DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Eponin, Solari, etc. are owned
by Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. The other dozen or so
Amazons were created by me - because you can never have too many Amazons. No infringement is intended
and no profit is being made.
CHALLENGE: Submitted as part of the Epic Proportions challenge.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By Del Robertson
"You about ready to give that back a rest now?" Xena prodded, nudging Solari with the toe of her boot.
The scout crouched on the balls of her feet, arms resting against her thighs. She bit her bottom lip, staring pensively at the ground. Her gaze shifted, moving over the rocky terrain. "Soon," she responded, never looking at the warrior.
Xena's jaw worked. "That's what you said a candlemark ago. And, a candlemark before that." She sighed heavily, glanced back at the party of amazons slowly trailing them. "You brought three trained scouts with us. Now that they've caught up, why don't you let them earn their feathers?"
"I will," promised Solari. "Just making sure we're still on the right trail."
"Tracks are becoming a lot easier to read," Xena's practiced eye noticed, "Why do you think that is?" Of course, being the warrior princess, she had her own suspicions. But, she knew scouting and tracking was the amazon's expertise and she valued Solari's experience.
"If it was me," the amazon volunteered, searching expectant blue eyes, "I would lay an obvious trail, then double back." Rubbing her chin, she added, "But, maybe I'm over thinking things. My gut's telling me that this is the real trail."
"My mama always said go with your gut." Xena patted the chief scout on her shoulder. "Now that the trail's clear enough a blind man could follow it, let the kids take over, huh?"
Xena assisted Solari to her feet, patiently waiting as the scout dusted off her leathers. Putting three fingers to her mouth, Solari gave a warbling bird call. Immediately, Admeta rushed over. Turning her duties over to the young scout, Solari hung back to speak with Xena.
"When we settle in tonight, remind me to give you another backrub. I'm sure Gabrielle packed some liniment in my saddlebag."
Solari bit down the smirk that tugged at the corner of her lips. "You turning into a mother hen in your old age, Xena?"
"Nah," Xena shrugged, "Guess Gabrielle's caring nature is starting to show through." At Solari's laughter, she added, "Hey! Traveling together day in, day out, being exposed to her kindheartedness; some of that's bound to rub off, ya know?"
She glanced over her shoulder. Eponin and the others were all staring at the warrior princess in various degrees of shock. Solari was fairly leaning against her, face buried in Xena's breastplate as she tried in vain to muffle her laughter. Between loud chortles, Xena's acute hearing picked up words like 'sensitive' and 'big, bad warrior'. Large hands locking on Solari's upper arms, she resolutely pulled the scout away. "You're endangering my rep," Xena warned, "Stop that, or I'll be forced to kick your feathered butt!"
She deftly swung her staff, spinning it in a fluid motion, twirling the weapon about her body with agile dexterity. A slight heave of her chest, a light sheen of perspiration coating her firm flesh was the only evidence of her physical exertions. A feral glint to her eye, a cocky smirk on her lips, she surveyed the carnage before her.
The field was awash in a sea of bodies. Powerful warriors writhing on the soft earth in various degrees of agony. A cool gaze appraisingly watched as one lone warrior groaned in protest, tightly clutching her midsection.
Slowly, she rolled to her knees, hands planted firmly on the ground, arms shaking with the effort to stay upright. A pair of soft leather boots came into her field of vision. Grey eyes hesitantly traveled up butter-soft leather, past firm legs, a sensational midriff and glorious breasts.
Sparkling forest green eyes filled with anticipation stared down into murky grey depths. Gazes held for a moment, then grey eyes blinked, rolling back in their sockets as the amazon passed out.
With a sigh, Gabrielle glanced about, seeking her next opponent. Her gaze fell on the powerful body of a warrior some twenty paces distant. Her muscular body was honed by years of practice and work, she was a magnificent specimen to behold. Arms flexed as she confidently twirled her staff, bringing it down with precision against her opponent's nose. With the last of her foes soundly defeated, she turned to face Gabrielle.
A bemused eyebrow arched at the little amazon standing before her. She was smaller than any warrior she'd ever fought. But, she could most definitely fight. She'd proven that here today. Rising to the challenge, she approached the other woman.
They circled each other, sizing each other up. Stalking each other, they never took their eyes off their opponent. Unblinking, neither yielded control as they looked for weaknesses in the other's carriage.
"Looks like it's down to you and me," came Gabrielle's smooth voice.
"Looks like," agreed Devillare, never taking her eyes from the woman or her staff.
"Ready to take on your Queen?" Gabrielle asked, a cocksure grin on her face.
A matching grin on Devillare's face, she motioned for the woman to come ahead. Standing her ground, staff held loosely in her grip, she patiently waited as Gabrielle slowly advanced. When her Queen was within striking distance, Devillare opened her hands, holding her palms out.
"You win," she declared, the staff falling from her fingers to land on the ground at her feet.
Ephiny's gaze burned unseeingly into the fire. The flames licked at the kindling, sending a wave of warmth throughout the gloomy cavern. But, no fire could melt the ice coursing through the regent's veins.
Her despondency increased with the fever racking her body. And, even though she was sweating profusely, the moisture soaking her corkscrew blonde locks and her toned flesh, a chill shook her from head to toe. Gripped in the throes of fever, Ephiny blindly reached for her cloak, seeking to pull it about herself. Tossing about, she landed awkwardly upon her right arm, screaming out in pain.
Rolling back, cradling her arm to her chest, she felt reassuring hands stroking through her hair. Eyes clenched tight, she fought against the bile creeping into her throat, the waves of dizziness crashing over her. Dimly, she became aware of a coolness sweeping across her face. Wearily, Ephiny slowly blinked one eye open.
"My regent?" The cool cloth was gently wiped across Ephiny's heated brow. "What do you need?"
Ephiny's brow furrowed in confusion, trying to resolve the apprehensive voice with the image looming above her. The stablemaster's apprentice. She gives Honeycomb green apples. Ephiny felt her head being lifted, a skin placed to her lips. She swallowed convulsively as the water seeped down her burning throat. She brought me here? Ephiny's mind struggled to make sense of her current situation.
Her fevered brain would only allow her to latch onto one thing at a time, though. And, right now, that thing she needed was, "My cloak?" she asked, her left hand reaching out for the familiar object.
"Here, I've got a warm blanket for you." The stablehand tried to wrap her regent's body in the horseblanket, but Ephiny was having none of it. As soon as she'd get it settled, Ephiny would kick the offending object away. With a resolute sigh, Doretta searched the interior of the cave for the elusive cloak.
"What are you wasting your time for?" Cordele sounded off from her side of the cave, smirking at the stablehand's efforts. "Her mind's so addled by fever, she wouldn't notice you if you stripped naked right in front of her."
"Shut up!" Doretta barked, continuing to rummage through the supplies littering the cave. "Just shut up!"
She soon found it, retrieving the regent's cloak from where she had tossed it along with the rest of their gear when she'd brought them in. It was stiffened with dried blood and Dori had meant to toss it into the fire along with the kindling. But, some force had stayed her hand. Now, draping the cloak over the chilled woman's body, she was glad she had hesitated in her actions.
With a contented murmur of satisfaction, Ephiny reached for the cloak, hugging it to her chest. Seemingly placated for the moment, the regent's eyes slid shut. Mumbling incoherently, she drifted towards a fevered rest.
Gabrielle sat on the front steps of her porch, idly sipping at her mug of water as she took a well-deserved rest. Beside her, the former captain of the guard sat in companionable silence. The queen dipped a wet cloth into a nearby bucket. Firmly wringing the cloth out, she brought it up, lightly dabbing at her eye. Wincing at the contact, she jerked back, exhaling sharply before gingerly replacing the cloth against the swollen flesh. Oooh, that's gonna leave a mark!
"You know, you really don't have to do this," Gabrielle gestured, her motion silently referring to the warrior's turn at guard duty.
"Yeah, I kind of do." Massive shoulders gave a self-depreciating shrug. A broad grin broke out on a handsomely aging face. "Especially since I'm the one that took out your current captain."
Gabrielle fought to contain her mirth. "Serves her right. Gods, I don't know what she was thinking, rushing out onto the field like that." Her smile abruptly fell with her next sobering thought. "Megara's gonna be livid."
"Is that why Pelagia insisted we carry her back to her hut rather than the infirmary?" asked Devillare.
Gabrielle nodded. "Pel tells me her lover gets a little bent out of shape when she comes home with so much as a dagger cut. Not sure how she'll take a broken leg."
"Oh, I had no idea." I really had no idea. Good for you, Megara, she added to her thoughts, glad to see that the healer wasn't letting her age keep her from taking a partner. So many of the elder amazons had a tendency to think once they reached a certain age, they were no longer desirable. Megara wasn't of that class, yet, but she certainly wasn't a spring chicken any longer.
The noises of hammering mixed intermittently with the rest of the everyday village sounds. Devillare looked up, idly eyeing the progress of the construction crew. When they'd heard this new queen requested roofs be added above the porches to block out the rain, the council thought she was touched in the head. Then, when she explained she wanted to protect the guards from exposure to the elements, they thought she was soft. 'Amazons don't fear wet leathers', she'd been told. But, then the little queen had rationalized the amazons also weren't known for squandering their resources. And, in her opinion, the amazons themselves were the greatest resource the nation possessed. She thought roofs were a small price to pay to keep the guards from becoming sick. Hit squarely between the eyes with logic, the council begrudgingly relented and the construction had started in earnest, beginning with Queen Gabrielle's hut.
Slick, aren't you, little one? She turned to look at the diminutive blonde seated beside her. Casting a glance at the sun, she added, "It's not much after midday. Aren't you supposed to be locked away in a hut with Evanthe pouring over paperwork?"
"Don't tell anyone," Gabrielle made a showing of looking around, lowering her voice to a whisper, "Evanthe is accustomed to resting after her midmorning snack. I made a break for it while she was napping."
Devillare's deep-throated laugh echoed throughout the confines of the small porch. "You certainly are a surprise, aren't you?"
"Yeah? I could say the same about you." Gabrielle playfully nudged the formidable warrior with her knee. "I was really looking forward to going up against you. I can't believe you just gave up like that."
Eyes the color of steel met Gabrielle's unblinkingly. "I had no choice but to surrender." At the confused tilt of the head and the cocking of the eyebrow from her companion, she added, "You're Queen Gabrielle of the Amazon Nation." Devillare pulled a dagger from her boot, loosely dangled it from her fingertips, toying with it. Twirling it end over end by the hilt, she added without looking up. "In my day, a warrior would never have raised a weapon to her queen."
"That's not exactly true." Gabrielle reached out, her hand closing about the wrist of the strong amazon, stilling her actions. "It's okay, Devillare. I know what happened to the Queen." In a lowered voice, she added, "Your Queen."
"Then, you know why the council is having such a hard time dealing with this." The seasoned warrior stared at the smaller hand that rested upon her flesh. Gabrielle was idly running her fingers over a bleached white scar that ran the length of Devillare's hand from fingertip to wrist. Sometimes, memories cut more deeply than any sword, my little Queen. "And, you also know what happened to the amazon that was responsible?" she asked.
"Yeah, I know," Gabrielle nodded, remaining lost in thought for several moments. "It's kind of romantic when you think about it. Captain Beroyle must have loved your Queen very much." Just as Xena loves me.
"Enough to die for her." Steel grey eyes instantly hardened, a cold edge crept into Devillare's voice. "Sooner or later, love makes a fool of everyone." Standing in one smooth motion, the former captain bowed low and saluted before hurriedly striding away on powerful legs, effectively ending the conversation.
Gabrielle remained seated, oblivious to the construction go on about her. Her eyes remained fixed on the retreating form of the former captain of the guard. Her normally proud carriage belied a stiffness to her spine. A hand clutched at her side repeatedly clenched and unclenched into a fist. Her steps were hurried, but not undignified as her long-legged stride quickly distanced her from the queen's hut. Oh, Devillare, who did you give your heart to? Gabrielle wondered as she sat quietly absorbing that last comment.
Solari's chomping at the bit to take the lead again. Xena cast a wary glance skyward. The sky was darkening, the wind noticeably increasing in ferocity. The fresh scent of rain was in the air. Hope we aren't in for another storm like the one we had the other night.
The amazons were pushing as quickly as they could, the more experienced Nyxona taking over the lead position from Admeta. Solari had been sorely tempted to regain the lead, but at Xena's insistence, she'd allowed the blonde to take the point. After all, she was an accomplished scout in her own right. Other than Solari, there wasn't a more capable scout in the entire nation.
The horses continued deep into the mountain pass, gingerly picking their way along the hardened earth. Mountain vegetation towered about them, growing at sparse intervals up the sides of sheer rock. Ledges and overhangs sporadically blocked out the remaining sunlight as the horses passed beneath the ragged formations. Uneasily, the riders glanced around, realizing the ravine would be a nasty place for an ambush. If a rockslide were to start, they could all very likely be caught in it. As a precaution, the amazons slowly began distancing their mounts from one another.
Nyxona took the point, the young Metanira and Admeta riding side by side a short distance back. Behind them, trailed Keleos. Solari's mount was spaced an equal distance between the hunter's and Xena's. The chief scout frequently glanced over her shoulder eyeing Xena and Eponin riding side by side. Something's agitating her, Xena observed. Probably edgy because we haven't encountered a trap. Luckily, Cordele had seemingly been more focused on just making a getaway. What sort of amazon doesn't hide her trail or set traps? Xena pondered.
As the first drops of rain began to fall, Nyxona came to an abrupt halt. Solari rode ahead, edging Thunder alongside Nyxona's stallion. Horses uneasily prancing, the two scouts conferred in low voices. Piercing blue eyes noticed the blonde pointing to an outcropping in the distance. Solari sat impassively in her saddle for long heartbeats. Then, nudging her horse, she turned around, guiding her mare through the ravine towards her group. Nyxona gave the signal, spurring her stallion on, continuing to lead the way deeper into the pass.
Xena and Eponin urged their mounts forward, patiently waiting as Solari guided her horse past them. Turning her mount around, she joined them, Thunder falling in step between Lightning and Honeycomb. Solari pushed strands of wind-whipped hair away from her face as she spoke with the warriors.
"Storm's going to hit pretty soon," she began, "Nyxona spotted an outcropping that should provide us with enough shelter until it blows over."
The sounds of rain pattering against the branches lining the cave entrance provided background noise for Doretta's ministrations. Dipping the cloth into the bowl nestled in her lap, she allowed the rag to liberally soak in the clean water. Slowly bringing it up, she wrung it out, feeling the moisture running in tiny rivulets between the fingers of her clenched fist and down her wrist. Tentatively, she inched closer to the woman laying sprawled on the blanket.
A shaking hand reached out, gingerly applying the damp cloth to a fevered forehead. Fingers trembled as they brushed aside unruly curly locks. Unfocused hazel eyes bright with fever unseeingly stared back at her. Resolutely, Dori wiped the perspiration from her regent's face, her touch lingering upon a downy cheek before moving away.
Cordele was watching. She could feel the hunter's gaze boring holes into her back. The waves of animosity rolling of the larger amazon were nearly palpable. Dori had tried to explain. She hadn't planned on knocking the older woman out and bringing her along. That had only served to infuriate the hunter even more. She wasn't sure what had insulted Cordele more; that an unassuming stablehand was powerful enough to knock one of the strongest amazons in the nation on her tailfeathers or that Dori hadn't considered her enough of a threat to plan to take out.
She thought she was worthy of you, didn't she, my regent? Dori wrung out the cloth again, ran it down Ephiny's left arm, over her muscles and bracers alike. One hand gripped her gauntlet as she gently lifted Ephiny's hand, cradling it as she meticulously wiped down each finger. With every movement, the sapphires embedded in the bracer caught the light from the fire, reflecting the flame in their depths. But, in truth, none of us are truly deserving of you. As Doretta continued her task by rote, she mindlessly stared at the gems, becoming lost in their eternal beauty.
They had found enough shelter beneath the outcropping for both the horses and riders. The horses were tethered, saddles and gear packed upon their backs so they would be ready to move on as soon as there was a break in the weather. The riders huddled together in a makeshift circle, hunched down in an attempt to make smaller targets for the wildly falling rain. The wind was whipping about in a frenzy, sending the raindrops into the shelter at sideways angles. In an effort to keep out the sudden chill, the amazons pulled their cloaks about themselves. Xena pulled her blanket from her saddlebag. Settling down beside Eponin, she wrapped the blanket about both their shoulders, companionably sharing the warmth.
With the wind and the rain, a fire was out of the question. At Nyxona's suggestion, Metanira had brought out the stew of venison and stuffing. Gamely, the youngest scout divided up the food, heaping generous portions onto the metal plates. Wordlessly, each woman accepted the fare, tucking into their meal.
"This is disgusting," Keleos mumbled beneath her breath, disdainfully staring at the mess on her plate, "I can't believe you can eat this stuff cold."
"Well, if you can figure out how to keep a fire lit in all this wet," Solari shot back, "Be my guest."
Keleos scowled at the chief scout. She understood loyalty. After all, that was her sole motivation for coming on this trek. But, to sit here and listen to Solari constantly defending her scouts -
"I can't eat this," she groused, poking and prodding at the cold meat with the tip of her knife.
"Either eat it or go hungry," Xena snarled, annoyed with the whining amazon," "Makes no difference to me. But, you'd better maintain the pace when we break camp again."
Eponin took a hearty bite, thoughtfully looked about at their surroundings. "You know," she said, still chewing, "We could have jerky and trail rations for dinner. Maybe some amazon wine." Six pairs of eyes looked at her like she'd lost her mind. "What?" Ep asked, shrugging, "There's a cache not too far from here."
"You sure?" asked Xena.
"Yeah. Eph and I were scouting them out two summers ago, inventorying supplies and stuff." She gamely tore off another piece of venison with her teeth. "It's around here somewhere. Just have to find it again."
Everyone in the camp shook their heads in amazement. There was a cache around with all the shelter and supplies they could possibly need and Eponin had practically forgotten all about it. In typical fashion, Solari was the first to respond.
"Ep, I'd kiss you if you weren't so damn ugly."
"Huh." Eponin snorted. "Well, thank Aphrodite for small favors."
Solari stuck out her tongue in response. Eponin tossed the blanket off her shoulders, gathered all her strength in her coiled framed and charged at the buxom brunette. Solari's eyes widened and with a very un-amazon like squeal, she jumped to her feet, running out into the rain. Without a heartbeat's hesitation, the usually reserved weapons master pursued her, catching the chief scout about the waist and tossing her into a mud puddle.
Good to see things back to normal. Or, at least what passes for normal as far as these two are concerned. It hadn't escaped Xena's notice that both warriors had been eyeing each other, surreptitious glances passing between the two of them when they thought no one was looking. It was blatantly obvious that both warriors wanted to offer up an apology for their harsh words of the night before, but neither knew how to begin.
Amazons. At least with Gabrielle, Xena always knew where she stood. If something happened between them, nine times out of ten, it would be the big-hearted bard that made the first attempt at reconciliation. Then, Xena would grudgingly admit she had a part - a tiny part - in the trouble and they would kiss and make up. Simple.
It was only on that rare occasion when Gabrielle waited for Xena to extend the olive branch first that things were awkward. Xena could beat around the bush twenty different ways without ever coming out and simply apologizing. Her warrior's ego simply wouldn't let her say those two little words. At least not without a monumental battle. Gabrielle had resisted all of the former warlord's best tactics. She'd tried gifts ranging from new quills and parchment to a shopping spree in the best markets. She'd offered the most exotic foods she could find to appeal to the bard's legendary palette. She'd even tried bribing her with sex - only to find out she needed that aspect of their relationship more than her bard did. Finally, after twelve days, the fearsome Destroyer of Nations buckled beneath the pressure and silently mouthed the words 'I'm sorry' through a tightly locked jaw.
Things are so much easier when I'm fighting with Eponin. I do something stupid, she hits me. She does something retarded, I pummel her senseless. Simple. Although, fights with Ep don't end with amazing, mind-blowing makeup sex. Xena involuntarily shuddered as a horrifying image of the muscular amazon wearing nothing more than a smile and a feather, lounging back on a bed of pillows with her arms and legs spread in open invitation flashed unbidden before her eyes.
That's it! No more of the venison-stuffing goulash for me! Xena discreetly scraped the rest of her meal onto the plate of the closest amazon. Keleos caught the movement out of the corner of her eye, turned to glare suspiciously at the unconvincing cherubic-like innocent expression on the terrifying visage of the Destroyer of Nations. To her credit, she didn't make mention of the incident; just sullenly forced down another mouthful.
"Ep, you think you can find that cache again?" Xena ducked out from beneath the outcropping, checking on the tussling amazons and the wind strength behind the steadily falling rain at the same time. "Even in this storm?"
"Sure," Eponin shrugged, briefly pausing in her tickling of the backs of Solari's knees to answer Xena. "You in that big a hurry for some jerky and amazon wine?" she teased.
"No, but I'm thinking Cordele might be."
Keleos noticeably stiffened at the mention of the lead hunter's name. She slowly chewed her venison, intently listening to the conversation. Xena smirked. The volatile amazon held her temper - and her tongue - in check.
"You think Cordele's taken shelter in the cache, Xena?" Solari asked, peeking out from where Eponin now had her in a headlock. "That would make sense if she didn't have a chance to pack up any supplies."
"You saw Eph's place, Sol." Eponin abruptly released her friend, sitting stock-still in the middle of the puddle they'd been wrestling in. Her normally deep timbre had taken on a noticeably softer edge when she spoke of her regent. "I don't think that could have been planned out."
For a long while, no one spoke, each mulling over in their own minds the events that had led them up to this point. Seven women bound together in a common cause to find the leader of the Amazons. Two were on their first grand adventure. Two more were there to find the missing piece of their hearts. One was bound by loyalty to stand beside a dishonored comrade. Still, another was there out of a sense of duty. And me? mused Xena, Why did I come? Because like the rest of these women, I could do no less.
"Let's saddle up," Xena drawled out, heading for the horses. Behind her, she heard the amazons scrambling to their feet, a new-found energy coursing through their veins as they earnestly resumed their pursuit.
How did it come to this? Dori pondered for the hundredth time. She sat near the low burning fire, staring dejectedly at the object of her affections. Bruises in graphic shades of blues and purples mottled her beautiful face. Closing her eyes, Dori could still see herself in action as she inflicted each bruise. Images of striking the regent, the force of the impact sending her crashing into the wall played over and over again in her mind.
Biting her bottom lip, she fought back the images, refusing to believe she could have been so brutal to the woman she claimed to love. But, I was, wasn't I? She's suffering - because of me. A fist made of ice seized Dori's heart at the thought that her fair regent was so near to passing over into the Amazon Land of the Dead. She had done all she knew to correct the situation, but her regent lay battered and injured, an unchecked fever coursing through her strong, supple body.
Ephiny lay supine on the blanket, her cloak she'd wanted so desperately before now inattentively pushed down to her hips. Her body was alternately racked by heat and chills and Dori had long ago given up trying to keep a cover about her. Blonde corkscrew curls fell haphazardly in perspiration soaked ringlets about her proud face and shoulders. Lips parted slightly, a rattle worked its way up from her chest with each ragged exhalation.
"She grows weaker with each breath." Dori's head snapped up as Cordele's words mirrored her own troubling thoughts. "She's dying. And, it's all your fault."
They had found the mighty warhorse ambling the ravine a full mile from their abandoned outcropping. The stallion had obviously been left tethered to a sparse sage bush, as evidenced by the greenery still clumped in his reins. Xena guessed he'd slowly chewed through most of the bush. Once free, he began the long journey towards home.
By some unspoken agreement, Keleos had taken charge of the stallion, leading it behind her own horse as they continued up the cavern. Every warrior kept their attention focused, sharp eyes searching for the elusive entrance to the cache. A half mile later, Solari grabbed Eponin's forearm. The weapons master's gaze swung around, following the chief scout's pointing finger.
On a distant ledge, a thatch of green and brown twigs grew at an angle slightly askew from the rest of the sparse shrubbery in the valley. Eponin nodded in agreement, recognizing the narrow path leading from the ravine floor to the top of the ledge and past the camouflaged cave entrance.
Wordlessly, Xena signaled for the others to stop. As one, they dismounted, entrusting the care of the horses to Admeta and Metanira. "Let's go," the warrior ordered, withdrawing her sword from her sheath, starting up the incline.
"Xena, wait." Eponin stopped the warrior princess with a well-placed hand on her upper arm. Xena slowly turned, arching a deadly eyebrow at the amazon. "If Cordele's holed up in that cache, she has enough weapons to hold off a small army."
Xena's gaze flicked from Eponin's face to the rest of the assembled party. The looks on their faces confirmed the weapons master's assumption. If a renegade amazon was bent on defending herself, she could easily withstand a frontal assault.
"Just because she has the weapons, doesn't mean she'll have the chance to use them," Xena snarled, removing Eponin's grip from her arm and continuing her trek up the narrow path.
Cordele frantically tugged on her chain, fighting to free herself from her restraint. She had seen the look of despair in the stablehand's eyes as she taunted her. In truth, she was thrilled that even chained up, she had the power to wound with just her words. Her triumph had turned to trepidation when the look in Doretta's eyes shifted from anguish to bitter to determined resolve all in the span of a heartbeat.
Her own heart began pounding double-time in her chest as the stablehand moved to the weapons chest and opened it, quickly rummaging through the contents. Gods, the little freak is going to cut out my tongue! A gasp escaped her as Dori picked up one of the largest hunting knives she had ever seen.
Dori turned, giving an appraising look at the hunter. Frowning, she tossed the knife back in, settling on a bow and quiver of arrows instead. Ignoring the suddenly panicked breathing echoing from the other side of the cave, she continued her rummaging, digging to the bottom of the weapons chest.
The hunter's heart rate tripled, the organ fairly leaping into her throat as the stablehand resolutely closed the lid on the weapons chest. In three long strides, she was looming over the blonde, a determination to her carriage that the hunter would have never attributed to the stablehand before now.
Doretta negligently tossed the bow and quiver towards the cave entrance. Pulling her sword from the sheath at her waist, she raised her weapon above her head. With an animalistic cry, she swung the sword at the hunter. Cordele slammed her eyes shut, reflexively held her arms in front of her in instinctive reflex. Frantically, she began reciting the warrior's prayer. Artemis, take my soul, deliver me unto -
The sound of striking steel echoed throughout the cavern. Realizing her head had not been cleaved from her neck, blue eyes slowly blinked open. Hesitantly, she looked up into the impassive gaze of her tormentor. Mouth suddenly dry, she subconsciously licked at parched lips.
"Your horse is tethered a quarter mile back down the ravine," was all the stablehand said.
"You're letting me go?" Cordele warily asked, noticing the sudden lack of tension in her chain. A glance at the wall confirmed the metal had been broken in two. She guardedly climbed to her feet, edged along the wall towards the entrance. "You know that any help I bring back will arrive too late - "
" - I know." Doretta moved to her regent's side. Taking a knee, her sword held in a loose grip at her side, she reached out, tenderly brushing blonde locks back. Her eyes, suddenly mature beyond their years, hollowly studied the amazon before her. "But, they'll still want to take her home."
Taking in the firm resolve of the stablehand, finally realizing her true intent, Cordele bolted. Racing the length of the cave, she scurried towards the entrance, determined to make her escape before Doretta reconsidered her actions. Picking up the weapons on the run, she bolted through the camouflage, bits of leaves and branches becoming stuck in her long, blonde hair as she fought her way through the thick covering.
Rubbing a hand over her face, Eponin brushed the wet hair out of her eyes. Gods, I hate getting wet! She cast an undisguised look of loathing at her companion. If there was one amazon that loved the rain, it had to be Solari. Give the woman a toy and she'd probably sit in the middle of a puddle and play with it! A rueful grin broke out on the stern weapons master's face as she realized that was a pretty apt description of what the two of them had been indulging in earlier.
How does Eph ever put up with both us?
Her musings were shattered as the camouflage covering the cave entrance suddenly burst apart. The unmistakable form of a tall, blonde amazon, tightly clutching a bow and quiver in her grasp came barreling out of the cave and down the steep incline. Fire was in her eyes as she charged at the advancing party.
"Cordele!" Eponin shouted, hurtling past Solari and Xena.
She launched herself at the hunter, knocking her off her feet. They both landed hard, Cordele taking the brunt of the fall on her back, with the stocky weapons master ending up on top of her. Jagged pieces of rock bit sharply into Cordele's back and Eponin's knees. Cordele grimaced at the searing pain; Eponin scarcely even flinched at the bits of stone embedding themselves into her skin.
Fists were a flurry of motion as they repeatedly punched Cordele in the face. Veins standing out prominently in forearms like banded steel, Eponin closed her hands about the hunter's throat. Cordele's fingers frantically worked at the hands about her neck, nails clawing into thick flesh. Eponin heard a chorus of shouts screaming at her, felt Keleos' hands at her back and neck, trying to pull her off the other amazon.
Suddenly, she felt strong arms about her waist. Before she could react, she was being pulled up and off, legs and feet dangling, kicking in midair as she was bodily lifted. Unceremoniously, she was dumped on her butt several feet away, then prevented from getting up by a large boot to the chest.
"Ep! Stop!" Xena snarled, teeth bared. "Look at her! Just look!"
Breathing heavily, wiping at her mouth with the back of her hand, Eponin stared at the hunter. Keleos was kneeling beside Cordele, trying to staunch the flow of blood from a decidedly broken nose. As Cordele brought her hand up, too, Eponin spied the manacle and chain dangling from her wrist.
No one spoke. Emotions were written across the faces of every woman there as they absorbed the image of the broken chain. Confusion. Anger. Hurt. Painful realization. Chains on an Amazon -
"Cordele," Xena's voice carried a heaviness that mirrored the weight sitting upon her heart as she asked, "Where's Ephiny?"
Unable to look the warrior in the eye, unable to speak, all the broken hunter could do was point to the cave entrance.
Doretta knelt over the regent, holding the vial to the beautiful woman's lips. Ephiny was in the throes of delirium, completely unaware of her surroundings. When she had first blinked fevered eyes open, she had seen the brunette hovering over her and called out for her 'packmate'. Dori didn't know to whom Ephiny was referring, but she sincerely hoped that person was waiting to greet her on the other side.
When Ephiny's eyes had blinked open, she had briefly reconsidered what she was about to do. But, it was too late. She herself had already swallowed the mixture and knew it would soon overtake her. Then, there would be no one to end her love's suffering.
"Ephiny, Ephiny, my love." Her voice was calm and deep as she shook the regent's shoulder, attempting to rouse her. "Drink deeply and I promise you'll feel better soon." Ephiny's head lolled forward in response. The vial connected with her mouth, sending a cool liquid onto parched lips. Licking the moisture off, Ephiny lay back down. As her eyes slid shut, Dori added in a whisper, "Forgive me."
Xena led the charge into the cache, Solari and Eponin no more than two paces behind her. Her shrewd gaze quickly took in the glow of the fire, the two figures laying on the ground nearby. Seeing the sword laying within easy reach of the stablehand's outstretched fingers, she approached speedily, yet cautiously. As soon as she was near enough, she kicked the sword with the toe of her boot, sending it clattering across the width of the cavern floor.
"Ephiny!" shouted Solari, breaking off, rushing to her regent's side. Sliding to a halt, she knelt down, lifting Ephiny's head, cradling it in her lap. At the coolness of her skin and the discoloration of her lips, she looked at Xena in desperation.
Xena reached out, quickly felt the rapidly cooling flesh along her neck. Dropping her hand lower, she placed the palm flat against Ephiny's chest. Frowning, she then cupped her palm over Ephiny's nose and mouth. Eponin and Solari silently watched, each sending their prayers to Artemis and any other Gods that might be listening.
Frantically looking around, Xena's gaze settled on the form of the stablehand. She was laying sprawled flat on her back, legs tucked beneath her. One hand was extended; it had been reaching for the sword that Xena had kicked away. The other was clutched tightly to her chest. Xena scrambled over, fingers working to unclench the fist. Undoing the curled fingers by force, a vial fell from Dori's grasp, rolling along the stone floor.
Desperately, she raced after it, holding it up, trying to see what the contents of the vial were. A brown liquid clung to the bottom of the container, staining the clear glass a dark color. Tentatively, Xena brought the vial to her nose, experimentally sniffing.
"Witchroot," she declared, recognizing the telltale bitter stench. Tossing the vial away, she heard it shatter against the far wall, the brown liquid spreading over the clay like a bloodstain. Urgently, she looked at Solari. "Do you still have that skin of goat's milk?" she asked.
"I gave it back to Metanira," Solari shrugged, "I'm sure she's still got it, but Xena, it's got to be rancid by now."
"Get it!" Solari hesitantly moved away from the regent, gingerly laying her head down upon the blanket. "Hurry!" urged Xena, sending the scout off at a pell-mell pace.
Eponin immediately moved into Solari's place, taking up residence at Ephiny's head, cradling her upper body in her strong arms. Calloused hands gently weaved their way through golden curls. In a soft voice, she begged for her regent to hang on.
Spying the manacle and chain firmly fastened about her friend's ankle, Xena went into a rage. With a snarl, she bent over, bracing one booted foot against the wall, the other flat on the floor. Hands picked up the chain, getting a firm grip about the slick metal. Every muscle in her body straining, she pulled, yanking the metal spike clean out of the floor. Kneeling down, strong fingers pried the manacle apart. Slipping it off Ephiny's ankle, she stared at the offending objects held in her grasp. With a fierce growl born of rage and hatred, she threw the items across the cavern, hearing them connect with a satisfying crash before falling in a clatter to the ground.
Ephiny heard a voice calling out to her. It seemed so far away, she could barely hear it. She struggled to open her eyes, but couldn't seem to make her lids move. A feeling of heaviness was weighing her down, making it impossible to move.
Sol? Pony? She was sure it was her best friends. Why can't I speak to them? she wondered.
"Because you're trying to speak to them with your tongue instead of with your heart."
Even though Ephiny knew she hadn't physically opened her eyes, she could still 'see' the presence before her. She was a tall blonde, hair falling about soft shoulders, covering a beautiful gown. She had a kind smile and carried a candle in one hand. Ephiny didn't know why, but the woman's presence was a comfort to her.
"If I speak with my heart, will they be able to hear me?" she asked.
"Oh, yes, most definitely." The woman fixed a heart-warming smile on the Regent of the Amazons. "Rest easy, they can feel the love you have for them."
"But, I've never told them - "
"Not with words, no. But, with your heart, yes."
"Are you sure?" Ephiny asked, uncertainly. "I mean, I never took the time. I don't want either of them to doubt - "
"The time to say goodbye is past, Ephiny." The woman with the candle glided closer. "Are you ready?"
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