DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Eponin, Solari, etc. are owned
by Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. The other dozen or so
Amazons were created by me - because you can never have too many Amazons. No infringement is intended
and no profit is being made.
CHALLENGE: Submitted as part of the Epic Proportions challenge.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By Del Robertson
Sighing heavily, Ephiny stole a glance at the sky. Apollo's chariot was descending rapidly. Soon, Artemis' moon would be rising in the sky. And, this day will finally be over! If the Queen and her Champion hadn't been expecting her, she would have given due consideration to skipping dinner. Wistfully, she stole a look at her bed, longing to slip out of her leathers and beneath the covers.
A brisk knock on the doorframe pulled her attention from her reverie. But, of course, someone would just come looking for me, wouldn't they? she cursed. "Come," she called out, curiously looking towards the door.
Tousled brown hair and doe eyes shyly peered at her from around the doorframe, clearly in awe of being invited into her presence. The stablehand. Great. "What can I do for you, Doretta?" she sighed, not even attempting to mask her irritation.
Hesitantly, the young woman slid around the doorframe and into the room, in wonder of being invited into her Regent's private hut. Her eyes frantically darted about the dwelling, attempting to commit everything to memory as she stood just inside the doorway, one hand braced behind her back.
"You needed something of me?" pressed the Regent, standing before her, arms folded across her chest in annoyance.
"I - um - I - " the girl had practiced her speech for most of the afternoon. Had mulled the words over in her mind, tried them on her tongue, making certain each held just the proper tone for what she wished to convey. She had been so positive she had it just right. Now, standing here, in Her presence, she was as tongue-tied as a newborn. "That is, I - " her eyes drifted to her feet, watching as they shuffled awkwardly upon the floor. Great! Now, she's gonna think I'm gonna pee my leathers or something!
"Doretta - " Ephiny warned, her voice designed to be a low warning. She wearily pressed her fingers to that place right between her eyes, trying to pinch the impending pressure away. She had a feeling she knew where this was heading. "If this is about this afternoon - "
" - It is." Suddenly, the girl's bright eyes focused and she was able to meet Ephiny's gaze, youthful enthusiasm clearly etched upon her face. "I wanted to apologize for the way I behaved. I was trying to come across as worldly and mature. And, I'm not really. I mean, I realize that's not what you necessarily want. I mean, if that's what you desire, I could be that, but I'd thought you might appreciate it if you knew that I was - ummm - "
"Inexperienced?" Ephiny guessed. So much for Xena's theory.
The youthful face bobbed up and down, sending tousled hair flying over eager eyes. "But, I'm a quick learner. And, I've got lots of stamina." A blush rapidly formed on the girl's cheeks. "I mean, I've umm - " she broke off, looking down at the strong muscles in her youthful hand. She'd seen the bodies of the other girls her age, had observed them while bathing. And, she knew she was more toned, more muscular than any of them. With a rueful smirk, she looked up, meeting Ephiny's appraising gaze, "Comes from pitching hay all day."
At the confused glance, quickly followed by the mortified look on the Regent's face as she realized why they were both staring at Doretta's hand, the young stablehand quickly whipped a thick bunch of wildflowers out from behind her back.
"Anyway, these are for you," she spoke hastily, pushing the bushel at a wide-eyed regent. "And, I just wanted to tell you I'm sorry and I'd really like the chance to make it up to you - " her words trailed off as she saw the hand come up to silence her.
"Doretta." Ephiny continued to hold her outstretched hand up to ensure the stablehand's silence. "I don't want - " the words came out from between tightly clenched teeth " - or need - " the flowers landed on the surface of Ephiny's writing desk with a resounding slap. " - your flowers - " She advanced on the young girl as if to better convey her intent. " - or your liniment - " wide-eyed, Doretta slowly began to back towards the door. " - or your affections."
They stood there, scant inches from each other, both breathing heavily. The Regent's eyes were filled with a wild, untamable anger, the full strength of her ire focused on the young woman in front of her. Unable to move, unable to look away, Doretta maintained eye contact with the powerful woman, even as she felt her vision begin to blur and her bottom lip begin to quiver.
It was at that moment that the stablehand felt the coolness of the evening air at her back and realized someone had moved the pelt covering aside. Around the edges of her peripheral vision, she was aware of a stout figure moving about her frame and slipping unimpeded into the hut. Mortified that someone else may have heard her embarrassing confrontation with the regent, her eyes slid to the side.
Eponin stood at her side, feet spread in her customary at-ease position. One hand rested confidently on her staff, the other in its familiar position across the wide belt at her waist. The weapons master's usual air of indifference was firmly in place.
"Doretta." She nodded to the stablehand. "Eph."
Looking from the weapons master to the regent and back again, Doretta's face blushed an even darker hue of scarlet. Mumbling some lame excuse or another, she dimly heard the weapons master wish her good night before she stumbled out the door and ran for the stables. She only hoped she ran fast enough and far enough that neither woman saw the hot tears streaking down her face.
"What was that about?" Eponin asked, glancing out the door at the retreating form of the obviously distraught young woman.
"Doretta brought flowers," Ephiny admitted, gesturing towards the wildflowers that were strewn haphazardly across the table.
"And, you beat her over the head with them and made her cry?" the weapons master guessed.
Ephiny turned, as if noticing the abused flowers for the first time. Gingerly, she walked back over to the table, delicately picking them up. With a heavy sigh, she fingered the broken stems, wincing at the bruised petals. "I guess I was a little harsh on her."
"A little harsh? I've seen Xena be more merciful on seasoned warlords." Eponin snorted. Seeing the miserable look on Ephiny's face as she sank dejectedly into her chair, she mentally cursed her own insensitivity. With a deep sigh, she cast a look at the staff held tightly in her grip, then carefully braced it against the wall nearest the door. Kicking herself, she crossed the room, coming to kneel in front of her friend. Reaching out, she captured soft hands in both her own. "What's wrong, huh?"
She tilted her head, looking slightly askew at her friend when she received no answer. Dropping her voice to a low, husky pitch, she soothingly implored, "Come on, you know you can tell your Pony." She played with Ephiny's fingers, waggling the digits back and forth in a distracting fashion until Ephiny reluctantly met her gaze. "Come on, you know you want to," she continued to coax, batting eyes the color of warm honey.
"Okay. I know I was harsh on her. Too harsh," she finally admitted at Eponin's reproachful look. "It's just too much, you know?"
Eponin didn't know. But, she waited in patient silence, crouching on the floor between Ephiny's open knees as a shaky hand reached out, fingers lightly stroking through her dark hair as if she was some sort of overgrown housecat. Eponin resisted the impetuous urge to purr. Willing her expression to remain a neutral mask, she allowed the ministrations to continue while Ephiny seemingly collected her thoughts.
"I came back from a - " Ephiny caught the innocently sweet, encouraging smile on Eponin's face and was suddenly hesitant to describe what she'd been doing with Solari at the waterfall. "I came back from a ride today, just wanting to relax and unwind," she began to explain. "All I wanted to do was rest," she continued, hearing her voice trailing off into an annoying whine.
Eponin maintained her position on the floor, honey-colored eyes gazing trustingly up at hazel turned grey. She didn't know what Ephiny was trying to explain, but she knew it was important to let her friend sound it out on her own. Resting a reassuring hand on a bare thigh, she gently squeezed, encouraging Ephiny to continue.
Ephiny felt the calluses on the open palm resting on her thigh. Eponin harnessed the strength to crush walnuts in her bare hand. Ephiny had witnessed the feat herself on more than one occasion. But, here she was, with that same hand resting on Ephiny's flesh, soothing her with the gentlest of touches. She felt comforted by the gesture, somehow found the strength to confide in her friend. "I can't get five candledrips of peace," she confessed, gesturing wildly about the room, then adding, "It's like the entire village has gone insane."
For the first time, Eponin allowed her gaze to slowly travel the length of the regent's hut. It wasn't by far the first time she'd been in the hut. But, it was the first time she'd witnessed it filled to brimming over. Flowers were everywhere. Some were held in containers of water, lined along the the baseboards of the walls. Others were scattered on top of the clothes chest, the weapons chest, even the dresser located near the bed. And, the heady scent was suddenly overwhelming. Smells like a damn field in here! Eponin thought, instinctively crinkling up her nose. It's enough to give any sane person a headache!
A sneeze racked Eponin's frame as the combined scents assaulted her nostrils. Followed by another. Then, another. Embarrassed, she wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She stifled another sneeze, glanced up to see her friend looking at her, a concerned expression on her face.
"Allergic," Eponin shrugged, sheepishly. She cast another wary glance about the room. "Damn, that's a lot of flowers, Eph."
"Tell me about it." Ephiny leaned back in her chair, tucking an ankle beneath her frame. Propping her chin up on her knee, she surveyed the mess again, letting out a deep sigh. "Pony, I swear, if one more person dares to bring me a gift, I'm gonna beat them over the head with it."
Eponin awkwardly shifted her position on the floor. She glanced hesitantly at her staff, biting her bottom lip in contemplation. Just as she opened her mouth to speak, there was a loud knocking on the doorframe. Moaning in anguish, Ephiny dropped her head to her knee.
"Please, Pony," she implored, raising her weary head just enough so her eyes could meet the weapons master's. "Get rid of them. I don't care who it is. Just make them go away?"
Glad for the distraction, Eponin lunged to her feet, rapidly crossed the room. Reaching the door, she flung the curtain back just far enough to address the unwanted visitor.
"Yeah, what do you want?"
Even Ephiny cringed at the harsh tone. And, I'm the one that asked her to do it! Not really caring who it was, but curious nonetheless, the regent observed the encounter with narrowed eyes and perked ears.
A tall silhouette was at the door, trying her best to edge her way into the hut. Eponin's stout body blocked over half the doorframe, her muscular arm stretched across the curtain barring the entrance. Even from Ephiny's distance, she could see the prominent veins bulging beneath the skin of Eponin's forearm as she tensed her muscles.
"I don't care how big the stag is, Cordele," came Eponin's heated voice, "You ain't gettin' in to see her!"
At the mention of the hunter's name, her image immediately sprang to Ephiny's mind. Cordele was a skilled hunter, one of their best. Tall and tanned, with blonde hair and blue eyes, she was very striking. She was sturdy, with muscular arms and legs from training and hunting most of her life. With her additional height and bulk, she could probably go toe to toe with Xena physically. With that alarming thought echoing in her mind, Ephiny anxiously stared at her doorframe.
The silhouette of the amazon was framed by the rising moon at her back. She towered a full head and shoulders above the woman barring her entrance. A bow clutched in her hand, a quiver of arrows at her back, inspired images of the goddess Artemis to mind. For a brief moment, Ephiny was almost convinced Cordele could be the living embodiment of the huntress.
Eponin wasn't quite so impressed. Far from it, as a matter of fact. She knew all too well that Cordele was made of flesh and blood. Oh, she was arrogant and condescending like one of the Gods, alright, but she was mortal nonetheless. A fact Eponin could attest to after using her own staff to wipe the ground with the brash youngster when she tried to show the weapons master up in class one afternoon. Didn't know so much blood could come from one broken nose.
"I'm warning ya, Cordele. If you don't take that stag out of here right now, I'm gonna take that bow of yours and shoot an arrow so far up your backside that you're gonna be pooping fletching for a month!"
That threat prompted several muffled comments from the hunter, including one that rather colorfully questioned Eponin's ancestry. In response, Eponin calmly hefted the staff that she'd left leaning against the wall in a one-handed grip. Growling, she took a single step out the door. With a startled yelp, Cordele scrambled backwards, tumbling over the porch railing in the process, landing awkwardly in the dirt. Righting herself, she snarled a curse at Eponin before stomping away.
There was silence in the hut for a full candledrip after Cordele's unceremonious retreat. Then, a slight snicker crept from between Ephiny's teeth. Then, another. Until finally, raucous laughter erupted from Ephiny's throat, causing her face to turn a brilliant shade of red as she beat on the tabletop with a closed fist. Eponin just stood in the doorway, looking at her with a sort of half-smile on her face.
"I can't believe you threatened to shoot an arrow up her - " Ephiny's voice trailed off as another peal of laughter burst forth. The gales of laughter slowly gave way to a coughing fit as the regent attempted to control her erratic breathing. Concerned, Eponin crossed the room, lightly beating on Ephiny's back with an open palm. It was several more long heartbeats before Ephiny was able to contain herself again. As she breathed deeply, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes, she looked at Pony, noticing the staff the weapons master held casually at her side.
"What's that?" she asked, proud chin jutting towards the weapon.
"Huh?" Startled, Eponin's eyes flicked to her side, just now remembering the staff resting along her thigh. "Oh. Staff."
"Is that white birch?" Ephiny asked, noting the unusual coloring.
"Yeah." Eponin was reluctant to say more. White birch was rare. White birch that was suitable enough to form a weapon from was even rarer.
"You make it?" Ephiny asked, eyeing the craftsmanship.
There was a modest shrugging of shoulders. "Yeah."
"May I see it?" Ephiny pressed, sitting up, leaning forward, already reaching for the staff.
Eponin suddenly bolted, moving the staff behind her and out of Ephiny's reach. "It's flawed. I need to work on the balance," she lied. "I don't want anyone to handle it till it's ready."
"Oh." Ephiny sat back in her chair, clearly disappointed. "I see." They sat in silence, both lost in their own thoughts. "So, anything in particular you came to see me about?" she asked, turning her attention back to Eponin.
"Nah." The weapons master shrugged. "I was just passing by when I heard the voices." A lazy grin spread over Eponin's features. "And, I thought I'd pop in to see who you were dismembering. Of course, I was hoping it was Solari - "
"Eponin - " Ephiny's voice came out as a low, disapproving warning. "I thought the three of us were supposed to be friends."
"We are," Eponin hastily agreed. "Doesn't hurt to hope, though, right?" Her grin slowly slid from her face, her tone turning more serious. "Hey, you planning on goin' to dinner?" she asked.
"Yeah," Ephiny sighed heavily. "Xena and Gabrielle are expecting me," she cast another longing look at her bed. Shaking her mind free from its unrealistic fantasy, she turned her focus back on Eponin. "You?"
"Nah, probably not." The answer came out as little more than a whisper. Ephiny thought she saw something briefly flitter across the weapons master's eyes, but she blinked rapidly and it was suddenly gone. "Got some work to do down at the armory," she added, pushing the staff behind her as she backed towards the door.
As she turned, making her way off the porch and down the steps, she felt Ephiny's eyes on her back. She increased her stride, walking briskly across the courtyard, determined to outrun the regent's watchful gaze. By the time she crossed the practice field, she really was running, her long strides carrying her straight past the armory and into the forest beyond.
Xena and Gabrielle stood beneath the kissing tree, the long cascading greenery hiding them from prying eyes. Arms looped about the warrior princess' neck, Gabrielle melted into the kiss, losing herself in the sensations. As she felt Xena begin to pull back, she tightened her grip, reluctant to let Xena end the embrace.
"We need to be going soon or we'll be late," Xena's husky voice echoed in the still glen.
"So, we'll be a little late. Queen's privilege."
"Gabrielle - " the tone came out as a low warning. "It's up to the Queen to set the standard for the rest of the village. How does it look for the ruler of the Amazons to not honor her obligations?"
"Oh, Xena! It's hardly an obligation!" Gabrielle locked a hand on her hip, jutted it towards the warrior. "It's dinner!"
"Dinner that you promised Ephiny we would be there for," Xena gently reminded her blonde bard. She leaned in, stealing another kiss from lips already swollen from too many such kisses. "Besides," she breathed, into Gabrielle's mouth, "I thought you were worried about leaving her alone right now?"
"Well, I am," Gabrielle admitted, the fingers resting along the waistband of Xena's leather's making a quick route for the hem of Xena's skirt. "Something's not right with her, Xena. She's been edgy, moody and just plain temperamental ever since we've arrived."
"And, that's different how?" Xena couldn't resist, arching an eyebrow and letting a smirk pull at the corner of her lips.
"Stop that!" Gabrielle playfully slapped at Xena's breastplate. "You know Eph's not usually like that!" Her fingers continued their quest, slipping beneath Xena's leathers, inching their way up a bare thigh.
Xena squirmed beneath Gabrielle's ministrations as the bard's digits worked their way over sensitive flesh. "Maybe it's tension." Xena moaned as Gabrielle's fingers found, then worked that tiny bundle of nerves she was so adept at manipulating. "She's certainly been occupied since we've arrived."
"That was quick," Gabrielle marveled at the sudden rigidity in Xena's body, the throaty growl, then the almost immediate languidness seeping through Xena's form. "Maybe I should offer to help her with some of her duties while I'm here." Gabrielle arched her neck in supplication as Xena's mouth found its way along her supple flesh. "Come to think of it - " A sharp gasp escaped her lips as Xena's teeth nipped at a vein. " - Have you noticed anything odd going on with the amazons?"
"You mean normal-odd or odd-even-for-the-amazons odd?" Gabrielle felt Xena smirk against her flesh. "Cause ya gotta admit, some of your leather and feather girls are a bit out there."
"I thought we agreed you were going to work on that attitude while we're here!" Gabrielle admonished, playfully slapping Xena's backside. She bit her lip in contemplation, then gasped out loud as Xena's hands found their way beneath her top. "I've been noticing little things, Xena."
"I have, too," Xena admitted, running her thumbs over Gabrielle's hardening nubbins.
"Not those little things." Gabrielle involuntarily squeaked as fingers tweaked her nipples. "Little things like Solari winking at Ephiny. And, Eponin being miffed because Ephiny forgot archery practice." Gabrielle bit her bottom lip as she felt Xena's calloused hands closing upon her firm breasts. "Don't you think there's something odd going on in the village, Xena?"
"Shhh!" Xena pulled a hand free from Gabrielle's top, hastily clamped it over the bard's mouth. She cocked her head to one side, listening intently. "Someone's coming!" she hissed out between clenched teeth.
"Mmmm?" Gabrielle struggled against the hand pressed to her mouth.
"I don't know who!" Xena whispered harshly. "Now shush up!"
Hand still clamped over Gabrielle's mouth, Xena knelt, lowering them to a crouching position beneath the tree. They held still, scarcely daring to breath, as they heard the sound of approaching steps. Xena made a signal with her fingers that the person was on the path on the other side of the hill. Crouching low, two sets of eyes peered over the crest of the lush knoll.
Artemis' moon was dim this night, hiding behind the cover of gathering storm clouds, masking the identity of the amazon running down the path. Xena and Gabrielle initially thought perhaps it was someone out for an evening run. Then, they realized the amazon was running pell-mell with a staff tucked beneath her arm as if the demon-dog Cerberus himself was on her tail.
They watched wordlessly as the amazon raced towards the steep embankment running down to the river. Instead of stopping, she seemingly found a reserve burst of energy and made a bold leap that carried her off the hillock and across the river at its narrowest point. Xena and Gabrielle held their breath as the amazon nearly cleared the opposite bank, her foot finding purchase on the edge before sliding along the wet grass.
She slid back, her shins bearing the brunt of the fall as they scraped the thick, red clay making up the embankment. Struggling, she managed to use the strength in her arms to pull her body up, hauling herself over the rise to land in a pile on the ground. She knelt there, breathing heavily, leaning on her staff for support.
Gabrielle wrenched Xena's hand free from where it covered her mouth, whispered to the warrior princess, "Do you think we should see if she's okay?"
Xena resolutely shook her head, clutching desperately at Gabrielle's hand to keep her from revealing their presence by racing from the cover of their tree. A loud keening sound tore from the throat of the amazon, sending a tortured song ringing out over the peaceful glen. Loud, heart wrenching sobs wracked the solid frame as she clung to her staff. Xena held Gabrielle close against her body, knowing that if she were to look in the bard's eyes at that moment, she would see tears welling up in empathy. At the height of the amazon's wailing, she flung the staff from her body as if it were a thing alive, sending it to plummet into the river below. She watched it swirl upon the water for a breath before the river took it, sending it spiraling away. As she lost sight of the staff, she slumped to the ground, pounding angry fists against the hard clay.
"Nah, nothing out of the ordinary going on around here," Xena remarked, drolly. Determinedly, she pulled Gabrielle to her feet, intent on hurrying the both of them off to dinner.
The Queen of the Amazons moved swiftly into the communal dining hut. Waiting as the cook prepared her plate, she quickly cast her eyes about the room. The normal dinner time crowds were beginning to thin out as the lateness of the hour wore on. Gabrielle had intended to be at the hut much sooner, but - well, as usual, I got distracted with Xena. She let out a soft sigh as she remembered their rendezvous beneath the kissing tree. Taking the sigh as a hint that she hadn't put enough food on the plate, the cook piled on another helping of stuffing and venison. As she felt the added weight on the plate bend her wrist, Gabrielle snapped out of her reverie.
"Oh, my!" Gabrielle's eyes grew wide as she focused on her plate. It was piled high, food threatening to run off the sides. "You didn't have to be quite so generous, Mytilda."
"My apologies, my Queen," the cook responded, lifting her ladle, aiming it towards the plate, preparing to scrape off some of the excess.
"You don't have to do that!" Gabrielle blurted out quickly, snatching her plate back with both hands. "I mean, I'm sure I can share with my tablemates. There's no reason to let it go to waste."
"Of course, my Queen." The cook backed off, edging away, preparing a plate for the next amazon. Covertly, she sneaked a peek at her highness, who was already nibbling at her green beans. Her majesty's appetite was truly legendary. Mytilda made a mental note to gather an extra dozen hen eggs for tomorrow's breakfast.
Gabrielle slowly moved away from the serving area, gingerly making her way across the dining hall. Tentatively, she balanced her plate with both hands, taking slow, steady steps to avoid a mishap. I can just imagine Mytilda's reaction if I went back for a second plate!
As Gabrielle picked her way through a pack of departing amazons, she looked up, scanning the room. She spied her regent seated at the Queen's table, a plate and mug in front of her. A knife was poised mid-air, a bite of venison skewered on the blade, but otherwise, her meal looked to be untouched. Good; I guess we're not that late, then. Across the table, her back to the room, was Solari. She was leaning forward, both elbows on the table as she spoke with the regent.
Hope that doesn't mean trouble! Gabrielle thought, realizing often times the chief scout carried the first word of danger along the borders. Unobserved, Gabrielle lingered three tables distant, watching the interaction between the two women. Ephiny's brow was furrowed, her eyes narrowed, the muscles along her jawline clearly visible as she set her mouth in a fine line. Solari vehemently shook her head, sending her ponytail flying across her bronzed back as an audible curse flew from her mouth. Gabrielle clearly caught the phrase 'quit acting like a centaur's hindquarters' before Solari abruptly broke off her tirade, glancing around the room with a glare. Gabrielle reflexively shrunk back into the shadows, praying to Artemis that she hadn't been seen.
Seemingly satisfied that she hadn't been overheard, Solari returned her attention to her own table, being careful to keep her voice at an acceptable level. Gabrielle could now clearly see the tension evident in both the scout's and regent's bodies. They leaned in close together, the strain of keeping their voices to a minimum evident by the twitching veins in necks, the rigid set of tight jaws and occasional sneers of upper lips.
Solari abruptly came up off the bench she'd been perched on. Slapping both hands down on the hardwood table, she planted her body weight on locked arms, pressing in menacingly. Ephiny glared up at the woman towering over her, fire blazing in her eyes. Banging her fist on the table, jabbing an accusing finger in Ephiny's nose, Solari hurled a final epithet before snatching her mug up and storming away.
Ephiny made no move to pursue the retreating scout, choosing instead to glare daggers at her backside until she was out of view. With a fierce look, she brought her mug to her lips, drinking heartily before slamming it back down on the table. She scarcely blinked as a plate laden with food was placed on the table.
"Hey," Gabrielle said in greeting, placing a hand on Ephiny's shoulder for support as she slung her leg over the bench to sit beside her regent.
"Hey," Ephiny responded, her normally dulcet tones sounding ragged.
"Was that Solari I saw earlier?" asked the blonde, digging into her plate with zest.
"She heading out on patrol?"
Gabrielle leaned into Ephiny, playfully jostling her with an elbow. "Hey, if I wanted one syllable answers consisting of grunts and the occasional 'uh-huh', I'd go talk to Xena."
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," apologized Ephiny, looking at her friend for the first time since she'd sat down beside her. "Guess I'm a little preoccupied," she added with a weak smile.
"Now who's turn is it for one-worded answers?" Ephiny teased, trying to divert her queen's attention. "Speaking of the old bear, where is she?" Ephiny asked, looking around the hut, noticing the warrior princess' conspicuous absence.
"She had something to take care of," Gabrielle responded around another mouthful, "She'll be along shortly."
"Argo?" Ephiny guessed, knowing Xena often took the mare out on long rides through the amazon countryside.
"No, your stablemaster's apprentice has been doing a magnificent job of spoiling Argo. Xena says her warhorse is going to get fat off all the extra apples and oats she's been getting." Gabrielle flashed a brilliant smile. "Remind me to tell Theracles how good her new apprentice is."
"Yeah. Doretta's - " Ephiny chewed on the word for a while. " - very helpful."
Gabrielle caught the hesitation, the slight tension in Ephiny's voice at the mention of the stablehand, but chose to let it slide past unchallenged. "Venison's really good tonight," she said instead, gesturing towards Ephiny's plate with her eating knife, "Not that you've really tried it."
Ephiny glanced down at her nearly full plate where she was absent-mindedly scooting the venison around in the brown gravy with the tip of her blade. "Guess my appetite's a little off," she admitted, forcing herself to take another bite. She chewed slowly, forcing herself to taste what she was eating. Her free hand subconsciously beat out a nervous tempo upon the tabletop.
Gabrielle reached out, capturing Ephiny's hand with her own, stifling the jittery action. "You know," she leaned into her regent's side, lowering her voice to a soothing cadence. "You can tell me if something's troubling you." She linked her fingers through Ephiny's, giving the hand beneath hers a comforting squeeze.
"You're a good friend, Gabrielle." Ephiny shrugged her shoulders, "I'm just not sure I can - " Her voice trailed off, her gaze dropping to the table. She stared at their intertwined fingers for long moments before speaking again. A slight twitch tugged at the corners of her lips as she thought about the intimately warm gesture. "Speaking of friends, Xena cornered me earlier and gave me this spiel about how she was sorry for jumping to conclusions. By the Gods, Gabrielle, Xena apologized! What in Tartarus did you say to her?!?"
"I simply reminded her who wears the pants in this partnership." Ephiny choked, spewing the mouthful of ale she'd been drinking across the table at the tiny queen's answer. Laughing, Gabrielle reached out, forcefully patting her regent on the back. She waited until the body racking coughs finally subsided before gently adding, "Relax, Eph, I'm only kidding. Seriously, though, I reminded her that I'm allowed to have friends. And, that my relationship with some friends may be different than my relationship with her." She added a mischievous grin, "Or, not."
Ephiny's eyes widened at that statement. She swallowed harshly, "Gabrielle, look, about that - "
"Hey, breathe, okay?" Gabrielle asked, noting her regent's suddenly pale hue. "You know Xena means the world to me and I would never do anything to deliberately hurt her. But, that doesn't mean I can't have feelings for you, too. And, if I choose to express those feelings, well, that's just between you and me, right?" To add emphasis to her declaration, Gabrielle reached out, capturing the regent beneath her chin. Leaning in, she inhaled deeply, relishing the smell of leather, pine trees, and Ephiny's scent. She nibbled at Ephiny's bottom lip, until with a groan, the regent opened her mouth beneath her queen's ministrations. Gabrielle's tongue darted inside, mating with Ephiny's, then quickly retreated, luring Ephiny's tongue into her mouth in heated pursuit. As they separated, both drew in ragged breaths.
Gabrielle was the first to recover, a self-satisfied smile spreading across her lips as she murmured softly, "That wasn't so bad, now, was it?"
Ephiny slowly shook her head, a smoldering heat still burning in the depths of her eyes. Where did sweet, innocent Gabrielle learn to kiss like that? she wondered in amazement. Stupid, Ephiny! She IS the Queen of the Amazons!
"Good!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "Now, eat your dinner before it goes cold," she instructed, reclaiming her knife, using the flat side to hurriedly shovel another helping of Mytilda's wonderful stuffing into her mouth.
Still unable to speak, Ephiny silently obeyed her queen, returning her attention to her own dinner. She took a timid bite of venison, normally her favorite dish, but all she could taste was the lingering sweetness of Gabrielle's lips. Every nerve in her body seemed to be on end, tingling with the anticipation of further attention from her tablemate. And, although Gabrielle was now thoroughly engrossed in her own meal, Ephiny took some satisfaction in the fact that the blonde bard still had the fingers of one hand firmly intertwined with hers.
"Hey." Xena slammed her plate and three mugs down on the table, swung her long legs over the short bench.
Ephiny felt her heart leap into her throat as a moment's panic gripped her when Xena's gaze locked on their joined hands. She arched an eyebrow, a ferocious glint in her eye. She warily looked from Gabrielle, then back at Ephiny, then swung her gaze back to Gabrielle again. Ephiny sat still, rooted to her chair, only her eyes able to move. She tightened her grip on Gabrielle's hand, frantically seeking her queen's attention.
The young blonde casually reached across the table, snatching a roll off of Xena's plate. She tore the bread in fourths, dropping the smallest portion back on the warrior's plate. She deliberately raised the cloverleaf roll to her mouth, delicately licking at the butter on top before taking a larger bite. At Xena's scowl, she merely arched one thin, blonde eyebrow, giving the warrior a pointed look. Xena's hackles stood on end at the challenge.
Ephiny didn't breathe until Xena completely sat down. She hunched over her plate, fingernails of both hands sinking into the tabletop on either side, biting into the wood. With a ferocious growl, she dug into her meal with both hands, ripping the venison apart with pointed incisors.
Gabrielle reached out, snatching one of the mugs. She drank heartily, washing down a portion of her meal. "Hey, don't forget to chew," she admonished, reaching out, placing a restricting hand on one of Xena's gauntlets.
"That's the pot calling the kettle black, ain't it?" she asked, staring bemusedly at the blonde before her.
"I may eat a lot, Xena, but I always chew every bite," Gabrielle defended herself. "Slow down; no one's going to steal your plate from you."
Ephiny fiddled with her own meal, unable to add to the conversation. She was secretly in awe of the banter this little slip of a girl had with the fiercest warrior in all of Greece. She doesn't stop to think of the consequences. She just lays down the law. And, Xena just eats it up, doesn't she? Ephiny thought about that at length, silently acknowledging the intrigue of having a lover who could be so at ease with her. Is Gabrielle stronger because she can control Xena with just a look, a smile, a word? Or, is Xena stronger because she can give up that control to someone she loves?
"Hey, Eph. This is really good," Xena managed around a mouthful, now that she was actually taking the time to taste her meal. "Any chance Mytilda will have more of this tomorrow eve, also?"
"Venison is a staple for any feast. But, I'll tell her there's been a special request for her stuffing, Xena. She'll be thrilled."
"Speaking of feasts," Xena smirked, "It's not until tomorrow eve, huh?" At the slow nod from Ephiny, she added, "I thought if you were going to have a dinner to honor the return of your Amazon Queen, you'd do it the same night she came back. So, why the big wait?"
Ephiny glared at the warrior, not quite believing the audacity of this woman. She's an honored guest in our village, here solely because she's the champion of the Queen! How dare she -
"Queen Gabrielle arrived unexpectedly. Our hunters need time to hunt and gather the best game in the forest in her honor. The cooks require extra time to prepare the exotic dishes that our Queen favors. Many of these take several days to prepare. The tribal dancers are working on new and exciting moves to thrill her majesty," Ephiny growled through gritted teeth, "Amazons don't just throw a party together, you know."
Xena noted the twitching cheek muscle, the rigid set of a tightly clenched jaw, the way every downy fine hair on muscular arms seemed to bristle and stand on end. Add to that the noticeable tension and the way she clutched her queen's hand tighter within her own grasp - "Lighten up, I was just giving you a hard time," Xena cackled, "I can't believe you're so easy." She twisted her body, swinging her legs back over the long bench. "I'm goin' for more ale. You want some?" she asked, already grabbing both her's and the regent's mugs off the table.
She sat silently, still glaring at Xena's back as she moved across the dining hut. Dropping her elbow on the table, she propped her chin up. Chewing her thumbnail, she sighed heavily. Sensing someone staring, she slowly turned her head to the side.
"What?" she snapped, seeing Gabrielle eyeing her speculatively.
"She was, you know," Gabrielle said, giving Ephiny's hand a gentle squeeze. "Teasing you."
Ephiny furrowed her brow, her gaze drawn to their clasped hands. Throughout the entire drama, not once had Gabrielle released her grip. Even while I was attacking her lover.
"I guess it's my turn to apologize to her, huh?" she asked, raising her eyes to meet Gabrielle's.
"Only if you think you should. Xena's a warrior, Ephiny. She knows how it feels to stick your foot in your mouth without thinking. And, she'd be the last one to ask you to apologize for trying to defend my honor."
"Yeah. Still - " Ephiny didn't finish her sentence. Her eyes left Gabrielle's, going across the hut, seeking out the warrior princess. She wasn't hard to find. The hut wasn't that crowded and she was the tallest woman there. And, Ephiny knew she'd have been able to spot her even if the dining hut had been filled to capacity. Xena was refilling their mugs, laughing with Mytilda, eyes sparkling as all traces of her confrontation with Ephiny was quickly forgotten.
"What's going on with you, Ephiny?" Gabrielle asked, seeing this as her opportunity to approach the topic. "You generally play much better with Xena."
Ephiny just shrugged her shoulders.
"You aren't usually like this," she pressed the issue, "You've been moody and withdrawn. It's like you're hiding somewhere deep inside and no one can get in to reach you." Gabrielle reached out, pulling Ephiny's hand away from her mouth, noting that the regent had nearly chewed the thumbnail down to the quick. Holding both hands in hers, she lowered her voice to what she hoped was a soothing level. "Please, Ephiny, can't you just tell me what's wrong?"
"I - " Gabrielle saw the pained expression flitter across Ephiny's face, the confusion in her eyes. "I don't know," she confessed, in a hoarse whisper. "Things have just been so strange in the village - and I'm having all these - " she nearly choked on the word " - feelings - " now that she had the word out, she allowed herself a ragged, steadying breath " - that I don't know what to do with. And, no one's acting like they're in their right minds - "
The young bard reached out, gently placing two fingers to Ephiny's lips to quiet the obviously disturbed woman. "Shush, Ephiny, it's okay," Gabrielle reassured her, "It sounds like you're overwhelmed. Think back; when did you first start to notice things were off-kilter?"
Ephiny thought about it for a moment, playing events over in her mind before answering. "About three, four days, now. It started out as just little things at first, you know? Just odd stuff that I didn't really give much thought to. Then, I started seeing big changes."
"Right. Changes." Gabrielle bit her lip in contemplation. "All things change. The leaves that are green in summer turn to orange and yellow in the autumn and fall off the trees in the winter, to grow back again come the spring. Everyone changes at some point in their lives, Ephiny. As the Regent of the Amazons, you have to be a strong enough tree to bend with the wind and change with the seasons."
Xena picked that moment to rejoin the Queen and the Regent, placing their full mugs on the table. Once again, she swung her large frame over the small bench, settling comfortably into position. "Solari's working it pretty hard over there," she mentioned, jerking her thumb over her shoulder.
Two sets of eyes followed Xena's thumb jerk. Across the dining hut, standing with a group of five amazons, was the chief scout. She had one hip cocked, braced against a pole as she leaned casually against the support beam, arms folded over her chest. The other women were engrossed in an animated conversation, talking amongst themselves. Although she appeared to be attentive, Solari didn't contribute to the conversation, choosing to merely observe rather than chime in. Two of the women slowly became aware of the scout's silence, her seemingly nonchalant manner. A petite blonde and a huskier brunette slowly gravitated in her direction. A cocky smile gracing her lips, the air of confidence Solari displayed was nearly palpable.
As if sensing she was being watched, Solari slowly raised her gaze, her hooded, sandalwood eyes meeting the burning, hazel eyes of her regent. With a predatory look and a seductive smile, Solari arched a brow in Ephiny's direction. A sultry smirk sliding across her lips, she turned her attention back to the two women whose notice her presence also held. Speaking in low murmurs, she slid her arms about both amazons, gliding them over two distinctively different sets of hips as she guided them towards the door. Moving through the exit, she flashed a parting wicked smile at Ephiny.
"She doing something different with her hair?" Xena grunted around a healthy bite of venison. "Looks cute on her," she added, thinking about the ponytail.
"Yeah, cute." Ephiny didn't elaborate. A frown firmly etched in her delicate features, she continued to stare at the door, as if she could see through the thick paneling and out into the courtyard beyond. The more she thought about it, the more she could swear she heard Solari's lilting laughter carrying on the wind. Eyes boring holes into the wall, her thoughts carrying her to Solari's door and beyond, she lifted her mug to her lips.
"So, what were you two talking about while I was gone?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle smiled into her lover's eyes. "Trees and leaves."
"Ah. And, how everyone changes." She nodded in understanding, having been on the receiving end of that particular conversation numerous times.
"And, to think I never believed you were really listening," Gabrielle teased.
"Yeah, well, hit someone in the head enough times and I guess you'll get their attention."
A movement to her left caught Xena's attention. Ephiny had been propped up on one elbow, morosely burying her nose in her mug of ale, staring into the foamy brew for candlemarks. Now, her eyes had finally slid closed, her elbow had given way, and she found her cheek abruptly colliding with her queen's shoulder.
"Sorry," she mumbled an apology, slowly righting herself.
"It's okay," Gabrielle reassured her, letting a hand slowly run over the woman's back. "Why don't you turn in?"
"M'fine," Ephiny managed, covering a wide yawn with her hand.
"Yeah, I can see that." Gabrielle looked across the table at her warrior. "Xena?"
Wordlessly, the lanky warrior worked herself free of the bench. Coming to stand on the other side of the table, she reached down, placing a secure hand on Ephiny's shoulder. "Come on, let's pack it in," she urged. When it didn't look Ephiny would comply, Xena reached around, grabbing her beneath both arms and hauling her to her feet. Taking one last sip from her mug, Gabrielle rose to her feet, trailing after the two warriors.
"I can walk on my own, you know," Ephiny complained, trying to pry Xena's fingertips away from her hip.
Xena had an arm wrapped about the regent's waist, a secure grip on the wrist of Ephiny's other arm where it was draped around a broad, leather-clad shoulder. Xena was clearly supporting most of the other woman's weight as she was mostly towed out the door and down the dirt path, the toes of her boots leaving long drag marks in the sand.
"You're doin' a great job of it, let me tell ya," Xena growled.
Xena's irritation was directed more at herself than the fair-haired regent. She'd been seated intimately close to Gabrielle, barely a hair's breadth between them, when the warrior princess had returned to the table. Seeing their close proximity, hearing the low tones and noting the intense gazes passing between the two - well, let's just say I knew what I was doing when I pointed out Solari.
The regent had obviously been bothered by the scout's antics. Gee, ya think, warrior princess? And, her obvious irritation had only grown when she saw those two women responding to Solari's flirtatious charms, practically coming in their leathers before the scout lured them out of there. That had left Ephiny seething, her anger clearly evident as she tightened her grip on her mug like a vise, her strength threatening to break the handle right off.
But then, it was like a sea of change had suddenly washed over the amazon. Oh, Xena could tell she was still fit to have her leathers tied. But, it was clear she wasn't going to act on it. Instead, she continued to sit on the bench beside her queen, her brow creased in thought. And, as the night wore on, her anger eventually ebbed away from her taut frame, settling into morose resignation, leaving the regent feeling little more than drained.
By the time they'd reached the courtyard and the majestic pine that marked the center of the village, Xena's patience had worn thin. At Gabrielle's urging, they had proceeded at a slower pace to allow Ephiny a chance to walk beside her. She flicked a sidelong glance at the woman she was half-dragging towards her hut. Ephiny was mostly out of it, nearly asleep on her feet. Blonde curls bounced slightly as she leaned heavily against Xena, resting her cheek on the warrior's brass breastplate.
Casting a hurried glance about the courtyard, noting only the patrol marching past the armory, Xena bent at the knees. Bracing herself, she lifted, easily tossing the compact amazon into her arms. Giving a small bounce, readjusting her bundle, she broke into her customary long-legged stride.
The two guards stopped in their tracks, saluting as Xena walked by, carrying their sleeping commander in her arms, their queen trailing along behind. One of the women covered her mouth with her hand, attempting to stifle her laughs. Her companion elbowed her partner in the ribs, urging her to maintain her silence.
Oh, well, guess their Regent can be suitably mortified in the morning, grinned Xena, daring to look down at the bundle she was carrying. The proud warrior's eyes were closed, her cheek resting against Xena's shoulder, one arm crossed over her chest. A contented smile lazed over pale pink lips. Experimentally, Xena adjusted her hand, moving it so her thumb could lightly caress over a soft cheek.
"Come on, time to put amazon regents to bed now," Xena whispered softly, reaching the hut; Gabrielle rushing ahead to push the pelt curtain aside. Neither one of them noticed the amazon staring at them from the cover of the pine tree.
Head gingerly cradled in both hands, Ephiny slumped over her mug, deeply inhaling the scent of cinnamon sprinkled in hot tea. She winced, screwing her eyes tightly shut, scrunching up her nose as the table was roughly jostled. A dish loudly hit the table, quickly followed by a mug. She bit her lip as someone settled on the bench directly across from her, resting two large forearms on the table.
The regent slowly raised her head, glaring at Xena through the tops of bloodshot eyes. "Gods, Xena," her voice coming up in a low rasp, "I didn't realize you were a morning person." Wish I was the Queen. Gods knows she can sleep til midday. She fought off an unexpected yawn.
"Now, I know you went to bed early last night, Eph." Stretching one large hand across the table, Xena playfully mussed Ephiny's blonde locks, a wide grin spreading over her lips at the regent's glowering look. Leaning in, mischievousness coating her voice, she lightly added, "Tucked ya in myself."
"Just a little tired," Ephiny admitted, forcing a lopsided half-smile. She ran both hands through unruly, corkscrew locks, trying to gain some semblance of order. "Guess the lack of sleep is finally catching up to me."
Ephiny shook her head, raising her mug to her lips, gingerly taking a sip. She made a sharp grimace, wincing as the first onslaught of hot tea aggravated the back of her throat. "Serenader."
A set of uncomprehending baby blues blinked back at her. "It's too early for riddles, Amazon."
"Sorry." Ephiny took another ginger sip, feeling it go down easier. With a sigh, she replaced her mug on the table, fixed her bloodshot gaze on Xena. "For the past four nights, I've been woken up every single night by someone singing outside my window. Badly."
Xena arched an eyebrow. "Who?"
"Don't know," Ephiny shrugged. "I tried to catch them the first night, even placed sentries outside my door the second. To no avail, I might add. I've resorted to covering my head with my pillow."
"I'll find out who it is and put a stop to it," vowed the warrior princess, a wild look materializing in her eye. "Maybe I'll put the pinch on some featherheads and interrogate them." A wicked grin appeared. "Think I'll start with that weapons master of yours."
Ephiny bolted upright at that, reaching a restraining hand across the table, catching Xena's forearm. "I don't think it's Eponin," she hastily implored, suddenly concerned for her friend's safety.
"Yeah, I don't, either." The evil grin was back. "But, I haven't gotten in a good pinch in weeks." She lowered her voice, conspiratorially whispering, "Besides, there's just something about that one I don't like." She sipped thoughtfully at her drink, before declaring, "It's the height. Never trust a short amazon."
"Queen Gabrielle is short," reminded Ephiny.
"Yeah, maybe I should start with her," Xena decided, rubbing her hands together with glee.
She rose from the table, ready to head out. In mid-stride, she paused, turning about, coming back to the table. Thank the Gods she's come to her senses, thought Ephiny. She patiently waited for Xena to reclaim her seat. Instead, the warrior princess remained standing, placing the palm of one hand on the tabletop. With her other hand, she pushed the bowl across the table at Ephiny. "Almost forgot. Mytilda told me to give you that. Said to make sure you eat every bite or she's gonna drop your leathers and paddle your backside with a wooden spoon." At Ephiny's shocked look, Xena smiled, "And, she said to tell you don't think she won't do it. Breakfast's the most important meal of the day, you know."
Mouth open, brows furrowed, Ephiny mutely nodded as Xena wished her good morning, promising to check in with her later. The warrior worked her way across the dining hut full of women, weaving her way in and out with a jaunty stride to her step. Stopping at the door, she flashed a brilliant smile, waved a hand in the regent's direction. Ephiny felt herself slowly raising her arm, hesitatingly returning the wave.
Stunned, she turned her attention back to her breakfast, moving her mug aside and pulling the bowl towards her. Mouth agape, she stared at the generous helping of oatmeal, cinnamon delicately sprinkled in the shape of a heart decorating the thick surface.
The midday sun was high overhead by the time Gabrielle emerged from her hut. She stretched languorously, delighting in the sensations it sparked in the muscles in her arms and back. She grinned, relishing the feeling of waking up in the confines of the Amazon village. Amazing, knowing you can sleep the whole night through in safety without wondering what brigands are sneaking up on you, waiting to slit your throat before breakfast. And, not having a warrior throw a bucket of water in your face - or hit you with a stick - or a fish.
She casually stepped off the front porch, deeply inhaling the fresh scents of the crisp morning. Visiting Amazonia was like visiting nowhere else. The layout of the village was conventional, yet original, designed to be not only functional, but also to be aesthetically pleasing. That was one of the chief complaints Gabrielle had about every village and town she and Xena traveled through. They were all unsurprisingly identical, all designed like her hometown. Interchangeable towns with interchangeable names and villagers. Except for her beloved Amazonia.
And, the smells! All too often, the villages smelled like farm animals. As did most of the men who worked the market. Come to think of it, the men at the inns have the same peculiar smell about them, too. But, in the Amazon village, those things had been taken into consideration, as well. The stables and pens were strategically located on the outskirts of the village. The dining hall was situated where it seemed like there was always a breeze blowing through the kitchens, carrying the scent of baked goods throughout the huts. And, everyone seems to take baths on a regular basis! No smelling like a brothel here!
Glorious! Simply glorious! Gabrielle closed her eyes, twirling in a slow circle, arms thrown out wide as she reveled in the warmth of the sun and the smell of pine trees and baking bread.
"My Queen." Gabrielle heard the crisp voice, the sharp slap of a closed fist being struck against a chest in rapid salute. Gabrielle's eyes slid open at the customary intrusion.
"Solari, we've talked about that," she reproached her chief scout, referring to the unwanted display.
"My apologies, My Queen," Solari hastily apologized.
"That, too." She smiled at the wince her reprimand brought to the amazon's visage. Although one of the more relaxed and easy-going members of her tribe, even Solari had difficulties overcoming years of ingrained respect for the Queen's authority. "I'm just on my way to grab some breakfast. Care to join me?"
Solari glanced towards the high sun. "It's nearly time for the noon meal, my - " she caught herself " - Gabrielle."
"Well," Gabrielle responded, her stomach rumbling aggressively, "It's breakfast to me. But, I may just have lunch, too, while I'm there. Wouldn't want to miss a meal," she flashed a self-depreciating smile.
The scout smiled along with her. "Actually, if I could trouble you with something pressing - " she allowed her words to slowly trail off.
Gabrielle sensed the hesitation in Solari's voice. Her normally fun-loving amazon was clearly troubled. Deciding to forgo her own needs - After all, it's not as if I'm likely to starve to death before I can make it to the hut - she reached out, clasping a reassuring hand on Solari's shoulder.
"What's going on, Solari?" Although, I think I may already know. She recalled the encounter she'd witnessed between the scout and the regent the previous evening.
"It's, well, it's - " There was a decidedly pained look on the brunette's face. "It's Xena."
"Xena?" Xena! Not Eph?
Solari miserably nodded.
Gabrielle took a deep breath, exhaling loudly. What in Tartarus has my beloved done now? "What about Xena?"
"It's, ummm, she umm - " Solari suddenly found the toes of her boots very intriguing as she lowered her gaze to stare at both feet.
"Solari?" Gabrielle's hand that had been resting on Solari's shoulder now slid down her bicep, over her armguard and the tab protecting the fingers of her drawing hand. "What's Xena done?"
The scout scuffed the toe of her boot in the dirt, watching the swirling patterns she made in the sand. She looked up at the reassuring tone and touch, meeting her queen's steady gaze. She bit her bottom lip in hesitation.
"She's been going around the village pinching the amazons," she mumbled.
"What?" I know I didn't just hear that! "What do you mean she's been 'pinching' the amazons?" Gabrielle's ire suddenly grew.
"You know, that jabbing thing she does with her fingers." Solari extended her index and middle finger, poking at the air in demonstration. "She's put that on every amazon she's been able to get her - well, her fingers on."
"Let me get this straight; Xena's just going around the village putting the pinch on my tribe?" Gabrielle stared in disbelief.
Solari nodded her head. "The infirmary is lined up with nosebleeds out the door and halfway to the food hut. Poor Megara's stuffing noses with wet bandages as quick as she can."
"Gods." Gabrielle bowed her head, pinching the bridge of her nose between her forefingers. "I can't imagine what's gotten into her."
"Please, Queen Gabrielle," whined Solari, "Would you call her off before someone gets hurt?"
Xena hurriedly jabbed her fingers into Kynthia's neck. Spinning swiftly, she repeated the move on Keleos. She had caught the two hunters returning from the forest, a string of rabbits on a pole being carried between the two of them. Hands full, they were unable to defend themselves against the warrior princess.
As the two hunters lay gasping, arrows falling haphazardly from their quivers as they writhed on the ground, Xena's sharp hearing caught the sound of approaching footsteps. Reacting quickly, she grabbed both women by their halters, swiftly dragging them behind a hut.
Dropping them to the ground, rolling Keleos over, she repeatedly slapped the amazon's cheek to rouse her. As her eyes slowly focused, Xena grabbed a handful of material and skin at the front of Keleos' halter.
"Stay here and don't make a peep, ya got me?" she ordered.
Seeing the wild look in the warrior's eyes, Keleos risked a quick glance to her bondmate before responding. Kynthia was on her knees, one hand braced against the earth, the other at her throat. Seeing the covert look, Xena's gaze flicked to the lithe blonde, making a move in the hunter's direction. Fearing for Kynthia's safety, Keleos found the strength to capture the warrior princess' wrist in her grasp, effectively pulling her attention away from the fallen hunter. Helplessly, she nodded in agreement to Xena's wishes.
Satisfied she'd follow her orders, Xena patted the redhead on the top of her head in reward. She moved away, watching out of her peripheral vision as the amazon slowly crawled on hands and knees to her mate's side, running a soothing hand over the kneeling woman's back. The blonde moved into the redhead's arms, dragging an arm across her bloodied nose. Pushing the scene to the back of her mind, crouching low, Xena moved stealthily along the back side of the hut. Back pressed against the wall, she darted her head around the corner, wildly anticipating her next victim.
"I promise, I'll speak with Xena," Gabrielle reassured Solari with a pat to her upper arm.
"No problem." Gabrielle flashed a brilliant smile. "Anything to help one of my amazons."
"Thanks again." Now that she was able to confide in Gabrielle and she was certain Xena could be controlled, she breathed a little easier.
"Now that I've set your mind at ease," Gabrielle began, sensing she had Solari right where she wanted her, "Perhaps you could return the favor?"
"My Queen?" Solari felt a rapid uneasiness grow in the pit of her stomach.
"I want to know what's going on between you and my regent."
Xena watched the short amazon as she approached. She was keeping to the center of the path, her stride quickly eating up the ground as she marched with a purpose. She's definitely got a destination in mind. She was armed to the teeth, a thick bow shouldered across her back, a staff carried in a sure grip, daggers sheathed at her waist and tucked into her boots. This one's not going to be as easy as the hunting twins. A grin spread across Xena's lips at the thought of a challenge.
"I'm telling you, it was perfect, Gabrielle. I had the food, the wine, the waterfall. Everything. Even the kiss was perfect." Solari let her words trail off wistfully, failing to notice the agitated state of her queen. "Then, I had to be stupid enough to ask her what she was thinking." A heavy sigh escaped the scout's lips. "And, she hauled off and said 'Xena'! Can you believe it? I'm standing right in front of her and she goes and says 'Xena'!"
"Is that why you put on that little display last night?" Gabrielle guessed. "Payback for what you think she did to you?"
"Yeah," Solari shrugged. "I wanted to get even a little, you know?"
"By proving to her you could have any woman in that hut? Were you still getting a little even when you took them both back to your bed?"
"I didn't - " Solari abruptly snapped off her words when she realized the tone she'd been about to use with her Queen. "I just - "
Gabrielle heard the anguish in the other woman's tone as her words broke off again. She saw the look on Solari's face, followed her gaze to see what she was staring at. Or, rather who. Ephiny was coming across the compound, headed in their direction. When she spotted her queen, the regent smiled. As her gaze shifted to Solari, though, her grin faltered, slowly sliding off her face to be replaced by a sharp scowl.
Seemingly shaking off the spell she'd found herself under when she saw Ephiny, Solari turned her gaze back to the woman standing beside her. "I - I'll see you tonight at the feast, Gabrielle."
"Solari, you two need to talk," Gabrielle warned, her gaze darting back and forth between the scout and the regent.
"I - " the anguish was now clearly apparent in Solari's ragged breath. " - can't. I just can't, Gabrielle."
Before Gabrielle could press the issue, Solari bolted, turning and stalking away in the opposite direction.
Xena timed the steps, counting off to herself in her head. At the count of seven, she stepped out from behind the hut, directly into the path of the oncoming amazon. Startled, the warrior jumped back, crouching into a fighting stance.
"Xena!" She breathed a sigh of relief, "Scare the feathers off of me, why don't you?" she snapped.
"Eponin!" Xena approached, hands stretched out, palms up in a non-threatening manner, a wide smile on her lips.
Ephiny had been on her way to see Gabrielle when she'd spotted her on the trail to the dining hut. Seeing her queen, and knowing her propensity for food, she couldn't help but smiling. Then, her gaze had shifted to see Solari by her side. And, her smile vanished.
Images from the day before slammed into her, knocking her off balance. The intimate kiss they'd shared at the falls. Then, the disagreement in the food hut. And, the way Solari had flirted with, then left with both Syaria and Nyxona. Anger quickly flooded her senses at the unwelcome memories, and she found her stride increasing, bringing her swiftly towards an impending confrontation with the object of her displeasure.
She was nearly upon them, her lip curling into a sneer, ready to hurl an unkind comment when Solari looked into her eyes. She caught a spark of something - almost vulnerable, quickly replaced by a hardened anger, before Solari turned and abruptly stormed off.
The action caught her off-guard, causing Ephiny to miss a half-step before righting herself. Eyeing the brunette's retreating form warily, the regent cautiously approached her queen.
"Ephiny." Gabrielle caught the taller woman in an easy hug.
With a wavering smile, Ephiny returned the gesture. "Gabrielle. Slept well?"
"Yes," Gabrielle fairly beamed. "You?"
Ephiny shrugged. "Well enough, I suppose."
"Uh-oh. Sounds like something's troubling you. Something like - oh, I don't know - unresolved issues with someone?"
Ephiny frowned. How does she do that? "More like unresolved issues with this feast," she quickly diverted the conversation. "I was just on my way to the kitchen to check the preparations. You coming?"
The two friends strolled at a leisurely pace through the village, shoulders and hips occasionally brushing as they naturally swayed near each other. Gabrielle allowed herself to become momentarily distracted by the topic of the food required for the evening's events, often suggesting another dish to be added to the menu. Ephiny readily agreed with most of Gabrielle's wishes, expressing to the little blonde that she would have to be the one to personally add those items to Mytilda's already long list of things to do. Gabrielle accepted the challenge, knowing that she could generally weasel anything she wanted out of the stern cook. After all, who spends all day personally baking nutbread just for me?
"You know, you're going to tell me sooner or later."
"What?" asked Ephiny, clearly perplexed.
"What's going on between you and Solari." Gabrielle scarcely noticed that Ephiny had stopped in her tracks, a deer caught in the crossbow sights expression adorning her face. "Xena's the same way," she stated matter-of-factly. "Thinks she can ignore me when a topic gets too personal, steer the conversation towards something else, hoping I'll become distracted enough to drop it altogether."
Slowly, Gabrielle became aware that the regent was no longer by her side. Turning in a quick circle, she found the woman still standing in the middle of the path, staring at her with her mouth open. Determinedly, the bard strode back to Ephiny, used her forefingers to gently clamp the woman's mouth closed, and grabbing her by the hand, tugged her forward.
"Come on, I haven't been fed, yet," she shook her head in exasperation. "Warriors. You go out of your way to never admit that you have feelings, then whenever a pretty girl winks at you, you suddenly trip all over yourselves not knowing what to do to impress her."
"Humph." Ephiny rolled her eyes. "I'm hardly trying to impress Solari."
"Well, that much is obvious," agreed Gabrielle, "Especially since you called her by another woman's name."
"That's not exactly the way it was."
"It was to Solari." Gabrielle let that hang between them for several heartbeats before adding, "You know, any number of amazons would give their eye teeth to catch Solari's interest."
"Ah." A small quirk tugged at the corner of Gabrielle's lips. "Jealousy."
"I'm not jealous." Ephiny abruptly stopped. Their leisurely stroll had led them to the large pine towering in the center of the village. Crossing her arms in front of her, leaning a shoulder against the tree, she pierced Gabrielle with a heated look. "But, I'm not going to be another notch on Solari's bedpost, Gabrielle. And, I'm rather surprised that you're trying to push the issue."
"Solari is a perfectly suitable mate for you, Ephiny," Gabrielle defended her actions. "She's loyal, intelligent and charismatic. She's agile and has a clever tongue when it comes to diplomacy."
"Yes, and she's also our premiere scout," added Ephiny. "And, what chaos do you suppose would ensue when the chief scout and the queen's regent have a row?"
"You make it sound like you're going to jump in bed with her and then begin a civil war after the first candlemark."
"If not after the first candlemark, then certainly by the end of the next. You know how Solari can be. You know how I can be." Ephiny took a long shuddering breath. "Besides, it's never a good idea for an officer to become involved with a subordinate. You know that."
"I do." Gabrielle reached out, running a hand over Ephiny's arm. "But, you're Amazon royalty, Eph. The whole village is subordinate to you."
"Except the Queen." Ephiny allowed a lazy smile to wash over her as she gazed at her beautiful friend.
"Except the Queen," agreed Gabrielle. Seeing the smile ghosting Ephiny's lips, she stepped closer, leaning her body into the compact frame of her regent. Ephiny's arms came about, closing upon her back as she melted into the embrace. Reaching up, the pad of Gabrielle's thumb traced across Ephiny's bottom lip. "And, I'm not always here to see after you." There was a tinge of sadness in Gabrielle's voice as she whispered that against Ephiny's mouth before closing her lips on the regent's. Tongues meeting in an unhurried rush, Ephiny felt the love Gabrielle poured into the kiss. "And, I want you to be happy when I'm not here."
Ephiny maintained the hug, dropping her chin on top of Gabrielle's head, smelling the fresh scent of the queen's shampoo beneath her nostrils. "I'm - " her voice caught on the word 'happy', unable to voice that particular lie. Instead, she settled on, " - fine."
"I'd certainly say you are," Gabrielle agreed, moving back an arm's length, a saucy leer evident as she openly allowed her gaze to sweep over the regent's toned body.
"Ep! How ya doing?" Xena called out in greeting.
"Fine, Xena. You?" asked the weapons master, one eye suspiciously arched. Xena was never this happy to see anyone. Unless she wants something. Eponin edged closer, half expecting the warrior princess to challenge her to a sparring session. Gods knows it's been a whole day since she's wiped the field with anyone. Probably needs the practice!
Eponin moved forward, clasping Xena's forearm in greeting. As fingers closed about her forearm and wrist, Eponin caught sight of a string of hares tied to a pole laying discarded in the grass. Her eyes narrowed to fine slits. "Hey, what's goin' on here?"
Gabrielle melted into the open mouth kiss, Ephiny's tongue gliding over hers. As the pressure deepened, her hands tightened upon her regent's hips, fingers pressing into leather and flesh.
With Xena, it was always about the leather. There was just no way around it. But, with Ephiny, she had options. The amazon's outfit offered the best of both worlds. She enjoyed the sensation of leather beneath her fingers. But, she could also satisfy her need to feel heated flesh. She twisted her hand, moving it about until her palm rested on a bare midriff, feeling tight muscles dancing beneath her fingertips. A low groan worked its way up from Ephiny's throat and into Gabrielle's mouth. The queen slid her fingers lower, the tips disappearing beneath the waistband of Ephiny's skirt.
Breathing heavily, pulling back, Ephiny leaned against Gabrielle. She was feeling unnerved by the kisses and didn't trust herself to stand under her own power for several long heartbeats. Gabrielle took advantage of the situation, squirming her fingertips deeper into Ephiny's skirt, feeling the wisps of tender curls beneath her touch. With a ragged breath, Ephiny drew back. Attempting to put some distance between them, she fastened both hands upon Gabrielle's shoulders.
"Gods, Gabrielle, it's not that I don't like what you're doing - " A shudder shook her frame " - believe me, I do." She drew in another long breath. "But, if you don't stop now, we're never going to make it to the kitchen." She thought the mention of the dining area would be enough to bring Gabrielle under control. When it wasn't, she tried another tactic. "Mytilda's been making those fruit desserts you like. The ones with the different fruits in a cold gel."
"Mmmm. I like those." She quickly dipped her middle finger lower, darting it over a hardened nub, reveling in the sharp hiss her touch elicited from Ephiny, before hurriedly retreating. "I get the one with the cherry," she declared with an exaggerated lick of her lips and a wicked grin as she withdrew her hand from Ephiny's leathers.
"Sweet Artemis," Ephiny groaned, leaning back against the tree for support.
She didn't know what had come over Gabrielle since her return to the village. Or, herself for that matter. True, after her initial dislike of the 'annoying blonde' had dissipated, she had found herself genuinely intrigued by the vivacious bard. That intrigue had finally given way to deeper feelings. Certainly feelings of friendship, but also something more. Her honor had never allowed her to act on those desires before now. But, if the Queen herself was the one to initiate things -
A sharp whistling noise caught her attention, breaking through the clammering of her heart beating in her ears. Furrowing her brow, her clouded mind attempting to recognize the source of the familiar sound. "Gabrielle!" she screamed, years of honed reflexives reacting to push her languid body off the tree and scramble towards her queen.
Gabrielle had sauntered only a handful of steps before she heard Ephiny's shout. With a smile lingering on her lips, she turned, expecting her regent to still be leaning against the tree, begging her to resume the tryst they had begun. Eyes went wide as she had only a half heartbeat to process the image of Ephiny shouting, charging at her, before she barreled into her, knocking her to the ground.
As she landed on her back against the hard earth, Gabrielle instinctively pushed against the body covering hers. "Stay down, my Queen!" ordered Ephiny, gritting her teeth, refusing to budge.
Gabrielle heard the ragged tone, caught the grimace. One hand on the small of the regent's back, the other desperately running through unruly blonde locks, Gabrielle locked verdant green eyes with desperate hazel. "Hang on, Eph. Just hang on," she pleaded, trying not to focus on the amount of blood pouring forth from the regent's wound. "Guards!" she shouted, even as she heard the oncoming rush of feet running towards them. "Guards!"
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