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
"Sacrilege!" shouted Evanthe. "For another deity to take up the mantle - "
"Enough!" Gabrielle shouted, claiming the floor again. "This is accomplishing nothing. We need to figure out which God it is so we can take appropriate action."
The entire council fell silent as they pondered the situation. "Do you have temples to any Gods other than Artemis?" Xena asked.
"No," came the response from Calandra, "We worship only The Huntress."
"What about temples to Hera? Even abandoned ones?" she persisted. "Hercules once told me that he'd encountered a tribe of Amazons that worshipped the Queen of the Gods."
"A myth told to children," Evanthe scoffed. "There is no lost tribe of Amazons. It's a legend, nothing more." At the Queen's hesitant look in her consort's direction, she added, "Next, you'll be telling me you believe that we paint ourselves blue and dance naked while we howl at the full moon."
Xena subtly raised an eyebrow. If there was one thing Hercules was not known for, it was exaggeration. If the son of Zeus said he'd found a group of amazons, she was apt to believe him. But, I'll not pursue the issue. If these amazons don't know about their lost sisters, I doubt Hera is a threat to them.
"What if it's not actually a God?" suggested another elder. "What if it's The Fates themselves?"
"Not their thing to really get involved in the mortal coil," Xena shook her head, "No, a God is involved, I'm sure of it."
"The God of War?" suggested Devillare, "He's always had something against women warriors."
Ain't that the truth? "No, it doesn't have Ares' flair." She crossed her arms over her chest, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. "If he had the power to ruffle the Amazons' feathers, he'd be here gloating about it."
"Yeah," agreed Gabrielle, "For the God of War, subterfuge isn't really his strong suit."
"But, it is Athena's."
The observation came from the former captain of the guard. Smart. I'm really beginning to warm up to this amazon, thought Xena. She was going over exactly the same lines of reasoning the warrior princess herself was. Their thoughts were mirroring each other's as they thought of each deity in turn, analyzing which was the most likely of candidates.
"It certainly is," Xena agreed, then added, "But, she's also one of the most practical of the Gods. Amazons make the best arrows I've seen. Athena wouldn't let such a commodity go to waste."
"So," Gabrielle picked up the conversation. If there was one thing her soulmate excelled at, it was brainstorming. Xena knew from experience that Gabrielle could toss out eight suggestions to every one brought by anyone else, "Basically, we're looking for a god that has the power to overtake another god's sanctuary, but isn't concerned about the value of weapons or letting good food go to waste."
Xena fought hard to keep the smirk from tugging at the corner of her lips. In a room full of amazons, only Gabrielle was concerned about the ruination of the food left at the altar. Everyone else saw the value of the weapons that had been destroyed. Gabrielle was more concerned about the wastefulness of the edible items.
Having stated their criteria, Gabrielle paced back and forth the length of the council hut; rubbing her chin as she mentally worked her way through the entire Greek pantheon one by one. Xena sat casually, leaning back on two of her chair legs while she coolly watched the pacing blonde. If they'd been outdoors, Xena might have been doing sword drills to focus her mind while she worked through the puzzle. Don't think the Council of Elders would appreciate me unsheathing my sword and twirling it in here, though. So, instead, she remained rooted to her chair, attempting to think out the cipher without the benefit of acrobatics.
Gabrielle continued her pacing as she mumbled to herself. Each turn the opposite direction brought the council table into view. Xena looked remarkably impassive as she leaned back in her chair, but Gabrielle could fairly see the wheels turning in her head. The elders were in various phases of the thought process, some staring at the thatch work on the ceiling, others chewing their lower lips in contemplation. Each of their brows were furrowed in intense concentration as they gave serious consideration to the situation.
As her pacing brought her back around the other way again, Gabrielle's gaze settled on the image of her beloved once again. Xena had her knife out and was now idly picking at a knothole on the surface of the table. Sensing someone's eyes upon her, Xena looked up. Intense blue eyes stared, a quirk of a smile forming on her lips as she caught Gabrielle watching her.
By the Gods, I love her, thought Gabrielle. As that thought reverberated throughout her being, Gabrielle took a step closer to her partner. Excitement coursed through her veins and clearly showed in the renewed energy she displayed with each step. Her smile lit up her entire face as she opened her mouth to speak, confident she had the answer.
"Aphrodite!" Xena shouted, abruptly jumping to her feet. "Aphrodite! Show yourself!" she bellowed. "Aphrodite!"
Gabrielle was left standing with her mouth hanging open, a look of stunned confusion embedded into her features.
The two hunters shifted their positions in the tall grass, inching closer to the building. They'd been watching for over a candlemark now, creeping forward on their bellies at an unhurried pace. It was one of the finer points of hunting, to lay in wait for as long as necessary. It was required to lull the game into a false sense of security. Sometimes, a prey might notice an odd scent on the wind and grow cautious, but if nothing confirmed their instincts, after a time, even the most experienced game would relax their concentration. One wrong move, though, and a skittish animal would bolt. A good hunter learned early on to be patient or go home empty-handed.
Cordele was not a patient person. At least, not while interacting with members of her tribe. She was used to getting what she wanted, when she wanted it. It was only when she was on the hunt that she exercised her patience, learning everything there was to learn about her quarry before making a move against it. That's where I made my mistake with the regent, she mused. I didn't follow the rules of hunting: observe, lure, execute.
I was just as stupid as that kid back at the hospice. I didn't think things through. The regent was a fine specimen. Beautiful, intelligent and dangerous. In her pursuit, she'd forgotten that she was the hunter and Ephiny, her prey. Instead of being patient and planning my strategy, I rushed in without thinking and spent most of my time chasing my own tail.
Never listen to your heart while hunting, she reminded herself, If you do, you'll only dine on roots and vegetables.
She was drawn from her reverie by a nudge at her elbow by Keleos. She nodded once at the hunter laying beside her. They watched in silence as the guard patrolling the exterior of the building walked the length of the structure before disappearing around the far side again.
Together, they crawled fifty more yards before settling back into the wild grass. Mentally, Cordele counted off in her head how long it would be until the guard made the next sweep around the building. She knew the guard would pause for the space of three candledrips before moving on again.
Both hunters waited as a pair of tan boots came around the corner of the building and into view. Feet walked past at an unhurried pace, unwittingly carrying the amazon within scant inches of where the hunters were hiding. They warily eyed the guard as she passed.
They were now at the edge of the tall grass, only their brown leathers maintaining their camouflage against the wheat-colored stalks. Barren earth lay between them and the rear of the building. Through the space of three broken slats in the wooden paneling, they were able to observe what was going on inside. The old tannery was a flurry of activity, her squad working alongside the guards. Spotting her lover seated on a low bench, Keleos elbowed her companion.
Mentally, Cordele calculated the distance from their cover to the building. They would have to make a run for it as soon as the guard was past. Bodies tensed, they prepared to bolt. Keleos was almost up when a sharp tug on her leathers brought her back down. Annoyed, she glared at Cordele. In response, the blonde hunter pointed at the far side of the building.
A shock of hair the color of straw met her gaze. In frustrated silence, they watched as Lexine approached, calling her guard's name. Agonizingly, they waited as the guard walked back towards her commander, both coming to a halt directly in front of the hunters' position. Cordele thought if she just reached out, she'd be able to brush her fingertips against the guard's ankle.
Lexine ordered the guard to take a break, that she herself would take up the watch. As the guard saluted and moved off, Cordele clenched her fist. They didn't have time to learn Lexine's method of patrolling. They were too close to the edge of the grass; the risk of being spotted by the much more alert Lexine was too great. As Lexine stood stock-still for a moment, coolly observing the perimeter, Cordele signaled Keleos.
Together, they charged, rushing across the clearing. Sensing movement behind her, Lexine turned. Cordele launched herself, catching the guard behind the knees, bringing her down.
"Hey, don't be so down on yourself," Gabrielle admonished, cocking her hip so it bumped against Xena as they walked side by side.
In response, Xena just grunted.
"It was a good thought," she added, "But even you can't be right all the time."
"Yeah, I know," The warrior admitted, the toe of her boot connecting with a stone in her path.
As they continued on, the stone bounced across the courtyard, striking the tall oak tree, bouncing off, pinging against the wooden rafter that was being hoisted onto Ephiny's porch, off a carpenter's hammer and hitting an unexpected amazon squarely in the forehead. Eyes rolling back, the stocky amazon fell to the ground with a thud. Oblivious, Xena and Gabrielle continued on their stroll.
"And, it's not like you didn't accomplish something," Gabrielle encouraged. "The council agrees there's something wrong in the village. They've even agreed to send to one of the other tribes for a shamaness. There's really nothing else that can be done until she arrives." She barely paused to take a breath before continuing, "I mean, it's not like we can just call on the gods willy-nilly and hope the right one answers, right? You've got to know which god we're trying to vanquish before we summon him or her, correct? Otherwise, we'd have all of them down here in the village and they'd probably be a little miffed. I mean, I know you're good and all, Xena, but even you can't take on all the gods in Olympus."
"I mean, in all fairness, it may not even be one of the main gods. It could be a half- or a demi-god," Gabrielle rambled on.
"It's Aphrodite. I'd wager my leathers on it," Xena responded drolly.
"I've got it." Gabrielle snapped her fingers. "Maybe it's the Furies."
"It's not the Furies."
"It could be the Furies."
Xena rolled her eyes. "It's not." At Gabrielle's look, she repeated, "It's not." Feeling her irritation mounting, she glanced around the village. Where is she when you need her? "Look, I'm gonna go find Ep and work off some tension. How about you; up for a little sparring on the practice field?"
"I'll meet you there later," she leaned in, craned her neck to reach Xena's lips. "I promised Eph I'd look in on her."
"Yeah, okay," Xena replied, returning the kiss. Figures, her thoughts darkened as she watched her bard walk off in the direction of the hospice.
Palms braced against muscular inner thighs, a tongue languidly worked at delicate folds. Nose buried is short, blonde curls, she inhaled deeply, breathing in the deliciously musky scent. Eyes slid closed at the feel of long, slender fingers curling into her brunette locks.
Flattening her tongue, she slowly dragged it from the source of her lover's copious moisture to that throbbing mass of nerves and back again. She repeated this action over and over again, adding a swirl every other time she reached the swollen bud. On every alternate downward stroke, she dipped her tongue up and inside - just a bit farther each time - before withdrawing again.
Fingers that were previously tangled in her locks moved to latch onto both ears, desperately tugging. "Stop . . . teasing . . . " echoed in the stillness, the words slowly dragged out from between clenched teeth.
Face buried in the intoxicatingly wet heat, Solari felt the smile widen on her lips. Lips closed about springy flesh, planting a deep kiss on that most intimate of places. As she gingerly suckled, she lifted her gaze, peering up into hazel eyes gone deep gold with barely restrained lust.
White teeth bit at a bottom lip, desperately trying to stifle the cry that threatened to work itself free as Solari's teeth nipped at her turgid flesh. Eyes broke contact, slowly sliding shut as that talented tongue alternated between gentle licking and firm suckling. Her smile growing in direct proportion to her lover's satisfaction, Solari shifted, moving both arms beneath raised thighs, wrapping them securely around thrusting hips.
Fingers slipped from ears to shoulders, nails digging into flesh as her whole body rocked beneath the chief scout's ministrations. Solari groaned as she felt hands nudging her legs farther apart, fingers stroking her open, thick digits delving into her flooding wetness. Solari impetuously rocked back on the probing fingers, before stiffening at the intrusion with the realization that other hands were still firmly latched onto her shoulders. Slowly, she lifted her eyes, meeting the steady gaze of her lover.
"Ep's here." Ephiny's low voice confirmed, hazel eyes shifting to a point over the scout's head.
Solari turned, looking over her shoulder. The weapons master stood beside the bed, near her flank. Caramel eyes were hooded, darkened with growing lust as she stared at the deliciously naked, writhing forms of scout and regent. The weapons master's clothes were in a pile on the floor, her magnificently toned body bared to Solari's appraising gaze.
The fingers of one hand lingered in Solari's wetness, expertly spreading her moisture. Her other hand was closed about the length of a thick phallus secured in a harness, coating oil over the leather with lingering, intimate strokes. Permission was requested and granted with just a look.
Feeling Ephiny writhing beneath her, Solari turned her gaze away from that of the weapons master, returning to the task at hand. She buried her nose and mouth in Ephiny's folds, settling into an easy stroke with her tongue. She was aware of the bed shifting beneath Eponin's added weight, felt those thick fingers working to stretch her farther.
Rocking back, she tried to take the fingers deeper again. But, Eponin pulled her digits back, deftly thwarting the scout's plan. Solari tried to focus, concentrating her efforts at Ephiny's slick folds, but found her attention divided by Eponin's teasing. Suddenly irritated, she looked back over her shoulder at the stocky amazon.
"Quit mucking about and slip it in already, Ep."
"This ain't no toy, scout," Eponin growled, making her point with a quick, little jab of her fingers, "I want to make sure you can take all of it."
"I can . . . unh . . . " Solari gasped as Eponin added another finger " . . . take any staff you have, weapons maser."
Eponin's brow arched at the challenge, but moved the phallus into position nevertheless. Satisfied that she was finally going to get what she craved, Solari turned her attentions back to her regent, burying her tongue deep inside the heated wet. She felt Eponin's shaft at her opening, gasped aloud as hips thrust forward, mercilessly plunging the phallus into her depths.
Figures. Megara stood in the entrance, holding the hide covering loosely in her grasp. Everyone's in bed these days except the patients. She'd been making her rounds earlier and discovered the hunter's bed empty. Not that it mattered much to Megara, anyway. As far as she was concerned, if a patient could walk out of the hospice on their own, they were fine. No point wasting a good bed on somebody that doesn't really need it.
What did bother Megara, though, was the state that she'd found the stablehand in. She was flat on her back, eyes glazed over, foam coming out her mouth. Bed sheets had been fashioned into a noose and placed about her neck. Not that anyone had actually tightened it, mind you. But the threat was clearly enough to agitate the girl. Hades knows, though, if those guards weren't posted at the door, there were plenty of amazons that would have taken advantage of that noose.
She'd sent for Pel right away. When her lover had arrived, Megara told her about what she had found. Pelagia examined the noose, then thoroughly questioned the two guards she'd left at the door. As per Pelagia's orders, no one other than Megara had gained access to the room. When she demanded to know why she wasn't informed of Cordele's departure, they coolly replied that they were ordered to keep people out, not in.
Pelagia had been livid, turning three different shades of red until Megara took her into her office and reminded her that Doretta was the only one up on charges. According to the Queen herself, Cordele had done nothing wrong and was just as much a victim as the regent. Of course, Pelagia planned to see that status changed. She immediately called for the hunter to be apprehended and brought to her office.
Now, here she was in the regent's room. However, it wasn't the regent in the bed. She could tell that much from the doorway by the mass of brown hair that poked from beneath the covers. Resolutely, Megara marched right up to the bed and jerked the blanket down. A sleepy Solari blinked up at the healer. Must have been one Tartarus of a dream, she thought, noting the flushed complexion and the satisfied expression on the brunette's face.
"And, just where is your regent?" Megara asked, folding her arms over her chest and fixing a scathing glare upon the scout.
Where in Olympus could she be? Xena was ticked. She'd been over the length of the practice fields and the armory. Twice. And, still no sign of Eponin. I really need to find her. She'd spotted several young recruits on one of the fields, sparring with staffs. They'd caught her watching, had offered to spar with her. Xena had been tempted, but then thought better of it. Megara doesn't need any more patients than she's already got.
She knew that the weapons master was the only warrior in the village that could consistently give her a run for her dinars. With everyone else, she felt the need to hold back and pull her punches. But, with Eponin, she felt she could really cut loose and be herself.
Clenching and unclenching her fists, Xena continued to stalk the village. She wasn't really paying attention to where her feet were taking her, only that they were guiding her in her quest to find Eponin. One hand reached up as she walked, her fingers rubbing at a throbbing temple. I need a good fight to clear my head and help me think.
As she rounded the side of a building, she collided with something solid coming from the opposite direction. Something solid enough to knock her off her feet and land her on her backside. Struggling to get up, she glared at the amazon that was saved from kissing the dirt only by reaching out quickly enough to secure a handhold on a wooden porch railing.
"Why don't you watch where the Tartarus you're - " Xena's scowl turned into a broad grin as she recognized the featherhead that had plowed her over. "Ep!"
"I was just coming to see you." For the first time, Xena looked up, realizing they were standing outside the Queen's hut. "How'd it go with the council?"
"We talked it to death, revived it, talked it to death some more and still haven't resolved anything." A half beat passed before she asked, "Wanna spar?"
"Umm - sure?" Eponin hesitated. Uh-oh. She's grinning like Callisto on henbane! This can't be good. "But, we'll have to go to the armory first," she held out her empty hands as if to explain, "I haven't got my staff."
"Don't worry," Xena's grin broadened as she clamped a hand about Eponin's broad shoulders and steered her towards the front steps, "I've got ya covered."
"Where is she?" Megara repeated her question, her gaze focused solely on the scout laying in the regent's bed.
Wordlessly, Solari pointed across the room. Ephiny was quietly seated on a chair in front of the window. Her chin was propped on her hand as she stared out. As she heard Megara's approach, she looked around, bright hazel eyes meeting those of the healer.
Coming to stand beside her, Megara let her hand rest on the back of the regent's chair. With her other, she casually felt along Ephiny's forehead for signs of fever. Her skin was clammy, but thankfully, she wasn't hot to the touch.
"What are you doing up?" she asked Ephiny as calmly as she might ask what color the sky is.
"I wanted to look out," the regent shrugged, "I can see the archery field from here."
"Not much to look at," Megara observed, checking the view.
"Lessons were just dismissed," reasoned Ephiny, explaining away why she was staring at an empty field, "And, it's still a better view than these four walls."
"Uh-huh." With anyone else, Megara would have lost her patience by now, ordering them upon pain of death to get their feathers back in bed. But, with Ephiny, the healer seemed to possess the virtue of a Hestian virgin. "Don't you think you should go back to bed now?" she solicitously inquired.
"Nah. I'm not tired, yet." She squirmed around, peering over her shoulder at her friend who was already nodding off again. "But, Solari is. She had a late night of it."
"Be that as it may, that bed's for you, not her. And, I suggest you get your tailfeathers back in it."
"I'm fine," Ephiny insisted. "Bet I could even go back to my own hut today."
"No, you're not!" Megara's voice reverberated through the room. "And, if I say you need to be in bed, you need to be in bed. And, like it or not, it's going to be in this one!"
I should have been this firm with her from the start. What was I thinking; letting her go off to some feast just because she batted those eyes and asked nicely? Face it, Meg, it's your fault that she was taken from the village. If you'd just done your job and put your foot down, none of this would have happened. Well, enough with trying to please the regent.
Knowing in all honesty she couldn't take her frustrations out on Ephiny, she focused her ire on the woman occupying her cot. "I'm quite certain Solari has her own bed in her own hut." As an additional jab at the scout, she added, "If not, I'm sure she can find another easily enough." She reached down, struggling to lift the regent from her chair.
Eponin reached out, deftly catching the staff that Xena tossed at her. Only after she had caught it and saw the smirk dangling on the warrior's lips did she realize what she was holding in her grasp. With a convulsive swallow, her eyes moved from the white birch to blue eyes to white birch again.
Finally, gaze remaining fixed on the staff, she admitted, "Xena, I can't use this."
"I know," the smirk was in full force now as Xena leaned against the interior wall of her hut, another staff casually balanced in her grip, "I recognized the carving of the stag just above the grip. And, below it, the symbol of the crown. That's a staff made to be wielded only by Amazon royalty."
Yeah; And, don't I know it? Eponin bit her lower lip in contemplation, her finger idly tracing over the carvings Xena had described. Carvings she herself had made from memory. The crown resembled the one the regent wore everyday, the band with the medallion secured in the center of it, the intersecting lines designed to symbolize the crossed arrows of Artemis. And, the deer design was identical in every aspect to the one Ephiny wore on the necklace about her neck.
"Pretty obvious who this was intended for," Xena continued, smoothly lifting the staff from Eponin's light grip. She experimentally gave it a twirl. "Good heft. Excellent balance. And, white birch? Somebody went to a lot of trouble to make this."
Still, Eponin refused to take the bait. She watched in stony silence as Xena continued to demonstrate her prowess with the weapon. Look at her, thought Xena as she went through her routine, she wants that staff back so badly, her palms are itching. Thing is, she'll never admit it. To me. Or herself.
"Found it in the water." She smoothly tossed it back to Eponin, watching as the weapons master caught it in a fluid, one-handed motion. "Had to chase the thing a half mile before it got snagged on some rocks. Cloth braiding and the feathers got a little messed up, but I figure those could be replaced by someone that knows how."
Eponin eyed the staff with a critical eye. The feathers could be salvaged. Or, she could just replace them with new ones. As far as the cloth braiding was concerned, it would have to be changed out. Hmmm, a finger idly stroked her jaw, I think I've got just the thing for that.
With a deep breath, Eponin looked up, meeting Xena's gaze for the first time since she'd been tossed the staff. Awkwardly, she shuffled from foot to foot. Swallowing convulsively, the amazon's voice dropped an octave as she said, "Thanks, Xena."
Xena looked like she'd just been slapped. Recovering quickly, she mumbled, "No problem, Ep." They both stood there, looking everywhere except at each other for several long moments. Then, finally, Xena coughed. "Listen, there's an extra staff under the bed. Why don't you grab that and charge me?" Now that we've solved her problem, maybe we can work out mine.
Grateful for the distraction, Eponin braced the white birch staff against the doorframe and dove for the bed. Reaching beneath, she quickly found the staff, fingers closing about the grip. As she retrieved it and stood up, she saw Xena already in a defensive position, her back to the door.
"You sure this is a good idea?" Eponin asked, "Gabrielle won't get mad, us fighting indoors?"
"I'm not afraid of Gabrielle," Xena growled, "Now shut up and attack me!"
"I've got her," Gabrielle offered, appearing beside healer and patient. She moved in, instigating her body between that of Megara and the regent. Wrapping both arms about Ephiny's waist, she lifted. Settling Ephiny's arm over her shoulder, she pointedly looked at Megara, "I'll get her in bed while you get her some more of that herbal tea."
"Yes, my Queen," Megara subtly bowed as she took her leave.
As the healer departed, Solari moved in, wrapping her arm securely about Ephiny's other side. Ephiny rolled her eyes. "I can walk, you know."
"Obviously. You made it out of bed on your own," quipped Gabrielle. "Should we consider ourselves lucky we managed to nab you before you climbed out the window?"
"Wasn't trying to escape," Ephiny snorted. "Just wanted to watch Ep's archery class. She was demonstrating how to shoot accurately while on the run."
"Oh?' asked the queen as they lowered Ephiny down onto the bed, "And, how did the best weapons master in the nation fare?"
"Perfect, as always. Nailed the center of every target." Ephiny grunted as Solari leaned in too far, tumbling onto the bed.
Eponin swung wildly, missing her target yet again. She winced as Xena ducked, her staff continuing its forward momentum, soundly connecting with a mug on the table behind her. The mug flew across the room, shattering on impact as it collided with the fireplace.
Xena took advantage of the opening, bringing her own weapon up, connecting with Eponin's exposed midsection. As the blow doubled her over, a follow-up sweep was delivered to her legs, bringing her down.
Solari landed atop Ephiny, narrowly missing her wounded shoulder on her way down. She lay sprawled across her friend's legs and lower body, her chin connecting solidly with Gabrielle's forehead as she landed. The queen felt herself falling backwards with the impact, Solari ending up at an awkward angle halfway across her torso.
Stunned, she lay there for a moment before shouting, "SOLARI!" as she realized exactly where the scout's nose had ended up at. Thrashing about, she struggled to extricate herself from a tangled mass of arms and legs. Seeing Ephiny's painful grimace as she was jostled, Gabrielle mouthed a "sorry" before making it to a sitting position beside her regent.
With an exasperated sigh, she leveled a glare at her chief scout. "You know," Gabrielle huffed, "For someone talented enough to travel at a full-run from branch to branch atop the tallest trees in the forest, you sure are clumsy on the ground."
"Thought you amazons were supposed to be the epitome of gracefulness." Xena patiently waited as Eponin slowly dragged herself up. "You're more like a bull in a pottery shop."
As Xena waited, she continued to explain the events of the council session to the weapons master. For some reason, she found it easier to talk through things while she was pummeling something. And, the weapons master was always there to help her with that.
Every muscle in her body tensing, Eponin rose to her knees. One hand braced in front of her, leaning on her staff, she used her other hand to wipe the soot from the fireplace off her face. Face colored a light grey from the ash, she fixed a deadly glare at Xena. "I'll show you a bull," she growled, charging at the warrior princess.
"Sorry," Solari apologized again, propping herself up on an elbow and brushing chestnut brown locks from her eyes.
Megara chose that particular moment to reenter the room, carrying with her the mug of herbal tea the queen had requested. Her eyes nearly fell out of their sockets as she caught sight of the queen curled up with the two warriors. I guess I should be thankful that at least one of em's a patient! Rolling her eyes at the trio on the bed, she crossed the room, placing the mug on the table beside the bed. "Don't let that sit too long," she warned, "Stuff tastes positively rotten when it's cold."
"I'll see she drinks it right away," promised Gabrielle, adding, "Thanks, Megara."
Megara gave a curt nod before turning to leave. Looking pointedly at Solari, she growled, "Don't you have a bed of your own somewhere?"
Solari refrained from making a retort in her queen's presence. Instead, she focused all her concentration on disentangling herself from Ephiny and Gabrielle without jostling the bed any more than necessary. All while pointedly trying to ignore her queen's penetrating gaze.
She silently reflected on the last time she'd been in these circumstances. It had been the night of the feast when she had helped Gabrielle escort Ephiny home. It could have been something as simple as lending a friend a hand. But, it had turned into something decidedly much more complex than that. As usual, Ephiny was too stubborn to admit she needed help. And, Solari's own stinging pride felt it had something to prove and she'd purposely antagonized Ephiny. Again. Then, Eph was abducted. And, to think of the way I behaved - Gods, what if we hadn't gotten to her in time?
Sensing the shift in Solari's mood, Gabrielle reached out, fingers cupping the brunette beneath her chin. As deep brown eyes met hers, the bard thought she could detect a hint of insecurity hidden within their depths. "You and Megara don't get along, huh?"
Wordlessly, Solari shook her head. Not realizing her packmate's pain, Ephiny teased, "Not that you can blame her, right, Sol?" she asked playfully nudging the scout's shoulder.
Brown eyes darted to Ephiny, trying to skewer her with just a look. Please, don't let the queen ask why.
"Why?" asked Eponin, swinging her staff around, catching Xena in the small of the back.
"What do you mean why?" Xena grunted, catching herself before she fell over a toppled chair, then blocked an overhead strike. "It couldn't be anyone else."
"Discord?" Followed by a leg sweep.
"No." Xena smoothly jumped onto the bed.
"Strife." Eponin dodged a blow to the ribs.
"Could still be the Fates," huffed Eponin, watching as Xena raced to the end of the bed and did a double-back flip, landing smoothly on top of the table on the other side of the hut.
"Again, no." She readied herself as Eponin charged across the room , closing the gap before Xena was fully stabilized. Leaping about, she deftly avoided several blows aimed at her ankles in quick succession.
Gabrielle caught the look passing between regent and scout. Curiosity getting the better of her, she asked, "Why is that?"
"Because she bedded Megara's daughter."
"The dancer?" Gabrielle asked, remembering Ephiny pointing out Megara's daughter at the feast.
"Uh-huh. And, her sister, Rayne," confirmed the regent with a wry grin.
"I didn't know it was Rayne," Solari defended herself, "I thought she was Moraine." She gave an exasperated huff. "Well, they are twins, you know."
"That didn't stop you from having them both later," Ephiny smirked. "In the same bed. At the same time."
"Solari!" Gabrielle shrieked, delighting in the flush rapidly spreading across the scout's cheeks.
Embarrassed, Solari buried her face against her friend's upper thigh. "Eph!" she ground out.
"Not to mention," Ephiny added with a conspiratorial wink at Gabrielle, "their younger sister. The very next night."
"You know," growled Solari, lifting her head from Ephiny's thigh, openly glaring at the regent, "Just because I escorted someone to dinner doesn't mean I took them to bed."
"Oh?" Ephiny's eyebrow arched. "Are you saying you didn't have your way with Tyrienne?"
"No, I did," admitted Solari. "I just don't appreciate everyone assuming I did, is all."
"Ah." Realization suddenly dawned on Gabrielle. Much like her Xena - "Seems your legend precedes you."
"Yeah." Solari lay her chin back on Ephiny's thigh with a deep sigh. "That was all well and good when I was a young buck, you know?" she asked, eyes darting back and forth between queen and regent, "But, I'm older now and - " she let her words trail off with a dejected sigh and a shrug.
You find yourself craving something more than just the occasional romp in the hay, huh? Looking for something deeper and more meaningful, perhaps? Guessed Gabrielle, noting Ephiny's hand come up to lay against Solari's head. The scout seemed to melt beneath the caress, a lazy smile coating her lips as long fingers stroked through her brown locks.
So untypical of the Solari that I've come to know. I'm used to the light-hearted prankster, quick with a joke and a smile. The smart remarks, the droll sense of humor. I've never really seen this side of my amazon. Gabrielle continued to watch the silent show of affection. Xena had confided to her that Ephiny and Solari had childhood names for each other. And, she could tell from Devillare's story that Solari was loyal to Ephiny even then. But, she'd never seen them so openly demonstrative towards each other. Maybe it's because they're both in reflective moods because of what happened and all.
Speaking of which, Xena was in a mood last night, too. Xena had been frisky when she'd first returned to the village. Gabrielle had expected that. Xena always had what she referred to as 'bloodlust' when returning from any type of mission. Especially one where she didn't get to crack heads the way she wanted. Their lovemaking had been raw and passionate, Xena expending mounds of pent-up frustration and energy.
What she hadn't expected, though, was that even after the return from the temple and the baths, Xena still wanted more. This time, however, it wasn't the fierce warlord or the ardent lover that took her to heights of ecstasy. Oh, yes, Xena was still passionate. Gods knows she could be in a coma and still be passionate! But, what Xena did last night - she'd been - tender. She'd actually lowered the walls and allowed Gabrielle in. She allowed me to touch her - and kept her eyes open for me the entire time, letting me see in to her depths.
"Guys?" Gabrielle drew two sets of eyes in her direction. "I think the Furies are at work here."
"It's not the Furies!" Xena shouted, brutally bringing her staff down, rapping Eponin across the knuckles.
"Ouch! Hey!" Eponin dropped her staff, then extended a defensive arm as she saw Xena's staff coming down upon her again. "It was just a suggestion, ya know!"
"Sorry," Xena huffed, stopping her strike in mid-swing. Twirling the staff about, she planted it firmly on the ground, rested its length against her frame.
"Why are you so bent out of shape, anyway?" Eponin groused, picking her own staff up off the floor.
"Because I know who it is and no one will listen."
"Yeah? Well, I'm listening."
Xena's gaze swept over the devastation that was once the queen's hut. Everything inside with the exception of the bed was either smashed or upended. Ash from the fireplace covered everything. Including Gabrielle's latest scroll she'd been working on. Yeah, guess good ol' Ep really let me work through this one, huh? Just hope Gabby understands.
"I don't understand," Ephiny drawled out slowly, looking at her queen as if she'd just suddenly stripped naked and declared herself a water nymph. "Why would you think the Furies are plaguing the Amazon Nation?"
"Well, look at everything that's happened since Xena and I came to visit." Gabrielle began counting off on her fingers as she made each point. "There's been assassination attempts. Abductions. Some masked amazon is still singing you love ballads by the light of the moon."
She'd been on her way to look in on Ephiny last night when she'd heard the crooner outside the infirmary, singing of her 'undying affection', rhyming it with 'heart-stopping rejection'. She herself had ordered the Royal Guard to find the wayward singer and escort her down to the river to see if she could sing while being held underwater. She'd been sorely disappointed when the guard returned empty handed.
"Is this your way of saying you've rethought that speech you gave me about how everything changes and I should learn to embrace the change?"
"No, that still applies." Gabrielle cast a withering glare at her regent. How dare she try to negate my everything changes speech? "I'm merely pointing out how ruthless the Furies can be. And, that I think Xena's been afflicted by them."
Did she get into some henbane? "Why would you think Xena's been touched by the Furies?"
"Because - " What do I say; That I think she's gone mad because she was unusually sensitive last night? I say that, they'll think I've lost my mind! "She's acting about as fruity as when she tried to behead her mother." Gabrielle propped herself up on one elbow, eyes darting back and forth between her regent and scout. "I didn't tell you about the time the Furies tried to drive her insane?"
"Umm, no?" Solari looked to Ephiny for confirmation.
"No, pretty sure I would've remembered if you'd mentioned that," agreed Ephiny, pursing her lips, searching her memory. The Queen had told her so many of their adventures - and, admittedly, sometimes Ephiny found her eyes glazing over while Gabrielle was in bard mode - that it was hard to remember all of them. Still, though, if Xena had been possessed by the Furies - "I'm sure you haven't told us that one, Gabrielle."
"Right." Gabrielle settled back into full-story telling position. "Listen as I sing the song of Xena and the Furies . . . "
"I'm listening," repeated Eponin. "Call on her, Xena. If you're so certain it's her, call on her again."
"Call on her - ?" Xena gave a baffled look, then a shrug. Tilting her head back, she yelled, "Aphrodite!" Head still thrown back, she moved in a small circle, screaming, "APHRODITE! Show yourself! I know you can hear me! APHRODITE!"
"Yeeoowww!" A distinctly feminine voice was heard just before a shimmering of pink materialized. "Like, take it down a decibel, would ya?"
"It's about time you showed up," Xena grumbled as the shimmering sparkles gradually dissipated. In their place, appeared the Goddess of Love. "Didn't you hear me yelling for you earlier?"
"Of course I did. Gods can hear everything, you know." Aphrodite rolled her eyes and flipped her hair with mild annoyance. "I was busy working on a date. In Crete." She giggled at her own rhyme. "Romance is tough down there, what with the Minotaur terrorizing the countryside and all."
"Yeah, well things are tough all over," snapped Xena. "I could've used your support in front of the Amazon Council of Elders."
"Whoa, like, chill the attitude, warrior babe. Last time I checked, I wasn't at the warrior princess' beck and call." Indignantly, Aphrodite placed both hands on curvaceous hips. "And, I don't do concert appearances." Aphrodite lifted her hand, inches from snapping her fingers and disappearing again.
"Wait!" Xena rushed forward. "Don't go," she pleaded, hand extended in a halting motion.
"It's okay," came the husky voiced reply of the weapons master. She had been slowly backing towards the door while Xena was talking to herself, but immediately halted when the warrior had suddenly started towards her. "I'm not going anywhere."
Xena stopped in her tracks, openly staring at the amazon with a befuddled expression. Placing a hand on her hip, she rolled her eyes, looking to her left. "She can't see you, can she?"
To Eponin, it looked like Xena was carrying on a conversation. She was gesticulating and pontificating as if she were having a real discussion with someone, but there was nothing there but empty space. She stood no more than a half dozen paces from the door, silently debating if she had enough of a lead to slip out before Xena could reach her. Probably have me by the scruff of the neck before I'm off the porch.
Eyes followed the motions of Xena's hands as she wildly gestured, poking her fingers at the air. I swear; if she starts towards me with those things, I'm out of here. Eponin remembered the jab that had precipitated their arrival in Megara's infirmary. Xena, however, made no move towards the weapons master. As a matter of fact, she remained rooted to the spot, appearing to be embroiled in a heated argument with a wooden chair. Great! Just what we need; a cracked ex-warlord in the middle of the Amazon Nation.
"So, Xena fought Ares to a standstill, raising the possibility in the Furies' minds that he was potentially her father. And, she couldn't be punished for not avenging the death of her father if Cyrene's husband wasn't Xena's birth parent."
Solari and Ephiny stared at their queen in various degrees of jaw-dropping shock.
Well, that could certainly explain how Xena's able to do some of those amazing stunts, reflected Ephiny.
Is that how she can sneak up on Amazons? pondered Solari.
"Hey! Don't look at me like that!" admonished Gabrielle. "Xena just challenged Ares to save her mother. It's not true!"
Suddenly becoming lost in memories of dealing with a slightly unhinged warrior princess, Gabrielle silently turned her attention to the window. She stared straight ahead, looking but not really seeing. Ephiny and Solari exchanged looks, neither quite believing her queen's protestations. Both clamped down on their thoughts, not wishing to dispute Gabrielle's word. After all, she was closer than anyone to the warrior princess. Surely if anyone knew the truth, it would be the little bard from Potadeia.
Ephiny lifted her mug, idly sipping the tea Megara had brought in earlier. She'd only finished about half of it. The rest had gone stone cold while she'd been enraptured with Gabrielle's tale. Grimacing at the foul taste, she attempted to pass the mug back to her distracted queen.
Solari reached up, smoothly intercepting the pass. She'd been laying on her side between Ephiny's outstretched legs, one arm curled about a thigh in a casual embrace as she listened to the story her queen was weaving. Propping herself up on one elbow, she tentatively took a drink. Her lips curled as the first sip came into contact with her taste buds. Drawing back, she dubiously peered at the dark brew. Her tongue rapidly darted across her lips, tasting the remnants of the herbs. Lifting the mug, she cautiously sniffed at its contents. Experimentally, she tried another sip.
"Okay, I can see how it'd be bad if the Furies went after Xena again," Solari conceded, only slightly grimacing as she swallowed another mouthful of tea. "But, what makes you think that's what's happened this time? I mean, she seemed perfectly normal while we were tracking Ephiny."
"Really?" Ephiny asked, looking down on the scout as she absently stroked her fingers through Solari's hair. "Because she was acting odd before that. Did you see her go after Eponin? If Gabrielle hadn't called her off -"
"I was there," Solari reminded her. She turned her head, peering up at her regent from an awkward angle. "And, as I recall, Ep wasn't exactly innocent." Solari had always been a little wary around Eponin. Maybe because she'd seen the way Ephiny was fascinated by the older amazon. The way she followed her out to the field and got her feathers whopped every day! Solari knew she was a little jealous of Eponin's friendship with Ephiny. After all, she was always my packmate! And, before Ep, I never had to share her attention!
"Xena goaded her on," defended Ephiny.
"How? By dancing with you, Ephiny?" snorted Solari. "If that's all it takes, half the village goaded her on last solstice. Didn't see the weapons master going after any of them!"
Ephiny's jaw clamped shut, her eyes flashed at the mention of the winter festival. Solari had convinced her to try a new batch of Amazon wine that was being processed. Two flagons later, she was dancing with any amazon that would venture within ten feet. Oh, and the hangover the next morning! I swore off drinking for a solid moon after that!
"Sometimes, Xena just gets a little crazy and antagonizes someone for no reason whatsoever. And, once it starts, it's like she's possessed and doesn't know when to stop." Gabrielle's statement interrupted Ephiny's thoughts. "And, she wasn't acting any saner this morning, either," Gabrielle reluctantly admitted. She hated to badmouth the love of her life, but in the long run, this was for her own good. "You should have seen her in the council hut. She actually tried to convince the elders that Aphrodite is responsible for kicking Artemis out of her temple. And, the way she was carving holes in the table; you should have seen the look on Tynette's face. I thought she was going to come unglued."
"Hmmm." Solari took another sip. "Now that you mention it, I did notice something. It happened while we were looking for you, Eph. I was up before everyone, ready to get back on the trail when I saw Xena and Eponin curled up together. Guys, they were - " she trailed off, searching for the right word, " - snuggling."
"Snuggling?" Both Ephiny's eyebrows scurried up. "Xena? Destroyer of Nations Xena?" She looked to Gabrielle, who could only sit there, looking six different shades of green as she visualized what Solari was describing. "Snuggling with the Weapons Master to the Amazons?" She maintained her skeptical look as Solari nodded. "That's just not right."
"Look, she already thinks I'm not in my right mind!" Xena gestured towards Eponin, who had managed to sneak a step closer to the door while she was distracted. "Would you please help me out here?"
"Oh, okay!" Aphrodite snapped her fingers. "Don't get your leathers in a wad!"
The room was bathed in a startling pink glow, temporarily blinding the mortals. Both Xena and Eponin instinctively shut their eyes against the brightness. As the glow gradually subsided, Eponin blinked, focusing on the interior of the hut. Xena was standing in front of her, rubbing her eyes in irritation. And, beside her -
Eponin's eyebrows crawled higher up her forehead than they'd ever traveled before. Mouth hanging open, she blatantly stared. A blonde goddess clad in a shimmering pink nightie was standing beside the warrior. She was all curvaceous hips and voluptuous breasts. Dazzling eyes, a brilliant smile and a pert nose made Eponin's heart stop. But, when she caught sight of perfectly charming dimples, it resumed beating at triple its normal rate.
"She can see you now?" guessed Xena, judging from Eponin's open-mouth gape.
"Oh, yeah," giggled Aphrodite, her nose crinkling adorably.
"A - A - Aphrodite?" Eponin finally managed to get her mouth around the name.
"Got it in one, Amazon babe." The goddess confirmed with another brilliant smile and a flash of dimples. Hands on her hips, she sauntered the distance to where Eponin stood. Looking her over from head to toe, she slowly circled the weapons master. Casually, she draped one arm about Eponin's broad shoulders. Her other hand reached out, sculpted nails running lightly over tight abdominal muscles. "Oh, and what an amazon babe you are, sweetie!" Eponin visibly shivered as Aphrodite leaned in, blowing seductively, causing one of the feathers in her hair to rustle, tickling her ear. "You leather and feather gals are just so much fun!" she giggled as the amazon turned eight different hues of red.
"Aphrodite, back off before you make the poor woman's heart give out," Xena warned, arms folded over her chest, impatiently glaring at the goddess and the amazon.
"Pffft!" Aphrodite snorted. "Trust me, this one's heart is made of tougher stuff than that." She moved her hand up Eponin's abdomen, over her breast, settling it over the weapons master's pounding heart. "Ain't that right, cutie?" she winked, conspiratorially.
"Umm, yeah?" Eponin guessed, knowing she was expected to answer at this point, but still unable to think coherently enough to figure out what the question was.
"See, grumpy ex-warlord chick?" Aphrodite smirked as Xena rubbed a calloused hand over her face in exasperation. "Now, what did you want?"
"I want - " Xena managed in a barely controlled voice through tightly clenched teeth, " - to know what you've done with Artemis."
"Like, ewww! Artie's my baby sister!" Aphrodite actually looked offended.
"No, not like that," Xena quickly amended. "I mean, I want to know why you've taken up residence in Artemis' temple."
"Oh, that!" Aphrodite dismissed the question with a wave of her hand. "That hagster Athena totally nabbed Artie away for some battle she's got brewing down in her patron city of Athens." As she spoke, she ran her hands over Eponin's powerful biceps. "Wanted Art to take her amababes, too, but sis convinced her to leave them out of it. So, I'm like, you know temple sitting and stuff til she gets back."
"Sooo," drawled Xena, "You're just taking care of the temple while Artemis is gone?" At Aphrodite's confirming nod, she asked, "Then, there's a perfectly logical reason Artemis' priestesses have gone into seclusion?"
"Is that what happened to the prudesters?" Aphrodite dismissed Xena's concern for the mortal with a flick of her wrist. "You know, I always thought all of Artie's babes were the original party gals, you know what I mean? But, not that priestesses." She cupped her hand, speaking in an exaggerated whisper. "Glad they're gone. That High Priestess has those poor girls so confused, they don't know if they're coming or going. She makes that hagster Athena look like Sappho on aphrodisiacs." She thought for a heartbeat before adding, "Waste of perfectly good virgins, you know?"
"Uh-huh." Xena's ice blue gaze turned deadly, her voice dropped to a low, menacing growl. "Aphrodite, what have you done to the Amazons?"
"Like, ex-squeeze me!" Aphrodite decided she really was offended now, so much so that she immediately stopped her intimate inspection of Eponin's body. "I didn't realize you were in charge of the warrior babes!"
Xena briskly rubbed at the irritating throbbing that was rapidly increasing in her temples. "Look," she glared at the goddess. "Whatever you've done to the amazons, I want you to undo it! Now!"
"Like, in case you didn't get the scroll, gods do not take orders from mortals!" Aphrodite huffed, hands on both hips, stomping her foot. "And, until you can control the tone and the 'tude," she waved her hand with a flourish, "I'm out of here!" She snapped her fingers, disappearing in a blinding flash of pink.
"I mean, I'm used to the attitude, you know?" asked Gabrielle, running a hand through her hair, exhaling loudly as she stared at the ceiling. "Kind of comes with the sword and leathers. But, some times, it can be embarrassing. Like when we're in front of the Amazon Council. I mean, she's cute and adorable and I love her to death, but the way she acted in front of the elders just wasn't right."
"Sometimes the council needs to be shaken up," shrugged Ephiny. Stifling a yawn, she lolled her head to the side, looking at her queen. "Besides, Xena's hardly the only one not acting right."
"Huh?" Solari mumbled, barely able to lift her head from Ephiny's thigh. Her cheek was slumped against the regent's flesh, one eye closed as she tried to focus her other eye.
"I mean, really. Just look at us," she open-mouthed yawned and gestured to include herself, the queen and the chief scout.
"You're right," agreed Gabrielle. "We're the only ones capable of confronting Xena in the state she's in." The bard made a move to disentangle herself from her bedmates, only to find herself pinned beneath someone's weight. "Let's go."
"Umm, Gabrielle?" Ephiny pointed down the length of her body.
Gabrielle's gaze followed Ephiny's finger. Finally, she settled on Solari's slumped over form. Both the scout's eyes were closed by this time, a string of saliva threatening to creep from the edge of her mouth. A nearly empty mug dangled precariously from her fingertips.
"Solari?" Gabrielle reached over, lifting the mug from Solari's grasp. Ephiny shifted, attempting to jostle the scout. Bleary eyes peered up at her queen. "Solari, honey, you didn't drink this, did you?"
"Unh-huh," confirmed the scout, "S'not so bad once you get past the taste."
"Solari, look at me." Solari blinked, bringing the image of her queen into blurry alignment once again. "I need you to move so we can get out of bed. I've got a plan on how to stop Xena. But, we need to go now. Understand?"
"Mmm-hmm." She lifted herself on shaking arms, crawling over Ephiny's outstretched leg. She hovered on all fours above her queen and regent for the span of a heartbeat before her eyes rolled back in their sockets, her arms gave out and she tumbled into the bodies beneath her.
"Solari? Solari?" Gabrielle reached out, capturing the brunette beneath her chin, raising her head. Soft snores were already coming from the scout's limp frame. "Great!" Gabrielle let Solari's chin loose, allowing the amazon's face to slam back into Ephiny's stomach. She openly glared at her regent. "I suppose you know that tea was laced with sleeping herbs meant for you!"
"Are we clear on the plan?"
Cordele glanced to her immediate left, catching the confirming nod from Keleos. Kynthia lay flat on her belly in the tall grass on the other side of her lover, intently watching the activity in the village below the ridge.
"Kynthia?" she asked, somewhat more forcefully, "Are you clear on the plan?"
"Yeah," the hunter finally nodded in response, still not shifting her gaze from the village.
Cordele flicked an agitated glare at Keleos, silently signaling with her eyes and a firm clench of her jaw. In response, Keleos reached out, laying one of her hands upon that of her bondmate's. "Kynthia, you okay?"
The hunter let out a slow breath, turned her head to meet Keleos' questioning gaze. "Kel, are you sure about this?"
"Of course we're sure!" Cordele snapped, trampling over whatever response Keleos was going to offer. "Oh, don't tell me that bleeding heart Gabrielle's gotten to you, too?" she snorted derisively. "I thought you were tougher than that."
"I am!" shot back Kynthia, her hand hovering over the knife at her belt in a pointed gesture. "But, after listening to her explain about her idea to turn the old tannery into - " she left her sentence hanging as she caught the waves of irritation fairly rolling off the lead hunter. " - some of her ideas make good sense."
"Some of her ideas?" Cordele rolled her eyes. "And, which ones are those? The one where she wanted me hunted down like a wild animal? Or, maybe the one where she imprisoned my entire squad and then convinced them it was for their own benefit?"
"She explained her motivations - "
"Oh, Artemis preserve us!" Cordele slapped her hand against the ground, crushing the wild grass beneath her frustrations. "That wimp Gabrielle and her ideas are going to be the downfall of the entire Nation! Next thing you know, she's going to have us turn in our weapons and become vegetable-growing farmers so we don't harm the cute, little bunnies with our sharp, pointed sticks!"
Keleos fought down the laughter that threatened to bubble up from Cordele's descriptive imagery. Catching the irritated scowl on the lead hunter's face and the chagrined expression of her lover, she felt her humor instantly dissipate. "Look, Kynthia," she lay a reassuring touch along her bedmate's back, "The Queen has insulted Cordele, soiling her honor and the honor of the rest of our squad. If we don't want the caste of the hunter to become a joke amongst our tribe, action must be taken."
"Retribution must be made," Cordele interjected, keeping her voice firm, yet calm in an attempt to sway Kynthia's vacillating loyalty. Sensing that she was making progress, she continued, "First we take vengeance, then we seek out the Council of Elders and demand justice."
Kynthia's eyes narrowed as she remembered who had accompanied the queen to the tannery. "Devillare openly supports Queen Gabrielle," she supplied.
Keleos' gaze faltered, but Cordele's held firm, a sly smile forming upon her lips. "Devillare is hardly the only elder on the council. I guarantee the hunter caste has more allies that that little outsider does."
"Don't be so quick to dismiss her," warned Kynthia, "She can be very persuasive."
"I'm sure she can be. She's already managed to sway the regent, the weapons master and the chief scout. That's why we have to act now before she gains any more support." Noting the wavering in Kynthia's resolve, the lead hunter pressed her advantage. "Kynthia, this needs to be done. You see that, don't you?" Hesitantly, both of Kynthia's shoulders shrugged. "Before we proceed, I need to know I have my friend's support."
At this point, Keleos caught both her bondmate's hands within her own, leveling her gaze to look at her through veiled eyes. "Kyn, Cordele can count on us, can't she? Both of us?" she pressed.
Lowering her gaze, Kynthia nodded her ascent. With a firm nod of her head, Cordele rose to a crouch, signaling her cohorts to follow. Her smile broadened as sensitive hearing picked up the sounds of two sets of feet trailing along after her as she picked her way down the ridge and into the village.
Staff firmly braced between the insteps of amazon boots and muscular knees as she sat on the edge of her chair, the weapon leaned against her upper body and one shoulder as she bent forward. Dexterous fingers on calloused hands worked to remove the ruined cloth braiding. Laying the braiding and hemp on her desk, the weapons master reached for the bundle of fabric and her knife.
Grabbing the wad of blue material up, she held it against the sunlight, carefully examining it. Dirt and dried blood liberally coated the delicate fabric, staining it beyond repair. As caramel colored eyes focused on the ruined areas, her eyes lost their natural warmth, replaced by an icy edge. She felt the anger boiling her blood beneath the surface. Her jaw locked in a tight vise, nostrils flared with each deep breath.
Damn it, Eph! She felt the sharp bite of tears stinging at her eyes, roughly wiped them away with a swift scrub of her calloused palm. You have me bawlin' like some brat in swaddling every time I turn around! Holding the cloak firmly in both hands, veins in her wrists prominently standing out against taut flesh, she tightened her grip. With a primal scream borne of undisguised pain, she violently pulled, rending the fabric in half.
Falling to her knees on the floor of her hut, she desperately clutched at the ruined cloak. Holding it against her chest, she rocked back and forth as a fresh wave of anguish ripped through her body. Burying her face in one hand, she balled her other into a fist, repeatedly beating it against her thigh.
Xena's fist loudly connected with the wall, threatening to knock several wooden slats out of place. Nervously, the guards looked over their shoulders at the commotion, but wisely said nothing. After the embarrassment of being awakened, tied spread-eagled to hospice beds, neither woman wanted to experience a repeat performance at the warrior princess' hands.
Sensing the twin sets of eyes on her back, emitting a low growl and thrusting the hide covering to the side with one swipe of her hand, Xena boldly stepped into the room. Letting the curtain drop, it fell behind her, effectively ensuring their privacy.
Arms folded across her chest, she stared, feeling her barely constrained fury rushing to the surface, threatening to erupt like Mt. Vesuvius. Unbelievable! Un-freaking believable! Running a hand through a tangled mass of ebony hair, she exhaled loudly, fighting against a berserker rage.
"Xena!" Gabrielle's eyes grew to the size of Xena's chakram as she caught sight of her soulmate hovering in the doorway.
"Gabrielle." Her tone was dangerously cold.
"I was just coming to find you." Gabrielle spoke hurriedly, trying to quickly diffuse the situation.
"Yeah, looks like."
Eyes the color of pale ice narrowed to fine slits as she studied the scene before her. Her partner - her soulmate - her life was in bed with not one, but two Amazons. Ephiny was laying on her back, one bare leg exposed from beneath the blanket, dangling off the bed. Her head was thrown back, tousled curls falling about both shoulders. The fingers of one hand were firmly entwined in Solari's brown locks.
The chief scout appeared to be dead to the world. She was laying face down, her body covering both those of her regent and her queen. Her lower half was spread across Ephiny's frame, her pelvis firmly pressed against the regent's ribs. The rest of her was sprawled across Gabrielle, both arms locked firmly about her queen's waist.
Gabrielle was trapped, effectively pinned into place by Solari's greater weight. The fingers of one hand repeatedly dug into the scout's bicep, trying to jostle her awake. With a snort, Solari raised up a half inch, adjusted her position and settled back down.
"Funniest thing," Gabrielle frantically attempted to explain. "Ephiny was being stubborn about getting into bed, so I had Megara fix up some herbal tea. Which, as you know, is code for add the sleeping herbs, right?" Seeing the twitching muscle desperately worrying Xena's cheek, she redoubled her efforts to throw Solari off. "Well, Ephiny drank half the dose. But, I got caught up in telling them a story and didn't realize that Solari had drank the rest. They've both been snoring like banshees ever since."
"That story might've been more believable if you'd kept both hands on top of the covers."
Both hands on top of - Gabrielle's eyes widened as she realized exactly where her other hand had wandered to. If the situation hadn't been so desperate, the bard in her would have appreciated the visual effect of every time her eyes widened more, Xena's narrowed even further. As it was, even she couldn't find any humor in the situation. Especially when Ephiny shifted in her sleep and her fingers abruptly left Solari's hair and migrated to her breast.
The sound of a sword being pulled from its sheath echoed throughout the room.
"Xena, wait!" Gabrielle pleaded, struggling to disentangle herself from the mass of bodies on the bed, one hand stretched out, reaching for the warrior.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" A feminine hand reached out, catching Eponin's fist on the upswing, delicate nails closing about a powerful wrist. "Like, you'll totally damage your delicate mortal flesh!"
Delicate, mortal - ? Bewildered brown eyes looked up into the face of a beautiful goddess. "Aphrodite?"
"See, that's what I like about you," Aphrodite giggled, reaching out, tapping the end of Eponin's nose with the tip of her finger, "You're not just another pretty face."
Drawing a ragged breath, Eponin slowly ran a hand through her thick, ebony locks. Shoulders slumped, she stared at the ruined cloak clutched in her grasp.
"Hey, what's all this about?" The Goddess of Love asked, seeing the stained fabric, the staff laying on the floor and the assorted leather twine and feathers scattered about.
"Uh, it's a staff I've kinda been working on."
"Hmm, I see." Aphrodite reached out, effortlessly hefting the staff, carefully eyeing it. "Okay, I'm not all that up on my Amazon stuff, but I'm guessing it's done except for tying the feathers from it with the rope stuff?"
"Pretty much, yeah," Pony nodded.
"Well, that's a good thing, right?" Aphrodite slowly nodded along with the weapons master. "Then, like, why are you so bummed, amazon babe?"
"Because . . . " There was a shrug of powerful shoulders " . . . then, I still have to figure out . . . " Fingers picked at the material she held in her hands ". . . I don't think I should give it to her?"
"So, you made this bodaciously cool staff-thingy for that someone special and now you're not sure you should give it to her because - " Dite prompted, settling in on the floor beside Eponin. Warrior. Emotions. This could be a while.
"Because it's like you said." Eponin's eyes barely met the goddess' before she dropped her head and stared at her hands. "I'm - not - pretty." The words came out haltingly and with no small amount of effort. The Goddess of Love knew not to push, letting the warrior find her words in her own time. "I'm not . . . a great bard like Gabrielle . . . or smooth like Solari . . . or even a good dancer." She struggled, biting her bottom lip with nearly enough force to draw blood. "She could have her pick of anyone she wanted - "
" - And, you don't think she'd pick you?"
Eponin swallowed against a bitter lump that was forming in her throat. Nervously licking her lips, she summoned the courage to face the Goddess of Love and ask, "Aphrodite, what's wrong with me?"
"Nothing's wrong with you, sweetcheeks. You're a total catch and a half." At the weapons master's self-derisive snort, she added, "You're smart and sensitive and with those eyes, you could just melt an ice age. And," she ran a caressing hand over Eponin's shoulder and bicep, "you're all muscular and toned and buff." At this point, she drew in a sharp breath and fanned herself. "Honey, I bet the amazons are lining up around the corner, dying for you to stroke their feathers."
"Not Eph." Eponin resumed her picking at the edges of the material.
Aphrodite reached out, grabbing Eponin's hand within hers, stilling her nervous fingers. "How do you know?" At the slump of the amazon's shoulders, she asked, "Have you ever even told her how you feel?"
"I've tried . . . but I start to speak and I get . . . and my hands get sweaty . . . and my heart starts racing . . . " One fist clenched and unclenched in her inability to express herself. "She looks at me and . . . I can't even breathe around her."
"Pooonnnyyyyy! You're in love!" Aphrodite squealed with undisguised delight. "You've so got to tell her, girlfriend!"
"I - " Eponin nervously shifted. "I can't." Biting her bottom lip, she avoided Aphrodite's appraising gaze. "I - I'm - "
"Oh, sweetie. Don't be afraid." She reached out, cupping Eponin's cheek in a light caress, "Laying your heart on the line is scary, I'll grant you that. But, when she says yes, it'll take your heart to heights greater than Mt. Olympus."
"I wanted to fix this staff for her," Eponin finally confessed. "I figured since I can't find the words to tell her . . . " She took a deep breath, even now struggling for the means to express herself, "But, then I saw all the flowers and stuff everyone else was bringing her - " Unable to finish her painful admission, she let her words just fade into a helpless shrug.
Aphrodite cocked her head to the side, intently studying the woman before her. She was magnificent. Strong as they come with a heart even bigger than her muscles. But, still scarred and insecure from a mother's less than adequate love for her. "Hey," she playfully nudged the amazon with her knee. "I'm going to give you some free advice from the Goddess of Love herself." At Eponin's inquisitive look, she offered, "All those other gals bringing flowers and poetry and chocolates are just as nervous as you are."
"Hey, trust me! Love is what I do!" Dite shifted her caress, moving her fingers down to cup Eponin's chin. Tilting her head, she stared deep into eyes the color of heated ambrosia. "You can finish up that staff and take it to her as an 'in', but sweetie, you so don't need it. Just be yourself and tell her how you feel. Even if the words don't come out quite right, she'll know if they're said from the heart."
"Okay." Eponin squared her shoulders, nodded her head in sharp resolution. "I'll do it." After all, if anyone should know about love, it's Aphrodite. Pushing herself to her feet, she dusted her leathers off, then assisted Aphrodite up. "I'll finish this up later," she declared, laying the staff and paraphernalia upon her desk.
She started to go, then, abruptly turned about, capturing one of the goddess' hands within her own. With a shy smile, she leaned in, placing a gentle kiss to Aphrodite's knuckles. "Thanks." She ducked her head bashfully, then sprinted from the hut.
"Aww, that's so cute," she cooed, crinkling her nose, "Warriors in love." Then, with a snap of her fingers, she disappeared.
Gabrielle frantically slapped her open palm against any part of Solari's body she could reach. Her entire body was tense with trepidation as Xena's sword was wrenched free from its scabbard. Fury shining deep in eyes gone nearly black with rage, the former Destroyer of Nations advanced on the Queen of the Amazons.
"SOLARI!" Gabrielle shouted, suddenly grabbing the scout by the scruff of the neck.
Sandalwood eyes suddenly flew open. "Hey!" protested the amazon, rubbing at the flesh seared by clutching fingernails. She looked indignantly from her queen to her regent.
"What's happening?" Ephiny mumbled, blinking open bleary eyes as the sounds of confrontation finally penetrated the sleep-laden fog.
"Xena's here!" Gabrielle explained, rapidly detaching the hand that had latched onto her breast.
"And we still have our heads?" slipped out of Solari's mouth as she remembered where she was and what position they were in.
"That'll be rectified soon."
Solari wanted to run. She wanted to bolt off the bed and out the window as fast as her feathers could fly. But, she suddenly found herself unable to move as she felt the menacing presence towering over her. Her eyes slid shut as she felt the hand reach about her body, grabbing her by the throat.
The grip tightened as she was abruptly jerked from the bed. She could feel her entire body hanging suspended, only the pressure about her neck keeping her firmly grounded to reality. When she unscrewed her eyes, she found herself staring into deadly, fiery blue.
Her back was firmly pressed against the wall, the hard wood scraping at her exposed flesh. Her legs dangled uselessly, her feet more than a dozen inches off the floor. Her hands desperately clung to the muscled bands of steel that held her at arm's length.
"Xe - " she gasped as the hand tightened further upon her constricting throat.
"Xena, it's not - "
A menacing growl rumbling low in her throat, the warrior fixed her deadly gaze upon the Amazon Regent. "Ephiny," she warned, only dimly aware of Solari's desperate grip on her forearm and Gabrielle's hands clutching at her back, "This is twice now I've found you in bed with Gabrielle. You have to realize that saying anything to me at this point would be a bad idea." She turned her deadly glare back to the squirming scout. "A very bad idea."
"Xena," Gabrielle frantically tugged at the arm that held her amazon flush against the wall, "We've talked before about you not killing our friends."
Solari's eyes widened at the statement. As did Xena's feral grin as she caught the fresh scent of fear rolling off the amazon in desperate waves. "And, you," she pierced the chief scout with a lethal stare, "Ephiny, I can almost understand. But, you? This is twice now you've been in bed with my bard, too!"
The scout's eyes darted to the bed at her regent's startled outburst. She would have gone to her, fallen to her knees and tried to explain that it wasn't what she thought - except that she was still pinned firmly in place by six feet of ticked off, unrelenting warrior.
"Xena!" Gabrielle protested, her stomach clenching as she recalled the grim look on Xena's face when the scout appeared in the regent's hut still wearing Xena's nightshirt. "She got soaked to the bone trying to protect me while you were out doing whatever it is you do when you go off to sulk by yourself! I let her sleep in our hut. In our bed. Sleep; that's all."
With negligent ease, Xena flexed, lifting Solari higher up the wall. She cocked her head to the side, looking askance at the distraught scout. She leaned in, growling ferociously, "Make no mistake, the only reason you're not on a one-way trip to the Amazon Land of the Dead is because I know this isn't your fault. It's Aphrodite's."
Behind the warrior's back, Gabrielle mouthed to her regent, "Furies."
Closing her eyes, breathing a sigh of relief, Solari felt her knees threaten to buckle as she was lowered to the floor. Her relief turned to heart-pounding terror as the warrior turned her ire upon the Amazon Queen. Closing her eyes, screwing up her courage, she used the wall to pull herself to her feet, preparing to rush to her queen's defense.
"Now, Xena - " Gabrielle took a reflexive step backwards, hands held up in front of her in a clearly defensive maneuver.
Visibly shaking herself, it looked as if Xena were attempting to throw off some sort of spell that had seized her, clouding her vision. "Gabrielle!" Xena suddenly rushed forward, catching the bard's upper arms in a vise-like grip. "Aphrodite has cast a curse on your tribe. I had to push my way past a pack of amorous amazons armed to the teeth with flowers and wine just to get in here. Megara and the guard are doing their best to hold them back, but they're pretty determined to storm the hospice." She leveled a pointed glare at Ephiny. "One guess who they're coming to visit."
"Xena, honey, I know you think Aphrodite's somehow involved, but I'm just not seeing it," began Gabrielle in what she hoped was a soothing voice.
To Xena it was nothing short of annoyingly pacifying. "Gabrielle, it is Aphrodite. I'll prove it to you." Stepping away from the bard, she raised her eyes to the heavens, bellowing, "Aphrodite! Show yourself! APHRODITE! Get your pink clad goddess butt down here!"
Expectantly, she waited for the customary show of pink showers. When it didn't appear, she cast an irritated glare at Gabrielle. "She's just being stubborn because she's mad at me," she explained.
"She is!" huffed Xena. "You don't believe me?"
"I believe you honestly think you've seen Aphrodite." Gabrielle tentatively reached out, running a placating hand over a toned arm. "But, remember the last time the Furies - "
"For the love of - It's not the blasted Furies!" Xena exploded. "Fine! Don't believe me! But, I've got a witness!" she crowed. "Eponin saw her, too."
"You know, your weapons master. Short, bad-assed muscular Amazon with a big stick and a bigger attitude?" With an edge of sarcasm, she added, "Unless you think she's a figment of my imagination, too?"
"Xena, don't." Gabrielle looked like she'd just been struck. "I'm trying to help."
"Really? Cause, I gotta tell ya, you're doing a pretty lousy job of it!" Xena snapped. "Never mind; I'll handle this on my own!"
Turning on her heel, Xena thrust the hide covering open with such force that it was wrenched free from the doorframe. It fell to the floor in a tangled heap as she stormed from the room, leaving three stunned Amazons in her wake.
Cordele crouched down, back firmly pressed against the thatched side of a hut. Edging along on her haunches, she crept closer to the end of the building. Slowly, she poked her head around the corner. Ducking back quickly, she signaled with one hand.
Silently, Keleos and Kynthia advanced, rushing forward in a crouching jog. Catching another signal from Cordele, this one for them to 'hold', they stopped behind a bearskin pelt draped over a clothesline. Peering around the edge of the pelt, they watched Cordele, waiting for her next signal.
As they waited, Kynthia reached out, laying a hand lightly upon Keleos' forearm. Keleos reacted to the unexpected touch, turning questioning eyes to her lover. What? she asked with just a look.
"Are we really going through with this?" Kynthia hissed through clenched teeth.
"We talked about this!" Keleos shot back in a strained voice. Quickly, she glanced towards the hut to make certain the lead hunter was still there - and hadn't overheard Kynthia's dissention. "I thought we agreed it was important to the entire hunters' caste to support Cordele!"
"I know." Seeing Keleos' look of annoyance, she repeated, "I know! And, I agree with going before the council and demanding the Queen's abdication, but I don't see the point in this!" she gestured towards the hut Cordele was leaning against.
"The point is honor." Keleos eyed her lover as if she had grown two heads and a tail. "I thought you would understand that."
"I do. But, this isn't about honor. This is about getting even." Kynthia glanced towards Cordele. The lead hunter had just given the signal to 'proceed' and Keleos was already moving towards the hut. Reaching out, she caught her bedmate by the elbow. "And, if Cordele was really serious about protecting the hunter caste, she wouldn't be doing this."
"We," corrected Keleos. "We're doing this. Cordele didn't desert you; don't you desert us." Pointedly, she jerked her elbow free of the vise-like grip that was holding her back. With one final look over her shoulder for her lover, she rushed towards the hut. Crouching down in just the same position Cordele was, with her back flat against the wall, her eyes locked with Kynthia's once more.
A feeling of dread knotting her stomach, Kynthia left the shelter of the bearskin hide and darted across the open compound towards her friends. As she skid to a halt, dropping into position beside her lover, Keleos reached out, firmly grasping her partner's hand.
"Get ready," Cordele warned, "Here she comes."
"We've got to stop her," Gabrielle firmly declared.
"How?" asked Ephiny, even as she struggled to get out of bed. Solari was instantly at her side, offering a supporting hand. Reluctantly, the proud amazon accepted the help. Solari pressed her advantage, grabbing the sling that was resting on the table by the bed and slipping it over the regent's head. "Do we even know where she's heading?"
"I'm not sure," admitted Gabrielle. Pacing, she rubbed thoughtfully at her chin. "Now, if I was a warrior princess possessed by the Furies, where would I go for help?"
Ephiny and Solari paused in their dual efforts to situate the sling to stare at each other, both shrugging as their queen continued her pacing and mumbling.
"Of course, she doesn't think she's under the influence of the Furies, does she?" Gabrielle abruptly stopped pacing, her eyes lighting up as she snapped her fingers. then, with a rueful shake of her head, she dropped her hand to her side and resumed her erratic pacing. "Whatever's going on, she thinks she has Eponin's support." The bard crossed the floor several more times before halting, turning about. "Chances are, we find Eponin, we find Xena."
"And, then what?" pressed Ephiny.
"I don't know," Gabrielle shrugged. "Try to reason with them. If we can't, we may have to . . . go up against both of them. Physically." Even Gabrielle winced as she said the words.
"Um, hello?" Solari stuck her hand in the air, dramatically gestured, "Can we all just take a moment to celebrate the fact that Xena didn't just kill us all?"
Queen looked to regent to chief scout then back again. "Solari's right. The three of us aren't strong enough to face the combined strength of both Xena and Eponin. We have to find Devillare."
Let's see; I've checked the council hut and the practice field. She wasn't in that mob at the hospice. Xena's long-legged stride carried her swiftly from hut to hut in the village. She didn't even bother with knocking, just pulled the assorted hide coverings to the side and ducked her head into each dwelling.
In most cases, the huts were empty. As was most of the village. Well, except for that one hut - Xena grinned - wonder if Gabrielle can get into that position?
It seemed that the group of guards and hunters assigned to the tannery still hadn't returned. And, the secondary group of hunters were out of the village on a big expedition to prepare for some feast or another. She'd run into Mytilda down in the kitchen, a mountain of heart-shaped cakes piled on her worktable. And, frantically mixing up another batch while Xena had stopped to talk with her. She didn't have to slap my hand away! I only wanted one! The warrior winced as she recalled the rampage Mytilda had gone on, threatening her with a spoon to the nose if she even thought about touching one of the regent's pastries.
Most everyone else, it seemed, was down at the hospice. Whatever it is Aphrodite's done, she mused, it's getting worse. Xena thought back to when they first arrived in Amazonia. There had been little signs that something wasn't right; Gabrielle herself had even asked Xena if she thought the Amazons were acting peculiar. And, in typical Xena fashion, she shrugged off the young bard's concern.
Now, even Gabrielle's acting differently. She'd noticed it shortly after they first arrived, but hadn't thought much of it. Gabrielle normally spent most of their time in the Nation hanging around with Ephiny. And, she knew her bard was a very demonstrative Queen. A lot of the Amazons are, she reflected, recalling the first time one of Eponin's trainees had slapped her on the ass after a training session. Poor girl thought I was gonna cut that hand off until she explained she didn't mean anything by it. She'd questioned Eponin about it later. The stoic weapons master just shrugged her shoulders in that way warriors often do and responded with 'it's just something Amazons do'.
Yeah, but I never thought that included the Amazon Queen trying to do her Regent! The bard was clever, Xena had to give her that. When she first admonished Xena for her jealous streak and told her that she just had a romantic friendship with the Amazon, she'd presented it in such a way that the warrior felt stupid and petty. So, of course, she'd found herself backed into a corner, unable to say anything as she'd witnessed the growing amount of hand holding and lingering caresses. Be honest, Xena; part of you was turned on by the increasing displays of affection between those two.
Until it became obvious that the interest wasn't purely physical in nature. She hadn't blamed Gabrielle for being attracted to Ephiny. The regent was hot, even by Amazon standards. What disturbed her was that the more time Gabrielle spent with Ephiny, the more protective of her she was becoming. Since their return to the village, the queen had spent nearly every waking moment with the regent. And, even the non-waking ones, she thought ruefully, recalling the earlier nap they'd shared together in the regent's bed.
She'd seen the reaction Gabrielle had when she'd discovered the stablehand was responsible for Ephiny's condition. She'd thought they were going to have to physically restrain the Queen from taking Doretta's head herself. And, she'd heard about the command to find and drown the woman crooning ballads about the regent. At this rate, she'll soon be ordering the flogging of anyone who so much as looks at Ephiny.
That thought only served to convince Xena that she was right. Something had to be done. And, since the Goddess of Love wouldn't even acknowledge her, she'd have to take care of matters on a more earthly level. She hated going to the council on her own. But, she needed to know specifically when that shamaness from the other tribe would be arriving. Maybe between the shamaness and the high priestess, combined with her own teachings from the land of Chin, they just might be powerful enough to break the curse plaguing the Amazon Nation.
In Xena's mind, it was far better to deal with one council member than all of them. So, she'd narrowed her search down to one elder. One very specific elder that she felt was more apt to take some sort of action without debate on it for candlemarks and then calling a vote and then debating some more. Now, Xena pondered, as she stood in the center of the village, if I was an aging warrior, where would I be?
Cordele remained motionless, back pressed against the side of the hut. Beside her, crouched Keleos and Kynthia, their bodies taut like arrows nocked upon bowstrings, ready to be released. Cordele held her arm up in the 'wait' signal, muscles protesting the inactivity as the heartbeats slowly pounded by.
Closing her eyes, forcing only shallow breaths, she focused her hearing. Amazons were stealthy by nature, but their prey was in a hurry and unconcerned about masking her approach. Cordele craned her neck, looking up as the warrior strode past at a fast clip.
When she was no more than six paces distant, Cordele flung her arm down in the signal of 'attack'.
Gabrielle was mildly concerned when they emerged from Ephiny's room to find that the two guards posted there were gone. Until she skidded around the corner and into the main corridor. That's when her mild concern turned into outright worry.
The two guards from Ephiny's room as well as the two assigned to guard Doretta were desperately trying to erect a barricade constructed of overturned beds and chairs. Megara was gamely finding anything that could be used to help reinforce the barricade while her two assistants huddled together behind a cabinet laden with herbs and bandages. The corridor was filled to brimming with amazons, each trying to be the first to fight her way past the barricade.
"Wow. Guess maybe Xena's not as touched in the head as you thought, my Queen."
Gabrielle leveled a glare at Solari. The scout remained nonplussed as she kept a firm, supporting grip about her regent's waist, watching the pandemonium unfolding about them. In all fairness, she thought the warrior was exaggerating when she described the pack of amazons she'd encountered on the way in. Seeing them now, wielding bouquets of flowers like swords, she realized just how truthfully Xena had spoken.
One amazon spotted them and made an attempt at a somersault over the barricade, only to find herself hanging upside down midway across. Solari winced in sympathy as Megara grabbed a staff from one of the guards and proceeded to pummel the prone amazon with it.
"Megara," Gabrielle rushed forward, confiscating the staff, pulling the healer away from the barricade, "What's going on here?"
"What's it look like?" Megara asked, a note of incredulity firmly ensconced in her tone, "These featherheads just took it upon themselves to storm the hospice in an effort to get to her," she jerked her head towards the regent, "And, believe me, none of them took too kindly to it when I told them they aren't on your list."
"Where's Captain Pelagia and the rest of the guard?"
"Received word about a candlemark ago that there was some foolishness going on out at the old tannery building," Megara reflexively ducked as a bouquet sailed over the barricade, narrowly missing her head, "She lit out of here with most of the guards in tow."
Cordele. She'd noticed the hunter's conspicuous absence when she'd ducked her head in to make sure Doretta was still under wraps. "Hold them as long as you can," instructed Gabrielle to the guards before rushing back to where Solari and Ephiny waited.
"What now?" Ephiny asked.
Her distinctive voice only served to fuel the desperate attempts of the crazed horde. Upon catching sight of the object of their affections, they renewed their attack upon the barricade. The three amazons watched in stunned silence as they began to breach the defenses.
"Well, it's a cinch we can't go that way," Gabrielle retorted. "Quick, back the way we came."
She urged Solari and Ephiny ahead of her, bringing up the rear. As they entered the room leading into Ephiny's, Gabrielle stopped just long enough to slide the beds across the floor and haphazardly into the doorway. She knew it wouldn't buy them much time, but she figured any delay would help.
When she rushed through the door, she found the regent and the scout standing in the center of the room, waiting for her. Ephiny's good arm was thrown about Solari's shoulder and she was noticeably leaning into her. Her breathing was slightly elevated and a thin sheen of perspiration coated her flesh.
Gabrielle rushed over to the window, looking out. To her relief, the amazons appeared to be focused on a strictly frontal assault. As far as she could see, the area outside Ephiny's window was clear. Even the archery field appeared to be deserted.
"Let's go," she jerked her head towards the window, "You first," she pointed at Solari.
Passing the regent to her queen, Solari approached the window. With one leap, she was up, feet landing on the sill. A scant breath later, she was on the ground beneath the window. Holding out both hands in readiness, she looked up at her queen.
Hooking her leg about a chair, Gabrielle dragged it over to the window. "Up you go," she instructed Ephiny, steadying her with a hand as she climbed up.
"I could have done it without the chair," the regent mumbled as she sat on the sill and swung her legs around. When she came down on the other side, she found herself caught, then cradled safely in Solari's arms. The heartbeats seemed to stretch out as the scout stared longingly at the woman she held in her arms. At one glowering look from Ephiny, Solari promptly put her down.
"I know." The Queen passed her staff out the window first. Then, Gabrielle swung her legs over, held out her arms for Solari to catch her, too. "But, I couldn't have," she answered diplomatically as she was lowered to the ground.
Behind her, she could already hear the sound of amazons breaching the first set of barricades. Signaling to her two companions to follow, she swiftly led the escape from the infirmary.
Be confident. Breathe. Remember to trust in the Goddess of Love. This was the mantra Eponin repeated over and over again as she left her hut. Walking with a new-found purpose, she increased her stride, suddenly anxious to reach the hospice. Easy, Pony. You've waited this long; one more candlemark won't hurt.
As she marched past the last in a long string of huts, Eponin continued her mental pep talk. Lost in thought as she was, she didn't hear the silent rush of feet behind her until it was too late. She barely had a chance to look back over her shoulder before she was bodily tackled.
Caught off-guard, her attacker's momentum propelling her backward, the weapons master found herself knocked soundly off her feet. She landed hard on the ground, her back and elbows absorbing the brunt of the impact with enough force to rattle her teeth. Her head slammed back, her skull connecting the ground with a resounding crack as a fist collided with her jaw.
Powerful legs came up, catching her attacker in the midsection, hurtling her opponent up and over her head. One hand wiping blood from the corner of her mouth, Eponin scrambled to her feet. She immediately took up a defensive position, warily eying the three hunters that surrounded her.
"Cordele." She immediately recognized who was responsible for this impromptu party. "What's the meaning of this?"
"The meaning of this? The meaning of this?" Using a sweeping arm gesture to encompass the extent of her injuries, Cordele spat out, "You hunted me down like a wild animal and attacked me, Eponin! I was coming out of that cave already injured and you jumped me!"
"You were armed when you came out of that cache, Cordele. I assumed you were responsible for harming Eph. We all did." Pony snorted. "What? You want an apology? Maybe some cake to go with your whine?" If there was one thing the Weapons Master to the Amazons couldn't stand, it was a spoiled, whiny warrior.
"I want revenge!"
She moved in so quickly, Eponin didn't have a chance to counter the blow. The kick landed in her gut, sending her stumbling several paces back. As Cordele raised her leg in a repeat of the successful maneuver, Eponin caught her foot in both hands. Teeth gritted, she used all her strength to twist the foot, hearing the ankle cracking as she applied pressure.
Her lips curled into something closely resembling an evil grin. "Let's dance, then."
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