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



A gauntlet rapping sharply on the steel door caught the guards' attention. One maintained her position, guarding the door and the corridor while the other turned, peering curiously through the bars. Looking past her regent, seeing that the prisoner was still securely chained to the wall, she lifted the ring of keys from her belt. At a confirming nod from Ephiny that everything was indeed fine, she opened the door.

Ephiny slipped out of the cell, absently returning the salute offered by both guards as she passed. She heard the sound of rattling keys as the door slammed shut behind her and the lock clicked into place. Casting a glance back over her shoulder, she gave a final look through the cell bars. Cordele was leaning against the wall of her cell, back pressed against cool stone, arms folded in a casual manner. Catching the regent staring, she flashed an arrogant sneer.

Ephiny momentarily froze, a solid chunk of ice knotting inside her guts. One hand shot out, fingers clutching at the bars on the steel door. Cordele's grin widened at the action. Abruptly, Ephiny jerked her hand away, as if the touch of the metal had scalded her. Exhaling loudly, brushing a hand through unruly locks in frustration, she turned on her heel.

As the regent walked past, an Amazon peered out of the shadows. She watched, waiting for Ephiny to retreat down the corridor; listening to the sound of fading bootsteps before edging her way out from a recessed alcove. Confident that the regent was gone, she stepped into the main corridor.

Both guards came to attention, swiftly saluting. She returned the salute, peering into the cell that they were guarding. Satisfied that the prisoner was secure, she crossed the hall to the larger cell across the way. She leaned in closer, looking through the bars at the seventeen Amazon prisoners inside. Sensing her presence, several turned wary eyes towards the door.

"Open it up," Captain Pelagia ordered.

Immediately, the guard that had been standing outside hurried over, keys at the ready. She jammed the key in, turning it, feeling the stiff metal of the locking mechanism give. The Captain of the Guard gave a rapid hand signal. With a nod of affirmation, the guard returned to her post.

Seventeen sets of assorted colored eyes watched as the door to their cell swung open. Every shade from mint green to baby blue to chocolate brown in various stages of relief, trepidation and anger. But, only one set the color of sandalwood.

Pelagia's pale grey eyes met and locked with that particular shade, neither blinking in the dim lighting of the interior of the cell. Without breaking their stare, she issued the command, "By order of the Council, you're all released . . . to report for probationary duty for a period of no less than three days . . . at the water reclamation system."

There was an audible series of groans as the Amazons lined up, dragging their feet as they walked out single-file past the Captain of the Guard. The water reclamation system was a design-in-progress thought up by some of the Amazons' talented engineers. In theory, the torrential rainy season that plagued the village with flooding and mudslides would flow through several small trenches cut into the low lying areas. These smaller tributaries would bring the run-off water to a larger trench that was dug farther out from the main village. A waterwheel would collect the water, sending it through a series of woven looms, designed to filter out impurities. The end result would be fresh drinking water diverted into an underground well system to be available as a source of clean water for the coming seasons.

A noble idea, reviewed and approved by the Queen and her Regent several moons ago. A noble idea that required a lot of work. Hard, tedious, back-breaking work. Usually, the Amazons rotated schedules so that every member of the tribe spent one day each moon contributing to the digging and construction of the trenches. Most of the scouts had just completed the cycle of their one day. Now, they were being forced to face another three days as penance.

Pelagia fought to keep the smirk off her lips as she caught the grumbling comments of the scouts as they filed past her and out into the corridor. She was pleased by the sentence. Incarceration or public flogging wasn't very beneficial to the tribe. The offenders were usually sorrowful when they were caught and punished, but the memory of their sentence soon wore off and they were back in trouble again by the time they lifted their next mug of ale. But, with labor details - especially the kind of dirty work entailed in digging ditches and wells - the perpetrators weren't so quick to be repeat offenders.

As the final three Amazons followed the trail out the door, Pelagia reached out, grabbing the last one by her arm. Stopping in her tracks, Solari rolled her eyes as she waited for the words from the captain that she'd been expecting ever since being tossed into the jail.

What in Tartarus were you thinking? You're supposed to be setting the example for your subordinates. Training them in the ways of the Amazon does NOT mean teaching them to brawl like common thugs and engage in criminal activities!

Instead, Pelagia merely looked at her appraisingly before shaking her head and saying, "Oh no, my friend. I've got a very special task for you . . . "

They'd found a door hidden behind the largest tapestry centered on the wall behind the altar. The design had been clever, most people probably wouldn't have looked twice at the inlay that matched perfectly with the surrounding wall. But then, most people didn't have the warrior princess' many skills.

Sharp eyes had quickly spotted the cracks in the mortar, realized the pattern followed a distinct shape. Snatching a torch from a brazier, she held it up to the wall. The flame flickered as s he passed it repeatedly over the cracks. Before long, she had the shape of the elusive doorway. From there, it was a simple matter of figuring out which combination of stones triggered the operating mechanism. A solid push with the tips of her fingers on the third brick from the left and the sound of scraping stone on stone filled the silence of the temple.

The stone slid aside, revealing the darkened corridor beyond. Hefting the torch in one hand, her sword in the other, she signaled for Gabrielle to follow. She heard the bard edge her way into the passage behind her, maintaining her distance. Without looking back, Xena knew that her companion was debating on whether or not to follow the warrior. It was no secret that Gabrielle hated dark, dank passages. She maintained that nothing good ever dwelled in them and that way only led to trouble.

She wasn't surprised when the bard stepped through, inadvertently stepping on the stone that triggered the mechanism to close the door. A stone that Xena had easily identified and stepped over. With the corridor firmly sealed off, the passageway behind her was plunged into darkness. A sly smirk curved Xena's lips as she suddenly felt Gabrielle firmly attached to her backside, keeping as close to the warrior as possible with each step they took.

Attempting to muffle a chuckle, she resolutely passed the torch to Gabrielle. And, received a slap on the arm in return as the bard caught the hint of amused laughter her warrior valiantly tried to stifle.

Solari swung her leg over the pommel, smoothly dismounting before Thunder had come to a complete halt. She swatted her horse's rump twice; the command for her mount to graze, but not wander too far. The horse obeyed, moving off to join a pale mare contentedly eating green apples off the ground beneath a cluster of trees.

Bareback, Solari noted the lack of a saddle on Honeycomb, Guess she was in a hurry.

In their culture, all Amazons were trained to ride bareback. As cadets, none of them were given saddles. In a tradition borne long ago, each girl would use the experience to bond with their mounts. After all, they would grow together, train together, ride together and go into battle together. It was imperative to both that they form a lasting bond built on trust during their formulative years.

As equals. No Amazon was raised to believe she was better than her mount. Horses were valued in the Nation. And, as such, were treated with care and respect. When setting camp for the night, no matter how long and hard the Amazon had traveled, no matter how weary or hurt she was, an Amazon would always tend to her horse's welfare before her own.

And, when they weren't bedding down on the road somewhere, an Amazon would make sure her mount had the finest care. If it was in an Amazon village, either the rider or the stable master herself would tend to the horse. If it was a stable in a non-Amazon village or town, and funds were low, the rider would sacrifice her comfort in an inn to pay for her mount's lodging.

Solari looked back over her shoulder out of habit, checking on her horse. Thunder and Honeycomb got along well together; had ever since their initial meeting when they'd been given to two young Amazons all those long seasons ago. She felt secure leaving the two horses grazing unfettered as she climbed the grassy knoll nestled beyond the apple trees.

The chief scout hadn't needed to rely on her tracking skills to find her elusive regent. She knew as soon as Pelagia told her what was going on where she'd find Ephiny. The grassy knoll opened up onto a lush, green meadow. Salt grass grew wild and untamed, thin reeds blowing beneath a gentle breeze. Several trees dotted the meadow, their leaves in the midst of transforming from lush green to the reds and oranges and browns of the coming season. In the distance stood a twisted, gnarled tree, its branches hanging low, its trunk bent so that it looked like a hand with long, bony fingers reaching out.

Soundlessly, Solari walked through the meadow, the blades of grass parting before leather boots as she moved swiftly and decisively. As she drew nearer the gnarled tree, sensitive ears picked up on the gentle gurgling of water. Sharp eyes spotted the lone figure seated beneath the limbs of the tree, half-hidden from view by the branches.

As Solari approached, she marveled at the profile of the woman seated on the ground. Locks of blonde, corkscrew curls fell about both shoulders and midway down her back; their normal unruliness made even more wild by the tousling they were receiving from the stiff breeze blowing in. Her legs were pulled up, long arms draped about both knees. A proud chin was propped upon her kneecaps, her unwavering gaze fixed upon the valley below.

Solari slipped up behind her, bracing a hand upon the solitary tree overlooking the ridge. The bark was rough beneath her palm, the trunk scarred by Zeus' lightning bolts seasons ago. Leaning against the tree, a hair's breadth from her knees brushing against Ephiny's back, the scout's eyes swept over the landscape.

It wasn't noticeable from a distance, but this tree Ephiny was sitting beneath was precariously perched only a span of eight feet from a sheer drop-off. Lush grass grew all the way up to the edge before just abruptly ending. There was a straight drop of about twenty-five feet down before the ground sloped into a rocky embankment that ran into the river that twisted and wound its way through the heart of the Amazon Nation. Beyond the river, there was an unrivaled view of a rich, unspoiled forest. Sharp eyes easily picked out the image of a mother deer with her two fawns frolicking in the thriving woodland. As if somehow sensing an outside presence, the doe's ears flicked rapidly, large eyes blinked, then seemingly looked towards the ridge. Then, as if dismissing the familiar scent carried to her upon the wind, the doe returned her attention to her fawns.

"She knows we're up here," came Ephiny's low pitch as she leaned forward a bit to accommodate her friend.

"The wind's carried our scents down to her." Solari edged her way around the tree. Placing a booted foot on either side of Ephiny, she slowly eased herself down. Settling into a familiar position, she leaned back, finding her spot upon the tree where the bark had been worn smooth from countless seasons of use. "Can't believe those are both hers."

"Mm. Seems like only yesterday we were sitting up here, watching her taking her first steps."

"You seen the buck?"

Solari had only seen him twice, but she'd been impressed by his huge array of antlers. The predator in her had initially thought of how much venison a stag that size would yield. Not to mention the bone-handled weapons she could get Eponin to carve for her. But then, her softer nature had won out and she'd seen him in another light. He was magnificent in his beauty. And, she had no right to think his life should be forfeit for meat in her belly and a weapon at her side. Guess it's a good thing I'm a scout and not a hunter - or the whole tribe might starve.

"Typical male." Was that just a hint of bitterness in Ephiny's tone? "Sniffs after her until he gets what he wants, then he's gone."

Twin mahogany eyebrows scurried towards a matching hairline. She was used to such condescending statements from other members of the tribe when speaking of males. And, quite frankly, Solari's own limited experience with the species tended to lend support to the feelings expressed by her sisters. But, she'd never known Ephiny to make such off-handed comments. Hands reaching out, fingers coming up to idly caress the bare flesh of Ephiny's sides, she asked, "You remember the first time we came up here?"

"Yeeaaahhh." Ephiny slowly released her breath as skilled hands worked at the flesh of her lower back, fingers kneading the stress out of tension-filled muscles. Solari had always known just how to touch her. "You nearly road Thunder right over the ridge." She bit off a self-indulgent moan as Solari's digits unerringly burrowed into that spot just to the left of her spine.

Solari's sharp ears caught the sound of the decadent growl rumbling deep within Ephiny's throat. The scout smiled in satisfaction as she subtly increased the pressure. "I didn't see the edge. Because you were chasing me," she challenged.

"As I recall, I was chasing you because you pushed me into the horse trough."

"After you told the stable master that I wanted her to put a saddle on me and ride me like a pony!"

"Well, you deserved it! Because of you, I had to do penance for a solid moon for impure thoughts in the temple!" Ephiny laughed at the memory of the look on Theracles' face when she'd said it.

"Eph! She must have been twenty seasons older than us!"

"Twenty-five," The regent corrected, "And, still in her prime."

"Thanks." An edge of sarcasm found its way into Solari's voice. "You know I was afraid to be alone with her after that? Made for a miserable training season."

"You should have been terrified." Eph snorted. "If you believed the stories the older girls told us about the things that went on in the stables late at night."

"Oh, I believed them." Solari cringed. "Remember that night you forgot your cloak in Honeycomb's stall and I went back to get it for you?" She involuntarily shivered at the memory. "Let's just say those definitely weren't horses she was grooming in the stalls that night."

Both women fell silent, each lost in memories of their carefree youth. They hadn't appreciated it then, only looking for the day that they would be considered adults and have all the rights and status afforded warriors of the Nation. Secretly, both wondered what they would have done with their youth if they realized what their adult lives would be like.

Would have taken the time to enjoy the view more, Ephiny reflected upon their visits to the ridge. When they first discovered the secluded area overlooking the pristine forest below, they'd come up here every day for three solid moons. As they grew older, the trips grew more and more infrequent. Duty and obligations and responsibilities . . . and life . . . had kept Ephiny away for far too long. Now, it seemed as if she only came up here whenever life in the village was just too unbearable.

Her packmate had always been more of a free spirit. True, she had her duty and her responsibilities. But, she'd always managed to have her fun, too. Ephiny secretly envied Solari's carefree nature and wondered how often her friend still managed to make the trek up here.

Slowly, she became aware of Solari's nearness. She was sitting directly behind Ephiny, her long legs pulled up on either side of her body, the bronzed flesh of her inner legs and thighs pressed against Ephiny's hips and calves. She had been leaning back, a fair amount of space between their bodies as she'd massaged the regent's lower back. But, as the massage ended, she sat up, resting her chin on Eph's shoulder as she took in the view. Warm breath tickled an ear as warmer hands moved around to encircle a defined waist. The action served to press her lower body intimately close to Ephiny's backside.

Not that there was anything unusual in Solari's actions. As packmates, they'd always been close, neither shy about sharing intimate touches and caresses. Their demonstrative touches were soothing and comforting in their familiarity. Until that day at the waterfall, Solari's affections had never seemed to cross that line between seeking friendship and desiring something more. But, because of Aphrodite's curse - and to a lesser extent, the council's involvement - the line was beginning to become marred more and more. Every little smile, every word, every touch had Ephiny second-guessing the intent behind each.

Ephiny felt a nose diligently snuffling her hair off her shoulder. The touch of full lips to her shoulder and upper back sent a soft sigh of contentment rushing through her body. Silently, Eph admonished herself for thinking such illicit thoughts of her friend and packmate. She had been under the influence of the curse, nothing more. It was wrong of her to still harbor suspicions about Solari's motives.

Leaning back, she melted into the warm embrace. It had been many seasons since she'd allowed Solari to hold her like this. And, she had to admit that she missed it. Back in the village, they were regent and chief scout. And, with those titles came all sorts of duties and obligations and lines that couldn't be crossed in public. But here, on this ridge, they were once again young packmates of long ago.

It really has been too long, Ephiny realized, squirming about. She's . . . umm . . . grown out some.

From the time they'd hit puberty, Solari had developed quickly. Her hips had filled out. And, so had her other . . . assets. Ephiny had always secretly envied her packmate her breasts. They were just so - so - they defied explanation. They were full and ripe and so much larger than her own. She often found herself staring at them, wondering how she was able to keep - they really were magnificent.

Solari's eyes slid shut and she bit her bottom lip as she felt Ephiny settle back into her embrace. Her head was cradled against a broad shoulder, blonde curls tickling bronzed flesh and intermingling with Solari's darker locks as she lay fully back. Ephiny shifted into a more comfortable position, oblivious that her cocked hip caught Solari squarely between her open legs.

The brunette suppressed the groan that would reveal the tumultuous passion Ephiny had managed to stir within her. Her embrace imperceptibly tightened as she felt Ephiny's fingers running down her arms, over her gauntlets and the backs of her hands. Long, elegant fingers intertwined with thicker digits, palms rested against flesh and the leather finger guards the scout wore. Solari nuzzled Ephiny's hair, inhaling deeply, enjoying the smell of leather, pine and woman that she associated with Ephiny's scent. An odd thought struck her as she suddenly wondered if their deer could distinguish the difference in their scents.

She allowed the tranquil moment to stretch out for the span of another dozen heartbeats before husking in the shell of a delicate ear, "So, what happened with Cordele?"

There was a noticeable stiffening. Solari tightened her grip, refusing to let Ephiny break their embrace. After several deep breaths, she felt Eph relax against her flesh again, the immediate urge for fight or flight leaving her body. She patiently waited for Ephiny to answer at her own pace.

"She's demanded trial of truth by combat."

Solari nodded absently. Pelagia had already confided that much. What the captain hadn't been able to tell her was what had happened in the prisoner's cell. "Eponin's injury will delay the trial. Or, they'll have to allow her to appoint someone to champion her." Solari had been wary of Cordele pulling something like this. She'd even gone so far as to discreetly send one of her own scouts out of their territory on a covert mission to locate Xena. Without sanction from council or regent. So far, she hadn't received word back from the scout. But, Solari was determined. Either the warrior princess would champion her friend . . . or she would.

"Alcestis has managed to convince the council that in order to have a fair trial of truth, neither combatants should be championed. Whoever's words are truer, will be given the strength by Artemis to defeat her opponent."

"Then, a delay," Solari shrugged. "It'll be at least another six moons before Ep's knee is healed up. Megara will attest to that."

"She doesn't have six moons, Solari." Ephiny felt her chest constricting, her mouth going dry. She'd gone to Cordele, hoping to convince her to drop the charges. She asked her to consider a lesser sentence like the one Keleos had agreed to. When it mattered most, she'd failed. "Symaethis fought against it. But, Alcestis demanded the issue be put to a vote." Her voice noticeably hitched. "The council decreed the trial will take place at dusk."

Solari felt the uncharacteristic trembling of the woman she held cradled in the security of her arms. She wished she could give Ephiny her strength. Do something - anything - to make this better. She'd seen the beating Ephiny had handed her friend on the practice field. There was no way Eponin could hope to defeat Cordele in the condition she was in.

A glance at the sky revealed the position of the sun. The trial was scheduled to coincide with the period of time when Apollo's chariot would descend and Artemis would arise. She would be in full attendance when her moon rose high into the evening sky. That would be the height of her power as the moon goddess. And, that was the time that the Amazons would celebrate the strength of the victor. For the glory of Artemis.

Less than a candlemark -

She shifted about until she was able to look into troubled, hazel eyes. Her heart breaking at the sight of her packmate's suffering, she leaned in, placing a gentle kiss upon Ephiny's lips.

The very first time she had kissed Ephiny was during their first Cupid's Day Festival when Eph had presented her with a heart-shaped pastry that her mother had made. Solari didn't have a mother that could cook . . . and she certainly couldn't do it herself . . . so she gave her friend the one thing she could; her heart.

The next time she pressed her lips to her friend's had been when Ephiny's mother had died. All throughout the mourning period, from when they had first seen her fall in battle until the last ember of the funeral pyre burned, Ephiny had endured with the masque of a stoic warrior of the Nation. It wasn't until dawn the day after the pyre burned out when Solari was able to persuade Eph to finally return home with her. Ephiny was numb with shock and Solari took it upon herself to undress her friend, putting her to bed, pulling the thin summer sheet over her naked flesh. It was only when Solari leaned in, placing her lips upon Ephiny's that the warrior's mask slipped and the tears fell.

They wouldn't kiss again until that day when Solari lured her regent to the mountain overlooking the waterfall. She'd planned the ruse, arranging for her scouts to spend the day practicing without her, coaxing Mytilda into packing a picnic lunch. She'd gone there with every intention of seducing Ephiny. And, she'd thought for sure once Ephiny had tasted her passionate ardor, she would be hers.

Eph could have brought her up on charges. She could have done more than made her muck out the stables for her dereliction of duty. But, all had seemingly been forgotten when it was revealed that Aphrodite's love-spell was responsible for the crazed, fanatical actions of most of the Amazons.

She forced herself to keep the kiss short and light and reassuring. This was about offering comfort and support. Even as she kissed her, Solari prayed to Artemis that her packmate wouldn't think she was trying to take advantage. As the kiss ended and she pulled back, she searched Ephiny's eyes for any trace of animosity that might suggest she had associated this kiss with that ill-advised one upon the mountain.

Hazel eyes narrowed, their depths cloudy, murky and utterly unreadable as she stared at Solari. Solari felt herself grow more and more uncomfortable under the intense scrutiny. Please, Sweet Artemis, don't let her interpret my kiss as something more. Solari reiterated her prayers as the silence persistently stretched out between them. No matter how much I may desire it.

"We should go," Solari slowly regained her senses, her remark breaking the spell, dissipating the tension even as she allowed the fingers of her hand to longingly drift through blonde tresses. "We need to be there for our friend."

She removed her gauntlets, placing them upon the dresser. Reaching into the top drawer, she extracted the ornate wooden box, carefully setting it upon a folded cloth on the top of the dresser. Fingertips traced the delicate patterns in the rich wood, feeling the raised lines of each intricately carved piece. Her Queen had seen a merchant in the markets of Sparta carving designs into jewelry boxes. He mostly carved flowers and ocean scenes; designs that would appeal to most women if their beau were to purchase them a gift. Gabrielle had talked to him about his craft, asked if he only designed jewelry boxes. He told her for the right price, he could carve her anything.

She had commissioned him to carve a box. Something slightly bigger and a little deeper than a typical jewelry box. The outside was a deep, rich russet color. And, intricately carved into the top and sides was a forest scene. She imagined it must have taken Gabrielle candlemarks to describe the scene to the merchant, for it was easily identifiable as a place deep in Amazon country that no man had ever seen. Only her Queen, blessed with a bard's eye for detail, could have described the landscape in such accurate detail.

Eponin remembered the scene vividly. It had been in Gabrielle's early days as princess. Xena was off in the Centaur village with Queen Melosa working out the details of the new peace treaty. And, Gabrielle had wanted to investigate her new kingdom. And, she insisted Eponin be the one to show her around.

They had ridden Eponin's horse until Gabrielle had begged for them to continue on foot, stating that even though she rode with Xena, she was unused to the saddle for such long periods of time. So, to please her new princess, Eponin had agreed when she'd suggested they continue on foot. They hadn't gone very far when Lightning panicked and bolted, tearing her reins right out of Eponin's firm grasp.

She'd never known her horse to have such a reaction. Not even when she'd nearly ridden into a bed of snakes. The hairs on the back of her neck bristling, she instinctively drew her sword from its scabbard. It was then that she saw the fangs and the yellow eyes glaring at them from the thick foliage. Sword held firmly in one hand, she urged Gabrielle behind her with the other as the pack of wolves broke cover and began circling them.

Normally, the wolves were scavengers that shied away from encounters with humans. But, the winter had been unseasonably harsh and food was scarce. Scarce enough that the pack was desperate enough to risk attacking. Idly, Eponin's fingers went to her wrist, tracing the scars left by a wolf's fangs. Fangs that were sharp enough to pierce her gauntlet and puncture the flesh of her sword hand.

She'd been more than impressed when Gabrielle reached about her waist, grabbing her knife from her belt and jabbing it into the wolf's hindquarters. In that instant, in Eponin's eyes, the little slip of an outsider girl went from being a poor imitation to an authentic Amazon princess.

The carving on the outside of the box represented that scene that played out in the woods that day. In the center of the lid was the silhouette of two figures, both clearly women, one holding a sword, obviously attempting to shield the other. The wolves - exactly five - the same number they had encountered were so realistic that the eyes reflected the light, seemingly shining with predatory menace. Even the fangs were sharp to the touch. On the side of the box, was a carving of a skittish horse backing away. The rest of the box portrayed the remaining scenery of the forest.

With shaking fingers, Eponin lifted the lid. The inside was completely inlaid with velvet material in a deep burgundy hue. Fingertips stroked over the material, marveling at the texture. Accustomed as she was to leather and hide, Eponin had never felt anything quite like it.

Nestled on top of the wondrously soft fabric, was a set of gauntlets that Gabrielle had also had commissioned especially for her. They were crafted of a dark leather and the interior of both gauntlets were inlaid with steel lining . . . to prevent any future bite marks. Securely attached to the fastenings of the left gauntlet were five feathers, each carefully chosen and colorfully dyed. The tips of calloused fingers ran over the fine feathers, stroking them with a care no one would suspect she could possess.

Her little queen had honored her by researching the ancient scrolls for the meaning behind each feather. The blood red feather taken from a hawk to symbolize courage. The russet brown plume marking her passage as an Amazon warrior. The black and red feather designating her position as weapons master. The forest green intermingled with pale yellows to denote an Amazon of uncommon valor. And finally, the sapphire blue feather, the dark tips carefully dyed with an intermingling of white and silver. That was the feather she was most proud of; the one that indicated a royal's life was indebted to her. Etched into the matching bands was Gabrielle's crest that marked her as ruler and the insignia that identified Eponin as protector of the realm.

She had accepted the gift with more than a little trepidation, hesitant to step on Xena's toes as champion. But, Xena had reassured the weapons master, stating that she had earned the title when she'd rushed in and saved Gabrielle when she couldn't. Eponin still felt a little awkward about accepting the honor. After all, it's what any Amazon should have done for her future Queen. So, as a compromise, Gabrielle had acquiesced to her request to only wear them on special occasions.

Guess my imminent death could qualify.

She fastened the gauntlets into place, reflexively shaking both wrists at the unaccustomed extra weight caused by the steel inlays. Diligently, she closed the box, running lingering fingers over the carvings before replacing it in the top drawer. Reaching in, she extracted her shoulder armor that designated her Weapons Master to the Nation. She lifted it, settling it into place upon her left shoulder.

Sturdy digits reached about, shooing Eponin's fingers away. Ep allowed it, patiently waiting as Devillare fastened the straps beneath her arm.

"You don't have to do this, you know," Devil reminded her.

"Huh." Eponin hid her grimace as the elder cinched the last strap a little too tight. "Thought the council decreed it."

"They did." Devillare exhaled a long, heated breath. Unable to meet her charge's eyes even as she made the suggestion, the former Captain of the Guard paced about Eponin's hut. The hut's interior was spacious, yet the furnishings were sparse. A bed and dresser. A chest at the end of the bed. A plain table and two chairs. An impressive display of Eponin's personal weapons on one wall; all of them kept polished and sharpened and ready for use. Eponin's favorite staff was positioned on a hook closest to the door, always within easy reach. A damaged mask and a broken sword hung on the opposite wall. Devillare paused in front of the display, memories taking her back to a time when both sword and mask were whole. "You could recant the charges."

Eponin's breath hitched in her chest, her heart skipping a beat before suddenly pounding triple-time. "I can't." Her insides clenched at the suggestion.

"You're hurt, Eponin. And, she's a formidable opponent." Devillare eyed her charge. She was leaning against the dresser for support, looking for all the world like Cordele had already struck her. "There would be no shame in backing down."

No shame? "There would also be no honor." Her throat was dry, her palms were sweaty and the buzzing in her ears was driving her to distraction. "If I refuse to honor the trial of truth, it'll be the same as saying my word isn't good."

"Which is more important; your word or your life?"

"What good is my life without the strength of my word?" Eponin couldn't believe Devillare was suggesting she walk away from this. The woman who was Captain Beroyle's swordmate. The woman who became her mentor after Beroyle's sacrifice. The woman who had come to mean almost as much to her as Beroyle herself. "And, what if I was to recant? What would happen then?"

Devillare didn't answer. She didn't have to. Eponin already knew what would happen. The charges would be dropped. There would be some sort of concession made to the hunter caste. Possibly a push for a restructuring of the caste system itself. Currently, the warriors were afforded the best huts, the best amenities, the best equipment because they held priority in the tribe for dedicating their lives to the safety of the Nation and the women they were charged with protecting. Warriors were given special privileges because their life expectancy was so drastically short. Few warriors lived to see their children grown. Fewer still lived to be Devillare's age.

If Eponin was to renounce the charges now, she would bring shame upon the entire warrior caste. She would single-handedly be responsible for tarnishing a reputation that had taken lifetimes to build. Her broken word would affect every warrior in the Nation. By allowing the hunter caste to gain control of the tribe, what would she be subjecting countless future generations to?

The possibilities loomed before her. For the first time in the history of the Amazons, the Nation could be ruled by a Queen that was not a warrior. Immediately, her mind flashed on Gabrielle. She wasn't a warrior. Or, she hadn't been one when she'd become Queen. But, under Xena's tutelage, she'd come into her own. Looking at her now, there was no doubt Gabrielle was a warrior-queen in her own right.

And, she had the muscle to back up her claim to the throne. Xena, Warrior Princess was her champion and consort. You just couldn't get any more warrior than that. And, even when Gabrielle wasn't in attendance . . . which was unfortunately most of the time . . . her regent was an accomplished warrior in her stead.

Ephiny. An image of the tall woman with the unruly blonde corkscrew curls and the lopsided smirk appeared before her. What would it do to her regent if Cordele were allowed to remain in the village? She'd seen Ephiny lying as near death in that cache as anyone she'd ever seen. She'd held her regent's battered body in her arms and prayed for the Goddess to spare her. And, even though Alcestis may have sworn testimony that Cordele didn't do those things to Ephiny, she also knew without a doubt in her heart that the hunter did nothing to prevent them, either. To her, that was even worse. And, to subject Ephiny to seeing that woman every single day - and to be constantly reminded of what had happened -

I won't do that to Ephiny.

"I have to fight." Eponin declared with finality, moving to the door, snatching up her staff on the way out.

The corridor twisted and turned, winding this way and that throughout the recesses of the temple. There were multiple tapestries lining the passageway and Xena had no doubt that there were several more hidden corridors disguised behind the elegant wall hangings. If they'd had the time to explore, she imagined her and the bard could spend days investigating the secret labyrinths hidden behind the temple walls.

She knew it would be futile to even attempt to search for the priests and priestesses of Demeter. If they'd had an inkling that the town had been overrun by bloodthirsty barbarians, she was positive they would have fled deep into the hidden labyrinths. Depending on the architecture of the passages, she could very well picture the refugees being halfway to Athens by now via an elaborate system of catacombs.

From the evidence outside, she'd have to guess the massacre had taken place days ago. The corpses were rotting, the birds already feasting upon the rancid flesh. But, they'd heard the tolling of the tower bell no more than a few candlemarks ago. Her gut told her if there were any answers to be had, that was where they'd find them.

Ominously echoing the warrior's thoughts, there was the distant repetitive clanging of the bell.

Both warrior and bard momentarily froze. Gabrielle's hand clutched at Xena's upper arm as she pressed in impossibly closer to her champion. Strong arms pulled her lover in closer, dropping a kiss upon blonde tresses in what was meant to be a reassuring manner.

"The tower's at the end of this corridor." Xena kept her voice low and soothing as she added, "Stay here while I scout ahead."

Gabrielle hung back for five candledrips longer than Xena had expected her to. She knew the bard's insatiable need to follow headlong into trouble wouldn't let her stay behind for any extended amount of time. Especially when Xena had ordered her to. She'd learned the routine long ago. She demanded Gabrielle stay behind for her own safety; Gabrielle disobeyed her and tagged along just in case Xena needed her help. Although, the end result was usually the warrior princess having to bail them both out of a sticky situation.

Long legs increasing her stride, Xena was determined to put some distance between herself and the bard. Coming to the end of the corridor, she slowed her step. No need to announce her arrival with the stomping of extra large feet upon a cobblestone floor. A large, wooden door blocked her path. Adjusting her grip on her sword, Xena resolutely pushed the heavy door open.

She stepped through into a shaded pathway, enclosed upon all sides by flowering shrubs and vines lining an earthen path. At the end of the dirt-packed walkway loomed the bell tower. Cautiously, Xena approached the large door located roughly a hundred paces distant. No doubt about it; whoever designed this place had a thing for doors.

One hand flat upon the wooden door, she slowly pushed. It didn't give. Frowning, the warrior tried again. Glancing about, making sure she was alone - except for the noticeably miffed blonde closing the distance - Xena smoothly slid her sword into the sheath upon her back. Bracing both arms and legs, she pushed, shoving against the wooden obstacle with all her strength.

Gritting her teeth, she attempted the move twice more before Gabrielle joined her. "Thought I . . . " she pushed again " . . . told you . . . " she grimaced as something in her shoulder popped " . . . to wait in the corridor."

"Yeah, like we didn't both know that wasn't going to work." Hand on cocked hip, Gabrielle leaned against her staff, coolly watching the straining warrior. "You getting weaker in your old age? When I first met you, you would've had that door off its hinges by now."

With a fearsome scowl and a mighty grunt, Xena put all her much vaunted strength into one final shove. The door gave, opening just a crack before slamming closed again. Sweat liberally pouring off her face and arms, Xena rested her forehead against the wood. Rolling her head to the side, she peered at the bard through narrowed eyes.

"Something's pressed up against it," she tersely declared, "Something heavy."

Gabrielle stepped away, checking for a possible alternate entrance. Perhaps another secret door like the ones in the main temple? Stepping to one side of the path, she leaned her staff against the sandstone tower. Using both hands, she tried to push aside the thick vines that seemed to be growing over everything. Getting a firm grip, shoving a vine aside, she discovered only stone wall beneath. With a huff of defeat, she returned to Xena's side.

"Looks like that's the only way in."

Xena leaned back against the door. Squaring her shoulders, digging her toes into the dirt, she pressed with all her weight. Gabrielle rushed to join her, palms flat against the wood, arms straining as she shoved with all her might. Once again, the door gave a quarter inch and no more.

"It's no use, Gabrielle." Xena relaxed her stance, but remained leaning against the door. "We're not getting in that way."

Sliding down the length of the door, Gabrielle sank to her knees beside her warrior. She heard a flapping of wings, a cawing that sounded something akin to malicious laugher. Rolling one eye up, the blonde bard glared at the raven looking down from the tower's ledge.

"Too bad we can't just sprout wings and fly up there."

The eerie silence made Gabrielle roll her head, looking askew at her companion. Xena was chewing the inside of her lip, staring up the length of the tower, her gaze settling on the feathered fiend that seemed to be mocking them. Pushing off from the door, Xena twirled in a semi-circle, thoughtfully rubbing her chin as he surveyed their surroundings.

"Oh, come on, Xena. I mean, I know you've got many skills, but even you can't grow wings!"

Her brow arched, climbing higher, a smirk slowly forming on her lips, a devilish glint in her eye. "No, but that's definitely where we need to be," she pointed at the ledge of the bell tower. "And, I've got a pretty good idea how to get us there."

Gabrielle watched in rapt silence as her warrior pulled her chakram from her belt. Eyes darting about, Xena quickly assessed the angles. With a fierce yell and a flick of her wrist, she released her weapon. Startled, Gabrielle had just enough time to instinctively cover her head and duck as the chakram went whizzing by. Lifting her head, spitting dirt out of her mouth, she watched as the chakram bounced from wall to wall, cutting thick vines in half with every hit.

As the chakram came back, Xena deftly caught it one-handed, holstering it on her belt again. Calmly, she began gathering vines, tying each piece securely together. Still laying on her stomach in the dirt, Gabrielle openly glared at her lover.

"Xena! What did we say about you throwing that thing at me?!?"

A subtle shrug, a sheepish look, "I knew you'd duck."

The pounding of the drums echoed the beating of her heart; strong and pulsing with power. This would be her fight, her redemption, her retribution. She could feel it as surely as her heated blood coursed her lifeline through her veins. Chin held high, shoulders squared, she proudly stepped into the arena, two strong Amazons flanking her on either side.

Hands bound in front of her with thick cording, she stood with both feet planted firmly on the ground in an assured stance. Her eyes stared unwaveringly straight ahead. Before her, on a ceremonial platform sat the seven members of the Council of Elders. She looked each member squarely in the eye, coolly appraising the former healer, scouts and hunters. Her gaze fell to and locked on the seventh member, the only warrior in the group.

Steel grey eyes narrowed as Devillare returned the impertinent stare. Their gazes held fast, neither willing to be the first to avert her eyes. Captain Pelagia climbed the steps, boldly strode upon the platform, leaned in to speak in hushed tones in Devillare's ear. With little more than an arched brow and a bemused smile, Devillare turned her full attention to the captain of the guard.

Cordele rankled at being so easily dismissed by the elder. Her entire body stiffening, the muscles in her arms visibly dancing in response to the tension coursing through her body. Both of the guards flanking her reacted by tightening their grips upon her upper arms. Jutting her chin defiantly, she continued to glare at the elder that had determinedly snubbed her.

Even as Captain Pelagia concluded her business with Devillare and moved away, the warrior continued to wound Cordele's pride by ignoring her in favor of engaging in conversation with Nicphellia, seated to her immediate right. As if I were nothing more than their entertainment, to be acknowledged only when called upon to perform! Stifling her mounting rancor, Cordele's eyes narrowed as she followed Captain Pelagia's movement off the ceremonial platform.

The captain's long legs carried her smoothly down the steps, her stride bringing her quickly round to the front of the structure. She slid in beside the regent and the chief scout, easily picking up the thread of conversation the other two Amazons were engaged in.

From her distance and the clamor of voices of her sisters in the background lining the arena, Cordele couldn't overhear the conversation. And, she'd never mastered the skill of reading lips. But, neither of those things were necessary to discern the topic of conversation. The words on their lips were the same as those of every Amazon present; the trial of truth.

Solari and Ephiny stood side by side, so close their shoulders were very nearly touching. Cordele's mind took her back to the insinuation Alcestis had made in the courtroom and she wondered at the validity of that statement. Solari's hands were planted firmly on both hips, elbows jutting out. Her feet spread apart, the toes of her boots digging into the soft dirt as she anxiously shifted her weight from foot to foot. Her eyes kept darting back and forth from the position of the rapidly descending sun to Ephiny and back again.

The regent's head was held high, her carriage strong as she stood between the chief scout and the captain of the guard. There was a proud-bearing to her character that Cordele had always been drawn to. In her mind, it set her apart from the rest of the tribe. Her presence, her aura marked her as a true leader amongst the Amazons.

Given half the chance, Cordele would have gladly killed that upstart Gabrielle and put Ephiny on the throne as the true Queen of the Amazons. She would have been content to elevate Ephiny to that status and ruled at her side as her champion and consort. Our reign would have been glorious! But, in her misguided loyalty, Ephiny had rejected her subtly made offer. And, she'd made it quite clear that she was more than willing to stay in Gabrielle's shadow, to only be a half-queen to their people.

She had always been attracted to the regent, would have done anything short of laying down her own life to capture Ephiny's affections. Ever since Aphrodite's curse, though, she had come to see the regent in a new light. She was still drawn to Ephiny, that much was true. But, it was no longer the blind infatuation that she had once commanded. In that cache, she had seen the regent's flaws, learned of her fears and witnessed her weakness.

Even after the curse had been lifted and most things had returned to normal, Cordele's new revelations hadn't been so handily put back in the bottle. She could see past the regal bearing to the woman beneath the regent's crown now. And, that wasn't a insightfulness she was willing to pretend didn't exist anymore.

The regent's brow was drawn, her expression pensive. She wasn't as obvious as Solari, though, in her checking of the sun's demise. As a matter of fact, Cordele noticed that Ephiny went to great lengths to not check the position of Apollo's chariot. But, she was positive Ephiny could feel it, the fading rays burnishing a path as it caressed her shoulders; and she could sense it in the lengthening shadows and the almost palpable tension that mounted with every drumbeat. As each beat of the drum sounded out a death knell, Cordele was more and more clearly able to see the lines of worry etched plainly across the regent's face.

As well she should be worried.

There was a change in the air. A new age of the Amazon was on the horizon. The air was thick with anticipation - just as it had been when Velasca had challenged Melosa. Velasca had taken the field, arrogant in her confidence that she would kill her adoptive mother and take the crown. Watching the fight from the sidelines, there had been no doubt in Cordele's mind that Velasca would win that day.

Just as there was no doubt of her victory today. She was assured in her success; just as Velasca defeated Melosa in this very arena, she too would vanquish Melosa's weapons master.

That had been Velasca's downfall. She had taken for granted that once she defeated Melosa, all the Amazons would pledge their undying allegiance to her. In her arrogance, she was unconcerned about those most loyal to Melosa and left them in positions of power. Pelagia. Solari. Eponin. Ephiny. She had dismissed them from her concerns as being unworthy of her attention. And, like a poisoned apple, the four of them had rotted her short-lived reign from the inside out. Even if Gabrielle had never returned to take the crown from her, Velasca's Queenship was doomed to failure.

Because she failed to plan past Melosa's demise. Cordele hadn't actively sought to be placed in this position. But, ever since the curse of Aphrodite had sent her world spiraling out of control, she had been preparing for any eventuality. And, now that the opportunity had presented itself, she was more than ready to seize it.

She'd lain awake countless nights in her cell, imagining her revenge and plotting her retribution until she had it all mapped out in her mind's eye. She wouldn't be a footnote in history like Velasca; she had a plan. She would issue in the new age of the Amazon - the age of the Hunter Caste.

Her first step was to deal with the former weapons master to the Amazons. Eponin was a formidable opponent, but she was handicapped by a knee injury. An injury she had caused and from what her sources told her, the regent herself had aggravated during a recent sparring session. Her defeat at Cordele's hands was assured. But, to offer the sweet release of death - or the torture of exile?

That had been one of the questions she had relentlessly pondered over night after night in her cell. Killing her outright would be soooo satisfying and serve to send a message of finality to the opposition. But, exiling her also held a certain sweet appeal. If she was dead, Eponin could not bear witness to the events transpiring in the Amazon Nation. She wouldn't suffer if she wasn't alive to witness the fate of her beloved sisters. And oh, how she wanted Eponin to suffer.

She hadn't reconciled Eponin's fate in her plans, yet. She supposed that would come to her spontaneously in the heat of battle when she had Eponin on the ground at her feet. She would decide then.

She wouldn't let the rest of her plans hinge on the outcome of today's combat. She would win, that was all that was necessary. After that, she would bask in her freedom for a while before making her next move. She had to sway the Council. She already had some support. As for Devillare; well, elders' hearts were known to suddenly stop beating in the middle of the night.

Next, she would need to elevate her supporters to higher positions. To do that, she would need to remove the opposition. The forest could be a dangerous place, traveling by trees treacherous in the winter season. And, although Solari was a seasoned scout, even she was fallible. A fall from the height of the trees the chief scout was known to favor would be more than enough to tragically snap her neck. She could picture the captain of the guard, inconsolable in her grief over the loss of her friend, taking her own life by falling on her sword. Early in the morning in a secluded glen, of course.

Pelagia's suicidal dishonor coupled with that of Eponin's loss at the trial would give Cordele cause to push for a restructuring of the caste. With Devillare gone, the remaining hunters on the Council would no doubt agree to her petition. She would claim the title of regent until the Queen could be found and returned home - to be stripped of her mask and her power.

And, as for the current regent? Oh, she had plans for her, too. Cordele's eyes glinted as she studied the lithe body of the toned Amazon with the unruly, golden curls. She would take the regent, as well. But, not as her Queen. No, she would have Ephiny at her beck and call, relegated to a life of servitude as her body slave. She could see it; the once proud former regent on her knees at her feet, clad only in a slave's collar and chain.

The cadence in the tempo of the drums changed, signaling the arrival of the weapons master. Eponin came striding out to the arena, flanked on both sides by an escort of trained warriors. Her escort was six in number, all highly seasoned veterans that were hand-picked and honored to be the first line of offense in any battle. These were the elite of the elite, Eponin's own lieutenant, Egeria, amongst them. They'll have to go, too, of course, Cordele realized.

Eponin broke off from her escort, striding with an air of confidence towards the ceremonial platform. Bowing elegantly, she gave a customary showing of respect to the assembled elders. More than one elder smiled graciously at the weapons master's charming manners.

Standing before the assembled Amazons, Eponin turned to face her three most trusted friends. Solari and Pelagia offered reassuring smiles as she looked to each of them. Standing between them, Ephiny wasn't quite able to hide the look of concern etched across her lips or the worry that lingered in the depths of her bright, hazel eyes. Eponin held her gaze, even as she briskly thumped her upper chest in quick salute. Ephiny dutifully raised her chin in silent acknowledgement at the gesture, mustering her most heartening smile as she lifted her arm in return.

The drum sounded one final note as Eponin turned her back on her regent and friends and strode towards the center of the arena. Cordele focused all her energy on staring at the approaching weapons master. She knew half the battle was a contest of wills; she wanted Eponin to know straight from the start that she was going to lose; she wanted Eponin to see her own death reflected in her opponent's eyes. Even as she felt her escorts loosening the ties about her wrists, she continued to hold fast to Eponin's approaching form.

Eponin unflinchingly met her gaze, returned her stare. Her calm bearing, her confident manner, her powerful frame - all of these qualities of the weapons master made Cordele's blood boil. In that instant, she decided she would have Eponin on her knees, in her power, at her mercy. An image of the once proud warrior, beaten and defeated, stripped of her position and rank, on her hands and knees, chained with the thickest length of metal she could find flashed in her mind. She would have Eponin powerless, broken, pitiful in her impotence - and she would make her watch as she took her once-regent's magnificent body for her own pleasure.

Eponin strode right up to her, nostrils flaring as she looked up at the hunter that had dared to issue a challenge of truth against her. Cordele glared down at her, her greater height and bulk giving her an added air of superiority as she towered over the weapons master. In her confidence, she let her cold, thin lips curve into a feral smile.

It was all within her grasp.

Eponin's complete and utter defeat.

Her rise to power.

The regent.

The crown.

The Nation.

Retribution was at hand.



I can't believe I let her talk me into these things!

Gabrielle felt the familiar movement of Xena's muscles beneath her touch as the warrior princess pulled herself up hand over hand.

She'd thought Xena was crazy when she'd tied one end of the vine-rope she'd made to her chakram. Then, she looked up the opposing height of the mortar and stone tower. Just the tip of her tongue sticking out between pale lips as she concentrated, Xena let fly her chakram. The weapon and vine combination circled wildly, swinging about as it spiraled higher and higher until it cleared the ledge the raven was perched upon. Finally, with a whoosh followed by a resounding ching, the chakram circled the column of stone supporting the tower bell in place.

Xena gave a hearty tug on the vine, letting loose a satisfied grunt and a grin as the chakram held fast. "Hang on tightly," she commanded, urging her lover onto her back.

If Gabrielle thought her lover was crazy for using a vine to scale the sheer face of the daunting tower; what was she for blindly following Xena's commands? Touched by the Furies myself, perhaps? But, regardless of what anyone thought - whether fool or mad or a touch of both - there was never a doubt that she would follow her heart - her Xena - anywhere.

They were moving surprisingly fast, Xena's strong arms and legs carrying them quickly up the rope. They were more than halfway up; Gabrielle's gaze locked on the top of the tower and the raven perched on the ledge in an effort to avoid her fear of heights. As if conscious of Gabrielle's stare, the raven looked back at her, cocking his head from side to side in careful study. Suddenly, with a ruffling of feathers and an offended squawk, the raven launched itself off the ledge, diving straight down the side of the tower.

Gabrielle shrieked, eyes going wide as sharp talons came straight for them. She reflexively tightened her grip and buried her face in Xena's neck. The bird swooped, then flew up, circling to come back around. Feathers flew wildly as wings beat rapidly and talons sought to pierce flesh and sinew.

A gauntlet flailed wildly, an arm lashing out at their feathered attacker. Her one-handed grip slipped, sending them sliding several feet down the heavy vine rope. A shrill scream pierced Xena's ear as Gabrielle's grip tightened impossibly more, threatening to completely cut off her airway.

"Hang on, Gabrielle!" Xena ordered, struggling to twist her body and reach her breast dagger as the frenzied bird came around for another pass.

Although the drums no longer sounded, Eponin could feel the pounding echo of their beat in her heart; strong and powerful, pumping the adrenaline through her body. She was always like this just before a battle; the blood coursing through her veins, her muscles twitching in anticipation, the rage building inside her as the bloodlust grew to a passionate crescendo.

Warrior mask firmly in place, no one would guess at the volcanic turmoil hidden beneath her confident exterior. She was, as always, the epitome of cool reserve. Standing in the center of the arena, the eyes of the spectators blurred out of focus. She knew the entire village was present. Save the border patrols, no one would dare miss this event. After all, it threatened to shape the very future of the Nation.

That alone should have made the blood in Eponin's veins slow with ice-numbing dread. But, it didn't. That knowledge only served to make the bloodlust grow. This was for truth - this was for honor - this was for Ephiny. And, because of that, this she could handle. She could block out these eyes, these voices. The only ones here, the only ones that mattered were her and her opponent.

Cordele of the Hunter Caste.

The name echoing inside her head was enough to fuel her rage. The things she had done; the insults she had made; the audacity she displayed . . . Ep focused her thoughts, her anger, her energy, fixing them squarely upon her enemy.

When Cordele was at last called upon to select her weapon and they were finally given the signal for the combat to begin, the weapons master was more than ready.

With a grunt and a mighty thrust, Xena plunged the blade of her breast dagger into the mortar. A powerful heave had her shoulders and upper body above the tower ledge. She ground her teeth, resisting the urge to yell as Gabrielle scrambled the rest of the way up her body and over the expanse of wall encircling the wood and stone ledge.

The bard's weight finally off her back, Xena was able to easily scale the remaining few feet and haul herself over the wall. She sat on the cool stonework, taking in deep gulps of refreshing air as she leaned with her back against the stone wall. Closing her eyes, she forced herself to calmly breathe in and out. The cool breeze felt delicious against her sweat-slickened skin and she again found herself thinking about asking Gabrielle for a set of Amazonian leathers for Solstice. Would certainly be cooler than my armor. But, maybe not nearly as protective, she reflected, fingers idly running a path along her stomach where she scraped herself coming up over the wall.

"Now what?" came the breathless question husked in her right ear.

Xena lolled her head to the side, taking in the bedraggled appearance of her little companion. For all intents and purposes, all she'd had to do was hold on while Xena did the physical part. But, Gabrielle's appearance looked for all the known world as if she just climbed the tower barehanded. Her Amazon skirt would need some minor repair work to fix up the slit she'd ripped up the side. Various cuts and scrapes marred her arms and legs. And, her blonde hair was a disheveled, tangled mess.

"Visit to a hairstylist in Athens, maybe?" Xena suggested with a quirk of her brow and a hint of a smile.

Gabrielle looked momentarily confused. Then, catching on, she gave Xena a suitably offended look before attempting with as much dignity as possible given the circumstances to brush stray wisps of hair away from her sweaty face. Fingers caught in a tangle and she cursed, yanking them free with a painful tug. Several blonde strands wrapped about a black feather came out in her hand. Scrunching up her face, she tossed the tangle and feather combination away from herself in disgust.

Don't laugh at the bard! Don't laugh at the bard. A very unwarrior-like giggle slipped out between tightly clenched teeth. Bad Xena!

Tearing her gaze away from the bard with heroic effort and carefully schooling her features into a bored expression, Xena plucked her breast dagger from the mortar. She wiped the blade off on her leathers, carefully returned it to its place between her breasts.

"Down the other side," she answered Gabrielle's question at last. Reaching over the ledge, she began dragging the vine-rope up one-handed.

"Down the - " Gabrielle's eyes grew wide as she peered over the edge of the catwalk they were resting on. She didn't know which she hated worse about heights the going up part . . . or the coming back down.

Suspended in midair was the elaborate bell she'd admired from the ground earlier. From it was suspended a worn, frayed rope. Peering over, she could only see a distance of about fifteen feet before the rest of the circular interior was hidden in shadows and darkness.

Xena calmly brought up the rest of their rope and retrieved her chakram, holstering it on her belt. The warrior had no idea what was blocking the door leading into the bell tower, but she had no intention of climbing back up the tower and down the other side again. Tying the vine off by hand and checking to make sure it was sound, she eased herself off the catwalk and into midair. Holding the rope one-handed she extended her other, waggling fingers urging the bard forward.

Despite Xena's earlier efforts of the vinegar soaked cloths, Gabrielle felt that morning's breakfast trying to make another attempt at swimming upstream. Securing her grip, taking a deep breath and closing her eyes, she willed herself - Breathe. Hang on. Breathe. Hang on. Breathe -

The hunter was smart, Solari had to give her that. She had challenged the weapons master to a trial by combat. By ancient law, truth would be on the side of the winner. Only she would have the strength to defeat her opponent. But, to openly challenge the Weapons Master of the Amazon Nation to combat . . . most would consider that suicidal.

Even if anyone was crazy enough to think Cordele was telling the truth.

Certainly most of the members of her caste believed her. Definitely Keleos and Kynthia must, at the very least. And, more than one member of the Council of Elders had to give credence to the claim; otherwise they wouldn't have agreed to the duel. Symaethis in her role as Counsel for the Nation lodged every protest she could think of to halt this farce, all the way up until the last candlemark before the combat. Just as Alcestis used every breath she possessed to counter all of Symaethis' objections. Still, Solari wasn't completely convinced of Alcestis' belief in her client's innocence. No matter how staunchly she defended her. How many other sisters truly believe Cordele has the strength of truth to defeat Eponin?

Sandalwood eyes raked over the faces of the Amazons present, taking in every facial expression, every subtle nuance. The hunter caste had clearly taken sides with their leader, standing unified in one section, well away from the warrior caste. Of course, that may have been arranged by Pelagia in response to the brawl in the courtroom. Evanthe had made it clear that she would brook no interference - and no sideline fighting - upon penalty of an immediate sentence to hard labor for all parties involved.

As Solari studied the assembled crowd of hunters, she was able to pick out Myrina's distinctive form. The chief scout was used to coming to the practice fields and finding the hunter leaning over the fence, watching the weapons master work. Myrina was easy to spot in the crowd; a tall, lanky brunette with the most amazing lashes that reminded Solari of a doe . . . and she's always batting them at Ep . . . Never thought she'd take sides against Eponin. Trained eyes caught the downcast stare, the solemn expression, the continuous wringing of the hands. Then again, maybe she has to openly show support for her caste.

The warriors were the same way, she realized. On the opposite side of the arena, they were the most vocal of the Eponin supporters. As well they should be. Each of these women were who they were today because of Eponin's training. She had taught them, fought alongside them, made them into warriors. And, leading the group was Egeria, head of Eponin's elite squad. These were the best of the best; any one of them could sneak into an enemy's camp in the dead of night and single-handedly neutralize every soldier without raising an alarm. There was no doubt who they supported.

Interspersed between the two castes were the weavers, the dancers, the cooks, the farmers and Solari's scouts. She could tell from the readings she was getting that public opinion seemed to be intermixed. Most of these women knew Eponin personally through her duties as weapons master and respected her for the role she played in training their mothers, their sisters, their daughters, their bondmates. But, there were some who thought that perhaps it was time for a change - and maybe, they saw Cordele as being the catalyst for that change. And, although Solari openly supported Eponin, she wouldn't dictate to her subordinates who they should back. Solari figured they had enough sense to make that decision for themselves. But, she was secretly pleased to note that all of her caste seemed to favor the weapons master.

Pelagia's own house was divided. As Captain of the Guard, she had to enforce the demands of the council and the letter of the law. That put her in a very volatile position, no matter the outcome. Her bondmate, Megara, had publicly refused to come to the trial, stating she would be waiting at the hospice for whichever fool survived. In her place, she had sent her apprentices, Hilaeira and Iphinome. Solari remembered both from when Ephiny was in the hospice. And, although they were adequate apprentices and performed their duties, she remembered them both being far more attentive to an ailing Cordele. As for Megara's daughters, the twins each seemed to favor Eponin, while the youngest daughter was clearly taken by Cordele.

Must be all the muscles, Solari reflected, turning her gaze back to the arena. Both Amazons seemed to be evenly matched at this point, neither able to gain a clear advantage over the other. There was a feint, then a rush, a dodged blow. Then, they would both back off and regroup for another try. In a surprising move, Cordele dropped her guard, openly inviting Eponin in to take a shot. Eponin accepted the offer, striking with a speed Cordele clearly wasn't expecting and then moving out of range before the hunter had time to react.

Her unorthodox machinations were bordering on madness. But, perhaps there was a method to that madness, after all. She supposed Cordele had spent candlemark upon candlemark planning this out, deciding on her best course of action.

How do you defeat a woman whose very rank gives credence to the fact that she has mastered every weapon of warfare there is?

The solution wouldn't have been Solari's first choice. She would have gone with something she felt more comfortable with. Better yet, she wouldn't have been foolish enough to challenge Eponin in the first place. Not in serious combat.

But, the challenge had been Cordele's choice. And, as the accused, so was the choice of weapons. A surprised murmur of voices had risen from the assembled crowd when Cordele announced her decision to forego the traditional selections.

Solari winced as a powerful fist connected soundly with Eponin's nose, causing blood to spray in a wild arc with the impact. Ep backed off, wiping the blood away with the back of her hand. Her tongue darted out, swiping at the crimson rivulets collecting on her upper lip. With a snarl and a fearsome Amazon battle-cry, she charged the hunter.

The heel of Cordele's boot caught Eponin in the knee, halting her, bringing her down. Artemis' arrows! Solari swore beneath her breath at Ep's stubborn streak. She had told the weapons master to wear her knee brace into the arena, but Ep had refused, removing it before coming out to the trial. She didn't want anyone to say she wasn't fighting with honor by using her injury to influence the outcome in any way. Stubborn daughter of a bacchae - Wonder if she's realized her opponent isn't hampered by the same sense of honor she is? It was painfully obvious that brace or no brace, Cordele knew exactly what Eponin's weaknesses were - and she was going to exploit them every chance she got.

Solari grimaced as Eponin got in another solid blow to Cordele's breadbasket. Followed up by a left to the eye. Then, a double-fisted blow with Cordele's full body weight behind it connected with her jaw and Ep was sent flying.

Maybe bare-handed against the weapons master was the sanest way to go, Solari acknowledged, an icy-cold knot forming in her heated gut in apprehension as her battered friend lay sprawled on the ground.

The descent into darkness was much smoother than the climb up had been. The interior was cool and dark, a welcome reprieve from their earlier excursion. Light from a dim fire glowed faintly, casting the figures of bard and warrior in macabre shadows upon the the stone walls.

Xena made fast work of the distance, smoothly bringing them down in quick, efficient strides. Heavy boots echoed loudly on the stone floor as she touched bottom. Gabrielle loosened her grip, sliding off Xena's back and onto the ground.

Xena deftly unsheathed her sword, turning in a slow semi-circle, weapon at the ready as her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. The glow they had seen earlier had been from a fire that had started beneath a pile of wood and broken pottery. This was no cooking flame that had been left unattended. The fire had once been much larger, raging out of control, as evidenced by the remains of hulking timbers that were now covered in grey ash and charred black. A glance at the interior wall revealed just how high the flames had gotten, licking their way over the previously white stone and mortar, covering it in the same thick, blackened ash.

The fire had started on the south wall and spread over more than half the circumference of the bell tower. In the center of the tower, unscathed, was the rope extending down from the bell itself. The rope was stretched taut, its massive length stretched at an angle, disappearing into the shadows beyond the warrior's immediate vision. Reaching a tentative hand out, calloused fingers closed about thick rope, feeling the tension. Whatever the end of this is attached to, it's secure, she realized, testing the rope with a sharp tug.

Xena warily picked her way through the debris, Gabrielle close behind her, the sole of the warrior's boot darting out every so often to quash a stray ember before it could ignite again. Steadily, carefully, she directed them towards where she judged the entranceway should be located.

Gabrielle kept close to her warrior, one hand tightly clutched about the solid grip of her staff, the other about Xena's firm bicep. Both gave her comfort in decidedly uncomfortable situations - like dark cramped spaces where anyone could be lurking in the shadows! A scritching noise on the cold stonework caused her to reflexively stiffen and bite down on her lower lip to stifle the instinctive scream. She visibly relaxed as she saw that the noise was made not by some blood-thirsty, club-wielding Cyclops - but by a tiny, furry four-legged field mouse.

Sometimes, a bard's imagination can be a very scary thing, indeed! Calming herself, she tried to wrestle her over-active, fertile imagination down and focus on the task at hand. As they picked their way along, her eyes darted here and there, her natural curiosity making her wonder about this thing or that, the history behind the tower and trying to commit as many details to memory for a possible bard's tale for later. Spotting something shiny on the soot-covered floor, she abruptly let loose Xena's muscular arm and stooped to retrieve it.

A dinar, she marveled, turning the coin over and over again in her fingers. Must be my lucky day. Her eyes traveled along the floor, spotting several such gleaming items. Bending down, fingers rapidly sifting through the dirt and ash alike, she quickly retrieved no fewer than thirty dinars.


That one whispered word was enough to gain Xena's attention. Pale blue eyes, eerily illuminated by the reflection of the dying flames flickering in her irises turned their full attention upon her bard. She coolly studied the neat little row of coins displayed in the palm of Gabrielle's hand as she held them up for her inspection.

"Whatever happened here happened in a hurry," Xena acknowledged, already moving once again through the rubble.

She let a small smile tug at the corner of her lips as she caught sight of Gabrielle wisely tucking the coins into the purse at her belt. Being a traveling bard on the road with a mighty warrior had quickly taught the once naive, wide-eyed girl a few harsh life lessons. One of those being never pass up a dinar that might pay for a hot meal in your empty stomach later.

That was what Xena regretted the most about allowing Gabrielle to travel with her. The hard, cruel facts of life that she had ended up having to teach the young innocent. Some lessons had been harsher than others - and some had broken the hardened curmudgeon heart of an ex-warlord as she was forced to bear silent witness to Gabrielle's reactions to such lessons.

She had single-handedly dispelled so many of Gabrielle's images and ideals. She'd taken a little hometown girl from the life she knew and irrevocably changed her forever. And, she wondered just how many more of her young companion's values and morals would be compromised because of the love she felt for the warrior.

There were many times that Xena had thought about abandoning her young charge. Just dropping her off in a town somewhere and taking off in the middle of the night. Gabrielle was a good bard; she'd be able to eke out a living on her own. Or, maybe she'd earn enough dinars to carry her home to Potadeia. Back to the life she knew.

That had been before three things happened to change her mind. The first was that she realized that even if she did leave Gabrielle somewhere safe, the little bard would continue to follow after her, even if it meant following Argo across country on foot all the way. The second was when she saw how well her little companion got on with the Amazons. She quickly realized that after spending even a short period of time in the company of the nation of warrior women, Gabrielle would never again be satisfied to languish in a civilized town again. Third was - well, third was the big one - she suddenly woke up one day and realized the true reason she couldn't just abandon the girl to her own devices. Somehow, that little girl with the bubbling personality and incessant chatter had worked her way into her heart and wouldn't let go. It was with profound realization that Xena was struck with the surety that she would sooner cut out her own heart before doing anything to harm Gabrielle's.

Xena was quickly drawn out of her reverie as her forward progress was suddenly halted by a solid wall of charred debris and timbers. Looking up, she studied the mass of wreckage that towered over her six-foot frame. Apparently, there had been a platform roughly ten feet higher up on the wall. And, it had fallen. A mixture of stone and rubble and wooden beams - and the taut rope from the bell - were all blocking the door she presumed lay beyond.

The two largest beams had fallen in such a way as to form a narrow arch and she leaned her head and shoulders in, trying to get a look. It was a tight fit, but she was certain she'd be able to make it if she cleared away the rubble laying beneath the braced beams. Signaling for Gabrielle to help her, she diligently set to work clearing the heaviest looking rocks in an effort to leave the lighter debris for her companion to work with.

Her weapons master was down, her battered body crumpled in the dust like a discarded rag doll. The roar of the Amazons screaming along the sidelines was deafening in her ears, drowning out the tumultuous pounding of her heart. She was painfully aware of each beat, though, as it threatened to rip a hole in her chest.

The regent's hands clenched and unclenched at her sides, teeth painfully gritted as her jaw locked, a murderous glower spreading across her features as she bore witness to the travesty of justice that was taking place.

The hunter stood tall and proud, the rapidly sinking sun reflecting off bronzed muscles and blonde hair, hands splayed on both hips as she stared down at the broken body of her foe. The heartbeats slowly passed, with Eponin writhing on the ground, her enemy towering over her, callously toying with her as a wild cat would a field mouse.

Eponin struggled to her side, her weight supported on one arm as she managed to lift her upper body from the ground. Ebony locks fell about hunched shoulders, the dark strands and the fletching of the single blue feathered earring she wore stained crimson with the blood dripping from a blow she'd taken to the head. Red clay caked her exposed flesh, sticking to her sweat-soaked skin, aggravating the long, talon-like scratches along her neck. Her other hand moved to her leg, strong fingers gripping at the bulging veins behind her knee in an effort to relieve the agonizing pressure. Unable to bend her leg, keeping it painfully extended, Ep rolled over, managing to somehow come up on her opposite forearm and knee.

Cordele waited, using the pause in action to catch her breath, watching as the proud Amazon tried to pull herself up out of the dirt. In truth, though she would admit it to no one, Cordele needed the respite. Eponin was tougher than she had expected, she'd lasted far longer than she'd thought possible. Already, Apollo's chariot was disappearing and the brilliant oranges and reds of the sky were giving sway to the muted blues and dusky grays that signaled the transition from dusk to true dark.

She'd thought to make quick work of the weapons master. But, Eponin had proven to be a formidable opponent. Even caught off-guard by the unorthodox demand that the only weapons used were their own bare hands. Cordele was counting on her superior size and mass to put the odds in her favor. She hadn't expected the weapons master to recover so quickly, to adapt so efficiently to a strategy she clearly wasn't expecting. Despite her greater strength, the blonde hunter had found herself on the defensive. It was pure dumb luck that caused a missed blow to awkwardly slam into Eponin's ear, momentarily throwing her equilibrium off-kilter, giving Cordele a temporary edge.

She'd immediately pressed her attack, purposely aiming at Eponin's obvious injuries. Even her strikes that weren't centered on the Amazon's knee were designed to weaken her, wear her down. The rabbit punches to what Cordele suspected were a set of still healing ribs. The close-quarters feint that hid the slash of the nails across Eponin's throat. Her intention had been the weapons master's jugular. Only Ep's fast reflexes and a well-placed jab to Cordele's kidneys had thwarted the move.

An easy victory hadn't been expected. But, she hadn't thought she'd have to fight for it tooth and nail. Eponin struggled, still valiantly trying to somehow fight the waves of dizziness and the persistent buzzing in her right ear in an effort to reach her feet. She managed to make it onto her knee. Palms braced on the gritty clay, she dug in her fingers, trying to stabilize herself enough to push up.

A hand clutched at her hair, yanking, pulling until her head was jerked back. Cordele applied enough pressure so that Eponin's entire upper body was straining, her fingertips barely touching the ground, her back and neck arched with tension as she was forced to look up into cruel, midnight blue eyes. Cordele readjusted her grip and Ep saw a massive hand come into view, forming a powerful fist as Cordele prepared to deliver the final blow.

"NO!" Ephiny shouted, her voice ringing in her own ears.

From the clamor the other Amazons were making, she was certain no one else had heard her scream of protest. Yet, she was positive Cordele had turned her head to look straight at her. And, she intentionally smirked at the regent. Fury flooded Ephiny's senses, spurring her to take action. With a grim determination, she stepped across the line marking the boundary of the arena.

Sweat trickled down inside Gabrielle's top, between her breasts and underneath, making her decidedly uncomfortable. She was hot and sweat and it was dark and cramped and she'd kill for a nice breeze and . . . a quick glance at the warrior meticulously working beside her revealed an equally frustrated woman.

She'd seen Xena sweat before. Oh, how she'd seen her sweat. The slick moisture running off her hair and face in rivulets, down her defined arms, between those dangerous breasts, to disappear somewhere in amongst all that leather and armor. She loved the way Xena looked after a hard battle . . . or some other endeavor that left her all hot and sweaty. She loved the way it made it her look, the way it made her smell . . . many of her fantasies involved Xena coming to her fresh from a fight and . . . just taking her. It was without a doubt the single-most sexy image she could conjure of the famed warrior princess.

Today, her fantasy looked anything but sexy. She was covered in ash and grime, soot mingling with her perspiration laden hair tracking filthy trails down her chiseled cheekbones and lodging themselves into the lines and creases of her neck. Her hands were grubby from the tips of her dirt-encrusted fingernails all the way past her sullied gauntlets and encircling both elbows. The fervor in which she'd started clearing the debris had trickled to a decidedly slower pace as the heat and toil and continued caution she exerted to not dislodge the structural beams hampered her efforts.

Grunting, her teeth flashing as she grimaced, Xena struggled to lift a particularly well-lodged piece of stonework. Every muscle straining, she was leaning back, quite unprepared for the chunk of masonry to give way. She fell backwards, landing in a tangled heap upon the floor, the stone laying on top of her chest. Gabrielle was instantly at her side, helping to lift the mortar and stone off.

"Oh yeah, just loving it," Xena groused, lifting the slab off herself and tossing it off to the side where it landed against the growing pile of rubble they'd been clearing.

"Xena - "

Hearing the tone of her lover's voice, Xena scrambled to her hands and knees, half-crawled to where her bard was perched beneath the archway. As that last slab had given way, it revealed the length of a blue sleeve and a battered hand. Must be one of the temple priests. Moving in beside Gabrielle, Xena reached out, checking for a pulse.

"He's dead."

Gabrielle sat back on her haunches, one hand covering her mouth as she continued to stare at the lifeless arm.

"Come on," Xena urged, spying a somewhat clearer path through the rubble and already skirting around the debris mound that hid the rest of the body. "Nothing we can do for him now."

She found herself firmly halted in her tracks by a dual set of hands. Pelagia and Solari each had a restraining grip on her gauntlets, holding her in place. And, as an added measure, Solari had another hand at the small of her back, long fingers tucked into the back of Ephiny's belt. Effectively, yet discreetly immobilized, there was nothing the regent could do.

Solari felt the tension in her arm as she continued to hold Ephiny back. Her fingers were already aching from where they were securely latched onto the leather of Ephiny's belt. She shifted closer to her regent, using her nearness to mask the fact that she was holding the other Amazon back from doing something as foolhardy as charging into the arena.

Not that Solari didn't want to do that very thing. But, she couldn't allow Ephiny to make that mistake. Ancient law demanded there be no interference . . . no matter the outcome. Surreptitiously, Solari wriggled her thumb, moving the digit back and forth across Ephiny's smooth skin in an effort to soothe some of the anxious tension out of her regent's back.

Megara appeared at Pelagia's side. Taking her free hand as a gesture of support for her bondmate, the healer steadfastly watched as the drama upon the field unfolded. Grey eyes casting a sidelong look at Ephiny as if to gauge her reaction, Pelagia slowly loosened her grip on the regent's gauntlet. Sensing no further resistance, she completely removed her fingers, bringing her hand down to her side, where she reflexively clenched and unclenched an agitated fist.

Cordele's cocked fist came down - and Ephiny fought against the urge to close her eyes in empathetic reflex. Suddenly, Cordele's hand seemed to stop in mid-strike. Agonizingly slowly, she opened her fist until each of her fingers were uncurled, then almost tenderly brought them down to caress Eponin's bloodstained cheek.

Eponin instinctively recoiled at the touch, but found herself held firmly in place as Cordele continued the sadistic caress. A sliver of ice ran through her veins as fingers closed viciously about her jaw. Swallowing hard, acutely aware of the effort that one small action took, Eponin willed her mind to focus on something . . . anything other than her tormentor.

She vowed she wouldn't give Cordele the satisfaction.

Taking a calming breath, she commanded her mind to relax. Sending up a silent prayer to Artemis, she bade her goddess to forgive her her weakness and pleaded for redemption for her failure in protecting Queen . . . and Regent. A surge of bile erupted at the realization of just what her inability may cost the crown and the Nation . . . Gabrielle . . . and Ephiny. And, she had to force herself to swallow it back down alongside her prayer of atonement for her guilt.

Suddenly, the grip upon her jaw tightened and she was forced to blink, bringing her present painfully back into focus. She found herself staring transfixed into malevolent eyes. Then, thin lips were pressed to her skin and vile words were heatedly whispered in her ear.

"You ruined me," Cordele hissed through clenched teeth. "Everything I had, you took from me. My home, my family, my honor. Everything." A sudden burst of righteous anger surged through her and she gripped Eponin's jaw so tightly she thought she might have the satisfaction of hearing the bones crunch. "Now, I'm going to do the same to you. I'm going to take it all from you." She paused for effect before purposely forcing Eponin's head to the side so she could clearly see the ceremonial platform. When she was positive Eponin's gaze was riveted, she huskily added, "Including her."

Xena cast a worried look overhead. They were now completely past the makeshift archway and firmly ensconced beneath the rubble that was being held in place by only a few beams that had fallen at just the right angle. If she moved the wrong stone now, she could very likely dislodge one of the timbers and send the entire mess crashing down upon their heads. Fortunately, this path she'd found was much clearer and they were able to traverse through it at a steady crablike crawl on haunches and forearms. She sent a silent prayer to the Goddess Artemis that she aid the warrior in keeping her Amazon Queen safe.

For the most part, Xena didn't have much use for the Gods. Too much exposure to Ares' manipulations had left her feeling less than faith-inspired. Although, she was slowly coming to terms with the notion that not all Gods were created equal. Not all Gods were Ares.

Or, Goddesses. She had begrudgingly learned that she didn't hold the same animosity towards the goddesses as she did their male counterpart. She hadn't met the whole pantheon, but for the most part, she found the goddesses to be much more responsible and even likeable. Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare and Artemis, goddess of the hunt and Amazons. And - she'd deny it under pain of torture - even Aphrodite had grown on her.

Oh, the buxom blonde could get on Xena's last nerve quicker than anything. And, she lived to cause trouble. Even when she wasn't trying to. Take that incident with Ephiny back in the Amazon Nation. Aphrodite was only trying to help . . . in her usual bungling way. She never maliciously set out to do harm. She was just - sort of like Joxer . . . in a clumsy, beautiful goddess sort of way.

As she continued to work her way through the makeshift passageway, Xena allowed her mind to travel down that path for awhile, becoming lost in the memories of the spell Aphrodite had cast in the heart of the Amazon village. And, the effects it had on all the warriors, even herself. Then, she'd summoned Aphrodite in Eponin's presence . . . Who knew the Goddess of Love would be so taken with buff female warriors that have a thing for leather and feathers?

Every muscle in her body raged as time seemed to slow in that one moment of transition from dusky gray to the darkest indigo that would blend to the blackest night heralding Artemis' moon. All around, she could hear flint being struck, the hiss as straw caught and held the flame, then the soft glow as hundreds of torches were lit one by one. Then, it all stilled.

No one moved as Eponin and Cordele remained locked in a bizarre tableau. The weapons master was on her knees, arms and hands hanging limply as every line in her well-defined form stood out in stark tension. The hunter towered over her, the fingers of one hand clutched tightly about ebony locks, her other clenched about Eponin's strong jaw. Every breath was held, anticipation thick as they collectively waited for the conclusion.

Ephiny was acutely aware of both Pelagia and Solari flanking her, Sol's fingers still firmly fixed upon her wrist in a death grip. Not that she had the strength to shake her off. Like Eponin and Cordele, she too seemed to be trapped within the mystifying tapestry. Her breath had caught, stilling in her chest as Cordele purposely manipulated Eponin's jaw, turning her so they were both staring directly at the ceremonial platform.

And, even in the dim lighting cast by the torchlight encircling the arena, Ephiny could clearly see eyes the shade of glistening honey staring unblinkingly at her. Her stare was unwavering, even as Cordele's fingers gripped tighter and she leaned in and snarled into Eponin's ear. Ephiny willed herself to breathe, forced herself to stand proud as she tried to will her strength to her Pony with just a look.

Ep struggled to maintain eye contact with Ephiny, even as her vision blurred and Cordele continued to hiss vile promises in her ear. The words stung almost as much as the grip upon her jaw, the threats of what she would do to everything in her life she held dear. Eponin knew Cordele was building up to it, taunting her in her final moments to add salt to her wounds. As Cordele described each act, Eponin's rage grew, her anger seething just below the surface. Eyes still locked on Ephiny's, she tried to silently convey to her regent what she'd never been able to put into words.

"And, you know what's gonna be the best part?" Cordele's heated growl reverberated in Eponin's eardrum. "When I take your precious regent and force her to her knees while I take her from - "

"Raaarrrrggghhhh - !" Something akin to a wounded animal's howl broke the almost reverent silence that had fallen upon the spectators, startling more than one Amazon.

Eponin erupted, both arms shooting out, hands and fingers wrapping themselves about Cordele's ankles and firmly tugging. A satisfied snarl followed up Eponin's move as the hunter was unceremoniously dumped onto her backside on the red clay. Before Cordele could recover, she had two-hundred plus pounds of enraged weapons master upon her.

The blood lust was fully upon Eponin; her vision clouded over with a fiery red haze. She wasn't even cognizant of where her punches were landing anymore, only that she was putting everything she had into each rapid-fire successive blow. She wasn't aware of anything beyond making Cordele feel pain. The same sort of searing pain she'd managed to elicit in Eponin with only words.

Nostrils flaring, chest heaving with each breath, Eponin slowly returned to her senses. Her hands, her knuckles were covered in blood. And, it felt like she'd broken every bone in her fingers. Cordele was still struggling beneath her, futilely attempting to block the flurry of blows and work her way out from beneath Eponin's weight.

Eponin ignored the defensive punches that were being delivered to her upper body as she straddled Cordele. Leaning in, her hands found their way to Cordele's neck, fingers tightening upon her enemy's throat. Every muscle in her shoulders, arms and hands straining, she increased the pressure.

Really gotta lay off the nutbread. As they'd worked their way deeper into the makeshift passageway, Xena had signaled for Gabrielle to go ahead of her. She knew what that meant; Xena was confident there was no danger in front of them. And, she wanted to make sure she was bringing up the rear in case by some freak circumstance the debris above them collapsed. Her noble warrior wanted to have a chance, no matter how remote, of pushing her on through and taking the brunt of the debris on her powerful shoulders.

Not that that's going to happen. Gabrielle kept herself focused on positive thoughts and moving forward. In truth, they hadn't gone that far in a measure of mere distance - she judged them to be only about twelve paces from where they'd found the priest - but it was back-breaking work crawling through the assorted debris. Not to mention hard on the knees, she thought, edging along, feeling something sharp poking into the fleshy divot just below her kneecap.

Inexplicably, the path widened, they were beyond the leaning mass of rubble and she was able to stand upright for the first time in what seemed like ages. Reaching out a hand, she helped her warrior to her feet, hiding her smile as she heard the audible pops and groans of protesting older joints. Xena quirked an eyebrow, giving her the look, almost daring her to say something. Wisely refraining, Gabrielle turned away from her warrior.

They spied the door at the same time - strong and made of oak, a thick bar resting on rusted iron insets barring the exit. Stray bits of stonework and masonry and other assorted debris also blocked the entrance, but Gabrielle knew together they could make short work of it. Grabbing hold of the thick rope hanging in her path, she ducked her head, slipping beneath it.

"Xena . . . " Gabrielle's voice trailed off as she slowly inched forward.

Xena's face appeared alongside Gabrielle's as she peered over her lover's shoulder. The rope that Gabrielle had been clutching trailed off, disappearing beneath the pile of rubble. The rock shifted, moving, bits of dust and pebbles falling and scattering as they were dislodged from the mound.

"Stay back," Xena warned, moving around her bard, dropping to her haunches in front of the rubble. She moved the debris aside as hastily as battered and bruised fingers would allow. As the largest piece gave way and she tossed it aside, an uncomfortable feeling of familiarity washed over her. Just like with the priest, an arm and a hand came into view. This forearm, however, was covered by a warrior's gauntlet, the thick rope wrapped firmly about the leather armor, the frayed end clutched in broken, bloodied fingers. Xena turned to gaze up at Gabrielle. "Guess now we know who rang that bell."

Eponin leaned over the downed hunter, her full body weight pressing upon Cordele's chest as she gripped both hands tightly about her opponent's throat. Blood and sweat streamed down her face, stinging as it ran into her eyes before sliding off the end of her nose and mingling with the clay, perspiration and blood streaking Cordele's battered face. The blonde's hands were up, braced against Eponin's wrists, fingers clawing at leather gauntlets, every vein in her hands prominently bulging as she struggled to keep the weapons master from pressing down and crushing her windpipe.

"Death . . . or banishment," Eponin rasped out between clenched teeth.

Cordele hesitated for a half-heartbeat, making one last attempt at throwing Eponin off. Resignation settling in, she forced her muscles to relax, her hands to stop their insistent struggling. "Death." She closed her eyes, expecting to feel the full weight of Eponin's hands crush her larynx.

Eponin adjusted herself, completely redistributing her weight. She was so close now, she was pressed up nose to nose with the hunter. She growled loudly, her heated breath blowing across Cordele's mouth and chin. Slowly, blue eyes blinked open, staring directly into light brown gone dark with bloodlust. The full fury of the weapons master upon her, Cordele felt the icy hand of death firmly squeezing about her heart.

"Xena - " Gabrielle's voice hitched as the fingers minutely wriggled.

Instantly, the warrior and the bard were upon it, frantically moving stone after stone out of the way. Fueled with a renewed burst of vigor, neither stopped until they'd cleared a good portion of the debris away. As a large piece was lifted off, a slight moan emanated from the battered form.

"Easy, take it easy," Xena urged, one hand going beneath the woman's neck to gently as possible lift her head up. Gabrielle had already uncorked their waterskin and had it ready, holding it to the woman's parched lips. "Slow, easy sips."

A delicate, although grime covered throat worked as the sweet water ran past her lips and over her tongue. She'd only taken three swallows before the skin was pulled away. Her body craved more, but she realistically knew she was far too weak to accept anything further.

Her breathing was labored, each rasp in and out sending shooting pain throughout her insides. She'd lost all feeling in her legs candlemarks ago. And, the fiery ache in her sword arm made her wish she could no longer feel that limb, as well. Pale green eyes attempted to focus unsteadily on the women kneeling above her. Dimly, she could feel the debris on top of her moving and was aware they were attempting to dig her out. She lost the strength in her upper body, her head lolling uselessly to the side.

"You . . . don't . . . get . . . to . . . choose . . . " Each word was spat out between clenched teeth. Eponin's normally low voice came out as a rabid, snarling growl. She loosened her grip from around Cordele's throat just long enough to send a fist crashing across the hunter's jaw with such force that it snapped the woman's head to the side with an audible crack.

"My . . . Goddess . . . "

Her words were as broken as her body. And, she realized she wasn't long for this world. She felt a fiery burning behind her eyes, the moisture running down her cheeks as she tried to blink away the disgraceful tears. She willed the tears back, trying to focus her traitorous eyesight on -

The belt. Wrapped round a skirt, the familiar etchings of running deer carved into the leather, secured by a clasp at the front. She felt the weight being lifted off her arm, mustered all her strength to stretch questing fingers towards the elusive belt.

" . . . Art . . . emis . . . "

As the woman's arm was uncovered, freeing her fingers, Gabrielle's attention was divided. Even as the woman's fingers relaxed her grip upon her sword and reached out towards her, Gabrielle's eyes went to the grime-encrusted, muscular upper arm. She leaned forward, feeling weakening fingers reaching her bare midriff, the tips coming into contact with her sweat-slicked flesh.

"Xena," Gabrielle's voice was barely more than a hushed whisper, her eyes locked upon the mangled feathers hanging from the leather bracer, "She's an Amazon."

Fingers traced over the material of the belt, unable to feel the leather beneath their numb tips. The tears came freely now as her dimming sight confirmed what she could not feel. She was touching the belt of her beloved goddess. Artemis herself had come to rescue her. Her mission complete, she was finally able to let go.

Part 5

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