shaking with the effort it took, Xena put a restraining hand on her friend's forearm. At Eponin's questioning look, she grimly shook her head.
"Too . . . late . . . " blood poured out of Xena's mouth along with the words "Gabrielle . . . "
A cold shudder ran down Eponin's spine. If Xena was here - if Xena was broken and dying - then, what of Gabrielle? Already knowing the answer, Eponin forced herself to as gently as possible lower her friend to the floor and rose on numb legs.
In slow motion, the morning's events played out again before her eyes. This time, she could visibly read every letter on the faded sign as she rode out of the ghost town. Potadeia.
She found her. Just as she knew she must. Not that very far from where her warrior princess and champion had spilled her life blood in an effort to protect her bard and soulmate. She had gone down fighting, her staff encrusted in blood. Blonde hair was stained crimson from a gash to the head. Once verdant green eyes stared blankly at the roof of the barn. Her body was a myriad of slashes and stab wounds left by countless swords.
Eponin fell to her knees beside the lifeless body of her queen.
"Nooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!" Eyes closed, head tilted back, she screamed her heartache to the very Gods on Mount Olympus.
Eponin's body reacted violently, springing upright before she was even fully awake. She saw sunlight coming in through the cracks of the aged wooden walls, a pile of hay with a pitchfork protruding from the mound, the scattered straw bits upon the earthen floor. A surge of panic overtook her as she recognized the interior of a barn. Eyes frantically darted about; she released a sigh of relief when she didn't see any blood - or bodies.
Just a dream. Just a dream. Just a dream. Only, it hadn't been. Not exactly. She'd already ridden through a ghost town just like the one in her dream. Thankfully, though, it hadn't been Potadeia, the birthplace of her queen. Just as the barn and the slaughtered family she'd come upon hadn't been Gabrielle's parents, either. Still, they had been someone's parents, someone's sister that she had found, all of them butchered like animals.
It wasn't here, Eponin reminded herself. Heart beating rapidly, chest heaving, sweating profusely, she forced herself to sit down upon the floor. Curling one leg beneath her, she rested her forehead on her knee and willed herself to calm her breathing.
"Well, if you weren't craving eggs this morning, you could have just said so."
Her head snapped up in response. Blinking rapidly, shaking her head to clear the cobwebs, Eponin's gaze finally zeroed in on where the voice had come from. A woman was standing just inside the open door of the barn, her pale blonde hair framed by the rising sun, creating a golden halo about her head and shoulders.
A woolen shawl was draped about her shoulders, her thick blouse tucked into a long wool skirt that hung to the floor. At her feet was a metal plate that had fallen from her grasp, the eggs and oatmeal laying in a congealed mess upon the scattered straw and dirt. Embedded in the wooden frame of the barn door, the reason for her sudden bout of clumsiness; the knife that Eponin had thrown in her sleep, the handle still reverberating from the force of the impact.
"Um - " There was a slight flinch and an apologetic lifting of brows " - sorry?"
Marjorie could tell something was wrong. Never mind the thrown knife that had landed a hair's breadth from her ear. But also, those two words that had been strung together. The voice that had delivered them had been unsure, shaky.
Matching, at this very moment, their owner's bearing. When she'd first opened the door and slipped inside the barn, she'd had just a split heartbeat to realize that her guest was still sleeping. She was clearly in the throes of a nightmare, mumbling incoherently, tossing and turning, kicking the sleeping fur from her body.
She'd reacted purely out of matronly habit, the way she would whenever one of her boys would have a bad dream back when they were little. Thinking on it now, she realized she had every intention of going to the sleeping young woman and wrapping her arms about her and driving the monsters away with soft touches and whispered words.
Until she'd taken a solitary step and found the business end of a knife hurtling in her direction. Clearly, this woman named Eponin was more than capable of scaring away her own nightmares.
Then, she'd sat up, looking about wild-eyed, clearly not having shaken the sleep loose from her mind and having no idea where she was. As she'd realized what she'd done, she'd looked suitably horrified, then remorseful, then guilty all in the same instant.
Now, she was up and on her feet, hastily gathering her things up. Well, as hastily as she can, Marjorie supposed. In the days that Eponin had been living in the barn, this was the first time she'd actually been able to get up on her own, let alone stand for any period of time. Looking at her now, it was hard to believe just how close to death she had really been.
Unless someone knew exactly what they were looking for.
It was nearly imperceptible. And, to someone else, someone who hadn't seen her condition when she'd rode in -- and someone who wasn't an experienced mother to boot, it might have escaped their notice completely. But, Marjorie had raised three sons, and as such, was an expert at detecting all their sneaky, little tricks.
Like not admitting, even to her, when they were sick - or hurting.
Eponin had clearly been brought up with the same stubborn mentality that her husband had instilled in their boys; never let anyone see your weaknesses. Marjorie supposed out there in the known world with all its evils, there was some wisdom in that way of thinking. But, when dealing with it at home and having to pull the truth out of her boys with a pair of pliers, she thought it was nothing short of idiotic.
Yet, the experience had also given her the insight necessary to see what Eponin was so carefully trying to keep hidden. Despite the chill in the early morning air, there was a clammy sweat covering the woman's body. No surprise there; Marjorie had already guessed from the slightly unfocused gaze that Eponin was sporting a low-grade fever. As she bent to pick up her fur from the ground, sharp white teeth bit down on her bottom lip. Could be a pulled muscle, the matronly woman guessed. And, as she turned to walk the short distance to where her horse was stalled, acute eyes caught the slight limp. When I first saw her, she was wearing some sort of brace around her knee. It had been designed to look like just another piece of armor. But, on someone who conspicuously was wearing no other armor, it stood out like a sore thumb. And then, there was the almost nearly habitual tugging at her ear. Might be an earache; maybe water on the ear, Marjorie reflected, noticing Eponin take one out-of-place step, almost as if she were off-balance.
Eponin swore softly as she lifted and tossed the saddle she'd paid twelve gold dinars for onto the horse's back and cinched the fastenings tight. It was an old saddle that Marjorie had left rotting in the barn. The leather and fastenings were worn and frayed, but twelve dinars wasn't so steep a price to pay for a used saddle. As the young woman led her horse out of the stall, Marjorie boldly reached out, taking hold of the reins. As the horse obediently stopped, light-hued eyes hesitantly met her own.
"And, just where do you think you're off to after spilling the breakfast I cooked up for you?"
"I - uh - " Eponin's gaze drifted to her feet. "I'm sorry about the mess." She reached for a pouch tied at her waist and withdrew some coins. Placing three dinars firmly into the farmwoman's palm, she said, "I hope that's enough to cover everything."
"It's not." Marjorie thought she caught a brief flash of shock in those eyes. "Three days ago, when that horse of yours ambled onto my property, you never asked the price of room and board."
Eponin's eyes narrowed. In truth, she'd been in no condition to negotiate. But, she'd taken one look at the matronly woman and thought she was honest and trustworthy; that she would charge a fair price. When are you going to get it through your thick head that you can't trust anyone? Obviously, she'd been wrong. And, she wondered how much it would cost her this time.
Ep steeled her warrior's mask into place, lest this . . . this farmwoman . . . recognize exactly how she'd bested an Amazon. Never taking her eyes from the other woman, her hand reached for the coin pouch again.
The farmwoman was waiting for Eponin to say something - anything. She knew it wasn't much of a gesture on her part, but still . . . she'd thought there would have been some sort of reaction. Then again, in the three days since the warrior had been there, she hadn't really been much one for words. Marjorie had carried nearly all of their conversations, discovering early on she'd only receive a longer response if she asked questions that required more than a yes or no - or grunt - answer.
Marjorie remembered she was rolling out the dough for some bread when she'd first heard the sounds of a rider approaching. Thinking it must be her husband or one of the boys back early from the fields, worried that something was wrong, she'd rushed out the kitchen door and onto the porch, wiping her hands on her apron as she went. What she'd discovered, instead, was a barely conscious Amazon slumped over, her entire upper body braced against the horse's shoulders and neck. She'd been too incoherent to speak, too exhausted to stay on her horse and too weak to stand on her own.
In the end, Marjorie had wrapped one arm about the woman's waist, latching her fingers about a leather belt. Draping one of the Amazon's arms over her shoulder, she half-dragged her into the barn. Half her rationale was that she would never be able to get the much heavier woman up the porch steps on her own. The other was what her husband's reaction would be if he returned home to find an Amazon in the house.
The farmwoman caught sight of Eponin working at the drawstring of the pouch. Placing her hand upon Eponin's, she stilled the fingers beneath hers. "I never gave you a price." Marjorie boldly locked gazes with the other woman. "I won't accept your payment now."
This time, the surprise shone clearly in Eponin's eyes. And, it briefly crossed Marjorie's mind to wonder what sort of treatment this young woman had experienced in her life to make her so shocked by a stranger's kindness.
"Thank you," Eponin finally spoke, remembering her manners. "Well, I'd better- " she gestured towards the door, stepped around Marjorie.
The farmwoman reached out, once again catching the horse by the reins, effectively halting Eponin, too.
"Marjorie - " Eponin's gaze drifted towards the open barn door, " - I have to get back on the road."
"Three days you've been here. Another half candlemark won't make much of a difference, will it?"
"It could be the difference between life and death."
"You won't be of use to anyone if you're so weak from hunger you fall off your horse. One thing my mother always said; never turn down a meal if you don't know where your next one is coming from." Marjorie knew she was near victory when she saw the Amazon bite her bottom lip in contemplation. "I've changed my mind. I am going to charge you. Breakfast with me is the cost of your lodging."
A hint of a smile ghosted the Amazon's lips. She dropped the reins. Nodding her head in acceptance, she followed Marjorie from the barn and towards the main house.
"You can relax, you know," Marjorie said, "There's no one else home."
Light-hued eyes quickly turned from surveying the main room. Marjorie's back was to her; the farmwoman's attention still focused on the eggs heating on the wood-burning stove. And, although Eponin had been up and down several times from the kitchen chair, pacing back and forth, peering alternately out the screen door at the yard and then through the opposite doorway into the interior of the house, she was positive that the soft tread of her boots had made no sound. Just as she was also certain that Marjorie had never once turned around to check on her. Begrudgingly, Eponin had to admit that there was more to the farmwoman than she had given her credit for.
"Besides, even if someone was, they'd have nothing to say about it." Marjorie crossed to the window sill, using a knife to cut some wild onion growing in a flower box there. Cutting the stalks into fine pieces, she added the shallots to the scrambled eggs. "The kitchen - " she waved her knife in Eponin's general direction " - and everything in it - belongs to me."
"So, what you're saying is," Eponin couldn't keep the smirk off her lips, "as long as I don't step foot outside the kitchen, I'm under your protection."
"I'm sure it may seem humorous to a free Amazon like yourself, but I'm very proud to be able to call my kitchen my own. See, things you have - your own horse, money to spend, owning property; these are things that us regular women out here, living in a man's world, don't take for granted. Because we aren't allowed to have anything of our own. So, you'll permit me a little bit of silly pride in having a husband that allows me to have something I can call my own." Marjorie turned to the physically intimidating woman standing in the middle of her kitchen. "Now, sit down and eat your breakfast."
Suitably chastened, Eponin wordlessly returned to her chair. Her thoughts were as scrambled as the eggs Marjorie was cooking. She thought of all that she had when she was in the village; her position, her home, her belongings, her friends. Things that, like a woman who'd only met her three days ago had correctly surmised, she took for granted. Her gut twisted as she imagined Cordele's sadistically grinning image before her, Cordele's hot breath on her face, Cordele's heated words in her ear as she said Everything you had, I've taken from you.
Once again, Eponin felt the urge to run for her horse. She didn't know how much distance Cordele and her outlaws had on her. Didn't know if she could catch them before they reached Potadeia. In truth, she wasn't even a hundred percent certain that was where they were heading.
But, given the fact that Cordele had said your pathetic Queen and her family will soon join you in death - the first image that threat brought to her panicked mind was of Ephiny. Many of the Amazons considered Ephiny the true Queen as Gabrielle was only intermittently in residence. Not to mention many still consider her an outsider because of the whole not-born-a-true-Amazon rhetoric that Velasca was always spouting. But, then her rationale side had prevailed, reminding her that Cordele and her posse might be crazy, but they weren't stupid. No way would they risk an attack on the heart of the Nation. It would take nothing short of a small army to breach the village's defenses to get to Ephiny. Besides, she specifically referenced family.
Gabrielle must be the target. And, given that Gabrielle had her own personal army in the form of Xena traveling with her at all times, traveling being the operative word - Gods only knows where those two might be at any given time - the easiest targets to start with would be Gabrielle's family.
Of course, it was all guess-work on Eponin's part. Let's face it; the only thing you know for certain is that they gained a three-day advantage while you were too weak to stand on your own two feet. Even now, Eponin felt off-balance, the incessant buzzing sound in her ear keeping her off-kilter.
Again, Eponin looked towards the door, her teeth biting so sharply into her bottom lip that she drew blood. But, she resolutely stayed in her chair. I said I would have breakfast with Marjorie. Even if everything else has been taken from me, I still have my word.
Silently, she watched as the farmwoman removed the eggs from the fire. With quiet efficiency, she placed a piece of hardened bread to act as trenchers on each of their plates. Then, she spooned out the scrambled eggs onto the bread. She placed both plates on the table, purposely giving the largest portion to the dark-haired woman that watched her with wary eyes. Sitting down across from Eponin, she picked up her bread and took a big bite.
After her third bite, she gestured for Eponin to follow suit. Obediently, the Amazon did as instructed. It was another three bites before the warrior cleared her throat. Still chewing, the woman looked up at her expectantly.
"Um - " Ep nervously drank a bit of goat's milk, stalling for time as she thought about just how to ask, "How is it that you seem to know so much about Amazons?"
"People talk. I hear things."
Eponin nodded. She'd thought living outside town, on a farm in the middle of nowhere, that Marjorie led a pretty solitary existence. Guess I shouldn't be so biased in my assumption of someone else's lifestyle. Having asked and gotten her answer, she wordlessly went back to eating.
"Mostly rumors and speculation, a lot of it." Seeing the eyebrow furrow at that, Marjorie couldn't help adding, "But also firsthand knowledge. Eponin, you're hardly my first Amazon."
Laden with excess moisture, heavy storm clouds hung low, blotting out the sun and casting the morning in a dismal, gloomy grey. Rain mixed with hail fell in horizontal sheets, pummeling the boulder-littered foothills that lay in the looming shadows of the Stygian mountains. Sequestered beneath an earth and moss covered outcropping, a troupe of miserable Amazons and their mounts sought shelter from the elements.
They had encountered many such naturally formed ledges running the length of what could be termed almost mini-mountains. Ranging anywhere in size from ten to thirty feet high, the 'mountains' were passable, if inconvenient. And, many of them weren't so wide that they couldn't simply be navigated around instead of over.
The storm clouds had been continuously rolling in the day prior. The scouts leading the expedition had quickened the pace, wisely trying to gain as much ground as possible. Many had been hoping to find a conveniently located cave before the weather turned too foul. As dusk gathered and the first drops began to fall, the Amazons realized they'd have to give up their fantasies of a nice, warm cave and settle for the meager cover the outcroppings could provide.
Determined to find the best shelter possible for her regent, Solari had pushed past several ledges that were wide enough, but at three and four feet, certainly not tall enough for comfort.
Thank Artemis she found one that was a bit higher off the ground. Devillare winced as she raised her arms above her head n a stretch, banging her elbows on the 'ceiling' of their shelter and knocking loose some bits of dirt and rock in the process.
"Hey! Watch it, warrior." Tynette was in a squat position in front of a smoldering fire. She held one hand over the top of her mug as she openly glared daggers at the warrior towering over her. "You nearly dropped that crap in my tea."
Steel grey eyes turned on the other elder, then dismissively looked away. For a heartbeat, it looked like Tynette was going to climb to her feet and actually confront the warrior. Lyonene stepped up, placing a restraining hand on Tynette's shoulder, forcing the elder hunter to remain seated.
Tynette's glare shifted until she and Lyonene were firmly locked in a staring contest.
"I've tasted your tea, Tynette. A little dirt might actually help it," Lyonene said.
"Didn't stop you from having three mugs."
"Woman dying of thirst in the desert's been known to drink her own piss, too. Doesn't mean it tastes good."
Devillare's gaze shifted back to the squabbling elders. An unexpected cough rattled her chest. "There any left?" she asked.
"Try the warriors' campsite." Tynette pointedly took a long draw from her own mug. "Or the scouts'."
"Tynette," scolded Lyonene, retrieving a mug and underhand tossing it to Devillare.
Lyonene reached for the pot dangling from a forked stick above the smoldering fire. Tilting it at an angle, she signaled for Devillare to hold her mug out. A slow steady stream of light brown liquid started out, then immediately sputtered to a halt.
Tynette fairly cackled.
"Sorry," Lyonene gave an apologetic look, "I could brew another pot?"
Devillare waved off the offer with a shake of her head. Her gaze swept over the area. Egeria and a crop of warriors were breaking down their bedrolls and packing their gear away. Their fire had already been smothered, only an occasional wisp of smoke giving any indication they'd ever had one.
A few yards distant, she spotted the scouts' campsite. They, too, were in the process of breaking down their camp. At first, she thought perhaps their fire had been extinguished, as well. But, then she saw the number of women, including the healer's assistant, hunkered about a ring of stones and recalled the excellent reputation of the scouts. True, they were heralded as the trackers of the Nation. But, they'd developed and mastered other skills, too. Like building a smokeless fire. Mug in hand, Devillare set off in the direction of the scouts' campsite.
"What in Tartarus is wrong with you?" Lyonene asked, slapping Tynette's upper arm the instant Devillare's back was turned. "Are you intentionally trying to ruffle her feathers?"
"What?!? Maybe the rest of you are treading on hen-eggs because you're afraid of offending her, but I, for one, refuse to kowtow to the warrior caste."
"Since when?" snorted Lyonene. "They've always held the favor of the queens and you know it."
"Yeah. In the village. And, on the battlefield. But, we aren't in the village now, are we?" Tynette made a point of looking around, as if to emphasize they also weren't on a battlefield. "Out here, in the wilderness, those warriors rely on us. Without the scouts to guide them, they couldn't find their tailfeathers with both hands. And, without the hunters to gather fresh game, they'd starve on nuts and berries. No, Lyonene, out here - " Tynette's hand made a sweeping motion " - out here, the warriors put their leathers on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. Out here - " she waggled a finger between herself and Lyonene, " - we rule."
"Hah. I think those saddle-sores on your ass have addled your brain." Lyonene snorted. "Are you forgetting that our ruler is here? And, that she's a warrior?"
"I haven't forgotten." Tynette's gaze zeroed in on the distant profile of their regent-queen sitting upon a large boulder, her back to them, at the very edge of their shelter. "Just as I haven't forgotten that it's another warrior she's gotten to lead a band of warriors that's gone after yet another warrior."
Lyonene's gaze narrowed at what her fellow hunter was intimating. "Devil's a woman of honor. Ephiny made the right decision."
"It's a conflict of interest, our regent reinstating Devillare as the captain of the guard."
"With Pelagia unable to, Ephiny needed someone capable of leading this excursion."
"Pelagia has a second-in-command - "
" - That milksop Lexine? She lacks the experience." Lyonene smirked. "Can you seriously see that toothpick going up against Eponin?"
"Can you see Devillare?"
"Devil will do what's right, Tynette. She always has in the past, no matter what the personal cost."
"Still, wish I'd brought Nicphellia along instead of you," groused Tynette. "They're friends. Stubborn warrior might actually listen to her."
Lyonene frowned at Tynette's thinking she'd brought her alone. Last time she'd checked, she was far too old to have anyone 'bring' her anywhere she didn't want to go. Arguing about it would be splitting hairs, though.
"Used to be friends," Lyonene reminded her fellow hunter. "I don't think they've been close in seasons. Least not since Phaedriana passed."
Tynette shrugged. "Still, an old leash is better than no leash."
"Don't worry, Devillare will bring Eponin in."
"And, this time," Tynette spoke into her mug of tepid tea, "I'll be there to see that justice is done."
"What do you mean?" Eponin asked warily, her next bite of eggs poised halfway to her mouth.
"Hmm?" Marjorie caught the look of apprehension and wondered, not for the first time, what ghosts were haunting this Amazon. Not that I expect an answer, but you'll never know if you don't ask - "What's that, Eponin?"
"You said I'm not your first Amazon. What does that mean?"
"Exactly what I said. You aren't the first Amazon that's wandered onto my property, nor into my kitchen."
Eponin's worried gaze flicked to the doorway and the yard that lay beyond. "Recently?"
"By the gods, that's some good stuff."
Metanira suppressed her snicker at the visible shudder that wracked the elder warrior's body and the nearly throaty sigh she made as she took another long draw from her mug. Having grown up in her mother's kitchen, she'd witnessed much the same reaction from many a bleary-eyed warrior when they stumbled in for their first cup. To the eyes of a toddler, they were big and scary, like wild mountain cats that would just as soon growl and snarl and threaten to eat little girls for breakfast. But then, after just one mug of her mother's brew, they turned into big, purring playful cats.
Well, maybe not all of them are so playful, Metanira amended, realizing that even to an Amazon considered fully grown by her tribe, some of the warriors were still really big and scary. Like this one.
Admeta nudged her girlfriend with her elbow. Devillare was one of Metanira's heroes. When they were kids, they used to play sword and staff games with their friends. Met always called Devillare, even while many of the other girls were fighting over being the Queen. When Admeta asked Met about that one day; why she didn't want to be in charge - Metanira had shyly replied that she wanted to be the hero. Now, her great hero was standing here in front of her and she was going to blow it.
Admeta nudged her again. When Metanira made no move to speak, Admeta did it for her. "Met's mom's recipe." She indicated the Amazon standing beside her, turning three different shades of red. "Best in the village."
Devil took another draw, swished it around in her mouth. "She should give her recipe to the cooks."
Admeta giggled. "Metanira's mom is the head cook."
Turning her head to look askance at the girl that was trying her best to hide behind the other one, Devillare frowned, then asked, "You're Mytilda's little girl?"
"Y - yes," stammered out Metanira.
"I remember when you were about this high," Devillare indicated a height no taller than her knees. "Every day at the midday meal you would crawl beneath the dining hut tables and signal for us to be quiet so your mother couldn't find you and put you down for your nap."
From across the fire, Nyxona snickered. "You just made yourself sound a hundred seasons old, warrior."
"We're not little girls." Hands on her hips, Admeta defended herself right alongside her first love. "We're both fully feathered."
"And, you - " Admeta's outburst redirected Devillare's attention " - you were her little tagalong." Devil looked back at Metanira. "All those times your mother caught you...you never guessed how she figured out your hiding places, did you?"
"I - uh - I guess I just figured moms always knew where their kids were." Met was still stumbling over her words, still in awe that one of her legendary idols was actually speaking with her. "Or, that Queen Melosa told."
"Someone told, alright. But, it wasn't Melosa." Devillare shook her head, jerked her thumb at Admeta. "Someone really should have told this one that was crawling behind you to keep her butt down. You'd be hunkered down under the table, out of sight, your little tagalong right behind you. But, her tailfeathers would be sticking out from beneath the table. All your mother had to do was look for Admeta's rear end and she'd find you."
Both girls looked mortified. To think that this - this legend had actually taken the time to speak with them. More than that; she remembered them. But, did she have to embarrass them by telling baby stories about them in front of the other scouts?
As if reading her mind, Devillare looked speculatively at Metanira. "You used to sit on a stool and roll out the batter for your mother's dumplings." Her eyes roamed over Metanira's outfit. "You grew up to be a scout?"
"I - uh - " Metanira's head was lowered, her eyes staring fixedly at the ground as the toe of her boot traced circles in the dirt. "I-can't-cook," was mumbled out all in one breath. Then, finding her voice, she proudly looked up as she said, "But, I didn't break tradition. My second mother was a scout. So, I had the choice."
I thought Bonadea was her other mother, Devillare's gaze darted across the campsite to where the member of the royal guard was speaking with Egeria.
Feeling out of sorts, knowing she couldn't continue along this course of conversation, she said, "Mm. I remember you were one of the scouts that rescued the regent." There a slight pause, then, "Guess it's a good thing you had options, then," Devillare nodded once, took a pointed sip of her tea before offering up a tight smile, "Seeing as how you can't cook and all."
Metanira blushed and shyly downed her head. Ever since she'd returned with the party that had rescued the regent, she'd found that she was a celebrity of sorts. It was something she still hadn't gotten used to. And being so young and inexperienced at handling all the attention she was receiving, she felt like she was constantly flustered and forever blushing.
Overhearing Devillare's remark and spotting Metanira's reaction, several scouts chuckled softly.
Devillare turned to stare at the fire, eyes losing focus as she searched her memory. She recalled days gone by when she used to come in off shift rotation, well past regular serving hours in the dining hut. That was when Eponin was living in the warriors' barracks and wasn't at home waiting anymore with my meal and a hot bath.
Most nights, she'd duck into the back kitchen where Mytilda and her staff were cleaning up the remnants of the day's meals. Mytilda would chastise her for once again being late - but there was always an extra plate staying warm beside the kitchen fires for her. She'd sit on an out-of-the-way stool and quietly eat her meal while the kitchen staff cleaned up and prepared for the next morning -- and Mytilda's kids ran around the hut like a bunch of wild Amazons.
There were two of them, then. Three, if you count Metanira's little tagalong, Devillare's mind replayed the events of the past. Metanira was the oldest, but not so old that she'd outgrown the cute-stage, yet. Admeta was slightly younger, slightly shorter than the girl she was chasing after, trying her best to tag. The third girl still had the fat, chubby legs and waddle of a toddler and didn't stand a snowball's chance in Tartarus of keeping up with the other two. Not that it kept her from trying, much to the amusement of her parents.
Devillare's brow furrowed as she vividly recalled seeing Mytilda laughing at her youngest daughter's antics. And, the arms of her mate wrapped about her waist from behind, her chin resting on Mytilda's shoulder as she watched their daughter waddle, then fall, then pick herself back up again and then begin the whole waddling-falling process all over again.
Seeing the broad grin on Bonadea's lips, watching as she turned her head and nibbled at Mytilda's earlobe, remembering the smoldering look in her eyes . . . it suddenly came back to Devil that at that point, Bonadea and Mytilda were recently joined shortly before the birth and were, in fact, still relatively new mates and parents.
Finally, Devillare's memory clicked back into place and she remembered. They lost their next baby during childbirth. It would be many more seasons before they would realize their dream of a second child. And, a third after that. Looking at the young scout she'd been teasing earlier, Devil finally recalled, Mytilda's first mate was a scout killed by a fall from a tree. She was Metanira's second mother. Mytilda's other three children were fostered by Bonadea.
The former - and newly reinstated - captain of the guard looked at Metanira again. Initially, she saw the little girl of long ago, first as a baby held in the warm embrace of a new mother and her proud bondmate. Then as a young girl, too young to understand, racing around the ceremonial fire at her mother's funeral. Then, still running, playing and laughing, in the dining hut. Then, Devil took the time to really look at her. And, she finally saw Metanira as a scout, experienced and on an important mission outside the Nation.
Gods, Devil morosely shook her head, when did I get so . . . old?
"More ages ago than I can count now," Marjorie admitted, the sound of wistfulness ringing clear in her voice.
Eponin released a long breath. When Marjorie had told her she'd had other Amazons in her home, she'd been deathly afraid that she'd encountered Cordele and the band of Amazon outlaws.
If that had been the case, though, I doubt if Marjorie or her kin would still be alive.
Every fiber of her being was urging the Amazon towards the door and her horse waiting outside. Her Queen, her Queen's family, was in very real danger. And, the longer she delayed -
"Humor an aging woman, Eponin," Marjorie said, seeing the edgy tightening of muscles and the repetitive looks towards the door. "This is a story that's needed telling for a long time. And, one I've never had an audience for before. I promise, it's one that won't delay you long."
Lexine groaned as she stretched, feeling the popping of abused joints. She'd been standing guard for so long now, she thought she'd become a frozen statue. Standing a distance of no less than ten paces from the opening of the shelter and despite wearing her heaviest set of winter leathers, Lexine felt the chill all the way down to her bones.
Surreptitiously, she took two steps back, deeper into the sheltering recesses of the rock ledge. She stopped, waiting to see if she'd been noticed. When neither of the women looked in her direction, she took another step backwards. Then, another.
A full dozen backward steps had occurred with still no reaction. Then, before she even fully realized she was doing it, Lexine had completely turned her back and boldly walked right up to the scouts' campfire.
Lexine crouched down, instantly feeling the warmth of the fire on her face. The scouts had dug a shallow bowl-shaped hole in the ground and surrounded it on all sides by stones. Then, they'd built the fire low so as to both protect it from the elements and to shelter it from prying eyes. Their fire was now essentially nothing more than hot embers and warm coals.
But, to Lexine it felt as warm as a fully raging bonfire. She spotted the pot they used to warm tea in carefully nestled amongst the coals, along with several small bundles wrapped in bay leaves. Reaching out, she grabbed for one of the bundles, hissing slightly and blowing at her fingers as the heat singed them.
Unwrapping the bay leaf packaging, a chunk of bread rolled out into the palm of her hand. She was just about to take a bite when she felt a hand close about her wrist and squeeze. With a sharp yelp, she dropped the bread back into the fire pit. Annoyance clearly etched on her face, she sharply looked up -
And into the eyes of the captain of the guard. The very pissed off captain of the guard.
"Isn't there a royal you're supposed to be guarding?"
"She was important, I could tell that right off." Marjorie rose from her chair, crossed the kitchen to a wood-carved cabinet. She returned with a bottle and uncorked it, taking a healthy swig, as if she needed something more substantial than breakfast food and goat's milk if she was going to tell this story. "Even though they both tried to hide it."
Marjorie was young. A blossoming young woman with long blonde locks that fell nearly to her waist and eyes as blue as the sky. Her beauty was considered more than just passing. So much so that her father was entertaining no fewer than four offers for her hand. Father said he loved her and promised she could choose. But, she knew time was running out and a decision would need to be made soon.
But, that was in the future. This was today. And today, she needed to gather the eggs and the milk for the morning meal. Humming a wordless tune, hefting the basket she was to carry the eggs back in, she swung the barn door open.
And froze when she saw two strangers hunkered down in the straw. One was sitting with her back braced against a bale of hay. Her long black hair was plastered down with sweat and perspiration coated her entire upper body. Her entire - naked - upper body. Her head kept bobbing back on her shoulders and her eyes were half-lidded. One of her shoulders, her breast, her side was covered in blood. A sword lay in the hay near her thigh, her fingers resting on the handle, but not gripping it.
The woman down on one knee in front of her was smeared in blood. And, so was the knife she was holding. The very big knife. The merry tune abruptly died on Marjorie's lips as she gasped. Sharp eyes turned to pin Marjorie with a steely look.
Before the scream could leave her lips, the woman was across the barn, a large hand clamped down over Marjorie's mouth. She was harshly tugged inside, the door abruptly closed behind her. She felt the woman shift until she was behind her, the sharp edge of the knife blade pressed against her throat.
"We don't mean any harm," a voice hissed at her ear. She was prodded along, thighs pressing at the backs of her legs, knees bumping against her, pushing her until she was across the barn, standing before the woman propped against the hay bale. "I'm going to take my hand away from your mouth now," the voice at her ear said, "But know this; if you scream, I will cut your tongue out. Do you understand?"
Marjorie tried to reply, but no words would come out. She felt the knife bite deeper, the voice sound even harsher as it asked again, "Do you understand?"
"Stop it." Dark eyes, darker than any she had ever seen stared into hers. But, somehow, also the kindest, offering reassurance despite the circumstances. "You'll scare her."
"Better scared than dead," came the gruff reply.
There was an agitated look shot at the other woman. "She won't harm us." Then, turning her attention back to Marjorie, the wounded woman smiled as she asked, "And, you won't scream, will you?"
This time, Marjorie found the presence of mind to shake her head no, even as she realized screaming would do her little good, anyway. It was only her and her father. And, he was in the house, sick in bed, delirious with the fever. Even if he had heard her and recognized she was in trouble, he lacked the strength to stand, let alone come rushing to her rescue.
"Good." She looked back to the woman with the knife. "Release her."
The blade - and the woman that had been holding it to her throat - were both removed so rapidly that Marjorie's knees buckled. And, suddenly having no one to support her, she fell forward, landing awkwardly on top of the injured woman.
"Not that I don't appreciate the offer," laughed the dark-haired woman, "but right now, I'm hardly up to a roll in the hay."
"You're bleeding heavily." The scary woman knelt back down beside her companion. Without so much as a 'May I?', she used her knife to deftly cut away several yards of the hem of Marjorie's dress. Tossing the knife so it was embedded blade down in the ground, she began securing the cloth in place as makeshift bandages. The entire time she worked, she continued to scold her charge. "We may have been followed. We're at least five days hard ride from the - " The sharp look between them didn't go unnoticed by Marjorie " - from home. Do you think you could wait until after I've stopped the bleeding to bed her?"
There was an exaggerated eye roll. "Give it a rest already, Devil. I was only flirting." Followed by a leer. "Besides, you saw the way she threw herself at me."
"Devil. That's what she called her. And, as scared as I was of her, that seemed like a fairly apt description to me." Marjorie took another healthy swig from the flask, a shudder rushing through her body as she swallowed. "What I didn't know at the time, was she was the least dangerous of the two."
Devillare's nickname had instantly caught Eponin's attention. Devil - that was a moniker given the captain of the guard in her youth; and a name generally only used by the Amazons of her generation. It was something that even Eponin herself had only recently indulged in. And, even then, she uttered it with a certain degree of trepidation, unsure of the response she'd receive at its usage. So, just who was Devil in the barn with? Without consciously realizing she was doing it, Eponin sat up a little straighter in her chair and leaned forward, suddenly eager to hear more.
Now that a knife wasn't being held to her throat and she wasn't about to pee herself, Marjorie took the time to really look at the strangers in her barn. They were women; seeing the bare upper body of the injured one had very soundly driven that fact home. But, they were unlike any women Marjorie had ever seen.
For one thing, they were wearing short skirts. And even shorter tops. Well, one of them was, anyway. Marjorie's mind - and eyes - kept going back to the woman's breasts. Women in her town didn't just go around with their tops off, displaying their...goods...for all to see. Never mind that it was just the three of them in the barn. She'd never met them before. They were strangers. And even if they had been friends, she still wouldn't go around showing her bare breasts all willy-nilly, as if it was the most natural thing in the known world. It just wasn't proper.
Neither was the very long sword sheathed at her companion's back. And, their hair styles. Oh, the one nearer her own age may have been passable by townsfolk standards. But, the one called Devil, her hair was longer in the back, but short on the top and sides, so short it stood up in little spikes. And, weapons - Marjorie's jumbled, incoherent thoughts immediately jumped back to the fact that these were women toting weapons. Not just pitchforks, either. But, real honest-to-gods swords.
For the life of her, Marjorie couldn't fathom how a woman, let alone two of them, had been permitted to carry swords. Not just carry them, but from the looks of all the blood, allowed to learn how to wield them. She'd heard no tales of female bandits. And, there was no such thing as women soldiers; she was sure of it.
Yet, the smaller of the two appeared to be in charge. It hadn't completely escaped Marjorie's notice that the one called Devil seemed to defer to her. And, there was something about the way her companion almost commanded attention, despite being grievously injured.
It occurred to her that the woman might be royalty. But if that was the case, surely she would have an armed escort to protect her virtue. Her eyes darted to Devil...it should be a man in her position. Marjorie frowned, wondering if perhaps in some far-away kingdom a disease had wiped out the eligible males, forcing their womenfolk to take up the sword.
And knife. Marjorie's eyes darted to the weapon that was now embedded blade first in the ground. Devil had inched forward as she tended her companion's wounds, the knife no longer in her direct line of sight. Seeing her opportunity, Marjorie made a quick move, dropping her egg basket and darting forward. Grabbing it, she jumped a few steps back out of reach. Holding the knife in front of her, both hands on the hilt, she pointedly waved the blade back and forth between the two women.
"Now, who are you?" demanded Marjorie, trying to sound tough despite the fact she was so scared the knife was visibly trembling in her grasp. "And, what are you doing in my father's barn?"
A look passed between the two women. Marjorie frowned as she realized that although neither one of them made a move for the knife, they also didn't seem to be particularly afraid of her, either. In unison, they said...
"Simple traveling - "
" - Escaped - "
" - merchants - "
" - brothel girls."
They turned strong looks on each other. Marjorie stood by silently as they openly glared at each other. Devil slowly folded her arms across her chest and clenched her jaw. The other one raised both eyebrows in defiance, an amused smirk upon her lips.
Devil released a heavy sigh. "Escaped brothel girls; really, you just had to go with that?"
"Oh, you thought she was going to believe your traveling merchant story?" There was a derisive snort. "As if she couldn't see we don't have so much as a pot to peddle between us?"
"That could've been explained away by the bandits."
"What band - Oh." There was a sheepish smile. Turning to Marjorie, she added, "The bandits that attacked us on the open road, injuring us, forcing us to seek shelter in your father's barn."
There was another massive sigh, the irritated scrubbing of an open palm across a tense face. "You expect her to believe that now? You may have well as said we're Hestian virgins."
"You think that's believable, with the size of the sword you're carrying?" There was a deliberate eye roll. "Brothel girls would have worked; there'd be no need for explanations now if you'd just let me seduce her earlier."
"Well, I guess there's nothing else for it now." In one fluid motion, Devil was on her feet and advancing on Marjorie.
"Stay back. Don't you dare touch me," Marjorie warned, aggressively poking the air with the weapon. "No one's going to touch me."
"Of course not." The woman propped against the hay said in a smooth, silky voice. "At least not without your consent, of course. But, as my - uh, friend pointed out, this isn't really the proper time." While she was speaking, Devil ever-so-calmly-as-you-please just reached out and plucked the knife right out of Marjorie's fingers. With a simple jerk of her head, she signaled for Devil to leave Marjorie and return to her side. As Devil resumed her work with the bandages, the rakish young woman peered over Devil's brawny shoulder at Marjorie, offering up a wink and a grin. "Perhaps after I'm feeling better, though..."
"Although I'm almost embarrassed to admit it, she had me all too quickly." Seeing the look Eponin shot her, Marjorie's cheeks quickly reddened. "Oh goodness, not like that. Not then. Even if she hadn't been seriously wounded, I wouldn't have given up my body that readily." Marjorie looked down at her clasped hands. "My heart, it seems, was another matter."
Lexine stole another look at the chief scout and felt her heart skip a beat.
Then, it dropped into her gut as a loud voice boomed in her ear.
"Is that clear?"
"Yes, Captain." Lexine immediately tore her eyes away, snapped to attention.
"I doubt shirking your duties is something Captain Pelagia would allow you to get away with."
Lexine forced herself to stand still, without blinking, despite the fact that Devillare was standing so closely on top of her that they were nearly touching.
"Then, why would you even think you could get away with it under my command?"
"I didn't, Captain." Beads of sweat were rolling off Lexine's face. She quickly swallowed against the build-up of nervous saliva in her mouth. "I mean, I wasn't shirking my duties."
"Oh, so I was mistaken then? That wasn't you I assigned to guard the regent? And that wasn't you that I just caught sitting by the fire, leaving the regent unprotected?"
"No, Captain. I mean; Yes, Captain. I mean - "
Hades, I don't know what I mean. Lexine silently cursed herself for being so flustered. But, she'd just gone for some warm tea. And, then the elder Captain had caught her and started yelling - and then everyone else around the fire had conveniently disappeared, leaving her all alone with this singularly intimidating Amazon.
"I was going to bring some tea."
"That wasn't tea you were unwrapping."
"No, Captain." Lexine swallowed again. "I was taking the warm bread to Solari. Ever since she got burned, she's pretty much steered clear of hot..." Lexine's voice trailed off as she caught Devillare's stony-faced look and realized she was uncontrollably rambling.
"So, sacrificing the regent's safety is okay as long as you're bringing treats for the chief scout?"
"No, Captain. Of course not, Captain. But, begging your pardon, Captain, but Solari's with her. Solari's always with her."
And, to Lexine's immense irritation, it was true. She'd been so angry at the thought of Solari and Eponin as a couple. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, she purposely directed the weapons master to the regent's secret hideaway, knowing full well Solari would be there, too. She figured they'd have a fight and split up. I never imagined she would attack Hilaeira and - Lexine shook her head in an effort to ward off that thought. She'd only sought to break up Solari and Eponin. She had no culpability in Eponin's crime. Anyway, she'd thought once Eponin was out of the picture, she might be the one to garner Solari's attention. Instead, it seemed as if all her time was now being spent in the regent's company.
"Makes the need for a royal guard pointless," Lexine added as almost an afterthought.
"Unless the chief scout attacks the regent."
Lexine looked as if she'd been slapped. Her eyes flitted to where the gorgeous brunette was leaning with her shoulder and hip braced against the rock wall of their hideout. Her arms were folded over an impressive bust and her legs were casually crossed at the ankles. A soft smile graced full, sensuous lips. A smile that appeared to be directed at the back of the regent seated no more than three feet away. "Solari wouldn't. She's loyal."
"Melosa thought the same of Velasca - for a time."
"Solari's not like that!" Lexine was so angry that she momentarily forgot to be nervous in front of this daunting woman. "You don't know her!"
"Youngster, I've known Solari since before she filled out that halter you're so fond of ogling," Devillare shot back. "I know exactly what she's capable of."
Memories flashed in Devillare's mind. Images of being in the hospice, feverish and weak. Solari in her room, helping her into bed. Then, Solari actually in the bed with her, on top of her, the intimate press of the scout's flesh against her own.
Lost in fragmented memories that were clouded by the delirium of her illness, Devil was completely oblivious to Lexine's repeated clenching and unclenching of her fists at her sides, the flashes of anger in her eyes.
Willing the images away, Devillare refocused on the irresponsible guard member. "You go help Bonadea pack our gear away." Knowing Lexine's gaze would follow hers, she purposely looked across the campsite at her royal charge. "I'll personally see to the regent - and her companion."
Lexine obeyed the order. But, with every other step, she found herself glancing back over her shoulder. For the longest time, the captain merely stood beside the fire, watching the regent and the chief scout. Then, she refilled her mug of tea and grabbed two of the leaf-wrapped bundles from the coals. The handsome elder walked across the campsite, approached Solari, held out one of the wrapped bundles in offering. Solari took it, giving Devillare a soft smile and a touch on the arm in return. Lexine's heart constricted tightly in her chest.
"You fell in - " Eponin stumbled over the word " - love?" When Marjorie began her tale of two intruders in her family's barn, she had no idea the story would take a romantic turn.
"Well, it definitely wasn't love at first sight," Marjorie admitted with a lilting laugh. "Although, that's the way many a bard would have written it, I'm sure. It didn't even grow into that overnight. But, there was definitely an initial attraction there. Even if I didn't want to admit it, at first."
Eponin thought of how for the longest time she wouldn't allow herself to admit her growing attraction to a certain curly-haired girl younger than herself. "What finally changed your mind?" she asked.
They were injured. Both of them. Although, Devil did a much better job of hiding her ailment. But, it soon became painfully obvious, even to Marjorie, that their injuries were serious. Serious enough that neither of them could mount a horse, let alone stay upright on one long enough to ride it.
Marjorie had pieced together through snippets of conversation that their kinfolk (although they only mentioned sisters, never fathers, husbands or brothers) were expecting them home within a quarter moon. And, if they didn't arrive shortly thereafter, a search party would be sent out for them. A fact that deeply troubled both women. They feared that their kinfolk would ride right into a trap set by the men that had attacked them.
Injured as they were, they couldn't ride out - either for help nor to send warning. Apparently, even traveling the open road was out of the question, as they fully expected a full platoon of soldiers to be out searching for them.
They couldn't leave. And, Marjorie wouldn't. Her father was deathly ill. She couldn't risk leaving the farm long enough to even fetch a healer. Besides, she knew that no healer could help her father now. He was too far along for any herbs or medicines. And, they'd made it abundantly clear to her that they wouldn't allow the village healer to tend them, either.
No, they were stuck with her. And, she, with them.
"Gods, exactly who are you people?" Marjorie blurted out upon overhearing that the Athenian army was in pursuit of them.
"Left without much alternative, they finally confided the truth. Although, even their honest answer sounded like a make-believe bard's tale. Before that day, I'd never dreamed that Amazons existed. I imagined them as nothing more than myths that my mother told at night to tuck an unruly child in bed."
"We seem to have that reputation," Eponin said, recalling Gabrielle's reaction upon seeing her very first Amazon.
"Even injured, Devil was strong enough to work, performing chores about the property to earn their keep. She would work from sunup to sundown, leaving me to tend to both my father in the main house and her companion in the barn. As I changed her bandages, cleaned her wounds, fed her meals, she would tell me about her people. The more I learned about them, their home, their ways, the more real they became. And, when she dropped the flirtatious womanizer-bit, the more real she became."
The days passed quickly. The Amazon grew stronger. And, she and Marjorie grew ever closer. So close that Marjorie moved her out of the barn and into the house. Marjorie convinced herself that it was just more convenient that way. On a pallet in the main room, she could tend to her injured Amazon while still being nearby in case her father called out for her.
That was Marjorie's rationale that day as she stood in the kitchen, chopping onions for the stew she was preparing. She worked at the counter, standing where she could clearly see out the window. Devil was in the yard, chopping firewood for the coming winter. Her muscles rippled with each overhead swing of the axe. Sweat poured profusely from her hair, coating her body. But, she looked good. Good enough that Marjorie knew her injuries would soon be healed enough that she could leave if she chose to. The only question now was; how long until she left - and would she take the other Amazon with her?
That thought saddened Marjorie. She'd never thought of her life on the farm as being lonely - until she'd found companionship. She imagined what it would be like, day to day, without the company of these two women.
"Are those for me?"
"What?" Marjorie visibly jumped at the sound of the low voice in her ear, the soft touch upon her cheek.
"Your tears." The calloused pad of the Amazon's fingers upon her cheek sent a shiver straight down Marjorie's spine. "Are you crying over me?"
"Don't be daft. I'm crying over the stench of the onions."
"Oh. I thought you might be upset because you know I'll be going soon."
"Hah. Able to get out of bed on your own for the first time and you think you'll be going so soon?" Marjorie turned sharply, waving the cutting knife beneath the Amazon's nose. "No, I think the only place you'll be going to, Amazon, is back to bed."
A brow arched. Dark eyes turned impossibly darker with desire. "Oh, and are you woman enough to put me there, Marjorie?"
There were hands on her hips. She was backed against the counter. Then, there were lips on hers. And, inexplicably, her arms were circling the Amazon's back.
"We've no time for that nonsense now."
Marjorie jumped nearly a foot off the floor. What was it with these Amazons always sneaking up on people? Wiping at her lips, she nervously looked to Devil. The Amazon was standing just inside the door, the axe clutched firmly in her grasp.
Solari bristled, the hairs on the nape of her neck standing on end.
She'd been leaning against the rock wall, arms casually crossed as she watched Ephiny. Her regent was sitting on a boulder located just scant inches beneath the protective covering of the ledge. Her back was to the campsite, her gaze fixed on the torrential downpour. Thus far, she'd been oblivious to Solari's presence. And, truth be told, Solari was taking full advantage of that.
The regent was breathtakingly resplendent in her battle armor. Crafted of a myriad of thick leather, metal studs and fastenings, and reinforced with fine, lightweight chainmail, it was specifically designed to fit Ephiny's form.
And what a form it is, Solari thought, eyes unabashedly traveling over Ephiny's body, her gaze lingering like a lover's caress. Solari was acutely aware of her nipples thickening in anticipation, her insides tightening in reaction to the visual.
A physical attraction towards her regent was nothing new for the chief scout. Artemis help her, she'd been having fantasies about her packmate ever since...well, ever since she'd first discovered the art of self-pleasuring.
But, not even season after season of fantasy could prepare her for the reality of Ephiny. Ever since that night - Solari audibly swallowed at the memory - ever since that night when she'd finally had Ephiny's halter off, her mouth on those beautiful breasts, her kisses trailing down a flat stomach, her hand - -
Solari felt the tightness of her skin as the fingers of her right hand twitched at the remembered sensations. Unfolding her arms, looking down, she cast a disgruntled look at the bandage wrapped tautly about her injured appendage. The fingers of her left raked through her hair in increasing frustration. Sighing heavily, Solari valiantly tried to block out the images of her and Ephiny in an intimate embrace.
Ain't no joy that way. The chief scout silently cursed the ineffectiveness of her left hand. Gods knew she'd tried. Repeatedly. With less-than-spectacular results. Rolling her head back on her shoulders, closing her eyes, Solari let out another long-suffering sigh.
That's when she became aware of the presence standing way too close. An intense wave of irritation washed over her at the thought that Lexine would dare invade her personal space. Just as quickly, she dismissed the young guard as the culprit. Lexine may be an annoying nuisance, but that's all she was; a nuisance. And, Solari could always detect her presence.
No, this was someone far more dangerous. Someone able to slip past her defenses. Eyes narrowing, she quickly turned to find -
- already standing entirely too close for comfort. So close that Solari's elbow connected with the elder's ribs as she turned around. Not that the captain of the guard so much as flinched in reaction. Solari, however, was forced to reach out a hand to steady herself enough to keep from stumbling further.
Devillare's own hand shot out, closing about the scout's elbow. Devil caught the slight tremor that traveled through the younger woman's frame. The hand that had a claw-like grip on her bicep slowly relaxed, Solari's fingers gliding over Devillare's toned muscles, down her forearm and onto her gauntlet.
"Solari?" Devillare noted the flushed cheeks, the slightly elevated breathing. "Are you okay?"
"Umm . . . " Solari slowly shook her head, her eyebrows furrowing slightly at the unexpected question. "Yeah . . . umm . . . why?"
The captain searched mahogany-hued eyes, mildly concerned at Solari's state of distraction. "You seem a little out of sorts."
Solari's eyes darted to where Ephiny was sitting, her back still to them. "Do I?" she asked, turning her attention back to the waiting elder. Then, "Is that for me?"
Devillare's gaze drifted down to where she held a mug of tea and two leaf-wrapped bundles in her hand. "Uh, yeah," she answered, finding herself momentarily distracted by the younger woman's hand trailing off her gauntlet, her fingers caressing the palm of Devil's hand as she relieved the captain of one of the bundles. "Thought you might like some breakfast."
She silently watched as Solari tried to one-handed untie the twine about one of the leaf-wrappings. She finally resorted to bringing the package up to her mouth and chewing through the twine with her teeth. Tossing the wrapping aside, Solari bit into the hot biscuit, closing her eyes and moaning in delight as the honey-coated treat slid past her lips and tickled her taste buds. Steel grey eyes followed a crumb as it dropped from the corner of the scout's mouth and bounced, landing on the flesh of her ample chest before sliding down and disappearing into her cleavage. Eyes widened as Solari reached down, retrieved the bite, and popped it into her mouth.
A series of coughs wracked the captain's frame. "You still haven't answered my question." At the questioning arch of Solari's eyebrows, she asked, "Are you okay? You seemed to be a little off-balance when I came up."
"Oh." Solari offered up a tumultuous smile. "You caught me off-guard. I'm just trying to figure out how you do that."
"Constantly manage to scare the feathers off me."
The hint of a smile creased Devillare's lips as she found herself unexpectedly enchanted by this young woman. Tiny laugh lines crinkled as eyes danced with mirth. A smile was something the captain of the guard rarely shared, but it was a gift she freely gave this morning.
Solari's eyes swept over the close cut hair greying at the temples, the rugged jawline, the well-muscled body. For an older warrior, she really is quite handsome, Solari thought, her gaze drifting, wandering over the bicep and forearm she'd touched earlier. As her eyes reached the end of Devillare's arm and focused on her large hand and those strong, thick fingers...Solari gulped as she felt a responding twitch between her legs, no doubt the residual effects of her early morning fantasies of Ephiny.
"Big, dumb warriors aren't supposed to be able to sneak up on stealthy scouts." Solari knew she was rambling in her effort to cover. But, no way was she going to admit that she'd been so busy fantasizing about getting beneath Ephiny's leathers that she'd allowed Devillare to get the drop on her. Or, worse yet, that she'd just momentarily inserted the captain into that fantasy. "No one else has ever been able to do that. Except maybe Ep." Oh, damn.
In a heartbeat, the smile was gone, replaced by a stony-faced expression. Previously warm, grey eyes clouded to the color of impenetrable steel. A tiny vein throbbed at the corner of one eye.
"I'm so sorry - " Solari reached out what was meant to be a comforting hand, only to see Devillare stiffen and retreat a step back.
Jaw muscles clenched tightly as a harsh voice abruptly demanded, "You need to back off and let the royal guard perform their duty."
Devil appeared agitated, repeatedly flexing her grip about the handle of the axe she was carrying. But not apparently, as Marjorie had thought, entirely at what she had just walked in on.
"We've got riders coming in. Fast."
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