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



After deciding Cordele wasn't going to press an attack, Ephiny edged her way to a sitting position.  It took a lot out of her, but she was able to brace herself against the cave wall and use it as a means of support.  Breathing heavily, sweat trickling along her brow, she rested her back against the cool wall.  Cradling her injured arm against her body, she openly studied the hunter.

Cordele had merely sat across from her, intently watching as she struggled to an upright position.  Not once had she made a move to assist her - or prevent her.  And, the calm demeanor in which she studied Ephiny made her increasingly nervous.  Something wasn't right.  Everything she knew about Cordele suggested she was confident, boisterous and self-assured.  Her actions so far reflected none of those familiar traits.  

"Where are we?" Ephiny asked, needing to cut through the thick silence.

"A cave halfway up a mountain pass," Cordele shrugged, "One of the caches."

A mountain pass with a cache.  Without knowing which direction they'd been riding, that description did little to enlighten their whereabouts.  The Amazon Nation was riddled with mountains and caves.  And, there were more than a hundred-something caches strategically positioned around the territory in case of emergencies.  Every cache was equipped and stocked with weapons, tinder and supplies, including dried food rations.  A single amazon - or an entire squad - could hole up in a cache indefinitely.  

That unsettled Ephiny.  Now that they were firmly ensconced in such a location, it would be even more difficult to find them.  If Solari couldn't pick up the trail - Ephiny shook her head, mentally chasing away that disturbing thought.  Solari was the best tracker they had.  No one could elude her for long; there wasn't a trail she couldn't follow.  But, what if last night's rains erased the trail?

Was it last night?  Ephiny furrowed her brow in confusion.  She'd lost track of time.  She cast a casual glance about the cave, her gaze settling on the entrance.  Dense branches placed against the opening concealed the outside landscape, but allowed a slim view of the night sky.  But, without being able to see the position of Artemis' moon, she was unable to tell which night.  

Slowly, she allowed her gaze to sweep over the interior of the cave.  As regent, she'd toured many of the caches; part of her duty to see for herself that the stock was well-maintained and the weapons hadn't fallen into disrepair.  Her heart warmed in memory of the last time she'd gone on one of those outings.  Eponin had volunteered to go along with her, citing that weapons were her forte and she was responsible for the stock, even if they weren't in her armory.

Pony had acted as the perfect escort, guiding her on the most efficient course to view as many caches as possible in a moon's time.  She'd insisted on entering each cave first, citing that it wouldn't be beneficial to the tribe to have the regent eaten by a hibernating bear.  And, after securing the cavern and lighting a fire, she put their meal on to cook while Ephiny took an inventory of the supplies.  She not only inspected every weapon in every cache, Ephiny reflected, she also cooked all our meals and laid out our bedrolls every night.  

Looking back, if she'd been with anyone else, the trip could have been considerably less enjoyable.  She'd taken a lot of ribbing from Solari and some of her other peers  when they'd learned the old bear was to be her sole companion on that expedition.  In truth, Ep was one of her closest friends, but she hadn't been quite certain what to expect.  If she had told anyone else that she'd gone to bed each night with a full stomach and an easy, companionable presence to fill the silence, she doubt if they would have understood.  

Except maybe Gabrielle.  Xena was a lot like her Pony.  Both were warriors.  Both weren't given to a lot of conversation.  But, what they couldn't say in words, they made up for in actions.

She didn't recognize this cache.  Or, rather, she did.  That was the problem.  It looked identical to every other cache she'd toured.  All were set up in the same manner, with identical weapons and supplies.  The only differences were the subtle makeup in the wall's interiors.  The caves to the North were predominately comprised of grey stone.  The caverns to the East had black rock mixed in with the grey.  The ones to the West and South, red clay.  That narrowed down the territory a bit, but not by much.  

Still, if she could just get outside, she was certain she could pinpoint her location.  After all, the entire Amazon Nation was her backyard.  Given half a chance, she could find her way home to the main village.  Not likely with that predator between me and the only exit, Ephiny realized, meeting Cordele's cool gaze.  The hunter's mask was impenetrable, giving Ephiny no insight into her plans.  What's going on in that mind of hers? she wondered.

Whatever it is, it can't be good.  Xena noted the way Eponin was still staring at Solari's back.  The scout had settled down for bed, turning away from Eponin's direction, pointedly pulling her blanket up over a hunched shoulder.  Xena knew Morpheus hadn't claimed the chief scout's attention, yet, but he wouldn't be long in coming.

Solari was like that.  She could have a disagreement with you one moment, then forget about it the next.  Maybe not as quick to forgive an argument,  but she could put it to the back of her mind so she could focus on other matters.  Then, when she was ready to address the issue again, she could calmly bring the subject up.  It was part of what made her a good scout, the ability to disassemble and analyze and come up with a logical solution to any problem.

Eponin, on the other hand, was the exact opposite of her counterpart.  She could brood for days, stewing in her own juices until she was to the point her temper was fairly boiling.  Xena suspected that was partially what had happened between the chief scout and the weapons master.  Something had been gnawing away at Eponin and she'd finally lashed out, deservedly or not, at Solari.

Xena was laying out her own bedroll in the location she had scouted out earlier.  Moving to her saddlebags, she intended to see if Gabrielle had perhaps packed a little snack for her to eat.  As she reached her hand inside, the first object she pulled out was the blanket that Gabrielle had stuffed in at the last moment.  A soft smile stole across the warrior's lips as she caught the lingering scent of her soulmate.

And, here I thought I was going to have to rough it.  Grudgingly, the warrior admitted she could endure any hardship, overcome any obstacle, defeat any foe as long as Gabrielle was with her.  It was only when she was without her soulmate at her side that she batted an eye in the face of adversary.  And, while the little blonde that had so skillfully captured her heart wasn't physically there, she could feel the presence of her love.  And, the blanket that she had so thoughtfully included in the saddlebag was a physical manifestation of that love.

Almost ecstatically, Xena crawled into her bedroll, burrowing her way beneath the blanket.  Burying her nose in the soft fabric, she inhaled deeply, smiling at the familiar scent.  Closing her eyes, she slowly allowed her mind to drift away.

Blue eyes blinked open a mere candledrip later.  Inexplicably, she focused on Eponin's frame.  The weapons master was sitting on the cold ground, both ankles crossed, back braced against her saddle.  Her knees were pulled up to her chest, her arms folded about both kneecaps, hands clasped at her wrists.  Unblinking, she continued to stare across the fire at Solari.

Wearily, Xena pushed herself out of her bedroll.  Blanket draped across her shoulder, dragging her bedroll behind her, she stalked across the campsite.  Exhaling loudly to announce her presence, she threw the bedroll down next to the weapons master.  Eponin was unresponsive as Xena settled in next to her.

Not only was the weapons master mad at Solari, she wasn't too fond of Xena at this point, either.  Some of the things Xena had said earlier had hit a little too close to home.  The condition some of them were in after a night of revelry had no doubt contributed to their slow start this morning.  And, she was sure some of them weren't at their best.  She certainly wasn't after kicking Pel's ass all night.  She would be the first to admit that they could have made better time and gone longer before making camp.

To their credit, though, once they were aware of the situation, they had assembled a team as quickly and quietly as humanly possible.  And, they had worked logically and efficiently to find the trail.  Eponin knew Xena righteously blamed the amazons for their regent being snatched out of her own bed while most of them slept off the effects of last eve's feast.  But, the feast was in honor of their Queen.  And, for that, the Amazons would offer no apology.

"Damn piss-poor weather you amazons have here, Ep," Xena groused, "Damn near sweat to death in the daytime and then freeze your ass off at night."

"Season change is always a bitch, Xena.  Blame Demeter and Persephone."  Eponin acknowledged the warrior's presence with her remark, but still refused to look at the woman sitting beside her.  "Next time, schedule your vacation for the spring harvest."

"And have Gabrielle preside over one of your amazon fertility festivals?" Xena snorted, "Not a chance."

Eponin let the retort slide by unchallenged.  The two warriors sat in companionable silence until an unexpected gust of wind blew up, sending leaves hurtling across the clearing.  Eponin fought down an involuntarily shiver as the breeze chilled her to the bone.

Xena made an obvious showing of glancing around for Eponin's bedroll and blanket.  "Pretty sorry state of affairs," she huffed, "When a veteran featherhead forgets to pack half her gear."

"Didn't forget," Eponin barked, casting a sidelong dirty glare at the warrior princess.  "Didn't have time."

"Getting that slow in your old age?" Xena goaded her.  After all, in her opinion, an agitated Eponin was far better than a morose Eponin.

"I didn't have time," Eponin repeated, turning her full ire on Xena.  "I wasn't going.  At least, not until I heard Gabrielle grant permission to that - " she bit out the term with a curl of her lip. " - hunter."

"You weren't going?" Xena's brow arched.  "Then, what were you doing in front of our hut with a saddled horse?" she pressed.

"Eph's horse," Eponin reminded her.  "I was going to take her down to the river."  She caught Xena's wide-eyed stare.  "Eph's blood is all over the pommel, Xena.  And, soaked into Honeycomb's coat."  A ragged breath shook Eponin's frame as a lump formed in her throat.  

No wonder she's so on edge.  "Ep, why didn't you say anything back at the barn?" 

"If I had, would you still be leading a rescue mission?"  With pain-filled eyes, she expressed her unspoken fears to Xena.

Ephiny could already be dead.  For the first time, Xena truly took the time to examine the saddle that Eponin was braced against.  Even in the dim lighting cast from the glow of the campfire, Xena could make out the dark stains upon the leather and the pommel.  The blood in the hut added with the amount of blood on the saddle, plus the horse - 

She's right.  Had I known, I would have brought seasoned killers instead of trackers.  Her gaze settled upon the sleeping forms of the scouts.  It doesn't matter.  Rest assured, Ephiny, I'll see this doesn't go unanswered.  Even if I have to kill your murderess barehanded.  "Hey, don't go thinking the worst," She advised, nudging Eponin's shoulder with her own.  

"Don't try to placate me, Xena.  I'm not some green recruit on my first outing, ya know."  Morosely, she reached over, plucking a blade of grass from the ground.  Tearing it into tiny bits with her fingers, she littered the clearing with the residue. Solari's right; why didn't I stay with her last night?  She reached for another blade of grass, repeating her earlier mutilation. "That's too much blood."

"Who's to say it's all Eph's?" Xena questioned, trying another tactic.  "I mean, come on, she is your regent.  And, the Ephiny I know wouldn't be taken without a fight.  I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't give as good as she got."

"Yeah, that would be just like Eph, wouldn't it?" A hint of a smile crept across Eponin's lips.  "You know, I remember this one time.  We stopped at some little tavern in a hick town we were passing through.  And, there were these guys.  Must have been a dozen of them.  Real rowdy sorts.  It was just the two of us and we were trying to keep our noses in our ale and out of trouble.  But, they spotted Eph and wouldn't take no for an answer.  Even when she tried to explain it real nice like.  Well, one thing led to another, and one of them looked at me and accused her of liking it - " A chuckle escaped Eponin's throat at this point, " - Well, let's just say they accused our fair regent of quite a few things that would make even a hardened warrior princess blush.  Damn if Eph didn't look at them, then look at me, then give this sort of little shrug and reply in that wry voice of hers, "She's more than twice the man you'll ever be."  You should have seen the looks on their faces.  I wasn't sure we were going to get out of there in one piece, but Eph fought her way to the door, pulling me along behind her.  When I looked back, we'd wiped the floor with all twelve of those bastards."

"She's one of your best friends, huh?" Xena prodded, gently nudging Ep with her knee.

"The best," confirmed Eponin.  She bit her bottom lip, nodded her head in affirmation.  "That's why I gotta bring her home.  One way or the other."  

Xena pursed her lips, mulling over her next sentence before it rolled off her tongue.  If she played this wrong, Ep would take her head off.  Sighing heavily, she asked, "Ephiny and Solari grew up together, right?"

Eponin eyed Xena warily.  "Yeeeaaahh," she drew out her response.

"I guess they're pretty tight, too, huh?"

"Gee, Xena, hit me in the head with a staff, why don't ya?"  Eponin rolled her eyes.  "I get what you're saying.  Solari wants to find Eph just as much as I do."  Briskly rubbing her arms, Eponin slouched down, trying to conserve her heat.  "But, she shouldn't have called me out like that."  Even if it's true.

"Mmmm," agreed Xena, slowly chewing on her thumbnail.  "Look, Ep, no one in their right mind would question your devotion to your regent."  Xena didn't look at the weapons master as she said that, not wanting to needlessly embarrass the already volatile amazon.  "Which leads me to my next point.  Something screwy's going on in that village of yours."

Eponin eyed Xena warily, but didn't say anything.

"Haven't you noticed how oddly some of your tribe has been acting?" she prodded, not waiting for an answer before continuing, "You have a shamaness in the village?"

"No," Eponin shook her head.  "I know some of the Northern tribes have one, but Melosa never really went in for that kind of thing.  We've got a priestess, though," she added, "Why?"

"Just wondering."  Xena rubbed her chin in quiet contemplation, "It's almost as if there's another power at work here."

"You think Cordele and the others are acting nutty because there's a hex on them?"

"Don't know, but something's definitely going on," Xena shrugged, "I'd like to talk with your priestess when we get back."  Seeing her opportunity to play peacemaker, Xena leapt at it.  "Just keep in mind some of your sisters may not be in complete control of their actions right now.  Let's give them the benefit of the doubt until we know for sure what's going on, huh?"

Eponin frowned at Xena's suggestion.  She knew what the warrior was hinting at, but she wasn't sure she was ready to let her anger go quite so quickly.  Her gaze settled on the scout across the fire.  She had witnessed the exchange between the two amazons earlier and the uncharacteristic rejection.  Now, Nyxona was kneeling by Solari's bedroll, making another attempt.  Solari was firmly shaking her head, attempting to brush off a questing touch.  Guess that's really not like Solari, is it?  she pondered, watching as Solari rolled over, turning her back on the other woman.

"I'll make nice tomorrow."  She frowned at Xena's narrowed eyes, paused from the action of briskly rubbing both arms long enough to hold up two fingers pressed together.  "Amazon's honor."

"Yeah?  Well, you won't be apologizing to anyone tomorrow if you freeze to death tonight."    

Xena planted her palm against Eponin's chest, firmly pushed her backwards.  Before she could react, she was flat on her back, with Xena hovering above her, situating her blanket around the both of them.  Instinctively, Eponin struggled to get up.  Once again, she found a hand steadfastly holding her down.

"Relax," Xena drawled, "I'm not after anything except your body heat."

"Xena - " Eponin feebly protested.

"My bones are cold.  Now, shut up and go to sleep," Xena admonished, closing her eyes.  "And, not a word of this to anybody."  She settled down, laying her head on the amazon's shoulder.  Snuggling closer, she braced her hand and forearm across Eponin's ribs, using her weight to keep the weapons master firmly in place.  As she heard the amazon grumbling beneath her breath, she allowed a smirk to cross her lips, confident that Eponin couldn't see it in the darkness.  

Ephiny judged it to be less than a candlemark before dawn.  The fire had burned low, casting an eerie pitch about the interior of the cave.  Blinking in the near total darkness, she stared at the opposite wall. 

Cordele hadn't moved in more than two candlemarks.  She's finally asleep.  Ephiny slowly started to unfold her legs, then stopped as she caught a flicker of movement.  Twice before she'd thought the hunter was asleep, only to have her bolt upright in complete awareness the instant she'd made a move.  Ephiny hesitated, waiting to see if Cordele offered further signs of waking.

She'd attempted to reason with Cordele.  But, every time she approached the subject of her abduction, Cordele became tight-lipped and refused to acknowledge her.  She wouldn't even answer the most innocent of questions, such as how long they were going to be here.  Well, that probably wasn't as innocent as I tried to make it sound.  But, you can't blame a captive for trying.

She'd finally given up, realizing she was only wasting time and energy on the hunter.  She obviously had no intention of talking to her.  The more Ephiny pressed, the more resistant and withdrawn the hunter became.  Hades, she wouldn't even get a skin of water for me when I said I was thirsty.  So much for professing your loyalty to your regent.  

From her best guess, she hadn't had anything to eat or drink since the feast.  If someone had given her a skin of water while she was slumped across that beast Cordele called a horse, she wasn't aware of it.  Come on Ephiny, you've gotta  get out of here!

Eponin rolled over onto her back.  Her blanket slid down her torso, sliding to her hips with the languid movement.  Dimly, she became aware of the chilly night air prickling at her skin.

The drop in temperature rousing her from her slumber, she slowly blinked her eyes open.  It was a dark, moonless night, the stars blanketed by low hanging storm clouds.  A glance at the fire confirmed that it had burned down in the candlemarks since she'd retired.  And, a slow moving fog was slowly gathering, rolling in from the distant river.

Unable to go back to sleep, something irritating her senses, the weapons master lay still upon her bedroll, listening to the sounds of the sleeping camp.  She was able to correctly identify and isolate the breathing and soft snores coming from the hunters and the young scouts.  A glance at Nyxona's bedroll proved it was empty, but sharp eyes were able to discern the bulk of two forms huddled beneath Solari's blanket.  Guess you couldn't refuse her for long could you, Solari?  That left only Xena unaccounted for.

That could mean trouble.  She had drawn her blanket back and was preparing to get up when she heard the noise.  Faint, but unmistakable to a seasoned warrior's ears.  The sound of steel sliding repetitively back and forth across whetstone. She lay there for long heartbeats, sensitive ears honing in on the intimate lullaby of a weapon being lovingly sharpened.  

Before long, keen eyesight had correctly identified the mass sitting on a distant rock as Xena.  One leg was drawn up, the sole of her boot finding purchase on the boulder she was perched upon.  The flat of her blade lay against her upper thigh, the hilt cradled in the crook of one arm.  Her other arm was continuously in motion, her hand gliding over the blade in a symphony that matched the sounds of metal and stone that drifted over the campsite.

Comforted by the familiar sight and sound of Xena guarding them, the amazon moved to resettle herself on her bedroll.  As she turned away from the others, she saw someone coming out of the forest.  A lone figure moving with unerring grace and precision slowly making their way into the campsite.

She was propped up on one elbow, fingers searching the blankets for her sword, a half breath away from raising the alarm when something caused her to stop.  She could see long, slender fingers carried no weapon.  But, an assassin needs no weapon other than their bare hands.  Something else niggled at her, though, refusing to allow her to call out to the others.  

Slowly, so not as to attract the intruder's attention, she made her way to her knees.  She had been chilled before when she'd lost her blanket in her slumber.  Now, wide awake, she felt the damp air on her flesh and only felt the warm heat of danger about her.  

The intruder walked closer.  She used the term 'walk' because the interloper appeared to be making no effort at stealth, moving with a steady gait on a course straight into the camp.  Eponin heard no sound to accompany the footsteps, no rustling of bushes, no snapping of twigs underfoot.  But, she was coming too quickly to be employing any means of subterfuge.

She.  The weapons master had resolved with herself that this was a female by the womanly curves that were becoming undeniably visible as she drew nearer with each step.  A lone woman because her senses would not allow her to accept that anyone else was in the forest beyond the campsite.  As her intruder stepped from the protective camouflage of the forest and into the open clearing, their gazes met.  Eyes glowing luminescent gold in the dark night eerily stared into hers, making Eponin blink back a sudden wave of moisture blurring her vision.

Blinking rapidly, she was unable to focus until she felt a cold, soothing touch on the heated flesh of her shoulder.  Fingers moved with a feather-light touch over her cheek, catching the moisture on a fingertip before wiping it away.  A slight smile formed on a delicate set of lips as she gazed down at the formidable weapons master.

"Eph?" Eponin was hardly able to form the name upon her lips.  "You escaped?"  Seeing the smile deepen, she was finally able to spur her body into action.  "We have to tell the others."  Eyes were already darting about the campsite, debating on who she should rouse first as she made a move to rise.

Strong fingers of one hand held her immobilized on her knees.  Confusion shining in her eyes, Eponin tried again to rise, only to find herself firmly held in place by her regent.  "Eph - " 

The words died on her lips as a single finger was placed against them.  "Shush, my sweet Pony."  A tremor swept through the weapons master's entire being at the words softly spoken in that voice she'd feared she'd never hear again.  A smile lighting her eyes, Ephiny leaned in, tilting her head.  Eponin remained frozen in place as agonizingly slow, soft lips met hers. "This time is for us alone."

The kiss was light and gentle.  And so fleeting that Eponin wasn't sure it had really happened until Ephiny lowered her mouth to hers once again.  What the previous kiss lacked in longevity and strength, this one made up for with passionate ardor.  If the first kiss was a drizzling of affection, the second was nothing short of a deluge.  It was as if a storm cloud of passion had suddenly burst, raining down upon the amazons.

Tongues meeting, thrusting in a dueling frenzy, both amazons struggled for control.  Kneeling together on the blanket, bodies pressed against each other in a heated embrace, Eponin felt a set of powerful hands clasp onto her hips, tugging her hard into a svelte frame.  Ephiny's tongue swirled deeply in Eponin's mouth, then slowly withdrew, enticing Ep's tongue to follow.  The brunette eagerly complied, sliding her tongue past luscious lips and plunging into liquid warmth.  She foraged deeply, her tongue reaching every recess before slowly withdrawing.  A whimper escaped the weapons master's lips as her oral digit was firmly caught between sharp teeth.

If she had been chilled before, she was overheating now.  Her breathing was coming in rapid gulps, her chest was heaving, layers of sweat coating her flesh as if she'd just run to Sparta and back.  In contrast, Ephiny was as cool and crisp as if she'd just bathed in a river of ice.  Hands roamed freely over Eponin's body, fingers cooling her flesh with her touch before igniting a deeper burn beneath the skin.

Hands and fingers were seemingly everywhere, gliding over every bit of flesh in their path.  Poor Eponin's mind was broiling with each touch, her senses overloading as her feverish brain struggled to keep up.  It's never been  - no one's ever wanted me like - Her eyes rolled back in her head as sharp teeth bit into the hollow of her throat.  I've always - 

Her mind shut down as her regent boldly continued to touch her in ways no amazon ever had.  Eponin was an experienced lover and by no means naive when it came to carnal desires.  But, in all her dalliances, it was understood that she was in control of the situation.  She set the pace, she dictated the pleasure and she commanded the release.  Hers as well as theirs.  Never like this - 

Hands were at the back of her skirt, palms shoving the leather over her hips.  A cool puff of air gusted over her buttocks, chilling her flesh before Ephiny's touch heated it again.   Hands clutching both globes, kneading the flesh, she pulled the weapons master's body into hers as her teeth and tongue continued to work at Eponin's straining neck.

Breathing erratically, hot puffs visible in the chill air, Ephiny drew back, staring at Eponin through hooded eyes.  Bringing her hands up, palms moving over the hardened ridges of the weapons master's abdomen, her lips curled into a feral sneer.  Both hands surged over her ribs, nails biting into hardened flesh.  Fingertips slipped beneath Eponin's halter, roughly lifting the material over well-defined breasts.

A growl rose in Ep's throat as Ephiny's hands closed about her breasts, harshly kneading the flesh in the same manner she had her vulnerable buttocks.  Eponin's own hands snaked their way down the blonde's torso and over her backside, seeking purchase beneath the butter-soft leather.  Her hands squeezed in reflex as her regent's fingers brutally twisted and pulled at her stiff nipples.

Loud moans echoed in Eponin's ears, driving her to distraction until she realized it was her making the animalistic sounds.  Finally coming to her senses, she placed both hands on Ephiny's shoulders, applying just enough pressure to shove her away far enough so she could look her in the eyes as she spoke to her.

"Eph, wait."  To Eponin's consternation, Ephiny did just that; she held her nipples clenched firmly between thumbs and forefingers, pulled away from her chest at an almost painful distance.  "The camp," she managed to rasp out.  Ephiny let loose one nipple, only to grab it between her teeth, giving it the same rough treatment.  "Someone will hear."

Ephiny paused in her ministrations just long enough to smirk, "Then, I guess you'll just have to be quiet, won't you?"

"I can't - " Eponin's eyes threatened to roll back in her head as Ephiny's hands went straight back to her buttocks.  

"You can."  Ephiny cupped one magnificent globe in the palm of her hand, basking in the feel of the flesh beneath her touch.  With her other hand, she darted between Pony's open legs, fingers delving into copious amounts of moisture.  "And, you will," she ordered, teeth savagely biting into the weapon's master unbearably swollen nipple, "Or, I will stop."

Hips surged, rocking to a centuries old tempo.  Sweat-slickened flesh glistened in the dim early rays of dawn, running off Eponin's ebony hair in rivulets, cascading over her heated flesh.  She bit her bottom lip, clenching her jaw until she thought the bone would break beneath the pressure.  She tasted copper in her mouth as her teeth pierced her lip in the effort it took to remain silent.  Her feathers hung limply about her wrists, tickling along Ephiny's sensitive flesh as Ep desperately clutched at her buttocks as she bucked her hips into her regent.

Fingers moved unimpeded through liquid heat, basking in the feel of full lips as she slid her fingers along womanly folds.  Eponin's eyes slammed shut as fingertips coated that little bundle of nerves safely hidden in that secret cleft.  Her head fell back, ebony locks trailing over her spine as three fingers abruptly plunged into her depths.  

"That's it, Pony."  Ephiny reveled in the feel of the tight walls clenching at her fingers.  "I knew you'd be like this."  She plunged deeper, knowing this was what the weapons master secretly craved.  For someone else to take control; for someone to take her.  Hard and fast and unrelenting.  "Give it to me.  Let me hear you," she rasped into Eponin's ear.  "Come for me.  NOW!" 

Throat constricting, neck muscles tightening, vocal cords were rubbed raw as a continuous war-cry was wrenched from Eponin's depths as her climax unraveled the last threads of her control.

Confident that Cordele was indeed asleep, Ephiny slowly rose to her knees.  Pausing, she gave her knotted, screaming muscles a chance to adjust to the movement after so many candlemarks of inactivity.  Feeling the pinpricks in her legs and feet, she steadied herself against the wall, waiting for the blood to start circulating in those areas again.

Gingerly, she picked her way along the floor of the cave.  Biting the inside of her cheek, she willed herself to ignore the pain caused by the tiny slivers of rock biting into the soles of her feet with each step.  Gradually, she eased past the hunter, keeping herself pressed as tightly to the cavern wall as possible.

As she passed Cordele and neared the mouth of the cave, she finally breathed a sigh of relief.  She would have liked to have picked up one of the weapons from along the back wall, but instinctively knew that much ruckus would surely wake her slumbering captor.  Best to find the horse and get the Hades away from here.  Painstakingly, she reached out a shaking hand, fingers inching apart the leaves covering the entrance.  

The covering was quickly pulled apart, revealing the subtle pink hues of a sun not yet risen.  Then, the sky was blotted out as someone stepped in front of her, savagely grabbing Ephiny's wrist.  She froze as a blade was edged beneath her throat.

"Back inside."  Ephiny hesitated beneath the command.  "Now!"

"Now," Xena proclaimed, "We have to break camp now."

"Working on it," Eponin growled, hefting the saddle onto Honeycomb.  She'd woken up from the most amazing dream to the harsh reality of a crick in her neck and being intimately curled up with a dangerous ex-warlord.  And, right now, she wasn't happy about either of those things.  At least I was warm, she mused.  Once she'd realized where she was and whose hand that was, she quickly extricated herself from both the blanket and the situation.  Her mind still reeled from the intensity of her fantasy as images continued to roll past her eyes with vivid clarity.  Putting her excess energy to use, she already had three other horses saddled and waiting, including Lightning.

Nyxona was rolling up her bedroll, tying the bundle together with corded rope.  Xena smirked; the amazon wasn't nearly so meticulous as she'd been in laying it out last night.  Guess someone woke up on the wrong side of the bedroll this morning.

Keleos was hurriedly throwing sand over the campfire ring.  As Metanira quickly retrieved her small stew pot off the spit, she stepped backwards, her foot catching awkwardly on one of the stones ringing the fire circle.  Losing her balance, she pitched sideways, nearly spilling the entire contents of the pot on the hunter.

"Son of a Bacchae!"  Keleos shouted, jumping back.

"Sorry."  Metanira blushed furiously, offering apology after apology.

The hunter growled, disdainfully eyeing her boots.  A rather unappetizing looking clump of stuffing stuck to the toe and ran down the side of the leather footwear.  "Stupid, clumsy daughter of a - " Her tirade trailed off as she looked up into the piercing blue eyes of the warrior princess.

"Problem?" Xena asked, arms firmly folded over her breastplate as she leveled her most menacing glare at the hunter.

"Yeah, this stupid scout wasn't watching what she was - "

" - She said she was sorry."  Some amazons are either just too proud or just too stupid to know when to quit, aren't they?  Xena's gaze flickered to the edge of the forest, where Admeta was just returning with their filled waterskins.  The young scout halted at the sight of the tense confrontation.  Good, at least she's smart enough not to get involved.  The warrior's gaze shifted back to the hunter.  "Get the rest of your gear packed up and let's get going."

Keleos glared defiantly at Xena, a retort hovering on the tip of her tongue.  Eyes narrowed to tiny slits, hands clenched into angry fists at her side.  She seriously contemplated taking a swing at the taller brunette.  No, not now.  Wait for a more opportune moment, she cautioned herself, acutely aware of every eye in the camp trained on her.  Lip curled into a sneer, she backed away, her gaze never leaving that of the warrior princess'.  When she was no fewer than ten paces distant, she abruptly turned, stomping off in the direction of her gear.

"Save some of that venison for Solari.  She'll be hungry by the time we catch up," Xena advised, turning her attention back to Metanira.  She gave the young scout a reassuring pat on the shoulder before walking away.

As she rolled up her bedroll and stuffed her blanket back in her saddlebag, Xena watched the activity around the camp.  Everyone worked in silent efficiency, breaking down and packing away their supplies.  If anyone had dared looked at the warrior princess, they would have been witness to the tiny smile that flitted across her lips as she saw Admeta gingerly approach Metanira, slipping an arm about her friend's waist, murmuring low in her ear.  Admeta deftly lifted the pot from Metanira's grasp, relieving the amazon's burden.  

Cute.  Wonder if I was ever that obvious?  A wry grin spread over her lips.  Face it, Warrior; only to anyone who's ever seen you with a certain bard.  Hefting her bedroll over her shoulder, she quickly strode over to where Eponin was steadily readying the saddles.  She deftly slung her gear over Lightning's back, secured it to the saddle.

"Solari's been on the move for over a candlemark, now," Xena observed, checking the position of the sun through the forest canopy, "I'm going to ride out and meet up with her.  Follow as soon as you get everything packed up."

Eponin nodded, "Mounts are ready.  You want me to come with you?" she offered.

"No."  Xena's eyes signaled her intentions to her friend.  "I'm counting on you to watch over them."

"Right."  Eponin bit her bottom lip, watching as Xena swung into the saddle.  Translation:  You need a bad ass to keep Keleos in line.  "Be careful," she advised, swatting Lightning's rump to get the horse moving.

Xena grasped the reins loosely, relaxed in the saddle.  Flipping her ebony locks over one shoulder, she flashed a dazzling smile at the weapons master, "Always am," she answered saucily, spurring her mount.  

Eponin watched until horse and rider were well out of sight before turning back to the camp.  "You heard her, you lazy bunch of amazons, get a move on it!" she barked out.  A satisfied grin spread over her face as the women gave a little start, then hurried to finish their packing up.

Solari knelt at the bank of a river cutting a wide swath across her path.  Reaching out, she ran the tips of her fingers over the impression of a hoofprint.  The muddy bank was conducive to leaving a fairly clear trail.  At least until they entered the river.  The amazon edged forward, the water swirling over her boots.  Biting her bottom lip in concentration, she inched farther and farther into the river, feeling the cold water rushing up and over her thighs as she crept along.

Shielding her eyes against the rising morning sun, she focused on the opposite bank.  From her current position, she couldn't see any easily discernible tracks on the opposite bank.  Idly, she cupped her hands in the cool water, bringing it to her lips.  As she drank her fill, she allowed her mind to wander.  

If I was Cordele, what would I do?  It was a method she often employed in her tracking.  She would let go of her thoughts, willing herself to take on the characteristics of who she was trailing, letting herself become them.  It allowed her to think like they would think, predict the actions her quarry would take.  Out-thinking your enemy, was what Melosa termed it.

Standing there in the river, the water running unheeded over her skirt, soaking into her leathers, she stared up and down the river.  After several long moments, she made her decision.  Taking one last handful of water into her mouth, she stood up, heading deeper into the moderate current.

A sinking stone settled in the pit of Ephiny's stomach as she was forced back down onto the blanket on the floor.  Her captor cautioned her against any foolish moves before moving away.  She returned a split candledrip later, a manacle and a length of chain held in both hands.  Every instinct Ephiny had urged her to bolt for the cave entrance.   But, given her injuries, she knew she wouldn't get halfway there before she would be caught and dragged back.  

The metal was cold as it was fastened about her slender ankle.  Despite her earlier rationalizations against running, Ephiny impulsively bolted, frantically struggling to her knees.  Across the cave, she heard a shout of alarm from Cordele.  Her shoulder injury hampered Ephiny's speed, making her an easy target for the backhanded slap that whipped across her cheek.  A hand buried itself in her blonde locks, cruelly yanking her back down.  

"Doretta - " Ephiny's voice came out low and menacing.  She knelt on the blanket, wiping at her mouth with the back of her hand.  She could taste the bitter, metallic tang in her mouth, smell it in her nostrils.  Bright eyes flashed, nostrils flared, her jaw clenched as her anger boiled just beneath the surface.

"Dori!" shouted Cordele, throat muscles constricting with her own barely restrained anger.  "The penalty for striking the Regent of the Amazons is death by drawing and quartering!"

"It's her fault," Dori protested, shaking two trembling fingers at the regent in accusation, "You made me do it.  I told you not to move."

Her waning strength sapped from just that little exertion, Ephiny was forced to concede.  Though she fiercely wanted to, she couldn't argue or fight with the stablehand over this any more.  She needed to regroup, regain her strength and rethink her plans.  Despite every muscle in her body screaming in protest, she forced herself to remain stock still as Doretta knelt on the blanket in front of her.

Adjusting the manacle to size, the kneeling amazon used an iron pin to lock the two pieces together.  Fingers followed the length of the chain, measuring out distance.  Once satisfied she'd given her prisoner just enough length she could be comfortable, but not enough to be dangerously in reach of the fire or any other potential weapons, she pulled an iron ring on a spike from the waistband of her belt.  Using the flat of her sword as a hammer, she beat the spike into the clay floor.  

"There," she proudly proclaimed, fixing the length of Ephiny's chain to the ring.  She gave it a firm tug, testing that it was secure.  "That'll keep you from running away again."  

"Doretta."  Despite the rage within begging to be released, Ephiny forced herself to control her rapidly fraying temper.  Struggling, she reined in her voice until she hoped it held some semblance of the calm she didn't feel.  "I know this isn't you.  I know she put you up to this."  Ephiny kept her voice at a forced whisper.  "You don't have to let Cordele bully you into doing this."

"What did you say?" Dori turned her mounting indignation on the hunter.  "What did you tell her?" she demanded, her voice rising in pitch.

"I didn't have to say anything, Dori."  Cordele's lips formed into a derisive sneer.  "The regent herself knows you're not smart enough to pull this off."

Cordele's taunts fueled Doretta's irrational anger.  Fuming, she snatched up her sword, approaching the seated hunter.  As she neared, Cordele flexed, attempting to take the stablehand down with a rapid leg sweep.  Doretta saw the flash of movement, tried to compensate.  Her legs became entangled with Cordele's, throwing her off balance.  As she fought to right herself, she lost her grip on her sword, sending it skittering along the cavern floor.

Seeing her chance, Cordele scrambled for the sword.  Her fingertips stretched, reaching for the hilt.  Ephiny struggled against her chain, trying to find enough length to join in the fray.  Her eyes widened as Cordele's forward momentum was abruptly jerked to a halt.  The hand the hunter had kept firmly tucked behind her back the entire time had a manacle fastened about it; a thick chain running from the shackle to an iron ring hammered into the solid cave wall.  

Straining, grunting with the effort, Cordele fought to push herself as far away from the wall as possible.  A glance back revealed Dori shakily stumbling to her feet.  Looking at Ephiny, she realized the regent was too far away to be of any help. 

Every muscle screaming in protest, Cordele redoubled her efforts.  Her fingertips worked along the edge of the hilt, trying to get enough of a grip to drag the sword closer.  Metal scraping against stone overshadowed the heavy breathing of all three women as the blade was slowly retrieved across the floor.  Just as Cordele's fingers were solidly closing about the worn hilt, a leathered boot brutally stomped down on her hand.  Screaming in agony, she didn't see the follow-up kick that connected with her temple, sending her crashing face first into the unyielding cavern floor.

Gabrielle let out a low moan as she repeatedly beat her head against the surface of the regent's desk.  The elder seated directly across from her looked up from the parchment she'd been reading, a bemused expression on her face.  At length, the little queen stopped banging her head, letting it come to a rest atop the solid wooden surface.  Rolling her head to the side, she gazed up at Evanthe through bleary eyes.

"Are you done, my Queen?" Evanthe solicitously inquired, unable to keep the amused lilt from her voice.

"How can you stand it?" asked Gabrielle, throwing her hands in the air.  Jumping up to pace the length of the room, she gesticulated wildly.  "Stuck in here, reading petition after petition, scroll after scroll?  I swear to Artemis, if I read one more slip of parchment, I'm going to carve my own eyes out with a dull knife!"

"My Queen?" The captain of the guard inquired as she stuck her head inside the door of the hut.

Gabrielle stopped her ranting, stilled her pacing, long enough to cast a menacing glare at the captain.  "Yes, Pelagia?  What is it?" she asked, her tone eerily reminiscent of a certain warrior princess' growl.

"One of the priestesses from the Temple of Artemis requests an audience."

The queen lowered her head, pinching the bridge of her nose between her fingers.  She exhaled loudly, waved her hand dismissively.  "Fine.  As long as she doesn't have anything for me to read."

"Umm," Pelagia ducked her head back outside a moment, then returned, quickly replying, "No, your majesty.  No scrolls, no parchment of any kind in her hand."

"Search her before you let her in."  She caught the incredulous look from the elder and the guard.  "Just to be sure," she explained with a shrug.

In the few moments it took for the priestess to be ushered in, Gabrielle took the opportunity to regain her composure.  Closing her eyes, taking several deep breaths, she steadied herself. By the time the hide covering was pulled back, the Queen of the Amazons was firmly in residence.

"My Queen," a woman dressed in flowing white and gold robes bowed low as she swept into the room.

"Priestess," Gabrielle returned the courtesy with a smile.  "I understand you've requested an audience?"

"Yes, my Queen."  The young priestess nervously twisted the ceremonial rings upon her fingers.  "With Artemis."

Both of Gabrielle's eyebrows shot up in unison.  "Oh?"  A puzzled expression clearly adorned the queen's face.  "I thought you meant with me."

"I do.  I mean, I did. But, I also requested - " the priestess stammered to a halt, then proceeded again.  "I mean, yes I requested an audience with you.  After one with Artemis.  That is, I - "

"Stop!"  Gabrielle held up a commanding hand, effectively silencing the woman.  "You're making me dizzy."  Rolling her eyes at the silently smirking Evanthe, Gabrielle tried a new tact.  "Are you here to seek my help on a problem at the temple?" she prompted.

"Yes."  The priestess took a steadying breath.  Finally, she was getting somewhere!  "Artemis has not taken up residence in her temple in over five days and nights," she explained.  "The Goddess of the Hunt has always been attentive to her priestesses and houses of worship.  It is unheard of for her to abandon her temple for so long a period."

"Have you discussed this with the High Priestess?" Gabrielle asked, thinking of the dominating personality that had presided over the opening ceremonies of the feast.

"Yes, but - " the priestess paused, twisting the ceremonial rings upon her fingers again.  " - But she says it is nothing for us to worry ourselves over.  She says that everything within the Nation is as it should be."  The young woman's words faltered as she cast pleading looks from her queen to her elder.  "But, I can feel it.  I can sense it in my prayers.  Something is wrong at the temple.  And, with the nation."

Gabrielle's brow furrowed.  How could she possibly know of the troubles plaguing the Amazon Nation?  And, if the high priestess was aware of this, why hadn't she counseled the queen?  She looked from the distraught face of the priestess to the stony countenance of Evanthe.  Thought she was supposed to help me with the tough stuff.  Receiving no insight from the elder, Gabrielle did what she thought was the best thing given the circumstance.  Nothing.

"Listen, even Gods need a vacation now and then, right?" She asked, placing a commiserating arm about the shoulders of the young priestess.  "Why don't you head back to your temple," she turned the holy woman around, aiming her in the direction of the door, "Remain steadfast in your prayers to Artemis and she will speak to you again in time.  And, as soon as my duties permit, I'll personally go the the temple and petition your high priestess."

"Yes, my Queen," the priestess found herself nodding along with her majesty's bobbing head and her mesmerizing voice.  Before she knew it, she was outside the hut, standing beside the captain of the guard, not quite certain what had happened or how she'd gotten there.

Once the covering draped across the doorway was back in place, Gabrielle walked back across the room.  Making a showing of dusting her hands off, she daintily sat in the chair behind the desk.  Feigning obliviousness to Evanthe's amused grin, she picked up a scroll and unrolled it, pretending to bury her nose in her work.

Now, that's a queen, Evanthe thought, marveling at Gabrielle's unexpected technique.  She'd heard the bard was a smooth master of words, but she'd never have believed it if she hadn't seen it with her own eyes and heard it with her own ears.

If only the elder could read Gabrielle's thoughts, she'd realize just how unnerved her nonplussed-looking queen really was at that moment.  Great.  Assassination attempts.  Abducted regents.  Missing Gods.  Just a typical day in the life of an Amazon Queen, right?  I mean, I just wanted a little vacation, a little time away from the craziness of the road.  Maybe we should have gone to Lesbos instead.

The chief scout stood, hands planted firmly on both hips, surveying the majestic forest surrounding her on all sides.  A frown marred her otherwise beautiful features, brows furrowed as she intently listened.  Slowly, she turned to her left, rolling her shoulders in a covert action.  Muscles tensing imperceptibly, her puckered brow deepened.

Using the same shoulder roll to mask her look to the right, sandalwood eyes rapidly swept over the lush forest undergrowth.  Breathing deeply, then exhaling, she closed her eyes, willing herself to relax.  A rustling in the bush caused both eyes to hurriedly snap open.  Quickly unsheathing her sword, she darted into the undergrowth.

Sword raised, she stared in disbelief as a wolf cub blinked up at her with wide eyes.  Bravely, he tottered forward on shaky legs, sniffing at one of her boots.  With a ferocious growl that brought an involuntary smile to her lips, he nipped at the soft leather.

Feeling the tension upon the toe of her boot, Solari gazed down at the little predator with bemused tolerance, watching in rapt fascination as he dug all four feet firmly into the soft earth, using his whole body to insistently tug at her.  When he lost his grip and fell back on his haunches, he looked up at her with a baleful cast to his dark eyes.  Then, he was up and shaking himself off, launching himself right back at the offending leather.

"Determined to carry me home to the pack, are you, little one?" chuckling, Solari reached down, picking up the squirming cub with one hand.  Ruffling her fingers through his downy soft fur, she coolly appraised him.  He blinked back at her, cocking his head to the side, one ear drooping at the movement.

Thoroughly charmed, the scout reached out, using her short nails to scratch the spot between his ears.  His eyes narrowed to tiny slits, a low rumbling sound worked its way up from his throat.  And, before she could pull back, he had one of her digits caught between sharp, canine incisors.

With a yelp, Solari jerked her finger back, shaking it.  Peering closely at the tiny prick of blood that was beginning to well up, she cast a dark glower at the tiny predator.  Holding him extended at arm's length, she peered at him eye to eye.  Blinking, he returned her steely gaze.  With a smirk and a rueful laugh, she turned him around, placing him on the ground with a swat to his rear.  Looking back, he seemingly returned her earlier dark glower before darting back into the undergrowth.

She watched his progress, marked by the occasional rustle of a leaf and a shake of a branch.  Gaze still intently watching the direction he'd gone, she unconsciously raised her throbbing finger to her mouth, sucking at her wound.  She tasted the copper of her blood in her mouth, drew back to look at the bite.  It was still bleeding, but only minimally.  Shaking her head, she mumbled, "Chasing wolf cubs in the forest.  I must be losing it."

"Maybe I can help you find it, scout."

The low voice came out as a heated whisper, tickling her inner ear, sending a shiver racing down her spine.  A pair of hands closed upon her shoulders, curly locks drawing intimately gentle caresses over the flesh of her cheek and the line of her jaw.  A set of womanly breasts pressed against her back, the familiar leather and feathers of the regent's vest tickling at her flesh.

"Ephiny."  The name came out in a heated rush.

Eyes slid shut as a tongue traced the delicate shell of her ear.  Her sword arm hung loosely at her side, her weapon falling to land softly upon the forest floor as the muscles in her wrist turned to liquid beneath Ephiny's onslaught.  The short nails favored by the practical amazon trailed down both arms, leaving feather-light delicious tracks of fire licking at her flesh.  A pert nose nudged the feathers out of her way so that soft lips could rain softer kisses upon a bare shoulder.

Palms covering the backs of both of Solari's hands, her lingering touch slowly slid down until each of her fingers were intimately intertwined with those of the scout.  Tongue slowly suckling at the rapidly fluttering pulse point of a supple neck, Ephiny brought both sets of hands up, using the strength in her own arms and hands to lead Solari's palms over the expanse of her own stomach.  Guided by her packmate's hands, the touch was more erotic than anything Solari had ever experienced before.  Inhaling deeply, she resisted the urge to moan as she pressed back into the woman leaning into her.

Her reward was a slight rumbling against her neck as a growl eerily reminiscent of that of the wolf cub escaped Ephiny's lips, trembling against her flesh.  Once again, Solari resisted the urge by biting down on her lip.  A tiny whimper forced its way out as she felt a set of hips surge forward against her backside.

Ephiny suckled and nipped at her neck, gliding her cool tongue over heated flesh.  Lips moved, working their way at a tantalizingly slow pace back to her ear.  Teeth closed about her lobe, playfully nipping before settling into a suckling motion.

Hands inched their way up Solari's torso, palms grazing over leather, barely brushing over rapidly hardening nipples as they strained against the material of her halter.  The scout felt her own hips surge at the contact, her body trying to intimate a firmer touch.  Low laughter tickling the hair cascading about her ear, Ephiny deftly managed to avoid the prolonged contact Solari sought.  Twice more, she surged forward, trying to arch herself into the needed caress.

When Ephiny relented after the third attempt, allowing the delicious contact, the repeatedly suppressed moan managed to make an escape from between tightly clenched lips.  Ephiny grinned against Solari's ear as she pressed in firmly, using both their hands to close about the brunette's breasts.

"When we were in the jail," her breath husked into Solari's ear, "and that thief needed your clasp to pick the lock - " Ephiny controlled their hands, moving one over the swell of a breast, using their intertwined fingers to flick at the metal holding the scout's top closed.  Solari let out a sharp gasp in response, jutted her hips back into Ephiny's body.  Legs locked, feet spread apart in a firm stance, Ephiny stood her ground.  " - I wanted to break his other arm."

"I know," panted Solari, shuddering as dual fingers flicked over her hardened nubs before cupping both full breasts in her palms, "I could see it in your eyes."

Teeth bit sharply into the pulse point at her neck.  Peering over her shoulder, Ephiny's gaze seared her flesh as she looked down at their joined hands.  Leading their hands in an eerie replication of the way Solari had held her top closed in the jail, she husked out, "I was furious at you for letting him look at you that way, letting him put his hand there."

"I wanted it to be you," Solari admitted in a breathless whisper.

As one hand left her breast and slowly trailed her ribs and across her belly, Solari's head lolled back, resting against Ephiny's shoulder.  Fingers worked their way lower, lifting the edge of her skirt, intimately caressing a powerful thigh.  Lips made their way across her jaw, settling upon a set of luscious, full lips as her touch crept deliciously higher.

Solari surrendered, feeling Ephiny's tongue glide over her lips, teasing as her fingers performed the same dance on another set of softer, more sensitive lips.  As her tongue became bolder, delving deeper into her moist, heated mouth, her fingers again followed her tongue's lead.  And, as her muscular oral digit thrust into her mouth in repetitively smooth motions, her fingers once again mimicked that talented organ.

The amazon nearly cried out in loss as that talented tongue abruptly left her hungry mouth.  But, before she could protest, it had settled once again over her shoulder, then moved at a rapid pace down her arm and over her hip.  Dropping to her haunches, pivoting around Solari's leg, Ephiny's lips continued in their unerring quest to find the warmth her fingers were buried in.

Pressing her advantage, she crept forward on the balls of her feet, pushing Solari ever backwards until her back hit roughly against a tall oak.  Hazel eyes burning a deep gold, fueled by the heated lust running molten in her veins locked with deep sandalwood, holding Solari enraptured.  Finally leaving the full breast she'd been caressing, her other hand came down, moving beneath the amazon's skirt.  With a delicious smile, she dropped her palm onto a muscular thigh, slowly sliding it upwards in an unhurried pace.

At the first touch of Ephiny's tongue at her center, Solari thought her heart had stopped.  Then, when it began moving, loudly seeking out and slurping at her essence, it resumed beating at triple it's normal rate.  And, when it darted over that little nubbin of flesh nestled between her folds, sucking and nursing until it swelled impossibly larger, her eyes grew wide and her head slammed back against the trunk of the tree.

Head tossed back, tree bark scratching deeply into her spine, mouth wide open in a soundless scream, fingers clutching at unruly, corkscrew blonde locks, she came.  As her heart rate slowed and her breathing calmed, she felt Ephiny slowly rising to her feet.  Fingers still familiarly nestled inside her, she flashed a cocky, self-satisfied grin before ducking her head, leaning in to claim Solari's lips with her own.

Solari readily drank her in, tasting both the essence that made up Ephiny and her own moisture that lingered upon the regent's tongue.  Breaking off the initial kiss, tempering Solari's inner fire with smaller, but no less intense kisses, she gazed into the loving eyes of the scout.  Pulling back, maintaining eye contact, Ephiny's fingers slowly withdrew from the liquid warmth that had surrounded them, clutching them familiarly.  Bringing them up, she languidly licked at each in turn before bringing them to that place between Solari's cleavage.  Deftly, she expertly slid the clasp up and out of the halter.  Lowering her gaze, her eyes watched hungrily as the material valiantly struggled to remain intact for several heartbeats before succumbing to gravity and falling open.

Reaching out, cupping both breasts in her hands, she stared in awe.  Hefting them, fingers closing about thick nipples, she unconsciously licked her lips.  A feral glint radiating in her stare, she whispered, "Solari, these are amazing."

"That's amazing," Xena drawled, peering over Solari's shoulder.

The scout gave a startled squeak, nearly jumped out of her leathers.  "Would you stop doing that?!?" she hissed between tightly clenched teeth, furtively glancing around Xena's broad frame.  Unable to meet Xena's gaze as she fought to bring her breathing under control, she hoped that her heated blush, her lust-filled eyes, her womanly scent didn't give away the fantasy she'd been lost in.  

"Take it easy," Xena smirked.  "The others are about a mile back." She folded her arms across her chest, appraisingly looking up and down the river.  She'd spotted the initial hooves prints at the bank, but hadn't really needed to rely on the tracks beyond that.  She'd simply looked for Solari.  "I'm a pretty fair tracker, but I've never been able to track a trail through a river."

"Pretty fair, huh?  Is that like saying you were a pretty fair warlord?" Solari snorted.  She's in a playful mood today.  When she'd first encountered the former Destroyer of Nations, she hadn't known what to think.  Certainly her fierce reputation hadn't prepared her for the mischievousness prankster that sometimes peeked out behind those deadly blue eyes, or the sometimes peculiar sense of humor that occasionally reared its ugly head.  Track a trail through a river!  Hah!  "I got lucky, Xena.  Followed a hunch that Cordele would follow the natural course of the river, angling her mount into the water.  Easier to move a horse that way.  Especially one that's weighed down."

"Good call," Xena acknowledged.  "But, between you and me, Doretta and Ephiny combined don't weigh all that much."

"True," agreed Solari.  "But, it does make a difference when you're on foot fording your way across rivers."  Solari moved farther away from the riverbank, Xena walking alongside her, leading both their horses.  The scout turned to her with a broad grin, "And, it makes it so much easier to track."

Xena silently raked an appraising eye over the tracks Solari was following.  To the average scout, there was no sign of a trail.  But, to the experienced eye of an amazon or a warrior princess, there were abundant clues as to the direction their quarry was heading in.  Herself an expert tracker, Xena was nevertheless impressed with Solari's skills. She watched in rapt silence as Solari knelt down, fingertips tracing the ground, eyes sweeping across the terrain. Cocking her head to the right and squinting, she broke out into a sprint, altering her direction to follow their quarry's unexpected course change.

Reaching a hand into her saddlebag, Xena extracted several colored stones, forming them into a shape on the hard ground.  Satisfied that the marker was clear enough for the scouts trailing behind them to know which direction they'd gone, she stood up, brushing her hands off on her leathers.  She hurried through the brush to catch up with Solari.  Hot on the scent, the chief scout was moving at a fast pace, quickly eating up the ground beneath her feet.

"Good eye," Xena complimented, falling into place beside the scout.  "Someone with less experience would have missed that."  Remembering the weapons master's words of the night before, she studied Solari's profile.  "Is that true?" she asked, "Have you tracked throughout the dead of night?"

"Yeah."  Solari admitted, slowing to a jog.  Her breathing was only slightly elevated from her spontaneous sprint, a light sheen of perspiration coating her sun-bronzed flesh.

"Then - " Xena hesitated, unsure how to ask the question without offending the woman.

"I was young and cocky and I wasn't chasing amazons," Solari shrugged.  "And, the stakes weren't nearly so high."

"Ephiny."  Tartarus.  Gabrielle said there was something there.

Solari gradually slowed her jog to a walk.  She strolled a dozen more paces before turning to face the warrior princess.  "The part Ep forgets is that I tracked through the entire night because I lost the trail several times."  Hands anchored on both hips, Solari looked down, studying the rocky ground.  "I was determined to prove I was the best.  I was arrogant enough to not realize that if I had just waited until daybreak, I could have saved myself a lot of needless frustration."  Taking a deep breath, rolling her shoulders, she gazed up into cobalt blue eyes.  "You're a tracker, Xena.  What if I had missed that back there?" she posed the question.

Exhaling loudly, Xena allowed her gaze to travel across the terrain.  They were already several miles from the cut off, and even farther from the original course change at the river.  "We would've had to double back until we picked up the trail again.  It would have taken candlemarks.  And, Eph - "

" - is too important to waste time chasing our own feathers."  Solari bit her lip, stared at her boots.  When she looked up again, Xena could clearly see unshed tears of frustration brimming from sandalwood eyes.  Without further explanation, Solari shouldered her way past Xena.  Taking a steadying breath, she focused on the tracks once again.  Confident that she had the trail, she took the reins of her horse, adroitly swinging into the saddle.  Settling in, she urged her horse into a canter.

Xena watched her for a moment, thinking about what the proud scout had just confessed.  Hmm, she rubbed her chin thoughtfully.  Should I tell her there's a possibility that this isn't a rescue mission; give her time to prepare herself for what we might find?  The way her and Ep were at each other's throats last night - Shrugging that thought off, she left another set of markers for the rest of the party.  Sliding into her saddle, she nudged Eponin's horse, urging it to catch up with the quickly moving scout.

With a groan, Cordele tried to lift her hand to her head.  Feeling the restriction from the chain on her wrist, she gave an experimental pull, then gave up.  She settled for shaking her head from side to side to clear some of the cobwebs, instead.  Gingerly, she made her way to her knees, then collapsed against the cave wall.  Settling in, she braced her back against the cool, solid surface.  Crossing her legs, she sat on the ground, both hands braced on her upper thighs.  

"You okay?" came the cool voice from the other side of the cavern.

Pale eyes slowly lifted, leveling a glare at the regent.  "Having the time of my life.  You?" she asked sarcastically.

If Cordele had known her regent as well as she'd wanted, she wouldn't have ever voiced the question.  But, since she wasn't on such intimate terms, she also failed to recognize the danger signs of a legendary explosive temper on the verge of igniting.  The chiseled cheekbones were even more defined as her jaw tightly clenched, fire smoldering behind her eyes as she leveled a glare at Cordele, every muscle in her powerful body stretched taut.  If she'd been able to reach the hunter at that point, she may have skinned her without the aid of a knife.

Instead, she demonstrated her displeasure by spitting towards the fire.  "Truthfully, no.  I'm rather annoyed that I've been shot with an arrow, abducted from my village and locked up with you."  She took a ragged breath, focused on Cordele, hazel eyes piercing the hunter's heart with imaginary daggers.  "I'm tired, I'm hungry, I'm hurting and I really, really want to go home."

"Hunh."  Cordele snorted.  "Trust me, I'm not all that eager to be locked up with you, either."

Ephiny eyed the blonde hunter skeptically.  "Not the impression you gave me the night of the feast,"  she drolly remarked.  

"That was before I saw you consorting with the Destroyer of Nations," spat out the hunter, "Bad enough you gave that mongrel weapons master a tumble - "

" - I advise you to watch your tongue before I cut it out," warned Ephiny, her voice low, her intent deadly.

"Don't mind her."  Ephiny's gaze swiveled towards the sound of the voice.  Hidden by the shadows, she hadn't noticed the stablehand sitting cross-legged on a chest deeper in the recesses of the cave.  "Someone's just a little cranky that they got caught with their leathers down."

"You lying little sack of - " Cordele's tirade continued, her face turning crimson with fury.  Muscles bulged, veins prominently stood out as she strained against her bonds, pulling with all her might.  The chain rattled, the ring moved, but the spike in the wall held fast.

Cackling at the hunter's temper tantrum, Dori jumped off the chest she'd been sitting on with renewed vigor.  She fairly jaunted to where Ephiny sat on her blanket, leaning back against the cool, interior wall.  Biding her time, Ephiny tolerated the intrusion as the stablehand knelt down before her.  

Her reward was an uncorked  wineskin suddenly thrust beneath her nose.  Warily sniffing at the contents, Ephiny tentatively sipped at the brew before taking a deeper swallow.  Before long, her mouth was greedily working at the skin, taking in as much of the wine as she could.  As the half empty skin was slowly taken away, trembling fingers reached out, tenderly wiping away the burgundy trail that trickled from the regent's lips and down her chin.

Figuring the potent wine was the reason behind Doretta's sudden burst of confidence, Ephiny decided to play to the young stablehand's newfound self-assurance.  Forcing herself to look the homely amazon in the eye without coming off as still being bent on tearing the girl's head from her neck was one of the hardest things she'd ever had to do.  Wasn't it Melosa that once told you that anyone could beat a confession out of a prisoner, but to get to the real truth, it had to be inveigled with such skill that your prisoner never realized what  knowledge they'd just parted with?  Steeling herself, biting down on the bitter taste it left in her mouth, Ephiny forced her words out in as sweetly a voice as she could muster.  Eagerly leaning forward, she asked, "What happened?" 

"I thought Devillare was supposed to be teaching a simple lesson in technique," continued Gabrielle, as her eyes followed the action on the field.

"She was," agreed Captain Pelagia.  "That is, until some of Eponin's more promising students - " she winced as an amazon took a rather brutal hit to the midsection  " - took it upon themselves to challenge the former Captain of the Royal Guard to a sparring session."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes.  "Meaning they thought they'd see if the legend still has what it takes?"

"Someone's been snooping around in the archives."  Pelagia visibly flinched as a warrior charged Devillare, launching herself through the air, only to quickly find herself on her backside, laying in the mud.  "I'm impressed."

"Well, I was curious."  Gabrielle watched as three amazons charged the warrior at once.  In a stunning display of staffwork, Devillare took all three out in little more time than she might take to pull on her boots in the morning.  And, with as seemingly little effort.  

Judging from the amount of bodies littering the practice field, more than a few of Eponin's students had joined in the challenge.  Certainly more than attended the initial class.  Megara's going to have her feathers in a knot over this! she mused as blood liberally spurted from the nose of an amazon that didn't get her defense raised in time.  

Pelagia and Gabrielle both took an instinctive leap away from the fence lining the field as another student was sent flying in their direction.  As she was sent tumbling, she lost her grip on her staff.  It went sliding beneath the wooden fence, coming to a halt at the queen's feet.  The amazon came to a sudden stop with her upper back and shoulders against the post, her feet dangling over her head.  Wow, gotta have Eponin talk to the girls about the importance of wearing something beneath their skirts during sparring sessions.

Captain Pelagia looked sympathetically at the upside down amazon.  She knew just how the girl felt, having recently been put into that position herself.  Wonder if Devillare taught Ep that move?  "You want me to step in before someone gets hurt?" she asked, watching for her queen's response out of the corner of her eye.

"Nah, I'll do it."  Before Pelagia could even think to stop her, Gabrielle had already picked up the discarded staff at her feet and flung herself over the top rail of the fence.  At the sight of their queen taking the field, all the amazons lowered their staffs, putting an end to the impromptu melee.  Raising her voice to be heard the length of the field, Gabrielle declared, "Okay, listen up, people!  This is your one chance.  Captain Devillare and I will take on all challengers in a free-for-all, anything-goes match.  This is a one-time-only offer, so if you want a shot at either of us, best get it out of your systems now!"

The Queen of the Amazons stood beside the former Captain of the Guard, a proud smile on her face.  Knew that would work.  The air was filled with reverent silence as the chastised students openly stared at their little queen.  Gabrielle's smile slipped as blood-curdling cries resounded across the field as the amazons attacked.

She thought she was smart, openly raising a challenge like that.  She underestimated the competition.  Doretta had been watching from the cover of the food hut.  She was able to blend into the shadows there, able to see everything without in turn being seen.  

She'd openly watched as Cordele climbed the steps to the ceremonial dais, offering the regent drink.  She'd bitten down her smile when she saw Ephiny solidly refuse the gesture.  And, even though she couldn't hear the conversation, she was certain Cordele was frantically trying to find some other means of enticing the regent's affections.  The look on her face when the warrior princess interceded was priceless!

I was more than a little annoyed when she allowed herself to be escorted to the dance circle.  Watching them, she'd envisioned that it was her arms locked about the regent, her shoulder that Ephiny lay her golden curls upon as they danced.  She'd wanted to be the warrior princess.  She'd wanted to be the one to sweep the regent off her feet.  Like a moth to a flame, she was drawn in by what she saw and before she knew it, she was standing along the perimeter of the dance ring.

I wasn't the only one, either.  She'd been so intent on watching the hunter's reactions to the flirtatious dance that she'd been caught off-guard when the weapons master had pushed past her, charging the field.  When she saw the danger her Ephiny was in, Doretta did go out onto the field, only to be jostled aside by the queen and the chief scout in their hurry to reach the fallen regent.

As the confrontation escalated, she'd wanted to meld back into the comforting shadows.  But, the warrior princess had spotted her, pressed her into service.  She'd unwillingly gone with Xena, readying her horse.  After Xena rode off, she'd stayed in the stables, readying the feed for the next day.  She'd been fetching the last bag of grain from the back when she saw Cordele slip in.  The hunter quickly saddled her stallion and charged out at a break-neck pace.  The stablehand watched Cordele ride off before hurriedly finishing her task.   

Inexplicably, Dori found herself on the path leading towards the regent's hut.  She spotted the queen and chief scout coming towards her, supporting the regent between them.  It took little effort to slip undetected past the trio and settle down into the branches of the tall pine in the center of the square.  From there, she had an unobstructed view of most everything in the village.  Just as she'd done so many nights before, she settled back and patiently waited until her quarry walked past.   

When that guard had stopped the queen outside the regent's hut, Doretta took the opportunity to peek inside an open window.  Her anger surfaced as she witnessed Solari brazenly attempting to seduce her Ephiny.  That big, dumb cow actually had the audacity to pick the regent up and throw her onto the bed!  

Doretta had actually been about to climb through the window and come to Ephiny's defense at that point, but then the hide covering the door was pulled aside and the queen entered the hut.  Hasn't she interfered enough already?  Dori's mind spun around the antics in the courtyard.  It's her fault the regent was injured!  

Dori pushed down her annoyance, concentrating instead on what was occurring in the hut.  It had taken all her willpower to keep from charging in when she observed Gabrielle tucking the regent in and kissing her goodnight.  Doesn't she have a warrior of her own to coddle?  She'd watched, then followed the guard, the scout and the queen to her hut to make certain they were down for the night before returning under the cover of the storm.

I still can't believe that after that - that bitch - handled Ephiny that way, she still called out for her!  Doretta's seething anger had turned into a blinding rage, then.  Before she knew what she was doing, she was across the hut, striking out in anger.  She didn't know how many times she'd struck her love before the dark veil clouding her vision lifted.

When she realized what she'd done, she'd tenderly taken Ephiny's body in her arms, holding her against her chest, cradling her form as she sat upon the bed and openly wept.  She prayed to Artemis to give her a second chance to make things right.  When she felt the heated breath upon her flesh, she realized that her regent still lived and her prayers had been answered.

Knowing what she had to do, realizing she had to get her love away from the village at all costs, she picked her up, carrying her under cover of darkness and storm to the stables.  Once there, she'd gently laid Ephiny on a bundle of hay and hurried to prepare a horse.  She purposely chose Honeycomb, knowing that the fair-haired regent would be pleased by the presence of her loyal mare when she awoke.

That thrice-cursed hunter had to chose that moment to ride back in!  Doretta had tried to hide.  But, Cordele's stallion was berthed next to Honeycomb.  It was inevitable that she saw the saddle on Ephiny's mare and leaned over the fence to investigate.  She had just enough time to see the regent's prone body laying in the hay before Doretta was a flurry of motion, coming up from the other side of the fence, hitting the hunter with everything she had.

She'd surprised Cordele, the first blow sending her stumbling backwards, landing in the stall.  As her horse reared in fright, she narrowly missed being trampled beneath a stomping hoof.  As Cordele rolled, coming to her knees, several arrows fell from her quiver, landing on the hay-filled floor.  With a scream, she launched herself across the wooden fence, propelling herself at the stablehand.  Doretta sidestepped, striking out at the hunter in the same instant.  The forward motion sent Cordele flying forward, her head cracking against the saddlehorn of Honeycomb's saddle.  Blood spurted liberally from the injury as the hunter slid to the ground.

It had been no small feat getting both the regent and the hunter onto Midnight.   Her intention had been to take only Ephiny and Honeycomb.  But, she knew she couldn't afford to leave the hunter behind.  Midnight was a warhorse, much bigger in size than Honeycomb.  And, he was already saddled and ready to go.  It would take precious time to calm the skittish Honeycomb down enough to finish off her buckles and cinches.  Time she was afraid she was rapidly running out of.  I'm sure Cordele was following Xena.  What if the warrior princess is on her way back?  So, even though she didn't want to, she was forced to leave the smaller, golden haired mare behind.

As Doretta's memories faded into the past, she turned her attention back to her regent's question.  With a broad smirk, she answered, "She underestimated me."  Just like everyone else.

I think even I underestimated her skills.  Xena urged her horse into a canter, shielding her eyes against the harsh sunlight as she followed behind the scout.

The sun was high overhead, beating relentlessly over horse and rider alike.  Xena deftly lifted her waterskin off her saddlehorn, uncorking it with a flick of her thumb.  Bringing it to parched lips, she drank heartily, slaking her thirst.  As she lowered the skin, she absentmindedly wiped the excess water from her chin with the back of her hand.

Xena felt like she was melting beneath her armor.  The thick leather and bronze offered maximum protection on the battlefield against mortal foes.  But, in a terrain like this, where the heat was the enemy, she was suffering.  She squirmed uncomfortably in her saddle, feeling the sweat pooling between her thighs.  Gods, I hope I'm not getting a saddle rash!  Pushing those thoughts aside, she stoically tried to concentrate on something other than her misery.

Amazons may have the right idea, she mused.  She idly studied Solari's profile as the scout moved ahead on foot, the reins of her horse clutched firmly in her grasp.  Soft brown hair was drenched with sweat, running in long rivulets over her broad shoulders and back.  A leather cord was tied about her forehead, keeping the perspiration from running into her eyes.  Several feathers hung limply from her headband and arm bracers.  A halter barely covered an impressive bust, held in place by a metal clasp and a thin cord of leather stretched across her muscular back.  A well-worn leather skirt ended mid-thigh, displaying powerful leg muscles with each step the amazon took.  Wonder what Gabrielle would say if I told her I wanted a set of amazon leathers for Solstice?  Bet that would be a very merry Solstice, indeed.

Xena happily followed that train of thought as she idly rode along.  Gabrielle always took her breath away when she was dressed in Amazonian attire.  She thought it would please her little bard if she were to model a set of her own.  Lost in her thoughts as she was, it was another candlemark before she focused again on the woman several paces ahead of her.

She's relentless, thought the warrior princess, eyes fixed on the chief scout's backside.  She knew the scout had an unfair advantage.  She was solely focused on her mission, eyes peeled as she followed the trail she was tracking.  Xena's only function was to follow behind the efficient scout, leaving occasional markers for Eponin's group.  By Xena's estimation, Eponin's party was little more than a candlemark behind them at this point.

Xena had to admit, she was impressed by the amazon scout.  She had outdistanced her sisters for the better part of the morning, alternating between foot and horse as needed.  The only time she'd stopped moving was when she knelt down to study a faint marking here or there.  Unerringly, Solari led them in the right direction with each twist and turn their quarry took.

As she caught the scent again, Solari rose from her crouch.  Xena's acute hearing caught the slight grunt and the subtle movement to cover her pain.  She was accustomed to the scout standing with hands planted on firm hips each time she stood upright, scanning the surface of the terrain stretched out before her.  What was new, what she had done the past several times she'd gotten up, was lay her hand across the small of her back.  It was a small gesture, easily camouflaged by her usual habits, and if her companion had been anyone except Xena, it would have gone unnoticed.  As Solari turned to look towards a distant mountain range, Xena caught her profile, and the slight grimace that adorned the scout's beautiful face.

Wordlessly, Xena slipped from her saddle, making little noise as both boots connected with the hard earth as she landed.  Solari was aware of her presence, but didn't turn around as the warrior princess came up behind her.

"She's heading towards that mountain pass."

"You certain?" Xena asked.

Solari smirked.  "Bet you a dinar."

"I have a feeling, my friend, I'd be giving away a hard earned dinar if I took that bet."  Xena nudged the brunette with her elbow.  "Take a break?" 

"I want to keep moving."  Solari flicked a quick glance over her shoulder.  "Ep and the rest should be here soon," she idly commented.

"All the more reason to enjoy the quiet while we can.  Once those featherheads catch up, we won't have a moment's peace."  Strong hands reached out, capturing womanly hips beneath her firm grasp.  Holding her firmly in place with one hand, the fingers of Xena's other hand moved over taut, toned flesh, settling on the small of her back.  A sharp gasp followed by a deep moan greeted her as experienced fingers kneaded tight muscles.  "How long has this been bothering you?" she solicitously inquired, her breath ruffling the locks near Solari's ear.

"Oh, Gods, yeeessss."  Solari's eyes threatened to roll back in her head beneath Xena's administrations.  Forcing herself to concentrate on answering, she managed, "Since last night.  Guess I didn't sleep very well."

"You know," Xena teased, "You could have had a much softer bed if you'd played your cards right last night.  Nyxona was certainly willing."  Xena felt the subtle stiffening, dug deeper with her fingers to work out the unexpected tightening.

"Didn't want to bunk down with Nyxona."  This time, Solari did roll her eyes.  "Gods, Xena, haven't you ever done anything you knew you shouldn't have?"

"Anything - or anyone?" she fought to control her grin.  "Actually, yes, to both.  But, since Gabrielle," she paused thoughtfully, emotion tinting her voice as she continued, "I try to think about the consequences of my actions."

"Ah, yes."  Solari squirmed beneath Xena's continued ministrations as she hit a tight bundle of nerves.  "If I had a Gabrielle, I might think twice before doing something monumentally stupid, too."

"Speaking of," Xena's voice husked in her ear, "You sure your lack of sleep doesn't have something to do with that?"

Solari audibly swallowed.  Her heart trip-hammered in her chest as she fought down a wave of anxiety.  "With what?" She'd experienced enough jealous bedmates in her time to know not to unnecessarily tip her hand.

"Maybe you didn't sleep as well because you weren't wearing my old nightshirt?"

Even though she couldn't see the warrior princess, Solari was certain she could feel the deadly arch of an eyebrow, the heat of a lethal gaze as it bore into her.

"I swear, it's not what you think, Xena."  Solari tried to pull out of the warrior's grip.  "I mean, Gabrielle's my queen and I - she - " Her eyes slammed shut as she was firmly pulled backwards, her words abruptly dying in her throat as she felt the hard metal of Xena's breastplate at her back.

"Relax," Xena growled, playfully.  "I was just teasing you." She heard Solari's audible sigh of relief, couldn't resist reaching up to ruffle the scout's hair before releasing her.

"Thank the Gods, Xena."  Solari allowed a hint of a smile to grace her lips.  "I'm glad you trust me enough to know that I - "

" - Didn't say I trusted you, Sol.  I know what sort of a dog you can be."  Xena abruptly turned on her heel, throwing back over her shoulder, "It's Gabrielle that I trust."

"Got me again, Xena!"  Solari called out after her as she strode to her horse.  When Xena didn't immediately answer, Solari's anxiety began to swell again.  She's kidding.  She watched as the stoic warrior calmly reached for the saddlehorn, deftly lifting her waterskin up and off.  Of course she's kidding.  Flicking the cap off with her thumb, Xena brought the skin to her lips, throat muscles working greedily as she drank deeply.  She is kidding, right?

Suddenly unsure, Solari returned to her own mount, retrieving her waterskin.  Like Xena, she flipped the cap up with her thumb, taking a hearty swig.  "GAH!" She shouted, holding the skin at arm's length.  Thick, white liquid spewed from her mouth, landing on the hardened earth.  Unexpectedly, Solari doubled over, throat muscles worked, heaving as much of the foreign substance up as possible.  As her stomach stopped heaving, she stood up, wiping at her mouth with the back of her hand.  

She spotted the warrior staring at her, an ebony brow arched above a baby blue eye.  "Must have picked up the wrong skin," Solari explained with a shrug.  "Met's mom always packs goat's milk in an extra skin for her."

"Uh-huh."  Xena moved past Solari, deliberately brushing her shoulder against the amazon's back, roughly jostling her.  "That's what you get when you make full-feathered scouts out of babies.  Just remember, I'm not helping you change their dirty swaddling."

"They aren't babies!" Solari shouted, calling after the warrior princess.  "And, they won't be fully-feathered for another two summers!"  With a sour expression, Solari cleared her throat, spitting upon the ground.  Gah!  I'll never get that taste out of my mouth!

"I can't believe you haven't done a thing to stop this!"  Megara stood with her hands on her hips, watching the scene unfolding before her.  

"Queen Gabrielle herself issued the competition," protested Pelagia, "I can't stop it."

"You mean that our little Queen - " she watched as an amazon twice her size charged at Gabrielle " - is responsible for my infirmary being inundated with bloody noses and broken bones?"

"Her and Captain Devillare," confirmed Pelagia.

"All the more reason to call a halt to this nonsense before there's a bloodbath."  Megara was appalled by the havoc being wrecked upon the practice field as body after body went hurtling away from the duo fighting back to back.  "I can't believe you're allowing this!  What if something happens to either one of them?" she persisted.  "Think about it, Pel, please.  We're talking about the Queen and the former Captain of the Guard."

"They're holding their own pretty well, don't you think?"  Pelagia felt the gentle pressure of the hand resting upon her forearm.  The lover in her wanted to take Megara into her arms and reassure her, then rush out onto the field and put a stop to this madness.  But, the warrior in her was fueled by the bloodlust.  With a cocky smirk, she turned to her bedmate, "Besides, I thought you always encouraged me to respect my elders."

"Just you wait until I get you back to your hut!  You're in for a tongue lashing like you've never had!" Megara leaned over, hissing into Pelagia's ear.  She caught the waggling eyebrows, followed up by the saucy leer and instantly realized what she'd just intimated.  The hint of a blush tinged the tips of the normally reserved healer's ears.  

Megara saw the unrepentant look adorning her lover's face.  She wants to use sex as a weapon?  Guess she doesn't know two can play at that game!  "Well, that'll just have to wait until later," Megara admonished.  "Much later!  I have a crowded infirmary to empty out!"  With a smirk of her own, Megara leaned into Pelagia, using her nearness to mask the subtle cupping of the captain's breast, her fingers deliberately pinching a nipple.  Feeling Pelagia's quickened breath hot on her flesh, she whispered, "You want to continue this," she pointedly gestured at the practice field, "you'll have to find a way to stop that."

Mouth hanging open in shock, the captain watched as the healer turned her back on her, walking away.  Unnoticed by anyone other than Pelagia, there was an extra saunter to Megara's step.  She watched until her lover was well out of sight, then with a sigh, the captain jumped over the fence and onto the practice field, suddenly inspired to put an end to this insanity.  

Over the course of the past few days, everyone and everything she thought she knew had been turned on its ear.  From the odd behavior of her dearest friends to the unbelievable assassination attempt in the village proper to the madness now being exhibited by both Doretta and Cordele.

It's as if the entire world has been afflicted with insanity!  Ephiny's head lolled to the side, her bleary gaze focusing once again on the fire.  Then again, am I any saner than the rest of them?  

She ran through the events that had occurred, her mind needing to organize, sort and compartmentalize everything that had happened.  Solari would say it was because of her need to control every aspect of her life.  Even those things she shouldn't have responsibility over.  It was the key part of what made her a good regent.  Or, is it the fact that I can keep up with all the lunatics?, she briefly considered.

Really gotta get Xena to teach me that pressure point thing, Ephiny thought, as her wound once again made its presence known.  Slipping her free hand beneath the sling, her fingers inched over heated flesh.  Digits connected with a bandage.  From the gritty feel and the smell coming from it, she guessed it was the same bandage Megara had fastened about her.  Resolutely, she reached probing fingers beneath the wrap, blindly feeling of the wound.  She was relieved to find no new traces of fresh blood.  But, her respite was short lived as she felt the degree of heat emanating from the area.  

Infection's setting in.  She lay there, taking deep breaths, trying not to concentrate on the persistent pain she was in.  In Ephiny's mind, the best solution for that was to think through her immediate problem.  Obviously, in her current condition, she wasn't a physical match for a toddler, let alone a fully grown amazon.  What is it Gabrielle is always saying; brains over brawn?  With that sage wisdom running through her mind, Ephiny focused her thoughts.

Right now, her immediate problems were the stablehand and the hunter.  She was disturbed that she'd immediately assumed Cordele was responsible for her current predicament.  Of course, given the way the hunter had been behaving, it was easy to see why she'd made that assumption.  Why didn't she just tell me she was chained?  Looking back, Ephiny realized the true reason the hunter had misled her.

Pride.  Her ego won't let her accept that Doretta was able to overpower her and take her hostage right along with me.  Her other reactions were disturbing at first, but the more Ephiny thought on them, the more predictable they were.  Cordele saw herself as this big, irresistible hunter that any woman should give her eyeteeth to be bedded by.  When faced with the realization that there was someone immune to her charms, she looked for the fault not within herself, but within others.  Hence, her sudden animosity towards me and her thinking I'm doing both Xena and Pony.

Ephiny heard a sound to her left, turned her head in that direction.  Doretta was just returning from outside, a bow and quiver of arrows clutched in her right hand.  In her left, she carried a rabbit.  Leaning the bow and quiver at the entrance to the cave, she precisely repositioned the camouflage covering.  Satisfied, she passed by her captives, her booted foot purposely making contact with Cordele's outstretched leg.  The hunter jerked her leg back, rubbing at her knee, a scowl on her face as she glared at the stablehand's retreating back.

Doretta had been harder to figure out.  She knew the stablehand had a thing for her.  But, Eph had underestimated the girl's feelings, thinking it was a harmless crush.  Hades, I didn't even think about her feelings while I was yelling at her for bringing me flowers!  Ephiny felt a sudden pang of guilt tapping at her conscience.  Would it have hurt anything for you to be nice to the girl, Eph?

It probably would have only served to lead her on, she realized.  Looking at her now, Ephiny could see a lot of pain behind the young woman's eyes.  She thought back to the way she treated Doretta on a regular basis.  She was always cordial to everyone at the village, but thinking back, she realized she never paid much attention to the stablehand.  None of us really did.  

Ephiny mulled over the times she had seen the young stablehand.  She remembered seeing her in the dining area at meal time, but couldn't recall her ever sitting with anyone.  And, the few times she'd seen her at a festival, she was certain the girl had been alone.  A sharp mind recalled that Doretta was seemingly always hovering in the background, silently observing those around her.  For the first time, Ephiny wondered if the amazon had any true friends.  

Ephiny idly lay still, her eyelids becoming heavy as she watched Doretta skin the rabbit.  As the stablehand put the rabbit on a spit, Ephiny continued to contemplate what was going through the young amazon's mind to drive her to such drastic measures.  Staring at the flames licking at the spit, she struggled to rationalize the madness that grew as dangerous as the fire.

Part 7

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