DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Eponin, Solari, etc. are owned by Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures.  The other dozen or so Amazons were created by me - because you can never have too many Amazons.  No infringement is intended and no profit is being made.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
CHALLENGE: Written for Epic Proportions 2009.

By Del Robertson



Caught off-guard, her attacker's momentum propelling her backward, the weapons master found herself knocked soundly off her feet. She landed hard on the ground, her back and elbows absorbing the brunt of the impact with enough force to rattle her teeth. Her head slammed back, her skull colliding with the ground with a resounding crack as a fist connected with her jaw.

Experimentally, she ran her tongue around the inside of her mouth, checking for loose teeth. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end as her foe prepared a follow-up strike. Powerful legs caught her attacker in the midsection, hurling her opponent up and over her head. One hand wiping blood from the corner of her mouth, Eponin scrambled to her feet. She immediately took up a defensive position, warily eyeing the three hunters that surrounded her.

"Cordele." She immediately recognized the lead Amazon. "What's the meaning of this?"

"You attacked me, Eponin!" The hunter's voice rose to an indignant pitch. "I was coming out of that cave when you jumped me!"

"You were armed when you came out of that cache, Cordele. I assumed you were responsible for harming Eph. We all did," Pony snorted. "What? You want an apology? Maybe some cheese to go with that whine?"

"I want revenge!"

She moved in so quickly, Eponin didn't have a chance to counter the blow. The kick landed squarely in her gut, sending her stumbling several paces back. Eponin blocked the next blow to her midsection, but failed to anticipate the one that connected with her jaw. Shaking off the blow, she grinned at the hunter that had gotten in the lucky shot.

If there was one thing Pony liked, it was a good rumble. And, even though she wasn't armed, she figured she could take all three Amazons in a fair fight. Fair had gone right out the window when the hunters each produced a set of chobos.

To her credit, she gave as good as she got, landing several blows against her foes and even managing to wrest one of the chobos away from Cordele. But, they were meticulously brutal in their attack. Surrounding the formidable weapons master like a pack of rabid dogs, they quickly darted in, striking lightning quick blows before hurriedly retreating again.

They were deliberately wearing her down, looking to create an injury and exploit any weakness they could discover. Just like I taught them, right? A chobo connected with the back of her knee, followed up by three more quick, successive strikes, each intended to land on the already abused muscles. Her leg collapsed, sending her to the ground on one knee.

Four rapid strikes landed against her battered ribs. A follow-up blow to her kidneys sent her sprawling forward, face landing harshly against the ground, pebbles embedding themselves in her cheek. She looked up just as a chobo was brought down to soundly crack against her temple.

She dug deep, using her mounting temper to give her the strength to somehow rise to her feet. In disbelief - or perhaps to merely toy with her some more - the hunters allowed the move, deliberately holding their positions until the weapons master had made it completely upright. Standing on unsteady, shaking legs, Eponin swayed slightly.

Breathing awkwardly due to her broken ribs, she rasped out, "Last chance. Back off now before I really get mad." The sounds of laughter ringing in her ears, Eponin wrestled a cocky grin onto her face. Motioning with her fingers in a beckoning gesture to come closer, she taunted, "Let's dance, then."

Bloodlust dancing before her eyes cast a red hue over everything, blurring the next series of events. One of the hunters was done, having been taken out by a roundhouse kick to the jaw. Another was staggering on unsteady feet, blood liberally pouring from her nose and mouth. Eponin judged one more solid hit would put her down. Charging, Pony prepared to deliver the blow.

A solid kick to an already battered knee halted the weapons master, bringing her down. Biting down on her lip, teeth drawing blood with the effort not to scream against the pain, Eponin struggled to rise again. Another kick smashed against her head, sending her sprawling.

Breathing heavily, blood pouring from her face, every movement was a struggle as she fought her way to her knees. A set of boots appeared in front of her nose. She lolled her head back, following the boots up past a set of knees, a leather skirt and higher. An image of Cordele swam before her bleary eyes, triumphantly towering over her. A slow smile spread over the hunter's lips as she brought her chobo down for the death blow -

Eponin nearly bolted from her seat at the sound of the gavel slamming down upon the council table. A shaking hand quickly covered her mouth, preventing the yell that had been working its way up her throat. Masking her abrupt bout of anxiety as mere restlessness, she deliberately brought one booted foot up and crossed her ankle over her opposite knee. Settling back in her chair, she nervously looked around, wondering if anyone else had noticed her reaction.

The already claustrophobic courtroom was cramped, with every available seat already filled and more Amazons piling in to line the walls two and three deep in places. And, Eponin knew that as packed as the hut was, there were twice as many Amazons waiting outside, eager to hear the outcome of the proceedings. Hope they brought a good scroll to read, Ep thought sardonically.

Devillare had assured her the trial would be over with quickly. That had been eight days ago. And, it seemed as if they were no closer to a resolution now than when they had first started. What had been presented by the Counsel for the Nation as a fairly straight-forward case of attempted murder had suddenly become so much more complex.

Counsel for the Accused had done some pretty fancy maneuvering to get the cases for the three hunters tried individually. At first, the Council of Elders had been adamantly opposed to the suggestion, but then relented when it was explained that if convicted, different levels of complicity required varying forms of punishment - and, therefore, different and individual trials.

From there, Alcestis had managed to convince the council to postpone the trials until she had ample time to conduct interviews and mount a possible defense. Devillare had immediately protested the stalling tactic, but had been overruled by the other six elders. After all, if the Nation's evidence were true, it would still be so, no matter if the trials were held in five days - or five moons time.

Sweet Artemis, it's only been a moon. What will become of the Nation if this farce is allowed to continue much longer?

At first, Eponin's supporters had been very vocal in their backing of her; they all agreed that the attack by the hunters was nothing short of an attempt at premeditated murder. They had purposely set out to ambush the weapons master and kill her in cold blood. They deserved to be executed for their treachery.

Then, as more and more time passed, she began overhearing other opinions. It seemed there were those that felt that Aphrodite's curse was to blame for the behavior of the hunters. They argued that due to the God's involvement, the matter should be dropped completely.

And more recently, she began hearing other things, as well. Comments that were muttered behind her back, just below the breath so that if she tried to confront her tormentors, they could deny her accusations. Little things - jabbing comments about how she'd always had it in for the hunters because they weren't part of the 'famed' warrior caste. After all, she was best buddies with the Warrior Princess - and bards didn't sing epics about mighty hunters. She'd even heard one or two remarks that it was about time one of the warrior caste was brought down to size - and that given the opportunity, they might finish what the hunters had started.

Eponin's gaze swept over the room's occupants, her mind identifying trusted friends and potential foes with the ease of a practiced eye. Cordele's squad took up the first two rows of seats on the left side of the room. Each of them were acting as witnesses for the accused. There was no doubt whose side they were on and each occasionally sent a scathing glare in the weapons master's direction.

Members of the royal guard were seated on the right side of the hut. As far as Eponin could tell, most of them were neutral and hadn't formed an opinion one way or the other. But, since they had been ordered to the abandoned tannery along with the remainder of Cordele's squad, they were to be available to give testimony as needed. Likewise, Solari and her squad of scouts had been duly sworn into the proceedings.

A honey-colored gaze swept over the youngest of the scouts, Admeta and Metanira. They'd been honored by both Queen and Regent for their bravery in bringing Ephiny home. They'd been the salute of many a toast by their superiors and the envy of their peers since their return. And, for them, the proceedings were little more than a continuation of a grand adventure they'd been fortunate enough to be included in.

Ah, to be that young again and have only the responsibility of learning drills and earning feathers. Eponin's gaze flicked to the wall behind the council table where several ornamental, feathered masks hung on display. As a youngster, she'd often snuck into the hut. Many a time, she'd been caught by Captain Beroyle. But, the captain of the royal guard had never punished her for the act. Instead, she used to sit with little Ep for candlemarks, detailing the significance of each mask and how each feather was earned. It had long been a dream of Eponin's to earn a mask of her own with so many feathers.

But, with great feathers comes great responsibility.

As was her duty, Ephiny sat in her customary seat as Regent of the Amazons. She was resplendent in her official leathers, complete with the shoulder guards and crown that signified her rank. She carried herself with a quiet dignity and looked every bit the regal figure she was. Only a slightly furrowed brow and a tight set to her lips gave away the underlying tension she felt. Heavy is the weight of the crown, reflected Eponin.

Beside her, the chair of the Queen of the Amazons sat empty. The weapons master had several very distinct, conflicting emotions about that. She was glad Gabrielle was the queen, having reclaimed the mask from that upstart Velasca. But, for her to always place the responsibility of ruling the tribe squarely on Ephiny's shoulders . . . with a rueful shake of her head, Eponin put that disloyal thought straight out of her head.

Regent nor Queen could preside over these proceedings. It would be considered unfair and their rulings controversial if either were to act as judge in the trials. After all, the attack occurred on someone both freely called 'friend'. Given that neither woman could be considered impartial, the duty of judge naturally fell to the Council of Elders.

The Council was made up of seven elders, each holding the power of one vote each. The council consisted primarily of healers, scouts and hunters. Few warriors ever made it to the status of elder within the tribe. Devillare had been the only one in recent memory.

Devillare was the former captain of the guard, taking over for Captain Beroyle after her death in service of the Queen. She had served for many seasons, having only recently accepted her position upon the council. She was by far the most active of the elders and was still in remarkable shape. She'd maintained much of her vaunted strength and musculature over the duration of her career. Only the greying at the temples of her close-cropped hair and the laugh lines about her eyes and mouth gave away her true age.

Calandra was the only healer on the panel. She was the eldest of the elders. No one remembered exactly what season she was born in - including herself - and there were no scrolls that indicated the date of her birth. She was already old when Melosa had become Queen. And, rumor was she'd changed the swaddling of the Queen reigning before Melosa's mother.

Evanthe and Myrina were retired scouts and bondmates for more than thirty seasons. When Evanthe had first caught the handsome Myrina's eye, she had flaming red locks that ran down past her waist and rivaled the beauty of the setting sun. Only a pale tint of that once-bright hue remained in her thinning white tresses. But, in Myrina's failing vision, her love would always possess those brilliant locks of long ago.

Beside Myrina sat the one-time leader of the Hunter caste, Tynette. She was a legendary hunter, rumored to have been favored by Artemis with a bow arm unrivaled by any. Nicphellia was her second-in-command at the Battle of Rycirrus. According to the scrolls, her temper was such that when she was struck in the shoulder by an enemy arrow, she pulled it out herself and charged through the enemy lines, plunging the bolt into the center of her attacker's heart and out through his back.

The only elder with a more impressive background was possibly Lyonene. Her story was recorded in the scrolls moons before her birth even occurred. According to the scribes, her mothers - both hunters - had been in the forest when they came across a deer trapped by a large mountain cat. As they approached, they soon discovered this was no ordinary deer, but rather one of Artemis' sacred Golden Hinds. Risking their own lives for their Goddess' favored, they attacked the mountain cat without hesitation.

The hind escaped and the mountain cat was slain, but one of the hunters was struck across the face and chest by its fearsome claws. As she lay dying in the arms of her bondmate, Artemis appeared to thank them for saving her precious Golden Hind. She offered to bestow upon them any reward they would name. Both bondmates declined, stressing that their only desire was to stay together with their love. Artemis healed the fallen hunter and blessed the couple with a child. To honor their Goddess and to have a living reminder of her blessing, they named their daughter Lyonene.

Eponin warily studied the faces of each of the elders. These were women she'd respected and admired as she was growing up. The Amazon library was filled with scroll after scroll of their daring exploits. Even now around the night fires, in the tradition of the bard, stories were sung about them. In the eyes of a young Amazon, they'd been larger than life, the stuff of legends. Today, they just looked - old. And tired. Even Devil.

As a matter of fact, the only one in the stifling confines of the courtroom who didn't appear worn and exhausted was Alcestis. The redhead with the short, curly locks, forest green eyes and diminutive height seemed to be reveling in the arena. She was literally thriving on the attention and was putting on one Tartarus of a performance.

Knowing that it would be difficult to sway the council, Alcestis had decided to put Kynthia on trial first. She was easily the most likeable of the accused hunters and she hoped to garnish some sympathy from her testimony. She had worked long and hard coaching the impressionable young woman, determined to make her out to be as much a victim in the events as Eponin was.

Now, she was pacing back and forth in front of the witness stand, directing all eyes upon her as she spoke loudly and clearly for the entire courtroom to hear. "So, what you're telling the council today," she paused to direct her question at Kynthia, "is that Queen Gabrielle ordered a brute squad of Amazons to bring back Cordele, Doretta and Ephiny?"

"That's correct." Kynthia made sure to nod her head in affirmation, just the way Alcestis had instructed her, so that even if those in the back row couldn't hear her answer, they could certainly see it.

"Objection!" shouted Symaethis, slamming her gauntlet down on the hardwood table she was seated behind. "Queen Gabrielle is hardly the sort of monarch to organize a 'brute' squad!"

There were several muffled chortles from the elders as they thought about their little queen. She was given to speaking kindly and carrying a big stick. But, they'd witnessed first hand the devastation that the bard could cause if riled.

"Agreed." Elder Evanthe whacked her gavel upon the council table. "Counsel will refrain from those sort of illustrative descriptions." She leveled a pointed glare at Alcestis, purposefully lowering her voice so only those near the front of the room might hear. "You've been warned."

Alcestis bit her bottom lip, nodded her head in acceptance. She knew the 'brute squad' comment would be inflammatory and might get her into trouble. Still, if she could just plant the seed of doubt in the elders' minds . . . Pacing back and forth in front of the witness stand, she used the movement as a stalling tactic while she mentally rearranged her strategy.

"Allow me to rephrase." She flashed a sweet smile at the elders that reminded Devillare of a sea dragon she'd seen once . . . just before it swallowed a fishing boat whole. "When Queen Gabrielle handpicked the party to search for our missing sisters, she specifically ordered that no hunters be included, is that not correct?"

"That's right."

A heated rush of low murmurs swept through the courtroom at that revelation. Evanthe gave her gavel one sharp rap, casting a stern eye out over the gathered crowd. The murmurs gave way to rapt silence. If possible, Alcestis' smile widened.

"Why do you think the Queen would give such an order?"

"Objection!" Symaethis fairly leapt from her chair.

"Agreed." Calandra rushed to Gabrielle's defense before Counsel for the Nation even had a chance to explain their objection. "You've been warned, Alcestis. This courtroom is not a circus in Rome."

"Again, allow me to redirect my question." Alcestis bowed low before the council, refusing to let them see how rattled she was. She knew the elders would be tough, but she didn't expect them to cut off her line of questioning so thoroughly. "When you attempted to join the search party, what happened?"

"I was taken out to the old tannery building, along with the remainder of my squad and several members of the royal guard."

"I see." Alcestis stroked her chin, seemingly thinking about Kynthia's statement. "Were you given the option of returning to the main village?"


"Were the guards armed?"


"And, were there patrols around the perimeter?"


"So, in effect, you and your entire squad were imprisoned?"

"That's correct."

Alcestis waited, trying her best to hide her grin as the predictable surge of murmurs swept through the courtroom. The gavel hammered repeatedly upon the hardwood table, the sound echoing throughout the hut. Eyeing her opposition out of the corner of her eye, she almost cackled with glee. The normally unflappable Symaethis was at a loss, hurriedly shuffling through scrolls to hide her dismay. Even the regent looked undone, both her hands firmly gripping at the armrests of her chair.

"I would submit to the respected council," As order was momentarily restored, Alcestis focused her full attention on the elders once more. Speaking in a loud voice, confident she could be heard all the way to the last row, she declared, "that by segregating the hunter caste and essentially holding them under arrest, the Queen unjustly biased opinion against Cordele. Furthermore, by her actions, she blatantly judged the entire hunter caste guilty before the fact!"

The courtroom erupted once more. "Order! Order!" Evanthe banged her gavel repeatedly. "There will be ORDER in the court!"

Fed up, Nicphellia reached over, snatching the gavel from Evanthe's hand. Slamming it down solidly upon the table, she yelled, "Court is in recess!" Nicphellia pushed her chair back, the legs scraping loudly upon the wooden floor. Haphazardly tossing the gavel onto the table, she stormed off the platform and up the aisle, not stopping until she was past the hide covering and out the door.

"Hey, that wasn't so bad." Solari butted her shoulder against that of the weapons master's in a gesture of camaraderie, slightly wincing at the impact. "I mean, once they managed to get Nicphellia to come back in and things settled down."

"Nic's always had something of a temper."

Solari looked up at the sound of the deep, gravelly voice. Devillare was standing before them, a mug of ale held tightly in her grasp. Staring down at them, she gestured with her eyes, as if seeking permission to join them. Staring in open-mouthed awe, Solari merely nodded. To think that the legendary warrior was joining them for a drink -

With a nod of thanks, Devillare swung her long legs over the short bench. She settled down, leaning both elbows on the table, cupping her mug in both hands. Taking a long draught, she caught Solari staring at her out of her peripheral vision. A mischievous twinkle sparked in Devillare's eye as she immediately thought of twelve different ways she could embarrass the chief scout.

As if suddenly aware she'd been caught staring, Solari quickly averted her gaze. She mumbled something about needing more ale and grabbed both hers and Ep's mugs before scrambling off the bench and across the dining hut. She glanced back over her shoulder, eyes momentarily meeting and locking with Devillare's. She continued to stare, nearly stumbling over the keg she'd been aiming for. One hand catching the rim of the cask, she managed to right herself, a sheepish smile spreading over her face. A slow smirk forming on her lips was Devillare's only response.

Even though she'd never admit to it, she was somewhat amused by the reaction she'd sparked in the usually cocky chief scout. Slowly sweeping her gaze about the interior of the dining hut, she realized it was the same reaction that most of the younger Amazons had in her presence. As steely eyes scanned the room, Amazon after Amazon suddenly ducked their heads, unable to maintain eye contact under her close scrutiny.

Devil directed her attention back to her tablemate. The younger Amazon had her head bowed, ebony locks falling about her shoulders as she stared at the pattern of the woodgrain. Fingertips closed loosely about a dagger, worrying at the surface of the table with the pointed tip. Reaching out, Devillare closed her hand tightly about Eponin's, saving the table from further injury.

"You carve on that table anymore and we're gonna have to use it for firewood." she smoothly lifted the dagger out of Ep's grasp, lay it flat on the table between them. "How ya holding up, Pup?"

Eponin lifted her head at the familiar term of endearment. Eyes the color of warm honey smoothly locked and held with eyes the color of steel. She held the gaze for several long heartbeats before answering, "I'm a little too old for that, Devil. No one's called me pup in a very long time."

"Yeah?" The elder openly shrugged. "Well, just remember, no matter how old you get, I'll still be able to kick your feathered ass."

"You haven't been able to kick it since my thirteenth summer, old woman." Eponin's eyes glinted at the familiar challenge.

Yeah, and ain't that the truth? The elder remembered that day well. The expression on the youngster's face when she managed the leg sweep that had knocked her off her feet, followed up by the end of the staff decidedly pointed a hair's breadth from her jugular. And, her own reaction. She was incredulous that this Amazon cub had managed to best her on the sparring fields. And, she'd been embarrassed that she'd been so soundly defeated in front of her queen and fellow warriors. But, at the same time, she'd never been more proud of her little charge.

If Beroyle could have seen - Devillare shook her head, displacing that thought. Beroyle - and those memories - belonged to the past. Right now, little Ep needed more from her than a staff lesson. Artemis preserve me; I hate sensitive chats! Taking a deep breath, the elder reached out, taking both Eponin's hands in her own in what she hoped was a reassuring manner. Ep quickly looked up, startled by the unfamiliar display.

"So," Devillare shrugged, "you never did answer my question." At the quirked eyebrow, she added, "How are you doing?"

Eponin's eyes narrowed to tiny slits; she abruptly jerked her hands out of the other Amazon's grip. "I was jumped by three goons intent on killing me! They beat me so badly that you and Egeria are still sharing the task of teaching my classes. Then, the simple trial - a formality, really - is what you told me . . . turns out to be this long, drawn-out circus. And, I find myself having to defend my actions in front of the Council and the Nation!" Leaning back, folding her arms across her massive chest and leveling a glare, she asked, "How do you think I'm doing?"

"Maybe a little stressed, if you ask me. But all in all, I think you're hanging in there."

Devillare would have laughed at her own joke if she wasn't sensitive to how miserable Eponin truly was. Even in her youth, things had always been black or white in the eyes of her prodigy. As she'd grown older, Devillare had managed to imbue a certain degree of compromise into Ep's strong morale compass. But, she'd never totally let go of that complex she had about right and wrong. In Ep's scroll, it was always either one or the other.

She assumed that's why this whole trial business was getting underneath Eponin's feathers. One counsel was burdened with the proof of proving that the Nation's best interest lay in prosecuting the offenders. And, the other counsel was sworn to defend the rights of the accused. In Eponin's mind, if you were guilty of the crime, you should be punished. Period.

For Cordele and the others to try to weasel their way out of the penalty sentence was nothing short of dishonorable. Of course, the crimes they were accused of were disgraceful enough in themselves in Ep's eyes. Then, for them to turn around and demand Eponin defend her actions in front of the council -

"Your friend is right, you know? Once things got settled down and Symaethis called Lexine and the rest of the guards as witnesses, she was able to explain away the whole business with the tannery."

A disgruntled grunt was Eponin's only answer.

"Truthfully, I didn't think even Alcestis could mount an adequate defense. Another derisive snort from the weapons master. "I'll give her credit, though, she's managed to put on one Tartarus of a show."

"Glad you're entertained."

"Look, Ep; I know things haven't gone as smoothly as I said they would." Devillare chose to brush away the snide remark. "But, things are going to get better. Kynthia was easily the most defendable of the three. With her being found guilty and sentenced today, Alcestis doesn't stand a snowball's chance in Tartarus of excusing Keleos and Cordele."

Once again, Eponin's dagger found its way into her grasp. Fingers closed about the handle in a comfortable grip. Instead of inflicting more harm on their table, Ep settled for spinning the blade about. Devillare recognized the action as an old habit from her charge's youth. Whenever she was bored or worried, she would fall back on the familiar comfort of spinning her knife over and over, whether it be on a smooth surface or balanced on the pads of her fingers. Devillare idly watched this display, knowing that it would soon be followed by Ep flipping her knife end over end, alternately catching either the handle or the blade.

All I need is for her to cut a finger off. Where's that scout when you need her? Devillare's gaze roamed the interior of the dining hut, settling upon the figure of the chief scout. The brunette had disappeared quite a long while ago to fill two mugs and had yet to return to their table. As she spotted the errant Amazon, she suddenly realized why it was taking so long.

Solari had been sidetracked, pausing to speak with the regent. It looked as if Ephiny had been on her way in to get a bite to eat, but was accosted by the chief scout before she could reach the serving line. As they stood talking in the middle of the hut, several Amazons dodged past on their way for dinner. After being jostled one too many times, the irritated regent reached out, grabbing Solari by the elbow and steering her towards an out of the way support beam.

Judging from the relaxed manner in which Solari was now leaning against the post, Devillare assumed it was a sociable conversation. But, if the arms defensively crossed in front of Ephiny's chest were any indication, the regent wasn't in the mood for the flirtatious scout's amorous advances. Probably still ticked about that private session we asked her in for earlier.

Devil mentally counted, guessing that Ephiny would disentangle herself from Solari before she reached ten.

One - two - three -

Solari lowered her gaze, moving in closer to the regent's personal space.

Four - five -

Ephiny uncrossed her arms, planting one hand on a svelte hip as she gesticulated with the other in an extremely animated manner. This was followed up by raking her hand through unruly blonde corkscrew locks.

Six - seven - eight -

Solari expertly managed to maneuver the two mugs of ale she'd been carrying to one hand without spilling a drop, freeing her other hand to reach out and caress the length of Ephiny's arm.

Nine -

Devillare's eyebrow arched as Ephiny reached out, a hand resting intimately on the scout's hip. With her other hand, she expertly lifted a mug from Solari's grasp, raising it to her lips with a satisfied smirk.

Te -

Symaethis and Alcestis hurriedly approached the regent, both of them speaking at once as they battled for her attention. Ephiny's hand immediately dropped from Solari's hip. Suddenly straightening her posture in what Devillare termed 'full-regent mode', Ephiny turned to both members of counsel. In a matter of heartbeats, all three women were firmly ensconced in a heated debate, three sets of arms defensively folded across three chests.

All but forgotten, Solari slowly walked back to their table. At Solari's approach, Devillare hid her nose - and her smirk - in her mug of ale, refusing to look up even as Solari slapped an agitated hand down on the table.

"You wanna spar, Pony?"

Eponin looked up, a somewhat incredulous expression on her face. "You want to spar with me?" she asked.

"Yeah, that's why I asked," Solari growled.

"As much as I'd love to knock you flat on your ass, Sol, I can't." Eponin gestured to the thick bandage wrapped about her knee. "Healer's orders."

"So?" The chief scout shrugged.

"So, I learned long ago . . . don't ruffle Megara's feathers." A pause. "Or, she'll put laxatives in your broth."

Solari snorted. "I really need to hit something." Suddenly, she focused on the retired captain of the guard seated at their table. "Hey Devil, you up for some sparring?"

Devillare briefly considered it. There was a time she'd jump at the chance to take a young punk like Solari out and wipe the field with her tailfeathers. "Nah, I've got an early class tomorrow."

Solari nodded once in understanding. Guess when you get to be Devil's age, you've got to pick your battles. Ah, well, if I can't fight, I can still drink. Slapping her mug down on the table, Solari resolutely scrambled over the bench. Settling in, she raised her mug to her lips, already anticipating the flavor of the ale. One strong hand closed about her arm, just preventing her from taking a sip.

"Hey! Where's mine?" Eponin demanded.

With little more than a defeated huff, Solari passed her mug to the weapons master.

Arms folded defensively over her chest, muscles stood out in prominent display beneath gauntlets and bracers. The regent wasn't nearly as muscular as many of the other warriors, but her body was toned and fit. And, she managed to turn more than one head in the dining hut.

At this moment, the majority of those heads were turned in the opposite direction. As soon as Symaethis and Alcestis had descended upon Ephiny, most of the Amazons realized that trouble was brewing. Those that were nearly finished with their meals wisely decided they'd had enough nourishment and went back to their respective duties. A few others that had only just settled down conveniently found friends to sit with at other tables. Farther away tables. Soon, the three tables nearest where the regent and the two counselors were conversing had been cleared.

The rigid stance, the glaring eyes, the jaw clenched so tight you couldn't slide a dinar between her lips . . . neither counselor seemed to notice these warning signs. The warriors recognized them. As did the cooks. Ephiny's temper was legendary. And, they were expecting her to explode any heartbeat now. As discreetly as possible, they began urging mothers to move their children out of the common dining area. Before long, the next row of tables were cleared.

Sweet Artemis preserve us! Ephiny pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers, valiantly trying to stifle her building rage. Please, Sweet Goddess, if we could only kill all the counselors first -

"That is not an acceptable offer!" Symaethis' voice cut in over the top of Alcestis'. "You're intentionally endangering the well-being of one of our most valuable - "

"You seeking to deny my clients their rights is also unacceptable!"

Alcestis was short for an Amazon; one of their shortest. Shorter even than their Queen. And, petite. So petite that she lacked the strength to nock an arrow on a bow. But, she was passionate and fiery. What she lacked in stature, she more than made up for in sheer tenacity. Even now, she was standing toe to toe, chest thrust out as far as it would go, head tilted back as green eyes glared up at an Amazon almost three times her size. Still, she refused to give an inch, barking back objections and trading insults word for word with her opponent.

"ENOUGH!" Ephiny's hand sliced through the air between the two arguing counselors.

The sharp growl was enough to cut through the loudest of conversations. Even Amazons that were clear across the dining hut found themselves wincing at that single word. Cringing, hardly daring to look up, let alone look across the room, almost every eye was suddenly glued to their mugs and plates.

"Session's been adjourned for the day. Present your arguments to the Council of Elders tomorrow!" Ephiny started to stalk away, then stopped, turning on her heel long enough to pierce each of the counselors with her steely gaze, "And, don't even think of pestering me about this anymore tonight or I'll have the both of you in the Hall of Scrolls writing a thousand times I will not disturb the Regent under pain of death! Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, my Regent." Symaethis readily agreed.

Alcestis raised a finger on one hand as if to make an objection. Symaethis' hand quickly clamped down over the other woman's mouth. She used her hand to briskly nod the petite Amazon's head up and down.

Angry strides carrying her briskly away from the source of the heated confrontation, Ephiny stormed across the dining hut. She quickly marched up to the table that Devillare, Solari and Eponin were hunched over. Eyes swept over the three, taking note of Ep and Devillare with their noses buried in their mugs, Solari morosely staring at the woodgrain of the tabletop.

Fingers of one hand closing about the back of Eponin's halter, she gave a firm tug. "Come on, Pony. I need to vent."

Eponin found herself being hauled up and awkwardly backwards off the bench. Pausing just long enough to down the remainder of her ale, she obediently followed her regent.

Devillare and Solari sat at the table, openly staring at the departing women. "Huh." Solari was the first to break the silence. "Thought she was under healer's orders."

"Youngster," Devillare lowered her voice, conspiratorially leaned across the table, meeting Solari's gaze. "If I was lying on my deathbed and the regent asked me to work off some excess energy with her, I wouldn't refuse."

The blows had started out brutal and were becoming more and more so with each passing heartbeat. Hands adjusted on sweat-slicked wood, searching for a better grip. A foot slid on rain moistened grass, boots losing traction as their owner was forced steadily backwards. Sensing victory, her opponent tightened her own grip, surging forward with renewed vigor.

Gritting her teeth, Eponin fought down the savage desire to push back. She'd seen Eph angry before, had even sparred with her when her temper had been out of control; but she'd never seen her this far over the edge before. Her movements were erratic and without rhythm with no pacing to her attacks.

Usually, Ephiny was a master strategist, using her cool calculating mind to put her on an even par with Eponin's greater strength. On any given day, Eph knew she couldn't defeat the weapons master with brute strength alone. It required patience and stamina and luck - and occasionally, even a few dirty tricks.

Pony didn't mind. She liked Ephiny's competitive nature. It was one of the first things that had caught Ep's attention. That and her stubborn streak. If there was one thing Eponin had learned about the cute blonde with the unruly corkscrew curls, it was that once her mind was set on something, nothing and no one would deter her. She had proven it to Ep that day when after moons of trying, she'd finally managed to clobber her with her staff.

She's not that far off from doing it again, Eponin realized, feeling Ephiny's blows driving her steadily backwards. She judged it was a distance of only another ten paces or so before she was backed firmly against the perimeter fence of the sparring grounds. Ephiny was so focused on pressing her attack, she was seemingly unaware of their position on the field. Or, even of the spectators that had gathered to watch their match.

Eponin was acutely aware of the number of eyes on them. She'd caught sight of Devillare and Solari casually leaning on elbows propped up on the fence. The hairs on the back of Eponin's neck bristled as she felt other eyes upon them. She'd always been bothered by people watching her matches. Captain Beroyle had advised her to block them out, concentrate only on the opponent in front of you. She'd gotten better with it over the seasons, but when her mind wandered and she wasn't focused, she could still feel them niggling about the edge of her senses.

And, she definitely wasn't focused now. She wasn't trying to win. She didn't need to win this match. She had nothing to prove. Ephiny was her friend and something was clearly very wrong with her. To Pony, it was more important to be there for her and let her work through her anger and frustrations than it was for her to win a sparring session.

Ephiny swung erratically, her staff solidly connecting with the knuckles of Eponin's hand. Ep's fingers reflexively uncoiled at the contact, causing her to drop her guard. Ephiny pressed the attack, her staff darting in and tagging Ep just below her defenses.

The next series of events were almost surreal in nature. Ephiny swung again, Eponin stepped back to counter the move; her boot sliding sideways on the slippery grass. Ephiny's follow-through struck low, hitting against Eponin's bandaged knee with a sound akin to a soggy splat. The combination of the slippery grass and the blow to her knee knocked Eponin clear off her feet. The fence that she had thought was still several paces distant was suddenly much closer. So close, in fact, that her skull connected with one of the slats, the impact forceful enough to break the aged wood in two.

Laying there on the ground, Eponin was acutely aware of several things. One was that several Amazons were rapidly scrambling over the fence towards her, Solari and Devillare leading the pack. Ephiny had dropped her staff, covering her nose and mouth with her hands as she stared at her in wide-eyed shock. And, her backside was getting wet from laying on the grass. Then, her eyes slid shut and she suddenly wasn't aware of anything anymore.

Arguing voices brought her out of the fog that had settled around her brain. Actually, the sound of one raised voice in particular in what sounded suspiciously like a decidedly one-sided heated discussion. Recognizing the grating tone, Eponin cautiously cracked one eye open.

"Just what were you thinking?!? You were wailing on her so badly it's a wonder you didn't knock what little brains she has right out through her ears!"

"Leave her alone." The growl coming from the pallet was low, but still effective enough to silence the room. Megara and Ephiny turned their heads at the same time, looking the length of the pallet, gazes settling on a set of unfocused honey-colored eyes. "She didn't hit me in the head. I slipped and banged it on that fool fence."

"Fine!" Megara threw up both hands in exasperation. "Defend her if you want! Just don't expect to laze about in my infirmary and do it!"

"Megara!" Ephiny cut in, "Can't you see she's injured?"

"She was injured before you ever took her out on that field!" The healer's icy glare bounced from regent to weapons master. "YOU shouldn't have asked her to spar with you!" she pointed an accusing finger at Ephiny. "And, YOU need to learn how to tell her No!" She directed this last barb at Eponin before turning on her heel. Pushing the hide covering aside, she stormed out of the tiny room, the sound of her leather boots fading as she yelled for her suddenly scarce assistant.

Eponin waited until she was sure Megara wouldn't unexpectedly return before attempting to move. Propping herself up on one elbow, she grimaced as a sharp pain stabbed behind her eyes, clouding her vision. Fighting down the wave of dizziness, she struggled to an upright position. Ephiny moved forward, supporting her, helping her to swing her legs over the side of the pallet.

The regent reached out, retrieving a mug full of tea off the table beside the bed. Megara had mixed it up earlier, explaining that it had calming herbs that would help settle Ep's stomach when she came around. She held the mug beneath Eponin's nose, watching as the weapons master suspiciously sniffed at the concoction. She took a ginger sip, her mouth reflexively screwing up at the bitter taste. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to down the contents all in one swallow.

"Pony," Eph took the mug back, idly ran a finger around the rim, "Megara's right. I shouldn't have forced you to spar with me."

"You hardly forced me." Eponin's tea nearly threatened to come back up. "Besides, you might have killed poor Solari."

The chief scout was good, there was no denying that. But, whenever she went one on one with her regent or queen, she had a tendency to lower her guard. Pony had a theory that it had something to do with her being intimated by authority figures. Gods knows whenever Melosa would so much as look at her, poor Sol would nearly pee her leathers. Solari just wasn't capable of seeing past rank when she was sparring. And, until she could figure out how not to focus so much on who her opponent was, she would never be able to defeat a royal in a match.

She had to suppress a smirk as she recalled the last time the scout had practiced with Ephiny. She'd been doing fairly well, managing to hold her own. And, for a few heartbeats, Ep thought maybe Sol had taken her advice and forgotten who she was fighting. She took Ephiny down with a clean shot to the back of an ankle. But, instead of following through and going for the submissive strike, she looked into Ephiny's eyes - and froze. Eph countered with a shot to the stomach, scrambled up off the ground while following up with another swing. A swing Solari should have been easily able to counter. Instead, Eph's staff whacked her right across both breasts, sending the scout crumbling to the ground.

Course there was no shortage of Amazons volunteering to kiss her boo-boo and make it better. Or, is that boo-boos?

"Anyway, I probably should have known better." Eponin focused back in on the conversation as she felt Ephiny's touch upon her. Looking down, she saw a smaller hand laying on top of hers, fingers idly tracing patterns upon her flesh. "And, I think I owe you an apology."

"Thanks," Ep took a steadying breath, desperately trying to ignore the tingling sensation the other Amazon's wandering fingertips caused. She slowly turned her head to look directly at Ephiny. "You done venting now?" A tiny smile was all the answer she needed. "Cause if you are, maybe you might wanna tell me what ruffled your feathers?"

"I - uh . . . " Ephiny's face fell, her gaze dropping as she found herself no longer able to meet Ep's eyes. I know I owe Pony an explanation, but - Rising to her feet, Ephiny turned her back, slow hesitant steps carrying her away from her friend. A hand futilely kneaded the back of a tension-filled tight neck. "I - Pony, I really can't tell - " her words trailed off.

"Hey, I know I'm not one for sensitive chats," the voice came from the pallet across the room and was directed at Ephiny's back, "But, I'm a pretty good listener. You know, if you wanna share?" There was a hesitant pause and an uncomfortable shift upon the pallet before Ep added, "And, I've got some pretty sturdy shoulders if you need one to lean on . . . or something?"

Despite her best efforts, Ephiny felt a smile trying to break through her warrior's mask. A tiny smile, to be certain, but it was making an appearance nonetheless. Here Pony was injured and in the hospice, enduring Megara's peculiar brand of bedside manner . . . and she was doing her best to make her regent feel better.

"My friend," Ephiny turned around, gathering her courage to refuse Eponin's generous offer, "If I could tell you, I would." She caught the subtle darkening of Pony's eyes, almost catching what looked like a wounded expression on her normally stoic face. Worried she had somehow offended her, she rushed ahead, "My duties as Regent . . . " She paused in mid-sentence, her words leaving her. Guess Pony's not the only one who can't handle sensitive chats. "I want to tell you. Honestly, I do. But, it's about the trial and - "

" - And, it's really my duty to be the one to inform you." Eponin and Ephiny both leveled glares as the Amazon pushed aside the hide covering and stepped into the hospice room. Symaethis continued on, unperturbed by the twin set of scowls directed her way. "How are you feeling, Weapons Master Eponin?"

"Like I want to wipe the floor with you," Eponin snarled, "Didn't I hear the Regent order you to not disturb her?"

Symaethis bristled at the tone, the underlying protective streak that Eponin felt for the regent clearly on display. She noted the way Ephiny edged closer to the agitated woman seated on the pallet. With a light touch upon a well-muscled shoulder, she had the weapons master's ire once again under control.

"Believe me, I would obey that order if this wasn't pertinent." Symaethis offered up what she hoped was a suitably apologetic expression before addressing the regent. "It seems Alcestis has already lodged a petition with the Council of Elders."

Ephiny's hand clutched upon Eponin's shoulder visibly tightened. At the unexpected added pressure, Eponin's gaze traveled to Ephiny's strong fingers, noting the knuckles clenching white, before moving over a well-developed forearm and bicep, moving up until she saw the worry shining clearly in the depths of hazel eyes.

"What is it?" she asked, seeking to draw Ephiny's attention.

"The council has levied a sentence of twenty summers for Kynthia's part in the attack upon you," Symaethis supplied. "And, Alcestis has changed Keleos' initial plea. In exchange for an admission of guilt, the council has agreed to match the length of her sentence to that of her bondmate's. They'll both be transported to the highland outpost with the next supply caravan."

Ephiny nodded her head absently, chewing her bottom lip. In her opinion, Keleos had more culpability in the crime than her bondmate and her sentence should have been harsher. But, if it meant avoiding a stress-filled trial, she was all in favor of a lesser sentence. Besides, twenty summers wasn't exactly what she'd term light punishment.

Ep seemed to take the information in better stride, "But, that's good, right? Means this mess is closer to being over?"


The terseness in Symaethis' tone caused Eponin's brow to furrow. She glanced at Ephiny for confirmation, feeling as if she were missing something important. Nothing in Ephiny's disposition gave away if she had prior knowledge of the events unfolding now. Eponin glanced from regent to counselor. "Keleos' plea means the council will find Cordele guilty, too, right? I mean, they'd have to if both Kynthia and Keleos are being sentenced?"

"Alcestis has approached the Council in an attempt to challenge the charges against Cordele." A sharp flicker in Ephiny's eyes revealed that she had no clue of this development. Symaethis exhaled loudly, then added, "I think Cordele's going to demand trial by combat."

"Pony can't - " Ephiny protested, pointing out the weapons master's current physical injuries; injuries she herself had just further aggravated. " - someone else will have to champion her."

"Devillare," Eponin immediately supplied.

"Unacceptable." Symaethis rejected the offer. "She's a member of the Council of Elders. Counsel for the Accused would claim biased prejudice. Alcestis has already tried to protest Devillare's impartiality due to her mentorship towards you."

"Then, I'll do it." Ephiny caught the automatic stiffening of muscles beneath her fingers resting on Ep's shoulder. She gave a reassuring squeeze, accompanied by a soft smile, "If I can knock you on your tailfeathers, she shouldn't be a problem."

Eponin snorted. Cordele wasn't some lightweight that Ephiny would be able to distract with some fancy footwork. This was a woman that would be fighting for her life. She couldn't risk Ephiny stepping into the circle with that brute of an Amazon.

The counselor heard the snort coming from Eponin, saw the fury beginning to smolder in the regent's eyes. Better cut this off before Eponin's mouth gets her in deeper trouble. "Again, the issue of impartiality. The Regent can't be seen to take sides on this issue." An objective eye studied the close proximity between regent and weapons master, the way they unthinkingly touched, the smoldering looks that passed between the two. Any more than she already has.

A quiet pall fell over the room, each of the three women seemingly lost in their thoughts. Eponin sat on her pallet, chewing her bottom lip in contemplation. She had trained many warriors in the village. But, if she had to be honest, she knew that Cordele was one of the best she'd ever seen. She was taller than most Amazons and had the physique to match her size. There were few that would be able to match her in fair combat.

Solari sprang to mind. The chief scout was quick. And, she'd never known Sol to be intimidated by size alone. Since Cordele possessed no authority . . . she'd be fine at a challenge that required skill. She might be able to dodge Cordele's blows if she chose chobos or the staff. But, Cordele possessed a longer reach. Solari couldn't beat her at the sword. And, she doubted if the scout could outlast the hunter if it came down to a duel of stamina.

Given a chance, she'd take Cordele on herself. But, she knew just from Ephiny's initial reaction, that wasn't going to happen. She had no doubt the regent would order her to stand down if she had to. But, if Eponin didn't accept the challenge and a champion was to take her place and lose in her stead -

"Hera's left tit," Eponin growled, "Where's Xena when you need her?"



Gabrielle could smell the odor of death and decay long before they crested the ridge. In a grim sort of way, she considered it a blessing in disguise. That way, she could prepare herself mentally for the destruction. As the wind carried the stench, she adjusted the makeshift cloth she had tied about her nose and mouth.

A movement beside her revealed Xena doing the same. At first, Gabrielle had been angry that her traveling companion had taken one of her brand new blouses from the saddlebags - a long sleeve silk number she had planned on giving to Cyrene the next time they were in Amphipolis - and butchered it.

Even after all these years, Xena still wasn't a master conversationalist. Granted, she'd gotten somewhat better, but Gabrielle still found herself trying to read into the stoic warrior's expressions and actions more times than not. So, when with a grave expression, Xena placed two fingers against the bard's rapidly protesting mouth to shush her, Gabrielle obeyed.

"Fold the cloth like this and secure it in the back so your hands are free," Xena commanded, demonstrating as she tied the cloth about her own neck. "And, stay close," she warned, before pulling the silk up to cover her mouth.

At least she didn't tell me to stay here. It was no secret that in their first season together, Gabrielle was more a hindrance than a help. If she'd had an ounce of sense, she would have left me sleeping by the fire one morning and just rode off, never looking back. I used to wake up every morning wondering if this was going to be the morning she'd be gone. I never did understand why she let me hang around.

Until that one morning -

In a very uncharacteristic move, Gabrielle had awoken first. The fire had burned low and she was cold. And, she had to pee. Like a centaur. No reason to romanticize it. But, when she'd tried to get up, she found that she couldn't. At first, she thought they'd been captured and imprisoned by Callisto or Draco or any number of other nameless, faceless warlords they'd encountered on their travels that might seek revenge on them.

Then, she felt the soft nuzzling at her neck and the muscled forearm that pulled her securely back into a taut body. Looking down, she recognized that long arm, the sinewy wrist, the tapered fingers. When she felt the length of Xena's body pressed firmly against her backside, she cautioned herself that the warrior had probably just rolled over in her sleep and was cold. She tried to rationalize that Xena's close proximity was merely her body's unconscious state trying to seek warmth.

Even when Xena's hand moved up her torso, stopping to cup a pert breast in her grasp, Gabrielle dismissed the action as a restless dream. And when the calloused palm lightly caressed a rapidly awakening nipple, she attributed it to a Morpheus-induced dream of another lover. Gods knows she's had enough! It was only when the soft lips pressed near her ear growled her name did she think there might be a very good reason for why the dangerous warrior tolerated her uncoordinated, inexperienced traveling companion.

The distant sound of a bell ringing reached Gabrielle's ears, drawing her from her reverie. Xena motioned for her to wait, then ran for the ridge at breakneck speed. She crested the top, sliding to a halt, boots digging into the soft earth. Tilting her head to one side, she listened for the continued knell of the bell. Gabrielle assumed the bell was being sounded by a priest in one of the temples located in the valley below.

It's stopped, Gabrielle realized. She closely observed her companion's actions, knowing that if there was the faintest sound, her partner's sensitive hearing would pick it up. Xena remained on the ridge for several long heartbeats, turning her head this way and that, the breeze coming up from the valley below ruffling through her dark tresses.

A sudden gagging sensation ripped through the tall warrior's body and she was instantly in motion, heading back down the ridge. Long legs working, she rushed past Gabrielle, not stopping until she'd reached Argo. Sliding to a halt beside the mare, she rapidly rifled through the saddlebags. She grabbed a bottle from the bag and just had time to rip the bandana off her mouth and turn her head before she emptied the contents of her stomach.

Argo snorted, sidestepping away on uneasy hooves. Gabrielle quickly averted her gaze, knowing if she looked, she'd been sick, too. It wasn't until the violent retching had stopped that she was able to raise her eyes. Xena was coming towards her, a sweaty sheen to her complexion, an unsteady gait to her walk. She carried her bandana in one hand, the bottle of vinegar oil they cooked with in the other.

Pausing in front of Gabrielle, she knelt on the ground, laying her bandana across a large, flat stone. Spreading the material out, she liberally poured the oil over the cloth, working it into the fabric. When the entire cloth was soaked, she held it up to Gabrielle, motioning for her to take it.

Gabrielle did, holding it at arm's length as Xena snatched the other bandana from around her companion's neck and repeated the process. When she was done, she tied the cloth about her own neck. Looking up, she noticed Gabrielle was still holding hers away from her body, her nose crinkled up at the odor.

"Put that on," she commanded, "The vinegar will keep the stench out - and your breakfast down."

The little blonde's mind rapidly worked to make sense of that statement. Xena wanted her to tie a piece of scrap cloth soaked in vinegar around her nose to keep the odors down -

"By the Gods, Xena," she gasped, closely studying her companion, "How bad is it?"

Xena breathed deeply, inhaling the scent of the oil, letting it soak into her nasal passages. She crossed to Argo, removing her chakram and Gabrielle's staff from where the weapons had been secured. Patting the mare, she commanded, "Meet us on the other side of the valley. Go on, girl." With a soft kiss to Argo's mane, she turned the horse loose. Watching the golden mare gallop off, she finally tore her attention away from her horse, started walking back towards her companion. She tossed the staff to the bard, then continued her trek to the crest of the ridge.

"It's bad, Gabrielle. It's very, very bad."

Hands clasped firmly behind her back, Eponin paced back and forth in front of the Council Hut, a pronounced limp slowing her normally powerful gait. Slowing, Ep brought her leg up and down, flexing repeatedly, trying to work some of the stiffness out of the joints. She performed a few stretching exercises, studying her injured knee with an objective eye.

Before being allowed to leave the hospice, Megara had instructed one of her young assistants to fit the weapons master with a new bandage. She'd been threatened to within an inch of her life by both the healers and the regent if she didn't agree to wear it.

Eponin had to give credit where credit was due. The knee brace was really a work of art. According to Pelagia, her bondmate had spent many a candlemark pouring over the design late at night in their hut, trying to come up with something that would be both practical, durable and comfortable. The end result was a thickly padded, black leather brace that fit about the knee and fastened into place with the same sort of buckles found on a set of armor. Come to think of it, looking closely at the design, Eponin was reminded of a certain warrior princess' leg gear.

The sound of raised voices cut through Eponin's reverie, causing her to momentarily pause in her pacing and look curiously towards the hut. Over the course of the past several candlemarks, Ep and the two guards flanking either side of the thick hide covering the door had been privy to several Amazonian curse words they'd usually heard only in the barracks and on the battlefield. And, there'd even been a few that Ep's battle-hardened ears hadn't heard before.

The latest round of expletives had clearly been issued in her beloved regent's abrasive tones. Both brows rapidly scurried up Ep's forehead as she wondered when Eph had ever seen one of the elder's mothers do that with the anatomy of a Satyr. Shouts from several outraged council members raised Eponin's protective streak, causing her reflexes to carry her towards the door. The two guards remained passively staring straight ahead, spears crossed over the doorway, barring her entrance. The only indication they were somewhat phased by what was occurring behind the hide covering was the heated blushes tingeing their ears as another heated batch of curses described in intimate detail exactly what Counsel for the Accused could do with her legal scrolls.

Exactly what is going on in there? Ep wondered.

The hearing had started out that morning pretty much the way Symaethis had predicted it would. As the counselor had lent her support in helping Ephiny guide Eponin from the hospice, she had confided in regent and weapons master how she thought the events at the trial would play out. Sitting in her customary place as the session was called to order, Eponin was impressed by the counselor's ability to read the situation so well.

The session began with the Council of Elders reiterating the charges against Kynthia and their ruling of twenty summers at labor in the highland detention camp. Next, came the announcement of Keleos' plea and her subsequent sentencing. From the murmurings, many of the Amazons were surprised by this turn of events. Many had expected the hunter to maintain her innocence and gamble on her aiding in the search for the missing regent to be a determining factor in demanding leniency if things looked like they weren't progressing in her favor. Only the Council of Elders and the counselors were aware of the bargain that had been reached prior to this day's session.

As Evanthe's firm gaveling restored the courtroom to order, Keleos was escorted out by two guards to join her bondmate in jail. It was then that Cordele was brought in, thick chains firmly secured about her wrists and bound behind her back. Muscles stretched taut against her bindings, she walked with an air of defiance into the courtroom. Two of the largest guards under Captain Pelagia's command escorted her in, flanking her on either side, firm grips tight upon bulging biceps.

Members of the guard moved into position, strategically placing themselves at various intervals around the courtroom. Hands tightly gripped sword pommels hanging in scabbards at toned waists, fingers flexing upon the grips as eyes warily watched every breath the hunter drew. None of them wanted a repeat of the incident that had played out in the jail, but more than a few would welcome a chance for some payback.

In a moment of inattention to detail while delivering supper to the prisoners, one of the guards hadn't noticed that an inexperienced cook's helper had thoughtfully provided utensils with the meal. It wasn't a detail that escaped the prisoners' eyes, though.

When the same guard returned later, stepping into the cell to collect the plate, Cordele attacked. Three guards on patrol outside the building heard the cries for help and sounds of a struggle and rushed into the open cell. One of the guards pulled her sister to safety, then rang the bell hanging on the post outside the jail, raising the alarm.

Captain Pelagia and Megara had been returning to their hut after a stroll following dinner when they had heard the warning bell. As fast as they could, the Captain of the Guard and the Healer raced across the village towards the stone structure. When they reached the jail, Megara rushed to the guard writhing on the ground as her friend firmly held a hand to her neck in an attempt to staunch the blood flow. Shouting at the warrior to fetch her assistant and a litter, Megara took over the task of trying to save the young Amazon's life.

Pelagia had described the scene unfolding in the jail as one of mass chaos. Cordele was outside of her cell, in the main corridor. Four more guards had joined the fray, one having successfully leapt on Cordele's back, wrapping a forearm about the blonde hunter's neck in a choke hold. Punches and kicks were rapidly flying about as Cordele tried to defend herself, a blood-covered fork clenched tightly in her fist.

It had taken another quarter candle mark after Pelagia's arrival to subdue the prisoner and return her to her cell. The Captain silently thanked the Gods that Kynthia and Keleos were firmly locked in separate cells. Otherwise, she was quite certain they would have been firmly involved in the escape attempt.

That incident alone should have been enough to convince the elders to sentence Cordele to the same detention center as her partners in crime. Instead, Alcestis had managed to show the entire incident in another light. Ignoring the fact that Cordele had attacked a young, inexperienced guard and nearly severed a major artery with an eating utensil, she somehow painted a picture that the hunter was the victim of a vile, malicious attack led by the guards.

Then, she proceeded to link the unfortunate series of events leading up to the abuse by the guards to the attack on Ephiny. In a shocking revelation, Alcestis announced to the council that she was granted permission from the High Priestess to visit the Temple of Artemis and was able to obtain sworn testimony from Doretta about the abduction of the regent and Cordele's involvement. Or, rather, lack of. Seems according to Dori's signed recounting of events, Cordele was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and was snatched right alongside Ephiny. It was when she was finally able to escape and was on her way to get help that the rescue party had stumbled upon her. And, Eponin had led the attack.

That's when all Tartarus broke loose. Amazons were immediately up on their feet, voices raised. There were shouts from those warriors that were furious that Alcestis and Cordele were trying to malign their weapons master's honor. Others were equally loud, demanding that the charges against the hunter be dropped and the warrior caste be made to pay reparations. There were even a few shouts yelling for the Queen of the Amazons to be brought forth to explain her role in the whole mess.

Fists, then furniture, then bodies flew as the proceedings turned into a brawl. The elders were relatively unscathed as they wisely remained behind the heavy oak table located on the raised floor at the front of the hut. As Evanthe repeatedly banged her gavel, futilely calling for order, a chair was hurled, missing the elder's head by scant inches. Infuriated, Nicphellia waded into the thick of things, eyes fixed on the Amazon she determined had tossed the piece of furniture.

Ephiny placed herself between the throng and the remaining elders, determined to protect the council in case any crazed featherheads got the bright idea of involving them further. Alcestis and Symaethis edged their way behind Ephiny's back and around the council table, both determined to do nothing that might result in their being held in contempt when order was finally restored.

Captain Pelagia had her hands full. She had ordered four of her guard to secure Cordele's chains to the wooden railing lining the testimony stand and to surround her in case anyone tried an ill-advised attempt at freeing her. That action caused further uproar, with Amazons taking up the chant to Free the Hunter Caste! Her remaining guards, although positioned throughout the building, were hard-pressed in their attempts to subdue the brawlers.

Solari and her entire squad of scouts had to be forcefully removed from the courtroom when the hunters seated across the aisle accused them of helping the Queen and her supporters to fix the trial. One went so far as to accuse Solari of having her nose so far up the regent's leathers that -- Few had ever seen the amiable chief scout as angry as she was when she launched herself across the courtroom and began pummeling the loudmouth. It had taken three Amazons to pull Solari off the hunter and drag her away.

In the end, the courtroom was a complete shambles. The Amazons determined to be most responsible for the riot would be hard-pressed to find an intact piece of furniture when they were sentenced to clean up the debris. Even the Queen's chair had been demolished in the chaos. Only the witness stand and the council table had escaped the destruction completely. With as much dignity as she could muster with her feathers knocked askew, falling to one side of her white hair, Evanthe called for order and decreed that any Amazon involved in further altercation would be removed and sent to the detention camp for a period of no less than one season.

The guards uneasily edged away from Cordele, standing a distance of no more than five paces from the prisoner. Itchy fingers still gripped on sword pommels as the remaining guards took up their original positions against the walls. Even though only the guard were permitted weapons inside the courtroom, they still warily eyed their agitated sisters. After all, an Amazon didn't need a weapon to be considered dangerous. Cordele had proven with a simple eating fork.

Ephiny retook her seat, one of the few remaining in the disaster of a courtroom. Alcestis and Symaethis returned to their original positions behind counsels' tables. At least, they would have if there were any tables and chairs to return to. Instead, they each found themselves standing awkwardly amongst the debris of where the tables had been. Symaethis' legal scrolls were haphazardly laying half-on and half-off the table that had been broken in half when Egeria had tossed a floundering Syaria over the railing and onto the hardwood. Alcestis' scrolls were scattered haphazardly across the floor, the parchment torn and soiled by numerous boots.

Counsel for the Accused called for the Council of Elders to dismiss the charges against her client and reinstate her position in the hunter caste. When Symaethis loudly protested, the elders agreed with the Counsel for the Nation, citing that the charges levied were based upon a direct attack upon the Weapons Master of the Amazon Nation. And, no matter the circumstances leading up to the attack, they were not sufficient enough to warrant attempted murder.

That was when Alcestis played the trump card she'd been saving. She knew if she'd walked in and merely presented the challenge at the beginning of the session, it would have been flatly refused. But, leading up to it by inciting half the Nation into believing that she was unjustly biased against, Alcestis knew that the council could not refuse Cordele's demands.

Eponin could feel it coming. Like the stale air on a still battlefield just before the death blow is delivered, it hung above her head. Her mouth was too dry, her heart sounded impossibly loud in her own ears. She could feel every eye in the room upon her. She concentrated on finding her center. She found Ephiny's hazel eyes watching her and remained fixed on them, using their depths as a focal point. Focusing her attention, seeing only Ephiny's eyes, she determinedly held her stoic warrior's mask in place.

"In light of the circumstances associated with the charges levied against her and the lack of credible witnesses to account for the initial attack by the weapons master on my client - "

"Objection!" Symaethis' voice loudly rang out, attempting to counter the move she knew was coming. "The Nation has already provided ample witnesses to refute the alleged attack at the cache."

Alcestis straightened her back and puffed out her chest in her best effort to add intimidating stature to her presence. It was her one short-coming as an Amazon. And, she feared it would diminish her effect in the courtroom arena, too. Even as a young girl, she was considered too frail to study the art of warfare. And, she was deemed too fragile to scurry about the treetops with the scouts. And, she hardly had the strength to lift a bow. So, it was decided at an early age that she would devote her studies to Amazon law.

She knew her opponent was good. She'd even idolized the older Symaethis at one point, striving to be as skilled a counselor as the elder Amazon. She'd wanted to be Counselor for the Nation, the counsel trusted by the Queen for legal representation during treaty talks and official business of the Crown. But, until she'd proven herself, she was relegated to the role of Counselor for the Accused, assigned the task of defending her sisters. Even the ones she considered intimidating . . . and guilty . . . would get the best defense she could provide. Because that was what she was sworn to do.

Even if it meant maligning the honor of Amazons like the chief scout, the weapons master and even the regent. Taking a deep breath, she countered the objection she knew Symaethis would raise.

"These so-called witnesses of the Nation are hardly without bias. The scouting caste has always been favored by both Queen and Regent. And, the chief scout herself has long been rumored to have romantic entanglements with both the weapons master and the regent." Alcestis heard the murmurings ripple through the courtroom before they were quickly stifled by the banging of a gavel. She fought to keep the smirk off her face as she innocuously added, "Given her position, what member of the scouting party would go against the orders of their leader to recount her version of the events?"

The wild speculation caused the hut to erupt in an uproar of raised voices again. The Elders demanded order several times before the voices were stilled. It was a blatant attempt at grandstanding. Counsel knew it. The Elders knew it. And, half the room knew it. But, with Solari and her troop detained in the prison for contempt, there was no one to defend Solari's reputation and deny the claims.

Except, of course for Ephiny and Eponin themselves.

Devillare studied the reactions of both the regent and the weapons master. Ephiny's face had registered shock and disbelief at the insinuation before her jaw clearly locked in righteous indignation. Her scowl was thunderous, the glare she fixed on Alcestis murderous.

Her charge's neutral mask remained firmly fixed in place. It seemed her resolve was holding firm in her determination to not give Cordele and her supporters the satisfaction of embarrassing her. Devillare's acute vision locked on the hand held tightly at Eponin's side, the muscles flexing as she subtly clenched and unclenched her fist. It was the only indication she could see that Ep was perturbed at the unfolding events.

"In light of the . . . complexity of the serious matter before the court," Devillare's attention was pulled back towards Alcestis as she delivered the statement she already knew was coming, "Cordele is perfectly within her legal rights to ask that the venue of this hearing be changed to the Trial of Truth by Combat."

That statement was enough to send the courtroom into upheaval again. Despite the Elders' best efforts to restore a semblance of enough order to continue, there was just no quieting the masses. It was finally decided that the hut would be cleared. Only the elders, both counselors, the regent and three members of the royal guard, Captain Pelagia among them, were allowed to remain. Cordele was to be escorted under armed guard back to her cell. Everyone else was ejected from the building.

After the first half candlemark, the Amazons milling about outside waiting for a quick decision soon began to grow restless. By the next quarter candlemark, most of them had found other duties to occupy themselves with. By the next quarter, the rest had dispersed, knowing that when a decision was reached, the call to reassemble would be given. Only Eponin - and the two guards flanking the doorway - remained.

As the voices raised and the gavel sounded decisively, Eponin nervously glanced towards the hide covering.

Ephiny flung the thick hide to the side with one hand, striding through the doorway so quickly that she startled the guards and ran over the top of a frazzled weapons master hovering directly in her path. Eponin barely had a chance to take in the fearsome scowl, the flashing eyes, the flaring nostrils as Ephiny plowed over the top of her.

Sitting on the ground, brushing her leathers off, Eponin glanced up as the hide covering fluttered open again. Captain Pelagia stepped out, glancing left and right before settling on the retreating figure of the regent. With a sigh, the captain reached down, offering a set of hand and hoisting the weapons master to her feet.

"What was that?" Ep asked, catching just the tail end of curly blonde locks as Eph disappeared around the corner of a hut.

"Trouble, my friend," answered the Captain of the Guard, "Big trouble."

Each shallow breath in and out rustled the makeshift bandana drawn tightly over her nose and mouth. Pausing in a doorway, she used the tip of her staff to move aside the lightweight curtain covering the entrance. Eyes furtively scanned the room, rushing over the blood and gore that liberally coated the floor. The only sounds to be heard were the buzzing of flies swarming about the carcasses and her own labored breathing.

Adjusting the cloth covering her nose and mouth, she purposefully inhaled, using the smell of the vinegar oil to push down the rising bile in her throat. Averting her gaze, she quickly stepped out of the doorway, letting the curtain fall limply back into place.

"Three more in there, Xena."

A slight nod was the only indication that the warrior princess had heard her companion's report. As they'd moved farther into the town and the devastation became more and more apparent, the more Xena withdrew into her cold, warlord persona.

Every movement was calculated, every step planned. As they'd entered on foot through the main street into town, she'd withdrawn her sword from its sheath on her back, tightly gripping it in one hand, her chakram in the other. Blue eyes darted from darkened building to deserted alleys alike, searching for any sign of movement. Even as she approached each body lying in the street, she stood a good distance back before kicking it to make certain no sign of life remained.

She walked ahead of her bard, not proceeding until she was certain her companion would find nothing but death beyond each curtained doorway she investigated. Her senses were alert, every hair on the back of her neck and arms bristling in anticipation. She was cautious in her approach, but confident she could handle any trouble she'd encounter long before her bard was endangered.

Gabrielle's grip on her staff unconsciously tightened as she passed the corpse of a man that lay facedown across the back of a wagon filled with hay. It looked for all the world that he had been either loading or unloading his wagon when he'd been struck from behind, the blow catching him in his upper back. There was a gash that ran from between his shoulder blades to his neck and the back of his skull.

"Xena, what happened here?"

Ice blue eyes darker than she'd recalled ever seeing before stared appraisingly at the young bard. It's like looking Death in the eye. Is this how she deals with what we're witnessing; by drawing on her dark side? The dark eyes stared long and hard before blinking rapidly. As her gaze refocused, Gabrielle saw the sinister blue hue actually lighten to a paler shade she was more familiar with.


Seasoned eyes swept over the town. It was once a thriving community, as evidenced by the carts of goods lining the main street. There were dozens of vendors set up, peddling their wares. Were. The carts were there. Many of them still loaded with precious silken materials, cookware pans and jewelry. A practiced eye immediately noticed that the carts had been ransacked. Weapons, food and anything else of real value had been taken. Not even so much as a wineskin left hanging about.

Vendors and customers alike had been caught unawares, many of them laying dead in the streets beside their carts and intended purchases. The attack had come from the south, riders coming in on horseback, causing chaos and confusion as they charged their mounts through the main street. The citizens nearest the south end of the street were caught completely unawares, many of them dying before they even knew what was happening. The townsfolk further up the street, having seen what was happening to their kin and neighbors, had attempted to make a run for it.

Running didn't get them far very, though. Xena idly toed the body of a fat merchant lying on the ground, his chubby fist clutched tightly about the purse he still held in his grasp. Reaching down, she pried the purse from his stiffened fingers. Opening the bag, she poured out seven dinars - all that his meager purse contained. Disgusted, she tossed the empty bag and the coins back upon his body.

"I certainly hope it was worth it," she growled, imagining the bandit threatening the terrified merchant with "Your money or your life" before becoming enraged and slicing his blade across his victim's throat.

The ground was well trampled, the earth packed down. It was dry and dusty, dirt clouds swirling about with the wind as it whipped through the ghost town. Pushing her hair out of her eyes with dirty fingers, Xena crouched on the ground, studying the tracks.

She estimated there must have been at least a dozen, riding hard and fast. There was a booted footprint here and there - a soldier's or warrior's boots, not the tread made by a merchant or a farmer. But, for the most part, it appeared that the raiders had remained on their mounts, even charging their horses into the buildings and back out again.

Gabrielle was handling it much better than she thought she would. She wasn't the naive young girl that had first tagged along after her wearing the wrong clothes, the wrong shoes and packing the wrong gear. But, she wasn't the battle-hardened warrior that she'd tried so much to emulate. In all honesty, she'd thought Gabrielle would lose her breakfast after the first mangled corpse she'd seen the birds plucking the eyeballs out of.

Her initial reaction was to leave her beloved bard behind while she investigated on her own. But, after seasons of riding together, she realized that wasn't really an option. Her instinctual desire to protect her love sometimes only served to cause hurt feelings between the two of them. What she often thought of as doing the right thing to keep her safe, Gabrielle saw as her leaving her because she thought she was good enough or strong enough or - just enough. So, against her better judgment, she'd learned to compromise and allow Gabby to set her own limitations. She'd finally agreed to let the bard decide when she'd had enough.

Of course, she's more stubborn than I am. No matter what the circumstance, no matter how bad things got, Gabrielle would always be right there beside her. As long as Xena could go on, Gabrielle would persevere. Never give up, never surrender. As long as she was physically capable, she'd stand beside her warrior. Just as I'd do for her.

It had taken Xena a long time to come to grips with that realization. That there was someone who loved her in spite of the things she had done in her past. Someone who didn't judge her. Someone who would always believe in her. Unconditionally and without reservation. What kind of a heart must it take to love the Destroyer of Nations?

Destroyer of Nations. As they trekked through the carnage and destruction wrecked by the invading raiders, Xena's mind took her back to a time and place when she'd been the one to cause mass destruction. It was the act she felt the most ashamed of in her long and ignominious past. The crimes she had committed against the Northern Amazons -

I deserve to die a thousand deaths for the betrayal of Cyane and her tribe. The tapping of a staff on a doorframe as Gabrielle checked yet another darkened building caught her attention. Xena's breath caught as the young blonde disappeared inside for several candledrips. As she reemerged, the warrior princess released a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. Is that part of my punishment, the cost of my atonement? she wondered, her eyes raking over the athletic form of her companion, To not only fall in love with an Amazon, but for her to rule the Nation as their Queen? I went from being the Amazons worst enemy to becoming their Queen's champion and consort.

Xena wasn't one to spend candlemarks dwelling on philosophy and destiny. She firmly believed you shaped your own life, each of your actions being directly responsible for your future choices and decisions. She didn't put much stock in fate and oracles. Bet the Fates are getting a good laugh out of the irony of my life, though.

As they approached the end of the main street, Xena's mind returned to the present. There had been no signs of life in the town. Only death, destruction and decay. She paused with one booted foot on the bottom step of seven leading to the last building. The Temple of Demeter. The Goddess of the Hearth, protector of the crops . . . if there were any safe haven in this desolate place, she hoped it would be inside these four walls.

Resolutely, she marched up the marble steps two at a time. Gabrielle followed quickly on her heels, taking the steps one at a time, but still managing to keep up with Xena's long-legged stride. Standing before the massive double doors, steeling herself, Xena pushed, feeling her muscles straining. Slowly, with an ominous groan, the wood gave way and the doors creaked open.

The door closed behind Ephiny with harsh finality. She edged her way along the corridor, her pace much slower than the one she had maintained on her walk from the courtroom. She hesitated, allowing her eyesight to become adjusted to the dim interior of the enclosed building.

The jail always gave her the creeps. Ever since that whole mess with Velasca when the upstart queen demanded she be thrown in jail with all those who would side with her. They can die with the traitor. Most of her supporters had been away on a mission to investigate rumors of an independent band of Amazons sighted up north. It had been Velasca's plan to incorporate these rogues into their tribe in an effort to make them a unified force.

At Velasca's insistence, Eponin was chosen to head up the mission. And, Captain Pelagia and most of her guard were sent along as escorts. After all, she reasoned, she wanted a showing of their best and brightest if they were to seduce the other tribe into joining them. Funny how those most loyal to Velasca were chosen to remain behind in the main village.

When Ephiny had stood against Velasca, refusing to take a war party to bring back Gabrielle's body, only three others found the courage to stand beside her. Lexine of the Royal Guard, who was considered by Velasca to be too inexperienced to be a real threat, and therefore not important enough to send away with Eponin and the Captain. And, Nyxona, Solari's second-in-command. And, of course, Solari herself.

Loyal to a fault, there was no doubt in Ephiny's mind that her packmate would stand by her until the end. That had been one of Ephiny's greatest fears, pacing back and forth in that cell, waiting for Velasca to issue the order for their deaths. Not that the execution would be torturous and painful; She knew Velasca's obsession with pain. Melosa's adoptive daughter thrived on it, inflicting it with great relish, almost to the extent that it could drive her to orgasmic heights.

She wasn't nearly so worried about her own death. She knew it would be long and painful and torturous . . . and Velasca would take great delight in personally inflicting as much damage as possible. What worried her more was what that madwoman might do to sweet, innocent Gabrielle. What horrors might she inflict on that nubile, young flesh that had never before been touched by ecstasy? And, what similar horrors did she plan to inflict on Solari for her unwavering loyalty? Whatever it was, it was sure to be painful . . . for both Solari and Ephiny.

As she rounded the last corner in the main corridor, the large imposing door loomed before her, two guards on either side marking it as the one she sought. Her gaze shifted, taking in the doors of the smaller cells flanking it on either side. Across the hall was the door leading to a much larger cell. Recognizing it as the very cell that she'd just been reminiscing about, Ephiny felt the cold hand of fate running down her spine. Shuddering at the sensation, she shook off her discomfort and approached the guards.

Two sets of leather boots traveled swiftly, yet cautiously over the cobblestone, neither making a sound. Warrior Princess and Amazon Queen together, both strangers to the inside of Demeter's Temple.

Xena had frequented the Temple of Ares in her reckless youth. It was a solemn tomb dedicated to the God of War, with every imaginable weapon and torture device on display. His altar was permanently stained crimson with blood, evidence of the customer sacrifices made in His name.

Since becoming an Amazon, Gabrielle familiarized herself with the temple of her patron, Artemis. Goddess of the Hunt and Amazons, her temples reflected the soft tones of the forest. Hers was a temple that celebrated the beauty of nature and the wild freedom of the animals and the Amazons alike.

And, of course, both were intimate with the elaborate temples dedicated to the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite.

If either warrior or Amazon were surprised by what lay beyond the heavy wooden double doors, their faces gave away none of it. The wide, open courtyard was lined with a cobblestone path. To either side of the path were grains of wheat, taller and healthier than any stalks either had ever seen, stretching as far and wide as the perimeter of the outer walls. A glance upwards revealed only open sky, with no roof to block out the bright sun. It was like walking in a field, only indoors.

A bell tower stood in the distance, a cylindrical shape composed of sandstone and mortar attached to the west end of the temple itself. The warrior eyed the tower warily, her seasoned instincts warning her it would be the ideal hiding place for a lone archer to pick off anyone entering the grounds. The bell stood immobile, wooden crossbeams holding it in place, not so much as a breeze blowing the thick rope hanging from its clapper.

A raven swooped down from the sky, perching upon the ledge circling the bell tower. It paced back and forth upon the mortar, cocking its head this way and that, as if studying the intruders below. Catching blue eyes squinting upwards, the bird ruffled its feathers, wings rising and falling as it readjusted its stance upon its perch. Knowing it wasn't likely that the bird would remain if there was a human presence about, the warrior dismissed the tower as a likely source of an attack. The bird, however, continued to keep a close watch over the warrior, not having yet determined if she was a danger or not.

Xena and Gabrielle walked side by side, weapons at the ready as they followed the lone path. A shadow fell across their path; a glance upwards confirmed that there was a roof constructed over this section of the temple. Shadows welcomed them, shielding them from the oppressive heat within their cool embrace. At a signal from Xena, bard and warrior separated, posing difficult targets as they weaved their way in and out of the massive columns supporting the roof.

Both circled about the room, checking behind tapestries and decorative urns for either friend or foe. They arrived at the earth-toned marble altar at precisely the same moment. Verdant green eyes met pale blue in unspoken communication. Gabrielle let out an impatient, heated breath as she turned a half circle, eyes searching the temple for anything they may have overlooked on the way in.

It was calm. It seemed as if the temple had escaped the chaos and destruction that had laid waste to the town beyond these walls. Not so much as a single grain of wheat appeared to have been disturbed. It was completely tranquil.

And, that gave Gabrielle the creeps.

"Xena, no one's here." She suddenly realized what was out of place. Even the priestesses were missing. "It's completely deserted."

"Yeah?" An arched brow rose, pale blue eyes narrowing in suspicion at the ornate golden bell visible in the tower overlooking the field of grain outside. "Then, who rang that bell?"

She was restrained, with chains as large and as thick as any used as an anchor chain on a sailing vessel, secured through thick, steel eyelets embedded in solid stone. Not even Xena could break through those. Ephiny knew. The warrior princess herself had commissioned the Amazons to make them and test them out on her; in case there was ever a time when Xena betrayed the Nation again. She had made Ephiny swear that before she allowed her to bring harm to the Amazons - or their Queen - that they would either kill her or imprison her with these chains.

The Regent didn't know which chilled her to the bone more . . . the possibility that Xena could actually hurt Gabrielle . . . or that she herself may have to one day give the order to kill the warrior she called friend.

She edged into the room, securing the door behind her and stood, back pressed firmly against the cold steel, seeking to draw strength from the unyielding metal. Willing herself to remain as outwardly calm as possible, she studied the woman before her.

Cordele was tall. Taller than any Amazon in the Nation that she could think of. Even taller than Xena. And, she had the frame and the muscles to back it up. She wasn't some lanky, gawky overdeveloped reed. No, Cordele was height, strength and muscle combined. She'd spent years learning her craft, toning her body in the process. Tall, blonde haired and blue eyed, the picture of physical perfection, she was the epitome of Artemis' construction. There was no doubt in Ephiny's mind that the proud hunter was what her Goddess had envisioned when she created the Amazons.

"My Regent." Cordele couldn't keep the smirk off her lips as she pointedly flexed her powerful arms, purposely rattling the chains that held her. "You needn't have come to personally release me. Surely a guard would have sufficed."

Ephiny scowled at this Amazon's blatant arrogance. "Only the council can set you free, Cordele."

The hunter nodded her head amiably, as if considering the regent's words. "Then, why have you come?"

"To reason with you." Ephiny exhaled loudly. She hated this. She really hated this. But, if it was the only way - "Renounce your challenge for trial by combat."

"Excuse me?" Twin eyebrows shot towards a blonde hairline.

Ephiny rolled her eyes, fought down the urge to grab the hunter by the throat and throttle her. "I'm asking you to renounce the challenge you issued against Eponin."

"And, why would I do that?"

"Because it's the right thing to do."

Ephiny grimaced at the sharp, biting laughter. "The right thing to do? The right thing to do? Was it the right thing to do when that mongrel you call a weapons master jumped on me and started beating me?" She noted the way Ephiny avoided meeting her eyes and pressed her attack. "Then, when I try to pay her back, suddenly I'm up on charges for attempted murder! Was that right, Ephiny? Was it?!?"

The chains rattled harshly as Cordele strained, trying with all her might to reach the regent, to shake some sense into her. She felt the sharp yank against her wrists as she stretched too far, the metal digging deeply into already bruised flesh.

Ephiny's head snapped up at the sound of the chain, noting the much closer proximity of the hunter. Feeling threatened, she reacted as she normally did when she felt she was backed into a corner. She attacked.

"Don't play the innocent, Cordele." Ephiny boldly advanced on the chained Amazon, clearly stepping into her space as she pointed an accusing finger. "I was in that cache, too, you know? And, I may have been a little out of it . . . " she paused, openly meeting the hunter's wary gaze, " . . . but I wasn't so out of it that I don't remember how you acted." Not even bothering to disguise the disdain she felt, she spat on the hard-packed dirt floor. "You would have let me die there. You did leave me there to die while you ran to save your own skin."

"I was going to get help for you."

"Is that the lie you tell yourself so you can sleep at night?" Ephiny's mind took her back to the incident in that cache. She had mostly blocked the memories, too scared to look at her own fragile mortality too closely. But, this confrontation with Cordele - the first interaction between the two of them since - suddenly, all the memories came crashing down upon her like a tidal wave. Feeling her rage slip away with the strength it took to keep the memories pushed down, her voice sounded utterly resigned as she added, "You've already tarnished your honor. Don't bring more shame upon yourself . . . "

Those words were too bitter for Cordele to swallow. Upon hearing them, she lashed out at the person she blamed for her current state of affairs. "I did nothing to bring shame upon myself, upon my caste. That was brought to my door by your bitch . . . "

" . . . Don't you dare blame Eponin for your disgrace!" This time, Ephiny clearly invaded her space, shoving Cordele backwards, unmindful of the danger she might be placing herself in.

Cordele barely moved beneath Ephiny's onslaught. She briefly thought about bringing her hands up, tightening them about the regent's throat and calling for the guard, demanding she be released or she'd break Ephiny's neck. There was no doubt in her mind she could execute the move before Ephiny could either defend herself or retreat back out of her reach.

Instead, she took a deep breath, forcing herself to calm down. Attacking the regent, using her as leverage was not part of the plan. If she did that, she'd be branded a traitor and immediately executed.

"My disgrace is Eponin's." Cordele fought to keep her voice level, her tone non-threatening. The sing-song voice she put forth almost sounded as if it belonged at a child's tea party. "I'll prove my innocence in the trial by combat. The truth will win out. And, then she'll be made to suffer as I have."

"The truth will win out." Ephiny stalked back towards the door of the cell, realizing Cordele wouldn't take the bait. She had almost wanted to goad the hunter into attacking her - that would get them out of this mess a lot quicker. With no danger to Pony. "Eponin will defeat you."

Cordele slid easily down the wall, coming to sit on the dirt floor of her cell. She coolly studied the other Amazon as she leaned up against the cell door.

"And, what if Eponin loses?"

"She won't." Ephiny's voice sounded much more confident than she felt. "Truth is on her side."

"But, if I defeat Eponin, what happens then?"

"Stop playing games, Cordele. You know full well what happens if she loses."

"Humor me." Cordele's white teeth flashed as her feral smile widened. "Say it. Or, I'll simply refuse you now."

Ephiny's response came out through teeth gritted so tightly that it hurt to form the words. "Eponin will face exile . . . or death."

Part 3

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