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
One eyelid fluttered open. A brow furrowed in confusion as in that instant between full sleep and wakefulness, there was momentary disorientation. A lone grey-hued eye moved as she tried to figure out exactly where and when she was.
The shadows on the wall had lengthened, indicating that time had shifted from morning to late afternoon. A definite chill permeated the air, foreshadowing the bitterly cold evening to come. It had been the drop in temperature that had pulled the warrior from the realm of Morpheus.
Not my room. Her weight was on her left shoulder and side. The left side of her face was pressed firmly against a pillowed surface, yet she could clearly see the wall sconce beside the closed door. She'd have to be on her right side to have that particular view in her room.
An increasingly persistent ache in her lower back made itself known. Her right arm stretched back, her hand reaching around to rub at the tight muscles. Ugh. I never sleep like this, Devillare thought.
Her groggy mind dimly remembered she'd been tired, beyond tired when she'd brought Lightning back to the stables. She'd desired nothing more than sleep when she'd been accosted by a queen looking for answers to her questions. The captain had been exhausted when Gabrielle finally released her from duty with the command to rest. After I checked in on the scout.
Reality was like a bucket of cold water splashed in her face. Devillare abruptly jerked back and up. Suddenly wide awake, both eyes rapidly blinked, taking full stock of her situation.
The chief scout was still in deep slumber. She was on her stomach, her left cheek pressed firmly against the pillow that her arm was curled beneath. Waves of chestnut hair partially hid her face and fell over both shoulders.
Somehow, the quilt she'd covered them both with had slipped and now dangled haphazardly from the bed. Grey eyes swept over a strong back and the curve of full hips. Devillare froze as her eyes locked upon Solari's winter skirt. Solari had shifted in her sleep, causing her skirt to ride up higher, exposing more than a hint of the curve of her buttocks.
She's tanned there? - was Devillare's first thought, quickly followed by another as her sharp eyes caught the way the scout's skirt was crumpled up over the swell of her tailfeathers and she recalled awakening with the side of her face pressed up against something soft and warm.
Devillare audibly swallowed.
She'd been exhausted. So exhausted she'd fallen asleep in the chair. So exhausted - she'd been dreaming.
Devillare stood at the doorway, the palm of one hand braced against the wooden frame. In her other hand, she carried her sword and sheath. As was her custom, she'd begun removing her gear as she traveled the distance from the front door of the Queen's hut to their private bedchamber.
Reyvanne was stretched out on her stomach atop the fur covers on their bed. Save for her crown, she was naked. Her arm was braced beneath the pillow her head was cradled upon. Her other arm was tucked in at her side and a leg was drawn up. Devillare's breath hitched as in the play of light and shadow of an early dawn, she was just able to discern the subtle difference between the fur covering the bed and that covering the delicate sex between Reyvanne's parted thighs.
Despite her weariness from a night of duty, Devillare felt a renewed sense of energy as she hastily divested herself of her boots and hung her sword and sheath on the wooden pegs mounted into the wall above their dresser.
On bare feet, she padded across the cool floor. One knee upon the bed, she leaned in, placing a moist kiss at the corner of her mate's mouth.
"Mm." Reyvanne murmured, a soft smile caressing her lips.
Encouraged by her response, Devillare left a trail of moist, lingering kisses everywhere. Around her mouth, along her jaw, following the smooth line of her graceful neck. Calloused hands brushed through thick tresses, pushing them aside so lips and tongue could reach bare shoulders.
Then, those hands were moving, making their way beneath Reyvanne's torso. Rough hands cupped soft breasts, fingers unerringly finding and teasing nipples. Reyvanne squirmed, her delectable backside giving a little writhe of reaction.
Moist, hot breath husked into the shell of the queen's ear, "Reyvanne."
Reyvanne stilled. "Devillare, it's late."
Devil pressed her lips to a rounded shoulder. "Technically, it's early."
Reyvanne's eyes blinked open, confirming for herself that the first rays of sunlight were edging along the floor of their hut. "The princesses - "
"- are spending the next moon at the temple as part of their studies with the priestesses, remember?"
Devillare was determined. She climbed fully on the bed, distributing her weight equally between her knees and Reyvanne's upturned buttocks. She stripped off her top and leaned forward, pressing her breasts against her lover's bare back.
"Devil, please." Despite her words, there was still passion to be heard in Reyvanne's tone. "I'm tired. You're tired."
"I've never come home from a duty shift too tired for the touch of your body beneath mine."
Lust, it seemed, made the warrior equal parts amorous and poetic. She draped her body over Reyvanne's, her insistent mouth placing licks and nips and bites along the length of Reyvanne's flesh.
"Yes, well, I'm afraid I don't have your stamina. I'm tired from mine."
"You didn't seem all that tired at the feast."
They both knew Devillare hadn't attended the feast as she'd been on assigned duty. Meaning, either she'd heard what had occurred there through idle gossip, or she'd seen snippets of the evening's events during shift rotation. Either way, they both knew to what she was referring.
"Attending the harvest feast, presiding over and participating in every aspect of the feast is part of a Queen's duty. It's my responsibility to enthuse my tribe with enough energy to honor Artemis throughout the entire journey of her chariot. My sisters follow my leadership from the first rising until the final setting of the moon. That means I must preside over the festivities for the entire night. To do less would be to shirk my duties."
"Well, your dance with Beroyle was nothing if not energetic. I'm sure it left the entire tribe feeling invigorated."
"Which is why, in part, I'm so exhausted now. It's tradition that the Queen dance with her champion. You know that." Reyvanne turned her head so she could kiss the knuckles of the hand clenched about her shoulder. "Don't be jealous of Beroyle for performing her duties as champion. Don't hate me for performing mine as Queen."
Devillare rested her chin against the swell of Reyvanne's firm buttock and gave a huff of frustration. "I don't hate you," was the sullen admission.
"Good. Because there is no reason to. As champion, Beroyle has certain duties she must attend and as consort, you have duties that must be attended also. As Queen, it is my responsibility to see that you both perform those duties equally." Reyvanne's lips curled up into a smile. She reached a hand back, her fingers working at the waist of Devillare's leathers. "Now, Queen's consort, I would have you attend your duties."
Those words sparked the dwindling flame of Devillare's lust. She abruptly sat up, straddling Reyvanne's hips and buttocks. She hastily stripped off her leathers and breechcloth, throwing them across the room. She sat back on her heels, her center fully pressed against Reyvanne's buttocks, her moisture coating those firm globes. Thick fingers clumsily worked at the knot tied in the blue sash about her waist.
Reyvanne raised herself up on her elbows, turned to look over her shoulder. Her consort's brow was furrowed and she was biting her bottom lip as she valiantly struggled with the stubborn knot in her royal guard's sash.
Devillare stilled as Reyvanne placed one of her smaller hands atop hers. She was breathing heavily, her chest rising and falling as if she'd been running. Her eyes met Reyvanne's with uncertainty.
"Leave it," commanded Reyvanne.
Devillare looked at her in complete incomprehension.
Reyvanne experimentally wriggled her tailfeathers. Devillare nearly groaned as her swollen flesh slid between the cleft in Reyvanne's buttocks. Reyvanne took one end of the sash's ties from Devillare's limp grasp. She brought it to her lips and kissed it, then made a showing of running the blue fabric over the swell of her buttocks and between the cleft in her cheeks. This time, Devillare did groan.
"Leave it," Reyvanne husked out again as she turned around, "and attend your Queen's needs." She lowered her head, grasped her pillow in both hands and firmly ground herself into the bedfurs beneath her hips.
Devillare passionately threw herself into her duty.
Devillare came back to the present with a jolt.
She'd fallen asleep in the chair. And somehow, had managed to not only lose the quilt she'd wrapped up in, but also wound up using Solari's upturned posterior as a pillow. Devil tried her best not to think about the warm place her hands had found in her sleep.
Devillare's gaze zeroed in on the sight of Solari's pushed up skirt. A hand reached out, hesitating before tugging that skirt back down into a somewhat respectable position. There was a noticeable tremble to that same hand as she brought it to her face and pushed her fingers through her hair.
She hastily rose from her chair, picked up the quilt, straightened and adjusted it about Solari's body. Solari murmured something incoherent in her sleep. Devillare backed away towards the door. As she did, she couldn't help but steal another look at the younger woman's backside. Even though she was now covered with the quilt, the captain could vividly picture precisely what was beneath those covers. Devillare's mouth was dry and she felt a clench in her gut that she couldn't remember feeling in what had seemed like ages.
"Oh, scout." Devillare's voice sounded thick. "You are a dangerous one, aren't you?"
Devillare's hand slipped upon the latch and she found herself stumbling backwards out into the hall.
"Hades' balls!" Eponin cursed, trying to jerk her hand back.
"Quit being such a wimp!" Xena admonished, thrusting Eponin's hand back into the bucket full of water.
"It's cold!" she protested, glaring at the warrior princess that was forcing her to keep her hand submerged.
"It's supposed to be. That's what takes the swelling down." Feeling the Amazon finally relaxing her tense muscles, she let loose her grip on her forearm. "Leave it there."
Eponin rolled her eyes, adjusted her stance so her hand remained submerged. She'd been just about to remove it when Xena's low voice had warned against it. Ep was a warrior fully grown, not some little babe still in swaddling. She'd learned after her very first fight how to set a broken finger. After her second, how to put in her own stitches. It was a far less painful process than suffering through Megara's healing touch.
"What about you?" asked Eponin. "You gonna stick that fat lip of yours into a bucket, too?"
Xena's hand went to her face. She reflexively jerked back as her fingers connected with tender flesh.
"I'll put something on it later. Right now, I'm more concerned with you. What were you thinking, anyway; sitting in some bar, getting shit-faced drunk?"
"I wasn't drunk."
"You were definitely on your way there. What would you have done if I wasn't there to help you out with those mill-workers?"
"I could've handled it."
"The three regular-sized guys, I'll give you that. But, all three of them combined with the other one? Come on, Ep, he was huge. I'm not convinced you could have taken on them plus him by yourself, even on your best day. And, let's be honest, this is nowhere near one of your best days."
"I know what I was doing, Xena. Don't need to talk to me like I'm some snot-nosed kid."
Xena resisted the urge to point out that Ep was pouting like one. And, just what was that back at the bar, anyway? Despite every warrior-nerve screaming at her to push the issue, Xena bit her tongue and backed off. They'd just been in one fight. It would serve no purpose for the two of them to get into another.
Xena grabbed a rag that was draped across a railing and briskly ran it through her hair and over her face and arms. She suppressed a shiver and tucked her hands beneath her armpits. It wasn't overly warm in the stables, even with the added body heat of the horses. But, it was dry. She cocked her head, listening to the sounds of rumbling thunder and rain pelting the roof. If anything, it sounded like it was raining harder than ever.
"Catch." Xena flung the rag at Eponin.
Blue eyes widened as Eponin reached out a hand - and missed. A look passed between the two warriors as Ep bent down and picked up the scrap of cloth. She swatted it against a wooden support post, knocking loose bits of straw before using it to dry herself off. She averted her gaze, her shoulder brushing against Xena as she pushed past the warrior princess.
Xena stepped aside, allowing the former Amazon some leeway. She watched in silence as Eponin approached the stalls. Ep held out her hand, letting the mare catch her scent. Argo nickered and allowed the touch.
Good girl, Argo, Xena thought, remembering once before when Argo had permitted the weapons master's touch. Then, like now, Ep had been in obvious pain. They had discovered Ephiny's empty bed, her blood-soaked sheets and they'd all thought she might be dead. Eponin had been on the verge of losing it and Xena had asked her to take Argo to the stables to allow her some privacy and time to get herself back together.
Eponin was acutely aware of Xena's gaze threatening to burn a hole in her back. Half of her wanted to turn around and confront the warrior, demand to know why she'd dragged her back to Potadeia; even though she already knew the answer. It was why she'd been in the bar in the first place. She knew they'd come for her sooner or later. The other half wanted nothing more than to grab a horse and mount up and ride out and never look back again.
There was a shuffling in the stall beside Argo's. Still petting Argo's ears, Ep looked over. Her breath hitched in her chest. A black mare with a splash of white was intently staring back at her.
The horse bobbed her head. Eponin stepped closer. Maintaining her touch on Argo to keep herself grounded, she extended her other hand to Lightning's mane. As the horse nuzzled her hand, Eponin let loose her hold on Argo completely. She wrapped her arms about Lightning's upper body, burying her face in the horse's coat and mane.
Xena watched the reunion between Eponin and Lightning. She, better than anyone, understood the bond between horse and rider. Having been separated from Argo more than once, she knew exactly what Ep was feeling.
The moment was allowed to stretch out. Eponin closed her eyes, pressed the side of her face firmly against Lightning's bulk.
"Hey." The voice was soft, the touch upon her shoulder light, yet it nearly scared the feathers off Eponin. "Hey, you okay?"
"Um," Eponin turned, nodding her head, not quite looking at Xena, "Yeah. Fine."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that I don't believe you for a heartbeat."
"If you aren't gonna believe me, then why'd ya bother asking?"
To see if you'd tell me the truth, was Xena's initial thought. She censored her answer to, "Out of concern for you, ya big featherhead." Hearing how gruff that sounded, even to her own ears, Xena lowered her tone. "The way you missed the rag, the way you've been tugging at that ear," Xena caught Eponin beneath the chin, "Ep, look at me."
Slowly, hesitantly, amber-hued eyes looked up. She met and held Xena's gaze for one heartbeat then two before skittering away again.
"What's that mean?" Ep asked. Despite her initial misgivings about having the warrior princess poke and prod her, she knew Xena's reputation as a trained healer. "What's wrong with me?"
"Now, don't take this the wrong way. But, when's the last time you had a drink?"
"At the bar." Eponin jerked her chin out of Xena's grasp. "I already told you, I had it under control."
"Hey, I'm only trying to help. Told you not to take it the wrong way. Keep the hostility to a minimum, okay?" Xena reached out, grabbed Eponin's forearm. They both watched as she held it steady. Despite Xena's firm grip, Eponin's hand shook. "The headaches, the way your hand trembles, the way your eyes don't quite follow the light. Ep, those are all signs of withdrawal. Now, I'll ask you again, how much have you been drinking?"
"I haven't." Ep caught the look. "Not even with meals, I swear. Look, I know what you're thinking. Disgraced Amazon goes on a bender and becomes a drunk with nothing more to live for than her next flask." Eponin clearly remembered Gabrielle's tale of Meleager the Mighty. "Well, that's not me. All my focus has been on just getting to Potadeia. On saving my - Xena, you've gotta believe me."
Xena studied Eponin's face. This time, Eponin met Xena's eyes and held steadfast, refusing to allow her gaze to drift. Still, it looked like it was a struggle.
"I believe you, Ep." Xena scrubbed a hand over her face. "But, you're a long ways from being fine."
"Only one short move away from being dead, though," a third voice said.
Xena and Eponin both turned to look. Standing in the open doorway, the rain to their backs, were two Amazons. Lyonene and Tynette stood shoulder to shoulder. Their bows were nocked, the arrows upon their strings pointed at the warriors. Xena's fingers twitched.
"Not a move," Tynette warned, gaze fixed on the chakram at Xena's waist, "or we fire."
Xena was fast enough to take them both out. She knew she was. But...
But, Eponin wasn't at her best. And, they were standing directly in front of the horses. If one of them managed to get off a shot -
Xena knew Ep wouldn't hold a grudge if she was struck. But, if it were one of their horses? Xena knew what her reaction would be if something happened to Argo. She could only imagine Ep's would be the same if her horse were to be hit by a stray arrow.
Xena made sure everyone saw her slowly move her hand away from her waist. "Now, let's not do anything hasty, ladies."
Tynette saw the warrior princess' fabled chakram useless in its holster and smirked. She lowered her bow, returning the arrow to her quiver. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Lyonene about to mimic her move.
"Keep that trained on them," Tynette commanded. She picked up a length of leather cording, the length and thickness of the type used for a horse's reins. "Shoot them if they move. Either of them."
Gripping the piece of leather in her hands, flexing it so that it snapped in the air, Tynette approached. For Eponin, that sound reminded her of the times that Laurentia would take a belt to her backside. Her mother always knew how to make the leather snap as she slowly stalked her in their tiny hut. To little Ep, she didn't know which was worse; the sting of the leather against her backside or the echoing snap that was a precursor to the actual beating.
"Turn around," Tynette ordered.
Eponin remained rooted to the spot.
"I said, turn around." Tynette raised her hand as if she meant to cuff Eponin.
"Now, hold on," protested Xena, stepping between Tynette and Eponin.
Tynette fixed the warrior princess with a stone-cold stare. "This is council business. The Queen's champion has no jurisdiction."
"I was granted the right to serve."
"In case of dire circumstances," reminded Tynette. "She's a convicted felon. An escaped renegade that I'm about to bring to justice. Your services are not required."
"Eponin's no renegade. She was trying to stop the attack on Potadeia, same as us."
"She's an escaped criminal that has to pay for her crimes." Tynette flexed the leather reins about her hands again. "Stand down." A heartbeat went by. Then, two. When Xena didn't immediately comply, Tynette demanded, "Now."
Xena looked from Tynette to the other hunter. Lyonene still stood with her arrow nocked upon her string. But, her bow was lowered, the arrow pointing harmlessly at the straw-covered ground. Xena knew Lyonene had no intention of shooting. Anyone. As for Tynette - the elder was standing toe to toe with the warrior princess, staring defiantly up at her.
Blue eyes narrowed.
A cocky smile formed on Xena's lips as she said, "Make me."
During her preening strut, Tynette had moved into the deadly warrior's reach. Xena no longer need rely on her chakram, not so long as Tynette was standing so close. One quick jab to a pressure point was all it would take.
Xena's fingers twitched.
"Xena." Eponin's fingers closed about Xena's shoulder. Blue eyes turned to look back at golden amber. "Don't."
Xena couldn't hide her startled look. "Ep?"
"It's okay." Eponin nodded. "Stand aside. Please."
It made Xena's stomach churn. Her fingers clenched into a fist. Every muscle in her body tightening up at the action, she moved out of the way.
The look in Tynette's eyes was predatory. She stepped past Xena and right up to Eponin. Her lip curled as she stared down at the stocky warrior. She hit the warrior's shoulder with the heel of her palm.
Eponin moved to comply. Too slow, it would seem, as she felt hands roughly shoving at her back and her face slamming against the wooden post separating Lightning's stall from Argo's. She turned her head, looking back as Tynette forced both arms behind her back. Her wrists were crossed at her back, the leather cording wrapped repeatedly about both wrists and hands then drawn so brutally tight that the leather bit into flesh. Tynette knotted the cording.
Xena was about to step in when she caught the subtle shake of Eponin's head. Biting her lip, averting her gaze, Xena looked away. Her gaze went across the length of the stable, to where Lyonene was standing. The hunter held her position, but she too, refused to bear witness to Tynette's victory.
"Careful there," Gabrielle squawked as a big, burly warrior nearly stumbled backwards over the top of her.
"My Queen." The warrior turned around, two strong arms reaching out to steady the tiny blonde. "My apologies."
"No harm." Gabrielle pretended to wipe dirt from her top, grinned broadly, about to make a joke about being trampled by a stampede of wild warriors. Then, she realized exactly who had run her over and precisely whose door they were standing in front of in the hallway. "Devillare? Are you just now coming from Solari's room?"
Nothing like the blush of an embarrassed warrior, thought Gabrielle.
"I - " Devillare swallowed harshly. Looking up and down the hall, she spotted Bonadea in her position outside the tavern door. Devillare leaned in closer to Gabrielle, dropped her voice as if she were about to impart council secrets and said, "I fell asleep."
"Oh!" Gabrielle's eyes perceptibly widened and Devillare wondered what the little bard-queen had been thinking. "Well, happens to the best of us, I hear."
Devillare's brow furrowed, pondering the meaning of that statement. Bards, she thought, you never know what's really going on in those heads of theirs.
"My Queen, are you okay?" Devillare extended her arm. "May I escort you to the main room for some food or drink?"
"I could always use something to eat, but that wasn't why I was going to the bar." There was an odd look on Gabrielle's face, then she realized, having just caught a bleary-eyed Devillare coming from Solari's room, "You haven't heard. Xena's back. With Eponin."
"You took her to jail?!?" Gabrielle asked Tynette and Lyonene. Her look was incredulous as she turned on Xena. "You let them take Eponin to jail?"
"Jail is the proper place for criminals, is it not, my Queen?" asked Tynette, not even trying to keep the sickly sweet tone out of her voice.
Devillare shoved Tynette up against the tavern wall. "We don't let our sisters rot in the cells of man's jails," she said through gritted teeth.
"We're not on Amazon land," reminded Tynette. "She'll have to take her chances in the town jail."
"I demand Amazon justice for Amazons."
"Careful what you ask for, Devillare." Tynette used both hands to push back the strong arm that Devillare had pressed against her throat. "If you push it, Amazon justice could require Eponin's death."
Devillare caught Tynette by the front of her cloak, drew back her fist. Lyonene's body tensed and she made a move as if to interfere, but then a look from Devillare had her backing down. Likewise, Bonadea, Lexine and Egeria made no move to intervene, either. Darius watched from behind his bar, wide eyes taking in the scene unfolding in his tavern.
"Wait. Just wait." Gabrielle interjected herself between the warrior and the hunter. "Devillare, back off. Calm down."
Unable to deny her Queen, the warrior exhaled loudly, dropped her hand and took a step back.
"As for you - " Gabrielle turned her ire on Tynette. "As I understand it, Eponin was convicted of a crime, yes. But, it is also my understanding that her sentence for that crime was one of life in prison. Not death."
"That was before she escaped and turned renegade."
"Crimes for which she has yet to be charged with and found guilty of committing."
"But, there's no question she did it." Tynette's look was one of defiance. "She's here, isn't she?"
"Yes. But there needs to be a trial to address the crimes you're accusing her of."
"There's already been a trial."
"For the first crime." Gabrielle refused to be ruffled. Words were her life's work. If there was one thing she knew how to do, it was to manipulate them to her own ends. "Not for the crime of escaping. There must be a trial. Every Amazon deserves a fair trial. It's the law."
"I - you - she's - " Tynette sputtered. "She's not even a true Amazon." The angry elder thrust a finger into Gabrielle's face. "You're twisting the letter of the law because she's a warrior. But, she's not a warrior anymore, either. She's nothing more than a filthy animal; a mongrel that deserves to be put down - "
This time, no one was swift enough to stop Xena from jabbing her fingers into Tynette's neck. The hunter stood her ground for several heartbeats before her knees gave way and she crumpled to the ground at Queen Gabrielle's feet.
Gabrielle knelt on the floor in front of Tynette. She leaned in so her face was scant inches from the gasping elder's. In all her seasons of living, the elder had never seen a more livid look.
"Xena's just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. In a matter of heartbeats, you'll be dead." Gabrielle dropped her voice intimately lower so that no one else might overhear. "Make no mistake, Xena is a powerful warrior with many skills. She would die for me. More than that, she would kill for me. It's not her you should be afraid of, though. As mighty as Xena is, you live or die by my command. Do you understand?" The perceptible widening of Tynette's eyes was answer enough. "Good. That word you used; mongrel. I don't like it. Don't use it again. And, don't you ever dare accuse me of having favorites ever again. Or, I will show you what it truly means to fall out of favor with the Queen. Is that clear?" Tynette frantically bobbed her head up and down.
Gabrielle slowly climbed to her feet and smoothed out her skirt. She turned and began to walk away. She paused, adding an almost casual, "Xena?"
With that one word said in her love's voice, Xena swooped in and jabbed her fingers against the elder hunter's neck, releasing the pressure point. Tynette took a deep gasping breath, choking on the air as it seared her lungs.
"As for the rest of you," Gabrielle raised her voice so that everyone present could hear. "Tynette is correct about one thing. There are renegades out there and they do pose a real threat to our way of life. But, if we continue this petty arguing and in-fighting amongst ourselves, we're doing the renegades' job for them."
Gabrielle's eyes swept the room, taking in every gaze present, even that of Darius.
That's it, thought Xena. Work the crowd, my bard.
Xena had traveled the known world. She'd seen many things in her lifetime. But, she'd never seen a bard control a room quite the same way that Gabrielle did. She could draw them into her web, weave her spell, enrapture them, bend their will to hers. That, the power of words; that was Gabrielle's talent.
"I've been accused of being partial to the warrior caste. As Queen of the Amazons, I assure you my rule is fair and impartial. As is my decree that Eponin...and anyone else charged with being a renegade...shall be taken back to the Amazon Nation for a fair trial."
"We've seen the renegades," interrupted Egeria, "Most of them are from the hunter caste."
"I saw at least one guard in the bunch," countered Tynette, "And that - Eponin."
"Eponin's not with them." Egeria's grip on her labrys tightened. "We all saw her. She rode against the renegades. She stepped in between Regent Ephiny and that hunter."
Gabrielle wasn't sure how Egeria had done it, but she'd managed to put such disdain into the word hunter that it sounded like as much of a slur as Tynette's use of mongrel had.
"Stop. Stop." Gabrielle held up her hands, commanding the room's attention again. "This is exactly what I'm talking about. The hunter caste hates the warrior caste. The warrior caste thinks they're better than the scouts. The craftswomen can't stand any of the castes. We need to put this caste nonsense aside. It's fine to be proud of your ancestors, of who you came from, of tradition. But, a caste shouldn't define you or your place in the tribe. Instead of trying to be this caste or that or hating someone because they aren't, why can't we instead just all be Amazons?" There was a pause as Gabrielle met the eyes of each and every person in the room before adding, "I'm willing to try if you are."
Gabrielle waited. Guilty faces looked all about the room. Several Amazons nodded thoughtfully. At last, someone finally said, "Agreed."
"What would you have done if they hadn't agreed?"
Gabrielle exhaled loudly and pushed her hands through her hair. "Got you to put the pinch on all of them. Thank Gods it didn't come to that."
"Like it ever would." Xena reached out, tapped the tip of Gabrielle's nose with her index finger. "You, my honey-tongued bard, could charm the wings off Pegasus."
"I don't know about that," Gabrielle snorted. "But, I do know a few well-turned phrases won't appease them for long. For some of them, there's some real anger issues there."
"Tynette, definitely. Egeria, maybe. Seems like she has a big labrys to grind against the hunters."
"Speaking of; you and Tynette?"
"She was threatening you," Xena gave a nonchalant shrug. "Your life was in danger."
"I hardly think a finger thrust in my face constitutes a deadly threat." Xena pointedly waggled her fingers. "From anyone except you," Gabrielle amended. "So, what gives?"
"You weren't at the stables. You didn't see how Tynette was treating Eponin. Or how Ep allowed her."
"Speaking of that," Gabrielle looked around. Seeing Lexine within earshot, she lowered her voice, "I can't believe you let them take Pony to jail."
"I didn't let them do anything. Ep asked me not to interfere."
"And you listened to her?"
Xena followed Gabrielle's cue and scanned the room. Not that she wasn't already acutely aware of exactly who was present. Darius was behind the bar, wiping out mugs and stacking them up. Lexine was standing guard just inside the door leading from the outside. Xena had thought it was unnecessary, especially given that the tavern hadn't seen a single patron all day, but Devillare had insisted that at least one member of the guard be permitted to stay with the Queen.
"Maybe the few heartbeats it takes to run her through will be the time you need to place yourself between the renegades and the Queen," Devillare had said.
Xena didn't know exactly what was going on there, but it didn't take Plato to figure out that Lexine was on the captain's short list. To keep the peace, Xena had agreed, allowing the young guard to stay. Might've been a good idea just to keep Lexine out of her way.
After that initial compromise, Xena and Devillare had put their heads together to come up with a working schedule for the rest of the Amazons. With small numbers, diminished even more by illness and injury, and both queens to protect, they had to work smarter, not harder.
That meant rotating shifts with strategically placed lookouts to raise the alarm at the first sign of trouble. Instead of both elder hunters taking up positions on the roof, that number had been cut to only one. Tynette was up there now, patrolling from one end of the roof to the other. She'd remain there throughout the remainder of the early evening and into the late night until Lyonene relieved her for a meal and rest. Likewise, Egeria was guarding the main entranceway and front hall of the inn. Bonadea had been instructed to take the nearest room. Both so she could rest and so that she was as near as possible if Egeria's shout of alarm rousted her from her sleep. Come first light, they would change positions. Devillare would periodically make rounds, checking the security of the premises as well as that of the Amazons on duty. If there was a breach, she was to immediately send up a hawk-cry as warning. Xena would take over for her in a few candlemarks.
Right now, she was supposed to be resting. And, she would. Later. Already, she was wishing for nothing more than to be in a warm bed, wrapped up in her bard's arms, sleeping. First though, before she could truly relax in their bed, she needed a chance to decompress. Her muscles were stiff, her joints aching, her bones hurting. She was acutely aware of every single one of her old battle wounds.
Without a word having been spoken between them, Gabrielle knew what she needed and took charge. "I wish to warm myself in front of the fire," she had said in her most regal voice before adding, "Join me, Xena."
To the most casual of observers, it would appear as if the young queen were chilled and wanted to linger in front of the tavern's fireplace with her consort. Xena, however, knew it was solely for her benefit.
Well, maybe not solely, thought Xena, feeling the way her bard snuggled into her frame and rested her head on a broad shoulder. But mostly, she mentally added as Gabrielle took both of her cold hands in her warmer ones.
"Gabrielle, I'm concerned about Eponin," Xena confessed in low tones. "She admitted she got her tailfeathers handed to her in a fight. Looking at her, she's not that bad off physically. Now. She did have some serious damage done to her, though."
"Serious enough that she should have spent some time recuperating in a hospice."
Seeing that Gabrielle was about to interrupt, no doubt with demands both to be taken to their friend and for the head of whoever had mistreated her, Xena held up her hand to stop her. "Gabrielle, it was a challenge and it was moons ago. Ep's not in any danger now. Her physical wounds seem to be healing. Mentally, though..."
"Oh, Xena. She hasn't gone the way of Najara, has she?"
Xena snorted. "No one's as kooky as that zealot."
Xena knew Gabrielle would pick up on the terseness in her voice - and didn't care. The way that crusader had gotten into her head, made her doubt herself so that she could make a play for Gabrielle...and the way Gabrielle had so easily fallen for it, believing her lies about opening a hospice...and the way Gabrielle had just left her unconscious in that bar after Najara had beaten the tar out of her and knocked out one of her best chewing teeth. Never mind that Gabrielle had explained later that going with the crusader had been the only way she could think of to keep Najara from killing her...Nope, that particular wound still stung.
Gabrielle saw the turmoil reflected in Xena's stormy eyes and wisely remained silent until the warrior worked through her memories. As soon as she'd mentioned Najara, she'd known it'd been the wrong name to say. Guess there's still some insecurity there.
Gods knew it took a lot to get beneath the warrior's thick skin. But, if anyone could, it was Gabrielle. An unkind gesture, a harsh word, Gabrielle had discovered long ago that she could wound the former warlord with words far more effectively than any enemy with a blade. Having discovered that, she tried her best to never be the one to cause Xena that kind of pain.
"She's not in a good place emotionally," Xena said at last.
"Of course she isn't. Xena, everything she knew, everything she was...all that was taken away from her from one heartbeat to the next." In hushed tones, she related to Xena the series of unfolding events leading up to the morning of Eponin's banishment - and the role that Ephiny, as regent, was forced to play in her exile. "She lost her rank, her honor, her home, her family. She has nothing left."
"I know." Xena released a heavy sigh. "She'd seen me during the attack, both in town and out on the road with Solari. When I saw her again, she was in some dive down near the sawmill." From the look on Gabrielle's face, she knew her bard was unfamiliar with the place. Probably wasn't built until the mill was. "She was just sitting there on a barstool, drinking, like she'd been waiting for me. Gabrielle, she was going on about you being a bard and me being the hero of all your stories."
"Well," Gabrielle smiled and squeezed Xena's hands. "I am and you are."
"Yeah." Xena returned a shy smile, then immediately sobered. "Eponin assumed I'd already taken care of the renegades."
"Given your reputation, that was probably a safe assumption."
She hesitated, then asked in a small voice, "Do you think that's a good thing; my reputation?"
"How many times has the mere mention of your name sent the bad guys running for the hills? I'd say in the right circumstances, a little name dropping certainly doesn't hurt."
"Sometimes, I wonder how much of my reputation is deserved and how much of it's due to your exaggerated praises."
"Xena, I'm not going to apologize for my stories about you or your good deeds."
"You say that as though I were rescuing kittens from trees. You forget, I've heard your stories, bard. You've turned me into some larger than life hero."
"Xena, you are a larger than life hero. I mean, come on, you can catch arrows in your bare hands. You think just anyone can do that?"
"No, not just anyone. But, Hercules can. You never tell stories about him."
"Because I don't travel with him. Believe me, there's enough bards out there singing the praises of the son of Zeus. He doesn't need any help from me. Besides, he's boring. See a monster. Hit a monster. See a monster. Hit a monster. Only so many ways you can tell it. And, he's got no accessories. He doesn't have a sword. He doesn't have a chakram. He doesn't have a trusty steed."
"He has a blonde sidekick."
"That he's not even screwing. No matter how much Iolaus wants him to."
"Gabrielle!" At Xena's exclamation, Darius and Lexine turned to look. Xena lowered her voice to a harsh whisper. "You don't know that."
"Yeah, I do." There was a twinkling cast to Gabrielle's eyes. "Last time you left us sidekicks alone in a tavern while you two heroes went off to fight a...wait for it...monster that Hercules hit...I asked Iolaus."
"And, Iolaus admitted that's why he wears those tight leather pants that are two sizes too small for him."
"He's gonna rip those out during a fight one day, you know."
"Yeah. Anyway, nothing going on between the sheets. No sexual tension. Not that a bard would breathe a word of it, even if something was going on. Wouldn't want to tarnish Hercules' squeaky clean image, you know."
"Mm. You do that with me, you know?"
"Try to give me a 'clean' image. You never tell about my past misdeeds."
"Because that's not who you are anymore, Xena. You've changed."
"I have." Xena leaned in, placing a kiss to Gabrielle's forehead. "With your help, my bard. But, sometimes I worry that by not showing my flaws, you sometimes paint an impossible image for others to live up to."
"So what; you're blaming yourself because Pony erroneously thought you'd already taken out the bad guys? I know you. You're going to soon, anyway."
There was a haunted look in those blue eyes as Xena confessed, "Gabrielle, I didn't correct her."
There was a heartbeat pause as Gabrielle mulled that over. "Okay, so she was wrong. That's not your fault. But Xena, if she thought you'd already beaten them, why was she sitting on some barstool? Why not get on a horse and keep riding? I doubt if any of the Amazons here are in any kind of shape to go out after her."
"Because she thought it would be me coming after her, maybe?"
Gabrielle placed a hand upon Xena's arm. "Is that what you think?"
"I don't know. Maybe. If not me, then someone else." There was a heavy sigh. "Gabrielle, it was clear she knew someone would come for her and she had no intention of resisting."
"What are you saying, Xena? That Pony's just...given up?"
Xena shrugged. "I never would've thought it either, Gabrielle. Not of Ep." Xena downed her head, closed her eyes. Gabrielle remained silent, giving Xena the time she needed. Gods knew besides herself, Eponin was the closest thing Xena had to a true friend. "Eponin had a very specific purpose for coming to Potadeia. She was so focused on saving her queens, Gabrielle, I don't think Eponin made plans past Potadeia."
"A suicide mission?"
Xena's silence spoke volumes. She scrubbed a hand across her face. When she at last spoke again, her voice was very quiet. "That's why I didn't fight her when she asked me to leave it be between her and Tynette. Figured a cell might be just the place for her. At least for tonight, at least until she gets her head screwed on straight again."
Gabrielle didn't say anything. She couldn't. She could feel the lump growing in her throat as she recalled a private conversation between herself and Eponin and the words Pony had once said. "To a free Amazon, imprisonment is death."
Gabrielle reached out, grasping Xena's larger hand in hers. She purposely intertwined their fingers and gave a reassuring squeeze. Xena returned the gesture. They sat in companionable silence, both listening to the popping and crackling of the burning logs in the fireplace behind them.
"Excuse me, Gabrielle? Xena?" Both women looked up to find a hesitant Darius standing in front of them. "I brought something to warm you up. If you want it?"
"Thank you, Darius." Gabrielle reached up, taking both mugs from the innkeeper. She placed them on the stone hearth next to where they were sitting.
Xena didn't answer verbally, but thanked the man with a quick nod of her head.
Sensing he was intruding on their privacy, Darius hastily began to back up. "If you don't think you'll be needing anything more tonight, I'll just..." Darius wiped his hands on the bar rag that he had tucked into the strings of his apron tied about his waist.
"Oh." Gabrielle suddenly realized he was waiting for their permission to close up. "Oh, of course. Don't let us keep you. Good night, Darius."
"Goodnight, Gabrielle. Xena."
Darius continued to back away, not turning around until he was more than halfway across the bar. He took off his apron and threw it and the bar rag across the counter. With another quick look at the women sitting in front of the hearth, he retreated back down a small hallway towards the bedroom where his wife was no doubt already snoring.
"Uh-huh." Xena smirked.
"What?" Gabrielle asked, the picture of innocence.
"Have you been telling Darius tales of the warrior princess?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Uh-huh. Maybe I should turn bard and start collecting dinars for my tales of a certain Amazon Queen?"
"Anytime you want to switch, warrior."
"Speaking of; I need to switch with Devillare."
Xena started to get up, but felt Gabrielle's restraining hand upon her bare arm. "Not yet. You're still not completely warmed up. Besides, Devillare caught a nap earlier." There was a barely bitten back grin as Gabrielle added, "In Solari's room."
A lone ebony eyebrow arched at that bit of gossip. "How's Solari doing, anyway?"
"Eh." Gabrielle waggled her hand back and forth, indicating a so-so motion. "She had a hard time of it earlier. Iphinome didn't have enough painkillers for both Lexine and her - " Before Xena could say anything, Gabrielle smoothly added, "The shopkeepers won't sell to the Amazons. So, I gave her some stuff from the saddlebags. I figure you and I can go shopping together to replace our supplies. Anyway, got her drugged up and squared away." There was a long pause before Gabrielle said in a small voice, "Xena, Solari said some things."
"Gabrielle, when I found Solari, she was just coming down off a Satyr-cloves high. Depending on how much of that was still in her system when you gave her a dose of herbs...well, let's just say I wouldn't worry too much about anything she might have let slip. Although, I'm certain it would've been enough to make a Satyr blush."
"Sounds like you had an adventure tracking my chief scout down." Gabrielle knew she'd have to question Xena about that later. "She didn't seem that strung out near the end, though. More...free, maybe."
"Believe me, Gabrielle, Solari's one Amazon you don't want to see any freer."
"Not like that." Gabrielle playfully nudged her warrior. "I meant verbally. She was - talkative. The things she said - " Gabrielle's smile fell and her playful demeanor dissipated. "Oh, Xena. There's just so much happening within the nation."
Xena silently listened as Gabrielle filled her in on the conversation she'd had with Solari, coupled with everything else that had unfolded while she'd been gone. Xena took in every word, even as her eyes kept darting about the room. They were completely alone, with the exception of Lexine. And, although the girl appeared to be solely focused on guarding that door, Xena wanted to make certain that there wasn't even a hint of a chance that she was eavesdropping. The elder captain had been very critical of Lexine's presence - and that made Xena wary.
When Gabrielle finished, Xena stayed silent for a few heartbeats before asking in a lowered voice, "Gabrielle, once I've taken care of the renegades, do you want to go stay with the Amazons? Maybe for a while?"
"I don't want to leave you to travel the open road alone, Xena." Gabrielle tried to tease her warrior, "You might get into trouble without me."
"This from the woman who used to be offered up as a virgin sacrifice every time I turned around. Seriously, though. This isn't about me. This is about what you need. Besides, who said anything about me leaving you behind?"
"You mean you'd stay?"
Xena shrugged. "Why not? I've been on this redemption kick for a while now. If I haven't righted enough wrongs by traveling the countryside...well, maybe I can right some by helping out in the village. I certainly wronged a whole bunch of Amazons back when I was the Destroyer of Nations."
"Xena, you made up for that the very first time we met Melosa. If it hadn't been for you, the Amazons and the Centaurs would be at war with each other. I don't want you staying out of a sense of guilt or a need for redemption."
"I wouldn't be." There was a shy smile as Xena said, "I'd be staying because you are. Because wherever you are, you're my home."
"Hey! That's supposed to be my line."
"Yeah, well I guess it's true for me, too." Xena kissed Gabrielle's temple. "So, how about it, bard? You wanna hang our saddlebags up at the Amazons'?"
"I want to, Xena. More than that, I think I need to. At least for a while."
Xena nodded in acceptance. "You know, Gabrielle, this business with the renegades. I don't want you to think that it's your fault. As long as there's someone in charge, there's always gonna be someone else who thinks they can do a better job. It's not about you."
"I know." There was a heavy sigh. "But, I do feel a responsibility. Not necessarily for the renegades themselves. Like you said, if not them - if not me, it would be someone else. What I do feel responsible for, though, is Ephiny. I've put so much on her shoulders for so long."
"I think she wouldn't have it any other way, Gabrielle. Don't know if you've noticed, but she's a bit of a control freak that way."
"Oh, believe me, I've noticed. Ephiny's a strong woman and a good leader. Making her regent was the best decision I've ever made. And, if it turns out I'm stepping on her toes too much, believe me I'll be the first to tell you we're leaving. It's just that I'm starting to feel like...I miss her when we're gone." Gabrielle caught the look, the unspoken question in Xena's eyes and wondered about that. "Not just Ephiny. I miss all of them. I may not have been born an Amazon, Xena, but they're my sisters. They're my family."
Xena heard the underlying sadness in Gabrielle's tone as she spoke of family. If not for her bard finding out and being mad at her for doing it, she'd have gone and straightened Herodotus out long ago. The man may have fathered Gabrielle, but he was by no means a fit parent.
"Hey." Xena nudged Gabrielle with her knee. "I guess if the whole tribe's your sisters, then they're all my sister-in-laws." A ghost of a smile appeared on Gabrielle's lips. Xena turned and grabbed their mugs from their spot on the hearth. She handed Gabrielle her mug and hoisted hers, also. Determined to see Gabrielle's smile brighten, she toasted, "To family."
"To family," Gabrielle echoed, lifting her mug. She smacked her lips as she tasted a hint of vanilla in the warm apple cider.
Gabrielle's smile instantly fell as Xena's eyes widened and she cupped a hand over her mouth.
"What is it? What's wrong?"
"Hot. Hot. Too hot."
Gabrielle frowned, dubiously looking at the contents of her own mug.
Lexine appeared with a mug of water. The warrior princess suspiciously eyed the guard before accepting the mug.
"Are you okay?" Gabrielle asked, her focus solely on Xena and oblivious to the tension between her warrior and the guard.
"I'm fine." Xena held the cool mug to her lip. "My fault. I wasn't paying attention."
Lexine caught the inflection and the less-than-subtle hint. Bowing to her queen, she gave a swift salute before retreating to her position by the door.
"Xena, what's wrong? What do you mean you weren't paying attention?"
"Huh?" Xena saw the worry in Gabrielle's eyes, heard the concern in her voice. "Nothing. Just that I should have known better than to try to drink something warm. Busted lip."
Gabrielle caught Xena's chin, turning her head so that the warrior was forced to look directly at her. It hadn't been all that noticeable in the dim lighting, but now that Xena mentioned it, Gabrielle could see the swelling. "When did this happen?"
"While I was fetching Ep."
Green eyes narrowed. "I thought you said she didn't resist."
"Whoa. Hold on, Gabrielle." Xena held up both hands. "It wasn't Eponin. Not exactly."
"What do you mean; not exactly?"
"There were some locals at the bar that...took an interest...and wouldn't take no for an answer. Ep and I dissuaded them."
"Translation: there was a brawl."
"A good one, too." Xena looked extremely proud of herself.
Gabrielle rubbed her temple, feeling the Xena-induced headache coming on. At least it was mill workers. With any luck, the town leaders wouldn't hear of it. Or care. To Xena, she simply said, "How bad did Pony come out of it?"
"Not bad at all. You should've seen her, Gabrielle." Xena went on as though she had no thought of the implications of a barroom brawl. "She threw this one punch and you could hear the crack! above everything else in the room. It got real quiet, like everyone was holding their breath for a heartbeat to see which was broken; Eponin's hand or that guy's jaw. Even Eponin and the guy were perfectly still. Then, his eyes rolled back up inside his head and he fell over backwards. I swear, the floorboards bounced from the impact when he hit."
"Was he a giant?"
"This guy Ep fought; was he a giant?" Gabrielle asked.
"Huh? No. No, but he was a really big guy."
"And everyone thinks I'm the bard. They should hear you tell fight stories." Gabrielle smiled. She stood up, reached down to offer her consort a hand. "Come on, you can tell me the rest on the way to our bed."
Feeling the ache in her joints, Xena slowly rose to her feet. "Bed sounds great, Gabrielle. But I need to relieve Devillare."
"Devillare can wait. First, you need to rest. And, so do I. You know I can't sleep without my big warrior's shoulder to rest my head on."
"I suppose a candlemark or two would be okay."
As she walked beside her warrior, Gabrielle ducked her head, shielding her smile from view. She could get Xena to do anything she wanted, as long as it was under the pretense that Xena was doing it for her; including getting her to rest when she needed it.
Gabrielle nodded in greeting as they passed Egeria on guard in the hallway. The big, redheaded warrior grinned broadly, offered a quick one-handed salute for her Queen. Gabrielle sighed contentedly as she felt Xena wrap an arm about her waist and escort her towards their room.
"So...Eponin fought one really big guy." Gabrielle poked Xena in the ribs. "How many did my warrior take on?"
"Well, you know..."
Eponin flexed her hand, wincing slightly with the movement. It was dark in her cell, too dark to see the hand in front of her face. But, she was certain come morning's light, she'd be able to see the bruising discoloration of her knuckles.
Artemis, it had been a good fight, though.
It had felt good to be able to finally let loose and get out some of her pent-up frustrations. For too long, she'd had too much piled upon her and been unable to lash out. That fight had been just what she'd needed.
She stalked the length of her cell. Not that it was all that long, not even by jail standards. She'd gotten a good look at the place when they'd brought her in. The outer room consisted of one desk and one chair. A key ring - with one key dangling from it - was hung on the single peg on the wall behind the desk.
They'd used it to lock the door behind her when Tynette roughly shoved her into the little cell. Despite Tynette' obvious intentions, that shove hadn't been all that tough. Certainly not by warrior princess' standards, anyway. She'd once had Xena shove her hard enough that she'd gone through a stable wall. Compared to that, anything Tynette could do felt like a love tap.
She'd still managed her send her stumbling into the single cot and crashing against the wall. Again, her efforts were aided by the close quarters and the fact that Eponin's hands were bound securely behind her wrists. Not to mention she was still favoring that knee of hers. The one that Tynette just happened to drive her boot behind as she gave that shove.
She'd expected her wrists to be untethered once she was secured. Indeed, Lyonene herself had pushed her own knife through the bars in an effort to cut through her bonds. Eponin had turned around, placing her back to the bars, holding her arms steady as she waited to feel the blade against her wrists.
Instead, Tynette had ordered Lyonene to stand down. That command in itself had caused a disagreement to erupt between the two elder hunters. In the end, though, Tynette's arguments won out and it was a remorseful looking Lyonene that ended up sheathing her knife and leaving Eponin's hands bound.
One of those arguments had been that untied, an animal like Eponin had the brute strength to break out of the cell. At the time, Ep hadn't made comment; either to the derogatory remark or the validity of the comment. She'd gotten enough of a vibe off of Tynette to know that the hunter was looking for a reason to assault her physically.
Ep had been careful to not give her any excuse. She knew Lyonene wouldn't stand for an unprovoked attack. It seemed so did Tynette. Despite her best efforts at poking the bear, the hunter had to finally give up and head back to the inn with Lyonene.
"The consort is no doubt already filling the little Queen's ear with her account of what transpired," Tynette had said.
Lyonene had frowned at that statement. It had given Eponin pause, too. There was barely veiled contempt in Tynette's tone when she spoke of Xena and Gabrielle. She knew part of that was because they had both once freely called the former weapons master friend.
Eponin sincerely hoped that no more of her friends had suffered through their association with her. It was something she had pondered long and hard about as she sat on the single cot in the cell, her back to the sole window, raindrops falling through the bars and pelting her about the shoulders and back.
Candlemarks later, Eponin was standing on the cot, face pressed against the cold wet bars as she stared out the window. If she craned her neck, she could just make out the outline of the town's inn. She could see slats of light, guessed that the shutters had been secured over the windows to keep out the weather.
Somewhere inside, in a nice cozy bed, slept Xena and Gabrielle. She knew Solari was there, too. When she'd seen the scout on the open road, she'd been in bad shape. Xena had assured her, though, that her friend was getting the medical attention she needed and would be as good as new in no time.
Eponin hadn't asked. She hadn't been able to give voice to ask about her other friend. Her heart ached to know, but she didn't have the right to ask for -
Ephiny was kneeling upon the ground, one leg helplessly curled beneath her body. She'd twisted her ankle - or worse. Her lightweight chainmail covered her shoulder and right arm was torn and hanging from her frame. Her sword arm was protectively cradled against her body, her grip lax as the blade rested against her upper thighs.
Her head was tilted back, dishwater blonde corkscrew curls hanging in riotous disarray about both shoulders. Hazel eyes flecked with chips of gold unblinkingly stared up at her.
Kneeling in the mud in the middle of a fight, she was battered and bruised and filthy...and easily the most breathtakingly beautiful sight Eponin had ever seen.
She hadn't even known she'd moved until she was was directly in front of Ephiny...touching her. Her fingertips were caressing Ephiny's cheek, uselessly wiping at a bit of mud on her face. Eponin only managed to smear it more. Not that it mattered. Ephiny could be covered head to toe in Centaur dung and Eponin would still think she was gorgeous.
Eponin blinked, her gaze focusing again on the silhouette of the inn. Somewhere, Ephiny was there; in one of those rooms.
Eponin turned around on the bed. She stood on the straw-filled mattress, her back to the wall and the window. Reaching with her fingers, she felt the cold metal bars. With her hands still bound behind her back, she grasped the bars in both hands and tugged.
Tynette pulled her rain-slicked cloak tightly about her frame and looked up. And got pelted in the eye with a large, fat drop for her efforts. She blinked rapidly, wiping the water away.
She knelt down, hunkering in upon herself, making herself as small a target as possible. Daybreak was still candlemarks off, but as far as Tynette was concerned, morning couldn't come soon enough. That was when Lyonene would relieve her and she'd be able to go back inside where it was warm.
Until then, she was stuck patrolling the rooftop of the inn, looking for signs of would-be assassin renegades. Complete waste of time and energy, she thought, Hades himself wouldn't be caught out in this weather.
In all fairness, Tynette had made two complete rounds of the roof before settling into one spot. Then, she'd decided it was too dark and too wet and too slippery and too idiotic to go traipsing about looking for a threat that wasn't going to come. And all because Devillare and that queen's consort had decided.
Don't see either of them up here getting their tailfeathers soaked to the bone. Not that Tynette wanted to see either of those - those warriors right now. Xena had tried to stand against her when she'd caught that outlawed mongrel Eponin in the stables. And, Devillare berated her for her decision to take the criminal to jail. Worse, that bleeding heart Gabrielle had acted like she hadn't treated that animal in a humane manner.
The humane thing to do would've been to put an arrow through her heart when she'd had the chance. But, she hadn't. Not because she'd had a change of heart over what Eponin had done, both to Cordele and Hilaeira. She'd cheated during that challenge. She'd had to of. How else could she defeat the lead hunter during a challenge of truth? Cordele was bigger and stronger and faster and clearly had the advantage. Somehow, though, Eponin had managed to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.
Then, she'd been heralded as champion and hero, the accolades bestowed upon her. She'd seen Hilaeira, clearly infatuated with Eponin, despite being involved with Tyrienne, Megara's youngest daughter and member of the hunter caste. Deep down, that bothered Tynette. After their mother's death, it had been Cordele that petitioned that Hilaeira be allowed to train as a healer. Tynette had hoped that if Hilaeira would never be a hunter herself, she would at least join with one. That seemed a likely scenario until she witnessed the girl fawning over Eponin.
Worse, it seemed even the regent wasn't immune to Eponin's animal magnetism.
Tynette had originally envisioned seeing Ephiny joined with Cordele. As champion and consort, Cordele's union with the regent would go a long way to securing a glorious future for the hunter caste. When that fell through, she'd submitted a list of carefully chosen candidates for the position; all of them from reputable families; nearly all of them from the hunter caste.
Instead, Ephiny had rejected her list of choices and had been...openly flirting...with that...that...mongrel. She didn't care what Gabrielle said; she knew of Eponin's heritage. Or, lack thereof. And, no matter what, she would always think of Eponin as an unworthy beast. Because that's what she was.
The humane thing to do would've been to shoot her through the heart with an arrow. And, Tynette had no intention of being humane. She wanted Eponin to suffer. Oh, how she wanted her to suffer.
Tynette felt the anger boiling up inside of herself, tried to push it back down. She gritted her teeth, stifling the primal scream that would surely awaken the others and have them scrambling towards the roof.
Full of rage, she bolted to her feet, pacing back and forth along the edge of the roof. Below, movement caught her eye and she paused. She waited, eyes searching the streets, watching. Then, she saw it again.
Her eyes narrowed, focusing on the jail and the tiny window. There. Eponin was pressed up against the bars, dolefully staring out the window. Then, she turned, placing her back to the bars. Even from this distance, Tynette could clearly make out the defined muscles of her back and arms. Her hands were fastened tight about the bars.
Tynette shifted, sliding her bow from her shoulder. Keeping her eyes on the distant figure, she drew a single arrow from her quiver and fixed it upon the string. Raising her bow, she drew the string back, her fingers brushing her cheek and ear as she found her anchor position.
Devillare stood at the front door of the inn, peering out into the darkness and the driving rain. Egeria wordlessly stood beside her. Devillare had already made her rounds throughout the rest of the inn, making the bar her last stop.
Lexine had been at her post, wide-eyed and alert despite the lateness of the hour and the fact that no one else was present. When pressed, she revealed that Queen Gabrielle and her champion had retired a little over a candlemark ago. Devillare nodded, telling Lexine that Iphinome would relieve her come first light.
At the guard's startled look, Devillare had merely stated that being short-handed as they were, even the healer's apprentice would be pressed into service. Lexine had looked both relieved and put out at the same time. No doubt, she would be glad for the reprieve. But, she also found it insulting that a healer could perform the same duty she was entrusted with. It implied that her position wasn't as important as those held by the others.
Lexine had wanted to raise protest. That much was clear. To her credit, though, she'd held her tongue. No doubt, she'd come to realize that one good deed by no means made up for what Devillare had coldly termed her dereliction of duty. No, one lone knife wound in the line of duty would not go far in gaining Devillare's approval or respect.
It was time for Xena to relieve her. Given that they had the more physically active of roles to perform, Xena and Devillare had decided they would take shorter duty shifts. Devillare had taken the first half of the night, Xena would take the remainder.
She had no intention of disturbing either Queen's or champion's slumber, though. Besides, she couldn't sleep. So, she'd taken two mugs of warm apple cider from the bar and strolled out into the corridor, handing one to Egeria and gingerly sipping from the other.
She'd been pleased it was Egeria posted at the door. Lexine was just too irritating to be around for any amount of time. And, Bonadea would want to talk. Devillare supposed having a mate that was a cook instead of a warrior would do that to you; make you want to converse. Egeria was a warrior's warrior, though. She understood the true value of silence.
So, they'd stood in silence, both of them sipping from their mugs. Then, Devillare had turned to look out the door, watching as the falling rain mercilessly pounded the muddy streets of Potadeia. Her gaze shifted to the stables, watching for signs of trouble.
She knew there wouldn't be any. Tynette was the lookout posted to the roof at this candlemark. And, despite her animosity, Devillare knew she'd raise the alarm if she spotted anything out of the ordinary.
Devillare's gaze shifted, traveling over the buildings lining the opposite side of the street. Tired eyes paused as they reached the jail. She momentarily glimpsed the outline of metal bars before she turned away.
With a curt nod to Egeria, she aimlessly wandered down the quiet corridor. She heard a noise, paused outside a door. Quietly pushing it open, she stuck her head inside.
The chief scout was restless, murmuring in her sleep. Devillare hesitated, giving second thought before stepping inside. She placed her mug upon the table and turned, brushing fingertips over a sweat-soaked brow. She spoke low words that she wouldn't recall saying a half-candlemark from now.
Solari stilled. Devillare watched the slumbering scout. Eyes were rapidly moving behind closed lids and the captain wondered what the scout was dreaming about.
Climbing trees, tracking things? Devillare wondered. She watched a few more heartbeats before saying, "Pleasant dreams, scout." and slipping back out into the corridor again.
It wasn't until she was all the way back down the corridor and inside the tavern again before she realized she'd left her mug somewhere.
Eponin heard the scraping sound. Felt the bars turn in their moorings. Bits of stone fell, landing upon her broad shoulders. One of the bars gave way completely.
She hefted the loose bar in her hand. It was rusted, but solid. It could be easily be turned into a weapon. Eponin gave it serious thought. If she could loosen one, maybe two more bars, she could be through the window and out on the street. Beneath the cover of the darkness and the storm, she doubted if anyone would even see her. A mad dash to the stables and then - and then -
Eponin placed the bar back in the window, fixing it in place as best she could. She turned, looking back at the inn. With a heavy sigh, she climbed down off the bed and sat down on the edge of the mattress.
On the rooftop, Tynette slowly lowered her bow and relaxed her grip upon the string. She crouched down, arrow still nocked, bow resting across her thighs. She watched, staring through the raindrops at the window of the jail.
Come first light, Lyonene would find her rooted to that same spot.
"Hand's looking better. Keep that bandage off; let it breathe. I want you to practice opening and closing it; help get your flexibility back."
From where she lay with her chin propped up on her hand, Solari's sandalwood eyes watched the warrior princess. The Amazon scout had awoken shortly after dawn with a dry mouth and a full bladder. To Solari's immense mortification, in full-on healer's mode, Xena had helped her with the latter. Without batting an eye, the legendary warrior had taken the full chamber pot and left the room. When she returned, she placed the empty pot on the floor and used the toe of her boot to slide it beneath the bed. Then, she matter-of-factly set about to changing the scout's dressings. Now, she was standing at the table with her back to Solari. Solari watched with detached interest as Xena placed her blood-stained bandages into a burlap sack to be disposed of later.
"Here," Xena said, turning back to Solari and holding out a mug, "Drink this."
Solari made a face.
"Drink it," Xena ordered. Then, for good measure, she towered over the scout, arms folded as she stared down at Solari.
Solari raised the mug, took a tentative sip. She swallowed, then frowned. Sticking out her tongue, she experimentally licked her lips.
"Huh." She took another sip.
"See there, it didn't kill you did it?"
"It's not great." Solari took another sip. "But, it also doesn't taste like Centaur piss."
Xena looked surprised. "Give me that." She snatched the mug back from Solari, took a big gulp. Almost immediately, she spewed the liquid from her mouth. "Ugh! What in Tartarus was that?!?" She asked, wiping her lips and chin with her arm. She raised the mug, suspiciously sniffing at its contents. Xena dipped her middle finger in the liquid, put it in her mouth. "Where'd you get this?"
"Was there when I woke up. Figured you brought it in." Solari reached for the mug, took another deep swallow.
"Solari, that's disgusting."
"Tastes better than that herbal tea you keep trying to pour down my throat."
"That tea tastes the way it does because it makes you better. What's good for you never tastes good." Xena pointed at the mug. "There's just no excuse for that, though. No one enjoys cold cider."
"Still better than your tea."
Solari smacked her lips. She watched as Xena took the mug from her and dumped the contents into the chamber pot. Picking up the packets of herbs Gabrielle had left the night before, she began making a fresh mug of tea. Stirring the mixture with her finger, Xena licked her digit clean before passing the mug to Solari and ordering, "Drink every drop."
Solari complied, nothing bothering to hide her displeasure at the task. "Come on, Xena. I know I'm not a warrior," Solari pleaded between swallows, "But can't I get the same stuff Ep had?"
"What? What are you talking about, Solari?"
"When Ep was hurt, she complained about the taste and they sweetened it for her."
Xena eyed Solari suspiciously. "Sweetened it how?"
"I don't know." Solari performed a one-shoulder shrug. "When I asked Iphinome about it, she wouldn't do it for me."
"You tasted Eponin's tea?"
"You said it tasted sweet. Sweet like honey?"
"Yeah. There was honey in it." Solari frowned. "There was lots of honey. But, there was something else, too. An 'under' taste." Solari searched her memory, trying to remember the exact taste. Being somewhat of a cook herself, she often experimented with different combinations. But, the flavoring she'd tasted in the tea wasn't right, even with the added honey. "There was a hint of something. Like almonds, maybe."
"Hm." Xena rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "You said Iphinome wouldn't make it for you?"
"No. Got real annoyed when I asked her, too. Said it was and I quote All made the same."
Solari's voice trailed off as she saw Xena's displeased expression. "Xena, did I say something wrong?"
"Huh?" Xena shook herself from her thoughts. "No, Solari. It's not you."
"Good." Then, thinking of another reason Xena might be displeased with her, Solari asked, "Xena, Gabrielle?"
"Is busy sawing logs. You know your queen isn't a morning person." Xena smiled reassuringly. "That'll start working soon," she advised, indicating the empty mug she lifted from Solari's lax grasp. "Rest now. I'm sure Gabrielle will come visiting after she wakes up." She thought about it for a heartbeat then, amended it to, "After her breakfast. Um, maybe after seconds."
Solari's eyes were already drifting closed, her blurry vision barely able to make out Xena's form as she placed the empty mug on the table.
Gabrielle was on her third helping of eggs. Xena leaned back in her chair, the front two legs precarious inches off the floor. She sipped from her tankard of ale.
Gods knew Gabrielle wasn't pleased with her for drinking ale first thing in the morning. But, Xena had calmly explained to the bard that it could hardly be considered first thing if she'd already been up for four candlemarks. Not to mention that she'd needed something strong enough to wash that taste of cold cider from her mouth.
"So what?" asked Tynette from three tables distant, "You're saying that warrior wasn't responsible for her actions?"
"First of all," Xena fixed the elder hunter with the look, "private conversation." She pointed a finger between herself and Gabrielle, indicating the conversation had been strictly between the two of them. "Second, yeah; that's what I'm saying."
Tynette took a swig of her drink, spat it upon the floor. "Centaur crap."
Xena lowered the front two legs of her chair to the floor. As she placed her hands palm down on the table, she felt Gabrielle's restraining touch upon her arm.
"Xena." Green eyes openly met blue and refused to blink.
"Fine." Xena sat back down. "Let's just ask, shall we?"
The warrior princess appraisingly looked about the room. Like last night, there were no locals present in the tavern. The lack of patrons in the establishment accounted for Tynette so easily overhearing their conversation.
There was Tynette and Egeria, both sitting at separate tables on opposite ends of the room. Devillare was seated at the table with Egeria. Both Tynette and Egeria were just coming off their duty shifts, Devillare was just going on.
Xena and Gabrielle had chosen the table located nearest the hearth. Darius was behind the bar, as always, wiping down imaginary stains on the wooden surface. Iphinome was standing nearest the outside door, the healer looking very out of place with a belt fastened about her waist and a scabbard at her side.
Xena motioned for her to come over. Iphinome looked wide-eyed. Then, seeing the nod from her queen, she complied.
"You wanted me, champion?" the girl asked, keeping her eyes downcast as she approached the table.
"I was just wondering if you could help clear up a few details for us."
Great. Now what have I done, Iphinome thought to herself. Out loud, she said, "Of course, Queen's Champion."
"After the challenge, Eponin was hurt?"
"Badly. Megara had to ask Pelagia for three of her guards to help transport her on a stretcher to the hospice."
"How long was she confined to the hospice?"
Iphinome looked down at her feet and murmured something unintelligible.
"What was that?" Gabrielle asked.
Iphinome looked up, panic-stricken eyes meeting the gaze of her queen. Gods, why am I always having to confess to some wrong-doing to the Queen; even when it isn't my fault?
In a timid voice, Iphinome admitted, "Eponin was never confined to the hospice."
"What?!?" Gabrielle slapped an open palm on the table, half-rose from her chair. "You're telling me it took three Amazons to carry her to the hospice and she wasn't kept there?"
"Sh-she was champion," a wide-eyed Iphinome stammered.
"Gabrielle," Xena said, "She's only an apprentice healer. It's not her fault."
Gabrielle sat back down. Her livid gaze turned on Tynette.
Tynette coolly looked back at the Queen and nonplussed said, "Tradition."
"Sucks," was Gabrielle's one-word response.
"Nonetheless. Her presence was required." Tynette's smirk grew by proportions. "And she participated fully in the evening's events."
"Now, hang on," Egeria spoke up. "I saw Eponin that night also and I'm saying there's no way she was doing what you're intimating. She was there, but it was obvious that she was hurting."
"Exactly. She was hurting; she wasn't dead." Tynette's gaze went to the elder warrior. "Devillare?"
Thus far, Devil had been quiet. At the sound of her name, she boldly met and held Tynette's gaze. She knew what the hunter was doing; trying to bait her like one of her prized kills in the forest.
"I was there in an official capacity as escort to the regent."
Devillare let that statement hang in the air, allowing them to draw their own conclusions as to what that might have meant. No doubt, Egeria judged it to be that she was there as a guard and protector. From Tynette's smirk, she had drawn an entirely different conclusion. Devillare didn't care what they thought, as long as it didn't require her to divulge what she had witnessed at Eponin's campsite, how she'd taken the regent by the elbow and guided her away before Ephiny could witness more.
Gabrielle was staring at her, both blonde eyebrows raised. What the Queen's consort was thinking, Devillare couldn't fathom from her expression. As for Iphinome; Devillare couldn't care less.
"Where is Ephiny?" Gabrielle suddenly asked. "It's not like her to sleep in."
"Tall, curly blonde?" asked Darius as he appeared with another plate of eggs for Gabrielle. "She came in a couple of candlemarks ago, asked for two plates and went back towards her room with them."
Darius would have offered more, but he found his tongue thick in his mouth as he noticed all the sets of eyes glaring imaginary daggers at him.
"Thank you, Darius." Gabrielle reached up, patted the clearly terrified man on the arm.
Darius felt his head rapidly nodding, was unable to control the motion. Still nodding, he scurried back behind the bar and towards the relative safety of the kitchen.
"I think we're getting off topic here," Xena said, trying to rein in the conversation. She turned back to Iphinome. "So, Eponin wasn't in the hospice. She was still under a healer's care, though, right?"
Iphinome nodded. "Megara made it clear that we needed to keep an eye on Artemis' champion."
Xena's gaze flicked to Gabrielle. That's what she was searching for. "You and Hilaeira both took care of Eponin, then?"
"Um - " Once again, Iphinome looked to her feet.
Gabrielle reached out, placing a reassuring hand on the girl's arm, speaking in a soothing voice. "It's okay, Iphinome. No one's in trouble. We just need to know."
"I - " Iphinome looked up, shook her head. "We were meant to. I didn't, though. I mean, other than her bath. We both helped with that." Xena's brow arched and Gabrielle's cheeks reddened. Neither said a word, though. A look from Xena ensured that no one else would, either. "Hilaeira asked me to let her take care of Eponin alone. I wanted to enjoy the evening, so I agreed."
"So, it was only for that one evening? You tended to Eponin after that?"
Iphinome thought carefully before answering. She had heard of what had transpired when Tynette had called Eponin mongrel. As apprentice healer, she'd seen more than one patient that Xena had put her infamous pinch on. It was an experience that Iphinome was determined not to have.
"I - I would have," she said, thinking it imperative based on her prior use of that very same word, to prove that she'd held no bias towards a patient's care. "Whenever she would come by the hospice for more tea I would offer, but Hilaeira would always take charge."
That surprised several of them. "Eponin would go by the hospice often?"
Iphinome nodded. Before she could speak, Tynette interrupted. "That warrior was after more than tea."
"More like that healer was after more than a hunter." Egeria snorted. "All the warriors saw her."
"Warriors can't see a bulls-eye at twenty paces. That's why you all carry those big swords around instead of a precision weapon like a bow."
"Stop it. Both of you." Gabrielle shot warning looks at both Egeria and Tynette. "Egeria, explain."
"The Regent ordered that I take over the armory and some of Eponin's training sessions. She asked all of us to not spar with Ep until she was healed." Egeria looked to Gabrielle to make certain her Queen knew she'd only been acting under her Regent's commands. "Even though we wouldn't practice with her, that didn't stop Eponin from coming out to watch every chance she got. I didn't mind. She never interfered with my teaching. Hilaeira did, though."
"Hilaeira interfered how?"
"She was causing a distraction. She'd come out to the field, always bringing Eponin a mug of tea, checking her injuries."
"How was that a distraction?"
"Well," Egeria hesitated as she pushed a hand through her thick shock of red hair. "Most healers don't come by the training field to check on their patients."
Tynette said, "She was only being diligent in her duties."
"Go on, Egeria," Gabrielle encouraged the warrior.
"The way she was always touching on Eponin; I've never had a healer touch me that way. Anyway, everyone knows she's supposed to be with that hunter, Tyrienne. Her behavior, it kind of started the tongues to wagging."
"I'm sure Hilaeira didn't mean anything by it," protested Iphinome. "After the challenge, though, she was just so intrigued by Eponin."
"Thing is, either Eponin didn't notice or didn't care because she didn't stop her."
"That doesn't sound like Eponin," said Gabrielle. "She's never been one for public displays." Gods knows I could never even get her to dance with me, she thought, remembering how on her first night with the Amazons, the warrior had dragged her out to the dance circle...then left her floundering there as she went to stand and watch on the sidelines. Every subsequent dance she'd tried to get the weapons master to participate in had garnered the same result.
"Other than that, was Eponin behaving out of character?" asked Xena. "Was she irritable? Did she exhibit mood swings or irrational behavior?"
"You mean besides raping that girl?" asked Tynette. A look from Gabrielle had the elder hunter settling back in her chair and clamping her mouth shut.
"She'd complain about headaches and a buzzing in her ears," said Egeria. "Think she told Solari that the only thing that would make it stop was that tea. A ringing in the ears' normal after a big fight though, right?"
"Directly after, sure." Hearing Egeria's unspoken question, Xena added, "If it persists, though, you need to get it checked out."
"There you go," pointed out Tynette. "Hilaeira was only seeing to the well-being of a patient. Eponin mistook her concern as a healer for something more."
Devillare, who had been carefully quiet during the entire conversation, finally couldn't stand it anymore. "Eponin would never - "
" - She did," challenged Tynette.
The entire room erupted into argument with Egeria and Devillare vocally supporting Eponin and Tynette and Iphinome defending Hilaeira's reputation.
"Hang on. Hold it." When Gabrielle's protests fell on death ears and the shouting continued, Xena placed two fingers in her mouth and gave a sharp whistle. Immediately, the room fell silent. Xena gave a self-satisfied smirk. Gabrielle turned to her warrior. "Xena, you were saying?"
"What I was saying, is that someone's behavior doesn't change overnight for no reason. The headache, the buzzing in the ears, that could have been explained away by the fight. For a day or two. But, it had been over a moon since the challenge, right?"
There were nods of agreement.
"The fact that the tea would take those symptoms away...that fact that only the tea would take them away...Hilaeira was dosing Eponin's tea. The headaches would ease up while Hilaeira was giving her the tea because Eponin was addicted to the drug. My guess is that as time went by, Ep started needing more and more of that tea." Xena turned to Iphinome, "That's when she started going by the hospice to seek Hilaeira out, wasn't it?"
"Oh my Gods."
Xena accepted that as confirmation.
"Hilaeira was the victim," Tynette protested, "Don't tell me you're placing the blame for her violation at her own door!"
"At the very least, she was culpable," said Gabrielle. "Her actions are questionable. She'll need to give us some answers when we get back to the Nation."
"You have no proof." Tynette was growing more flustered by the heartbeat. "This is nothing more than one of your bardly tales."
This time, it was Xena's stare that was turned on Tynette. Whereas the Queen's eyes had been burning with anger, her champion's were ice-cold. Tynette felt a shiver pass through her bones.
"Solari tasted the tea. It didn't affect her. Probably because she only had a taste and she's...more of a free-spirit than Eponin. Other than ale, I doubt if Ep has ever indulged in anything that might impair her senses. Even after all this time, though, Solari was able to describe the distinctive flavor to me."
"She's biased," said Tynette. At the blank looks, she added, "Rumor around the village is that Eponin's been stroking her tailfeathers, too."
"That's a lie." Devillare's voice was deathly low as she challenged Tynette. "They can hardly tolerate each other for long periods of time." Grey eyes were razor-sharp as they pointedly focused on the elder hunter. "Much like you and Lyonene."
Tynette swallowed the lump in her throat, unable to give voice to exactly what had transpired between her and her nemesis the night of the feast. Devillare knew. It had been revealed during council sessions. But, it would make Tynette look like a fool if she revealed her transgression publicly.
"The properties Solari described sound like a very powerful narcotic; one that I brought back from Chin and gave to Megara for safekeeping. I'm sure if we check her supply cabinet, it'll be diminished," continued Xena.
Tynette wanted to insinuate that Megara herself might be guilty of sampling the narcotic, but she knew hers was the only voice of dissent and she'd been much too vocal already. Best to pick my battles.
Xena saw the look that crossed Tynette's face, knew she wanted to offer more protest. Xena also knew that by the time they returned to Amazon territory, all traces of the narcotic would be completely out of Eponin's system. Unless Hilaeira admitted to drugging Eponin, it would be the warrior's word against the healer's. And, as much as she hated to admit it, Tynette was right. The Amazons would not take kindly to the victim being accused of wrongdoing.
I still have one compelling piece of evidence, thought Xena, that I can use when we get back. Something that no one can refute.
"What about Pony?" asked Gabrielle, concerned for the well-being of her weapons master and friend. "Is she okay? Is she still addicted?"
"I've seen Eponin. I'm certain the narcotic was heavy in her system and I think if we ask, she'll admit that there was a time when she was pretty sick. Even if she herself doesn't realize the reason for her illness," Xena said as a general announcement to everyone. To reassure Gabrielle, she said, "She's through the worst of it. She'll be fine."
"I want to see her," Gabrielle said.
"My Queen, I must protest - "
" - It's much too dangerous."
Gabrielle repeated herself, "I want to see her."
Just then, the tavern door slammed open. Immediately, Xena placed herself in front of Gabrielle. Devillare drew her sword and Egeria hefted her labrys. Even Iphinome, albeit awkwardly, drew the sword from the sheath at her side.
"Where is she?" demanded Herodotus. "I demand to see Gabrielle."
"Father, what is it?"
"Don't call me that. You know you're no daughter of mine. Not anymore."
Gabrielle winced. That hurt. But, she had to know. "Mother? Lila?"
"Are home doing women's work as they're supposed to be." If he noticed the sudden bristling in the room, Herodotus paid no heed. "We know you're responsible for this," he accused, jabbing a finger in Gabrielle's face, "and I'm here to tell you that you won't get away with it."
Most of the swords had been lowered when the Amazons realized it was only one lone man entering the tavern and not a band of Amazon renegades. Xena's fingers still hovered near her waist and they noticeably twitched as Gabrielle's father invaded her personal space.
With that one word, Xena's hand was distancing itself from her chakram and temptation. Devillare watched with interest, idly wondering how it was that Gabrielle was so accurately able to convey her intent with just the mention of her consort's and champion's name. She seemed to say it the same way, the same tone, the same invocation, yet Xena always knew Gabrielle's exact meaning.
It's a connection I never had with Reyvanne, crossed Devillare's mind.
Xena didn't like Gabrielle calling her off with Herodotus so close. She knew Gabrielle needed to stand on her own, though. She had to confront her own demons...and her own father. It did make her breathe somewhat easier when Gabrielle placed some space between herself and the clearly angry man.
She didn't back away from him. To do so would be to show that she was intimidated. Instead, she turned and paced a few steps away from him. Green eyes met blue and Xena nodded once in approval. Gabrielle's strategy had effectively moved her away from Herodotus' reach and saved face at the same time. She'd proven to both Herodotus and the Amazons that she could act without Xena's interference. And, if Herodotus decided to act like even more of a Centaur's backside; well, there was always the chakram.
"Lower your voice and speak in a manner respectful of a Queen and we can address whatever wrongdoing it is you think I may have done," Gabrielle commanded.
"Queen? Queen of my - " Herodotus' words broke off as he suddenly felt a blade at his throat.
Gabrielle was surprised to see that it was Devillare's sword pressed to her father's throat. Then again, as Captain of the Guard, she was sworn to protect the Queen with her very life. Not that Gabrielle or anyone else thought that a lifelong farmer like Herodotus could pose much of a threat against a seasoned warrior.
"As I was saying; we can either discuss this calmly and rationally," Gabrielle cocked her head to the side as she watched Herodotus' face for reaction, "or you may leave now."
Herodotus licked his lips, eyes darted about the room. "Okay," he said, "Okay."
With a curt nod from Gabrielle, Devillare's blade was removed. The captain moved to a position behind Gabrielle, near Xena. But, not before purposely jostling Herodotus with her shoulder on her way past. The man was knocked off-kilter, but recovered.
"Herodotus?" Darius had heard the commotion from the kitchen, ventured out to see what was going on. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah." Herodotus acknowledged, even as he backed off, placing some distance between himself and Gabrielle's protectors.
Xena and that bitch that had held the blade to his throat were flanking Gabrielle, guarding her. There were two more of them standing off to the side, one of them sporting the biggest axe he'd ever seen. The one by the door, she was so slight of build, he didn't consider her a real threat. Still, the danger couldn't be ignored; he was effectively surrounded by them. With Darius present now, his male pride wouldn't allow him to back down.
"Yeah," Herodotus repeated, his courage returning now that he'd placed some distance between Xena and himself, "I was just letting them know that we don't want that harlot in our jail."
"What?" Gabrielle asked, unable to keep the surprise out of her tone.
"You heard me."
Xena arched a brow, started to take a step forward. Gabrielle's hand on her forearm stilled her momentum.
Seeing the warrior stop in her tracks only made Herodotus more determined to feel his oats. His voice rang with disdain as he said, "We don't want that harlot in our jail. Her presence makes all of Potadeia a target if the rest of those wild savages get a hankering to come and bust her out."
"Eponin is not with the raiders," said Gabrielle. Her voice trembled with anger as she spoke, "There won't be anyone coming to set her free."
An unspoken look passed between Gabrielle and Xena. While it was true the renegades wouldn't be coming to rescue Eponin, it was also true that her life might be in danger if they came riding into town and she was trapped in a cell with no weapons and no way out.
"With them or not, doesn't matter. We don't want any of your kind in our town. There's talk that the only reason we were attacked in the first place is because they were after your bunch, anyway. As soon as you Amazons leave, Potadeia will be safe."
"Now, Herodotus," admonished Darius. "You can't know that. Those raiders were already riding into town when Gabrielle and her friend arrived. As for the Amazons here, they risked their lives trying to protect us."
"Against their own kind. We can take care of ourselves. Have been for generations."
Like you took care of those raiders when I saved Gabrielle and your womenfolk my first trip through here? thought Xena.
"Don't let the fact that they're women fool you, Herodotus. These aren't slavers looking for some of our women and children to sell on the auction blocks. These women are trained warriors looking for a kill."
"To kill them, not us." Herodotus didn't much like explaining himself, especially to someone he felt should be on his side. Instead, Darius had been with those - those half-naked savages ever since they'd shown up on his doorstep. "Like I said, doesn't matter. We want them gone. All of them."
"That's not possible," protested Gabrielle. "We have wounded. They can't be moved and I won't leave them here unprotected with no one to care for them."
Herodotus' eyes narrowed, his lips tightened. "How long before you can move them out of here?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I can't say. Our medical supplies are diminished and it's not as if the shopkeepers will sell to Amazons."
"I'll talk to the others, see what can be arranged," said Herodotus, then added, "Just medical supplies, though. Nothing else."
"We need food to keep up the strength of the injured. Darius' stores won't last."
"Darius was in Garth's place a few days before you got here. He's got enough sacks of grain to last a few more days. Consider it incentive to have your injured on their feet before the food runs out."
"At least allow us supplies to tend to our horses, then."
"Fine," agreed Herodotus.
Gabrielle nodded her head in agreement. In truth, she knew Darius had enough food stored in his cellar, yet. That wasn't what she'd really been after. Hearing Herodotus put a stipulation on the medical supplies, though, she knew she had to be crafty to get what she really needed. By allowing him the power to turn down their request for food, it made him more likely to agree to the next thing she asked.
Give and take. Take and give, thought Gabrielle. All part of being a good negotiator.
"That harlot will have to be removed from the jail."
"Of course. I'll have Eponin escorted into our custody within the candlemark." Something else I wanted, too. Gabrielle stole a look at Tynette. The elder hunter looked fit to be tied. If it had been Gabrielle or anyone else that had suggested it, then Tynette would have vehemently protested. That it was the terms of a negotiation between her queen and a town elder, she had no other recourse but to keep quiet and accept the terms of the agreement.
"I'll go back and tell the others," Herodotus was saying. "But you need to understand that one way or the other, your time in Potadeia will be short-lived."
Gabrielle's self-congratulations were cut short. Every vein in her neck was visible and there was a underlying shortness to her words. "Believe me, as soon as possible, we will take care of the renegade threat and leave. The Amazons will never darken your doorstep again."
"As far as I'm concerned, that time can not come soon enough."
"Herodotus!" Darius could no longer remain silent on the matter. "She's your daughter."
"She's one of those wild, half-naked savages and the sooner she's gone from here, the better."
"Herodotus. Stop acting the fool and come have a drink."
"Have a care, Darius." Herodotus' face was a deep red as he turned on the innkeeper. "I'm sure you've noticed that none of us locals have been in since you started taking in and serving harlots."
Several of those harlots, Xena included, were already moving in on Herodotus. The older man swiftly backed towards the door, pushing himself past Iphinome. Just before he ducked back outside into the rain, he offered up one more threat. "Amazons won't be around forever. Shame if you have to close up shop on account of diminished business."
The door forcefully slammed shut behind the farmer formerly known as Gabrielle's father.
"Darius?" Even though her father had just struck her a mortal blow, Gabrielle still placed the innkeeper's needs above her own. For now, she was drawing her strength from Xena's presence. Later, when they were alone, she'd be able to give in to her feelings. "I'm sorry if -"
Darius immediately cut Gabrielle off. "Herodotus is just a bag full of hot air. The lot of them are. That's a threat they can't back up. I provide more than just mead and ale. I'm the only establishment in town that serves a decent meal." He snorted. "Where else are they gonna go? That pigsty down by the mill? Like any of the so-called respectable citizens would be seen eating with common mill workers." He swatted his bar rag on his thigh. "Don't care what Herodotus says. You Amazons stay as long as you want."
Gabrielle frowned. Potadeia was a farming community. As such, most of the residents grew and ate their own food. In all her seasons of living in Potadeia, very rarely did Gabrielle remember eating a meal at the inn. There was that one time for momma's birthday.
"Darius, are you sure we're not causing trouble for you?"
"Nah. The day I can't handle a bunch of old coots on the town's board..." Darius' words trailed off. It wasn't a sentence he'd really intended to finish. In his mind, it didn't matter what the folks around town had to say. Amazon coin was as good as anyone else's and they'd already spent enough in his establishment that he didn't care if Herodotus and his ilk ever set foot place in his tavern again. Who knows; maybe after the Amazons leave, me and the missus will pack up and get away from here. Business has never been that good. I hear a man can make a killing in one of those port towns down by the sea.
"That's it, then?" asked Tynette. "We're just going to nurse our wounded back to health and go home with our tails tucked between our legs?"
"You heard Herodotus." Xena fairly snarled at the elder as she folded both arms over her massive breastplate and glared. "Potadeia doesn't want the Amazons here."
"But the renegades - "
"Won't attack until the weather improves. The inn is already fortified. They'll lose more than half their numbers in a direct assault. More with a skilled archer positioned on the roof."
"Agreed," said Devillare. "Furthermore, given the current mood of the townies, I suggest none of us leave the inn unless absolutely necessary."
"Sound advice." Xena was rubbing her chin, already thinking of multiple reasons they would need to leave the inn. "We'll have to go in groups of two to feed and care for the horses."
"I can help with that," Darius said. "Jasper, the blacksmith, is my brother-in-law. If I slip him a few dinars, he'll care for your horses." Would probably do it for free considering how much he likes the animals.
"Thank you, Darius."
Gabrielle pulled five coins from her purse and placed them in the innkeeper's palm. No one but Xena noticed that as he was placing the dinars in his apron pocket, he diverted three of the coins to a different pocket. She didn't say anything, but a knowing look passed between her and Darius. What he did with the money, who he swindled was no business of hers. As long as he didn't cheat Gabrielle.
"If you don't mind, when they say we can have the medicinal supplies, I'd like for you to accompany Iphinome to the shop."
"Of course," agreed Darius, already picturing the amount of money he could pocket on such an excursion.
"I'll go with Iphinome," Xena smoothly squashed Darius' plans. "Two healers together, give us a chance to compare ingredients and swap techniques."
Gabrielle's brows rose. A half-dozen possibilities ran through her mind as to the true reason behind Xena's offer. She didn't trust the Potadeians and didn't want to leave the young healer exposed to danger. She didn't trust the Potadeians to not gouge them on the price. She didn't trust Iphinome's experience to pick out what they really needed. The bard didn't know Xena's precise reason, but she did know enough to abide by her lover's wishes. "Of course. Iphinome?"
The girl's eyes widened and she could only dumbly nod her head in agreement.
"Good." Xena smiled that not-so-innocent smile of hers that said she'd just gotten away with something. "Now, let's see about fetching Eponin from that cell."
"I want to go," Gabrielle said, her demands of earlier by no means forgotten.
Being captain of the guard, Devillare took it upon herself to fall upon her sword and offer protest, "My Queen, it's not safe."
Gabrielle pointedly stared at the elder warrior. Devillare stared right back at her queen. She'd been a warrior for a lifetime, a royal guard, then captain for nearly as long. If there was one thing she knew how to deal with, it was a stubborn royal.
"Gabrielle." Xena smoothly interrupted before the captain found herself locked in a battle she couldn't hope to win. "You don't want to visit Ep when she's locked behind bars." She looked Gabrielle in the eye, trying to silently imply that to do so would be to needlessly embarrass the warrior. "You can see her as soon as we bring her in."
"She's a dangerous felon," interrupted Tynette. "You can't just bring her in here with us."
"You heard Herodotus. She can't stay in the jail."
"I won't stand for it. She could slit our throats in our sleep."
"Then sleep with one eye open," was Egeria's advice.
"It'll be okay." Xena speared the elder with a look, daring her to open her mouth again.
To her surprise, Tynette did. "What are you planning on doing with her; chaining her to the bar?"
"Enough!" Gabrielle shouted. "All of you. Eponin is staying with us. Period. Is that understood?"
There were various degrees of mumbling.
"I said, is that understood?"
"Yes, my Queen," the voices rang clear.
Xena bit back her smirk. Her little bard, effectively kowtowing a bunch of wild savages. "I'll go get Eponin," she said, pursing her lips and placing a kiss to the top of Gabrielle's head. "You get to tell Ephiny."
Gabrielle hung her head, her mighty victory having been effectively quashed. "Oh, gods."
Solari attempted to breathe around her laughter. Gods knew her leg was throbbing and she could feel every one of those double-stitches Iphinome had weaved into her flesh. Yet, she'd never been in better spirits.
"Do you - do you - " Solari gasped as she tried to get the words out " - remember when she tried to make that quail dinner for Gabrielle?"
"I resent that everyone thinks I'm deadlier in the kitchen than on the battlefield," Ephiny mimicked her best Xena impersonation.
"As I recall, killing the quail wasn't the issue."
"Mm." Ephiny sobered. "It took us a solid moon to rebuild the dining hut."
"Yeah." Solari quieted for a heartbeat, then broke into laughter again. "Who would've thought those jars of grease Mytilda stored would be so flammable?"
"Flammable?" A blonde eyebrow nearly touched Ephiny's braided crown. "Those things exploded. I still remember how that one shot twenty feet into the air and landed on the roof of the cook's hut."
"Ah, well it was good for a laugh and Mytilda ended up getting a new kitchen, dining hut and living quarters out of the deal. That Xena helped to build."
"Yep," agreed Ephiny. "One thing you can say about that Xena; she always fixes what she breaks."
Ephiny grew silent. Solari watched the pensive look on Ephiny's face, wondering what memories from the past had made her packmate suddenly sober.
She was in her now familiar position, stretched out on her stomach on the bed, a pillow propped beneath her chin and arms. When Ephiny had initially opened the door and popped her curly locks inside, Solari had made an effort to hide her injured hand beneath the pillow. As Ephiny had settled on the floor at the foot of the bed in front of her and they'd fallen into conversation, though, she became less self-conscious and allowed her packmate to see her wound. As expected, Ephiny hadn't gone running from the room.
To the contrary, Ephiny had actually reached out and turned her hand palm up so that her fingertips were touching Solari's. Then, she gently lifted, hazel eyes unblinking as she stared in rapt fascination. Then, as if it were the most natural thing in the known world to have a friend with an appendage that looked like that, Ephiny had calmly lowered her hand back onto the mattress and proceeded to feed her eggs from the plate she had brought in.
"I can do that myself," Solari protested, even as she opened her mouth to receive the forkful.
"I know you can." Ephiny's wry smirk made an appearance. "But, I'd rather not have to clean it up when you manage to spill it all over yourself."
"I've gotten better."
Ephiny couldn't argue with that. Solari had gotten better at using her left hand - out of sheer necessity.
"You have. Still, can't take you anywhere, can I?" Ephiny asked, reaching out and pointedly scooping up a bit of egg that had managed to work its way into her cleavage.
"Hey. That was for later," protested Solari. "Besides, you can't blame me for that. You're the one feeding me, remember?"
"Mm." Ephiny popped the bit of egg into her mouth. "Needs seasoning."
That had started them on their conversation of food. That, in turn, had led to a discussion of the infamous warrior princess' lack of culinary skills.
"Xena's starting me on mobility exercises. That way, I won't be completely useless."
Ephiny unexpectedly grew quiet and still.
"Hey, stop that." Solari reached out with her left hand, awkwardly tried to smooth the furrow in her packmate's brow. "You'll get lines."
Ephiny caught Solari's hand, returning it to the bed. She forced a smile. "Wouldn't want that, not with the council looking for me a potential mate and all." Ephiny wasn't sure what had prompted that response. She felt suddenly awkward, as was the silence that fell between them. She picked up another forkful of eggs, aimed them at Solari's mouth.
Solari caught Ephiny's hand, steadied her aim as she opened her mouth. She chewed and swallowed quickly, not allowing Ephiny a chance to pull her hand back.
Ephiny noticed the change in Solari's eyes, heard the shallowness of her breathing, saw the increased rise and fall of her chest.
"You know, whenever I fantasized about you serving me breakfast in bed, this wasn't quite what I had envisioned."
"Solari - "
Solari cut Ephiny off with a kiss. It was soft and tender with Solari's tongue fluttering against Ephiny's lips like butterfly wings. It lasted only a heartbeat or two. When Solari pulled back, Ephiny opened her eyes and found her packmate softly smiling back at her.
Ephiny couldn't help licking her lips in response. "Solari, you know I love you, but - "
"Shush." Solari placed a finger to Ephiny's lips. "That wasn't about being your consort. It was just about being your friend. Of course, if the job's still open..."
"Tell you what." Solari smiled despite the ache in her chest. "If by the time we reach our crone years and we're both single, what say we give it a go?"
Ephiny hesitated, biting her bottom lip as she remembered what Gabrielle had intimated earlier. The last thing she wanted to do was to hurt Solari or lead her on. But, it was such a random thing to ask and their crone years were still so far off...and Solari had been and always would be her packmate. Nothing would ever change that. Ephiny's eyes sparkled. "Okay."
"Okay?" Solari's voice rose an octave. "Promise?"
"Promise." It warmed Ephiny's heart to see Solari so happy. Her easy smile widened in response. Not allowing herself time to think too much about it, she quickly darted in, placing a peck on Solari's lips. It lacked the intensity of Solari's kiss, but the action came as such a shock that if the brunette had been standing, it would have knocked her flat on her tailfeathers. "Sealed with a kiss."
"Solari?" Gabrielle called out as she knocked once on the door and pushed it open. Her eyes widened as she just caught sight of Ephiny quickly moving away. Were they -
"Hey, Gabrielle. Come in. Join us. We're just having breakfast. Want some?" Ephiny was both uncharacteristically chipper and chatty.
"As much as I could use something to eat," Gabrielle placed a hand to her toned stomach, "I'm afraid this is official business."
Ephiny instantly sobered, her smile falling as she hastened to her feet. "What is it? What's happened?"
Likewise, Solari was pressing the palm of her left hand into the mattress and pushing up. Gabrielle's hand to her shoulder effectively stopped the scout's attempt at rising.
"Stay," she ordered.
In truth, as they all knew, Solari had no choice but to comply. Sense of duty effectively satisfied with her Queen's command, the chief scout settled down upon her pallet, listening as Gabrielle and Ephiny stood over her and spoke.
"You've heard Eponin is back?"
"I've heard she's in the town jail."
"Yeah. Well," It didn't escape Gabrielle's notice that both Ephiny and Solari bristled at the name of their former weapons master. "Apparently the good citizens of Potadeia have issue with harlots in their cells."
A sickening feeling crawled through Ephiny's gut. "Is she - "
"Xena and Devillare are escorting her to the inn."
"They can't bring her here," Solari protested.
Ephiny visibly swallowed, but didn't say anything. She couldn't. She had no words.
"There's more. They're demanding we leave Potadeia as soon as possible."
"We can't." Ephiny's eyes darted to Solari's prone figure.
It was a good thing the scout was stretched out on her stomach and could only hear instead of see the conversation between queen and regent. Otherwise, command or not, Solari would have found a way off that bed.
Gabrielle silently nodded her head, indicating that she shared Ephiny's concerns over Solari's injuries. "I've negotiated time. But we need to put our heads together and come up with a solution. Ignorant or not, we can't just abandon the Potadeians to the renegades." There was a pause before Gabrielle added, "First, though, we need to deal with the issue of Eponin."
Ephiny nodded curtly, swallowed harshly. Her tone was strained as she said, "Yes, my Queen."
Gabrielle turned and left the room, awaiting Ephiny in the corridor. There was much more she wanted to discuss with her regent, but felt she couldn't in front of Solari. The chief scout was still amongst her most trusted friends, but Gabrielle felt that the brunette was just too close to be objective.
As Ephiny made her way around the bed and towards the door, she felt Solari's hand close about hers. Despite being ill-suited at her left hand, the scout still possessed enough strength to effectively tug the regent to a halt. Ephiny stopped and looked down to see sandalwood eyes peering up at her.
"Eph, please." There was an uncharacteristic pleading in both voice and eyes. "Don't go."
Ephiny's heart constricted. "I must." She squeezed Solari's fingers within her own. "I'm the regent."
Then, Ephiny's fingers loosened and she let Solari's hand fall from her grasp. With that defiant tilt of her chin that all Amazons had seemingly mastered and that wry smirk that was hers alone, Ephiny squared her shoulders and marched out of the room.
Solari wanted to call her back. She wanted to reach out and grab Ephiny's hand and never let go. She saw the door close, heard the click of the latch as it shut all the way. It reminded her of the finality of the door being closed and the key being turned in the lock when they'd been imprisoned during Velasca's short-lived coup.
She'd had such a feeling of dread despair in the pit of her stomach then that strongly rivaled what she was feeling now. She'd feared for both her life and for that of Ephiny. Then, she'd had the strength to not give into hopelessness. Then, she'd had Ephiny at her side.
Now, Ephiny was gone. Dread despair took root and grew, spreading from her gut to her heart. Her throat tightened and burned. Hot tears stung her eyes. Ephiny was gone and she was alone.
Xena maintained both her grip on Eponin's bicep and her ground-eating pace as she crossed the street. She kept her gaze level, her eyes straight ahead as she diligently ignored both the bone-chilling raindrops falling about her head and shoulders and streaming down, settling in the cleavage of her impressive breastplate as well as the ice-cold stares she could feel coming from the citizens of Potadeia watching them from behind partially closed doors and windows.
Likewise, Eponin also did her best to ignore both. Whereas Xena was defiant and bold in her actions, though, as she had thought all Amazons would inherently be...Eponin was almost...was 'timid' even a word that could be applied to an Amazon? Xena wondered. It was certainly never a word that she would have ever associated with any of them. Most certainly not with their weapons master. Former weapons master echoed in her thoughts as the warrior princess couldn't help but be reminded of her friend's current troubles.
Her behavior was certainly uncharacteristic. Nearly as uncharacteristic as the crimes that she had been accused of. Xena knew there was more to Eponin than some one-dimensional character that a bard might describe in a child's tale. She'd seen her loud, bold and boisterous, both on the practice field and with a few ales in her belly. She'd seen her reflective and contemplative, especially when planning strategy. She'd even witnessed the mighty Amazon warrior bumbling and bashful and shy.
Before her relationship with Gabrielle had turned from friendship into something more, she'd once visited a brothel house in Athens owned by an old acquaintance, with Solari and Eponin in tow. Solari had immediately disappeared upstairs with two of the girls. Despite several of the girls openly flirting with her and their ill-disguised advances, coupled with the owner's promise of discretion, Eponin was still awkwardly standing in a corner; even as Xena herself chased two willing girls and the owner of the establishment up the stairs. Ep had been waiting in that same corner when Solari and Xena staggered down the stairs the next morning and Xena had often wondered if the weapons master hadn't stayed rooted to that same spot all night.
Yep, Xena had seen many sides to Eponin, first warrior and weapons master to the Amazon Nation. Just as she knew there were many more sides of her that she'd yet to see; including some of those that Gabrielle had confided to having witnessed.
It made sense to Xena. The facets of Eponin that she saw as a warrior were different from the facets that Gabrielle was permitted to see as a bard, a friend, a queen. Just as Gabrielle was permitted to see more of Xena than anyone else ever would, she knew that none of them, not even Gabrielle as observant as she was, knew all there was to know of Eponin.
Yet, in all Xena's seasons of knowing Eponin, she would never have thought she'd ever see her...totally and utterly defeated.
Eponin's broad shoulders were slumped, her head was down, her eyes watching her feet. Just as she had been ever since they'd opened the cell and dragged her out. Eponin hadn't spoken a word, not even to inquire as to where she was being taken or what fate awaited her.
Not that she needed to. Tynette was being vocal enough for anyone within a country mile to know what was happening - and how displeased she was about it.
"Mark my words, this incident will not go without protest."
"So we've all heard," mumbled Devillare.
The captain of the guard and the elder hunter were no more than three paces behind Xena and Eponin, despite the blistering pace the warrior princess was setting.
"I mean formal protest," Tynette sputtered with indignation. "And don't think your actions as captain will not be called into question."
"I have fulfilled the letter of my obligation as captain of the guard."
"You have done nothing to prevent this outrageousness from happening."
"This outrageousness was commanded by my Queen." Devillare deliberately moved into Tynette's path so her counterpart would be forced to stop. She heard the sounds of Xena's and Eponin's boots as they moved on, never slowing their pace. Devillare looked the elder hunter in the eye. "You would do well to remember that she is your Queen, too."
Tynette steadfastly met Devillare's gaze. "I need no reminder of what is right and wrong."
"Neither do I."
"Yet you've done nothing to secure the prisoner."
Devillare bristled. She quickly tilted her head, causing the vertebra in her neck to pop. "The bindings about her wrists have been left secure. You," she poked Tynette in the chest, "mark my words; I will not," another chest poke, "place leg shackles on the prisoner. Any prisoner."
Tynette's lips curled into a snarl. "If she escapes again, I will personally ask for a formal inquiry to ascertain your prejudice and bias in this matter."
"I welcome any formal inquiry." Devillare stood impassively, arms folded over her chest as she deliberately continued to block Tynette's path. Even with her back turned to Xena and Eponin, she could clearly identify the heartbeat in which their boots traveled up the flight of steps and through the doorway of the inn, the soft click of the lock sliding into place as the door was closed behind them.
Ephiny stood in the corridor, stiff-arm braced against the wall for support. She was breathing as though she'd just taken a staff to the gut. Her blood thundered in her ears, preventing her from hearing more of Gabrielle's words.
Gabrielle had said Eponin was here. Not just here in Potadeia. Not just here in the town jail. Here. In this very building.
More than that. Gabrielle said they were on the way to the room she'd claimed as her office. She said that Devillare and Xena were bringing Eponin there. Ephiny's breathing increased as hazel eyes pinpointed the closed double doors at the end of the corridor.
I'm not ready for this. Yes, she'd been prepared to act for duty and honor. Yes, she'd ridden Hades-bent for Potadeia to both protect her Queen's family and to bring Eponin to justice. And yes, it had been her infamous temper that had fueled her determination; her anger giving her the resolve to track Eponin this far.
But, it had never sunk in that once she found Eponin, she'd have to confront her. Or, she'd simply refused to face that very distinct possibility. Perhaps she'd thought that Solari or Devillare or any other member of the guard would be the one to confront Eponin. Maybe somewhere in the back of her mind, she thought they'd never catch Eponin, no matter how many scouts she had tracking her. Better yet, she hadn't given thought to what would happen after she'd found Eponin. At all.
She'd deluded herself, living in a fantasy world, not seeing anything beyond the mission she'd undertaken. Now, reality came crashing down upon her like a tidal wave.
Ephiny reached a hand to her spinning head, her fingers touching her braided leather crown. Fingertips came into contact with the center medallion and it grounded her. Loyalty, responsibility, duty, my regent Artemis' voice echoed inside her head.
"Loyalty, duty, responsibility," Ephiny repeated beneath her breath. "I am the regent. I am both controlling and in control."
Swallowing harshly, steeling herself, she forced herself to take a step. And another. And another. The double doors at the end of the corridor loomed before her, coming closer with each step she took.
"I am the regent," she repeated over and over again in a desperate attempt at drawing both strength and control from the mantra.
It was a barely in-control warrior princess that was pacing the length of the regent's room. She hated this. She hated it with a passion. And, her bard knew it, too. If there was one thing Xena hated more than shopping, it was waiting.
Yet here she was, pacing the room back and forth and back and forth, waiting. Waiting for Gabrielle and Ephiny. Oh, how she hated waiting. A low growl grew in her throat.
And there Eponin was, just standing in the center of the room in front of the large oak desk with the scrolls and maps spread out on it...just waiting. As though it were the most natural thing in the known world for her. She was calm as you please, hands bound behind her back in what Xena knew was a position all Amazons inherently loathed, head down, staring at her feet...just waiting.
It irked Xena to no end.
"What in Tartarus were you thinking?"
Startled by the sudden outburst, Eponin looked up, dark brows furrowing in confusion. "Just now? That I hate wet boots."
Xena had to restrain herself from cuffing Eponin upside the head. Patience, Xena she told herself, channeling her inner bard, she's already taken at least one blow to the head.
"Look, Ep." Xena placed a hand on her friend's shoulder, squeezing firmly. "I know you didn't rape that girl. Gabrielle knows it. Ares' balls, I don't think anyone who has ever met you would believe you did that. So, what happened? She come on to you, then changed her mind the next morning? Cause if that's the way it happened, it wasn't rape."
"That's not what happened." Eponin's voice was low as she mumbled, "At least, I don't think it was."
"What do you mean?" Xena's eyes narrowed suspiciously. Then, she snapped her fingers. "You don't remember, do you?"
Eponin swallowed harshly, looked away. Xena caught her by the chin, fingers applying pressure to her jawbone as she forced Eponin to meet her gaze. Blue eyes studied honeyed-wheat.
"You don't recall anything about that night." She saw the reaction in Eponin's eyes and knew she was right. "Why didn't you tell your counselor you couldn't remember what happened? She could have built a defense on that."
"Do you know what that sounds like?" Eponin snorted. "I can't be guilty because I can't remember the crime? Come on; I wouldn't buy that. How could I expect any else would?"
"Happens to a lot of warriors. It can be attributed to one too many blows to the head. There have been documented cases of soldiers going into a bloodlust haze, killing their entire squad and not remembering it."
Eponin appreciated what Xena was trying to do. Perhaps if the warrior princess had been there when she'd been charged..."Xena, it's over and done with."
"We can get the ruling overturned. The council couldn't have convicted you if they'd had all the facts."
"The council didn't convict me. I confessed."
"You did what?!?"
"I confessed." Eponin's voice was strained. "Xena, just let it be. Please."
That was it. Xena couldn't believe her ears. Recent head injury or no, she was about ready to beat some sense into her friend. Confessed? She confessed? And on top of that, she was pleading with Xena to just let it go. The same way she'd pleaded with Xena to stand aside while Tynette was abusive to her in the barn.
It's as if Eponin feels she deserves to be punished.
Xena knew she couldn't help Eponin if she refused to help herself. Bottom line, Ep refused to cooperate. Fine, thought Xena, if this is the way it's gotta be...
This is the way it has to be, thought Ephiny.
Just as deep down inside, she knew it would have to be. It was the only way it could be. Something, whether it be her goddess' will or some unseen force or something else entirely...something had filled Ephiny with an overwhelming, all-consuming need to ride out of the village, to be the one to confront her weapons master. It couldn't be anyone else. It had to be her.
The Amazon Nation lost it's greatest warrior and weapons master. I lost...more...
Ephiny shook her head, trying to push down her tumultuous thoughts and quiet her traitorous heart. Just as she'd tried to quiet it ever since Eponin's betrayal. She thought she could control it. The same way she controlled her sword arm. The same way she controlled everything in her life.
But, then the attack on Potadeia had come. And, she'd seen her.
It was more than just seeing her.
If it had only been about seeing Eponin again, Ephiny thought she could have survived that. But, this was so much more. A shiver went down Ephiny's spine as she remembered being down, Cordele's sword descending. From one heartbeat to the next, Eponin's blade was between hers and Cordele's.
She saved me...
Eponin fought one-on-one against Cordele. The same as she'd fought against her during the challenge. Only then, she'd fought as Artemis' champion.
This time...she fought for...me...
Ephiny had been on the ground, ankle twisted beneath her body, staring up in rapt fascination as they fought above her. When she finally allowed herself to blink, Eponin alone was standing over her. They were face to face. Cordele was gone. And, so was Ephiny's control.
Just as it had been back in the village.
"My regent?" Alcestis asked, quite certain she couldn't have heard correctly.
"I want -" Ephiny stopped, knowing her voice was much too loud. Eyes quickly darted about the counselor's hut. She'd gone to far too much trouble to duck the council of elders and elude the royal guard to come here undiscovered to have her efforts undone by her emotions. She licked her lips before she continued again. This time, in a much lower voice. "Eponin didn't rape Hilaeira."
"That's what I intend to prove." The counselor left the statement dangling, not entirely sure what was happening here. If memory served, this was the first time Ephiny had ever spoken to her on an individual basis. The regent she was supposed to be acting in the interests of the Nation. That meant she had dealings with Symaethis, not her.
At the very least, she was supposed to be impartial in a trial. Instead, she was here, in the Counselor for the Defense's hut, asking -
What precisely is she asking? Alcestis wondered. "Do you have evidence in your possession that proves Eponin's innocence?"
Ephiny sighed heavily. "No."
Alcestis chewed the inside of her mouth as she thought about how precisely to word her next question. "Do you have information that would cast doubt upon Eponin's guilt?"
If it was possible, Ephiny's next sigh was even heavier than her last. "Eponin has served Artemis and the Amazon Nation for more seasons than I can remember. Doesn't that count for something?"
"Of course. Establishing character is very important in a trial. I'm quite certain Symaethis believes I possess a scroll a half mile long of character witnesses I can call in Eponin's defense." It was quick, so quick that Alcestis nearly missed it. But, she'd made a career out of reading people, both on and off the witness stand. Alcestis was positive she'd seen it; that slight wince when she'd mentioned Symaethis' name. Did the Counsel for the Accused not know that the regent was here? "Regent, I have a lot I must prepare. Is there something specific that you want?"
"I want - " deep breath " - I want to know how to get the charges against Eponin dismissed."
"I know you're not stupid." Xena folded her arms over her chest and glared at Eponin. "So, give me one good reason why you'd confess to a crime you didn't commit."
"I - because - " Eponin's words caught in her throat and despite her deep tan, there was a noticeable reddening to her cheeks. "Because - you're right. I don't remember."
Xena made a gesture of and -
"Well, I figure if I can't remember...I mean, I could have...I might have..."
Xena huffed. "The whole night can't be a complete blank. What exactly do you remember?"
"Coming home." Eponin's brow furrowed. "Um - to Solari's hut. There was a broken vase. I was picking up the pieces and cut myself. I remember Hilaeira was there, handing me a mug, bandaging my hand." Eponin paused as she searched her clouded memory. "Her arm was about my waist. She was helping me to the bed."
An ebony eyebrow rose at that. So, Hilaeira was coming onto Ep.
"And - " Eponin shrugged as best she could with her arms bound behind her back. "I - I remember waking up. Soli - Solari was screaming. Hilaeira was sobbing. The guards were standing over me, their swords pointed at me." Eponin's look was torturous. "Xena, Hilaeira - she - I heard her testimony. She said she was there to check up on me and that - that I took her intentions wrong. When she said she didn't like me that way...Xena, she said I forced her."
"I - " Eponin shook her head. "I don't - Xena, I've been seeing things in my dreams."
"About that night?"
Eponin bit her bottom lip, nodded. "I keep seeing us in the hut. I'm drinking something warm. She's kissing me. Her hands are - " Eponin blushed " - on my - " her eyes darted to her chest in indication "Then, I'm forcing her down onto the bed and I've got both her wrists in one of my hands and I'm tearing off her skirt and her breechcloth with the other. She's screaming. And Solari's screaming. And I'm not stopping. There are bruises forming on her inner thighs and she's trying to kick at me to get me off her and I'm not stopping. Solari's hitting my back with her closed fists and she can't stop me..."
Gabrielle was worried. Ephiny had taken less than a half dozen steps before pausing in the corridor again. She had one hand braced against the wall for support and her body was trembling uncontrollably.
"Ephiny?" Gabrielle asked in a low voice, being careful to keep her touch light as she stroked a hand down her friend's arm.
It was quiet in the Counselor for the Defense's hut. So quiet that Ephiny could only hear the pounding of her heart and her own heavy breathing. It had been so many heartbeats since she'd asked - she thought Alcestis would not give answer.
Despite countless candlemarks of practicing how to school her features to give away nothing in court, Alcestis felt her reaction. Her eyebrows had gone up in complete dismay as soon as the regent uttered the sentence. She was quite certain they were still somewhere near her hairline now.
Her mind swam, trying to see the possibilities. Was Symaethis that concerned she couldn't convict that she would resort to trickery? Had she asked Ephiny to find out her strategy? Or was Ephiny, as Alcestis had originally surmised, there for her own purposes?
Alcestis was very careful with how she proceeded. "Regent Ephiny, as someone who represents the interests of the Amazon Nation, you must realize that I can't answer that question." Alcestis caught the slight flicker in Ephiny's eyes and added, "However, you may tell Symaethis that I'm positive her case isn't strong enough for the Nation to be able to convict."
"Ep, Solari didn't come into the hut until the next morning. That part of your dream was just that; a dream."
"Xena, I keep seeing it, night after night. The details are so vivid, like it's happening all over again." Eponin took several deep breaths in an attempt to slow her racing heartbeat.
"Ep? Your nightmares; did you start having them before or after you heard Hilaeira's testimony?"
"Listen, Ep. I didn't say anything before because I wasn't sure at first. That tea that Hilaeira gave you; she sweetened it for you, didn't she?"
"Have you tried that stuff? Smells like a dead skunk. Not enough dinars in the known world to make me willingly drink it. Until Hilaeira started putting honey in it for me."
"That's not all she put in it. Eponin, she was drugging your tea. The honey flavoring wasn't so much to please you as it was to disguise the taste. The nightmares you've been having? They're not because you did anything wrong. It's because you heard her accusations. The drug made you more receptive to her testimony; you started dreaming about what she was describing."
Eponin was quiet for several long heartbeats, both to give herself time to regain her composure and to process through what Xena had just revealed.
"You can't prove that though, can you?" asked Eponin. "Because I literally drank the evidence."
"When we get back to the village, I can check Megara's stores. I'm sure they'll be diminished."
"Proves nothing. Matters less. I was sentenced. It's done."
"Gabrielle, what I've done..."
"Hey," Gabrielle wrapped an arm about Ephiny's waist. "You didn't do anything."
"I'm the regent, Gabrielle. I'm supposed to be impartial. At the very least, I shouldn't have gone to see the counsel for the defense. I certainly shouldn't have asked her how charges could be dismissed."
"Hey." Gabrielle stepped in front of Ephiny, blocking her path. "Hey," she repeated, reaching up and touching her friend's cheek. "You talked to the defense counselor. That's all. You didn't flat out ask her how to throw a case. And, Alcestis gave you reassurances without revealing anything she shouldn't have. It's not as though you went to Symaethis and asked her to bury the case." Gabrielle reached for both Ephiny's hands, holding them within her own, thumbs stroking the back of her friend's hands. "Ephiny, you didn't do anything wrong. It's okay."
"No! It's not!" Ephiny abruptly jerked her hands out of Gabrielle's grasp, agitatedly pushed them through her corkscrew locks. "Don't you see, Gabrielle? I lost my control."
Xena wanted to haul off and whack Eponin upside the head. Instead, she settled for a rough shove to a shoulder. Eponin went with the blow, the impact causing her to take a step back.
"What in Tartarus is wrong with you?" When Ep didn't immediately answer, Xena continued to berate her. "I just told you that Hilaeira set you up."
"Xena, I know your reputation as a healer. If you said she drugged me, then I believe you. But, whether she did or not...if I did what she said...then I'm still responsible."
"No. No, you're not. Because you did nothing wrong."
"Xena - "
"No." Xena grabbed Eponin by both shoulders and shook her. "You listen to me. You didn't rape that girl. If anything, she took advantage of you. Even Solari will testify to that."
"I'm serious. You aren't responsible. Look, at the very least, there's enough evidence to get you a new trial." Xena scrubbed a hand across her face. "I think you're the only one that doesn't believe it."
Eponin's next words were said so low that if it'd been anyone else except Xena, they might have gone unheard completely. "Because I don't know if I can." Eponin swallowed convulsively. "Xena, you don't understand. They took my rank, my mask, my honor. Don't you see? Everything I had, I've lost..."
"I lost my control."
"Control is important to you."
Ephiny thought she heard something in Gabrielle's tone and started to make a caustic retort. Then, she remembered that Gabrielle was her friend...and her queen. She looked up at the ceiling, taking a deep steadying breath. When she looked back down at Gabrielle, she'd managed to regain a fraction of her composure.
"Yes," she admitted, "Being in control is important."
Ephiny looked past Gabrielle's shoulder. At the end of the corridor, she could see the large double doors leading into her office. She'd initially thought the doors had been closed, but now she could see that they were cracked open a fraction of an inch. And behind those doors, waiting for them -
"Gods, Gabrielle. In your absence, I can command an entire nation."
"And do a pretty good job of it, too," agreed Gabrielle.
"Then, why is it that when it comes to Pony, I have absolutely no control?"
She's so mired in self-doubt and recriminations, she's not even willing to fight for herself. Fine, thought Xena. If she wants to do this the hard way...
"Mighty Amazon warrior, weapons master to an entire nation of women warriors." Xena's lip curled up into a sneer. "Look at you now."
Eponin's gaze lowered, trying to take in her own appearance.
"Your pride is wounded, your sword rusted, your honor tarnished."
Eponin's head snapped up. She glared at Xena. "You've been hanging around that bard too long."
"That same bard that's also your queen."
Despite being able to look Xena in the eye as she said it, Eponin couldn't keep the emotion out of her voice. Her tone held equal amounts hurt and anger.
"Still can be. If you weren't so damned stubborn."
Eponin eyed Xena warily, but didn't say anything.
"It makes no sense. Here you are, this great big Amazon warrior. Defeated by what; some little healer's assistant that probably doesn't know how to grip the right end of a sword?"
Eponin averted her gaze.
"Something else I don't get. I've seen you plan out military campaigns. Hera's tits! You once held off an entire Roman legion with only three dozen warriors under your command." Xena folded her arms over her massive breastplate and looked down at the Amazon before her. "So, what I don't get is how someone as smart as you could fall for such an obvious trap?"
No answer. Warrior masque firmly in place, there was also no discernible reaction.
"Is that all it takes to defeat the mighty Eponin; a set of well-used tailfeathers?" Xena hit Eponin in the shoulder with the heel of her hand. "Is it?"
Xena was so close now, Eponin could smell her breath. Still, she wouldn't react.
"What I wanna know is; what was she like? Is she a moaner or a screamer?"
Xena hit Eponin again. Eponin's leg gave way. She took a step back to steady herself.
"I hear you Amazons like it wolf-style." Forgive me, Gabrielle. "I know your queen does." Ep and Gab are close. That should have gotten a reaction. If not to defend her queen, then at least her friend. Xena caught a flicker in Eponin's eyes. Good. "Is that how you took Hilaeira; down on her hands and knees, her bare ass in the air?" Xena's teeth were bared as she continued to taunt the warrior. "I remember her. She's tiny. I'll bet she was tight. Even by Amazon standards." She hit Eponin again. "Did she plead with the big, brave warrior?" Another hit. "Did she beg you to stop?"
Eponin looked up, smoldering eyes defiantly meeting Xena's gaze. Nostrils flared. A low growl rumbled up from her throat. Her lip curled up, revealing her teeth as she snarled.
Uh-oh, thought Xena. Looks like I got that reaction I wanted.
"Oh, Eph. I wouldn't say that. Matter of fact, I'd say when it comes to Pony, you control her just fine. Eponin would crawl on hands and knees through shards of broken glass for you."
"Yeah, right." A derisive snort. "She sure doesn't show it."
"Ephiny, come on. You know she loves you."
Ephiny resolutely shook her head, sending cascading blonde curls tumbling over tanned shoulders.
"Anyone can see it. Anyone who isn't you." Gabrielle waited, allowing Ephiny to mull over what she'd said before adding, "Besides, this is all your fault, you know."
Ephiny looked like she'd been slapped. "What?"
"All this pent up frustration you're feeling; you brought it upon yourself."
"Were you waiting for Eponin to make the first move?" Gabrielle was openly teasing her now. "Because you know, it's like Aphrodite always says: Sometimes, you've just gotta throw a warrior to the ground and take what you want."
Ephiny grew silent and Gabrielle wondered if given what had allegedly happened with Hilaeira, if that hadn't been the wrong thing to say.
Finally though, Ephiny's eyebrows arched in dismay and she asked, "Gabrielle, I know you're friends with the goddess of love, but is that really what she always says?"
"Absolutely." Gabrielle picked at the fringe of her skirt. "Mostly when dealing with shy bards and stoic warriors," she admitted. "I find it works in most situations, though."
Ephiny frowned. "Except I don't recall you ever pinning Xena to the ground..." Ephiny's eyes went wide as Gabrielle blushed beet red. "Oh! Gabrielle, really?"
"Did you think Xena would ever admit her feelings? When she...died...and Autolycus inhabited her body...well, I told you about the kiss?"
Ephiny nodded. The bard had confided the entire other-plane experience to her trusted friend.
"Even after her spirit was restored and we pretty much knew how we felt about each other..." Gabrielle ducked her head, watching her boots as she shuffled her feet upon the floor. "Oh, Eph. That too-tough-for-my-leathers warrior was never going to do anything about it."
Gabrielle's voice trailed off and Ephiny was left to fill in the blanks. She'd always thought that once Xena and Gabrielle had kissed during the quest to find the ambrosia to restore Xena to life, that the path to consummating their relationship had been clear. Obviously not, Ephiny realized. Gods, why can't love ever be easy?
Ephiny reached out, clasped Gabrielle's arm. "I'm glad you didn't give up on love, my friend."
There was such a finality to Ephiny's words that it snapped Gabrielle out of her Xena-induced haze. "Oh, Eph. You don't have to give up on love, either. Xena said Pony was drugged. We can use that information to help Eponin."
"Gabrielle, I know you'd like to believe that. But, don't you see? It's too late for that. Back in the village, before the trial...during the trial...I might have been able to help Pony then. I could have had some control over the council of elders. I could have made sure they took her entire life into consideration, all the good she's done for the tribe; not just the crime she was accused of. Her confessing took it out of my hands."
"But, Eph - "
"Gabrielle, no. You and Xena may have a love that conquers all. But, us regular folks don't all get to have that." Ephiny steeled herself against the hurt, trying to muster up a smile for Gabrielle's benefit. Instead, it came out as more of a grimace and her attempt at lightheartedness fell flat when she said, "Come. Let's go face the love of my life, shall we?"
"I never touched her!"
Eponin rammed a shoulder into Xena's breadbasket. It was a move Xena hadn't seen coming. Especially since Eponin's hands were still bound behind her back.
Xena sidestepped another attack. Eponin turned around, lowering her head, preparing to charge the warrior princess like a rampaging bull.
"Hold it." Xena held up both hands in front of her body in surrender. "Hold it, Ep. Truce."
Eponin was breathing heavily, her chest heaving as she drew in great gulps of air. She warily eyed Xena, ready to attack her again if need be.
"I didn't do anything wrong."
"Never thought you did." Xena openly smirked. "Now, it sounds like you finally believe it, too."
Ep drew up straight. "You were goading me on, trying to make me mad."
"Trying to make you see reason, actually." Xena shrugged. "Seemed like the best way to do it. Gotta tell you though, Ep; I'm glad your hands are bound. Otherwise, your queen might be short one champion and consort."
Amazon warrior born and bred and warrior princess forged in the heat of battle fell silent as they openly appraised each other. Before today, all their matches had been only that; matches. She'd never attacked Xena in anger.
Well, thought Eponin, except for that night when I caught her dancing with Eph.
Even as she thought it, Eponin knew that didn't really count. She'd been drinking. Not to excess, mind you. But, that stuff Mytilda was brewing down in the storm cellar was pretty potent. Potent enough it had knocked Pelagia on her tailfeathers. So, Ep knew it had been strong enough that she was impaired. Both my judgment and my reaction time. Not to mention that Gabrielle had broken up their fight before it had a chance to really get started.
"Soooo..." Xena folded her arms over her breastplate, coolly rocked back and forth on her heels as she gave that cocky warrior princess smirk of hers. "Now that we both agree you didn't commit that crime, you ready to tell me the real reason you confessed?"
Ephiny fortified herself, steeling her emotions as she strode down the corridor with newfound strength. Despite Ephiny's pronounced limp, Gabrielle found herself fairly jogging through the corridor to keep up with Ephiny's determined stride. She'd just barely caught up to her when they reached the double doors.
"Alcestis is smart," Xena said. "Even without knowing about Hilaeira's setup, she wouldn't have let you gotten a guilty verdict."
"Trust me," Alcestis said, "I know a way to derail the prosecution's entire case."
The cocky attitude coupled with the words 'trust me' caused an uncomfortable knot to form in Eponin's gut as she asked, "How?"
"I'll put the chief scout on the stand."
"You can't do that," Eponin protested. "Symaethis entered Solari's statement as evidence for the Nation."
"Exactly. The last thing Symaethis will expect is for me to call on her key witness." The gleam in those green eyes and the wicked grin the tiny redhead was now sporting was enough to make Eponin's blood run cold. "I'll start off with an innocuous line of questioning. Perhaps open with having her describe the events the night of the Champion's feast." Alcestis began pacing back and forth as she worked out her plan. "I can string together a series of events, getting Solari to illustrate in her own words how your accuser was always flirting with you, leading you on. And, although Solari may have found the two of you in her hut, she never actually saw anything because she wasn't actually there at the time of the incident."
"Sound strategy," Xena praised the counselor's actions. "Without Solari as her eyewitness, it would come down to Hilaeira's word against yours."
"That's what Alcestis said, too."
"Then in all the Gods' names, why didn't you let her do that?!?"
Eponin gave an ineloquent shrug as answer.
"It's because Alcestis was going to put Solari on the stand, wasn't it? You didn't want that to happen, did you?"
Eponin didn't want to respond, but her resigned sigh was answer enough.
"Because Solari wasn't home that night?" Xena pondered. Eponin wasn't lying to her, but she wasn't exactly volunteering the truth, either. "No." Xena snapped her fingers. "Because of where she was."
Eponin's flinch confirmed Xena's suspicions.
"Given Solari's reputation, it wouldn't be hard to guess she was out getting some. So, it's not Solari's virtue you're trying to save." Xena's eyes narrowed to tiny shards of blue ice. "You know who Solari was with. Eponin, who are you protecting?"
"That's none of your business, Xena," Ep said through gritted teeth. "You need to back off. Now."
Xena grinned. "Like that's gonna happen." She made a motion for Eponin to come get some. "You ready for round two?"
Ephiny took a deep breath, placed her palm flat against the wood grain of the door.
Queen and Regent stood frozen in their tracks as the sound of raised voices reached the corridor.
"Come on, come get some," taunted Xena. "Here, I'll even the odds by clasping both hands behind my back."
"I don't wanna fight you, Xena."
"Then tell me why you wouldn't let Alcestis put Solari on the stand."
Eponin sighed in resignation. If she thought trying to win an argument with a bard was difficult, trying to win one with a hard-headed warrior princess was impossible.
Eponin picked her way through the field, every movement silent even as she used her staff as a cane over the uneven ground. Even as her knee protested the uphill trek, she pushed on by keeping her focus pinned on the lone gnarled tree up on the hilltop. That's where Lexine said Ephiny would be.
True to her word, Eponin did find Ephiny beneath that tree. Only, she wasn't alone. Eph was stretched out on her back in the grass. She was topless, her breasts bare to the cool air and Artemis' moon. Her knees were bent, her skirt bunched up about her upper thighs. Solari's mouth was at her waist, her lips and tongue working the expanse of flat stomach just above the line of Ephiny's belt. The scout was between Ephiny's open legs, one hand cupping her regent's kneecap. Ephiny's hands were both braced against Solari's broad shoulders, fingers digging into feathered epaulettes.
Eponin couldn't see where Solari's other hand was. But she could guess.
"Fine." There was a loud exhale. "I couldn't risk Alcestis putting either Solari or myself on the stand because if asked under oath, we'd have to reveal who Solari was with that night."
In the corridor, Ephiny's mouth dropped open and her face paled. Gabrielle caught her by the elbow, fearing her regent might actually faint.
"So, you confessed to protect..."
"Ephiny! I did it for Ephiny!" Eponin was shouting at the top of her lungs now. "Okay, Xena? Is that what you wanted to hear?"
Blood pounded in Ephiny's ears and her vision narrowed. The feelings she'd pushed deep down inside resurfaced with a vengeance. Blindly, she reached out. She clung to Gabrielle as though she were a piece of driftwood in the vastness of a turbulent sea. She'd just been engulfed by a tsunami. She was drowning, clawing at the water, trying to find her way to an unreachable surface.
"I don't give a Satyr's furry butt if someone wants to drag Solari's reputation through the mud," Eponin said. "But, I won't let Ephiny be subjected to that embarrassment. I'd rather confess a thousand times over than to have Ephiny's name tarnished."
Ephiny's heart stilled. Then, it began pounding uncontrollably in her chest.
While not a speech worthy of a bard's talents, Eponin's words were poetic enough that they shattered Ephiny's defenses, touching her heart.
Xena snorted. "Yeah, right."
"You think I wouldn't?"
"Oh, I'm sure you'd confess. You've already proven that. What I'm questioning is your true motives."
"Already told you that." Behind her back, Eponin's bound hands balled into fists.
"Come on, Ep, I'm not stupid. The reason you were in that dive, the reason you didn't fight Tynette...none of that was about protecting Eph's rep. Matter of fact, I don't think you ever planned on seeing Ephiny ever again. Admit it; you never made plans past Potadeia."
"Yeah? Well, no reason to make plans since you were here to take care of everything, right?"
"I didn't, though," confessed Xena. "When I found you in that bar, you assumed I had. But, truth is, I haven't stopped the renegades."
"You should have told me that. If I'd known, I wouldn't have - "
"What? Thrown your life away over Ephiny?"
"That's my business and no one else's. Not even yours." Cordele is still out there? Xena should have said. Eponin was so angry that her entire body was trembling. Her words, though, were strong and even and firm as she finally said aloud, "I love Ephiny, damn it. I love her and I swear, as Artemis is my witness, I'd do anything to protect her. Even if it means giving up my life for her."
Gabrielle had a hand clasped over her mouth and tears in her eyes.
For several heartbeats, Ephiny stood rooted to one spot. Then, she was pushing past Gabrielle and shoving the double doors open with all her strength and storming into the room.
Xena and Eponin both turned and looked. Ephiny's eyes were flashing. Her fists were clenching and unclenching at her sides. Her entire body radiated hostility. If either warrior had thought she'd faced the wrath of the fire-breathing regent before, it was as nothing compared to what they were facing now.
Ephiny aggressively advanced on the two warriors.
Xena stepped aside, leaving Ep directly in Ephiny's path. Eponin's expression changed to that of a deer caught in a crossbow's sights.
"How - " Ephiny strode up to Eponin, using both hands on her shoulders to give her a shove. Eponin went with the motion, allowing herself to be pushed backwards. "Dare - " another shove. "you - " another shove.
"Eph - " Eponin started, only to find herself immediately cut off as Ephiny continued to punctuate each sentence with a shove.
"How dare you decide to give up your life for mine? You confess and get yourself exiled and then go on some sort of suicide mission and for what?"
"I was trying to protect you - "
"Because I'm some little bit of fluff that needs coddling from the big, bad known world? Because I need a warrior to fight my battles for me? Because I don't trip over enough royal guardswomen as it is, that I need one more bodyguard under foot?"
"I - uh - "
"Can explain?" Another brutal shove.
Eponin's mouth opened and closed as she tried to work out an answer. And failed.
"Is that it, Eponin? Can you explain to me how it is you're protecting me by not being there? Tell me, how is leaving me protecting me?"
Eponin grunted as Ephiny's latest shove sent her stumbling backwards against the desk, leaving her no room left to retreat.
"You know what I really needed, Eponin? What I needed more than the protection of the weapons master?"
Eyes wide, Eponin frantically shook her head. With nowhere left to go, Ep figured Ephiny was going to start pummeling her. Gods help her if that happened because deep in her heart Eponin knew that even if her wrists weren't tied behind her back, there was no way she'd ever raise a hand against Ephiny. Not even in self-defense.
"I needed you. I needed you to love me." Ephiny's eyes searched Eponin's face. "Enough to stay."
To Eponin's complete shock, instead of the pounding she'd expected, Ephiny surged forward and pressed her lips against hers.
Gabrielle was standing with both hands covering her mouth now and it was obvious she was crying tears of joy.
"Come on, bard." Xena caught her soulmate by the elbow, guided her towards the open door.
"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle peeked around the edge of the door, trying to absorb every detail until Xena blocked her view by firmly closing the double doors. "Isn't it romantic?"
"Don't know about romantic," Xena shrugged. "But, it is efficient."
"Sure. Answers the question of where to keep Eponin."
Eponin's head was spinning.
Ephiny...Ephiny was kissing her. Not just kissing her, but ravishing her mouth.
At first, Eponin had been caught too off-guard to react. Then, her warrior's instincts had kicked in, demanding she take action. Arms flexed behind her back. She felt the slight give in the leather thong tied about her wrists, but the restraints held fast.
Ephiny was a warrior, too and once she had the upper hand, she wasn't going to relinquish it willingly. Her tongue demanded and gained entrance into Eponin's mouth.
Warriors' tongues met, both Amazons struggling for dominance. Against her regent in a battle for control, poor Eponin didn't stand a chance.
Aroused and out of control, Ephiny gave no thought to the consequences of her actions. In truth, she had no thought beyond her need to have Eponin. Her tongue slid into liquid warmth. She felt Eponin's tongue against hers, pushed it aside as she plunged deeper.
The kiss was at once all-consuming and plundering. It was deep and bruising and highly suggestive of what Ephiny's skilled tongue could do between an entirely different set of lips. Eponin's mind couldn't even begin to make that correlation as she felt her overheated mind broiling from just this kiss.
Just a kiss...Ep's rational mind protested that description. This wasn't just a kiss. It was the kind of kiss that made something as essential as breathing seem trivial. It was - everything...and more.
Ephiny's tongue slowly withdrew, her teeth dragging across Ep's bottom lip. She sucked Eponin's lip into her mouth, giving it a sharp nip before releasing the swelling flesh.
Short of breath, chest heaving, Ephiny stared at Eponin. Judging from the rapid rise and fall of her chest, her open mouth, her flaring nostrils, Ep was also fighting to get enough air. Wheat-hued eyes had darkened with desire to match the precise shade of hardened honey.
Like a hungry predator, Ephiny's eyes swept over Eponin's body, taking in her features. The chiseled jaw, the defined cheekbones, proud nose and long, ebony locks falling in wild disarray about both shoulders. Seasons of training outdoors had left her toned flesh a deep bronze color, as though her skin had been kissed by the sun.
Not that Ephiny needed to look at the warrior to know her. Over the seasons, she'd made a habit of memorizing every detail of Pony's toned body.
Her sculpted legs and calves, the way they looked with each step she took. Her thickly muscled arms, the calluses on her palms; both the result of countless candlemarks of weapons work. The way the corded muscles in her back were defined when she swung a staff or sword. That thickly ridged abdomen that even the most talented of sculptors couldn't hope to duplicate in marble.
It was all seared into her senses. The sight, smell, touch...all of her.
Ephiny licked her lips.
Of their own accord, Ephiny's trembling fingers reached out and touched Eponin's stomach. Fingertips grazed soft skin, felt the definition of ridged flesh beneath her touch. She splayed her hand flat against that stomach, feeling the muscles contracting beneath her palm.
Then, the most amazing thing happened. This fierce Amazon warrior, weapons master and trainer to an entire nation of warriors...whimpered.
Eponin felt the sound building in her throat, was helpless to prevent it escaping her lips. Ephiny's eyes darted up, meeting hers. And, in that instant, they both knew without a doubt...the formidable warrior was defenseless against her regent's touch.
Something within Ephiny broke at the realization and she was suddenly all over Eponin. Lips, mouth, tongue were working at a strong jawline, nibbling a path to an ear, sucking Ep's lobe into a hot, wet mouth.
Eponin was struggling against her bonds, desperate with the need to simply touch Ephiny. To her intense frustration, they refused to give. And, it looked like Ephiny had no intention of releasing her anytime soon.
Ephiny's hands were far too busy to worry about something as trivial as Eponin's bonds. Fingers were hastily working at a different set of leather knots. The double knot came free and she tore the laces through the eyelets, undoing the front ties of Eponin's halter and pushing it open.
Eponin's mouth opened in silent rapture as Ephiny fell upon her breasts. Hands cupped their fullness. Fingers closed about thickened nipples. She moaned as Ephiny took one in her mouth, licking it and coating it with her moisture. She gasped as Ephiny drew back just far enough to blow her heated breath on the damp moisture her mouth had left behind.
Eponin's gasp fueled Ephiny's desire to hear more...to draw more responses from the warrior's body. As one hand continued to work a breast, her other hand traveled over Ep's body. Short nails scratched across a washboard stomach, down the outside of a waist and hip and thigh. Her hand changed direction, the pads of her fingers moving up an inner thigh.
Eponin felt the side of Ephiny's foot against her boot, nudging her feet apart. A palm pressed in against her through her breechcloth. Then, her breechcloth was gone completely and it was Ephiny's bare fingers that were pressing against her swollen flesh.
Back in the village, in the hospice bath, when Ephiny's fingers had traveled low on Eponin's stomach and her fingertips had brushed against the first wisps of downy fine hair, she'd retreated like a blushing virgin. Now, she was bold in her actions, her entire palm covering the other woman's sex and firmly pressing against her.
Another gasp met Ephiny's ears. This time, though, she didn't know for certain if it had come from Eponin or herself. Touching Pony...seeing and feeling the effect she was having on the warrior's body...hearing the shallow, ragged breathing...smelling the arousal thick in the air...Ephiny had never been so turned on in all her life.
Ephiny's fingers began to move, exploring heat and moisture. She's so hot...Ephiny's thoughts were fractured...and so wet. A fingertip brushed against a swollen bundle of nerves and Eponin's hips jerked in response. Ephiny's fingers followed, her middle digit slipping between thick folds.
As fingers stroked Ep open, Ephiny's lips found the warrior's neck, her tongue licking at the salty moisture found there.
Eponin's head was thrown back, eyes closed, mouth open. No one's ever...Eponin's thoughts splintered with each stroke of Ephiny's fingers...it's never been like...warriors don't surrender...
Even through her disjointed thoughts, Ep knew that it was true. It had never been like this before. With anyone. She'd never given herself over to anyone before. No one had ever taken her before. It was something she'd never allowed.
Ephiny's lips curved against Eponin's neck in a smile. Her fingers were soaked with the warrior's desire. Pony's hips were rocking uncontrollably, her sex unabashedly thrusting against Ephiny's open palm.
Ephiny's middle digit slipped low and inside. Oh, gods. She's so tight. Just like Ephiny always fantasized she'd be. Oh, gods. Eponin's body was tensing, her velvet walls squeezing even tighter about Ephiny's intruding finger.
Eponin's ragged gasps were filling the air. Her heart was rampantly beating against her breast, trying to burst through her chest. Her mind was whirling. Never...I've never...She could feel Ephiny inside of her...only outside before...
Well, except for that once...Eponin's thoughts went off on a tangent, remembering that ill-advised attempt at self-pleasuring. She'd overheard some of the other girls bathing down at the river, gossiping and giggling. She'd eavesdropped from the cover of the bushes, spying on them. Her eyes widened as one of them showed the others a leather phallus that she'd snuck out of her mothers' dresser drawer.
Eponin had only seen it that once, just for an instant. But, the image had stayed with her. She'd already begun fashioning her own weapons. To her, the leather phallus looked just like any other weapon. And, if it was a weapon, she knew she could both make it and wield it.
She'd hidden it beneath her straw covered mattress for a solid moon. Late at night, she'd take it out and hold it in her hand, studying it. Until curiosity finally got the better of her.
It couldn't have gone any worse. It hurt. Worse than anything she'd ever felt before in her life. She'd hated it. So much so that she'd flung it away from herself as if it were a thing alive. When she finally retrieved it from the floor, she wrapped it in a piece of burlap and carried it into the woods and buried it deep in the ground.
It wasn't until many seasons later that Eponin learned she should have coated it with olive oil. It didn't matter, though. Nothing could convince her to ever try that again, not even if she'd had an entire barrel of oil and a moon's time to let it soak in.
Eponin banished that memory from her thoughts and concentrated on what Ephiny was doing to her. Eph...inside me...Ep felt a fresh flood of arousal. Ephiny was inside of her and even though it was only one finger, she felt the fullness and it felt right. More right than anything she'd ever felt before.
Her hips were rocking faster now. The pressure was building inside of her. Muscles were tensing, the leather thong tied about her wrists creaked beneath her flexing, the leather fraying. She was tightening impossibly more. Her thighs were trying to press together, trying to trap Ephiny's hand.
She'd wanted Ephiny for so long. There was no way she could last.
Ephiny felt it, knew it was coming. She strummed her thumb over Ep's swollen womanhood. Every inch of Pony's body tightened as her orgasm built and overtook her.
Head thrown back, corded muscles in her neck straining, Eponin came.
Mouth at Eponin's neck, Ephiny's sharp teeth bit in deeply as she uttered the only word between them since their first kiss -
"Oh, my." Gabrielle covered her smile with her hand as she turned away from the closed doors. "That sounded positively primal."
"Well, it would have to be, wouldn't it?" Xena smirked.
Gabrielle shot her a quizzical look.
"Ephiny's been wound tighter than one of her curls. It's probably been moons since she's had a good - "
"Xena!" Gabrielle clamped a hand over the warrior princess' mouth. "She's my regent!"
Xena removed her bard's hand and amended her response to "orgasm."
"Ephiny?" Gabrielle's eyebrows rose right along with her voice. "I thought that was Eponin."
Xena snorted. "You think that sound came from a warrior?"
"Eponin and Ephiny are both warriors."
"Yeah, but Eph's a - " seeing the hand resting upon the cocked hip and the expression on Gabrielle's face, Xena went with " - she's more like you."
"It's like you said; she's your regent."
"Come on, Gabrielle. Ep's a warrior's warrior. No way that came out of her."
"Really?" Gabrielle smiled saucily. She moved in closer to Xena, leaning into the warrior's frame. "Because I seem to recall being able to," Her hand dropped, cupping Xena between her legs. Not expecting the move, Xena gave a startled jump, "inspire a similar response from you, my warrior."
Suddenly Xena realized what was going on with her bard. She leaned down and in, brushing her lips against Gabrielle's as she husked into her mouth, "Feeling a little..." her tongue darted out, licking luscious lips "...frisky, are we?"
"Oh gods." Gabrielle's voice hitched as Xena's fingers traveled over her cheek, down her neck and between her breasts. "You saw them together. Can you blame me?"
"Glad I dragged you out and closed the doors."
"I can - " Gabrielle stood on tiptoe so she could nibble at Xena's earlobe " - think of somewhere else you can drag me off to." At Xena's lone arched brow, Gabrielle breathlessly added, "Bed. Now."
It was an unnecessary direction. Xena already knew where her bard wanted to be taken. "In two heartbeats. Promise." Xena turned, leaning back against the closed double doors. She coolly crossed her feet at the ankles and folded her arms over her chest. "Just as soon as we take care of this."
Gabrielle turned to see Tynette tearing through the length of the corridor, Devillare and Egeria dogging her heels. The trio drew up short as they reached the set of closed double doors and the warrior princess standing in front of them.
"There you are." Tynette boldly thrust a finger in Xena's face. "I demand to know what you've done with that traitorous daughter of a bacchae."
"I suggest you reword that." Xena's gaze was cold, her tone colder. "And remove that finger before I remove it for ya."
Tynette defiantly glared at Xena, but lowered her offending digit. She felt Devillare and Egeria flanking her, instinctively knew neither warrior would support her in this matter. She swallowed against the crow that stuck in her throat and rephrased her request more respectfully. "I wish to inquire as to the status of the prisoner."
"That's better." When Xena didn't make any further attempt to answer Tynette, she felt Gabrielle discreetly nudge her. "She's secure."
"What kind of answer is that?" Tynette asked. Then, realizing where they were, whose door they were standing in front of, she sputtered, "In the regent's room?!?"
Mine. Mine. Mine.
That single word reverberated in Eponin's mind. Even over the pounding of her heart and the thundering of her blood, that word said in Ephiny's voice dwarfed all other sounds.
With one final shudder and a last ragged gasp, Eponin regained her senses. Eyes slowly blinked open, bringing the world into focus. Her sight immediately fell upon Ephiny.
With the exception of her sword, mask and boots, the regent was dressed in her battle armor. Eponin had immediately spotted the sword and mask hanging from the corner post of the room's bed when she'd initially entered with Xena. The boots were neatly tucked beneath the edge of the bed frame.
Experienced eyes took in the bandage wrapped about Ephiny's ankle. She'd noticed the limp when Ephiny had first entered the room. Not that it had slowed her attack any.
Despite not having her sword, Eponin knew Ephiny was far from defenseless. Or weaponless.
The village seamstress had worked hand-in-hand with the blacksmith for over a moon's time designing the regent's armor. It was specifically tailored to fit Ephiny's form and was crafted of a myriad of thick leather, metal studs and fastenings and interwoven with lightweight chainmail designed to both protect and allow ease of movement.
Unlike the shorter gauntlets Ephiny normally wore in the village, the ones she wore with her armor were much longer, the leather reaching up her forearm nearly to her elbows. On the inside strip of leather on each gauntlet were fastenings that held twin knives securely in place.
Like the gauntlets, Ephiny's arm bracers were also thicker and heavier, emphasizing the definition of Ephiny's biceps. Her armor covered her torso to her thick, leather belt. Eponin knew from memory that Ephiny liked to carry an additional set of belt daggers there, one positioned at each hip.
Ephiny looked every inch the dangerous predator that the warrior knew she was. She was openly staring at Eponin, appraising her. Flushed with the success of conquering her weapons master, there was a cocky smirk upon her lips.
Eponin felt a fresh wave of desire. She unconsciously licked her lips. Nostrils flared, eyes darkened, muscles flexed. The leather thong wrapped securely about her wrists snapped in half.
"She's in the regent's room?!?"
Xena shrugged. "Good as place as any."
"No, it's not!" Tynette's face went bright red, "No, it's most certainly not."
Tynette lunged for the door, trying to push and shove the immovable force that was the warrior princess out of the way. Xena didn't so much as budge beneath the onslaught. When Xena did react, she ever so casually unfolded her arms and lifted the elder hunter beneath hers and tossed her back.
Tynette squawked as she collided with Egeria's and Devillare's larger bodies. She fell to the floor, landing in a heap at their feet. Tynette reached up, both hands grabbing hold of Egeria's leather belt as she hoisted herself up. Egeria reflexively grabbed her belt and held on, lest Tynette pull her leathers off her in the process.
When Tynette did manage to stagger to her feet and turned around to face the warrior princess, her hair was in disarray and her feathers askance. With an irritated swipe, she pushed them away from her face, spitting and sputtering where the tip of one had managed to get into her mouth.
Devillare and Egeria covered their mirth at Tynette's predicament with identical subtle rubbings of their respective jaws.
"This is not humorous." Tynette was outraged by the warrior princess' disrespectful demeanor. "I can't believe you would just set that - that warrior loose in a room with the regent."
"I didn't just set her loose." Xena rolled her eyes. "Her hands are still tied, as per your rather vocal and insistent demands."
Gabrielle's head snapped about as Xena said that. She hadn't known. She'd seen Eponin from the doorway, but she hadn't seen that. If she had -
Xena made a subtle hand motion for Gabrielle to calm down. Gabrielle didn't say a word, but it was obvious that beneath her sweet bardly exterior, she was seething.
"You'd prefer she was chained to the bar like some wild dog?" asked Xena, purposely throwing one of Tynette's suggestions at the jail back in her face.
"Of course not." Tynette's words may have denied it, but her eyes screamed Yes! "My concern is, as always, only for the safety of the regent."
Ephiny's eyes widened as Eponin flexed her powerful muscles and the bindings securing her hands behind her back suddenly snapped.
Memories of a dream, a dream in which Eponin had subdued the guard and forced her way into the regent's hut and then her bed commanded Ephiny's instincts, telling her to take a reflexive step back as Eponin advanced on her. She ignored those instincts and defiantly stood her ground. That was only a dream; this - this is my Eponin.
They stood so close that Ephiny could feel Eponin's heated breath upon her. Eyes burning with the color and intensity of molten gold seared into Ephiny's. A large hand slowly lifted. A length of leather binding was still wrapped twice about a strong wrist, one end dangling where it had been broken. Ephiny's eyes closed tight at the painful visual reminder of her unfortunate warrior's imprisonment.
Gabrielle couldn't hold back any longer. "Eponin is no criminal and Ephiny is in no danger."
"Yes, she is. She was convicted. She was sentenced. Why does everyone seem to keep forgetting that?"
"Xena has already told us that Eponin was drugged. She'll be able to prove it when we get back to the village," said Devillare. "That conviction won't hold up."
Tynette turned on the elder warrior. "We're not back at the village now, are we?"
"Keep it up," Devillare said, cocking her fist, "and some of us might not make it back to the village."
As Devillare took a threatening step forward, Tynette took a reflexive one back, only to find herself backing into the Queen's champion in the process.
"Stop it. All of you," Gabrielle commanded. "We can't afford all this infighting."
Devillare instantly dropped her fist and took two steps back, coming to stand in the corridor beside Egeria. Tynette scowled, but said nothing. As discreetly as possible, she put some distance between herself and the warrior princess.
"That's better. Now," Gabrielle continued, "Let's be clear. Eponin was charged with a crime and she's in custody." At the noticeable tightening of Devillare's jaw, she hastily added, "protective custody until we can get back to the village and figure out exactly what went on between her and Hilaeira. In the meantime, no one - " Here, she skewered Tynette with a look " - will be permitted to mistreat her in any way. That includes binding her."
When Tynette looked like she was about to protest, Gabrielle shot her a look. Over and behind her shoulder, Xena sent the elder hunter an equally deadly look that said she'd better not even think of contradicting her Queen's edict.
"Eponin is still our best fighter." Gabrielle glanced back over her shoulder at her warrior. Xena's expression was serene. However, knowing her warrior's pride, she knew she needed to add, "Our best Amazon fighter. When those renegades attack, we'll need her skills to help fight them off. We'll need everyone's skills. So, I suggest we stop this petty bickering and get some rest so we're all ready to kick some renegade tailfeathers. Is that clear?"
"Yes, my Queen," came the echoing chorus.
Gabrielle allowed a smile, proud of herself for making sure honors were sufficiently even between hunters and warriors and neither side would be left feeling slighted.
She made a gesture that indicated they were dismissed. Egeria and Devillare started to walk away, but Tynette lingered. She turned back, addressing Gabrielle.
"I fear I will not be able to rest easy for concern for the regent's well-being."
Xena leveled a look at the hunter. "Ephiny's fine."
Tynette purposefully looked to Gabrielle. "My Queen?"
Gabrielle huffed. She wished Xena hadn't answered like that. In front of someone like Tynette, it would be seen as Xena speaking for the Amazon Queen. Verdant eyes flicked to her consort.
Xena stepped aside.
Tynette practically rushed the doors, her hand fumbling for the latch. It didn't open. She repeatedly jiggled the handle, pressed her full body against the frame.
"It's locked." The look she shot Xena was murderous.
This time, Xena kept quiet. Although, it was apparent to Gabrielle that she was literally biting her tongue to keep from saying anything.
"It's okay," Gabrielle smoothly stepped in, resting her hand atop Tynette's, guiding the hunter's hand away from the latch. "I thought they needed some time - and privacy - to talk. They need to work through some issues."
"But to be locked in a room with - " Tynette couldn't finish the sentence. She wanted to, but feared for her neck if she did. She was no fool; she knew she had no allies here. "Again, I must voice my concern for the regent's safety."
I'll bet. Gabrielle frowned. If she did nothing, Tynette would be able to bring charges against her for negligence and willfully endangering a member of the tribe. A royal member, no less.
"There will be a guard stationed outside the door." Gabrielle looked to Egeria. "Would you mind?" To her relief, the warrior immediately nodded her acceptance. To Tynette she said, "If Ephiny's in danger, all she has to do is yell out."
Ephiny felt calloused fingers upon her face, touching the smoothness of her cheek, tracing down the line of her jaw. The pad of a thumb passed over her bottom lip. Hazel eyes shimmering with desire blinked open, finding Eponin intently studying her features.
Then, she was being lifted in strong arms and turned around and gently deposited atop the scrolls and maps spread out upon the desk. Ephiny's legs were open and Eponin was standing between them. Fingers were pressing in at that spot between her jawbone and her earlobes. Her head was tilting back and Eponin's mouth was lowering upon hers.
It began with just a tentative flickering of Ep's tongue along her lips, coaxing Ephiny to allow her to slip inside. Ephiny's mouth opened, her tongue welcoming Pony's. The kisses they shared were heated and passionate and spoke of long restrained desire.
It seemed to Ephiny like she'd waited nearly all her life for Eponin to kiss her. She'd lost track over the seasons how many times she'd awakened from Morpheus' dreams with images of Eponin in her mind and moisture between her legs. She knew now that a thousand fantasies couldn't compare to the reality.
For whatever reason Eponin had for never telling Ephiny that she desired her...even if the stoic warrior could never find the words...her body was saying more than words ever could. Right now, it was telling Ephiny everything she needed to know.
Ephiny moaned as Eponin's mouth pulled away. Ep leaned in, her forehead touching Ephiny's as she fought to get her ragged breathing under control. To her surprise, Ephiny realized that her own breathing was just as labored as Eponin's.
She watched in fascination as Eponin's fingers went to her wrists, unfastening her gauntlets. Before long, twin gauntlets and knives were being tossed upon the surface of the desk. Her belt daggers were next, closely followed by the belt itself.
Eponin's hands traveled from Ephiny's waist and up both arms. Her eyes searched Ephiny's as fingers worked at buckles and fastenings. Hands were pushing down and lifting off and tossing leather and chainmail aside.
Ephiny's eyes slammed shut at the first touch of Eponin's tongue to her breast. A sharp gasp escaped her lips as Ep's heated mouth closed about her nipple. And when the warrior began softly sucking and nipping, her fingers entwined themselves in Eponin's hair.
She was aware of Eponin's hands upon her hips, of her wraparound style leather skirt being undone, the flaps being opened. She felt Eponin's palms on the inside of her thighs. She opened her legs wider, inviting fingers to explore higher. Fingertips grazed the drenched hairs covering her sex.
"Oh, gods," Ephiny moaned, her head lolling back on her shoulders, blonde curls cascading down her back.
"The regent can only cry out if she hasn't been murdered already."
"No, it's okay." Gabrielle held up her hands to stop an advancing Devillare. "There's nothing wrong with showing concern for a sister Amazon. As long as it's legitimate concern."
Taking a deep breath, praying to any of the gods that might listen, Gabrielle raised her hand and knocked on the door.
Eponin stilled. Ephiny's head came forward, her eyes slowly opened. Through a lust-filled haze, she focused on the warrior whose hand rested between her thighs. Eponin was looking back at her, uncertainty clearly written in her eyes.
"What is it?" Ephiny asked, her usual dulcet tones coming out at a much huskier pitch. She forced a trembling hand to reassuringly stroke through a thick ebony mane.
"Are you - " Eponin hesitated, licked her lips. "I mean, if you don't - "
Ephiny cupped Eponin's face in both hands. "Eponin, it's okay."
Honey-hued eyes desperately flicked over Ephiny's face. "Are you sure?"
"Eph? Ephiny?" Gabrielle called out.
Still no response. Gods, Eph, you had better answer. Gabrielle raised her hand, forcefully knocked several times in loud, rapid succession.
"I've never been more sure of anything in my life."
Eponin's attention was drawn by a knocking at the door. Ephiny heard her name being called out and chose to ignore it. She caught Eponin beneath the chin and turned her gaze back to her.
"Eponin," she placed a sound kiss upon the warrior's lips, "listen to me. Listen very carefully."
"Ephiny?" Gabrielle called out as loud as she could. "Ephiny, answer if you're okay! Eph?"
The pounding at the door continued. To emphasize her point, Ephiny placed her hand between her own legs, atop Eponin's.
"Can you hear what my body is saying to you?"
Ephiny squeezed Eponin's hand beneath hers. Maintaining her gaze with Ep, she moved their combined hands higher.
"It's saying yes," Ephiny husked out, "Yes."
The incessant pounding at the door was nearly as strong now as the thrumming between Ephiny's legs. Calloused fingers rubbed at her slick center, coating themselves in her moisture. Ephiny heard Gabrielle calling out for her.
"Yes..." was torn from her throat as a thumb strummed her aching clit. Thick fingers pressed at her soaked opening. Ephiny's palms were pressing down on the edge of the desk. She was lifting, tilting her hips, trying to entice the touch she so desperately needed. "Oh, Pony. Please. I need..." A finger slipped inside. There was only a heartbeat's pause before Eponin added another. "Oh gods! Yeeessssssss!"
A loud "Yeeessssssss......." echoed back with such force that a startled Gabrielle nearly leapt into Xena's arms in reaction.
She tried to cover by turning to Tynette with a sickly sweet smile plastered on her face. "I trust that reassures you?"
"I - " Tynette was so flustered, she couldn't hardly speak. "Yes, my Queen."
"Good. Now, everyone get out of here."
Xena waited until Devillare and Tynette were walking down the corridor, heading to their respective rooms, with Gabrielle right behind to keep an eye on them. Egeria turned her back to the double doors, stood at attention, her eyes focused straight ahead down the corridor as she took up her position as guard.
Xena opened her hand. The key she'd palmed fell to the floor. She kicked it with the side of her boot, sending it sliding beneath the locked set of double doors. She brushed past Egeria, firmly patting her on the back as she raced to join her bard in their room.
Arms and legs were quivering uncontrollably. Her entire upper body was leaning against Eponin's. Her breath was coming in great ragged gasps. She rested a cheek against one of Ep's broad shoulders.
"You okay?" Eponin asked as she felt Ephiny's tremors subside and her breathing return to normal.
"Mm." Somehow, Ephiny found the strength to pull back and sit up unsupported. Still, it was long heartbeats before she trusted her voice to answer. "Um, yeah. But, I think we should stop - "
Ephiny immediately reached between her legs, catching and stilling Eponin's hand before she could remove it completely. "You didn't let me finish. I meant if we ever want to be able to read these maps, then we'd better stop long enough to move to the bed."
Eponin looked down at the desk, noticing for the first time the maps Ephiny was perched upon. "I see what you mean," she said, a wicked grin forming on her lips. "Was that river there before?"
"Insolent." Ephiny smacked Eponin's bare abdomen with the back of her hand. "This is all your fault, you know."
Ebony eyebrows rose right along with Eponin's smile. "Mine?"
"Mm-hmm. You caused this mess."
Ephiny's hand trailed from Eponin's abdomen to her own, the palm smoothing over her flat stomach. Eponin watched in rapt fascination as Ephiny's fingers moved between her open legs, through drenched blonde hairs and lower. Ephiny's breath hitched and her eyes dilated as she stroked herself.
A gasp escaped Ephiny's lips and she visibly shuddered as she forced herself to drag her fingers out again. Her mouth fell open as her retreating fingers brushed against her clit. Ardent eyes intently watched Eponin's reaction as she brought her hand up, passing her fingers beneath the warrior's nose.
Eponin's nostrils flared, deeply inhaling the fresh scent of arousal. A tongue darted out, licking her lips in anticipation.
Ephiny moved her hand away. Bringing it to her own lips, she indolently licked the length of one coated finger. As soon as she'd finished, she changed fingers, popping another into her mouth.
Eponin groaned aloud. A smile curved Ephiny's lips. She pointedly held aloft a third finger. Like the previous two, it was also coated thick with her juices.
"Want a taste?" Ephiny husked out, brushing her fingertip over Eponin's lips.
Ep took it into her mouth, her tongue working greedily, drawing in the full length of Ephiny's digit and swirling about the delectable treat. If Ephiny hadn't been already seated, she was certain her legs would have buckled beneath the erotic tease. She slowly withdrew her finger from Eponin's mouth and quickly replaced it with her tongue.
Suddenly, all the playfulness and teasing was gone. Eponin picked Ephiny up in strong arms and cradled her gently as she padded across the room. One knee upon the bed, she laid her regent down upon the mattress. Leaning in, her lips met Ephiny's. Then, breaking off the kiss, Eponin's tongue traveled over the length of Ephiny's body, intent on having her next taste straight from the source.
A scream startled Egeria, causing her to jump. The red-headed warrior reflexively reached for her labrys. She turned to the closed double doors, tried the handle before she remembered they were locked from the inside.
She raised her hand to knock, mouth opening to call out to the regent.
"Oh, gods," drifted into the corridor.
Egeria pressed her ear to the door and clearly heard, "Oh, my sweet Pony."
Egeria struggled against it, but then finally gave in as a broad grin spread across her lips. She turned around, placing her back to the regent's door. She took her double-headed labrys from its harness across her back and hefted it, turning it horizontally in her grasp. Standing there, hands easily clasping her huge weapon, the big warrior stood as a human barrier against any who would seek to disturb the regent and her weapons master.
"Xena is dead, our Queen mad with grief."
"Shut up!" Egeria smacked the guard with the blunt side of her shovel. "You want her to hear?"
"What? It's true, isn't it? Blood-thirsty renegades are out to kill us all. And instead of barricading ourselves in at the inn in Potadeia, we high-tailed it out of there. To go where? Back to the village where there's reinforcements? No. Instead, we come here. And for what?" Lexine poured another bucket of water onto the peat moss. "To play in the mud like a bunch of toddlers? You ask me, it's madness."
"Yeah? Well, nobody asked you."
Egeria lifted another shovelful, purposely flung it so that the mud splattered the other Amazon. Not that it mattered; they were both covered head to toe in the stuff. It would take a solid moon to scrub the mud out of all the places it had seeped into.
Gabrielle carried an armful of sticks. She and Eponin had ventured out into the countryside earlier, scavenging for branches that had fallen from the trees. They must have collected at least fifty good ones, transporting them back to the barn on a blanket they dragged between them like a makeshift litter.
Even now, Ep was using a knife to sharpen the tips of the branches into sharp points. Gabrielle had volunteered to take the first batch down to the fence row.
"Place these at regular intervals," she instructed the Amazon work force as she flung the sticks upon the ground. "Pack the mud in tight to secure them in place."
"Yes, my Queen."
Gabrielle saw the hesitation in Egeria's eyes, could sense that the warrior wanted to say something else. She looked lost, though, like she didn't know what she should say.
She could only imagine what inadequacies might tumble from the warrior's mouth. Was she going to offer condolences? Apologies for their gossiping about her? Words of encouragement and support?
Gabrielle turned around and walked away.
Gabrielle kept walking, giving no indication that she'd heard the warrior calling out to her. Her love had been ripped from her arms, her heart torn from her chest, the other half of her soul lost to her. What good were words to her now?
Gabrielle shivered, both from the slight chill in the morning air and from the sensation of the rough tongue trailing down her neck and onto her collarbone. That shiver increased as the quilt was pushed down to pool at her hips, leaving her upper body exposed. Her nipples thickened, both in response to the cool air and the heated mouth upon them.
"I should get up," Gabrielle murmured. Her fingers lazily stroking through thick ebony locks gave away her reluctance to do so.
"Me, too." murmured Xena around a mouthful of bardly breast. "I want to get another look at those maps in Eph's room."
"If Pony will let her out of bed long enough to open the door for you."
"Pony?" Xena arched a brow, both at Gabrielle's familiar use of the nickname and the notion itself. "Seems to me it's Ephiny that's got a short leash on Ep."
"Has to. Eponin's in protective custody, remember. And, Ephiny is the regent." Gabrielle grinned. "It's her duty."
"It's your regent's duty to bed warriors?" Xena snorted. "That's stretching even your bardic license to the limit, isn't it?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "Well, as far as everyone else is concerned, nothing untoward is going on. Gods, could you imagine if Tynette even suspected Ephiny was, to use your term, 'bedding' the prisoner?"
Xena smirked. "You think they don't already know?"
"Suspecting and knowing are two different things entirely, my warrior. No one - not even an elder - would accuse a member of royalty of impropriety without proof positive."
"All they'd have to do is listen at the door."
"Weren't we when we first got together?" asked Xena. "As I recall, you couldn't keep your hands off me. Or your voice down."
Gabrielle smacked Xena on the arm, but smiled fondly as she remembered those early days when they first started physically expressing their love for each other. Xena was right; she couldn't keep her hands off the warrior. But, as she remembered it, Xena couldn't exactly keep her hands to herself, either. Gods, the sex...it was unbelievable...and it seemed like they were constantly going at it.
Not that things had cooled off all that much between warrior and bard over the seasons.
A deeply inhaled breath drew in the heady smells of sex, eliciting a saucy smirk as memories of last eve's decadent debauchery flitted behind her eyes. She purposely drew in another breath, relishing the scent of arousal, both old and new. Gabrielle's smile increased as large hands pushed the quilt even lower as they clasped her hips. She arched in anticipation as that talented tongue slathered a trail between her breasts, past her navel and...
There was a knock at the door, closely followed by Darius' voice. "Xena? It's time."
Gabrielle blinked. It was growing colder. Red-rimmed green eyes looked to the sky. Storm clouds were rolling in. Again. Desperately, she wished they were further north. Back home, in the Amazon village, she knew the temperatures would be cooler. The snow would have crept down from the mountains by now. It would suit her just fine if she never saw another raindrop again as long as she lived.
"The rains stopped three days ago." Xena stood in the center of the tavern, addressing the assembled Amazons. "The Potadeians want us gone and their patience is wearing thin."
All eyes turned to Solari. The chief scout was seated on the stones in front of the hearth, a down-filled pillow beneath her injured leg.
"It's okay," Solari's smooth voice said, "I'm strong enough to ride."
Devillare snorted, folded her arms over her chest. "Scout, you can't walk on your own, much less mount up."
It was common knowledge that the only reason Solari was present now was because Xena had relented and carried her from her bed to the main tavern.
"I don't have to mount anything," Solari said, pointedly eyeing the elder captain. "You get me into a saddle, I'll show you I can ride."
Gabrielle looked from Solari to Xena. A subtle shake of Xena's head told the queen that her scout wouldn't be able to travel, no matter how stubborn she was.
"What about Potadeia? The renegades haven't made a move. Are we just going to ride out and leave the townsfolk at their mercy?"
Despite her words, everyone present knew what Ephiny's real feelings on the subject were. Truth be told, most of them felt the same way. Despite putting their lives on the line for them, the citizens of Potadeia had proven to be most ungrateful.
Instead of being heralded as heroes. Hera's tits; instead of just being accepted for who they were...they were treated as lepers, outcasts and pariahs. It had started with the men giving them disdainful looks. Then, the women turning their children's heads into their skirts so they wouldn't look at and be influenced by the half-naked savages.
On top of that, the shopkeepers refused to sell their wares to Amazons. The only reason they would accept their coin now was because Gabrielle had negotiated a kind of truce with her father. He and the Potadeians wanted them gone. They couldn't leave unless they were allowed to purchase supplies.
None of that really bothered the Amazons one way or the other. They were used to old men telling dirty jokes about them in taverns, then in the very next breath, coming on to them, telling them all they needed was 'a real man'. They were used to women shunning them because their men were unfaithful and had wandering eyes and hands. Town after town, that was just the way of 'civilized folk'.
Herodotus had disowned his eldest daughter, turning his back on Gabrielle. Gabrielle had tried to put on a brave face, pretending it didn't matter. Ephiny and the others could see that she was hurting, though. It was a slight her Amazon sisters weren't so willing to forgive.
"I don't know about the rest of you," Xena said, "But I'm tired of tiptoeing around the Potadeians. And, I'm tired of waiting for the renegades to get up the guts to come get us. I say it's time we take the fight to them."
There was a rousing chorus of cheers from the assembled Amazons.
"Wait." Lyonene held up a hand, bringing silence to the group. "How are we going to find them? Solari's in no condition. And, no offense, but the last time you tried to track them, all you found was a lame horse and a lame warrior."
Eponin looked like she was about to protest. If Ephiny didn't beat her to it. A stern look from their Queen had them both locking their jaws.
"A traitor will lead us to them." As heads turned towards the disgraced weapons master, Xena quickly added, "Not Eponin. A real traitor. Iphinome?"
The assistant healer caught Xena's look. She went to the hearth and began looking around the pile of kindling that Darius kept stacked to one side of the stonework. All eyes watched curiously as she looked first this way and that, moving various logs out of the way in her search.
Iphinome's eyes raised, meeting Xena's cool gaze. "It's gone," she confirmed.
Xena nodded. That's what they'd been waiting for. She and Iphinome had gone shopping two days ago, securing enough herbs and bandages to provide for their wounded and replenish her stores. In a fit of inspiration, Xena had purchased another leather satchel, instructing Iphinome to split their goods, filling both bags with an equal amount of identical supplies.
As they left the shop, she had Iphinome make a showing of carrying her bag, holding it by the leather strap and swinging it back and forth as they walked side by side. Xena had wrapped the other bag in a horse blanket and carried it securely tucked beneath her arm. Upon their return to the inn, she'd spirited her bag back to the room she shared with Gabrielle and carefully hid it beneath their bed.
Then, she'd rejoined Iphinome in the main tavern. Darius had agreed to allow them to keep the bag there, out of the way near the hearth. An extra dinar a day had paid for Darius to keep an eye out and report to her if anyone other than herself or Iphinome retrieved the bag.
"The renegades are injured, too. They've been biding their time, healing their wounded. Since that first attack on Potadeia, someone - one of us - has been pilfering herbs and bandages from the healer's kit. This time, she's stolen the entire bag and is riding out to meet them."
Lyonene moved towards the tavern door. Creaking it open, she peered out. A lone figure, a bag slung over one shoulder, guided a horse out of the stables. Lyonene's eyes narrowed as the rider mounted up and headed out.
Warriors. Sandalwood eyes intently watched the trio of women. They were up to their knees in mud. It was caked on from their fingertips to their elbows and liberally smeared on their torsos. It was everywhere their hands had touched. Egeria, in particular, had a thick line of mud across her nose. Her red hair was stained in streaks of brown and grey and sticking out at odd angles where the mud had dried in thick clumps.
"Solari? Should you be up?" The question had come from a warrior so covered in mud that at first, Solari didn't recognize her. Then, she saw a shock of blonde hair peeking out from beneath all the mud and twigs.
"I'm fine." She adjusted her grip, indicating the set of crutches braced beneath both arms. She turned her head, eyes zeroing in on the other two warriors and effectively dismissing Lexine's presence.
A rumble of thunder echoed overhead. Solari cast a wary gaze towards the darkening sky. "Storm's moving in." She jerked her head towards where Lexine and Bonadea were pouring water onto a clump of mud. Egeria was holding the sharpened stick in place at an angle while they used the added water to sculpt and mold the mud around the branch. "Will that hold with the rain?"
Egeria's gaze searched the clouds. A cold breeze had picked up, but the darkest of the clouds looked like they were still a ways off. "With luck, the weather will hold. At least until we can cover the area with brush and twigs. They'll harden into the mud, providing support."
There was the sound of a screen door slamming. Solari turned to see Devillare storming down the porch steps and across the yard. There was a scowl on the captain's face and she drew up short as she approached them.
"If you kids are done playing in the mud, the midday meal is ready."
"Nearly done, I think," Bonadea said, looking to Egeria for confirmation.
The big warrior nodded. "At least until Gabrielle brings the next set."
"The Queen is already inside," Devillare said tersely. "You lot hurry and get cleaned up." Grey eyes turned on Solari. "They're big warriors, not adolescent scouts. They don't need you out here checking up on them."
Solari's eyes went wide. She stared in open mouthed dismay as the captain turned on her heel and marched back towards the house. From behind her, Solari caught the sounds of a snicker.
She spun about, brown eyes flashing as they zeroed in on Bonadea, Lexine and Egeria. Three mud-encrusted warriors blinked back at her. Egeria's expression was infuriatingly unreadable. Bonadea's lips were pursed tightly together, but the ends were threatening to curve up into a smile. Lexine tried taking a step out of the mire, arms extended, as if she meant to embrace Solari to soothe her ruffled feathers.
Bonadea wisely caught the younger guard by both shoulders and steered her the other way, firmly saying, "Come on. Let's go get washed up now."
Devillare had gone less than ten paces when she tripped. Or more precisely, when someone tripped her. She turned over, sitting on her tailfeathers in the damp grass, one hand rubbing at a spot on her ankle. Steel grey eyes pierced Solari with a sharp look.
"What in Tartarus was that for?"
"You tell me." Solari was standing over her. Actually, standing wasn't entirely accurate. She had one crutch tucked beneath an arm and she was half-hopping on one foot to keep her balance. "You attacked me first."
Devillare slowly rose from the ground, her hand closing about the object that she had stumbled over. "Here," she said, thrusting the crutch back at Solari, "You dropped this."
She turned her back on Solari, having every intention of just walking away. Solari, it seemed, had other plans. Devillare felt the hand brush past her cloak and close about her upper bicep.
It was out of pure instinct that she jerked her arm away. She'd gone another two steps before she heard Solari hit the ground. Devillare cringed, knowing with certainty that it had been her sudden movement that had knocked the scout off her precarious balance.
Every hair on her neck and arms bristling, Devillare slowly turned around. Solari was sprawled out on the grass, her crutches out of her reach. She had both palms and one foot pressed flat to the ground as she tried to rise. Every time she started up though, her boot would lose traction on the slick grass.
Hera's tits. Devillare rolled her eyes, stalked back to where Solari was still struggling on the ground. She reached down, one large hand grasping Solari by the back of her belt. Her other hand tried to find purchase beneath one arm as she lifted.
Solari tried turning around. Devillare's hand was still tucked into the chief scout's belt and she found her arm twisted about at an awkward angle with Solari's movement. Solari found herself pressed up firmly against the older woman.
A mahogany-hued eyebrow lifted. "Glad to see me, warrior?"
Confused by the statement, Devillare blinked. Then, her gaze followed Solari's. Down. Eyes widened at the sight of Solari's ample bosom pressed up against her body. They widened even more when she realized that her hand had slipped from beneath Solari's arm and was now cupping one leather-clad breast.
"You know," Solari's lips twisted into a smirk, "most Amazons use the traditional hand-forearm clasp as greeting."
Oh, gods. Devillare jerked her hand back as though it'd been scalded. She hastily tried to put some distance between herself and the scout. So hastily that she forgot that her other hand was still trapped by Solari's belt.
She lost her footing. Solari couldn't hope to keep both of them up. Not even if Devillare had been lighter. Not even if she'd been able to put her full weight on her injured leg for added support. Not even if the grass hadn't been so slick.
All of these not-if's raced through Solari's mind in that heartbeat between the time she realized Devillare was falling...and she was going with her.
Devillare went down hard, falling face first, trying and unable to brace herself. A loud "Oooof," was knocked out of her along with her breath.
She opened her eyes to find herself atop Solari. To her immense consternation, one arm and hand was trapped beneath the scout's back. The other - she blushed as she realized her other hand had a very firm grip upon Solari's breast.
Much more than a handful. Devillare didn't know why that illicit thought suddenly popped into her head. Then, she remembered. She and Beroyle had once stopped in a tavern to wait out a storm. While they were there, they saw several ladies sidling up to the paying customers. As soon as they flashed their coin for another round, she and Beroyle had each found themselves being offered the same service. A plump blonde bounced on Devillare's lap and she found a set of hands clasped behind her neck, pulling her in so that her face was pressed into two bountiful breasts. So bountiful that Devillare's airflow was temporarily cut off. Beroyle had thought the sight was hilarious and made a rather ribald comment about, "Anything more than a handful is a waste."
Can't say as I agree.
Solari's face was contorted in pain and she was pressing against Devillare's shoulders with both palms. "Get off me, you - you warrior."
Devillare tried moving. "Get off my arm so I can, scout."
Solari raised her hips and arched her lower back. Devillare immediately snatched her arm back and moved, rolling off Solari and onto her back on the grass. She held her arm at the elbow, curling and uncurling the fingers of her hand as she tried to get the circulation back. The palm of her hand was bright red and bore a strap-like indentation from where Solari's belt had been cutting off the flow of blood.
Steel grey eyes cut a look to the side. Solari was applying pressure to her hand, the fingers of her left rubbing against the palm and back of her right. The young woman's normally beautiful features were marred by a grimace of pain.
"You okay, scout?"
Solari jerked her hands apart. She tucked her right hand against her body, cradling it near her waist, keeping it from Devillare's view.
"Fine," she answered, curtly.
Devillare thought about arguing that point. Instead, she sat up in the grass. "Come on. Let's get you up, then," she said, reaching for Solari.
Solari felt the arm go about her waist. Devillare was rising, trying to pull her up, also. Solari felt the pulling of muscles in her injured thigh and leg.
"Wait. Wait," she gasped out loud.
Devillare immediately stopped.
"I - " Deep brown eyes looked away as she admitted, "I need to just sit here for a bit, okay?"
Wordlessly, Devillare eased them both back down to the ground.
Devillare lost track of how many heartbeats they'd been silently sitting on the damp grass. Long enough that she could feel the moisture seeping through her leathers. In the distance, she saw the three warriors, fresh from washing up, cut them a wide berth on their way back to the house.
Thinking of the hot meal they were missing, thinking they'd be lucky to find any scraps left by the time they got back, Devillare's stomach rumbled loudly in protest.
Solari clearly heard it. "You don't have to wait for me."
Devillare was silent for a heartbeat. She looked towards the house, then back to the young woman dejectedly plucking at blades of grass. She'd already pulled enough that there was a small pile of clippings between them.
"Got nowhere else to be," Devillare lied, trying to silently threaten her gut into keeping quiet, "They're young warriors. They need the best cut of meat to keep their strength up."
Solari kept quiet. That had always been the way of the tribe. The warriors got the best of everything. Because they risked their lives to protect the village, the mothers, the children. It was a small token of thanks given to those brave women that so often gave their lives in defense of their people. Seldom did a warrior make it to Devillare's age.
Allowing them to eat first was a small price to pay for their services. In truth, Solari knew there was nothing the other castes could do to adequately give the warriors thanks. Still, it sometimes got old, trying all the time.
Solari looked askance at the warrior sitting on the grass beside her. Grey streaked her close-cropped hair at the temples. There were the tiniest bit of laugh lines at the corners of her mouth and eyes. And whenever she scowled; which seemed to Solari like a lot, there was a much deeper line etched between both eyes. Otherwise, her face was unblemished. Except for that cut she'd gotten along her jaw during the battle of Potadeia. Solari idly wondered if it would leave a scar.
Her eyes drifted to Devillare's hand, to the bleached white scar that ran the length of forefinger to wrist. So far as Solari knew, those were the only scars that the warrior's body bore. In Solari's experience, most warriors were covered in a myriad of scars that they proudly wore like badges of honor. She'd also found that most of them could recite the story of how each one was earned. She imaged that someone of Devillare's reputation must have many more.
Not that I would know, Solari rapidly amended her thoughts. Although, Devillare was still quite striking for an older woman and Solari had seen enough of her body to know that beneath that full-length formless cloak draped about her shoulders that she was toned and fit. But it's not like I've ever seen her naked.
"You don't much care for me being here, do you?"
Devillare blinked at the unexpected question. "Huh?"
"You don't think much of me at all, do you?" Solari asked, "Because I'm a scout, not a warrior."
"You being a scout has nothing to do with it." Devillare drew in a ragged breath, pushed a hand through her hair. "I think your presence is a distraction. For Gods' sake, woman. It's freezing out here." Devil made a hand gesture to indicate Solari's low-cut halter. "Don't you have anything warmer you could cover up with? It's a wonder you haven't caught a chest cold."
"It's not all that cold." At the pointed look towards her halter and the evidence that proved otherwise, Solari conceded, "My winter cloak is by the fire." Then, remembering that it was Devillare's gaze that had focused on her hardened nipples, she threw out, "And, exactly who am I distracting? You?"
Devillare's thoughts went back to the three warriors that had steered clear of them. "The guard - "
"Lexine would do well to keep her wandering eyes to herself. I've done nothing to encourage her."
Devillare stiffened at that name. Solari caught the reaction, but didn't say anything. She silently watched as the warrior's jaw clenched tight and the fingers of one hand dug into the grass and dirt.
The fingers of one hand dug into grass and dirt as Devillare knelt beside Xena.
"Are you certain of this, Queen's champion?"
Xena's gaze remained fixed straight ahead. "I can feel it in my gut."
Devillare waited the span of three heartbeats before saying, "I don't much like leaving the injured defenseless and the royals unprotected because you have a bout of indigestion, warrior."
An ebony brow arched and Xena was about to make a caustic remark when she remembered that this was no ordinary Amazon complaining in her ear. This was a warrior and a respected elder of Gabrielle's tribe.
"Iphinome will tend to Solari and I hardly think Ephiny would appreciate being called defenseless," she said instead. Then added, "Besides, Gabrielle stayed behind to protect them. Believe me, your Queen can be quite deadly when her family is threatened."
"I've seen her teeth." Devillare nodded in agreement. "I hear you have many skills, warrior. Yet, I can't help but worry that we're on the wrong trail."
Xena looked askance at the warrior kneeling beside her. They were positioned at the edge of the forest she had found Solari in days ago. From their vantage point, they had a clear view of the river and the lumber mill beyond.
The mill was deserted, something that didn't sit well with Xena, especially during the middle of the day. She supposed the workers could have broken away for the midday meal and were slacking off, indulging in drinks at the nearby dive she'd found Eponin in. After all, none of the mill workers she'd encountered there seemed likely to have a particularly strong work ethic.
Something in her gut didn't feel right about this, though. Call it warrior instinct. But, something was off. That's why she'd called her group to a halt and took cover in the forest. Or, at least Potadeia's version of a forest.
The Amazons were making the best use of it. Lyonene and Bonadea had taken to perching high in the trees. The heavier Amazons like Egeria and Eponin were crouched behind shrubs and undergrowth. To the inexperienced eye, their presence would be completely undetectable.
If there was one thing Xena possessed in abundance, it was experience. Her seasoned eyes noted that Devillare's attention was fixed on one Amazon in particular.
"It's not her," Xena said.
"You sure?" Devillare asked, never pulling her gaze from where a blonde Amazon was camouflaged in a bush some twenty paces distant.
Devillare frowned. She would have bet good dinars it was Lexine. There were just too many things that were off about her.
"You fought those renegades that were creeping back into town to kill the Queens?" At a nod from Xena, she asked, "Was it easy?"
"Not by half." Xena snorted. "Fighting Amazons is never easy. Fighting pissed-off Amazons on a mission is about as difficult as it gets."
"My point exactly."
Xena arched a brow.
"They snuck up behind Lexine on watch and got the drop on her. I'll buy that," said Devillare. "But for them to leave her alive and with such a superficial wound?"
"I thought it was her, too. At first. But let's be honest; to pull off a caper like this takes someone both ambitious and clever. That's not Lexine."
"Then, why is she still alive? Why not just kill her outright?"
"Because she wasn't important?" suggested Xena. "Or, because like Eponin, it was done to cast doubt upon one of your own. You've been so busy watching Lexine, you haven't focused on anyone else."
Devillare gave a skeptical look. "And you have?"
"Slipped by me, too." Xena admitted. "It was staring me in the face all along and I didn't see it."
Lyonene dropped down into a crouch beside Xena and Devillare. Under normal circumstances, she'd have saved time by sending a bird call down from the trees. These could hardly be called normal circumstances, though. Not when their quarry were Amazons themselves. No, for this mission, she had to report what she'd seen in person.
"One body in the water." Lyonene pointed, indicating the bloated corpse that blended in with the floating logs. "Another in the wood piling."
The mill was built directly above the water's edge. Erosion had taken its toll, washing away enough soil to expose large tree roots anchored in the embankment. Wooden supports embedded in the soil and buffeted by mounds of large rocks kept the structure from sliding down the sharp embankment and into the water.
At the water's edge was a pileup of logs that had become jammed along the bank. That was where the second body was, crushed between several of the floating trees.
Xena's mouth set in a tight line. "They've taken the mill, then."
"To what end?"
Xena shrugged at first. Then, she thought back to her darker days as a warlord and all the reasons she would have taken the mill. Not the least of which was as a potential means of poisoning the water supply. To Devillare, she said, "Gets their forces out of the elements. Probably some grain on-hand to fill their bellies."
"They could have just as easily taken over a farmhouse."
"True, but then a neighbor might have noticed something. Mill's remote. Hard work, long candlemarks. Probably all single fellows working out here. No one at home to miss them when they've been gone a few days. It's a good hideout. Gives them a nice dry place to tend their wounded and build their strength."
"Fortified, too." Devillare studied the mill and surrounding landscape. "Strategic location. Only two ways of approach; either straight on through the water or take the long way around."
Devillare remembered the maps they'd studied in the regent's office. She and Xena had poured over them for days, trying to come up with the most logical place the renegades could be hiding. They'd spotted the mill on the map, but had dismissed it as a possible location as Xena had said the mill was in use.
Trees floated in the water, many of them not having their leaves, branches and bark stripped from them yet. That was to be done as they were guided through a sluice and into the mill where the trees would be turned into lumber logs and sent further down river. As there was no one to man the sluice, the trees were steadily drifting past the mill. The river was flowing at a good pace, but the water didn't look like it was moving so fast that it couldn't be forded.
On the other bank, there was a worn path. It was wide enough for a wagon and ran beside the river. No doubt it was used to cart supplies to and from the mill. Devillare recalled seeing the markings indicating a bridge on the map. If the map was to scale, it would place the bridge roughly three miles north of the mill.
"Movement on the road," Xena said.
Devillare and Lyonene both squinted. Devillare wasn't sure about the elder hunter, but she couldn't see anything. Obviously, Xena's eyesight was much better than hers. At last, the shadow of a lone rider came into view. The rider wore a thick cloak that hid her body. But her hood was down and even from this distance, Devillare could spot the telltale feathers of an Amazon.
Damn, Devillare thought. I was wrong about that one. Thinking back on her suspicions of Lexine, I let my personal feelings cloud my judgment.
Devillare tossed away a handful of grass she'd been plucking during her reminiscing. Steel grey eyes fixed on the young woman reclining on the grass across from her. If it hadn't been for the crutches scattered on the ground a few yards away and the heavily bandaged leg, she could be mistaken for just a young Amazon out for a picnic. Except there wasn't so much as a bit of hard bread to share between them let alone an entire picnic basket.
At the mere thought of food, Devillare's stomach protested the lateness of the midday meal. Very loudly. Frowning, Devillare looked down at her rumbling gut.
"Sounds like Gabrielle's stomach after - well, like Gabrielle's stomach any time."
Devillare glanced up to see Solari looking at her, a twinkle in her eye and a teasing smile upon her lips.
"Come on, scout." Devillare climbed to her feet. "Let's head in."
"It's too nice a day to be inside," protested Solari.
"Storm's coming." Devillare could feel the change in weather in her bones.
"Then let's stay until it gets here. I've been cooped up indoors for what seems like forever."
Devillare's stomach grumbled again. She leaned down, catching Solari beneath both arms and lifting her up. "I want to get some food before they devour it all."
"Too bad you didn't smuggle a roasted chicken out here in that cloak of yours. We could have had a picnic lunch."
Maintaining a one-handed grip on Solari's hip, Devillare twisted about so she could reach one of her discarded crutches. As she did, Solari's words echoed in her head. The scout's suggestion of a picnic so closely mirrored what the warrior had already been thinking.
Devillare retrieved the crutch and turned around again. Solari was clasping at the warrior's forearms to steady herself as she worked to keep her weight off her leg. Big brown bedroom eyes stared into Devillare's.
Like she'd ever be on a picnic with an old broken down warrior like you when she's got any number of younger Amazons chasing after her? The bitter thought left a sour taste in Devillare's mouth.
"You should keep yourself better covered to avoid unwanted attention."
"Excuse me?" Solari's mind raced. They'd been enjoying a brief respite of playful teasing upon the grass. Then Devillare's grey eyes had turned darker until they matched the gathering storm clouds and she was suddenly criticizing her clothing. Solari blinked in confusion, looking down at her attire in question. "This is in style."
Suddenly annoyed at Solari for being seemingly oblivious to the attention she so easily attracted and even more so at herself for noticing, Devillare accused, "Who's going to purchase the cow if they can get the milk for free?"
Mahogany eyebrows shot up. "Did you just actually compare me to livestock?"
"Let's say I know your reputation. It's no secret you've been to market more than once."
The slap was so sudden that Devillare didn't have time to anticipate it, let alone avoid it. It was loud. And hard. Hard enough that the strike turned Devillare's head to the side when it connected.
Scout and warrior stood staring at each other, jaws clenching and nostrils flaring. Devillare took two pronounced steps back. Solari clutched at the lone crutch with both hands, trying to get it positioned beneath an arm before she lost her precarious balance. Hardened eyes glared imaginary daggers at the warrior.
Devillare's cheek stung. She placed a hand to her face over the place where she'd been slapped. Grey eyes glowered at the scout. She reached a hand to her cloak, undid the clasp. Taking it off her shoulders, she swung it around, rolling it into a ball as she sent it hurtling at Solari.
It hit the scout squarely in her assets before bouncing off. Solari managed a reflexive one-handed catch. As Devillare turned her back and stormed towards the farmhouse, Solari threw the wadded up cloak upon the ground.
Gabrielle stood alone in the main room of the house. From behind the swinging door that led to the kitchen, she could hear the boisterous voices of the warriors eating their midday meal. For once, her stomach didn't grumble in anticipation of food. Her brow furrowed, unable to precisely recall the last time she'd had an appetite.
"That beast you call a stomach" or "Are you keeping whole dragons in there?" Xena would often tease.
Images of dark hair, blue eyes and that crooked smile all danced in front of Gabrielle's eyes and she smiled. Then, she swallowed harshly, remembering that her love was lost to her now.
"Oh, Gods. Xena."
Gabrielle's arms tightened about her stomach as she hugged herself close. She leaned with her back against the nearest wall. Eyes went towards the second floor, as if she could see beyond wood and thatched roof to the very Halls of Mt. Olympus. For surely, she'd often thought that Xena must be a goddess or at least a demi-one like Hercules.
Where do the Gods go when they die?
She promised me she wouldn't die on me again.
There are so many depending on me to be strong. Ephiny. Eponin. Solari. All my sister Amazons. I'm trying. But it's so hard. It's not fair. It's not fair that they're all expecting so much from me when she's -
She told me that the dead can hear our thoughts.
"Xena? I don't know if I can do this without you."
Tears formed in her eyes, running unchecked down her cheeks. She tasted the salty moisture upon her lips. Letting the despair take her, Gabrielle slid down the wall to the wooden floor. Curled into herself, forming a protective ball, she placed her forehead against her knees and permitted herself to cry.
In her anguish and self-pity, Gabrielle could swear she felt someone leaning down over her, wrapping their arms about her, stroking a hand through her hair. Head down, eyes closed, Gabrielle was certain that it was Xena's touch she felt and Xena's scent that was wafted to her on the wind.
Blinking back her tears, Gabrielle looked up to find that she was utterly alone.
Devillare's pace didn't slow any as she bounded up the porch steps and into the farmhouse, the screen door slamming behind her. She stormed past the woman chopping wild onions on the cutting board without a second glance. The warriors seated at the kitchen table didn't fare as well.
"Quit dawdling and get back out there," she snapped. "When those renegades ride up, they're going to come in hard and fast and they aren't going to wait while you finish sopping up the gravy out of your plate."
Lexine groaned. "Aww, come on. We're tired and hungry and hurting."
"The only reason you're any of those things is because two women - two good women - gave their lives so that you could live. Now, if you don't want their sacrifice to be in vain, I suggest you get your tailfeathers out of those chairs and get back to work."
"We were sho-mmph."
Bonadea took the hunk of bread she'd been using to soak up the fat drippings from her roast and shoved it into Lexine's mouth before she could finish putting her foot in there with the rest of her food. She stood up, grabbing Lexine by the collar of her cloak and pulling the younger guard up and out of her chair. Lexine's arms flailed wildly as she made a grab for her mug of mead as she was dragged towards the door.
Egeria boldly met Devillare's gaze. Slowly, the big warrior rose to her feet. She placed one large fist on the table, the wood groaning in protest beneath her weight. Still meeting the captain's gaze, she lifted her plate and in exaggerated fashion, used her tongue to lick the surface clean. The plate clattered as she tossed it down on the table, picked up her large labrys and started out of the kitchen.
Egeria paused beside the woman working at the chopping block. "Thank you for the meal," she said, even as she reached around the woman's body and snatched up a stalk of wild onion. Turning, she gave Devillare a parting look as she bit directly into the bulb.
"Well," the farmwoman said as she turned from the counter and wiped her hands on her apron. "That was rude, even for you."
Devillare crossed her arms over her chest and challenged, "What would you know about it?"
"Oh?" There was a smile upon a set of full lips. "Like I've never spent any time with you?"
Devillare's grey eyes darkened. "For a few days a lifetime ago."
"A few days or a few candlemarks, it wouldn't make any difference. I remember you like it was only yesterday."
"Come on." Marjorie grabbed two plates and steered Devillare towards the table. "Sit down and eat while you tell me who had the nerve to pee all over your best boots and try to tell you it was a rain cloud."
Devillare felt something twist in her gut as the rider dismounted from her horse, the soles of both feet hitting the ground at the same time. She turned her back towards the river as she retrieved a leather satchel that was draped over the pommel of her saddle. Blonde hair flowed down the center of her back and a long bow and quiver of arrows rode high on her shoulder.
"That's it," Xena said, realizing what had been staring her in the face all along.
"Her arrows." Blue eyes pierced Lyonene. "When the two of you were in the blacksmith shop after the battle..."
Both Lyonene's eyebrows and her voice went up a notch. "You were there?"
"She was looking for something when you walked in and - " Xena decided to gloss over the embarrassing details " - when you walked in."
"One of her earrings. She said she lost it in the battle. Aww," Lyonene whined, "she didn't really lose an earring, did she?"
Xena shook her head. "Didn't know what it meant at the time. But, after Devillare sent you all off on perimeter duty, I found a bunch of arrows scattered about beneath the rushes. Amazon arrows."
Lyonene's broad shoulders fairly slumped with the news. "I didn't notice. She was behind me when we took cover during the attack. I thought she'd used up all her arrows early on in the battle."
"She must have hidden them beneath the rushes with the intent of retrieving them later."
Their voices trailed off as they watched Tynette leave her horse behind as she walked the path towards the mill.
"Movement in the building," Xena warned.
Instinctively, they crouched down lower, even though they were certain they couldn't be seen from the mill.
A wooden door opened and a tall woman stepped out onto the path, meeting Tynette halfway. Tynette reached out a hand and they clasped forearms in greeting.
Then, Tynette slung the leather satchel off her shoulder and presented it to the other woman.
"There's where Iphinome's missing supplies have been going," Xena said.
"Damn." Lyonene reached over, punching Devillare in the thigh. "You know who that is?"
Devillare squinted. "Yeah. That's that big hunter that tried to kill Eponin during Artemis' challenge."
"More than that. Cordele is Tynette's granddaughter. Don't you remember? Tynette's and Paxynne's daughter - oh, what's her name? - Anyway, she was killed in a raid and after Pax passed on, Tynette raised both the girls on her own. Cordele followed in her mother's and grandmothers' footsteps and - "
For Devillare, it suddenly clicked. " - Hilaeira broke from tradition and became a healer."
"I think she saw her mother die and always thought that if she had a healer's skills, she could have saved her."
"If Megara couldn't save her, then no one could have."
"Well, well." Xena rubbed her chin. "That explains the conversation Solari overheard." Xena related what Solari had told her; including the references about how her sister had allowed her to walk her own path. "Way you Amazons call each other sister, I didn't realize she was referring to a true sister. Figured it was just another lovers' quarrel. Plot just keeps getting thicker and thicker, doesn't it?"
"Mm." Devillare agreed. "Certainly explains why Tynette would go rogue. For a traditionalist like her, it had to be a slap in the face for one granddaughter to turn her back on her roots, no matter what her reason. Then, for the other one to be banished..."
"Don't know about the rest of you." Lyonene openly spat upon the ground. "But, I'm tired of getting played for a fool. I say it's time we kick her feathered ass from here to Olympus and back."
It didn't escape either Xena's or Devillare's notice that Lyonene had used the term 'her' as opposed to the collective 'their' that would include all the renegades. Devillare supposed that was on account of some hurt feelings. Xena had censored herself, but Devillare had a pretty good idea what had been going on in that blacksmith's shop right before she walked in. And, there was that one night of the feast...
"While I'm all in favor of that sentiment," Devillare said, "exactly how do you propose we accomplish that? If we ride in the way Tynette did, they'll see us coming a mile away. If we try to cross the river and by some miracle reach the other side, we'll still have to find some way to climb up that embankment."
Lyonene shrugged. "We can make it."
"Twenty seasons ago. Maybe. Let's be honest, my friend, neither of our old bones would make it halfway up before we were picked off. A sneak attack would be suicide."
"Now hold on a feathered - "
" - She's right," Xena smoothly cut off the argument. "A sneak attack won't work." A wicked grin caressed Xena's lips. "That's why we're gonna let them see us coming."
Despite - or perhaps in spite of - Marjorie's description, Devillare couldn't help but let loose a loud bellow of a laugh. Marjorie always did know just how to call her out when she was acting like a Centaur's hindquarters. She soon found herself sitting down at the table and reaching for a fist-sized hunk of Marjorie's roast.
"You would have made one damn fine Amazon," Devillare spoke around an open mouthful of meat. "Artemis knows you've always been bold enough to be one."
Trees floated upon the water, drifting downstream with the current. If anyone in the lumber mill had been paying close enough attention, they would have spotted four arms and gauntlets that had suddenly grown on two of those trees.
Devillare supposed it was thanks to the branches and leaves still on the logs that they hadn't been seen. They were fully in the water now, but not so deep yet that their feet couldn't touch the bottom. She knew that like herself, Lyonene had her knees bent to keep her profile low. She tried to block out of her mind how cold the river really was and forced herself to push forward.
Two logs ahead of them, Bonadea and Lexine clutched at the same tree. They had drifted into deeper territory. Water lapped at the back of Bonadea's halter and long braid. The shorter of the two of them, Lexine's neck and chin kept bobbing below the surface.
Devillare peeked above the top of her drifting log. They were nearing the mill now and she had a better line of sight. Tynette and Cordele were on the open path, not at all concerned about being seen. For Devillare, that confirmed that all the mill workers had to be truly dead. The captain gritted her teeth as a woman wearing the royal blue sash of the guard joined them on the path.
"You sure she's not a real Amazon?" Lyonene asked through chattering teeth.
Across the river, Devillare spied Xena and her group. She had taken Eponin and Egeria with her, running through the woods to the bridge. Once they crossed the bridge, they slipped down the opposite bank and into the water. They swam the distance to the mill, gambling they wouldn't be spotted because of the high embankment. Now, they were in position almost directly beneath the mill and the renegades.
"I guess it's either that or stay here until we catch our deaths of cold," Lyonene answered.
Devillare released a long breath. "Then, I guess it's time we let them see us coming."
As per the plan, Lyonene pursed her lips together and let out a wild bird call. A call that wasn't indigenous to the region of Potadeia. One she knew the renegades would instantly recognize as an Amazon signal.
Tynette's head snapped up immediately. Cordele closed the leather satchel she'd been perusing and roughly threw it in Gryta's direction. Gryta hadn't been expecting the throw and it went wide, going off the embankment. The guard rushed towards the edge.
"Oh, that won't do." Lyonene's bow was off her shoulder in a heartbeat, an arrow notched and released.
"Nice," Devillare said as Gryta clutched at her gut with both hands and went down.
"I was aiming for her head." Lyonene wet her thumb and held it up, turning it first one direction and then the other. "Forgot to account for that slight breeze from the east."
Devillare's gaze sought and found the three warriors on the opposite bank. Xena and Eponin were clinging to the side, using the exposed roots as handholds to pull themselves up the steep surface. Egeria was slightly below them, also steadily climbing, easily recognizable both by her shock of bright red hair and the big labrys on her broad back. Xena turned to look out over the river and Devillare risked raising her arm to give the 'clear' signal.
She reflexively ducked as she heard the whizzing noise, almost immediately followed by the sound of an object impacting with the water. There were several more rapid succession 'thwaps!' and 'thunks!'.
Lyonene and Devillare poked their heads up, just their eyes peering over the edge of their log. Two arrows were protruding from the bark of their floating tree.
Ahead of them, Bonadea and Lexine desperately clung to their log and tried to keep their heads down. Their log was riddled with arrows, bits of bark flying off with each successive hit.
On the opposite side of the river, Tynette and Cordele stood side by side, nocking their arrows and releasing them.
Lyonene reached over her shoulder for another arrow. Bracing her forearm against the log in an effort to stay afloat, she drew back the string and released. The arrow flew high, the tip burrowing into the ground a good foot from Cordele's boot on impact.
Cordele gave a nonchalant glance at the arrow. Nocking another onto her bow, she aimed and released. This one took a leafy branch off near Lyonene's hand, sending it flying into the water.
As Lyonene reached for another arrow, two more were fired. One impacted with Lexine's and Bonadea's log. The other struck Bonadea's shoulder, sticking in her armor. Bonadea reached up with her other hand and broke the shaft off, tossing the fletching into the water.
After that, the renegades had their range and Lexine and Bonadea found themselves peppered with flying arrows. Most of them struck the log that was continually drifting closer to the opposite bank. Some struck true, finding and piercing their lightweight armor.
"Archers in the mill," Lyonene said, having spotted two bows in addition to those wielded by Tynette and Cordele. "Turn your log!" she shouted to Bonadea. "Give them a smaller target!"
"Come on," Lyonene instructed Devillare, grunting as she pushed against their log, trying to turn it in the water.
Bonadea and Lexine were struggling, trying to reach the shoreline. Arrows continued to rain down on them. Lexine cried out as her forearm was pierced, pinning it to the bark.
"They're sitting ducks out there!" Devillare shouted out. She slapped her hand against the surface of the log in frustration, feeling the sting all the way to her elbow. "We have to do something."
"Well," Lyonene said, "If you think you can throw that big warrior's sword of yours and hit something from here..."
Lyonene released another arrow. Her shot went wide, impacting the ground near Tynette's foot. After that initial hit on Gryta, the elder hunter hadn't been able to follow through. Her frustration was getting the better of her, as evidenced by that sarcastic comment she'd made to Devil about throwing her sword. Bobbing up and down in freezing water, trying to one-handed cling to a floating log, there was just no way for Lyonene to get her aim.
Another arrow slammed into Lexine's armor.
"They're getting killed."
Lyonene laid her bow upon the log. Placing both hands flat, she pushed her upper body out of the water. Bark scraped at her pelvis and hips as she lifted herself up. She swung one leg over, straddling the log.
"What in Artemis' name are you doing?" Devillare asked, grabbing for Lyonene's arm.
An arrow thunked into the log a half-foot in front of and between Lyonene's legs. Another tore off the bark near the hand that was steadying her balance. Lyonene raised her eyebrows as if in surprise that they'd found their range so quickly.
"Giving them a better target than your warriors," Lyonene said.
She pushed herself up, fully sitting upright on the floating log. Across the river, she saw Tynette turn slightly, aiming her bow in their direction. She almost thought she could see Tynette's eyes locking on hers as they stared across the river at each other.
Arrows continued to rain down around her, thwaping into the log or splashing into the water. Lyonene ignored them. Just as she ignored Devillare's repeated shouts for her to "get down" and "get off that damn log" and "get your feathered ass back into the water, you fool hunter".
The only thing Lyonene was focused on now was Tynette. In unison, they both reached for an arrow from their quivers.
Lyonene could no longer hear anything save the beating of her own heart in her ears. She was surprised it sounded so strong and steady.
Lyonene and Tynette were like mirror images. Dual arrows were nocked. Drawstrings were pulled back, thumbs anchoring at chins, fletching brushing against cheekbones. Fingertips held the position for several long heartbeats. Twin gazes narrowed. Then, both arrows were released in the same instant.
Lyonene felt an eerie calm settle over her as she watched the arrow leave her bow and spiral across the river towards its target. Her bowarm lowered. She saw her arrow slam into Tynette and felt a searing sensation in her chest in return.
Tynette's legs were buckling, she was falling. Lyonene tried to keep her in sight, but she too was falling backwards. Her back hit the log, bark scratching at her flesh. Fingers tightened about the grip of her bow. Head turned to the side, eyes trying to focus.
Devillare was in the water beside her. The warrior's eyes were full of worry and she was desperately pressing the palm of one hand to Lyonene's chest. Lyonene didn't have to look. She could feel the head of the arrow buried deep inside her flesh.
"Devil?" She tried, but her eyes wouldn't focus. "I got her, didn't I?"
"Yeah, Lyonene." Devillare found it hard to speak around the lump in her throat. "Yeah, you got her."
"Through the heart, right?"
Devillare blinked. There was no way she could know that from this distance. But, the answer seemed important to Lyonene.
"Yeah, Lyon. Right through the heart."
Crimson appeared at the corners of her mouth as Lyonene's lips ghosted into a smile. A hand feebly reached for the shaft of the arrow protruding from her chest. Fingers closed about the wood, but both knew that Lyonene didn't possess the strength to pull the shaft free. She seemed content to merely be able to hold onto it.
"Her - " cough " - Hers was a little low."
Devillare suddenly knew why her answer had been so important to Lyonene. It was about that lifelong competition she'd had with Tynette. Even to the very end, she wanted to prove she was the best.
"You damn fool hunter." Devillare's hand closed about Lyonene's on the arrow shaft. "Hang on. Just hang on."
Lyonene's body jolted as another arrow pierced her hip and again as another tore through her thigh, pinning her to the log.
"It's too - " another cough sent blood spewing from her mouth and down her chin " - too late for me, you old Devil."
The warrior's vision was blurring with tears. "Then let me take you home." Devillare was desperately trying to tug the arrow free. "I'll build you the biggest pyre you've ever seen."
Lyonene stilled Devillare's hand. "Waste - waste of wood." Lyonene's bow arm slipped from the log, her knuckles skimming the surface of the water. Despite her waning strength, she maintained a firm grasp on her bow grip. "No family at home to mourn me, anyway."
"You damn idiot. An entire nation will grieve you."
"Then take my bracer back so that our sisters will remember my name."
Devillare worked to undo the lacings about Lyonene's bracer. She'd just undone the last one when Lyonene's eyes drifted closed.
Devillare brushed her lips against Lyonene's ear. "No one will ever forget."
As Devillare pushed herself backwards away from the log, she saw the fingers of Lyonene's bow hand uncurl. The grip slipped through her grasp, her legendary bow sinking down into the water and completely out of sight.
Devillare blinked, coming back to the present. She was still seated at the table. But, she was alone, Marjorie having long since cleared away the dishes and leaving her with her memories. Devillare felt moist tears upon her cheeks. Lyonene's bracer was clutched firmly in her grasp, her thumb idly stroking over the leather.
She remembered being in the water, her hand closing about and clutching at that bracer, despite the bone-chilling temperatures. She'd treaded water, watching for several long heartbeats as the log carrying Lyonene's body drifted downstream, past the mill, several arrows still being fired into her defenseless body.
"Damn fool hunter." Devillare cursed out loud. "Doesn't matter who was closest. A kill is still a kill."
Egeria made to sure to call out to the other warrior before she stuck her head into the barn. With warriors in general, and weapons masters in particular, she knew it was always prudent to announce your presence. Especially since everyone's nerves were so frayed.
As she entered the barn, she took note of the pile of limbs that had been cut and sharpened. Egeria picked one up, touching the tip with her finger. Blood instantly welled up.
Egeria let out a low whistle. "Sharp."
"That's the point, isn't it?"
Egeria's lips bowed into a smile until she realized Eponin's play on words hadn't been intentional.
"This'll really cut through flesh," Egeria said.
Eponin nodded as she picked up another limb from the pile at her feet. A practiced hand deftly stroked her knife over the limb, swiftly cutting away leaves. She left the bark on, the better to camouflage with, except for the end that she was whittling into a sharp point.
"How's it coming out there?" asked Ep.
Egeria waggled her hand back and forth. "Got most of the ground covered. That stack there should finish it off."
"Bonadea and Lexine?"
"Bitching like two old crones." Seeing the surprised look from Eponin, realizing she'd misinterpreted the question, Egeria tried explaining. "They're putting down layers of brush over the peat moss. When they aren't complaining of their wounds."
"Lucky they got wounds to complain about," Eponin shot back.
Egeria's eyebrows raised. Unknowingly, Eponin had so clearly echoed Devillare's earlier sentiment. "They'll be okay," Egeria needlessly supplied. "Iphinome said their armor took the worst of it. Just wait until we get home and they can show off their scars. Neither of them will be sore about it, then."
Eponin wordlessly looked up at Egeria. The large warrior swallowed quickly. Whenever Eponin fixed her gaze on her, staring at her with those light-colored eyes that sometimes shimmered like gold, it always unnerved Egeria.
"Ep, we will get home, won't we?" For such a large warrior, Egeria's voice sounded unusually meek.
"I promised the Queen." Eponin's mouth set into a tight line. She fingered the tip of the stick she'd just fashioned, testing the sharpness. "And, I'm not about to go breaking my promises now."
Eponin was up to her boots in it. She was gritting her teeth, bracing herself for the next step that would send the cold waters swirling up about her thighs when she felt a hand on her upper bicep, restraining her.
She looked over, seeing Xena standing beside her, ice blue eyes boring into her.
"I'm fine," Eponin said. "It's not that cold."
"Yes, it is." A smirk played over Xena's lips as an involuntary gasp escaped Egeria's lips as the big warrior stepped off a sandbar and was suddenly up to her neck in icy water. "But that's not why I stopped you."
Eponin's brows furrowed in confusion.
"This is dangerous. Even with Devillare's group creating a distraction, we may not make it all the way to the mill, much less up the embankment."
"You're not leaving me behind." Eponin stubbornly shook her arm out of Xena's grip. "I know I was injured before but I'm better now. I'm strong enough to do this."
"I know you are. That's why I specifically picked you."
"Damn it, Xena. I'm determined. This is for my regent and my queen and I'm going to do this."
"You stubborn featherhead. Stop trying to talk me into something I already said you're doing and listen to me." Xena's mirth faded as she saw Egeria moving farther and farther downstream. "We don't have a lot of time and I'm not going to repeat myself."
Eponin wet her lips, but didn't say another word.
"It's been a long time since I've left Gabrielle behind. Anywhere. It was something I swore that I would never do again." Xena's eyes skittered away from the other warrior. Then, knowing how important this way, she forced herself to look Eponin in the eye and hold her gaze. "Ep, when it comes to Gabrielle, I try my best to never break my promises to her. Today, I did because she's both a target and the best protection the Amazons at the inn have."
Eponin wanted to say something to reassure Xena that she had done the right thing, keeping Gabrielle out of harm's way. Xena had asked her to stay quiet, though. Besides, sharing feelings - words - weren't really what two warriors did together. So, she did what she did best. She stayed silent.
"When I died and the Amazons helped to bring me back, Gabrielle made me promise to never do that to her again." Xena's voice cracked as she said, "Eponin, if something happens - "
"- Nothing's gonna happen."
"If something does happen," Xena shot Ep a look that said she better not interrupt again, "Even if it's not today. But, if I end up breaking that promise to her, I need you to make one to me." There was a heartbeat pause before Xena said, "I need you to promise to see Gabrielle safely home. Home to the Amazon village."
"I - " Eponin's voice tightened, both because of what Xena was asking her and because the warrior princess had finally acknowledged that with the Amazons was where the duo belonged. She extended her arm, catching Xena's in a warrior's handclasp. "I promise, Xena."
Xena smiled at that, returning the arm clasp with fervor. Then, in a move that surprised them both, she pulled Eponin to her in a hug. It was quick and awkward and Xena covered by catching Ep around the neck and using her knuckles to roughly muss the Amazon's hair.
Xena pulled back. "Yeah, well." She wiped her hands on her leather, jerked her head towards the river and Egeria swimming further and further away.
"Yeah." Eponin agreed, nodding. She took a steadying breath, fortifying herself as she bent her knees until the water was up to her collarbone. Heart beating wildly in her chest, strong legs pushed off from the sandbar.
The candlemark was late and the last bundle of sharpened sticks had long since been carried away. Eponin had remained in the barn, tidying up her mess. Devillare had come by, urging her to leave it and get some rest. Ep had nodded, leading her mentor to believe that she would.
Eponin's conscience wouldn't allow it, though. Marjorie had already been more than generous. Eponin had led the ragtag bunch of Amazons, her queens included, to the very farmhouse she had found refuge at when she needed it most. Now, like then, Marjorie hadn't turned her away.
I wonder if she would have so readily agreed if she'd known how dangerous it was. Eponin suspected she would have, judging from both her own experience with the farmwoman and the tale she had told of harboring a young Melosa and her captain of the guard.
In those days, it had been only Marjorie and her father. Now, she has a husband and sons. Grown sons.
They'd come home from working the land to find their home overrun by Amazons. Marjorie had calmly taken her husband by the arm, steering him out the kitchen door and down the steps and away from the house so she could speak with him. Her boys stayed in the house, openly gawking at Gabrielle and Ephiny as queen and regent tried to make polite conversation with them. Eponin had gone out onto the back porch to keep an eye on Marjorie's well-being. Only to find Devillare already there.
Marjorie's husband looked to the porch and the two Amazons staring back at him. They spoke in low voices, too low for either Amazon to overhear much. However, the name Melosa clearly rang out. Marjorie shook her head, her husband nodded his. Then, in what was meant to be a purely territorial move, he clasped both Marjorie's upper arms in his hands and bent his head to kiss her soundly on the lips.
Then, he was trudging back up the porch steps, into the house and into the front room where his sons were still ogling Amazons. He grabbed his straw hat from its place off the antlers of the deer head hanging on the wall.
"Come on," he instructed his sons, "Pyterrus needs help thatching that roof before that storm rolls in."
"Aww, father," said one of the lads. It didn't escape his father's notice that his son never took his eyes off the two women as he whined. "His farm is more than five miles away and the day's already gone."
"All the more reason to stop your jawing and get to walking. Now." He turned to look at his wife that had dutifully followed him back into the house. "We'll spend at least the one night. More if the repairs take longer. Send word if need be."
Marjorie wordlessly nodded. Wisely, the Amazons also kept their mouths shut. Without another word, Marjorie's husband left out the front door. His sons followed, but they were grumbling beneath their breaths and cast more than one glance over their shoulders at the gorgeous women that had all but invaded their home.
Eponin put aside the straw-bristled brush. Beside cleaning up her mess, she had also stacked up piles of hay, swept the barn and fed and brushed down all the horses. She stood before the last one now, her head bowed so that her forehead rested against that of the yellow mare's as she spoke in low tones.
Arms slipped about her waist, palms laying flat against her abdomen, lips pressing against her shoulder blade.
Eponin had been so startled, both by the unexpected touch and the voice, that she visibly flinched. She rapidly shook her hand, sucked at the blood pooling on her thumb.
"Ouch," Ephiny said in sympathy.
She'd come down from the house to see what was keeping her warrior. Ep's back had been to her and she apparently hadn't taken notice the first time Eph had called out to her. Just as she hadn't noticed Ep holding the chakram in her hand.
"Let me see, Pony," she coaxed her warrior.
Eponin stopped sucking on her thumb, holding it out so Ephiny could look. Ephiny used her knife to cut a piece of scrap cloth from her cloak. She wrapped it about the dark haired warrior's thumb. As she tied it off, she lowered her lips, pressing them against the bandage.
"There." Eyes twinkled. "All better now?"
Eponin nodded. "Better than a healer's touch."
Ephiny's eyes darted to the chakram Eponin held. "You should be careful with that. It's sharp. Next one might go so deep that a simple bandage and a kiss won't fix it."
Eponin's breath caught as a shadow dwarfed the light of the late afternoon sun. Her eyes met Xena's and went up, indicating the woman standing almost directly over top of them. Her right hand clutching at an exposed root, she reached for her belt dagger and hefted it in her left.
Xena's eyes were tracking the ground above them. Like Eponin, she had one hand firmly clutching at a set of exposed roots. Her free hand was giving Ep the 'wait' signal. Fingers were just beginning to form 'now' when something went flying over their heads. They heard the impact, then the shadow disappeared.
Eponin turned and caught sight of Lyonene's bow being lowered. Clutching the log beside her, Devillare gave the 'clear' signal. She watched with anxiety as arrow after arrow was fired down upon the Amazons in the water.
Xena nudged her. A quick jerk of her head urged her to move. Devillare and the others were providing the distraction they needed to reach the top. It was up to them to take advantage of it.
Her fingertips brushed against the leather satchel that had come flying over the edge of the embankment. The handle had caught on an exposed root. Eponin considered trying to retrieve it on her way to the top, but it was just out of her reach.
There was a grunt from behind and below her. She looked down to see Egeria struggling. The root she'd been using as a handhold had broken off and her fingers were clutching desperately at the packed dirt. Gritting her teeth, she dug deep, forcing herself up until she could grip the next root.
She looked up. Xena was ahead of her, nearly a foot from the top. The warrior princess held onto the root she had grasped with both hands. Bending her knees, she placed both boots firmly against the packed dirt of the embankment. In a move that defied gravity, she let loose the root and performed a flip that had her up and over the edge of the embankment.
Eponin heard the distinctive "Yi-yi-yi" that could only belong to the legendary warrior princess. She imagined the stunned looks when the renegades suddenly found themselves face to face with Xena.
Eponin redoubled her efforts to reach the top. She flung herself over the edge in a full-body roll. When she came up on her feet, her sword was out of her shoulder sheath and in her hand. A renegade was charging at her, sword drawn and screaming a mighty war cry. That war cry was cut short as she found Eponin's blade slicing across her midsection.
She followed through with the motion, her blade not slowing even as it tore through flesh and muscle. Eponin twisted her blade, turning it with her body, aligning it for the next attack. She wouldn't have long to wait as another renegade was already heading her way.
Even during the heat of a busy battle, Eponin had an innate ability to see what was happening around her. Even if she didn't have time to process it all now, her mind would vividly repeat it over and over again in startling clarity later.
Like how Xena was in the thick of it, her battle dress and sword stained crimson. There was a wild look in her eyes that made Eponin's blood run cold and had her silently thanking Artemis that she was on the warrior princess' side.
Like how Egeria stood in one place, renegades charging her from all sides. She waited, letting them draw closer. Then, she turned in a circle, swinging that big battleaxe of hers.
Like how Xena could fight and carry on a conversation at the same time.
"More of them than I remember!" Eponin shouted to be heard over the crash of clanging steel.
"Guess they had a recruitment drive," deadpanned Xena.
Xena dodged a blade, grabbed the renegade by her gauntlet and tugged, sending her flying off the embankment. She looked over to see Eponin's sword up as she parried the blows of two renegades at the same time.
"Getting to be too much for you?" Xena asked.
"Nah." Eponin's blade sliced wildly. "I was just saying there's more of them than there are of us."
Xena joined Ep, taking one of her opponents. "You wanna run away home while I even up the odds?"
Eponin snorted. "That'll be the day."
Then, they were moving, drawn away from each other by the battle.
In the midst of it all, Eponin spotted Tynette and Cordele. Her blood heated at the sight of the elder that had engineered this madness. It boiled at the sight of the hunter that when last they met, had Ephiny on her knees, a blade coming down at Eponin's beloved regent.
Tynette - her grandmother - had just fallen, an arrow lodged in her chest, when Cordele heard the ungodly scream. She looked up just in time to see Eponin running straight at her. Her blade and forearm to her elbow was drenched in blood and there was a wildness about her that defied description.
She reached for an arrow, fingers shaking as she tried to nock it upon her bow and dropped it instead. Eyes darted about, searching the ground for where it had landed. Eponin was upon her, swinging her blade. Cordele ducked, rolling, coming up with Gryta's sword in her hand.
She blocked Eponin's next strike. Her arm vibrated from the force of the next blow. Her foot slid back as Eponin's sword clanged against hers again and again. Cordele gritted her teeth, feeling her arm growing heavy beneath the onslaught.
Out of her peripheral vision, Eponin saw Xena close by. She had her sword in one hand, her chakram in the other. Xena let her chakram fly towards the mill. She counted no fewer than four bows being sliced apart, rendered useless by Xena's weapon.
Cordele tried to duck low and inside. Eponin's sword was there, the tip tapping against her throat before Cordele reflexively drew back. She paused, panting heavily, a hand going to her already bandaged throat.
"Damn you," she hissed out.
"What's wrong, Cordele?" Eponin taunted. "Sore throat?"
Blue eyes flashed. It was the tell Eponin had waited for. She'd goaded Cordele, toying with her until she was angry enough to grow reckless. The hunter gave a fierce yell and charged.
Eponin had thought Cordele was coming after her. She was wrong.
Cordele changed her attack, charging at Xena instead. The warrior princess was equally surprised by the move. She'd been reaching out her hand to catch her returning chakram when she realized she was the true target of Cordele's attack. She had just a heartbeat to grip both hands on her sword pommel before Cordele's sword came crashing down against hers.
Eponin was already running towards her. Too late. Xena saw the chakram coming. Blue eyes widened perceptibly. She tried to lean back, but Cordele was furiously pressing her attack.
The chakram sliced across Xena's throat, blood arcing with the cut.
Eponin was shouting.
Xena was falling.
Cordele - Cordele was laughing and holding her sword and trying to catch her breath.
Maybe that's why she allowed Eponin to get past her and to the edge of the embankment. Eponin slid to her knees, nearly going off the edge herself. She extended one arm, even knowing Xena was already too far out of reach.
Xena's body bounced against the hard packed dirt, twisted about. An arm reached out. She was jerked to a halt as she was caught up to her elbow on the handle of the satchel hanging from the exposed root midway down.
Xena's body hung suspended in midair for several agonizing heartbeats before the handle snapped beneath her weight. Both the warrior princess and the satchel tumbled down the embankment into the chilly water below. The current caught Xena's body, sending it downstream amongst a steady flow of logs.
A tree still lined with branches and leaves caught her. Her body was forced under, then bobbed back up twice. On the third, Xena slipped beneath the surface.
And didn't come back up.
"Do you think she knows?"
"Knows what?" Ephiny asked, her hands loosely clasped about Eponin's waist, her chin resting against solid muscle as she peered over the warrior's shoulder at the buttercup mare.
"That I'm to blame for losing Xena?"
Xena's lifeless body slipped beneath the surface of the water.
"Noooo!!!!" Eponin screamed.
Her cry of anguish was closely mirrored by another. She turned to see Cordele clutching at her hand, blood flowing freely from a deep wound to her palm. Eponin's gaze focused on Xena's bloody chakram embedded in the trunk of a tree. Apparently, Cordele had seen it strike and sought to claim it as a hunter's trophy.
Gryta was beside her, barely on her feet, clutching at her gut with one hand. She was pulling Cordele away, urging her towards the safety of the mill.
Eponin gave a fierce yell, giving chase. They were at the door now, slamming it shut. Still, Eponin was determined to go in after them.
"No!" Egeria grabbed Eponin about the waist, pulling her back. "No! There's too many."
Still Eponin struggled, trying to just reach that door. Egeria was big, though. Big and just as determined.
"No." Egeria repeated, looping her labrys about Eponin's midsection, using a double-handed hold to keep her from moving forward. Even so, Egeria felt her boots sliding as Eponin attempted to drag her. "No. Think of the Queens."
Ice formed in Eponin's heated blood as she remembered Xena's ill-timed premonition. "The Queen."
"Yes," urged Egeria. "Gabrielle and Ephiny. We have to get back to them."
That seemed to snap Eponin out of her battle haze. She stopped struggling against Egeria. With a resolute nod, Eponin shook Egeria off of her.
Arrows were flying at them from the mill's interior. Egeria urged Eponin to retreat. Ep paused just long enough to use her sword like a crowbar to pry Xena's chakram from the tree. She caught it around the hilt of her sword, the winged-eagle design keeping it from sliding down lower. Holding her sword aloft with the precious chakram about it like a ring on a finger, the weapons master ran.
"Listen to me." Ephiny slipped around Eponin's body, placing both hands on bronzed cheeks and urging the warrior to look at her. "You're not to blame for Xena's death. There was nothing you could do."
Eponin bit her bottom lip. "I couldn't even bring her body back, Eph."
"And Devillare couldn't bring back Lyonene's. That doesn't make her to blame for Lyonene's death. Just like it doesn't make you to blame for Xena's."
"At least Devillare retrieved Lyonene's bracer. She'll be remembered by the tribe."
"So will Xena." Ephiny cupped Eponin's chin, lifted it so that sad honey-hued eyes would meet hers. "You brought back Xena's chakram. It will be an eternal symbol of the warrior princess' sacrifice."
Eponin fingered the chakram. She'd cleaned it up, polishing it until it shone in the moonlight. Now, it was stained again. This time, with her blood.
"I think - " Eponin's voice caught as she placed the weapon on the special holster Xena had made for it on her saddle. That was something else Eponin had done. She'd personally placed Gabrielle in the saddle and led her here, then taken charge of Argo's care. "I think it should stay here with Argo for a time."
"I think that'll be fine." Ephiny forced a smile as she reached out and patted the golden mare. "Argo doesn't blame you either, you know. Do you, girl?"
Argo snorted and shook her head in response.
"I guess that means no?" Ep asked.
Ephiny's heart went out to Eponin. It was clear she was suffering and placing the blame for Xena's death heavily on her own shoulders, no matter how much Ephiny tried to convince her otherwise.
That's why she'd stayed away, working out in the barn through the midday meal and well past the evening fare. Ephiny had brought her plates on both occasions. Both times, she'd returned to find the meals scarcely touched.
She needs time to mourn. Eponin and Xena had become steadfast friends, brought together by their bond as warriors, cemented by Eponin saving Gabrielle's life on more than one occasion. Just as Xena had in turn saved Ephiny's. It was a friendship that even Death would have a hard time severing.
A chill went down Ephiny's spine and she involuntarily shivered. Ever since the cache, she had felt the specter of Death's hand upon her shoulder. It seemed as if Hades sister, Celesta, continuously beckoned to her.
Ephiny wrapped her arms about Eponin's waist, resting her cheek against her shoulder. Eponin returned the embrace, her arms circling Ephiny. They stayed like that for several heartbeats, drawing strength and comfort from the other. Ephiny pursed her lips, kissing Eponin's collarbone.
"Xena died a warrior's death. I think that's what she would have wanted." Ephiny smiled against Eponin's skin. "I don't think she would have wanted to die a straw death in her crone years."
Eponin swallowed harshly. No warrior wanted to die in bed, weak and defenseless from age and disease. They were all taught it far better to die in glorious battle, their bodies consigned to the fire, their spirits sent to soar, young and healthy forever in their goddess Artemis' Sacred Hunting Grounds.
Only Xena didn't care much for the Gods and she never claimed to be an Amazon. What's to become of her now? Eponin wondered.
As if somehow sensing Eponin's thoughts, Ephiny tried to reassure her warrior. "There are scores of tales already about Xena. Someday, whether it be Gabrielle or some other bard, there will also be a tale sung of Xena's final battle. The bards will herald her life and death as a true warrior." Ephiny smoothed her thumb across a dark, ruffled brow. "Xena's name will long be remembered. She's a hero to the Amazon Nation."
Just as you are, my Pony, Ephiny thought. Even if you don't yet know how fortunate your timing was in saving our lives in Potadeia.
"Ugh." Ephiny was ratting a herringbone comb through brunette locks. "How did you get so many - ungh - tangles, anyway?"
Solari snorted. "You're a fine one to talk."
"I have curls, my friend. Lots and lots of tiny curls. You...you have tangles."
Solari was in her usual spot, in her usual position upon her bed. She was propped up on both elbows, her head hanging forward as Ephiny sat on the bed beside her. One of the regent's legs was curled beneath the other, her bandaged foot propped up on the pillow beside her packmate.
"You've never had any complaints about my hair before," Solari pouted.
"Again," Ephiny said as the comb became snared yet again. "Tangles."
Solari winced as Ephiny roughly jerked the comb free, along with felt like a good chunk of her hair.
"Is this some new way you've devised of torturing me?"
"You want me to stop?"
Silence. In which time Ephiny's hand stilled. Then, a petulant, "No."
Solari gritted her teeth as Ephiny braced a hand against her shoulder as she roughly tugged the comb through her knotted hair.
Truth was, no matter how much it hurt, Solari would endure anything if it meant spending time with Ephiny. For the past few days, ever since Gabrielle had announced Eponin's return, Ephiny had been scarce. When asked, Gabrielle had told her that as regent, Ephiny was personally taking responsibility for Eponin's custody until they could return to the Amazon Nation.
Solari wasn't sure how much of that bardly story was true. Especially once she'd seen how close Ephiny was sitting next to Eponin in the bar earlier. To Solari, it looked like they had been entirely too close.
No one else seemed to notice, though. And Solari decided she'd believe Gabrielle's explanation. Especially since Eponin had ridden off with Xena and the others. Gabrielle and Ephiny had promptly propped Solari up on their shoulders and between them, helped her back to her room and put her in bed.
Gabrielle had left, stating she was returning to the warmth of the fire in the main room. Ephiny, though, Ephiny had stayed.
Solari closed her eyes, determined to not make another complaint about Ephiny's rough treatment of her hair.
"Maybe you should think about braiding it again," suggested Ephiny. She freely ran her fingers through mahogany locks, not feeling a single tangle. "At least until we get back home. I'll do it for you, if you'd like."
Solari was just about to respond when she was cut off by the sound of raised voices. She frowned, turning to look at Ephiny. Gabrielle's, she clearly recognized. The other one belonged to a man.
"I'll check it out." Ephiny got off the bed, limping towards the door. She turned to cast a look back over her shoulder at Solari. "You stay here."
"Like I could go anywhere?" Solari retorted.
Ephiny bit back her smile as she edged her way out into the hallway. Iphinome was standing at the end of the corridor, outside the door leading into the bar, a frightened look on her face.
Sword drawn, Ephiny motioned for Iphinome to back out of the way.
"This is your last chance, girl."
Herodotus looked up in surprise as the door leading from the inn was slammed open. Ephiny walked into the room, bold as brass, her sword gripped in both hands.
Gabrielle was standing in front of the hearth, arms crossed over her chest. Her cheeks were bright red, her eyes livid as Herodotus' finger was inches from her face. Beside Herodotus stood a woman that Ephiny recognized as Gabrielle's mother.
"I've already told you. I'm an Amazon."
"Gabrielle?" Ephiny asked, edging closer to her queen.
"My father - " Ephiny was surprised at how much venom dripped from Gabrielle's fangs with that one word. " - has decided to allow me the opportunity to come home. If I renounce my ties to the Amazons. And Xena. He's brought mother along to convince me."
"Oh." Ephiny sheathed her sword. "Like that's something that's going to happen." To Herodotus she said, "Believe me, you have a better chance of making snowballs in Tartarus."
"Smug harlot; thinking your ilk holds such sway over my daughter!"
"Actually, I was referring to Gabrielle's bond with Xena. No way is she going to renounce her love for the warrior princess." Ephiny got an odd look on her face as she looked sideways at her friend. "Come to think of it," Ephiny said, exaggeratedly stroking her chin, "That was an Amazon bonding ceremony, wasn't it?"
"You - You - "
"I believe 'harlot' is the word you're searching for."
Ephiny had never seen someone go so red in the face. Herodotus' grip closed about the short knife in his grasp. Ephiny glanced at it, unconcerned. It was only a small knife, one she'd seen Darius using to slice fruit at the bar. It was no real threat. And, as far as she was concerned, neither was the farmer.
"She's my flesh and blood!" He yelled. "Mine. Do you really think I'm going to just allow you - you half-naked savages to take her away with you again?"
"She is our Queen." Ephiny's good humor suddenly dissipated. Her glare was intense and there was a dangerous quality to her voice as she asked, "Do you really think we're just going to leave without her?"
"What's going on here?" Darius asked, appearing from the back room. He was using a dishtowel to wipe out a mug.
"Mind yer business, Darius," Herodotus shot back. "This is mine."
"Father. Stop," Gabrielle said. "I'm not your business. I'm not your property. I'm not your family."
Herodotus' eyes flashed as his gaze swiveled back and forth between his daughter and the curly-haired blonde standing beside her with one hand familiarly clasping her hip.
"Take your filthy hands off her!" He suddenly exploded. "I know all about your kind; raiding villages, killing the men folk, forcing your way into their women's beds, then riding away, stealing their innocent baby girls and taking them back to your tribes and raising them as your own."
"Herodotus!" Gabrielle's mother had hold of her husband's arm.
Ephiny deliberately circled her arm about Gabrielle's waist. Despite her brazen move to thwart Herodotus' demands and the smile upon her lips, Ephiny was quickly losing her temper. "Believe me, I can't recall a time I've ever had to force my way into the bed of a farmer's wife...or daughter."
"Ephiny!" Gabrielle's eyes widened in shock.
Ephiny removed her hand from Gabrielle's waist and stepped closer to Herodotus. "As a matter of fact," Here, she added a pointed look at Hecuba, "it's always been my experience that they've willingly welcomed the Amazons with open arms - " a dangerous smirk " - and legs."
"You - filthy animal - "
They were toe to toe now, Ephiny's fists clenching and unclenching as she looked up at the farmer's spitting, sputtering red face.
"Herodotus!" Hecuba shouted at the same time as Gabrielle alternately screamed "Father!" and "Ephiny!"
"Queen Gabrielle! Regent Ephiny!"
At the sound of Eponin's voice coming from the street outside, Ephiny and Gabrielle rushed past the Potadeians. In a fit of rage at being so easily dismissed, Herodotus lashed out.
Darius purposely placed himself between Amazons and Potadeian. "Herod - " His word caught. There was a stunned look on his face, then a pained one as Herodotus pulled his hand back.
The knife Herodotus held in his shaking hand was coated in Darius' blood. Darius was dead before he hit the floor.
Gabrielle started towards Darius, but Ephiny quickly grabbed her by the shoulders and steered her outside, leaving a stunned Herodotus and Hecuba standing over the innkeeper's body.
They met Eponin and a bedraggled looking band of Amazons in the street. In the inn behind them, they heard the cries of Darius' widow.
"We have to go," Eponin said.
Gabrielle's gaze instantly fixed on Argo's empty saddle.
"My Queen," Eponin's voice cracked and she downed her head. "I'm so sorry."
Ephiny caught her friend in her arms, easing Gabrielle to the ground as her legs gave way beneath her.
Devillare and Eponin were instantly kneeling beside them.
"My Queens," Devillare's eyes met Ephiny's across Gabrielle. "The renegades are coming. We have to leave. Now."
"We can't leave." Tears were openly streaming down Gabrielle's face. "Xena."
Eponin reached out, a calloused palm stroking over a heated cheek. "My Queen...Gabrielle..." Eponin spoke in a voice so low that only those kneeling on the ground beside their queen could hear. "...Xena asked me - Xena entrusted me with your care."
Sparkling green eyes searched Eponin's face and Ephiny knew that Pony's words were reaching her. "I can do that. I can defend you. But, not here. Not in Potadeia with diminished forces and farmers. We have to reach the safety of the Amazon Nation."
Eponin swallowed a lump in her throat. Eyes desperately darted to Ephiny's. Swallowing again, Eponin looked back at Gabrielle and said, "After. After, we'll come back and search for Xena's body."
Gabrielle sniffled. "You promise?"
Eponin looked Gabrielle dead in the eye and said, "Promise."
Ephiny blinked. She knew in her heart that it had been only that promise that had spurred Gabrielle into action.
Gabrielle allowed them to help her to her feet. Eponin herself had lifted Gabrielle into the saddle, placing her on Argo. As if sensing her fragile state, Argo was unusually docile and gentle with the young blonde. Eponin mounted up beside her, keeping one eye on her queen and a firm hand on Argo's reins.
Lexine and Bonadea had stayed in their saddles, both of them swaying a bit. Ephiny's sharp gaze had caught sight of their wounds. Lexine, in particular, had her hands tied to the pommel to keep her from falling out of the saddle should she pass out.
Ephiny had torn through the inn, commanding Iphinome help her gather their supplies as quickly as possible. Sparse as their belongings were, Egeria and Devillare already had Solari out of bed and outside by the time she returned. The chief scout was loudly protesting her current position; flung over the side of Devillare's horse in front of the captain like a sack of grain.
Devillare gave two quick successive strikes with the palm of her hand against the scout's upturned tailfeathers and said, "Far better a welcome sack of grain than a discarded bag of manure."
After that, Solari didn't voice any further protests.
Solari couldn't sleep. Artemis knew she'd tried. She'd skipped the evening meal, retiring to her room early with that very intention. As soon as her head hit the pillow, though, she was wide awake.
Regardless, she stayed there for candlemarks, listening to the sounds of talking coming from the outer rooms. Iphinome had ducked in to treat her wounds, telling her of the stewed lamb she had missed out on and how it was important to her continued recovery that she not skip meals. Solari had murmured something about grabbing a bite later to appease the nagging healer.
Iphinome had then tried to coax her into coming out to the main room where they were sitting in front of the hearth and swapping stories. It seemed that they weren't the first Amazons down on the farm and Marjorie had been regaling them with tales of a certain lost captain of the guard.
I knew they knew each other, Solari thought, I could tell.
"We have to face the truth."
They'd stopped beside a stream, unloading their packs so that riders and horses alike could take a short break. Gabrielle and the others had gone to fill their waterskins. Devillare had lingered behind, asking to speak with Ephiny. The ever-present Eponin had seemingly taken it upon herself to join the conversation.
It irked Solari to no end. She felt that she'd been dumped off with the rest of the gear, to be forgotten about until needed again. Just as they'd seemingly forgotten that her hearing was nearly as good as her tracking skills.
"We won't make it back to the Amazon Nation."
"That's a bit pessimistic," Ephiny said. "Even for you."
"I never knew you to be an optimist," shot back Devillare. "It's not pessimism, it's a cold splash of reality."
"No, Eponin. She's right." Ephiny exhaled loudly. Solari could almost picture that frown creasing her forehead deepening with worry. "We have too many wounded that are slowing us down. Me included."
"Ephiny - "
Solari's eyebrows scurried up. She'd never heard Eponin called that before. She'd never heard anyone call her by anything other than Eponin or Ep before. Well, except that Ephiny got away with calling her Pony.
"They've got wounded, too," protested Eponin. "I'm sure they took time to build pyres for their dead."
"Maybe." Devillare's tone belied that statement. "We've got a solid lead on them but sooner or later, they will catch us. At the rate we're traveling, we can't hope to reach the borders in time."
They grew silent at that. So silent that Solari could hear the sounds of bugs chirping in the weeds.
Then, Ephiny's voice drifted on the wind, "At least not all of us."
"The most important thing right now is getting the Queen home safely. Devillare, you'll take Eponin and Egeria to ride flank. Iphinome will ride with the Queen. I don't think Gabrielle can ride alone right now. Go hard and fast and we'll try to buy you as much time as we can."
Solari's mouth was opening to protest when Eponin's note of incredulity drowned her out. "Ephiny? What in Tartarus are you saying?"
"I'm saying," Solari could hear the determination in her regent's tone. Her regent's tone that said these were her orders. "The wounded will follow behind you as best we can. Hopefully, we'll be able to find a good place along the way to set up an ambush. The Stygian Pass will be perfect. If we can make it that far."
"We're Amazons," protested Devillare. "We don't leave wounded warriors behind to save our own feathers."
"Today, you do. With one exception. It's only my ankle. I'm still good on horseback. Bonadea and Lexine can both still swing their swords. But, Solari can't fight."
"She'll slow us down."
Solari knew the captain's statement made sense and there was no way in Tartarus that she was leaving without Ephiny. But, for Devillare to sound so callous about leaving her behind...
"Ep, put Solari across your horse. Lightning is the fastest in the Nation. She's strong enough to take you both home."
"Eph, you're cracked if you think I'm leaving you."
"Eponin - "
"No. Devillare is the captain of the guard. Guarding the Queen is her responsibility. But, you're my regent and where you go, I go."
A loud frustrated growl erupted from Ephiny.
"We're wasting time arguing." Solari imagined Ephiny's teeth clenched so tight that a dinar couldn't be slid through as she asked, "Okay, fine. You have any other ideas?"
To Solari's relief, Eponin had answered with, "As a matter of fact, I know a place not more than a half day's ride from here."
It had been Eponin that had led them to the remote farmhouse. The woman who owned the land had seen them riding in and come out of the vegetable garden, weed hoe in hand. As Ephiny introduced first Gabrielle and herself, Marjorie nodded in greeting and invited them to stay.
To Solari, rudely flung across Devillare's horse the way she was, the whole scene looked stilted. But she was positive that she'd seen a look pass between the farmwoman and the captain of the guard. It was nothing overt and no one else seemed to take note of it, but Solari had sensed a certain - almost - familiarity about their interaction with each other.
"Apparently," Iphinome continued, "Queen Melosa was injured and there were warrants out for the arrest of her and Captain Devillare."
Suddenly curious, Solari asked, "Devillare confirms this story?"
"She hasn't refuted anything Marjorie has said. She's out there listening with the rest of us, if you want to ask her yourself."
That helped Solari to make up her mind. "No. I'm just going to call it a night. Think I'm still a little tired from the ride."
Iphinome nodded, but gave Solari a sly look. Solari feared that Iphinome would make a comment about how she wasn't too tired to be up and outside on her new crutches for most of the morning. She turned her head, avoiding the healer's eyes. She didn't breath easy until she heard Iphinome's footsteps walking away and the soft click of the bedroom door closing.
Argo nickered in protest. Eponin tried to calm the mare by giving her an apple. Argo took it eagerly, but still seemed apprehensive. Several other horses pranced and tossed their manes anxiously.
"Renegades?" Ephiny rushed to the stable door as fast as she could, her normal gait hampered by the limp from her sprained ankle.
She'd gotten a pair of boots two sizes too large for her from somewhere. Eponin thought they must have belonged to Marjorie's husband or one of her sons. Either way, they were farmer's boots and they looked out of place on an Amazon regent.
But, they did serve a purpose.
Eponin joined her, creaking the door open and looking out. Apollo's chariot had fully completed its course for the day and returned to Olympus. Artemis' moon had risen, but its brightness was dimmed by heavy clouds.
The wind was picking up, causing the leaves in the trees to rustle. In the yard, a lone bucket clattered about, tossed end over end by the breeze. There was no other movement to be seen.
Eponin experimentally sniffed the air. "Storm's finally coming in," she said. A flash from one of Zeus' lightning bolts lit up the night sky. "Renegades will probably hunker down for the night."
There was a loud clap of thunder. Several of the horses gave protest.
Eponin glanced back towards the stalls. The horses were nervous, but otherwise appeared okay. She moved back inside, trying to calm them with extra oats and blankets. Ephiny joined her, lending a hand.
There was another rumble of thunder, immediately followed by a flash of lightning.
Despite being indoors, Eponin cast a glance skywards. "Storm has the horses skittish."
"Hey, Argo." Ephiny spoke in low voices to the golden mare. "You're a smart girl. Tell them there's no reason to be afraid of a little storm, huh?"
Ephiny tried to hide it, but another crescendo of thunder had her nervously pacing.
Horses aren't the only skittish ones, Eponin thought, coming up to Ephiny and catching her in her arms, stilling her. "I haven't seen Gabrielle since this morning. How is she?"
Ephiny saw the ploy for what it was, but welcomed the distraction to take her mind off the storm. "I thought she was going to be okay once we got here and she was helping you gather the limbs. That was giving her a purpose, at least. But now - "
"Now?" Ep prodded.
Ephiny shrugged. "She's listless. She isn't eating or drinking. I'm sure she's not sleeping. She's...lifeless."
"That's not surprising. How many times has she told us Xena is her life?"
Ephiny nodded. It made sense. And, she knew just like Eponin needed to mourn the loss of her friend, their Queen needed to mourn the loss of her consort, her champion, her companion.
"I know how she feels, Pony." Ephiny sighed heavily. "If I were to lose you...when I thought I had lost you...it was only my rage that kept me functioning. If it had been merely grief, I wouldn't have survived."
Eponin didn't know what to say. Really, what could she say to that?
"Pony, I have a confession to make."
Eponin's heart stopped in her chest as she tried to think of what Ephiny could possibly have to tell her. They'd been speaking of Gabrielle and her love for Xena. Then, Ephiny had confessed that she'd felt rage at Ep for leaving her. Was she still angry? Was she now going to tell her that she'd made a mistake, being with her?
"I - " Ephiny turned away from her. "I have something that belongs to you."
Ephiny pulled out something that had been tucked into the inside wrist of her gauntlet. Eponin instantly recognized it as her blue feathered earring.
"Thought I'd lost that in the baths."
"Um - " Ephiny blushed scarlet as her fingers stroked intimately over the plumage. "You kind of did. You just didn't know it."
"What would you want to keep that for?"
Ephiny shrugged. "I don't know. Because it was yours, I guess." She held it up in offering, trying to give it back.
Eponin's hands closed about Ephiny's. "Um - why don't you - why don't you keep it?"
"Yeah." Eponin smiled bashfully. "I kind of like knowing you have it. That you have something of mine."
Ephiny smiled at the tender sentiment. "In that case," she decided, "you should have something of mine."
Ephiny's smile widened as she pushed Eponin back against a pile of hay. "Oh, I'm sure I've got something you might want."
"Okay," Eponin gamely answered. "As long as it's not that ugly pair of farmer's boots you're wearing."
Ephiny laughed, then smacked Eponin, then kissed her.
The thunder rumbled. The lightning flashed. Alone in her bed, Gabrielle tossed and turned. She'd retired to the upstairs room Marjorie had designated as hers candlemarks ago. She'd taken off her clothes and put on the sleep shift laid out upon the bed and climbed beneath the covers by rote.
She closed both eyes and stayed perfectly still in the bed. She was exhausted. Beyond exhausted, really. Yet, sleep eluded her.
Unbidden, memories took her back to the darkest point in her life.
Xena, her soulmate, her very reason for living was dead in her coffin. Because of a little peasant girl from Potadeia. Because that peasant girl had been too weak, too slow in reaching Niklio.
Gabrielle was riddled with self-doubt and loathing as she slowly made the trek back to Amphipolis. She figured for causing Xena's death, the least she could do was honor her last request to go home. Even if Gabrielle had to take her all the long way alone.
She'd been traveling for days, putting as much distance between herself and Niklio as possible. At night, she would unharness Argo, tending and caring for her the way she had seen Xena do. And, for once, Argo didn't give her any grief. It was as if the horse sensed the bard had enough of her own.
Each and every night, Gabrielle would settle Argo down for the night, then build a small fire to keep warm by. But no matter how high the flames rose, no matter how dangerously close Gabrielle lay, she couldn't get the chill out of her bones. She would lay there, shivering beneath the blankets, staring unblinkingly into the fire.
When exhaustion and sleep would finally take over, Morpheus would send nightmares to plague her. All the nightmares she'd been keeping at bay during the day would overtake her each night.
Sometimes, the nightmares would trick her. They would start out sweet. Xena would be holding her in her arms, they'd be confessing their true feelings for each other, they'd make promises of love and forever. Then, Xena would die again.
Gabrielle would wake up screaming, her heart pounding in her chest, her pulse racing. And as they calmed as she realized it was only a dream - she'd look over and see Xena's coffin...and her nightmare would continue.
She'd been near starvation, disorientated with exhaustion, her senses muddled. She had no idea where she was - or when it was - when the figures came rappelling down out of the trees. She'd had no idea she'd stumbled into Amazon territory until the warriors were laying their swords across Xena's casket as a sign of respect for a fallen sister.
She was stunned when Ephiny pushed back her feathered mask, offering words of condolence and folding her into a strong embrace. As the hug endured, Gabrielle's eyes drifted closed and she inhaled the scent of leather in much the same manner she would Xena's. It was the first time since Xena's passing that she'd felt safe.
That comfort was short-lived, however, as she soon learned of the death of Queen Melosa at the hands of her adopted daughter. In fair combat.
Gabrielle had known from Ephiny's tone and the look in her eyes and nearly palpable tension filling the air that there was more to the story than that. Coupled with that was the suspicious dual absences of the ever-loyal Eponin and Solari. Quite frankly, it all sounded too political and Gabrielle just didn't have the energy - or the heart - to deal with it.
If she'd just let it be, Gabrielle would have probably taken Xena's coffin and moved on towards Amphipolis. But, Velasca couldn't exactly be called subtle. She all but demanded that Gabrielle turn over the mask of the queen to her.
It was in Gabrielle's very nature to be stubborn. And by telling her what she should do, Velasca ensured that Gabrielle would do exactly the opposite. Without even realizing the words were forming upon her lips, Gabrielle was promising to accept the mask of Queen. She would consign Xena's body to the flames, sending her spirit to soar with Artemis, then take her ashes home to Amphipolis before returning to rule the Amazons.
Gabrielle rolled over, punching her pillow.
Things hadn't worked out the way she'd thought then. And, truth was, she would be forever grateful that they hadn't.
Then, like now, she was going home to the Amazons. Once again, she knew she could find strength and support in Ephiny's friendship. Then, she'd had to overthrow Velasca's plans for wresting control of the tribe from her. This time, she was fighting to keep her very life as Tynette's ill-conceived plot had finally been revealed. The similarities between the two events were eerily parallel.
With one glaring exception.
Last time, she had a purpose to drive her forward. She had the task of seeing Xena home. Beyond that, she'd made no plans other than to follow her love into death.
This time, she didn't even have the comfort of Xena's corpse for company. Oh, sure. She'd secured a promise from Eponin that they would go back. But, she never held out any real hope that they would find her warrior princess' body. It was as lost to her as her heart.
Gabrielle buried her face in her pillow, working to stifle her soft sobs. There were warriors, wounded and exhausted, resting in the rooms on either side of her. There were many things she could be accused of being, but intentionally inconsiderate was not one of those things.
She stumbled from her bed, feeling the cold hardwood floor beneath her feet. She walked on wooden legs towards the bedroom door, intending to slip down the stairs and into the kitchen, thinking perhaps some warm goat's milk might help to settle her stomach and lull her towards sleep.
With a languid stretch and a yawn, Ephiny slowly opened her eyes. She reached up, tugging at something that was hanging off the edge of her crown. A wicked smile formed on her lips as she flicked the bit of straw away.
She sat up, refastening the clasp of her halter and adjusting her skirt. She decided to forgo donning her cloak. The barn had grown stuffy with the body heat from the horses. Besides, there were so many bits of straw embedded in the material, she thought she'd be picking it out for a solid moon. Climbing to her feet, she looked about, spying her lover standing at the open barn door.
My lover. If Ephiny's earlier smirk at their debauchery was classified as wicked, the broad grin spreading across her face now could be called nothing short of decadent. She felt herself clench in response as she vividly recalled some of those decadent things Eponin had recently done to her body.
Eponin's back was to her and Ephiny wondered if she'd be able to sneak up on the warrior as she had before.
"I wouldn't even think about it," Eponin warned in a low voice without ever turning around.
Ephiny's hands instantly dropped to her sides. "Ah, you're probably not even ticklish, anyway."
A smile formed on Eponin's lips. She briefly considered telling Ephiny she was. Then decided against it, figuring that was just something the blonde-haired warrior would have to discover for herself.
The thunder had momentarily abated. Infrequent flashes of lightning occasionally illuminated the night sky. The rain was falling in a light, but steady drizzle.
Eponin still figured there was no fear of a renegade attack this night, though. First, the renegades had to track them. That wouldn't be easy...at night, during a storm and without seasoned scouts in their number. Not to mention Eponin and Devillare had gone to great lengths to make sure their trail was hidden.
Still, Eponin was no fool. She knew they'd come eventually. Maybe by tomorrow midday. Early evening, if they were lucky. Eponin wasn't foolish enough to hold out hope for a mid-night arrival.
The later the better, thought Eponin. She'd designed their defenses. Tactically, she knew her methods were sound. Even if she didn't like using them. I'll do anything I have to in order to protect the queens. Eponin knew her defenses would work. The degree of effectiveness, however, depended on how well they were disguised.
Best case scenario would be for the renegades to come riding in at full dark when visibility was at its lowest. That was the one contingency to her plan that Eponin had no control over.
How long it took the renegades to track their trail. How soon after discovering the farmhouse they moved against them. How quickly they traveled period.
She knew Cordele was coming after them. That much was a given. What no one knew for certain, though, was how many were still in Cordele's group and how severely any of them were injured.
Gryta had been seriously wounded, for sure. She'd slow Cordele down. If Cordele doesn't finish her off for that very reason.
Eponin was torn from her musings by the uncharacteristic sound of Ephiny giggling. She blinked, thinking she had to be imagining the sight of the normally restrained regent dancing in the rain.
"Eph, what in Hades' name?"
"Oh, come on, Pony." Ephiny swiped a hand through her wet curls, pushing the strands back from her face. She made a grab for Eponin's fingers, trying to tug her out into the rain. "Come dance with me."
"Warriors don't dance."
Ephiny wanted to argue that point. She decided not to, since her most recent frame of reference was that dance she'd shared with Xena.
"Should you even be doing that on that ankle?"
"It's not that bad," Ephiny said, trying to mask a sudden twinge of pain. She came to a stop in front of Eponin. Ephiny knew it probably wasn't the best time or the place for behaving in such a manner. The Queen's champion and life partner was dead. They were running for their very lives. Athena's brass girdle, they were hiding out on a farm - a farm! - of all things.
That was her whole point, though. If the loss of someone like Xena could show them nothing else, it was that life was fleeting and you should enjoy it whenever and as often as possible. Besides, given that she was still regent, when else was she likely to have this time? Improper or not, she was determined that she was going to let her hair down and be happy for as long as she could.
"Come. Enjoy life." Seeing that wasn't budging the stoic warrior, Ephiny tried pleading with, "At least step out of the doorway."
Against her better judgment, Eponin complied, taking two steps firmly out of the shelter of the dry barn. She stood there, hands clasped about the wide leather belt she wore, looking decidedly uncomfortable as raindrops steadily fell on her.
"See?" asked Ephiny, "It's not so bad, is it?"
"It's the worst."
Eponin pushed a hand through her wet hair, then tried to dry her damp palm on her damp leathers. She shot Ephiny an exasperated look.
"There's nothing good about getting wet."
"I think..." Ephiny boldly invaded the warrior's personal space. "...you've never had..." She coaxed a kiss from Eponin "...the proper incentive before."
Eponin gasped as Ephiny leaned in and stole an open-mouthed kiss. Her tongue slid off of Eponin's, gliding over a strong jaw and over a thick neck, quickly finding a now familiar pulse point. Her tongue languidly licked, then her mouth sucked and her teeth bit.
"Again?" Eponin's mind was in two places at once, remembering both what Ephiny had done to her back in Potadeia and what was occurring now.
Ephiny pulled back, her eyes searching Eponin's. Hazel sprinkled with golden flecks bored into deepening amber. "Unless for some reason you don't want to?"
"Oh, gods. Eph." Eponin struggled to form the words as she felt her body reacting to her regent's touch. "Don't think I don't want you, cause Artemis knows I do." She caught Ephiny's roaming fingers in her hands and stilled them. "But, are you sure we should, out here in the open like this?"
Intense honey-hued eyes flicked towards the farmhouse. The entire upstairs was dark, but there was a faint glow of candlelight in one of the windows of a downstairs room.
As much as she wanted Ephiny right now, Eponin felt that she had to do right by the woman...and the regent.
So far, all of their interludes had taken place in secret. Whenever in the company of others, they were diligent in their restraint. They'd been very careful to not look at each other for too long. They'd tried to avoid standing so close to each other. Above all, they tried to refrain from touching each other. It had been torturous, but Eponin was determined to not let even a hint of an illicit scandal tarnish the regent's reputation.
"Maybe we should move back into the barn," Eponin suggested. "If someone were to see - "
"With the exception of the guard on-duty, everyone else is asleep." When Ep tried to turn her head to check, Ephiny caught her by the chin, redirecting her gaze. "She's all the way down by the fence row." Ephiny's eyes were heavy-lidded. "I want you. Now." She was breathing into Eponin's mouth with every word she spoke. "Don't worry. There's no one to see us."
Solari cringed as the door creaked upon its hinges, sounding interminably loud. Even with the sounds of rumbling thunder and persistent drops of rain hitting the roof, she thought the noise loud enough to disturb the entire household.
She edged her way around the open door and traveled as stealthily as she could on crutches upon a wooden floor. To Solari, every sound was exaggerated. She stilled, head cocked to the side as she thought she heard a noise above her head.
She looked towards the stairs. Most of the Amazon contingent had taken rooms upstairs. Through the conversation traveling through the walls, she'd heard them talking about Gabrielle taking the center room. Bonadea and Lexine would bunk together in one of the rooms flanking the Queen's. Devillare and Eponin would take the room on the opposite side.
Because of her leg, Solari was given the downstairs room. It was also decided that because of the nature of her injury, she wouldn't be sleeping with anyone else.
"First time for everything huh, Solari?" Egeria had teased.
That teasing had abruptly stopped when her packmate slapped the big laughing warrior upside the back of her head. Iphinome and Ephiny would also sleep downstairs, along with their hostess, Marjorie. Solari wasn't sure if it was because of the sleeping alone comment or not, but Ephiny assigned Egeria to first watch.
Solari waited several more heartbeats, but didn't see anyone appear at the top of the stairs. Must be hearing things. Solari had heard that about old houses. They made odd noises, creaking and shifting in the night. Just one more reason I'd never live in one.
Not that anyone was building any on Amazon land, anyway. Certainly not two-story farmhouses like the one Marjorie owned. Solari had heard that Marjorie had sons. Three big strapping lads, to hear her speak of them. With four men plus herself in the house, it necessitated building additional rooms.
Not that Amazons couldn't have big families, too. Solari cringed, remembering that one poor girl and her mate. Seemed like every fertility festival, one or the other of them was coming up with child.
Thank Artemis they were all girls. Solari knew children were a blessing from the gods. Even more so when they were strong daughters. Solari just didn't want any of them in her life or in her home. Crying at all candlemarks of the night. Dirty swaddling. Always underfoot, toys everywhere, charcoal marks on the walls. Never any privacy. Nope, give me a simple life and a simple hut any day.
Solari's stomach unexpectedly grumbled, protesting both missed meals of earlier.
One good thing about living in a house, I guess. Solari thought of the roasted lamb waiting for her in the kitchen. No going all the way to the dining hut for a mid night snack.
Solari paused, readjusting her crutches beneath her arms as she passed by a window. A light coming from across the yard caught her attention.
Someone checking on the horses? she wondered, recognizing the outline of the barn. Eyes narrowed, squinting as she peered out into the steadily falling rain. She saw someone standing in front of the open doorway. Solari knew from the unmistakable form that it had to be a warrior.
Eyes adjusted and Solari saw that the warrior wasn't alone. There was someone with her. Eyebrows went up as she saw them kissing. Devillare and Marjorie? she thought, remembering the looks she'd seen pass between the captain and the farmwoman. Even though she had a husband and sons, it wasn't unheard of for a 'civilized' woman's head to be turned by an Amazon.
Solari paled as a flash of lightning illuminated the entire yard.
Ephiny had said she desired her. That alone was enough to set Eponin on her ear. But every time that Ephiny was the one to initiate the encounter...it was something that Eponin had no frame of reference for and it turned her entire world upside down and sent her head to spinning.
Palms were running over her biceps, fingers moving across her ribcage. Then, her halter was being lifted over her head. Eyes followed every movement Ephiny made as she took the halter and safely tucked it into the waistband of her leathers.
Hands came up, warm palms covering chilled flesh. Cupping and lifting, Ephiny massaged the pliant flesh, thumbs working over stiff nipples.
"Oh blessed Artemis."
Ephiny's head lowered. Teeth flashed as she licked at, then sucked the underside of a breast. Giving a firm squeeze to make sure Eponin's attention was fully upon her before she did it, Ephiny pointed her tongue, running just the tip about the nipple before fully popping the engorged bud into her mouth.
Eponin's back arched in direct response to Ephiny's sucking at her breast. Hands trembling with need came up, fingers twining in blonde corkscrew curls. With a quiet strength, she guided Ephiny's mouth to her other breast.
A hand instigated itself between their bodies, feather-light touches kissing across a ribcage and over stomach muscles that felt like they were fairly dancing beneath Ephiny's fingertips. Hands traveled beneath a set of leathers and between parted thighs.
A hand was cupping Ep fully, rubbing her through her soaked breechcloth before deftly pulling the garment away. The nail of one finger purposely scraped across engorged flesh as the material was dragged down and off.
Ephiny felt Eponin shiver as her mouth left her breasts. A stream of moonlight reflected in Eponin's eyes, making them shine with an eerie golden glow. Ephiny held her gaze as her fingers boldly stroked Ep open. To her delight, her Pony's hips began to take up an instinctive motion.
Solari stood in front of the window, hands tightly clenched about the grips of both crutches. She was applying so much pressure that her arms were visibly shaking. Pain shot up from the palm of her right hand, all the way to her elbow from pressing too hard against still mending flesh.
She wanted to turn and go. She wanted to close her eyes. The last thing she wanted was to see this.
Another flash of lightning illuminated the sky, the Gods themselves torturing her with vivid clarity. Not that she needed it. She'd seen more than enough already.
She just couldn't not look. It was like a hunting accident unfolding in front of your very eyes. You knew what was going to happen. You could see it coming and knew it wasn't going to be good. But, you just couldn't turn your eyes away from it.
Unable to move away, incapable of even closing her eyes, Solari watched in helpless rapture as her packmate made love to her one-time friend.
"Mm. Pony." Ephiny smiled saucily at the copious amount of moisture upon her fingers. "You're soaked. Is all this..." a finger dipped inside wetness "...for me?"
Eponin tried to answer. Really, she did. But Ephiny's fingers were on her, stroking her, driving her to distraction. She could hardly be expected to remember how to breathe, let alone articulate entire sentences.
Fortunately, Ephiny wasn't really looking too hard for that answer. Her tongue was busy languidly making its way down Eponin's sternum and towards her navel. Eponin's belt was being opened. Nibbling kisses raining down on the sensitive flesh just below her belly button were slowly driving her out of her mind.
Her leathers were being held open. Ep was rocking uncontrollably now, anticipating Ephiny's touch where she needed it the most. Warm breath blew across her swollen, aching center, sending shivers rushing through her body.
A second puff of air assaulted her, making Eponin think her knees might buckle. She was positive at this point that the only thing keeping her upright was the strength of the woman that had a firm grip on both her hips.
Large hands twined themselves into a mass of golden curls. Looking down through half-lidded eyes, Ep was suddenly struck by the image of the Regent of the Amazons kneeling in the mud, her face firmly pressed between her legs, her tongue -
Another wave of moisture flooded her center, drenching her. An eager tongue darted after every drop.
"Eph..." came out as a ferocious growl. "...iny..." was almost a whisper as that talented tongue settled into a lapping rhythm.
Head tossed back, mouth dropped open, every muscle in her body spasmed uncontrollably as Ephiny's mouth fully engulfed that throbbing bundle of nerves.
The next sound that came from the weapons master was like a rumbling of thunder; at once loud and uncontrollable.
Gabrielle paused on the fourth step from the bottom, silently watching. Her chief scout was standing in front of the window, staring out into the darkness and rain.
Gabrielle started to take another step upon the stairs. She paused, foot in midair, unsure as to whether she meant to come down or go back up. Sharp teeth chewed at a lip as Gabrielle gave contemplation to her actions.
Solari seemed completely unaware of her queen's presence, a fact that didn't sit well with Gabrielle. She knew her Amazons. On any given day, they could hear a pinecone fall in the forest. Especially her chief scout. Not only could Solari hear the pinecone fall, she could probably name precisely which tree it had come from, the exact height it had dropped from and how many leaves it had taken down in the process. For Solari to not even acknowledge her presence -
Her back was to Gabrielle, one arm stretched out, gripping the window frame, knuckles clenched in a death grip. Her other hand was clutched tightly about the grip of her crutch, her fingers worrying the bound leather strips. The scout's head was bowed, her chestnut brown hair falling in long strands over her proud shoulders and down her back. A sharp crack of lightning briefly illuminated the room, displaying every tensed muscle of her frame in stark lighting.
Her decision made, Gabrielle eased her way down the remaining stairs. Swift strides carried her across the room with the stealth of Hermes. Only a loose floorboard creaking beneath her weight gave notice to her presence.
She moved so quickly, even on crutches, that Gabrielle scarcely had time to process the move, much less react. From one breath to the next, she was reaching out, the palm of her hand scant inches from touching the Amazon's shoulder. Then, she was rooted to the spot, the tip of a dagger pressed firmly against her jugular.
The move was sloppy, her coordination hampered by the use of her left-hand as opposed to her right.
"My Queen!" Shaking fingers lost their grip on the knife as Solari suddenly realized who she had just pulled her dagger on. "I didn't know it was you." The weapon clattered noisily to the floor as it fell from limp fingers.
"Well," Gabrielle's hand was pressed to her rapidly rising chest, "I'd certainly hope not."
The chief scout looked like she wanted to join the fallen knife upon the floor. She gave a sharp salute, her fist soundly connecting with her upper chest as she held her hand over her heart. Bowing her head in a show of respect, her eyes slid closed as she awaited her punishment for raising a hand to the Queen.
Sensitive ears picked up the faint sound of boots taking a step closer. Then, she felt something brushing tenderly against her cheek. The light caress continued until Solari opened her eyes, blinking up at her queen in confusion.
For Gabrielle, the sight was heart-wrenching. The easy going Amazon with the heart as big as the whole outdoors was suffering beyond words. Her entire body looked like it ached from keeping her raging emotions in check, her arms and upper body fairly trembling from the pent-up tension. And, when she looked at her with those eyes the color of sandalwood, Gabrielle could just make out the tears threatening to fall.
Gabrielle's gaze slid from Solari's face to her feather-clad shoulders and drifted towards a point somewhere over those shoulders and out the window. Lightning illuminated the yard and the barn beyond.
"Oh, Solari." Gabrielle awkwardly wrapped her arms in a loose embrace about the Amazon's body. "I'm so sorry."
That was all it took. Gabrielle was startled as Solari fairly launched herself into her arms. Solari's crutches were gone and Gabrielle was left to support the buxom Amazon's full weight. She felt herself being knocked backwards and they were falling together.
Somehow, Gabrielle managed to maintain her hold on Solari while maneuvering the larger Amazon around until she was able to lean back against the wall. They slowly slid down together until they reached the floor. Bracing her back, Gabrielle settled in, letting Solari curl herself about her smaller frame.
Arms held on tightly, hands running in a soothing pattern up and down the tense back. Solari's nose was at her neck, buried in her collarbone. Gabrielle whispered words of comfort into the scout's ear. Closing her eyes to prevent her own tears from escaping, Gabrielle tightened her hold as she felt the first of the hot tears connecting with her skin.
Ephiny slowly pushed herself to her feet, planting lingering kisses along Eponin's body her entire way up. Eponin's mouth instinctively opened beneath Ephiny's, welcoming her tongue.
Eyes opened as their lovers' kiss ended. They were leaning heavily against each other and their breathing was ragged.
"Hi." Ephiny smiled.
"Hey," Eponin husked out.
Ephiny's eyes twinkled mischievously. "So..." Arms looped about Eponin's neck. Her smile grew by epic proportions. "...still think there's nothing good about getting wet?"
The Queen of the Amazons didn't know how long she'd been holding her chief scout in her arms, rocking her like a baby. A candlemark? Maybe two? She only knew the cold was beginning to set in, cramping her joints and muscles alike. Flexing, she adjusted Solari's weight, jostling her a bit.
"Hey," she cooed softly, "You better now?"
There was a morose shake of a head against her cleavage.
Gabrielle sighed, pursed her lips in contemplation. Running a hand over the flesh of Solari's chilled back, she tried again.
"Come on, Soli. I know things seem tough now, but it'll be alright. You'll see."
"I - I don't think so." Solari's fingers played with the frayed edge of Gabrielle's skirt as she shared her deepest secrets.
"I'm sorry, Soli. I can't name you as my consort. It's just that - " Cautiously, Ephiny reached out, placing a hand on a bare shoulder, running it down a toned arm to the chief scout's elbow. " - Oh, I do love you, Soli. It's just that I can't see us lasting as a couple and I can't commit to you unless I can see us having something long-term."
"Thing is, Gabrielle, I never told Eph, but I figured out who she'd had in mind for her consort."
"Yeah. I guess I was a fool, but I thought with Eponin gone...and if Ephiny saw I was honestly trying to change - " Solari forced a smile through through her tears. "We've been so much closer lately. The lingering touches, the caresses, the way she let me hold her while she slept...I thought...Gods, I'm such an idiot to think that she would have ever chosen me."
"Solari, that's not true. You're not an idiot." Gabrielle kept her tone low as she carefully picked her next words. "But, I think you've been reading more into Ephiny's actions than she ever intended. What's the term you use for each other; packmates?" At Solari's confirming nod, Gabrielle continued. "And while that closeness and those touches that you two share as packmates are special...to both of you...they don't mean the same to Ephiny as they do to you."
"Gods, I love her." The words were wrenched from Solari's throat with such anguish that it made Gabrielle's heart ache for her.
"And, Ephiny loves you...as a lifelong friend."
Solari collapsed into her queen's arms again as a fresh round of hot tears assaulted her. Gabrielle held on tight, stroking her hands up and down Solari's back, trying to think of something to say to make her feel better.
"Solari, you'll find someone. There are plenty of other Amazons in the village."
Solari stiffened in Gabrielle's arms. "And, I've had them all." There was a soggy snort that Gabrielle thought was meant to be a harsh laugh. "That's the punchline, isn't it?"
Solari pulled back from Gabrielle's embrace just far enough so she could look up into her monarch's face. At the look of complete incomprehension, she realized that Gabrielle wasn't trying to poke fun or be intentionally cruel.
"Oh, Gabrielle. I've been trying to change, really I have. For Ephiny. For myself." Solari's thoughts went back to the recent comments made by two different warriors. Egeria's had been in good humor, but it had stung. The one from the captain had been said in anger and it cut. "Thing is, no one will give me the chance. They all remember how I was in the past and they won't give me a chance to redeem myself."
It's my reputation that's cost me Ephiny, thought Solari.
So much like my Xena. Images of Gabrielle's lost soulmate came to mind.
"Solari, I need to tell you a story." Gabrielle's tone took on that melodious sound of a bard about to weave a tale. "I sing a song of Xena, mighty warrior. Hero to some, villain to others, long on a path of redemption..."
Gabrielle's voice trailed off. Solari had been still in her arms, quietly listening as Gabrielle told of her travels with Xena and how it seemed that the warrior was always trying to make amends for her past and erase her reputation. True to her opening line, Gabrielle had depicted both those who welcomed Xena with open arms and those that vilified her for her past deeds.
The descriptions of Callisto and Najara in particular had spoken to Solari. Although nowhere on the epic scale that Xena's plight was, Solari could identify with how there were those that remembered her dark past and wouldn't allow her to forget it, much less try to make up for it.
By the end of Gabrielle's tale, though, it had become clear that the person that was harshest on the warrior was the woman herself. Xena couldn't move on and find her redemption until she first learned how to forgive herself.
Solari twisted about, turning so that she could look up into Gabrielle's face. Gabrielle's head was lowered and verdant eyes were looking back at her. Solari reached up, a trembling hand wiping moisture from the young bard's face.
"Oh, Gabrielle. I'm so sorry. You must think I'm such a Centaur's ass. Here I am, going on about my broken heart when you've - "
" - just had mine torn from my chest?" Gabrielle said it with a smile, but that smile never reached her tear-filled eyes. "It's okay." Gabrielle scrubbed a hand across one eye and cheek. "It is. I - I think I needed a chance to cry, too."
Solari settled back against her young queen, trying to envelop her in a one-handed embrace. They held onto each other, drawing comfort from one another as they both once again became lost in their misery.
For her part, Solari tried not to think about Ephiny and Eponin and what she'd been witness to. She wanted her packmate to be happy. Really, she did. She just wasn't ready to see her happy with someone else.
"Blessed Artemis," Solari whispered, "why did Eponin have to come back?"
Gabrielle's ears picked up Solari's whispered prayer. She'd meant what she'd said to Solari; that it was okay and she needed a chance to cry for Xena. In a way, it was cathartic, talking about her lost love. That was something that she might do again; let Xena live on through her stories. In time, she figured it might not even hurt like the pain of a hot knife piercing her heart to tell them.
Despite having a newfound sense of purpose for her future, Gabrielle's mind couldn't help slipping back to the past. Solari's whispered words about Eponin struck home, bringing up a quote from another tale she'd recently heard.
"Mark my words, for I have seen. She will bring the Queen to her knees."
While that prophetic vision certainly evoked the powerfully erotic image of Ephiny going down on Eponin, it also spoke to Gabrielle's own reaction when the warrior had delivered the news of Xena's death.
Tears falling freely now, Gabrielle buried her face in Solari's hair and tightened her arms about Solari's frame as she attempted to shield both their wounded hearts.
The dusky grey lighting of a predawn morning followed the regent of the Amazons across the threshold of the farmhouse's front door. Ephiny paused mid-step when she saw Gabrielle seated upon the hardwood floor, back pressed against the wall, cradling a sleeping Solari in her arms.
She changed direction, taking several steps towards queen and scout. A bloodshot green eye rolled open, piercing Ephiny with a look.
"Gab - "
The name stuck on Ephiny's tongue as the blonde bard pressed a finger to her lips indicating silence. Ephiny was about to take another step towards them when a resolute shake of Gabrielle's head stopped her.
With a shake of her head and a shrug of her shoulders, Ephiny gave up and went off in search of a bed to catch up on her own sleep.
A candlemark later, Eponin was coming through the front door as Devillare was coming down the stairs, both lured by the aroma of cooking ham.
The two warriors stopped and blinked at the sight of queen and chief scout slumbering upon the floor. Neither woman stirred as two sets of warriors' boots drew near.
"Should we wake them?"
Devillare cast a sideways glance at her adopted daughter. "Of all the lessons I've ever learned in my many seasons, I think the most important of those is to never wake a sleeping queen."
"Poor Gabrielle. It's probably the first bit of sleep she's gotten since Xena - " Ep's throat tightened.
Both warriors looked up as they heard muffled noises. The ceiling above their heads shook.
"Sounds like a herd of wild animals up there."
"Yep," agreed Devillare. "Think the smell of food woke them. They'll be stampeding down those stairs any heartbeat now."
Eponin turned to look at the still slumbering women. Gabrielle was clearly exhausted. As for Solari; well, Ep figured Iphinome must've given her something.
"We can't let them come down here and wake them up," Eponin said.
"Nor permit them to see the Queen in such a state." Devillare knew that as a society, most Amazons these days were fairly liberal and easygoing. She was still a traditionalist, though. And by her way of thinking, it wasn't proper for the queen to be seen in any light that was unflattering.
"Right," Devillare said. "I'll take the queen. You take the scout."
Eponin watched as Devillare started to reach for Gabrielle, intending to pick her up. She stopped the older warrior with a hand on her shoulder.
"Wait. How about if I take Gabrielle and you take Solari?"
Devillare shrugged off Eponin's hand. "I'm the captain of the guard." She knelt down and picked up Gabrielle. The blonde murmured something unintelligible in her sleep, her head lolled against the warrior's shoulder. "The Queen is my responsibility."
"The Queen's bed is upstairs."
"And the scout's is down here somewhere."
"Well, yeah. That's why I thought you might want to take Solari instead."
Devillare gave Eponin a sharp look. "Why?!?"
"Because." Eponin saw that answer wasn't going to fly. Scratching at her ear, she added in a soft voice, "Because Solari's bed is closer." Her voice grew softer still as she added, "and that way you wouldn't have to carry Gabrielle all the way upstairs."
Devillare didn't know if that answer was better or worse than the one she'd thought Ep had meant.
"Are you saying I'm too feeble - " Gabrielle stirred in Devillare's arms and she lowered her voice to a strained whisper. " - to carry a woman up a flight of stairs?"
Eponin cringed. "Um - no. I was saying that Gabrielle's heavy?"
"She's not likely to get any lighter the longer we stand here discussing it."
"I'm younger than you." Eponin reached out her arms, trying to take Gabrielle from Devillare. "Let me carry her upstairs."
Devillare swung around so that Gabrielle was out of Eponin's reach. "I've got her. You know, there was a time I could've carried both you and her up those stairs."
"Yeah," Ep snorted, "when I was six."
"Disrespectful whelp. When you were five. You were a heavy child." Devillare sidestepped Eponin and made it to the third stair before the younger Amazon recovered enough to clamp her jaw shut.
Resigned to her fate, Eponin returned to Solari's side. Bending at the knees, she hoisted both the sleeping brunette's arms about her neck and lifted. Solari was limp in her arms, just like that time she'd been the last time Ep recalled carrying the scout off to bed.
That had been a fertility festival that celebrated those sisters that would be bringing forth the new spring births. And, what better way for Amazons to celebrate fertility rites than with a little unabashed drinking and coupling?
There'd been no shortage of women vying to have the chief scout bed them that evening. For some reason known only to herself, Solari had waved off each and every offer, choosing instead to stay beside the weapons master and drink the night away.
It was early dawn when Eponin finally decided the only way an extremely drunk Solari was going to make it back to her bed was if she put her there. Without a word, Ep picked her friend up. Solari was nearly boneless in her arms, except for that firm handclasp she had about the handle of her mug.
And the handclasp she had around the waist of my leathers. The mug had slipped out of her fingers somewhere between the festival grounds and Solari's hut. After that, both arms had gone around Ep's thick neck. Eponin had dumped Solari on her back in her bed, leaning in with the motion, trying to use both hands to extricate herself from the clinging scout.
That's when Solari had gone for the waistband of Ep's leathers. Eponin had to act fast to get herself untangled from Solari's questing fingers.
"Don't wanna be alone on the night of the fertility festival," Solari had half-slurred, half-mumbled.
"Yeah?" Eponin's head was down as she worked to refasten her belt. "Why didn't you think of that when all those girls were throwing themselves at you? Besides, it's morning now."
Solari's answer had been a resounding open-mouthed snore.
Now, like then, Solari's head was thrown back, her mouth wide open and a sound closely mirroring that of a wild animal was coming from somewhere deep inside.
Devillare clearly heard the sound. Pausing near the top step, she looked down, surprised that all that noise had come from the sleeping scout.
"For Gods' sake, put that woman to bed before everyone thinks we're being mauled by bears." She took another step, then turned and said, "I trust wherever you spent the night, you managed to get some shuteye. We're going to spend every waking candlemark we've got left until our friends come riding in to fortify our defenses."
"Providing you can grab a bite before I tuck the queen in and get back downstairs," was Devillare's answer.
A loud snore erupted from Solari. Eponin groaned as she hefted the scout in her arms and went in search of a bed to put her in.
The renegades arrived a full candlemark after true dark. The sky was clear and cloudless this night, providing no hiding place from the light of Artemis' rising moon.
If anyone from the farmhouse had looked out a window at the distant hill cresting the land, they certainly would have seen the seven riders.
Instead, the farm presented an idyllic painting. There was a plume of smoke rising from the roof. Candlelight illuminated the interior of one of the rooms. The rest of the house was shuttered in darkness.
"They're all in that one room. I'd stake my best bow on it."
"No big stake considering Xena's chakram shattered your only bow."
"Yeah," one of the renegades laughed, "but look at what Cordele did to Xena. Legendary warrior princess forged in the heat of battle my tailfeathers."
Cordele allowed herself a heartbeat to soak up her accolades. Killing Xena had gone a long ways to solidifying her leadership. If it hadn't been for that, she was certain her army of loyalists would have dissipated with the demise of Tynette.
It almost had anyway. It had taken everything Cordele had to get them to come this far. She'd even gone so far as to cut the throat of one dissenter. It had taken that show of force to convince the rest of them to fall in line.
More or less. She'd awoken the next morning to discover that she only had six followers left. All of them hampered by some injury that would have prevented them from sneaking off in the middle of the night like cowards.
Of those six, several of them were what Cordele termed fanatics. They would ride with her to the very end. Others, she knew were only with her because they had nowhere left to go. Still others thought they had earned a place among her ranks and a right to say what went on in her army.
"It could be a trap." Gryta's eyes were scanning the farmhouse and surrounding structures. Her gaze kept darting back and forth from farmhouse to barn to chicken house to pig pen and back again. "We should wait."
"Or," Cordele clenched her reins in frustration, "It could be our best chance ever."
"Just listen. There's more than one member of the guard down there. Don't you think that's one of the first things they teach us; don't put all your eggs in one basket? Or, in this case, all your royals in one room?"
"If queen or regent are not there, we'll go room by room until we find them."
Heads turned, eyes focused on Keleos. The former hunter was swaying in her saddle, sweat beading on her forehead. There was a foul stench coming from the filthy bandage wrapped about what was left of her hand. What had started off as one missing digit now threatened to take her entire arm. It seemed that no matter how much they cut off, the gangrene continued to spread.
"Thought you'd want the woman that did that to you," Cordele nodded, indicating Keleos' injury.
Keleos' tongue flicked out, wetting her dry and cracked lips. "Want the regent. She killed Kynthia. Gonna kill the regent."
"Okay, okay. We'll see." Cordele's smooth words and even tone worked to placate the fever-addled Keleos. Cordele wouldn't begrudge the hunter her chance at vengeance.
She wouldn't begrudge her, but she wouldn't help her in her cause, either. If Keleos wished to claim the regent's life, she would have to beat Cordele to it. Every time she spoke, the permanent raspiness of her voice reminded her of the injury she'd suffered at the regent's hands. Cordele vowed to pay Ephiny back in kind.
Along with that cur of hers. Three times now, she'd faced Eponin in battle. Cordele swore this would be the last. By dawn's light, she would see that mongrel cowering at her feet.
Cordele's lips curved as she pictured the defeat of Ephiny and Eponin and the demise of that pathetic outsider-queen. The only thing she hadn't figured out yet was who to kill first. Ephiny so that Eponin could scream and rail at her for killing her precious regent? Eponin so that Ephiny would see how impure and weak Artemis' champion really was? Gabrielle so that the rest would see the fate of their Queen and know that it would be theirs, as well?
"I don't like it," Gryta said. "We should wait until first light."
"We're not waiting another candlemark." Cordele gave the signal to attack. Five horses immediately took off down the hill at breakneck speed. Cordele started off, then reined her mare in. She pointed her sword at Gryta's throat. "You're either in or out. If it's out, I'll kill you myself after the attack."
"Providing you don't get us all massacred first."
Cordele drew her sword back. She started to let loose with the slashing arc. At the last heartbeat, though, she gave a fearsome yell and kicked her horse, spurring it down the hillock.
Gryta sat there, one arm braced against the bandage wrapped about her midsection. She could feel the dampness of blood seeping through the cloth. They'd done what they could for her, using the leather twine from their broken bows for stitches, but none of her fellow renegades were healers. Not even close.
How else to explain that two of them had held her in place to stop her fighting them as another used her fingers to jam her guts back into her stomach while she stitched the wound closed? Even now, pressing upon the bandage, Gryta was certain she felt part of her insides sticking out.
"Ah, Centaur balls." The ex-guard spat upon the ground. She urged her horse to head down the hill at a pace that wouldn't cause her too much distress. "I wouldn't make much of an elder, anyway."
If it was possible to pace while on crutches, that was exactly the move Solari was pulling off. Marjorie and Iphinome sat at the kitchen table, knives clutched firmly in their hands, eyes anxiously following the agitated Amazon scout as she crossed back and forth in front of them.
Gabrielle wondered if either healer or farmwoman had any experience at wielding those weapons. Iphinome no doubt possessed limited knowledge from tending the wounded. And, Gabrielle had seen many a farmwoman cut up a chicken with less. Still, both those scenarios were a far cry from actually raising a weapon against a person.
Gabrielle was standing, staff in hand, in the doorway between the kitchen and the front room. Like most of the rest of the house, the kitchen was shrouded in darkness.
Except the front room. They'd lit as many candles in that one room as possible to draw attention there. The idea was that if renegades managed to overrun the forces outside and attacked the main house, they would concentrate their efforts on the illuminated room.
Lexine was crouched down beneath the window in the front room, peering out into the darkness. Her gaze kept going to the open barn door. The interior of the structure was pitch black. From inside, she heard the sound of a restless horse. Like the barn, the chicken house was shrouded in darkness. Eyes swept over the pig pen. The pigs were all sleeping soundly, even the big fat one Marjorie said they would have for breakfast if they all lived to see the morning.
Lexine knew there was a plan, had seen it mapped out in great detail. It looked brilliant on parchment. Real life, as Lexine knew, rarely went according to plan. Doubt began to creep in, causing Lexine to wonder if that pig might not outlive the lot of them.
If her worst fears came to pass, she would be their last line of defense. A shiver went down her spine as she gave thought to running. She put that errant thought straight out of her mind, knowing she wouldn't - couldn't - do that. Gabrielle had placed a huge burden squarely on the young guard's shoulder when she made her swear that she would stand fast for Queen and Nation.
Lexine could hardly refuse such an important mission. She would hold back the renegades for as long as she could, buying valuable time. While they were coming in the front door, Gabrielle would sneak the other women out through the kitchen door and rush them to cover amongst the crops growing in the fields out back.
So far, though, it had been quiet. Eerily quiet, with only the sounds of their uneven breathing and Solari's steady pacing to be heard. Lexine's sweaty palm worried the hilt of her sword sheathed at her waist.
It had been candlemarks and Gabrielle was beginning to think that nothing would happen. A look at Iphinome revealed that the assistant healer's eyes were beginning to close and she was starting to drift off while sitting in her chair.
Everyone's heads snapped up as the first ungodly scream of the night rang out.
The cry from the first felled horse ripped through the quiet of the night. On its heels was the scream of its rider as she was thrown onto the wooden spikes lining the perimeter of the fence.
Another horse panicked as it felt the peat moss shift beneath its hoof. It reared, sending its rider tumbling to the ground. Wooden spikes tore through the flesh of her arm, side and leg as she landed.
Breathing heavily with the effort, she struggled to her feet. She screamed as the sharpened stick she pulled from her side came out with a disgustingly wet sound. She waved at the oncoming riders.
"Wait! It's a trap! Stop!"
Another horse charged in before the rider could fully rein it in. The horse reared. The rider fell and rolled away from the spikes, scared but unscathed. The horse twisted and writhed, foam spewing from its mouth as it took its last breath.
"I can't stand this." Solari's crutches carried her across the kitchen.
"Solari, what are you doing?" Gabrielle stepped in front of her chief scout, blocking her path to the main room.
"I can't just stand here and wait for them to come in. I need to be out there."
"Solari, you can't fight."
"Ephiny's injured and you let her go."
To Gabrielle's frayed nerves, Solari's words sounded very much like an accusation.
"Your wounds are much more severe than Ephiny's twisted ankle and she's on horseback. You couldn't mount up if you tried."
"I could - " Solari's look was torturous. "I need - "
"I need you here, to help me with them."
Green eyes indicated Marjorie and Iphinome, wide-eyed and white-knuckled as they tightened their grips on the hilts of their daggers as another scream pierced the night.
In truth, Gabrielle understood exactly how Solari felt. She herself felt the need to be out there, fighting alongside her sisters. It had been Devillare that had convinced her that as the Queen, it was her duty to stay safe.
"It's my responsibility to lead my people," Gabrielle had protested.
"Yes, it is." Devillare's voice lowered to a near whisper as she said, "When you took the caste from Terreis, you became heir. While beloved by the tribe, the regent is spare."
"Devillare! I personally chose Ephiny to rule as Queen in my stead."
"She only becomes first Queen if something happens to you. Like us, the regent has sworn her life to protect that of the queen."
It had irked Gabrielle to no end that she was in effect being told that her life was more important than everyone else's. She certainly didn't feel like it was. Especially when it came to Ephiny. Ephiny was born an Amazon, raised and trained to be a warrior. With her usual graceless coordination, Gabrielle had stumbled into being one. The only point Gabrielle agreed with Devillare on was the wisdom of not committing both royals to the same battlefield.
"I can keep an eye on one of you, but not both," the captain of the guard had been forced to admit.
In the end, Gabrielle had agreed to stay inside to help protect the noncombatants and those not strong enough to fight. Unknown to the young guard, Lexine fell into that latter category. Like Solari, she'd deceived the royal guardswoman that she was needed to protect the other women. Telling her Solari was amongst them only made it that much easier to convince Lexine of the lie.
"Ephiny's a great rider." Gabrielle stroked a soothing hand down the worried scout's arm. "She'll be fine, Solari."
"She's more than fine." Lexine's voice drifted in from the other room. She was standing beside the window, fingertips drawing the edge of the drape back as she peered outside. "She's amazing."
"Amazons - Attack!"
The battle cry was loud and clear and it came from the regent of the Amazons. She led the charge from the barn, sword held high as she sat tall in the saddle. Amazon warriors followed her lead, spurring their horses from where they'd been waiting in the darkened barn.
Their defenses had taken out three of the renegades' mounts. One of those had lost her life, as well. The other two were on foot, one of them obviously injured in her horse's fall. The other four riders had made it through with their mounts intact.
Ephiny spurred her horse, charging full gallop across the yard. She engaged the first renegade she encountered, leaning from her saddle, her sword slashing sideways as the sharpened edge sliced across an unprotected abdomen. She reined in Buttercup, turning her horse for another pass at the wounded but still standing renegade.
A rider raced forward, the regent clearly her intended target. Devillare intercepted the horse, forcing the rider to veer off. Grey eyes narrowed as she recognized the hunter she'd fought during the Battle of Potadeia. The captain caught sight of the heavily bandaged hand and the awkward way her opponent held her sword.
"You sure you wanna do this, kid?" Devillare asked as Keleos turned her horse. "It's not too late to turn around and ride out of here."
Keleos used her forearm to swipe at the perspiration pouring off her face. Her chest was rising and falling heavily, short puffs of breath visible on the chill air. She hefted her sword, adjusting her grip on the pommel. The horse beneath her pranced in anxious anticipation.
Eyes glistened with fever. "Kill you. Kill the regent."
"Guess you could try." Devillare made a 'come' motion with her hand.
As soon as Lightning erupted from the barn, Eponin's eyes had searched for and found Cordele. The big blonde hunter had made it past the spikes, mount intact. In truth, Eponin hadn't expected anything less.
It seemed that she spotted Eponin in the same heartbeat. Both gave wild war-cries and spurred their horses across the yard straight for the other.
Neither slowed as they passed, using the speed to add momentum to their attack. Swords met, striking against each other, both feeling the reverberations clear to their elbows. Reins tightened in dual grasps as they both urged their mounts to circle around for another strike.
"Flank them!" Egeria yelled. "Flank them!"
She kicked her heels against her horse's side, urging it across the yard.
Bonadea heard Egeria's shout, eyes zeroed in on the two riders breaking away, turning their horses towards the farmhouse. Like Egeria, she gave hurried chase.
A wounded renegade, blood streaming from spikes still embedded in her torso abruptly stepped into the path of Egeria's horse. The mare reared up. Egeria kept her grip on the reins, somehow staying in the saddle as the horse's hooves came down scant inches from the renegade.
The renegade pressed her advantage, racing forward and boldly grabbing Egeria's labrys on the shaft above the double-headed blade. Planting both feet as best she could in the slick mud, she tugged with all her might.
Bonadea was riding alongside one of the renegades that had made a break towards the farmhouse where the Queen was sequestered. She swung her sword fiercely, her blade connecting with that of the renegade.
Her entire body protested every motion. Twine pulled from the arrow wounds Iphinome had stitched closed. Bonadea gave a mighty yell as she swung again. She felt a deep pain in her side and blackness swam before her eyes. Just before she passed out, she saw the other rider go limp in the saddle and fall from her horse.
Eponin turned Lightning about. After three passes, both horse and rider were breathing heavily. Cordele turned her horse. Like Eponin, her heated breath was visible upon the chilled air.
Sword arms lifted.
Eponin knew this pass would end the same as the others, both swords striking against each other, each blow slowly sapping their strength. In the end, it would come down to who could hold the weight of her sword the longest.
They drew nearer each other. So near Eponin could clearly read the determined hatred in Cordele's eyes.
"Screw this," Eponin said.
She let loose her mightiest Amazon war cry and flung herself from the saddle. A startled scream was torn from Cordele's lips as she saw her enemy hurtling towards her. Eponin's momentum carried her forward as she crashed into Cordele. They both tumbled off the back of the horse.
Never - ungh - underestimate the strength of the truly insane, Devillare thought, leaning heavily on her sword as she fought her way to her knees.
Keleos looked like she could barely stay in her saddle under her own power. That's why Devillare never saw the move coming that had Keleos standing in the saddle, then flinging herself at the captain. Her entire weight driving the impact, she'd managed to knock the experienced warrior from her horse.
Devillare struggled to stand on her feet, her boots sliding on the ground still damp from that early morning's rain. She was nearly halfway up when Keleos charged her full speed, catching her about the midsection, sending them both crashing into the fence surrounding the pig pen.
The top, middle and bottom horizontal boards snapped beneath the impact, sending captain and renegade hurtling into the pen. Pigs squealed, bleating their annoyance as tiny cloven feet scampered through the mud in an effort to get away.
Both hands planted in the muck, Devillare worked to get her feet beneath her. The ground was spinning, making already slippery footing that much more treacherous. She shook her head from side to side, trying to focus her vision into a single image of her sword embedded in the muck.
She grabbed the one in the middle, hand closing about real steel and turned around - just in time to see the broken fence board Keleos swung around and smashed into her face.
Devillare went down hard.
Egeria resisted the force that threatened to tug her out of her saddle. In one motion, she wrested her battleaxe away, drew the handle back and swung. The renegade's head toppled from her shoulders.
The big Amazon warrior saw Bonadea's opponent fall from the saddle. Then, the Amazon guard go down right after her. Ahead of them, she recognized Gryta riding around the pen and towards the back of the house.
Despite her persistent wound, Gryta's dismount was a smooth one. She slowed her horse to a near trot and swung one leg over the saddle, both feet touching the ground before her horse had completely stopped.
Sword in hand, she charged up the steps and through the back door of the house.
Solari's swing connected, hitting the renegade coming in through the kitchen door squarely in the chest. Unfortunately, her opponent still maintained enough of her wits that she was able to catch Solari's weapon and wrest it from her grasp.
Solari instinctively tried to brace her fall with both hands. Pain lanced through her thigh as she slammed into the kitchen counter. Marjorie's cutting board, knife and uncut vegetables crashed to the floor along with the chief scout.
Lexine came rushing in from the front room, colliding with Gabrielle in her efforts to reach Solari. Gabrielle cursed and struggled, trying to get herself disentangled from the young guard. Marjorie stood up and backed away from the table, knife held out before her. Iphinome was too stunned to move.
Gryta flung the crutch that had been used to strike her out the back door. Eyes quickly adjusted to the dim lighting. She saw the chief scout writhing upon the floor in agony, one hand desperately trying to reach her other crutch.
Lips made a 'tsking' sound as Gryta kicked the crutch out of reach. "Oh, Solari." She raised her sword in a double-handed grip. A feral smile caressed her lips. "My turn."
Despite her fear, Iphinome's calling as a healer spurred her into action. She was pushing her chair back, the legs scraping upon the hardwood floor with the movement. Her only thought was that she needed to reach the injured scout.
Gabrielle saw Iphinome coming up out of her chair, shouted for her to stand down. The girl was only a healer, no threat to anyone. But, with a knife in hand, she became a target.
Gryta's sword flashed and Iphinome crumpled to the floor. Gabrielle kneed Lexine in the gut, pushed the bumbling guard out of her way. She rushed forward, fighting staff raised.
She drew up short as she saw two daggers embedded to their hilts in Gryta's chest. The former royal guard was looked down stupidly at the weapons protruding from her body in the scant heartbeats it took for her life to drain away.
As Gryta crumpled to the floor, a look passed between scout and farmer. Solari's fingers had closed about the chopping knife and she'd sent it hurtling into Gryta's chest in the same instant Marjorie had flung the kitchen knife she'd been holding.
"Are you okay?" Gabrielle asked, kneeling beside Solari. She gave a firm stroke through Solari's brunette tresses and over her face, fingers lingering against a cheek.
"Must be. I hurt too much to be dead."
Gabrielle's eyes flicked to Iphinome. Marjorie was already kneeling beside the healer, pressing clean cloths to her wound.
The Queen of the Amazons looked up and out the back door. She could just make out the silhouette of Gryta's riderless horse trotting away. From the darkness beyond, she could hear the sounds of battle.
"Enough of this." Gabrielle pushed herself to her feet. "Solari, you're in charge. Take care of them."
Then, she bolted out the back door before Solari could object to being left behind or Lexine could raise protest about yet once again being passed over for command.
Swords raised, guard up, Cordele and Eponin cautiously circled each other. Hunter and warrior were filthy and exhausted, their chests rising and falling erratically with each labored breath.
Cordele's eyes narrowed as she thought she saw Eponin's knee give slightly with her next step. Eyes flicked to the warrior's face, looking for any indication that it was a feint.
She flexed her wrist, twisting her sword at an angle. A line of blood soaked through the bandage wrapped about her hand with the motion. The slice from Xena's chakram had cut the flesh clear to the bone. With the medical supplies Tynette had been bringing them lost, Cordele had to endure the wound being stitched closed without benefit of herbs.
Cordele raised her sword. The grip of her sword was already soaked in her blood. With nowhere else to go, the crimson liquid ran from her palm to her wrist, rivulets cascading down her forearm all the way to her elbow. Her wrist went limp, the tip of her sword dipping by visible inches.
Eponin didn't take the bait. Cordele was trying to lure her in by making her think her arm was growing heavy. A smirk played over the hunter's lips as she realized her ruse hadn't worked.
Cordele took two quick steps to the right, her boot sliding on the moist ground. When Eponin's eyes followed her, she quickly shifted to the left and rushed in.
Ephiny was down on one knee. Her arms were up, palms braced against hilt and blade. Teeth were bared as she pressed up with all her might, arms trembling with the effort.
Keleos was standing over Ephiny, pressing down with her full weight upon the sword that was crossed over the regent's. Eyes gleamed wildly. She was close enough she could see beads of perspiration trickling beneath the regent's braided crown and stinging her eyes. Seeing the regent's arms waver beneath the strain, she grinned maniacally and added more pressure upon her blade.
The weapons master's sword was instantly up. Cordele used a double-handed grip coupled with an overhead swing to add force to the blow that smashed down upon Eponin's blade.
The warrior's knees gave beneath the onslaught.
"Ungh." Ephiny gritted her teeth. Her strength was waning, her bent arms forced back at an awkward angle. She looked up, the steel of her own blade clearly within her range of vision, Keleos' face looming directly above it.
"Regent's mine. Kill the regent." Lines of spittle dropped from Keleos' open mouth onto the ground between them.
Eponin caught herself, regaining her footing. Fingers curled into a double-handed hold upon her sword grip. Lip curling into a sneer, she snarled ferociously as she forced Cordele's sword back.
"That's disgusting." Ephiny dug deep. "I don't...know which is...worse..." she grunted with the effort it took to thrust her arms up into an extended position. "the stench...from your wound...or your breath..."
Warrior and hunter were eye to eye, swords locked. Biceps bulged beneath the strain as they pushed against each other. They were filthy and sweaty, their breath coming in great ragged gasps.
"Would...you...just..." Cordele gritted her teeth as she struggled to get the next string of words out "...die...you mongrel..."
"You..." Eponin grunted "...first..."
Keleos' scream was filled with rage as she lifted her sword off Ephiny's and raised it above her head.
Ephiny had one hand on her sword, the other palm pressed down upon the wet ground as she hastily tried to just get up. Her already injured ankle protested beneath the strain. Ephiny heard something snap, her ankle turned beneath her and her knee gave, sending her crashing to the ground.
"You took everything," Cordele accused. "Everything that I had."
"Ah, shut up..." Eponin shoved hard, pushing Cordele away from her "...and fight."
Keeping her double-handed grip despite the throbbing pain from her palm, the hunter attacked, accusing Eponin of a list of crimes with each clang of her blade against the weapons master's. "You." Strike. "Took." Strike. "My home." Strike. "My rank." Strike. "My honor."
The sound of clashing steel and those words rasped out in Cordele's voice rang in Eponin's ears. She was taken back to another battle, one that now seemed like a lifetime ago.
Eponin was on her knees in the dirt. A fist tightened in her hair, pulling her head back. Cordele applied enough pressure so that Eponin's entire upper body was straining, her fingertips barely touching the ground. Her jaw, her neck, her back strained with tension as she was forced to look up into cruel midnight blue eyes.
"You ruined me," Cordele hissed through clenched teeth. "Everything I had, you took from me. My home, my family, my honor. Everything." She viciously gripped Eponin's jaw. "Now, I'm going to take it all from you." Eponin's gaze was clouding over when Cordele forced her head to the side. Through dimming vision, her range of vision narrowed to a pinpoint in which she could clearly see the stricken look on Ephiny's face. "Including her."
"Kill!" Madness gleamed in Keleos' bright eyes. "Kill the regent!"
Eponin growled. Painful memories fueled her battle lust, giving her a surge of strength. She stopped Cordele's next blow cold, refusing to give with the strike.
Cordele was taller, but Eponin still managed a head butt to the chin. It was a move Cordele wasn't expecting. Her head snapped back with the impact, sharp teeth piercing her lip. Stunned, she cupped her hand over her mouth, swallowing the blood welling up.
Rage making her eyes blaze a fiery gold, Ep gave a fearsome yell and charged, her sword driving against Cordele's with enough force that it sent the hunter sliding backwards.
"You took the same from me," Eponin accused.
She pressed her attack, putting more and more power behind each subsequent blow.
"You took my rank. My warrior's mask. My honor."
Cordele was steadily losing ground now, each strike propelling her backwards. She stumbled. Eponin's sword sliced her forearm.
"You had my home burned to the ground."
Another blow got past Cordele's defenses, Eponin's blade slashing across a thigh. Hot blood poured from the wound.
"You..." Eponin's nostrils flared. Her eyes blazed. "tried to take Ephiny..."
Cordele's eyes widened. Even when she fought Eponin in the arena, even when she had her so near defeat and death, she hadn't seen the weapons master so enraged. She took several quick steps back, trying to put some space between herself and the wild animal that was stalking her.
"You..." Eponin's face was contorted with rage. "...killed..." Every vein in her neck popped "...my..." Every corded muscle in her powerful arms flexed as she raised her sword "...friend!"
"Regent's mine!" Eyes flashed, teeth gnashed as Keleos repeated her mantra in a sing-song voice. She brought her sword down.
The blade was coming down at her. Ephiny was on her back, the pommel of her sword braced against her hipbone as she forced the tip up.
"Kill the regent!"
"Wish you wouldn't."
Wood crashed against Keleos' back, splintering with the force of the blow. Keleos was knocked off balance, her aim thrown off. She fell, the regent's blade driving up and through her body. Her blade drove down scant inches from Ephiny's face, pinning one of the regent's blonde curls to the ground.
Ephiny's blade was wrenched from her grasp by the impact. Keleos fell to the side. Her good hand and the bandaged stump both pressed at her abdomen, clutched about the metal embedded in her body. She was swallowing repeatedly, blood gurgling up and out her mouth. Eyes blinked in bewilderment as she looked up.
Cordele's backward retreat was stopped cold when she bumped up against an immovable object. She blindly reached a hand behind her, thinking she'd run into the fence line, knowing she'd either have to make a stand here or try to climb over the fence and pick her way through a field mined with those blasted sharpened spikes.
Decision made, she turned around. And froze, eyes widening, mouth dropping open in abject disbelief.
Gabrielle was standing over Keleos, coolly surveying the damage done to her staff. She flicked an annoyed look at the dying hunter.
"Training a new regent would be such a bitch."
Gabrielle tried to maintain the facade as she idly picked at a loose splinter of wood, but gave up as Keleos slumped to the ground, the madness and life draining from her eyes.
Ephiny sat upright, running a shaking hand through her hair.
Gabrielle's lips quirked into a smile. She extended a hand to Ephiny. "Thought I said for you to stay on that horse."
Ephiny gave a hapless shrug of her shoulders as she smiled up at her friend and queen. Her smile faded as she saw the odd look on Gabrielle's face. Her eyes were unblinking, her mouth frozen halfway open.
"Gabrielle?" Ephiny asked, concern etched in her voice as she reached out a hand for the young blonde.
Gabrielle's knees buckled. Her heart was racing and she'd broken out into a cold sweat. Ephiny came into her range of vision as she knelt before her. Green eyes remained fixed at a point over Ephiny's shoulder.
Gabrielle's voice was scarcely a whisper as she breathed out "Xena?"
"Is this a private party or can anyone dance?"
Eponin's sneer changed into a broad grin. "Xena!"
"No." Cordele backed away from the blue-eyed demon advancing on her. "I killed you."
"I got better," Xena drawled, unable to hide the wince as she spoke. The bandage felt tight about her throat, the pressure making her voice sound gravelly.
Cordele felt the tip of Eponin's sword press into her lower back, turned and retreated, then turned again as she felt the flat of Xena's sword tap her shoulder. Eyes darted wildly, blonde hair whipped about her face as she frantically looked from warrior to warrior.
Cordele tightened her fingers about the blood-soaked grip of her sword. Her blade was drenched in blood running from hilt to tip. To her consternation, it was mostly hers. She'd scarcely managed to get in a nick on Eponin.
"It doesn't have to end this way," Xena husked out. "Not if you surrender now."
Eponin's eyes flicked to Xena with a look of annoyance at the offer of mercy. Nevertheless, she found herself commanding, "Drop the sword."
Cordele's fingers flexed. Lips set into a firm line. Her bloodied chin tilted up in defiance.
"I'd rather die standing on my feet than live on my knees."
Eponin cocked her head to the side, a slow smile spreading upon her lips. Xena mirrored the smile, a predatory gleam in her eye.
"Have it your way."
Cordele's wrist flexed, the tip of her sword rising.
Dual warriors' swords flashed in wide arcs, meeting at the apex of their swing.
Return to Xena and Gabrielle Fiction
Return to Main Page