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
"It was a patrol from the Athenian army," Marjorie explained. "Seems they were still in the area, hunting Amazons. The Amazons were trapped. Although healing, neither would be able to outrun or outfight an entire patrol of soldiers. And, I couldn't conceal them in the barn. They would have been found almost immediately. So, I did the only thing I could do. I hid them in plain sight."
The Athenian Captain looked around the kitchen with a wary eye. This had been the fifteenth farmhouse they'd checked today. He thought he'd finally gotten lucky when they'd found the horse in the barn. It was a fine horse. Too fine to belong to a simple farmer. Then, there were the leather fastenings, the hand-crafted, intricately detailed saddle. No, there was no way such finery belonged to a farmer.
When he'd questioned the women, they finally admitted that the horse had ambled onto the homestead one day; half-starved and riderless. The Captain had to concede that the story was plausible. Especially given the amount of blood that was pooled in the pony's saddle. It was possible that the Amazon harlot had fallen from the saddle and was dead in a nearby ditch. Even now, he had a squad out beating the brush beside the roads.
But then - and this had renewed his suspicions - there had been the cot in the main room of the house. It had been recently slept in. He was positive they'd been housing injured Amazon fugitives. Until his men discovered the ailing farmer in a bed in another room. Then, their explanation of having him change beds so they could clean the linens made more sense.
Still, he had ordered his men to perform a thorough search of the rest of the house and property. Just in case. While he waited in the kitchen with the women. Just to make sure they didn't try to warn someone.
He fingered the pommel of the sword hanging at his side. The mother and two daughters were continuing with their work, heads bowed as they chopped vegetables for the stew. Still, he had the feeling he was being watched. He quickly glanced at them, almost certain he caught one of them giving him the evil eye before rapidly ducking her head as he looked at them again.
He crossed the kitchen, approaching the trio. Frowning, he looked at them closely. They all wore peasant dresses, though some of the clothing was looking rather worn and ill-fitting. Knowing it was a poor farming community, he reasoned that they made their own clothes, wearing them until they wore out and then passing them on to the next family member until they were literally worn down to rags.
They were sweating. No question, it was hot in the kitchen. But, not that hot. Again, he felt someone glaring daggers at him. He zeroed in the older woman. The mother wore a bonnet on her head, keeping it pulled down low over her eyes. Frowning, he took a step towards her.
She began coughing violently, doubling over. One of her daughters rushed to her side, wrapping a protective arm about her shoulder. The other stepped between him and her mother.
"She's okay," she held up her hands so the captain wouldn't come any closer. "It's the coughs. Papa caught the coughs before he came down real sick."
"The what?" questioned the captain.
"That's what the healer calls it. He says first comes the fever, then the coughs, then the black lesions."
"Black. Filled with puss." The girl's nose crinkled in disgust. "Smells something awful when they explode. Gods help you if it gets on you."
In the background, the mother continued with her coughing fit. The captain winced as she hocked up something and spit it into the fire beneath the stew kettle.
He took three decisive steps back. Placing his fingers in his mouth, he gave a shrill whistle. "Regroup," he bellowed, "We're leaving."
"You dressed Amazons as . . . farmwomen?" Eponin asked.
"As long as they didn't look up and let me do all the talking, I knew we could pull it off. The Athenians were so busy looking for half-naked savages, they couldn't see what was dressed in peasant garb beneath their very noses. Thank the Gods, and the help of rumors of the plague, that was the only visit we had from the Athenian army."
Blessed Artemis, Eponin thought, the captain of the royal guard in a peasant dress!
"It was only a few days later that their tribeswomen also tracked their missing companions here. Finally, it was time for them to return home."
"Just like that? You didn't - "
"There were kisses. And promises. She asked me to go with her. I refused." Tears were openly rolling down Marjorie's cheeks. "I had to. Father's health; I was all that he had. She swore she would return and ask me again."
"I'll hold you in my heart til then, my love," the Amazon promised.
"And, I you . . . " Marjorie vowed, ". . . Melosa . . . "
"You need to back off and let the royal guard perform their duty."
"What?" Solari asked, taken aback at this sudden demand. Where in Tartarus did that come from?
"Inter - " Solari's eyebrows rose about as far as they could possibly go. " - fering?"
"You're constantly between the guard and the regent."
Suddenly not appreciating where this conversation was going, Solari developed a defensive stance, placing both hands on her hips, her eyes narrowing, a frostiness edging into her voice. "I'm hardly standing in their way."
"You're injured. You aren't physically capable of protecting the regent."
"And you are? I've counted no fewer than three coughing spells since we've been standing here."
"If she's attacked, you'll be useless. Worse than useless; a liability." Devillare's gaze indicated Solari's bandaged hand, then pointedly darted to the sword pommel protruding over the scout's shoulder. "You can't even draw your weapon."
"What are you going to do, cough them to death?"
"I'm - "
" - sick. You've got no more right to be here than I do."
"It's not your duty, scout."
Solari's nostrils flared. She boldly advanced on the captain, ignoring the low, menacing growl that came from Devillare's throat as her personal space was invaded. Standing toe to toe with the warrior, tilting her head back until she was able to stare directly into stormy grey eyes, she threatened, "Know this, captain. After the royal guard allowed the regent to be snatched right out of the village - and while you and the other elders were locked in your precious council sessions debating what to do - I went after Ephiny. It was no warrior's sword that saved the regent. It was no royal guard that shielded her from harm. It took a scout to track her to that cache. Artemis as my witness, I swear I would have tracked her to the edges of the known world, if needed." Using her index finger, Solari pointedly jabbed each word of her next sentence home in Devillare's chest. "So, don't you dare stand there and try to tell me where my duty to my regent ends."
Before the captain of the guard could react, Solari snatched the mug and the remaining wrapped biscuit from her grasp and pushed past her, all the while cursing a blue streak beneath her breath that would make a grown Satyr blush.
Stunned, Devillare turned and watched the scout storm away. An unexpected cough had her throat burning, her lungs searing. "Hey!" she called after Solari. Damn scout. "That's my mug of tea!"
"Wait." Eponin was incredulous. "You're telling me that your secret love was - "
" - your Amazon Queen."
Ephiny sat with her knees drawn up to her chest, arms wrapped about her legs in a futile effort to keep the cold wet at bay. Wind and rain and hail blew all about the entrance to their shelter, tousling corkscrew blonde curls and wetting her face. Turbulent and melancholy, the weather matched the regent's mood perfectly.
She'd been sitting here for candlemarks now, sequestered away from the companionship of her sisters and the warmth of the campfires. Ever since she'd awoken in the middle of the night, the throbbing pain of her shoulder finally pulling her from the troubling sleep of Morpheus' nightmares. The remembered sensations of an arrow tearing into flesh and muscle had driven her to sit bolt upright in her bedroll, her heart hammering in her chest and sweat drenching her brow, despite the chill night temperatures.
I'm safe. I'm safe. I'm safe. Ephiny had repeated the mantra over and over again in her head as the nightmare had faded away and her senses had slowly returned. She inhaled, then exhaled a long breath as she reminded herself once again that she was safe, taking shelter from the storm beneath a rock formation with her sisters.
And not held hostage, courting Death, in a secluded cave. Ephiny's gaze traveled over the campsite. Most everyone had turned in early, the day's journey having been exhausting on them all. Soft snores - and several very loud ones echoing from the elders at the hunters' campsite - reverberated throughout the enclosed space. Many of her sisters had bunked down in pairs of twos, threes, and sometimes more in their efforts to stay both warm and comfortable. Here and there, someone would stir in her sleep, restlessly turning this way or that, moving a sharp elbow or ill-placed knee out of her way before drifting off again.
Ephiny felt stifled, trapped. Even though she knew she was okay, she couldn't shake her nightmare. Because it wasn't just a dream; it really happened. Logically, she knew it was just her subconscious working overtime, processing the event of her first trip out of the village since - shaking off that thought, refusing to indulge it one heartbeat longer, Ephiny pushed aside the fur pooled about her waist and hips.
She thought about waking Iphinome, asking the healer's apprentice for something to quiet the ache in her shoulder and settle the nerves. But - glancing across the campsite, she saw the young healer was safely sandwiched between Admeta and Metanira, sound asleep - and Ephiny didn't want to risk taking anything that would leave her too groggy come morning.
Beside her, Solari stirred, mumbling something incoherent in her sleep. A mahogany brow furrowed, a hand reached out for her.
"Shhh." Ephiny brushed back dark locks, placed a firm kiss against her packmate's temple. "It's okay, Soli. Go back to sleep."
Solari's fingers fell away from Ephiny's midsection. With a contented sigh and a smile on her full lips, the scout rolled over, curling into and against Ephiny's furs. Ephiny gave a soft smile in return, stroked her palm over the feathers of Solari's shoulder guard and down the fine hairs covering her arm.
Seeing her regent awake and on her feet, Bonadea had started to approach Ephiny, but found herself being waved off. With a slight nod, Bonadea disappeared back into the shadows. As she'd made her way to the boulder and settled down on the cold, unyielding surface, Ephiny had been aware of the guard's watchful eyes upon her. But, Bonadea respected her privacy and didn't intrude. And for that simple act alone, Ephiny was more grateful to the guard than she would ever know.
Sitting atop the boulder, Ephiny silently kept watch as the sky gradually lightened from pitch black to gloomy grey. Even though she never turned around, she sensed the changing of the guard, when Bonadea was relieved from duty and the next member of the guard took over. Lexine, Ephiny knew without even consciously knowing how she knew. Just as she'd been aware of the eventual stirrings of life in the camp. The rustling of bedrolls, the soft moans and curses that accompanied waking up to stiff joints, the early morning rituals of hygiene and meals.
Still, no one had disturbed her. And, she reveled in her few candlemarks of solitude. It was a respite she was seldom allowed to indulge in; alone time. At the village, every waking moment of every day was filled. With duty, obligations, the council. Gods, the council, thought Ephiny, letting out a haggard breath at the recently never-ending demands of the elders.
Ephiny's time had scarcely been her own before the abduction. But ever since? Seemed she couldn't make a move without the council breathing down her neck, demanding to know every action, every intention. Not to mention the constant haranguing about choosing a consort. Every time she turned around, seemed like one of the elders was behind her, either making demands or thinly veiled suggestions about which Amazon should be warming her bed.
Then, there was the royal guard. If Ephiny wasn't stumbling over an elder, seemed she was tripping over a guard. Eph thought Captain Pelagia had been trying to relieve her own guilt by more than doubling the guard assigned to her. Then, there had been Megara, constantly dropping by to inspect her wound. If the pain in my shoulder has been an intermittent ache, Megara has been a constant pain in my tailfeathers. Eventually, it had finally struck Ephiny like a staff between the eyes; Megara's recent attentions were partially due to the fact that she was the head healer, partially because Pelagia was her bondmate. Megara was privy to the council's inquiries and was trying her best to ensure the regent held no animosity against the captain of the guard for what some had suggested could be considered dereliction of duty.
Everyone wanted something of her. The council wanted insurance. The guard wanted absolution. The tribe as a whole wanted resolution. And, they all expected the regent to be able to provide them what they wanted. Gods, when was the last time someone didn't want something from me? Holding her head in her hand, fingers combing through riotous corkscrew curls, the palm of her hand connected with the braided leather crown designating her status as regent. Gods, when was the last time I was allowed to put aside duty and...just be me?
A loud crack of thunder startled the regent, causing her to jump, drawing her attention back to the storm. She had hoped it would blow over and they could get an early start. Zeus, it seemed, had other ideas. Taking a deep breath, Ephiny resettled herself atop her boulder. A bolt of lightning flashed against the sky and Ephiny recalled another time, another storm.
It had been a night not too long after her abduction, then subsequent rescue, then return to duty. Xena and Gabrielle had resumed their travels on the open road. On the surface, it seemed that the day had been saved and life in the village had returned to normal. But, underneath, there was an underlying tension. Like the storm that had been rolling in all day, Ephiny could feel it brewing.
The darkening skies had driven the hunters and gatherers from the forests and fields early. By the time the first lightning bolt had crackled across the horizon, all but the perimeter scouts had been summoned back to the village. As soon as the northern winds had pushed in, Mytilda had closed down her kitchen, ordering the largest fire pits be extinguished before stray embers could ignite still too dry thatching. As the first fat raindrops fell from the sky, the drums echoed throughout the village, giving the command to take shelter. In effect, the entire Amazon Nation was closed for business.
Except for the office of the regent. Ephiny was bent over the stack of scrolls piled high on her desk, the fingers of one hand curled about her quill, the others tangled in a mass of unruly blonde curls. Weary eyes brimmed by dark circles struggled to read by the light of one lone candle. A cold, damp breeze blew in through the room's single window, causing the flame to repeatedly flicker.
The sounds of the storm raging outside, the rain pelting the roof of the hut, the sporadic flashes of lightning illuminating the room; all drove her to distraction, prompting her to throw down her quill in frustration. The instant she did, the candle's flame went out.
Ephiny repeatedly banged her striker against the hardwood desk. It stubbornly refused to catch. She tried three more times before the striker went the way of the quill.
A small hole dug in the earthen floor surrounded by carefully ringed stones served as a makeshift fire pit and provided enough light to see by, if not to read by. The glow from the coals cast the room in a series of light and shadow, adding ambiance. Two large animal pelts scattered on the floor a safe distance from the pit made an enticing place to sit and relax beside its warmth.
None of which was particularly conducive to the regent's work. And, she desperately needed to work. Her days were spent locked in council sessions with the elders, her nights in solitude. Sequestered in her office, there was always just one more scroll to read, one more treaty that needed reviewing. Duty had become her crutch, her excuse for not going home at night.
When she'd first been released from the hospice, she'd been sent home to heal in the privacy of her hut, the comfort of her own bed. No one, not even her queen, had suspected that Ephiny just wasn't able to rest there. Never mind that Xena and Eponin had personally taken her old bed out and built a new one in its place. It had still - happened - there. And, she hadn't been able to come to terms with that, yet.
Picking up the striker again, she gave it one more try.
Ephiny rolled her eyes in exasperation, blew a heated puff of air that had blonde curls lifting off a regal forehead. In a fit of defeated resignation, she pushed her chair back and stormed across her office. Gathering her cloak in one hand, she determinedly shoved the hide covering the door out of her way.
And nearly ran right into the weapons master as she came through the doorway. The startled regent took an almost involuntary step back even as Eponin took a matching step forward. She halted nearly as soon as she stepped foot inside the door, the pelt whispering across her broad back as it fell back into place.
Ephiny's alert gaze instantly took in the appearance of the warrior standing just inside her office. Her ebony locks hung in dripping wet strands about both shoulders, plastered to her soaked halter. The feathers braided into her hair and the customary blue feather she wore at her ear hung limply, weighed down by the damp wet. Even the choker about her neck was soaked, making the leather appear dark against her tanned flesh. Moisture clung to chiseled features and rippling sinew, running off her soaked leathers and down her muscular legs, falling to pool on the floor about her boots.
Eponin's gaze lifted, eyes boldly meeting those of her regent. Normally light honey colored eyes darkened to a deeper, richer hue, nearly matching the shade of hardened ambrosia. Ephiny was so transfixed by Eponin's stare that her knees threatened to buckle.
"She was incredible. Young and strong and - free. But, not so free from duty, it seemed," Marjorie explained. "When Melosa returned to her nation, her people, it was for far longer than either of us thought it would be."
"But, she did come back, right?" asked Eponin.
"Oh, my, yes." The wistfulness had once again returned to Marjorie's voice. "One day, out of the blue, she just came riding in, professing her love."
"Pony, what in Tartarus are you doing out in a storm?" Ephiny's words came out sounding much more clipped than she'd intended.
"I was just storing some gear away in the armory."
"Now? That couldn't have waited until morning?"
"You ever seen how quickly a deluge can rust a stack of unprotected short swords?"
"Swords? You were working?"
"Small group," Eponin shrugged, "Second-season class."
"What were you thinking, Pony, having those kids out there in this kind of weather?"
"They have to learn how to fight under any conditions." She caught the regent's disapproving gaze. "Besides, it was barely drizzling when we started out."
"I trust you've dismissed them now?" Ephiny asked, trying to peer over a broad shoulder out into the darkness and rain.
"Yeah, sent them all for warm baths and then straight back to their mommas." Ep reached up, briskly running a hand through a sodden mass of black hair. "Nothing worse than a wet Amazon."
Gods, not from where I'm standing, thought Ephiny.
Pony was drenched, soaked to the bone, her clothes clinging to her like a second skin. With her hair ruffled from the mussing she'd given it, she had a slightly wild look about her. There's always been something a little more - uncivilized - about her, Ephiny thought. She didn't know if it was because of the sheer physical power Ep harnessed, or maybe the skilled prowess she had with any weapon, or maybe just the pure nature of the woman herself; but something about Pony always seemed just a bit more primal.
Those words - Nothing worse than a wet Amazon - echoed between her ears. So many responses came to mind in light of the visual this prime specimen of Amazonian womanhood was displaying that Ephiny thought she'd surely swallow her own tongue before settling on a seemingly innocent reply. "And, you?" she prompted, "Why aren't you off relaxing in a warm tub?"
"Waitin' for Egeria to get the kiddies bathed and out of the way. I like it quiet when I soak." She offered up a crooked smile. "Saw your candle burning and thought I'd check in. But then when I got here - " she gestured towards the now extinguished candle perched upon Ephiny's desk.
"The wind blew it out," Ephiny explained, following the warrior's gaze. From the corner of her eye, she caught the uncontrollable shivering, noticed the goosebumps covering the flesh on Pony's arms. "At least warm up by the fire while you wait," ordered Ephiny, grabbing Ep by the shoulders and briskly turning her around.
Keeping her palms braced where they were, she marched the waterlogged weapons master across the room to where the heated coals were giving off a steady orange glow as they basked in the fire pit. Eponin's flesh felt so cold to the touch at first, that Ephiny was worried she'd never get warmed up. She remained standing behind the drenched Amazon, no more than the distance of a half-pace separating them. Ephiny stood so near that the buckle of her belt brushed against the backside of Eponin's leathers with each indrawn breath.
Eponin shivered. And, those words - nothing worse than a wet Amazon - rang in Ephiny's ears again, eliciting a shiver of her own.
"We have to get you out of these wet leathers." Warm, moist breath whispered at Eponin's ear as Ephiny gazed over Ep's shoulder, watching as her fingers worked at loosening the ties at the front of the weapons master's halter.
A large hand reached up, stilling Ephiny's movements.
Amazons weren't what most people would call inhibited by nature. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But, Ephiny knew that Eponin was considerably more reserved than many of their other sisters. Almost to the point of being modest. Oh, it was certainly nowhere near the almost painful bashfulness their Queen suffered from while disrobing in front of others. But, she also knew Eponin wasn't likely to go parading topless about the training fields, either.
"It's okay," was husked into an ear, "We're alone."
Eponin immediately stiffened. Golden hued eyes perceptibly narrowed as an intense gaze swept about the interior of the regent's office.
"Isn't there supposed to be a guard with you?" was asked in a brusque tone as the warrior finally turned full circle and that intimidating glare firmly settled on the curly-haired blonde.
"Does Pelagia know about this?" Eponin demanded. "Who was assigned to you?"
There was an almost crackling energy about Eponin. She had reverted to weapons master mode; Ephiny could see her bristling, itching for a fight. She envisioned Eponin storming out of the hut and down to the captain of the guard's hut, waking her - demanding the Amazon responsible for the regent being unattended be strung upside down.
"Pony, stop. It's not what you think." At the dark glower, Ephiny let out a hastily mumbled response of, "I relieved the guard."
"Ephiny - "
"It wasn't right, leaving her to stand outside the door in this sort of weather." An arched eyebrow had her rushing to continue her explanation, "And, I couldn't stand having her in here, just - guarding me." Ephiny could feel herself becoming more and more unnerved by that stony silent presence, heard the feeble excuses rolling off her tongue, but couldn't stop them. "Nothing's going to happen to me in my own office."
Ephiny could almost read the thought shadowed behind Eponin's eyes. You were taken right out of your own bed. As if to emphasize the weapons master's unspoken point, a low rumble of thunder swept overhead. Ephiny looked up at the thatched roof as if expecting Artemis herself to suddenly lift the top of the building off. She couldn't stop the involuntary shiver that ran through her body as she remembered that it was on a stormy night very much like this one that she was abducted.
It was a response that did not go completely unnoticed by the warrior. "Eph?" Her tone dropped to something considerably more mellow than it had been when she'd last spoken.
There was no verbal reply. Only a reflexive crossing of arms and an averted gaze as hazel eyes slid towards the floor. Eponin recognized the moves for what they were; the crossed arms were a defensive posture designed to keep anything - or anyone - from getting too close. And, the hastily dropped eyes were an avoidance tactic.
Her hand visibly trembling, Eponin reached out, using her thumb and index finger to catch Ephiny beneath her chin and tilt her face up until hazel eyes blinked back at her. "Eph?" There were dark circles under her eyes, an extra crease in her brow, the stress showing in the angles of her face. Calloused fingers stroked along the softness of a gaunt cheek. "Hey, you okay?"
Ephiny bit her bottom lip, felt herself nodding. Whether it was in actual agreement to Pony's question or whether it was mostly to convince herself, she wasn't entirely certain. She tried for a reassuring smile. Overwhelmed with emotion, she fell back on her ingrained defense mechanism; her dry sense of humor. "Course I am. Take more than one arrow to put me down." Somehow, the smile never reached her eyes and Eponin was not convinced.
"How - how is - ?" Her hand trailing down Ephiny's cheek, fingers lifted the regent's cloak off her shoulder, pushing the material back.
Pony's eyes fell upon the abused flesh surrounding the lightweight bandage. No stranger to battle wounds, the warrior knew the lighter dressing was a good sign. As was the yellowish cast to the skin peeking out from around the edges. It meant the bone-deep bruising caused by the initial impact as well as the pressure the warrior princess had placed upon the wound when she'd drained the infection was finally fading.
"It's - " She'd started to simply say fine, just like she'd been doing by rote whenever anyone else asked. The healer. The captain of the guard. The council. Solari. Seeing the heated gaze so intently fixed upon her wound, her mouth instead formed the word " - better." Eyes flicked to her face and she added, "Megara's mixed up a special herbal poultice to be worn beneath the bandage to keep dirt and infection out. She comes by every morning to change out the dressing. And, she's finally allowed me to move beyond strengthening exercises." There was a flicker of excitement in Ephiny's eyes as she confided, "Even got in a little sparring practice today."
"That's great, Eph. Really." Eponin's initial gaze about the regent's office had detected the presence of no fewer than five weapons, all within easy reach. It was obvious the regent wasn't taking any chances. But - "You still aren't staying by yourself."
"Pony - "
"I'm serious, regent." The tone in Eponin's voice brooked no argument. "It's either me or a guard. Your choice."
Ephiny glared at Eponin for several long heartbeats. Finally, she rolled her eyes and let out an exasperated breath. Normally, she would have put up more of a fight. But tonight, the fight was all worn out of her. "Ugh. Okay, fine. You."
"You don't have to make it sound so delightful."
"I'm sorry. I just - " Ephiny ran a perturbed hand through her hair. Turning an irritated gaze on her weapons master, she said, "I thought you were waiting for a warm bath."
"Well, unless you're planning on joining me - " Eponin interpreted Ephiny's deer caught in the crossbow's sights as reluctance. Little did she know that Ephiny was envisioning them together in the tub; a very tiny tub requiring closely cramped quarters, indeed. " - I can get just as warm in front of the fire."
Ephiny silently nodded in agreement. She used the excuse of fetching a flask of Amazon wine from her desk drawer to buy herself the time she needed to regain some semblance of control.
"Deal," she said, fortifying herself with a huge swallow before turning back around. "But, don't think for a heartbeat I'm letting you drip all over my good furs." Steeling her resolve, she shoved the flask into her weapons master's hands. Then, trembling fingers reached once more for the ties of Eponin's halter.
Marjorie looked down at her hands, realized they were trembling as she confessed, "She pledged her heart to me. And asked me to come home with her to the Amazons."
Eponin was stunned. She'd had no idea. In all the seasons she'd known Melosa, served her, she never once suspected her queen harbored a love outside the village.
"Father had long since passed away. And, I was newly married with my firstborn suckling at my breast before she came back. And although I ached to, I couldn't. I couldn't abandon my son."
"A son." Eponin understood. It was the law. Not even the queen could allow a male child within the village.
"She returned. Again and again. And, each time, I was forced to tell her no. She stood here, in this very kitchen, hands clasped behind her back, that proud stubborn tilt to her chin as she watched my three boys playing in the yard."
Melosa felt the hand on her arm, turned to look at the woman standing beside her. They were both older now. But, she still felt her heart give that same little lurch it gave the very first time she'd laid eyes on Marjorie.
"Melosa," tear-brimmed eyes looked up at her, "I'm so sorry."
As in days gone by, calloused fingers wiped the tears from her cheeks. "Don't be sorry, Marjorie. You have three very fine sons." Then, she ducked her head, her lips once more finding those she'd craved all these seasons.
"She never again asked me to leave with her. But, she did promise that when they were grown, when I no longer had duties of my own, she would come back for me."
"She just stood by and let you go?"
Candlemarks later, Ephiny was laying on her back atop one of the furs in front of the fire. The other was draped across her decidedly warm body. Fingers idly stroked through the soft fur covering as she stared at the thatched roof of the hut. The sounds of a softer, gentler rain soothed her towards sleep.
"Eph?" came a voice near her ear.
"Hmm?" she asked, her own voice sounding far too mellow to have come from the lips of the regent.
Eponin turned her head just far enough so she could gaze down at the beautiful blonde laying with her head nestled against one of her shoulders.
"It's gotta be past dawn. You think we should be getting up?"
Ephiny gave that question serious thought. She could easily think of any number of reasons she should get her lazy tailfeathers moving this morning. But, she found herself answering the weapons master's question with a question of her own.
"You have a class?"
"Not for a while, yet."
Ephiny absently reached for the flask on the fur beside them. Shaking it, discovering it was empty, she half-heartedly tossed it across the room. Rolling over, she turned until she was on her side, her chin propped up on her palm as she stared down into eyes the color of wheat on a summer day.
Eyes shifted, taking in Pony's features, softened by sleep. The weapons master's customary scowl was absent, leaving behind only a faint crease near her eyebrow and another at the corner of her lip. Dark ebony locks hung about broad shoulders, the ends working into lazy tendrils. Fingers reached out, stroking, marveling at the soft texture.
Ephiny remembered just candlemarks prior, when Pony's hair had been drenched. Images flashed before her eyes of her soaked to the bone weapons master and Pony's comment about 'nothing worse than a wet Amazon' came roaring back in her ears. Following closely on the heels of that memory was a visual of the two of them bathing together, washing each others' slick bodies, then fingers slipping between parted thighs to discover that not all the wetness came from their shared bathwater.
Ephiny was unable to suppress the involuntary shiver that shot through her. Feeling as though her breathing was entirely too loud in the quiet room, she looked askance at Eponin before husking out, "You looking for that bath, yet?"
There wasn't even the slightest bit of hesitation before the answer came, "Nope, I'm good."
For several long heartbeats, Ephiny merely stayed where she was, propped up on her elbows, staring down at Eponin. 'Warriors,' she silently cursed, forgetting for half a heartbeat that she was one of those, as well. The thought briefly occurred to Ephiny to slap Pony upside the head to remind her that she was the one that had made the offer of a joined bath earlier in the evening.
In truth, Eph was kicking herself for what could have been a missed opportunity. Off the top of her head, she could tick off on the fingers of both hands the names of Amazons that would jump at a chance to share a sea sponge and a bar of lye soap with the weapons master. And, how many women had Ephiny watched approach her after a training session, making thinly veiled comments about Pony's staff and her technique? Why, that one dancer had practically used Eponin's staff as a ceremonial pole -- while Pony was still holding it!
But, through it all, Pony hadn't shown the slightest bit of interest. Ephiny couldn't recall a single woman in the village who had garnered Eponin's attention. As a matter of fact, it seemed to Ephiny that Eponin only had eyes for her sword and her staff.
Ephiny thought of telling her. Better yet, of just rushing forward and planting a smoldering kiss right on Pony's lips. 'Bet that would get her attention,' the curly-haired blonde thought. The impulse to simply take what she wanted from her warrior was a strong one.
But then, Ephiny's common sense overrode her baser instincts. Rationally, she knew she was projecting onto Eponin the council's demands. They'd been so relentless in hounding her night and day for the need for a consort that she was starting to size up every Amazon as an eligible bed partner.
Besides, she couldn't do that to Pony. What if she simply wasn't interested? It was rare, but there were some Amazons that simply weren't...that way. Worse, what if Pony just wasn't attracted to her? Besides, they were friends...... a troubling thought creased Ephiny's brow........weren't they?
Steeling herself, she dared another look directly into Eponin's eyes. She had been worried, afraid of what she might see. If Pony was just like everyone else -- Ephiny blinked; what she saw was openness and honesty - and not a trace of a hidden agenda.
A haggard sigh escaped Ephiny's lips. She was tired. She'd been tired for so long now. Tired of everyone telling her what she should do. Exhausted from always having to be on guard, fighting to maintain her command. And, most of all, she was angry. At the healers, the council, Solari, Pelagia and her ever-constricting rotation of guards. But, mostly - herself.
Ever since she'd been wounded, then abducted and poisoned, ever since the enchanted bracer, her world had slowly been spiraling out of control. And, no matter how hard she tried, she was finding it difficult to get it back on its axis. That was what was really bothering Ephiny; that she had no control. Over events, over herself. That was the real reason she couldn't stand to go home at night. Because even when she was by herself, she was living with a stranger.
A wave of exhaustion washing over her, Ephiny settled back down. Laying her head against Eponin's shoulder, her cheek pressed against the upper swell of a naked breast. A long exhale sent a puff of heated breath sweeping across a dark-hued nipple, causing it to constrict in response. Ephiny shifted, the movement creating a curtain of golden curls falling across Eponin's breast, effectively hiding her tightening nipple from view. Ephiny's eyes slid closed, her hand drifted to Pony's stomach. Fingers capped by short nails traced lazy patterns across a sculpted abdomen.
"You know what, Pony?" asked Ephiny.
"Hmm?" asked the weapons master, her hand coming around to loosely clasp Ephiny's, stilling the motion of her distracting fingers.
"So am I," Ephiny whispered, a contented sigh escaping her lips as she drifted off towards the first restful sleep she'd had in ages.
Ephiny swallowed hard, her throat burning with the action. Her eyes slowly blinked open. She felt moisture upon her cheeks, knew it wasn't solely from the falling rain. She hastily scrubbed a hand across her face.
She felt something soft brush against her face. Looking down, she frowned, surprised to see she was tightly clutching a feather in her grasp.
The memory of her propped up on her elbows, staring down at Eponin surfaced again. There was a lazy smile upon Pony's lips, her dark hair was swept back from her neck, the tip of that blue feathered earring brushed across a broad shoulder. Half-lidded eyes of warm honey stared back at her.
"Damn it, Pony," she cursed.
Eponin already knew the answer, knew Marjorie had never so much as stepped foot inside the borders of the Amazon Nation. But, she couldn't believe that after all that, Melosa would just -
"She just stood by and let you go?"
"Oh, Eponin." Ignoring the tears that were freely flowing down her face, Marjorie reached across the table and grasped one of Eponin's hands in both of hers. "Have you ever loved someone so much you would do anything for them; pay any price to ensure their happiness?"
To Eponin, it felt as though a knife had been suddenly plunged into her gut as images of her regent immediately swam before her eyes. Her throat constricted, Ephiny's name frozen upon her lips. Reaching out, Eponin wiped her thumb across Marjorie's tear-stained cheek in a move reminiscent of one Melosa had performed so long ago.
Abruptly, she was out of the chair and out the door and rushing down the stairs to her horse. Grabbing hold of the saddlehorn, she placed one boot into a stirrup. She tried to pull herself up into the saddle - twice - before futilely landing back on the ground. She shook off the sharp needlelike sensations she'd felt in her ribs and knee. Taking a deep breath, steadying her grip, she tried again.
And cursed her own weakness as she lacked the strength necessary to mount up.
Damn it, Pony. I was. That morning, I really was good. And, she had been. Increased pressure from the council, from everyone, had eventually pushed Ephiny's nerves to the edge, causing her to even alienate Eponin for a time. But, she belatedly realized that, for that one morning, for that one moment, I was . . . happy.
Even though they had ended the night curled up beneath the furs together, no matter that Ephiny was sorely tempted, nothing had happened between them. Still, it was the nicest nothing Ephiny had ever experienced. A vision of amber-hued eyes floated in front of her and Ephiny wondered how many more mornings of happiness she could have found in her weapons master's arms.
But, you ruined it. The bitter sting of tears clouded her vision. Damn it, Pony. Damn you.
Sharp ears detected the sound of a footstep behind her. She roughly scrubbed a hand across her face to chase away her tears. Fingers hastily jammed the feather back into its hiding place tucked inside her bracer. Squaring her shoulders, she steeled herself against the inevitable intrusion of her privacy.
Solari approached her regent on guarded feet. She had been angry when she stormed off towards her packmate. But, sensitive ears had caught the distinctive sound of a sniffle. The scout immediately calmed herself, pushing down her anger at Devillare in her concern for Ephiny. She purposely kicked a rock to announce her presence as she smoothly appeared at the blonde's side and handed her a wrapped bread in offering.
The muted voice, the way Ephiny never looked up at her as she took the warm treat didn't escape Solari's notice. Neither did the way hazel eyes stared unblinkingly past the torrential sheets of wet at something only she could see. But, Solari was relieved when Ephiny unwrapped the bread by rote and absently nibbled at it.
"What did Devillare want?"
Solari was startled by the unexpected question. She would have bet good dinars that Ephiny had been blissfully unaware that she'd had any contact with the captain of the guard. The scout carefully sipped her tea, biding her time before answering, so that Ephiny wouldn't hear the residual anger lacing her tone.
Ephiny waited for Solari to elaborate. When she didn't, Ephiny turned to look up at her packmate. The scout was standing beside Ephiny's perch, even with her shoulder. Eyes the same shade as sandalwood stared out at the storm in much the same fashion Ephiny had for most of the morning. She was trying to drink from a mug, but her jaw was so tightly clenched that Ephiny doubted if so much as a sip could pass between her lips.
"Solari?" Ephiny reached up, smoothly lifting the mug from Solari's grasp. Bringing it to her lips, she gingerly took a sip, experimentally testing the strength of the brew before taking a bigger swallow. "What happened with you and Devillare?"
Marjorie watched from the safety of the porch as the warrior repeatedly failed in her attempts to mount her horse. Finally, slapping the reins against her thigh, a determined Eponin climbed up the steps. The horse obediently followed, coming to stand near the top step.
Holding onto the horse, Eponin whispered low in its ear. Taking a steadying breath, she placed the reins in her mouth, teeth biting down on the leather. With the fingers of one hand, she held tightly onto the saddlehorn. With the other, she grasped the worn leather on the far side of the saddle. One boot in the stirrup, she braced herself, giving a sharp whistle.
Solari didn't want to answer the question. Partly because she herself wasn't entirely certain as to exactly what had happened. And, partly because she knew that although unintentional, her misspoken word had been the trigger for the disagreement. Either way, Solari was still smarting over her perceived mistreatment by the elder.
Just who does she think she is, anyway? Talking down to me; like I don't understand duty. Like I wouldn't do anything to protect Eph?
Solari looked back towards the campsite. Devillare was standing by the fire, engaged in conversation with Tynette and Lyonene. The captain's arms were folded over her chest and she was nodding at something the other two elders were saying. Unexpectedly, Devillare looked up, her eyes locking with Solari's. A dark eyebrow arched in open appraisal of the scout. Then, just like that, the captain broke their stare. It seemed to Solari that it took no effort at all for Devillare to turn away from her and refocus her attention on the elder hunters.
Sufficiently rankled, Solari moved in closer to Ephiny, dropping a protective hand upon the regent's shoulder. Ephiny glanced at the hand, then dismissed the touch as she turned once again to the driving rain. Solari looked at the elders again, saw steel grey eyes once more staring unblinkingly back at her. Solari pointedly turned her back on the captain.
She slid in behind Ephiny. Her knees at the small of Ephiny's back, her bandaged right hand lightly clasping her shoulder, her left hand worked at the knotted muscles in Ephiny's upper back.
"Unh." A moan escaped Ephiny's lips.
The horse reacted, pulling sharply away from the porch. Eponin went with the motion, allowing the horse's strength to tug her off the porch. A flexing of muscles, a grunt of pain, and Eponin was suddenly upright in the saddle.
Ephiny couldn't stop the decadent moan that escaped her lips. Her head fell back on her shoulders, her mouth dropped open, her eyes slid closed. White teeth chewed at her bottom lip as she tried to force out something slightly more coherent than a deep-throated groan.
But, she'd been wound so tight for so long. And, it really felt so...delicious. And, Solari had always been the best at giving massages.
But, I'm the regent. I have a duty -
"Mm." I have to tell her to - "Stop."
"Shhh," a heated breath whispered in the shell of an ear. Solari was so close now, she was practically standing on top of Ephiny. Talented fingers worked into a knot beneath a shoulder blade. "It's okay," Solari said, scarcely turning her head to look; feeling rather than seeing a set of cold grey eyes boring into her back, "no one can see."
The horse started to gallop, eager to be away from the docile farm, eager to run free. Eponin almost allowed it, but then abruptly reined in her horse. She cast a look back at the woman that had followed her out onto the porch. She owed this simple farmwoman a debt. One that she doubted she could ever repay. But, perhaps there was one thing she could give her.
"No one can see."
Full lips whispered those words into Ephiny's hair, tickling her ear. Then, Solari came around the boulder, and she was suddenly saying, "It's okay," into Ephiny's mouth.
"Sol - " Ephiny's voice broke "- ari" as the chief scout's nose and lips and tongue and teeth were firmly entrenched in the cleavage of the regent's light-weight armor.
Solari's hands tried, but couldn't find purchase on the leather of Ephiny's halter. There were just too many buckles and fastenings; she knew she hadn't the time to undo them all. Fingers made do with the briefest of touches before falling away.
The regent's skirt was much more susceptible to attack and soon Solari's hands had breached its defenses. Palms caressed the smooth flesh of inner thighs as they delved beneath the folds of leather material.
"Solari..." Ephiny hissed as those fingers swiftly found purchase in a much softer set of folds. Ephiny's hands briefly tangled in brunette locks before dropping to feather-encased shoulders.
Icy tendrils seized Solari's heart as she thought Ephiny meant to shove her away. Instead, hands forcefully pushed on her shoulders, urging her head lower. The scout closed her eyes in rapture as a decidedly heady scent assaulted her sensitive nose. Grinning rakishly, Solari licked her lips and ducked her head beneath Ephiny's skirt.
"Marjorie? About Melosa. The Queen - she - "
"Don't." Marjorie held up her hand to cut off the Amazon's words. "I know. It's the only thing that could keep her from me."
Eponin nodded once, then spurred her horse with her heel, turning away, urging it into a gallop, swiftly riding away from a farmwoman that had once conquered the heart of an Amazon Queen.
"Solari. Stop. Now."
The hardened edge in her regent's voice instantly snapped Solari out of the fantasy she'd been in. Her hands immediately stilled.
Blinking, the chief scout slowly became aware of her surroundings. She was still standing at Ephiny's back. Her hands were clasped firmly about her regent's shoulders. Her thighs were pressed intimately close against Eph's back. It slowly dawned on Solari that her hips had been slightly rocking.
She swallowed harshly, attempted to squash down the tendrils of arousal that even now curled in her belly. And lower, she mentally cringed as she felt a clenching beneath her leathers.
"What did the captain want?"
Solari's hands fell away from Ephiny's shoulders. All traces of her packmate was gone; Ephiny was once again in full-regent mode.
"Ah," Solari noncommittally shrugged, "you know how the elders are."
"Yes." If it was possible, Ephiny's voice was even sharper, "Yes, I do."
Ephiny felt her temper flare as her mind rampantly darted from one outrage to the next. Doretta's treason. Cordele's challenge. Solari's advances. The Council's demands.
When Ephiny leapt off her boulder and turned around, her jaw was clenched tight, her eyes were glaring sharp daggers, her expression was so intense that Solari took an involuntary step back.
"Tell Captain Devillare I want that camp broken down and everyone mounted up. Now." There was a significant clenching and unclenching of a fist. She instructed a wide-eyed Solari, "Then, reassure the elders that I know my responsibilities as regent and I will perform my duty." There was a pointed look before she added, "To the Nation."
Solari was floundering like a fish out of water when her regent stormed past, bumping into the stunned scout on her way by. Ephiny's long stride carried her five more paces towards the interior of the shelter before she barked out, "Come Tartarus or high water, we're leaving. Now."
The river was frozen over, a layer of ice too thin to withstand the lightest of weight covering the surface. Frost covered the ground, clinging to blades of grass like icicles. The faint breeze added a chill bite to the air, stinging cheeks and reddening noses.
Not that it fazed either woman in the slightest.
A thick fur was spread out on the ground. Several more were strategically piled to create a makeshift bower designed to thwart the elements. Nestled in the center, despite having lost her top, a certain bard was feeling decidedly warm. Whether that was due to the shelter of furs or the cider she'd been imbibing in, Gabrielle wasn't completely certain. Although, if she had to guess, she'd say her rise in temperature had more to do with the amorous attentions of a warrior princess than their romantic haven.
"Mm," Gabrielle murmured, the fingers of her hands twining in ebony tresses as lips planted kisses along her jawline, "My warrior of many skills. Who else would think of a picnic on a winter's day?"
Xena's lips bowed into a smile at the words of praise. When she'd approached her mother this morning, asking to borrow a basket and food to fill it; needless to say, Cyrene had thought she'd been touched by the Furies again. And, when she'd rousted Gabrielle from their warm bed and rushed her out the door without letting her so much as grab a warm biscuit for breakfast; well, let's just say the bard was less than thrilled. Especially when Xena trotted a saddled Argo out of the stable and insisted Gabrielle climb up in front of her.
How many times has she said Argo's too far up off the ground? Xena thought back to their first days of traveling together. On those occasions that Gabrielle actually rode with her, she preferred to sit behind Xena. With the fingers of her hands interlocked so tightly her knuckles clenched white, her arms wrapped so securely about the warrior's midsection that it almost cut off Xena's breath. And her cheek pressed against Xena's back, her face buried in thick, ebony tresses, her eyes closed for good measure.
Thank the Gods she's gotten over her motion sickness. Xena grimaced as she recalled a time she'd had to jump into a lake fully clothed because Gabrielle couldn't control her heaving stomach. The warrior thought she'd never get the stench out. If I didn't love her so much -
But, of course, Xena did. Which was what prompted her to surprise Gabrielle with a winter's picnic in the first place.
Be honest, warrior, most of the things you do these days are because of your love for the bard.
It had been her idea to bring them to Amphipolis. Yes, it was good to spend time with her mother. And, the Gods knew Cyrene could always use the extra help. But, if she had to be honest, Xena wouldn't have even thought of visiting Amphipolis if it hadn't been for Gabrielle. Not that the bard had asked Xena to take her there, either. No, that had been an idea all her own; she'd thought it would help ease the burden of Gabrielle's conscience.
Besides, it hadn't been that great an inconvenience to the warrior, either. Xena had initially started them out on a southerly course when she'd first noticed the change in weather. These days, the cold had a tendency to aggravate old wounds, making even Xena more reluctant to rise in the mornings. Not that Gabrielle would ever notice. Thankfully, the bard still managed to somehow sleep through her increasingly vocal attempts at rising.
Also, thankfully, it seemed that bandits, mercenaries and the occasional thug they generally encountered before breakfast also seemed adverse to rolling out of their warm bedrolls on cold mornings. But, the warrior knew she couldn't count on that trend to continue. All it took was one young, energetic punk unhampered by the aches and pains of experience out to make a name for himself...
It had been a realization of self-limitations that had first prompted Xena to set them on the southern route. Yes, even the legendary warrior princess had limitations. Not that she'd ever admit them to anyone else. Not even Gabrielle.
Gabrielle. Truth be told, she was the real reason Xena had directed them towards warmer climates. If it had been only her own comfort she was concerned about; well, she could still withstand just about anything. But - Gabrielle. If Xena was too stiff, too achy, too slow...she might put Gabrielle in danger.
Besides, the bard liked warm weather.
She had actually thought of steering them in the direction of the Amazon Nation. They hadn't visited since - well, since that craziness with the enchanted bracer. True, with the mountain range visible from the heart of the village, they'd still see snow. And, as winter wore on, it was possible that some snow would accumulate in the village, also.
But the Amazon huts were thatched and pitched well enough to keep the bitterly chill winds outside where they belonged. And, she could hibernate in the Queen's hut, languish in the Queen's bed, secure in the knowledge they were safe amongst friends.
Friends. Xena gave a mental shrug. Huh. When did that happen? she wondered, even as she gave acceptance to the term.
She'd set out to stop a war between the hooves and the harlots. Her actions, in all likelihood, spurred on by her lingering feelings of guilt over the part she'd played in the fate of the Northern Amazons. While she'd been playing mediator between Tyldus and Melosa, Gabrielle had become an Amazon princess to the fierce tribe of women warriors.
In recounting her adventure to Xena, Gabrielle had admitted her surprise at managing to so easily gain the support of their heroic weapons master, Eponin. It came as no shock to Xena. As the Nation's first warrior, it was Ep's sworn duty to protect the royal family. All of the royal family. Even the newest, clumsiest of princesses.
The big-hearted and even bigger bosomed Solari was the next to offer her allegiance to her new princess. The scout possessed both a quick wit and a smooth tongue that had earned her the favors of many. Under her endorsement, many an Amazon had willingly accepted Gabrielle as a sister.
Not surprisingly, the quick-tempered Ephiny had been the most stubborn. Eventually, though, even she had fallen to the bard's irrepressible charm. And, by the time they were ready to resume their travels, Ephiny had gifted Gabrielle with a staff that had first been gifted to her by her mother.
Over the seasons, they'd all become Gabrielle's closest friends. And through Gabrielle, hers as well.
Yeah - me, friends. With a bunch of featherheads. Who would've thought?
The old Xena - the Xena before Gabrielle - would have been interested in the Amazons in this village. Melosa herself had been impressed; heralded her military prowess at the Battle of Corinth. Clearly, she was held in high esteem by these women. Another time, another place, she could see herself leading an army of these warrior women. And, in all honesty, it wouldn't have been a hardship to find any number of attractive Amazons to have a tumble with.
But, she would never have called any of them friend. The warlord Xena had no need of friends. There were only two types of people in her life back then; either allies or enemies. Her philosophy on enemies...kill them all. And, allies were only a useful means to reach that end. After that, they were expendable. In her mindset, there wasn't room for compromise.
Then, things changed. She changed.
One day when she woke up, she realized she had moved beyond the simplicity of allies and enemies and people she just hadn't killed yet. How else to explain the still breathing status of that annoying imbecile Joxer or the equally aggravating duo of Salmoneous and Autolycus?
Then, Gabrielle proclaimed the Amazons to be not only allies, but also friends. Somehow, that naturally meant they were that to Xena, as well.
A thought niggled in the back of Xena's mind as she wondered exactly when a little bard from Potadeia gained so much influence over a mighty warrior princess.
When you fell in love with her, that's when.
Which was why Xena was perfectly content to lead them towards the Amazon Nation to wait out the winter. Until they'd come across the first in a series of towns that had been raided. And, they'd found a broken Amazon amongst the corpses. It was too late to save her; she was already knocking on death's door when they'd found her. But, that didn't prevent Gabrielle's subconscious from plaguing her, torturing her night after night by making her relive the experience of having the woman dying in her arms.
With each new town they encountered, Gabrielle's feelings of guilt increased. And, her nightmares right alongside them. Xena struggled with the dilemma of whether or not to take Gabrielle home to the Amazons. What if the woman wasn't simply a victim of raiders? When they'd last visited the nation, that stablehand had tried to kill Gabrielle. And, Gods knew the hunting caste wasn't entirely pleased with their wandering queen, either. What if there had been a coup after they'd left? She couldn't risk walking into that with Gabrielle.
But, she also couldn't continue to march them into town after town that had been pillaged. The toll it was taking on Gabrielle was too devastating. Finally, not able to take seeing her love suffer any longer, Xena had come up with the solution to head them towards a town she knew would be impervious to raiders. Amphipolis.
She'd reasoned that she needed to get them off the open road. For Gabrielle's sake. And, they could help out at the inn, as well. For her mother's sake. She told herself that once things settled down a bit, she would slip away and take care of the raiders on her own.
Even as she thought it, Xena knew she was lying to herself. The days of her leaving Gabrielle behind in some out-of-the-way tavern or town were long ago in the past. She was no longer some little innocent tagalong that needed to be shielded from the big, cruel known world. They were partners - equals.
And, if Gabrielle wasn't capable of confronting the horrors of what the raiders had done? Well, then Xena would stay right beside her until they were ready to take them on...together. In the meantime, they would blissfully wait out the winter in her hometown.
Xena gave a stretch and a yawn, rested her head on Gabrielle's breast.
For once in her life, the warrior princess was nearly perfectly content.
Might have known that wouldn't last.
A dark brow arched. A blue eye opened. A hand reached for her sword.
The young man drew up short at the unmistakable feeling of cold steel pressed to his throat. He swallowed harshly, feeling the sharp edge bite into his skin with the movement. His breath came out in ragged gasps as he tried to force himself to not breathe any quicker, lest he cut himself deeper.
Eyes widened as they traveled down the length of the blade to the hand holding the sword steady. His hands slowly raised in the air in an effort to prove he had no weapons.
"Even if I hadn't heard you coming," Xena pointedly sniffed the air, "I could smell ya." There was a heartbeat before she added, "Shepherd."
"Xena - " Gabrielle admonished.
At the sound of her voice, the shepherd looked past the warrior princess' shoulder to where the blonde bard sat. The partially undressed bard. As he craned his neck for a better look, the blade bit in deeper, drawing blood. Still, he didn't pull back right away.
"Xena, I know him. From your mother's inn." Gabrielle addressed the wide-eyed young man, "Third chair, second table, right?" He'd been seated in that same chair every night when Gabrielle performed. When he blushed and avoided her gaze, she said to her warrior, "Xena, he's harmless."
"To everyone but himself, maybe."
It hadn't escaped Xena's notice that although the edge of her blade was still pressing against his bleeding throat, the shepherd's eyes remained riveted to where Gabrielle's hands were valiantly trying to cover her bare breasts. She dropped her blade, using the tip to lift Gabrielle's top off the furs and send it hurtling towards the bard. Gabrielle caught the garment one-handed, hastily turned her back so she could put it on.
Leaving Xena and the shepherd staring at each other. A lone dark brow arched above a frost-hued eye.
"You have a particular reason for interrupting our picnic?" she asked, dipping her chin towards the ground.
The shepherd's brown eyes dropped in response. As he suddenly realized where he was standing, he lifted his boot out of a bowl of potato salad. He gingerly shook his leg, unabashedly wiped his sole on the crumpled fur.
A low growl rumbled up from the warrior's throat.
"I - um - I - "
"Xena." A fully-clothed bard was now standing pressed intimately close to the dangerous warrior's side, a hand familiarly clasped upon her shoulder. "Stop it. You're scaring the pee out of him."
Xena's gaze flicked to the young man's trousers. She rolled her eyes, sheathed her sword. She stood there, arms folded over her chest, staring at him as she waited for the youth to regain his composure.
She felt an elbow to her ribs. Blue eyes flicked impassively to green. Exhaling loudly, she set off to find her discarded breast armor, gauntlets and arm bracers; leaving her bard alone with the shepherd.
"Now," Gabrielle flashed a reassuring smile, "what's your name?"
"T-T-T - " Even though she was no longer directing her attention towards him, the young shepherd still seemed to be intimidated by Xena. Gabrielle placed a hand upon his shoulder, drawing his gaze back to her. "Thomas," he finally managed to get out.
"Well, it's nice to meet you, Thomas."
The bard rewarded him with another brilliant smile. She could do this. Gods knew Xena had her skills, but Gabrielle had hers, too. Whereas Xena could intimidate with just a scowl, Gabrielle could charm with just a smile, a touch, a gentle word. Xena had her ways of making someone talk; Gabrielle had hers. And while the pinch worked well on assassins, warlords and thugs in general, it just wasn't an acceptable means of communicating with ordinary people.
"Now, Thomas, you came here looking for us because - ?" she asked, leading the shepherd with the question.
Thomas vigorously nodded his head. "Am - am - a- zons."
Behind them, Xena dropped the breast dagger she'd been in the process of returning to its designated place. Thomas's startled gaze jerked towards the warrior. Swiftly, Gabrielle caught the shepherd beneath the chin, directed his attention back to her.
"Amazons?" she pressed. "You saw Amazons?"
"At - at Cyrene's Inn." This time, he did find the courage to look at Xena. "They attacked your mother."
Gabrielle didn't so much dismount from the horse as fall off Argo's back.
After the shepherd had finally managed to stammer out his missive, Xena had bolted for her horse. Gabrielle had chased after her, barely getting the warrior to rein in long enough for her to scramble up in the saddle behind her before urging Argo into a gallop. When last she looked, the shepherd was left standing in the shambles of their picnic site.
Xena didn't let up for an instant. Argo hit the main streets of Amphipolis at a full gallop, sending merchants and shoppers alike scrambling out of her path. It wasn't until they'd reached Cyrene's inn that Xena let out a shrill whistle and pulled tight on the reins.
Argo planted both hooves firmly, skidding slightly on the slick ground. Before she had even fully stopped, Xena was somersaulting from the saddle, both feet landing solidly on the ground. Drawing her sword with one hand, her chakram with the other, she raced up the front steps and hit the door running.
"Steady," Gabrielle urged as she used Argo's bridle to pull herself up from the ground. With a grimace, she looked at her palm before reaching up to smear some of the mud coating her hand onto Argo's coat. "When you've got time, you mind going back and finding where you left my stomach?"
The horse whinnied in response, shaking her mane, causing the buttercup yellow strands to slap the bard.
"Thanks," Gabrielle said, brushing the horse hair out of her face.
Gabrielle grabbed her staff from its place behind Argo's saddle. Relying heavily on her staff and the wooden handrail, she gingerly made her way up the steps. Taking a deep breath, preparing herself, she pushed open the wooden door.
"Xena, how could you?"
The inn was a complete shambles. She counted at least three overturned tables and twice that many chairs. Several more chairs were in such bad shape that they were no longer good for anything more than kindling for the fire. Shattered plates and broken bottles indiscriminately littered the floor.
Thankfully, all the patrons had wisely left the building. All except for one old man seated on a chair in a far corner. His plate was carefully cradled on his lap, his mug clutched firmly in one hand. He mindlessly tore off another chunk of bread with his teeth and open-mouthed chewed.
An Amazon was laying on her back on what had been his table, legs and head hanging off at either end. Both hands were protectively shielded over her nose and mouth. Blood poured profusely from between her fingers.
Xena was standing over her, one hand clutching the back of the Amazon's neck. Six more Amazons were lingering nearby in various stages of disarray. Cyrene hovered near Xena's elbow with a bowl of water and a bloody rag.
"Xena, how could you?" Gabrielle asked again, finally recognizing the Amazon laying prone on the table, despite the concealment of protective hands covering her face, as Dioxippe. Her voice rose in pitch to that level that made Xena and dogs alike cock their heads to the side in painful annoyance "You - my - my Amazons - "
"Me?' Both eyebrows rose incredulously. "I didn't raise a hand against them." Seeing the disbelieving look, Xena non-too-subtly jerked her head in her mother's direction.
Cyrene offered up a weak smile and a shrug at her daughter's traveling companion. Only then did Gabrielle notice the cast iron skillet conspicuously out of place at the next table over.
"You got lucky," Xena informed Dioxippe as she lifted the cold compress from the Amazon's nose. "You got hit any harder, it would've shoved pieces of bone up into your brain." When the guard gave her an uncomprehending look, Xena explained, "You would've died."
"Oh, you poor dear," Cyrene reached towards the young woman sitting on the table.
If anyone else noticed the fierce Amazon warrior instinctively flinch away from the matronly bar owner, they wisely kept their mouths shut. Besides, this was no mere inn keeper. This was Xena's mother. And she'd just nearly killed a member of the royal guard with a frying pan.
Gabrielle knew Xena's skills as a healer. Just as she knew how much it grated on Xena's nerves to be interrupted while she was tending to a patient. She fought down a shudder as she recalled exactly what the warrior had done to that priest in the temple at Thessaly. It wasn't pretty. And, given that Xena was trying to mend her reputation, it was a part of the story she would never recite in a public tavern.
Thank the gods her Amazons weren't such a sensitive audience. For them, the more action, the better the tale. Obviously, they'd paid attention and remembered the fate of the priest. Not a single one of them so much as made a squeak while Xena was attending to Dioxippe. Not even the guardswoman herself.
But now that she was done -
Gabrielle was chomping at the bit and couldn't take it any longer.
"Dioxippe! What are you doing here?" Her eyes swiveled to the other Amazons. Admeta and Metanira, she recognized as scouts. The other three women were wearing the distinctive leathers and feathers of warriors. And, of course, Gabrielle knew Dioxippe personally. The young woman was often assigned to serve as Gabrielle's royal guard.
Gabrielle suddenly paled. There was only one reason she could think of that the royal guard would be in Amphipolis. Gabrielle turned on the injured woman, bombarding her with an endless string of questions. "Dioxippe, is it Ephiny? Is she okay? Has something happened to her? Why did you attack Xena's mother?"
The guard's mouth opening and closing in rapid succession looked remarkably to Xena like a fish. Specifically, in that narrow span of time when it was hauled from its home in the water and harshly flung onto dry land and just before it was gutted.
Dioxippe nearly jumped when she felt a large hand on her shoulder, a droll voice at her ear advising, "Easy there, youngster. Take it one question at a time or you'll strain something."
Wide eyes looked over her shoulder, darting to Xena's face and Dioxippe couldn't help but wonder how often Gabrielle had put the warrior princess in a similar position. Nervously wetting her lips, Dioxippe turned back to her Queen.
Thrice-cursed son of a Bacchae.
From the instant the word renegades rolled off Dioxippe's tongue, Xena had been silently flagellating herself.
That's what I get for putting things off. Knew not taking care of that business with the raiders would come back to bite me.
Of course, Dioxippe hadn't flat-out said that the renegade Amazons and the raiders were one and the same. Why would she? As far as she could tell, Xena doubted if the guardswoman had any clue of the brutal attacks on defenseless villages bordering the Amazon nation.
And, judging from the look on Gabrielle's face, her young bard hadn't made the connection yet, either. But, raiders and renegades both? It was too big a coincidence. And, Xena didn't believe in coincidence.
"And, you're sure Eph's okay?"
"Yes, my Queen."
Xena's lips quirked. Was it her imagination or did the guardswoman actually let loose a heavy sigh even as she reassured Gabrielle - yet again - about her regent's well-being? Actually, she could understand Dioxippe's frustration. Here she was in the flesh and obviously injured while in service of her queen and Gabrielle's primary concern still rested with that of her absent regent.
It was a bone of contention with Xena, as well. One that had been brought to the forefront with their most recent adventure in the Amazon village. An enchanted bracer had magnified Gabrielle's feelings for the gorgeous regent, causing her to behave more direct than she normally would. Even though the bracer had been disposed of and things returned to normal, Xena had been forced to acknowledge that there would always be something between Gabrielle and Ephiny.
Oh, she knew Gabrielle was faithful to her and would never act on her feelings. But, the fact was, there were feelings there. Even if they were merely lingering wisps of what-might-have-been if the Fates had woven a different tapestry with the threads of their lives. It would always irk Xena to know that there was a part of Gabrielle's heart reserved for Ephiny.
"What about the village? How can you be sure this wasn't a ruse to lure you away, leaving the village defenseless?"
Xena' voice had come out far harsher than she'd intended, causing even Gabrielle to flinch at her intensity.
"The border guards have been tripled. The fortifications increased. The bulk of our warriors left as a contingency." Dioxippe objected most loudly. "The Amazon Nation is hardly defenseless."
"Easy, Dioxippe." Gabrielle was worried that despite having suffered such a grievous injury to her nose, the guardswoman was ready to take on the warrior princess. She as unobtrusively as possible stepped between the two women in an effort to ward off an impending fistfight. "I'm sure Xena meant no offense. She's just trying to ascertain the threat - "
"Begging your pardon, Queen Gabrielle, but the threat is clear. They're going to kill your family."
"I'll tell you the same as I told them; I'm not leaving. And, you can't make me."
This was an argument even Xena couldn't win.
Xena knew for a fact that she could bodily lift even Hercules into the back of a wagon. Problem was, this wasn't some big-muscled demi-god. This was her mother.
Her very, very stubborn mother.
Pulling herself to her full height, folding her arms over her impressive chest armor, she fixed her expression into her most intimidating of scowls. It was the same expression she'd used when leading her army at the Battle of Corinth. And, against Bacchus. And, most certainly when she'd sworn vengeance on Caesar.
It had absolutely no effect on her mother.
"Mother, please. You heard what the Amazons said."
And, she had. Cyrene had listened as they'd admitted that even though they had no idea where Gabrielle was, they knew she'd be the safest with Xena - until they could locate her and get word to her about what was going on. Knowing the threat made against the Queen's family, fearing for the life of her consort's mother, Ephiny had splintered her group, sending a group to collect Cyrene and escort her safely to Amazon lands.
Apparently, by any means necessary, thought Cyrene as she turned to look back out into the common room of her inn. They'd charged into her inn with all the swagger and bravado of an army on a mission. Even the two youngest, which Cyrene felt should still be at home, tucked behind their mother's skirts and not out gallivanting all over the known world.
They hadn't asked. They demanded. And, when she refused to go with them, things had gotten ugly. Much more than she had intended.
Looking back at it now, she could see that she was the cause of most of the damage to her establishment. Hindsight gave her the eyes to see that even though they'd initially been abrupt about it, not a one of them had deliberately tried to harm her. As a matter of fact, they'd seemingly gone out of their way to avoid it; allowing Cyrene to lash out at them, raising their hands and arms against her only to defend themselves.
Someone's done a good job teaching their daughters to respect their mothers.
"Xena." Cyrene reached up, placing the palm of her hand to her daughter's cheek. "Xena, look at me."
They'd been estranged for so long. The things Xena had done; both those that Cyrene had heard rumors of and those Xena herself had admitted...the way she'd driven her only daughter to that path by refusing to absolve her of the guilt she carried over the death of her brother.
They'd been separated for more seasons than they'd been reconciled. And, she knew she owed at least part of that reconciliation to the influence Gabrielle had over Xena's heart. But, she also firmly believed that part of the influence for Xena to do good now could also be contributed to her love for her daughter.
And though the journey of forgiveness had been a long one, and the road to healing was one they were still traveling; Cyrene knew they'd never reach their destination if either changed who they were. They might change their ways. They might even compromise. But, one thing she would never do would be untrue to herself by panning to her daughter's wishes.
"Oh, my daughter, I do love you dearly. So much so that I would give my life to save you." There were tears glistening in Cyrene's eyes. "But, I've spent a lifetime building this inn, this business, this dream of mine. You can't ask me to walk away from my life."
"But, mother - "
"That's my answer, Xena. "This inn is like a fortress, I doubt anyone save you could get in here unwanted. And, Amphipolis has a militia."
"Mother, I'm not going to just leave you here unprotected."
This was getting them nowhere. Cyrene sighed; seeing her own stubborn streak firmly rooted within her daughter. Her gaze shifted back to the other girls.
Gabrielle's Amazons had taken up their positions at the door and windows, keeping watchful eyes on the perimeter of the inn. Gabrielle herself was busy tending to that poor Amazon she'd laid out with her frying pan.
Determined to keep her resolve, but understanding her daughter's need to protect her, Cyrene was willing to make a slight concession.
"These Amazons that are here now; tell them they can stay. They can keep me company. Gets lonely sometimes, having a daughter that doesn't visit."
"Mother, I come home whenever I can."
"Which isn't very nearly enough."
They'd stopped for a break a few candlemarks from Amphipolis. Cyrene had packed them some bread, cheese and fruit for the road and had made Xena promise to stop long enough to properly eat.
"Won't do anyone any good if you get there too tired to fight," she had said.
Xena had found a tree suitable enough to sit beneath in a clearing surrounded by thigh-high waves of wild grass. She'd left Argo free to roam, trusting the mare to not wander far.
Gabrielle sat beside her, nibbling at a piece of cheese. She'd already consumed two apples and more than her fair share of rye bread. She'd been fairly silent, her attention focused on her fare and massaging the ache from her calves and thighs.
Well, as silent as Gabrielle was ever known to be, anyway. Even bone-weary, the little blonde could still string together more words than Xena could a line of fish. Xena figured it had to be a bard thing.
"So, you're fine with that?" pressed Gabrielle. "Just riding off and leaving Cyrene unprotected?"
"She hasn't been left unprotected." Wasn't I just on the other end of this argument with mother? "And, she's hardly defenseless. Besides, she's got a handful of your leather-and-feather gals there with her."
"My point exactly, Xena. Do you really think Cyrene's comfortable having them just guarding her all day?"
Xena snorted. "Believe me, Gabrielle, I hardly think the Amazons are just guarding her. Mother's probably using them for free labor - cooking, cleaning and fixing all sorts of things around the inn."
"Hopefully, she hasn't let Metanira near the kitchen." Gabrielle winced. "Have you tasted that poor girl's dumplings?"
"I've always said yours are the best I've ever had, Gabrielle." There was a chuckle as the warrior added, "Besides, I don't think Admeta would go for letting anyone else near Metanira's dumplings."
There was a girlish giggle and a backhanded slap to Xena's abdomen as Gabrielle caught the clever innuendo. The smile fell from the bard's face as she had a somber thought.
"Xena, Admeta and Metanira have never been out of the village before."
"Don't worry, Gabrielle. Amphipolis - and my mother - are both progressive. They're fairly open-minded when it comes to alternative lifestyles."
Gabrielle couldn't argue with that. After all, Cyrene had welcomed her into her home with open arms; even after they'd told her of their relationship.
"Fortunately, Ephiny sent the youngsters to my hometown. Can you imagine what's going to happen when Amazons come riding into the sleepy little village of Potadeia?"
"Oh, Gods." Gabrielle nearly buried her face in her hands at the thought.
"Yep." There was a smirk as Xena added, "Then, there's your mother."
Xena stood, held out her hand for Gabrielle. "Come on," she drawled, tugging her bard to her feet. "Let's go get your Amazons out of trouble, shall we?"
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked, locking her knees, refusing to be led along until her question was answered, "Why are they my Amazons only when they're in trouble?"
"My apologies, your majesty." Xena gave a shrill whistle, then turned about, performing a perfunctory bow. "They're always your Amazons." There was a quirk of her lips. "Because, like their Queen, they're always in trouble," was said below her breath before Xena turned around, resuming her long-legged march through the tall grass.
"Hey! I heard that!"
Xena's smirk turned into a full-on grin. "You were meant to," she said, then ran the last few feet to Argo, jumping on her back, then swinging around, holding her arm out, braced for Gabrielle.
Gabrielle stood with one hand on a jutted hip, her mouth gaping open in shock before she reached up and accepted Xena's hand. She felt the strong tug, the gentle brace as she climbed up behind Xena. Wrapping her arms about Xena's waist, laying her chin upon a shoulder, she said in Xena's ear, "It's a good thing I like you, you know. I mean, I am the Queen. I could command the Amazons to get even with you for me."
"Uh-huh." Xena spurred her horse, causing Gabrielle to give a startled yelp and tighten her grip as Argo bolted. "Let's see you try to exercise that royal clout of yours when we reach Potadeia, your Majesty."
Potadeia was burning.
Her heart trip-hammered in her chest. Her grip upon the hilt of her sword tightened. Sweat trickled from her brow, running down her face, stinging her eyes. She lifted her sword in anticipation. Rushing forward, she stepped into the blow, meeting it steel against steel.
For Devillare, it was a nightmare come back to life. Her world was in chaos. Amazons raising arms against Amazons, the royal bloodline in mortal danger.
The last time she'd lived through this had been only a moon ago. She'd awoken from that nightmare to find herself restrained in the hospice. The memories of the past were fresh and vivid in her mind. Her recollection of how she'd ended up in restraints was nothing less than a muddled fog. Megara, however, had assured her that the bindings were necessary.
Devillare had mixed feelings about that. She knew that she had been in the throes of a delirious fever. And, she'd had that particular nightmare often enough over the seasons to know what sort of state it left her body and mind in - even in the privacy of her own hut. She wouldn't want the added guilt of knowing she harmed someone while in that state. But to awaken and find herself strapped down -
There was the screeching of metal sliding along metal. The painful sting as a razor-sharp blade sliced across her jawline.
Devillare cursed. She jerked her sword back, disentangling their blades. She backed up, just far enough to put some space between them. Keleos smirked, cockily motioned for Devillare to come closer.
Devil's hand briefly traveled to her face. She lowered it almost immediately, refusing to give Keleos the satisfaction of looking at her hand. She was bleeding. She knew that. She could feel the hot liquid coating her fingertips. Seasons of experience told her the wound was scarcely a knick. But, it was a wake-up call. Adjusting her grip, raising her sword, she advanced.
Gryta laughed as she leapt back, easily avoiding the swipe aimed at her upper thighs.
"What's wrong, chief?" she taunted, expending the least amount of energy needed to deflect Solari's next strike. Her gaze fell on the bandage wrapped about Solari's right hand. "Sprained something during one your bedroll romps?"
Solari grunted as a blow from Gryta's weapon reverberated all the way up her arm. Solari was the better swordswoman. On any given day, she could take Gryta. But, today? - Today she was a cripple.
Damn, her pride had stung when she'd looked up and saw Devillare watching as Ephiny drew her packmate's sword from her sheath and hand it to her before drawing her own. It stung even more to know that Gryta was so confident of her handicap that she was toying with her.
Determined, Solari gathered her strength to press her attack. Once again, the tip of her blade barely reached the height of the other Amazon's thighs. This time, though, she was quick enough to draw blood. Not deep enough to incapacitate, but enough to raise Gryta's hackles.
"You should've stayed flat on your back, Solari. You're useless on your feet." Despite her derisive barb, the palm of Gryta's free hand clutched at her upper thigh in an effort to stem the flow of blood. "You lack the strength to lift your sword to my heart."
Solari's nostrils flared at the insult. "I'm not the sort to lay flat for anyone, Gryta." A mahogany brow arched as she reminded the ex-guardswoman, "But you wouldn't know that first-hand, would you, since I repeatedly turned you down?" That rattled Gryta, causing her to nearly miss Solari's short thrust. Sandalwood eyes fiercely focused on an area a mere hand-span above Gryta's wound. "And, I wasn't aiming for your heart, either."
A shudder racked Ephiny's body as she felt bone grind against her blade. Then, there was that sickening noise and sucking sensation as the blade narrowed, the tip encountering the natural resistance of muscle, sinew and flesh. Then, her sword was free.
And, Kynthia's body was in a disjointed limp heap, the blood pooling out of her and blotting the white snow crimson.
Odd, thought Ephiny, how in the middle of a battle, one noticed such things. The farther away from the village they traveled, the farther south they went, the milder the weather became. By the time they reached the sleepy little town of Potadeia, the accumulated snowfall wasn't enough to cover the toes of their boots. And now, instead of snow, a light sleet was falling; making footing even more treacherous.
She'd intended only to wound Kynthia. She'd recognized the young hunter on sight; knew she wasn't a strong fighter. But, she'd attacked Ephiny with enthusiasm, openly charging the regent.
Although sufficiently healed enough to engage in light sparring on the practice fields, Ephiny hadn't regained enough of her strength and endurance to engage in a full-out battle. As she raised her sword to block Kynthia's overhand strike, she felt something pull.
Even through the haze of pain, Ephiny saw her opening. Kynthia's entire body went with the follow through, leaving her left flank unprotected. Ephiny darted in, intending to take her out with a shallow slice across the back of her leg.
Kynthia slipped, going down as she lost her footing on the slush created by the sleet and snow and mud in the street. She fell into Ephiny's sword, effectively skewering herself on it. Dismayed eyes looked up into the regent's face before sliding forever closed.
Keleos' blood ran cold and something twisted in her gut like hot steel.
Using a double-handed thrust, she shoved Devillare away. It was a move she doubted she could have pulled off if the captain had been well. Keleos had seen the clammy sweat, recognized the bright eyes that often accompanied a fever.
Devillare slid backwards with the shove, her boots losing traction on the muddy slush. She breathed heavily, a raspy cough rattling in her chest.
Instead of pressing her advantage, Keleos turned, eyes desperately searching the main street of Potadeia.
There! She spotted Kynthia in front of the inn, engaged in battle with the regent. Keleos' heart lurched.
Kynthia wasn't as strong in battle as the rest of them. Her heart had always been more tender. She just didn't have the killer instinct. Keleos always secretly wondered how it was that her bedmate was even a hunter. Tradition, Keleos thought. She'd been born to it. Same as her. Same as the rest of her sisters. Given a choice, she thought Kynthia would have been just as, if not more so, content to sit and weave baskets all day.
Naturally, Keleos always worried about Kynthia. On the hunt, she made certain she was always close, always there to cover for her lover. Just as she did on these raids. Only difference now is that this time, their prey had weapons of their own.
She'd advised Kynthia to acquire her targets wisely; don't engage an opponent she knew to be better than her. At the very least, she'd urged Kynthia to stay close. But, in the chaos of battle, that was easier said than done.
With sudden clarity, she knew what would happen. Her mouth went dry. Her heart was in her throat, making swallowing difficult, if not altogether impossible.
Determined, she forced herself to move. Only to find her path blocked, a sword braced against hers. She tried countering. It felt as if liquid steel was in her blood, rapidly cooling, making her movements sluggish at best.
She tried the double-thrust move again. This time, Devillare didn't budge. Countered, the maneuver had all the effect of running up against a stone wall. Desperate, Keleos tried to dart around the elder guardswoman, also to no avail.
"Youngster, you need to finish one dance before you go looking for another," Devillare advised.
Keleos paled. Over Devillare's broad shoulder, she saw everything. The missed strike that left Kynthia exposed. The answering thrust. The slow fall to the ground as she slid off Ephiny's sword.
"Nooo!" Keleos shouted out her rage and grief.
Ephiny heard the animalistic howl, recalled that Kynthia's bedmate also rode with the renegades; knew Keleos must have seen her lover fall from her sword.
A sword crashed down upon hers. She looked beyond the length of her sword, fully expecting to see Keleos' snarling visage. Instead, she saw eerily familiar blue eyes intently staring back at her. Ephiny's mouth immediately went dry.
Lips curled into a sardonic smile. "My regent."
It was in Ephiny's nature to counter with witty banter. By reputation, the regent could make a foe impotent with caustic sarcasm alone.
Not today. Today, it was all she could do to keep her sword raised beneath a repeated onslaught.
"Cordele," was all she could manage.
The blows rained down incessantly. Gryta put all her weight behind each overhead strike, her double-handed grip allowing her more leverage.
It was true. Solari was completely untalented with her left hand. She lacked the strength, the endurance, the power to do anything more than defend herself.
And, she was weakening.
She was incredible. She fought with a fierce intensity equaled by none. Every move was akin to poetry in motion. She possessed the grace of a dancer. And, like a dancer, she directed them exactly where she wanted, away from the buildings and to the center stage that was the open street.
Every strike of steel was a melodious, ringing cadence to her ears. Every thrust, every parry was fluid and precise.
She was nothing short of glorious.
And, Cordele was positive that this time, even Ephiny could see it.
Last time, victory was hers. She was the better Amazon. She'd proven it in trial by combat. She'd proven it in front of the entire Nation.
She had Eponin. She'd defeated her. In fair combat. As was her right, she'd been prepared to deliver the death blow. But first, she wanted Eponin to see. In the scant heartbeats it took for her to die, she wanted Eponin to see her defeat reflected in the eyes of her regent.
She forced Eponin's head back. She whispered into the warrior's ear exactly what she was going to do to her precious regent. Then, she looked up, too; wanting - no, needing - to see the look in Ephiny's eyes, also.
Instead of the defeat she'd envisioned, what she saw was open defiance. She'd expected resignation. She desired acknowledgement.
Acknowledgement that she was victorious. That the time of the warrior caste was done. Acknowledgement that she was Artemis' champion. That Ephiny had been wrong.
Cordele was breathing heavily; dripping blood and sweat alike. She'd fought so hard; she was barely standing on her own two feet. But, fact was, she was standing. Standing victoriously triumphant over her defeated foe.
It was to have been Cordele's finest candlemark. Instead, Ephiny took it from her.
With just a look.
Eponin was dying. She was dying in the dirt like a slaughtered animal.
And still, Ephiny's eyes were only for that ... that .... that ... mongrel.
She robbed Cordele of her victory. She denied her everything she wanted. She poured salt into the wound by still not acknowledging Cordele was the better Amazon. The killing blow, though, had been the way she'd deliberately distanced herself, scarcely batting an eye when Cordele was banished. As if she wasn't worthy. As if she was - nothing.
You'll give me my due now, regent. Cordele went after Ephiny with a vengeance.
The captain paced herself, keeping her cool, biding her time.
Every fighter had a style. Given enough time, they would fall into a repetitious pattern; one they'd developed during candlemarks of practice. Over the seasons, Devillare had become a master at reading patterns. In most situations, it gave her a distinct advantage.
Keleos' grief fueled her rage now, adding to her strength. She attacked Devillare with wild abandon, putting everything she had behind each blow.
Gone was the grace, dexterity and fluidity inherent in all Amazons when they wielded a weapon. Keleos was sloppy and unpredictable. Her attack was reduced to nothing more than a hack-and-slash as she blindly struck out with her sword.
Ill as she had been, Devillare was still not yet fully recovered. Fighting the chaos that was Keleos was nothing short of exhausting.
So much so that the thought had flashed through Devillare's mind to sidestep her opponent; allow Keleos past her. It was unorthodox, but it would give Devillare a respite and perhaps throw off Keleos' momentum. The trick would be to engage her again, take her down quickly before she could do any real damage.
But, she'd seen Keleos' agenda. She meant to go after the regent. She'd also seen that other hunter, that big blonde that had challenged Eponin squaring off against Ephiny.
The regent had already split her forces once when she sent a group to Amphipolis to protect the consort's mother. She'd been forced to split them again to get the Potadeians off the streets and protect them from the renegades. Included in that split were the two members of the guard Devillare had specifically assigned to the regent's side. Even that damned scout that was always underfoot was nowhere to be seen.
Little Eph was alone. She couldn't take them both.
Steel grey eyes quickly surveyed the battlefield. No one was in a position close enough...if she allowed Keleos past her...if Keleos reached the regent...
Devillare adjusted her grip, gritted her teeth, braced herself; determined that no matter what, this renegade would not pass.
As always, Lexine had been stuck to the regent like pitching tar. As soon as the battle commenced, though, Ephiny had commanded she get as many civilians to safety as possible.
Included in that group had been Queen Gabrielle's parents and her sister, Lila. When they'd first arrived in Potadeia, Ephiny had dispatched a messenger to the family farm, asking permission to speak with Gabrielle's family. At first, Herodotus had refused, but finally acquiesced to his wife's wishes. They'd agreed to meet the regent in town.
Where, in the words of Gabrielle's father, there were plenty of witnesses.
Despite all her training, Lexine had very nearly giggled at that. Imagine, a member of the guard actually giggling. If Devillare had heard, she'd have every one of Lexine's feathers plucked.
Still, it was insane. Gabrielle's father needed a town of unarmed witnesses to protect him and his family from the half-naked savages.
It's winter; most of us are dressed warmly. Wonder what he'd think if we'd come visiting during the summer? Artemis' bow - what would his reaction be to that skimpy green top Gabrielle favors?
It'd been a struggle, getting all those Potadeians to safety. Lexine had thought the sight of all those half-naked savages riding in full gallop and brandishing swords and screaming at the top of their lungs would be enough to send the peacenik Potadeians running for cover.
Many had simply been too shocked to move. Until one of them had nearly had his head removed from his shoulders. Only Lyonene's quick draw had sent an arrow spiraling through the air, missing the hapless Potadeian and skewering the renegade through the throat.
Then, all Tartarus broke loose. Ephiny's group squared off, forming a line in the street between the charging renegades and the retreating Potadeians. Lexine and Bonadea pressed three more of their group into service, including the assistant healer, in shepherding the civilians to safety.
Once things were secure, Lexine left Bonadea in charge, satisfied that she had sufficiently followed the intent of the regent's orders. She'd ordered Iphinome to prepare to tend to any wounded and commanded her other two sisters to take up defensive positions and be at the ready in case their sanctuary was compromised. Still adjusting her sword belt, Lexine stepped out onto the front porch of the tavern they'd commandeered as their headquarters.
There, Lexine got her first good look at the chaos. Her eyes widened and the thought flitted through her mind to slowly back her way through the door of the tavern and take her chances with the Potadeians.
A wild swing threatened to take off Cordele's head. She leapt backwards. A quarter-inch of the regent's sword found purchase, slicing into flesh. Cordele stepped back farther, placed a protective hand to her throat. She felt her pulse pounding wildly. When she pulled back, her fingers were covered to the second digits with blood.
She winced as cold air assaulted the open flesh left exposed. A skilled healer could stitch it closed with minimal effort. She'd seen one with the villagers earlier, running inside to hide. As soon as she dispatched the regent and took the building, she'd force Iphinome to heal her. Or die.
Lacking a healer's touch, she supposed one of her companions could accomplish the same thing with a hollowed out bird bone and deer gut as makeshift needle and twine. It was a wound she would recover from. Providing she sought medical attention soon enough.
Having tasted it once, the regent was now out for blood. She'd met Cordele's attack blow for blow. Despite the ferocious intensity, though, Cordele knew Ephiny wasn't up to standard. Cordele had seen her wounded and as near death as someone could be without actually passing over into the spirit realm. Even now, there was no way she could yet be fully recovered from her ordeal. Still, she had to give the regent her due. The woman was magnificent.
So much so that Cordele allowed herself to revisit her fantasy of taking the regent, breaking her, forcing her to her knees. It was a sexual fantasy that she'd become disillusioned with after the challenge. After Ephiny had blatantly chosen Eponin over her...her desire for the regent had withered. Seeing her now, though, fighting against her...Cordele felt the flames of her passion rekindle.
Cordele made a point of wiping her fingers against her lips then licking the blood off. She deliberately sucked her middle digit into her mouth. Cordele gave a provocative tongue-swirl, relishing the heady taste of her own blood. She grinned, knowing the curly-haired blonde couldn't miss her display of bestiality. Nor the intent behind it.
Gryta was unrelenting. Solari found herself being pushed steadily backwards.
She had started out, as always, in close proximity to Ephiny. But, during the course of the battle, Solari had found herself drawn farther and farther away from her packmate.
Too late, Solari had realized it had been by design.
Mahogany eyes frantically darted to where Ephiny was locked in combat with that brute of a hunter, Cordele. She saw Ephiny's blade draw blood. Then, watched as Cordele stopped, laughed, licked the blood away before charging Ephiny.
An overwhelming feeling of dread crept into Solari's gut and she had the irrepressible urge to run to her packmate.
Gryta's sword came down.
Solari's arm gave way beneath the onslaught.
Ephiny allowed her temper to run rampant. She'd been caged for so long, suffering the wishes of the healers and the council alike. She let loose all her pent-up frustrations on Cordele, putting everything she had into the battle.
She'd taken great satisfaction in the arcing slice that had blood spewing from Cordele's neck.
It was a bold move. One that had taken its toll on her. There was little doubt that Ephiny was favoring her right side. She knew it was obvious. But, she was determined to not give Cordele the satisfaction of knowing exactly how much that move had really cost her.
Lexine was rooted to the spot. She deeply wanted to help her sisters. Survival instincts demanded instead that she run, hide, take cover. Her conflicting emotions made her impotent with indecision.
Sword held limply in her hand, she stood uselessly on the porch. Her mind was the only thing that functioned; processing the battle quicker than her eyes could take it all in.
Lyonene and Tynette were pinned down at the blacksmith's shop. A renegade archer had made it onto a rooftop across the street and was peppering the elder hunters with shot after shot. Lyonene had taken cover behind the large anvil, her arrow nocked, but was unable to let loose a single answering volley. Across the shop, crouched down behind a work table littered with tools, Tynette seemed to be in a good position to return fire. If she'd had any arrows left in her quiver. Instead, it was as empty as her bow.
Lexine spotted a flash of sunlight shimmering off a large double-handled labrys and the shock of close-cropped bright red hair that could only belong to Egeria. The warrior stood in the middle of the street, at the far end of the town, holding off three renegades by herself. The reach of their swords was much less than that of Egeria's labrys and the warrior swung the weapon with wild abandon, allowing none of them an opportunity to get closer. Still, it was an impasse; they couldn't get past Egeria - and she couldn't disengage from them so she could help someone else.
And it looked to Lexine like the legendary captain of the guard, Devillare, could have need of Egeria's long-handled labrys. The captain was engaged in battle against Keleos. She was perspiring heavily, her hair soaked down, sweat covering her forearms as she brandished her sword. Keleos looked just as battle-weary, but there was a determination about her that Lexine had never seen before. It seemed that no matter what move Devillare made, she couldn't gain the upper hand over the hunter.
Lexine looked to her left, felt her heart skip a beat in response to the vision that was Solari. Much like everyone else, the chief scout was covered in dirt, blood and sweat. But, on Solari...the perspiration actually shimmered against her skin, adding emphasis to her strong arms, her flat abdomen, her sculpted legs.
The young guard recalled a time she'd hidden in the bushes, spying on Solari as she'd taken an afternoon dip in the stream. She'd watched the scout frolicking in the water, had actually debated on stepping out from the bushes with the excuse that she had 'just stumbled upon' the bathing woman.
Before she could move, though, Solari had stepped from the water, eyes closed, using both hands to brush her dripping chestnut brown hair back from her face. It had been the first time she'd seen the object of her affections completely unclothed. Oh, she'd imagined...Gods, how she'd imagined...but the reality of Solari's bare flesh...Lexine's mouth had instantly dropped open and she thought she'd surely faint from blood loss to the brain.
Even now, so many seasons later, that memory had such a profound effect on Lexine. She blinked, vanquishing the treasured vision, light green eyes once more gaining focus.
Solari stepped back, her lower back connecting with the hard wood of a horse railing. Gryta swung. Solari struggled to raise her sword, barely lifting it before Gryta's blade came smashing down near the hilt.
Solari's hand opened, the sword falling from her grasp. She dodged another strike, bent to retrieve her sword, slid on the slush.
"No!" Solari and Lexine screamed at the same time.
Solari cursed as her hip and her injured right hand simultaneously connected with the frozen ground. She saw Gryta in her peripheral vision, knew the former guard was readying for the killing blow. Solari's gaze slid along the ground to her sword, then past Gryta's boots, then to Ephiny, needing to see her packmate once more.
She watched as Cordele swung low. Ephiny jumped, leaping over the blade that would have connected with her shins. She landed hard, her boot sliding, her ankle twisting beneath her.
Ephiny went down.
A strangled cry tore from Solari's throat.
Lexine's eyes darted between Ephiny and Solari. Both were in mortal danger. Standing as she was on the inn's porch, she knew she was the only one in close enough proximity to do anything. But, they were both a distance of equal proportions from her...in opposite directions from each other.
She had to act.
Ephiny was crouched in an awkward position upon the ground, one leg folded beneath her. Sharp pain shot up through her ankle and streaked from her shoulder to her wrist. Somehow, by the grace of her blessed goddess, she'd managed to get her sword up in time to block Cordele's descending blade.
Cordele lifted her sword. Again, Ephiny managed to keep Cordele at bay. This time, however, her entire arm visibly shook from the effort. Her wrist weakened, her sword trembled.
Cordele huffed in frustration, her breath hot upon Ephiny's face as she redoubled her efforts, bearing down with all her might.
Lexine ground her teeth, cursed her feet and their inability to move. If she was impotent with indecision before, she was doubly that now.
Tears stung her eyes as she watched the chief scout struggling, using her left hand to drag her entire body on the ground, her right useless at her side. She inched along, her left hand stretching, trying to reach her fallen blade. Gryta's measured steps kept pace with Solari, casually twirling her sword, a sadistic grin on her face as she monitored the chief scout's progress.
Across the way, Cordele had both hands wrapped around the grip of her weapon and she was leaning in, using her full weight to press down on the regent's sword. Tremors shook Ephiny's entire body.
Lexine's tears were flowing freely now. Solari was the woman she loved with all that she was. But, Lexine was a sworn member of the royal guard. Her duty was clear.
Her heart in agony, she allowed herself one last look, scarcely able to see through her bleary vision. Angrily, she swiped at both cheeks with the back of her hand. Closing her eyes, letting loose her best battle cry, she charged down the steps.
Devillare saw the scout fall. Then, the regent. Keleos took full advantage, sneaking in a deep slice to the distracted captain's upper arm.
That caught Devillare's attention. She gave a negligible glance to her wound, then looked to Keleos and snarled in annoyance. Her attack became a flurry, her sword moving too quickly to follow as Devillare put a renewed energy behind her blade.
Keleos stumbled, nearly going down beneath the captain's onslaught. Then, she righted herself, blocked Devillare's next thrust.
"Ah. Ah. Ah." Keleos wagged her finger at Devillare. "Now who's trying to dance with someone else?"
Her face fell with the dim realization that the elder captain had reacted so quickly, so precisely, as to cleanly remove her offending digit. Her eyes widened, she swallowed convulsively, biting back the bile. Cradling her wounded hand against her torso, she braced as best she could against the force of Devillare's blade coming down on hers. The strike was so intense that Keleos thought her steel might break beneath the blow.
"This dance ends now," growled Devillare.
Ephiny's face was a contorted grimace. Both hands tightly gripped the hilt of her sword, the metal leaving deep impressions in the flesh of her palms. She felt the intense pressure in both her wrists, traveling the length of her arms, the pain tripling as it tore through her shoulder.
Her range of vision narrowed, blackness began to creep in.
Solari's entire body quaked with the effort it took as she belly-crawled upon the cold ground. She saw Gryta's long shadow looming, knew what was coming, yet refused to give up.
The veins in her forearm stood out against her flesh as she pushed herself, struggling with all her might to reach her weapon. She stretched, her fingertips coming within a hair's breadth of the double-headed eagle designed pommel.
Gryta's boot slammed down right in front of Solari's nose. The ex-guardswoman shifted her pommel to a double-handed grip and thrust downward.
Suddenly, the pressure was contained, if not eased. Ephiny fought against the gathering darkness, willing it back.
Black spots still danced in front of her eyes, but her vision slowly began to clear. Hazel eyes focused, zeroing in on her blade. And Cordele's. Then, a third sword wedged between hers and Cordele's.
Tilting her head back, her eyes traveled up the length of the third sword. Ephiny gasped...
Solari's entire body spasmed, reacting to the white-hot pain that accompanied the blade as it pierced her flesh.
Sweat drenched her hair, her flesh. She vomited, that morning's breakfast of quail eggs spewing from her mouth.
The blade was wrenched free. Solari screamed.
Her hand reflexively darted back in an attempt at clutching her upper thigh. Too late, she thought she should have grabbed for the sword instead but also knew if she had, Gryta would have taken great glee in severing her hand from her wrist.
She still might, Solari thought. She'd felt the blade sink in as it pierced her flesh, yet also knew that if she'd wanted, Gryta could have skewered her completely through. Instead, she'd kept the thrust relatively shallow. She expected it was to be the first of many. Gryta was toying with her, torturing her as perverse payback for her previous taunts of rejection.
Determined to face her killer in her final heartbeats, Solari dug deep, finding the willpower to roll onto her side and look up.
There was a brief instance of resistance, but she powered through, using her momentum and bulk to thrust Cordele off of Ephiny. She followed up, knowing surprise was her greatest weapon, as she furiously hacked and slashed.
The big hunter was momentarily taken aback, as evidenced by her sudden switch from attacker to defender in the blink of an eye. Then, her temper erupted. Her anger at yet again being thwarted gave her a surge of adrenaline and she pushed back.
Gryta nearly cackled as she pulled her sword free. She looked at her blade, studying the pattern made as dark red blood ran in slow rivulets from the tip. Her eyes shone as she watched matching crimson pouring from Solari's upper thigh in copious amounts as the scout desperately tried to one-handed staunch the flow. She wondered what the scout would do when she had more wounds than hands.
Then, Solari rolled onto her side and looked up at her. Gryta's memories took her back to the champion's night. She'd very much wanted Solari in a position similar to this then; writhing on the ground, looking up at her, eyes pleading with her.
True, she'd had Nephele. Oh, how she'd had Nephele. But, she'd wanted more. She'd wanted Solari. She'd heard things about the scout...things she'd been longing to confirm first-hand...and the champion's night seemed like the perfect opportunity. But, Solari had turned her down flat.
Gryta's nostrils flared. She took one determined step. She placed her boots, one on either side of Solari's hips, straddling her as she towered over her downed foe. She inhaled deeply, smelling the heady scent of copper. Closing her eyes, she lifted her sword.
Blood spurted as an elbow caught Gryta in the nose, effectively smashing cartilage. Her sword fell from her grasp. A boot slammed into her knee, taking her down. Then, there was the unmistakable feel of steel pressed against her throat.
Legs were braced, boots firmly planted, even on the slick surface, neither willing to give an inch of ground. Triceps, biceps and deltoids stood out in stark delineation as muscles strained against each other. Chests heaved with every heated breath that filled the chilled air. Lips curled into snarls and growls erupted from tight throats.
Blades were locked together, neither able to gain the upper hand. Perspiration clearly shone on Cordele's upper brow and lip. Blood flowed in a steady stream from the wound at her throat, traveling down her neck and coating her upper chest. And, for the first time in a very long time, she felt a shiver of fear travel along her spine.
A fierce battle cry tore through the air. An unmistakable undulating yi-yi-yi that could only belong to one warrior.
All about, heads snapped up as ears registered the sound.
Xena came tearing into Potadeia, doing a backwards somersault off Argo's back, landing in the middle of the fray. Gabrielle followed at a more sedate pace, reining Argo into a complete stop before gingerly dismounting.
Xena tore into the three renegades squared off against Egeria, immediately taking two of them down. The third gave her a bit more resistance, but soon succumbed.
Egeria gave the warrior princess a curt nod of thanks before rushing off to help her fellow sisters.
Blue eyes flitted about the bloody streets of Potadeia, taking it all in. Something feral glinted in Xena's eyes as she absorbed the carnage. She spotted the lone archer that had Tynette and Lyonene pinned down. A broad grin caressed her lips. Hefting her sword, she trotted towards the nearest building.
The Queen of the Amazons may have been more cautious than her counterpart, but she was by no means timid. Gabrielle clutched her staff, determinedly following her champion into battle.
Gryta used the distraction of Xena's battle cry to roll from beneath the blade and hastily scrambled to her feet. Knowing what that battle cry meant, realizing her opportunity had passed, she grabbed her dropped sword on the run.
Solari fought to stay conscious. She felt fingers shoving her hand out of the way, applying pressure to her thigh. Then, she felt a cloth being wrapped about her flesh, the pressure as it was tightened into a tourniquet. Then, fingers were in her hair, brushing drenched strands back from her face.
She blinked. Again.
Clearly perplexed, Solari said, "Lexine?"
A beaming smile and, "It's okay, Solari, it's okay. You're safe." The guard's fingers slipped from Solari's hair, moving lower, fidgeting with the blue sash she'd taken from around her own waist and tied about Solari's thigh. "You're safe now." She leaned over Solari in an awkward attempt at cradling her in her arms.
The sight of the blue sash fueled Solari's rage, focusing her anger. The color of the cloth was commissioned specifically for the use of the royal guard, to designate their status as protectors of the crown. For Lexine to use it as a makeshift bandage to cover her wounds...
Fear seized Solari's heart, clutching at her chest, cutting off her breath. She struggled to sit up.
"Easy," Lexine cautioned. "You have to stay still."
Solari pushed back against Lexine. Strong as she was, she was barely able to budge the guard. Desperate brown eyes met green.
"Help me up."
"Stay down," Lexine insisted. "Your wound - "
"Help. Me." Solari's voice trembled with anger. "Now."
Lexine looked down in disbelief, her eyes taking in the sight of Solari's belt knife pressed against her abdomen. She knew Solari was in no condition to fight her, doubted if the chief scout even had the strength to make the short thrust into her gut. But -
Inexplicably, Solari felt a hand at her waist, then her back. And, she was being lifted to her feet. Lexine steadied her, then bent down and Solari felt her sword being pressed into her grasp.
Lexine was at her side, a hand on her elbow, offering support. Solari tried to get her bearings, looking for Ephiny amidst the chaos of battle. There - a flash of unmistakable corkscrew blonde curls that could only belong to one person.
Solari desperately pushed past Lexine, using her weapon as a cane. She forced her feet to move. One step, her other foot dragging behind her. Then another step, another drag of her injured leg and the sword blade. Solari forced herself to take shallow breaths, block out the pain, concentrate only on taking each disjointed step that would enable her to reach her Ephiny.
There was a brutal scream, a hard thrust, and Cordele actually felt her feet leave the ground as she was pushed backwards. She slid, went down on one knee, the palm of one hand extended on the frozen ground catching her, righting her balance. She crouched low, coiled, poised to strike.
That accursed battle cry pierced the air. Cordele momentarily hesitated, then gave a shrill cry of her own. She gave one last swing of her sword at her foe, then broke, running for her horse. She saw Gryta and Keleos follow suit, mounting up, spurring their horses.
All about, her fellow renegades followed the command to retreat. Those that were able to, anyway. Some, like Kynthia, had found their fate at the end of the swords of Ephiny and her ilk. Others had been trounced by that accursed consort of the false Queen. Some were still attempting to disentangle themselves from the opponents they had gone up against.
Cordele reined in her horse, turning about, giving a heartbeat's thought of going back, engaging her foe again. If she hadn't been wounded as she was, she knew she could take her.
As her horse whinnied, turned in tight circles, she caught sight of warriors rushing, charging towards her. She turned her horse, spurring it towards the outskirts of town.
Just before her horse took flight, she gave one last hard look, her lip curling in derision. Cordele screamed the name in intense hatred...
The name was barely a whisper upon Ephiny's lips.
But, it was loud enough for Eponin to hear over the pounding of her own heart in her ears.
She tore her gaze from Cordele's retreating form. Slowly, she turned around. Golden-hued eyes reflected the light, eerily glowing as she stared down at the Amazon regent upon the ground.
Ephiny was bruised and battered. The lightweight chainmail covering her shoulder and right arm was torn. Her sword arm was protectively cradled against her body, her grip lax as the blade rested against her upper thighs. Her head was back, unruly corkscrew locks hanging in riotous disarray about both shoulders. Hazel eyes flecked with chips of gold unblinkingly stared up at Eponin.
Eponin's breathing stopped. Every bone in her body seemed to go limp at once. She felt a quaking in her knees and her wrist gave way, her sword dangling uselessly from her hand. She felt her lips move, but no sound came out.
Eponin swallowed hard. Wet her lips. Tried again.
"...Ephiny..." her voice was a strangled whisper.
Somehow, Eponin was moving, taking the few steps needed to stand before Ephiny. She reached for the fallen regent, her hand extended out. The pads of two fingers connected, the lightest of touches as her digits grazed the blonde's cheek. For the longest heartbeat, they stared at each other, unblinking, unmoving, holding perfectly still.
Ephiny was helpless. Kneeling on the ground, looking up at the vision that was her once-weapons master, she scarcely breathed. She couldn't raise her weapon now if she tried. Ephiny knew in her heart that she wouldn't, even if she could.
Calloused fingers brushed over her bronzed cheek and she trembled beneath the gentlest of touches. Lost in this one perfect heartbeat, Ephiny's eyes slid closed.
Clearly startled, Eponin blinked, tearing her gaze from Ephiny. Looking up, she saw Solari coming towards her, Lexine right on her heels. Both their swords were drawn and despite looking as if she were going to topple over at any heartbeat, there was grim death reflected in Solari's eyes.
Eponin turned back to Ephiny. The regent's eyes were open now, moisture shimmering against her lashes as she blinked up at Eponin. Her hand noticeably shook as she reached up.
Ep's fingers fell away from Ephiny's face. She wore a tortured look. When she spoke, her voice came out raspy. "Ephiny...I..."
Then, Solari was shouting again. And getting closer. And there was Xena's reverberating battle cry. And she saw Devillare running towards her.
Ephiny's fingers touched thin air where Eponin's face had been a scant heartbeat before, her hand falling limply back to her lap. She watched, unable to do anything more, as Eponin limped away, half-running for a horse. Seeing her trying to mount up, Solari dug deep, determined to somehow move faster, dead-set on catching the former weapons master.
Eponin placed one foot in the stirrup, tried to pull herself up. Ephiny's eyes narrowed as she watched Eponin struggle.
Solari and Lexine were closing in. Solari gave an awkward hop - limp - lunge as she lifted her weapon, switching it from cane to sword.
Eponin gave a shrill whistle.
Solari swung, missed, stumbled, went down hard. Lexine instantly dropped to her knees at the fallen scout's side.
Ep firmly gripped the saddlehorn with both hands, placed both feet in the same stirrup. Staying low, she used the horse's body as a shield, keeping her flank to Devillare and the others as she passed, hanging on for dear life as the horse galloped out of Potadeia.
"I've got to say, Ephiny, I've never seen a more pathetic looking group of Amazons."
Gabrielle immediately felt Ephiny tense in her arms. As soon as the battle had ended, as soon as she'd been able to, she'd gone to her regent. As Iphinome and Xena treated those with more serious injuries first, Gabrielle tended to Ephiny's needs as best she could.
The fair-haired regent wasn't bleeding, so Gabrielle had no qualms about moving her. She had enlisted Egeria's help with that. The big red-headed warrior had actually looked a little sheepish as she gently-as-possible lifted her regent into her arms and under her queen's directions, carried her to a bench in front of one of the shops. Gabrielle had slipped in right behind her, offering her physical presence, doubling as a chair back as she cradled Ephiny in her arms.
That was the position they were still in when Xena finally joined them. Initially, Xena had seemed nonplussed, dropping to one knee as she checked Ephiny over for injuries. Then, that caustic comment slipped from her lips. Gabrielle drew back slightly, cocking her head so she could see Ephiny's reaction.
Hazel eyes narrowed. Nostrils flared. Jaw muscles twitched. The Regent of the Amazons sat with her boot cradled in her lap, her leg stretched out on the wooden bench so as to keep the pressure off her ankle. Her right arm was protectively cradled against her upper body. Despite that, Gabrielle half-expected her fiery-tempered regent to leap up and draw her sword.
"Easy, Ephiny," Gabrielle advised. If looks alone could kill, Xena would be dead and upon her funeral pyre.
To her consort, she simply said, "Xena."
Truth be told, Gabrielle was too stunned to say more. Oh, not by what Xena had said. Gods knew anything was apt to come out of her warrior's mouth at any given time. And, Gods also knew that the relationship between Ephiny and Xena had always been very volatile. Especially whenever it came to the Bard-Queen of the Amazons.
Gabrielle had always suspected that Xena's bad behavior stemmed from bouts of jealousy in which she saw herself as defending her territory from a potential rival. And, while there had always been underlying sparks between herself and Ephiny, Gabrielle suspected the regent's equally bad behavior had more to do with wounded pride than amorous intentions.
She'd thought that over the seasons things had gotten better between the two of them. Ever since she and Xena had consummated their relationship, then cemented their union with a bonding ceremony, the two warriors had actually seemed to accept each others' role in her life.
Until that enchanted bracer manifested a more physical attraction between us. An attraction I had no qualms about displaying in public, not even in front of Xena. Especially in front of Xena.
If she were to be honest with herself, Gabrielle would admit that flaunting her sexuality in front of the warrior princess had only made the experience hotter. Why was it that when something was forbidden or taboo, it always made it that much more tempting? It certainly was true the day she'd run off after an ex-warlord. If she'd thought there was any chance of her parents approving, she wouldn't have snuck out of their house like a thief in the night.
It was the same with the Amazon regent. Unbidden, an image of her with Ephiny beneath a tree flashed before Gabrielle's eyes. Thankfully, Xena had not been witness to that particular memory. If Xena ever suspected just how far things had gone, she's never let on.
Once the bracer had been disposed of, Gabrielle had thought everything had returned to normal. Obviously, not everything. Xena's feelings of insecurity where Ephiny's concerned, Gabrielle thought, I'll be damned if I'm going through that again. She visibly shuddered as she vividly recalled the long seasons of thinly veiled animosity between the two warriors.
"What?" Xena feigned innocence as she made a big showing of examining Ephiny's ankle. "Look around, Gabrielle. Have you ever seen such a rag-tag band in your life?"
"We've just defended an entire town from bloodthirsty renegades." There was a deadly evenness to Ephiny's tone as she looked Xena squarely in the eye. "Pardon us if we're not exactly springtime fresh."
"More than half your group is elderly, sick or injured. Including yourself." Xena purposely dug her fingers in deeper than necessary around the ball of Ephiny's ankle. She smirked as the regent winced in response. "You had no business leaving your village, Amazon. What in Tartarus were you thinking?"
There was a defiant tilt of a proud chin. "I was thinking that someone needed to save my Queen's family," and a challenging glint in hazel eyes as she added, "And, we didn't know where you were."
An unspoken As usual hung loudly in the air between them. Blue eyes gave so frosty a look that Ephiny felt a chill race through her body. This time, though, she didn't so much as flinch as Xena's fingers dug into her flesh. She steeled herself, fully expecting to feel those deadly digits jab into her neck, cutting off the flow of blood to her brain.
"Ephiny? My parents, Lila?"
"With the others." Ephiny grimaced, her voice sounded strained. "The inn."
"Stop it." Gabrielle's eyes bounced between Ephiny and Xena. "Both of you."
Ephiny dropped her bold gaze.
Xena relaxed her white-knuckled grip on the regent's ankle. She let loose Ephiny's foot, letting it drop back onto the hardwood bench.
"Go ahead," Xena said, sending a parting look over her shoulder as she walked away. "I've got other things to tend to."
"Move her someplace else," insisted Darius, "I've got beds."
Iphinome rolled her eyes, fixed the innkeeper with a cold stare. If there was one thing apprenticing to Megara had taught her, it was to not back down when it came to a patient's care. Ever.
"I've already told you, she's bleeding too much to risk moving her again. Your bar was closest. It's got a good length and a sturdy surface; it's sanitary and there's plenty of alcohol and bandages."
As if to demonstrate her point, Iphinome removed the blood-soaked bar towel from Solari's thigh, threw it down on the countertop.
"Aww, come on," protested Darius, "people drink there."
Iphinome snatched up a bottle, uncorked it with her teeth and liberally poured alcohol on Solari's open wound. A detached healer's eye watched as the chief scout's left hand put a death grip on the edge of the bar. Perspiration soaked her body and there was a deathly pallor to her. But throughout it all, in true Amazon fashion, she never made a peep.
Of course, that probably had less to do with Amazon fortitude and more with the leather strip that Iphinome had told the guard to place in Solari's mouth. So she wouldn't bite down and sever her tongue, causing even more work, the healer had said. Solari had glowered at Iphinome at that, wondering exactly when the healer had started taking on more and more of Megara's bedside manner.
Iphinome took a step back, dabbed at the wounded area with a clean cloth. Her eyes met Lexine's and she gave a curt nod. The young guard dutifully removed the leather strip, soaked with Solari's saliva and bearing a remarkable impression of her teeth, as gently as she could from the chief scout's mouth.
Lexine folded the leather strip in half, tucked it into the waistband of her leathers. Stepping forward, she offered Solari an open bottle. She'd already downed copious amounts while Iphinome had been gathering supplies and Lexine was hesitant to give her more. But Iphinome had been insistent, stating that she didn't have enough Satyr-cloves to deaden Solari's senses completely.
Solari maintained her grip on the bar, but tilted her head enough so that Lexine could place the bottle to her lips. She drank greedily in an attempt at blocking out both the pain and the realization of precisely who was holding the bottle.
She couldn't afford to lose her focus now. In all honesty, she was amazed she was doing as well as she was. And, though she was loathe to admit it, she had Eponin to thank for it.
It had been Xena that had first taught the Amazons' weapons master about meditation and focusing her chi. At first, Solari had thought Ep was only doing it to humor the warrior princess. When Xena and Gabrielle left the village for the open road again, though, Eponin had maintained the discipline.
Solari had teased her about it. Until Eponin convinced Solari to try it. Not that the chief scout was easy to teach. She was fidgety and easily distracted and at one point, she thought her instructor might actually beat her to death with her staff.
Until Eponin decided to take her out of the village to practice. In the solitude of her beloved forest, Solari was finally able to get it. She could block everything else out and become what Eponin was constantly calling one with the universe.
The primal need to reach Ephiny, to protect her packmate, had been what had initially fueled Solari's determination to get up. Ephiny and Ephiny alone was the reason she was able to remain standing.
Her love for Ephiny was what gave her strength to take step after agonizing step. Eponin's meditative teachings, though, gave her perseverance. What she had learned from Eponin was enabling her to block out the rage and the pain and remain calm.
Okay, as calm as she could be given the circumstances. Solari took a deep breath, settling herself, trying not to think about how ridiculous she must look, stretched out on her stomach on top of a bar, drinking from a bottle a guard was holding to her lips, while a healer and an innkeeper stitched her leg closed.
The one saving grace about her predicament was that it put her in a position to see out the tavern's large window onto Potadeia's main street. Most importantly, she was afforded an unobstructed view of her Ephiny and the Queen.
Despite the numbing effects to both her mental and physical senses, Solari still felt the first jab of the herringbone needle into her flesh. Her leg gave a reflexive kick and she heard Iphinome curse as her boot connected.
Solari gave a satisfied smirk, then frowned as she saw Xena kneeling down beside Ephiny. At first glance, it appeared as though the warrior princess was offering a healer's touch. But, the body language was wrong and she saw the way her packmate stiffened.
The scout bristled in reaction. She had the urge to get up off the bar and go out there. But, she felt Iphinome's restraining hand on her upper leg and the sharp jab of the needle.
She watched, her anger simmering, unable to rush to Ephiny's rescue. Then, Xena was standing up, walking away, saying something over her shoulder. And, despite the threat being gone, Solari still wanted to go to Ephiny.
"Damn, stubborn Amazons."
Egeria heard the grumbling beneath Xena's breath, wisely stepped out of the warrior princess' path. She continued with her tirade against "Damn Regents" and "Freaking Featherheads" and "Amazons in general" as she marched unimpeded down the street.
The warrior stopped when she reached the spot where she'd left Argo. The mare offered no resistance as her mistress abruptly snatched up her dangling reins.
Beleaguered Amazons and those Potadeians brave enough to begin emerging from the buildings where they'd hidden gave Xena and her horse a clear berth. Xena led the way to the stables, urging Argo inside before closing the big wooden door behind them. On the streets of Potadeia, a collective sigh of relief could be heard.
Verdant green eyes surveyed Potadeia. Her hometown. She'd grown up here. In her parents' house on the outskirts of town. She'd held Lila's hand every seventh day as they walked the six miles into town to spend their dinar allowance at Menticles' store. Lila would buy sweet taffy with her share and Gabrielle would purchase a fairy scroll with hers.
Looking back now, she realized that there was no way they could have afforded both. Knowing the value of a scroll now, Gabrielle knew that not even three dinars would have been enough. But, Menticles had given them a sweet and a scroll every time. I should give him some copies of my work to repay him his kindness.
How long ago had she left? Three Solstices - Four? Too many seasons ago to count. Yet, the town of her youth still looked the same as it ever did.
With the exception of blood staining the trampled slush and the wooden boards comprising the sidewalks on either side of the street. And the arrows indiscriminately protruding from the wooden slat walls of the shop fronts. And the dead bodies littering the street. And the injured. And, of course, her Amazons.
Oh, yeah. My Amazons.
"Ephiny," Gabrielle latched onto her regent's elbow, "What in Tartarus is going on?"
"Renegades, Gabrielle, working inside and outside the Nation. They plan on attacking you through your parents. Xena, too. I dispatched a patrol to Amphipolis."
"I know that." Gabrielle held up a hand to ward off Ephiny's explanation. "Ran into a couple of them getting their feathers plucked at Cyrene's inn when they tried to escort her back to the Nation and she didn't want to go. What I want to know is; what was that between you and Xena?"
There was a long, drawn out silence. Then, a short huff of breath from between pursed lips. Finally, Ephiny said, "You know how it is, Gabrielle. All the comments about featherheads, the constant putdowns, bonding with our Queen yet refusing to join the tribe. She's never really been there for the Amazons."
"That's not true and you know it, Ephiny. When you were kidnapped, it was Xena that went and got you. It was Xena that brought the Amazons' regent home." Gabrielle's voice steadily rose in pitch as she defended her warrior. "So tell me, what was that really all about?"
Ephiny didn't offer an answer. She downed her head, hazel eyes staring as she idly picked at a loose thread at the hem of her leathers.
Gabrielle waited. And waited. At last, she gave a sigh of resignation. Warriors. This was the same reaction she always got from Xena, too.
"I need to go find my parents now." Fine. If she wanted to act like her warrior, Gabrielle would treat her like her warrior. "You sit here and think about the answer to my question and we'll discuss this later."
Ephiny's head abruptly jerked up. Watching her Queen storm away, the curly-haired warrior felt a growing feeling of impending doom gnawing in the pit of her stomach.
"Damn! Damn! Damn!"
Xena's sword was drawn and she was ruthlessly hacking away. Bits and pieces of straw flew up into the air, creating a miniature blizzard falling about the interior of the stable as she took her frustrations out on a hapless bale of hay. Argo inhaled deeply, then snorted as the bits tickled her nostrils.
The hay bale was soon reduced to nothing but scattered straw. Xena's sword drooped, her limbs heavy from exertion. She sank to the floor, her back pressed up against the wall of the stall Argo was in.
"Damn," she said again, sniffing as she breathed in the straw-filled dust she'd created. She sneezed. Again. Again. "Double damn."
She sat on the floor, her sword cradled across her lap, her eyes and nose red from her sneezing spell. She slowly looked around the barn, taking in the destruction she'd caused. She sighed loudly.
When was the last time I let this happen?
It'd been a long time since she'd thought of Ephiny as a rival for Gabrielle's affections. A season ago, it wouldn't have fazed Xena in the slightest to see Gabrielle holding Ephiny in her arms like that. But, this had been the first time they'd seen each other since that business with the bracer. And, to see them together like that now - it was too soon.
She hadn't set out to deliberately antagonize Ephiny. She'd tried to ignore the first pangs of jealousy. Then, it was as if she was hearing someone else saying those things to the regent. But, it was said in her voice. And then, those were her fingers that were pressing into flesh, her ears that wanted to hear the Amazon cry out.
Xena covered her face with her hands, hating that once again, her possessiveness over Gabrielle had reared its ugly head.
She felt hot breath on her shoulder, then a snuffling at her hair. Reaching up, she gently scratched behind Argo's ears. Each time she tried to stop, Argo nudged her with her nose. Finally, Argo succeeded in getting her mistress to get up and retrieve a brush.
Xena became lost in the repetitive motion. With each stroke of the brush through Argo's coat, a little more tension eased out of the warrior's body. Soon, she was quietly humming.
As she realized the tune was coming from her, Xena's arm abruptly stopped in mid-stroke. Argo turned her head, looked back at her mistress.
"Good girl." Xena's voice was considerably softer as she gently scratched behind Argo's ears. "What say we get you a nice bucket of oats?"
As Xena went to retrieve the bucket and oats, Argo followed her, nudging her. Every time Xena went to scoop up the oats, Argo would nudge her again, causing her to spill. Xena tried fighting back with a well-placed elbow. But, Argo was persistent.
Xena lifted another scoop to the bucket. With the same results. Xena huffed, stood up and turned around, fixing Argo with an ice-cold look.
"Yeeessss?" she drew out.
Argo whinnied, shook her mane, nodded her head. Xena's gaze at last focused on a horseshoe haphazardly dangling over a rail.
A lone brow arched. "Oh, so you think you deserve a new pair of shoes, too, do you?"
Argo gave a little snort, pawed the ground with her hoof. She stepped forward, resting her chin on top of Xena's head. If a horse could give an exasperated sigh, that was exactly the sound that Argo made.
"Okay, okay," Xena laughed, her mood instantly elevated by the antics of her prized companion. "I'll pick you out a pair." There was a pause before she added, "After your feeding."
That seemed to satisfy the mare and Xena was able to go about her routine of caring for her horse. Horse. Argo was so much more than that. She was a confidant, a trusted companion. In those days before Gabrielle, Argo was her one constant. She was the only one that didn't turn her back on the warrior princess.
Seasons later, even though she knew she had a good relationship with her bard, she sometimes thought Argo was the only one that understood her. How many times had she placidly stood by, letting her mistress scream and punch and kick out her frustrations on a tree, a building, a band of thugs? Never judging, just waiting, then when her rage was spent, offering her support with just a whinny or a well-placed hoof.
Xena felt better. Her entire demeanor had changed. And, she knew it was all because of Argo. A new pair of horseshoes wasn't too much to ask.
She'd seen the blacksmith shop on their way to the stables. As soon as she had a chance, she'd see about fitting a pair to her loyal mare.
Xena took up her tune again; pleased that her course was clear now. "Thanks, girl. I know what I have to do." Xena lovingly patted her horse. "I've either got to make peace with Ephiny. Or kill her."
"Okay, she's done," Darius said as soon as the clean bandage was tied off, "Now, move her."
Iphinome rolled her eyes. She'd just barely finished the procedure. She hadn't even had time to clean up and Solari was essentially dead to the known world.
"It's too soon. She can't be moved, yet."
"Come on. Folks are gonna be coming in for drinks now that the excitement's over. Paying customers."
"You were paid Amazon coin for the use of your establishment," Iphinome reminded the innkeeper.
"Yeah, I was. And, you Amazons are welcome to every room in the place. But, folk have a right to a drink if they want it. Especially after what just happened here. Look, can't we just move her to one of the beds?"
Darius reached for Solari as if he intended to physically haul her off the bar. He blinked, finding one sleeve of his tunic pinned to the counter by the business end of a knife and another one poking at the tip of his nose.
"You heard her," Lexine said through gritted teeth, "she's not to be moved. Now, back off."
Iphinome remained perfectly still, silently observing. She saw that Darius had noticeably paled when he'd seen the knives Lexine had pulled on him. But, he was bristling and his nostrils were flaring. Iphinome's sharp eyes detected a slight quiver in Lexine's form.
Perhaps sensing the tension in the room, Solari began to stir. Unable to see anything save the wood grain of the bar top, Solari attempted to raise her head. A slight moan escaped her lips at the movement.
Lexine reacted instantly, her hand going to the top of Solari's head. Long fingers stroked through matted brunette tresses as she cooed soft words to the chief scout.
"It's okay, Solari. No one's going to harm you." Lexine sent a look at the innkeeper that dared him to contradict her. "You're safe, now. You're okay."
A lone Amazon stood inside the doorway. Her lips formed a straight line, her jaw was set. Steel grey eyes were narrowed. A large, weathered hand had a firm grip upon the double eagle-head pommel of the sword sheathed at her side.
She visibly stiffened the instant she felt the arms slip about her waist, palms laying flat on her toned stomach. Her entire frame braced against the hug.
Devillare looked behind her. And down.
"My little Queen," Devillare said, recognizing the top of Gabrielle's head.
"Elder Devillare." Gabrielle pulled away, ending the hug. Then, seeing the blue sash with the insignia tied firmly about her waist, she amended, "Captain Devillare." In a soft voice, she asked, "Pelagia?"
"Village hospice." Devillare's tone lost some of its edge as she sought to reassure her young queen. "There was an - accident. Megara stayed to tend to her."
Gabrielle nodded. She had seen at least two other elders during the attack. Then, seeing the sash signifying Devillare's status as a member of the guard and the insignia designating her position....she had the sickening feeling in her gut that things in the Nation were far more serious than her regent had intimated.
She feared her younger captain was dead. That was the only explanation she could think of for the elder captain's return to duty. As well as the absence of the head healer.
"You should have that looked at," Gabrielle said, indicating Devillare's bicep.
"Huh?" The captain looked down, as if noticing the blood for the first time. "It's nothing, my Queen. A minor wound."
"Minor? Devillare, that's a deep gash." Gabrielle's eyes darted towards the bar, zeroing on Iphinome. "Xena can stitch that for you, if you don't want an apprentice healer."
"Umm, no. It's fine. I'll wait."
"Okay. She's probably at the stables with Argo, if you change your mind. I have to go; still got some parents to find."
Devillare wordlessly nodded in acknowledgement.
"Oh, and Devillare? Don't worry; she'll be okay."
"Of course." Her hand slipped from her sword grip as soon as Gabrielle uttered the reassurance. Although, Devillare had already decided that the innkeeper was no threat. She gave her queen a curt nod of agreement. "Lexine's fine."
"Lexine?" A set of blonde eyebrows rose in tandem. Gabrielle couldn't keep the sly smirk from her lips. "I thought you were staring at Solari."
Devillare did a double-take as the little slip of a girl that was her queen patronizingly winked at her and then walked away, adding what could only be called a royal swagger to her roiling gait.
"You're okay. It's okay. You're safe, Solari."
The words reverberated inside Solari's head. You're safe. You're safe. You're safe. She felt Lexine's fingers in her hair, on her skin; bristled at the over familiarity of the touch. She struggled to move, to disentangle herself. It only made Lexine touch her that much more, coo more reassurances into her ear.
The memory of seeing Ephiny falling flashed before her eyes. She felt the phantom pains of Gryta's sword thrusting into her leg. She imagined the blade twisting inside her flesh, then slowly, agonizingly being pulled free.
And, Lexine was there. Holding her down. Tying that blue sash about her thigh. The blue sash of the royal guard.
"Get away! Get away!"
Solari was struggling, arms flailing wildly as she attempted to shrug off Lexine's touch. Clearly startled, the young guard looked to Iphinome. The assistant healer gave a half-shrug, her eyes seemingly indicating the herbs still scattered upon the bar.
The Satyr-cloves. Lexine had never experimented with them herself, but she'd heard the stories of those who had. It was a powerful herb, first introduced to their tribe by a visiting shamaness. The shamaness claimed it gave her premonitions of the future. Others experienced extreme hallucinations; real enough that one Amazon had drawn her sword and attacked her bondmate, believing her to be the legendary Medusa herself.
"Shhh, it's okay, Solari."
Lexine's voice had taken on a decidedly distressed tone. She reached out to soothingly run her hands over both the scout's shoulders. Her touch only caused Solari to become more agitated. She fought back, screaming and cursing a blue streak.
Iphinome desperately tried to restrain Solari to keep her from tearing open all her stitches again. She looked to the innkeeper for help. At first, Darius was too stunned to move. But then, he clamped a beefy hand on the thrashing brunette's calf in an attempt at stilling her. Lexine approached her again.
Solari felt the pressure on her lower body, two sets of hands restraining her, pinning her down so she couldn't reach her belt knife. Unable to leap off the bar and attack Lexine the way she wanted to, Solari was left with only one option.
No one saw it coming. But they heard it. And, they all saw the way Lexine's head snapped to the side and the rapidly reddening welt Solari's open palm had raised on her cheek.
"Solari - "
Solari was having none of it.
"Don't touch me. Don't you dare touch me!" Mahogany hued eyes accusingly flashed as they zeroed in on the stunned guard. "You saved me. You had a duty!" Solari was screaming at the top of her lungs now, struggling with every bit of strength she had left. Unable to free herself from the combined weight of Iphinome and Darius, she was reduced to little more than spitting at Lexine. "Your duty was to the queen. You saved me instead."
All the fight abruptly drained out of Solari. The combination of spent adrenaline, alcohol and Satyr-cloves hit her all at once, rendering her unconscious. As Solari passed out, Lexine sent a stunned look towards Iphinome.
Iphinome knew the effects of Satyr-cloves. She'd even expected the chief scout to have a mild reaction. But this -- she suspiciously eyed the royal guardswoman.
The innkeeper had held his tongue throughout the entire confrontation. Now that the excitement was over, he turned his questions to the healer.
"That - " he pointed at Solari " - will she do that again when she wakes up?"
"No." Iphinome used her fingertips to lift Solari's eyelid, then let it drop back into place. "The herbs will keep her subdued."
Darius nodded, rubbed the stubble on his chin as he seemingly mulled something over. At last, he said, "Customers can drink at the other end of the bar. She can stay. You - " he pointed to Lexine, then jerked his thumb towards the door " - need to go."
Lexine's hand clutched the side of her throbbing face as she stormed away from the bar. Perhaps that's why she didn't see the woman standing at the open doorway. Didn't even know she was there until a large, brawny hand grabbed her about the throat and lifted her off the floor, pinning her against the wall.
Both hands clutched at the large wrist and forearm, trying to pry fingers loose from her throat. Green eyes bulged as her gaze traveled the length of that massive forearm, finally settling on the stony visage of the captain of the guard.
Lexine fought against the urge to close her eyes and cry for her mama as Devillare's lips curled into a snarl. Devillare pressed her face closer, so close Lexine could feel her hot breath upon her skin.
Nostrils flared. There was a persistent tick at the corner of a steely grey eye. When at last Devillare spoke, her voice was akin to a low, menacing growl.
"Get used to not having that blue sash," Devillare's gaze went to Lexine's bare waist, "You will never again be entrusted with the life of a royal, I promise you that. I would have you banished now if I didn't have need of you."
"Cap - "
This time, Lexine was positive that Devillare did growl.
"Don't push me. Don't even speak. There's nothing you could say right now that I would want to hear." Devillare lowered the guardswoman to the ground, but did nothing to ease her grip around her throat. "Bonadea's with Queen Gabrielle's family. Leave an escort with them, but bring Bonadea to me. Do you understand?"
Lexine's mouth opened, then clamped shut. She wordlessly nodded, hoping that was acceptable. When at last she felt the vise-like grip released from about her neck, she drew in great gulps of air. Seeing Devillare impatiently staring after her, she hurried as fast as she could, rushing through the tavern on shaking legs that felt like they would barely keep her upright.
It was a less than stellar homecoming. Never mind that her reunion with her family was occurring in one of the rooms of the town inn. It was also happening in front of a lingering group of Potadeians that hadn't yet had the courage to leave; despite Gabrielle's announcement that it was safe to do so. And, it was also happening in front of a trio of Amazonian royal guards.
Gabrielle strongly suspected that was part of the bone of contention between them. While her mother and Lila had greeted her enthusiastically enough, her father had been far more reserved. He'd never been overly demonstrative with his affections, but his response to her hug had been decidedly frosty.
She imagined part of that had to due with the lack of privacy. With just a look at the guard, they skillfully began maneuvering the lingering townspeople out of the large room. For her part, Gabrielle ushered her family to a secluded corner where they could talk quietly.
"Well honestly, Gabrielle, what did you expect?" Hecuba asked, "We raised you, provided for you, loved you. And you ran away from home, stealing away like a common thief in the night while we slept in our beds."
"I told Lila."
"Only after I caught you sneaking out the window."
"I thought that warrior had stolen you," Herodotus said.
"I followed Xena, father. Of my own free will. She didn't force me." Gabrielle loudly exhaled. "I couldn't stay. I needed to experience more than life in Potadeia."
"Think you're better than a life of farming?"
It was an age-old argument. Herodotus worked hard every day from sunup to sundown farming the land, tending to his family. As had his father before him. And, his father before him. And, if he'd had any sons at all, they would carry on as he had. Instead, his wife had given him nothing but daughters. Useless, thankless daughters that he could only hope to marry off for a profit.
Gabrielle's leaving had hit him the hardest. Both in his coin purse and his pride. Drunks in the taverns openly laughed at him, making fun of him, the man whose own daughter had run off. And, after all that work he'd gone through arranging her marriage. Gods knew it wasn't easy. His eldest had never been proficient at housework or quilting or any sort of womens' work. No matter how many times he tried to beat it into her. He'd had to promise nearly half of his farm as dowry before Perdicus' father agreed. Then, for her to just run off in the middle of the night...Gabrielle's leaving had damaged his reputation enough that he might never get Lila married off.
"Father, please. It was never about me being ashamed of being a farmer's daughter." Only, deep in her heart, Gabrielle knew that it was. She was destined to be more. But, how could she tell her own family that? "Please. I sent letters home, explaining. Didn't you read any of them?"
"Of course we read them, dear," Hecuba said. "But, we know how your imagination is - "
"-Always with your head in the clouds, making up stories - "
Hecuba shot her husband a look. She couldn't outright tell him to Shutup!, of course, but she'd gotten quite proficient at sending nonverbal cues over the seasons of their marriage.
"Gabrielle, the adventures you described. Titans. Gorgons. Centaurs. Amazons. We had a hard time figuring which were real and which were more of your tall tales."
"Bad enough you run off with an ex-warlord. Then, you tell us you're in some sort of relationship with her. Then," Herodotus gestured towards the royal guard, "you tell us you're queen of a tribe of half-naked savages."
Gabrielle could see the guard bristle, but a covert hand signal had them standing down.
"Actually, father, I became Queen before Xena and I began our relationship. As a matter of fact, the Amazons were instrumental in our getting together, seeing as they helped to bring Xena back from the dead."
From her peripheral vision, Gabrielle saw Lexine slip into the room, whisper something to Bonadea before they both discreetly left. Hope that doesn't mean trouble.
"And, just so there's no misunderstanding; after all, I wouldn't want you to think I was telling tall tales again, father," Gabrielle deliberately raised her voice to a level so that the remaining two members of the guard as well as any lingering Potadeians couldn't help but overhear, "Every one of those half-naked savages are also my sisters."
"I suppose being my sister just wasn't good enough for you, was it? Wasn't nearly exciting enough." Lila glared at Gabrielle, folded her arms over her chest and stamped her foot in a manner reminiscent of when they were children.
"Hush up, Lila." Herodotus nearly smirked when Lila clamped her mouth shut and hid behind her mother's skirts. That was one daughter he'd taught right, at least. "You would choose them over us? That's why they're here, isn't it?"
Gabrielle exhaled loudly. Gods, why did they think this had to be about choosing sides? "Ephiny, my regent, already explained that to you, father. Outlaw Amazons came to Potadeia to kill you in an attempt to get at me. Because you're my family. Ephiny led her loyal Amazons here to stop them."
"Then, make an announcement." Herodotus' lips tightened into a thin line. "Tell them that we're no longer your kin."
Gabrielle's eyes instantly moistened, her nose reddened as she fought back the tears. She wouldn't cry. Not here. Not now. Channeling the spirit of Melosa, she spoke with all the authority and dignity befitting a Queen of the Amazons.
"In the eyes of the Amazons, renouncing blood family is no simple matter. Disowning me will not keep the renegades from attacking Potadeia. They've already burned scores of other towns to the ground on the way here."
"Then, let them burn Potadeia, too. Just the same as they would any other town."
With that, Herodotus turned his back on Gabrielle. Hecuba bit her bottom lip, tears forming in her eyes. Gabrielle reached out a hand for her. Hecuba shrank back from the touch, shaking her head. With a stubborn lift of her chin, Lila also turned her back.
A hand covering her mouth, Gabrielle choked back her sobs. Tears openly streaming down her face, blurring her vision, she gave one last look at her family. Her father, her mother, her sister. Then, holding her head high, she stepped from the room, determined to find comfort with the rest of her family. Xena, her partner, her love, her life.
Iphinome was just packing the last of her supplies into her leather satchel when she felt the warrior's presence. Turning, she was startled to see the formidable captain of the guard nearly upon her. Her healer's gaze instantly fell on Devillare's bicep and she reflexively reached inside her bag.
"Regent Ephiny is awaiting you outside."
"I thought Xena was - " Iphinome's voice trailed off. She nodded her head at the captain's arm " - that needs stitching."
"Tend to the regent first."
"The regent can wait." Iphinome saw the dangerous look in Devillare's eyes, but refused to back down. When it came to treating patients, she took orders from no one save Megara. "She's not bleeding. You are. What use will you be if infection sets in and I have to amputate that arm?"
There was a low growl of annoyance followed by a single nod of acceptance.
Iphinome signaled for the tavern keeper. Darius gave a disgruntled look, but hurriedly brought a bowl of fresh water and a clean rag.
The healer rummaged through her bag. "I'll have to use a local anesthesia to numb the area." Iphinome frowned. She was low on supplies; she'd have to improvise. Turning to Darius, she asked, "Do you grow aloe; enough to make a paste?"
Darius started to reply, but Devillare cut him off with a swipe of her hand.
"There's no time for that. If you're going to stitch me, hurry and be done with it."
"Warriors," Iphinome mumbled beneath her breath. Much louder, she said, "Hold still."
Devillare saw the large herringbone needle, took a reflexive half-step back before she caught herself and stilled the movement. Iphinome didn't say anything, but her dancing eyes revealed that she'd noticed.
Warrior's pride wouldn't allow Devillare to admit the sudden apprehension she felt. The captain folded her arms over her chest and impassively waited as Iphinome approached.
"You'll have to relax the muscle," Iphinome advised.
It went against every ingrained response Devillare had. Nevertheless, she did her best to comply. There was a twitch at the corner of Devillare's mouth as she felt the first sharp stab against her skin. Determined, she forced herself to not look at what the healer was doing.
Her steely gaze fell upon the woman atop the bar. She was sprawled out on her stomach, her winter cloak doubling as a makeshift pillow. Her sword was in its sheath, riding high on her shoulder. Experienced eyes counted no fewer than three knives strategically positioned about her body. Remembering having seen the regent drawing her sword and handing it to her prior to the battle, Devillare wondered how many of those weapons Solari could realistically use.
Definitely none in her current state.
"How soon can she be moved?" Devil asked.
Iphinome completed the last stitch, tied it off and cut the twine with her knife before glancing at the Amazon stretched out on the top of the bar.
"As soon as she comes around, I suppose," Iphinome shrugged. "I've used my thickest twine and double-stitches and enough dressing that she should be fine as long as she takes it easy and doesn't try to overdo it."
Devil nearly snorted. From what she knew of the scout, it was that she didn't know the meaning of not overdoing it. How many times had she seen Solari spend a full day tracking, then despite her injured hand, personally set up the regent's campsite, making out the bedroll and spreading out the blankets?
"You tend to the regent," Devillare instructed, "I'll see to the scout."
No sooner had the healer packed up her gear and left than Devillare's gaze shifted back to the bar.
"Something to drink?"
Devillare looked at the tavern keeper. He held a clean mug in his hand and was expectantly looking at her for an answer. A glance at the doorway revealed the locals slowly starting to meander their way in. She suspected that the tavern would be full up soon and she wouldn't get a second chance.
What the Tartarus, Devillare thought, all that fighting's made me thirsty.
"Port," she said, reaching in her coin purse for a dinar.
Darius waved her off, moved to the other end of the bar to fetch her order. As a barkeep, Darius had become an expert at reading people. What he got from this Amazon was that she held a high rank in their culture. Someone like that might be good to have around; definitely be smart to stay in good with her.
The best way Darius had of doing that was not charging for her drink. That way, she'd think favorably of him should the time come that he needed help. Besides, he'd already made more in one day than he had this entire season when those Amazons paid for the run of his inn.
Except the bar. Gods knew he still wanted to make money off the locals. And, the way warriors were known to drink...well, he figured he'd see lots more Amazonian coin before they moved on. He figured not charging one lone Amazon wouldn't harm his coin purse.
Could probably let another one slide, too. Definitely that dirty-blonde that's - what'd they call it - Oh yeah; their regent. And that cute little number on my bar, maybe. But, that's all. Darius figured he'd still make a tidy sum if he sold to the rest of them. He certainly had no qualms about charging those two that had been in here treating the injured brunette. Those two, he knew in an instant, weren't anyone important. Besides, he watered down his drinks enough that he could give a whole barrel away and still make a profit.
Wary eyes watched the barkeep. He'd moved off quickly enough to get her drink. But then, she'd caught him staring. She'd been outside the Nation before. Devil was familiar with the way outsiders gawked. She figured these villagers may have never seen a real Amazon before. Then, to have the town overrun with them -
She knew about being stared at. Being one of the biggest Amazonian royal guards garnered her a lot of unwanted attention in her youth. Her very size often made her a target. Being taller, more muscular than the rest - and always in close proximity to the Queen - that alone drew more than one curious look wherever they went.
She could handle being stared at. It didn't faze her the way it did some of the girls that didn't have as much experience outside their territory. Most times, it was idle curiosity, nothing more. But, she'd seen the barkeep's eyes repeatedly dart to her companion and linger there far longer than Devillare was comfortable with.
Grey eyes drifted once more towards Solari. Frowning, Devillare studied the unconscious Amazon. She placed a hand to her face, in an unconscious habit of rubbing her chin; until her finger connected with her jaw, reminding her of her other injury.
Iphinome didn't offer to stitch it. Not that Devillare would have allowed it, anyway. The regent's welfare came first. She'd already made that clear.
So did she. Devillare thought, remembering a previous confrontation with Solari. The scout had actually gone toe-to-toe with the warrior. Devil smirked, No doubt about it; this one had a brass set on her.
She'd seen the scout fall. Saw the sword plunge into flesh. That sword thrust could have very easily maimed her. Devillare had actually seen people die from a single wound to the upper thigh. The blood would just come pouring out and there'd be no stopping it and in a matter of heartbeats, they'd be dead.
She'd watched the procedure from a distance. There'd been lots of blood. Even more stitching and dressing. Still, she could tell from the healer's actions that the strike hadn't gone clean through. Without a doubt, Devillare knew Solari's opponent had held back.
There was definitely much more to the younger Amazon than Devillare had initially thought. She was loyal and brave and strong. And, Devillare couldn't stand the thought of leaving her in such a vulnerable position.
The captain crouched down, putting herself on an even level with the surface of the bar. Grey eyes darted about Solari's face. A hesitant hand reached out, touching brunette hair, brushing errant strands back into place. Full lips parted, permitting a quiet moan to escape.
"Scout?" Devillare leaned close, speaking softly into the delicate shell of an ear, "can you hear me?"
Long lashes fluttered. Sandalwood eyes cracked open. There was a miniscule head tilt and a furrow of a brow.
Eyes blinked in confusion, refusing to focus. Devillare moved in so close that her forehead was nearly touching Solari's. Steel grey eyes stared steadily into mahogany brown.
There was a flicker of recognition followed by a soft, crooked smile.
Then, "Sweetie," and Solari was suddenly surging forward, her arms about Devillare's neck and shoulders.
It wasn't that Solari had been able to move all that quickly. It was just that the move itself was so unexpected that Devillare was caught off-guard, the scout's lips pressed against hers before she knew it. Devil was startled; she lost her balance, stumbling backwards, nearly falling over.
There was a snicker and Devillare looked up to see the tavern keeper smirking at her. A dark glower convinced him to deposit her drink on the bar and move away. A look around revealed the tavern was nearly full of patrons. Thank the Gods none of them seemed to be paying much attention to them.
The captain worked to quickly divest herself of the clinging limpet that was Solari. Grabbing two forearms in her hands, she gently but firmly removed Solari, helping her to regain her center of balance on the bar. Big brown eyes blinked up at the captain and there was a full bottom lipped pout that had Devillare swallowing hard and looking away.
Right into the faces of the approaching Bonadea and Lexine. If either had seen what had just transpired, neither of the guards gave a noticeable reaction. Bonadea wore a neutral mask that gave away nothing. While Lexine - if she had seen, Devil was quite certain she wouldn't be able to keep her emotions in check. Lexine wore the same dopey, lust struck look she always had around Solari.
Devil looked down. Solari was sprawled half on her back, her injured leg at an impossible angle, her bandaged hand resting on her flat stomach, her head nearly hanging off the edge of the bar. Her eyes were closed and there was a small amount of spittle at the corner of her mouth.
She was tempted to try rousing her again. The healer had said Solari could be moved as soon as she awoke. She wanted to get her out of here, take her someplace private, far from prying eyes. Clearly, though, Solari was still in no condition.
Devillare looked to Bonadea. "Watch over her as you would the Queen."
Bonadea barely had time to give a quick salute before the captain was ordering Lexine, "You're with me."
Soft leather boots stepped gingerly. Thick sand covered the ground at the front of the blacksmith's shop to safeguard against flying sparks. Near the middle and back part of the shop, where there was less danger of fire, rushes were thickly spread about.
The Amazon had quickly moved past the anvil and decorative wares at the front of the shop. Steadily past the rack containing a row of artfully crafted swords. She paced the interior of the shop, somewhere in between where the smithy kept extra barrels of water and his worktable and the wood wall partition near the back that he used to display his leather goods on. Much cheaper and not nearly as interesting as the swords, but in a small town like this, bridles and bits and horseshoes were no doubt in far greater demand.
Dark eyes watched the hunter's every move. After the initial battle, Lyonene had gone to retrieve her arrow that had taken out the first renegade. Then, she'd gone to see for herself the archer that had kept her pinned down. Both out of curiosity and to pay her respects to a worthy adversary. Standing over her lifeless body, all Lyonene could think about was how very young the girl looked.
On her way back, she'd spied Tynette going into the blacksmith's shop. After having just seen how young that archer had been, Lyonene couldn't help thinking back to the days of their youth.
Tynette was two seasons older than Lyonene. It might as well be a lifetime. Tynette had been a marvel in her archery classes and her instructors had high praise for her hunting abilities. Everyone thought she was the best in her class. Then, Lyonene had come along. Her reputation - the legend of her birth - her skills had all given her the right to skip the intermediate classes, placing her in the same age bracket with Tynette.
Lyonene had been enraptured. Tynette had been the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen. Blonde hair, blue eyes, high cheekbones and legs that went on forever. Whatever attraction Lyonene might have felt, though, was quashed by the intense disdain Tynette showed towards her. Instead of developing a friendship or even something deeper, the only thing that grew between them was an intense rivalry.
That rivalry had continued throughout all their training and most of their adult lives. If Lyonene brought down one stag, Tynette bagged two. If Tynette hit dead center with two arrows in target practice, Lyonene did it with three. Lyonene dated and bedded a cute hunter; Tynette ended up bedding and bonding with the same hunter.
Lyonene had thought about breaking up their joining. Not because she was in love with Paxynne and wanted her back. But, just to prove that she could. Then, in a move that stunned her, Tynette had gotten pregnant and borne Paxynne a daughter.
In hindsight, it was clear to see that Pax would never have survived childbirth; she was just too slight of build, she didn't have the hips for it. If they were to have a daughter to call their own, it only made sense for Tynette to be the one to carry to term.
At the time, though, Lyonene had seen it as one more thing Tynette had to one-up her on. The fact that the blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby was the spitting image of her mother only seemed to confirm that.
After that, Lyonene let it go. She wasn't the bonding type, anyway. She certainly wasn't the motherly type. Nope, in that arena, she was happy to let Tynette take top honors.
Tynette crouched down, one arm braced against her thigh, long fingers brushing over the surface of the rushes. Lyonene's gaze wandered over Tynette's still firm stomach, then the curve of her hip before trailing to her rear and down her legs.
Mm. Being a mother once - a grandmother twice - hasn't hurt her looks any. Lyonene had seen the effect childbirth, both having them and then raising them, had on some of the women of the village. Tynette hadn't been one of them. She'd kept her shape.
A little thicker in places maybe, Lyonene thought, her eyes wandering back to Tynette's tailfeathers, but still nice. She unconsciously wet her lips. Her feet moved her forward.
Tynette fully thrust her hand into the rushes, her fingers closing tightly.
"Need a hand?"
Tynette abruptly straightened, turned around so quickly that the action brought her within a hair's breadth of Lyonene.
"What?" Tynette asked, her hand at her throat and chest in an attempt at stilling her rapidly beating heart.
"You lose something?"
"Huh? Oh." Tynette turned so her back was to Lyonene. She'd be damned if she let Lyonene know how much she'd startled her. Her trembling hand brushed fading blonde locks behind one ear. "My earring. Must have lost it in the battle." Tynette closed her hand into a fist, lowered it to her side.
There was a throaty laugh from behind her and she felt thick fingers brushing her hair back from her neck.
"Always said you'd hook an arrow through one of those damn things and rip your whole ear off."
Now, Tynette trembled with anger. "Both my ears are fine."
Another deep chuckle. Tynette shivered at the heated breath on her ear. "They certainly are," was husked out just before a hot mouth closed about her earlobe.
A tiny squeak escaped Tynette's lips. She could practically feel the smile against her flesh that her cry elicited from Lyonene. Lyonene...Lyonene the mighty hunter...she could smell her prey's fear, sense her surrender.
Lips and teeth were firmly at her neck. A large hand mauled a breast. Tynette felt herself pushed into and against the blacksmith's worktable. The worn wood grain pressed into her midsection as a thick hand clutched at her hip.
Tynette's pride railed against the assault. How dare she?!? Tynette was not some meek bunny that would easily submit to the big, tough hunter. She certainly wasn't a bit of fluff that would bottom for her.
Tynette braced both hands against the table, pressed back with all her might. She felt Lyonene thrust back against her in response. Tynette struggled, turning around so that the table was pressed against the small of her back.
A hungry mouth closed upon hers, tongue thrusting, gaining entrance before Tynette could think. Determined not to be outdone, she responded quickly, hand reaching beneath leathers and thrusting.
Almost immediately, she felt a hand close about her wrist, her fingers forcefully removed. The kiss was sharply broken off. Chests heaved heavily as they both worked to catch their breath. They openly stared at each other, sizing each other up. And, though she was loathe to admit it, there was a gleam in Lyonene's eyes that made Tynette very, very afraid.
"Thought you said I was a dried-up piece of leathery jerky," Lyonene challenged.
"You said I was short fingered."
Lyonene's audible swallow didn't escape Tynette's notice. She pointedly held her hand up. Her fingers were coated with moisture well past the second digits. Tynette deliberately extended her tongue, licking at the thick essence before popping the entire digit in her mouth and sucking.
Lyonene gasped sharply.
"That was a night of very drunken awkwardness. We were both as talented as fumbling virgins." Lyonene ducked her head, tracing full lips with the tip of her tongue, determined to prove she had more skill than just that of the hunter. "I'd like to try again. Without the added effects of honoring Artemis' champion."
For once, Tynette had no argument. With a smirk, Lyonene leaned in, delivering another searing kiss. Tynette eagerly responded. Then, her mind caught up, finally processing exactly what Lyonene had said.
Placing both hands against Lyonene's chest, she shoved. Hard. Lyonene's hands went up in supplication and she took a full step back.
"What in Tartarus?" Tynette made a point of wiping her mouth on the sleeve of her hooded cloak.
"You engineered this." A finger wagged back and forth between Lyonene and herself. "To distract me from Eponin."
"Eponin?" Lyonene pulled a face. "What's she got to do with this?"
"Don't take me for a fool. I saw her riding full gallop out of town."
"I saw her, too. She was barely hanging onto the saddle."
"And like the rest of those fools, you just stood by and let her go," Tynette accused, eyes flashing as she zeroed in on the array of fletching peeking over Lyonene's shoulder. "You had a full quiver, you could have taken her down."
"We're here to bring her back, not take her down." Lyonene vividly remembered seeing Eponin riding past their position. "And, I won't shoot her in the back to do it."
"I knew it. I knew you'd eventually side with the warrior caste. You've always kissed their tailfeathers."
"I have never kissed anyone's tailfeathers. Including yours."
"Can you two give your petty squabbling a rest?" asked a deep voice.
Two heads turned to see Devillare standing at the entrance to the smithy's shop. That milksop Lexine was with her, scuffing the toe of her boot in the dirt and repeatedly looking back over her shoulder. She looked to the elders very much like a bored toddler.
Judging from Devillare's expression, she hadn't overheard any of their conversation. Lyonene let out a sigh of relief. Calling her out had been one thing. But, if Devillare knew what Tynette had just said about Eponin...Lyonene's eyes went wide as she just caught the tail end of what Tynette was saying to Devillare.
"We're on the council, same as you. You've no authority to order us around."
"The Council only has power within the Nation. The Regent Queen herself reinstated my rank of Captain of the Royal Guard. That makes me answerable only to herself and Queen Gabrielle." Devillare folded her arms over her chest and stared down Tynette. "That means out here, we're not equals, hunter." She waited for Tynette to protest. When she didn't, she continued, "Take Lexine with you. Set up a perimeter defense."
"So soon after battle?" Tynette snorted. "To what end? They're off licking their wounds, same as us."
"We can't take chances. We have a town of civilians, two royals and the queen's family to protect."
"Sounds like the job of the guard."
Devillare stifled a growl. She'd dispatched most of her squad to Amphipolis, keeping only a select few - and herself - to protect the regent. Should have sent Lexine with them, Devillare thought, eyeing the current object of her displeasure. Of course, if she didn't get Tynette's cooperation on this soon, she'd just as quickly earn her disfavor.
"We're eating and resting in shifts. As soon as Bonadea's group is finished, I'll send them to relieve you."
Lexine bristled at that. Bonadea had been left to watch over Solari. That left only two members of the guard to act as relief. She started to open her mouth, then caught herself before anything could come out. No, better not to ask when - make that if - I'll be relieved.
"Wait. We - " Tynette pointed to both herself and Lyonene " - actually fought in the battle. Why does Bonadea and her group get to rest first?"
"Because they were inside with the Potadeians. They had the worse assignment."
Devillare rubbed her temple in a vain attempt at relieving some of the mounting pressure. While she appreciated Lyonene's defense of her decision, her constant infighting with Tynette was wearing on her nerves. They keep this up, I will have need of that healer's assistant.
"And, what's your assignment, captain?" Tynette asked. "While we're guarding the town, what will you be doing?"
"I'll - " Devillare gave a pointed look at Lexine " - be guarding the royals." If Tynette challenges me again, she'll be the one in need of the healer. "At the first sign of trouble, signal," Devil said, "No one be a hero."
Tynette openly ran her eyes over Lyonene's form. "No fear of that," she said, before pushing past her fellow hunter on her way to the open street.
Lyonene gave a nonchalant shrug, grabbed Lexine by the back of the neck and shoved her along behind Tynette.
"Oh, Gods." Devillare bowed her head, shaking it from side to side, her warrior's mask momentarily slipping. Then, tossing her head back, closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. When she left the blacksmith's shop, she was once again the epitome of control.
The blacksmith's was still for all of ten heartbeats. Then, the warrior stepped from behind the wooden wall partition located at the back of the shop. She hefted the finely crafted horseshoes she'd selected and tossed a dinar onto the worktable.
Blue eyes narrowed as she contemplated everything she'd just seen and heard. With a set jaw and a determined stride, Xena set out in search of some answers.
"Hey, you okay?"
Ephiny leaned into Gabrielle, jostling her with her shoulder as she asked. Gabrielle couldn't help but smile, even if it was halfhearted. Here Ephiny was, in obvious pain over her ankle and her shoulder. Yet, her regent was more concerned over her hurt feelings.
"No," she answered truthfully.
Gabrielle gave a heavy sigh. She'd left the inn with the intention of finding Xena and talking to her. Or, at the very least, getting one of those big warrior princess' hugs she was good at giving out. She was sure her warrior would be at the stables. Instead, all she found was Argo and a herd of Amazon warhorses.
On her way back, she'd ran into Ephiny. Literally. Instead of resting and elevating that ankle as Iphinome had instructed, her stubborn regent was out running the streets of Potadeia.
Gabrielle frowned at her own description. Okay, maybe running the streets wasn't a literal interpretation. But, as a bard, Gabrielle was entitled to take certain poetic liberties. Even if she had only her own mind for an audience.
Thank the Gods Ephiny's ankle wasn't broken. The regent had suffered only a mild sprain. Still, her foot was swollen enough that she couldn't get her boot back on. So, she'd taken to walking the slush covered streets of Potadeia with a bandaged foot and a staff for support.
And more than one shadow. She'd initially spied Solari, leaning heavily on a staff and very nearly dragging one leg behind her as she gingerly made her way towards them. Despite the chill in the air, she was sweating profusely. Bonadea was following right behind her, clearly entreating her to return to the inn.
Gabrielle had been concerned about the chief scout being up and about so soon after such a traumatic injury and had started to go to her. To her surprise, Solari had shied away from her, successfully thwarting her bard-queen's attempt at a hug.
Caught off-guard, Gabrielle wasn't sure what to do. She'd never gotten that sort of reaction before. Certainly never from Solari. She hesitated; she wanted more than anything to corner Solari and ask what was wrong. Instead, against every curious bone in her body, she backed off.
She rejoined her regent, who was showing obvious signs of discomfort. She would take a few steps, then pause to either adjust the material of her arm sling or to take some pressure off her foot. But, stubborn as a mule, she refused to rest.
"Not before I'm satisfied this town is secure," Ephiny said. "I have a queen to protect."
"Ephiny, you're hurt. You need your rest. You won't be of any use to me if you don't take care of yourself." Seeing an argument forming on Ephiny's lips, she countered with, "Besides, don't you think Xena and Devillare have already seen to that?"
Ephiny gave a deep sigh. She wanted to argue. But, she couldn't. Especially when Devillare suddenly appeared and reported that the perimeter was secure.
Gabrielle grinned. Then, seeing Ephiny's exasperated look, she tried her best to hide her triumphant smile. Somehow, she didn't quite succeed. With no argument left, Ephiny found herself being led - at a very sedate pace - along the wooden sidewalks and back towards the inn.
As soon as Devillare had delivered her report, the captain's gaze drifted towards Solari. Gabrielle watched as Devil waved Bonadea off. Then, she made a beeline straight for the scout. She invaded Solari's space, standing nearly on top of her. And, although Gabrielle couldn't overhear what was being said, she could tell from Devillare's body language that she was not pleased. Neither was Solari.
Devillare raked a hand through her hair, pushing it back in what was clearly an agitated move. Then, Iphinome approached them, the assistant healer joining in the discussion. Whether she was siding with Devillare or Solari, though, Gabrielle wasn't certain.
"Honestly, Gabrielle, are you really that surprised?"
"What?" Gabrielle asked, having missed half the question.
"Were you actually surprised?"
"That my own family disowned me? I'd have to say yes."
"By their reaction. I mean, after you left, did you ever once go back to visit?"
"Even I can write Wish you were here on a parchment." Ephiny rolled her eyes. "Did you ever once come home; even just stop in for a meal while passing through?"
"There was never time."
"How many times have you gone home with Xena?"
"That's different." Gabrielle realized Ephiny was no longer walking beside her. She stopped, turning to face the curly-haired blonde sporting the skeptical look. "What? It is. Amphipolis is a major hub; we pass through there all the time. You know the saying; all roads lead to Amphipolis."
Gabrielle hated that. That the Amazon could dispute all her reasoning with a single, one-worded answer. Just like Xena. Must be a warrior thing. Then again, Xena could argue with her with just a well-placed grunt or two. At least Ephiny used words. She still managed to put Gabrielle on the defensive, though.
"It's only right that Xena check in on Cyrene every so often. Her mother makes her living working a tavern every day from sunup to sundown. Her mother lives alone, with no one to help her. Her mother - "
" - is more accepting than your parents?"
"Since you mentioned it; yes."
A blonde brow raised until it was nearly touching the regent's braided crown. "If you've never gone home, Gabrielle, how can you say you've given your parents a chance at accepting your life with Xena?"
"Ephiny, you don't know my parents. It wouldn't matter if I brought Xena home every day for a thousand days. They still wouldn't accept her. Or us."
Gabrielle swallowed, blinked rapidly. She was determined not to cry over this. Not now. She began walking again, just needing to move. When she realized Ephiny was having difficulty keeping up, she slowed to a more leisurely pace. A glance back over her shoulder confirmed that their escorts were trailing along at a discreet distance. As they walked side by side, Gabrielle explained her thoughts to her friend.
"I learned long ago, there are things we can change and things we can't. And, all I can hope to do is change the things I can for the better and have the strength to accept those that I can't."
"Huh. That's very enlightened of you, my Queen."
"Ancient Amazon saying."
Ephiny snorted. "Must have us confused with someone else. The Amazon philosophy is if someone won't accept you for who you are, hit them with your staff until they do."
Gabrielle laughed. "How often does that really work?"
"More often than you might think." There was a slight pause before Ephiny muttered in a voice so low that Gabrielle nearly missed it. "But not with warriors."
"Ephiny, are you speaking of warriors in general or one warrior in particular?"
Damn. This was one conversation Ephiny didn't want to have. How did Gabrielle always manage to do that; get her to talk about stuff? Like feelings.
"When Melosa was queen, I never had to talk about my feelings."
Ah, Gabrielle thought, gotcha. "When Melosa was queen, you never got these either, did you?" To add punctuation to her sentence, Gabrielle grabbed Ephiny's good arm and pulled her down and into a full-body hug.
Ephiny closed her eyes, falling into the familiar comfort of the undemanding embrace of her friend. "No, no, I didn't," she admitted at last.
"Now, tell me about this warrior of yours."
"There's nothing to tell, Gabrielle." Seeing the disbelieving look, she added, "She was never mine. You know how stubborn warriors can be."
"I certainly do, current company included. Oh, don't give me that look. You know I love you, but you also know you can be just as difficult at times." Gabrielle tightened her grip, giving Ephiny's trim waist a squeeze. "Seriously though, don't be so quick to give up on love. If I had, I never would have gotten my warrior."
"Gabrielle, just as you have to accept certain things, so do I. She will never be mine." Ephiny saw the protest already forming on her little queen's lips. "A lot of things have changed since you were last with us."
Ephiny suddenly had another feeling - a bad feeling that something was wrong. It was the same sort of ache deep in her gut that she'd had just before the renegades charged into town. Uh-oh. "Gabrielle, get away from me. Now."
Ephiny physically pushed Gabrielle away. The blonde bard was stunned. First Solari, now Ephiny. Green eyes full of hurt focused on someone she had thought was her friend.
Then, she realized why Ephiny had pushed her away.
"Xena," she breathed.
The warrior princess was already upon them. There was a deadly gleam in her eyes. She grabbed Ephiny's forearm through her sling as a countermeasure to her attempting to reach her sword. Xena smirked, drawing her arm back.
"Xena - No!" Gabrielle shouted, lunging forward.
Xena easily avoided Gabrielle's reach. Her arm flew forward, two fingers stiffly extended, the jab solidly connecting.
"Ephiny," Xena's voice came out as a low growl, "Where's Eponin?"
Return to Xena and Gabrielle Fiction
Return to Main Page