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



Things were going badly. Very badly.

Lexine could tell that much from her post outside of the council hut where the elders had convened with the regent a candlemark after the wagons bound for the highland outpost had departed. Immediately after the thick hide covering had been pulled taut over the doorframe, she had heard Evanthe pounding the gavel to call the session to order. No more than ten candledrips after that, the shouting started.

It had started out as a low grumbling. And, at first, it was easy to ignore. But then, the expletives had risen in volume and pitch, making it very difficult for the two Amazons standing just outside, with their backs against the wall and their spears crossed in front of the door, to remain stone-faced and at attention. Especially when a rather colorful word or phrase would resound from within the hut with enough force to startle any passersby.

A warning from inside the hut of Evanthe, if you bang that gavel once more, the next time you use it, you'll have to bounce your tailfeathers on the table! caused one poor Amazon walking by the hut to drop her basket of laundry. She dropped to her knees, keeping her head lowered as she hastily threw halters and leathers alike into her basket. Lexine thought the woman would surely drop her laundry again as the unmistakable sound of rapid-fire gaveling reverberated in the air.

There were more shouts, cursing everything from Ares' blue balls to certain Amazons' conceptual history. A passing mention of one of Hercules' less-than-legendary labors was immediately followed by an answering battle-cry and the sound of breaking furniture.

A furtive glance at Dioxippe confirmed that the other guard had heard the same rather colorful and explicitly descriptive epitaph issued forth in their regent's unmistakable voice. Steeling their resolve, they both took deep breaths before turning away. Standing a little taller, holding their spears a little straighter, both women schooled their expressions into impassiveness. The only outward sign that they were aware of anything being amiss was the fiery blush coloring both their cheeks as the word phallus unexpectedly rang out in Calandra's clear voice.

"Was that Calandra?" Solari asked.

Walking beside her, Eponin cocked her head to the side, listening intently, before nodding her head in affirmation, "Sounded like her."

"Uh-huh." Solari curiously glanced towards the council hut. "Did she just scream out something about a - " uncharacteristically nervous about discussing this in public, she lowered her voice considerably " - phallus?"

"That's what I heard."

Solari halted dead in her tracks. Eponin traveled several more paces on her crutches before stopping and turning around. Solari was standing there, feet planted firmly apart, hands on both her hips, an incredulous look on her face. Fighting down an impatient eye-roll, the weapons master retraced her steps until she was standing directly in front of Solari.

"What?" she asked, looking the chief scout squarely in the eye.

"What?!?" Sometimes, Solari just couldn't believe her friend. "The elder healer just shouted something about a phallus." Unblinking, Eponin continued to stand before her with an indifferent expression on her face. Pointedly jerking her head in the direction of the council hut, Solari demanded, "Aren't you the least bit curious about what they're discussing in there?"

"They're discussing phalluses," Eponin answered succinctly.

"But, why?!?"

Eponin cocked her head to the side, rubbed her chin as if she was pondering on that issue. Honey-colored eyes glanced towards the hut, then back at her companion. "If they wanted us to know that, I imagine they'd be discussing it out here instead of in private chambers."

Solari let out an exasperated sigh. Curiosity had her fairly chewing on her leathers. Fleetingly, she wished her Queen was here. Gabrielle was a kindred soul with an equally inquisitive nature. She'd tell me what's going on! Instead, she was stuck out here with the one warrior in the village who made Xena's staunch stoicism look like that possessed by a toddler.

The crash of what suspiciously sounded like a wooden chair being busted in two caused Solari to jump in surprise. With a startled look, she glanced at Eponin.

"Difference of opinion in style," Eponin suggested, barely batting an eye.

Solari bowed her head in utter resignation. If Gabrielle was here, they'd be sneaking around the perimeter of the hut by now. Course, if Gabrielle was here, she'd be inside and I'd be stuck out here with both Xena and Pony. She lifted her hand to the bridge of her nose, then recoiled as fingers touched too-sensitive flesh. Agitated, she glared at the front of the hut. And smiled as she realized which guard was on duty.

Lexine had been carefully trying to school her features into complete impassiveness as she stood beside Dioxippe. That was the hardest part of the duties of a guard. To see and not be seen, to hear but not hear, yet be cognizant of everything going on around them and be ready in a heartbeat to jump in to defend the Queen or Regent.

Regardless of how determined she was in her duties, Lexine was fully aware of Solari's presence. Had been since her and the weapons master had first come into view. Even now, they were standing no more than twenty paces away, directly across from the doorway she was guarding. And when Solari had turned and looked at her and smiled and crooked her finger . . .

Dioxippe had to bite her bottom lip to fight back the looming smile that was threatening to make itself known. She, too, had seen Solari's flirtatious look and motioning finger. And, she wasn't a bit surprised when Lexi jogged the distance between her post and the chief scout.

Smoothly sliding to a halt before Solari, Lexine gave a respectful nod of acknowledgement to the weapons master before turning her complete attention to the chief scout.

"You wanted me, Solari?" she asked, a blush rising to her youthful cheeks as Solari's arched brow made her realize what she might have just implied.

Eponin feigned disinterest as Solari casually pumped the royal guard for information. Even though she didn't actively engage in the conversation, she couldn't help listening intently for any mention of Ephiny. She'd spied Devillare rushing her off the dais and towards the council hut and her regent had appeared to be fine. She was confident that Cordele had never reached Ephiny. And, she thought the other two had been contained before any damage could be done. Regardless, Ep knew she would be on edge until she saw with her own eyes that Ephiny was truly okay.

As she stood there in front of the council hut, leaning on her crutches, Eponin silently listened to the exchange between chief scout and guard. She couldn't help but notice the way the youngster was all tongue-tied and flustered whenever she tried to answer Solari's questions. Course, Soli has that effect on quite a few of the gals. She watched as Solari reached out and casually brushed her hand against the guard's and was momentarily concerned that young Lexine might actually faint from the attention.

Seasoned eyes darted about, sweeping over their surroundings. She knew Solari was curious, but the last thing she wanted was for the young guard to get in trouble because of her friend's insatiable nosiness. Dioxippe was still at full attention, guarding the entrance to the hut. Seeing Eponin's look, she barely tilted her head in silent acknowledgement. Four warriors were passing by, staffs clutched in their grips as they strolled towards the practice fields. In the distance, Eponin spotted the healer's assistant, carrying what suspiciously looked like a mug in her hand. Hoping she hadn't been spotted, Eponin adjusted her crutches, tried as casually as possible to step behind Solari and Lexine in an effort to shield herself.

Aware of Eponin's sudden shift in position, Solari glanced over her shoulder in confusion, wondering why the weapons master was almost upon her back. "Come on, Lexi," she coaxed, even as she tried to ignore Eponin's close proximity, "You know everything that happens in those council meetings."

"Look, Solari, if I could tell you, I would. All I can say is that I hope nothing serious happens out here today," answered Lexine with a worried look towards the door of the hut, "Because there's not enough dinars in the Nation to pay me to interrupt that council session."

The inside of the council hut was chaotic.

They had started out sitting at the council table, Ephiny impatiently standing before them. She had honestly tried to honor her word to Evanthe about keeping an open mind. But, as they argued back and forth, each issuing their demands, she felt her control beginning to slip. And, as the session grew more and more heated, her temper rose in equal proportions.

The elders were worked up, emotions running high after the incident in the main square. While it was true most Amazons accepted their sentencing with little more than quiet dignity, there were occasions when some weren't quite so accommodating. But, for Cordele to openly charge the dais . . . and for her retaliation to come so closely on the heels of their regent's recent abduction . . .

"This is why a champion and consort must be named!" Tynette shouted, banging her fist on the council table.

"That featherhead was going to go for Ephiny whether she had a champion or not." Lyonene forcefully shook her head.

"Eponin and Solari both placed themselves in the path between the prisoner and the regent," Evanthe sagely pointed out, "With such bravery and loyalty by those closest to her, the regent has no need of a champion."

"What happens if the next time some featherhead gets the idea to challenge the regent for her mask?" Tynette countered, folding her arms over her chest and glaring at the former hunter.

"I can defend myself," Ephiny growled out between gritted teeth, insulted by the insinuation that she needed someone to coddle and protect her.

"Without a named consort, the regent herself must defend the mask," Tynette plowed on as though she hadn't heard a word Ephiny had said.

"She doesn't need a consort to defend the mask!" objected Lyonene, pouncing upon the slip.

"You know what I meant, you dried-up, leathery piece of jerky - "

" - If you found between my legs to be too dry for your liking last eve, you short-fingered - "

Evanthe's rapid-fire gaveling drowned out most of the rest of that insult. Although her quick gaveling was enough to bring the hurled curses to a halt and cause a quiet rumbling to settle over the group, it did nothing to diffuse the situation or relax the rigid postures and indignant glares.

Ephiny's scowl spoke volumes. She was furious that her private life was being bandied about like some sordid scroll to be read beneath the covers of a bedroll late at night. Even worse was that the elders like Nicphellia and Devillare who had been with the group that approached her last night weren't openly taking her side in this matter. She didn't really know Nicphellia that well and hadn't counted on her support, anyway. Although, she'd gotten the impression last night that the elder didn't care for Tynette's tactics. She did, however, expect more of an intercession from Devillare. Especially after she'd shared her campsite last night. Instead, the former captain of the guard was her usual quiet self. True, she offered no demands of her like the others were; but, she also didn't leap to her defense, either.

Devillare maintained her same stony silence. As did Myrina. Neither of them seemed perturbed one way or the other by the proceedings. Meanwhile, Calandra had seemingly nodded off, undisturbed by the growing tension about her. Nicphellia was becoming more and more agitated by the heartbeat, though, as evidenced by the way she kept fiddling with the gauntlet tied about her left wrist. It was a trait that she'd had for ages; a habit that someone with experience reading the elders could easily pick up on. And, Ephiny had that experience. So much so that she'd anticipated Lyonene and Tynette pushing their chairs back, jumping to their feet and puffing out their chests, physically invading each others' space as they squared off against each other.

"Stop it you two! We have more important matters to attend to than your petty squabbling!" Evanthe pounded her gavel twice more. Although, neither Tynette nor Lyonene seemed daunted by her words or actions.

"Evanthe is right!" Nicphellia interjected herself between the two elders. Laying a hand on either of their shoulders, she urged the two posturing hunters back down into their respective chairs. "We need to settle the matter of the need for the regent's consort."

"Ha!" Calandra suddenly slapped her palm down on the table, suddenly awake again. Immediately, the room fell silent as everyone respectfully waited for the eldest of the elders to speak her mind. "Said it before, I'll say it again." She cast a meaningful look about the room, making sure she had each council members' undivided attention before settling her gaze on the young woman with the tousled blonde curls standing in the center of the hut. "Consorts; Don't need 'em." The former healer's voice rang out clear and strong as she declared, "All you really need, sweetie, is a really good phallus."

Ephiny buried her face in both hands in an effort to hide the crimson blush of her cheeks and stifle the scream that was threatening to erupt.

Hilaeira approached the group standing in front of the council hut just as the word phallus clearly rang out. The apprentice healer gave a startled jump at the unexpected outburst. Joining Eponin, Solari and the royal guard, she cast another glance back at the hut as a shout of "Artemis, take me now!" was heard.

"That sounded like Calan - "

"Yep," Eponin answered even before Hilaeira could complete her sentence.

"And, I think that last voice was - "

"Yeah," Solari agreed, having recognized the unmistakable growl of her packmate.

Hilaeira cast a furtive glance at the hut. "They're in - "

" - sessions," finished Lexine.

Two blonde eyebrows scurried towards a hairline. "And, they're discussing - "

"Phalluses," came the one-worded reply from all three assembled Amazons.

"Oh-kay." The apprentice healer looked about awkwardly before adding below her breath, "Warriors."

"Actually, the elder that's been repeatedly shouting about phalluses is a former healer," Solari helpfully supplied.

"Speaking of," The younger woman took the opportunity to rapidly change the subject to one she was far more comfortable with, "Megara sent me to check on the both of you."

"We're fine," Eponin immediately responded with a quick glance to her friend, "Aren't we, Soli?"

"Actually," Solari caught the glare, but chose to ignore it. "My nose is bothering me," she confessed bringing her fingers up to cover the bridge of her nose.

Suddenly all business, Hilaeira passed the mug she'd been holding to Eponin without a second glance. Stepping into Solari's space, she directed in a stern voice, "Move your hand and let me see." As Solari dutifully complied, she reached out, capturing the chief scout's chin in her firm grasp. Moving Solari's chin this way and that, she stood on tiptoe, studying the brunette's profile.

Lexine and Eponin waited in silence, watching as the healer examined Solari, mmm-hmming and uh-huhing enough to match old Megara herself. Hilaeira used three fingers to trace the bridge of Solari's nose, adding pressure to her touch when she felt an uneven bump on the left side. Solari jerked back in reflex.

"It's just swollen," Hilaeira pronounced, turning Solari's face loose and stepping back from the scout. "Believe me, you'd know if it was broken."

"Yeah?" Solari openly glared at the petite blonde. "Hurts enough to be broken."

"How many times have I told you never lead with your face?" Eponin snickered, delighting in Solari's miserable look as she offered the mug back to the apprentice healer. "Guess that's why you're a lover and not a fighter, huh, Soli?"

It was Solari's turn to grin as Hilaeira refused to take the mug from Eponin. "That's for you, fighter," she stressed, "As I'm sure you well know."

"Aww, come on, Hilaeira," Ep protested, "You poured tons of this swill down my throat last night."

"Which is why you're able to stand upright today, warrior." One sharp look from the apprentice healer was enough to wipe the smirks off Lexine's and Solari's faces. "Drink it." At the reproachful glare from the tough weapons master, she added in a sterner voice. "Now."

Eponin sharply exhaled, tentatively peered from the mug's contents to the healer and then back again. Eyes narrowed as she mulled over just pouring the contents out on the ground.

"You do and I'll turn you over to Megara," Hilaeira warned, having figured out precisely what the warrior was contemplating.

With a sharp growl, Eponin lifted the mug to her lips and forced down a swallow. Her scowl changed as she experimentally ran her tongue over her lips, tasting the brew's residue. With a surprised "Huh", she quickly drained the rest of the contents, offered the empty mug back to the apprentice healer with a coy smile.

"See, that wasn't so bad, now was it, you big tough, warrior?" Hilaeira teased.

Suspicious, Solari snatched the mug from Hilaeira's grasp. Lifting it, she lightly sniffed, then grimaced as the action brought a fresh stab of pain to her battered nose. Spotting the residue in the bottom of the mug, she ran a finger around the edge, then brought it to her mouth. Sucking on her digit, her brows furrowed in puzzlement before a rueful smirk appeared as she recognized the taste.

"You coated it with honey."

"When dealing with fussy warriors," Hilaeira flashed a smile, "you sometimes have to be creative." She turned her full attention back to the Amazon leaning on her set of crutches. "Now, are you going to cooperate and let me check those ribs of yours?" A wicked grin spread over her features as she added, "Or, do I need to get rough with you?"

Ephiny scrubbed a hand across her tired face. The regent was decidedly bone-weary of this nonsense. Once they had gotten Calandra settled down again, she'd found herself once more under fire.

"It should be my decision about when - and if - I choose to have a champion." There was a deep breath, a drastic eye-roll before she added, "Or a consort."

"The Regent is correct," Devillare spoke up for the first time since the session began. "The Council of Elders has never before dictated that a ruler must take either." Her steely gaze swept over the rest of her peers, meeting them gaze for gaze. "And, we should not be issuing that demand now."

"We are well within our rights," objected Tynette, "Evanthe herself researched the scroll."

"That was an ancient scroll with out-of-date traditions," spoke up Evanthe, "It was designed with the intent of providing stable homes and role models for the heirs to the crown and to prevent the bed-hopping that occurred during past reigns by those that sought to sleep their way to power. The ideal premise was that a consort was to be chosen for life. If something were to happen to the Queen, the consort would follow her into death." Evanthe leveled a pointed look at the retired hunter. "As I mentioned to you before we began this session."

"Of course," Tynette graciously bowed her head in acknowledgement. She had been the perfect model of decorum ever since the last time she'd raised her voice - and found Nicphellia's dagger embedded nearly to the hilt in the table no more than a hair's breadth from her ring finger. "But, surely everyone present can see the wisdom of the ancient scrolls."

"Some of the scrolls, sure," agreed Lyonene with a shrug of her shoulders. "But, others aren't worth the parchment they're written on." A slight murmuring went up as Lyonene pointed out the ancient law that stated every Amazon hunter must prove her worth by tracking a boar and killing it with nothing more than a sharpened dagger and then eat its heart raw. "How many Amazons were gored by a cornered boar before we finally put a stop to that particular tradition?"

"That was one example," countered Tynette. "And, I'm sure there are many other foolish claims on the scrolls," she added before Lyonene could offer further protests. "But, what we're discussing here is something that will not endanger anyone. If anything, it serves to protect our rulers," she focused on the regent standing in the center of the hut, "and our Nation."

Ephiny's lip curled. "By forcing me to name someone to share my bed with?"

"By asking you to name a consort to share your life with," corrected Evanthe. "Quite simply, it is the opinion of several of the members of this council that the events that recently occurred within the Nation would not have grown to such epic proportions if you had openly declared your consort."

"I have no consort to declare!" protested Ephiny, hands on both hips, fury blazing in her eyes.

"Precisely." There were several murmurings as many of the elders agreed with Tynette's assessment. "It's your responsibility as the ruling body to select and name a consort."

"I'm not the sole ruling body," reminded Ephiny, folding her arms across her chest in open defiance. "Gabrielle is Queen. I rule only in her absence."

"While it's true that Queen Gabrielle has both a champion and a consort in Xena," acknowledged Nicphellia, "She is gone from the Nation most of the time, making you the primary governing body."

"As such, it is imperative that you name a consort," added Tynette.

"If the Queen has a consort," interjected Myrina, "That should be enough to satisfy the council."

"Not if the Queen is never here," bandied back Nicphellia.

"She should be allowed time to discover precisely who her heart longs for," argued Evanthe. "After all, we're asking her to make a life-long commitment."

"She's had time," protested Tynette, "How much longer must the council - the Nation - be forced to wait?"

"If she doesn't want a consort, we shouldn't force her into having one!" objected Calandra. "All she really needs is a - "

Ephiny's loud growl drowned out the next word even as it was forming on Calandra's lips. She stormed out of the council hut, pushing the hide covering aside with enough force to nearly rip it from the wooden rod that hung above the doorway. Stepping into the sunlight, she shielded her eyes, allowing her gaze to adjust to the brightness of mid-day . . . before her glare fell upon the sight of the four Amazons huddled directly outside the hut.

Dioxippe nearly jumped out of her leathers as the sudden appearance of the regent startled her. She had heard the voices inside the council hut rising in pitch once again and hadn't expected anyone to leave for quite some time. She certainly hadn't expected to have an angry regent come storming out. She barely lifted her spear from across the doorway before Ephiny charged past.

Her charge had halted almost as soon as it had begun. From Dioxippe's vantage point, she had an unrivaled view of seeing the regent's eyes narrow to tiny slits as her gaze focused on the four Amazons directly in her path. Dioxippe saw the twitching cheek muscles, the jaw clenched tightly, the fingers curling and uncurling into fists at her sides. And, she thanked Artemis she had stayed at her post.

Desperately, she looked at her fellow guard, frantically pleading with her eyes for Lexine to just glance in her direction. Instead, the second-in-command of the guard seemingly had eyes only for the chief scout. Dioxippe was positive Lexine's gaze hadn't left Solari's face for the last ten candledrips. Meanwhile, Solari seemed oblivious to Lexine, her attention solely focused on the apprentice healer and the weapons master. Hilaeira stood intimately close to the weapons master, one arm wrapped about the stockier Amazon's waist as she moved her free hand across Eponin's bare stomach, ostensibly checking her injuries.

Some sort of sixth sense alerted Lexine that something was wrong. One heartbeat, she was talking with Solari, trying to convince the chief scout that she knew this private, little fishing hole she wanted to share with her. The next, she was looking at a very livid regent storming the short distance between the hut and where they were standing.

"May - maybe some other time would be better," she stammered out, legs already working to carry her past the approaching regent and back to her post. She gave a quick fist-to-chest salute on the fly as she scurried past, studiously avoiding Ephiny's flashing hazel eyes. Dutifully, she took up her post beside Dioxippe, letting out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding as brought her stance to rigid attention. Eyes facing front, she tried her best not to stare at the scene unfolding directly in front of her.

Hilaeira was the next to become aware that something was amiss. She had heard Lexine rambling on to Solari and Eponin about some fishing spot or another. For the most part, though, she had been able to block out the guard's droning voice, instead focusing her attention on her task. She was just running the flat of her hand over the weapons master's taut abdomen, pressing her fingers along her ribcage in an effort to check the discomfort levels and gauge the healing process when she realized the annoying guard was gone.

Curiously looking up, she met the regent's glare head on. Having seen that particular shade of angry in Megara's eyes on more than one occasion, she froze, her hand stilling upon the bandage wrapped about Eponin's torso. As the regent marched directly up to her, her eyes widened in fear.

"Megara has need of you at the infirmary."

She doesn't know that. There's no way she could know that to be true. She's just now come from council sessions. "Yes, my Regent," Hilaeira saluted before turning on her heel and rushing off in the direction of the hospice.

Both Eponin and Solari inwardly cringed. They had become aware of Ephiny's approach at the same instant, both immediately recognizing the signs of a ticked regent. After all, they had both been on the receiving end of her temper for one reason or another in the seasons that they had been friends. Judging from the earlier shouting coming from the hut, they assumed the council of elders had done something to irk her.

"Hey, Eph," Solari offered up a tiny smile, bravely throwing herself on the metaphorical sword, "What's going on?"

"That's precisely what I wish to know," Ephiny addressed the brunette. "Why aren't you out on patrol, Chief Scout?"

Solari visibly flinched at the use of her rank. Shrugging it off, she answered, "My squad was assigned to the water reclamation system, Regent Ephiny. Nyxona and Leonia are each running second and third shifts at twelve candlemark intervals until they're back in rotation."

Twin blonde eyebrows rose in surprise at Solari's deferential tone and use of her official title. However, the uncharacteristically reticent behavior of one of the unruliest Amazons she knew still wasn't enough to cool the hot anger raging in her blood. "Then, as their leader, you should be with your squad."

"But, I thought - Pelagia said - " Solari's voice trailed off as she realized she was trapped.

"Pelagia said what?" Ephiny asked, folding her arms across her chest, eyes coolly raking over Solari's face.

"Nothing." Solari shook her head. "It was nothing." She couldn't reveal to Ephiny that the captain of the guard had been the one to send her after Eph when she'd released her from that cell. She'd thought Pelagia had commuted her sentence to time served in exchange for tracking down their regent. "I must have misunderstood."

"I see." She was lying. Ephiny knew it. But, she knew Solari would never admit to it. "In that case," Her eyes narrowed as she delivered the sentence, "your misunderstanding has earned you an extra three days at the reclamation system."

"Eph! That's six days!" protested Eponin, "That's not fair - "

Eponin's mouth clamped shut as Ephiny leveled a glare at her. Looking at the battered form of Artemis' champion, hearing her come to Solari's defense, remembering the image of Solari astride Eponin's hips and witnessing the sight of the healer's apprentice with her hands all over her weapons master . . . Ephiny's eyes closed as she felt the irrational rage surging again. Even knowing it was unreasonable, she found herself unable to bite back her next command.

"Since you're concerned about what's fair, Weapons Master Eponin, I'll entrust you with seeing that her complete sentence is carried out." She looked from Eponin to Solari. "Send a messenger to Nyxona, placing her in command of both first and second squad until your probation is up." Then, looking at both warrior and scout, she ordered, "Report to Anaxarete at the water reclamation system within the next candlemark."

A look passed between Solari and Eponin. The reclamation site was well over a candlemark's hike through the forest. And, with Ep on crutches -

"Umm . . . Eph . . . " Eponin relied on her eyes and chin to subtly draw the regent's attention to her current condition.

Ephiny's gaze boldly trailed a path down the warrior's body and back up again. Meeting the weapons master's eyes, one eyebrow slowly lifted. Tilting her head askance, she critically appraised Eponin's reaction.

"Are you saying you aren't - " The beginning of a sneer tugged at the corner of her lips " - capable of performing - " Her eyes pointedly swept over Eponin's frame again " - to standard?"

Amber-hued eyes perceptibly darkened, narrowed to tiny slits. Nostrils flared and an impressive chest deeply inhaled and exhaled despite the pain caused by busted ribs. Beside her, Solari's entire frame shook with the effort required to keep her warrior's mask firmly in place.

Teeth audibly grinding, Eponin curtly responded with, "My performance has never been found lacking, my Regent."

Devillare had been watching from a distance and had observed Ephiny's disciplining of her protégé. While she didn't approve of the regent's methods, she understood her actions. She had felt like she'd been attacked in the council session with no obvious means of defending herself. Then, to come outside and suddenly be face to face with Eponin and Solari; Devillare had seen her reaction when she'd realized the two Amazons were together last night. The memory of that scene had to drive home her own current predicament. Ephiny's response was understandable. If she couldn't lash out at the council that was making demands on her, she would lash out at those nearest her.

I wonder, little Pup, what would her reaction have been last eve if you'd been alone at your campsite? Discreetly approaching, Devillare took Ephiny by the elbow, spoke in a lowered voice in her ear, "The council is awaiting your return, Regent Ephiny."

Ephiny blinked, turning to look at the retired captain with a puzzled expression. Then, she looked back at Solari and Eponin as if just realizing what she had done to her two best friends. Taking a deep breath, shaking off her residual anger, she allowed Devillare to lead her by the elbow, past the guards standing at stony-faced attention and into the council hut.

Watching the regent's retreat, turning to look at each other at the same instant, both Solari and Eponin asked the other, "What did you do?!?"

Six days later -

Sunrise found Ephiny sitting alone in the dining hut, hunched over the table, bloodshot eyes staring forlornly at a scroll spread out before her, her breakfast bowl all but forgotten. Mytilda had prepared the regent's usual fare, albeit adding in several slices of fruit to the generous helping of oatmeal. Watching from the serving line as she prepared for the morning's influx, she noted the way Ephiny twirled her spoon all about the inside of the bowl, twirling it this way and that without ever once actually raising the spoon to her lips.

The cook frowned as she went to check the pot she'd left to boil over the fire. Satisfied that it was ready, she added the leaves and poured the hot liquid into the mug she reserved solely for Ephiny's use. She knew it was impractical. Especially in a community the size they lived in, with the number of women filing in and out of the dining hut at all candlemarks of the day and night. She knew that it was incomprehensible to her apprentices when she insisted that one mug with the blue splotch of dye on the bottom be kept in a separate cabinet from the others. But, she did it anyway. It was just a little something. Something that she was quite certain no one else knew why she did it. But, it made her feel good to do something special for the regent.

Even if Ephiny wasn't aware of it. Just as she suspected the regent wasn't aware of quite a few of things she did - or saw - or knew. Things the regent was just too busy to give any thought about. Like the fact that ever since Mytilda realized the regent disliked boysenberries, there hadn't been any served in the dining hut. Or, that after the Queen and her consort had left the village after a visit and she was feeling a little down, there was always chocolate pudding for dessert.

Mytilda firmly believed you could tell a lot about a person by their eating habits. For example, she knew something was going on with Ephiny. Something was bothering her. Had been for a few days now. That much was obvious. She had personally cleared the regent's plate after dinner last night and knew for a fact that the curly-haired blonde hadn't eaten half her portion of roasted quail.

Normally when something was troubling the regent, she'd pick at her meals. Or, simply skip them all together. That was the sort of behavior the cook had grown accustomed to over the seasons. But, now she was becoming concerned. As of late, there had been too many skipped meals. Too many half-eaten portions.

Spotting the captain of the guard coming into the hut, she motioned Pelagia over. She greeted the bleary-eyed captain even as she thrust a plate of eggs and two mugs of tea at her.

"Hers is the one with the cinnamon sprinkled on top. Make sure she drinks it."

Absently nodding her head at Mytilda's instructions, the captain shuffled her way across the hut. Sitting down on the low-slung bench directly across from the regent, she placed the plate of eggs and one mug in front of her. The other, she slid across to Ephiny. Propping her cheek upon her closed fist, she stared across the table at the regent.

"They drag your tailfeathers out of bed again this morning?" Ephiny asked, barely glancing up from the scroll she was perusing.

"Yeah." Pelagia didn't even try to stifle the wide yawn that escaped her lips. "You're killing me, Eph. You've gotta quit ditching the guards."

"Then, quit assigning them to me."

"They're guards. Royal guards," she stressed. "And since yours is the only royal ass in the village right now, they're assigned to you."

If she'd dared talked to another member of the royal family that way - Gods knows what Xena would do if she had spoken like that to Gabrielle . . . But Xena wasn't here. And, she'd known Ephiny for more than half her life. And, the fact that she was dragged out of her nice warm bed where she'd been cuddled with her bondmate for the third morning in a row because Ephiny had managed to once again elude her escorts - Well, small wonder she was feeling less than tactful this morning.

"I don't need them following me around, Pel, waiting outside my door when I wake up in the morning. Holding open the door to the bathing hut when I go in to wash up, listening outside, waiting to hold the door for me when I dry off and come back out again." This time, she did look up, meeting the captain's gaze dead on. "I'm almost afraid to sneak off into the bushes to pee, fearful they might be there, waiting to hand me a leaf to dry myself on."

"They're there for your protection. They can't protect you if they can't keep up with you." Reaching out, she used her fingertips to nudge the mug of tea closer to Ephiny. "After what happened - "

An uncomfortable prickling sensation made itself known at the base of her neck, tingling down Ephiny's spine, just as it did whenever someone unexpectedly made reference to her abduction. If I'm not safe within the Amazon Nation itself - "Pel, I know you mean well," Ephiny held up her hand to stall further protestations. "But, you're stifling me. I need some space."

"Ephiny - "

" - Some. That's all I'm asking."

Pelagia stared at the regent for several long heartbeats. Finally, with a shuddering breath, she acquiesced. "Some." Another breath. "I'll have them back off a bit. Promise."

"Thank you. And," Ephiny acquiesced with a slight shrug, "I promise I'll try not to sneak out the window of my hut." There was a tiny pause before she added with a wry smile, "Quite so much."

Pelagia used her fork to shuffle her eggs around her plate a bit, casting furtive glances at Ephiny's dish as she did so. Ephiny's gaze was once again glued to the scroll she'd been reading. However, she felt Pelagia's eyes repeatedly upon her. Every time she glanced up, though, Pelagia hurriedly looked away.

Finally, unable to take it any more, firmly rolling the scroll up and tying it closed with a bit of leather, she pointedly asked, "Was there something else, Pel?"

"Well, actually," Pelagia squirmed about on her bench, casting a furtive glance over her shoulder before leaning across the table and lowering her voice to a cautious level. "I need you to drink your tea." At the slowly arching eyebrow, she hastily added, "Gods, please, Ephiny." Flicking a look at the cooling, thick mass settling in Ephiny's bowl, she implored, "No one expects you to eat the oatmeal, but at least drink the tea."

A wry smile quirked the regent's lips. "I see the head cook's been working on you."

"Mytilda's worried about you."

Ephiny's gaze wandered to the serving line where Mytilda was still prepping for the morning meal. She had been openly staring at the regent and the captain, but quickly averted her eyes, began rapidly stirring a pot of oatmeal, when she saw Ephiny watching her.

There were so many things Ephiny could have said or done at that point. Both to the cook and the captain. Pelagia inwardly breathed a sigh of relief when the curly-haired blonde merely lifted her mug and pointedly drained it dry. Slamming the empty mug down on the table, Ephiny raised one eyebrow as if to ask if there were any other demands to be made of her this morning.

Feeling emboldened by the regent's cooperation, Pelagia pursued another topic that she'd been meaning to broach. "Solari and Eponin return from the water reclamation system today." When there was no response, she added, "A messenger brought word that Anaxarete is planning on dismissing them about three candlemarks after sunrise. She figures that'll give them enough time to finish off the section of the foundation wall she assigned them to."

"Glad she was able to make good use of them."

The cool tone gave Pelagia temporary pause before she added, "They should be back at the main village in time for the midday meal." The captain took a healthy bite of her eggs before asking, "You gonna go down and be there to greet them when they return?"

"Pel." Ephiny let out a shuddering breath. "I don't know. When they left, things weren't - we didn't - I - "

"Look," Pelagia spoke up around a mouthful, "I don't know what happened between you guys. Quite frankly, it's none of my business. You're the regent and they need to respect that." When it looked as if Ephiny was going to interrupt, Pelagia held up a hand to stifle her protests. "It'd be a nice gesture if you were there today so they'll know all's forgiven and things are back to normal."

Ephiny seemed uncomfortable with the conversation, as evidenced by her fiddling with the leather tie on the scroll she was holding in her hands. "I'll try, okay?" she finally conceded, before adding, "But, I have a council session I need to attend this morning."

Dropping her fork, pushing her plate away, Pelagia swiftly rose with the regent. "I'll escort you," she offered.

"I thought we just discussed this." Ephiny's eyes rolled. "I hardly need protecting from the council of elders."

"It wasn't you I was worried about," Pelagia deadpanned. "You forget; I've read the reports from the guards. It's the elders I'm concerned for."

Ephiny stopped abruptly in her tracks, mouth dropping open. Pelagia stopped at the doorway of the dining hut, holding the hide covering back with one hand. Peering at the regent with as innocent a look as she could muster up, she urged Ephiny, "Come, my regent. We wouldn't want you to be late for sessions."

Despite the slight chill in the mid-morning air, a fine sheen of sweat coated the bodies of the two Amazons working in the trench closest to where the structure that housed the water-wheel would eventually be erected. Already, enough trees in the area had been cut down and lashed together to make a retaining wall. Of the two Amazons assigned to the trench now, one was dutifully hauling stones in by the bucketful and depositing them on the ground while the other used a mortar paste to adhere them together. As each layer was assembled, a wall of stone was steadily erected in front of the timber to fortify the wooden structure.

Sipping her morning mug of hot cider, Anaxarete covertly watched their progress from the relative comfort of her office. In actuality, her office was merely a large table and chair on a closed-in porch of a hut that had been erected on site during the duration of the construction. Given how far this part of the site was from the main village, it didn't make sense to waste a candlemark and precious energy traveling back and forth each way between the two locations. So, the living quarters were designed, complete with a stocked pantry, a kitchen and a common sleeping area that held a dozen bunk beds.

Being the only permanent resident, Anaxarete naturally had the run of the place and had a bed in a private room away from the others. It made for an odd set of circumstances, finding herself with constantly changing roommates. She, herself, liked the company. But, so many of her sisters detested their time spent away from the main village. Especially those that were assigned to her care as punishment for some infraction or another.

She had heard of the altercation in the courtroom, had received a message from Pelagia that an entire squad of scouts would be under her supervision for three days. She had mapped out her plans accordingly. Doubling up on the sleeping assignments, requesting extra rations from the main village, adjusting her work schedule to make the most out of the new labor.

By tradition, scouts normally weren't as muscular as warriors. They did, however, have a reputation for being flexible and agile. Meaning, they were perfect for working on the narrower, more confining sections of the underground well system. Coupled in with the usual groups that were on rotation, an additional group of sixteen working for no less than a period of three days had put her construction designs two moons ahead of schedule.

As she was adjusting her design plans to take into account the work already completed by the scouts, she received an even greater surprise. Anaxarete was used to receiving missives from Captain Pelagia before any probationer arrived. As the captain of the guard, it was part of her duties to inform her of who was scheduled to arrive for work as part of a punishment detail.

In truth, she wasn't sure what had surprised her more. That a messenger had arrived carrying the scroll written by the regent's own hand. Or, the identities of the newest Amazons to be assigned to her work detail.

If Solari's arrival at the worksite for a duration of six days was a surprise; she was dumbstruck by the notion of the weapons master enduring the same sentence. The regent hadn't listed the infraction in her missive, only specifying that both Amazons be assigned to her work detail, with no privileges required nor expected.

Not that either would be the sort to ask, anyway. Both had merely shown up as directed, Solari carrying two packs slung over her shoulder with changes of clothing for the two of them. Eponin came in beside her, knee heavily bandaged in a brace, head held high as she maneuvered over the rough, uneven terrain with her crutches. Anaxarete had seen fully healthy Amazons winded after a hike through the forest and thick underbrush to reach the construction site. And although the weapons master's breathing was slightly elevated and a sheen of perspiration was coating her toned flesh, she looked like she was capable of traveling another league if commanded.

Noting the warrior's injuries, Anaxarete had wanted to put her to do something that wouldn't be taxing. Like going over the blueprints and making adjustments and the like. Perhaps helping to prepare the meals in the kitchen. Eponin was having none of it, though, insisting she be put to work on the same details as Solari.

It had been almost comical to watch as the battered, bruised champion grabbed a shovel from one of the younger warriors that had been assigned to widen a section of trench and proceeded to maintain her grip on one crutch and balance the shovel in her other hand as she dug the spade into the mud. Arm muscles straining with tension, she dug deep, lifting out a clump of mud and depositing it on the bank of the trench before turning to plant the shovel into the mud again.

The youngster that had been struggling with both hands to lift the shovel from the mud each time stared in open-mouthed amazement. Not to be outdone by someone older than her, the warrior eagerly snatched up another shovel and began digging for all she was worth, sending mud and bits of rock flying out of the culvert with ferocious intensity. One of the other warriors remarked that was the first time since they'd been there she'd seen her friend do an honest day's work. It was funny; only no one was laughing.

With a long-suffering sigh, Solari reluctantly picked up another shovel and climbed into the trench beside her companion. The chief scout had the same look of disdain on her face as most Amazons did when they first felt the mud sucking at their boots. She recovered quickly, making it a point to stick close to Eponin in an effort to take part of her workload. Not knowing what else to do, Anaxarete allowed them to carry on at their own pace until the dinner bell was sounded several candlemarks later.

From the darkened doorway of her private room that evening, she had kept watch over Solari and Eponin. The others had eaten quickly, then washed up and retired so they'd be ready when dawn crept in far too early the next morning. Solari and Eponin had taken their time eating, lingering over their meals. Then, they had patiently waited until the last of their sisters had finished in the bathing tubs before going off together to wash up. It didn't escape Anaxarete's notice that when they returned, Solari checked to make sure all the others were down for the night before motioning Eponin in.

Dutifully, Solari helped to lower Eponin's larger frame onto the bed before grabbing a bottle from one of their bags and liberally applying liniment to the weapons master's back and legs. Eponin lay there, closing her eyes against the pain, not putting up so much as a token protest as Solari tended her. The construction engineer bit her bottom lip in commiseration with the weapons master as Eponin refused to let escape a single moan.

By the time the chief scout re-corked the bottle of liniment and replaced it in her bag, Ep was out cold. Turning away from the sight of Solari readying herself for bed at last, Anaxarete vowed to find an equally acceptable, yet less physically demanding assignment for the proud warrior by morning's light.

It had taken her the better part of a half candlemark to convince the stubborn warrior that her putting the mortar paste on the stones that were being hauled in and forming the retaining wall was a real work assignment. It had taken another half day for the warrior to relent to sitting on the ground, one crutch placed at an angle beneath her leg to keep her knee elevated while she worked.

Now, on their last day of work, Eponin seemed perfectly content to let Solari haul the buckets of stones in and pour them on the ground beside her. Then, fingers thick with mud, she would carefully select each stone and wash it off in a bucket of water and dry it on a rag before applying the thick mortar to the stone and placing it into position. In spite of working with an obvious handicap, Eponin and Solari had finished over three times the amount of mortaring than Anaxarete had anticipated.

She waited until Solari had dumped another load and was squatting on the ground beside Eponin, fingers sifting through the rough stones before she ambled off the porch. As soon as she stepped foot off the wooden structure, she felt the thick mud adhering to the soles of both her boots. Carefully, she made her way across the muddy incline, sliding several times before reaching the section the warrior and scout were working on.

Eponin had just lay the last stone in place on the sixth row of the wall when she heard the construction engineer's voice call out, "You two ready to quit playing in the mud and go back to your real jobs?"

Pelagia shook her head ruefully as she caught sight of the lone figure darting stealthily between two huts. The tread of leather boots upon the hardened ground went undetected as she crouched low and scampered past an open window. Once in the open field behind the row of huts, she ran full-out until she reached the line of trees marking the forest perimeter some one-hundred yards distant. Casting a furtive glance over her shoulder, she flipped unruly blonde locks out of her eyes and over a tanned shoulder. A subtle tilt of her head and a tumultuous smile was the only acknowledgement she gave before catching a low branch and swiftly pulling herself up into the trees.

The captain gave a quick salute, fighting to keep the smile from her lips in return. Grey eyes flicked to the entranceway of the council hut, where Lexine and Dioxippe were standing rigidly at attention, their spears crossed over the doorway. She gave due consideration to reprimanding the both of them for allowing their charge to slip away unnoticed. Then, recalling their earlier conversation and Ephiny's plea for privacy, she relented.

After all, I'm certain I know where she's off to. This time, she allowed the tiny smile to tug at the corners of her mouth. And, she couldn't be in better hands.

Traveling through the trees, running along the stout limbs, leaping from branch to branch always sent a rush of adrenaline surging through her veins. There was nothing like the feeling of the air all about, surrounding her, rushing through her hair. And, the clean smells of the forest around her. And, the seclusion. The privacy. Here, there was no one looking for her, no one pestering her, no one making demands of her.

This was her independence.

The first bit of independence she'd had since returning from the cache. Oh sure, there had been times that she'd been able to elude her royal guards. But, those rare moments were hard-earned and few and far between, as far as she was concerned. And, there was the ridge. But, that was her private sanctuary. Hers and Solari's. A place she could only dare to go when she was absolutely positive she couldn't be tracked by an over ambitious guard. The ridge was a place for solitude and private reflection; a place of peace.

The trees - the forest - to an Amazon . . . this was freedom.

As she agilely moved from tree to tree, leaping branch to branch, the forest floor moved at dizzying speeds below her. Ephiny lost herself in the sensations, the movements, as her heart kept pace with the trek she was making; her thoughts as fleet as her steps.

She had been wrong in her actions, too swift in her judgment. By sentencing both Sol and Pony to the water reclamation system project at the same time, she had also sentenced herself to six days without her best friends. And by signing the work order herself, she had ensured that none of them would be let off the hook early. As regent, only she could rescind the order; something her stinging pride would never allow her to do.

And for what; taking pleasure in each other at a ceremony that openly encouraged that very act? Or, for finding that pleasure with someone else who wasn't me?

That had plagued her ever since that night; the identity of the Amazon both her friends found such comfort in. She had thought about trying to find out the unknown Amazon's identity, even considered enlisting Pelagia's help in tracking her down. But, every time she had been tempted to take action, she had talked herself out of it.

For two reasons. The first was because she didn't trust herself with that knowledge once she had it. The second was because she didn't deserve to know. She had already acted recklessly once - and that recklessness had cost her the presence of her best friends. She'd already endured six days of solitude; six days of feeling guilty about losing her temper with them. What would she endure if she did something worse in retaliation?

As it was, everything reminded her of what she had done. Eating alone in the dining hut. Retiring each night without having Solari stop by just to check in on her one more time under the guise of giving her an updated scouting report. Having to spar with Egeria on the field instead of her Pony. Not that the weapons master could have sparred with her in her current condition, anyway. Thoughts of her injured warrior made her grimace with self-recrimination as she recalled exactly what work detail she had assigned her to, even knowing the extent of her injuries.

Still, if Pony's feeling up to messing around with Solari and that feathered wench, she's obviously well enough to take part in . . . Stop that, Ephiny mentally chastised herself, it's that sort of thinking that's had you without your friends for the past six days.

Ephiny caught sight of movement below, smoothly came to a halt on the branch she was balanced upon without so much as a rustling of a leaf. Peering through the thick coverage of branches and leaves, she watched two Amazons standing on the well-worn path leading from the main village. They were almost directly beneath her, one of them leaning with her back against the trunk of the very tree Ephiny was perched in.

Scouts. She realized from the markings of the feathers braided into their hair. One was a brunette, with her hair tied back in a no-nonsense style. The other, a redhead, her flaming locks falling about her shoulders and midway down her back. Ephiny winced. Give her a moon's time before she figures out that long hair of hers is gonna get tangled in tree branches really quickly. Looking down upon them, Ephiny realized that neither girl had earned more than two feathers. Meaning, they were still fairly early in their training as scouts. And, judging from the youthful roundness of their faces, she would judge them to be even younger than Admeta and Metanira. Figures. Ever since those two came back from that mission, every youngster in the village has been petitioning to train as a scout.

Ephiny had seen that sort of thing before. Whenever some great heroic thing or another, usually involving one of Xena's visits, became widespread knowledge, most of the youngsters decided overnight that they wanted to be a warrior. Or, a scout. Or, even a bard. Then, when the heroics of the adventure wore off and they were given a chance to see what really happened on a normal, daily basis - they changed their minds fairly quickly.

Give it enough time and they'll all want to be warriors again. Now that she thought about it, ever since the trial by combat, she had seen an influx of younger warriors on the training grounds. Ephiny was about to move on when the bitter scent of cloves wafted up into the branches, causing the regent's nose to wrinkle in disdain. Maybe I should leap down on them and give them both a good scare before I bust them for smoking in the forest.

Hands and feet braced against the thick branch she was crouched upon, muscles tensed and knotted in anticipation, she was just about to jump down when she overheard the scouts' conversation.

"It'll be great, won't it, having Solari back?" asked the brunette.

"Yeah. Nyxona's okay, but she's all by the scroll, ya know? Solari's . . . "

". . . more hands-on?"

"Yeah," agreed the redhead. "Hands-on. She doesn't teach out of the scroll. She takes us out into the real world and trains us in the field."

A smile appeared on Ephiny's lips as she absorbed the praise that the youngsters were bestowing upon the chief scout.

"There's that," the brunette nodded, a mischievous smile breaking out. "And, then there's the way she looks in that halter."

"I can't believe you said that!" the redhead squealed, slapping her friend on the arm.

"What? It's true, isn't it?" Then, adding with a playful shove, "I've seen you looking, Trina. You know you want a mouthful of that!"

"Neola!" the redhead exclaimed, covering her blushing face with both hands. "I do not!" Then, her anger getting the better of her, she placed both her fists on her hips. "And, how would you know? Unless . . . You've been looking, too!"

"Have not!"

"Have, too!"

"Have - " a wicked smile caressed the brunette's lips. "Oh, okay. Maybe a little."

Blonde eyebrows scurried towards a heated hairline. Ephiny felt the rising blush coloring her cheeks. Closing her eyes, she tried to steady her breathing. How could she swoop down and bust these two for smoking now without them knowing she had overheard? That wasn't something they'd be comfortable with. Hera's left tit! It's not something I'm comfortable with!

"Well, doesn't matter, anyway," the redhead declared, taking the rolled cigarette from her friend and deeply inhaling. A coughing fit racked her frame as she passed the herb cigarette back. "I hear Solari spent the night in Eponin's bedroll."

"No!" Then, a quirked eyebrow as she asked, "Since when?"

"Yep," confirmed the redhead. "The night of the feast. Heard Solari turned down an offer to get it on with a guard and two dancers because she wanted the weapons master more."

"That can't be right."

"Of course it is!" Trina vehemently nodded her head. "Have you seen the weapons master? Makes me wet just thinking about all those muscles and those big hands and - "

Neola elbowed her friend. "Course I've seen her, dummy! She's hot." Taking a long draw, she puffed out, "That's not what I meant. I meant; she couldn't have been gettin' it on with the chief."

"And, why not?" asked the redhead, in a rather haughty tone.

Yeah, why not? wondered Ephiny, recalling what she had witnessed by the glow of the campfire light.

"Because, stupid! She was taking a bath with Regent Ephiny earlier that night!"

Ephiny had to reach out and grab the branch she was crouched upon for support before she tumbled from her perch.

"The regent and the weapons master?" The redhead pulled a face, folded her arms over her chest. "Nuh-uh. Besides, lots of folk take baths together. Doesn't mean nothin'."

"It does when Met had to wait five candledrips and announce her presence several times before she got a response from the regent." Seeing she had her friend's curiosity firmly on the line now, she reeled her in. "And, Eponin came up out of the water where she'd been holding her breath and tongue-fucking the regent."

"Dummy!" It was the redhead's turn to backhand her friend across the arm. "How could the weapons master be holding her breath underwater and doing the regent when she'd just had her ribs shattered by Cordele during the challenge?"

Ephiny's mouth had suddenly gone dry. Her heart was trip-hammering in her chest. And, her grip upon the tree was loosening.

"Well, I don't know. But, Met said that they were going at it pretty good. Eponin wasn't able to keep her hands off Ephiny the entire time she was there."

"Yeah? Well, I heard that one of the healer's apprentices was getting the same treatment in the baths right after."

Neola's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "How do you know that, Ms. Smarty-Leathers, if you didn't know she was doing the regent?"

"I just wanted to see if you had your facts straight." Not to be outdone by her friend, the redhead added, "Not only that, but the healer's apprentice has it so bad for the weapons master that she's been hiking down to the water reclamation system every day, twice a day to bring her tea and personally check her injuries."

"Yeah? Which one?"

"Which one, what?"

"Which healer's apprentice?" fired back Neola, folding her arms across her chest. "There's two of them, ya know?"

Ephiny's jaw was clenched so hard by this point, her entire face ached from the strain. Yeah, which one, you little featherhead? Her fingers were digging so fiercely into the bark of the tree that two nails had broken off unnoticed. She fought against every tightening muscle in her body to keep from pouncing down on the two scouts and beating the answer out of them.

"Ah, doesn't matter," shrugged the redhead, then added with a smirk, "Heard the weapons master's had them both, anyway."

As Eponin and Solari moved at a steady pace down the forest path, both reflected on the first thing they'd do when they got back to the village.

"Definitely a bath," decided Solari.

"I'm with you," agreed Ep. "I've got dirt in creases I didn't know I had creases." There was a half-pause before she asked, "Think Eph will join us at the hot springs?"

"Don't know," shrugged Solari, spotting a couple of figures standing on the path in the distance, "Doesn't hurt to ask, though."

She increased her pace to match Eponin's longer stride with the crutches. Six days of using the blasted things in the woods and Ep was suddenly able to outdistance her on an even path. As they drew nearer, Solari recognized the two as a couple of her younger scouts. Eagle-eyes caught the way the two abruptly stood at attention as they noticed her and Ep's approach, the subtle opening of a hand, the quick movement of the toe of a leather boot.

Have to talk with Nyxona about placing these two with older partners. A healing nose picked up the tell-tale scent in the air. Partners that don't smoke herb cigarettes.

Now that she was looking for it, Solari's skilled eyes picked up on the fine trail of smoke still making its way up into the thick foliage of the overhead trees. Eyes narrowed, brow furrowed as she caught sight of something else amongst the cover of limbs and leaves and branches.

"On second thought, Ep," Solari amended, eyes locked on the retreating swatches of rapidly disappearing bronzed skin and blonde hair, "Eph's probably busy with something or another. Let's make it just you and me this time, huh?"



One moon later -

She moved forward, inching herself along through the narrow, confined crawlspace. The structure's sudden collapse had caught her unawares, the quickness of the falling stone effectively cutting her off from the exit. When the debris settled and the air cleared enough for her to see through the dust-laden haze, she discovered that she was completely and utterly alone. And, despite her frequent and urgent calls for help, no one answered.

There wasn't enough room left to stand, let alone walk. She was forced on her hands and knees through piles of treacherously unstable rubble. She winced as a jagged shard of stone sliced through the material of her skirt and into her upper thigh. Still, she kept moving forward, towards the faint rays of dim sunlight that meant salvation.

Her grime-covered hand reached out, fingers covered in a mixture of dust and blood clutching about a frayed rope that disappeared beneath the pile of rubble she was precariously perched upon. The debris shifted, rock and dust falling and scattering at random, sending her tumbling through the wreckage until her feet struck solid ground.


The illumination of a freshly stoked campfire silhouetted the profile of the warrior princess as Xena sat back on her haunches, intently studying Gabrielle's face. She'd been repeatedly calling her lover's name over and over, with no apparent response. The bard was flat on her back in their bedroll, her face and body covered in a fine sheen of perspiration despite the chill settling into the evening air. Pupils rapidly moved beneath closed eyelids, signaling that Gabrielle was completely enthralled in the realm of Morpheus.


The Queen's heart stopped, then began beating triple-time at the sound of her name being called.

"Where are you?" She waited a half-heartbeat before calling out again. "Are you okay?"

"Help me . . . "

The plea was weak. She spun around, eyes darting about the dim wreckage, trying to decipher where the voice could be coming from.

Xena's entire body stiffened. Eyes watched, transfixed, as Gabrielle's fingers clutched at the weathered bracer she held in her hand, even in sleep, her thumb repeatedly rubbing over the worn leather. Recognizing that Gabrielle's dream was intensifying, she contemplated trying again to wake her bard.

Resolutely, she reached out, attempting to slip the bracer from her lover's grasp. Gabrielle's fingers tightened in response, refusing to relinquish their hold. A blonde brow furrowed, incoherent mumbling escaped her lips.

"Where are you?"

"Gabrielle . . . help me - "

One tiny pebble cascaded down a massive pile of rubble in slow-motion. First one, then another. Fear shot through Gabrielle like one of Zeus' lightning bolts as she took in the monstrous size of the pile of debris.

She sprinted to the mound, falling upon her hands and knees. Frantically, desperately, she clawed at the mortar and stone and bits of wooden timbers that blocked her way. She felt the ache in her arms, the throbbing in her hands as bloodied and battered fingers refused to give up. With a grunt, she pulled a large section of wall off the pile, using her whole body to shove it away.

Gabrielle hesitated as a warrior's gauntlet and sword arm was revealed. With renewed vigor, she dove into her task again, unrelenting until she revealed more of the gauntlet, a battered arm, then a bracer. Broken and bloodied fingers reached out for hers. Gabrielle took them within in her hand, mindful not to add pressure to the already crushed appendages.

Through tear-filled eyes, Gabrielle focused on the battered form laying before her. Blood liberally poured from a nose and mouth, pale eyes weakly focused on her. A tiny, tumultuous smile struggled to appear on a ruined face.

"If you love me . . . "

"Of course. " The tears were flowing freely now, running down Gabrielle's cheeks and falling upon the warrior's grime-coated face. "I love you, Ephiny."

Swallowing down the painful knot those words elicited, Xena reached out, clutching the bard's hand in her firm grasp. Strong fingers ran through drenched blonde locks as a trembling voice full of hurt urged her, "Come on, Gabby. It's okay." Gabrielle's brow furrowed, teeth bit her bottom lip in response to the familiar voice. Trying to force a smile upon her lips, Xena tenderly pleaded, "Just wake up. I'm not mad. Promise." Her large hand trailed over Gabrielle's hair, calloused palm cupping a smooth cheek. "Just wake up for me, baby."

"I love you, Ephiny." Gabrielle's trembling hand sifted through the dirt, grime and blood matting her regent's blonde curls and encrusting her ravaged face.

With tremendous effort, shaking fingers worked the grip of the sword, pushing the weapon into Gabrielle's hand before falling limply onto the pile of rubble.

"Then . . . kill me . . . "

"I - " Gabrielle firmly shook her head.

". . . Kill me . . . "

The scream was still upon her lips as Gabrielle bolted upright in her bedroll. Her arms instantly went about Xena, drawing strength from the warrior's firm embrace, the tender words being cooed in her ear, the hand rubbing in reassuring circles upon her back. Gasping with every breath, she tried to control her rampant heart and bring herself back under control.

"A dream," she repeated Xena's words, "It was only a dream."

Both Xena's hands catching her upper arms, she held Gabrielle just far enough away from her to be able to look into her eyes. They were wide with fright, moist with tears. The warrior could feel Gabrielle's chest rising and falling against her own and was concerned because her breathing was still too erratic.

"You okay?" she asked, intense blue eyes searching frantic green.

"I - " Gabrielle quickly swallowed, nodded her head. Arms going about her protector, she sobbed, "Gods, Xena. It happened again. I was there, trying to dig you out - " An odd expression came over her face, there was a pallor in her cheeks as she realized " - Ephiny. It was Ephiny I couldn't save."

With Devillare in the hospice, Ephiny had lost her only ally amongst the council. That's not necessarily true. You still have Evanthe's support. And Calandra's. A snort escaped the regent as she thought about the elder healer whose one quick word of advice on the matter was to obtain a phallus. Wonder what their reaction would be if I stood up in chambers and announced I was going to abide by Calandra's counsel?

Then again, when would I ever have privacy enough to enjoy its use even if I had one? Ephiny bristled as a too-sudden stop sent a body jostling against her. Slowly, making sure her most irritated-regent-glare was firmly in place, she turned to look over her shoulder at the guard that had just assaulted her.

"Sorry," Lexine hastily apologized, her face taking on a painful grimace as she rapidly took three pronounced steps back, "Sorry."

Oh, Gods. When Pelagia had made the announcement nearly a moon ago, Lexine had known it would lead to trouble. Assigning only one guard to the regent's care for the morning rotation sounded like such a simple thing. In theory. All that was required was to meet her at the dining hut after she'd had her breakfast and escort her to the council hut where she was usually in session with the elders for two, maybe three, candlemarks. Then, it was lunch in the dining hut and whatever was on her agenda for the afternoon. Mostly, it required staying quiet and unobtrusively out of sight.

Right now, Lexine was finding she was neither of those things. And, that made for the beginnings of a very bad shift, indeed. Gods. I'll be assigned to the water reclamation project until I'm an elder. If I'm lucky. If she doesn't just kill me outright.

Ephiny slowly ran a hand across the front of her halter and down her stomach, using the action to help her fight down the urge to growl. "It's okay, Lexine." She pointedly shook the warm tea from her fingertips.

"I'm sorry," repeated the guard, taking a step forward, using her hand to hurriedly brush at the regent's soaked halter . . . until she realized what she was doing. Then, eyes widening, cheeks flaming, she stammered, "I am s-so sorry."


The young guard paled, having never heard anyone - not even her own mother - manage to put such deadly emphasis on her name before. Holding up her hand, the regent closed both her eyes, slowly breathed in and out. Lexine hastily tried to swallow her own tongue in her efforts to be still as she prayed to every God in the pantheon to make her death mercifully swift. She didn't even care if it was painless; just so it was over and done with quickly.

When those hazel eyes at last blinked open and the regent's intense gaze focused once again on her, Lexine thought she felt herself pee her leathers just a little bit.

"Lexine." The regent crooked a finger at her, beckoning her in closer, until the guard was almost nose to nose with her. Dropping her voice to a dangerously low level, Ephiny managed to force out between gritted teeth, "Lexine." Two blonde eyebrows rose, nearly reaching the leather braiding encircling the regent's crown. "How about you take your hand off my breast," Hazel eyes pointedly directed the guard's gaze to the appropriate part of her anatomy, "And fetch me a fresh mug of tea?"

"Oh . . . " A mouth dropped open, green eyes tightly squeezed shut, fingers limply fell away from the swell of a firm breast " . . . Gods."

"Let them get their own," Ephiny succinctly replied, "You get mine."

"Yes, my regent." There was a quick salute before Lexine ran off in the direction of the dining hut. She'd gone nearly a dozen steps before she hit her fist against her thigh and turned around and raced back. Saluting again, she reached out, snatching the mug from Ephiny's fingers. Then, saluting yet a third time, she did a turn and raced across the grounds as fast as her legs could carry her.

The brisk morning air assaulted her lungs as she took in another deep breath. Sweat slowly trickled through her hair and down her neck. Feeling the moisture running down her arms and beneath her gauntlets, she adjusted her grip upon her staff. Gritting her teeth, she steeled herself as blow after blow rained down upon the wood.

"Ni-ice," Solari acknowledged as the next strike was enough to make her teeth chatter and cause her to take a defensive step backwards.

"Quit trying to flatter me and tighten your stance up, Soli," Eponin growled out, laying into a series of rapid-fire thrusts and jabs. To emphasize her point, Ep used the end of her staff to squarely poke Solari dead center in her belly.

"Hey!" The chief scout objected, turning her staff to knock away an attempted repeat attack on her stomach. "That hurts when you do that."

"Your own fault for being soft around the middle." Eponin snuck another quick shot beneath Solari's defenses, connecting once again with her breadbasket. "Comes from those second helpings of Mytilda's oatmeal."

Solari had always been a little touchy about her weight. Eponin knew that. As a matter of fact, she was counting on it. The chief scout had reluctantly agreed to spar with her this morning. First time she'd been able to get anyone to agree to step foot out on the field in what seemed like forever. She'd never before had difficulties finding a sparring partner and had her suspicions that a certain healer had something to do with even Solari's reluctance to come out to play.

It had taken some cajoling on her part. And, a demonstration that she was fit enough to walk without the aid of her crutches before Solari would even consider it. The fact that she'd had to use her staff for support to be able to do it hadn't slipped Solari's notice, yet she still agreed to a session. A short one, she had made Ep promise.

They had been going at it for close to a candlemark now, and even though Eponin's sharp eyes saw the perspiration beginning to form on Solari's upper body and forearms, she knew the chief scout wasn't even winded, yet. She had been holding back all morning, not putting a solid effort into their match. So, she decided to prod Solari into giving her a real workout. By attacking her where she believed her to be the most sensitive. Her weight.

"If I had second helpings . . . " Solari reacted without thinking, putting a concerted effort into an offensive attack. " . . . my stomach would be . . . " Her overhand strikes were rapidly forcing Eponin backwards " . . . as thick as the iron skillet . . . " Solari didn't even feel the sharp rap that landed across her knuckles. " . . . Mytilda uses to cook that swill in . . . "

There was a fire in Solari's eyes now that had been absent during their entire sparring session. There was an intensity, a drive to her attack. The force behind each blow was palpable as she connected again and again with her opponent's staff.

That was what Eponin wanted. That's the reaction she had been trying to goad her into. She wanted Solari to act, not think about acting. All morning, her moves had been carefully choreographed, planned so that she could defensively counter any of the weapons master's attacks without going on the offensive.

If that's all she was going to offer, Ep could have sparred with one of the straw-filled body-dummies they used for archery practice. What she wanted, what she needed, was a real measure of her skills to gauge her recovery for herself. Solari wasn't giving her that. And, Eponin didn't know how to explain to the chief scout what it was she was really after. So instead, Eponin lured her into a physical confrontation by attacking her with words where she thought the brunette was most vulnerable.

It was a safe bet. So many of the Amazons in the village were sensitive when it came to their weight. In truth, Solari was the ideal weight for her build. There wasn't an extra bit of fat on her. She was just . . . shapely. And, although she was physically active, she'd never developed the sort of abdominal muscles the weapons master and some of the other warriors about the village had. That, coupled with an off-handed comment from one of those too-thin Amazons that were sometimes hanging about the practice field was usually enough to send Solari's leathers into a wad, causing her to workout more and lay off the mead and pastries. Until she got over it; generally in three days time, when she realized there was nothing wrong with her.

"You . . . ugh . . . " Solari grunted as Eponin brought her staff up, smoothly countering her blow. They stood locked into position like that, staffs crossed overhead, Solari's on top and Eponin's on bottom. Arms flexed and trembling from the exertion as they blocked each other's intended blow, teeth gritted as they each pushed against the other. " . . . ready to surrender?"

"I'm just . . . " Eponin felt the tension behind her knee as she locked her legs into place, refusing to yield beneath the leverage Solari was trying to use against her. "getting started . . . "

Ep shifted her grasp, ignoring the tightness she felt beneath the bandage securely wrapped about her abdomen. With a grunt, Eponin used all her strength to push both arms straight up. The force was enough to loosen Solari's grip and force her back a step.

Ephiny stood at the edge of the practice field, arms crossed over the fence, one boot propped up on a lower board as she watched the two Amazons sparring in the center. Dawn was just edging over the horizon and the first training sessions weren't due to take place for another candlemark. So, it had surprised Ephiny to hear the distinctive, hollow sounds of staffs connecting together so early in the morning.

It had surprised her even more when she discovered who the two combatants were. She herself had given strict instructions that Eponin was not to be allowed to spar until Megara had approved it was okay to do so. This decision had come about nearly a week after Sol and Pony had returned from their probationary period down at the project site.

She had come out of the council hut and was intent on relieving some frustration on the practice field. Ephiny had made her way through the gathering crowd just in time to see Eponin on the field squaring off against Egeria. The weapons master was precariously balanced with one foot off the ground, keeping her weight off her injured leg. Ephiny could see Egeria's look of trepidation as Eponin goaded her into attacking. It was reckless and irresponsible and she looked ridiculous . . . and she was actually holding her own until she forgot herself and instinctively leapt over a swipe that was aimed too low.

When she landed and her leg crumbled beneath her, Ephiny's initial instinct had been to vault over the fence surrounding the field and rush to Pony's side. Pride had overruled that reaction as she saw Solari, Pelagia and even the healer's assistant arrive there first. Under Hilaeira's instructions, Egeria and Pelagia had Eponin's weight evenly distributed between them and were carrying her off to the hospice despite Eponin's rather vocal objections. Dutifully picking up Eponin's dropped staff and discarded crutches, Solari raced after them, studiously avoiding Ephiny's scowling visage as she rushed past.

A discreet inquiry on her part had Megara confessing that Eponin should not have been sparring, no matter if she was feeling up to it or not. In Megara's opinion, even with the conditioning exercises and therapy Eponin was undergoing, it would be moons before she was capable of performing some of the feats that had come so easily to her in the past. In truth - and Megara swore she would deny this if asked by anyone else - she was worried about the weapons master. The healer confided to the regent that she feared the stubborn warrior could jeopardize her health by pushing too hard and not giving flesh and bone the time required to properly mend.

With a sly wink, Megara had suggested that Eponin was in the heated pool and probably wouldn't mind if the regent were to come in and check up on her. That comment had brought back several intense memories to the regent. Memories of their last bath together and the flames of desire that had licked at her skin as her fingers trailed over Pony's wet flesh and her near loss of control mingled with the bitter vision of seeing Ep with someone else. Coupled with the bit of gossip she'd overheard in the forest and the knowing looks she was certain she'd been receiving around the village lately, the urge for flight had won out and she'd stormed out of the hospice in an aggravated, frustrated huff.

She wanted to command that Eponin be restricted to the hospice until she was fully recuperated. Every time she thought of issuing that order, though, the words stuck in her throat as she remembered the rumors about Pony and one of the assistant healers. No matter if it was for her own good or not, Ephiny just couldn't stomach putting her warrior in such easy reach of temptation.

She'd even briefly considered the possibility of confining Eponin to quarters. But, realizing she couldn't just order the stubborn warrior to stay in bed without a huge fight and a lengthy discussion, she had circumvented the weapons master completely. Instead, she had paid a visit to Egeria and the rest of the warriors, subtly suggesting that none of them were to engage in sparring with Eponin. She'd thought that by limiting her options, the warrior would be forced to allow her body the time it needed to heal.

Her movements are too stiff. Even lost in her thoughts as she was, Ephiny's attention had still been focused on the sparring field. She had been able to tell Eponin still wasn't fully recovered the instant she laid eyes on her. Usually, watching the weapons master wielding a staff was truly something to behold; almost like watching a dancer at the height of a performance. There was a powerful grace and fluidity to her movements that made it seem like she was one with her weapon. She was in her element on the practice fields; she had complete control over her surroundings and utilized every square foot of her arena.

She'd been watching for well over a hundred heartbeats now - and Pony hadn't moved out of a ten pace radius. Her and Solari's staffs were coming together with a fair amount of force and consistency, their sweat-soaked biceps standing out in stark comparison as their weapons repeatedly clashed, their bodies absorbing the brunt of the shocking vibrations rolling through the wood.

But, Ephiny realized, Solari was controlling the rhythm, setting the pace of the dance. Oh, Ep might get in a good hit every now and then - enough to send Solari stumbling backwards - but the chief scout was being cautious enough not to allow Eponin to force her all over the field.

There was pause for concern when she saw the shift in Solari's posture. The chief scout's momentum abruptly increased, her staff peppering Eponin's in a rapid-fire flurry of blows. Her breath caught as Solari's staff came up and was promptly halted by Eponin's mere inches above her head. They held their position, neither willing to give ground.

Unexpectedly, Solari looked in her direction. Sandalwood eyes stared unblinkingly into hazel until Solari seemingly realized who was watching. Blinking rapidly, her face paled considerably, her attention broken enough so that her grip faltered and she found herself bodily pushed away as Eponin regained her ground. She was unable to recover, soon discovering her backside planted firmly on the ground, with the weapons master standing over her, holding the end of her staff against her throat.

Unaware of their regent's presence at the fence line behind her, Eponin gave a broad grin and offered a hand to her opponent. Gaze darting back and forth between Eponin's grinning face and Ephiny's thunderous glare, Solari found herself rooted to the spot, unsure of what to do. Do I tell Ep? Do I let Ep help me up and continue sparring like Eph's not even there? Seeing the firmly set jaw, the arched brow, she realized, Nnnoooo. That's probably a bad choice. But Ep doesn't know we're not supposed to -

Thankfully, Lexine returned at that precise time and Solari was spared from making a decision. Silently praising Artemis, Solari extended her hand, allowing Eponin to pull her up off the cold ground. One last pointed look from the regent before the guard escorted her away helped the chief scout to decide that maybe they'd better call their practice session to an end soon.

"I don't want to fight with you!"

"Well, good! Because I don't want to fight with you, either!"

The warrior suppressed the growl, keeping it to a mere rumble as it tried to work itself out between clenched teeth. Her jaw was strained, her gaze fiery as she watched the other woman pointedly stomp away. Her horse's reins clutched tightly in her fist, she gave a firm tug, urging the mare to follow as she stormed after her.

"Gabrielle!" If anything, the bard's stride seemed to increase as Xena's voice bellowed after her. Easily matching her pace with her longer legs, the warrior was soon walking alongside her lover. "We need to talk about this!"

That statement was enough to make Gabrielle stop dead in her tracks in the middle of the well-worn road. "You?" Hands on both hips, she tilted her head to the side, looking at Xena as if she'd just grown wings and proclaimed herself to be Pegasus. "You want to talk?"

"Yes," came the firm response. "Yes, I do."

Gabrielle looked up into the icy blue eyes staring down at her. Although the jaw was still rigidly set, there was concern and love shining back at her from the depths of those expressive eyes. She had learned long ago, words were not one of Xena's many skills. But, her actions - her eyes - she wasn't able to hide the truth of what she felt when Gabrielle really took the time to look.

With a deep sigh and a nod, Gabrielle relented. Xena glanced around at their surroundings, determined that this was not a conversation they were going to have while traveling. No, this was going to be one of those sit-down discussions. The sort where they wouldn't budge another step until things were resolved.

Spying a suitable clearing in the distance, she guided them off the road. Gabrielle cocked an eyebrow as the warrior removed Argo's saddle and their gear, allowing the mare a chance to roam free. She watched impassively as Xena disappeared into the underbrush and soon returned, dragging a good-sized log behind her. Tossing it on the ground, she sat down, bracing her back against the log and patting a space beside herself. Steeling herself, Gabrielle walked over and settled down upon the log.

Almost immediately, Xena picked up a leaf from off the ground. Staring at it, she began to tear it into tiny pieces as she worked to get the words out. Gabrielle remained quiet, having realized long ago that it was sometimes easier for the warrior to express herself if she felt like she wasn't being watched.

"I want you to get rid of it."

Blonde eyebrows knitted in confusion. Then, realizing to what Xena was referring, she felt her fingers slipping to the pouch secured to the belt fastened about her waist. Even through the material of the bag, she was able to feel the outline of the bracer.

"Xena. I - " Gabrielle swallowed against the growing lump in her throat.

"Gabby." Xena turned around, looking up at Gabrielle's downcast eyes. Reaching out, she took the blonde's hand within her own, using her fingers to move Gabrielle's away from where they were subconsciously caressing the very item they were discussing. "It's not healthy. You have to let it go."

"I - I can't." Helpless green eyes met unwavering blue. She knew Xena was concerned. And, her warrior had already been so understanding, so compassionate about this whole thing. But - she couldn't just give up the bracer. "It's the only thing left of her, Xena."

She fervently prayed the warrior understood what she was trying to say. The bard with the golden tongue was suddenly finding herself lacking for the words needed to express herself. When they had finally made their way out of the tower, Xena had gone back in and retrieved the body of the Amazon. And, as Gabrielle looked on, the warrior princess had built the funeral pyre and lit it. It wasn't until she saw the wood catch fire and begin to burn that she felt the overwhelming need to rush the pyre and take the bracer from the deceased warrior.

Xena's lips set in grim determination. She knew what her love was trying to say. She'd gone through the same thing with her army. Even when she was at her worst, she still felt a sense of responsibility towards her men. When one fell in battle, she saw it as her obligation to return his sword home to his family, if he had one. And, she soon realized, they all had families. Even if they were estranged like hers was at that time in her life. A mother, a sister, a brother, a wife. There was someone who would mourn their passing. She imagined it was the same with Gabrielle. She was an Amazon Queen; it was her duty to see her warrior home.

Still -

Gabrielle was still fairly inexperienced at facing death. Even as the leader of an entire nation of warrior women. As a mostly absent ruler, she really hadn't had to deal with losing one of her tribe. Sure, there was Melosa. But, she'd been gone and her pyre cold long before Gabrielle had learned of her passing. This - this was different.

And, it was getting worse.

"Look, Gabrielle." Reaching out, a large hand tenderly cupped the bard's cheek. "I know you care. You care so much sometimes, I'm afraid your heart is going to shatter one day and it'll never mend again." There was the ghost of a smile as the gruff warrior suddenly felt awkward about the sentimental words that had just rolled off her tongue. "But, it hurts me to see you in such pain each time we - " the warrior's breath uncharacteristically hitched.

" - each time we find another town."

Tears were sparkling in Gabrielle's eyes, her nose was bright red as she fought back the overwhelming urge to cry. Since initially stumbling across that first town over a moon ago, she and Xena had continued to travel on a southerly course. They had been shocked to encounter no fewer than three more such towns. Each one had been raided and ransacked, nothing but destruction, carnage and death left where there had once been thriving communities.

By the time they had investigated the third town, she thought she'd become detached, able to see things with a more critical eye. Like Xena. It had been her cool and collected companion that had pointed out to her that each of the towns had been gutted by no fewer than a dozen riders on horseback, probably the same killers that had looted the first town. None of them were large enough to have a town watch or a militia or even much of a population to offer an adequate defense. The raiders had been able to simply ride in and slaughter everyone, leaving no witnesses to their crimes, before taking everything of value and riding out again.

Xena reached up, tugging Gabrielle down to sit beside her on the ground, pulling her into an embrace. No matter how tough Gabrielle might have thought she'd become over the seasons, Xena was still able to read her like an open scroll. She tried to suppress her emotions, to not let even Xena see her suffering. But, come nightfall, her emotions found an outlet in the one way left accessible - her dreams.

"Each time, the nightmares come." A large, calloused finger halted the protest that tried to form upon youthful lips. "It's your mind's way - your heart's way - of trying to cope with what we've been seeing." Arms encircling her bard's waist, she confessed, "I've heard you call out in your sleep."

"I - I'm sorry." Gabrielle winced at the admission. "The - the first time it was - "

"- Me." Xena nodded. "I know."

"It was you the first several times." Gabrielle tried to fight down the rising waves of anxiety. "I saw you die, Xena." A shudder racked her body as she confessed, "I saw you die so many times . . . and I wasn't able to help you." Tears were openly streaming down her face, she was forcefully shaking within the embrace of her lover's arms. In a hushed voice, she whispered, "Then, I started seeing the others."

"Ephiny. Eponin. Solari." Xena caught the startled look, tightened her embrace about the distraught bard. "I know. I've heard you cry out for each of them."

When it had first happened, Xena's heart had clenched in anguish. A jealous rage had swept through her when she heard the chief scout's name come from her sleeping lover's lips. Then, she realized that Gabrielle was in the throes of a nightmare and not an erotic fantasy and her jealousy had given way to concern. Not that that had made her feel any better when she'd heard each of their friends names come from between parted lips over the course of several restless nights.

There were countless drawn out heartbeats of silence as Gabrielle openly wept in Xena's arms and Xena ran a reassuring hand up and down her back, whispering words of comfort in a soothing voice. "It's just your mind trying to work through things, baby. You don't know the identity of the Amazon. And, you felt powerless because you weren't able to save her. So, in your dreams, your mind is substituting those you care most about in her place."

There were hiccupping gasps coming from her cleavage as Gabrielle tried to stifle her tears and control her breathing. "I just feel so helpless, Xena. All those people in those towns - " Another sob wrenched free from her throat before she added, "And, for one of my sisters to die -- and I don't even know who she was -- "

"I know, sweetie, I know." Xena continued to hold her sobbing lover, a hand stroking through her silky blonde tresses as she vowed to comfort her for as long as she needed it. My sweet, innocent Gabrielle. Crying over the death of strangers - and an Amazon. Turning her head, she firmly placed her lips to Gabrielle's temple. But, with all these towns lying within sixty miles of the nearest Amazon border, I can't help but wondering . . . is your Amazon another victim . . . or one of the raiders?

"That was a good sparring session, Sol." Eponin adjusted her staff, discreetly using it as a makeshift cane as they ambled along the path leading from the practice fields. "Thanks."

"No problem, Ep." Solari noticed the movement out of her peripheral vision, worriedly glanced at the weapons master's knee. "Maybe we should get that checked out?"

"Nah. It's just a little sore." Solari was surprised Eponin didn't even try to feign ignorance to what she was referring to. "Besides, I'm not all that eager for Megara's healing touch, if you know what I mean."

"Ain't that the truth?" Solari snorted. "I've been riding Admeta pretty hard. She's one of my best and she just hasn't been performing up to standards lately. Been arriving late for duty, sloppy on climbing trees. Her dismount has been all over the place." Surreptitiously, Solari slowed her pace, using her involvement in the tale she was weaving for Ep to mask her intent. "Anyway, I was really dressing her down, threatening to personally pluck all her feathers."

"Bet that got her attention," Eponin grunted.

"Had her shaking in her leathers. Thought for sure she was gonna cry." Two warriors passed Ep and Sol coming the opposite way on the path, nodded their heads in greeting. Solari glanced at the position of the sun. Nearly midday. Drop our staffs off at Ep's, maybe grab a hot soak to loosen up the joints, then off to lunch. Pel and Megara may still be there if we hurry. Maybe I can get her to look Ep over without her knowing. "Got a worse reaction from Metanira. She came up to me, yelling and screaming at me to leave Admeta alone."

Pony's eyebrows rose in surprise. She knew the youngsters were each other's first loves, but she'd always known both to act responsibly. She hadn't guessed Metanira might disrespect her leader over a disciplinary issue with her partner.

"I was wrong, Ep." Sandalwood eyes met warm honey as the two warriors exchanged glances at the admission. "Met's the one that finally came clean, confessing that Admeta had taken a bad fall out of a tree while on patrol four days prior and messed up her foot. When we got to the hospice, Megara had to cut the boot off, her foot was so swollen. Damn if there wasn't a piece of bone sticking out."

Eponin grimaced in sympathy.

"I'm telling ya, Ep, if I hadn't picked that girl up and carried her all the way to the hospice, I don't think she would have ever gone. Hera's left tit, she wasn't going to say anything to me. Would have just let me bust her all the way down to junior status."

An answering grunt from Eponin signaled her agreement.

"Thing is, the girl's heard so many horror stories about Megara, she was more scared of going to the healer than contracting infection from a bone sticking out her skin."

"You makin' a point here, Soli?"

Solari shrugged noncommittally. "Just saying that it might be good for some of the youngsters to see one of their big, tough heroes voluntarily go in for an ailment?"

"And, I just naturally came to mind?"

"Well, you are the one with the knee brace . . . " Solari cast a sidelong glance at her buddy, fighting down a snigger as she added, "Maybe you'll get lucky and it'll be a certain blonde assistant healer on duty, hmm?"

"Soli!" Ep was so caught off-balance by the suggestion that she nearly missed a step. "Artemis preserve us; that girl's driving me nuts! Every time I turn around, she's right there with another mug of that blasted tea!"

"Aww, take it easy, Ep. She's got a crush on ya, you dumb warrior." The brunette playfully swatted her companion on the arm. "I think it's cute the way she flavors it with honey cause the big, tough weapons master doesn't like the taste of it plain. I'm telling you, no one else is getting flavored tea from the hospice." When the only answer was a darkening scowl, she amended, "Okay, okay. I promise I'll talk to her for you about laying off it."

"Fine." Although Eponin wouldn't admit it to anyone, let alone Soli, she didn't mind the honey-flavored tea so much. It's the one thing that stops that infernal buzzing in my skull. Ep swiped at the sweat trickling off her brow. "I'll go if you'll go." Solari looked like she'd been slapped. "You've been rubbing at that back for over a candlemark now."

Suddenly cognizant of her actions, Solari jerked her hand away from where she'd been cradling the small of her back. "Well, you whacked me with your staff; what do you expect?"

"Could be a sign of a much more serious problem." Ep shrugged. "Might be a good thing to let the kiddies see one of their heroes getting it checked out?"


Their ambling had taken them directly past the council hut. Even from a distance of twenty paces away, they could hear the raised voices. A glance at the guard positioned outside the doorway confirmed that the regent was indeed in attendance.

"They've been spending an awful lot of time in sessions lately, Soli." A dark mane jerked in the direction of the council hut. "Wonder what's going on?"

"Ah, probably just more inquiries into our regent's actions. The elders are laying blame on her for that incident with Doretta, you know."

Two dark eyebrows rose in surprise. "No centaur crap?" Ep asked, eyes narrowing as she looked towards the council hut again.

"Yeah, heard it from one of the guards. Seems Tynette might have gotten a bit too vocal and she was able to overhear that much of the conversation."

Ep halted in her tracks. Reaching out, clasping one firm hand upon the scout's shoulder, she effectively stopped her, too. Applying pressure until Solari turned around and looked at her, she urged in a lowered tone, "You need to be careful with that, Soli. Those sessions are behind closed doors for a reason. If they found out Lexi was telling you anything - "

She'd be removed from the guard. Solari offered up a half smile, reached out and patted Eponin's hand reassuringly. "Don't worry, Ep. I've already told her, I don't need to know anything that's going on in those sessions." Her smile grew wider as she added, "Quite frankly, I don't care as long as we're as far away as possible when the session lets out."

"Ain't that the truth, Soli?" Eponin cast one last glance back again before she picked up the pace to carry them quickly past the council hut. "Eph's been a real bear lately, huh?"

"A bear? Yep, that's the word I would use to describe her." Solari suppressed the urge to shudder as she recalled the look in Ephiny's eyes when she'd seen them sparring together that morning. I'm in big trouble. Cyclops-sized trouble. When Eph catches up with me, she's liable to personally pluck all my feathers. Hades, there's no telling what she might do -

Solari's disposition quickly soured as she thought about all the work details she'd been assigned to lately. It seemed that whenever Ephiny came out of a council meeting, she and Eponin were always the first ones in her sight. Even when they tried to avoid her, she still found them. Like when she caught them all the way down by the river fishing and sharing a flask of wine during the middle of the day. Something that was perfectly acceptable for all three of them to do together just six moons ago. Now, though, they were in trouble for it.

Seems like they were always in trouble for some reason or another these days. Ephiny constantly had them being punished for some misdeed. And, it seemed like poor Pony was always getting the worst of it, too. Not that Ep would ever complain about it, mind you.

Solari's gaze shifted to the side, discreetly observing as Eponin walked along beside her, watching her feet as she kicked a loose pebble down the path in front of her as they made their way towards the warriors' huts. An awkward bounce made the stone skitter off the path, tumbling until it landed against a larger rock with a soft clink. A soft smile caressed Solari's lips as an idea began to form.

"Say, Ep," Solari reached out, grasping Eponin's forearm, "You've just given me a great idea. What say we go to your hut and drop off our gear and - " Leaning in closer, she lowered her voice. " - slip off for a bit of wine? A little bit of the grape will cure whatever ails us better than a healer's touch can."

"Not a good idea, Soli. You remember the last time Eph busted us down at the river? I was scaling fish for three days straight. Uh-uh. No way. No how. No thanks."

"So, we don't go to the river." She couldn't keep the grin off her face.

"It don't matter where we go. There ain't no hiding from her, Soli."

"What if we go to the one place she won't think of looking for us at?"

Eponin eyed her skeptically. "You got a secret cave somewhere nobody knows about or something? Cause I gotta tell ya, that's the only way to keep her from sniffing us out."

"I've got something better." Quickly glancing around to make sure no one was within earshot, she crooked her finger, motioning for Eponin to come closer. "Listen," she spoke, keeping her voice to a hushed whisper, "You remember the last time Xena was here and we went with her to the Temple of Artemis?" Eponin slowly nodded her head in acknowledgement. "Well, I noticed when we were investigating the catacombs beneath the temple that they have a whole room full of stashed ceremonial wine."

"Solari!" Hearing the scout's name echo as she spoke too loudly, Eponin quickly glanced about, lowered her voice to a more acceptable level. "That's kept for formal celebrations. Hence the name, ceremonial wine."

"Yeah." Solari looked at her with a smug expression. "Means it's the best stuff in the Nation. Not that watered-down stuff Mytilda tries to pass off." Rolling her eyes at her companion's reluctance, she reasoned, "You were named Artemis' champion. Who has a better claim to the ceremonial wines kept in her temple?"

"Well . . . " Eponin's resolve was beginning to waver. She knew it wasn't right. But, Solari made such a convincing argument. And, after all that honey flavored tea she'd been forced to drink lately, she really was craving something stronger. A sudden knot of apprehension caused her gut to tighten. "What if we get caught?"

"Hey, don't sweat it," Solari shrugged, already knowing that Eponin was well on her way to agreeing. "Whatever it is, it can't be that bad. Punishment probably won't be anything worse than what we received as kids, right?" she asked with a playful swat to Eponin's bandaged middle and a sly wink.

"I've got a really bad feeling about this."

She had said that at least ten times in the last ten candledrips. Solari looked up from where she was kneeling before the door, the large knife precariously balanced in her hand, the tip halfway inserted into the lock. She nearly laughed as the hazel eyes rolled at their companion's reiterated complaints. Laying a hand upon Solari's shoulder, the curly-haired blonde gave a curt nod to continue.

Solari turned her attention back to the lock. She wiggled the knife a bit, then tried the door again, frowning in consternation when it refused to open. Ephiny stood impatiently staring over her shoulder, blocking her light in her attempts to see what the hold up was. Behind them, that older kid that Eph had suddenly taken a liking to and had insisted be included in their caper was working on pacing a trench up and down in front of the temple.

"What's taking so long?" Ephiny hissed in a loud whisper.

"I can't concentrate with the legion of Romans marching in the background," Solari complained, "Makes me nervous."

With an exasperated huff that sent her curly locks flying up off her forehead, Ephiny stalked over to where their new friend was rapidly pacing.

"Ep? Ep?" Twice the girl with the dark hair stomped past her without acknowledging her.

On the third such pass, Ephiny took a deep breath and screwed her eyes shut and stepped directly into her path. She bit down on her bottom lip to keep from crying out as the body colliding with hers carried enough force behind it to send her falling to the ground, her tailfeathers landing upon the marbled floor with a resounding splat.

She felt herself instantly pulled to her feet, larger hands dwarfing hers as a litany of apologies was issued. When she looked up into the face of the taller girl, she saw wide honey-colored eyes staring back at her.

"Eph. I'm soooo sorry. You okay?" she asked as she hastily tried to check the little blonde over for injuries.

"I'm fine. I'm fine." Ephiny shooed away the wandering fingers. "But, you've gotta relax or you're gonna give us away."

"Okay." Eponin nodded in agreement, already looking around for signs of an approaching guard. "But, I've got a - "

" - really bad feeling about this?" Ephiny asked. "Then, why'd you agree to come along?"

Eponin's eyes widened. Her mouth opened and closed several times with nothing coming out. Bowing her head, staring at the toe of her boot that was desperately trying to carve a line into the marbled step they were standing on, she mumbled, "Cause you asked me to." Then, seeming to gain courage when no one laughed, she looked up, adding, "Besides, I'm older." She jabbed a proud thumb into her chest. "It's my job to keep you out of trouble."

A knowing smile crossed Ephiny's lips. "Then, the best way to do that is to get into the temple without getting caught."

"Awww, Eph." Hearing the way her voice whined, Eponin made a concerted effort to try to make it sound deeper before she complained, "I don't know why you wanna go into The Temple of Artemis tonight, anyway. Nic - Nic - Nic - Ah; the bonding ceremony ain't till midday tomorrow, anyway."

"I know that. Nicphellia and Phaedriana are renewing their hand-fasting vows before the Priestess of Artemis on the eve before the fall harvest. Isn't it romantic?" The little blonde batted her eyes and clutched her hands over her heart as she said it. Then, abruptly dropping both hands and leveling a serious look at Eponin, she declared, "That's why we have to break in tonight. The crates of ceremonial wine have already been moved into the main temple for the celebration tomorrow."

A broad grin formed on Solari's lips as she glanced back over her shoulder. "And, since kids are all ushered out of the temple immediately after the service - "

" - We need to drink our fill tonight."

Eponin bit her bottom lip, glancing back and forth between Solari and Ephiny. Finally, her gaze settling on the little girl that had masterminded this entire operation, she asked, "Eph, you sure about this? I mean, what's the big deal?" she asked with a shrug of her shoulders. "We'll be allowed to participate in the spring - "

"Nuh-uh." Solari was immediately on her feet and standing in front of the dark haired girl that towered over her. Looking up at her, eyes flashing, she poked at Eponin's haltered-chest with the tip of her mother's big hunting knife. "No, you don't," she warned, "You don't try to talk us out of this. Just because you'll get to party at the spring festival . . . "

"Solari, shush." Ephiny warned, clamping a hand over her friend's mouth. She was becoming much too loud and she was worried they'd be noticed by a passing patrol. "Eponin," she kept her voice lowered as she addressed her other friend, "You forget; you're older than us. Lots older. You'll be allowed to drink seasons before us."

Eponin fought down the rising urge to cave in. She had to remain firm in her resolve. After all, she was the oldest. She should know better -- another look into that pleading face and she felt her resolve crumble. With a frustrated snarl, she firmly put a lid on her conscience and threw the key away. Snatching the knife from the shorter brunette's fingertips, she stalked to the door. In less time than it took to put on her boots in the morning, she had the lock jimmied and was holding the door open.

"How'd you do that?" Ephiny asked, admiration gleaming in her eyes.

There was a bashful shrug of shoulders as Eponin mumbled, "I've just got a thing for weapons, I guess."

Ephiny flashed her another smile before turning and entering the temple. Solari was right behind. The shorter brunette with the still-chubby cheeks of youth shot a glare at the older girl before reaching out and snatching her knife back. The blade slid across Eponin's palm, biting into the flesh, leaving a deep cut. Reflexively, Ep put the wounded flesh to her mouth, sucking at the blood. Still feeling the throbbing in her palm, she rapidly shook her hand, as if trying to shake the pain out. Solari smirked at her wounded expression. With a scowl and a rough shove, Eponin pushed the other girl through the door with enough force to send her stumbling into a carved statue of Artemis.

Turns out the trail of blood was what had first attracted a passing guard's notice. That and the girlish giggling coming from inside the temple itself. When she mounted the steps and cautiously pushed the cracked door the rest of the way open, her eyes widened in shock. Three little Amazons were laying in various degrees of sprawled-out intoxication across the altar of Artemis. A count of the empty skins confirmed that between the three of them, they had polished off no fewer than seven flasks of wine.

As she stared down at the youth she recognized as her Captain's little tagalong, light brown eyes blinked up at her in first confusion, then wide-eyed dismay. None-too-subtly, she elbowed the curly blonde-haired girl beside her in the ribs. A scowl formed on the tiny face before she rolled over to glare at her accomplice.

"Centaur poop," was uttered from the little blonde's lips in a no-nonsense curse. With a look to her two darker haired companions, she succinctly surmised, "We're in deep Centaur poop."

As it had turned out, that had been an understatement of epic proportions. They were made to stand there at attention as first the Head Priestess and the Captain of the Guard were summoned in the dead of the night from their warm beds. Then, they were lectured by both adults and marched down to the jail where they were tossed in and left in their misery - the intoxicating rush of the alcohol having been long ago burned off by the sobering counter-effect of fear - while their parents were summoned. Solari had puked in the corner at least twice since they'd been brought in.

Ephiny's mom arrived first. She took charge of both Ephiny and Solari, grabbing both girls by their ears and marching them off towards her hut while peppering them with a heated lecture about how disappointed she was in them. Some time after that, Megara had been summoned and had stitched closed the gash on her hand. Eponin's mother didn't come for her until well after dawn. One of the guards had offered to share her breakfast with her; but the sight and smell of the eggs had only turned her stomach, making her insides join Solari's in the corner of the cell.

She didn't see her friends again until the day after the bonding ceremony. Solari and Ephiny had seen her mother leave the hut and had called to her from outside her bedroom window. By kneeling on her bed, Eponin was able to look out at her friends.

"Hey, Ep," Ephiny called up to her. "We're goin' swimming down at the river. Wanna come?"

Eponin slowly shook her head. "I can't."

"Why?" Solari snorted, both arms folded over her chest, "You got a bad feeling?"

"Soli!" Ephiny reached out, slapping the brunette's hand. "Stop it!" Then, turning back to the window, she innocently asked, "You still in trouble?"

"Yeah." Light-colored eyes flicked back and forth between the younger girls. "You?"

"Nah," Solari shrugged. "Eph's mom gave us a good talking to. That's about it."

"Solari!" Ephiny admonished with a riotous shake of her curls. "That's not all there was and you know it." Looking up at the window again, she added, "She made us do a bunch of extra chores, too. We spent all day yesterday stone-washing our leathers." Her nose crinkled up in disgust. "Had to do mom's clothes, too. And fold them after they dried. And carry them all the way back in the straw basket." She glanced back over her shoulder at Solari before adding, "By ourselves."

Solari somberly nodded, adding her validation to the telling of events.

Ephiny noticed the way Eponin had grown silent, the odd expression on her face as they related the horrors of their punishment. "What happened with your mother?" she pried. "Same thing?"

"Uh . . . yeah." Eponin nodded, one hand subconsciously reaching back to tenderly touch the thick blanket wrapped about her waist and backside. "Pretty much."

"So, if that's all ya got," Solari shrugged, "what are you waitin' for? Let's go," she urged, already moving away from the window.

Ephiny looked up at her, a questioning arch to her eyebrow. It took all Eponin's strength to get out beyond the growing lump in throat the words, "I can't." Then, Solari was back, tugging on Ephiny's hand. As they hurried away, laughing the way kids do when they run, the little blonde-haired girl turned to cast one last glance over her shoulder at the brunette staring at her from the window.

That had been the first time she realized that her relationship with her mother might not be the same as what the other kids had with their parents. Oh sure, she was used to the odd looks from the other parents, the whispered tones, whenever there was a special function to demonstrate what the youngsters had been learning in their classes. She was used to being there alone.

She'd even come to realize that quite a few of the kids' parents might not be able to attend. Even Solari's mothers rarely made it. They were both perimeter scouts and they were stationed to the outer regions for several moons at a time. But, she was never left alone; Ephiny's mother made sure she spent equal amounts of time doting on both children. And, when they were back from duty, both parents made certain they made it to every function.

No more than six days after the incident with the wine in the temple, there had been such a function. Something to do with survival courses and feathers received for exemplary courage in the wilderness survival training. Eponin was older than Ephiny and Solari and already had several such feathers braided into her hair, but she still watched with pride as her two younger friends received their first feathers in the event.

It seemed to Eponin that Ephiny's mom was clapping the loudest for the youngsters and she swept them both up in great, big hugs and planted huge kisses on their cheeks. Her pride and love for them was palpable. Despite the fact that they'd done wrong and she'd punished them only six days prior. Eponin remembered feeling the sting of envy that burned almost as harshly as the welts still lingering on her buttocks and upper thighs.

Even after all these seasons, her punishment was still burned into her memory. If she closed her eyes and thought about it now, she could still feel the harsh slap of each blow, hear the echo of steel meeting flesh as her mother used the flat of Beroyle's sword on the exposed flesh of her backside. It was her punishment. And Beroyle's.

Her mother had yelled at her for over a candlemark straight. The words stung her ears as she tried to close her eyes against the verbal assault. Her arm was grabbed and she was told to open her eyes and look at her and not to dare close them. She remembered her mother screaming that if she had intended to slit her wrist with a hunting knife, she needed to practice more, because just like everything else in her life, she had failed at that, too. She had made Eponin take off her skirt and pull down her breechcloth, promising her a hiding she'd never forget if she resisted. She screwed her eyes shut in anticipation of the sting of her mother's palm against her backside.

Beroyle had come in at that point. A member of the guard had heard the shouting coming from the hut and had summoned her. Out of habit, Beroyle took off her sword belt and draped it across the back of a wooden chair as she entered the hut. Seeing what was happening, she had stepped in, pulling Eponin off her mother's lap and shielding her behind her body.

They had argued. Beroyle told her that she should never strike a child in anger. Eponin had looked up in wide-eyed amazement as the captain said to punish a child was one thing, but to beat one was never right. That's when her mother lost it; pushing and shoving and hitting Beroyle, informing her that since she wasn't Eponin's mother, she had no say in how the child was disciplined.

Beroyle had been so angry at that point, she'd stormed out of the hut without even stopping to retrieve her sword. Her mother was livid, still fuming over Beroyle's attempted interference. She was ranting about warriors and how she was following in the footsteps of one and that if she thought weapons were such a great thing to play with, she would show her what else a weapon could be used for.

"Hey, Soli?" Eponin asked, pushing down the painful memories and casting a sidelong glance at her friend. Only thing I miss about being a kid. I used to be taller than her. "What say we skip the Temple, huh? I don't much feel like drinking wine."


The request had caught Solari off-guard. She had thought for sure Eponin was ready to take her up on the offer and could practically taste the sweet flavor on her tongue already. Then, just like that, she had seemingly changed her mind. That had happened a lot lately. They'd be going along, both of them behaving like normal and having a good time, then Ep would just completely flip out.

Most times, it would be a bout of rage that would take hold when she became too frustrated over not being able to do the everyday things she normally did. Little things like carrying her own breakfast dish every morning in the dining hut. The first time Eponin had tried to carry her bowl of oatmeal and maneuver her crutches, she had ended up dropping the entire dish on the ground. Instantly, conversation in the hut had stopped and all eyes were upon her. Eponin had left immediately.

On more than one occasion, she'd stumbled upon the weapons master alone on the practice field well past dark while the rest of the village was asleep. She'd be there, in the middle of the archery field, using her staff to beat the stuffing out of a practice dummy. Or, she'd be trying to nock her arrow upon her bow and become so overwhelmed with anger because she wasn't able to raise the bow and pull back into the starting position.

As far as she could figure it, the weapons master was beyond frustrated because she couldn't perform up to her usual standards. And, weapons and physical exercise was all she knew. She didn't have any other outlets for her pent-up energies. So, every once in a while, when things had been bottled up for too long and there was no other way to let her feelings out, she gave into the rage.

But, there were times - like now, when Eponin would grow reflective and quiet and withdraw into herself. Given the option, Solari would take a raging Eponin over a brooding one any day. She much preferred the predictability of a berserk warrior who lost it and hit a few things and then calmed down again. That, she knew how to handle. Dealing with a melancholy streak a mile wide - no thank you.

Plan Beta, she rationalized as they rounded the last bend before coming to the line of warriors' huts. Drop off the staffs and visit the infirmary and see if I can persuade Hilaeira to slip a little something into her tea to put her in a better mood. As they approached Eponin's hut, Solari moved ahead of her, hand already reaching for the thick hide covering to move it away from the entranceway. Maybe a little henbane will do the trick.

As she lifted the flap with one arm, a ball of flame came hurtling out of the hut, immediately engulfing the hide covering. Eponin reacted instantly, knocking the scout to the ground, throwing handfuls of loose sand over Solari's armguard in an effort to extinguish the flames. Feeling the tremendous waves of heat pouring over them, Eponin grabbed Solari beneath her arms and somehow managed to move them both away.

Both Amazons lay prone on the ground, staring at the structure even as the sound of alarm went up. Thick smoke stung their eyes and seared their lungs, causing Solari and Eponin to cough violently. Fighting down the coughing fit, propping herself up on both elbows, she stared over the form of the weapons master still sprawled across her lap.

"Ummm, Ep?" Solari noted as shock overtook her senses and another cough racked her body. "I think your hut's on fire."

Part 11

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