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
Lips pursed, Megara dabbed at the wound with a damp cloth. It had been deep and she'd had to work quickly to staunch the flow of blood. Her assistant hovered nearby, rapidly mixing a poultice in a bowl. Megara motioned for the girl to come closer.
"Pass me leather twine and needle," she instructed, "When I pull the cloth away, I want you to press the flesh together while I stitch the wound closed. Got it?"
The girl nodded, quickly shoving the bowl at the amazon hovering nearby; she grabbed the spindle of thread and a long needle. The healer removed the cloth, tossing it in a pile on the floor with the rest. Her assistant moved in quickly, holding the flesh tightly together as Megara instructed. There was a sharp yelp as the healer roughly pushed the needle into thick flesh.
"Shut up, ya wimp," Megara scolded, digging the needle repeatedly in and out in rapid succession, looping the twine and tying it off. Pulling a knife from the sheath at her side, the healer deftly snipped the end of the thread. "There, that's got it. Hilaeira, wrap that in a clean cloth. Wouldn't want to risk her getting an infection and ending up back in here. You know how those warriors whine when they get a little puss under the skin."
There was a loud snort from the other side of the room. Megara turned around sharply, fixing Eponin with a glare. "Don't act like you're Miss High-and-Mighty, Too Tough For My Leathers, great Weapons Master. Or, don't you recall laying on my exam table last autumn festival, screaming your lungs out, bare ass in the air while I stitched closed that knife wound?"
Eponin grumbled beneath her breath, "That was a battle wound."
"Yeah, that's what you said," Megara retorted, roughly wiping the dried blood from Eponin's face, "Don't think I bought that tale, do you? I know for a fact that particular battle wound came from you and Solari tossing daggers at each other after splitting eight flasks of Amazonian wine between the two of you."
"Hah! Solari stabbed you in the ass?" Xena couldn't control her laughter. "Hey!" she shouted as the healer's assistant wrapped the bandage about her hand a little too tightly. "You get your tender touch from your mentor?" she glared at the girl.
"Serves you right for laughing," Megara retorted, shoving a bit of cloth soaked in cold water up Eponin's nostril, "Now," she said, fixing both warriors with a harsh stare, "Someone had better explain what the two of you fools thought you were doing."
"Ep stabbed me," Xena offered in a low voice, suddenly conscious of how that sounded after she had just mouthed off about Solari doing the same to the amazon.
"Eponin," the healer warned.
"It was self-defense!" Exclaimed the weapons master. "She attacked me!"
"It wasn't an attack," Xena defended herself. "I was just trying to put the pinch on you."
"Yeah? I know what you were trying to pinch and I ain't havin' no part of it!" huffed Eponin.
"It's not my fault you tried to get away. If you would have just held still - "
"I'm not gonna just stand there and let you pinch my - my - " Eponin's face blushed beet red. "Anyway, I don't fancy you and you ain't pinching anything that I got."
Xena's eyes went wide. "I wasn't trying to pinch your - your - well, that," she gestured wildly at Eponin's chest area. "I was trying to put the pinch on you to interrogate you," Xena attempted to demonstrate the punching motion she usually performed with her fingers.
"Yeah? Well, I suggest you keep your finger jabbing, pinching self away from me before I stab you again, ya freak!"
"Hold it!" Megara had been listening in self-satisfied amusement until she caught that bit and pieced two and two together. "Are you the reason half the village is suffering from nose bleeds?" she asked, leveling a deadly glower at Xena.
"Umm, yeah?" The warrior princess winced beneath the healer's withering glare. "But, I had good reason. I was trying to find out who - " she let the remainder of her sentence trail off as Megara's glare increased ten-fold. "Sorry," she mumbled.
"I don't care what your reasons are," the healer shouted, turning her full wrath on Xena, "I'd better not see another amazon come in here with a nosebleed. Period. Or, I'll stitch closed body parts that you've probably become very fond of having open over the years! You understand me?"
Eponin snickered. Until Megara turned her ire on her. "And, you - " she pointed at the stocky brunette, "You'd better think twice before stabbing someone with that knife of yours or I'll take it away from you and use your backside for target practice! And, this time, there won't be anyone there to stitch you up! Got it?"
"Yes, ma'am," chagrined, Eponin lowered her gaze. "Megara? What's this stuff for?" she asked, nodding her head at the bowl of poultice she was still holding.
"That's not for either of you fools. Believe it or not, I do have other patients besides impaled warrior princesses and nose-bleeding weapons masters to tend to." She snatched the bowl from Eponin's grasp, began hastily stirring the thickening mixture. "I need this for the arrow wound."
"Arrow wound?" Xena's and Eponin's eyebrows simultaneously arched. This sounded more interesting than their petty squabbling.
"Hunting accident?" Eponin guessed.
"Foul-up during archery practice?" Xena added.
"Warriors. So wrapped up in yourselves you don't even notice what's going on beneath your own noses." Megara eyed them both with a look of disdain. "You'd think the two of you would know there was an attack on the Queen."
Five steps to the north wall. Turn. Ten to the south wall. Turn. Ten back to the north wall. Gabrielle's pacing abruptly stopped, her head cocked to the side, arms still behind her back, she listened.
It started out as a soft tone, barely above a whisper. Then, it grew in volume and intensity until it threatened to shake loose the very rafters. More voices were added to the din; none of which were powerful enough to drown out the first. Expectantly, the queen glanced to the curtain covering the door.
"I don't give a centaur's hairy butt what your orders are; I'm going in! You can either move out of the way on your own or I'll do it for you!" the voice bellowed, the threat echoing off the walls.
With a deep sigh, Gabrielle moved towards the thin hide covering, picturing a still wet behind the ears amazon guard peeing herself in fright, too petrified to leave her post, yet terrified to death to stay. Abruptly, the curtain was roughly pushed aside with enough force to threaten to pull it from the wall. Reflexively, Gabrielle took a step backwards as a warrior princess stormed in, took one look at her and charged.
A terrified hue to her cerulean blues, Xena's hands rapidly moved over her upper body and chest area with meticulous precision. Focusing her efforts on the area drenched in the most blood, she thrust her hand into the queen's top. Confused, she drew back, staring in bewilderment at Gabrielle's cleavage.
"I'm fine, Xena," Gabrielle spoke quickly, suddenly realizing the source of the warrior's puzzlement.
With a strangled cry, Xena swept her up in her arms, raining kisses down upon any part of her she could reach. "Gabrielle!" Xena buried her nose in Gabrielle's neck, hugging her fiercely. "You're okay!"
"Umm, yeah." Gabrielle struggled to peel the six foot of warrior princess off her torso. Looking over her shoulder, she spotted the guard, still dangling off Xena's back, trying to wrestle her into submission. Xena didn't even seem to notice the amazon was there.
Eponin stomped into the room, quickly eyeing the warrior and the queen. She reached out one large hand, grabbing the guard by the back of her halter, yanking her off of Xena. With a growl and a shove, followed up by a swift kick, she sent the guard tumbling out of the small room. She landed heels over head against the far wall, the healer and her two apprentices staring in open-mouth shock. With a "And stay out" bark, Eponin roughly pulled the remnants of the curtain to in an attempt at securing some privacy.
"I thought I'd lost you!" Xena planted another panicked kiss on Gabrielle's lips. Sensing the less-than-thrilled-to-be-alive response from her bard, she ended the kiss, slightly pulling away. Holding Gabrielle at arms' length, she looked her up and down, ostensibly checking for injuries. There was blood. Lots of it. Dried and caked onto the front of Gabrielle's green top and the palms of both hands. But, as far as Xena could tell, none of it belonged to her bard. "You're sure you're not hurt?" Her brow quirked.
"But, they said - " Xena began, then stopped as emotion choked her voice. She shook her head, then began again. "They said the Queen had been struck down."
"Regent, actually," came a small voice from across the room.
Xena and Eponin turned towards the sound at the same time. Ephiny was laying on the single cot in the room, propped against several pillows. A sheet was pulled up, covering the tops of her breasts, her hastily cut away halter lay crumpled on the floor. Most of her right shoulder was covered in thick, heavy bandages wrapped about her upper chest and secured beneath her arm. Dark bloody splotches dotted the white dressing. Her coloring was pale, sweat beading her brow as she drew in ragged breaths.
They'd started towards her at the same time. But, Eponin had somehow managed to outmaneuver Xena and scrambled across the room first. She hastily dropped to the floor beside her regent on a bended knee, reaching out to frantically clasp Ephiny's hand within her own.
"Eph!" The weapons master's free hand skimmed the surface of unruly blonde curls, pushing them away from Ephiny's forehead. "Hey, you okay?" she asked in a choked whisper.
"Megara assures me I'll live." Ephiny's ill-attempt at humor fell flat, as evidenced by the trio of dour faces staring at her. She managed a weak smile. "Hey, joke. You guys know what that is, right?"
"I fail to see the humor in my Regent suffering from a near-fatal arrow wound."
Few had seen Gabrielle's don't-mess-with-me ire radiated at full blast. She was in that mode now, her fists clenched tight by her sides, eyes flashing, face flaming scarlet. She was the embodiment of righteousness in all her glorified fury.
"It went in clean; it was hardly anywhere being near-fatal." Ephiny's gaze bored into Gabrielle. She'd been speared, then hastily carried to the infirmary, only to be cut open, have the healer plunge her fingers into the wound and be stitched closed - and everyone knew Megara didn't depend on sedatives to dull the senses. So, forgive me if I'm just a little testy. "And, it was hardly meant for me, Your Majesty."
Xena caught the emphasis added to the designation. Jaw clenched at the implication, she turned to level the look at Gabrielle. Folding her arms over her chest, in her most menacing tone, she directed, "I suggest you tell me exactly what happened."
As Gabrielle related the story of what had occurred in the center of the courtyard, Xena and Eponin listened intently. Gabrielle went into as much detail as she dared, including a vivid recounting of which direction she'd been facing and the direction the arrow had traveled. She concluded her tale by describing how the arrow had initially struck the Regent in the back as she shielded her Queen, the force of the bolt carrying the tip through flesh and muscle to burst through the front of her tunic.
"Where was Ephiny in relation to you?" asked Xena. "I mean, were you standing side by side? Were you in front of Ephiny? Was she in front of you? How much distance was there between you?"
Gabrielle pursed her lips, trying to remember all the details.
"Gabrielle had moved several paces ahead of me. I was closer to the pine when I initially heard the arrow leave the bow."
"You heard the arrow being nocked or actually leaving the bow?" pressed Xena.
"Leaving the bow, I think." Ephiny furrowed her brow in remembrance, seeing the events play out in her mind. "She couldn't have been more than eight - nine paces ahead, but I had to run to reach her."
Eponin had moved away from the bed as they were talking, searching the private room. At last, she found what she'd been looking for. When Megara had removed the arrow, she'd blindly flung the shaft away from Ephiny's body. In her haste to clean and treat the wound, she'd left the discarded pieces where they lay. Reaching beneath a chair, Eponin retrieved the arrowhead, closely studying it.
She edged her way back to Ephiny's side, the arrowhead still firmly clasped in her hand. Exchanging a look with Xena, she passed the object to the warrior princess. At the regent's unspoken question, Eponin simply said, "Broadhead."
Xena idly twirled the object between her fingers, holding it up for everyone to see. The arrowpoint had four razor sharp blades designed to cause massive bleeding, often leading to a quick kill. As the arrow was released from the bow, the forward momentum would cause the shaft to spin, effectively drilling the broadhead into its victim. Xena let out a low whistle, recognizing the extent of the damage that would have been inflicted if the tip hadn't passed cleanly through.
"You've really gotta teach me that trick you do, Xena. You know, the one where you catch the arrows mid-air."
"Before I teach you to catch them, you have to learn to duck," Xena returned the tease, sensing Ephiny's need for the playful banter to alleviate the gravity of the situation. "In all seriousness, though, if you'd tried to catch one of these and missed, you'd find yourself minus a hand."
"I've never seen that type of arrowhead before," Gabrielle reached out, taking the object from her mate, studying it closely.
"Because you've only practiced with blunts," explained Eponin, arms folded across her chest, a grim expression on her face. "Blunts are used for target practice, designed to knock over or do little damage to the target. Broadheads are used by our hunters to bring down big game like boars and stags."
"Given the distance between Gabrielle and Ephiny at the time the arrow was loosed, and the fact that it's a specialty arrow, I'd say someone was hunting the Amazon Queen," Xena declared, her voice dropping to a menacing whisper.
"I can't believe that," Gabrielle reiterated, pacing up and down the length of the room. "There has to be another explanation. Someone must have penetrated our borders, snuck into the village."
"All of the patrols and scouts have checked in, my Queen," objected Eponin. "Your tribe is accounted for; the perimeter is intact. No one has crossed into our lands. Our defenses are secure."
"Maybe it's a trained assassin," Gabrielle reasoned. "If Xena wanted in undetected, she could do it."
"Xena has - many skills," the weapons master grudgingly admitted. "The village is secure. I'd wager my feathers on it."
"Ep is right, Gabrielle." Xena hated to be the one that caused the pained look on Gabrielle's face, the sadness in her eyes. But, the young queen had to know the truth. "This attack came from within." One of her beloved Amazons was a traitor.
"I thought they were all - " Gabrielle choked on her sentence, shaking her head in annoyance as her throat constricted. With effort, she blinked back her tears. I'm the Queen, damn it! Queen's don't cry like babies! "I thought I had their support."
"You do." Ephiny had remained silent throughout most of her Queen's denials, choosing this moment to voice her concerns. "But, so did Velasca. After she became a god and destroyed half our village, most of her supporters abandoned her and rededicated themselves to the tribe. But, there are still those who long for a return to the old days."
"I've read the history of our people, Ephiny. The old days were filled with conflict and battles. The Amazons had to fight to gain and retain their lands against centaurs, barbarians and warlords. Many of our sisters never saw the peace they fought so hard for."
"Those were brutal times, my Queen," interjected Eponin. "But, for a warrior - " Never one to openly express her emotions, she trailed off, looking to Ephiny and Xena for support.
"As time wears on and warriors look back on past battles, they tend to remember the glory, not the pain," supplied Xena, knowing full-well the feeling Eponin was attempting to describe. "And, youngsters that have never faced battle, who are reared on epic adventures, can't wait to prove their mettle. All it takes is for one individual to act on that mentality. It's all political."
"I know politics, Xena." Gabrielle rubbed at the suddenly annoying crick in her neck, recognizing it as the beginnings of a tension headache coming on. "As long as there is a ruling faction, there will be those that oppose it. And, if that ruling faction is overthrown, another will take its place, and there will be someone else who, in turn, opposes it." She resumed her agitated pacing, chewing her lip in consternation. As she came back to the center of the room, she stopped, looking at each of her trusted companions in turn. "The question is; what do we do about it?"
"Pelagia has already doubled the number of guards on patrol. And, the Royal Guard has been assigned in rotating shifts around the village itself," Eponin supplied.
"I'm going to look at where the attack occurred," offered Xena. "Perhaps I can find some clue that Pelagia missed." She knew it was unlikely. Pelagia was very thorough in her duties. She wasn't likely to leave a stone unturned when it came to protecting her Queen. Still, Xena had to do something - if for no other reason than to preserve my own sanity.
Gabrielle nodded her head absently, silently agreeing with all their decisions. Yet, she had a gnawing feeling that it still wasn't enough. She fixed her gaze on the woman laying propped up in bed. "What are we going to do about it?" she directed the question at Ephiny.
Ephiny unwaveringly met her queen's gaze and calmly replied, "Nothing."
"Now, hang on a damn - " Eponin blurted out, tossing incredulous looks between Ephiny and Gabrielle. "If you think we're gonna ignore an attack on our Regent - "
"Our Queen, Pony," Ephiny corrected, reaching out to capture the weapons master's large hand. She caught the snicker coming from Xena, noted the black look Eponin shot her in retaliation. Ephiny weakly clutched at strong fingers, willing her friend to clam her temper, "It was an attack on our Queen."
"But - but - " Eponin sputtered.
"But, it's my Regent that was hurt," Gabrielle interjected, seeing where Eponin's heart was leading her in this. She knew the weapons master meant no disrespect, but it was clear her primary concern was for that of her regent. As was Gabrielle's. "And, we're not about to allow such an incident to go unchallenged."
"I'm not suggesting you ignore the threat, my Queen." Ephiny ran her free hand through her curls, pushing several loose strands behind her ear. "But, the best way for us to show strength in this crisis is to remain unaffected by it."
"You sure you didn't hit your head when you fell, Eph?" asked Eponin, brusquely. "Cause, I gotta tell ya, you're cracked!"
"Pony!" Ephiny's mouth dropped open in shock.
"That's not precisely how I would have phrased it," Gabrielle grinned at the short brunette who had ducked her head at the informal reprimand, "But, I agree with the sentiment."
"No, I understand what she means." Xena had been listening, one hand rubbing her chin thoughtfully as she contemplated the merit of what the regent was saying. "The best thing for you to do is carry on business as usual. If you allow this individual to disrupt your lives, they'll have already accomplished what they were setting out to do."
Gabrielle folded her arms across her chest, pierced Xena with a deadly scowl. "So, you're suggesting we don't do anything until someone skewers me with an arrow?" Out of the corner of her eye, she caught her friend's unexpected grimace. "Sorry, Eph."
"You've already added extra security measures. And, I'm doing my thing." Xena gave Gabrielle a meaningful look, lowered her voice to an intimate level. "I won't let anything happen to you."
"Okay, fine." Gabrielle ran a hand through her hair, let out a deep sigh. "Business as usual," she agreed.
"Business as usual," Ephiny repeated from the bed. "That includes tonight's feast."
"Absolutely not," Gabrielle objected. "Even Xena can't guarantee my safety in a crowd like that."
"I can do it." Xena caught the furious look her soulmate fixed her with. Uh-oh. "You're the reason for the feast, Gabrielle. What sort of message does that send to your Amazons if you cancel your own feast?"
"You already agreed," Ephiny pointed out.
"The guards will be doubled." Xena attempted to offer further reassurances. "And, I'll be right there with you."
"I don't like it." A deep frown etched Gabrielle's face. "But, I'll go along with it."
"Good," Ephiny grinned, "We begin at dusk."
"We?" Xena caught the word, immediately challenged it.
"Uh-uh. Nope. No way." Eponin swiped the air with the flat of her hand. "You ain't going."
"It's a requirement the Regent be a part of the dedication ceremony to the Queen," Ephiny rolled her eyes at the weapons master.
"Not when you've got an arrow through your back, it's not!"
"It's not there anymore, is it?" Ephiny raised her voice, her eyes flashing as she glared at Eponin. Xena subtly nodded at Gabrielle, signaling with her eyes. In unison, they each stepped away from the bed. "I'm going."
"No, you're not!" Eponin shouted.
"I am!" Now, Ephiny's left hand curled into a fist.
Eyes the color of warm honey bored into flashing hazel. "You're staying in bed if I have to tie you to the posts myself!"
"Enough!" Four sets of eyes abruptly darted to the doorway. The curtain was roughly pushed aside, revealing a very agitated healer. Face red, eyes blazing, Megara stormed across the room, her long-legged stride carrying her quickly to the bed. She fixed each of the women in the room with a deadly stare. "WHAT is the meaning of all this noise?" she demanded. "I'm running a hospice, not an asylum!"
When she received only sheepish looks in response to her question, the healer strode purposefully across the room. She slid past Xena and Gabrielle, making a beeline for Ephiny's bed. As she approached, she snaked a hand out, catching Ephiny's wrist, gauging the strength of the pulse beat beneath her fingers. Reaching out, she used her fingers to press down the flesh beneath hazel eyes, studying the size of her pupils with an experienced eye.
Murmuring in satisfaction, she moved to the other side of the bed, only to find her way barred by a kneeling weapons master. As she tried to lean across her, Eponin watched her warily. "Get out of my way!" Megara barked, snorting at the wild-eyed look the amazon cast her. Eponin hesitated, frowning at Ephiny. "Now!" the healer ordered, smirking at the hesitation in Eponin's form as she gave Ephiny's hand a final, reassuring squeeze before reluctantly moving away.
With a self-satisfied smile, Megara bent to her work, peeling back a slit in the bandages just far enough to apply the poultice she'd been preparing. Ephiny sucked in a rush of air as the cold mixture collided with her sensitive flesh. Megara made a soft, clucking sound, pressing the poultice in place before refastening the bandage.
"Now, by Hera's left tit, someone is going to tell me just what is going on in here!"
Her gaze settled first on the regent, who was suddenly very fascinated with a loose thread on her blanket and began toying at it with her fingers. A look at the warrior princess sent baby blues scurrying away at some point on the opposite wall. As did a sharp look to the Queen. Eyes narrowing, suddenly becoming agitated with this nonsense, Megara leveled her gaze at the weapons master.
Eponin was too slow to avert her eyes and found herself frozen in place by an icy glare. She gulped audibly. "Megara," Eponin actually tried pleading with the healer, "Ephiny thinks she's going to the feast tonight. Tell her she ain't, would you?"
"The feast, huh?" the older woman asked, eyeing the regent appraisingly.
Ephiny mutely nodded, looking up at the healer. Megara was roughly twenty summers her senior and commanded the upmost respect from the tribe. Especially when they were in her infirmary. And, she didn't care what your rank was; if you were in her care, she was in charge. Period. Arms folded across her chest, eyes narrowed, she stared at Ephiny until the amazon was tempted to pull the sheet and blanket over her head and hide beneath the covers to escape the penetrating gaze.
As a healer, I shouldn't allow it, reflected Megara, she was just skewered with an arrow for Artemis' sake! But, it was a clean strike, passing neatly between nerves and bone. Besides, it'd take more than a little arrow to bring this one down! Megara thought back to the first time she'd ever had Ephiny in her infirmary. I delivered that curly-haired little spitfire, kicking and screaming three moons early. I was furious just thinking about how much trouble that pregnancy had caused her mother. Hades, I warned her she never should have gotten with child in the first place. But, then, this one cried and looked up at me with the most amazing eyes and reached out a tiny hand for me - and I haven't been able to deny her anything since, have I? She tried to hide her amusement as Ephiny visibly squirmed beneath her gaze. And, it would really tie Eponin's feathers in a knot -
"Yeah, I guess it wouldn't hurt you none," she acquiesced. She caught herself nearly smiling at the triumphant grin on Ephiny's face. Then, catching the sour glare on Eponin's, she somberly added, "But, there are conditions. First," she counted off on her fingers, "No alcohol. Period. You get nauseous or dizzy, I want you off your feet immediately. And, keep that arm immobilized, got it?"
Biting her bottom lip, Ephiny silently nodded her head in agreement. Megara abruptly turned and fixed her glare on Xena. "And, you," she said, jabbing her finger in Xena's face, "Keep an eye on her! Any bleeding through the bandages, you bring her straight back here, you understand me?"
"Good. I know you've got some medical knowledge, so I trust you to take care of things." She allowed herself a certain amount of smugness, pleased that even Xena, Warrior Princess knew better than to argue with her in her own infirmary. She pointedly turned back to Ephiny. "And, I expect you in bed by a decent hour." A heartbeat passed before she added, "Alone."
There were several muffled snickers at that remark, causing Ephiny's face to turn a deep crimson. "And, you," Megara turned her ire on Eponin, "I don't care what you do in the privacy of your own hut," she spat out, "But, if anyone is tying anyone to bedposts in my infirmary, it damn well better be me doing the tying down! Understand?"
Eponin spit and sputtered, cursing beneath her breath as she found herself dumbly nodding in response. Ephiny bit back her laughter, afraid Megara would turn her wrath on her next. She breathed a sigh of relief when she instead fixed her gaze on Gabrielle, slowly raking her eyes up and down the regal frame.
The young blonde had been standing by, not interfering with the events unfolding in the room, content to merely watch in silent fascination as the healer speared each of her companions with a witty barb. Now, here she was before the little bard, ready to loose another verbal zinger. Gabrielle saw Megara eyeing her, gearing up.
She took a deep breath, steadying herself, before plastering on her sweetest smile and saying, "Megara, that is the most beautiful clasp I've ever seen," she said, pointing at the owl clasp holding Megara's top closed. "Popular, too. I saw another one just like it somewhere recently - " Gabrielle rubbed her chin, pretending to be lost in thought, " - Oh, I remember now. That handsome Captain of the Royal Guard was wearing an identical one."
A startled expression came over Megara's face as her eyes darted to where her owl clasp was nestled snugly between her breasts. Face turning suddenly red, she stammered out a "My Queen" and a nod before running for the door. She hurriedly pushed the curtain aside, revealing a guardswoman deep in conversation with the Captain of the Royal Guard on the other side of the partition. Pelagia smiled broadly when she saw the healer approaching. Then, her smile quickly fell as Megara pushed past her, murmuring something beneath her breath. A deep frown marring her features, Pelagia shook her head brusquely, then hurriedly chased Megara across the infirmary, hot on her heels.
Gabrielle turned back to find Xena and Eponin staring at her, stunned expressions on both their faces. Ephiny was sitting up in bed, attempting to hold down her grin. Catching the wicked gleam in Gabrielle's eyes, though, and remembering the image of the captain valiantly attempting to stand at attention in a halter three sizes too small, she abruptly lost it; soft chuckles erupting from her throat. Seeing her friend slowly losing control, Gabrielle relinquished her own, letting a small snicker escape, then a giggle, closely followed by a chortle, until she was doubled over as fits of laughter racked her body.
A low moan worked its way up Ephiny's throat as she struggled with her tunic. Twisting her torso at an impossible angle, she was able to catch the elusive clasp in her left hand and somehow manage to fasten it. Breathing heavily, she sank down onto the edge of her bed, wiping at the pooling perspiration from her brow.
It had been mid-afternoon before Megara had allowed her to leave the infirmary under her own power. Well, mostly. The healer had pressed Xena and Eponin into her service, demanding they escort Ephiny to her hut. Between the two of them, they had managed to wrap a borrowed sheet about her upper body and hovered over her the entire long walk across the village. The two burly warriors were comically tender in their attempts to tuck her in for a nap, with the Queen promising to wake her in time to prepare for the feast.
Ephiny cast a glance towards the window, realizing from the position of the sun that it was fast approaching early evening. With still no sign of Gabrielle at her door. Although, judging by the looks she was exchanging with Xena, I'd be surprised if either of them make it to the feast. Ephiny bit her bottom lip, mentally readying herself for the next challenge.
Closing her eyes, inhaling and exhaling loudly, she blinked them open again, focusing on the discarded boots on the floor at the end of the bed. Who thought taking my boots off was a good idea? Ephiny wondered, staring at the offensive footwear. Ah, Gabrielle, she recalled the young queen removing her tanned boots while the warriors guided her back on the bed, Xena adjusting her covers while Eponin fluffed her down-filled pillows.
Guess they're not going to jump on my feet by themselves. With a deep groan, Ephiny bent down, fingers closing on the top of one boot as a wave of nausea swiftly overtook her. She rapidly came up, taking in huge gulps of air, trying to calm her swirling senses. Yeah, where's all that help when I need it? Ephiny screwed her eyes shut as another wave of dizziness overtook her. Maybe no one would notice if I went barefoot?
"Regent Ephiny?" asked a voice followed by a knock at the door.
Ephiny didn't remember responding, but the next thing she knew, someone was in her hut, kneeling beside her on the bed, placing a cool cloth to her face.
"Regent, are you well?" asked the concerned voice, moistening the cloth and reapplying it to a clammy forehead.
"Mmm," Ephiny replied, eyes slowly blinking as she tried to orientate herself. She blinked at the blonde beside her on the bed, "Think I'm okay now."
"Are you certain?" asked the woman. "I can fetch the healer."
"No!" Ephiny winced, gritted her teeth against the pain her outburst caused. She willed her breathing to return to normal, her eyesight to focus. "That won't be necessary, Cordele." Steadying her resolve, she drew another ragged breath, centering herself. When she addressed Cordele again, the persona of the Regent of the Amazons was firmly in place. "Did you wish to speak with me about tonight's feast? I trust the hunters have provided an adequate fare in the Queen's honor?"
"Yes, my Regent. By the grace of Artemis, some of the finest game was brought down by your skilled and devoted hunters." Cordele felt herself slipping into the familiar routine of being one of Ephiny's subordinates and rankled against the ingrained response. "That is not why I came, though." She caught the subtle arch of Ephiny's eyebrow, interpreted her ruler's silence as unspoken approval to continue. "I heard of the incident in the courtyard."
"Rest easy, the Queen remains unharmed."
"It is not the Queen I was concerned for." Cordele's sky-blue eyes boldly moved to Ephiny's upper body, focusing on the bandages covering her right shoulder and wrapping about her torso. "I heard you took three arrows meant for the Queen, shielding her body with your own to protect her."
"That's the legend of Beroyle and the Queen, isn't it?" Ephiny couldn't help but laugh. "You should know better than to put stock in the amazon grapevine. It was only one arrow."
"Rumor is it was a broadhead arrow?" Cordele proceeded uncertainly.
"That part is true." Ephiny's lips met in a thin line. "Is that the reason you're here?"
"Broadheads are used expressly by the hunters." Cordele shifted, moving off the bed to a kneeling position on the floor. Offering a salute, she bowed in respect before Ephiny. "I swear an oath to you that your hunters are loyal and would lay down their lives for their Regent."
"And their Queen," Ephiny added, pointedly. When Cordele made no response, she demanded, "Do you not command the same loyalty for the Queen of the Amazons?"
"She has our respect," Cordele answered, "But, there are some who reserve their loyalty for the true Amazon leader."
"Gabrielle received the right of caste from Terreis. She is our true leader," Ephiny's tone brooked no argument. "And, I expect that she be treated as such and given the same respect and loyalty given myself. By everyone," she added extra emphasis on the last word, pointedly glaring at the hunter.
"Of course. I merely wished to express my concern for your well-being and convey to you my wishes for your speedy recovery." Cordele managed to put enough sincerity in her tone to hopefully convince Ephiny of her innocent concern. "May I be of further service to you, my Regent?" asked the woman, her hand reaching out for Ephiny's, fingers lightly closing about her commander's digits, she leaned in to place a kiss on the delicate hand.
Ephiny glanced down, her eyebrow arching at the blatant attempt at flattery. "Now that you mention it," Ephiny cast a perusing look at her impertinent boots laying upon the floor, "I could use a hand with those," she cast a pleading look at the hunter, wriggling her toes in emphasis.
Wordlessly, the amazon slid off the bed, kneeling on the floor at her regent's feet. Lifting one up, balancing it on her thigh, she allowed her warm hands to caress over soft flesh. Fingers calloused by years at the bowstring traced the length of a curved ankle down to the tips of sensitive toes. Reaching down without looking, she felt for and secured one of the errant boots.
Heart hammering in her chest, Ephiny watched soundlessly as the hunter picked up the boot and gently slid it into place on her foot. Balancing the weight upon her thigh, she firmly tugged the boot into place. Ephiny watched the muscles rippling over a well-defined back as Cordele released one foot and bent to pick up the other.
Cordele reached around, adjusting her quiver of arrows on her back, shouldering her bow. She was acutely aware of her ponytail swaying midway down her back with her movements, the ends of soft hairs tickling her flesh. And, she was very much aware of Ephiny's heightened breathing, her eyes upon her, watching her every move. Cordele reveled in it. When she wasn't hunting, she spent hours on the archery targets, honing her skills, strengthening the muscles in her back and arms. With her height, her build, she knew she was one of the biggest Amazons in the tribe. And, she knew that women looked at her because of it - and almost all of them liked what they saw.
Now, here she was, in her regent's hut. Kneeling on her floor, caressing her calf and foot as she helped her dress. Sliding the boot over Ephiny's foot, she raised her eyes, locking their gazes. Ephiny's eyes were hooded as she stared at Cordele, an unfathomable depth to her irises.
"Do you have an escort to this eve's feast, my Regent?" the hunter asked, eagerly awaiting the answer.
"As a matter of fact, she does." Eponin flung the hide covering aside, stalked into the hut, rapidly moved to Ephiny's side. "My apologies, Regent Ephiny." She made a low bow, using the movement to mask a wink at the blonde seated on the bed. "There was a delay on the practice field. I hope my thoughtlessness didn't inconvenience you."
"I was beginning to grow concerned." Ephiny directed an irritated glare at the weapons master. "We'll discuss your - thoughtlessness - in depth momentarily." She redirected her attentions to the woman still kneeling at her feet. "Thank you for reconfirming your . . . loyalty, Cordele. Perhaps I'll see you again at the feast?"
"My pleasure, my Regent." Cordele uncertainly rose to her feet, her eyes darting back and forth between the weapons master and the regent. Something wasn't right about the entire situation, but she couldn't put her finger on it. Besides the fact that a woman like her should never be escorted by a barbarian like Eponin. Her brow creased as the weapons master dropped a heavy hand upon the regent's left shoulder. At Ephiny's glance, Eponin gave her a soft smile, then turned a dour look on Cordele. Still somewhat skeptical, she was slow to move away from the two women.
Too slow in Eponin's opinion. "Yeah, thanks, Cordele." She folded her arms over her chest, allowed a smirk to caress her lips. "Don't you have a deer or something to stalk?"
"I'm sure I could find some small game that needs to be skinned," Cordele rejoined, eyes narrowing to tiny slits. Sensing her regent's disapproval, she turned to Ephiny, perfunctorily bowing as she backed away. As she approached the door, she made a showing of slipping her bow off her shoulder and down her arm, catching the grip in her hand in one smooth motion. Lip curled into a sneer, she jerked her head in Eponin's direction before ducking through the curtained doorway.
Xena felt her partner stirring beside her, lazily reached out a hand, blindly grasping at an arm as Gabrielle moved to sit up. "Where ya think you're going?" a gruff pitch rumbling from her throat.
Gabrielle looked back over her shoulder, absorbing the image of the warrior princess stretched out on the bed. Naked warrior princess, she amended, relaxed, naked warrior princess. A broad smile slowly spread over Gabrielle's features. She leaned down, depositing a lingering kiss on delectable lips. She felt an arm come up to drape about her lower back, pulling her in closer as the kiss deepened.
"Mmm." Gabrielle smiled, licked her lips as she ended the kiss. As the warrior princess reached for her again, she looked up, noting the lengthening shadows beginning to stretch across the hut. "It's getting late; we have to get up and dressed."
Xena cast an eye towards the open window above the bed. "Plenty of time," she decided, using both hands to pull her bard down for another kiss.
Kiss after plundering kiss robbed Gabrielle of her sense of duty and time until all she was aware of was the demanding tongue probing her mouth, the strong arms wrapped about her torso, and the heated flesh writhing sensuously beneath her.
"Thanks for the save." Ephiny breathed a deep sigh of relief the moment she was certain Cordele was out of earshot.
"Anytime." Eponin stared speculatively at the curly-haired blonde perched on the edge of the bed. "So, what was that all about?"
"Cordele felt the need to reaffirm the devotion of the hunters and assure me they were not responsible for my injury."
"Hunh." Eponin grunted. "I saw the look in her eyes, Eph." She couldn't keep the dripping sarcasm out of her tone. "She looked like she was ready to pledge her devotion to you all night if you'd let her."
"Tell me about it. If she'd addressed me as 'my regent' once more, I'm afraid I would have screamed."
"Guess now you know what Gabrielle's always complaining about, huh?" That comment brought a wicked gleam to Eponin's eyes. "Must be terrible to be the Queen and command such devotion."
Ephiny folded her arms over her chest, pensively chewed at her thumbnail. "Pony, Cordele all but told me that her loyalties and the loyalties of her hunters don't extend to the Queen."
"Hmm." Eponin studied the floor as she rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "You know, you could raise charges of treason against her."
"No, she was very careful about her wording. She conveyed her intent, but was cautious not to explicitly implicate herself." Ephiny shook her head, sending a mass of blonde curls cascading about her shoulders. "Besides, she waited until I was alone in my hut. If she'd paid this visit in the infirmary, someone else might have witnessed the conversation. As it is, it's my word against hers."
"Convenient." She stalked the length of the room, moving the pelt curtain covering the doorway aside with her fingertips, cautiously peering out. She caught sight of Cordele in the distance, speaking with Kynthia and Keleos. When one of them caught the weapons master's watchful eye, she nodded her head in the direction of the hut, mouthing something indiscernible. Cordele turned, piercing Eponin with a deadly glare before urging the other two hunters away. Eponin continued to watch until the trio disappeared from sight. Jaw clenched, she abruptly jerked loose her grip on the curtain. "I think that bow's permanently attached. When was the last time you recall seeing her without it, Eph?"
Ephiny bowed her head in careful contemplation. She knew as lead hunter, Cordele took the status of her position very seriously. And, she was a known braggart, not above showing off her archery skills to woo a potential bedmate. "I'm not sure, Ep," the regent slowly shook her head, "I've even seen her in the dining hut with it on."
"I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't wear it to bed," Eponin huffed. "Ya think she's the one using the Queen for target practice?"
"That's what I was wondering, too." Ephiny recalled Cordele kneeling in front of her, pulling her boot on, offering an unobstructed view over her shoulders and back. "I counted the arrows in her quiver. She has her full allotment."
"One arrow's easy enough to replace. Especially for the lead hunter," Eponin ground out. She moved back to her regent's side. "Think I'll talk to Pelagia, see if she knows where our blonde friend was this afternoon."
"Be discreet, Pony," Ephiny warned, "We have no proof."
"Like I'd be anything but," Eponin grinned, allowing the unspoken implication to hang in the air between them. It was no secret that more than one fight in the village had been started on account of Eponin's 'diplomatic' skills.
Ephiny groaned out loud at the thought, covering her eyes with her hand as if to block out the images. "Should I tell Megara to ready the extra beds at the infirmary?"
"Not tonight," Eponin chuckled. "I wouldn't want to muss my best leathers."
Ephiny peeked at Eponin from between her fingers, her friend's comment serving to focus her attention on her attire for the first time since she'd entered the hut. Her normal outfit had been replaced with a dark, mahogany hued halter, edged with silver and russet about the straps and beneath her breasts. Her abdomen was bare, revealing a firm, toned stomach from years of working out. Rumor around the village was that you could bounce a dinar off the weapons master's stomach. A wide belt with the keys to the armory hugged the waistband of a dark skirt, the length of which ended mid-thigh, revealing sinewy leg muscles and strong calves. Short boots matching the shade of her top were braided with silver lacing and tied in the back.
Eponin wore her usual assortment of gauntlets and bracers, the thick leather serving to further emphasize the strength in her robust arms. An armored shoulder guard was proudly polished and strapped to one shoulder, designating her status in the tribe as Weapons Master to the Amazons. Several feathers decorated in shades of red and silver lined the rim of her headband, falling to mingle with ebony locks as they cascaded over sturdy shoulders, the ends converging at her collarbone, highlighting the presence of Eponin's customary leather choker about her neck.
"Wow." Ephiny let out a low wolf-whistle. "You clean up nice, Pony."
"Yeah? Well," A dark hue reddened the embarrassed weapons master's cheeks, "I thought if I was gonna escort the Regent to the feast, I'd best dress the part."
Ephiny cautiously moved off the bed, easing herself to her feet. Thankfully, the waves of nausea had passed and the hut had stopped spinning. On shaking limbs, she maneuvered her way to her clothes chest, withdrawing her ceremonial garb. Laying the assortment of gauntlets, bracers and feathers on the dresser, she eyed Eponin skeptically. "Thought you didn't think going was a good idea."
"I didn't. I don't," Eponin shrugged. "But, I know you. And, I know you're going no matter what I say. So, the least I can do is keep an eye on your feathered butt."
Ephiny arched a brow at that comment, but let it pass unchallenged. Suddenly realizing what she'd just implied and where her gaze was focused, Eponin's blush deepened another three degrees. She dropped her gaze abruptly, finding the floor of Ephiny's hut suddenly very fascinating. Ephiny found the sight of the normally gruff and stoic weapons master blushing a scarlet hue, digging the toe of her boot into the floor, unexpectedly endearing and amusing. A soft chuckle caused Eponin's honey colored eyes to dart up in confusion.
"Get over here and help me, you big featherhead," Ephiny laughed.
Eponin hastened to her side, using the task of unfastening Ephiny's armbands and replacing them with the fancier substitutes a welcome distraction. She was able to ignore the thundering of her heart in her ears and mask the shaking of her hands as she performed the well-worn routine. Now, if I can just get my breathing under control! She covertly attempted to take several steadying breaths, careful to not be too obvious in her actions. This close to Ephiny, she was certain the regent could hear her heart threatening to beat out of her chest. But, if she did, she never made mention of it, merely focusing her steady gaze on the weapons master's hands.
Ephiny drew her own ragged breath, closing her eyes at the initial touch of Eponin's calloused hands upon her flesh. She was aware of the weapons master's close proximity, the body heat emanating from her frame. Eponin removed the bracer from her right bicep, fingertips gliding over exposed flesh, causing the downy fine hairs on Ephiny's forearm to stand in response. She reached for the dresser, depositing the removed armband and replacing it with the ceremonial one, fingers deftly snapping the clasps in place.
Reflexively moistening her lips, Ephiny watched in rapt fascination as Eponin's fingers trailed down her right arm, skimming along the surface of her gauntlet before reaching beneath and unfastening it. She gently lifted the gauntlet off, her fingertips dancing upon a delicate wrist as she retrieved its replacement. With a practiced hand, she left a lingering touch on Ephiny's bare forearm before fastening it in place, covering her flesh once again. Ephiny felt as if the heat from Eponin's touch was now trapped between the gauntlet and her skin, slowly ebbing its way into her flesh.
Eponin slipped behind Ephiny, one hand finding purchase against a svelte hip as she edged her way about the regent's body. Her body length pressed against Ephiny's, she reached out, capturing the gauntlet encasing Ephiny's left arm in her dexterous grasp. She nimbly extracted the gauntlet, tossing it on the dresser beside its mate. Without looking, she reached behind herself for the replacement. Her nose at Ephiny's neck, she breathed in deeply, catching the aroma of Ephiny's soap lingering in blonde tresses.
Ephiny felt the heated breath upon her flesh, fought to keep a groan from escaping between tightly pursed lips. Sweet Artemis, is she trying to kill me? She found herself clenching her eyes tightly shut at the continued sensations. It only aggravated her experience, making her acutely aware of the press of Eponin's breasts between her shoulderblades, the buckle of her belt snuggled along the curve of her backside. Her back instinctively arched beneath the sensations.
The weapons master's errant thoughts were mirroring those of her regent as Ephiny's back arched, jutting her breasts forward, affording Eponin an unrivaled view as she peered over Ephiny's shoulder. As she exhaled loudly, sending a heated puff of breath over Ephiny's flesh, the regent involuntarily shuddered. I knew it! She IS trying to kill me! Eponin's eyes slammed shut; she fiercely bit her bottom lip, her breath coming in ragged gasps.
Stretching languorously, the lithe blonde sighed contentedly as she lay her head back on the pillows.
"Xena, that was - that was- " Gabrielle felt another tremor rack her body. "-wow."
"Yeah," Xena smirked, her lips curving into a bow as she used her teeth to nip at the exposed flesh of the hip resting beneath her chin, "What the silver-tongued bard said."
"Hey, give me a break, would you?" Gabrielle playfully swatted at her partner's bare shoulders. "Is it my fault that one of your many skills includes the ability to render me speechless?"
"Well, not completely." Xena grinned, recalling several times over the course of the past half candlemark that her soulmate had found the ability to express herself vocally.
"Funny, aren't you?" Gabrielle's fingers clutched sporadically at Xena's dark mane as a questing finger hit a particularly sensitive spot before scampering away again. "Keep that up and I'm going to nickname you Xena, Warrior Tease."
"Speaking of nicknames," Xena snickered against Gabrielle's thigh. "Pony? Did you know about that?" she asked, catching Gabrielle's eye.
"I heard Ephiny call her that the other day," Gabrielle grinned. "Cute, huh?"
"I've thought of Eponin as a lot of things, but 'cute' has never been one of them."
"Yeah, I don't know how Eph gets away with it. I'm quite certain if either of us tried it, she'd clobber us with her staff."
"Eph gets away with it just fine because she's Eph." Xena shifted about until she was able to crawl up beside her bard. Settling herself against Gabrielle's side, she remarked, "Haven't you noticed? Eponin's got a thing for her."
"Really?" Gabrielle's brow furrowed. "I hadn't seen that."
"Don't worry, neither has Eph." Xena sensed the nearly imperceptible stiffening beneath her. "Hey, we discussed this, remember? I like Ephiny, too, and I want to see her happy." Shifting, Xena planted a reassuring kiss alongside Gabrielle's temple. "And, Ep would make a fine consort for your regent."
"Yeah, I guess," Gabrielle conceded, "If there wasn't a perfectly suitable chief scout already vying for the position."
"Solari?" Xena asked, moving down until her lips were even with a puckered nipple.
"Uh-huh," Gabrielle moaned as much from the sensation of lips against her flesh as in affirmation to the gossip. "Ephiny denies it, but I know there's something there."
"There's something there with Eponin, too. I can sense it," Xena protested, pausing in her ministrations as she argued her point, "And, she'd be great with Eph. Eponin is unrivaled with any weapon and well-respected within the tribe. She would be able to protect Ephiny from anyone challenging her rank."
"True." Gabrielle used both hands to guide Xena's mouth back to its task. "But, as chief scout, Solari has an equally prestigious position within the nation. She's loyal, has a good demeanor and is well-liked."
Xena's calloused hand made its way between Gabrielle's open thighs. "She's an unrepentant prankster willing to go to any lengths for a laugh." She deftly increased the pressure against her bard as she made small, repetitive circles with just the tips of her fingers.
"Eponin's a grumpy, old warrior with half the tribe afraid of her." A sharp hiss escaped as Xena's fingers jabbed in a little too hard on the word 'old'.
"Gabrielle," Xena warned in a low voice, "Ep's my age."
"Exactly." Gabrielle smirked as Xena's slowing administrations were still enough to send her over the precipice. A little gasp escaped her lips as she arched into her lover's embrace. As her body relaxed and she was able to speak again, she added, "Solari and Ephiny are roughly the same age. She's better suited to keep up with Eph." A wicked grin crossed Gabrielle's lips as she added, "You know how older warriors tend to lose their - " she drawled out the last word " - stamina."
"Stamina?" A dark eyebrow rose into a deadly arch as fingers went on the offensive. "I'll show you stamina, Amazon Queen.."
"As much as I'd like to continue to argue that point with you, Warrior Princess," Gabrielle caught persistently questing fingers within her grasp, "I promised to help my regent prepare for the ceremony."
"Already taken care of," Xena smugly responded, eliciting another gasp from her partner as she was able to elude her grasp and resume her ministrations, "I found someone to volunteer in your stead."
Willing her rebellious body to obey her commands, Eponin slowed her breathing, tentatively opened her eyes. Drawing a final, haggard breath, she willed her hand to move, sliding it up Ephiny's arm and over her bicep. She felt the muscles dancing beneath her touch, saw the minute flexing of sinewy tissue. Her fingertips reached the bracer, gliding over the sapphire embedded in the material. As she reached for a clasp, Ephiny's hand shot out, closing about Eponin's in a firm grasp.
"Wait," Ephiny choked out, her voice taking on a gravelly edge. She turned her head to catch Eponin's gaze. "Leave that one. It's a gift from Queen Gabrielle."
Eponin studied the intensely burning hazel eyes that locked with her own. Noting the flutter just beneath the flesh of Ephiny's neck, her own heartbeat tripled, echoing the pace of the woman she all but held in her arms. Breath coming rapidly, she worked at what she hoped was a casual smile. "As you wish, my regent." Ever so slowly, she edged her hand from beneath Ephiny's grasp. "Wouldn't want to put out the Queen, would we?"
"Speaking of which," Ephiny attempted to will her own breathing back to normal as Eponin moved away from her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the weapons master move to the dresser, picking up the ornamental feathers she had laid out earlier. "It was my understanding that she was coming by to assist me before the ceremony."
She straightened her shoulders, held as still as possible as Eponin came to stand behind her. Reaching out a calloused hand, gently moving blonde corkscrew curls off a delicate shoulder, Eponin lowered the attachment of feathers. Settling the myriad of blue and white feathers upon tanned flesh, she skillfully reached beneath Ephiny's arm and secured several small buckles. More ornamental than her own shoulder guard, the feathers were designed to mimic the same design, yet distinguish Ephiny's status amongst the tribe as their regent.
"Xena asked me to step in for the Queen," Eponin's rasping voice lingered at the shell of Ephiny's ear. "I think she had other duties for our majesty to attend to before the ceremonies."
As the design was locked into place, Eponin moved to the other shoulder. If it was possible, she was even more attentive, her touch even more deliberate as she lifted Ephiny's curls off her shoulder, fingertips brushing a sensitive neck as she deposited the mass of hair along the blonde's back. Gingerly, she hoisted the shoulder guard into place, laying it as tenderly as possible upon the white bandage secured about Ephiny's shoulder. Cautiously, Eponin used feather-light touches to cinch the fastenings beneath Ephiny's arm, alert to leave them loose enough they wouldn't aggravate the injured shoulder, but tight enough to ensure the ensemble wouldn't easily slip off.
As she fastened the last closure and made a final adjustment to the feathers draped about her shoulders, Eponin's husky words caressed Ephiny's right ear. "Do I make an adequate substitute for the Queen, my Regent?"
Ephiny fought down the shiver the breath at her ear and those words stirred within her. She found herself nodding in response even as her eyes slid closed. As she blinked them back open, she found Eponin standing in front of her, an intense spark reflected in the depths of her hooded gaze. She fought to control her erratic breathing as the moment stretched between them.
"More than adequate, I would say," she managed at last.
Now that they were standing face to face again, Eponin was suddenly unsure of herself. She was competent, bold even, when she was at Ephiny's back, out of her line of sight. But, when she was beneath her gaze, she found herself behaving like a stumbling adolescent, unsure of what to do, what to say, how to stand, or even breathe. She let the moment linger too long, allowed the chance to pass, unable to find her voice again. When she was finally able to move, to speak again, she found herself tripping over her own tongue.
"I - umm - the feathers on the guards cover the bandage on your shoulder," she managed to stammer out. "Do - do you want your cloak? That way, you can - you know - avoid any unwanted attention."
"Hmm, yeah." Ephiny bit her lip in contemplation. She would need to wear the cape back during the initial ceremony to fully display her rank as Regent, but after the dedication to the Queen, there was nothing to prevent her from covering herself, effectively hiding her bandages. The last thing she wanted was to draw attention to a possible problem in their hierarchy. "Would you?" she quietly asked, soft hazel eyes looking at Eponin.
Ducking her head, the weapons master strode to the clothes chest, extracting the royal blue cloak. Fingering the ornamental deer clasp, she turned to find Ephiny watching her every move. Hesitantly, she unfolded the cloak, shaking it out. She awkwardly approached her regent, reaching to drape the cloak about her shoulders.
The dedication ceremony began without incident, although there were many tension filled moments for all four women concerned for the safety of the royals. Beginning with the very first tandem drumbeats that signaled the arrival of the two ruling bodies, Eponin and Xena were on-edge. Both warriors shifted uneasily on their feet, eyes firmly fixed on their charges.
A platform had been constructed at one end of the field, overlooking the crowded assembly of Amazons. Specifications for the ceremony required the platform be of sufficient height to place the royals firmly above the masses, to not only enable the entire nation to look upon the exchange, but to also set the ruling bodies above their subjects. At Xena's position directly in front of the wooden construction, the planks serving as the floorboards were even with her chin.
Frowning, Xena folded her arms across her chest, studying the monstrous construction. That'll put Gabrielle's ankles even with my line of sight, she mused, Which would be great if I was trying to protect Achilles instead of the Queen of the Amazons. She cast a wry smirk at the weapons master identically positioned on the opposite end of the platform. Could be worse. I could be a short-ass Amazon. Poor Ep can't see the stage without cricking her neck at an awful angle.
The beating of the twin drums signaled the beginning of the procession as both rulers entered from opposite sides of the field. Ceremonial masks firmly in place, it was required they navigate their way the length of the clearing on identical paths lined with torches strategically placed in ornamental braziers. Although each woman began at opposite sides, they were to walk in tandem with each other, reaching their respective ends of the platform in identical fashion.
Even on her best day, it would have tried all of Gabrielle's patience. Not only do I have to wear this Artemis-blessed mask that I can hardly see through, I also have to walk down a path between lighted torches, past a row of assembled Amazons, unable to see Ephiny directly across from me to make sure we arrive at the platform at the same moment! Yeah, right! For all her grumbling, Gabrielle sent a silent thank-you to the patience of Ephiny, Eponin and the two drummers. When we first did this ceremony, I was so nervous, but they kept at me, practicing and practicing until I got it right. It was Eponin that taught me to time my steps with the beating of the drums. Each time I hear one beat, I should take one step. Gabrielle found herself smiling behind her mask, despite her current situation. It wasn't until after she'd finally learned the beat and arrived at the steps to the platform that she had discovered that one of the drummers had actually strained her wrist from the long candlemarks of practice.
Pushing her thoughts to the back of her mind, Gabrielle concentrated on her approach to the platform. If they had kept on track, she and Ephiny would both be reaching the bottom steps leading up to the wooden structure. As of yet, they were still unable to see each other as they ascended their respective stairs from opposite ends of the platform. Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief as they crested the top step at the same time.
All eyes were upon them as the two women lithely approached each other, neither stopping until they stood facing almost toe to toe. As one, they lifted their arms, offering the Amazonian salute before using both hands to push their masks away from their faces. The entire display was done in unison, only Xena's practiced eyed noticing the stiffening reaction of the regent as the movements put added strain on her injury.
As the masks were lifted away, an Amazon that had been studiously waiting in the background approached, bowing low before her rulers. She gingerly carried a goblet filled with Amazonian wine, careful in her procession to not spill a drop of the precious fluid. The server reverently placed the golden goblet encrusted with a scene of their patron goddess' sacred deer running free in the Forests of Eternity upon a marble pedestal covered with an ornate velvet cloth. With a distinguished bow to both royals, she silently backed away, disappearing into the shadows.
The High Priestess of the Amazons appeared from the darkness, long, luminous strands of blue and white covering her dark locks, adding an eerie resonance to her solid white ceremonial robes. Taking her place on the dais between Regent and Queen, she cast her gaze out over the masses. Her very presence commanded complete stillness from the assembled amazons.
Closing her eyes, swaying to some unseen tempo, the priestess began a rhythmic chant. The amazons seemed enthralled by the actions. Even Xena, unaccustomed to the ritual as she was, found herself being overwhelmed by the event. The priestess' swaying increased along with the level of her chanting. Suddenly, at the crescendo of her performance, her eyes abruptly popped open, her outstretched arms thrust upwards in supplication.
Extracting a vial from a hidden fold in her robes, she deftly uncapped the cork. Chanting in a lower alto now, she slowly poured the vial over the goblet, emptying the entire contents into the chalice. Lifting it high, she used her movements to mask the swirling of the liquid in the goblet, effectively mixing the potion. Dipping her thumb in the chalice, she spread a dab of liquid on Gabrielle's forehead, anointing her with Artemis' blessing. Repeating the gesture, she in turn anointed Ephiny in the same fashion. With a perfunctory bow, the priestess diligently relinquished the sacred goblet into Ephiny's hand before stepping back to disappear once again into the shadows.
Xena had been worried about the exchange, realizing it would be the best opportunity to poison the royals. She had wanted to skip past that part of the ceremony, but Ephiny and Gabrielle had both refused, citing that it was an imperative display to show the trust between the two ruling bodies of the Amazon Nation.
So, she mutely watched with her heart in her throat as Ephiny used both hands to raise the goblet, throat muscles visibly working as she drank heartily, the rich burgundy liquid clearly evident on her lips as she lowered the goblet. Extending the goblet with both hands to Gabrielle, she watched in rapt fascination as the little blonde took the chalice and repeated the action, drinking from the same vessel to cement their unity. As she polished off the contents of the goblet, turning it upside down for all to see that it was indeed empty, Queen and Regent, united in both their actions and their clasped hands, turned to their subjects assembled before them.
As their eyes washed over the crowd, Ephiny felt an unsettling sensation begin in the pit of her stomach. Wonder just how quick the Warrior Princess is feeling tonight? she contemplated, her eyes imperceptibly narrowing as her gaze panned out over the masses. Cordele and a pack of her hunters were at the edge of the clearing, watching the proceeding in rapt fascination, bows in hand, quivers of arrows clearly nestled over their shoulders.
Come on, Eph, don't drag this out any longer than necessary, Eponin silently pleaded with her eyes. From her position, she couldn't see what had caught her regent's attention, but she could tell by the subtle flinching of corded fists that something was setting her on edge. Get on with it so I can take my place by your side, she mentally added, even as her wary gaze sought out the source of Ephiny's discomfort. She knew she'd probably never see an attack coming in time to prevent it, but she felt somewhat better just knowing she was vigilant in her actions.
Mustering up a forced smile, Ephiny sent a salute to the crowded throng of her sisters, projecting her voice to announce, "Let the Queen's feast begin!"
The announcement was met the usual raucous cheering that accompanied any ceremony that took place in the village. As the cheers went up, the big drums came to life, their signal bringing the torches to light the firepit that waited in the center of the clearing. Tables were brought in to the perimeter as the servers carried tray after tray of food out from the kitchens.
Backing away from the edge of the platform, Gabrielle and Ephiny sat side by side in their designated chairs that had been bedecked with all manner of ceremonial and colorful feathery. Eponin and Xena climbed the stairs, marching past several large, decorative urns filled with potted palms. Braziers lit with torches illuminated the entire platform, casting a warm glow over the regals. Xena and Eponin made their way to the lesser decorated chairs to each side of their respective charges. Just as they settled in, the servers arrived with their food and the dancers took the field.
"Would you stop that?" hissed Ephiny between gritted teeth, leaning on one elbow towards Eponin. "Or, should I just pass you my entire plate?"
"Aww, Eph," groused the weapons master, "Gabrielle isn't giving Xena a hard time about this."
Ephiny flicked a glance at their companions. Gabrielle was nestled comfortably in her chair, enjoying her dinner fare. As each new dish was presented to her majesty, the warrior princess would lean in, spearing a portion with her breast dagger. Carefully, she would sample every item, chewing diligently before allowing the small blonde at her side to dig in. Ephiny involuntarily jumped as Eponin leaned across her, stabbing another piece of venison with her knife.
"I think we've already ruled out poison, Pony." Ephiny leveled a glare at the woman seated beside her. "Besides, if it was, don't you think Xena would have already tasted it from Gabrielle's dish?"
"Not necessarily," Xena peered at Ephiny from the other side of Gabrielle. "In some remote kingdoms, there's been incidents where the poison was spread on the plate itself, causing only the food touching the actual dish to be tainted. That's why it's imperative for food tasters to not just pick a bite off the top."
"Coming from you," Ephiny made a deferential nod to Xena, "I can buy that. But not from - " she jerked her head in Eponin's direction, " - the eating bandit over here."
Ephiny's comment served to direct her tablemates' attention to the woman seated beside her. Eponin had just snagged another bite of venison and pulled it from the tip of her knife with her teeth. Pausing mid-chew, she warily eyed the staring trio. "What?" she demanded brusquely, with a defiant tilt of her chin, knife already poised to spear another bite.
"You're supposed to taste it, not eat her whole meal," Xena advised.
Eponin skeptically eyed the hunk of meat already embedded on the point of her blade. Eyes darting back and forth between Xena and the venison, she weighed her options. "Not my fault I'm thorough in my duties," she fairly grinned, extending her hand, waving her knife beneath Ephiny's nose.
Ephiny reached out, one hand clamping down on Eponin's wrist, holding it steady as she bent forward, pulling the meat from the blade using just her teeth. She chewed, quickly swallowing, "First bite I've gotten all night," she joked, eliciting good-natured laughter from her three companions.
Hoisting her goblet in her left hand, Ephiny took a sip of her drink. After the initial ceremony in which she was required to drink the Amazonian wine, Gabrielle had politely informed their server that she was to give the regent nothing stronger than spiced tea for the rest of the evening.
Folding one leg beneath her frame, Ephiny settled back in her chair. She watched in rapt fascination as the dancers swayed in front of the bonfire, undulating and keeping a frenzied pace with the tempo of the big drums. Ephiny grinned as Megara's eldest daughter took a running leap over the fire, twisting her agile body in the air several times before landing unscathed on the other side of the pit. The regent was proud of the dancers; they'd practiced long and hard, working out the movements to awe their youthfully energetic queen.
As Gabrielle cheered and clapped at the display, Ephiny leaned near her ear, choreographing the coming movements in a low tone to the entranced queen. In muted voices, they discussed the talents of each dancer in turn as they continued to watch the demonstration. Eyes glued to the action in the center of the clearing, Gabrielle unconsciously reached out, twining her fingers with Ephiny's as they clasped hands.
What's up with that, Eph? Eponin wondered, noticing the loosely held hands, the way they naturally gravitated towards each other. That's been happening on and off since the dedication ceremony. She cagily eyed the two royals, flicking a glance at Xena to gauge her reaction. If the warrior princess noticed the intimate closeness, she didn't give any indication. Yeah, like she doesn't notice every move Gabrielle makes! Brow furrowed, chewing her bottom lip, she eyed Xena suspiciously, wondering just how okay the warrior was with this situation.
So lost in her troubling thoughts, Eponin failed to notice Solari ascending the steps to the platform until she was already before them, down on one knee in salute to Ephiny and Gabrielle. As she drew to her feet, Eponin caught the settling of the chief scout's gaze on the duo's clasped hands. With an arched brow and a pointed look at the regent, Solari extended her hand, palm up, for the queen. Grasping the offered hand for support, Gabrielle allowed herself to be pulled to her feet and led down the steps of the platform towards the clearing.
Eponin eyed her remaining companions warily. Xena was watching, a neutral mask carefully in place as Solari, Gabrielle's hand still loosely held within hers, led the young queen into the crowd, instigating themselves into the throng of sweaty, dancing bodies. Likewise, Ephiny was also staring at the couple, an obvious frown marring her regal features. Uneasily, Eponin forced her own gaze back to the celebration, settling upon the forms of her queen and the scout as they caught the rhythm of the dance.
Gabrielle allowed Solari to lead her through several of the fast-paced dances. The lead scout was obviously well on her way to becoming inebriated and was subsequently enjoying the pleasure of her queen's dancing. Or, rather, Gabrielle's rendition of the dance.
She wasn't quite as bad as she was the first time she danced in front of the tribe. On that occasion, she had attempted to beg off, claiming she had two left feet and could be responsible for a bad harvest. But, Eponin had insisted, tugging the then princess to her feet, leading her into the dance, then stoically standing on the perimeter, watching as Gabrielle lost herself to the music.
What she lacked in coordination, she more than made up for in sheer enthusiasm. Gabrielle possessed a contagious sort of energy that affected everyone about her. And, not a one of her amazons seemed immune to her easy style and grace. All about them, dancers and spectators cheered the couple on, encouraging their young queen and her escort. Solari basked in the attention, delighted that she was the one to share this experience with the lithe blonde. She laughed, clapping loudly as Gabrielle tried to dance about her in a semi-circle the way she saw the other dancers doing. About halfway through, though, she lost her footing, stumbling into Solari's side. Arms smoothly wrapping about Gabrielle's waist, the scout steadied her queen, bringing her lips close to a perfect ear.
"You want to stop?" she nearly screamed to be heard over the beat of the big drums.
Gabrielle enthusiastically shook her head no. Righting herself, she found her rhythm again; or at least what passed for rhythm when it came to Gabrielle. Sliding her palms over Solari's perspiration soaked firm biceps and toned forearms, she didn't stop until she reached the scout's hands. Firmly clasping Solari's digits, she kept up the beat, trusting the brunette to lead her in the new dance.
Watching from the raised platform overlooking the proceedings, Ephiny and Xena wore identical scowls. Ephiny openly glared at the public display, disturbed by Solari's antics with the Queen of the Amazons. Meanwhile, Xena eyed the crowd suspiciously, looking for any sign that something was amiss. She was determined to remain vigilant throughout the entire feast. Yet, even as she tried to concentrate, time and time again, she found her focus returning to Gabrielle.
She was somewhat reluctant to remain on the makeshift platform, considering the distance it placed her from Gabrielle while she was dancing. Even so, she was fairly confident that no one could make an attempt on the queen's life while she was firmly entrenched in Solari's attentions. The way those two are jumping around, even I couldn't get a bead on them with an arrow. And, there's just too many people for someone to try a close-quarter attack.
As for Eponin, she had wisely gone off in search of another cask of Amazon wine to fortify herself with. If the Queen was dancing, she knew she was going to need to get a little drunker to truly enjoy the spectacle. Confident she knew where Mytilda stashed the more potent stuff, she headed in the direction of the root cellar.
From Xena's peripheral vision, she saw Ephiny shift in her seat. Momentarily diverting her attention from Gabrielle, she focused on the young regent seated two chairs away. Ephiny had both feet up in the throne-like chair, one leg curled beneath her, her other foot planted firmly on the carved marble seat, her chin resting upon her raised knee.
The fingers of her left hand were curled about her goblet, tendons and muscles dancing beneath taut skin as she occasionally raised her mug to sip at her tea. Her cloak was carefully draped over her other shoulder, hiding her arm and entire right side beneath the blue fabric. She hitched her shoulder a bit, a slight grimace creasing her features at the movement.
"You okay?" Xena asked in that low drawl of hers.
"Yeah," Ephiny managed a tiny smile.
"Umm - " Xena pursed her lips, before continuing. "Cause I know how those arrow wounds can be. Nasty little buggers. Hurts like Hades. Every little move you make aggravates it, until you decide if you maybe just don't use that limb you'll be okay. Then, you realize, sitting still's just as bad."
"Is that your subtle way of saying I should have agreed to the arm sling?" Ephiny asked, managing a sliver of a smile. "Or, are you fishing for a thank you for that little pressure point thing you did?"
"Both." Xena's tone lost some of its levity. "You know, the best thing for that arm is to keep it immobilized. I know you're not in much discomfort now, but once the effects of the pressure points wears off, you're going to really be feeling that wound." She eyed Ephiny speculatively. "Was it worth it?"
"In all honesty, yes. I know it's difficult for you to understand, Xena, but as an Amazon, this is important to me." She flicked a glance at the dancers. "It's worth any price for the Queen's happiness."
"I may not be an Amazon, Eph," Xena couldn't help smiling as she followed the regent's gaze, settling on Gabrielle's form, "But, believe me, I know exactly how you feel."
Ephiny shifted sideways, wincing at the sudden jarring movement. Exhaling loudly, slowing her rapid breathing, she waved Xena off. "We may not all be warrior princesses, but you should know, it takes more than one arrow to keep an amazon down." She attempted a reassuring smile. "I'm okay." There was a heartbeat before Ephiny cast a look at Xena's bandaged hand. "You?"
"Just dandy." Xena flexed her hand in response. "I've had worse."
"Pony didn't - " Ephiny's brow furrowed as she bit her bottom lip, gestured helplessly.
"Yeah, she did." Xena fixed her with an ice-cold look, then purposefully softened it. "Don't apologize for Ep. Us older warriors have an understanding." Blue eyes twinkled mischievously. "I do something stupid. She does something even stupider. I do something to get her back. It's what we do."
"Yeah," Ephiny smiled as visions of some of their more legendary exploits misted across her eyes. "Xena? A lot of the women here, they look up to Eponin. Not just the warriors she trains, but also the regular women. The cooks, the healers, the menders, the mothers, the children. Because they know that if their loved one has trained with Ep, they stand more than a fair chance of returning home at the end of each day."
"Eph - " Xena thought she knew where this was going. She's going to warn me away, say I'm tarnishing Eponin's reputation. Maybe if I offer to let her win our next sparring session?
"Anyway," Ephiny took another swallow of her tea in an effort to fortify herself. This would be so much easier if there was amazon wine in this mug. "Pony has a lot of people that admire her, but she doesn't have a lot of true friends. Thank you for being that to her."
"I - uh - I - " Xena stammered, swallowing harshly, clenching and unclenching her fists in rapid succession. Her eyes skittered away and Ephiny thought she detected a hint of a blush before Xena was able to meet her gaze again. "I like Ep," she finally managed to say in a choked whisper.
A deadly serious expression on her face, Ephiny shifted until she was able to lean over, balancing her weight on the arm rest of Gabrielle's chair. She boldly locked hazel eyes with ice blue. "It's okay," she declared in a similarly strangled whisper. "I won't tell anyone," she grinned at the still flustered warrior princess.
"Come on, you can tell me," Gabrielle coaxed, leaning in to whisper the words in her companion's ear.
"No, I'm pretty sure I can't," Solari managed, a wicked twinkle in her eye.
Gabrielle felt herself being turned as Solari launched her into a one-handed twirl. With practiced ease, she let Gabrielle escape a distance of an arm's length before reeling her back in, tucking her in close. Gabrielle relaxed in the easy grip, let herself go with the flow. The big drums had been retired for the evening and the dancers had settled into the mellow sensations brought on by the soothing tempo of the lighter drums. As the music progressed, what had once started out as a big free-for-all around the bonfire had gradually shifted into a couples only dance. Or, in some cases, threesomes, Gabrielle realized as she lazily noticed some of the revelers finding a way to convert their movements to allow for a triad of dancers.
"Why won't you tell me?" Gabrielle pressed, directing her focus back to her dancing partner.
"It's not that I won't." Eyes the color of sandalwood sparkled back at her and Gabrielle wondered how much of Solari's merriment was due to her natural good humor and how much was due to the freely flowing amazon wine. "It's that I can't."
"As your Queen," Gabrielle intended for her words to come out as imperiously commanding, but she was undone by her own indulgence, the wine making her giggle, "I command you tell me her name."
"Gabrielle, I wasn't with anyone tonight," Solari insisted. "I was late for the opening of the feast because I've been out on patrol all day. I barely returned a candlemark into the celebration."
"All day?" Gabrielle asked, a surprised look on her face.
"Ever since I left you at midday, at any rate," Solari nodded. "Why? I miss something?" she waggled her eyebrows, always eager for any juicy gossip.
"Nothing serious," Gabrielle shrugged nonchalantly, settled her hands over Solari's hips in an easy embrace as they swayed to the music, "Just an attempt on your queen's life."
"Can I freshen your drink, my regent?" asked the smooth, sultry voice at Ephiny's shoulder as a pitcher filled with wine appeared by her side.
"No, thank you," Ephiny neutrally responded, covering the brim of her goblet with the flat of her hand in reflex, "I'm drinking tea tonight."
"Ah, I wondered about that." The hunter adjusted her bow on her shoulder as she easily slid into Eponin's vacated seat beside Ephiny. "I wondered about Megara's recklessness in even allowing you to attend this eve's feast, let alone imbibe in alcohol."
Ephiny rolled her eyes at the audacity of this woman. "Megara didn't allow me to do anything," she pointedly retorted, "And, as you can see, I'm painfully aware of my own limitations."
Xena heard the odd pitch to Ephiny's characteristically smooth tenor, weighed her options. She was already disturbed by this stranger that had appeared out of the shadows at Ephiny's side. Normally, she was aware of everything, every one around her. The fact that this woman had gotten this close without her knowing - But, my efforts have been focused solely on Gabrielle tonight. Still, there's something not right about this Amazon. She considered sliding over one seat closer to the regent.
"Is that really necessary for tonight?" Ephiny asked, the edge evident in her tone as her eyes darted to Cordele's worn bow and quiver of arrows.
"I just returned as the ceremony was beginning," the blonde hunter shrugged, "I didn't have time to stop by my hut."
"Where were you?"
"Out hunting." A crooked smile crossed Cordele's features. "My group tracked a wild boar down to the river past the kissing tree. She's got a nest there. Once her young are weaned, she'll make a good kill."
"When you were by my hut earlier, you knew I was dressing for the feast. You should have gone and changed then," Ephiny pressed. "Why did you take a party out hunting?"
"You already had an escort," Cordele reminded her, allowing a certain intimateness to caress her tone as she noticed the dark haired warrior's open appraisal, "And I had some . . . pent-up energy that needed releasing."
Ephiny caught the smirk on Cordele's lips at the intimate suggestion, the subtle arch of Xena's eyebrow as she caught the referenced innuendo. Annoyed, Ephiny pointedly ignored the comment, the looks from both warriors. Attempting to block out the unwanted presence, she lifted her goblet to her lips, gingerly sipping at her tea.
Cordele sat awkwardly beside the regent, contemplating her next move. She hadn't really thought out her approach. She had just felt compelled to find a way to be near Ephiny. The excuse of refilling the wine goblet had been her opening. When that hadn't worked, she'd hoped to regale the regent with tales of her hunting prowess. Obviously, she's not into that, Cordele thought, noting the way Ephiny stared at the dancers below.
"I noticed your escort hasn't asked you to dance, yet," Cordele mused in an attempt to use that as her new in with this woman.
"Ep doesn't dance," Ephiny flatly stated.
A broad grin broke out over Cordele's features. "Ah, but I do." She bounced to her feet, holding out her hand in open invitation.
It was abruptly slapped away. "Unfortunately for you, she's already promised to be my partner for the night." Xena knew Ephiny could have simply refused to dance with either of them. By Hades, the woman had been shot with an arrow just that morning! But, she knew although a simple excuse such as the regent was tired would be effective, it wouldn't be satisfying enough - for her or the regent. Especially when she made such a point of reminding us both that Megara doesn't control her actions.
Cordele dumbfoundedly looked from her stinging hand to the source of the low growl that was emanating from beside her. She took in the dark leathers and armor, the fierce glower, the menacing hoarfrost blue eyes. She held the gaze momentarily, sorely tempted to try her hand at meeting the legendary warrior princess in combat, then decided it wasn't yet the time. Instead, she forced herself to nod in silent concession.
"Did Ephiny really shield you from an arrow, my queen?" Solari asked, gazing down into light green eyes as she held Gabrielle tightly in her arms.
"Yes, she really did. And, I know we've discussed this whole 'my queen' nonsense," the blonde admonished, "You can't hold me in your arms and slow dance with me if you can't call me by my first name."
"Then it would behoove me to call you Gabrielle all night then, would it not?"
"And people say I have the honey-coated tongue." Gabrielle easily leaned back in the scout's embrace, looking up at her. "And, why do you find it so hard to believe that Ephiny took an arrow meant for me?"
"That sort of thing may happen to you all the time on the road, my - Gabrielle," Solari shrugged, "But, believe it or not, that's not routine in the Amazon village."
"No, but courage among the warriors is."
"I wasn't suggesting Ephiny lacked courage. Far from it." Gabrielle caught the softening expression as Solari openly spoke of the regent. "But, come on, Gabrielle. I saw her on the dais beside you, remember? She doesn't look all that injured to me. If she was wounded with a broadhead as you claim, Megara should have her flat on her back in the infirmary."
"She was struck by a broadhead, Solari. But, she felt it important enough to be here to lend me her support. And, you know how stubborn she can be when she's got her mind set on something." Gabrielle let her voice drop to a menacing hiss, offended by the scout's suspension of belief. "The shoulder guards, the cloak, the mask and the attitude pretty much conceal her visible injuries. But, believe me, she's hurting inside. And, not just from the arrow wound."
"Gabrielle - " Solari warned in a tone that was eerily reminiscent of a certain warrior princess.
"I saw the look that passed between you two. You noticed her holding my hand and purposefully chose me to dance with because you knew it would cut her, didn't you?"
Damn. Gabrielle's no-nonsense demeanor was rapidly killing Solari's good mood and causing her to sober up much more quickly than she'd wanted. As they swayed closer to the bonfire, the scout pulled Gabrielle tightly into her embrace. Leaning in, she rested her chin on the shorter blonde's shoulder, confided in her ear. "I want her to hurt the way she hurt me."
Gabrielle leaned back, craning her neck up to look at moist brown eyes. Amazons very rarely allowed themselves to show any sign of pain, but Solari was putting her trust in her queen by opening herself up like this. One unshed tear hung at the corner of a thick lash, as if in serious deliberation as to whether or not it should risk rolling down a smooth cheek. Gabrielle reached up with an open hand, her palm caressing soft flesh, her thumb brushing away the threatening tear.
"I've seen you flirt with more than half the women in this village, my friend. And, you've never let the actions of any of them control you this way. I think you need to stop and think and ask yourself why it is that Ephiny's misspoken word causes you so much pain." Gabrielle let her voice drop to a husky murmur as she added, "But, if it's really important and it makes you feel better, I know you've succeeded in hurting her, too."
"Yeah, I can tell she's really broken up about it."
The venom fairly dripped from Solari's fangs as she glared across the bonfire. Gabrielle caught the attitude, the look, turned her head to see what had agitated the scout now. She gasped in shock as her gaze settled over the figure of her regent, barely swaying in rhythm to the dance, held tightly against Xena's massive frame. Across the bonfire, ice blue eyes met and locked with verdant green.
A ghost of a smile flitted across Xena's features as she openly met Gabrielle's gaze. She leaned down, speaking softly in Ephiny's ear. The regent slowly turned her head, laying her blonde curls against a breastplate as she offered her queen a weak smile.
"She looks like she's about ready to take my head off," Ephiny murmured in a voice so low that only Xena could hear.
"I'll explain it to her later." Xena tried to convince Gabrielle with her eyes that she was there with only the purest of intentions. Whether the bard was convinced or not, she couldn't say, as Gabrielle pointedly turned her face away, snuggled deeper into Solari's embrace. "Maybe I should do it now."
"You leave me now and I'll never forgive you," Ephiny warned, maneuvering her aching body so that Xena could see over her shoulder.
Cordele was stalking along the outer circle of the dance ring, pacing up and down like a caged panther. Standing behind her, well out of her way, hovered three more amazons, conspicuous by the bows slung over their shoulders. With the exception of their leader, the hunters had goblets of wine and appeared to be enjoying the feast. Yeah, but no one else brought weapons to the party, either. Xena realized. Well, hardly, she added, feeling her breast dagger nestled snuggly in its customary position. A sharp look at the captain of the royal guard confirmed that the amazon and her officers were armed with their traditional swords.
A movement from the lead hunter caught Xena's eye again. Cordele had stopped her pacing and now stood, feet firmly planted, several feet apart. Arms were folded across a barrel chest, emphasizing corded forearm muscles. A steely gaze met Xena's, followed by a sneer.
"Persistent, isn't she?" Xena asked with a cocked brow, a bemused smile.
"Hmm. Guess she didn't buy that whole 'she's with me' routine of yours." Ephiny was loathe to admit it, but she was on edge. Between the attempted assassination of the queen and the subsequent nightmare that entire scenario opened up, every nerve the regent had was frazzled. As she slowly turned in Xena's embrace, using the dance to mask her movements, she caught Cordele's cold stare. Inexplicably, a visible shudder raced up her spine.
Xena caught the acute physical reaction. "Hey, you okay?" She dropped her voice, lowering her usually deep timbre to one designed to be more intimately reassuring.
"Yeah, sorry. I'm not usually like this, Xena - " Ephiny looked up into concern-filled cerulean eyes. Suddenly embarrassed, she gave a slight shrug of her shoulder, quickly glanced away.
"Eph," A powerful hand reached up, cupping Ephiny's jaw, gently turning her head until she was forced to meet her gaze again. "I know. You don't have to explain."
"It's just - " Ephiny searched for the words. Xena had said she didn't have to, but now it felt like she at least owed the legendary warrior an explanation. "Something about her - "
" - Creeps me out," declared Eponin, taking another healthy swig from the wine gourd she'd brought up from the root cellar with her. "I trust her about as far as I can throw her."
"With her size, Eponin, that wouldn't be very far at all, would it?" asked the member of the royal guard Eponin had sidled up to.
"I don't know about that, Lexine." The Captain of the Royal Guard walked up beside the two women, hands loosely clasped behind her back as she surveyed the festivities around them. "Cordele may be big, but I've seen Ep knock her over a distance of twenty feet with a staff."
A proud grin tugged at the corners of Eponin's mouth. "I'm not the weapons master for nothing, you know." She swiftly raised the gourd to her lips.
Pelagia reached out, capturing the skin in a firm grasp, pulling it from the weapons master before she'd gotten more than a few drops. Lifting the gourd to her own lips, she gave it a healthy squeeze, filling her entire mouth before swallowing. As it went down too quickly, it seared her throat, causing her to choke. She felt a large hand at her back, rapidly beating air back into her lungs. "Hades, Ep!" The captain managed, smothering an additional cough. "That stuff'll put centaur hair on your chest!"
"Wimp," Eponin playfully growled, snatching the skin back, taking a healthy swallow, "Never could stomach anything stronger than Amazon tea, could you?"
Lexine bit down on her lip in a valiant attempt to stifle her laughter. After all, it wouldn't be seemly to laugh at the captain of the guard, would it? She choked down a twitter, nearly succeeded in keeping it down until Pelagia nailed her with a steely glare. Rolling her eyes at the young guard, Pelagia gave the dismissed signal and watched as the woman hurried away, silent laughter racking her frame as she went.
"So, you out here for a reason," she asked, turning her ire on Eponin, "Or, you just trying to embarrass me in front of my guard?"
"Looking for you, actually," confessed the weapons master, turning to face Pelagia head on. "Do you - " she started, then stopped. "That is - did you look into - I mean - "
"Relax, Ep," Pelagia grinned. "You don't have to play the diplomat with me, remember?" Against her better judgment, she reached out, lifting the gourd from Eponin's grasp once again. This time, she took a very modest sip. "You want to know if I found out where Cordele was while an arrow was being aimed at our Queen's heart?"
"Yeah." Eponin snatched her gourd back, brought it to her lips, frowning as no more than a final swallow came out. Maybe just as well. Eponin had finished two gourds in the root cellar earlier and was now beginning to feel the effects of the headier alcohol. No wonder Mytilda keeps this stuff down below! She blinked, trying to bring Pelagia's bleary face back into focus as she concentrated on what the captain was saying.
" - with six other amazons who swear they saw Cordele head out on a hunting expedition with her entire pack." Pelagia shrugged. "But, no one recalls seeing her come back with the rest of the hunters."
"Kynthia and Keleos are in her group. And, Xena put the pinch on them about a half candlemark before the attack on the queen."
"So, she could have been back in the village, as well." A trained eye scanned the area of the bonfire, settled on Cordele and her band of hunters standing almost opposite their current position. "But, no one remembers seeing her before she came in at the beginning of the ceremony."
"I saw her earlier," Eponin growled, arms firmly folded across her chest. "At Eph's. I think she's trying to get close to Ephiny to get a chance at Gabrielle."
"Not a bad idea," conceded Pelagia. "If she can get near the regent, she'd have access to the queen. Imagine if she'd been able to instigate herself as Ephiny's escort for this evening?"
"Hunh." Eponin couldn't prevent her snort. That was exactly what Cordele had been attempting when she'd walked in on them earlier in Ephiny's hut. She didn't deem it necessary to share that with the captain of the guard, however. "She's been sniffing after Eph like crazy. I'm telling ya, Pel, if she don't stop it, I'm gonna cut her nose off with a blunt dagger."
"Maybe you're after the wrong dog, Ep." Pelagia leered, nodding her head in the direction of the bonfire. "Seems another cur's already sniffing after her."
Eponin whirled about sharply, eyes darting first to Cordele, then to the dancers in the center of the clearing. Throwing the empty skin to the ground, she reached around, deftly grabbing the hilt of Pelagia's sword off her back with a one-handed move. Before the captain could react, Eponin had charged half the length of the field.
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