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.

Simply Irresistible
By Del Robertson



With a commanding voice, Xena snapped at the guard, "I want a building by building search.  Turn this village upside down if you have to."

The guard immediately bolted for their assigned task, not a one of them even stopping to consider the notion that a non-royal, non-Amazon was giving them orders.  They knew Xena and what she was capable of.  And, they knew the warrior princess would not rest until she'd helped them recover their regent.

"Xena - " Gabrielle's pleading eyes looked up at her soulmate, her protector, silently willing Xena to make this all right.  " - There's so much blood - "

"Some of it's darker than the rest.  That suggests some of it's older.  She may have torn her stitches loose sometime during the night," Xena reasoned.

Gabrielle folded her arms about herself, fighting off the wave of shivers that coursed through her body, knowing only part of those could be attributed to the early morning chill that lingered in the air.  "I should have stayed with her."

"Then we'd be searching for both our Regent and our Queen."  Eponin had slowly come back to her senses and had been listening to the conversation with silent interest.  She was concerned for Ephiny, but she wouldn't allow Gabrielle to torment herself over something she couldn't have prevented.  "Relax, we'll find her," she added, her eyes darting back and forth between Xena and Gabrielle, seeking affirmation, "Right?  I mean, if they had killed her, they would've left her body, right?"

Gabrielle couldn't answer as another lump formed in her throat and a fresh onslaught of tears threatened.  Silently, she looked to Xena, doubt clearly etched across her young features.  Xena slowly drew her gaze between the young queen and her weapons master.

"Ep's right," she finally asserted.  "Ephiny's still alive."  She has to be.  "Let me get Argo back to her stall and we'll join the search," she offered, hoping that Gabrielle would pick up on the subtle hint.  If she could just keep them both occupied until - well, it'll be easier on both of them if they're doing something to help out - 

Xena had been mildly surprised when Eponin had offered to walk Argo back to the stables.  Her first instinct had been to refuse.  At this point, these two were clearly the most shaken by the regent's disappearance.  Her plan had been to give Eponin and Gabrielle an opportunity to confide in each other.  What was I thinking?  Ep doesn't confide.  Hades, she barely even speaks!

A sudden flash of sensitive insight made Xena realize that staying in Ephiny's hut was just too overwhelming for the usually stoic weapons master.  How would I feel if it were Gabrielle?  she wondered, eyeing the Amazon as she paced the length of the room.  Under normal circumstances, the weapons master was the embodiment of cool reserve.  She couldn't recall ever seeing her pace.  She's bristling with pent-up frustration.  If she doesn't get out of here, she's going to go stir crazy.

Realizing time alone may be just what Eponin needed, she nodded her consent.  With a hint of a grateful smile, the stout amazon was out the door and halfway to the mare before Xena could blink.  Ice blue eyes watched from the curtained doorway as Eponin slowly edged towards the mare, holding her hand out.  Argo bristled, then snuffled the palm with her nose.  Eponin's other hand slowly came up, gingerly stroking the yellow mane.  Good girl, Argo.  Xena allowed herself a small smile as amazon and horse bonded.

When Xena turned from the doorway, she noticed Gabrielle had finally found the strength to move from the spot she'd been rooted to.  She was clear across the hut, fingers nimbly working to strip the bloodied sheet from the bed.  Balling it into a wadded heap, tears streaming unchecked down her cheeks, she rushed to the hearth, throwing the cloth on the dying embers.  Grabbing a metal poker, she stirred the fire to life, watching as the sheet slowly caught, then held the fire.  As it burned, she moved to gather up the extra cloth and feathers that used to be Ephiny's pillow.

Sensing Gabrielle's need to somehow be active, she left her soulmate to clean up the carnage as best she could on her own.  Just as Eponin needed her time alone, Gabrielle needed time to - well, clean.  It was just the bard's defense mechanism.  Xena was prone to sharpening her weapons, Gabrielle was apt to scrub their best frying pan for candlemarks on end.  

Slipping out the door, Xena stepped onto the low-slung porch.  Kneeling down, bracing one arm on her thigh, she studied the ground.  Experienced eyes picked out more than a dozen different bootprints left in the mud caused by the recent rain, all leading straight to the regent's porch.  Damn Amazon guards had to trample all over the place like a pack of wild stallions!  It would be next to impossible to pick out the culprit's tracks here.

Knowing it was probably useless, Xena stalked the perimeter of the hut, searching for any clue that may have been left in the mud.  Slowly, cautiously, she worked her way around the entire dwelling, eagle eyes on the lookout for the slightest track.  As she rounded the last corner and was once again standing on the porch, Xena had to admit her defeat.  No, this amazon came and left through the front door.  And, the village is just too heavily populated to track one lone warrior - even after a rainstorm.  There was no way around it, she would have to rely on a hut to hut search by the guards.

Casting a glance at the sky, Xena surmised they'd already spent the better part of a candlemark at their appointed task, with no word of success, yet.  She was contemplating joining them in their search when she felt the presence at her back.  "You okay?" she asked, without even turning around.

Wordlessly, Gabrielle emerged from the curtained doorway, coming to wrap her arms about Xena's waist, burying her face against her breastplate.  As she nodded, Xena noticed the puffy eyes and reddened nose.  A large calloused hand came up, tenderly stroking through blonde locks.

When the sniffles had all but subsided, she whispered in that husky voice of hers, "Hey, time to be the Queen now."

"I know."  Gabrielle stiffened, moving out of the reassuring embrace.  Taking a step back, squaring her shoulders, she looked Xena straight in the eye.  "I'm ready."  She exhaled loudly, puffing out her cheeks with the exertion.  "Where do we start?"

A veteran gaze swept over the village as the military tactician that was Xena surveyed their surroundings.  "The barn," she decided.  "Let's pick up Eponin and start a search from that end.  We'll meet up with the guard in the middle of the square."

They heard it well before they reached the barn.  

"Eponin?" Gabrielle whispered, mouth dropping open in shock.

Xena dropped a restraining hand onto the queen's shoulder before she could open the barn door and rush to the aid of her amazon.   That wasn't what the warrior needed.  A fact Xena understood all too well.  No, she didn't need to be coddled like a babe.  That would cause the proud woman to bolt in fear and embarrassment.  What she needed now was her anonymity, her privacy as she expelled whole dragons.  The warrior princess wrapped both arms about her soulmate, holding her tightly as she kept them both firmly rooted to the spot.

For good measure, she'd made them wait another quarter of a candlemark after the heart-wrenching sobs had subsided before pushing the barn door open.  When they entered, Eponin was at the far stall, back to them, running a sturdy brush over Argo's thick coat.    

"You Amazons have her spoiled rotten, ya know?"

Corded muscles in an amazingly well-developed back perceptibly stiffened, the hand tightening upon the brush coming to an abrupt halt upon Argo's back.  For a span of a few candledrips, Eponin didn't respond.  When at last she turned about, the cool mask of the Weapons Master to the Amazons was firmly back in place.

"From the time we're old enough to walk, Amazons are taught the value of a good horse.  Not my fault you don't show yours the proper respect."  The barb was followed by what was meant to be a smile; it came out as something akin to a corpse's rictus grin.

The only thing that made the situation tolerable was the whicker of agreement from Argo as she turned her head and seemingly pierced the warrior princess with a meaningful gaze.  She gently snuffled at the woman's thick, ebony mane.  Argo hadn't recognized the same scent on this one as the other one that always gave her oats and apples, but she was getting used to the gruff nature that closely resembled her master's and had already decided she liked this human.

"Traitor."  Xena folded her arms over her chest, arched a brow at the insolent horse.  "Just you wait till we're out of this village and back on the open road."

"Ep?" Gabrielle had wandered about the barn, surreptitiously eyeing the rest of the stallions and mares housed within the structure.  Over the course of the past several moons, she had grown somewhat intrigued by the animals and had even toyed with the notion of asking Xena for a horse of her own.  She'd seen some sturdy stock during their travels, but none matched the beauty of those possessed by the Amazons.  "Is it normal to leave a horse saddled in his stall?"

"Course not, Gabrielle," Xena curtly responded, both warriors intrigued enough to wander past several watchful horses in their stalls, stopping before a stall flanked on one side by a spotted palomino and an empty berth on the other, "Even a first year rider knows that."

"That's Eph's horse," The weapons master commented, instantly recognizing the mare.  Deftly, she opened the latch on the stall door, slipped inside.  Murmuring softly, she addressed the beautiful creature.  "Easy, Honeycomb.  Easy, girl," she urged, catching the apprehensive horse by her bridle.    

Xena and Gabrielle wisely remained as still as possible.  The horse was obviously on edge, as evidenced by the trouble Eponin was having getting her calmed down.  As she continued to mumble soothingly in her ear, a steady whickering and muffled snorts echoed from a few stalls distant.  The insistent sounds coming from the buttercup yellow mare coupled with the trusted scent and soothing noises coming from the familiar human eventually had her settled.  When she was somewhat calm, she allowed the amazon to run an appraising hand along her pale coat.

"That's not like Eph," Eponin needlessly supplied, "And, I don't know the last time she was at the stables.  Certainly not last night."

"Maybe she slipped into a delirium caused by her wound and thought someone was after her and she was trying to get away in a hurry?" Gabrielle guessed, her bard's mind already concocting endless scenarios to explain the disappearance of the regent and the oddity of her horse ready and saddled in the barn.

Already used to Gabrielle's mind being three leaps ahead in fabricating fantastic stories, Xena was quick with an answer.  "If she was in a hurry, she wouldn't have left the horse."  Honed vision closed upon the fastenings of the saddle.  "Whoever was saddling her was interrupted," she reasoned, pointing to the unsecured fastenings that were hanging loosely beneath the mare's belly.  

"Eph's an expert at riding bareback.  If she were really in a hurry, she wouldn't have waited for Honeycomb to be saddled."  Eponin's eyes narrowed, she thoughtfully chewed her bottom lip as her gaze swept the barn.

"What is it?" Xena asked, sensing something else was amiss.

"It's well past dawn.  Dori should be feeding the horses by now," she said, noticing the day's supply of feed stacked against the support post in the middle of the barn.  She hadn't thought anything of it when she first brought Argo in.  But, that coupled with finding Ephiny's horse all but abandoned - 

"Maybe she slept in.  I mean, it was a good party and most of the other amazons aren't up, yet."

"No, there's something else."  Eponin knew something else was niggling at her, but couldn't put her finger on it.  "The empty stall."  Gabrielle and Xena watched as Eponin circled Ephiny's mare, cautious about coming up on her side.  Deftly, she climbed the wooden fence separating the stalls, landing noiselessly in the vacant berth.  Kneeling down, fingers rustled through the hay-filled stall, closing about the weapon she'd spotted half-buried from the distance of Honeycomb's stall.  Coming to her feet, she held the arrow between her fingers, showing off the fletching.

"This stall," Her unwavering gaze locked on Xena and Gabrielle as she slowly ground out between gritted teeth, "houses Midnight.  Cordele's stallion."

It wasn't until after she'd found the dropped arrow and had risen to her feet that Eponin had gotten a better look at Ephiny's saddle.  When she had first entered the stall, the skittish horse had backed away to avoid her touch.  This movement had effectively hidden her right side from the weapons master's view.  It was only now that she was in the other berth that she had a clear look.  

The saddle's pommel was stained dark.  As was most of the leather and fastenings directly beneath.  Already painfully aware of what the substance was, Eponin's hands were visibly trembling long before she reached out for the saddlehorn.  As her fingers connected with the pommel, she closed her eyes, bit her bottom lip to keep the looming tears at bay.  When she opened her eyes, she held up her palm, displaying her blood-stained fingers.

Mercifully, the Queen and her consort had already moved away, searching the barn in an attempt to find the delinquent stablehand.  It had been Gabrielle's suggestion that Dori may have had a rendezvous with a playmate in the loft above the stables and had merely lost track of time.  And, of course being Xena, the queen's consort had immediately volunteered to search with her.  Eponin stood at the bottom of one of the ladders, debating on if she should show them her latest findings.  Gabrielle's already so upset - 

That was when the guards began pouring into the barn.  They each had the same report.  The village had been checked top to bottom, with no sign of the regent.  After regrouping, another hasty search revealed that not only was Cordele the hunter unaccounted for, but Doretta the stablehand was also missing.  To everyone present, it was painfully clear what had happened.

"Hera's left tit!" Eponin cursed, kicking at a haystack in frustration.  "I knew that featherhead was trouble.  And now both Eph and Dori are missing!  I should've taken care of her sooner!"

"Hey, it's not your fault," Gabrielle reached out a hand, running it over and down Eponin's back in an attempt to soothe her.  The muscles were a knotted mass of tension beneath her touch and the little queen truly felt for the agonized amazon.

"No, it's mine."  Startled heads pivoted to Xena.  "I insisted Doretta accompany me to the stables to ready Argo last night.  She must have been here when Cordele brought Ephiny in.  She had to take her along to keep her quiet."

"If that was the case, she could have just killed her." 

Ever the pragmatist, Pelagia echoed the sentiment from the open barn door.  After no fewer than sixteen attempts by her guards to inform their captain of what had occurred, Megara finally relented and let one of the young saplings into the infirmary to speak with her bedmate.  And, after another half candlemark of pleading by the captain herself and making a solemn promise to come straight back as soon as things were sorted out, Megara had allowed her out of the bed to go investigate on her own.  With two of her apprentices trailing along behind her to see she didn't do any further damage.

"Smarter to take her along," Xena reasoned, "Don't have to worry about anyone unexpectedly stumbling across a body that way."

"What do we do now?" Asked one of the guard, looking to her captain for answers.

"We," Gabrielle straightened both shoulders, thrust her chest out.  She was the Queen and it was time she made the decisions, "Are not going to rest until we find our missing regent.  No Amazon gets left behind.  Ever."  As she spoke, she clasped her hands firmly behind her back, stalking up and down the length of the barn in front of her assembled subjects.  She looked every bit the military leader inspecting her troops before a coming battle.  "I want runners dispatched to the perimeters immediately to apprise the border patrols of the situation.  Under no circumstance is any amazon to leave our territory.  Period.  Effective immediately, Cordele's entire squad is to be taken into custody.  I don't want any chance of her trying to contact her fellow hunters for support.  And, I want them where we can easily keep an eye on them."  

Xena was listening with an approving ear.  Everything Gabrielle was saying and doing made perfect sense from a military viewpoint.  She was showing her mettle under pressure.  More than showing it, she was reveling in it.  And, her strength and fortitude were tangible to her assembled troops.

"I want a small party comprised of our best trackers ready to leave the village within the next candlemark.  It takes an Amazon to track an Amazon.  And, if I know Ephiny, she'll do whatever she can to make the trail easier to follow."

"The hunters - " Pelagia began, intending to remind Gabrielle that the hunters were among the tribe's best trackers.

"Are not an option," Gabrielle reiterated.  "I don't want there to even be a remote possibility that one of them is aligned with Cordele and manages to corrupt the trail."  She took a deep breath, exhaled loudly before adding, "That's why Xena's in charge.  Solari," she said, eyeing the chief scout who had been eagerly, yet stealthily, waiting in the shadows, "You're with Xena.  Assist her in picking the remainder of the party."  Gabrielle leveled her gaze at the Captain of the Guard.  "Pelagia, I'll meet with you in a candlemark to discuss your guards' duties throughout the duration of this crisis."  Her gaze sweeping over the rest of the assembled amazons, the queen succinctly announced, "Dismissed!"

Before anyone could react, including the warrior princess, the Queen of the Amazons had marched out of the barn, her furious strides carrying her across the village in record time.  From the doorway of the barn, several sets of stunned eyes watched in silent amazement as the little bard they'd always pictured in their minds was reconciled with the ferociously regal image of the deity they'd borne witness to  today.  It wasn't until she was well out of sight that suddenly they found the strength to move again, rushing to perform as their monarch commanded.

The first time Ephiny regained consciousness, she slowly became aware of several startling facts.  First and foremost was that the fiery throbbing pain in her shoulder had tripled in accordance with the repetitive jostling that shook her whole body.  Her face and most of her upper torso lay against something warm and slick.  And, there was an unbearable weight pressing against her back, keeping her from raising up.  Unable to open her eyes, a momentary wave of panic spread over the regent before unconsciousness mercifully claimed her once again.

In efficient silence, Gabrielle packed a saddlebag for her soulmate. Borne from years of experience, she knew the necessity of traveling light, selecting only the essentials.  During their earlier travels, she had thought it best to be prepared for any eventuality, often overloading the bags to the point that they were awkwardly difficult to carry.  Eventually, she'd learned to determine on her own what was vital and what could be done without.

In truth, she knew Xena could make do without any of the items in the pack if she had to.  Sweet Artemis, she could leave out of her buck naked and still be prepared for anything the Fates might throw at her.  Putting the last item in the saddlebag, she deftly cinched it, hoisting it onto her shoulder to check the weight.  As she turned, she spied a familiar worn, blue blanket draped across the foot of the bed.  On impulse, she quickly folded it, stuffed it into the pack.

"Just about ready to head out," Xena reported, traipsing into the hut, stomping her boots at the entrance in an effort to knock some of the mud off the soles.

"Be careful," Gabrielle implored, crossing the room, thrusting the saddlebag into her arms.

"Always am."  Xena hefted the bag, easily tossing it over her shoulder.  She reached out, fiercely tugging the bard into a tight hug.  The embrace lingered on, until finally drawing back, ice blue eyes full of feeling stared into Gabrielle's.  Her voice husky with emotion, she choked out, "I'm proud of you."

"Yeah," Gabrielle gave a self-depreciating shrug, "I'm getting pretty good at packing those, huh?"

Xena followed her lover's gaze to the saddlebag hanging off her shoulder.  "Not that," she admonished, "I meant, I'm proud of you for not even asking if you can go."  Suddenly frowning, she cast a suspicious glance at the bard, "You're not planning on letting me leave and then trying to trail me on foot, are you?"

"I think you'd know me better than that."  Gabrielle rolled her eyes.  "I did that, what - three, four times?"

"Try seven.  And, each time ended up with you being in trouble and me needing to rescue you."

"Ah."  A tiny smile and a slight blush graced her youthful face.  "But, each of those times, you were leaving me behind.  This time, I know the reasons I need to stay."

"I gave you reasons before - "

" - 'Because I said so' is not a reason, Xena."  She held up a hand to forestall any future protests.  "Besides, all those times, I was just Gabrielle, Xena's tagalong sidekick.  Here, I'm Queen Gabrielle of the Amazons.  And, it's my duty to safeguard the village in my regent's absence.  Once I've made the council and the tribe aware of their regent's plight, there will be a call for the hunters' blood, whether deservedly or not.  Just the implication that they were part of Cordele's pack will be enough reason for some to condemn them.  It's my obligation to spearhead a thorough investigation into the matter before it gets that far.  By the time you return, we'll be ready for the trial and sentencing."

"You seem fairly confident we'll bring her back alive."

"All of them, Xena," Gabrielle countered, "I expect you to bring them all back alive."

"That may not be possible," Xena warned.

She let the unspoken implication hang in the air between them.  She would do her best to live up to Gabrielle's expectations.  But, she had to know how unrealistic they might be.  Cordele had a minimum of a five candlemark head start, was an expert in her field and had two hostages.  If they weren't careful, Xena's party could very easily go from being the hunters to the hunted.

There was a sharp rap on the doorframe.  Solari stood holding the curtain back, peering into the hut.  She had changed into her customary scouting outfit; a tan halter and leather skirt with soft, leather boots.  A bow with a quiver of arrows was slung over her back, a sword at her side.  The handle of a dagger peeked out of the top of each boot.  "We're assembled and ready," she tersely announced before retreating outside once more.

"Time to go."  Xena bent low, catching Gabrielle's lips in a lingering kiss.  "Try not to get into trouble while I'm gone, huh?"

"Same goes for you, my big, dumb warrior."

One of Xena's eyebrows inched upwards and an amused smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. Then, suddenly turning serious, blue eyes stared into green.  "Really, Gabrielle.  Things aren't right in this village.  I'm beginning to think there's something more sinister going on."

"I'm in the middle of the Amazon village, Xena," Gabrielle tried to hide her anxiety behind a beaming smile of confidence.  "I think I'm perfectly safe here, don't you?"

"Ephiny thought the same."

Gabrielle followed Xena out the door, coming to a stop on the porch as Xena continued down the steps.  She swung into the saddle atop a big, black horse.  She'd have preferred Argo, but knew she'd be better served on this excursion by a fresher mount.  Swinging around, she surveyed the other mounted riders.

Solari sat to her right, atop her trusty brown steed.  To her immediate right and over her shoulder were Admeta and Metanira, the pair of young scouts that had accompanied them in from the border just days prior.  Beside them, Xena recognized the petite blonde as being the one that had garnered Solari's attentions the eve prior to the feast.  Hovering in the background were two more amazons that were familiar, but she couldn't place.

On the porch beside Gabrielle, Pelagia leaned over, whispering in the shorter blonde's ear.  Gabrielle immediately stiffened, addressed the two riders near the rear of the pack.  "Kynthia, Keleos, approach," she commanded.

Hesitantly, both amazons nudged their horses forward, edging them towards the low-slung porch.  As a sign of respect, both riders should have immediately dismounted and knelt before their queen.  About them, jaws tightened and hackles bristled as both remained firmly rigid in their saddles.  Gabrielle was nonplussed as she boldly stared up at them.

"My command was no hunters with the search party," Gabrielle's directive sounded every bit that of the regal sovereign she was.

"Because you've handpicked your execution squad!" spat out Keleos.  Sensing her master's agitation, the amazon's horse shifted uneasily on its hindquarters.

"The search party - " Gabrielle made certain to emphasize the term 'search', " - is under strict order to bring Cordele back to face an Amazon court of law."

"You've already judged her," Kynthia added her own voice to the argument, "Why should we believe she'll make it back to the village to stand trial?"

"Because as Queen of the Amazons, it is what I've commanded."  Gabrielle's temper, along with her voice, was beginning to rise.  Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Xena, about to move in.  No.  We've discussed you coming to my rescue in the village before.  She silently sent the plea to her soulmate to not undermine her authority by stepping in.  "However, to alleviate your concerns and ensure justice is done," Gabrielle turned her appraisal back to the two rebellious amazons, "I will allow you - one of you - to accompany the search party.  Provided, of course, you agree to follow my champion's directives better than you have my own."

"Agreed," spoke both hunters in unison.

"And just to be certain," All heads turned at the sound of Eponin's distinctively low voice, "I'll be going along."

Gabrielle studied the group before her.  Xena - Solari - Eponin - she was more than a little hesitant to let the three friends she trusted most head up this dangerous mission.  If Cordele was able to single-handedly overpower Ephiny and smuggle her out of the village without raising alarm, she was indeed a formidable enemy.  She contemplated ordering Eponin to stand down.  But, one look at the weapons master standing before her, leading Ephiny's golden mare by the reins, was all it took to pull at her heart strings.  With a silent nod of approval, she acquiesced.

Xena was the first to move.  With a final glance and a parting smile for her soulmate, she nudged her horse, urging it towards the main gate.  Solari moved out directly behind her, flanked by her two young charges, with Nyxona close behind.  After a brief, low-key argument between the two hunters, Keleos nudged her horse away from her bedmate, taking off after the rest of the group.  

Eponin walked over to where Gabrielle stood on the porch, Ephiny's horse in tow behind her.  In two strides, she was up the steps, standing in front of the young blonde.  Sensing she was intruding, Pelagia discreetly ducked into the hut.  Kynthia remained where she was, openly staring, watching every move she made.  Pointedly, Eponin went down on one knee, smoothly saluting her queen in an obvious display of loyalty and respect.  Rising, she deftly reached for Gabrielle's hand, bringing it up to kiss the knuckles.  Moving close, she dropped a chaste kiss on Gabrielle's cheek, then leaned in, whispering in her ear.  Before Gabrielle could respond, the weapons master was already down the steps and hoisting herself onto Honeycomb's back.  Settling herself in the saddle, she gave a sharp whistle, sending the horse charging towards the main entrance.

When next Ephiny awoke, something was tickling her nose and the unmistakable smell of horseflesh assaulted her nostrils.  After several efforts, she was able to blink open one eye.  The other strained, but was unable to comply with her brain's repetitive demands.  Swollen shut, she realized, memories of something crashing against her skull repetitively echoing in her mind. 

Slowly, her vision came into focus.  A wavy black mane pressed beneath her cheek confirmed her earlier suspicions of a horse.  She was unable to see much past the big mass of horse, except for a patch of moving ground as they continued to trot along.  It may not have been much to go on, but it was enough for Ephiny to realize she was no longer in the village.

As far as she could tell, she wasn't restrained.  But, a weight was pressed firmly against her back, keeping her upper body pinned to the horse at an awkward angle.  Dimly, her awakening senses comprehended that there was another rider in the saddle behind her, laying her body upon hers as they rode, arms wrapped securely about her waist.  

Already, the fair-haired regent was working out in her mind how to slip out from beneath the mass pressing into her.  Maybe she could lean to the side and allow the natural rhythm of the horse's canter coupled with gravity to slide from her position.  At best, I'll land on the hard ground and the rider will be forced to either trample me to death or pull up short.  Gee, that's a great plan, Eph, she wryly congratulated herself as her psyche brought up many a gruesome image of that particular scenario.

She knew her options were limited.  If she took the chance, she might be facing her mother in the Land of the Dead sooner than she expected.  If she didn't, depending on what her captor had planned, she may be joining her ancestors anyway.  In the end, it came down to either fight or surrender.  Given that, there really was no choice.  Ephiny was a fighter.  Always had been, always would be.  Part of her Amazon heritage, it was ingrained into her as much as the blood coursing through her veins and the heart beating in her chest.

Steeling herself, Ephiny prepared to 'slip' from the saddle.  Just then, a tanned arm and muscular hand came into her field of vision.  From the angle that the hand clutched the bridle, the regent realized that it didn't belong to the rider behind her.  No, someone was on the ground guiding the horse.  Suddenly, the odds had doubled against her.  

Knowing that in her condition, it was unlikely she could avoid one captor and unfathomable that she could escape two, she did the only thing she could do in her position.  She waited.

Solari crouched down, one arm braced against her thigh, reins held loosely in her grip as her mare waited patiently.  Her horse was handpicked especially for this sort of mission, bred for it from the time she was a pony.  It took a lot of training and discipline to be the steed for an amazon scout.  Once a scout had picked up a trail, there could be candlemarks of hard galloping, followed by sporadic spurts of idleness if the tracker lost the scent.  Then, that could be followed by a short spell of trotting, followed by slow walking as the scout led her horse on foot.  And, Gods forbid if they had to backtrack on a trail gone cold.

Provided, of course, I can find a trail to begin with.  Slowly, Solari crept forward, still in a crouch, intently studying the ground as she went.  Upon leaving the main entrance, the party had split into teams.  She'd sent each of her apprentices with one of the warriors, pairing Admeta with Eponin and Metanira with Nyxona.  She was counting on Xena to keep an eye on Keleos.

With several candlemarks lead on them, it was imperative they pick up the trail as soon as possible.  Not having a clue which direction Cordele had taken off in, she'd suggested they each take a direction; north, south, east and west, respectively.  And, she'd suggested they travel in an ever-widening circle around the perimeter of the village to start with and work their way out from there.  She was leery of scouting so far away from each other that their loudest bird call may not be heard over the distance.  Everyone agreed if they'd found nothing within two candlemarks, they would rendezvous at the old archery range that lay to the south of the village.

Uneasily, Solari glanced to the heavens.  The sun was high in the sky, nearing the end of the two-candlemark deadline.  She furtively scanned her surroundings.  Her gut told her she was heading the right way.  She had gone west on the hunch that was the direction Cordele had gone.  Being the most desolate area, it was certainly the way she would have gone.  If I'd kidnapped someone and didn't want to risk running into any of the patrols, that is.

It was also the most difficult area to track.  Once away from the village, the grass eventually gave way to sporadic pebbles and rock from a dried creekbed.  Someone could travel the creekbed for days and never leave a trace.  It would be slow going and hard on the feet, though.  And, my guess is, our Amazon is in a hurry.  Beyond the boundary of the creekbed, the grass eventually became a lush spread again before reaching a dense treeline leading into a forest thick with undergrowth.

With a deep sigh, she hung her head in defeat.  The two candlemark timeframe was well past.  And, if she tarried longer, it would only delay the others in waiting around for her at the rendezvous point.  I'm sorry, Eph, she silently sent out, moving towards her patiently waiting horse.

Just as she was rising to remount her mare, she caught sight of an impression in the distance.  All of the blades of grass blew with the wind, pointing northward like long fingers.  Except for one patch where the blades barely rustled at all.  Nudging her horse forward, she rode the roughly twenty-five paces before dropping from her saddle again.  Obediently, her horse waited as she investigated.

It was faint.  She'd almost missed it.  Indeed, she would have if not for the rains of the evening before.  Barely visible beneath bent blades of grass were hoof prints embedded where a rider had stopped for a spell.  The impressions were deep due to a combination of the saturated ground and the heavy weight the horse was carrying.  Fingertips lightly grazed over the grass, blades tickling flesh.  Moving several to the side, she spied a lone bootprint.

She followed the trail for a bit, until she was confident she had what she was searching for.  Satisfied, she pursed her lips, issuing a shrill birdcall.  In the distance, she faintly heard an answering call, then another.  She listened for the third, but couldn't hear it.  Judging from the distance she'd traveled, she hadn't expected to.  She just hoped that the third team had heard the calls from the other two and would know to follow the direction accordingly.

Pulling a waterskin from her saddlebag, she took a long draw.  Brushing her hair back from her face, she wiped her brow, still keeping an eye on the trail as if expecting it to suddenly disappear.  After a short rest beneath the treeline, Solari left a marker for her companions before continuing to track the nearly indefinable trail.

Gabrielle stood before the council of elders, her temper barely held in check.  Captain Pelagia shot her a warning look, silently pleading with Gabrielle to be patient and show proper respect to the council.  The young queen was known for her diplomatic, honeycoated tongue, but she was equally known to have a stinging repartee when she felt she was being patronized or ignored.  The captain felt that in the regent's absence, it fell to her to keep the queen from launching a verbal assault against their esteemed council.

The queen had procrastinated as long as she dared, waiting until the sun was high overhead before calling for the assembly.  She had opted to confront them in a private arena first, then depending on how well the session went, she would make a general statement to the tribe later in the day.

Understandably, the council had demanded to know why they were not informed sooner of an assassination attempt upon the queen.  To which, she had conveyed that given the village grapevine, she was quite certain every amazon was aware of the incident.  And, the fact that they weren't suggested that the elders were indeed out of touch with the everyday life occurring in the community about them.

That went over about as well as a ton of dried centaur poop being dropped on their front stoops during the summer equinox.  She had to remind herself several times that the elders were meant to be her allies.  And, although they really had no jurisdiction over the queen, it was best not to unduly ruffle the feathers of her esteemed advisors.

"So, if I've followed your tale correctly," one of the elders addressed Gabrielle directly, "The regent took an arrow meant for you?"

Gabrielle fought the urge to roll her eyes.  For the twentieth time, "Yes."

"And, she was subsequently abducted from her own bed and has been missing since some time last eve?"

"Again, yes."

Each and every elder had asked those same questions in one form or another.  Repeatedly.  They were noticeably excited about an attempt on their queen's life.  Especially an attack in the heart of the village by an unknown assassin that had to no doubt be a disgruntled, renegade amazon.  Unknown to Gabrielle, this incident was dredging up memories of an attempted coup long winters ago when most of these women seated before her had been in their prime.

At that time, the rebellion had pitted sister against sister, threatening to permanently divide the tribe.  Captain Beroyle herself had defended the Queen unto her death.  It seemed as if the crown would surely join Beroyle in the Amazon Land of the Dead until a knife thrown from the hand of the dying captain struck true, killing the upstart leader of the rebellion just as she was about to bring her sword down upon the defenseless royal.  The blow had effectively quashed the revolt and saved the queen.

But, as far as some were concerned, irrevocable damage had already been done.  They had lost many warriors that day, their best and brightest among them.  The queen herself had been grievously wounded, the healers having worked throughout the night and well into the next day to ensure her survival.  On the third day, the healers proudly proclaimed that their sovereign would make a full recovery from her wounds.  

Needle and leather twine had stitched shut the wounds inflicted by sword and arrow, but nothing could heal the queen's injured heart.  It seemed with the death of her handsome young captain, the queen's will to live also burned upon the funeral pyre.  It proved to be a mortal wound she would never recover from.  Within the year, the crown of Queenhood would fall to her eldest daughter, Melosa.

"Begging your pardon, your venerable Highness, but if it was the regent that was abducted, how can you be certain the assassination attempt was meant for you?"

"As Captain of the Royal Guard, I believe I am best suited to answer that particular question," interrupted Pelagia.

She'd recognized the speaking elder as none other than Devillare .  Whereas the other advising elders were comprised primarily of healers, scouts and hunters, Devillare was a true warrior who had fought on the front lines at the Battle of Rycirrus.  Indeed, she'd been Beroyle's swordmate, taking the mantle of captain after her best friend's untimely death.  Like Beroyle, she was a woman of few words, preferring action over speech.  For her to voice her opinion during a session was a rare occurrence indeed.

Time had been kind to Devillare, keeping her both fit in mind and body.  Even now, well past her prime, she was a striking woman, the grey streaking her close-cropped hair at the temples serving to make her look only more distinguished.  Always active, she had trouble living out her 'glory years' in retirement and had opted to retain her reserve status, knowing full well that she could be called upon to return to full duty if circumstances necessitated.  As such, she continued to keep in shape, often assisting Eponin on the practice field as a means of keeping her reflexes honed.

"Proceed," she instructed.

"My initial investigation determined that the regent was not in close proximity to the queen when the attack occurred.  According to witnesses, the regent sprinted, then leapt in front of the arrow before it struck.  There can be no doubt the queen was the intended victim."  Pelagia pushed on, anticipating the former captain's next question.  "Although it can't be ruled out, there is no evidence to suggest that the abduction of the regent and the assassination attempt of the queen are related.  The guard stands ever vigilant, determined to protect the Queen of the Amazons, even unto death."

Devillare  nodded her approval.  She expected - and would accept - no less.  To her, being a member of the royal guard was a sacred duty.  And, the well being of the royal line was paramount.  As such, it was the responsibility of the Captain of the Guard to ensure and preserve the lineage.  Beroyle had given her life in service to the Queen.  And, given the chance, Devillare  would have done the same.  Given the power, she would have taken Beroyle's place in the Land of the Dead.  Instead, it had been her duty to get the princesses to safety.  And, she had done her duty as ordered by her captain and her queen.  But, she had returned as soon as the young heiresses were secured; in time to bear witness to what had occurred in the Queen's chamber.  Silent witness, for she would never betray the beloved memory of captain and queen by revealing the truth of what had happened that day.

Startling grey eyes fixed themselves upon the tiny blonde as Devillare  turned her attention to Queen Gabrielle.  "Am I to assume that you've dispatched a search party to fetch lil' Ephie home, then?"

"I have."  Gabrielle couldn't help but raise a brow at the term of endearment.  Glancing from face to face, she surveyed the rest of the council for their reaction.  Only Pelagia and Calandra the Healer seemed to have caught the slip, as evidenced by their hastily covered grins.  Ephiny would die of embarrassment if she knew this noble warrior still thought of her as a little amazon in swaddling.  "My own champion, along with the chief scout and weapons master, have been dispatched at the head of the search party.  Rest assured, they won't return without the regent and the amazon responsible for her abduction."

"Then, you have determined who the renegade is?" asked Tynette, who Gabrielle recognized from the scrolls as the legendary hunter rumored to have been favored by Artemis with a bow arm unequaled by any.  

"The hunter, Cordele, and Theracles' assistant, Doretta, are both also unaccounted for," explained Pelagia.  "From the evidence amassed, it's apparent that in seeking to abduct the regent, she was interrupted by the stablehand and forced to take her, as well."

Low-keyed murmurs circulated amongst the elders.  Several on the council were themselves ex-hunters and weren't eager to have one of their own kind maligned, evidence or no.  It was more than half a candlemark later before order was restored and the session was able to proceed.

"Well, my Queen, as you can see from the mixed reaction here, it'll be a very tender subject indeed when this comes out to the rest of the tribe.  As such, I recommend that we don't tell 'em," declared Devillare .

Gabrielle grinned at the notion.  It hadn't been an option she'd considered, but she could see the merit of the idea.

"Humph!" came a snort from an elder with flapping jowls, that even though Gabrielle couldn't readily recall her name, she recognized as also being a distinguished former hunter.  "As the Queen pointed out, our grapevine is abundantly fluid.  What makes you think the topic hasn't already circulated?"

"It was a very good party," Gabrielle's grin widened.  "No one except the initial trackers and the guard that were awake and on-duty this morning are privy to this information."

"And," continued Captain Pelagia, "The guard members who are aware of what has transpired have been assigned to the old tannery outside the village.  Along with every member of Cordele's squad."

Another round of murmurings rose from the assembled elders.  Many were concerned that there could still be a leak.  Others applauded the queen and the captain's ingenuity.  Still, a few were more concerned about the assassination attempt.  What if another try was made while so many of the guard were away from the village?

"The regent, the chief scout, the weapons master and the queen's consort have all gone missing from the village.  Add to that, the sudden absence of part of the royal guard and an entire squad of hunters.  Do you really think that's something that can be kept secret?" asked flapping jowls, folding her arms over an expansive chest and piercing Gabrielle with deadly eyes.

"Perhaps it's time to put our much vaunted grapevine to work," suggested Tynette, "We can circulate information that the regent and the others left on an early morning mission for the crown.  The hunters are on an overnight expedition," she shrugged, allowing the suggestion to trail off.

"My guard are on maneuvers," Pelagia caught the thread of the conversation, wheels turning in her head as plans were beginning to formulate.

"Solari, Eponin and Ephiny play essential roles in the day to day functions of the village," Calandra interjected, "How do you suggest we handle that?"

"I guess some of us will have to get up off our butts and un-retire ourselves," grinned Devillare .  "I'll take over Eponin's weapons practice.  Tynette and Nicphellia can head up the scouts and patrols.  Evanthe is best suited to aiding the queen in overseeing the regent's duties."

Everyone seemed eager to participate in the deception, as evidenced by the rapid-fire discussion about how best to proceed in each individual arena.  It was imperative to the success of the plan that all were on the same scroll.  It wouldn't do to have anyone slip up and inadvertently tip their hand.  

Only flapping jowls seemed to still be having issue with the whole plan.  "And, just how long do you think a barely out of swaddling queen and a bunch of old women can fool an entire village of amazons?" she asked.

"As long as needed, my friend, as long as needed," came Devillare 's reply.

The finality of that statement seemed to hammer home the importance of what they were doing here.  They were seeking to deceive the entire tribe and cover up the disappearance of a member of royalty in order to avert a potential civil war.  As a solemn silence descended upon queen and council, every single one of them fervently prayed to Artemis for a swift and peaceful resolution.

"You sure that's them?" asked Xena, peering over Solari's shoulder.

Solari tried to disguise the little jolt that shot through her body at the warm whisper that tickled her ear.  She glanced up from her kneeling position, finding herself peering up into a pair of intense cobalt blue eyes.  How does she do that?  Solari wondered.  She hadn't heard the warrior's approach until she'd spoken.

Recovering quickly, she responded, "One set of prints leading a horse," she confirmed, pointing a finger at a faint bootprint, "Tracks alternate.  Sometimes, it's human and horse, sometimes, it's only horse.  My guess is Dori and Ephiny are on the same mount with Cordele intermittently leading on foot."

"Three on one horse is a lot of weight," Xena observed.

"Cordele's got a big warhorse, Xena.  He could probably carry three amazons from here to Athens and back.  But, Cordele's not a fool.  She won't risk her mount by riding three-deep for extended periods."  

Xena nodded in agreement, trying to hide her grin behind a fierce mask.  She'd seen Solari's reaction, knew she'd startled her.  Her mind's probably racing as fast as her heart, wondering how I can sneak up on amazons.  If you only knew; I have many skills, my friend.

Indeed, Xena had used many of those considerable skills to reach the forest as quickly as she had, tracking Solari into the dense undergrowth.  She had fairly dragged Keleos along through mud and muck, determined to not waste any more time when she'd heard the first birdcall come in.  The young hunter, not having heard the initial calls, had thought Xena was touched by the Furies for a time.  Xena, though, had heard all three.  The initial one sent by Solari, and the two answering calls from north and south, respectively.

Solari stood up, dusting off her knees.  She had spent most of the afternoon walking in a crouch or bent over, following the elusive tracks.  Oooh, I'm gonna feel that tomorrow.  Reflexively, she rubbed the knotted muscles in her lower back as she glanced about.  

Twenty paces distant, in a clearing in the forest, stood Keleos, watching over the two horses that were grazing with her own mare.  She was unsaddling each one in turn, laying their gear on the ground nearby.  Frowning, she turned her attention back to Xena.

"Weren't you and Keleos on the eastern ridge?" she asked, suspiciously.

"Yeah," was the one-worded answer.

"Then, where are Eponin and the others?  They were much closer - "

" - Don't worry, Solari."  Xena stretched out a reassuring hand, clasping the scout's forearm, "They'll catch up shortly."  A saucy grin raked Xena's face, "We just made better time."  Leaning in, using a stage whisper, Xena added, "Poor Keleos liked to have never kept up.  I think I've got the swifter horse."

Solari glanced back towards the clearing again.  Keleos was just taking the saddle and gear off a large black horse, instantly recognizable by a white splash that extended over one ear and down the center of her forehead.  With all the commotion this morning, she hadn't been paying attention.  She was solely focused on keeping her rampant emotions in check and getting on Eph's trail as quickly as possible.  Bad scout, Solari.  You're supposed to notice the little details.

"That's Lightning."   Huh, imagine that.  "Eponin's horse," she succinctly explained.  

"Ep's?" Both Xena's eyebrows darted for her hairline.

"Yep, fastest in the nation."  Solari looked at Xena somewhat askance.  She'd known Eponin since they were kids.  True, she was older, but that hadn't stopped the dual extroverts Solari and Ephiny from pestering her until she agreed to let them hang out with her.  At times, she thought she knew her better than anyone else in the village, including Ephiny.  And, if there was one thing she knew about Ep, it was that she was unwaveringly consistent.  If anyone had told her that morning that Ep would allow anyone else to ride her horse - anyone - she would have called them a henbane-addicted fool.  Who's the fool, now, Sol?

Xena caught the stunned expression on Solari's face as she realized exactly whose horse she'd been riding.  The warrior princess could guess why.  Like Solari, she was a good judge of character.  And, this just wasn't like Eponin.  Unless this is her way of apologizing for last night.  I gave her a dozen swords, she loaned me her horse.  Guess we're even again.

"It's getting late," Xena announced, casting a practiced eye towards the horizon.  "Let's mark the trail and set up camp for when Ep and the rest get here."

Solari quickly marked the trail with a red ribbon tied about a stick.  Planting the twig in the ground at her last position, she packed dirt around it to hold it in place.  That way, come morning, she'd easily be able to start right back where she'd left off.  And, it'll keep Keleos from stumbling across the trail with their big, clumsy feet.  Satisfied with her work, she moved to help Xena and Keleos gather wood for the campfire.  

Solari involuntarily shivered as a cold breeze blew up.  Wherever you are, Eph, I hope you're warm tonight, she sent a silent prayer for her friend.

Ephiny shivered against the increasing chill that was invading her body.  She had actually regained consciousness a quarter candlemark earlier, but had decided her best course of action was to continue to feign slumber.  Slowly, she began to take stock of her body.

A headache pulsed behind her closed eyes.  One throbbed and seemed to still be swollen.  Her jaw ached as she experimentally moved it.  The worse, though, was her shoulder.  She could tell by the cloth wrapped securely about and behind her neck, that someone had fashioned a sling, effectively immobilizing her arm.  And, I seem to have lost my boots; she vaguely recalled Solari removing them the night before.

She allowed her wandering mind to slip off on that tangent for a while.  What exactly was that all about?  It seemed to her that with one breath, Solari was her cherished childhood friend who would do anything for her and in the next, she was a completely different amazon.  One that intrigues me - and scares the feathers off me at the same time, she silently admitted to herself.  It's like she's not in her right mind.  Hades, at this point, most of the village isn't any better off.  

 Ephiny began to lose her procession of thought.  The throbbing in her shoulder was constant now, driving her to distraction.  Eyes still closed, she relaxed her body, concentrating her remaining senses on her surroundings.

She was laying down, she was certain of it.  There was a coarse material beneath her hand, but the surface beneath that was hard.  A blanket on the ground, she concluded.  There was a chill in the air, and she could hear the wind howling, but none of it blew across her.  And, her left side was considerably colder than her right.  

Experimentally, she lolled her head to the right.  She didn't hear any commotion, so she assumed her movements appeared to be natural and hadn't attracted unwarranted attention.  She felt the warmth slowly spread over her face.  Cave.  Entrance to my left, campfire to my immediate right.  But, am I alone now or is someone still with me?

She let her senses expand outwards, seeking confirmation.  Acute hearing picked up a breath being inhaled, then slowly exhaled.  There was the sound of metal scraping against stone.  The clamor continued for several moments before abruptly halting.  The silence was filled by a muffled, beneath the breath curse.  Ephiny listened intently, trying to pinpoint the source of the noise.

It grew eerily quiet.  Am I alone? Ephiny struggled to control her rapidly beating heart, willed her breathing to remain normal.  This was the hard part, having the patience to not give herself away.  Ears strained for any sound out of the ordinary.

"I know you're awake," a voice cut through the silence.

Ephiny momentarily considered continuing to feign unconsciousness.  But, to what end?  That wasn't worded as a question.  There was no hesitation.  Her captor knew she was conscious.  Slowly, one hazel eye blinked open, focusing in the dim lighting of the cave's interior.

The fire was on its side.  No, that can't be right.  Ephiny slowly realized.  Umm, head injury, she recognized the cause of her blurry eyesight, the fuzziness of her thoughts.  Gingerly, she lifted her head in an attempt to look at things right side up.

Better.  Not great, but better.  The fire leveled out on an somewhat even keel and she was able to visibly discern the twigs burning within the fire circle.  Gradually, her gaze panned over the rest of the cave.  The entrance was indeed to her left, mostly covered over by thick foliage and branches, only a bit of fading light from the exterior visible.  They were camped farther in, Ephiny judged the distance approximately a hundred paces from the mouth of the cave.

Somewhere between her position and the entrance, a set of blue eyes blinked back at her.  Seated on the floor, back pressed against the cave wall, one arm was draped casually about a raised knee.  The other arm was positioned behind her strong back.  She looked completely at ease in the confined space, as if she were on a casual outing.  

A shiver raced along Ephiny's spine.  This woman looked at her in much the same manner as she had when she'd been at the feast dancing with Xena.  She was watching her then, too.  A cool, predatory look hooded over cobalt blue eyes as she stared at her.  She'd seen that look before, as she'd stalked her.  Ephiny's heart beat loudly in her chest as she waited for Cordele to make the first move.

By the time the last two riders arrived, camp had been set and a blazing fire was roaring in the center of the site.  The amazons assisted their sisters in tending their mounts and offloading their gear.  As they were finishing up, Xena stepped from the cover of the forest, carrying several waterskins.

"Skins are full," she declared, tossing one at each amazon in turn.  She saw the scowls on a few of the older women.  "No one drinks anything stronger than water tonight."  Her gaze lingered on the face of each woman as she spoke, "We'll refill them in the morning before we break camp."

It wasn't until after she'd spoken that Xena realized how that might have sounded to the assembled party.  What is it Gabrielle's always telling you?  Look at both sides of the dinar before you speak?  Frowning, she decided she'd make amends later.  After all, she was a warrior.  Among warriors.  If she couldn't speak her mind now, when could she?  As for the amazons themselves, they met Xena's implied accusations with stony silence and heated glares.

"It's ready," Metanira announced, breaking the strained silence.

Six sets of eyes turned to stare at the young scout before the women grudgingly moved towards the campfire.  Metanira idly stirred a ladle in a pot over the fire.  As each woman waited in line, she dropped a spoonful onto a plate and passed it to them.  As they obtained their rations, each amazon settled comfortably in a circle around the fire.

Xena was last in line, patiently waiting as each warrior was served before her.  As she stepped up, Metanira scooped out a ladleful, depositing it on Xena's outstretched plate.  As she tapped the ladle on the side of the tin plate, the young scout glanced up, meeting the warrior princess' gaze.  She didn't say anything to Metanira, merely arched a brow.  Flustered, the youngster hurriedly dropped her gaze, added another ladleful to the warrior's plate.

With a self-satisfied smirk, Xena sat on a log beside Eponin.  Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Metanira served herself, then moved to sit beside her friend, Admeta

Dinner was an awkward affair consisting of cold venison and stuffing that had been packed into one of Metanira's saddlebags.  She'd tried to separate the venison from the stuffing, only moderately succeeding.  In the end, it'd been simply easier to heat it all together.  Despite her best efforts, the meal was only partially heated through by the fire.  Cooking had never been her greatest skill.  And, it showed.  The food on the bottom of the pot was in danger of scorching, while the stuffing and venison in the middle was lukewarm at best.  

Xena worked dutifully, chewing her way around a particularly tough hunk of venison.  She glanced over at Metanira.  The youngster sent an apologetic look her way before dropping her eyes back to her plate.

"This was thoughtful."  Xena didn't know why she'd voiced it.  Maybe to reassure somebody after the way I acted earlier, I guess.  "Saved us from having to hunt down our dinner tonight."

Metanira fought against the blush that threatened to creep up her neck at the unexpected praise.  "Mytilda packed enough for four hearty meals.  She said after that, it won't be good anymore."

"I believe that.  It was definitely better last night," Solari offered her opinion.

"You mean it gets worse with each meal?" Eponin mumbled around a mouthful.  "I can hardly wait til breakfast."

Xena caught the scout's chagrined look as she heard the off-handed remark.  Subtly, Xena brought her hand down by her side, flicked her wrist, jabbing the tip of her dagger into the weapons master's thigh.  Eponin jumped with the jab, scowled at Xena.

"How did we rate leftovers from Mytilda's kitchen?" Xena asked, trying to bolster the girl's confidence again.

"Oh - um - uh - " Instead of having the desired effect, Xena's question unexpectedly served to further fluster the scout.

"Mytilda is Metanira's mom," Admeta eagerly supplied, pleased to be able to finally have an excuse to speak directly to the amazing warrior princess.  "She packs for Metanira whenever we scout away from the village overnight."

The scarlet hue was clearly visible now on Metanira's cheeks as she elbowed her friend in the ribs.  "Shut up!" she hissed in Admeta's ear.  "I don't want Xena thinking I'm a big momma's girl!"

She had intended that for Admeta's ears only, but the whisper plainly carried across the mostly silent campsite.  Laughter from Nyxona and Keleos quickly erupted, only to be silenced by a withering glare from Xena.

"I think it's nice that your mom makes the effort," Solari defended her young apprentice, "All of us should be so lucky to have someone care enough to do those kinds of things."

Solari's sudden defense of Metanira had a double-fold effect.  Not only did it cease the razzing snickers from the others, it served to focus them on their own lives.  Shrewd as she was, Solari hadn't foreseen the impact this idle comment would have on everyone at the camp.  Even her.  As she casually stirred her mixture of venison and stuffing, her thoughts drifted away.

When was the last time someone did something like that for me?  Solari knew she was well liked in the village.  Indeed, there was always some amazon offering to patch her leathers or mend her bracers.  But, that was because they wanted something in return.  They wanted her.  No one's just done something for me because they wanted to - 

Not since Eph's mom.  Solari's mind drifted back to a time long ago when she used to spend so much time at Ephiny's hut that her mom had started calling her a second daughter.  That had pleased Solari beyond words.  After her own mother had died, she'd pretty much been on her own.  It was nice to have someone who actually wanted a second daughter.  And, to her credit, she never begrudged Solari the many nights she joined them for dinner in their hut, staying until it was so late that she was sent to sleep with Ephiny in the curly-headed blonde's big bed.  

She used to say we were joined at the hip.  Solari sat lost in memories of a simpler life when all she knew was training to be a warrior and the company of Ephiny and her mom.  The day Eph's mom had died, it had been a blow to both Ephiny and Solari.  Indeed, it came as no surprise to anyone that Solari grieved for Ephiny's mom more than she had over her own.  It's been a long time since I've been cared for like that.  

Memories of Gabrielle tucking Ephiny into bed, then tenderly kissing her goodnight came flooding back to her.  And, the way Gabrielle had brought her and Lexine in out of the rain, pushing warm, dry clothing on them.  And, the feeling of warmth and love as she awoke in the Queen's bed this morning.  Solari couldn't remember the last time she'd leisurely awoken and not been seized by the urge to immediately bolt from a strange bed.  Brown eyes enviously slid over to the warrior princess' face.  Hope she realizes how lucky she is to have someone like Gabrielle to care so much for her.

Hands clasped tightly together, Gabrielle stalked the length of the hut.  She was restless.  And, growing more so with each passing moment.  She'd spent the better part of the day with Evanthe, going over petition after petition.  Most were sent by communities seeking to open trade routes and other negotiations with the Amazons.  As regent, Ephiny normally overlooked each petition, weighing the benefits of each and ultimately deciding if it was lucrative for the tribe.  Occasionally, when they were visiting - and Xena's too busy hanging with Eponin and Solari - Gabrielle would offer her services in reading some of the petitions.

I actually accused Eph of letting these pile up until I come around.  I never realized how many petitions are delivered within a moon's time!  It was a testament to the success of the village and the reputation of the Amazon Nation that they were so inundated with proposals.  Still, it was such tedious and time consuming work.  No wonder Eph's such a grumpy bear sometimes!

Gabrielle and Evanthe had spent candlemarks reading and analyzing each scroll.  Even with the two of them working together, they'd barely made a dent in the mountain that littered Ephiny's desk.  And, come morning, she was slated to meet with the elder to continue.  Maybe I should consider appointing a permanent assistant to Ephiny.

Rubbing at a persistent crick in her neck, she paused in her pacing at the doorway.  Pulling the curtain back, she peered out the door.  Pelagia was standing outside on the porch, her back to the door.  As she heard the rustling of the curtain, she turned, grey eyes appraisingly looking Gabrielle over from head to toe.

"My Queen," she offered a salute.


Gabrielle hated the need for the use of formal titles from these proud warriors.  After all, they were all born amazons and had trained their entire lives for their positions.  She just happened to be in the forest that day and had done what she would done for anyone else in the same position when she threw herself across their dying princess in a futile attempt to shield her from an assassin's arrows.  It was only through Terreis' dying grace that she'd bestowed her right of caste upon the girl from Potadeia.  I didn't earn my position; it was given to me.

That was the one thought that continued to plague Gabrielle.  She'd grown since then.  Under Ephiny's tutelage, combined with Eponin's guiding hand and Solari's eagle eye, she had honed her skills since taking the crown.  Not to mention Xena's influence.  Every day with her is a learning experience.  Still, she hadn't been tested by the tribe the way the other amazons had been.  She hadn't earned her feathers; she'd inherited them along with her title.

Some days, she felt unworthy to be their Queen.  After all, she was just a simple peasant girl from humble beginnings.  How could she rule the fiercely independent Amazon Nation?  But, through Xena's unwavering belief in her, coupled with the faith of those loyal to her, she would rule.  And, she would do the best she could by these people.  Her people.

"Do you require something?" inquired Pelagia, noting the tired circles beneath the queen's eyes.  "Would you like me to escort you to the dining hut for a mug of hot cider?"

"No, that won't be necessary.  Mytilda's given me a container filled with enough to brew my own in front of the fireplace."  Probably because she was tired of me rooting through her kitchen at all candlemarks looking for another refill.  Gabrielle stepped out on the porch, her bare feet feeling the chill of the evening air as she strode onto the wooden planks.  "What are you doing out here, anyway?"

"I relieved Gryta," Pelagia shrugged.  "With part of the guard - " she glanced around before cautiously settling on the word " - out, it's thrown the rotation schedule off a bit.  I'm just filling in here and there."

"Umm." Gabrielle hadn't taken that into consideration when they'd come up with that part of the plan this morning.  "Any idea how that's coming, anyway?"

"I slipped away earlier and rode out that way.  Lexine's got everything under control.  Eponin was right, you know."

"Yeah?"  Gabrielle folded both arms about her waist, attempting to ward off a chill.  Eponin had taken the opportunity under the guise of a parting embrace to warn Gabrielle of the sort of treachery she should be prepared for.  She had expected Kynthia to make a move, she just hadn't realized it would be so quick in coming.

"She tried to incite the other hunters to go against your directives.  Said they could overpower the guard and ride back into the village."

"I take it the members of the guard were ready?" Gabrielle had hoped to avoid this.  She had assigned enough guards to be able to thwart any resistance they encountered.  But, the last thing she'd wanted was to pit sister against sister.

"Didn't have to be."  Pelagia grinned.  "Seems Cordele's pack isn't as close-knit as we were led to believe.  With the exception of Kynthia, not a single one of them made a move against the guard."

"And, Kynthia?"  Gabrielle asked, hoping the woman had been persuaded to be reasonable.

A broader grin met Gabrielle's question.  "Nursing a broken nose.  Without the support of her pack, she won't be apt to cause any more trouble."

"Still, tell Lexine to have the guards remain vigilant.  We can't afford a slipup.  By anyone."

Pelagia shifted, propping a booted foot on the railing circling the porch.  Eagle eyes observed two amazons, bows slung over their shoulders, carrying a pole with several dangling rabbits firmly secured between them.  Hunters, but not from Cordele's squad.  The women saw the captain of the guard talking with their queen, gave affirming nods before trudging past, heading in the direction of the kitchen.

"Think Xena's found them, yet?" she asked, mindful to keep her voice low.  It was unnerving, being in the center of the village and having to be so mindful of prying eyes and eavesdropping ears.

"They had a huge lead."  Gabrielle cast a glance towards the rapidly descending sun.  Long shadows were already creeping across the sleepy village.  "Even with skilled trackers, she'll be hesitant to follow the trail at night.  Too easy to miss something in the dark."

Pelagia nodded thoughtfully.  "Solari will have them up and back on it before the first rays of dawn."

Gabrielle noncommittally nodded.  She knew Solari's skills well.  Indeed, she'd been in awe of the woman during the three moons she'd spent under her tutelage learning how to read tracks and follow trails.  Blessed with a keen eye, there was little that could slip past her notice.  And, with the added incentive of who they were tracking, she firmly believed the scout wouldn't give up until she'd ran her quarry to ground.

Another unexpected gust of wind blew up, chilling Gabrielle to the bone.  She pushed strands of wind-whipped hair from her eyes, tucked it behind her ear.  Shivering, she bid Pelagia good eve and retreated to the warmth of her hut.  I just hope Xena's keeping warm, she thought, briskly rubbing her hands together in front of the fireplace.

Night was full upon them by the time they'd finished dinner and cleaned up.  By unspoken agreement, they began preparing for bed.  Solari and Xena decided that since they were on Amazon land and they were the hunters, not the hunted, there was little reason to post an overnight guard.  It was relatively safe to allow everyone to bed down and get a good night's sleep for the long day that would greet them tomorrow.

The only amazon Xena had reservations about was Keleos.  She personally knew nothing about the hunter other than the fact that she was obviously aligned with the woman that had abducted Ephiny and Doretta.  In her eyes, that made her just as untrustworthy as Cordele.  Is that really fair of me, though?  How often has Gabrielle been unjustly judged based upon her association with me?  Far more than she deserves, Xena somberly reflected.

For that reason alone, Xena felt a twinge of remorse at not trusting Keleos.  Then, she reasoned, it was based more on just her defense of Cordele that set her nerves on edge.  There was something about her that Xena didn't care for.  Watching the hunter as she prepared her bedroll, Xena strategically thought about where she should place her own pallet.  Between her and the horses seemed like the most likely position.  Course, that puts me farther from the campfire than I'd like.  Guess my comfort is a small price to pay if it means we'll still have our mounts come morning.

Surreptitiously, her gaze traveled the length of the campsite, taking note of where the other inhabitants were settling down.  Opposite the fire from Keleos, Admeta and Metanira had placed their two bedrolls side by side and were already beneath the covers, both sound asleep.  Poor kids are probably worn out.  Xena couldn't help smiling at the identical smiles on tender faces as they slept the peaceful slumber of the innocent.  No doubt this was their first grand adventure and they'd be held in awe by their peers when they were finally allowed to tell the story of their great mission.

The other amazon, Nyxona, was taking her time spreading her bedroll on the ground, pulling the top cover back to allow the campfire a chance to warm the blankets beneath.  Meticulously, she tucked the edges of the cover beneath the blanket to protect her feet from the draft that might creep in during the night.  I've seen brides spend less time readying their marriage beds.

That's when it clicked into place.  Xena's eyes narrowed, studying Nyxona a little more closely.  Sure enough, although her hands were busy, her mind was clearly elsewhere - as was her gaze.  Xena followed her line of sight across the campsite.  Eponin and Solari were on the outskirts of the camp, practically hidden in the darkness of the forest.  Eponin's arms were folded across her barrel chest, a deep frown marring her features.  Solari's hands were firmly planted on her hips as she vehemently spoke with the weapons master.  Both were clearly agitated.

Xena stalked across the campsite, slowing as she neared the two amazons.  They were so lost in their heated discussion, they scarcely noticed Xena's approach.

" - We have to wait until daybreak to pick up the trail," Solari's voice was firm and unyielding.

"We may have to, but you don't," Eponin countered, "I've seen you track deep in the forest on a moonless night without ever losing the trail."

"Not tracking a trained amazon," Solari defended herself, "I can't - "

" - can't or won't?" Eponin countered.  "It took you most of the day to find this trail.  Then, when you do, we catch up to you only to find you already settling into camp for the night.  Why aren't you trying harder to find her?"

Her.  Not them.  Xena waited in the shadows, the arch of an intrigued eyebrow the only indication she was eavesdropping on the not-so-quiet discussion.

"Me?" Solari's voice was incredulous.  "Ephiny was nabbed straight out of her bed while half the village slept off a drunken stupor!  Why are you trying to lay her disappearance solely at my feet?"

"Because half the village didn't leave the feast with her!"  Eponin accused, pointing a finger at Solari.  "You did!  That makes you responsible for her safety!"

"I was responsible, all right," Agreed Solari, "I was the only one responsible last night!"

"And, just what is that supposed to mean?" Eponin huffed, sending a cloud of heated breath into the rapidly chilling night air.

"It means," Solari leveled her gaze at the weapons master, "You were her escort; you should have been there!"  She heard the low warning growl rumbling from  Eponin's throat, saw the twitching of a tight cheek muscle, but chose to ignore the evidence of her sister's growing irritation.  "Instead, you picked a fight with Xena, then dragged the captain of the guard away to take your frustrations out on her, leaving me to babysit a snot-nosed wannabe royal guard charged with protecting the Queen!  So - " Here she emphatically jabbed at Eponin's chest " - if you want to look for someone to blame for Ephiny's disappearance, look at yourself!"

Eponin reached out, lightning quick reflexes grabbing at the finger poking her breast.  "Let's see how responsible you are once you've got that finger jabbed up your feathered - "

"Hold it."  Xena's voice was perfectly calm as she stepped between the two amazons, effectively separating them.  "There's enough blame for everyone  I could have handled things differently.  I should have stayed at the village," she admitted.

Neither amazon spoke, just openly stared at the warrior as if she'd grown a second head.  The warrior princess was actually sharing in the blame?  Eponin shook her head, wondering if she hadn't slipped and bumped her head and this was all part of a fevered hallucination.  For her part, Solari was wondering if her waterskin hadn't been spiked with something a little stronger than spring water.

"I suggest we bed down and get some rest and come morning, let's all try to work together."  She looked pointedly at the two glowering women.  "I think we can all agree the important thing here is not whose fault it is, but that we get everyone back."  Xena expectantly swiveled her gaze back and forth.

"Agreed," Solari spat between clenched teeth.

Eponin, her jaw still locked, merely gave a curt nod as she continued to glower at the scout.  Solari gave one last glare at the weapons master before turning on her heel, stalking across the campsite.  

Xena watched with interest as Nyxona met Solari halfway, wrapping an arm about her waist.  As she guided her towards her bedroll, Xena thought the woman had the chief scout just where she wanted her.  Then, she overplayed her hand by leaning in, whispering something in the brunette's ear.  Solari cast a doubtful glance back over her shoulder towards Xena and Eponin.  

Almost immediately, her visage darkened.  Roughly, she wrenched herself free from Nyxona's grasp.  Xena couldn't hear the words, but she could read the rebuke from all the way across the campsite.  Nyxona started to chase after her, but Solari brushed her off, stalking the distance to her saddlebags.  Withdrawing a blanket, she curled up on the ground, using her saddle for a pillow as she lay down.  In a huff, Nyxona returned to her bedroll alone.

Part 6

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