DISCLAIMER: The characters of Ephiny, Eponin, Solari and any other familiar Amazons are owned by Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. There are a few other Amazons here that were created by me in a prior story - because sometimes you just gotta have more Amazons. No infringement is intended and no profit is being made.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Although this piece of work falls into the all-encompassing Xenaverse, the warrior princess and her battling bard are not characters in this chapter as it takes place well before the infamous duo met the leather and feather gals in Hooves and Harlots.
SPOILERS: As this story occurs before the first season of Xena, I'm bold enough to say everyone should be fairly safe.
DEDICATION: For Kelly - because she believes in Amazons. And, for Lee - because she believes in me.
CHALLENGE: Submitted as part of the Epic Proportions challenge.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Rites of Passage
By Del Robertson
"Would ya quit your fidgeting?" Eponin growled out around the blade of wild grass she was chewing. "You're making the horses nervous."
"The horses?" Ephiny asked as she reached out a hand, tenderly stroking her fingers through her mount's blonde mane. Casting a sidelong glance at her companion, she smirked, "Or, you?"
"Both." Eponin succinctly replied, trying her best to ignore the young Amazon with the riotous golden curls falling halfway down her back surreptitiously squirming about in her saddle. With each little wriggle, however, the dark-haired warrior found her gaze drifting again. She gave the lightest of taps with the instep of her bare ankle against Lightning's flank. Obediently, the horse shuffled slightly away from the light colored mare.
Ephiny noticed immediately. Eponin's larger horse and bulkier frame had been sheltering her from the direct midday sun. As she shifted away, however, the fairer-skinned Amazon could feel the full force of the oppressive summer heat. With her rudimentary shade suddenly gone, she felt the sweltering heat squarely upon her head and shoulders. The combination of heat and perspiration was beginning to make her scalp unbearably itchy and sweat was liberally rolling down her neck and off her arms.
Rubbing a hand across her forehead, the young Amazon mopped the sweat away with her fingers, absently wiping them on the material of her deerskin skirt. Squinting her eyes as the perspiration made them burn, she tried to ignore her discomfort by refocusing on the particulars of their assignment.
As part of their advanced training exercises, they had been brought out from the main village for a seven-day stay along the southern ridge. The purpose of the exercise was many-fold. It was first and foremost, a survival test. They would be living off the land, hunting and preparing all their own meals. They'd be bunking out in the wild, with not even a bedroll between them. And, they'd be expected to perform their duties of guarding and defending their assigned borders while they were out here.
Generally, the young women in their class were split up into groups of threes and fours and sent out with a seasoned warrior to act as their mentor and to aid them in what was essentially their first assignment as junior tribeswomen. This season, there had been an abundance of near-graduates, forcing some of the groups to swell to twice the normal size. Coupled with the threat of war brewing with the Centaurs and many of the warriors being sent on covert missions or through intense training drills of their own, there just weren't enough senior warriors available to go around.
Secretly, Ephiny had breathed a sigh of relief when she learned who she'd drawn to cover the same territory with. It was rough enough camping out in the wild without any of the creature comforts of home. But, to do so with women you just couldn't get along with -- the experience could be simply unbearable. Thank the Gods we weren't paired up with Velasca. I know she's going to be a great warrior -- but there's just something about her that ruffles my feathers the wrong way. When she'd heard that Velasca had been paired up with Magdelus and three junior scouts, she breathed a sigh of relief. It was with a much lighter heart that she'd joined her two friends and two of the other girls in their class on the training grounds to be matched up with their instructor.
The assignments had been made quickly; the trainees' squads called out one by one and turned over to their respective leaders. The young women in her group patiently waited and watched as the instructors milling along the boundary line of the training field stepped forward and claimed their assigned squad. As soon as the pairing was made, trainer and trainees made preparations to set out from the village right away.
At last, the field had nearly emptied and they were down to the final two squads. Both groups of five waited for the weapons master to make the announcement with varying degrees of anticipation. Ephiny's swept from the weapons master to the two warriors flanking her on either side. The rest of the warriors had already been assigned, leaving them with only the eldest and the youngest of trainers left. Both stood proudly at attention, their alert gazes sweeping over the young women in frank appraisal of the groups.
Likewise, hazel colored eyes coolly evaluated the two instructors. They were both equally fit, their stomachs flat, their upper arms and thighs firm. There was still a rounded softness to the face of the younger warrior that seasons of drills and life had not yet diminished. In contrast, the older warrior had garnered more experience and more muscles over the seasons, making her appear bulkier and more powerful than her counterpart. The deep creases at the corners of her eyes and the onset of grey at her temples did nothing to detract from the fierceness of her looks.
Deep brown eyes caught her looking, returned her open stare. A tongue snaked its way out, dragged itself along a pale bottom lip before flicking itself back into a waiting mouth. Anyone else who saw it might not have thought anything of the action. But, to the young trainee who was caught squarely in her sights, it was a solid promise of things to come.
Fighting the uncontrollable shiver racing down her spine, Ephiny tore her gaze away. Beside her, Solari noticed the visible shudder and stepped closer to her packmate, wrapping a supportive arm about Ephiny's slender waist. Instinctively, Ephiny's fingers sought out Solari's hand, clasping and intertwining their digits. Wondering at the response, the brunette glanced about the field.
Her sight immediately fell upon Tynette and noticed the way the older woman was staring at her packmate. She'd heard the rumors; had known several of the girls who'd graduated their classes three summers prior. She had figured they were just razzing her, trying to give her a good scare just like they did all the youngsters. Seeing the way the warrior was eyeing Ephiny now, she had no doubt those rumors were based in truth.
According to what she'd heard, Tynette had . . . an appreciation . . . for firm, nubile bodies and took great pleasure in selecting one girl from each class to devote her personal time to extra training sessions while on their first away-missions. Dioxippe had told Solari in great length about one of the girls several seasons prior that had to be rushed back to the hospice for urgent care after contracting a fever and severe infection when a nail had deeply scratched her inner walls.
Solari had snorted at the story, claiming if such a thing were true, Tynette would have been removed from her training duties immediately. To which Dioxippe had replied with it was before her seventeenth summer and Tynette had her convinced that her mothers wouldn't believe her and she'd be turned out of the tribe for her malicious lies. Afraid, she claimed the injury was self-inflicted. Having seen the evidence herself during her examination, Megara tried to convince the girl to admit that someone else had done that to her, but the girl would never budge from her story.
As the squad name was called out and Tynette stepped off the line to join her trainees, she cast a meaningful look in the direction of the brunette with her arm wrapped about the trim waist of the curly-haired blonde. She judged them both to be barely into their eighteenth summers and were just ripening on the vine, their muscles beginning to tone, but not having yet developed the musculature of some of the older girls. Briefly, she wondered just how close these two really were; would they continue to cleave to each other as they were initiated into the rites of womanhood? Her gaze shifted, eager eyes trailing over the pert breasts and firm backsides of the five young women assigned to her.
Both Ephiny and Solari thanked Artemis when Tynette marched by them and the official announcement was made that their squad was to be matched with Eponin as their trainer.
Raising a hand to cover her mouth, Ephiny valiantly tried to stifle her rising yawn. She'd thought their survival exercise was going to be some great adventure. And, for the most part, it was. They'd put their skills to use, finding a suitable campsite, working together to dole out the responsibilities, assigning tasks by degree of importance. Even managed to build a net and used it to catch several fish their first night out.
She didn't mind the hard work. That, she could handle. What she couldn't stand, were the long candlemarks of mind-numbing inactivity. Which, she soon learned, was exactly what patrolling was all about. Granted, she hadn't expected them to encounter any trouble while they were on duty. After all, they wouldn't assign only one fully-fledged warrior with a bunch of junior feathers to an area where there might be danger. What she hadn't been prepared for, though, was the . . . sheer boredom.
And the insufferable heat. Sweet Artemis, please tell me which Amazon in her infinite wisdom decided our training needed to be completed during the hottest of seasons so that I might personally and repeatedly give her the thanks she deserves. As expected, the patron goddess of the Amazons did not respond to Ephiny's sardonic thoughts.
Tilting her head back, looking up, she tried to gauge from the position of the sun how many more candlemarks of oppressive daylight there was left. Noticing the golden ball hadn't even reached its zenith, yet, she rolled her head, trying to work out some of the kinks in her neck. Righting herself, looking out over the hazy terrain, she didn't even try to mask her yawn this time.
Ep had to work to control the contagious yawn that was threatening to work its way up and out of her body. She knew Ephiny would rather be doing something else. Hades, she'd rather be doing something - anything - else, too. But, patrolling the area was part of their duty. A necessary, although extremely dull part of their duty.
She knew some of the other warriors thought she'd gotten lucky, drawing what they considered to be a plumb assignment. Many referred to the location as nothing more than an excuse for the perfect make-out spot. And, given who was in her class of trainees; she'd taken a lot of ribbing before they'd left the village.
Shifting in her saddle, the young warrior cast a casual eye about their surroundings. By its very design, the southern ridge was naturally impenetrable to outside forces. No one could even remember the last time anyone had tried approaching Amazon land from this direction. The southern ridge was aptly named for what it was; a point that looked out over the barren land below them. Although, looking down from her mount that stood near the edge, loose rock shifting beneath her mare's hooves, she thought an even better name would have been something akin to insurmountable cliff.
Stretched out below them, as far as the eye could see was dry, cracked ground. There was no cover of any kind; not even a solitary bush to hide behind. Anyone attempting to cross into Amazon land this way would have to literally trek miles across the open terrain. Then, they'd have to scale forty feet up the sheer side of the rock wall just to reach the ledge Eponin and Ephiny were perched upon. After that, they would have to make their way up along a treacherous path riddled with shallow caves that could easily house a platoon of archers that could literally pick off invaders one shot at a time. The path itself was comprised of packed-down ground and loose pebbles that occasionally skittered down from the ledges above. There was barely enough room on the path for horses to travel single-file on a trail that meandered its way upwards for three or more miles.
If they somehow miraculously made it that far, they would find that the trail opened up onto flat ground. Dry and cracked as the ground in the valley below at first, it gradually gave way to the lush grasses and fertile land that Amazonia was known for. As a matter of fact, no more than five miles inland was a grove of shade trees lining a small lake perfect for swimming and bathing. That was the real plumb part of the assignment. That was where Eponin's trainees had made camp.
It was thoughts of that lake with the crystal clear waters that was helping her to keep her cool now. If she allowed her mind to drift, she could envision herself wading out into the refreshing liquid, the water engulfing her body with each step she took. Swirling about her ankles, along the back of her calves and her knees. Then, past her thighs and over her buttocks, encircling her waist. Deeper and deeper, until the chilly water was lapping at the underside of her breasts before rising to close over puckering areola and slowly inching higher until she was submerged up to her neck.
Eyes the color of warm honey flickered open, her gaze sliding to the side as the woman on the horse beside her shifted. Again. Eponin breathlessly watched as Ephiny's hand again swiped at her sweat-slicked brow.
Ep reached for the pommel of her saddle, fingers closing about the rawhide cord and lifting the waterskin. Flipping the cork with her thumb, her free hand reached for the waist of her deerskin skirt. Pulling out a scrap of leather, she liberally doused the rag until it was dripping wet.
Ephiny had just enough time to register the command and see the covert movement before the rag was sent sailing towards her. One handed, she deftly plucked the cloth out of the air. Feeling the soaked leather against her palm, long rivulets of water running down her wrist and forearm, she brought the rag to her face.
Eyes burning like molten-gold, Eponin watched through a hooded gaze. Her blonde companion tilted her head back, her mouth falling open as she squeezed the rag in her fist. Water splattered her face, running off her nose, over her chin, down her neck. Eponin reflexively licked her lips as her eyes trailed a lone rivulet languidly making its way down her slender throat, between her breasts and beneath her halter.
Feeling the warrior's heated gaze upon her sweltering flesh, Ephiny turned her head, offering up a tumultuous smile before rubbing the wet rag along her upper torso and down both arms. As she looked up, she caught Eponin watching her. Their gazes locked and held - only for the span of an indrawn breath - before honey-gold bolted.
Eponin was disconcerted, embarrassed for having been caught looking. You're her trainer; start acting like it she mentally scolded herself. Placing a hand over her brow to shield her sight from the hazy glare, eagle eyes scanned the valley below for something - anything - to distract her attention from the young woman beside her. Acutely aware of every movement Ephiny made, she failed miserably.
The creaking of the leather saddle first attracted her notice. Then, the popping of joints as bones that had been inactive for too long suddenly shifted. Finally, as the barely audible sigh of relief reached her ears; she couldn't not look.
Ephiny had both arms locked, hands braced on her saddlehorn. Legs stretched, she was standing in the saddle, leaning her weight forward. Then, shifting, she brought the hand containing the rag down, beneath her skirt, brushing the cloth against her inner thighs. She hung there, weight suspended in the air above the saddle for several heartbeats before lowering herself again. Settling back in her saddle, Ephiny lay the moist rag on the saddlehorn, wriggled around a bit as she tried to get comfortable.
"What?" she asked, even as she raised the hem of her skirt, fingers darting beneath to adjust the side of her breechcloth. Noticing the look Eponin was giving her, she added, "I'm chafing. Don't tell me; you're not?" When all she received by way of answer was stunned silence, she added, "Still don't see how you can be so blasted comfortable in this heat."
"Natural warrior stoicism," came the clipped reply.
"Huh." Ephiny snorted, not believing it for an instant. Still, watching Ep as she once again reached for the leather rag she'd been given, she noticed that except for looking a little red around the tips of her ears, the warrior didn't seem the least bit overheated.
It was candlemarks later when the distinctive sounds of horses' hooves on the steep incline above them signaled the approach of their relief. Twisting in her saddle and craning her neck, Ephiny could just make out the silhouette of two riders on the trail above them. One of them was tall and lean, the other stockier, the muscles in her upper body more toned and defined. From their profiles alone, there was no doubt which of the trainees had ridden out to the ridge to take up their positions.
Secretly, Ephiny was pleased. Oh, she liked Lysippe and Egeria well enough. And, they were both hard workers that pulled their share of the load. But . . . if they were out here on patrol, that meant her packmate and her other friend were back at the campsite. And, that meant in all likelihood, Solari was cooking the evening meal.
As part of their training, all Amazons spent a quarter-moon in the kitchens under Mytilda's care, learning how to cook. Granted, after that requisite quarter-moon, more than half of them still couldn't tell the difference between boiled and braised. But, they had learned the basics and knew enough so they wouldn't starve to death. Every once in a while, though, someone in one of the classes showed a real flair for cooking. That was Solari. Her packmate could do things with a deer that would make your mouth water. Ephiny's stomach rumbled at just the thought and she had to force her mind off her hunger and back to business.
Following protocol, their trainer cupped her fingers to her lips, gave out two sharp bird calls. Receiving the correct three short bursts in response, Eponin wordlessly made the hand-signal to move out. Holding Lightning's reins firmly in a one-handed grip, she directed her mare to allow Honeycomb and her rider to take the lead.
The climb up the trail was a slow, meticulous process. And, the two trainees waiting their ascent took the opportunity to chat amiably about their adventure so far. They were into day four of their seven-day exercise and the experience was still thrilling to the both of them.
Just wait till they've spent a couple more candlemarks on patrol in the summer sun. We'll see how thrilled they are then, Ephiny thought as her horse crested the ridge and she caught sight of the two girls standing beside their mares. They'd learned on their first day of patrol to stretch their limbs before heading down the trail where the terrain was just too treacherous to risk dismounting and mounting again for something as trivial as leg cramps.
All conversation immediately halted as their trainer's horse finally followed Ephiny's off the trail and out onto open ground. Egeria and Lysippe gave the proper respect by giving sharp, closed-fisted salutes to Eponin. Ep returned the salute, crisply demanded a report.
Ephiny took the opportunity to dismount and stretch her aching legs. Stretching out her tired, throbbing muscles, she breathed a sigh of relief that her stint at patrol was over again. At least until tomorrow. Ep had devised an equitable, three-shift watch system that rotated amongst the six of them. They had just completed what was considered the most grueling part of the shift; dawn to three candlemarks past midday. Their relief would be on until dawn the next day. At which time, Terreis and Solari would take the arduous, heat-intense shift. Ep and Ephiny would in turn relieve them for the late afternoon shift when the sun had passed its zenith and the cooler evening temperatures were beginning to settle in. And, so on and so forth.
The patrolling members would take up their position guarding the borders while the non-patrolling Amazons would rejoin their sisters at camp and perform whatever tasks were necessary there. A camp Ephiny was very much looking forward to returning to at this point. Oh, it certainly didn't compare to her mother's hut back at the village, with the nice bed stuffed with extra straw that she'd never truly appreciated until now. But ... it was what served as home out here and her body was beginning to adapt to sleeping on the lush grasses nearest the lake. Either that, or I'm just far too exhausted to notice the grass blades sticking into me every time I turn over now.
Verdant green eyes looked up, a tiny smile forming upon pink lips as sharp ears caught the sounds of approaching horses. Crouched near the low-burning fire circle, she elbowed her friend in the ribs. Engrossed in her task, caught off-guard by the prodding, Solari dropped the knife she'd been using to slice shallots into the pot. Without thinking, she reached in to retrieve her weapon, jerking back as the boiling broth scalded her fingers.
Sucking at her injured digits, she glared at her companion. "Mff yuff fo ftt frr?"
"What?" Terreis cocked her head to the side in complete incomprehension.
Solari rolled her eyes. Princesses. Gods save me from 'em. "I said," removing her fingers just long enough to repeat, "What did you do that for?"
"Oh." Terreis shrugged, flipping her rich, auburn hair out of her eyes as she gestured towards the open plain leading towards the ridge. "Ephiny and Eponin are back."
Still sucking on her fingers, the young woman cast curious sandalwood eyes in the direction leading towards the ridge. Sure enough, Terreis was right. Eph and Eponin were walking back, their horses trailing behind them. Studying them, the thought crossed her mind that there couldn't be a more complete set of opposites.
Ephiny was much more slender than Eponin - and taller, too - she noted, seeing them side by side. With her curly, blonde hair and her intense eyes and her fairer skin; even her horse, Solari realized, catching sight of the butter cream colored mare docilely following her mistress. Eponin - Solari's eyes took in the stockier frame, the muscles that were well-past toned and on their way to becoming defined - her black hair, her tanned flesh, the brooding persona. With her, too, her chosen horse; a black mare with only a splash of white in the shape of a lightning bolt on her coat, reflected her owner's personality. Whereas everything about Ephiny was light, there was no other word for Eponin that popped into Solari's mind other than dark.
Silently, Solari watched their approach into the camp, recalling how Ephiny had insisted on going to the training grounds every day to watch this older girl train. Said she was gifted or something like that. In truth, Solari had only gone along because it was what Ephiny wanted. And, she had learned early on in their relationship; it was just easier for everyone concerned to let Eph have what Eph wanted. She was intense and determined and obstinate - and she wasn't going to give up on something until she got her way.
That's how it had been with Eponin. When the brooding girl with the big staff and bigger attitude had told Ephiny to leave her alone, Solari had hoped Ephiny would do just that. But, she also knew better. By resisting what Ephiny wanted -- well, that only piqued Eph's interest even more. And, when she decided she wanted the older girl to be her friend, Solari knew deep down inside that Ephiny wouldn't rest until she made that happen.
Still don't know what Eph sees in her. Sure, she was older. Maybe five, maybe seven summers older than them. Maybe that's part of the appeal? But, she certainly wasn't prettier. She'd seen several of the older girls training with the lead dancer -- and in her opinion, they were all very, very pretty. Much prettier than the warrior. It certainly wasn't because she was such a good conversationalist. They could go the entire day without Eponin uttering more than eight words. Solari knew; she'd counted. And, even though Eponin was at that age where she could go to the festivals and celebrations and stay out all night drinking with the warriors -- she didn't. So, no. Solari just couldn't fathom why someone like Ephiny would possibly want someone like Eponin as a friend.
As Ephiny dragged her feet, looking for all the world like she'd barely make it another step, Eponin took the reins of both horses and led them off. Solari watched her go, moving at a crisp, efficient speed, not even looking the slightest bit tired. Without so much as a backward glance or even asking for help, she led them to where the other two horses were grazing and began methodically removing the saddle off Honeycomb first and tending to the horse's needs.
"Ugh," Ephiny complained, wrinkling up her nose as she collapsed into an exhausted heap near her packmate. Laying with her head braced against Solari's upper thigh, she felt the dual sensations of firm, toned flesh and soft, doeskin skirt beneath her cheek. Even though the fire beneath the cooking pot was at its lowest, she was still assaulted by wave after wave of heat rolling off the campfire.
With the last of her strength, Ephiny lay the still damp cloth Eponin had given her across her eyes. "I don't see how you can stand to have a fire going in all this heat."
"Yeah? Well, gotta have a fire to cook our dinner, you know." Unable to resist teasing Terreis, she added, "Princess here swears raw rabbit stew just doesn't do her royal digestion any good."
Terreis laughed good-naturedly. As Melosa's younger sister and next in line for the throne, she was used to others making comments about her. Some good, some not. In Solari's case, though, she found the brunette to be completely charming in her teasing banter.
Ephiny's ears perked up at the mention of rabbit. She lifted the edge of the rag, picked her head up just long enough to dubiously peer at the pot. "Doesn't smell like rabbit," she sniffed the air, "Doesn't smell like anything."
Solari rolled her eyes. Warriors. Don't have the sense the Gods gave a horse. "You have to give it time to cook all the way through. The herbs will give it the flavor as it simmers." Casting a glance at the sky, Solari estimated, "Won't be done for another three candlemarks or so."
"Good. Gives us just enough time to cool off in the lake." Ephiny's voice was drifting, her body giving into the lethargy creeping up on her. Laying there, one leg propped up, she had every intention of making her way to her feet and heading for the nearby lake. But, the combination of the slight breeze ruffling the tall blades of grass in harmony, the air causing the sweat to cool against her overheated skin, bringing her body temperature down, the way her head was lolling against Solari's thigh; Ephiny was asleep in a matter of heartbeats.
Something was tickling her nose, causing it to twitch. Then, it was stroking across her cheek, down her jawline, over her neck and towards her collarbone. A low murmur escaped Ephiny's lips as the light caresses continued on a path towards her breasts, diverting just enough to graze over the expanse of flesh not covered by her halter. Then, between the gentle swells and down over a taut stomach that was twitching in anticipation.
A pink tongue wet dry lips, a head lolled back as the lightest of touches traced patterns back and forth across her ribs, cleverly outlining each one in succession. As the teasing touch was drawn repeatedly about her bellybutton, a crooked smile appeared. Instinctively, her hips lifted, tilting as the touch strayed from her bellybutton straight towards the thin, braided leather belt she wore about her waist. Already, she was imagining where that touch might stray next; a name forming on her lips to encourage the action.
Incessant giggling spoiled her fantasy. Bringing up a hand, using her fingers to lift the edge of the leather cloth draped across her eyes, she lifted her head. Intense, hazel eyes glared at first Terreis, who was sitting back on her haunches, both hands covering her mouth as she tried to stifle her laughter and then to Solari, who was still sitting beside her, her thigh acting as a pillow, idly stirring the stewpot. At her packmate's glare, Solari effected her best imitation of a Hestian virgin. Eph might have believed her friend's innocence had it not been for the incriminating feather she was twirling between her fingertips.
Ephiny's cheeks blushed red beneath Solari's and Terreis' perusal. For a heartbeat, she feared she had spoken aloud in her dreams. But, if a name had indeed slipped from between her lips, she knew Solari wouldn't still be just calmly sitting there. Especially considering who her dream had been about. "Where's Ep?" she questioned, slowly pulling herself into a sitting position.
Solari jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "Still hanging with the horses." At Ephiny's perplexed look, she explained, "You haven't been asleep that long; maybe a half candlemark or so."
"Then, why'd you wake me?" Ephiny was unable to keep the hint of irritation out of her voice.
"Because you were snoring loud enough to wake every hibernating bear in the nation," Solari smirked, refastening the pale green feather she'd earned in archery into the braid in her hair. At the less-than-gentle backhand to her midsection, she amended, "Stew's gonna take a while to cook and Terreis is kind of sunburned - "
A quick glance of hazel eyes confirmed that Terreis' shoulders were indeed a fiery shade of red. That was something poor Terreis had to watch out for ever since they were kids. The fairer-haired Amazons always had a tendency to sunburn. And, being both blessed and cursed with red hair and freckles, Terreis tended to get the worst of it. Checking her own shoulders, Ephiny discovered that even her shoulders were a little pink.
"Solari thoughtfully suggested we check the forest for an aloe plant to make a paste from," chimed in Terreis. "And, well, we were wondering if you'd like to come along."
A nod of Ephiny's head sent curly blonde locks bouncing. "What about Eponin?"
"What about her?" Even to Solari's own ears, she could hear the tone in her voice. Doing her best to clamp down on the looming eye roll, she forced herself to adopt as neutral a pitch as possible. "She's probably planned an exciting afternoon of patrolling the campsite and polishing her weapons and running practice drills." At the disapproving looks from both her princess and her packmate, she fairly whined, "Come on, guys, you know how she is. We got the perfect assignment. No supervision. No way anyone can get past our borders. Nice, sparkling, refreshing lake to camp beside . . . and all she does is work."
"Eponin takes her duties as leader very seriously." Terreis' green eyes swept over the distant form of the warrior brushing down her horse. "It's a very attractive trait in someone so young."
"She's at least five summers older than us," Solari pointed out.
"She meant compared to the other warriors that were assigned squads. Didn't you notice that Eponin's the closest to our own age? You saw who we were down to. It was going to be either her or Tynette. Personally, I'd take Eponin over Tynette any day. The way she was eyeing you on the field, I would've thought you would, too." Ephiny was more than mildly annoyed that Solari wouldn't put forth more of an effort to get to know Eponin. Ever since they'd first started hanging around the dark-haired Amazon, Solari had barely shown more than a begrudging acknowledgement of her. Determined that they at least tried to be civil, she insisted, "Go ask her." As sandalwood eyes warily slid her direction, she demanded, "And be nice about it."
Some Amazons just don't know how to take a hint. Solari's ears still stung with the resounding "Sure" that had come rolling off Eponin's lips when she'd asked her, "You don't wanna take a hike with us to find some aloe for Terreis' sunburn, do you?"
Then, to make matters worse, as they'd left their campsite and headed into the nearby woods, both Ephiny and Terreis had flanked Eponin. Walking on either side of the warrior, matching their stride to hers, Solari was left feeling decidedly out of step. Temper simmering much like her stew, she felt the slow burn working its way through her body with each step she took. Her pace increased as the sound of Terreis' lilting laughter reached her ears as the trio discussed Amazon politics. It was Terreis' belief that men and centaurs weren't evil, just misguided. To which Eponin had responded that she wished someone would just guide them both as far from Amazon land as possible. Even Ephiny's huskier laughter was added to the mix as she found Eponin's response to be clever.
I'm supposed to be the one they're fawning over, not --- her. After all, it was Solari's bout of thoughtfulness that had prompted the trek into the wilderness to find the aloe plant for Terreis' sunburn. And, being naturally charming and witty, she should be the one discussing philosophy with the princess. Hera's saggy tits; Eponin can barely string two coherent sentences together. She wouldn't know charming if it bit her on the ass!
Irritated that what she had thought would be a relaxing stroll through the quiet woods with two beautiful women had turned into a walk through Tartarus, Solari increased her stride, working to put some distance between herself and the others. Ephiny saw the increased gait, noticed Solari was on the verge of fairly jogging through the wooded area, but didn't think much of it. After all, her packmate was an up-and-coming scout, the daughter of two of the most talented scouts in the tribe. And, as everyone knew; when a scout was on a trail, no one should try to rein her in.
The brunette stalked through the forest, indiscriminately pushing brushwood and overgrown vegetation out of her way with equal abandon. She stepped on the vine of an aptly named thorn bush that was growing across her path, felt the thin, razor-like spore bite into the tender flesh of her bare foot. Biting off a curse, she hopped on one foot, stumbling as fingers pulled the thorn out and haphazardly tossed it into the thick scrub growing wild about her.
Solari had a very nice pair of boots she was missing very much back at home. Some that her mothers had commissioned one of the local leatherworkers to fashion, complete with braided leather ties. It was the best gift she'd received for her sixteenth birthday, ranking right up there with the previous year when they'd presented her with a bow made from white birch. Like her footwear, her favorite bow was safe and sound beside her bed.
As everyone knew, this exercise was about survival and endurance, a test of their abilities to date. Therefore, luxury items like fancy bows and footwear were not allowed. Oh, Terreis had been clever enough to weave a pair of moccasins from some large palm leaves they'd gathered their first night. But, they were so ridiculous looking - and didn't allow her feet to breathe enough - that she'd abandoned them the very next day.
Nonchalantly shrugging her broad shoulders, Solari settled her hand-fashioned, plain bow into place against her back. It was okay -- as far as weapons go, that is. But, it just wasn't her favorite. She was intimately familiar with every groove, every notch on that piece of birch. She knew just how far to draw, how much tension to use, where to tuck it against her frame to hit dead center of the eye of a bolting deer at two-hundred paces. With this bow, this roughly made weapon, she figured she'd be lucky to pierce a deer's heart at a distance of a hundred paces.
She understood the concept, the reasoning behind these exercises. It was to make the trainees realize exactly what they were capable of and reinforce that they had the skills to survive in the wild with little or nothing else. She could get along without her boots. She could even survive without the benefit of her favorite weapon. As a matter of fact, there were several more items she possessed that she knew she could let go if necessary. But, no one - not even Eph herself - could expect her to just give up her packmate without a fight.
She was moving at a fairly fast clip now, letting that thought carry her through all sorts of satisfying daydreams about what she would do to anyone that tried to take her packmate from her. Then, the deep voice of that very same person she was fantasizing about thrashing called her name, causing every muscle in her body to tighten in reflex. Slowing, she finally halted, although she never turned around.
"Hey, Soli?" Eponin called out again. "Ain't this the plant you're looking for?"
No way. There's no freaking way I walked right past that - She'd been trained as a scout. Had been gifted with a scout's keen eyesight and hearing. She'd spent candlemark upon candlemark honing her talents, trekking into the woods with her mothers every chance she got, learning everything there was to know about the forest. It had taken seasons to be able to find and identify nearly every plant there was; what was safe, what was poisonous, what could be used for food or medicine. And, exactly where each one grew best.
The aloe plant grew in abundance in the areas to the west of the Amazon village. To say they were scarce in the south would be an understatement. In truth, Solari hadn't really even expected to find any growing out here. But, for that - that - warrior - a slow smile played across her lips.
Eponin was a warrior. And, in Amazon society, warriors were always held in higher esteem than other members of the tribe. Given the best huts, the best portions at dinner, first choice at their weapons and horses. For countless generations, their Queens had been warriors, and they'd all demanded that their caste be given the privileges of rank. But here in the forest, the scouts ruled.
Ep was perfect with the staff, undefeated at hand-to-hand combat, flawless in sword drills. It seemed there wasn't a weapon that she couldn't master. But, as far as Solari could determine, Ep had no more skills in the forest than any other warrior might. Odds were, she'd stumbled across some ordinary little scrub that wasn't an aloe after all.
Biting down on the wicked smirk that adorned her lips at the thought of being able to put the warrior in her place in front of the princess and Ephiny, Solari slowly turned around. Eponin was crouched on the ground, one arm resting against her thigh as she intently peered at a plant growing in the shade of a tall pine. Terreis and Ephiny were gathered around, looking over her broad shoulders in interest.
As Solari approached, Terreis stepped back, allowing the scout room to get in next to Eponin. With an air of confident authority about her, Solari knelt beside the dark-haired Amazon. She glanced at Eponin, taking in her features; she didn't want to miss her reaction when she told her she was wrong.
"Sorry, warrior. You must be mistaken. That's a - " Solari's jaw nearly came unhinged. Both eyebrows rose in surprise and her voice dropped an octave as she was forced to admit, " - aloe plant."
If the trek into the forest had felt like a walk through Tartarus, the trip back was even worse. Ephiny and Terreis had gone on and on about how it was so great that Eponin had found the aloe plant. The princess, in particular, had gushed about how she didn't know the warrior was versed in botanical knowledge. And Eponin, of course, had to play the modesty-card and shrugged it off as no big deal. Which, in turn, garnered her even more attention.
This time, as they walked back the way they had come, Solari trailed along behind the other three, scuffing her feet in the dirt and leaves. With each step, she thought about how Eponin had both Terreis and Ephiny eating out of the palm of her hand. And, all she had was - her gaze flicked to the scrub she was carrying by its roots - an aloe plant.
Every so often, Ephiny would look back over her shoulder, a bewildered expression on her face. And, each time, Solari would wrestle an I'mjustsogladtobehere smile onto her face. The instant the curly-haired blonde turned back around again, her smile would be replaced by a glower.
She was so intent on shooting imaginary arrows at the warrior's back that she nearly stumbled over the top of Terreis when they pulled up short. Catching herself before she could do anything embarrassing - like tripping over the princess - Solari effected a casual nonchalance as she tried to discern exactly why the trio had stopped. Seeing them all looking up, the scout glanced in that direction, too.
"Please, Eponin?" Terreis asked.
Ephiny was also eyeing the bees flying high overhead, circling the hive that was engorged and fairly dripping with the golden substance it housed. "Honeycomb would be a really great after dinner treat," she agreed.
"I don't know." Light-hued eyes had already traced the path she'd need to climb to reach the hive safely nestled in the highest branches of the tree. "That branch - " she pointed to the limb the hive was dangling from " - it doesn't look sturdy enough - "
" - That's because you weigh a ton. Move out of the way, warrior," Solari purposely elbowed Eponin as she stepped past the warrior and thrust the plant she'd been carrying into her trainer's arms, "and let a scout show you how it's done."
"Soli, I don't think - "
"Eponin." There was an uncharacteristic, no-nonsense finality to Solari's tone. "If the princess wants honeycomb for dessert - " she grunted as she jumped and grabbed onto the lowest hanging branch and used her upper body strength to haul herself up "then honeycomb is what the princess will have."
Before Eponin could raise further objection, the brunette with the sun-kissed shoulders was already halfway up the tree. Frowning at the uprooted plant she found herself suddenly in possession of, the warrior slowly backed away from the tree they were standing beneath. She wasn't exactly certain what had crawled beneath Solari's breechcloth, but the scout had been acting decidedly sour ever since they'd started this mission. Whatever it is, I don't wanna be standing beneath her when it crawls back out again.
Taking up a position leaning against a tree some fifteen paces away, the warrior folded her arms across her chest. Ephiny and Terreis strayed a few feet from the tree they'd been studying, but didn't move as far away as Eponin. Three sets of eyes intently studied the path the scout was taking. Ep had to grudgingly admit Solari was making remarkable time and had already reached the branch with the beehive dangling from it. She gave a little grunt of surprise when the young scout went past that branch and instead edged her way out onto the one above it.
Toes clutching at the rough bark, Solari gently walked her way out onto the branch. Like Eponin, she had judged the branch the hive was actually dangling from to be too weak to support a grown Amazon's weight. Like I'd ever admit that to her. Her quick mind had realized in the very next instant that if she couldn't take the direct route to the hive, there was always another way to go.
As she moved out farther onto the branch, she felt it bow beneath her weight. Carefully, she eased her way down into a sitting position, feeling the bark scratch her inner thighs as she straddled the limb. Bracing both hands against the coarse surface, she gingerly inched herself along. As she made her way to the spot directly above the hive, she eased her body down until she was laying full-out along the length of the branch. Gradually, she reached one arm towards the beehive.
"Careful," Terreis warned, seeing the bees reacting to the human limb slowly encroaching on their territory.
"Slowly," Ephiny added beneath her breath.
Solari heard the words of warning, felt the tension in her arm as she stretched to reach the hive. Her fingertips barely grazed the surface. Immediately, dozens of bees swarmed about her bare arm, the sensation of their little bodies making the scout's skin crawl. Biting her bottom lip in concentration, she inched her fingertips into the hive.
"Hold still," Eponin repeated.
"Could you just please hurry?" Ephiny ground out through gritted teeth.
"It really doesn't look all that bad."
The blonde shot the princess a look that could kill. Wisely, Terreis chose not to make any more helpful comments. Instead, she turned her attention to her own problems.
It had all happened so fast, there was really nothing anyone could do. Solari's hand was already inside the hive, the sticky honeycomb within her grasp when they'd all heard the ominous creak. Then, before anyone could blink, the branch Solari had been stretched out upon broke, sending her tumbling into the branch below that; the one with the hive. From there, it had been a very quick fall through the rest of the branches.
Where she and Ephiny had broken Solari's fall. The fragile hive broke apart on impact. And, by the time Eponin had managed to get all the branches and leaves and Solari off of them, Terreis had been stung several times over, the bees favoring the scented oil made from wildflowers that she wore. It had taken a mad dash through the woods and a flying leap into the cool waters of the lake to finally discourage the swarm.
Now, here she sat huddled beside their meager fire for warmth, shivering clear down to her toes, aloe plastered on her sunburn and mud compresses slathered on the welts that had begun to sprout almost as soon as the bees had stung her. Grumpily, she eyed the scout seated almost directly across the fire circle from her.
Solari was gingerly sitting upon the ground, her back propped against a fallen log she had dragged over. Knees pulled up, she sat with her legs wide open in a 'v' formation. The same aloe that had been applied to Terreis' sunburn was also liberally coating the tender flesh of Solari's inner thighs starting a handspan above her knee and running all the way to the edges of her breechcloth. For the life of her, she couldn't recall ever experiencing a case of bark rash this badly.
She grimaced every time she stuck a needle into her torn leather skirt that she was mending. The drying mud coating her arm from her fingertips to her elbow did nothing to help with either the beestings or her coordination and she found herself jabbing the needle into her fingers on every up-stitch. As she stabbed herself yet again, she brought her fingertip to her mouth, sucking on the digit before realizing with a start that she was tasting mud. With a scowl, she glanced at Eponin.
The warrior was kneeling behind the blonde in the grass, her fingers working their way through curly locks. Ephiny's eyes were closed, her jaw clenched as she tried to ignore the sensation of the blade hacking through her curls that had at one point fallen over her shoulders and midway down her back. Now, she could feel the late afternoon breeze blowing in from the lake and across her bare neck. Eponin's knife became stuck and a rather brutal tug to free it made Ephiny's eyes fly open. Intense hazel finally settled on Solari, fixing her packmate with a lethal stare.
She'd ended up laying sprawled out beneath the tree, face ground into the earth as first several branches and then Solari fell directly on top of her. Once she'd finally made it to her feet and was satisfied that nothing had been broken or permanently flattened, she'd hobbled down to the lake to join Terreis. Like Solari and Terreis, she too was covered in a myriad of abrasions. At least I was fortunate enough to avoid any beestings.
As her knife cut through the last of the tangled mess that had ruined Ephiny's beautiful hair, Eponin trailed her fingers through the length, trying to ascertain that she'd done a reasonable job of evening things up. She'd hated to take a blade to the blonde's hair, but there really had been no other choice. Now, the ground around them was littered in castoff curls entwined with honey and twigs and more than a few leaves.
A covert glance over a pink shoulder confirmed that their companions were too firmly entrenched in their own misery to pay much attention to what she was doing. Bringing her knife up again, Eponin deftly cut off another golden curl. Fingering the softness devoid of any foreign substances such as sticky honey, she discreetly tucked it into the front of her halter.
As eyes the color of ambrosia peered once again from behind Ephiny's sunburned shoulder, they locked upon a set of forest green intently watching her. Terreis cocked her head to the side, an inquisitive smile tugging at her lips. Quickly averting her gaze, the warrior tousled a large palm through Ephiny's new shorter hairstyle. "There, all done," she declared, quickly sheathing her knife and rising to her feet. On shaky legs, Eponin made a pretense of ambling down to the lake to refill her waterskin.
She wasn't supposed to overhear. She was certain of that. They'd thought she was still down at the lake. She'd refilled her waterskin and carried it back to the campsite. Kneeling down at Ephiny's feet, Eponin had gingerly placed the swollen and bruised ankle in her lap. Wetting the rag she'd given Ephiny earlier, she wrapped her ankle with as tender a touch as possible.
It was while she was hunched over, attending to the injured appendage that she'd heard the loud growling of the blonde's stomach. At her startled look, Ephiny had defended herself with, "I had no supper."
Answering murmurs echoed that sentiment as Eponin looked about the campsite. Although there had been plenty of honey dripping from hair and flesh and clothes, none of it had actually made it onto a plate for dessert. And, it seemed that during the princess' madcap dash to the lake, she had knocked over the cooking pot, sending partially done rabbit stew scattering across the ground. Where Ephiny's bare feet had hobbled through it in her efforts to reach the soothing waters.
"You get the pot ready," she instructed Solari, "I'll go get dinner."
She'd been fortunate in that there were two fairly large-sized fish already snared in the net. She'd quickly retrieved them and skillfully gutted them, dressing them in bayleaves to be cooked over the fire. As an afterthought, she circled the long way around the lake, looking for duck eggs to boil as an extra treat.
That's how she had come upon them in the darkness. She'd ended up approaching from the opposite direction from the one they'd thought she'd be coming from. Half-hidden by the copse of trees and the fading light of day, she'd come within ten paces of the camp without being noticed.
"Why can't you just make an effort?" Ephiny's distinctive voice caught her attention.
"I have. It's that - that - warrior - that hasn't."
"In case you haven't realized it, Soli, I'm training to be a warrior."
"Yeah, but you're not like her."
A bad feeling gnawing at her insides, Eponin's stride faltered and she soon found herself standing in the lengthening shadows, holding two dressed fish out at arms length as she attentively listened.
"She's a good warrior. Her work ethic is excellent," came the rich tones of the princess.
"Yeah, too excellent." Eponin's ears burned at the scathing tone of the scout.
"There's no such thing," protested Ephiny.
"There is." Solari's voice rose in pitch. "She's like a super warrior or something. There's nothing she can't do."
"That's why she was promoted to trainer at such a young age," Terreis reasoned. "She's a fine instructor."
"No, she's not." From her position, Eponin could see Solari swipe a hand through the air with a degree of finality. "She's a fine . . . doer. She's always the first one up in the mornings; throwing more wood on the fire to keep it burning. And, she's always the last one to stoke the fire at night. In the candlemarks in between, she's constantly moving, constantly doing . . . something. Even stuff warriors aren't supposed to be trained to do; like building snares, warming water for the baths - "
" - gathering medicinal plants, that sort of thing?"
"Exactly." Solari nodded her head in agreement.
"Sounds kind of - oh, I don't know . . . " Ephiny propped herself up on both elbows, pointedly eyed her packmate. "kind of thoughtful? Like the sort of thing a friend might do for other friends; people they like?"
"Aww, Eph." There was a ragged indrawn breath as Solari pushed a frustrated hand through her long, brunette locks. "All I'm saying is that she doesn't always need to step in." When she received no answer from her two friends, she added, "I don't try to do warrior-things; she shouldn't try to be a scout." Again, no answer and Solari began to nervously tug at random blades of grass with her fingers. "Look, if you wanna be friends with her, fine. Just don't try pushing her off on me, got it?"
There was a long pause before Solari added, "And, another thing. You ever notice how she never even breaks a sweat doing most of it, either? Hotter than Tartarus out here and it's like it don't even bother her."
"She claims it's natural warrior stoicism," Ephiny pointed out, quoting her comment from their prior conversation upon the ridge.
Solari snorted. "Warrior stoicism my tail feathers - "
That had been the point at which the moon had begun its ascent. Knowing it would be too easy for the others to see her now, she made her move. Purposely increasing her stride so the tall blades of grass would rustle at her approach, Ep swiftly moved into camp, tossing the wrapped fish down at Solari's feet.
"See?" Solari asked, looking back and forth between Ephiny and Terreis and pointing at the fish like they were evidence in a trial. "This is exactly what I'm talking about."
"Soli!" Ephiny hissed out between clenched teeth.
Eponin slowly turned a steely gaze upon Solari; a gaze that was so eerie it nearly sent the scout scrambling for cover. As if dismissing the brunette with a flick of her eyes, the warrior turned her attention to her princess.
"I'm going to check the perimeter," she informed Terreis with a nod of her head and an almost imperceptible bow in acknowledgement of the royal.
"What about dinner?" called out Terreis to the already retreating Amazon.
Eponin held up her hand, soundlessly waved off the offer before once again disappearing into the darkness. Two sets of eyes turned agitated stares upon the scout.
"Don't look at me," she declared. "They can rot for all I care."
"Nuh-uh. She caught it; she can cook it." Sensing that she was on already thin ice with both the princess and her packmate, she declared, "I'm going for a swim."
"Well, that was certainly . . . interesting."
"I'm training to be Queen, not kitchen help," Terreis defended herself.
"Uh-huh." Ephiny used the end of a stick to poke at the charred remains beside the fire. "Well, if you're planning on reinstating the policy about burnt offerings, I'd say you've truly found your calling."
Anymore like comments were dissuaded by the princess picking up her blackened fish and throwing it, the tail squarely hitting Ephiny in the face.
"Ewww!" Ephiny curled her nose in disgust, hastily tossed the odorous carcass away. "It's gonna take forever to get that smell out," she complained, glancing down at her stained halter.
"Let that be a lesson to you, my loyal subject," Terreis stated in as lofty a voice as possible. "Always think of the consequences before you insult your monarch."
Ephiny giggled at Terreis' antics. It was a well-told tale around the evening campfires about how a younger Terreis had accompanied Melosa on a trip to Corinth to reaffirm a long-standing treaty agreement with their king. Being a princess herself, she was shuttled off with the king's daughter while the older royals talked business. It was no more than a candlemark later that a loud screech and a splash drew everyone's attention.
The Queen of the Amazons and the King of Corinth looked out an upper castle window and saw his daughter standing up to her bodice in moss-encrusted moat water, bits of the slimy mess hanging in long tendrils from her once-beautiful blonde locks. Terreis was innocently leaning against one of the posts supporting the castle drawbridge, whistling a tune and innocently cleaning her nails with the tip of her knife blade.
When a solemn Melosa reached the bridge and asked Terreis what had happened, the princess had merely shrugged and said she must have tripped. When Melosa gave her the look, Terreis finally crumbled and admitted she might have helped the snobbish princess along. Her defense was that the rotten brat had disrespected an elder. Never mind that it was an elder servant; in an Amazon's eyes, all elders were to be revered.
Worried about any future insults Terreis might make against their hosts, Melosa had promptly handed her over to the snickering captain of the royal guard and demanded she be immediately escorted home. Terreis hadn't been permitted to accompany Melosa on any diplomatic missions since.
"Terreis?" Thinking of the part of the story where the insulted princess had broken down sobbing at the sight of her bedraggled, ruined dress and the laughing reactions of both her father and his soldiers, Ephiny asked, "You don't think Eponin overheard us, do you? You know, talking earlier?"
"That's one of the consequences of talking about others, Ephiny; there's always the possibility that they may overhear something that we'd rather they didn't."
"That's very insightful of you, princess." Ephiny's fingers played along the hem of her skirt, her teeth biting her bottom lip in contemplation. She'll make a wise Queen someday. "You umm - " Hazel eyes slowly rose, meeting Terreis' gaze. " - don't think we, you know, offended her or anything, do you?"
"I don't know." Auburn brows arched. "You think she has a reason to be offended?"
"Maybe. I don't know. I've known Pony for so many seasons now, but she's still so hard to read." Ephiny gave a helpless shrug of her shoulders. "You know, I thought this was going to be such a great trip. I mean, you, me and Solari all together in the same group. And, I was so glad when we got Eponin for our instructor."
"Me, too." A smile tugged at the princess' lips. She'd been so worried they were going to be paired up with one of the other instructors; Tynette in particular. Sensing there was more to Ephiny's statement, she quickly forced the relieved smile from her face. "But?" prompted Terreis.
"But . . . Ep really has been doing more than she should to help us out. I mean, we are supposed to be doing this stuff on our own; she's really just here to give us the benefit of her experience. And, it seems like no matter what Ep does, Solari's bound and determined to pick a fight with her." Covering her face with both hands, falling backwards onto the grass, Ephiny let out a long-suffering groan. "For Artemis' sake, why can't those two just get along?"
Terreis rubbed her chin in contemplation, giving serious thought to Ephiny's off-handed question. Stretching out on her side, trying in vain to find a position that didn't aggravate either her beestings or her sunburn, she idly studied her friend.
They'd all grown up in the same village together. Her, Solari and Ephiny. Although, being a princess whose mother had died when she was just a toddler and her older sister suddenly promoted to the level of Queen, the majority of the little redhead's care had fallen to the Amazon priestesses. One of the first children she'd had contact with was the slightly older Eponin. And, through her, the younger, seemingly inseparable Ephiny and Solari. Suddenly, she was struck by a thought as to what might really be going on with Ep and Soli.
"Maybe because they both have so much in common."
Ephiny's head lolled to the side as she peeked out from between her splayed fingers. "You're kidding me, right? Those two have nothing in common."
"On the surface, maybe not," agreed Terreis. "But, on the inside, I think they're more alike than anyone might guess." Even themselves, Terreis silently added as she thought of the recent behavior of the two brunettes. Propping herself up, sitting cross-legged on the ground, absently scratching at the welts on her legs, she presented her theory. "I think maybe they both realize this is the last chance we'll all have to be together before we're split up to continue our individual training. After this, Solari leaves for a season in the northern forest. I have to start spending my days trailing after Melosa, learning to be a Queen. And, you - " she pointed at Ephiny - "go off to the warriors' barracks. Their recent extreme behavior may be a physical manifestation of their reluctance to move beyond what's become a comfortable environment for them."
"There's a big hole in your separation-anxiety theory, Plato," Ephiny pointed out, "Ep's already a warrior. Nothing's gonna change for her."
"That's why I'm a princess and not a scholar." Despite her flippant remark, Terreis couldn't help but realize Eponin's a fully-masked warrior. As a trainer, she won't be allowed to socialize with junior warriors newly housed in the barracks. In particular, a certain blonde-haired warrior that's gotten beneath her skin.
They both stared at the starry night in silent contemplation, the distant sounds of horses nickering, the bullfrogs croaking and the soft sounds of splashing water washing over their senses. The two young Amazons idly studied the constellations they'd learned about in their classes, remembering the lessons learned behind each formation.
"Hey, Terreis?" Ephiny asked, fingers lethargically running through her new, shorter hairstyle. "You ever notice how toned Ep's abdomen muscles are?"
"Hmm? Yeah, I guess so." Oh, she'd most certainly noticed the warrior's increasing mass. And, she'd also noticed Ephiny beginning to notice, too. Guess that also answers the question about what you were really dreaming of when Solari had that feather, huh? The princess resolutely kept her face turned away from Ephiny, afraid that her indulgent smile might give away her secret knowledge.
She stood silently in the pale moonlight, like one of the giant, marble statues she'd seen in one of the gardens in Athens. That was something she could never understand; why build a city, destroying the trees and nature to erect stone walls and cobblestone streets only to build more walls in an effort to imprison nature's beauty?
One of the caretakers of the garden had been very intrigued by the Amazon entourage that had briefly stopped to examine the various plants he was tending. He seemed very proud of the collection and boasted about the heartiness of his specimens. Beneath Melosa's withering glare, Terreis bit back the impulse to tell him that his garden paled in comparison to the vegetation that grew in abundance in Amazonia.
When they'd left the garden and were well on their way back to their Nation, Terreis had asked Melosa how it was that even with someone to care for their constant well-being, giving them sunlight and water and special minerals in the soil; why were the plants not thriving? Melosa had arched her brow, giving her that look that said she already knew the answer to that question if only she'd think about it. And, of course, she did. She'd just wanted to hear her big sister's opinion on the matter.
"Sometimes," Melosa had said, "you can take a thing and place it in a gilded cage and give it everything it could possibly need or desire and it will survive. But, it will still remember and long for the freedom it once had. Maybe it can survive in captivity. But, it will never be happy. And, it will never be as beautiful as it once was growing out in the wilds where it belonged."
"So, in theory," Terreis concluded, "If you see, say a lily growing amongst a field of daisies and you're so struck by its beauty that you simply must possess and share it with others that you dig it up and take it home with you . . . you're saying that although you now have it and can look at it whenever you want, it won't be the same as when it was growing out in nature?"
"Works for flowers," Melosa had drolly commented. Then, with a sly wink added, "Amazons, too."
For the longest time, she'd thought Melosa had only been trying to be witty. Now, looking at the sight before her, she finally understood the meaning behind Melosa's words.
She stood tall and straight, her profile majestic as she stood with her fingers tucked in a relaxed position about the leather of her belt, her feet spaced slightly apart. A lone strap of rawhide ran across the broad expanse of back, holding a lightweight halter in place. Likewise, her skirt was made from material designed for the summer heat; lightweight and sparse, showing off generous amounts of toned, tanned flesh. The gentle evening breeze blew blades of wild grass across taut calves and bare ankles, caressing the firm flesh with gentle touches.
Suddenly, she was struck by how truly beautiful this Amazon warrior was. And, in almost the same instant, she realized that in any other setting, the beauty of the moment would be lost.
Eponin remained standing stock-still, looking out in the darkness beyond a point past where Terreis could see from her current position. Quietly, she approached, feeling the soft tickling of wild grass against her feet as she made her way across the open field. Still, Eponin seemed oblivious to her, not even so much as a muscle twitching as Terreis came within four paces of her.
Knowing this was a rare opportunity, one that probably wouldn't repeat itself for several seasons, if ever, the princess decided to take advantage of the situation. Nimble fingers reached for the waistband of her skirt, slowly withdrawing the rag she used to polish her weapons with. Rolling the bit of cloth, twisting it lengthways, she held it firmly between her fingers. Keeping the cloth stretched taut, her eyes locked upon their target, she prepared to let loose one end.
"You need to ask yourself if you really want to do that, Terror."
"Oh, I really want to," Terreis responded, unable to keep from giggling at the use of that long-ago childhood nickname. Even though Eponin never once turned around and her target was still just so temptingly right there, Terreis let the rolled cloth fall limply without ever once connecting with the warrior's buttocks. "But, I guess I've learned to better control my natural impulses."
Under the cover of darkness, Eponin allowed the slightest of smiles to tug at her lips, realizing what that concession must have cost the irrepressible prankster. Having the captain of the royal guard as her mentor afforded Eponin the opportunity of being somewhat familiar with the royal family. Especially on those occasions when duty called for the captain to escort Melosa away from the village for extended periods of time. If she wasn't temporarily placed into the priestesses' care, Ep was allowed to travel along with them. As was tiny Terreis.
Eponin was squarely of an age midway between that of Melosa and Terreis. She was too young and Melosa was far too busy with her newfound Queen's mask to even know Ep existed. And, she was too old to be a playmate for someone as small as the princess that was still at an age where she firmly believed she deserved a certain amount of attention per candlemark.
Attention that she was sorely missing since her mother had died. The priestesses were busy. Melosa was busy. Everyone was always too busy for the youngest child of a deceased Queen. As was the case with most second-borns of royalty, the entire court considered the eldest to be the heir and the youngest, the spare. So, Terreis did what she felt she had to do to garnish the attention she craved. She resorted to bad behavior and pranks, quickly earning herself the nickname of Terreis the Terrible or simply, Terror.
Melosa had tried to be patient with her, attempting to be Queen and mother and older sister to the little redhead. But, she was too busy learning how to run a Nation and Terreis often-times found herself on the receiving end of a lecture from someone about how Queen Melosa can't be bothered with you. Likewise, she soon learned the Captain of the Guard was off-limits, too. Being an Amazon princess offered her many privileges and amenities. Unfortunately for her suffering backside, immunity from spankings was not one of them.
So, she did the next best thing; she tortured the prodigy of the captain of the guard. Even back then, Eponin had been fierce and stoic and unconcerned with normal childhood antics. And, that made her the perfect target for Terreis' unending slew of practical jokes.
"Shouldn't you be resting up for tomorrow?" Eponin asked, shaking the cobwebs of seasons gone by from her mind. "Sunrise is going to come awfully early."
"Ugh. Border patrol; don't remind me." Terreis pulled a face. "I tried to bed down earlier, but I couldn't sleep with all that splashing about Solari's doing down at the lake."
"You left Ephiny alone?" Eponin's head whipped about, eyes the same shade as that elusive golden honey that Terreis had craved looking squarely at her.
"She's fine. It's a sprained ankle, not a battlefield amputation."
"Still, someone should be with her." Eponin moved past Terreis with the reasoning, "Make sure she's keeping that foot elevated."
"Relax; she was okay when I left her. No Bacchae is going to sweep out of the trees and attack her." There was a half-heartbeat pause before Terreis pointedly added, "And if one should, the lake is close enough to the campsite that Solari will be able to throw herself between Ephiny and its fangs."
Eponin halted in her tracks, keeping her back to Terreis. Although she visibly stiffened at the mention of the scout's name, she gave no other outwards indication that she was bothered by Terreis' statement.
"Ep, look." Terreis stepped up directly behind Eponin, reaching up a hand, nearly touching a broad shoulder, stopping a fingertip's breadth away. "Solari didn't mean anything by what she said. Nothing bad, anyway. It's just that this is supposed to be our rite of passage, you know. This is our trial, our time. And, for whatever reason, she feels that she's not being given a chance to show what she's made of."
"What; am I supposed to coddle her, hold her hand to make sure she gets her chance to play, too?" There was a ragged, indrawn breath that caused the warrior's entire frame to shudder. "Life is tough. And, we don't always get what we want. It's about time she learned that."
"Solari knows that. I think every Amazon knows that." This time, Terreis did touch the warrior, using the lightest of touches on an elbow to turn her around. "You know, there are plenty of people who look at me and only see a spoiled princess. Someone who's been pampered since birth and have had every whim catered to."
"I never - "
Terreis placed two fingers to Eponin's lips, effectively silencing her. "I know. You never have. But, you took the time to look past your initial perception and saw the real me."
"You've been spending too much time debating philosophy with Evanthe again." A frown marred Ep's features. The empathy written all over Terreis' face was clearly visible for any who cared to see. And, quite frankly, it was making Eponin nervous. "You're no fun when you're being all insightful and stuff."
Terreis heartily laughed. "You're probably right. Look, my point is, don't judge a person until you've lived for a season in their hut. We all have things we keep hidden beneath our beds that we don't want anyone else to see."
Suddenly sobering, Terreis searched Eponin's eyes, looking for any trace of what she might be feeling. Growing up, there had been a brief time when she'd developed a crush on the intense warrior. And, as such, she was insatiably curious about everything that was Eponin. So, when she was rambling on and on at dinner one evening about the captain of the guard's daughter and Melosa had casually commented that Devillare was not Eponin's mother, she had been intrigued. Beyond intrigued, she corrected herself, try bordering on obsessed.
Melosa had refused to comment further on the situation. As had the priestesses. And, she innately knew better than to ask Eponin, or even Devillare, for that matter. But, being a royal with unlimited access to all sorts of resources, including the Hall of Scrolls, she'd eventually found her answer. And while she knew the scrolls by no means encompassed everything, she felt she could hazard a guess about some of the monsters that were lurking beneath Eponin's bed.
If Eponin had an inkling as to what Terreis was inferring, she didn't give the slightest indication. Her warrior's persona in place, her face was an unreadable mask of non-emotion.
In a neutral voice, Eponin solemnly promised the princess, "Fine. I'll try to resist the urge to beat her over the head with my staff." Then, she smoothly sidestepped the young royal and resumed her patrol of their perimeter.
"Don't be long," Terreis called after her. "Even big, tough warriors need their rest, you know."
Eponin had mutely acknowledged the command with a curt nod of her head.
It would be several candlemarks later before she returned to the campsite. By the light of a grayish, predawn morning, she had sat crouched down on her haunches just beyond the warmth of the dying fire. Solari was laying flat on her back, her mouth open as soft snores escaped from between her lips. On either side, using her broad shoulders as makeshift pillows, Terreis and Ephiny were curled up about her outstretched form.
Watching them snuggled down together, seeing how well they fit; brought home the truth about how she didn't. She was literally looking at the future, the next generation of her tribe. They had their training, their lives, their futures mapped out before them. Each of them would follow in their parent's footsteps, carrying on their family traditions, taking on their familial castes. And, they would all find their niche within in the nation, becoming productive, contributing members of the tribe. They'd find mates and be mothers in their own right and raise their daughters to carry on their line.
I don't have that legacy of a traditional Amazon family to bequeath to anyone, she realized. I don't have a family caste.
With that knowledge weighing heavily on her shoulders and mind, Eponin quietly stole away from the campsite. Barely taking the time to saddle Lightning, she led her horse out of the camp and towards the ridge. Giving the signal to a surprised Egeria and Lysippe, she relieved them several candlemarks ahead of schedule with the instructions to head back to camp while she took up the watch.
One lone set of eyes gazed out over the horizon, viewing the sunrise, but not really seeing the beauty of it. Unheeded, the brisk morning wind swept over the mountain, ruffling her hair, indiscriminately blowing against feathers braided in thick, ebony locks. Unnoticed, her horse shifted beneath her, uneasy about the closer-than-normal position to the edge her mistress had guided her to this morning. By rote, thick fingers firmly grasped the double-headed grip as her other hand methodically dragged a cloth back and forth across the blade of her sword.
As skilled as she was at blocking out the physical, even Eponin couldn't ignore the tumultuous thoughts that plagued her. Or, emotions. A particularly annoying, abstract thought caused her to instinctively stiffen. Beneath her, Lightning shifted in response to the darkening mood she sensed roiling through her human's being. She'd sensed her mistress like this before, generally before battle. But, she'd sensed no danger, no scent of . . . man. Only the familiar smells of forest that perpetually clung to this human. Uncomfortable at the dark-haired one's unease, Lightning's hooves shuffled on the pebbled trail.
Blinking at the nervous reaction beneath her, Eponin stilled her movements long enough to reach out a comforting hand and run it through a thick mane. Keeping her voice low, she murmured words of reassurance in a flickering ear. As her mare settled beneath her touch, she resumed her polishing of her blade.
This is ridiculous! Eponin struggled to control her errant thoughts, the emotions that were setting her - and Lightning - on edge. I'm a hardened warrior. Words don't hurt warriors. Still, as the echoes of the voices she'd overheard reverberated through her skull, she felt the old feelings resurfacing. The insecurity, the self-doubt . . . the self-hatred. Feelings that had taken seasons to push down inside. Feelings that hadn't surfaced since . . . Laurentia.
Unbidden memories flooded her senses, taking her back to a time when she'd barely been of an age to start school.
Even from their earliest days, Amazon children were taught the importance of a good education. And, every child was required to attend and pass their classes before they could be advanced.
Reading. That had been one of the subjects that plagued her as a youth. Sure, she could read just as well as the rest. But, whenever it came time to read out loud -- she just couldn't seem to get the words out. Even when she said them over and over again in her mind, they wouldn't come out of her mouth right.
And, writing. If possible, that was even worse than reading. It seemed that all the other children could easily grasp the quill in their little hands, forming letters on the parchment. For little Ep, though, the process just felt . . . unnatural. Until she'd stumbled onto the method of holding the quill in her other hand and curving it about so she could comfortably form the letters.
Her instructor began keeping her after classes, attempting to teach her how to hold the quill in her right hand. Eponin tried her best, but she was just unable to do the work that way. Day after day she was kept behind; often for candlemarks after the other children had left. Finally, after nearly a moon of this, a trembling little girl was sent home to her hut with a note from her instructor clutched in her chubby fist.
She'd stood there in the center of the room, legs violently shaking beneath her as she stared up her mama's long body and into her eyes. Her angry, forest green eyes.
"Show me!" she commanded, a scowl on her face as she thrust parchment, a quill and ink into tiny hands.
Sitting down on the dirty floor of the hut, Eponin spread her little legs out in front of her. Settling the paper, carefully smoothing it out, she hesitantly dipped the quill into the inkwell. Reaching across with her left hand, she carefully began to form letters on the parchment.
Eponin jumped, the harsh yell causing the quill to slide across the parchment, leaving an unintentional diagonal line at the tail-end of theletter she'd just formed. Eyes widening, she looked up at her mama standing with her fists balled on her hips.
Reaching down, Laurentia roughly grabbed the quill, yanking it out of Eponin's grasp. Grabbing her other limb, she applied bruising pressure to the wrist until the diminutive fist opened. Thrusting the quill into the open palm, she instructed, "Now, do it the right way!"
Eponin tried. Really, she did. She tried harder than she did at just about anything she'd ever done before. Even when mama was yelling that she wasn't. Even as she shouted that she'd never be able to shoot a bow or throw a knife or even a ball like the other kids did if she didn't.
"I don't need to do any of those things, mama," her little voice had declared with conviction. "I'm gonna be a dancer. Like you."
There was a stunned silence in which you could hear a feather drop before all Tartarus suddenly broke loose.
"You will NEVER be a dancer!" That had begun the litany that included the phrases "you're not graceful enough" . . . "you're built wrong" . . . "dancers have to be beautiful" . . .
She blinked, looking up at her mama in incomprehension. She was gonna be a dancer. She had to be. Teacher had already told them all their very first day that they would learn their mother's skills. It was Amazon tradition. Now, mama was telling her she couldn't be like her.
In her child's mind, she thought it was because she couldn't hold the quill like everyone else. That maybe mama would be proud of her and maybe change her mind if she could just do it. So, she continued to try. Even as the hateful words washed over her. Even as the hot tears came, blurring her eyesight and rolling down her burning cheeks.
She was still clutching the quill firmly in her fist as her mama's hand clamped down about the base of her neck and bodily lifted her off the floor. Dragging her feet, one hand reaching behind her, fingers stretching out for the parchment, only to have it fall just beyond her reach, she was hauled to her cot and thrown down on it and told not to dare get up until morning.
Laying there huddled in a ball, knees drawn up to her chest, she tried to stifle her sniffling and ignore the already pressing sensation in her bladder. When mama said not to get up, she meant not to get up. No matter what.
Even without looking, Eponin's little ears picked up on the clinking of mama's shell anklets being slid onto her feet; the ones she wore when she was dancing. In her mind's eye, the rustling of feathers gave away the action of the ornamental decorations being fastened into place just beneath her kneecaps. And, the smell of jasmine reaching her tiny nostrils caused her to imagine her mama touching a fingertip dabbed with scented oil behind her ears and at her wrists and down her top.
Then, without so much as another word in her direction, Eponin heard her mama moving across the hut. The thin hide covering being lifted and pushed out of the way, then absently turned loose caused a slight breeze to flutter through the hut. Subdued, tear-filled eyes blankly watched as the breeze caused the parchment to blow across the dirt-packed floor. Laying on her cot, stretching out her hand, her trembling fingertips were just short of reaching the single sheet of parchment with the words scrawled out in painstakingly capital letters: I LUVE Y
Painful memories weighing her down, Eponin was unable to bring into focus that despite Laurentia's cruelty, she had continued to naturally write - and do most other things - with her left hand. Oh, she'd learned how to do those very same things with her right out of necessity. But, her dominant hand had always been her left. Even when it came to weaponry.
Instead, all her tortured mind would allow her to think of was how, even after all these seasons, words were still able to cut her more deeply than any sharpened blade ever could.
Bare feet moved swiftly and soundlessly over the rough terrain, the way only an Amazon could. She'd followed Eponin's trail from the campsite, even though Egeria and Lysippe had told her exactly where the warrior would be. It was a habit her mothers had instilled in her; why just follow when you can track? Her mothers and their mothers before them and their mothers before them had all been scouts for the Nation. And, her mothers had been training her in the ways of her family since before she was old enough to walk. Her mother was fond of teasing her bondmate about going on tracking expeditions in the forest with a newborn Solari strapped into a carrier on her back, already telling her about the trail she was following. This was why Solari was going to be the best scout in the Nation. It was what she was born to do.
She'd dismounted at the top of the ridge, shouldering her short bow and quiver of arrows and the two waterskins before turning her mount loose to run free. A single slap to the hindquarters gave the signal to not wander far. Looking over the edge, spying the lone warrior on the ledge below her just where she knew she'd be, Solari scampered down the trail, keeping close to the natural rock wall, ducking just inside the mouth of a shallow cave here and there to mask her approach.
She was almost there. The brunette was surprised she'd been able to get this far without being detected. But, crouching down in the shadow of the mouth of the nearest cave, palms braced against grey rock, toes digging into the dirt, she knew the warrior was completely oblivious to her presence. Since the time she'd first spied her, Eponin had continued to sit astride her horse, methodically polishing her warrior's sword, staring at the valley beyond their perimeter.
Bouncing on the balls of her feet, she moved, coming up in one, fluid motion. Before she could second-guess herself, she was darting along the ledge, coming up on the horse's left side, stretching a hand towards Lightning's mane.
She froze as cold steel pressed against the pulse point in her throat. Swallowing, feeling the weapon tilting her chin up, she went with the motion. Rich, sandalwood eyes slowly tracked the length of the blade, following the edge up to the hilt, then raising. She nearly gasped aloud.
Sitting tall in the saddle upon her black mount, equally dark locks falling in wind-swept disarray about chiseled cheekbones and broad shoulders, this proud warrior looked down upon her. With the sun rising, cresting over the horizon, the brilliant yellows and oranges reflected in her eyes, making her already amber-hued orbs resemble shimmering waves of molten-gold.
Solari had once seen their blacksmith melting gold coins down and pouring the precious metal into a cast-iron mold to fashion a golden necklace. She had watched in fascination as the metal moved like a thing alive as it was poured in, the swirling colors covering over the dark iron mold. As with the liquid gold in the blacksmith's forge, she was enraptured by the shimmering depths she saw now.
A firm tap with the flat of the blade to the tip of her nose caused Solari to blink, breaking the spell that had held her bound in silent awe. Rubbing the end of her nose with the ball of her hand, she glared up at the warrior. Eponin's emotions were a carefully neutral mask, except for the quirking of one brow.
"You should think twice before you go sneaking about, scout," Eponin warned in a voice that held the same sharp edge as her blade.
"Might say the same about you." Solari reached for her shoulder, lifting off one of the braided straps draped there. Untangling the two waterskins, she tossed one up at the warrior. Eponin easily performed a one-handed catch. "You were in such a hurry to get out of camp this morning, you went off and forgot your water."
Eponin lifted the skin, slipping the strap over the pommel of her saddle, settling it into place. "You didn't have to come all the way out here just to bring this."
"Yeah." Solari nodded her head, continued to hold the warrior's gaze. "Yeah, I did."
Ep could feel the waves of animosity rolling off Solari. Even though she'd never come right out and told Eponin that she didn't like her, there'd always been that underlying level of tension between them. Other than a certain curly-haired blonde, there was nothing that bound these two together. At best, in Ephiny's presence, they tolerated each other. At worst -
Ain't no cute blonde here now. "You got a problem, scout?"
"Yeah." Again, Solari nodded her head. "Yeah, I guess I do." Eponin's mare chose that instant to shuffle, taking a step closer, nudging against the scout. Suddenly, Solari was struck with the notion of just how vulnerable she truly was standing before warrior and horse. Mustering up a bravado she was no longer entirely feeling, she threw out, "Maybe the princess doesn't mind you taking her duties, but I do."
Eponin felt Lightning shift beneath her in response to the raised voice, ran a large hand along her hide in an effort to calm her. "You all looked pretty wiped out. Thought you'd appreciate the opportunity to sleep in."
"Who can sleep with Egeria's snoring sounding like an invading army of foot soldiers?" Solari snorted. "Besides, that wasn't your call to make."
A dark brow quirked. "As your trainer, I think it was."
"See, that's my point. You're our trainer."
Eponin felt the hairs along the nape of her neck bristle. Remember your promise to the princess. DON'T kill the scout. Resolutely laying the flat of her sword across both thighs, stilling the cloth she'd been using to work the blade, she growled as calmly as possible, "And?"
"And, a trainer should train, not do. Observe us, make suggestions, give us pointers, but don't do our tasks for us!"
"Like when I pointed out the aloe plant to you yesterday?" The muscles in Eponin's forearm danced as she flexed her hand upon the grip of her sword. "Or, when I suggested you not go after that beehive?"
Solari was beyond aggravated, fists clenching and unclenching at her sides in silent frustration. She was normally easy-going, could pretty much get along with anybody. Anybody except this - this - this warrior. She didn't know what it was exactly that set her nerves on end around her; just couldn't explain it in words. Certainly, she'd dealt with warriors before. Hades, her packmate was a warrior! But, there was just something about Eponin that made her crazier than henbane-laced nutbread.
"It's about boundaries, okay?" Solari huffed. "You've got no respect for other people's boundaries."
Eponin was just a little tired of the disdain this scout constantly showed towards her. She knew Solari's bloodline; knew she was a pure Amazon whose heritage could be traced back through generations. But, that doesn't give her the right - Ep was just about to launch into a tirade of her own about if you want respect, you have to earn it; and give it in return when all Tartarus broke loose.
It happened so quickly, neither Eponin or Solari could react in time. One heartbeat they were exchanging heated words, the next Lightning was rearing up on her hind legs, whinnying in fright. Before Eponin could grab the reins, she was tossed from the saddle, landing awkwardly on the hard ground, the breath knocked from her entire body.
"Oh . . . Gods."
Solari had never seen a bear this close-up before. Well, there had been that one in the council hut. But, that one was dead, it's skin mounted on the hut wall as a trophy because it had taken no fewer than seven skilled hunters to track it down and kill it. This one was very, very much alive. And, it looked pissed.
It was standing on its hind legs, front paws mauling the air, saliva dripping from its teeth as it growled. Hindsight being what it was, Solari realized too late that as a scout, she should have known it was there. She'd been ducking in and out of caves at random in her stealthy attempts to sneak up on her adversary. I should have seen the signs of an active den! At the very least, Solari felt that if she'd only been more focused, it wouldn't have gotten the jump on them. Artemis' arrows! Please tell me I didn't wake it!
In Eponin's mind, the bear had come from one of the caves, disturbed by their arguing. The warrior was on the ground, trying to get up, angry at herself for not realizing there was danger so close by. After all, Lightning was a seasoned horse; her nervous fidgeting should have been a clue that something wasn't right.
Meanwhile, the scout was still berating herself for also not knowing something was amiss. I can track a squirrel through the forest. How could I not hear something as big as a bear approaching? Frozen with self-recrimination, her legs refused to move even as her thoughts ran rampant. Because you were acting like a damn, stubborn idiot over this fool-thing you've got going on with Eponin.
With a mighty shake of its head, the bear advanced on the two Amazons.
"Solari!" Eponin was already on her knees, her warrior's sight instantly taking in the scenario. The bear was closing. Solari was rooted to the spot. So far, that was working to her advantage. The bear seemed more concerned with her than the motionless scout. One wrong move one too loud breath and that could all change in a heartbeat.
Knowing she had to draw the bear's attention completely and not believing for an instant she stood a snowball's chance in Tartarus, she moved. She moved faster than she'd ever moved in her life, scrambling to reach the sword that had fallen from her grasp and skittered across the ridge to stop with the blade hanging a good three inches off the edge into nothingness. "Move!"
As if understanding the command, the bear turned its massive head, looking from the human crawling on the ground to the one slowly backing away. Sensing the one on its feet might have a better chance at escaping, he lumbered after her.
Seeing what he intended, cursing the fact that he wasn't fooled by her tactic, Ep reached down, blindly groping for a rock. She let out an Amazon war cry, threw the stone as hard as she could. In rapid succession, she picked up three more rocks, threw them at the bear's back and head.
With an angry roar, the bear turned away from the human that had been slowly backing away. Another rock hit him squarely between the eyes. Shaking his head, he charged at the screaming prey.
"Oh, centaur crap!" Now that Eponin had the bear's undivided attention, she tucked and rolled, diving for the edge of the cliff. In her haste, her fingertips hit the end of the sword pommel, nearly knocking it completely over the ledge. Stretching, her hand closed firmly about the grip. Quickly, she rolled over, extending her arm, bringing the blade across, putting the sharp edge between her body and the bear.
Shuffling crablike backwards, ignoring the scrape of sharp stone against the skin of her back and legs, Eponin kept the tip of the sword pointed at the nearing bear. He was so close now, she could smell his foul breath and the rotten stench of unwashed fur. Feet slipping on the pebbled trail, she continued to backpedal, luring him farther and farther away from Solari. Eponin couldn't see around the hulking mass that was advancing on her, but she prayed to Artemis that the scout had enough sense to run away.
Shouts drew her attention away from the bear and up the side of the cliff. Eponin dared only look away for a fraction of a heartbeat. But in that instant, she recognized the flaming red hair. Gods, Terreis! Eponin silently pleaded. Don't do anything stupid!
Standing at the top of the cliff, her sword drawn, Terreis was peering over the side. The princess was frozen in place, unsure of what to do. On impulse, she had shouted at the bear, but it wasn't the least bit distracted by her cries. Throwing either her knife or sword from this distance would accomplish nothing other than tossing her weapons away. If she ran back to the camp for help, she knew she'd be too late to save her friends. And, lending her sword arm in a face-to-face confrontation with the bear didn't seem like it was the most sensible choice, either.
Come on, Terreis think! Biting her lip in consternation, she asked herself, What would Melosa do?
Knowing her sister, she knew what the answer to that question would be. Show no fear; give your best war cry and attack. Somehow, that scenario didn't hold much appeal, either. She dearly loved her sister and valued her advice, but sometimes, she wondered about her choice of bravery and heroics over common sense.
Without any other solid ideas and not knowing what else to do, Terreis hurriedly dismounted, giving her horse strict instructions, sending it off with a firm slap across its backside. She knew once her riderless mare reached the campsite, the others would realize something was wrong and mount up immediately. Turning back to the cliff, she looked over the edge, her gaze bouncing back and forth from scout to bear to warrior.
Eponin was rapidly running out of room. Bracing one hand behind herself, she found the leverage to work her way to her feet. As she did, she felt her left foot slide backwards, her heel finding open air beneath it as she was driven nearer the edge. A quick glance to the side confirmed her suspicions; if she allowed the bear to push her back any farther, she'd tumble right over the side of the cliff.
Planting her feet, locking her legs, she raised her sword, using a two-fisted grip as she held the pommel firm against her sternum. Still, the bear advanced. She saw the tip press against dark brown fur at the spot she guessed his heart might be. Rearing up, swiping at her with a paw, he just missed connecting with her midsection.
Thank the Gods. These things may be big, but at least they're slow. Tucking her elbow against her waist, steadying her stance, she prepared to thrust the blade home. Movement caught her attention and she saw Solari standing farther up the trail, bow drawn, arrow nocked, the fletching pressed against a sculpted cheekbone as she took aim.
Eponin swallowed against the too-dry sensation in her throat, felt the sword grip waver beneath too-sweaty palms. Her heart and the whistling discharge of an arrow taking flight echoed in her ears. Quickly followed by two more consecutive releases. As the arrows found purchase in a thick, furry hide, large claws struck, slashing open deerskin skirt and flesh alike.
The harsh jostling of the litter as it bounced over the top of a particularly unforgiving boulder in their path made Eponin grit her teeth in a painful grimace. Instantly, a hand was there upon her shoulder, offering reassurance and forcefully pushing her back down flat.
"I think she hit that one on purpose," Eponin scowled, her eye roll indicating she was referring to Solari, who was riding the horse that the litter was being pulled behind. "You should've used more branches."
"Next time we drag you back to the village on a litter, I'll keep that in mind," assured Princess Terreis, critically eyeing the device she'd helped to construct.
She had been the one that had gathered all the leaves and lashed them across the limbs that supported the litter. Left to their own devices, Ephiny and Solari weren't going to cover the branches at all. She had been the sane one that suggested it so their patient would be more comfortable. Just as she had been the one to decide she would walk along beside the litter on the trek home to keep the injured warrior company.
"Better yet," groused Eponin, twisting about, propping herself up on her elbows, trying her best to figure out how she could get herself off the litter, "You could just help me onto my horse and forget this whole litter nonsense all together."
"Ah. Ah. Ah." Terreis wagged a finger at the warrior. "You agreed to let us handle this." Seeing Eponin's mouth opening as a precursor to another protest, she added, "You promised to abide by our decision."
Eponin let out an exasperated huff, fell back on the litter. Damn it, she had, too. But, she never imagined that those- those - junior featherheads would make the decision to leave Egeria and Lysippe to guard the ridge while the three of them carted her injured tailfeathers home.
What I wouldn't give for my horse right now. But, her trusted mount had seemingly turned traitor, too. Raising her head from the bouncing litter, Ep caught sight of her horse docilely allowing Ephiny to ride her. She'd been acting skittish ever since she'd nearly stumbled off the edge of the cliff during the bear attack and the only one she would let close enough to touch her now was the curly-headed blonde. Can't say that I blame her. So, it was quickly decided that Ephiny would ride Eponin's horse and Terreis' and Ephiny's mounts would remain behind with Egeria and Lysippe. The warrior and the hunter would dress the carcass, preparing the bear for transport back to the village. The two extra horses would be put to good use pulling litters with the meat and skins.
As she lay on the litter, idly watching the woman following her on horseback, Eponin's gaze traced the line of a bare ankle, moved up the delicate form of a calf, over a rounded hip and flat abdomen. Half-lidded eyes watched, mesmerized as dexterous hands doused a familiar rag with water from a skin, then ran it over heated flesh in an effort to keep cool. At last, the rag was draped about a slender neck, fingers settling it into place with a loosely tied knot. Languid droplets of water formed on the ends of the makeshift bandana, pooling and running in long rivulets over rounded curves, disappearing beneath the fabric of a perspiration-soaked halter.
Eponin licked her lips in response.
"Here," Terreis yanked her waterskin from about her neck, pressed it into the warrior's hands. At the puzzled look, she glanced over her shoulder, following Eponin's wandering gaze. "Oh. My mistake." Taking her waterskin back, she uncorked it, taking a long draw. "Thought you were thirsty."
Amber eyes bounced towards the princess. "I am."
"Yeah, but not for anything in my waterskin." At the endearing sight of a too-tough-for-my-leathers warrior blushing pink all the way to the tips of her ears, Terreis let out a delighted laugh. "It's okay, Eponin. She likes you, too."
"I know." Eponin nodded. "Eph's a good friend."
"Mmm." Terreis bit her bottom lip in contemplation. Sometimes when dealing with stubborn warriors, you could only push so far, so fast. "She is at that." There was just the slightest of pauses before the princess added, "But, I've gotta tell you, Ep, I don't think I've ever looked at any of my friends the way you look at her."
Ep looked so startled, Terreis thought she might actually tumble off the litter.
"Awww," Seeing the teasing look in Terreis' eyes, Eponin growled, "What makes you think you know anything about it, anyway?"
Because once, I would've given anything for you to look at me that way. Sometimes, that was the hardest thing about being a royal; wondering if anyone would ever look beyond the mask and see the woman beneath. I wonder if I'll ever find a warrior of my own. Suddenly, Terreis felt the need to lighten the mood. "Oh, I know all sorts of things," Terreis answered in that sing-song voice she used to mock Eponin with long ago. "For instance, ever since that bear knocked you off your horse, I now know the truth about your much vaunted warrior stoicism and how you really manage to stay so cool beneath that skirt on even the hottest of summer days." At the startled look, she grinned, "Tell me, do all you warriors regularly go without breechcloth coverings?"
"Oh . . . Gods."
"Odd, those were Solari's precise words when she lifted your skirt to get a better look at your wound."
"Oh . . . my . . . Gods." Eponin hid her face in her hands. "Is that why she keeps looking at me that way?" Ever since the incident on the ridge, Eponin had noticed that every time she turned around, Solari was checking her out.
"I'm sure that's part of it," Terreis agreed, "She's definitely seeing you in a new light. But, I'm certain there's more to it than just that, too. I don't think she's got it all quite worked out in her mind, yet, but she's no doubt rethinking everything that happened out there."
"She killed a bear," Eponin answered, succinctly, suspiciously eyeing Terreis. She didn't like where this conversation was going. And, she wanted nothing more than to put as much distance between herself and a too-nosy princess as possible. Unfortunately, though, she wasn't in a position to go anywhere.
"Yes, yes, she did." Terreis silently walked along beside the litter. She could feel the softer grasses of her homeland beneath her feet, recognized the more familiar sights of the lands closer to the village. "Solari's not stupid, Eponin. How long do you think before she realizes that kill shouldn't have been hers?"
"Those were her arrows that killed him, Terreis." Eponin's eyes narrowed to tiny slits. "That was her kill."
"Uh-huh." Giving the warrior a sidelong look, she made the statement, "You know, being at the top of the cliff, seeing you and Solari on the trail below, the bear advancing on her, then turning on you instead . . . " She held Eponin's gaze meaningfully. "I couldn't move. But, thing is, I could see everything from up there. Everything."
Terreis' eyebrow rose as Eponin considerably paled and looked away. Without uttering a word, she had just confirmed Terreis' suspicions.
"You had your sword lined up perfectly. All you had to do was drive it home. I saw you tighten your stance, steady your aim. And, I knew you couldn't miss. Then, you looked up at Solari and you - you just stopped."
"What?" Eponin snorted, "You saying I intentionally let that bear maul me? What kind of crazy would I have to be to let that happen?"
"Not crazy at all if you saw Solari had a clear shot and you were trying to give her a chance to take it." Terreis reached out, pointedly running her fingertips along the surface of a blood-soaked bandage tied about an upper thigh. Eponin flinched beneath the touch, but otherwise didn't protest. "And, as for that mauling you took, I think when we get back to the hospice, the healers will find the claws didn't really go in all that deep." Holding Eponin's gaze, she revealed, "I saw you jump back just as his paw struck. It may have bled a lot, but those claws very nearly missed you."
"Those bees must've stung your brain, princess, cause you're delusional if ya think I intentionally hesitated. And for what; So that scout could prove something, somehow show everyone she's got what it takes?"
"Insult me all you want, warrior, but I know the truth." Terreis reached out a hand, playfully ruffling the scowling warrior's hair. "Beneath that gruff exterior, you're just a big softie."
Eponin growled, threatening the princess with all sorts of bodily injuries if she so much as breathed a word of her theory to anyone. She was still brooding when they arrived back at the village and Terreis had excused herself while she was carted off to the healers. She'd endured candlemarks of poking and prodding and stitching and sewing and bandaging but in the end, Megara herself had confirmed that there would be no lasting damage. Other than some scars to impress the girls with, the head healer had derisively pronounced, managing to sound almost perturbed that the damage hadn't been more extensive.
At dinner the next evening, both Solari and Eponin were invited to eat at the Queen's table. Eponin's eyes had skewered the princess with invisible daggers, believing she had ratted her out to Melosa. She was caught mildly off-guard when, instead, Melosa presented a feather of bravery to each of them. To her for willingly sacrificing herself to save a fellow Amazon. And, to Solari for endangering herself by refusing to leave another Amazon behind. And, of course, the beaming scout was awarded the bear pelt for making the kill.
A cold wind blew through, ruffling the lightweight summer hide that covered the hut's doorway. Summer had slowly given way to fall and now winter was threatening to creep across the doorstep. Gonna have to remember to switch that hide out for something heavier come morning.
Solari crouched before the hearth, using a stick to stoke the dying fire back to life. She'd gone to bed candlemarks before, but for some reason, sleep eluded her this night. A furtive glance towards the bed and the warrior slumbering there gave her at least a partial reason for her bout of insomnia.
She was unused to having someone to sleep with. She snorted, realizing how that sounded, even to her own ears. In reality, what she had meant, was that she was unused to having someone spending the night in her bed. It was one of the little idiosyncrasies she lived with. This was her hut, her refuge. And, she'd never allowed anyone other than Ephiny to ever spend the night.
But, that was different. They were packmates. Unbidden, a smile crept across her lips as she recalled the term of endearment left over from their childhood. Her mothers had been scouts assigned to the outermost posts. In their absence, she had been left in the care of one of their closest friends who had a daughter nearly her own age.
Her duties keeping her permanently assigned to the village, Neela had readily agreed to helping out with her friends' little chestnut-haired babe while they were both away. She'd claimed her own daughter was a handful and it might help to have a little playmate around to help keep her grounded.
They'd been sleeping in the same bed since they were toddlers. Sleeping with Ephiny was like sleeping with a twin sister. It was comfortable. It didn't mean anything. No matter how often or how badly Solari wished it did.
But, this. This was - - this was - - a bout of nervous energy suddenly had mahogany-hued eyes looking across the room again. The warrior's slumber was restless, she was mumbling incoherently in her sleep as her dreams took her. She was sweating, despite the chill in the air, and a well-muscled leg had kicked off the thick fur pelt in heated annoyance. As she rolled over, curling about on her side, only a thin sheet covered her bare body, exposing an expanse of tanned arm and thigh. As she restlessly rolled over again, this time onto her back, thick ebony locks fell away from her face, revealing her distinctive proud nose and prominent cheekbones. This was - -
Eponin. Solari's mind screamed out in protest, demanding to know how it was that a warrior that as children she'd barely tolerated had ended up sharing - no, make that taking over - she corrected as the weapons master somehow ended up laying crossways the width of her bed.
That was a long time ago, Solari reminded herself, memories surfacing once again. And, a lot has changed since then. Like tonight, for instance. In all her seasons, she'd never dreamed of inviting Eponin over for dinner. But, the warrior had been having such a rough time of it after being hurt in that challenge. And then, her hut had burned down. And Ephiny was mad at her for some reason or another. Seems like these days, Ephiny was always mad at her. And, at one time in her life, Solari was ashamed to admit even to herself, she would have gleefully relished Eponin being out of sorts with their curly-haired regent. But -- she looked so miserable and it didn't seem right sending her off to sleep in the warriors' barracks.
It crossed her mind again how once upon a time in their past, she wouldn't have cared if Eponin had slept in the stables for a solid moon. But, we've both grown since then. And, so many things have changed.
Although weary, but with sleep still refusing to come, Solari tossed her stick into the fire. Laying down, stretching out, her fingers idly stroked through the thick fur beneath her body. In a sobering, reflective mood, she thought of the days of their youth and how so many of those changes had not been for the better. Their Queen, Melosa, was gone. And, so was their young princess, taken from them in a senseless effort to start a war between Amazons and Centaurs.
Thoughts of the vivacious redheaded prankster made Solari smile despite the pain of the still too-fresh loss. Even after all these seasons, her death is still the hardest to accept. Perhaps it was because of the loss of a friend, perhaps it was because of the wasted potential. Maybe it was -- just the loss.
At one point in her reckless youth, a certain scout had toyed with the idea of giving up her wild ways and asking a certain Amazon princess to join with her. Had even gone so far as to purchase a bonding bracelet. That had been before an overprotective big sister had approached her while she was scouting the western territories.
Solari had been standing beneath the shade of an oak tree, staring out over the expanse of sea that began at the base of the cliff on which the tree was rooted. She'd been unaware of the Queen's approach, lost in her daydreaming, fingering the bracelet she held loosely in her grasp, imagining what sort of promise their future might hold.
That had been before reality had come crashing down upon her. By the time Melosa was done with her, the bonding bracelet had been hurled from the cliff, smashed upon the ocean-drenched rocks at the base. Along with my dreams. Melosa made her give an oath as an Amazon that she would never lay a hand on her sister again.
The pain and confusion in Terreis' eyes as Solari broke it off nearly caused the scout's heart to break, making her actually reconsider her oath to Melosa. But, she knew if she did that, she would have to give up being an Amazon. And, worse if Terreis wanted to be with her, so would she. It was something Solari would not could not ask of her princess.
So, she had ended things with Terreis; then mutely stood there as love heaped curses upon her name and cursed the day they'd ever met and called herself fool for ever entertaining the thought that someone like Solari could change. The final words ringing in hers as she left the royal hut were promises of how no matter how long she lived, she would never forgive Solari. Taking to the trees, tears rolling unchecked down her cheeks, uncontrollable sobs tearing through her body, Solari swore then and there that she would never invest her heart in another relationship again.
With her chin propped on her hand, tears misting her eyes, she stared unseeingly into the fire. Her hand stroked through the fur pelt, finding solace in the mind-numbing activity of petting the hide. Unexpectedly, fingertips dipped into a hole in the fur pelt. Curious, Solari shifted off the fur, lifting the edge of the pelt, examining it. There had initially been three holes made by the arrows, all in the back of the bear. Those holes had been carefully stitched closed, the leather twine invisible beneath the thick brown strands of fur. This wasn't from one of the arrows, she was certain of it.
Retrieving a candle, holding it close as she crouched down on all fours, Solari carefully inspected the hole. She acknowledged that it could have been caused when it was first removed from the body. But, she knew that wasn't likely. It was too far from the edges; it wasn't the sort of error the hunters and tanners normally made. No, this was in too far. This was closer to -
- where the heart would've been. Solari fingered the hole, realizing it could pass for a tear; or a cut. Just about the size of cut a dagger . . . or a sword . . . might make. It was possible that the bear had been injured in a prior encounter before cornering Solari and Eponin upon that ledge. But that scenario was unlikely; if another Amazon had injured a bear; even in passing, rest assured, it would have been told in an epic tale about the warmth of a fire pit. Encounters with bears were rare enough to be bard-worthy tales, after all. And, Solari had no recollection of any such a tale.
Peering up through thick lashes, her gaze falling upon the warrior sleeping in her bed, Solari remembered every detail of that day. Terreis on the cliff. Eponin backed up to the edge. The way her heart was rabbiting in her chest as she nocked the first of three arrows.
Slowly, she allowed the pelt to drop from her fingertips. Extinguishing the candle, she slowly rose to her feet. Resolutely, she approached the bed, coming to stand over the slumbering warrior. Looking down at her, her lips setting into a fine line, Solari wrestled with the knowledge of what Eponin had done.
Fists clenching and unclenching at her side, memories flooded her senses, and long ago emotions warred for dominance. Relief when she'd made the kill. Then, pride when Melosa had made her presentation. Smugness when she'd seen the admiration in Ephiny's eyes directed towards her instead of the warrior for a change.
That was my first major accomplishment. Solari's almost single-handed defeat of the bear had been the stuff of legend and she'd found herself promoted to almost heroic status overnight. Even Velasca had to admit the worthiness of her deed. She had saved her trainer; she had protected the life of a warrior. And, that single action would easily carry her to her position as the youngest chief scout in the history of the Nation.
Did Eponin's actions cheapen my accomplishments? Certainly, the warrior hadn't suffered any from the scout saving her hide. In the moons following the initial encounter, she'd endured some ribbing from the other warriors. But, when it became obvious that she wasn't in the least bit embarrassed, the fun quickly died out and it was hardly mentioned again. Eponin's sacrifice certainly didn't seem to hinder her from obtaining her post as weapons master.
Maybe it was timing. If Solari had learned of this deception even a few seasons ago, she might have taken Eponin's head clean off her shoulders. I would have been so focused on what Pony had done, I wouldn't have looked at her motivation behind it. And now that Solari was older and wiser, she could see why Eponin had done what she had done.
On that training exercise, Eponin was already a fully-feathered warrior with nothing to prove. Solari was the one that couldn't stand to be in her shadow and had felt that every day was a battle to be won. She'd been unselfish and undeserving and petty. And, in the end, Eponin had risked her life and reputation for the scout.
Overwhelmed with feelings tugging at her heart, Solari reached out a trembling hand, pulling back the sheet. Fingertips nudged a broad shoulder as she bent low, softly calling, "Pony?" When she mumbled incoherently, she called out again, "Pony?"
A dark brow furrowed as Solari's voice tickled at the edges of her slumber. Reaching out, the scout used her thumb to soothe the crease from a troubled forehead. A smile curving the edges of her mouth, she spontaneously leaned in, placing a kiss upon a surprisingly soft cheek. The warrior stirred, but never woke.
With a deep sigh, Solari climbed into the bed, settling herself down on her side, staring at the wall of her hut. Rolling over, Eponin curled about her, wrapping an arm corded with muscles like steel about the brunette's waist. Warm breath blew against her ear as Ep continued to murmur incoherently over something in her dreams. Eyes drifting closed at the sensation, allowing herself to relax into the embrace, sleep finally claimed Solari.
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