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
Gabrielle was adrift in a sea of languidness. Arms limply at her sides, legs weightless, she floated. Her head was back, exposing her delicate neck to the gentle lapping sensation of the waves. Her eyes were closed, but she was by no means blind as her other senses processed her surroundings.
The distant sound of children laughing and playing drifted on the wind, as did the rapping of wooden staffs being struck against each other on the training grounds. Those sounds, coupled with the light she could see even through her closed lashes told Gabrielle that it was well past dawn.
There was a crisp smell in the air that Gabrielle attributed to last evening's snowfall. She snuggled deeper into the bed furs, sighing contentedly, inhaling deeply. The scent of - she sniffed again - baking nutbread! caused her eyes to snap open.
Gabrielle sat bolt upright in bed, displacing the covers. She breathed in deeply.
Yep, definitely baking nutbread.
She was instantly awake, eyes quickly darting about, taking in her surroundings.
She was in the Amazon village. In the Queen's hut. In the Queen's bed. It wasn't a dream! She was home. A hand tentatively felt around the bed. Fingers came into contact with a warm arm. Thank the Gods. It wasn't a dream.
She pulled back the furs, revealing her slumbering bedmate.
"Ugh!" Xena used one arm to flip the bedfurs back up over her head again.
Once again, she felt her upper body exposed to the chilly morning air as Gabrielle dragged the covers back off. One bloodshot blue eye rolled open. The bard was instantly all over her, covering her with fervent kisses.
"Do you mind?" Xena asked, covering her eyes with her arm. "Just recently recovered from being mostly dead here."
Gabrielle flounced back down on the bed, situating herself so she was in the crook of Xena's arm, her cheek resting against the warrior's upper chest. One of Xena's hands was cupping the bard's hip. The fingers of the other were idly stroking through blonde locks.
"That was nearly a moon ago. Being dead has never made you this lazy before."
"Mostly dead," corrected Xena. "In some ways, being mostly dead is much worse than being all the way dead."
"Really?" Blonde brows shot up. "How so?"
"Usually when someone's dead, they get to rest."
"Except that time you took over Autolycus' body," reminded Gabrielle, pursing her lips and placing a tender kiss upon the nearby breast.
"Wasn't my body that was getting the workout. Although, come to think of it, you did drag my corpse all over Greece, didn't you?"
"I was trying to honor your last wishes."
Gabrielle suddenly grew quiet and still in her arms and Xena cursed her warrior insensitivity. "I know you were, my love. The dead can hear our thoughts, remember? I know how pure yours were." There was a pause as Xena remembered that time in her past. It had been dangerous, asking the King of Thieves to steal her body back from the Amazons. "Anyway, the point I was trying in my inarticulate warrior way is that when I was dead, my body was resting, even if my spirit wasn't. Not to mention the ambrosia you gave me. It has the power to bring the dead back to life. It also goes a long way to healing a body. Being mostly dead, my body had to heal itself on its own."
"You've always been such a quick healer, though."
"Never had my throat cut with my own chakram before."
Gabrielle's eyes drifted to her soulmate's neck. Trembling fingers reached up, touching the pink scar. Xena flinched. Gabrielle drew her hand back, but found her fingers securely caught in Xena's grasp.
Xena tried to bring Gabrielle's fingers back to her neck. Gabrielle resisted the movement.
"I don't want to cause you pain."
"I don't ever want you to be afraid of touching me, Gabrielle."
The warrior gave her bard a bashful look. Green eyes searched blue, seeing the honesty of that statement. She swallowed against the lump in her throat she always got when Xena was this open with her emotions.
Fingers hesitantly reached out. Xena raised her neck, encouraging the touch as fingertips brushed against her throat. Ever so slowly, Gabrielle traced the line of the scar.
Her eyes closed. Tears fell from her lashes, rolling down her cheeks.
"Hey. Hey." Xena reached up, a calloused palm stroking over her bard's cheek. "Hey. It's okay. Look at me, sweetheart." When Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open, Xena said, "See, doesn't hurt."
Her nose was red and her eyes were shiny from her tears. "Gods, Xena. I thought you were - " Gabrielle tried to force a smile even as a sob racked her body. "When they told me you'd missed your chakram, that it had slit your throat - "
Xena's lips formed a tight line and she had to force herself not to say something about Amazons and their damned insensitivity in telling Gabrielle. She knew her bard. Gabrielle would have insisted they tell her. In graphic detail.
Xena's steady gaze met and held Gabrielle's tearful one. Time to clear up some details. "Gabrielle, I won't lie to you. Another few inches and that slice from my chakram would have been fatal. Luckily, I'd already seen it coming and was in the process of leaning back out of the way when it cut. The fall into the river didn't exactly do me any favors, though."
The archers were safely tucked away inside the mill, only their bows exposed as they fired down at the helpless Amazons drifting upon logs in the river. She'd meant for Devillare's group to be a distraction; she'd never meant to turn them into sitting ducks. Taking aim, she let her chakram fly towards the mill.
She allowed herself a mental pat on the back as she watched her weapon cleanly slice through four bows, rendering them useless. She nonchalantly reached up her hand to catch her returning chakram.
She'd just barely caught sight of that big hunter that was running at Eponin change directions and charge her instead. There wasn't enough time to perform one of her legendary flips or tuck and roll. There was scarcely the span of a half-heartbeat to grip both hands about the hilt of her sword before Cordele's came crashing down on hers with enough force that it shook Xena to the bone.
Even above the clanging of metal in her ears, Xena heard the distinctive whooshing! sound of her approaching chakram. Cordele was furiously hacking away with her sword. Xena couldn't ease up her grip on her sword, lest Cordele's blade drive home.
She leaned back. Not far enough. The chakram sliced across her exposed throat, blood arcing with the cut. Eyes followed, seeing her chakram spiral away, embedding itself in the trunk of a tree.
She was falling backwards off the edge of the embankment. Her back, then her head bounced against the hard packed dirt. One hand clutched at her throat while the fingers of her other clawed at the air.
She twisted about, her shoulder taking the brunt of the next impact. She saw the ice cold waters of the river below rushing up to meet her, blindly reached out a hand to stop her fall.
She was brutally jerked to a stop as her arm caught on something. Painfully, she turned her head, seeing that she'd been caught up to her elbow on the handle of Iphinome's stolen satchel. There were scarcely enough heartbeats to catch her breath before the handle snapped and she was sent plunging into the chilly water, the satchel falling with her.
After that, Xena remembered trying to catch her breath, being buffeted about by log after log. Her head was forced under water. Once. Twice. Each time, she came back to the surface, gasping for breath. Then, she remembered being forced back under, not having the strength to kick her way back to the surface, the searing pain in her lungs as she tried to somehow breathe underwater.
There was the sound of water sloshing in one ear. The annoying chirping of birds in the other. Slowly, she began to take stock of her surroundings.
She was on her stomach, her head turned to the side, the gritty sand from the bank pressed firmly against her cheek. She was at the edge of the river, cool water lapping up over the backs of her legs and battledress.
Everything hurt. Just laying still in the water hurt. One eye slowly cracked open. Even that movement hurt. As did the sunlight streaming down through the tops of the trees lining the river.
That blue eye slid closed again.
When it cracked open again, Xena willed herself to fight through the pain and simply move. Fingers dug firmly into the soft sand. Her body floated, drifting backwards, deeper into the water.
She drifted past a log. Looking about, she realized the water was crowded with floating logs from the mill. With no one to oversee the operation and guide the logs to where they needed to go, they'd rushed downstream with the current, then ended up aimlessly drifting in still waters.
Like Xena, many of them had drifted too near shore and were now caught up in the mud. As she drifted past another log, she reached out, grabbing hold. She clung to the side for a while, trying to catch her breath and regain her strength.
Lolling her head, she looked to the side and up and came face to face with a dead Amazon. There were several arrows piercing her broken body, pinning her to the log, including the one that had lodged in her chest a mere hand span below her heart.
"Aww," she said, recognizing the elder hunter, "What'd ya have to go and do that for?"
The warrior princess wanted to build a funeral pyre to honor the Amazon. She knew if she did though, she might as well build hers right alongside it. She was too weak - and getting weaker by the heartbeat. Letting loose the log, she struggled to get to her feet and half-waded, half-dragged herself back to the shore.
"One good thing about the cold water, it slowed the bleeding from my wound. As my body temperature started to warm, though, the blood started flowing freely again. I searched the base of the trees nearest the water, finding enough spider webs and moss to staunch the flow."
"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle reached out, clasping Xena's hand in hers, squeezing it firmly.
"That alone wouldn't have been enough to keep me from death. Luckily, I stumbled across the satchel of medical supplies that had traveled downriver with me. Water had damaged some of the herbs, making them useless. But, I was able to salvage enough to make a dressing. I used a herringbone needle to stitch the wound closed."
Gabrielle's eyes went to the jagged pink slash across her warrior's throat.
"Probably not my best work," Xena offered up a self-depreciating smile, "considering I had to use my reflection in the water as a mirror. Anyway, I did what I could and packed the dressing against my throat and tied the bandage about my neck as best I could."
Xena was crouched upon the bank of the river. The bandage tied about her neck was irritating her wound, making the poultice itch. She curled her fingers into a fist, resisting the urge to yank the bandage loose and scratch.
She'd had the presence of mind to build a fire. It was small, consisting of little more than a few leaves and twigs, but it was warm. To distract herself as she gave her body a chance to regain strength, she dumped out the contents of the leather satchel. Her fingers idly sifted through the remnants, taking stock of what was left.
"Oh, no. She didn't."
Xena chuckled, her lips bowing into a smile. When she and Iphinome had gone shopping in Potadeia, beneath the watchful eye of the shopkeeper, they had split up, gathering all sorts of herbs and things that they thought they would need. Xena's sharp eyes had spotted the tiny pouch of Satyr-cloves in with the other herbs and admonished Iphinome for it, telling her to put that putrid stuff back. Yet, here it was in with the other supplies. Obviously, Iphinome had snuck the pouch in with the rest as Xena was paying the shopkeeper.
Xena didn't have a ready means of making tea to ingest the cloves. Gods knew she had the skills to improvise something. If she had enough time and energy. Right now, she had neither.
Xena gathered several large, dry leaves. Knowing it would be a stronger dose than even what Iphinome had given Solari, Xena lined the center of one of the leaves with a handful of cloves. She rolled the leaf over, twisting it at the ends. Holding it against her lips, she lifted a burning twig from the fire. She used it to light the leaf and drew in several puffs, coughing slightly as the smoke entered her lungs.
As the cloves took effect, Xena began to feel better; ten feet tall and arrow proof. She repacked the supplies she could use, including the leaves she'd gathered back into the satchel. She retied the broken leather strap and placed it over her head, settling it onto her shoulder.
Then, she pulled one slowly burning branch from the fire and kicked sand over the rest, extinguishing it. Holding it in one hand, she gathered as many dry twigs and leaves and grass as she could in her other arm and stepped into the river.
She waded out to the logs, holding her torch and kindling up high so it wouldn't get damp. She picked her way out to the log where Lyonene was in repose. Xena worked to place the dry kindling at several places on the log, packing it into knotholes and about leafy branches. Then, she used her torch to light those places, including the fletching of the arrows protruding from Lyonene's body.
Grunting with the effort it took, even with the buoyancy of the log upon the water, Xena gave Lyonene's floating funeral pyre a shove. It broke free of the log jam, floating down river. Xena watched it as it drifted away, her arm crossed over her chest in Amazon salute.
"After that," Xena said, "It was a long, painful walk back upstream, past the mill and across the bridge to Potadeia."
Gabrielle felt a sudden flush of guilt for not asking sooner. But, they'd left under such awful conditions and she was mourning her soulmate. Then, they were running and fighting for their lives and then Xena was suddenly back. "Xena, Potadeia?"
Xena had been reluctant to tell Gabrielle. There'd been so many other things to think about. Like getting everyone well and back home. With Iphinome down, it had fallen to Xena to not only heal herself, but to heal the rest of the survivors as well.
Marjorie and Gabrielle had been a great help. Xena knew she couldn't have done it without either of them. Especially considering once the effects of the Satyr-cloves wore off, she was beginning to feel her own mortality again. One or the other of them had to either help Xena make her rounds to check the wounded - or those that were wounded had to come to her in her own sick bed.
With everything else they were dealing with, Xena hadn't wanted to burden Gabrielle with one more thing. Besides, Gabrielle hadn't asked before now. Xena drew in a deep breath, knowing she couldn't put it off any longer.
"Gabrielle, by the time I got there, most of Potadeia had been burned." At Gabrielle's sharp gasp, Xena gave her what she hoped was a reassuring hug. "But hey, they didn't kill everyone like they did in those other towns. Probably because they were hiding and the renegades didn't want to take the time to hunt them down because they were in a hurry to come after you."
"Well, thank Gods for that," Gabrielle mumbled.
Xena chuckled and pursed her lips against her bard's temple.
"It seems Cordele was quite vocal in her plans of hunting you and Ephiny down. Anyway, Darius' brother-in-law overheard your group's plans while they were packing up fresh supplies for the horses. He told me you were trying to make it back to the Amazon Nation."
"Good thing you figured out we made a detour along the way."
"Not that big a leap, knowing you were carrying wounded." Xena shrugged. "Once I'd lost the trail, I swallowed my warrior's pride and stopped and asked for directions. The locals were most helpful. It's not easy to keep two traveling bands of Amazons a secret, you know. Just glad I got to Marjorie's farm before all the fighting was done."
"Xena?" Hating herself on some level for wondering, she still had to ask, "My parents?"
"Gabrielle, I - " Xena shook her head " - I don't know. There wasn't time to look for them."
Gabrielle grew silent. Her arms tightened about Xena. Xena returned the embrace.
"Gabrielle?" Moist green eyes looked up, meeting Xena's. "The innkeeper, Darius? He - um - his brother-in-law said he was killed during the renegade attack, knife through the chest."
Gabrielle's face paled.
"Thought you should know," Xena said. "I understand if you want to go back, look for your parents, your sister. But, we can't for a while. It's going to be a long time before Amazons are welcome in Potadeia. Any Amazons."
"It's - it's okay, Xena." Gabrielle felt her whole body trembling, heard the shaky quality in her voice, but she was determined. "There's nothing in Potadeia for the Amazons to go back for."
Xena didn't say anything. She wanted to be supportive of her bard, no matter what her decision. She knew Herodotus had turned his back on her, disowned her. Still, he was her family. If not in deed, then in blood. And, Xena knew how painful it could be for family to turn their back on you. And how good it felt when feuds could be reconciled.
"So, warrior of mine." Gabrielle rolled over on top of Xena, straddling her hips. "Now that you've had enough time to convalesce, I'm curious to know, did those Satyr-cloves have the same effect on you as they did Solari?"
Blue eyes went wide. "Gabrielle!"
"Don't be so shocked, Xena. All I'm asking is - " Gabrielle's voice dropped an octave and she trailed a finger along Xena's jawline and between her breasts "did the cloves make you as horny as a Satyr in a field full of nubile of young maidens?"
"Gabrielle. Mercy." Xena's voice had taken on a husky quality of its own. "I'm a wounded warrior."
Gabrielle's gaze boldly met Xena's. "You've had more than enough time to convalesce." She slipped her hand beneath the covers, her fingers instigating themselves between parted thighs.
After that, there were no more words, save those of more and harder and deeper.
Afterwards, Gabrielle sat up in bed, back braced against the headboard. She looked down at her completely boneless warrior resting beside her.
"Xena, I think we need to start keeping a stash of those Satyr-cloves on stock." She added a saucy wink, "For special occasions, you know."
Xena could barely work up the strength to moan in reply.
The guard stationed outside the council hut door jumped nearly a foot in direct response to the loud roar that ripped through the building. She slipped, boots losing traction, legs going out from beneath her. Dioxippe worked hard to keep the grin off her face as Lexine landed right on her tailbone in the snow.
Lexine sent her fellow guard a disgruntled look as she used the blunt end of her spear to work her way to her feet. With a "Humph" and a flick of her cloak to shake off the fine dusting of snow, Lexine resumed her position beside the doorway. Sidelong looks kept revealing Dioxippe's lips quivering as she tried to hold back her smile.
"It's not funny."
"Yeah. Yeah, it is." Dioxippe finally gave up the pretense and openly chuckled.
"A little respect..." Lexine's next words trailed off as she mumbled beneath her breath. She was agitatedly flicking her cloak about, trying to get it straight on her shoulders. The next words were said only a fraction louder "...returning hero...sleeping in like the others...not pulling guard duty..."
It was still loud enough that it made Dioxippe's ears burn. Still keeping her 'at-attention' stance, the guard responded with, "This isn't about disrespect. It was funny. That's all. Get over it. Get over yourself."
"What?" Lexine looked like she'd been slapped.
"You rode back ahead of the others."
"As did Egeria. Per the Queen's orders," Lexine bristled. "To bring news that the renegades were dead, she and the regent were alive, and that they would return to the nation as soon as the wounded were fit to travel."
"I know that," Dioxippe rolled her eyes. "You were given your hero's welcome then. If memory serves, twice from that cute little basket weaver." Dioxippe's eyes twinkled with the tease. "But, you've been back for nearly a half moon. Last eve's celebration was for those just returning."
"I was part of that group, though," whined Lexine.
"And you'll receive the new feathers for your mask when they receive theirs. But, this is their time now and no matter how much we'd sometimes like for it to stand still, time moves on."
Lexine curled up her nose. "Since when did you become such a philosopher?"
"Since I spent so much time in Amphipolis," answered Dioxippe. "Xena's mother puts just as much wisdom and advice into her cooking as she does garlic. Believe me, that's a lot."
Another loud growl closely followed by the banging of a gavel had Lexine turning her head. She covertly leaned her spear back, catching the tip of it beneath the flap of the thick hide covering. A nonchalant adjustment of the spear against her shoulder had the fur lifting enough so that she could peer inside.
"Would you mind pulling your heads out of your feathered asses long enough to actually hear what you're saying?"
Immediately, there was a shouted backlash from the seated elders. Evanthe set her gavel to work, hastily banging to drown out some of the more colorful expletives that were flying back and forth.
"Enough!" she banged harder. "Enough!"
Evanthe continued to bang her gavel from the bench, angry at herself for losing control of this meeting. The regent sat in her chair, head bowed, blonde curls clenched tight in both hands. Devillare was pacing back and forth the length of the room, punching her palm with her fist and being belligerent with the council. The remaining elders continued to argue at the top of their lungs.
Finally, Evanthe lost her temper and threw her gavel. Her aim couldn't have been better if she'd been a trained archer. It was a once in a lifetime shot. It was also purely accidental. The gavel hit a ceremonial shield, striking the painted metal with considerable force. The shield fell from its stand, clattering to the floor with such a din that it made everyone cover their ears.
As the clattering died away and they turned astonished looks at Evanthe, the elder scout calmly retook her seat and with as much dignity as possible said, "That's enough. We're all elders here. Well, with the exception of the regent." Evanthe's eyes softened as she tilted her head in acknowledgement of Ephiny's presence. "Let's do try to at least act our age, shall we?"
Devillare ground her teeth, a low growl working its way up from her throat until she caught the no-nonsense look from Evanthe. All the elders had an equal vote on the council, but as bearer of the center seat and holder of the gavel, Evanthe had the right to govern the proceedings as she saw fit. And, she'd already threatened to eject Devillare from the hut once this morning.
"My apologies." Devillare's subtle nod indicated that she was offering her apologies to Evanthe for her behavior and not to the others for her rather loud opinions of their collective stupidity.
"It's forgiven." At a pointed look at Nicphellia, Evanthe added, "And forgotten. This is a rather passionate issue...for all of us. Now, let's continue, shall we?" Her gaze swept the room as she added for good measure, "Using our indoor voices. Calandra? Calandra?"
Seated beside Calandra, Myrina covertly nudged the ancient healer with her elbow.
"Huh?" The startled healer awoke with a jerk. She shook her head, her suddenly wide open eyes darting about the council hut. "What? What is it? Are we under attack?"
"No, Calandra." Myrina patted the elder healer's hand and stroked her arm in a soothing manner. "We aren't under attack."
"Good." Calandra's eyes narrowed. "Filthy Centaurs."
The assembled elders looked from one to another. Finally, Evanthe sighed and said, "Let's just say Calandra reserves her vote for now, shall we? Myrina?"
"I've not changed my mind. My vote stands."
"I see." Evanthe nodded her head, looked to her bondmate of more seasons than she could count. "I'm afraid you and I don't see eye to eye on this one, dear."
Myrina cast a look at Evanthe. Bondmates, as well as partners and friends, their votes were usually closely tied. If one vote was secured, the other was generally guaranteed. It was very rare for their opinions to differ.
"Then, my love, it seems our votes cancel each other out."
Myrina said it without a hint of irritation or bitterness in her voice. She and Evanthe had learned very early in their relationship that just because they were a couple, it didn't mean that they weren't individuals. And, they'd promised long ago to always respect each other's individuality. It was a promise that they both always kept, regardless of what happened in council sessions.
All eyes, included the fiery gaze of the regent, turned on Nicphellia. The elder hunter locked eyes with Devillare. As the heartbeats stretched out between them, Nicphellia fiddled with the gauntlet tied about her left wrist.
"Nicphellia?" Evanthe prompted.
Nicphellia shook her head, the spell between hunter and warrior effectively broken.
"You brought Lyonene's bracer back." Nicphellia nodded at the warrior standing before her, then the bracers lined up on the council table. "There are also bracers for Kynthia. Keleos. Gryta. Cordele." Here gaze lingered on the last bracer. "And Tynette."
"That's right." Devillare nodded. "It was found in Cordele's saddlebags. Being renegades from the Nation, they still followed many of our customs, including the removal of bracers from the deceased."
"You purport that Lyonene is a hero while Tynette is the villain."
"Unfortunately, Tynette turned her back on the Nation and the ways of the Amazon. Her death was necessary."
Nicphellia bit her bottom lip. Fingers reached out, brushing against the leather of Tynette's bracer. With a deep sigh, she looked up, eyes searching out Devillare's. "Why then, is Eponin's not amongst them?"
"Have you gone senile in your crone years, woman?" came out of Devillare's mouth before she could censor herself. Evanthe banged her gavel once and pointed it in the elder captain's direction before Nicphellia could raise protest. Devillare huffed at the nonverbal scolding. Resisting the urge to say something worse, knowing it wouldn't help her cause any, she settled for huffing beneath her breath and folding her arms over her chest. Looking Nicphellia squarely in the eye, she said, "For starters, because she's not dead."
"My point exactly." Nicphellia sat back in her chair, folding her arms over her chest in a mirror image of Devillare. "In the interest of fairness and impartiality, my vote is with Myrina's."
Impartiality my tailfeathers, thought Devillare. This is because Tynette was her friend and I'm Ep's guardian. Fine, if that's she way she wants it. Devillare smirked. "Then, my friend, mine cancels yours."
"Except, you don't get a vote, my friend."
"What? Just because I'm not sitting on the bench doesn't mean I'm not an elder." Devillare looked from Nicphellia to Evanthe for confirmation. "Evanthe? My vote counts, doesn't it?"
The elder scout sat back in her chair, steepling her fingers as she gave contemplation to the question. Devillare had taken the floor, protesting the actions set into motion the night prior. She had recounted the events that had unfolded away from the Nation and had presented the bracers of their fallen sisters along with her statement.
"I'm afraid she's correct, Devillare. When you accepted reinstatement as captain of the guard, you effectively relinquished your seat on the council."
"That was just supposed to be while I was out of the Nation. I'm back now."
"True. However, in light of Pelagia's continued inability to resume her duties and the disciplinary reports you yourself filed against the second-in-command," Evanthe explained, "it was deemed that there was not another suitable replacement at this time and you were offered and accepted the ongoing title and position in her stead."
For Devillare, the pieces all fell into place. That explained Nicphellia's behavior of the night before. She'd brought Devillare drink after drink, buttering her up, singing her praises, telling her she thought Devil should remain in place as the acting captain. Until Devillare had agreed.
Nicphellia had set her up.
"You daughter of a - "
Evanthe's gavel effectively censored the slur. "To recap," Evanthe looked to each member of the council as she tallied the votes. "With Devillare's vote being void, there are two for and - " Evanthe looked at Calandra. The elder healer's head was lolled back on her shoulders and soft snores were coming from her open mouth. " - one against and one abstaining, it is decreed that Eponin will appear before this council on charges of treason."
Evanthe looked from a triumphantly smirking Nicphellia to a crestfallen Devillare and to the trembling figure of the regent that looked like she was teetering on the brink somewhere between frustrated tears and murderous rage.
Knowing her hands were tied and she'd effectively been maneuvered into putting Eponin on trial again, Evanthe looked for a way to squash Nicphellia's victory. The only thing she thought might work to Eponin's advantage would be if Counsel for the Nation had little to no time to prepare.
Knowing it was something Nicphellia couldn't counter, Evanthe soundly rapped her gavel on the table. Voices died out as she smoothly declared, "Session begins one candlemark from now."
"Why didn't I know of this sooner?"
Gabrielle's eyes flashed as she stormed into the courtroom and straight up to Ephiny. Xena stood unobtrusively behind the Queen, arms folded over her breastplate, an unreadable look on her face.
Like there's ever been anything unobtrusive about six-feet tall of deadly warrior princess, thought Ephiny.
"You were summoned as soon as the declaration was made," responded Ephiny.
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. "I meant, why wasn't I sent for as soon as Eponin was arrested?"
Devillare smoothly cut in between queen and regent. "It was an ambush, my Queen. They waited until everyone of significant rank had retired from the feast." Devillare's gaze flitted from queen to regent to queen's champion to indicate they had all been circumvented.
"You're the captain of the guard. You would have had to sign off on the warrant."
"It bore the direct seal of the Council of Elders."
"You're on the council." Gabrielle was becoming exasperated. She lowered her voice to a harsh whisper as she noticed the courtroom beginning to fill with spectators. "How could they issue a warrant without your knowledge?"
"Apparently, I no longer have a seat on the council while I'm serving as captain of the guard. As I said, my Queen, this was an ambush."
Gabrielle turned on Ephiny. "You just let them take Pony away?"
There was an indignant look then an epic rolling of eyes and a heated breath that sent blonde curls lifting off Ephiny's forehead that reminded Gabrielle of the intense warrior she managed to constantly offend during her first days in the village.
Again, Devillare smoothly cut in.
"Lexine and Dioxippe were sent with the formal scroll. Eponin went along peacefully so as not to harm them. They approached her on her way to the warriors' barracks so we didn't learn of her arrest until this morning."
Gabrielle sent Ephiny a look. "The warriors' barracks? She wasn't staying with y- "
"She was staying with Solari after her hut was burned to the ground," Ephiny quickly interrupted. "With the repairs having been halted and Solari's home no longer an option, it was decided she should bunk down in the warriors' barracks."
A suspicious look flitted across Devillare's face and wary eyes looked from queen to regent. Then, the Counsel for the Nation and the Counsel for the Accused came into the courtroom and took their respective places.
A lone drumbeat sounded. Ephiny moved to take her seat as Regent of the Amazons. Gabrielle whispered a few hushed words to Xena before taking her chair as Queen of the Amazons. Devillare and Xena took seats on the first row directly behind Alcestis.
Another drumbeat sounded. The room fell silent. Then, the Council of Elders came in, walking single file down the center aisle. All eyes watched as each elder passed the wall lined with the ornamental feathered masks of fallen sisters. One by one, they took their respective seats; Calandra on the far end, Myrina seated beside her. Evanthe took the center seat, with both seats on either side of her empty. Nicphellia was the next seat over, the end chair which was normally reserved for Devillare was vacant.
As soon as the last elder was seated, Evanthe rapped her gavel firmly against the council table. Wizened eyes traveled about the room, taking in the audience. If Evanthe was surprised by the sheer number of Amazons that had assembled on only a candlemark's notice, she didn't show it. Satisfied that she had everyone's attention, she spoke in a loud, crisp voice.
"I'd like to address the room," she said. "This is a dark day for the Amazon Nation. We are in mourning for the loss of two of our elder sisters, their bodies lost to us while outside our borders. In three days time, there will be an official ceremony to celebrate the memories of their lives. At such time, there will also be a formal masking ceremony to honor those that did return to us. We thank those sisters for their service to Artemis' Nation."
There was an overt nod from Evanthe that indicated she included the famed warrior princess as one of those sisters to be honored. Xena gave a subtle nod of acceptance, prompting Evanthe to continue.
"There is also the matter of renegades; traitors that maliciously butchered men, women and children and razed entire towns to the ground without the knowledge or approval of the ruling class. A small delegation will be assembled with the intent of making restitution to whichever towns will permit us to help them. Many of those responsible, including the leaders, were killed during an attack against the Queen and the Regent. They were given burials beneath the ground, their bodies consigned to Hades and not committed to the flames where their spirits would be set free, allowed to soar with our goddess Artemis. There will be another committee formed with the sole purpose of tracking down and bringing to justice any renegades that are still on the loose."
Nearly every hand in the room shot up, every Amazon present eager to erase the blemish upon their reputations caused by their former sisters' misdeeds.
Evanthe waved off the offers. "There will be a chance for all of you that are interested in both parties to put your names forward. The council will review all candidates and put together a list of those most suitable for these missions. Now, we are hear to bear witness to charges of treason against the warrior Eponin."
A murmur went up through the assembled crowd and Evanthe had to bang her gavel several times to quiet the masses.
"Both Counsel for the Nation and Counsel for the Accused will have opportunity to call for testimony from their choice of Amazons - " There was a pause in which Evanthe looked directly at the front row " - and warrior princesses. As Devillare is currently serving in the capacity as captain of the guard, she may also be called as a witness."
Nicphellia frowned. She hadn't envisioned that outcome when she'd had Devillare's status as elder declared void. Unperturbed by Nicphellia's dark glare, Evanthe continued.
"Statements given by Queen Gabrielle and Regent Ephiny will also be available to both sides. Therefore, neither will have a deciding vote on the outcome. Votes for this trial will be cast only by the Council of Elders. With that said, the council urges both counselors to use discretion and the common sense the gods gave a horse during these proceedings." Evanthe looked to both counselors. "Agreed?"
"Agreed." Answered Symaethis and Alcestis in the same heartbeat.
Evanthe gave a nod to the guard standing closest to the exit. The guard ducked her head outside the flap covering the doorway. She was back a heartbeat later with a curt nod to the elder.
"Let's get this thing moving then," said Evanthe, rapping her gavel. "Bring the prisoner in."
Everyone turned to look as Eponin was led into the courtroom. Her hands were bound in front of her, her legs shackled, hampering her movements. She was flanked on either side by two of the biggest, burliest Amazon guards ever seen. They each had a grip on her biceps as they escorted her down the main aisle to the prisoner's stand. Eponin kept her gaze fixed straight ahead and unblinking as the chains binding her wrists together were looped about the rail and secured in place.
The regent's face was an unreadable mask, her outward appearance giving no hint of her inner turmoil.
Having never mastered the stoicism that came so easily to Ephiny, Xena and seemingly every other warrior, Gabrielle was unable to keep a firm rein on her response. A tiny gasp escaped her lips before she hastily covered her mouth with her hand.
Eponin's gaze flicked to Gabrielle, heated honey meeting green. Gabrielle blinked and looked away, overridden by guilt for the way she'd treated Eponin after the battle at the farm.
Gabrielle's arms were firmly locked about Xena, her face buried in her breastplate as she was laughing and crying all at the same time. Xena was hugging her, telling her that she loved her, asking her to please not cry. Then, her strong arms were upon Gabrielle's shoulders, pushing her back just far enough so that calloused fingers could try to wipe dry her soulmate's tears.
That's when Gabrielle saw Eponin. She was with Ephiny, kneeling on the ground, fingers pressing against the regent's ankle as she checked for broken bones.
Gabrielle tore herself out of Xena's embrace and stalked across the yard. Eponin's ingrained response at her Queen's approach was to offer a salute before standing. Gabrielle marched right up to her, eyes flashing as she poked Eponin in the chest.
"You left her," she accused. There was another poke to the chest. It only aggravated Gabrielle farther that Eponin didn't give ground to her assault. "You left her. She was defenseless and dying and you left her there!"
Tears were streaming down Gabrielle's face and she was yelling and beating her closed fists against Eponin's chest. And, Eponin wasn't saying anything, just bowing her head and letting Gabrielle rail against her. Then, Xena was there, standing behind her, her hands gently closing about Gabrielle's fists to keep her from striking Eponin again.
"Gabrielle. Gabrielle." Xena's lips were pressed against her bard's ear. "She couldn't have known. Let it go."
Gabrielle turned in Xena's arms, looking up, unable to clearly see her warrior through her tears.
"But - but you're Xena. You can catch arrows..." Gabrielle was unable to complete that sentence, but it was obvious that she was saying that for that reason alone, the Amazon should have known Xena wasn't dead. Gabrielle gave up trying to speak altogether and collapsed against the warrior, uncontrollable sobs wracking her whole body.
At some point, she lifted her head, just barely registering that Ephiny's arm was about Eponin's waist as she guided the warrior away from the distraught Queen.
Gabrielle blinked. She knew that Eponin wasn't to blame. Knew in her heart that the warrior would have gone off that embankment and into the water after Xena if she'd thought there was even a chance she was still alive. But, Ep had seen Xena's throat cut, the subsequent fall, her apparent drowning. She thought Xena was dead. They all had. It wasn't Eponin's fault. Gabrielle knew that. But, she and Eponin hadn't spoken since.
Her eyes drifted back to Eponin. The warrior was standing stock still, her gaze seemingly fixed on the feathered masks of the fallen lining the far wall of the courtroom as Amazon after Amazon was called to give their testimony. As if sensing her stare, Eponin's gaze flicked over, directly meeting Gabrielle's. Unsettled, Gabrielle looked to the witness stand, forcing herself to concentrate on the proceedings.
"And you found the tracks leading from the overturned wagon?" asked Symaethis.
A chair had been brought up for Solari. The chief scout was perched awkwardly upon the seat, her crutch braced beneath her leg to offer support. Her injured hand was covertly tucked into the folds of her cloak, effectively hidden from view. Not that it mattered. Ever since her return to the Nation, the chief scout had taken to wearing a leather glove over the appendage. Xena had said it was sufficiently healed and a bandage was no longer necessary. But, Solari was too self-conscious to go around without it covered.
"And, were these all horse tracks?"
"Tell me, who was still with the wagon?"
"And, where was Pelagia?"
Solari hesitated, wetting her dry lips. Her eyes met Eponin's, then hastily looked away. "In the panel located beneath the driver's seat. The weapons were taken out and she was stuffed inside."
Symaethis gave a brisk nod and moved away, motioning that Alcestis should proceed. Alcestis slowly paced the distance between her table and the witness stand. She'd wanted the chief scout on the stand during Eponin's original trial. Eponin, however, had been steadfast against it. At the time, Alcestis had thought perhaps the rumors of a romantic entanglement between the weapons master and the chief scout might be true. Now, she wasn't sure if Solari was friend or foe.
Solari's statement certainly hadn't done Eponin any favors. Watching her, though, it was obvious to Alcestis that Solari was reluctant to give it. And, Symaethis hadn't pressed her line of questioning. Alcestis knew Symaethis. Even though the entire courtroom knew what had happened to Pelagia, that she had actually died at some point, Symaethis could have made Solari's words more damning to Eponin's defense.
Instead, it's like she gave me this one. At a warning look from Evanthe, Alcestis stopped her pacing and came to a stop in front of the witness stand.
The soft smile that caressed Alcestis' lips worried Solari. "Yes?" she asked, eyes darting about, as if looking for a trap to snare her.
"As chief scout, you're considered the best tracker in the Nation."
"Yes," answered Solari, even though it hadn't been formed as a question.
"As a matter of fact, you were the one that tracked our regent to the mountain cache where she was being held against her will."
Solari's eyes flicked to her packmate in time to catch the slight wince. Why is she asking about that? "I wasn't the only one there."
"No, of course not. There were many heroes that day."
For a heartbeat, Solari expected Alcestis to make her name those that had gone on that mission. She didn't, though. By not asking - by pausing and letting her eyes travel over the faces of everyone in the courtroom, by making them remember on their own, Alcestis was in fact leading them to the conclusion that one of the heroes they had to credit for saving their regent was, in fact, Eponin.
"So naturally, being the chief scout, you discovered the tracks surrounding the overturned wagon?"
Solari blinked, caught off-guard by the unexpected change in questioning. "Yes."
"I see." The diminutive redhead with the short curly locks tapped a finger against her chin as she seemingly thought of her next question. "And they were all heading in the same direction?"
"No?" asked Alcestis.
"No." Solari fidgeted with her glove, "One horse clearly wasn't going in the same direction. That rider wasn't with the others."
"...Even through the smoke in the air, I saw the horse trampling through the main street. It was Eponin riding in like Hades himself was chasing her. She placed her sword between Cordele's and Ephiny's - " Bonadea hesitated, wondering if she should have been so familiar " - I mean, the regent. Eponin fought Cordele for the regent's life."
Alcestis gave a nod, turning the witness over to Symaethis.
"Come now, Bonadea. The regent is a highly skilled trained warrior. Are you telling me she needed another warrior to come to her rescue?"
There was a grumbling from the assembled Amazons. A firm rap from Evanthe's gavel had them settling down. However, Symaethis' statement had ruffled more than a few feathers.
"As sure as I'm sitting here now, I know Ephiny would be dead if not for Eponin." Eyes narrowed as she sat forward in her chair and looked at Symaethis as though she dared the counselor to contradict her. "That doesn't mean the regent was weak. No warrior is invincible. We all rely on each other to have our backs, especially in battle. It's what makes us good warriors."
"And, is that what you're being now; a good warrior?" Symaethis asked, "Proving that you have another warrior's back?"
The courtroom erupted. Symaethis held up her hands, indicating she had no further questions. She approached Bonadea, hand extended to help her up. The angry guard brushed Symaethis' hand away and braced both hands against the chair as she pushed herself up. One hand went to the bandage wrapped tightly about her stomach as she felt a pull in her stitches, but she managed to make it to her feet and off the stand under her own power.
"Lyonene gave her life so that myself and the others might live." Devillare's steely gaze met each and every one of the council members' eyes. "But if it weren't for Xena, Egeria and Eponin leading the frontal assault, her death would have been in vain."
"We were outnumbered from the start. When we all thought Xena had died," Egeria's deep voice boomed from the witness stand. "well, if Eponin really were the traitor that you're trying to say she is, she could have turned on me and killed me then. Instead, she went after the renegades, like she thought she could kill every single one of them by herself."
"It was Eponin that came to me with the news of Xena's - " Gabrielle's voice hitched.
"It's okay, my Queen," Alcestis said, "We've heard enough testimony to know that you thought your champion was lost."
"That's right," Gabrielle said, regaining her composure. "But, what you might not know is that Xena herself entrusted Eponin with the task of seeing me safely back to the Amazon Nation. That's hardly something she'd ask of a traitor." Gabrielle fixed her gaze on Eponin, keeping eye contact with her as she said, "It's something you could only ask of a very close friend, I think."
"I'd think so, also," agreed Alcestis. "Thank you, your majesty. Symaethis?"
Alcestis stepped away from the stand, motioned for Symaethis to proceed. To her surprise, the older counselor merely shook her head and said, "I have nothing to ask of the Queen."
Evanthe spoke from the bench. "Then the council thanks you for your service, Queen Gabrielle."
Gabrielle took note that all the other elders gave slight nods or words of appreciation. All except Nicphellia. On her way back to her chair, Gabrielle took a circuitous route past the front row, pausing long enough to speak in low tones to Xena. Xena waited until Gabrielle had reached her seat, then she was out of hers, up the main aisle and out of the building.
"I think we've heard enough to reach a decision." Evanthe looked to Symaethis and Alcestis. "Unless either counselor would seek an additional statement?"
Ephiny held her breath. She hadn't been called to give her statement. Then again, neither had Xena. And both counselors had kept Devillare's responses tightly reined in. No doubt the council of elders had cautioned the counselors about the elder captain's hostility of that morning and had advised them against asking questions that would give her too much leeway.
Hazel eyes flecked with gold looked to the prisoners' stand. Ephiny felt an ache in her heart as she took in the sight of her Pony once again bound in chains. It ached even more knowing that for all her power as regent, there was nothing she could do about it. Evanthe herself had approached Ephiny between the official adjourning of this morning's session and the convening of the trial one scarce candlemark later with words of wisdom and caution.
I wonder if Xena was approached with similar words from the council? Ephiny looked to the front row where the warrior princess had been seated beside the captain of the guard. After Gabrielle had given her statement, Xena had slipped out of the courtroom. Wonder what that was about?
The hide covering the courtroom doorway fluttered. Ephiny looked towards the main aisle, expecting Xena's return from whatever errand Gabrielle had sent her off on.
"I have one final witness I'd like to hear statement from," Symaethis said.
Ephiny visibly paled as she recognized Megara, head healer for the nation. She glanced to the prisoners' stand. Eponin had maintained a cool demeanor throughout the proceedings, even through the worst of Symaethis' questioning of the witnesses. Now, though, Eponin's hand were balled into fists, the chain between her wrists stretched taut, the muscles in her forearms visibly tightening as she bristled at the sight of the head healer.
It was no secret that there was no love lost between the warrior and the healer. As a matter of fact, their bickering was almost as bad as Pony's and Solari's. Only, with Pony and Soli, there was often an underlying playfulness to their fighting. With Megara, it was nothing like that. It was something that Ephiny had never really understood. Eponin was always respectful towards Megara, but it seemed that no matter what - if Pony even stepped foot into the same room with her - there was instantly an undertone of derision fairly roiling off the healer and directed towards the warrior.
After her abduction, when Ephiny was still under Megara's care, Pelagia had assigned herself to escort Ephiny to the infirmary for a checkup. The captain of the guard felt that as the highest ranking officer, it would be best if she limited the amount of eyes privy to the regent's exam. Besides, she was bonded to the head healer and it was the perfect opportunity for her to visit Megara. By coincidence, Eponin came in around the same time, hauling in one of the recruits that had gotten nicked during sword practice. They'd managed to staunch the blood flow on the field, but Pony had thought it best to bring the warrior by for some stitching and maybe a herbal dressing.
Megara had seemingly been in an exceptional mood that morning, even going so far as to offer veiled flirtations towards her lover in the presence of the regent she was examining. That sunny disposition had immediately disappeared when Eponin came in like an unwelcome storm cloud darkening a picnic lunch. The healer instructed Ephiny to not even think about moving until she got back and then followed the warrior out of the room, grumbling incoherent curses beneath her breath.
Curious, Ephiny had asked Pelagia about that, thinking if anyone had an inkling as to Megara's sudden mood swing, it would surely be her bondmate. The captain offered up a shrug, then an apologetic smile before finally caving in and offering her theory.
"It's not that Megara necessarily dislikes Eponin," she'd explained, "It's the weapons master she doesn't care for."
"Eponin is the weapons master."
"Exactly," nodded Pelagia. "She's in charge of training for the entire nation. No one gets to be a warrior without going through her."
"Ep works hard to train our women to be the best, Pelagia. By the time she's done with them, there's not a one of them that isn't ready to defend herself, her sisters, her Nation in battle." Ephiny bristled; unable to stress her next words enough. "It's her calling."
"And, healing is Megara's," Pelagia pointed out. "She's the one that stitches closed the wounds, amputates the diseased flesh and sees the pain in the eyes of the families when she tells them why their mothers, sisters, lovers couldn't be saved. Look at it from Megara's point of view; the weapons master is the physical embodiment - the reason behind - every injury she faces."
"Without the weapons master," Ephiny's entire body shook with anger, "There would be no hospice, no village, no Nation. Without training, the Amazons would have fallen before the first enemy that attacked us."
"Easy. You asked my opinion." Pelagia held up her hands in surrender. "It's that age-old philosophy; you can't have peace without war. You can't have life without death. You can't have warriors without healers."
"You may bring forth your final witness."
Evanthe's gavel struck the table, shocking Ephiny out of her musings. Blinking, she looked down at her hand to find that sometime while she was lost in the past, Gabrielle had reached across her seat and was now clasping hands with her. Ephiny looked to her friend and queen, seeing the reassuring, loving smile on Gabrielle's lips. Gabrielle gave Ephiny's hand a firm squeeze before letting go.
Ephiny looked towards the main aisle. Megara hadn't yet moved all the way into the courtroom. Puzzled, all eyes watched as she stuck her hand back through the flap in the door. A hand clasped hers in response. Astonished gasps filled the room as Pelagia stepped through the door.
There was a quiet pall over the interior of the courtroom and elders, counselors, witnesses and spectators alike watched Pelagia painstakingly walk down the main aisle. Megara's arm was about her bondmate's waist as she guided Pelagia each step of the way, their journey punctuated by frequent stops. At last, they reached the front row.
It was obvious that Megara was going to escort her bondmate the entire distance to the witness stand. When Pelagia stopped and said something in a voice so low that only Megara could hear, however, the head healer instead allowed her bondmate to guide her to an empty spot on the bench. As Megara sat, Pelagia stood for long heartbeats, her hand clutched around the back of the bench for support.
Symaethis came forward to lend a hand, but Pelagia resolutely shook her head. A look of extreme concentration on her face, Pelagia let loose her grip on the wooden bench. Several more heartbeats passed before she took her first step. Then, her next.
It was halting and awkward, but the young captain was walking on her own. Her body became adjusted to the movement. She settled into a pattern, her gait hampered by the frostbite she'd suffered from. Her right arm hung limply at her side as she walked, the fingers of her hand curled in on themselves.
There was not a whispered word uttered from anyone as instead of immediately proceeding to her seat, Pelagia made her way to the prisoners' stand. The fingers of her left hand trailed along the links in the chain tied to the post. She looked up, staring at Eponin.
Eponin felt her mouth go dry and she swallowed hard beneath Pelagia's scrutiny. At the feast last night, she'd heard that they'd offered to let Devillare continue to stand in as acting captain. Despite that, she'd never imagined how bad off Pelagia really was.
Pelagia reached up. It was a move that was so painstakingly slow that even chained as she was, Eponin could have avoided without any real effort. Instead, Eponin forced herself to stand still.
A collective gasp went up from the crowd as instead of striking the woman who'd left her to die, Pelagia engulfed Eponin in a hug.
Pelagia struggled to make the words form on her lips.
"She put me in the weapons box." Pelagia's voice was strained, but steady. She would often stop, her voice trailing off as memories overtook her. No one rushed her, no one pressured her. She was allowed to speak in her own time and as she saw fit. "I was too weak to make it back to the village. I would have died from exposure if left in the back of the wagon. She didn't know the lid would freeze shut. Ep did what she did to save me."
Unexpectedly, Pelagia stopped speaking. She lowered her head and closed her eyes as if suddenly tired. Symaethis patted the warrior's shoulder. Pelagia looked around, as if unsure of where she was.
"Thank you, Pelagia," Symaethis said. As Megara came to the stand to help her bondmate down, Symaethis turned and addressed the council. "Counsel for the Nation has nothing more."
Evanthe turned to Alcestis. The diminutive redhead shook her head, "Counsel for the Accused is satisfied, as well."
"Very well. Captain Pelagia, the council humbly thanks you for your service to the Nation. Due to the lateness of the day, this court will adjourn until a candlemark past first light tomorrow. At that time, the Council of Elders will render their decision." Evanthe rapped her gavel three times on the table. "Guards, return the prisoner to her cell."
"What was that?"
Symaethis frowned at the clearly agitated redhead. "What?"
"That. Back in the courtroom. You practically handed me that case."
"I did no such thing."
"You did," accused Alcestis. "I counted at least a half dozen questions you should have asked Queen Gabrielle. Admit it; you weren't trying to win."
Symaethis let out a long-suffering sigh. After Evanthe had dismissed them, she and Alcestis had retreated to her hut to split a skin of wine. Naturally, their conversation had turned to the trial. Symaethis took the skin from Alcestis, took a deep draw. "I can't win a fight I don't believe in."
A red brow furrowed in confusion. Symaethis offered up a weak smile for her counterpart.
"In all my seasons serving as Counselor for the Nation, this is the first case I can recall that I didn't believe in." Symaethis scrubbed a hand across her face. "Maybe I'm just tired. Maybe I'm getting too old for this." There was a wry smirk. "Maybe you just got lucky today."
"Luck has nothing to do with it. It's skill." Alcestis pulled over a chair and climbed on it so she was nearly eye to eye with Symaethis. Wrapping her arms about the counselor's neck, she placed a searing kiss on her lips. "Just for the record, though, you are getting old."
"Why you cheeky Amazonette - " Symaethis slapped Alcestis squarely on the tailfeathers.
Alcestis jumped from the chair and ran. Symaethis gave chase, feeling younger than she had in seasons.
Evanthe looked to the young Amazon warrior. "Regent?"
Ephiny pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers. She'd had no sleep the night before and the headache that had started out as a minor throbbing behind her eyes felt like it had grown to the size of Mt. Olympus. She normally would've been right in the middle of the screaming match with the elders, but Evanthe's sage counsel before the proceedings had been for her to hold her temper and her tongue. It had been good advice, considering that Devillare's outbursts had earned her nothing but open hostility. As well as an ejection from the proceedings.
Now, the shouting was done and Ephiny was being given a chance to speak her peace.
Hopefully, to a more receptive audience than Devillare had. Ephiny cleared her throat. She'd been using the precious heartbeats during the chaos to gather her thoughts and plan out what best to say. Artemis knows I'm a warrior, not a scholar, but here goes.
"As I was saying, respected elders," Ephiny's voice was smooth and her lips were bowed into a smile as she addressed the council. Attract more bees with honey, she told herself, "Eponin demonstrated courage, bravery and loyalty even after the Nation had turned its back on her. She deserves to be hailed as a champion and hero, not treated like a common criminal."
Myrina leaned forward in her chair, placing both forearms on the table as she posed the question, "Yet, that's exactly what she is, is she not?"
"She was framed for those crimes."
"Do you have proof of that?" Evanthe asked.
Ephiny frowned. "Not exactly. But Tynette - "
" - is dead." Nicphellia smoothly cut the regent off. "It's easy for the living to place blame at the feet of the dead, isn't it?"
Ephiny's throat constricted. The morning had been going so well. After yesterday's testimonies, after all the statements presented on the stand, Ephiny had thought there'd been no way the council could convict Eponin of treason.
And, she'd been right. The council had delivered a vote of three to one in favor of Eponin's innocence and declared the trial over. Then, things had gone sideways. Before the courtroom had even been cleared, Eponin was once again being put in chains. This time, because of the crime of rape she'd committed against Hilaeira.
Ephiny didn't know what else to do. They had tried to explain about Tynette's plans to put one granddaughter on the throne. Then, when that fell through and Cordele was exiled, she had her other granddaughter drug Eponin in order to exact her revenge upon her.
It had made perfect sense when Xena had explained it. But for some unfathomable reason, the warrior princess was absent from the proceedings. Despite their best efforts; Devillare's ranting and Ephiny's pleading, their words were seemingly falling on deaf ears. Her bravery as a warrior, her prowess with weapons, her anger would not aid her cause in this arena. Helpless and not knowing what else to do, Ephiny turned beseeching eyes upon Gabrielle.
As difficult as it was to believe, not even Gabrielle's honey-coated tongue could sway the council.
With a heavy sigh, Evanthe addressed the room. Her eyes traveled over both royals, the counselors and the prisoner. After Devillare's outburst and subsequent removal, Evanthe had ordered the courtroom cleared of all spectators and armed guards placed at the door.
"As a trial has already been held in this matter and with no compelling evidence to refute the outcome, the council must enforce the sentence of - "
"Wait." Xena burst into the room, performing an impressive flip that had her going over the heads of both guards. She ran down the main aisle, skidding to a halt in front of the council's table. "Read this."
Evanthe took the scroll, unrolling it, eyes surveying the lettering as she peered over the top of the parchment. The two guards were already flanking Xena, hands on her biceps. They tried to remove her, but quickly discovered they couldn't budge a warrior princess that didn't want to be moved.
"This is a retraction of Hilaeira's earlier statement." Evanthe passed the parchment to each of the council members in turn.
"That parchment's obviously a fake," objected Nicphellia.
"It's written in her own hand," said Xena.
"Then it's coerced."
Xena's lips curled into a sneer and she growled at the elder hunter. Despite their firm grip on her arms, the two guards felt themselves being pulled forward as Xena took a menacing step. Even though she was seated behind a table, Nicphellia reflexively tried to scramble backwards. She breathed an audible sigh of relief when Gabrielle approached and stopped the warrior princess with a well-placed hand on the small of her back. Xena's bristling continued, as did her glaring at Nicphellia, but she allowed the young queen to move her away from the council table.
After Xena had been somewhat reined in and the room returned to some semblance of order, the warrior princess was allowed to speak. She took the stand, explaining in great detail how she'd figured out that Eponin had been drugged, the evidence of Tynette's treachery and Lyonene's own statement that explained the blood tie between Tynette, Cordele and Hilaeira.
From her place upon the witness stand, Xena's gaze boldly met and held Eponin's.
"I'm serious. You're not responsible. For Pelagia. Or Hilaeira. Or Solari."
"Her hand..." It was the first words Eponin had uttered since being shackled to the prisoners' stand. Her face blanched. "...Solari was burned..."
"Yes, she was," said Xena. "Which she shouldn't have been, not if that night's events unfolded the way Hilaeira claimed."
Eponin's brow furrowed. There were equally puzzled looks throughout the room.
"Don't you see? If Hilaeira had brought you that warm tea when she claimed, then the mug wouldn't have still been warm when Solari came home. It certainly wouldn't have been so hot that it seared her flesh."
That was what had been niggling at Xena ever since she'd heard of the events that unfolded that night. There were different variations, of course. But, the basics of the story stayed the same, no matter which version she heard. They all agreed that Hilaeira went to check on her patient. Eponin raped her. And, Solari got that gods-awful burn when she'd come home and found them that morning.
"I knew Eponin wasn't guilty. That was a given. That Ep had been drugged only reaffirmed that. The clincher, though, had been when I was seated in front of the hearth with Gabrielle and I reached for my own mug. The liquid had been hot, hot enough that I'd burned my lip. But, not so hot that the mug burned my hand. For Solari to have been injured that way, it must have been left sitting in the fire."
Xena fell silent. Even several heartbeats after she'd finished speaking, no one said anything. Queen and Regent looked to the counselors. The counselors looked at the council of elders. The council members blinked at each other.
"If this scroll is indeed fact, warrior," Myrina leaned forward in her chair as she addressed Xena, "and you didn't coerce her, where is Hilaeira?"
"It's not a fake." A small, timid voice said. "And, she didn't force me to write it."
"Xena did seek me out, approached me, asked me to tell the truth." Hilaeira kept her head down, her eyes averted as she made her statement from the stand.
"I've checked the Hall of Records," Xena said. "Cordele was your true sister, Tynette your grandmother. Those records can be brought before the council without your statement."
"It proves nothing."
"It proves a connection between you and Tynette and Tynette and Cordele. I know about your secret meeting with Tynette in the woods. She told you to frame Eponin, didn't she?" When Hilaeira didn't respond, Xena clasped her shoulder and said, "They've both been exiled to the realm of Hades. You can't dishonor them more and they can't harm you for telling the truth about what happened that night." Xena's voice dropped and she looked Hilaeira dead in the eye as she said, "But, you can do more harm to a great warrior and to a Nation in need of great warriors by remaining silent."
"I was supposed to pretend to like Eponin so that Iphinome would allow me to be her sole caregiver."
"At what point did you stop pretending?"
"I - " Hilaeira looked up, her eyes finding Eponin's. "I was foolish to kiss you. A fact I realized as soon as I tasted the honey flavoring in your mouth."
Eponin's throat worked as she loudly swallowed. Ephiny's jaw clenched tight, her knuckles turning white as she gripped the arms of her chair. Gabrielle reached out, fingers firmly closing about Ephiny's wrist and the arm of the chair in an effort to pin her in place. No one said anything, but there were several raised eyebrows at the apprentice healer's admission.
No longer able to look at Eponin, Hilaeira turned her head. She inadvertently met the seething regent's gaze. Hastily, she averted her gaze and looked to the council as she confessed, "I must have had enough of a taste that I blacked out. I barely woke in time to remix a fresh mug and leave it heating in the fire while I tore my skirt and took it off."
"There was bruising," Symaethis said. "It was entered into evidence along with your statement."
"I - I used my closed fists to beat myself about my inner thighs to make it look like I'd been forced." Hot tears were streaming down Hilaeira's cheeks. "I heard Solari coming home. I wrapped my hand in my skirt and used it to remove the mug from the fire, placing it on the table near Eponin's cot. The door was already opening when I flung myself into the corner. I arranged myself in a vulnerable position just scant heartbeats before the chief scout came in. As expected, Solari immediately leapt to the conclusion that Eponin had forced me."
The room was deathly quiet, save for the sounds of Hilaeira's uncontrollable sobs. Despite her tears, no one moved to console her. At last, Symaethis cleared her throat and stood up.
"In light of her confession and retraction of her prior accusation, Counsel for the Nation promptly asks that all charges against Eponin be dismissed and she be restored to her full rank and status as weapons master to the tribe."
Evanthe nodded, looked to Alcestis. "Counsel for the Accused?"
"What?" Alcestis looked like she'd just been hit by a staff. "Um - Counsel for the Accused has no objection."
"Good." Evanthe rapped her gavel. "Then, the Council of Elders sits in agreement that the charge of rape brought against Eponin - "
" - stands."
Ephiny, Gabrielle and Xena all came up out of their chairs. Eponin's head snapped up. Both counselors stared in open-mouthed disbelief. Even Hilaeira had a look of abject horror on her tear-streaked face. Evanthe turned on Nicphellia.
"What is the meaning of this?" asked Evanthe. "You heard with your own ears Hilaeira's testimony."
"I did." Nicphellia looked unperturbed. "Just as we all heard Eponin confess to that same crime at trial."
"She was trying to protect those she loves from the pain of a lengthy trial," protested Alcestis. "She had no memory of the crime she was accused of. She thought she was doing the honorable thing. You can't convict her for a crime that didn't happen."
"We didn't convict her," reminded Nicphellia. "She confessed. There can be no happy ending here. The letter of the law in this matter is clear. Eponin must face exile."
Eponin sat on the cold stones, a plate on the floor beside her. She was holding both hands to her mouth as she gnawed on a bone. Amber-hued eyes looked up as she heard a sound in the corridor outside.
There were no windows in Eponin's cell and her eyes had quickly become adjusted to the dim light. There was a hole cutout in the door; square shaped with iron bars running in a vertical pattern. The only light to be had was given off by the lone torch located in a brazier on the wall directly opposite from the cell door. There were no torches permitted in the cells as crafty prisoners might devise a way of getting them out of the braziers and set fire to their cells in an attempt at escape.
There was the tell-tale sound of a key scraping in the lock, then the creak of iron hinges as the door was pushed open. Sensitive eyes blinked against the brighter light streaming in from the outside corridor. Shielding her eyes with her hands, she looked through her fingertips at the door.
With her back to the corridor and the light shining behind her, all Eponin could make out was a silhouette. It was one she would recognize anywhere.
The bone she'd been gnawing clattered noisily as Eponin threw it down on the plate. She quickly licked her lips and wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. Eponin pulled herself up to a kneeling position. She tried for a crisp salute, but the chains shackled about her wrists hampered her movements.
The beating of Ephiny's heart increased exponentially as she stepped into the cell. The last time she'd been to the jail had been when she'd tried to negotiate with Cordele in an effort to save Eponin. And failed.
She thought her heart had ached then. It was as if a knife was piercing it now. It physically hurt Ephiny to see her warrior, her Eponin, like this. She swallowed against the lump growing in her throat.
Eponin was making her way to her feet. Ephiny thrust the plate she'd been carrying into the guard's arms and stepped fully into the cell. Eponin took a hesitant step towards Ephiny. On shaking legs, Ephiny walked towards Eponin.
Lysippe darted around Ephiny, quickly depositing the plate the regent had brought on the floor beside the one she'd given Eponin earlier. Then, she retreated, coming to stand at attention just inside the door of the cell.
Eyes only for each other, regent and warrior took step after step until they met each other halfway. They stopped nearly toe to toe, only their eyes moving as they each questioningly searched the face of the other.
Lysippe discreetly looked away as Ephiny's lips met Eponin's. It was tender and sweet and over with in a heartbeat. Her forehead pressed against Eponin's, Ephiny's hands trailed over broad shoulders and down biceps and muscular forearms.
When her fingers came in contact with the cold metal upon Eponin's wrists, Ephiny jerked back. She turned on Lysippe, a harsh look on her face.
"I want these off of her. Now."
"I can't allow that, Regent Ephiny," Lysippe protested. "She's a convicted felon."
"Eponin's no criminal."
Three sets of startled eyes looked to the door. No one had heard Xena's approach. With her were Gabrielle and Devillare. Ephiny wondered how much they had seen and heard.
"Begging your pardon, Queen's champion," Lysippe bowed deferentially. Then spotting Gabrielle, she added another bow and a "My Queen" before explaining, "I'm sorry, but Eponin did confess to rape."
"I hardly think I'm in any danger," Eph folded her arms over her chest and leveled a pointed look at the guard, "Do you?"
"She - I - " Lysippe's brow furrowed as she remembered what she'd witnessed scant heartbeats before. "Um - no."
"Then release her," Gabrielle commanded.
Lysippe's unsure eyes darted from regent to queen to captain.
"You heard your Queen," Devillare said. "Do it. Now."
Lysippe hurried to comply. She was so flustered, her hands were shaking so much, that she could hardly fit the key into the lock. As the lock opened, she hastily bowed to queen and regent and saluted both Devillare and Xena for good measure before rushing out the door and back to her post at the entrance of the jail.
"How bad is it?" Eponin asked, worried eyes going to Xena.
As soon as Lysippe had left, Gabrielle had rushed Eponin. Eponin's face showed complete shock as she found herself with her Queen's arms securely about her waist and her face pressed between her neck and collarbone. Several candledrips passed by with no sign of Gabrielle letting loose of the warrior any time soon. Hence, the question "How bad is it?"
Gabrielle ended the embrace, took several steps back. "Oh, Eponin."
"Couldn't get much worse," Xena said right before she hit Eponin in the back of her head with her open hand. When Ep shot her a dirty look, Xena said, "What you get for confessing to something you didn't do."
Properly chastised by the bard with just that one word, Xena slinked her way across the cell and stood with her arms folded over her chest and her back pressed against the cold stone wall.
She and Gabrielle had come to visit Eponin shortly after dinner. Xena had assured her that the Amazons weren't abusive jailers; they were known to feed their prisoners. Gabrielle, though, had insisted on bringing the jailed warrior a plate.
Only to run into Devillare at the front entrance, carrying a plate she'd brought for Eponin, also. They had walked the rest of the way to Ep's cell together. When they arrived inside, they found Ephiny and the guard with her, along with two additional plates; one brought by the regent, the other by the guard.
Well, she's not likely to starve to death before she's condemned, thought Xena.
"Don't give up, Ep." Gabrielle took both the warrior's hands in her own. "Evanthe herself is aiding us in stalling the council. She cited a law that gives us two days time before the sentence is to be carried out."
Eponin didn't look convinced. "What can be done in two days?"
Gabrielle's eyes flitted to her soulmate. "Xena came back from the dead after two days."
"Two days gives you enough time to eat all that food," Xena nodded her head at the plates lined up on the floor.
"It also gives us time to look for a loophole," said Gabrielle, trying to keep her tone as bright as possible. "Evanthe has opened the Hall of Scrolls to us."
"Speaking of - " Xena made a jerking gesture with her head towards the door.
"We'd better go find it," Gabrielle said as she immediately rose to her feet. She draped an arm about both the regent's shoulders as she steered a reluctant Ephiny towards the door.
Xena gave an unspoken nod of encouragement on her way out. Devillare did the same, then stopped at the doorway, turning and saying, "Chin up, Pup. We won't rest until we find a way to free you. Permanently."
Gabrielle heard the captain's words to Eponin, looked back over her shoulder with a puzzled look on her face. Then, Xena was coming up beside her, flanking Ephiny on the other side, guiding the regent away from the cell.
Eponin tried to force a smile upon her lips. It came out as something more akin to a grimace. Then, Devillare was leaving and the door to the cell was being closed and the sound of retreating footsteps were echoing in the corridor outside. Without the light from the outside corridor, shadows crept in from the corners and darkness overtook the cell. Eponin's smile fell.
Bright rays of sunlight streamed in through the high windows, illuminating the interior of the Hall of Scrolls. The Amazons were not known for extravagance in their personal lives. Most of their traditional residences were still made from wood and daubing and thatch. However, they took great care and planning in constructing those structures they considered important to the tribe and the Nation.
The jail, out of necessity, was constructed of mortar and stone. It was one of only three structures within the Amazon Nation that had actual doors. The second was the Temple of Artemis and the catacombs protected by the priestesses of Artemis. The third was the Hall of Scrolls.
It was, as its name suggested, literally designed to be a great hall. Two large double doors, reinforced with timber from the thickest trees in the forest and lined with gold from the mines in the mountains, once closed were nigh impenetrable. The interior was eighteen feet wide with shelves carved into the walls from nearly ceiling to floor. Each shelf was stuffed with rolled scrolls stretching back as far as the eye could see.
Seated at a table in the center of the room was the Queen of the Amazons. There were piles and piles of scrolls stacked up on the table and floor surrounding her. One was unfurled and spread out on the table directly in front of her. Gabrielle was slumped over, her cheek pressed against the scroll, a line of spittle running from her mouth and down onto the parchment.
Xena paused, giving a nod of greeting to the elder scouts, Myrina and Evanthe. They were seated on the floor in front of the first section of shelving, a mound of scrolls piled on the floor about them. Large warrior feet gingerly stepped over the mound, careful not to trample any beneath her boots.
As she drew nearer the table, she saw Ephiny sprawled out on her stomach on the floor, her head cradled on her arms. A scroll was rolled out on the floor beneath her body and it appeared that Ephiny had read herself to sleep.
Xena leaned over her sleeping bard, brushing back strands of disheveled blonde hair from the shell of an ear so she might whisper a good morning greeting. Just as Xena pressed her lips close, an ungodly sound somewhere between a snore and a snort erupted from Gabrielle's mouth.
Startled, Xena visibly jumped, eliciting murmured giggles from Evanthe and Myrina. Xena turned, piercing the elders with a deadly glare. Wise beyond their seasons, the pair of elder scouts stuck their noses back in the scrolls they were perusing.
Xena leaned over the bard, whispering in Gabrielle's ear. Still asleep, Gabrielle's hand came up, trying to shoo the warrior-pest away. Xena let out an exasperated huff.
"Should have done this to begin with," she muttered beneath her breath.
Xena lifted the covering off the plate she was carrying. Holding it inches from Gabrielle's face, she used her free hand to waft the scent of food into the air. Gabrielle's nose crinkled, then sniffed. A smile formed on bardly lips.
"Mm. Eggs. Bacon." Green eyes flew open. "Nutbread!" Hands attacked the plate. "Warm nutbread!"
"Wha - ?" Ephiny came awake with a start, hand drawing the knife from her belt. "Are we under attack?"
"Only from that monster you call your Queen's appetite," drawled Xena. She reached over and yanked off the parchment that was stuck to Ephiny's cheek.
"You brought breakfast?" Ephiny perked up as she spied the plate on the table. She climbed to her feet, dusting off her crumpled leathers.
"Yeah, but I wouldn't recommend sticking your fingers in there," Xena said, "unless you want us to start calling you Stumpy."
Gabrielle paused from shoveling the nutbread into her mouth long enough to mumble, "Mff-Huh?"
Ephiny's stomach grumbled in response.
"Oh, Eph." Gabrielle looked at her beloved regent. There were dark circles beneath her eyes and she looked absolutely haggard. "Go get some food and some rest."
Even as she stifled a yawn, Ephiny stubbornly shook her head. "We have to keep looking."
"And we will," said Gabrielle. "Alcestis and Symaethis are coming back this morning to relieve Evanthe and Myrina. But, you've been here since yesterday evening and all through the night."
"And I'll be here until we find something useful, Gabrielle."
"I know you didn't sleep at all the night before last, either. Eph, if you can't see straight, how are you going to know what's useful even if you find it?"
Even as Gabrielle said it, she knew Ephiny would take it wrong. Her jaw clenched and her nostrils flared. The bard could only imagine what the intense Amazon might do. In days past, she might have tried removing Gabrielle's skin from her bones with her hunting knife for such an insult. Today, she allowed her temper to be curbed by a gentle touch to the top of her head and a lingering caress on her shoulder.
"You're so tired, you don't even have the energy to be mad at me," Gabrielle said. "Go on, get out of here. And, I'd better not catch sight of that curly head of yours in here before sundown."
When it looked like Ephiny wasn't going to comply, Gabrielle flicked a look to her warrior. "Xena?"
"Come on, Amazon." Xena reached out a hand towards the regent. When Ephiny didn't immediately take it, Xena impatiently shook her appendage. "Don't make me pick you up and carry you out of here over my shoulders and to the dining hut like this evening's deer."
Ephiny glared at the warrior princess. There was enough devilment twinkling in those blue eyes that the regent thought Xena might actually do it. With a resigned sigh, Ephiny clasped the offered hand and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet.
Xena wrapped an arm about Ephiny's shoulders and steered her through the maze of scrolls towards the door.
"Come on, Amazon. Now that your Queen's been fed, let's see if there's any food left in the dining hut."
"Ha. Ha." Gabrielle threw a piece of nutbread at the back of Xena's head. To her consternation, the warrior reached up one hand and caught it without ever slowing down or looking back. "You know I really hate that you can do that!" she called after the retreating warrior.
Xena paused at the open door, turned around and said, "Just one of my skills, my bard I have many, you know." She flipped the piece of nutbread into the air and neatly caught it in her mouth.
Somehow, in that unspoken language that existed between only them, Gabrielle must have communicated to Xena that she wasn't to let Ephiny out of her sight. How else to explain the warrior princess escorting her all the way to the dining hut and sitting across the table from her, nursing a steaming mug of spiced tea as she watched the regent eat her breakfast. Every. Single. Gods-be-damned bite of it.
Ephiny had subtly hinted that Xena might like to get in some sparring. Those blue eyes had slowly looked to the practice field, then back to the regent as Xena drawled out a "Nope." She'd suggested the warrior princess might head down to the river to get in some ice fishing. Again, she'd been met with feigned disinterest. Finally, Ephiny had resorted to shouting at the warrior to just leave her alone.
"Gee, Eph." Xena rubbed at her eardrum with her finger. "If you don't want me around, you could just say so. Ya don't have to yell."
Ephiny had spit and sputtered - until she saw the twinkling cast of blue eyes and realized the warrior was teasing her.
"Ah, why are you in such a good mood, anyway?"
Xena placed both forearms on the table and leaned towards the regent. She looked Ephiny dead in the eyes until Ephiny was very nearly sweating.
"Because," Xena said, never breaking her stare, "I have faith in Gabrielle. And so should you. If there's a way to get Ep out of this mess, she'll find it."
Ephiny sighed, looked away from that unwavering gaze of Xena's. She blinked back her frustration and ran a hand through disheveled blonde locks.
"I know." Hazel eyes were moist as they looked back at Xena. "But, what if - what if there's not a way out?"
Xena reached across the table, clasping both of Ephiny's hands in hers and giving a firm squeeze. "Come on, Eph. This is Gabrielle we're talking about. No way she's gonna let my favorite sparring partner be exiled. She wouldn't do that to me."
Despite her gloom, Ephiny found herself smiling.
"Yeah, you're right."
"Of course I'm right." Xena couldn't resist reaching up and ruffling Ephiny's hair. "Come on. Finish those eggs so you can go get some rest."
"Gods, Xena. I'm bone tired." Ephiny rubbed at her eyes. "But, I don't think I can sleep."
"Never said you had to sleep. Just said you had to rest." Xena eyed Ephiny until the regent's eyes lit up like a piece of flint had been struck inside her head. "Might wanna grab an extra plate to go so she can eat while you're resting."
"You can go back now."
The guard's eyes went wide. "I can't do that, my regent. Regulations clearly state that - "
"Close the door behind me. Lock it if you feel you have to. Then return to your post at the main entrance."
Lexine's mouth was as wide open as her eyes. A shock of blonde hair bobbed back and forth as she shook her head. "My Regent, I can't - "
" - refuse a direct command from me." Intense hazel eyes bored into the young guard.
"Aww, Centaur crap." Lexine whined and nearly stamped her foot. Regardless, she closed the door behind the regent. Ephiny heard the key being inserted into the door, but not the telltale click that would signal Lexine had locked her in. She looked out between the bars evenly spaced in the cutout in the door as the guard retreated down the hall, all the while cursing, "I'm gonna get in so much godsbedamned trouble for this."
"You done scaring the feathers off the kiddies?"
Ephiny chuckled, remembering the last time Eponin had asked her that. She'd been naked in the baths with the assistant healers fawning all over her. Ephiny had been instantly jealous - and she'd taken out her displeasure on Megara's helpers.
Eyes crinkling with mirth, she turned around, placing her back to the door. Ephiny waited for her eyes to become adjusted to the dark. The torch on the wall outside gave off enough light to see the area nearby the door and illuminated nearly a quarter of the way into the cell. The rest of the interior was cast in darkness.
Thinking she saw Eponin move, she took a step towards a shadow. Ephiny held the plate she was carrying out in front of her.
"Hey. Brought you something to - "
A shadow much nearer than the one Ephiny had been focused on moved, causing her to jump. She dropped the plate, the scrambled eggs spilling all over the floor of the cell.
"I'm sorry," Ephiny said, looking at the mess she'd made. Her hand was resting over her rapidly beating heart.
"No, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."
"You didn't - "
Ephiny's words trailed off as Eponin stepped fully into the light. There was a gash above the warrior's left eye as well as a cut on her cheek. Despite the dim lighting, Ephiny could see a bruise beginning to form on a defined cheekbone.
"Gods, Eponin." Her gaze hardened as she took in the sight of the battered warrior. "What happened?"
Eponin shrugged. "A gentle reminder."
"What do you mean?"
There was a long moment of silence, then a heated sigh. "Eph, I don't belong."
"What are you talking about?" Ephiny frowned. "Did they hit you in the head? You aren't making any sense."
"I'm going to be exiled." Ephiny started to protest, but the words froze on her lips at the look from Eponin. "And even if I wasn't...I'm not good enough for you."
"What? What in Hades' name are you talking about?"
"The night you and I were supposed to meet. I went to your office looking for you. While I was there, some of the elders came looking for you, too. I overheard them talking about you naming a consort." Eponin turned away from her regent, her eyes focusing on the floor as she confessed. "I heard what they said, Eph. I know they would've never allowed you to pick me. They said there'd be a rebellion first."
"Oh, Gods." Ephiny reached out, capturing Eponin's strong chin in her hand. She squeezed firmly, forcing Ep to turn and look at her. The pain she saw reflected in those eyes cut her to the bone. "I never should have asked you to stay at the warriors' barracks."
"It's okay, Eph. I under - understand." Eponin swallowed around the lump gathering in her throat. "I mean, outside the Nation, that was one thing. But now that we're back - " she shrugged " - I know you're the regent and you can't have anyone know what happened."
"Quit talking stupid or I'll blacken your other eye."
Eponin's mouth clamped shut and she eyed Ephiny incredulously.
"You big, dumb warrior." Despite her harsh words, warmth shone in Ephiny's eyes. "I didn't want anyone to know because - because...Oh, you don't know what it's like, always having the council scrutinizing everything you do. I feel like they're always watching me, judging me. What I'm doing, what I'm not doing, whether or not how I'm living meets with their approval." Ephiny's eyes flashed and she beat her palm against her breast. "It's my life, damn it. My life! And, I just wanted to have something in it, for just a little while, that was all mine and no one else's. I just wanted a chance to enjoy myself and be happy."
Ephiny's eyes softened as she took in the sight of her brave warrior. Her mind took her back to those early days when she'd first seen the girl with the ebony locks and the brilliant eyes swinging a staff on the practice fields. Memories misted in front of Ephiny's eyes, images of them playing together as youngsters. Then, Eponin a little older; her face still having the soft cheeks of youth, her stomach trim and taut, her muscles just beginning to become defined. Then, older still; her flesh bronzed from seasons of training in the sun, the muscles in her arms and legs filled out, her abdomen ridged into hard planes.
Her voice was just a breath above a whisper as she caressed Eponin's cheek and said, "It's my life. It's my decision who I choose to spend it with."
Eponin looked like she'd been struck with a staff. "You mean?"
"I mean." Ephiny was smiling and nodding. "I choose you, Pony. I will always choose you."
A genuine smile formed on Eponin's lips. Ephiny's perfect teeth bit her bottom lip as she mirrored Ep's smile. Unable to stop herself from grinning ear to ear, the regent leaned in and kissed her warrior.
As their kiss broke, Eponin couldn't help but tease, "Oh, sure. Now you offer, now that I'm scheduled to be exiled..."
Devillare drew up short as she saw the ring of keys dangling from the outside lock. Cocking her head to one side, she could just make out the sound of two people talking. Curious, she drew closer to the closed cell door.
"Who's responsible for this?" The regent's voice drifted out into the corridor. "The guards were given specific instructions last evening to leave these off of you."
"It's not Lexine's fault."
"Lexine. I should have known. I'm going to go drag her back here by her tailfeathers - "
The telltale clinking of chains made Devillare's heart drop into her stomach. She was already turning on her heel, determined to reach the guard before the regent. She figured Ephiny could have whatever was left of Lexine when she was finished.
"Eph. Stop." Something in Eponin's tone made Devillare stop in her tracks also. "She couldn't go against a council member."
A - what? Devillare's jaw tightened and her hands clenched into tight fists.
"A council member? An elder ordered you put back in chains? Who?"
Devillare moved closer to the door, peering through the opening and the bars. She could just make out the silhouettes of Ephiny and Eponin standing near the center of the cell. Even in the dim lighting, Devillare could clearly see the chains securely fastened about Eponin's wrists.
Eponin shrugged. "The order came in a scroll, signed with the council's seal. Eph, there were three elders I overheard outside your office that night and two of those are dead."
Even from her distance, Devillare could clearly see the anger flash in Ephiny's eyes. She pounded a fist against her open palm.
"Oh, I'm gonna enjoy this," Ephiny said as she brushed past Eponin.
"Eph. Let it go."
Ephiny looked at Eponin as though she'd just declared herself a purified virgin of Hestia.
"Let it go?" she looked accusingly at the offending objects about the warrior's wrists. "Pony, are you telling me you want to be left in chains?"
"No, of course not. But, don't you see? It's strategy. If you go protest, the council of elders will get involved, Gabrielle and Xena will get involved. The issue will be talked to death, brought back to life like Xena, just so it can be talked to death some more."
"It's a tactic to distract the rest of us from searching through the Hall of Scrolls." Ephiny got it. "Damn, Pony. You're clever to have seen that. A lot more clever than me."
Eponin pointedly clinked her chains. "I've had a lot longer to be angry about it. Once I got past that, I was able to figure it out."
"This - " Ephiny reached out, firmly grasping the chain, willing herself to not recoil from the unpleasant touch in front of Eponin. " - this will not stand."
"It has to, Ephiny. For now."
"It will never be forgotten, nor forgiven."
Ephiny's voice was raw with emotion and the look upon her face was so anguished that Eponin couldn't stop herself from reaching out to her. Wrists chained as they were, her touch that was meant to offer comfort was awkward in its execution.
Ephiny's breath hitched. Her heart hammered wildly at the sight of the chain so close that she could clearly see the detail of every link. She swallowed heavily against the growing amount of saliva in her mouth.
In Potadeia, Eponin's wrists had also been bound. Behind her back. With leather cording. In the heat of the moment, Ephiny hadn't been thinking about Eponin's imprisonment. In truth, she wasn't thinking about anything. She'd been out of control. Wild. Free. The way an Amazon was supposed to be.
Looking back now, she was able to see that there'd been more to it than just giving into her primal side and jumping Eponin's bones.
She hadn't been as concerned about those bindings because they weren't a serious threat. Because Ep's hands were behind her back, she could ignore the restraints. Because Ephiny knew that bit of leather cording couldn't long hold beneath the weapons master's strength.
Besides, it was kind of hot. Ephiny felt a shiver race down her spine as she remembered the moisture flooding between her thighs at the sight of Eponin breaking her bonds.
Eponin saw the roiling of emotions in Ephiny's hazel eyes. The beat of her pulse point pounding wildly against the flesh of her delicate throat. The rapid rise and fall of her breast, the barely perceptible trembling of her body.
Eponin's fingers caressed the downy softness of Ephiny's cheek, prompting heavy lids to close beneath the sensation. A thumb dragged across the fullness of a bottom lip, causing Ephiny's mouth to open in response.
To Ephiny's ears, the deep timbre of Eponin's voice resonated like the soft purring of a cat. A very, very large cat. She blinked her eyes open, to see worried eyes darting about her face.
"Shouldn't I be asking you that question?" Ephiny asked.
Both Ephiny and Eponin smiled at the inanity of her answer. Here she was, imprisoned and in chains, having been handed a beating, awaiting the candlemark of her exile. And when asked how she was doing, all she could answer with was I'm good.
Ephiny reached up, fingertips lightly stroking over the bruise forming on Eponin's cheekbone. Eponin's breath hitched, but neither could say for certain if it was from the press to tender flesh or if it was simply because it was Ephiny that had touched her.
"If memory serves, my weapons master..." Ephiny's fingers traced along Eponin's jawline and down her neck, trailing a path between her breasts and towards her beltline. "...you're better than good."
"...you're better than good..."
Those words said in the regent's voice drifted out into the prison corridor.
Steel grey eyes stared unblinkingly as the silhouette of the regent leaned into that of the weapons master. Then, Ephiny's head was lowering and she was capturing Eponin's lips in a heated, passionate kiss.
Grey eyes narrowed. A hand closed upon the grip of a belt knife. Turning sharply on her heel, Devillare's boots carried her quickly through the prison corridors. Never breaking stride, she slammed open the door leading to the village outside.
Devillare had a vague image of the guard standing at her post visibly jumping, then saluting as she stormed past. The active captain made a quick gesture that might have passed for a hurried salute in response. She was three paces distant when she suddenly drew up short. She turned to look back over her shoulder, fixing Lexine with a glower.
Lexine struggled to remain at attention and her gaze fixed straight ahead. She'd seen the captain's sudden halt and the dark look, knew that Devillare was coming back to reprimand her for something she'd done - or hadn't done. Lexine wasn't sure which, but she knew whatever it was, it would be her fault.
The warrior came to stand mere inches in front of her. She was so close that Lexine could feel Devillare's breath upon her skin. Steel grey eyes traveled over her face. Lexine nervously licked her lips.
"No one - no one, save the queen or the regent, gets in to see Eponin. Is that clear?"
"Y - Yes, Captain."
Devillare didn't say another word to the guard, just turned on her heel and walked away. Never looking back, she marched through the village center and towards the residential huts of the hunter caste.
Lexine placed a hand over her heart, trying to still its beating. She stared after Devillare, thinking that if she'd ever seen a woman with a burr beneath her saddle, it was the acting captain of the guard. Then, she gave thanks to Artemis that this time she wasn't the one that would face the warrior's wrath.
The air was expelled from Ephiny's lungs in a heated rush as her back connected with the cold stone of the cell wall. She had no time to inhale before a mouth was covering hers, stealing what little was left of her breath. Ephiny's hands came up, twining in ebony locks, their owner uncertain if she meant to push her assailant away - or tug her in closer.
Finally, the need for the weapons master to also breathe made the decision for them both. The kiss ended, lips parted, mouths opened to take in gulping gasps of air. Neither really caught their breath before they were kissing again.
Ephiny's head was swimming. She'd initiated the first kiss between them. Eponin had quickly turned the tables on her, though. Before she'd fully known what was happening, it was Eponin's tongue thrusting into her mouth.
No sooner had that kiss ended then Eponin was reaching up over Ephiny's head, her chained hands looping down behind her back. Having effectively trapped Ephiny, Eponin pulled the regent into her for another devouring kiss.
Then, Eponin was moving forward. Ephiny was being steadily walked backwards. Hands were on her backside, fingers kneading her buttocks through her leathers. Ephiny was acutely aware of the chain about Eponin's wrists. The metal was stretched taut and it pressed coldly against the backs of her legs, each step causing it to slide against her flesh, lifting the back of her leathers.
Until there was no space left to retreat. Her back was pressed flush against the wall. Eponin's lips were firmly attached to her neck. And despite the restrictions of the chains, Eponin's hands were insistently tugging, inching Ephiny's leathers up and tugging her breechcloth down until they were useless on the floor between their feet.
Eponin wrapped the length of chain about the palms of her hands. She moved forward, pressing Ephiny impossibly closer between her body and the wall. Eponin's breasts pressed against Ephiny's, eliciting mutual groans from both of them. Calloused palms kneaded, cupped and lifted Ephiny's backside.
Eponin's thigh instigated itself between Ephiny's legs. Ephiny moaned, feeling the hardened muscles of that toned thigh firm beneath her throbbing flesh. She surged forward, grinding hard and fast as she rode Pony's leg.
Both their breaths were coming in ragged gasps, visible in the cool air of the prison cell. Eponin's fingers clenched, tightening in Ephiny's leathers, short nails threatening to break beneath the strain. Ephiny shivered as she felt the cold press of each link of chain digging into the flesh of her lower back. Eponin's leg flexed beneath her clenching thighs. Ephiny arched and stiffened, her climax quickly overtaking her.
"Seriously, Lexine. I want to see her. Let me in."
The guard fidgeted uncomfortably. "I can't, Solari."
"Of course you can." Knowing the effect it had on Lexine, Solari lowered her voice an octave. "You're the guard. You can let in anyone you want to."
"Not when I'm under direct orders not to."
"Come on, Lexine." Solari inhaled deeply, then slowly exhaled, steeling herself for what she was about to do. She forced herself to take a step closer, clearly invading Lexine's personal space. She reached out, fingertips brushing imaginary lint from the feathers of the guard's shoulder. She maintained the touch, forcing a smile upon her lips even as her stomach recoiled at the action of caressing Lexine's shoulder and upper arm. She kept up the facade, her touch lingering upon the guard's forearm. "For me?"
Lexine's heart rate had increased exponentially with Solari's nearer proximity. She felt her breath coming in short shallow gasps as Solari batted those big, brown bedroom eyes at her. And that voice...Oh, Gods. Let her say my name again...she's touching me...
Lexine's gaze dropped to where Solari's hand was upon the flesh of her arm. Eyes took in the sight of the leather glove. She was reminded of that one morning she'd gone to report to the Queen. Gabrielle had been in the chief scout's room. The report was inconsequential; Lexine had used it as an excuse to see Solari.
She'd seen much more than she'd wanted. The warrior princess was there, too. She was tending Solari's hand. The bandages were off and Xena hadn't yet put the salve onto damaged flesh. It had taken all of Lexine's resolve to swallow back her bile long enough to deliver her report to the Queen. She'd scarcely made it out of the room and down the corridor and out the door before throwing up that morning's breakfast.
Lexine took a resolute step backwards. She snapped to attention, keeping her gaze fixed somewhere over Solari's shoulder as she delivered in a monotone, "I'm sorry, chief scout, but I am under direct orders and am unable to comply with your request at this time."
Solari looked like she'd been slapped. Her hand dropped away. She adjusted the crutch beneath her arm. As she did, she swore she caught something flicker in Lexine's eyes. Solari's own eyes widened in response. Turning, she hurried away from the jail as quickly as she could beneath the power of her lame leg.
Nicphellia wiped a spittle of blood from the corner of her mouth. Hand braced against the edge of the table, she slowly pulled herself to her feet. Eyes hardened as she glared at the warrior.
"I take it you've been to the jail, then?"
Devillare's chest rose and fell with each heavy breath. Her hand clenched and unclenched into a fist. Steel grey eyes bored into Nicphellia's.
"Why in Artemis' name would you order Eponin be put in chains?"
"Easy, Devil." Nicphellia turned and picked up a pitcher that had been knocked over when she'd been slammed against the table. Her hand visibly shook as she poured herself a mug. She lifted it, taking a tentative sip, feeling the burn of the alcohol against her split lip. "I don't make the laws. I'm only seeing to it that as captain, you enforce them."
"Ever since our return, you've had it in for Eponin. I want to know why."
"Because of that. Because she returned." Nicphellia took another long draw of her drink. She poured another mug, offered it to the warrior. When Devillare refused, Nicphellia gave a shrug of her shoulders. "You were laid up in the hospice, so I don't think you ever really knew."
"Tynette was right." Seeing the murderous scowl, Nicphellia hastily held up her hands. "Don't look at me like that. I'm not talking about her trying to put Cordele on the throne. I'm talking about the need for the regent to name a champion, to take a suitable consort. Despite her insidious motivations, Tynette was correct in that the mask must be protected. And, in spite of being given a list of acceptable candidates, suitable candidates from good families, it was obvious to some of us that the regent was leaning towards an - undesirable - choice."
"Precisely. The royal bloodline is far too precious to allow it to be tainted."
"Ephiny isn't descended from royal blood. Melosa named her as successor in the event that the royal line died with her. Before her naming, she was just another warrior. A fine warrior, but a warrior nonetheless."
"A fine warrior from a long line of fine warriors," Nicphellia corrected. "Do you think the council didn't check the records before her masking ceremony?"
"Queen Gabrielle herself masked Ephiny as her regent."
"With our approval."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"You wouldn't, would you?" asked Nicphellia. "You're a warrior. Warriors aren't known for being concerned with politics. Let's just say there have always been some private sessions that you were never included in. Oh, don't look like that. Evanthe and Myrina didn't know, either. With three of the hunter caste on the council, did you really think our interests would not be served?"
"And having Ephiny masked as regent serves your interests?"
"Well," Nicphellia wheedled, "having someone from the hunter caste was always Tynette's dream. Her granddaughter - or mine - would have both been ideal. But, really. We knew Melosa would never name one of them. When was the last time any caste other than that of warrior was masked as Queen? In the end, we settled just for having someone of pure blood."
"That's why you don't want the regent with her. Because Eponin is - "
" - tainted."
Nicphellia leaned back against the table, folding her arms over her chest, crossing her feet at the ankles. She watched the gamut of emotions running across her old friend's face with a hint of amusement. Devillare had attacked her once and drawn blood. Captain or not, Nic knew she wouldn't dare do it again.
"Come on, Devil. You know she's just a dirty, filthy mongrel that nobody wanted."
"I wanted her."
"She was forced on you. She was forced on Laurentia. Then Beroyle. Then you."
"I willingly took her into my home."
"You took in a stray." Nicphellia coolly took another sip of her drink as she watched Devillare's jaw lock. "I told you long ago that you needed to let another family take her. Either that, or have a child of your own to carry on your bloodline."
"You knew that was never for me, Nic."
"Yeah, well. It was something that I never thought I'd do, either." The hunter poured another mug and drank down more than half of it all at once. "But with no true sisters of my own, it was the only way to carry on my family bloodline."
"Phaedriana - "
" - had hers and then I had mine. I was there for her just as she was there...during...and after for me." There was a defiant tilt of Nicphellia's chin. "I made it through it and it was worth it to have a daughter to carry on my legacy. Phaedriana offered the same for you. She would have stayed with you to...ease...the process."
Devillare remembered that time. Nic had been sick for a moon. Devil had thought she'd ingested tainted venison. She could've been knocked over with a feather when Nicphellia had finally confessed that she was with child.
"You and Phaedriana both used the same...contributor."
"Yes." Painful memories of that night flashed behind Nicphellia's eyes. The Athenian hadn't wanted her. No matter how drunk either of them had gotten. But, he'd made it more than clear that he longed for another tryst with her bondmate. So, a deal was struck. In order to partake of Phaedriana's charms again, he would first service Nicphellia. Thank Artemis it took the first time so that I never had to go through that Tartarus again. "We both chose him so that the connection between our daughters might be stronger. It's not that uncommon a practice."
"That's fine for some Amazons. Just as it was fine for you and Phaedriana."
Nicphellia's eyes warmed as they traveled over the warrior's still-toned body. "Think of the fine, strapping daughter you would have had. Now, she would have been a warrior worthy of a Queen."
"It's something I would never have been comfortable with." Truth be told, Devillare was uncomfortable even having this discussion. Then - and now.
Nicphellia bristled. She had never said it was something she was comfortable with. But, it had been what was needed to secure a daughter of her own. It was a compromise she'd made. Somewhere deep down, even after all these seasons, it still irked Nicphellia that her bondmate had offered to help Devil with that very same choice - and Devillare had refused.
Feeling decidedly uncomfortable beneath Nicphellia's appraising gaze, Devillare needlessly added, "Besides, I had Eponin. And, the princesses."
"Eponin was neither planned for, nor wanted. While her birth mother was a good warrior, her sire was any of a half dozen murdering curs." Nicphellia's face hardened as she recalled the agonizing moons that had gone into planning and conceiving her own offspring. Then, for Laurentia to just hand a child over to Devillare and for that child to grow up so closely resembling and so easily following in the warrior's footsteps...For Nic, it was the bit of hay that broke the horse's back. "As for the princesses; they were always Reyvanne's, never yours. You never understood that, did you? Just like you never understood why she allowed your swordmate Beroyle to play second-mother to them."
Devillare's face paled and she took a step back as though she'd been physically struck. Memories threatened to take her back in time. No. The past is just that - the past. Devillare swallowed harshly, eyes blinking rapidly. Even after all these many seasons, she thought they still stung from the long ago smoke of a burning Nation.
"That was my life, not yours." Devillare's voice came out in a low menacing growl. "Just as the regent's life is hers. It's not your place to interfere, to try to remove someone because you fear the regent might make what you consider to be the wrong choice." Devillare's voice that had started as a low growl grew in volume until she was practically shouting, "It's most definitely not your place to have a prisoner beaten in my jail - or put in chains."
"I never went near that jail. I can hardly be blamed if someone bribed your guards to look the other way while they had a 'private conversation' with the prisoner. As for having her put in chains? Well, if you think I wasn't within my rights," Nicphellia spread out her hands in a magnanimous gesture, "you'd certainly be within yours to bring your protest before the council."
"To waste more time, to keep us from finding an alternative to you having Eponin exiled," accused Devillare.
"As with everything else you've accused me of, Devil, I have nothing to do with Eponin's exile." Nicphellia shrugged, a smug smile gracing her lips. "Eponin condemned herself with her own confession."
The unbearable pounding in Gabrielle's head grew by epic proportions with every step she took. Until she realized it wasn't all in her head. I should have guessed. Gods I love her, but she's the sole reason for most of my headaches.
Xena proudly stood before the bard with that self-satisfied grin of hers that often reminded Gabrielle of the way a barn cat looked right after it had trapped an entire family of field mice and tortured them one by one.
Despite Xena's normal shying away of public displays of affection, Gabrielle found herself engulfed in the warrior's arms and a set of lips being pressed to her temple. There was a rousing chorus of Awww's from the gathered group of Amazons that was quickly quashed by one dark look from Xena. Gabrielle noticed that even though they all ducked their heads and went back to work, most of them still had smiles on their faces.
That look would have sent most warlords running for the hills, thought Gabrielle. Xena could have a permanent home here, with people that respect her - and accept her.
Gabrielle closed her eyes as she felt the fingertips of both Xena's hands rubbing at her temples. She felt the repetitive circular motion, the slight pressure, then a feeling of lightness. Xena removed her fingertips and Gabrielle opened her eyes to see bright blue ones looking down at her.
"Better?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle placed a hand to her temple, only mildly surprised that there was no lingering traces of her headache.
"Mm. Thank Gods for you and your knowledge of pressure points."
"I have many - "
" - skills," finished Gabrielle. "Yes, I know and I'm fond of most nearly all of them."
Xena frowned at that, but decided she didn't really want to know which ones Gabrielle didn't care for. Probably some of the more dangerous ones.
"Not that I'm not always happy to see you, Gabrielle, but what are you doing here?"
"I was on my way to the dining hut to get a pitcher of cider to warm our bones back at the Hall of Scrolls."
"You're the queen, Gabrielle. You could have sent someone to get that for you."
"I love scrolls - all scrolls - well, except for those census ones and I'm sure under different circumstances, I'd be in the bard-elysian fields but..." Gabrielle gestured helplessly, the bard with the golden tongue at a loss for words.
"Not when it's Eponin's future that rests in the balance?"
"Exactly. We're being careful and going through everything, but my eyes feel like they've gone crossed."
Xena smiled softly, cupped Gabrielle beneath the chin and made a showing of looking at first one side of Gabrielle's face, then the other.
"Nope, both still right where they belong."
Gabrielle mustered up a smile in return, but it lacked any real energy and was lackluster at best. "Oh, Xena. There are more scrolls in the 'useless' pile than there are remaining on the shelves at this point. I'm worried that we might have missed something and we'll have to go back through them all again."
"If that's what needs to be done, Gabrielle, tell me and I'll try to help."
The bard looked at the warrior. Reading wasn't one of Xena's preferred hobbies. Gods knows I can't even get her to read one of my scrolls - and I'm sleeping with her! For her to make the offer... "No, it hasn't come to that. Yet."
Gabrielle peered around Xena's form, surveying the structure the Amazons were working on. Logs had been dragged across the village leaving long furrows in the ground from the forest to the shelter. Amazons were working to strip the trees. The bark was being shorn from the trunk and heated in containers over the fire to be used as a welding glue. The leaves were being carefully stripped away and braided so they could be used for the roof. The naked wood was being cut and sanded into lumber. Despite the chill temperature, several Amazons had stripped off their winter cloaks and were mopping perspiration from their brows.
"You've got quite a crew out here," observed Gabrielle.
Xena looked around as if noticing for the first time. Turning back to Gabrielle, she said, "Yep."
The framework shell was already constructed and several Amazons were working on building furniture on the inside. Gabrielle cocked her head to the side, watching in bewilderment as Solari sat on a blanket on the ground, a bag of sawdust propped beneath her recovering leg, a hammer clutched in her left hand as she awkwardly tried to nail two by fours together.
Gabrielle smiled as she looked up at her warrior of few words and finally asked, "So, what'cha got them building?"
"New hut for Eponin."
Gabrielle's face blanched.
An ebony brow arched. "Something wrong with that?"
"Well, umm...Xena, she's still in jail. Don't you think you're pushing things a bit by organizing a work crew to build her a new hut?"
"She's in jail on a technicality. The whole Nation knows she's innocent." Xena folded her arms over her chest and looked down at the bard. "Besides, I didn't start a work crew."
"You didn't?" Blonde brows rose in disbelief and Gabrielle gestured to encompass the scene before her. "Looks like a work crew to me."
"Yep, but I didn't start it."
Xena took Gabrielle by the arm and steered her out of the path of two Amazons balancing four long boards on their shoulders. She directed the blonde bard to the outer perimeter of the work zone, both so she wouldn't be in the way and so that they could speak in private.
"After breakfast with Ephiny," catching the look, Xena placed her finger against Gabrielle's opening mouth, "She ate. She's probably resting right now." Xena saw no reason to mention that the bed Ephiny was resting in was probably not her own. "I was restless. I figured I was going to be more a distraction with the scrolls and I wanted to help. Figured the least I could do was build her a new hut."
"Xena." Gabrielle's eyes shone. Most people thought of Xena as a brutal warlord, a fearsome warrior princess forged in the heat of battle. Few ever got to see her sensitive side. Gabrielle was honored that Xena chose to share it with her. "Xena, you've already done more than anyone could expect of you. It's because of you that Eponin received a new trial. It was you that figured out she was being drugged, you that tricked Tynette into stealing Iphinome's bag and tipping her hand, you that convinced Hilaeira to tell the truth. You don't owe anyone anything more than that."
Xena looked down at the ground, scuffing the toe of her boot in the dusting of snow. She shyly looked up at Gabrielle through dark lashes.
"Ep's my friend."
Ep's my friend. As if those three words said it all. And, maybe for Xena, it does. But, I can't allow her friendship to dictate the workings of the entire nation.
Gabrielle cringed as a warrior nearly backed over the top of Solari. "Xena, the work crew?"
"I came out here and started working on my own, Gabrielle. Just me."
"You didn't ask anyone for help?"
"No." Xena rolled her eyes and made a point of showing Gabrielle that she didn't even have her fingers crossed behind her back. "Swear it. I was about a candlemark in when they all just started showing up with nails, tools and lumber. Before I knew it, we were mapping out blueprints."
Gabrielle reached down, pulling out the rolled parchment that was protruding from the top of Xena's boot. She unfurled it, spending several long heartbeats silently staring as the warrior princess pointed out schematic after schematic in great detail.
"Xena, this is - extravagant."
"No. No." Xena held out both hands. "It's really pretty basic. Living area. Bedroom. Place for Ep to display her weapons. There's a lot of open space, though. See this over here? That's a separate area where she can maybe put down a mat, do some training inside. You know, that way she can train in the rain and the snow."
"She does that now. Remember two winters ago when we found her doing staffwork in that blizzard?"
"Yeah, well. She wouldn't have to get her boots muddy this way."
Gabrielle rubbed between her eyes, certain that her headache was coming back. "What's Nicphellia going to think when she gets wind of this?"
"I don't really care what Nicphellia thinks." Xena looked over at the construction site. "I don't think they do, either."
Gabrielle followed Xena's gaze, silently watching the Amazon work crew. The chief scout ducked, reflexively covering her head as Admeta tripped and a bag of roofing nails went sailing from her grasp, showering Solari in bits of pointed metal. She'd expected to see the workforce made up of nothing but warriors. Well, with the exception of Solari. Instead, she counted an equal mix of scouts, tradeswomen and even a cook's assistant amongst them.
Looks like every caste except the hunters. As soon as she thought it, Gabrielle noted a quartet of hunters approaching. She frowned, trying to think of the name of the one in the lead. She was a tall and lanky brunette. Gabrielle remembered thinking when they were introduced that it was surely a divine comedy of the Gods that one of Artemis' hunters would have the eyes and demeanor of a beautiful doe. Myrina. Myrina the younger. Gabrielle suddenly recalled her name. Gabrielle allowed herself a heartbeat to appreciate the hunter's form. Definitely not to be confused with Myrina the elder, she thought, remembering Evanthe's bondmate.
Myrina stopped with her bow shouldered and a trio of rabbits in her grasp when she saw Egeria walking past. The big warrior was carrying three long boards by herself, her biceps bulging with the strain of her load. When Myrina spoke to her, Egeria stopped and stood talking with her as though she were toting nothing more significant than a bag of oats.
Gabrielle watched as they talked briefly and Myrina nodded. She motioned for the other three hunters to come forward. They all passed their game to one of the hunters and sent her off in the direction of the kitchens. Myrina and the remaining two hunters placed their bows and arrows on the ground beneath a tree and picked up hammers and nails in their stead.
"Well, I'll be a Gorgon's aunt."
"I certainly hope not." Xena made a face. "I'm not sleeping with you anymore if you are."
"Hah." Gabrielle backhanded Xena across the stomach. "Like that would stop you."
"Yeah, you're right." Xena smirked. "It's gotta be the green eyes."
Gabrielle winced as two warriors nearly stumbled over Solari. In unison, Lysippe and Dioxippe put down the long board they were carrying. They each stood on one side of the chief scout, arms on their hips as they looked down at her looking back at them. Gabrielle's eyes widened as the warriors bent down and grabbed Solari beneath her arms and lifted her up with little effort. Solari squawked as she was bodily carried out of their work area and propped against a nearby tree, her hammer removed from her hand and her crutch promptly thrust into it in its place.
"Solari, honey, come here."
Solari tucked her crutch beneath her arm and limped towards Gabrielle, stubborn pride intact despite the whistles and catcalls at having the Queen call her honey. A warning look from Gabrielle backed up by a glare from Xena had further razzing comments dying on their lips.
"My Queen." Solari saluted as she drew near. "Any news?"
"Not yet," Gabrielle shook her head. She placed her hand on Solari's shoulder, stroked her arm down towards her wrist. It didn't escape Gabrielle's notice that Solari allowed the touch, but drew back well before she reached the glove that covered her hand. "Don't worry, we're still searching."
Solari pursed her lips, but nodded. She'd never admit it aloud, but the scout was feeling decidedly guilty over the part she'd played in Eponin's incarceration. Not that she'd willingly been a party to it. She'd been duped. But, it was killing her inside just how easy it was for Tynette and Hilaeira to make a fool out of her. She'd known Ep since they were youngsters and she'd believed that girl's testimony - and her own eyes - over what her heart knew to be the truth. Tynette was dead. Hilaeira was imprisoned, awaiting the council's decision as to her punishment. There were moments when Solari thought she should share their fate.
"Solari?" Gabrielle's voice drew the scout back. "Can you do that for me?"
Gabrielle touched Solari's shoulder, grounding her. "I have to get back to the Hall of Scrolls. Can you find Ephiny, check up on her for me?"
Solari readily nodded.
"Do you want me to send her back to the Hall of Scrolls?"
Gabrielle hesitated. "No. Not yet. She needs to rest and unwind a bit."
"Ephiny?" Both Solari's eyebrows rose. "Cute blonde, about this-high, intense? That Ephiny?"
Xena smirked. Gabrielle bit back her laughter.
"Yes, that Ephiny. I know, I know. Getting Ephiny to relax is about as easy as giving Hades' three-headed hound a bath." Gabrielle sobered. "Seriously, though. She's too close to this. Keep her occupied and away from the Hall for a bit?"
"Oh, sure. Can't be any harder than one of those twelve labors Hercules performed."
Solari gave a smile and a slight nod of her head. Tucking her crutch firmly beneath her arm, she limped off in the direction of the regent's hut.
"Thanks for that," Xena said as soon as Solari was out of earshot. "I know she wants to help, but it's hard to find things for her to do. That and she can't drive a nail straight to save her life."
"I find most of my Amazons don't like anything straight."
Xena's eyes went wide and she drew in a sharp breath. "Oh-ho! Nice language coming from a Queen."
"You've never complained about my dirty mouth before," shot back Gabrielle with a saucy wink.
Xena stared with raised eyebrows as her once innocent bard walked away. There was a time she blushed at the drop of a horseshoe. As if knowing the warrior was continuing to stare after her, Gabrielle added an extra sway to her hips. Not sure who has been more of a corrupting influence on her, me or the Amazons. Somehow, the warrior was certain she'd never taught Gabrielle to walk that way.
Pitcher of warm apple cider in hand, Gabrielle was on her way back to the Hall of Scrolls when she heard the sound of raised voices, closely followed by a loud crash. The hide covering a hut door was pulled back with enough force that it was torn completely off the frame. Large warrior boots trampled over the fallen hide as the captain of the guard stormed out.
The elder guardswoman had her head down and had been cursing a blue streak as she strode past the other woman. As she heard her name called out, she looked up and drew short, surprised to see her little queen.
"My Queen? Is it Eponin? Have you - "
Gabrielle stilled Devillare with a hand on her arm. She looked her in the eye and answered truthfully, "Not yet."
Devillare's eyes darted about, then back to Gabrielle. The young bard could fairly read the unspoken question in her eyes.
"I took a break to get some warm apple cider." Gabrielle held up the pitcher in explanation.
"Evanthe," Devillare immediately guessed.
"Said it helps warm her blood."
"You're the Queen. You shouldn't - "
" - I wanted to. Believe me, I've already had this same conversation with Xena."
"My apologies, my Queen. It wasn't my place to - "
Gabrielle waved off the apology. Then, a speculative look on her face, she asked, "Escort your Queen back to the Hall of Scrolls?"
"It would be my duty and my pleasure."
They walked together, Gabrielle carrying the pitcher and walking with her usual stride, the one she used to keep pace with the longer limbed Xena. Devillare walked with her hands clasped behind her back. Her height being nearly the same as Xena's, she appeared to have the same nonchalant, unhurried gait the warrior princess often displayed.
They'd walked almost halfway back to the hall before Gabrielle spoke.
"Devillare, I'm disappointed."
Devillare sighed heavily. "So am I. I should have cut out that hunter's tongue long ago."
"What?" Gabrielle pulled up short. "What are you talking about?"
Devillare cocked her head to the side, gave her little queen a quizzical look. "Um - nothing. What are you talking about?"
Gabrielle wasn't convinced. Especially given the loud commotion she'd heard coming from the hut Devillare had stormed out of. She had enough to worry about without borrowing more trouble, though. Whatever it is, it'll keep. For now.
"I don't like my friends being hurt."
"Oh-kay?" Devillare asked, having no clue where Gabrielle was going with their conversation.
"I also don't like having them judged unfairly or made fun of by others."
"How could you, Devillare?" Even though they were quite alone on the path, Gabrielle still looked all about for eavesdroppers. "I would have expected it of Nicphellia, maybe even Evanthe and Myrina. But you?"
"My Queen?" Devillare looked stymied. "I have no idea to what you're referring."
"Back at the jail. I was already heading out the door ahead of you, so maybe you thought I didn't hear you."
Devillare pursed her lips and shrugged her shoulders, indicating she had no clue what Gabrielle was talking about.
"I heard you. I heard you call her Pup."
Devillare nodded. "I did."
"How could you? After you're the one that told me what mongrel means?"
"Ah." Devillare's pensive features relaxed. "Pup is something I used to call little Ep. A nickname."
"It's mean and cruel and no better than mongrel."
"It's neither." Devillare folded her arms over her chest. "I used to call her Pup because she would follow me around the village everywhere, dogging my heels. After the number Laurentia did on her, poor girl was starving for affection."
"All the more reason not to call her names. Kids are already cruel enough. Did you even stop to think what they'd do if they'd heard you call her that?"
"You're right about that, Gabrielle; Kids are cruel. So are most adults." Devillare bristled, causing her biceps to bulge. "I meant Pup as a term of endearment. But, if it thickened her hide so that mongrel wouldn't sting so bad, I'm not sorry."
"Better to be hurt by someone you love? That sounds like Laurentia's brand of parenting."
"Except that Laurentia never did love Ep. I took that girl into my home...and my heart. I raised her the best I could by myself and I won't apologize to anyone for that. Not to Nicphellia. Not even to my Queen."
"Nicphellia? What's she got to do with this? Devillare?"
"She - " There was a sound akin to a rumbling growl that escaped the warrior's throat. " - she had Eponin put in chains."
"I went by the jail earlier. Eponin's in chains again."
"How dare she? I'll - I'll - I'll have her - and then I'll also - and then Xena..." Gabrielle was pacing about in circles, her face bright red. Then, as if finally settling on a direction, she started back the opposite way on the path.
Devillare calmly reached out, her hand grasping Gabrielle about the elbow, pulling her back.
"She did it to distract us." Even though Devillare knew the logic behind Nicphellia's ploy, she was still livid and her anger was enunciated in every word she spoke. "The amount of time it would take to assemble the council and overrule her actions..."
"...We can't afford because we're still researching the scrolls," finished Gabrielle. "She can't just get away with this, though."
"Um - " Devillare scrubbed a hand over her jaw. " - she didn't. Not exactly."
"Not exactly?" Seeing the downcast look, remembering Devillare's comment of earlier, Gabrielle blurted out, "Gods, Devillare! Tell me you didn't cut her tongue out."
"I didn't cut her tongue out."
"I'm not entirely certain I believe you."
"I swear, my Queen. I did not cut Nicphellia's tongue out." Devil winced slightly as she admitted, "But, there's a good chance I broke her jaw."
The captain shrugged. "Won't know for certain until she regains consciousness and Megara has a chance to examine her."
"Oh, blessed Artemis." Gabrielle pressed at the throbbing vein in her forehead. "Nicphellia baited you. Did you stop to think of the consequences of assaulting an elder?"
"It's up to Queens and bards to think things through," reasoned Devillare. "Sometimes, a warrior's just gotta take action."
"She'll have you up on charges. You know that, don't you?"
"She might. Or, she might be too embarrassed to raise a stink."
"Anger usually trumps embarrassment."
"Could be. I'll deal with it when it happens," shrugged Devillare. "Never know; Ep and I might be on the same prison wagon out of here. I won't apologize for what I did and given a chance to do it again, I would and maybe worse."
Gabrielle sighed heavily. "Okay, fine. Nothing to be done about it now. Just go get Megara and a stretcher and get Nicphellia to the hospice as quietly as possible. Maybe we can keep this under wraps for a while."
"Yes, my Queen."
Devillare saluted and started to move away, then felt something pull her back. She looked down to see Gabrielle's much smaller hand on her arm. She turned, steeling herself for the words that would relieve her of duty.
"Devillare." Gabrielle looked down at the snow covering the toes of her boots, then back up at Devillare. "I was wrong, Devillare. I had certain expectations of you and I thought you'd let me down. I thought you'd judged a scroll by its cover."
Devillare looked suspiciously at her Queen, waiting for her to continue.
"People judge Xena based on her reputation as a warlord. They judge me based on my looks. When I first came to this village, there were those that thought I wasn't Amazon material. Terreis among them. And, you know what? They were right. At first. It was Terreis that changed their minds. She gave me her caste - and a chance."
"Girl always was smart."
"Anyway, I guess the moral of my tale is to never judge a scroll by its cover or you could miss out on a lot of good stuff. Tynette and Nicphellia did that with Eponin when they excluded her from being Ephiny's champion. The same thing happened to poor Solari."
Devillare got an odd look on her face. Apparently, Gabrielle had seen Tynette's fabricated list. The original had been entered into the official records of the council meeting in which Tynette had introduced the suggestion. Devillare had seen a copy in Nicphellia's hut and promptly burned it.
"My Queen, that list was for suitable consorts," corrected Devillare, "and neither Eponin nor Solari were ever on it."
"I know." Gabrielle dropped her voice and leaned in, whispering conspiratorially. "I wasn't referring to that list."
With that, Gabrielle patted Devillare on the arm and resumed walking down the path towards the Hall of Scrolls. The captain of the guard was left staring after her tiny queen.
"It's okay, Soli. I'm awake."
The chief scout froze, chagrined that her attempts at stealth had been so easily detected. Worse, that Ephiny had immediately known it was her.
"Your back's to the door," groused the brunette. "How'd you know it was me?"
"Solari, we've been packmates since forever. I'd know it was you even if I was blindfolded." Ephiny smiled into her pillow. "Besides, you're the only Amazon I know with an extra footfall."
Solari frowned, then looked down at the carved crutch beneath her arm. She let out an exasperated sigh that she didn't even try to hide. Bracing the crutch against the wall closest to the headboard, she pulled back the wolf fur blanket and gingerly lowered herself onto the bed.
Solari propped herself up on her elbow. She peered down at her packmate. Ephiny's unruly corkscrew locks were in disarray, falling over her shoulder and across her face. Solari reached out and tenderly brushed the hair from Ephiny's face, her fingertips stroking the downy fine softness of a cheek. Blonde lashes were closed and a soft smile caressed pale lips. Solari couldn't stop herself from reaching out and brushing blonde strands from a bronzed shoulder.
Ephiny felt the mattress shift beneath Solari's weight, her touch upon her cheek, then fingertips brushing across her shoulder. Solari's hand stilled as fingertips came in contact with the scar. Neither had said a word since Solari had climbed into her bed, but both could feel a palpable tension in the air with Solari's inadvertent touch.
Solari drew back by perceptible inches. Her face that had been pressed close to Ephiny's was now distant. Her hand moved away to reappear at Ephiny's hip. Ephiny remained silent as Solari's palm pressed flat against her stomach and her chin rested on top of her head.
So different from Pony's reaction.
Ephiny's mind drifted, remembering that lazy, loving morning in Potadeia. She had slowly awoken, taking stock of her senses one by one. Something had woken her, but she hadn't immediately known what it was.
Then, memories of the evening before came flooding back. I seduced Eponin. For what seemed like the first time in her life, she'd been wild and out of control. I didn't just seduce her. I absolutely ravished her. A wicked grin spread across her lips.
"You look like the fox that ate the little chicks in the hen house."
That voice rolled over her, causing her smile to deepen and Ephiny blinked her eyes open. She was surprised to see amber-hued ones barely a hand-span from her face, staring down at her.
"Could be." Ephiny's grin widened and she surged forward, nipping Eponin's nose with her sharp teeth. "Never thought of you as a little chick, though."
Eponin looked flustered, her cheeks turning crimson beneath Ephiny's tease. Then, there was more playful teasing and tender explorations. Ephiny's short-capped nails experimentally raked across Eponin's posterior before her hands tenderly cupped the firm flesh there. Eponin's calloused fingers and palms became soft as silk as they traced the line of Ephiny's collarbone. Ephiny rolled them over, the insides of her knees pressing against Eponin's hips as she lowered herself on Eponin's muscled abdomen. Then, Eponin's palms were on her stomach and her hips. Ephiny was leaning forward, placing kisses about Eponin's face and neck and upper body. Eponin responded in kind, her lips brushing against Ephiny's cheek and neck and shoulder.
Ephiny stiffened as she felt Eponin's breath upon her shoulder, upon that scar left by the arrow she'd taken for her Queen. Eponin was staring at her, at her scar. Ephiny felt suddenly self-conscious. She reached down, placing a hand over the pink-hued flesh. Her other palm braced flat on Eponin's stomach, she started to get up.
Eponin stopped her. Without words. With only a look and a touch. Eyes unblinking, Eponin reached out and took Ephiny's hand and drew it away from her shoulder. Honey-hued eyes flicked to Ephiny's face, then back to her shoulder. Fingertips reached out, the lightest of touches tracing the marred flesh. Then, in a move that could only have come from the weapons master, Ep was sitting up in bed, Ephiny still straddling her lap. She bent her head and kissed the abused flesh. Then, she licked it, using the tip of her tongue to trace the pattern left by the arrowhead. Ephiny's arms came up, her hands burying themselves in thick ebony locks.
Their coupling of the night before had been rushed and frantic and there wasn't a thing Ephiny would have changed about it. But, this - this was - Ephiny closed her eyes and moaned, becoming lost in the sensations of having this woman making love to her.
"Hey. Hey, you okay?"
Ephiny blinked, coming back to herself. "Huh?"
"You okay?" Solari repeated.
Ephiny was on her back, her head nestled in the crook of Solari's arm. When did that happen? Then, she realized she was holding Eponin's blue feathered earring in her grasp, idly brushing the tip over and over again against Solari's twitching stomach.
Solari reached out, stilling the repetitive action of Ephiny's hand. She frowned as she looked down at the woman lying in her arms, a soft smile on her lips as she unseeingly stared at that feathered earring. Of course, Solari knew in a heartbeat who its owner was.
"Damn, Eph. You really do love her, don't you?"
Ephiny idly stroked the blue feather over her forearm, then her cheek and across the smile etched on her lips. "Yeah. Yeah, I do." Then, feeling the stiffening of the body beneath her, Ephiny turned and looked up at her packmate. "Oh, Solari. I'm so sorry."
"Don't be." Solari forced the words out, despite the pain in her chest. She'd had over a moon to come to terms with what she'd witnessed outside Marjorie's barn. But, she'd loved Ephiny for far longer than a moon. "I've always wanted to see you in love, Ephiny. I just wish it could be with me."
"I've always loved you, Soli. You know that."
"Yeah." There was an unmistakable note of resignation in Solari's voice. "Just not like you love her."
"I've never loved anyone the way I love her. Don't ask me to explain it, Solari, because I can't. I just - I just know I do."
Solari fell silent. She lay on her back, staring at the thatched ceiling, fingers idly toying with the hair falling about Ephiny's shoulder. Being here, being with Ephiny was killing her. Being away from her, though, that was worse.
She'd tried. Blessed Artemis, how she'd tried. In that period of time between the final stand at Marjorie's farm and while the injured were recovering enough to travel home, she'd had her opportunity. She'd kept her distance, not wanting to see Ephiny with Eponin.
Oh sure, they'd tried to be discreet. But it was painfully clear to Solari. The shared looks, the covert touches, the way they were always together, never apart. It had eaten away at Solari. Until she'd finally had to come to terms with the ugly truth that if she wanted Ephiny to be in her life, she would have to accept that her packmate was truly happy. With Eponin.
Solari shifted, trying to get comfortable and grunted with the effort. She felt Ephiny shift in her arms, looked down to see hazel eyes looking up at her with concern.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah." To which Solari was referring, neither could say for certain.
"You wanna go to the hot springs?" Solari asked unexpectedly.
"Hot springs. You and me. Megara says the heat's therapeutic for my muscles. Help clear your headache, too."
Ephiny looked at Solari in surprise. "How'd you know I have a headache?"
"Because I know you." Solari eased out from beneath Ephiny and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. "Come on," she said, reaching for her crutch. "It'll be good for both of us."
"I need to get back to the Hall of Scrolls."
In truth, Ephiny had meant to head back as soon as she'd left Eponin's cell. To be honest, she hadn't wanted to leave Eponin's cell to begin with. But, as soon as their lovemaking was done and she'd been drifting in that languidness of the well-sated, Eponin's voice had rumbled low in her ear.
"Come on, Eph." Eponin nudged her shoulder. "You can't stay here."
"You're kicking me out?" Ephiny asked incredulously. "What; I was just some quick lay for you?"
"No! No, of course not." Eponin brought her hand up, calloused fingers tenderly stroking against Ephiny's cheek. "But, I won't have you falling asleep here in some dark, filthy cell. You're too good for that."
"So are you," protested Ephiny.
"Yeah, well." Eponin smiled sheepishly. "Not like I got a choice. You do, though. You're a Queen, Eph. You deserve to be treated like one. Athena's breastplate, you deserve the finest bedsheets dinars can buy."
"Don't put me on a pedestal, Ep. I'm nothing special. I'm just a regular warrior like you."
"Ain't never been nothing regular about you, Eph. Knew that from the first day I met ya. Now, go on. Get out of here before I yell out to the guards that you're taking advantage of the prisoner."
"Eph?" Solari jostled her regent. "Hot springs?"
Ephiny looked guiltily at Solari. Her packmate was already at the door, her crutch pressed close against her frame. She wanted to get back to the Hall of Scrolls. But, Solari was right; a soak would clear that looming headache right up. Besides, she still felt bad for having hurt her closest friend.
"Soak in the hot springs," agreed Ephiny, grabbing two long linen cloths out of her dresser drawer. She threw one at Solari. The other, she draped about her neck. Then, she added, "A short one."
Solari's step faltered as she recognized the Amazon making a beeline straight for them. Ephiny noticed the misstep, reached out a hand to offer her packmate support.
Sharp eyes noticed the regent's hand upon the chief scout's back but made no mention of it. "Regent Ephiny, a word?"
Devillare gave a slight tilt of her head to the side as she asked, indicating that she wished a private audience.
Ephiny gave a firm nod of her head. "You go ahead, Soli. I'll be along shortly."
Solari appeared uncertain, looking first from Ephiny to Devillare. But, then she reasoned that Devillare was the captain of the guard and she could be trusted to protect the regent's life with her own. Besides, with her current injuries, she figured Ephiny could have a long-winded conversation with the captain and still easily beat her to the springs. Not that she would ever expect them to have a long, drawn out conversation. Warriors, she snorted beneath her breath.
Both Ephiny and Devillare watched as Solari adjusted the crutch beneath her arm and limped away. Megara had changed out Solari's bandage earlier that morning, opting for a lighter, less expansive cloth to redress her wound. This one offered more flexibility, as evidenced by her longer stride.
Devillare bit her bottom lip, watching the movement of flesh and muscle with each step Solari took. Her gaze drifted to and stayed on the seductive sway of Solari's hips. Gabrielle's words of don't judge a scroll by its cover came back to her as her eyes freely roamed over the brunette's body.
There was a clearing of a throat beside the captain. Nonplussed, Devillare said, "Scout's gotten much better with that crutch."
"Mm. Yes. I think she's taken to leaving the other one in her hut full time."
Ephiny's eyes darted to Devillare's hands, where the warrior firmly clutched a small jar in her grasp. It looked to Ephiny suspiciously like the sort Megara kept at the hospice.
"Is that what you wanted to speak with me about?" Ephiny asked, placing a hand on her captain's arm, "Solari?"
Grey eyes tore away from the scout, looking down at her regent's hand on her arm before shifting to focus on Ephiny's concerned face.
In truth, Devillare had approached with intent of speaking with the scout, not the regent. But, then when she'd seen Ephiny's hand resting familiarly on the small of Solari's back and with what she'd witnessed in the shadows of Eponin's cell...
"Um, no. I wanted to - " there was a pause as Devillare looked away and took a deep breath before looking back at Ephiny and saying " - what you're doing with Eponin - "
" - is none of the council's business."
"It is. But I have no intention of reclaiming my seat on the council."
"Then, you intend to remain on active duty?"
"I see." Ephiny drew in a deep breath, then released it. "Then, captain, I would remind you that my personal affairs are none of your concern."
"As captain of your guard, they are," Devillare countered. "But, that's not why I'm asking."
A lone eyebrow edged towards the regent's crown. "Devillare, are you asking my intentions towards Pony as a concerned parent?"
There was a hint of mirth in Ephiny's smirk that was not reflected in Devillare's expression.
"Don't declare her as your champion if you can't claim her as your consort."
"The two aren't mutually exclusive."
"No, they're not. But, it wouldn't serve either of you well. Make her both. Or neither."
An odd look flittered across Ephiny's face as something niggled at her memory. Something she'd read while in the Hall of Scrolls. "You were the Queen's consort, weren't you?"
"Yes, but never her champion. Believe me, the distinction between the two becomes blurred."
Ephiny remembered reading about the rebellion in the scrolls, the captain's sacrifice, the Queen's death. She'd remembered reading it once as a youngster and thinking how romantic the tale had been. The Queen and her gallant captain. At the time, she'd been far too young to know that these were real people she'd been reading about - or to comprehend Devillare's role as consort instead of champion.
"Thank the Gods Melosa never named a champion." If she had, Ephiny knew that she'd have chosen Eponin. Velasca would have had to fight Pony to get to Melosa. Ephiny knew that Ep was unequaled with any weapon in the village. She could have taken Velasca in a fair fight. But when did Melosa's adopted daughter ever fight fair?
"Whatever I do, it's my decision. But know this, Devillare, hurting Eponin would never be my intent."
"No," said Devillare. "No, I don't expect it would be. Mark my words, love has a way of making a fool out of all of us."
"The fact that you're offering me such sage counsel," Ephiny said, "I take it Gabrielle's found a loophole?"
"No. No, she hasn't and perhaps it was premature of me to speak out of turn, but it was something that I felt I had to do."
"Never apologize for speaking up for another," Ephiny advised, then added, "As long as that person would want you to speak for them."
Devillare smirked. "Point taken, my regent. You know, I was always against the push for you to name a champion and a consort."
"Yeah, but then you went and got sick on me and left me to face Tynette alone." An odd look came over Ephiny's face and she gripped Devillare's arm. "You fell sick so suddenly and grew steadily worse. Just when I needed you the most and Tynette needed you out of the way."
Devillare's face darkened. "My regent, you don't think?"
"That you were being poisoned?" Ephiny shrugged. "Hilaeira was the one tending you in the hospice, just as she was the one treating Ep. She would be the only one to know for sure and since she's locked in a cell for what she did to Pony, I can't see her confessing to any additional wrong doing, can you?"
"No, I suppose not. I guess we'll never know for sure."
"Damn Tynette and damn her insidious plots," Ephiny spat. Her spittle was instantly lost somewhere in the fine dusting of snow upon the ground. "And for what; because she didn't like my choice of who I was going to take into my bed?"
"Who is to say what motivates zealots and nutcases? Only other zealots and nutcases, I think." Devillare made a showing of looking about. "And, I don't see either of those anywhere around here, so we may never know. But, I think we can all agree Tynette's machinations were far more ambitious than putting the right puppet in your bed."
"Pony was right, I should have gone for that two-headed Centaur."
"Guess that would've really thrown Tynette's plot for a loop." Devillare outright laughed at the notion. "Can't say the rest of the council would be pleased, either. Nor Eponin."
"Trust me, I wouldn't be, either." Ephiny suddenly sobered at the thought of being with anyone - even someone as mythical as a two-headed Centaur - instead of her weapons master. It wasn't a thought she cared to dwell on. "Haven't you any news, then?"
Devillare knew instantly to what Ephiny was referring. "I spoke with the Queen earlier. They're still searching."
"But, you are confident they'll find something?"
"I have to be. Gabrielle and Evanthe are the best scholars we've got. If there's any legal way out of this, they'll find it."
"Then, I'm going to be there when they do."
"My regent? Aren't you forgetting; you have a scout waiting for you at the hot springs?"
Ephiny looked in the direction Solari had walked off in. Of course, her packmate was well out of sight by this time.
"Devillare, I need to be there. I know Gabrielle thinks I'm too close to this to help, but I have to." Ephiny chewed her bottom. Taking the linen cloth from around her neck, she reached up, draping it over the taller warrior's shoulders. "Explain it to Solari for me?"
"Yes, my regent." Devillare gave a nod of consent.
Ephiny flashed her a quick smile, then bolted, fairly sprinting for the Hall of Scrolls. Devillare watched her go, secretly pleased that Ephiny was so determined to fight for Eponin's freedom. Then, feeling the weight of the linen cloth about her shoulders, she remembered her promise to find the scout. "Humph," she huffed, "sent on an errand like a common messenger."
Solari let out a decadent moan. Her head was back, her eyes closed, warm water lapping at the chestnut strands falling about both shoulders. Her arms were stretched out, braced upon a rock shelf carved beneath the surface of the water. Her legs were stretched before her, the water's buoyancy providing her a sense of weightlessness.
Here, in the warmth of the hot springs, she felt all her aches and pains disappear. Here, she was able to put all the heartache and pain she'd suffered over the past few moons away. Her hand. Eponin's supposed betrayal. Her leg. Ephiny's - Solari put that thought right out of her mind. She'd swore she would be happy for her packmate.
Speaking of -
"About damn time," Solari smirked as she heard the echo of boots on the cave's stone floor, "Thought I was going to have to send a scouting party out to carry you in here by your tailfeathers."
There was a sloshing sound as bare feet displaced the water.
"Have to be some pretty big scouts to lift this set of tailfeathers."
The deep voice startled Solari so badly that she lost her balance, her elbows slipping from the stone shelf they'd been resting on. Her open mouth ducked below the waterline and she came up spitting and sputtering. Wide open eyes stared in disbelief at the warrior calmly sitting on the stones at the edge of the heated pool, her calves and feet submerged in the warm depths.
"Ack!" Solari frantically tried to cover her bare breasts with both arms and hands. "You - you - "
"Warrior?" Devillare supplied, clearly amused by the chief scout's sudden bout of modesty.
"Wh - what are you doing here?"
"Soaking." Devillare nodded her head at her submerged legs in indication.
"You - but - I - "
"Scout, I'm sure there's a whole sentence in there somewhere just dying to get out."
"I - " Solari was unnerved by the captain's unwavering gaze and calm demeanor. Even though she had ducked down lower in the water, she still felt Devillare's heated gaze on her breasts. Which was ridiculous, she knew, as the warrior's eyes appeared to be locked on her face. Still, Solari moved towards the perceived safety of deeper water. "I thought you were Ephiny."
"Ah, yes. The regent sends her apologies. She asked me to let you know she was returning to the Hall of Scrolls."
"Oh. I see."
Devillare saw the crestfallen look and felt bad for the scout, but at the same time, she was still glad that Ephiny had gone off to help the others. The regent was a warrior, but she was smart, too. And determined. Eponin's fate couldn't be in better hands.
Devillare took the linen cloth that had been draped about her shoulders off and neatly folded it, placing it on a dry rock near the edge of the pool. She spotted Solari's clothes in a nearby pile. All of her clothes.
"Anyway, when I stopped the two of you on the path," Devillare ducked her head. Looking up at Solari through thick lashes, she confessed, "It wasn't the regent I was looking for."
"You were looking for me?" Solari's tone was laden with suspicion. "Why?"
"Something I've been meaning to say to you."
"Really?" Solari rolled her eyes. "Who am I corrupting now?" She made a point of looking about the deserted cavern. "I don't see any members of the guard that I've lured astray with my lurid morals."
Devillare released a heavy sigh, her eyes wandering the cavern, also. Nope, they were most definitely quite alone. The entire mountainside was riddled with caverns, many of them housing pools of heated water. Some of the caverns were humongous in size, large enough to house an entire army of frolicking Amazons. Others, like this one, were much smaller and more intimate in nature.
The regent herself had told Devillare which cavern she and the chief scout preferred. It was set further back from most of the other caves with an opening barely the size of two hut doors. The pool was a good size with moss-covered rocks lined about the edges. As with the other caverns, there was a stockpile of oil and torches and flint. Blankets were folded up and stored in one corner of the small cave, in case the inhabitants decided to stay overnight. There was a wooden crate that Devillare suspected contained dried trail rations and other supplies.
"I didn't come here to fight with you."
Solari arched a brow. "Why did you come, then?"
"To deliver the regent's message." Deep sigh. "And, also because I owe you an apology."
"Excuse me?" Solari had been so stunned that she momentarily forgot to tread water. She came up, spitting and sputtering. "You - you want to apologize to me?"
Devillare looked Solari squarely in the eye and said, "I do. If you'll allow me."
That unnerving gaze continued to bore holes in the scout. Solari found it unsettling, to say the least. So much so that she couldn't process what Devillare was saying. She felt like she was at a distinct disadvantage, naked and treading water with an elder warrior sitting on the edge of the pool calmly talking to her as though it were an everyday occurrence.
Solari and Devillare both breathed easier. Until Solari spoke again.
"But not like this. Not with you sitting on the edge of the tub and talking down to me like I'm a filthy five year old in the bath."
"Of course." Devillare climbed to her feet, retrieved Solari's towel. "I'll keep my back turned."
"Nuh-uh. I'm not done soaking, yet. If you're serious about that apology, you'll do it in here, on equal footing."
Both Devillare's eyebrows shot up and she looked at Solari as if she'd grown a second head.
"You're cracked. Get out and we'll discuss this like adults."
"You're the one that's cracked if you think I trudged all the way up here to get out after only five candledrips just so you could allay your conscience."
"Fine. Get out and we'll talk and then you can get back in again."
"You want me to catch my death of cold?"
"It's not that cold out here."
Devillare stopped, an odd look on her face as she remembered their very similar argument of not so long ago. Solari smirked. Devillare scowled.
"It's my apology to give, scout. Don't tell me how I should deliver it."
"If you want me to consider accepting it, warrior, you'll give it on my terms."
"It's an apology, not a formal truce."
Devillare didn't move.
Neither did Solari.
"Blessed Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt and the Amazons..." Kneeling upon the dank, dark floor of her cell, Eponin said the same prayer she said to her goddess every day since first being exiled from the Nation "...bless Ephiny and keep her safe. Protect her and guide her and give her wisdom..."
"Like, wisdom to totally get your bodacious butt out of this gloomy jail, you mean."
At the startling flash of shimmering pink sparkles and the shrill voice, Eponin had found herself knocked flat on her tailfeathers. She blinked. Again. The goddess glowed brilliantly in the dark interior of the cell.
"Aww, she remembers." The goddess of love squeezed her hands together, her arms strategically emphasizing her breasts with the movement. "Hi ya, sweetcheeks."
"Aphrodite?" Eponin looked around, as if expecting the guard to burst in on them at any time. "W-what are you doing here?"
"Like, I totally think a better question is, what are you doing here?" Aphrodite curled up her lip as she looked about the cell. "Like, tres miserable."
"Um, it's a long story."
"Immortal." Aphrodite made a hand-gesture that encompassed herself. "Totally got time."
"Okay, scout. You can turn around now."
Solari moved her arms, continuing to tread water as she slowly turned about. The elder warrior was a distance away from her, but also in the water. She was submerged up to her neck. A glance towards the edge of the pool revealed her clothes safely on a raised flat stone. Her linen towel was near the very edge of the pool within easy reach.
"Modest?" Solari asked, with a quirk of her brow.
"I've never known a warrior that wasn't proud to flaunt her body. Egeria and Bonadea certainly don't have any qualms about taking off their clothes at the drop of a dinar. I find most warriors don't."
Devillare frowned. That was something that she'd had to caution the two warriors about while they were in Marjorie's home. Both had a penchant for sleeping in the buff. That in itself wasn't all that unusual for Amazons. Even in the dead of winter, Devillare preferred to sleep that way. Those night shift things were just too uncomfortable and restricting. It'd been torture for her during her stay in the hospice in which she'd been forced to wear that gown-thing Megara had given her.
Problem was, one or the other of them would walk through the main house that way, giving anyone who cared to look an eyeful. Thank Artemis Marjorie's husband was considerate enough to allow us the use of their house until we were well enough to travel home.
That had been something that had troubled Devillare; how a man could just give up his home and his wife to a bunch of wild Amazons. Never mind there was apparently a small shack located in one of their fields that he and the boys were staying in so they could still be close; both so they could work the fields and in case Marjorie needed them.
Marjorie had calmly reminded Devillare that it was her home, passed down to her through her family. And, despite the custom of only allowing men to own property, her husband was a kind, gentle and considerate man. She'd been honest with him from the start, confessing before their marriage that she'd once loved an Amazon Queen. Devillare figured Marjorie's husband must be some kind of special to not only overlook, but to also be able to accept, his wife's past.
Anyway, Devillare had cautioned the warriors against going about naked. After all, this wasn't the Amazon Nation. Bonadea had claimed it was because her clothes rubbing against her bandages made her itch. Egeria offered no excuses; just a big grin and a wink at a furiously blushing Marjorie or Gabrielle. In the end, it had only been Gabrielle's direct order to not come out of their rooms unless they were dressed like decent folk that had made the two behave.
"Don't mistake reticence for removing one's clothing as modesty or lack of pride. Warriors train long and hard and have every right to be proud of their bodies."
"Never said they didn't."
As a matter of fact, Solari had never said she found anything wrong with warriors putting those bodies on display. It was one of her favorite pastimes, going to the bathing hut after their training sessions, watching them get undressed and soaped up.
As if sensing where the scout's thoughts were drifting, Devillare added, "Some of us are just more discriminating about who we show those bodies off to."
"Good. I'm glad you do."
"Or, better yet, I guess I should say I don't."
"See what you're not showing off to me. Your body."
"Right." A hint of something closely resembling a blush tinged Devillare's cheeks. The scout was clearly teasing her. "There are just some Amazons that don't, you know."
"Drop our clothes at the drop of a dinar. That's something we...um...I don't go around getting naked...undressing in front of a woman is about more than just being physical..." Devillare didn't know why she was so flustered or why she was even explaining this to the scout. "...it's about sharing...trusting and being open and honest feelings...for me, there's an intimacy to the act that can't be shared casually."
Solari didn't say more than that. She didn't have to. Devillare could read it in her eyes. Her apology, or rather, her explanation as for why the scout had to turn around before she'd undress and climb in the springs to give her apology was quickly offending the younger woman.
"I guess there are a lot of Amazons that wouldn't agree with me; they'd call me old-fashioned. It's just how I am." Devillare quickly worked to make amends. "Just like there's a lot of Amazons that are more, um, free spirited."
Mahogany brows arched. "I suppose you think that's how I am?"
Devillare shrugged. "Not that there's anything wrong with that."
"To each their own, I guess. I mean, if you want to strip down naked in front of the entire village, that would be your business and no one else's."
Solari glowered at the warrior. "I thought you meant to make an apology."
Ephiny gave a disheartened look about the Hall of Scrolls. It was a disorganized mess to say the least, despite Evanthe's best efforts. The elder scout had been very insistent about as soon as they'd finished perusing one scroll, they put it back exactly where they'd gotten it from. Ephiny had watched her for a time; taking one scroll down, carefully unrolling it, careful not to bend, tear or possibly damage it in any way. Then, she would use four pieces of polished marble to weigh the scroll down, holding it in place so she could peruse it without touching the parchment. Then, as she finished, she would very carefully remove the parchment weights and slowly roll the scroll up and trudge all the way back to the original shelf she had pulled it from and replace it before taking down another.
The Regent had watched for a time, thinking the entire process was maddening. She'd been - this close - to saying something when Gabrielle firmly clamped a hand over her mouth and shook her head.
"It's her passion," Gabrielle explained.
Ephiny tried to understand, really she did. She had to admit, though, that she didn't really get it until Gabrielle compared Evanthe's scrolls to a warrior's weapons.
"Just like a warrior cares for her weapons and keeps them in the best condition possible, that's how Evanthe cares for her scrolls."
"But weapons serve a purpose, Gabrielle. If they're not maintained, a sword can rust, a bow can break. They could fail you just when you need them most."
"What do you use your weapons for, Ephiny?"
Ephiny pulled a face, looking at Gabrielle as if she'd been smoking henbane. After all, she may have come to them as a simple peasant girl, but they'd turned her into a warrior. Surely as someone that wielded the staff on a daily basis, she had to know their purpose.
"To attack my enemies. To defend myself." Ephiny shrugged. "To protect my home. To defend my loved ones."
"Exactly." Gabrielle stroked a loving hand through her regent's hair and down her back. "Eph, no one can question your adeptness with a sword. But, this is one battle you can't win with steel."
"Gabrielle, is this your way of saying the quill is mightier than the sword?"
The bard shrugged. "I've heard it said before."
"If you expect a piece of parchment to save the day this time, it had better hurry. We're running out of candlemarks."
"Hey, don't throw in the towel, yet." Gabrielle wrapped both arms about Ephiny's waist giving her friend a sharp squeeze. "We won't stop until the last candledrip."
Ephiny's eyes darted about the hall. As she'd thought earlier, it was a disorganized mess. Fortunately for her sanity, Evanthe was the only one in their group that was that meticulous about the care of the scrolls. The rest of them weren't trying to intentionally disrespect Evanthe or cause any damage, but at this point, there were more scrolls on the tables and floor than there were on the shelves.
Gabrielle, Evanthe, Myrina, Symaethis, Alcestis...poor Alcestis. At one point, the diminutive counselor had been lost beneath a growing mound of discarded scrolls. They all looked as haggard as Ephiny felt. Goddess bless their hearts, they were all still working, searching without a word of complaint. Well, except for Evanthe calling for someone to bring her cider to warm her bones every couple of candlemarks. How any one Amazon could drink that much cider was beyond Ephiny.
Ephiny returned Gabrielle's hug and added a firm nod of her head for good measure. Gabrielle nodded in return, a smile ghosting her lips as the bard silently congratulated herself for yet another successful pep talk.
Hang on, Eponin, my love, Ephiny thought, I won't let them take you from me again.
Devillare released a ragged breath. The scout wasn't making this easy. Did you in all honesty expect her to?
"Look, I said some things, accused you of some things that I shouldn't have. I may have made some unfair assumptions of you."
Grey eyes looked askance at the young woman she was sharing a soak with. "Well, it's a distinct possibility."
"You called me a cow."
"I did no such thing."
"You said I gave the milk away for free. What else do you get milk from besides a cow?"
"Um - goats?"
"So now you think I'm an old goat?"
"I've thought of you as a lot of things, scout, but I can assure you, I've never thought of you as a furry-legged Satyr."
Solari tried her best to look indignant, but then gave up and smirked. Then chortled. Then outright laughed.
"What?" Devillare asked. "What's so funny?"
"While we were in Potadeia, did you know I was high on Satyr-cloves? Iphinome slipped them to me."
"Yeah, I know. Greatest thing I ever saw, you standing up to the warrior princess."
Solari's eyebrows rose. "I don't remember that."
"Oh, scout. You were great. Putting yourself between regent and queen and the Destroyer of Nations. You were standing on one leg and you had your staff balanced in one hand and you just turned it around and pop! hit the warrior princess squarely on her breastplate."
"Huh. Wish I remembered doing that." Of all the things that had happened while under the influence, it seemed that Solari was destined to only remember the most embarrassing. And, no way was she sharing that. With anyone. Bad enough that Xena knew. She was just thankful that Xena was a close-lipped warrior. No way she shares pillow talk with Gabrielle. Nope, she was confident her secrets were safe with Xena.
"Devillare?" Solari suddenly sobered, the smile falling from her lips. "What did I ever do to make you say those things to me?"
The hunter looked about, checking over both shoulders before slipping inside the blacksmith's shop. Most of the Potadeians, with the exception of the innkeeper and the blacksmith, had followed their leaders' orders and continued to shun the Amazons. While Darius was bold enough to outright flaunt his disobedience, the blacksmith rebelled through absenteeism. After all, if he wasn't there, how could he be faulted if the Amazons simply helped themselves to what they needed and left coin behind as fair payment for his goods? That way, he still made a profit and didn't have to suffer for it the way Darius was.
Tynette moved swiftly towards the back of the shop. In her haste, she brushed against a rack containing a row of swords. She knocked one loose, sent it teetering. She reached out and caught it, but the filigreed hilt bumped against the next sword in line, sending it bumping into the next and so on and so forth.
A hand reached out, deftly catching the last sword in the row before it could fall completely out of the rack and onto the floor. Startled, the hunter's eyes followed the line of that hand up a defined arm, to a broad shoulder and a face half-hidden by shadows in the dim lighting of the shop's interior.
"Tynette, what are you doing here?"
"What are you doing here?" countered the hunter.
The warrior was seated on a stool at the blacksmith's worktable. She had two long pieces of carved wood, approximately five feet in height braced between her knees. A strip of leather binding dangled from a carved handgrip located slightly more than halfway up and secured between the two pieces of wood. At the top, was another curved piece of wood designed to act as support. Another identical piece of wood lay flat upon the top of the worktable.
"That's none of your concern." Grey eyes narrowed in challenge. "Your concern is supposed to be on the roof of the inn, watching for signs of renegades."
"Lyonene relieved me for a spell." Tynette scowled at Devillare, specifically at the royal blue sash tied about her waist and the armor she wore, particularly the armguard that designated her as captain. "Not that I have to answer to you."
"Actually, you do." Devillare's eyes narrowed. "We've already gone through this once. Do I need to remind you again that as Captain of the Royal Guard, I answer only to Queen and Regent?"
"Do you mean to the regent that has sequestered herself in her room, doing who-knows-what with a known traitor to the Nation and to the queen that turns out to be nothing more than a peasant girl that grew up in this very sinkhole that we're trying to defend?"
"Careful, Tynette." Devillare's voice was a low growl. "You're on the verge of treason yourself."
"And who's going to charge me? You?!?" Tynette scoffed.
"As captain, I'd be well within my rights. It'd be both my duty and my pleasure."
"Funny that you should mention your pleasure, captain."
Tynette leaned against the workbench, a huge smirk on her face as she folded her arms over her frame.
"How much pleasure can a woman of your..." Tynette's eyes swept over the warrior's body "...rank...stand?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about."
"Of course you do." Tynette's fingers reached out, capturing the strands of leather braiding that dangled from the handgrip of the crutch positioned between Devillare's knees. "I'm sure Solari will be most grateful to receive these."
Devillare shooed Tynette's fingers away from the braiding, began looping it around the handgrip again. She continued her work as she talked. "Scout's about to go crazy from not being able to get out of that bed."
"Not that you're complaining, right?" Tynette winked.
Devillare's hands stilled and her eyes narrowed. "What are you getting at, hunter?"
"Oh, come on, Devil. I've seen the way you look at her. The way you can't stand to have anyone else looking at her the same way." Tynette reached out, flicking a nail against Devillare's shoulder armor. "I guess it's a good thing rank has its privileges."
Devillare knocked Tynette's offending hand away. Tynette wasn't backing down, though.
"Wonder if poor Lexine's figured out she's been sniffing after the wrong piece of tail, yet? That the reason she keeps getting all the crap assignments is because you're keeping the competition away."
Devillare's jaw clenched. She thrust a finger in Tynette's smirking face.
"The reason Lexine keeps pulling the details she does is because she can't be entrusted with anything of consequence. It's Lexine's inability to perform her duties that's dictated her position."
"Exactly. I must say, though, I am a bit surprised that you had your head so easily turned by a set of well-used tailfeathers. Then again, I've heard the chief scout is very...agile. I'm sure there's been a great many duties she's been able to perform for you...even confined to bed." Tynette had the sense to back away well out of Devillare's reach before she launched her final attack. "Let's hope being the captain this time is enough to keep your woman from...shall we say...looking for a changing of the guard?"
Tynette had backed nearly all the way to the front of the shop by then. Like the hunter that she was, Tynette had launched her volley from a safe distance. There was no way for Devillare to go after her without it being seen from the rooftop of the inn. So instead, she remained seated at the worktable, her anger seething, fists clenching knuckle-white until she snapped the handgrip of the crutch in two. With a ferocious yell, she slammed the unfinished crutch down on the worktable and stormed out of the blacksmith's shop.
"Wow. Totally bodacious tale, Amazon babe," Aphrodite whistled.
"Yeah, tell me about it," Eponin agreed. "Finally got the girl of my dreams and I'm scheduled to be exiled come first light."
"That noise you made," said Eponin, "What was that?"
"Pshaw?" asked Aphrodite. "It's like, as if." The goddess of love shrugged. "Don't know. Was just trying it out. Don't think it'll catch on."
"Oh." Dark brows furrowed. "As if?"
"Yeah. As if you're gonna be exiled. If death can't stop true love, what makes you think a bogus technicality like a confession can?"
"But, it's the law. I'm gonna be exiled if Gabrielle and Ephiny and the others can't find a loophole."
"Fortunately for you, the Goddess of Love doesn't operate under the laws of mortal man...err...Amazon. You just say the word, sweetcheeks, and I'll poof! you out of here so fast it'll make your head spin."
"You can - um - poof? - me out of this cell?"
"For sure. I can poof! you to anywhere in the known world you wanna go, girlfriend!"
Eponin frowned. "But, after what happened with the whole enchanted bracer mess and the - "
"Please!" Aphrodite held up a hand in protest. "Please, don't call it a curse."
"Okay," Ep shrugged. "But, I thought after all that happened you were kind of, um, banned from stepping foot inside the Amazon Nation?"
"She's right about that."
There was a sudden green swirling mist and a woman clad in soft leather and sandals appeared in the cell. There was a quiver of arrows over one bronzed shoulder and she held a nocked arrow upon her bow. To Eponin, her large almond colored eyes very much resembled that of a doe's.
"Ar - Artemis?"
Eponin instantly fell to her knees.
The newly materialized goddess turned to look at the goddess of love with a smug smirk on her lips.
Looking back on it now, it was obvious to Devillare that Tynette had played her. She'd been in the blacksmith's shop to reclaim her hidden arrows and Devillare's presence had spoiled that for her. She'd intentionally picked that fight with Devillare so that she could avoid the warrior's questions about why she was there. The ludicrous insinuation that Devillare had gotten Lexine out of the way so she could stroke Solari's tailfeathers had been just that; a ploy to make her angry.
It had worked. So much so that Devillare had abandoned her work on the crutches. They'd remained there on the blacksmith's worktable untouched ever since the incident with Tynette. It was only when they were gathering the horses and packing up their gear that Devillare spied the unfinished project exactly where she'd left it. Not knowing what possessed her, gathered up the pieces and stowed it with the rest of her gear.
She'd finished the crutches their first night at the farmhouse. It only made sense to give them to the scout the next morning so that she could at least stand on her own two feet and defend herself. She firmly put Tynette's echoing insinuations out of her mind as Solari took the crutches and made her way to her feet, thanking Devillare with an unexpected hug and a peck on the cheek. Then, the girl was out the door and headed across the yard, determined to enjoy the outdoors.
Devillare stood in the front room, arms crossed over her chest as she watched out the window. She had an unobstructed view inside the open barn door across the way. Eponin was hard at work, sharpening sticks for the trap they were designing for the renegades. Gabrielle was picking up another armload of finished product and carrying it down to the fence row. As she came out of the barn, she narrowly missed being ran over by Solari on her crutches.
"Hey, Solari!" Gabrielle called out. "Getting good!"
At the sound of her Queen's voice, the scout made a sharp turn and narrowly missed clipping a chicken that was scratching about for worms.
"That girl's a menace to navigation," Devillare grumbled, even though there was a smile upon her lips.
She'd never seen someone so thoroughly enjoy a set of crutches before. She watched with equal parts amusement and pride that the scout would get such pleasure out of something she'd crafted. Feeling sappy and philosophical, Devillare contemplated on how they all took for granted the simple gift of walking.
For someone like Solari, someone in her prime, someone who'd up until a few moons ago practiced the art of climbing and traveling from tree to tree with such grace and ease, it had to be a devastating loss. Then, to be confined to a bed, unable to even get up unassisted...It made Devillare happy to think that she could give the scout some small bit of her freedom back.
The rich aroma of cooking followed Marjorie in from the kitchen to the main room.
"Midday meal will be ready soon," she said.
A rumble of thunder echoed loudly overhead, drawing their attention to the gathering clouds.
"I'll call them in soon."
Devillare looked about the yard, spying Solari going full out on her crutches, terrorizing a squealing piglet that had wandered into her path. The mother pig had her snout firmly pressed against the pen and was bellowing out her displeasure at having her young one chased about by a three-legged person. Devillare was reluctant to put the scout's fun to an end.
"She's quite a girl."
"That's quite a girl you've got there," Marjorie repeated, nodding her head at the brunette in the yard.
"Huh? Oh. No, Eponin's mine." Devillare pointed, indicating the Amazon that had come to the door of the barn to see what all the commotion was about.
"Of course Eponin's yours," Marjorie smiled, "Anyone can tell that just by looking. She's the spitting image of you."
"She's not. Not really. I mean, I adopted her."
"Well, I hadn't exactly pictured you having her the traditional way." Marjorie let out a deep laugh. "Anyway, I wasn't talking about your daughter. I was referring to your mate."
"My - what?"
"Your mate." Marjorie pointed at Solari. The scout had changed directions and now was heading in the direction of the fence row. "Isn't that what you Amazons call your - um - wives?"
Devillare's face paled. "I don't have a bondmate."
"I'm sorry." Marjorie looked flustered. "I just assumed the two of you were - "
Tynette's words in the blacksmith's shop came thundering back in Devillare's ears, keeping her from hearing Marjorie say "a couple". Instead, she heard Tynette's brusque voice accusing her of being much, much worse.
Devillare remembered telling Marjorie that she should stick to playing matchmaker amongst her pigs and leave the Amazons out of it. She was steaming when she bolted out of the kitchen door and down the stairs. By the time she reached the fence row and saw Lexine yet again attempting to flirt with Solari, she was fairly boiling.
And the person I took my anger out on was the person that deserved it the least.
"Given that you were told to stay away from my Amazons," Artemis said, turning towards Aphrodite, "Give me one good reason I shouldn't shoot you."
Aphrodite's eyes widened at the sight of the bow raised and the string drawn back, only Artemis' fingertips keeping the arrow from being launched straight at her heart. Then, she remembered she was immortal.
"Like, Hello!" Aphrodite slapped a hand to her heart. "This is a new diaphanous gown! Arrow holes would be most heinously unwelcome!"
Rolling her eyes, Artemis slowly lowered her bow arm. Zeus knew if she shot her, Aphrodite would run screaming all the way to - well, Zeus.
Eponin chanced looking up from her kneeling position at the sound of the irreverent nickname for her patron goddess. What she saw was Aphrodite sidling up to the goddess of the hunt, running her hand up and down Artemis' arm and laying her head on a solid shoulder as she batted her baby blue eyes.
"I know I'm not supposed to be here, but I feel like it's my fault sweetcheeks is in this mess."
Artemis rolled her head on her shoulders, looked at the Amazon kneeling on the floor. She made a motion for Eponin to get up. As the weapons master slowly made her way to her feet, Artemis turned her attention back to Aphrodite.
"Why? Because it was your curse that caused the stablehand to try to kill the queen, only to hit the regent instead?"
"It wasn't a curse."
"Tell that to the same stablehand that was driven by unrequited love to kidnap the regent and the hunter. Wait. That stablehand tried to take her own life - Oh, and the hunter...one of my best hunters, mind you...is now dead, after trying to kill my champion and both my queen and my regent."
"Point of order. She - " Aphrodite pointed at a silently standing by Eponin " - wouldn't be Artemis' champion if she hadn't had to fight Cordele in that challenge."
"She would still have been my champion," argued Artemis. "She would've been declared that when she joined - "
Artemis' words trailed off. Aphrodite looked to the Amazon with mischievous, sparkling eyes.
Eponin was shocked. "You mean, I was always supposed to - "
"Be with your sweetie?" asked Aphrodite, unable to hold back any longer, a wide smile on her face.
Artemis was much more reserved by comparison. She was looking down at the stone floor of the cell, rubbing the back of her neck with her hand. Aphrodite nudged her. To no effect. She nudged her again. With a long suffering sigh, Artemis looked towards the waiting Amazon.
Damn it and damn Aphrodite for making me reveal that. "Okay, look. I may have asked Aphrodite to tweak Ephiny's love life a bit. As my chosen, I was concerned that she was spending too much time focusing on treaties and negotiations and trade agreements and the like. I know it's important to the future of the Nation, but so is being one with the forest and enjoying life and being free. What good is it to be an Amazon if you're bound to a desk all day?"
"Exactly. All fun and no play makes the regent - Like, Ow!" Aphrodite shrieked as Artemis poked her with the sharp tip of an arrow. "So, like anyway," she stuck out her tongue at the goddess of the hunt, "What I found was that there were definitely several feather and leather gals that had a thing for tall, blonde and gorgeous. But, ya'll were all keeping your feelings severely repressed. So, I did a little spell to try to lighten the mood, maybe get your regent to let her hair down a little, maybe get her groove on."
"Her groove on?" Artemis looked at Aphrodite as if she'd suddenly grown a tail. "Where do you get these phrases?" she asked before turning back to Eponin, "Unknown to Aphrodite - " a nudge from the goddess of love had Artemis rolling her eyes and adding " - and through no fault of her own, Gabrielle brought an enchanted bracer into the village and it augmented the spell. Hence, the mass chaos."
"Hey! It wasn't total chaos! The spell did do its job. It just did it a little too well. But, hey; I got results, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did," admitted Artemis. "My regent suddenly had her fair share of interested suitors. And, I can't say I was displeased by the choices available."
"You mean Solari and Cordele," said Eponin.
"Both of them would have been acceptable," Artemis agreed. Aphrodite backhanded the huntress for her insensitivity. Artemis held up her hand to thwart another strike and continued, "But, I don't have to have the powers of the Goddess of Love to know who had already won Ephiny's heart."
"Aww," gushed Aphrodite. She planted a kiss on Artemis' cheek that left the distinctive outline of red lips on bronzed flesh.
"Gee, that's great," Eponin said without real enthusiasm. "Doesn't do me a lot of good, stuck in here."
"Oh, Pony." Aphrodite looked truly sorry. "That's why I want to make it up to you. Just say the word and I'll get you out of this mess."
"Why now? If you could fix this, why wait until now?" Eponin's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "I know you were forbidden to be on Amazon land, but I could've really used your help when I was half-dead on the open road - or when I'd hit rock bottom in that dive in Potadeia - or any of a number of other times. Why didn't you do something then?"
"You know what, Solari? You didn't do anything wrong." Devillare downed her head, picked at a callous on the palm of her hand. "I made some judgments about you that weren't fair." Steel grey eyes looked up, meeting Solari's deep brown bedroom eyes. "It wasn't right and I'm deeply sorry that I said those things to you."
"Wow." Solari tilted her head to the side, "For someone of little words, you said a lot, warrior."
They continued to tread water, both of them looking awkwardly at the other in the ensuing uncomfortable silence. Devillare scrubbed a hand across her face. She looked off to the side of the pool, spying their clothes upon the rocks.
Feeling that she should say something else, she looked back at Solari. "Scout? Um - I think your taste in clothing is okay, too."
Solari looked so startled by the comment and Devillare didn't realize why until it dawned on her that she was looking right at Solari and the scout wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing. Devillare's eyes widened.
"I don't mean because you're naked - " That somehow sounded worse " - I mean, I'm sure you look good without clothes too but - " That didn't come out any better " - not that I was trying to look at - "
"Devillare." Solari held up a hand. "Stop. Your peace offering is sounding worse by the heartbeat."
"Peace offering." That suddenly reminded Devillare. "I brought you something."
Solari arched a mahogany brow. "A gift? For me?" There was a childlike gleam in her eyes. "What is it?"
"Salve. For your wounds."
The transformation was instantaneous. Solari's smile fell. She turned away and swam towards the underwater shelf she'd been perched on when Devillare had first come in.
"Scout?" Devillare called after the retreating woman. "What is it? What's wrong?"
Solari shook her head, refusing to answer.
"I - um - " Aphrodite cringed, sent pleading eyes towards Artemis.
Artemis relented with a firm nod of her head.
"I was doing penance for wronging Artie's Amazons," Aphrodite confessed. Her head was down and she was wringing her hands. She looked up. Reaching out, she stroked a hand along the Amazon's cheek. "Believe me, sweetcheeks, if I'd know what you were going through - if I could have done anything at all before now - I would have."
Eponin studied Aphrodite's face. She didn't know what had happened to the goddess of love, didn't know why Artemis herself hadn't intervened before now, figured it wasn't her place to know the ways of goddesses. One thing she did know, though, was that Aphrodite was telling the truth. She could see it in her eyes.
"You can make things go back to normal?" Eponin asked. "The way they were before the enchanted bracer?"
"Well," Aphrodite wheedled, "No. The best I can do is offer you a new life, anywhere you want, a chance to start over. As long as it's not anywhere near Amazon territory."
"But, Ephiny can go with me, right?"
"Um - " Aphrodite looked at her shoes, then back up again as she rolled her eyes and admitted, "No. Artemis has made me promise not to interfere with the regent's life anymore on account of she's important to the future of the entire Nation and not just one Amazon."
Artemis huffed at being made the villain by Aphrodite's obvious quoting of her demands.
"Afraid if you go, sweetcheeks, you go alone."
"I see." Eponin felt like there were yet more cards on the table. "Artemis? I mean, my Goddess?"
"Artemis is fine," the goddess waved away the formality. "After all, you are my champion, are you not?"
Eponin bit her bottom lip. "I don't know. Am I?"
"Regardless of anything else that has happened, Eponin," Artemis looked the Amazon squarely in the eye, "know that you have continued to be my champion."
Artemis clasped a hand upon Eponin's shoulder and Ep felt a tingling warmth spreading through her body. The aches and pains she'd felt ever since the challenge in the arena were suddenly gone and she felt better than she had in ages. Unknowingly, she stood up a little straighter. Aphrodite hid a secret smile, pleased by Artemis' covert gesture.
"I can not guarantee nor influence the outcome in a mortal court of law," Artemis advised. "You may or may not gain your freedom and a return to your former station. Even if you do stay, the path will not be an easy one. There will be some that will be opposed to you being the regent's champion - or her mate. If you are sent away, you'll be taken to a prison where many would take great pride in being able to say they killed Artemis' champion. But know this, the queen, the regent and others have been working diligently to secure your freedom."
"If I take Aphrodite's offer, my freedom is guaranteed."
"It is," nodded Artemis. "Unless, you tempt fate by crossing paths again with your former sisters one day. Remember, they will be under orders to kill you on sight."
"So, take Aphrodite's offer and live to die another day or take your offer and maybe live to die tomorrow?"
Solari kept her back turned to the warrior and ignored Devillare's entreaties to find out what was wrong. Devillare exhaled audibly. Finally, she swam to the scout's side in three strong strokes.
Despite the temperature of the water, Solari was shivering when Devillare appeared directly behind and to the side of her. Devillare clamped a hand firmly down on a bare shoulder so that Solari wouldn't be tempted to try to swim away again. Solari's trembling only increased.
"Scout, what's wrong?"
Solari ducked her head, tried turning away. Devillare caught her by the chin, forced her to turn her head. A finger tilt forced a resisting Solari to look up. Devillare's gaze softened as she saw the tears slowly trailing down her cheeks.
"Come on, scout. Don't be like this. I'd rather fight with you than have you like this." No response. "I'm sorry. Whatever stupid thing I said or did, I'm sorry and I'll try not to do it again...if you'll just tell me what I did wrong."
Solari brought her left hand up out of the water, angrily swiped at her tears. "You really don't know?" she asked, "It's your so-called gift."
"The salve?" Devillare's brow furrowed. "I know it's not a new knife, but I thought you'd appreciate it."
"Is that what Lexine told you; that I'd be appreciative?"
Both the warrior's brows rose in surprise. "What?"
"I've seen the way the women in the village look at me, with equal parts sympathy and disgust. I saw the same look in Lexine's eyes. Then, for you to show up here with your gift...do you think I'm so stupid I'd think it was mere coincidence?"
"Scout, I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Today, at the jail. Lexine was on duty..."
"You were flirting with her."
Solari frowned. She knew even before she'd recited what had occurred between herself and Lexine that the warrior would be angry with her. Even knowing that, she couldn't stop the words flowing forth from her mouth. The tone of displeasure in the captain's voice was enough to make her wince.
"I needed inside the jail."
"I'm surprised she didn't let you in." Devillare fought the urge to say more. She wanted to yell and scream and shout - but controlled her baser emotions as she recognized that the scout was already deeply troubled by her actions. Despite her resolve to stay calm, though, she still couldn't resist a jab. A small one. "Even more surprised you didn't try getting yourself arrested to get your way."
Solari shrugged. "Might have. If I'd thought of it."
Good thing I gave Lexine that order. Don't need nosy scouts seeing what I saw. "Why'd you want to see Eponin so badly that you'd resort to flirting with someone that makes your skin crawl?"
If Solari was surprised that Devillare was so observant to her reaction to Lexine, she hid it well. "Eponin? I was there to see Hilaeira."
"Hilaeira?" Devillare wasn't nearly as adept at disguising her surprise. "What would you want to see her for?"
"I didn't want to, I needed to." Solari downed her head, chewed her bottom lip. "I had to know. I had to ask her."
"Ask her what?" Devillare reached out, using two fingers to lift Solari's chin. The scout wore an absolutely tortured look on her face. "What did you need to know?"
"If - if it was part of her and Tynette's scheme. If it was on purpose or just some stupid accident." The words were ripped from Solari's throat with such anguish that it made Devillare's heart ache. "I wanted her to look at me, look at my hand and tell why - why she did that to me!"
Solari was openly sobbing, despite her best efforts to be strong. Devillare wanted nothing more than to reach out and wrap her arms about the scout and hold her tight and whisper to her that everything would be okay.
Devillare knew an embrace wasn't what Solari needed right now. Just as she also somehow knew that despite her feelings otherwise, there were still plenty of Amazons back at the village that would give their eye teeth to have the chief scout share a hot spring with them.
Devillare couldn't take the scout into her arms and comfort her. And, she'd be damned if she'd tell her that any number of other Amazons would be more than willing to. So instead, she forced herself to keep her arms at her sides, fists clenching and unclenching beneath the surface of the water.
Solari harshly scrubbed a hand across her face and through her hair. It didn't escape Devillare's notice that it was her left hand she used. Looking back with perfect vision, it was clear to the warrior now that the scout had kept her right hand hidden beneath the surface ever since she'd first become aware of her presence in the cave.
"Scout, I am sorry for what happened to you today. I'm also sorry that you think I'd be that cruel." Devillare cautiously inched closer. "I assure you, I brought that salve to you with only the best of intentions. I've seen you rubbing at your palm. I know it still pains you. I thought the salve would help."
"Are you sincere?" Solari asked, uncertainty shining in her eyes. "You aren't just saying that to spare my feelings?"
"I think you should know by now that I don't say or do things I don't mean."
Devillare reached below the surface of the water, finding and capturing Solari's injured appendage. Solari resisted, but Devillare was determined to see as well as to feel. Slowly, she brought the hand up, watching as the water cascaded off the flesh. Grey eyes stared at the back of Solari's hand. It was a perfect match to the one she didn't keep hidden beneath a glove.
Solari looked up, her eyes watching Devillare's face as Devillare studied her hand. She waited for the exact heartbeat that the warrior's eyes would reflect pity and revulsion. She felt Devillare's fingers turning upon her wrist, urging her to turn her hand over. Solari's heartbeat increased, her breathing quickened.
Devillare's gaze didn't waver as she turned Solari's hand over. Grey eyes saw the deep scar tissue, followed the uneven patterns left in flesh. Devillare brought up her other hand. Solari tried to pull back, but Devillare kept a firm grasp on her wrist. There was a sharp intake of breath as for the first time in moons, someone's fingertips touched the palm of her hand.
Solari stiffened, but after her initial reaction to jerk away had been thwarted, she didn't bolt again. She held her ground, her breathing slowly calming as Devillare looked her in the eye and continued to caress the palm of her hand.
Solari couldn't hold the gaze and looked away. "How - How can you stand to touch me?"
"It's not a hardship, scout."
"It is when - " Solari winced. " - I'm hideous."
Once again, Devillare reached out and cupped the brunette beneath the chin. This time, she met no resistance.
"Scout, there are a lot of different kind of women. There are those that are ugly ducklings that grow into great beauties. Some are great beauties that turn into old crones. Only rarely are there those women that are beautiful when they are young and turn even more beautiful with each passing season. You're one of those rare ones."
"You have to decide, Eponin."
"I know. I know."
The weapons master looked from Artemis to Aphrodite. Here she was in a cell, being visited by not one, but two goddesses. And, they were asking her to make a choice about her future.
If she chose Aphrodite's gift, she would be safe. She'd be exiled, never again to see her home or her sisters, never again to be called Amazon. But, she'd be alive.
If she chose Artemis' path, she would still be an Amazon. Albeit, possibly a dead one. Artemis could offer no guarantees of her future, only that she would remain her champion as long as she was alive.
Which may or may not be very long.
"We can't hold back time, Eponin," urged Artemis.
"It has to be your choice, sweetcheeks," said Aphrodite.
"You win. I'll accept your peace offering."
"You'll let me put it on you?"
"You're sure it'll help?"
"It'd damn well better. I had to personally ask Megara for it."
Solari cringed, imaging what that experience must have been like for the warrior.
"So, will you?" asked Devillare. "Allow me to put it on?"
Solari took a hesitant breath. "Yeah. Right here, right now, I will."
Devillare treaded water, looking at Solari for a long time. Solari braced herself against the underwater shelf, staring back at Devillare.
"Um," Devillare's eyes flicked to the rocks where her clothes were.
"I'll stay here while you go get it."
"You go get it," countered Devillare.
A mahogany brow arched. "Warrior I know you're modest, but are you also a prude?"
"Prune, more like. We've been in here for ages, scout. I'm not getting out with you watching me."
"Well, I'm certainly not getting out in front of you. After the scene you made over my halter, I'm not sure I could handle you seeing all of me."
"You think I'm going to give you a free look, scout?"
"What if I promise not to? Look, I mean."
Solari held up two fingers. "Scout's honor."
Devillare eyed the grinning brunette suspiciously. They remained like that, both treading water and staring at each other until with a low growl, Devillare broke first.
She made a move for the edge of the pool, but froze when she felt Solari's gaze on her. She quickly turned around. Solari didn't even try to hide the fact that she'd been watching.
"Turn around." Devillare made a turning motion with her finger. "Now."
Solari rolled her eyes, but complied. Sensitive ears clearly identified the sounds of Devillare pulling herself up out of the water. Wet footfalls padding across dry rock. The sound of a towel being whisked over a body. A halter being snapped into place. When she at least deemed it safe, she turned around.
Devillare was just fastening her belt and bending down to pick up the jar of salve when she saw Solari turn around and look at her.
"Hey, I thought we agreed no peeking."
"Oh, yes. Because I've never seen a warrior's naked feet before," Solari smirked.
Devillare looked down, flexing her bare toes. She looked back at Solari, held up the jar of salve.
"Scout? The salve's not waterproof."
Solari's smirk fell.
The weapons master looked back and forth between the Goddess of Love and the Goddess of the Hunt.
"Aphrodite, I want you to know how much I appreciate your help." Eponin remembered vividly that day she'd been in her hut, trying to fashion that staff for Ephiny. The enchanted bracer had been in full effect and Eponin was feeling more inadequate than she'd felt in a long time. "It was you that made me realize that even if my words weren't good enough to tell Ephiny I love her, that as long as they came from the heart, they'd do."
"Not quite what I said, Amazon babe, but you got the gist of it."
"And I know it's not your fault what happened with me getting framed and confessing and all and that you're trying to make up for something that you didn't do."
Both Aphrodite's blonde brows arched. She didn't think she'd ever heard a warrior say so much in one breath before.
"It's because of you...that I can't accept your generous offer."
"Um," Eponin uncomfortably rubbed at the back of her neck, "You're offering me a life, a chance of a new life. But, without the woman I love to share it with, it's not a life I want to have."
"Well, bravo and hooray for true love and all that, Pony," said Aphrodite, "but if you take Artie's offer, the life you have with the woman you love may only be one more day."
"One more day is still a better life than an eternity without Ephiny in it." Eponin took a deep breath, steeled herself and told Artemis, "My Goddess, I respectfully choose to live my life as an Amazon. For as long as I have left."
"Very well," Artemis nodded her head in acceptance, "My champion."
Artemis stepped a few paces distant, turned around and held out her hand for her fellow goddess. "Come, Aphrodite, time for us to leave."
Aphrodite reluctantly joined the huntress. She turned big blue eyes back towards Eponin. The goddess of love looked like she was going to burst into tears.
"But, Artie - "
"You promised. She's made her choice."
There was shimmering of intermingled pink sparkles and green mist, but Eponin clearly heard Aphrodite's disembodied voice say, "But, she like totally made the wrong one!"
Eponin looked uncertainly towards the ceiling, her thoughts on the denizens of Mount Olympus. Her attention was quickly called back to the mortal realm as she heard a loud pounding on her door.
"Let's go, Eponin!" bellowed a guard's voice from the other side of the door. "Time's up!"
Eponin defiantly held her head up as she was led into the courtroom. Her hands were in front of her, her chains securely fastened about her wrists. Thankfully, she had been spared the indignity of ankle chains. She felt Lysippe's grip tighten about her bicep as she pulled her up onto the prisoner's stand. Eyes the color of wheat swept the room as Lysippe bent to fasten her chains in place.
Everyone was in their usual places. Xena, Devillare and Solari were seated on the front row directly behind Symaethis and Alcestis. On the second row back were the leaders of each of the tribe's castes. It had been deemed that these proceedings were important enough that all castes should be represented as witness, but the council hadn't wanted the unnecessary circus that a full courtroom would encourage.
At first, Eponin had thought that was why there was such a heavy presence of guards in the room. They were lined up shoulder to shoulder the entire length of both sides of the room. I know I'm supposed to be dangerous, but that's overkill. Then, Eponin realized every guard, with the exception of those stationed at the borders, was present. She swallowed against the lump in her throat that the show of support caused.
Gabrielle and Ephiny were in their respective seats, heads bent low, conferring together. As if feeling eyes upon her, Ephiny raised her head, hazel eyes unblinkingly looking into hers. Eponin's heart quickened and she found herself unable to hold that intense gaze for much longer. She blinked, looking away. When she looked back, Ephiny was once again speaking in lowered tones with Gabrielle, her attention no longer on the prisoner's stand.
The council of elders was already seated at the long table at the front of the room. Eponin didn't know if she'd ever be able to get over seeing so many of the seats empty. Tynette's. Not that Eponin would lose any sleep over that one. Lyonene's. It would be a long time before anyone was deemed to have courage enough to fill the void left by that legendary hunter. Her birth - and her death - were both exceptionally remarkable and Eponin hoped that she was enjoying her afterlife life in Artemis' sacred hunting grounds. Devillare. Although not deceased, Eponin had heard that the elder warrior had no intention of reclaiming her seat. Eponin thought as the sole warrior eligible for the position, her insight would be sorely missed.
Evanthe banged her gavel, signaling that the council was prepared to begin.
"Evanthe?" Ephiny stood up from her seat almost immediately. "Given the number of guards present," Ephiny made a point of looking about the room at the assembled warriors standing at attention against the walls, "and the presence of the warrior princess herself, can Eponin's chains not be removed?"
Well played, regent. Evanthe had wondered at the presence of so many warriors lined up in the courtroom. She had thought it had been some sort of trick of Devillare's. Judging from Nicphellia's look, she had thought the same. It seemed, however, that it had been Ephiny's hand in it all along.
"In light of the more than adequate security at these proceedings, it is my opinion that forcibly restraining the prisoner is both unnecessary and cruel." Evanthe felt the sharp kick of a boot beneath the table. "However, the law is clear and the council must uphold the letter of the law."
Evanthe openly glared at Nicphellia, not caring who saw her displeasure directed at the elder hunter. For her part, Nicphellia looked nonplussed by Evanthe's disdain. As a matter of fact, she didn't even seem all that upset that her jaw was wired shut, preventing her from speaking at these proceedings. No, she didn't seem upset at all. It was as if she were taking great pleasure from silently gloating her victory.
How else to explain the sweet look upon her face as Evanthe, acting as head council member, was forced to pose the question that she already knew the answer to?
"Is there anyone here with evidence to present as to why the - " Evanthe looked to Eponin with tortured eyes " - prisoner - should not be sentenced?"
The ensuing silence echoed louder than Evanthe's gavel ever had. Eponin's heart hammered in her chest. Despite the rapid pounding, everything appeared to her to be moving in slow motion.
Ephiny downed her head as if in defeat, clasping a hand to her face. Gabrielle had been trying to keep both eyes focused on Eponin in a show of support. She found herself blinking and looking away, unable to maintain the gaze through her teary eyes. Even Xena looked down. The warrior pressed a thumb beneath her eye and then quickly dropped it away.
Devillare was leaning forward in her seat, hands braced against the wooden rail running directly in front of the row she was seated on, keeping the audience separate from the participants. Beside Devillare, Solari's left hand was clenched and she was biting down on her bottom lip. Both counselors were on their feet, trying to talk over the top of the other, each citing reason after reason why the weapons master was an asset to the Nation.
Evanthe was forced to gavel them down with the words, "Honor and merit alone can not stand against the letter of the law. If it did, then everyone who ever stood before the council could be exonerated on past good deeds."
If it was possible for someone with a wired jaw to smile, that was exactly the look Nicphellia was pulling off. Devillare openly glared at her counterpart upon the bench. Nicphellia stared right back at her.
In truth, she was feeling a little guilty about having Devillare's brat exiled. It would have been enough to simply have her declared ineligible as both consort and champion. But, Tynette had lost her life and it seemed to Nicphellia that such a long life must have been worth something.
Despite Evanthe's assurances at the start of Eponin's retrial that the memories of both elders would be honored in an official ceremony, Nicphellia knew better. Especially when it came to light the role Tynette had played in the renegade attacks. She won't even be permitted a decent funeral pyre. It was unfair that instead of being remembered for all the seasons she'd faithfully served, she would instead be vilified forever for her recent transgressions. If it was Tynette's wish to see Devillare's mongrel branded a traitor and banished, then she would see to the best of her ability that it was done.
Still, she and Devillare had once been friends. Long ago. Just as Tynette's life had counted for something, Nic thought that her onetime friendship with the warrior must also hold some value. Perhaps that was why she hadn't made formal charges against Devillare for breaking her jaw. Perhaps she thought that in some small way, it made up for what she had done in the name of her caste.
Unlike Tynette, Nicphellia had no delusions that a hunter would ever rule the tribe. But, she could be content in that a mongrel would find no welcoming place in their true ruler's bed. Nicphellia's gaze zeroed in on Ephiny, her mind already thinking back to that list that Devillare had burned, trying to remember the names, imagining who she would propose as the regent's mate. As soon as enough time passed so that her jaw might heal and Ephiny might put thoughts of that warrior from her mind.
Evanthe was speaking again. Her words drew Nicphellia's attention.
"Then, it is with a heavy heart and hand that this council must find that the prisoner has condemned herself by her own admission and must be sentenced - "
"Wait." Alcestis held up her hand. "Wait."
Nicphellia repeatedly slapped her open palm against the council table in agitation. Evanthe picked up her gavel in response, calmly rapped it once.
"Counselor? Do you have something?"
"Yes! Yes, I do." Green eyes sparkled and a cocky grin broke out on the redhead's face.
Nicphellia rapidly slapped her palm against the table again.
"Counselor," Evanthe spoke low and kept her gaze fixed on Alcestis, "I must warn you, any grandstanding will not be tolerated. Now, do you have something relevant - or not?"
"I do. I most certainly do." She fairly bounced with exuberance as she raced towards the prisoner's stand. "Um," she turned back and addressed the council. "That is, if I can be allowed to speak with my client?"
"Allowed," Evanthe needlessly permitted, gesturing with her gavel for the counselor to get on with it.
Alcestis approached the stand, leaning in close, standing on tiptoe so that she could speak in lowered voices with Eponin. The warrior was forced to slump her shoulders and lean down low so that the diminutive counselor could speak in her ear.
The rest of the courtroom watched in rapt fascination. Ephiny and Gabrielle conversed in low tones amongst themselves, speculating as to what the counselor might be up to, until a harsh look from the council of elders had them shutting up. As the heartbeats stretched out with Alcestis talking in animated whispers to her client and showing no sign of stopping any time soon, Evanthe looked in exasperation to the Counsel for the Nation. Symaethis looked back at the elder with an open mouth and a shrug in response.
Nicphellia nudged Evanthe.
"Counselor?" Evanthe rapped her gavel. "Counselor?"
Alcestis turned and looked over her shoulder at the impatient faces of the council of elders.
"Are you quite ready?"
"Um, yes. Yes." Alcestis turned and told Eponin, "I can get you out of this. If you trust me this time."
"You won't interfere?" Alcestis asked the warrior.
Eponin took a deep breath. She looked across the courtroom, her blood pounding in her ears as she stared at Ephiny. Her Ephiny. It had been for Ephiny that she'd first attacked Cordele. It had been for Ephiny that she'd faced the hunter alone and unarmed in that challenge. It had been for Ephiny that she'd confessed. And, it'd been for her love of Ephiny that she'd refused Aphrodite's offer.
"No," Eponin said, her voice barely a strangled whisper. "I want my life."
"Counselor?" Evanthe asked again.
"Yes? Yes, coming."
Alcestis placed a reassuring hand over Eponin's before moving away from the prisoner's stand. Everyone waited as Alcestis slowly made her way back to the front of the room. To Gabrielle, she looked very much like an actor she had once seen, preening at center stage. And, for her all her posturing, it seemed as if Alcestis were reveling in the attention of her audience.
Until a sharp clearing of Evanthe's throat in warning had the counselor coming back to herself. Taking a deep breath, Alcestis began what she thought was to be the most important speech of her career.
"The court has stated time and again that Eponin must be sentenced for her admission of guilt."
Everyone remained silent, waiting for Alcestis to continue. When she didn't, Evanthe said, "Yes, in accordance with the letter of our laws."
"The letter of the law," repeated Alcestis, nodding. "Laws are important to any society and must be followed. Without them, there would be anarchy and chaos."
"Get on with it!"
The outburst was delivered in Calandra's shrill voice and was so unexpected that it caused everyone, even the famed warrior princess, to visibly jump in reaction. Evanthe placed a hand over her rapidly beating heart that was trying to work its way up her throat and out her mouth. As soon as her composure allowed, she banged her gavel.
"Yes, Alcestis," she agreed, "Do please get on with it."
The little redhead gave a flustered look at Calandra. After her initial outburst, the elder healer had settled back in her chair and now looked like she was drifting back off to sleep again. Alcestis started to speak, then stopped as she thought she saw Calandra's mouth starting to open again. It did - just long enough to let escape a sound somewhere between a snort and a snore.
"Anyway, my point is that every society, the Amazon Nation included, is governed by a set of rules. Laws, if you will."
"Yes. Yes, we all know that."
"Right. And we can all agree that any proceedings taking place in our courts of law are written in the scrolls word for word as written record."
"Yes," agreed Evanthe, gesturing for Alcestis to wrap it up.
Alcestis unexpectedly turned to Gabrielle.
"My Queen, you weren't here for Eponin's last trial, were you?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and started to say Of course, I wasn't. Instead, being a lover of the arts and the stage, she played along. "No, Alcestis, I'm afraid both myself and Xena were absent."
"I see." Alcestis nodded. "So, you didn't hear Eponin's confession for yourself, did you?"
"Um, no," Gabrielle supplied, leaning forward in her chair, "But I was given the opportunity to read the official record."
"Hmm. You read the official record. Not quite the same as actually being here when it happened, is it?"
"No, I don't suppose it is."
Alcestis walked over to Gabrielle's chair, leaned in close as though they were having a private conversation. "You don't get to see people's body language, their facial expressions, hear the subtle nuances in their voices, do you?"
"No." Warming to the topic, Gabrielle was on the edge of her seat. "Although a good bard will bring all those elements out in a story."
"I've heard you're a great bard. I've heard most of your work. Even those stories that don't feature Xena as the hero."
"Some of my earlier stuff, I suppose," shrugged Gabrielle.
"My favorite is one about Artemis and the Golden Hind."
"A classic," agreed Gabrielle.
Alcestis rubbed her chin. "I seem to recall hearing a different version of it when I was younger, though."
"A lot of bards tell that one," shrugged Gabrielle. "We sometimes change it up a bit, you know, to keep it fresh for the audience."
"Change it, how?"
"You know, the plot stays the same, but the specifics might differ. Like my story. It's told from the Golden Hind's point of view. It's still the same story, I just tell it from a different perspective, that's all."
"That's clever. I imagine you have the talent and the skill to bring out all those subtle nuances we were talking about." Alcestis' hand was braced on the arm of Gabrielle's chair and she was so close by now that she was fairly breathing in Gabrielle's mouth. "In a story. But, an official record of a courtroom session is based solely on fact. No bardic license allowed, so to speak."
"Counselor," interrupted Myrina from the bench, "Is there a point to this - other than flirting with the Queen, that is?"
"What?" Alcestis was flustered by insinuation and blushed to her roots. "Oh, of course. With the council's indulgence?"
The looks from the council of elders let Alcestis know the length of line they'd given her on this fishing expedition was quickly coming to an end.
Symaethis was drumming her fingers on her chair and making facial gestures to urge her new lover to quit being such a theatric and to get on with it before she lost the indulgence of the council completely. It was a chance look at the Queen's consort and the dark glower that Xena was sending her way that above all induced Alcestis to hurry and bait her hook.
"I would ask that the official record be read aloud," said Alcestis.
There was a chorus of groans from the guards stationed along the walls. Nicphellia hurriedly scratched something on a piece of parchment and angrily thrust it at Evanthe. Evanthe read it silently, her eyebrows lifting at some of the more colorful words the hunter had angrily scrawled out.
"In this case, I might be apt to agree with you," Evanthe said to the hunter before turning to address Alcestis. "Counselor, the council's patience is wearing thin. Most everyone here was at the trial. Those that weren't have had an opportunity to read the official transcripts. In all honesty, I can't see what you hope to accomplish by rehashing it."
"Simply looking for another perspective," Alcestis said. "Please, may we read aloud the official record?"
Nicphellia folded her arms over her chest, resolutely shook her head, making her objection known. Calandra was seemingly engrossed at plucking out the feathers lining the interior of her winter cloak. Evanthe looked to her bondmate. Myrina gave a shake of her head and a shrug of her shoulders.
"Very well," sighed Evanthe, "But this is your final chance, counselor."
"This has been very entertaining," Alcestis said, "But, I'm afraid that's all it is; entertainment, a fantasy. Council, Counsel for the Accused would respectfully ask that - "
" - you pass judgment," said Eponin.
"Are you insane?!?"
"Not legally, no."
"I have a defense! You can't just throw that out like last year's leathers!"
Alcestis visibly winced. In hindsight, it wasn't one of her better moments in the courtroom. Then, like now, there was the sound of muffled snickers. One poor guardswoman lost it completely, her uncontrollable laughter forcing her to leave the building.
"Order!" commanded Evanthe. Eponin, do you understand what you've requested?"
"Then, your request is granted. Court is adjourned until tomorrow morning. Captain, escort the prisoner back to her cell."
Where there had been mirth only heartbeats before, now there was only somber silence.
The silence stretched out as everyone reflected on what they'd just heard read aloud. With the exception of Gabrielle and Xena, everyone there had been present that day. Many were surprised that the events were not precisely as they remembered them.
Alcestis paced up and down the length of the courtroom. She stopped in front of the council of elders. "What a difference a change of perspective makes," she said with a nod to her queen.
"Indeed," agreed Evanthe. "Records indicate that Eponin never confessed. She merely requested that the court pass sentence. It was the council's decision to honor that request."
Symaethis was instantly on her feet. "I request that the prisoner be released immediately, her full honors restored."
"Agreed. It will be done tonight after the memorial service honoring our fallen sisters." Evanthe turned to Nicphellia with a look that dared her to contradict her. "This matter is officially closed."
A final rap of Evanthe's gavel had the elder scout up and out of her seat and hurrying out of the courtroom before anyone could find a way to throw another torch upon the bonfire.
Eponin unconsciously rubbed at her wrists. The physical chains that had been used to restrain her were long gone, unlocked and tossed aside by Queen Gabrielle herself. For an Amazon like Ep, though, the mental stigma associated with being shackled would be a long time in fading. Even now, she thought she could feel the phantom weight of invisible chains about her wrists, confining her and weighing her down.
As soon as the charges had been dropped and the session formally closed, the entire courtroom had erupted into chaos. Duty done, the rest of the council of elders had followed Evanthe's lead and left to oversee that evening's arrangements. Alcestis had stood by, accepting her pats on the back from Symaethis and Gabrielle both for a job well done. Many members of the guard erupted into whooping and hollering. Most of the caste leaders were more discreet in their jubilation, many of them offering subtle nods of acknowledgement to Alcestis and Eponin in turn before taking their leave.
Xena had rushed the prisoner's stand, surprising everyone by bending and catching Eponin around her legs and lifting the Amazon off the floor and into the air in a kind of victory celebration. Devillare was beside her, smiling and laughing and patting Eponin squarely on the back. Solari held back, staying a safe distance back in deference to her injured leg. All the while, poor Lysippe had been struggling to get the key to the locks out from where she'd tucked it into her ample cleavage.
In painstakingly slow motion, Ephiny rose from her chair. Taking a deep breath, Ephiny kept her eyes locked on Eponin's as she crossed the room. A sea of celebrating warriors parted, allowing the regent to pass unimpeded to the prisoner's stand.
As Ephiny stepped up onto the stand, Xena whirled around with Eponin still clasped in her arms, her feet off the ground. When she saw the curly-haired regent, the warrior princess slowly let the Amazon slide down her frame until her feet touched the floor.
Ephiny gave Xena a smile of thanks then looked to where Lysippe was still fishing for the elusive key. Without a heartbeat's hesitation, Ephiny thrust her hand down the startled guardswoman's halter and retrieved the bit of steel.
Eponin held her hands out in front of her, her eyes fixed on Ephiny's face as her regent approached with the key. The room fell silent. Ephiny could feel all eyes upon her as she brought the key towards the lock.
Her hands were trembling so badly that she couldn't make the key go in. Ephiny turned her head, startled when she felt a hand upon her shoulder. Then, Gabrielle's hand was closing about hers, steadying Ephiny's trembling one.
"I'm sorry, Ephiny, but as Queen I'm pulling rank on this one."
Ephiny willingly surrendered the key and stood by as Gabrielle set her weapons master free.
After that, there had been a deafening chorus of congratulations and celebration. Eponin had tried to keep sight of Ephiny even as they were separated by the throng of well-wishing warriors. Then, she was being whisked off to the dining hut for a celebratory keg of ale and Gabrielle and Ephiny were being summoned by the ever-diligent council of elders to prepare for that evening's ceremonies.
The warrior caste had all but taken over the dining hut with their celebration and in the end, more than one keg had been busted open. Eponin had only indulged in two mugs...one to celebrate her freedom and the other to settle her nerves. It had been many candlemarks later that Xena and the warriors had proudly shown her to her new hut.
Eponin had been so overwhelmed with emotion that she could barely find the words to thank them. Thankfully, being warriors, they more than understood her lack of verbalization. Xena had held the hide flap covering the door open for her and pushed her inside. Then, they'd all said their goodbyes and left her to explore her new home.
Eponin was stunned. Her old hut had been adequate. Spartan by some folks' standards, she knew. But it had been hers. This - this was overwhelming. It didn't have the furnishings and decor that Solari's place had. Not that Ep would want any of that stuff, anyway.
What it had, what Eponin appreciated, was space. She found herself standing, staring in awe. There was a half-wall made out of a deep red wood that came up to about her waist and was thick enough to easily place her mug of ale on. She peered into what had to be the largest open room she'd ever seen in a residential hut before.
In the center of the room, a mat was rolled out and there were two staffs on it, as though their competitors had merely put them down and stepped away mid-practice. Three full walls surrounded the rest of the room. On the longest wall was a collection of weapons, arranged and hanged on pegs in much the same fashion as in her old hut. Except, there was a lot more weapons here. Ep wasn't positive, but she estimated there had to be at least two of everything from the armory.
On another wall, Eponin saw a staff complete with feathers and braiding. She recognized it as being one of the first she'd ever made. Devillare must have kept it. A lump formed in Eponin's throat as she recalled that whatever other possessions she'd had that hadn't been destroyed in the fire had been stripped from her when she was exiled.
Solari strode the two steps down the dais to stand before the warrior. Her fingertips brushed against Ep's flesh as she removed the leather shoulder guard that designated Eponin's rank as weapons master.
She took a step back, the shoulder guard held outstretched in her hands, palms up. Fingers lingered over the brass and gold inlays that the scout had painstakingly polished for candlemarks on end that morning. Taking another pronounced step back, she threw the armor upon the ground. Solari used the side of her boot to intentionally kick dust onto the discarded shoulder guard.
Eponin silently endured having her gauntlets and bracers removed. Like her shoulder guard, they had been carefully oiled and polished before being given to her to put on this morning...only so they could be painstakingly and humiliatingly removed in front of the entire tribe.
Lost in her memories, Eponin's hand clutched at the wooden wall in front of her, fingers closing about the upper portion of the half-wall.
Ep blinked, turning her head to see Solari standing beside her.
"Hey," Eponin nodded in greeting.
Solari reached out a hand, clasped Eponin's shoulder as she looked closely at her. "You okay?"
"Um, yeah." Eponin blinked again. "Fine. Just looking over the new place."
Solari looked around. This was the first she'd seen of it since the interior had been finished. When she'd first seen the designs, she hadn't been sure. It was so different from the simple hut that the weapons master used to own. Face it, there was a bed and a table and chair. And, Ep was perfectly fine with calling that home. What's she gotta be thinking about this?
Eponin idly stroked her thumb back and forth across the wood grain of the half-wall. Something snagged at her nail and she jerked her hand back. Sucking the blood from her thumb, she carefully ran the fingers of her other hand over the wood until she found what she'd caught herself on. Ep looked closely, noticing the edge of the nail that had been driven in at a crooked angle. On one side, the head wasn't flush with the wood, leaving a piece of metal exposed above the grain.
Solari grimaced. "Think that one was probably mine."
"Damn, scout." Eponin noisily sucked at her injured thumb. "Never could drive a nail in straight, could you?"
"Certainly not left-handed."
"You aren't left - " Eponin's words trailed off as her gaze traveled down to Solari's right hand. Her gloved right hand. "Damn, Solari. I'm sorry."
"Yeah. Well, like Xena said, not your fault."
"I still feel bad. The only reason you got hurt by Tynette and Hilaeira was because you opened up your home to me."
Solari snorted. "Not a mistake I'm about to repeat any time soon." She folded her arms over her chest. "You're a rotten houseguest, you know? Smashed my favorite vase. Ruined my table. You hog the bed covers, you know that? Not to mention leaving your trollops scattered about..."
Solari's attempt at making a joke of the incident fell flat. Eponin turned away. Solari followed suit, both of them standing there side by side in awkward silence as they stood staring at the indoor training area.
Solari never could stand silence for very long. Sure, she could go candlemarks without talking to anyone. But, that was in the great forest. Out there, there were all sorts of noises. Birds, squirrels, wind blowing through the trees, the gurgling of a slow moving brook. That was fine. Being around people, for some inexplicable reason, the quiet bothered her.
What I get for hanging around stoic warrior types.
"You like it?" Solari asked.
"It's, um, really something."
"That's very diplomatic of you, Ep."
"Diplomatic. The art of carefully wording a statement or response so as not to easily offend whilst avoiding the use of an outright lie."
"I know what the word means, Soli. I ain't stupid. And, I ain't no diplomat. If I didn't like it, I'd say so."
"Never said you were a diplomat. I said your answer was diplomatic. As for being stupid? You proved that all on your own, warrior."
"Excuse me?" Eponin turned to face the scout. "You wanna explain that one?"
Solari pivoted on her crutch until she was facing Eponin head on. "You were dumb. You let yourself get set up."
"Okay, fine. It's over and done with. Let it be."
"You were lucky, Eponin. If it weren't for Alcestis being clever enough to get you off on a technicality...Artemis' bow! If it hadn't been for Xena figuring out you'd been duped in the first place...Damn it, Ep. You owe some people a mighty big thanks."
"You think I don't know that? I've already told Alcestis and Xena. I've promised to make them both new hunting knives for the coming season." Eponin's eyes narrowed. "Is that what this is about? You think I owe you something, scout?"
"As a matter of fact, I do."
"I don't have any dinars. I already lost all my possessions. And, you got to strip me of my honors in front of the entire nation. I would think that would be satisfaction enough for you."
"You think I wanted to do that?" shot back Solari. "You think I enjoyed doing that to you?"
"Didn't seem to bother ya any."
"The night before you were exiled, I didn't sleep a wink. I stayed up all night. Partly because I was in pain over my hand." Solari held up her gloved appendage for emphasis. "Partly because I was in anguish over you. I spent candlemarks polishing your gear and figuring out how to undo all the buckles and clasps with only one good hand so that I could strip it off you and throw it on the ground. So, yeah. Yeah, I think you owe me."
"I've already apologized enough for you hand, Solari. I won't do it for the rest of my life."
"I don't want your apologies. I want an explanation."
"I already gave it to Xena. You've no right to ask for it."
"You know what, Ep? I do. This is your fault."
Solari shoved her glove hand beneath Eponin's nose. It took all of Eponin's discipline to not grab hold of that offending appendage and twist it around behind the scout's back.
"It's your fault," Solari repeated.
Solari felt the tears openly streaming down her cheeks, angrily swiped at them with her left hand. She hadn't come here for this. She hadn't intended on fighting with Eponin. She'd thought it was over and done with and that she could put it behind her. That she could finally talk one on one with the warrior. She hadn't realized until they were alone together just how much she still blamed Eponin. Not only for her physical pain, but for hurting her emotionally, as well. "I never should have allowed you inside."
"Oh, come on, Solari."
"I know what you're thinking, Ep." Solari's eyes flashed. "For your information, I've never brought anyone else home with me."
"I never asked to share your bed."
"You don't get it, do you? I'm not talking about allowing you into my bed, Eponin. I'm talking about my home. Damn it, how could you allow that to happen in my home?"
"Maybe it wouldn't have if you'd been home!" shouted back Eponin. "You think you're the only one that got hurt that night? Maybe I wouldn't have let Hilaeira get so close if you hadn't - "
"Hadn't what?" Solari asked, an odd look on her face. "If I hadn't what?"
"I know where you were, Solari." Eponin's anger was released in one long exhale. Her next words were said in a pitch barely above that of a whisper. "I know you were making love to Ephiny."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"I saw you together." Eponin's voice was full of raw emotion and her face racked with pain. "You want me to describe it for you in detail? Is that what you want? You were together in the grass. Eph was on her back, your mouth at her breasts, your hand..." Eponin closed her eyes against the painful image.
"Fine." Solari figured whatever sense she still had must have left her as she reached out and physically shook the warrior until she opened her eyes and looked at her. "You want to know what happened, Eponin? You really want to know? I'll tell you. The memory of that night will be forever etched into my mind."
"Solari - "
"No. Let me say it. You owe me that much. I've always wanted her, Eponin. Always. Since the time I was old enough to know what else girls were for beside braiding each others' hair and playing together. That night, that night, I finally had her."
Eponin swallowed audibly. Solari paid no heed.
"I had her, Eponin. On her back, her legs open for me, wanting me. I was kissing her and yeah, my mouth was at her breast and even now, I can still taste what it was like to feel her nipple stiffening in my mouth. My hand was between her legs and I was so close to having her. All I had to do was uncurl my fingers and I would have been buried inside her. But, you know what? She said no. She said no and I stopped. Damn it, Pony. I stopped!"
"You...stopped." Eponin was so stunned she could've been knocked over with a feather. At first, she didn't want to believe. But, she could see the truth in Solari's eyes. "I - "
"Yeah, you." Solari bitterly wiped at a fresh set of angry tears. "The same reason she said no. The same reason I had a chance in the first place. She was pining away over you, feeling unwanted and unloved because you were supposed to meet her and you stood her up."
"I didn't. Gryta - " Eponin's voice trailed off as another puzzle piece fell into place. "Gryta gave me the wrong message."
Solari laughed. It came out as a wet snort. She sniffled, told herself to stop crying. "So that scene with Hilaeira wasn't the first time you were set up that night."
"Guess not. During the challenge, Cordele blamed me for taking everything away from her. Swore she'd do the same to me. My injuries from that challenge cost me my duties as trainer. My hut was burned to the ground. And Lexine pointed me in just the right direction to find my two best friends together."
"Lexine?" Solari cringed. "Actually, that may have had more to do with me than it did you."
"Lexine's kind of got...had...a thing for me." Solari ignored Eponin's snort and continued, "She knows you were staying with me. Just like she knew I was on that ridge with Ephiny. She must have thought..." Solari caught sight of Eponin's expectant face. Big, dumb warrior really has no clue. Solari did, though. She knew what sort of rumors had flown about the village after the very first night Eponin had stayed with her. In truth, she'd done nothing to dispel those rumors. "You finding us together was her way of punishing me."
"Punishing - "
"Wait." Solari pulled a face. "Did you say friends? As in more than one?"
"Uh, well, yeah." Eponin cocked her head to the side. "Don't got many, you know. Gabrielle and Xena, sure." She shrugged. "But, I've known you and Eph the longest."
Eponin frowned. "You never thought we were friends?"
"I - I don't know," Solari answered honestly. "I'm not sure what we've ever really been." It wasn't the first time she'd pondered that; her relationship with Eponin. Maybe it just wasn't one of those things that could be defined. "I'm not sure what we are now."
Eponin nodded. She chewed her bottom lip in contemplation. She wasn't sure, either. Some days, they got along just fine. Some days, it seemed the only thing the two of them ever had in common was Ephiny.
Solari must have been having the same thoughts. She suddenly got a deadly serious look in her eye. She straightened to her full height, as straight as she could while still relying on the support of that one crutch.
"Eponin, I promise you. If you ever break her heart, I'll be the one there to pick up the pieces and I'll see to it that you don't get another chance to ever hurt her again."
Eponin didn't say anything in response. She merely nodded her head in agreement and acceptance. Gods knew she'd sooner cut off her sword arm than do anything to hurt Ephiny, so Solari's promise didn't seem at all out of line to her. Ep turned and stared at the far wall, gaze seemingly transfixed by the weapons hanging on the pegs. In reality, her vision was so blurred she couldn't see a hand span in front of her own face.
Solari swallowed painfully. Her throat, Hades - her entire being - felt so raw that she hurt all over. Gods! Sensitive chats. Who needs 'em?
Eponin heard Solari gather her crutch beneath her. It made a distinctive dragging sound on the earthen floor as she limped away. There was the soft fluttering sound of the hide covering being drawn back and falling into place.
It wasn't until several heartbeats later that Eponin turned her head and saw the wooden box perched on the shelf created by the half-wall she was leaning against. Unsteady fingers reached out and undid the clasp. Ever so slowly, she opened the carved lid.
Her bracers. And her gauntlets. Eponin reached out, fingers trembling, she reached out and touched the dark leather, reverently stroking the etched crest that Queen Gabrielle had commissioned be put there. Eponin drew back her hand, closed the lid.
Eponin braced her forearms on the half-wall. Her shoulders slumped. She felt the waves of emotion washing over her. All of it. Everything that had happened to her all came rushing in and hit her at once.
The feeling of the knife in her gut that had come with seeing Solari and Ephiny together. Her anger and confusion over being framed. The pain and humiliation of her exile. The rage over the attack in the back of the prison wagon, being left for dead by Cordele and Gryta. Seeing Ephiny in danger of losing her life at Cordele's hands. Saving her - and having to leave her again. Xena finding her at her lowest in that dive. Being reunited with Ephiny- Ephiny taking her - and making love with Ephiny in turn. Killing Cordele. Then, returning to the Nation to find herself locked in chains and thinking that Ephiny didn't want her. Then, Ephiny telling her; showing her that she did. Then finally, regaining her freedom.
Tonight. Tonight at the ceremony, my honor will be restored.
It was - too much.
The weapons master to the Amazon Nation slid down to the floor on her knees. She bowed her head.
Gabrielle shrugged a shoulder, made an adjustment beneath her armpit. With a roll of her eyes, Ephiny reached out, tugging her Queen's hand away.
"Stop it," Ephiny said in a hushed tone.
"I can't help it. It tickles." Gabrielle giggled.
"For Gods' sake, don't do that during the ceremonies."
"My Queen, is there a problem?" asked the seamstress.
"Um, no," Gabrielle stifled another laugh as one of the green feathers on her shoulder guard brushed the sensitive flesh of her armpit again. "Everything is fine. Carry on."
The seamstress looked at the royal with skepticism clearly written on her face. She was kneeling on the floor at her Queen's feet, pins in her mouth as she made the final adjustments to the leather skirt that Gabrielle would wear that evening. For the life of her, she had no idea how the Queen had gotten away without having formal winter attire before now. Oh sure, she had winter cloaks and fur lined boots and tunics and assorted odds and ends, but nothing suitable to preside over something as serious as a funeral pyre service or a masking ceremony.
As far as the seamstress knew, there'd never been three ceremonies in one night. And, she would know, having served as tailor for the past four Queens, two consorts and at least three princesses. And one regent-queen, she thought, looking to Ephiny.
The regent was resplendent in her formal attire. Her winter tunic was made from the softest deer hide, double-lined for warmth and cut to end at her waist. Her skirt was made of the same material, also lined for warmth and ending at mid-thigh. The seamstress herself had hand-sewn the silver and sapphire accents that matched the slender belt at the regent's waist and the fastenings on her boots. Blonde corkscrew curls fell in tiny ringlets over both shoulders, complimenting and adding emphasis to the blue and white feathered shoulder guards that marked Ephiny's rank as regent amongst the tribe. Put together, the entire outfit was breathtaking.
Could dress her in a rucksack and she'd still be beautiful, thought the seamstress. Her eyes wandered back to Gabrielle. Wish I could say the same for this one.
She'd only been given the space of a few candlemarks to dress the Queen. Not that it was an issue. She was used to working under pressure. Seemed like no one in the village ever thought about dressing for an event until the day of the event. Royals included.
As soon as she'd found out neither royal had given so much as a thought to actually dressing for that evening's ceremonies, she'd had them both summoned to her shop. Guess they both thought they'd show up for the festivities buck naked. She'd given them both a dressing down about duties and responsibilities and gave them a lecture on how if they didn't look good, it was her reputation that suffered for it, not theirs.
Of course, they had both been suitably apologetic and Gabrielle had tried to explain how they'd been locked in the Hall of Scrolls and....the seamstress had to admit, after the first five candledrips, she'd tuned the Queen out.
Sitting back on her heels, she frowned. Fluffing out the bottom of the skirt, she tried to make another adjustment. Without looking, she reached behind her for her pair of shears.
The Queen's outfit was nearly identical to the regent's, except it was made from material dyed a light fawn color and whereas the regent's was trimmed in sapphire and silver, the queen's was decorated in emerald and gold. If I can just get the cut right. For some reason, she was having troubles getting the material to do just what she wanted. No matter what she did, it seemed to always fall uneven on one side or the other.
Then, she realized what it was. Gabrielle fidgeted again, moving her weight from the ball of one foot to the other. The seamstress waited, watched as after a few heartbeats, the Queen switched her weight to the other leg, making the hem of the skirt shift. Satisfied she'd found the problem, the seamstress smirked. And deliberately stuck the fidgeting royal with a pin.
"She can still have you up on charges, you know."
"I'd be more surprised if she doesn't."
Devillare didn't say anything, just handed yet another scroll to Evanthe. They'd been working at it for a couple of candlemarks now and only a quarter of the scrolls that had been left in disarray were now housed back on the shelves in their proper places. Devillare's back was aching from the repetitive work and her patience was frayed from Evanthe's endless speculations about what Nicphellia might or might not do.
"You think she's going to just stand by and allow the regent to name Eponin as her consort?"
"I think her intent is to name Ep as her champion first," said Devillare.
"Champion. Consort. Doesn't make a difference. Nicphellia will stand for neither." She silently shelved a few more scrolls before turning to the captain of the guard and adding with a wink, "Doesn't matter what Ephiny names her first, it's obvious that the regent is in love with your young warrior."
Devillare snorted derisively. "Since when has love ever been a requirement for a royal to name a consort?"
Evanthe made a tsk-ing sound. "Devillare, I'm surprised to hear that coming from you." Then, Evanthe turned and looked at Devillare's expression a little more closely. The elder scout's eyes softened, as did her words. "Oh, Devil. I know how deeply you loved her. And, I hope you still believe that your Queen loved you, too."
"Yeah, well." Wounded grey eyes looked to Evanthe. "Sometimes, love's just not enough."
"Laugh it up, Ephiny."
"Believe me, Gabrielle, I am."
"The woman should be drawn and quartered for attempted assassination."
"It was only a stick pin."
"Ephiny, she drew blood."
"Quiet, she's coming back."
The seamstress stepped back into the front room of her shop. Suspicious eyes swept over the regent and the queen. In particular, her gaze lingered over the queen's attire, looking for any pulled threads or plucked feathers or other adjustments Gabrielle might have made in her absence. Seeing nothing noteworthy, she proceeded with her presentation.
"Your majesties," she said with a flourish towards a drawn hide curtain, "May I present the Queen's champion?"
The hide was drawn aside and Xena stepped out, rolling her eyes and looking every bit uncomfortable in the outfit the seamstress had designed to be a more 'warrior-like' version of the queen's. Gabrielle caught her breath as the warrior princess was also easily the most stunning thing she'd ever seen before in her life.
"Xena...By the Gods, you're beautiful."
"Thank you, your majesty," said the seamstress, taking both the compliment and the credit for Xena's appearance.
Ephiny let out a low wolf-whistle.
Xena glared. "Something about me you find interesting, Amazon?"
"Care to tell me what it is?"
"Then stop staring before I take your eyes out."
Ephiny's grin only widened. It was the very same threat Xena had made against her when they'd first met.
"Xena, keep that knife on your belt," Gabrielle warned. "Ephiny, stop laughing."
"Oh," Ephiny wiped the tears from the corners of her eyes as Xena tried to straighten the epaulets on her broad shoulders and received a nostril full of feathers for her troubles. "It's just so funny, though."
"You won't think so when it's your consort that's dressed like a preening peacock."
Ephiny's laughter died in her throat and her smile fell.
A wide-eyed seamstress looked from a smirking Queen Gabrielle and Xena to the regent. Ephiny could fairly see the wheels turning as the seamstress sized her up, no doubt picturing in her mind Ephiny's joining outfit.
Thankfully, the ceremonial drums began to sound in the distant. Ephiny fairly ran from the seamstress' hut, a laughing Xena and Gabrielle following close behind.
"Eponin is lucky in that regard," said Devillare. "I spoke with the regent." Seeing the speculative look upon Evanthe's face, she hastily added, "I was respectful."
"Never thought you weren't. I was just wondering if we'd have to alter tonight's ceremony to accommodate the regent's broken jaw."
"I spoke with Ephiny before the trial resumed," Devillare pointed out. "When the time comes, she intends to name Eponin as both champion and consort."
"As I said before, Nicphellia will hardly let her choice go unopposed. Nor unchallenged. I hope our fair regent is prepared for that battle."
"She's no fool. She knows this isn't over."
Evanthe raised an eyebrow at the brusque tone. "I didn't say she was a fool. Nor naive. I just hope she doesn't expect this to be either an easy or quick victory."
"Lil' Eph is hardly the type to easily surrender. I think if there's one thing we've all learned first hand, it's that if backed into a corner, she'll only fight that much harder."
"Her mother's daughter." Evanthe smiled as the memory of their regent's sole parent sprang to mind. "We know what she'll face. We should help her prepare."
"Tomorrow." Devillare exhaled loudly. "For tonight, let's allow her to be young and happy...and in love."
Love. A smile ghosted Evanthe's lips. Despite Devil's words of earlier, she thought there could still be a chance for the warrior. Gods knew her heart had more than enough seasons to mend. You're not Aphrodite, Evanthe berated herself, It's not for you to decide how long it takes for a broken heart to heal.
Evanthe wasn't trying to be presumptuous enough to think she knew the ways of the Goddess of Love. She merely wanted to see her friend with someone.
Not that Devillare had been chaste since Reyvanne's passing. She was a warrior, after all. A good-looking warrior, a young widower being hailed as a hero, freshly promoted to the rank of captain. There'd been no shortage of women vying to occupy her bed; Laurentia at the head of the line. Thank Gods Devil quickly sobered up the night of that feast. Although, she'd seen how far the captain had gotten with the dancer. Much farther and she might have been saddled with Laurentia for more than just a quick coupling. It was no secret in the village that Laurentia had tried to sink her claws into Beroyle before her. Thank Artemis lil' Eponin interrupted the celebrations when she did.
In the seasons since Reyvanne and Laurentia, there had been many more women that had sought out the favors of the captain. Fewer with each passing summer, to be certain. Not because Devil had grown any less striking in appearance. If anything, time seemed to only make her that much more attractive. No, the waning offers had more to do with any interested Amazons slowly resigning themselves to the fact that although many of them could turn the captain's head, none could touch her heart.
Evanthe wondered what sort of woman it would take to catch both the warrior's eye and her heart. It would be a challenge, for certain. One that would take courage and patience and determination...and more than just a touch of stubbornness.
"Evanthe?" Devillare called out again.
"Hm?" Evanthe shook her head. "What'd you say?"
"I said we need to be going." Devillare tilted her head towards the door. "We have to get dressed for the ceremonies." She noted the odd look on Evanthe's face and frowned. "You aren't starting to go the way of Calandra, are you?"
"What?" Evanthe looked like she'd been slapped.
"I said - "
"I heard you, you - " Eyes narrowed. Evanthe gave the scroll she was holding a quick glance to make sure it wasn't one of the more important ones. Then, she threw it. And missed. The scroll bounced off the door frame as the captain rushed outside. " you - warrior!"
Xena's voice was strong, carrying her tune over the assembled Amazons. Devillare took the torch soaked in ceremonial oil and moved to the fire pit. She held the torch steady, making sure the flames caught the wood. Then, she turned and slowly walked the distance back to the first pyre and lit it.
"She has a beautiful voice," Ephiny said, "It's...haunting."
Gabrielle's lips half-curled at the compliment. "Unfortunately, she's had more than her fair share of singing funeral dirges."
Ephiny nodded and fell silent as the ceremony continued. Standing atop the dais beside her regent, Gabrielle reached out and captured Ephiny's hand within her own. Ephiny looked down at their joined hands, then entwined their fingers.
"You okay with this?" Gabrielle asked.
A small service had been arranged to acknowledge the passing of the fallen. Tynette - Cordele - Keleos - Kynthia. It had none of the accolades or ceremony that Lyonene was being given. But, there was an acknowledgement that they had once lived as Amazons.
That was pretty much it. Just that simple statement and the burning of their gauntlets. Then, it was done.
"Not really. I mean, they tried to kill me. Us." Ephiny sighed heavily. "But, the gesture will go a long way to bringing peace between the castes and healing a damaged Nation."
Gabrielle saw the way Ephiny was chewing her bottom lip, her eyes constantly traveling over the faces in the crowd.
"It's okay." Gabrielle gave Ephiny's hand a reassuring squeeze. "Xena talked to her earlier. She understands."
"I wish I could have explained it to her. She suffered the most from their actions."
Gabrielle wanted to argue that point. Whether Ephiny had realized it yet or not, whatever hurt her also hurt Eponin - and vice versa. Gabrielle was privy to Eponin's past and she couldn't help but wonder who else knew. Ephiny didn't; but what, if anything, did Pony know? Once their relationship was out in the open, she knew Nicphellia would reveal what she knew.
It seemed to be an old bias, at least Gabrielle fervently hoped it was. Still, she could imagine some objecting to their regent choosing someone of impure blood. After all, hadn't that been one of Velasca's chief arguments against her? Once Eponin's parentage was brought fully to light, she worried that there would be those that would raise question as to why someone like Ephiny was with someone the likes of Eponin.
She just prayed that when that time came, that Ephiny wouldn't outright kill anyone. She'd seen it in Ephiny's eyes. She knew that the intense blonde would fight with her last breath to protect Eponin. She may name Eponin as champion, but it'll be Ephiny that stands between Eponin and anyone that tries to harm her lover.
"I don't see her."
"Don't worry. As soon as the memorial services are done, we're reinstating her full honors and restoring her rank," Gabrielle said. "Xena's gone to help her get ready. She'll be here, even if Xena has to carry over her shoulder the whole way to the dais."
Ephiny's eyes continued to search the crowd. She released a resigned sigh, unable to keep the disappointment out of her voice. I thought we were past this. "I don't see any sign of Solari, either."
I'm not alone.
Beneath the surface of the water, Solari's hand closed about the hilt of the dagger she wore strapped to her thigh. Her eyes slowly opened. Torchlight flickered, creating eerie shadows on the cavern walls. Solari turned around in circles in the water, eyes trying to see into the darkened recesses.
"Who's there?" she called out.
The first thing she saw was the gleam from the metal of a polished shoulder guard. Then, a royal blue sash tied about a solid waist and then a set of boots.
"Relax, scout. It's just me."
Solari breathed an audible sigh of relief as Devillare stepped forward from the shadows.
"A little jumpy?" asked the captain, noticing the scout's reaction.
"No," was the too-quick response, followed by a sheepish, "Maybe. I didn't think anyone else was around, then I heard a noise."
"Are you alone?"
Devillare looked about the interior of the cave. She saw Solari's clothing scattered on the rocks. The blankets in the corner had been arranged into a makeshift bed. Not waiting for an answer, Devillare knelt down near the edge of the pool Solari was soaking in. She let her fingers skim along the surface of the water, feeling the heat.
In the distance, they heard the sound of the ceremonial drums. Devillare cocked her head to the side, listening. They'd already had the formal ceremony to honor the spirits of the dead. Devillare had spoken and accepted the hunter's death-mask on behalf of Lyonene as she had no blood family to take it for her. It had been her torch that had lighted the mask upon the pyre, burning it in effigy to join her spirit in Artemis' sacred hunting grounds.
The beat of these drums signaled that the ceremony to restore Eponin's honors as weapons master was about to get underway. She'd given due consideration to witnessing the formal event, but after the funeral ceremonies, she'd felt an overwhelming urge to get away. Besides, she'd already offered her congratulations to her Pup in private.
"I saw Ep's gear."
Solari gave a shrug, the ends of soft brunette locks brushing over her damp shoulders with the motion. "It was just sitting in my hut collecting dust."
"Polished up real nice," Devillare said, referring to the armored shoulder guard that would be formally placed upon Eponin by the Queen during the ceremony. "Took some work to get that kind of a shine on it."
Solari didn't offer a response. Devillare sat on the stone ground of the cave and tugged her boots off.
"What are you doing?"
"Soaking," Devillare offered up an identical response to the last time she'd found the scout bathing in the pool.
Solari swam towards the edge of the pool where Devillare was seated. Folding her arms on the shelf, she leaned forward, allowing her lower body to float up. Only her feet and calves were visible, the rest of her was still modestly hidden beneath the surface. Her face was scant inches from Devillare's knee and Solari turned so she could look up at the warrior as they talked.
"Thought you'd want to be there for the ceremonies."
"Already made an appearance," Devillare shrugged, indicating her shoulder armor and formal leathers. "I've seen enough ceremonies in my lifetime, scout. I got a pretty good idea how they go."
"You were probably there when most of them were started," smirked Solari.
Dark brows shot up at the tease. "What about you, scout?" Devillare asked, skimming her hand along the surface of the water and flicking droplets in Solari's face. "Surprised you aren't at the celebrations."
Solari shrugged. "Don't feel much like celebrating."
"How come? Bet you'd look real nice dressed up in your best feathers."
"I would," Solari agreed, then immediately sobered, "Maybe before..."
Her voice trailed off as she remembered Lexine's slight at the jail, then snippets of a conversation she'd overheard between Trina and Neola. After leaving Eponin's hut, Solari had retreated to the sanctuary of the forest. Only to run into the two junior scouts sharing a herb cigarette beneath a tree. She'd instantly reprimanded them, then ordered them to report to Nyxona for disciplinary action.
She'd watched them go, pouting and kicking stones along the forest floor as they went. They must have thought my hearing had been damaged, too. For a heartbeat, Solari almost wished it was so that she wouldn't have overheard the things they'd said about her. Guess their crush on me is officially over, Solari thought.
Solari knew it was foolish to give a heartbeat's thought to the opinions of two Amazonettes that probably wouldn't even make it through scout training this season. It wasn't just them, though. It was Lexine. For as long as she could remember, the young guard had been making puppy dog eyes at her. For Gods' sake, she'd put Solari's life above that of the regent's during the battle of Potadeia. Then, for her to suddenly turn off those so-called feelings of love because of Solari's injuries...and she wasn't the only one, either. It seemed that overnight, half the women that had shamelessly flirted with her before would no longer give her the time of day now.
Not that that was what Solari wanted. Flirting with random women, chasing them, bedding them, none of that held the appeal for Solari that it once had. She just wasn't interested in that anymore. Hadn't been for a while. She wanted...something...more.
"Devillare, the last time you were here and we talked...?"
"I was feeling down about my injuries and you made me feel better."
"I - I don't want you to think I was just upset because of my looks. I wasn't just being vain."
"Never said you were."
"I - there's something I want to tell you."
Gabrielle leaned back, sipping from her mug as she watched the dancers twist and leap and dance around the bonfires. The official ceremonies were done and she was finally free to relax. And, relaxing she was; sitting in her champion's chair, leaning back against the tall frame of her consort.
"Comfy?" Xena asked, raising one dark brow and peering down at the bard sprawled across her lap.
"Very. Thanks for asking."
"My pleasure." Xena studied Gabrielle's profile, taking note of the wide smile gracing her lips. "Speaking of; you're looking very pleased."
"Why shouldn't I be? The funeral ceremonies were sad, but beautiful, too. The memories of the dead were honored and their spirits have been set free to soar with Artemis. Eponin has been restored to full duty, her honors as weapons master and first warrior to the tribe restored. There are a score of Amazons with new feathers to mark their bravery and heroism."
"Yippee." Xena said without any real inflection as she twirled three colorful feathers in her grasp, her reward for her doing her duty in protecting the queen. "Many more of these and I'll have to get a mask."
"I'll ask the tradeswomen to get started on it."
"Again, yippee. I don't know if I can contain my enthusiasm."
Gabrielle elbowed her warrior in the gut, smirking with satisfaction as she heard an answered ooof!
"You don't have to be so surly, you know."
"I'm not being surly, Gabrielle. I'm just being realistic."
"Yeah. You, as usual, see only the good in everything. And, there's nothing wrong with that. It's who you are and I wouldn't change that about you."
"But - "
"But, I tend to look at things from the other way. A lot of ugliness was brought out; the least of which is the rift between the castes. Some Amazons died. Some got hurt. There's a lot of pain out there. Hilaeira's life was ruined. Pelagia will never be the same again. If Nicphellia ever gets that jaw unwired, she could still press formal charges against Devillare. There's a lot of things that need fixing in your village, Gabrielle. Not the least of which is your chief scout. You realize that she's the only caste leader that's not in attendance?"
Damn. Xena's gaze followed Gabrielle's, falling upon the five feathers bound together with a piece of twine that rested in a wicker basket on the dais between her chair and Gabrielle's. They were the feathers Gabrielle was supposed to present to the chief scout at the ceremony. They were a myriad of colors, each one holding a different meaning. Xena frowned, unable to name the significance behind a single one. Damn my tongue and damn my insensitivity.
Solari bowed her head, eyes darting about as she searched for her words. She looked at the water, the rocks, the warrior's knees as she sat upon the edge of the natural pool. Finally, her gaze settled upon the warrior's hands. They were pressed down, palms flat, fingers clutching at the edges of the rocks.
Solari tentatively reached out, the tip of her finger tracing the faded scar that ran the length of the warrior's hand from forefinger to wrist. The cut must have gone nearly to the bone, Solari thought.
Devillare had immediately jumped beneath the scout's unexpected touch. Solari hadn't seemed to notice, though, and Devillare didn't mention it. Instead, she forced herself to sit still, to silently endure the touch, eyes watching intently as the scout traced the fine line over and over again.
Solari at last looked up at the warrior. "Since my injuries, I haven't been able to - to perform my duties."
"You're still chief scout, right?" asked Devillare, knowing full well the answer.
"Yes. I can still do enough that they won't take my command from me."
"Is that not enough, scout?"
Solari dropped her gaze again. She watched herself, her finger tracing patterns back and forth on the back of the warrior's hand. At last, she raised her head, deep brown eyes studying the warrior's face for long heartbeats.
It was a ruggedly handsome face, Solari decided. Shades of grey at the edges of her temples mingled with her still dark locks. Solari thought the streaks made Devillare look more distinguished. A few laugh lines were visible about the corners of her eyes. There was a small scar along the captain's jawline, still new and pink. Solari felt her fingers curl against the urge to reach up and stroke it. She'd fought a similar urge when Devillare had first received the wound in Potadeia.
She'd had other similar urges about the captain. Urges that she hadn't wanted to acknowledge, that she'd been able to put down under the excuse that she'd been forced to go without any sort of physical relief for so long. Gods, there were times I was so randy I was tempted to rub myself against a saddle pommel if I thought it would get me off.
After the Satyr-cloves had run their course and Solari's physical limitations had fully hit her, it was like a bucket of cold water had been used to douse her raging libido. Witnessing the reunion of Ephiny and Eponin had been more than enough to extinguish any lingering embers. In all the days and nights since, her physical urges had no longer been an issue.
That was why she was surprised when early one morning she was pulled from Morpheus' realm with a familiar dampness between her legs. She was even more surprised when she recalled vivid details of her dream, including the identity of the Amazon that had been responsible for her state of arousal.
I wonder if she kisses like that in the waking world? Recalling part of that dream, Solari's eyes locked upon the warrior's parted lips. Unexpectedly, a tongue darted out, wetting those lips. Solari drew in a sharp breath at the visual. There was an involuntary clench between the chief scout's legs. Solari closed her eyes, attempting to block out the dream images of them kissing, of the warrior's large hand on her hip, moving down her thigh...she swallowed rapidly, hoping that the warrior hadn't noticed her inexplicable lack of composure.
Smoldering eyes blinked open.
"You know, you always call me that."
"Scout. I used to think it was because you couldn't be bothered to remember my name."
"Memory ain't that far gone." Devillare snorted. "Call you that because that's who you are."
"I am. Both my mothers were scouts. There was never a doubt I'd grow up to be one."
"From what I hear, the best the Nation's ever had."
Solari blushed beneath the compliment. "That's why I've been having such a hard time of it. You know, I walked out into the forest today. With my crutch, of course. I just stood there beneath the trees, looking up. There was a time I could have climbed to the highest branch of any of them in five heartbeats or less."
"You will again, one day."
There was such a note of resignation in that single word that Devillare had never heard from the headstrong brunette before. This certainly wasn't the young woman that she'd been verbally sparring with for the past few moons. Solari's finger trailed away from Devil's scar and off her hand completely. The warrior watched in helpless silence as the scout turned around, using her feet and legs to kick off from the underwater shelf.
"I know the issues within the Nation are far from solved, Xena. Which is part of the reason we decided to stay."
In truth, there were many reasons. They'd already discussed them. Neither one of them was getting any younger. Traveling the open road was losing its appeal. Xena had made enough amends for her past. And, as Queen, Gabrielle could no longer avoid her duties.
"We'll address those issues one by one with Ephiny and the council," said Gabrielle. "Tomorrow. For tonight, can't you just be happy?"
"I'm happy for Eponin." Looking about, Xena added, "And, the others. Even that skinny guard, what'sername...Lexine, looks like she might get lucky tonight."
"She's not the only one."
Gabrielle patted Xena's arm that was curled about her waist. "Yeah. Look."
Xena's gaze followed Gabrielle's finger. Ephiny had been standing along the sidelines, drinking from her mug and watching the dancers. A couple of dancers twirled to a stop in front of Ephiny. One of them took Ephiny's mug and turned it up, heartily drinking from it before tossing the empty container away. They both reached out, grabbing the regent's hands, trying to tug them towards the dance circle. There was a big smile on Ephiny's face, but she was digging in her feet and rapidly shaking her head.
"Damn, Eph. Really?" Xena let out a low wolf-whistle. "Twins? Wouldn't see me turning that down."
Xena yelped as she felt a none-too-gentle elbow dig sharply into her gut. Blue eyes glared at Gabrielle.
"You'd damn well better, warrior," the bard warned in a low voice, "if you know what's good for you."
Despite the strain she felt in her leg, Solari didn't stop until she'd reached the far end of the pool. Bracing her forearms against the moss-covered rocks, she took some of the weight off her lower extremities. Slowly, she turned around, resting her back against the natural wall formation of the pool as she treaded water.
Eyes lifted, seeing Devillare staring.
She'd come out here to be alone. After her run in with Eponin and the incident in the forest, she'd just been feeling so raw and exposed. She felt like she hurt all over. So, she'd come to the hot springs to soak away all her aches and pains. The last thing she'd wanted was to be around anyone else.
Never in a thousand seasons had she thought she'd reveal her deepest fears to anyone. She hadn't even been able to confide in her packmate. Why then, did she pour out her heart to this warrior that seemed to be able to aggravate her to no end?
They continued to warily watch each other from opposite sides of the spring, as though sizing one another up.
Then, the warrior was standing. She stepped down onto the underwater shelf that Solari had been resting on earlier, the water swirling up around her bare calves.
Devillare unfastened her shoulder guard and carefully put it aside. Her halter was the next to go, taken off over her head in one smooth motion. Solari's heart was fairly pounding in her ears as large hands traveled to the front of her leathers, fingers deftly unfastening her belt and undoing the knot of her royal blue sash. The wraparound leather style skirt fell away, quickly followed by her breechcloth.
In one fluid movement, the warrior was diving into the water, strong sure strokes carrying her to the other side of the natural pool. She came to a stop scant inches in front of Solari. A hand swiped water away from her face as she blinked at the clearly perplexed chief scout.
"What - why - " Solari made a motion to indicate the other side of the pool.
"We hadn't finished our conversation."
" - You don't - " Solari's mouth worked fruitlessly for several long heartbeats as the warrior watched with mirth clearly dancing in her eyes. She finally gave up on words completely and relied on her eyes to indicate the warrior's nakedness.
"Those are my best leathers. I didn't want to get them wet."
There was a pink tinge to the scout's cheeks that Devillare knew couldn't be contributed solely to the warmth of the springs. She'd only meant to tease the girl. But as soon as she'd made that comment about not wanting to get her leathers wet, Solari had gotten this odd look on her face and averted her gaze.
Devillare continued to tread water, refusing to back away - or to give Solari enough room to, either. The scout's back was pressed firmly against the rock wall and the warrior hadn't left her enough space to get by without touching. If the scout tried that, Devil knew a well-placed hand would stop her.
Eyes continued to watch the clearly flustered younger woman. Devillare's gaze wandered over the scout's face, drinking in the sight of those big, brown bedroom eyes, that strong nose, soft lips. Strands of wet hair fell loosely over both shoulders, emphasizing the line of her neck. Water lapped at the tops of her breasts...and not for the first time, Devil wondered what it would be like to touch that water slicked flesh with her hands...and her mouth.
Stop that. This is about more than just your libido. "Scout...Solari?" Devillare ducked down, tilting her head at an odd angle until she caught Solari's gaze. "For probably the first, maybe second time, you were open and honest with me about your feelings." Devillare held up a hand to keep Solari from interrupting. "I just wanted to finish our talk."
"My leg doesn't work right. I don't work right." Solari swallowed harshly as she forced out the words. "What else is there to say?"
Devillare hadn't even realized she'd been reaching out to the scout until her hand brushed against something solid beneath the water. There was a surprised gasp from Solari and Devillare swallowed loudly as her mind caught up with what her fingers were doing. She'd blindly reached out in an effort to offer comfort, her hand drifting to Solari's injured appendage of its own will.
She kept her eyes locked on Solari's as her hand freely traveled the length of her bare thigh. Fingers felt the divot left by Gryta's blade. The wound was closed, though; had been for a long while. There was no longer danger of it reopening or becoming infected.
Solari gasped out loud at the sensation of feeling the warrior's calloused palm upon her newly mended flesh. Her eyes darted down, but she was unable to see anything clearly in the murky waters of the pool.
Devillare removed her hand from Solari's thigh. Even though they were no longer touching, she didn't back up to allow any more space between them. They were floating so close together that their bodies were naturally drifting together of their own accord.
"My..." Solari wet her dry lips. Eyes searched Devillare's face "..leg."
"Is healing. You can't expect to take a sword thrust through the thigh and be up and climbing trees in two days time. It takes moons to mend flesh and muscle and to heal nerves that it only took heartbeats for hardened steel to pierce."
"It's been moons."
"And it'll be many more, scout. I know it's hard to hear, but that's the reality of it. Think back to those first days in Potadeia when you couldn't even get out of bed on your own. Now look at you. You're making progress."
"I know it is, scout, and I can't promise you it'll get easier any time soon. But, I can promise it will get better."
Solari chewed her bottom lip. Reaching out, she took the warrior's hand; using her right. Deliberately, she stroked her fingers along the faded scar on the back of Devil's hand. She looked up, their eyes meeting.
"What - what if it doesn't?" Solari's voice trembled.
"It will. In time." Devillare reached out, using the fingers of the hand Solari wasn't still holding to brush damp strands of hair off the scout's cheek. "You just have to take each day as it comes. Speaking of, today they're giving out feathers. Rumor is they're even giving them to stubborn scouts that were injured in service to the queens. Might earn you the favors of some cute, young Amazons."
"Had one Amazonette fawn all over you..." Solari's voice trailed off and she shrugged. Her gaze traveled over the blankets she had spread out on the cavern floor. "It's a long walk back and it's already late. I was planning on spending the night here."
"Sure," Devillare shrugged.
The warrior was already moving past Solari. Bracing her hands on the rock formations lining the pool, she pulled herself up. Water sluiced off her breasts and down her body with the motion. She padded on bare feet around the pool to the other side of the cavern where her clothes were. As she dressed, her gaze zeroed in on the cases that she'd suspected contained trail rations. "We'll need to go down and grab a few supplies, though."
"S - Supplies?" Both Solari's brows rose.
"A roasted chicken, a bottle of wine. Mytilda's got this stuff she brewed that she's been saving down in the root cellar."
"You've been craving it since Marjorie's farm, haven't you? I know I have."
"Um, yeah." Solari couldn't deny that. It seemed like ever since they'd had that random discussion about a picnic lunch, she hadn't been able to put the thought out of her mind.
"Need to stop by my hut and grab an extra blanket and pillow."
"It's a cavern with its own spring. It's plenty hot already. I probably won't even use the top blanket."
"My bones get cold at night. I'll need that extra blanket so I can get moving in the morning."
"If you need all that stuff, are you sure you wouldn't rather just stay in the village?"
Devillare paused from fastening her leathers long enough to look askance at the scout. Solari's hands were braced upon the rocks lining the pool and she was gingerly easing herself up out of the water. Devil bit her bottom lip, determined to resist the urge to offer to help, knowing that the young woman needed to do it on her own.
"You think I'm about to let you walk all the way to the village and back unescorted, scout?"
"I - you - " Solari was flummoxed. "I didn't want to go to the village in the first place."
"You want that roast chicken or not?" With the exception of her shoulder armor, Devillare was already completely dressed. "Come on, we'll take a walk through the forest on the way back."
Solari cinched the last fastening on the front of her halter. She looked up, eyeing the captain suspiciously. "Warriors don't like forests."
"True. Prefer an open battlefield where I can swing my sword. Never really liked all those trees getting in the way." Both Devillare's eyes and her voice softened as she looked at the scout. "But, I hear wood nymphs and scouts like 'em just fine. I figure it's not too far out of the way. Probably wouldn't kill me..."
Eponin paused with the mug halfway to her lips. As soon as the official ceremonies were over, she'd attempted to make her way to the dais where she'd last seen Ephiny seated with Gabrielle. All throughout out the ceremony, she'd managed to keep the regent in her sight. It was the only thing that had made this night bearable.
The weapons master was uncomfortable with public accolades. Always had been. If it was possible, she'd just as soon as let Gabrielle reinstate her in private. No one would even hear of that, though. No, it had to be a formal event, they'd all said. Including Xena.
Never thought I'd see the day when Xena would go in for all that pomp and circumstance. The warrior princess had pulled Ep aside, explaining to her how the ceremony wasn't just for her; it was for the rest of the Nation, Gabrielle and Ephiny included. Then, Xena had folded her arms over her chest and arched a brow and asked Ep if she was really going to do something stupid and disappoint her queens.
So, Eponin had endured the spectacle of standing in front of the entire Amazon nation while Gabrielle gave her back her feathers and her honors. The only thing that had made it bearable was Ephiny. As soon as she'd approached the dais, their eyes had met over Gabrielle's shoulder and locked. They'd managed to maintain that gaze throughout the whole ceremony. While Gabrielle was trying to fasten her shoulder armor - upside down. As she worked to get each bracer about Pony's muscular biceps. As she refastened the steel-inlaid gauntlets she'd had personally commissioned for the weapons master all those long seasons ago.
Eponin's breath hitched as the tip of Ephiny's tongue darted out, wetting her lips. Vivid memories of the many things that talented tongue had done to her body flashed through Ep's mind. Eponin felt herself wetting her own lips in response. Ephiny caught the action and sent a smoldering look her way.
Gods, she's such a passionate lover, Eponin thought. Just like I always fantasized she would - Eponin scratched that next thought. No matter how explicit, how bold her fantasies of Ephiny had been over the seasons, nothing could compare to the reality. Eponin thought back, trying to remember precisely the exact heartbeat she'd first realized her fascination with the curly-haired blonde with the big staff had turned into something sexual.
It was certainly long before she'd been elevated to the status of regent. Before their mutual friend and princess had been slain by an assassin's arrow and Eponin had found herself charged by a disgruntled Ephiny to train a soft, little peasant girl in the art of the Amazon fighting staff. Definitely before that night when Eph had received her fully-feathered warrior's mask from Queen Melosa. Although, that night had been the first time she'd felt Ephiny's lips pressed to hers. Wonder if Eph remembers that?
The platform had been full of youthfully energetic warriors receiving their masks. But, with her distinctive curls, Eponin was easily able to zero in on Ephiny. Ephiny had been singled out by the Queen, given top honors for outperforming all other trainees on her graduating tests - including the heavily favored Velasca. She had maintained the cool dignity expected of her as a warrior, despite the broad smile she couldn't keep off her face - up until the instant the Queen had dismissed their ranks with a smooth command.
Then, the curly-haired blonde was vaulting off the ceremonial platform and charging the short distance to her trainer, leaping into her arms and planting a firm kiss solidly upon her lips. It had lasted less than the blink of an eye, but it was enough to send Eponin reeling. Ep had been so stunned, she thought she'd forgotten how to breathe. Then, Terreis and Solari had caught up to her and they were squealing and shouting at each other and jumping about.
Unaccustomed to being a part of the sort of spectacle her three companions were making, Ep did what she did best. Firmly stood her ground, thumbs laced into the wide band of her belt and remained nonchalantly unaffected. All too soon, the jubilant mass had been claimed by others in Ephiny's class and they were all swept along towards the celebration field - and their first legal mugs of drink as graduates.
And, Pony was left alone and forgotten on the field. Although, she did see a smiling Ephiny turn around and grin at her before she was soundly caught between the firm grips of Solari and Terreis and dragged off. Eponin watched them go, the sounds of the celebratory drums beginning to reach her ears as the party began to gear up.
With the closing of the masking ceremony, the area had emptied out quickly; both the graduating class and their friends and family migrating to the celebration field. A glance at the platform confirmed the lingering presence of the Queen and her captain of the guard. Ep knew from seasons past that Melosa would keep Devillare occupied with other matters for at least a candlemark or two before she permitted her captain to escort her to the celebration.
It was the Queen's way of allowing her tribe to cut loose and enjoy the festivities without her regal presence for a time. That way, by the time she did appear, most of her tribe was feeling a little giddy from the spirits and more at ease in her presence. Although, she did have to wonder if perhaps since her younger sister was now able to participate, if Melosa would make her appearance much sooner this night.
Eponin had every intention of heading back towards the warriors' barracks and bunking down early. Her feet, however, seemed to have other ideas; carrying her in the opposite direction. She'd tried to rationalize that it was her need to slake her thirst that drew her to the celebration. If she were truly honest with herself, though, she knew that was just an excuse. How else to explain that she never touched a drop that night?
As a matter of fact, she'd never even made her way to where the kegs were lined up and tapped. Instead, she found herself standing along the perimeter of the treeline, one hand and a cheek pressed against the rough bark of a pine as she watched from the shadows.
The festivities were in full swing, the dancers moving wildly around the fire circles, occasionally gliding to a halt in front of a spectator just long enough to grab a mug and down a bit of ale. One or two of the more inebriated dancers had already removed their skimpy halters and were now performing in just their revealing loincloths. The newly masked warriors either stood or sat around the perimeter, enthusiastically cheering them on.
Then, it began. A few dancers broke from their routines, moving into the crowd, randomly selecting a handful of the newest warriors to join them. Some were coaxed, some cajoled, others actually pulled to their feet by the beautiful dancers. Others, like Ephiny, found themselves being tugged by the hand by a persistent dancer and simultaneously shoved forward by her friends.
Many of the warriors that had been selected were already giddy with drink and revelry; their inexperience making them suddenly uncoordinated and even stumbling about the fire circle. If it hadn't been for the dancer that had initially pulled her into the ring keeping a close eye on her, poor Dica would have actually twirled herself into the fire.
The youngest of the trainers watched intently as the curly-haired warrior quickly caught the beat and managed a reasonable facsimile of the routine. Eponin's heart stuck in her throat as Ephiny leaned into the personal space of the dancer that had selected her; their bodies gyrating, hips rocking against each other as they shimmied their way to the ground and then back up again with the beat.
One of the dancer's hands sinuously worked it's way behind Ephiny's neck, fingers tangling in blonde corkscrew curls. The fingers of the other hand opened a flask, held it above Ephiny's lips. Head tilted back, mouth wide open, Ephiny struggled to catch the steadily streaming liquid. Despite her best efforts, a crimson trail escaped the corner of her mouth and freely ran down her neck.
Without a heartbeat's hesitation, the dancer's lips and tongue followed the trail, licking and tasting Ephiny's flesh as she devoured every last drop. Eponin's fingers clenched the tree so roughly that a section of bark tore off beneath her fingertips. Suddenly, another hand appeared; latching onto the dancer's elbow and pulling her from Ephiny's side. The dancer's gaze followed the length of that arm all the way up to the princess' smiling, inebriated face. With a lascivious grin of her own, the dancer abandoned Ephiny and willingly went into the princess' arms.
"Why don't you ask her to dance?"
The deep voice mere inches from her ear startled Eponin, causing her fingers to grip the tree even more solidly. To her credit, though, she didn't jump.
"What?" she asked brusquely, irritated at herself. Of all the Amazons in the Nation, Devillare was the only one that was ever able to truly sneak up on her.
"Ask her to dance." At Eponin's blank look, the captain of the guard added, "Your friend. The cute one with the blonde curls."
The cute one - It took several heartbeats for Eponin's mind to process that statement. Oh, Ephiny was definitely cute, no doubt about it. She was just surprised that Devillare had noticed.
"I can't. I'm her trainer."
"Not anymore. She's fully-feathered." Devillare folded her arms across her chest, not looking at Ep as she continued to watch the blonde that had so completely captivated her protégé.
"I - "
" - don't dance." Devillare finished for her with a snort.
" - can't - "
"You mean, won't."
Every hair on Eponin's arms and the back of her neck were standing on end, bristling at the statement. If it had been anyone other than Devillare -- then again, Ep shook her head, only Devillare would be bold enough to make the accusation in the first place.
"Look, Pup, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. Including you." The captain placed a large hand on Eponin's shoulder, gave a firm squeeze. "Everyone deserves a chance to dance." She stood beside Ep, staring at the fire circle for long heartbeats. Then, patting Ep on the shoulder, she turned to go, advising before she left, "Just make sure you don't let someone else choose the partner you've got your eye on."
Eponin watched Devillare go. She trudged across the field, joining up with Nicphellia and her bondmate. Then, the three of them went in search of more ale and a good spot to enjoy the festivities. Ep watched them all settle down together, laughing and enjoying themselves. Glad that her mentor had found good company to share her evening with, she turned her attention back to the fire circle.
She watched as Ephiny continued to weave and gyrate, dancing as expertly as any of the trained Amazons that were out there. She briefly became lost in the moment, remembering another time, another place when she would sneak out to the festivities and watch from the protective shadows of the trees, much as she was now.
Then, it was a little Eponin watching Laurentia dance. To tiny Ep, she was the most beautiful dancer there was. She was fascinated by the dance, by the dancers themselves; knowing Laurentia was the lead dancer filled her with such awe. She would hide in the shadows, watching, imagining she was out there with her mother, that she was the one performing with her. Then, as now, she stayed hidden as she watched the woman she loved.
Love. That's when it hit her. Right between the eyes like a well-aimed staff. She was in love with Ephiny.
"When did that happen?" she wondered aloud. They'd been friends for more seasons than she could count now. An unlikely friendship that was founded the day Ephiny was finally able to take her down with her staff. At least seven summers older than Eph, she'd thought of the little blonde and her brunette buddy as tagalongs that she was responsible for keeping out of trouble.
And, she was content to play big sister to Ephiny for a time. As the summers went by and Eponin became a fully-feathered warrior, then named as an instructor by Queen Melosa, she'd remained steadfast friends with the younger Amazons. Then one day, she turned around and her little playmate had suddenly turned into a young woman.
A very desirable young woman, Ep acknowledged, visually and mentally checking off several such desirable body parts. The curve of her wrist as she held her practice sword. The supple strength in her arms as she pulled her bow string back against high cheekbones. The line of toned legs as she ran through the obstacle courses. The womanly curve of hips that had slowly developed, the rounded, pert breasts of youth. More than once, Eponin had caught her hand shaking with the restraint it took to keep from reaching out and cupping one.
Much as it was shaking now. Only this time, it wasn't from lust. Although, she admitted, there was a healthy dose of that rushing through her veins. But more so than that, there were genuine feelings there, too. She didn't know how or exactly when it had happened, but sometime when she wasn't paying attention, love had snuck up on her and captured her heart.
She remained rooted to the spot, right alongside the tree she was pressed up against. Struggling with her own feelings and Devillare's words of advice, she wasn't sure what she should do. On one hand, she wanted exactly what Devillare had suggested. On the other, Ephiny was her friend; what if she didn't think of her like that? But, Ep fully realized, I really want that chance to dance with her.
Hand falling away from the tree, legs somehow moving despite feeling like they were made of petrified wood, she left the safety of the forest. Mind made up, she concentrated on just walking across the field, her sole intent to ask Ephiny to dance.
She was within a half-dozen paces when her legs stopped working. Ephiny had just completed another round about the dance ring, coming full circle to stop in front of her friends again. Laughing and smiling, eyes twinkling, she tried to coax someone into joining her. Egeria and Pelagia shook their heads, good-naturedly waving her off.
Then, Ephiny looked over the heads of her seated friends, meeting Eponin's direct gaze. Lips moved, but all Ep could hear was pounding between her ears; whether from the drums or her rapidly beating heart, she couldn't say. Turning her wrist over, holding her palm out, fingers gestured for Eponin to come to her.
One leg haltingly moved forward. Then, the other. Just as she was within arm's reach, Solari reached up from where she was seated on the ground beside Pelagia, grabbing Ephiny's outstretched hand. Ephiny gave a tug, Solari flew into her arms, drunkenly colliding with her packmate. Laughing, placing both hands on Ephiny's hips in an effort to steady herself, she heavily leaned into Ephiny's upper body.
Ephiny's arms came up, loosely draping themselves over Solari's broader shoulders as she leaned her forehead against the brunette's. Catcalls and coarse suggestions were shouted out from their friends seated along the perimeter of the dance circle. Faces red, bodies shaking uncontrollably with laughter, Ephiny allowed Solari's playful antics as the shouts encouraged her to slip her hands down to grasp Ephiny's buttocks and bury her face in her packmate's cleavage.
Raucous laughter filled the air as Ephiny made a showing of struggling to remove Solari's firmly entrenched nose. Ephiny grimaced as she swiped the palm of her hand across her wet breast, then wiped it on Solari's skirt. Struggling to control both Solari's merriment and groping fingers, she looked out across the crowd, her eyes once again meeting Eponin's. Eponin turned and walked away.
Those memories faded from Eponin's sight, only to be replaced by the image of the twins attempting to tug the regent into the dance circle.
The dancers suddenly stopped trying to persuade the regent and abruptly let loose both of Ephiny's wrists. The twins looked at each other and took several hasty steps backwards. Then, they turned and found two not-so-reluctant partners to take Ephiny's place.
Both Xena's eyebrows rose nearly to her hairline as she watched Eponin walk right up to Ephiny and come to a stop in front of her. She held out her hand, palm up. Ephiny looked hesitant at first, but then placed her hand in the weapons master's. They walked out towards the dance ring together. The drums changed to a slower rhythm and they moved closer, wrapping their arms about one another and swaying to the beat.
"Well, I'll be damned," said Xena.
"What?" asked Gabrielle. "You didn't think Eponin could dance?"
"It's not that I thought she couldn't. I just didn't think she'd ever do it."
"Don't look so surprised, Xena. They're going to be joined, you know."
"You don't know that."
"Yes, I do. Ephiny's going to name Eponin as her champion and consort."
"Again, you don't know that. Eph never said that."
"Come on, Xena. Look at them. It's written in the stars."
"Huh. Maybe. But, even if it is, they aren't going to have an easy time of it. They're going to face a lot of obstacles. At least one elder is going to be against it."
"Again," Gabrielle said, "that's something to worry about tomorrow."
Xena reached around Gabrielle, lifting her mug from her grasp. As Xena took a long draw, Gabrielle settled back against her warrior and was content to watch over her subjects enjoying the festivities. Despite the problems they faced, everyone had seemingly put aside their differences and come together in honor of this night.
Nicphellia sat with the elders Evanthe and Myrina. She was gingerly sipping at a drink beneath the watchful eye of Megara. Pelagia was seated beside her bondmate, enjoying the night air and a respite from the hospice. Several hunters were drinking and dancing with a few of the more inebriated warriors. Lexine and Egeria were talking to a couple of young tradeswomen.
Gabrielle abruptly sat up as she saw the captain of the guard walking across the open field, hands clasped behind her back as she matched the chief scout's pace. Solari was leaning heavily on her crutch as she gingerly picked her way across the uneven ground. More than once, Gabrielle observed Devillare reach out a steadying hand towards Solari's elbow.
Xena lowered her mug, staring at the Amazons, trying to figure out what Gabrielle was showing her now.
"Devillare and Solari," Gabrielle pointed out.
"Yep. I see 'em."
"Don't they make a cute - "
Xena slapped a hand over Gabrielle's mouth. "No."
Gabrielle extricated Xena's hand. She sullenly moved back to her own chair. "But, look at them. They'd be perfect together."
"Gabrielle, Solari is a free-spirited Amazonian womanizer. Devillare is a traditionalist so firmly rooted in duty and honor that she makes your no-nonsense regent look like a party girl."
"That's why they'd be so perfect together. Opposites attract."
"When pigs fly. That'll be the day."
Devillare and Solari. Xena snorted at the very idea and leaned back in her chair, folding her arms over her chest. She watched the festivities for a few more heartbeats before raising her mug to her lips. The rich full flavor of the Amazon wine went down smoothly. With a satisfied sigh, Xena swallowed and moved the mug away.
She nearly squawked as she saw a set of beady eyes staring directly into hers. Blinking, she leaned back until she could clearly see the stooped over old woman standing before her.
"You the Queen's consort?"
Xena looked uncertainly from the elder to Gabrielle and then back again.
"Good," said Calandra, "What's your position on phalluses?"
"Phalluses. What's your opinion of them?" Before giving the warrior a chance to respond, Calandra forcefully thumped her cane on the stonework scant inches from Xena's boot. "And children? Queen's not getting any younger, you know."
The mighty warrior princess looked to her bard for help. Gabrielle was nowhere to be seen.
The big drums had long since been silenced. The celebrations had wound down and most of the Amazons had finally wandered off back to their huts for the evening.
"I don't want you to go."
Ephiny and Eponin were standing close together. The darkened path leading to the regent's hut was deserted, with not even a stray guardswoman in sight. Fresh snowflakes had begun to fall about the hoods and shoulders of their cloaks.
They were leaning into each other, foreheads pressed together, faces hidden by their raised hoods. Lips were so close they were very nearly touching with each intimately whispered word.
"Gods, Eph, believe me; I don't wanna go, either."
They'd discussed this. Now that Eponin was free, her honors restored, there was no reason they couldn't be together. Eponin wanted Ephiny. Ephiny wanted Eponin. It should be that simple.
But, they both knew it wasn't. There was Ephiny's position as regent to think of. And now Eponin's as weapons master. Despite her high-standing in the tribe, Nicphellia knew of Eponin's heritage. There would be those that would object to someone of her bloodline having a relationship with the regent-queen.
They needed to be discreet. They'd agreed. There was Ephiny's reputation to think of; the scandal of someone in her position taking someone to her bed before she'd been officially named as consort. There was duty. And protocol. The need for appearances.
"I should go." Eponin made no move to leave. "They built me a new hut."
"I guess I should go inside." Likewise, Ephiny made no move to depart.
Honey-hued eyes looked over Ephiny's shoulder at the thick hide covering the door of the regent's personal residence. "Damn, Eph." Eponin reached up, a calloused thumb stroking over the smooth skin of the regent's cheek. "All I can think about is taking you through that door and to your bed."
Ephiny caught Eponin's hand, brought it to her lips and placed a tender kiss on her weapons master's palm. She held Eponin's gaze and said, "Don't see anyone stopping you, warrior."
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