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.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Part of the series "Through The Eyes" as the same feast is recounted through four different points of view. Hopefully, if I've done my job right, it'll make sense no matter which pov you read first. Spoilers for Hooves and Harlots, The Quest and Blind Faith.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Through the Eyes of the Warrior
By Del Robertson
I stretched aching muscles, my joints audibly popping. I'm getting too old for this. Partying until - a quick glance at the night sky revealed it wasn't nearly as late as I'd thought. Zeus' balls, I really am getting too old for this. I shifted on the hardwood, feeling my spine trying to realign itself. Amazons really need to look into getting something softer than those benches.
Then again, I suppose they really didn't design them to be used for candlemarks on end. They ARE Amazons, after all. And, if I've learned nothing else about Gabrielle's girls, it's that they party almost as hard as they fight.
Eponin upended the pitcher, not even bothering to use her mug this round. As she drained it dry, I was already looking around for our serving girl. I found her halfway across the field, carrying a tray of four pitchers delicately balanced on a slender shoulder. She paused at a group of warriors, depositing one of the pitchers on their table. Glancing up as she moved away, she caught my stare.
Dutifully, she made her way over. Just as she placed a pitcher in front of me, Ep slammed the empty one back down on the table. The young Amazon picked up the empty, balancing it on the tray, preparing to move away.
Quickly glancing around, checking the location of a certain Queen of the Amazons, I caught the girl by the wrist, preventing her retreat. "Leave them all," I instructed, eyes darting to the tray of pitchers.
"I can't do that," The wide-eyed Amazon . . . Amazonette? Just what do you call an Amazon that hasn't got all her feathers, yet? . . . protested.
"Course you can," I disagreed. "Pitchers. Table. Leave them on . . . " I sported what I hoped was a friendly, non-threatening, maybe even charming smile. "Easy, right?"
I must have been somewhere in the neighborhood of charming, because she giggled. The same sort of girlish giggle Gabrielle had when we first met. Gods, I'm glad she grew out of that.
"I mean, I can do that. What I meant was, I can't. Mytilda will be furious. She gave me strict instructions to only give you one pitcher at a time."
Ah. Mytilda's orders. I should have known. Ever since that winter solstice, she's been trying to keep a tight lid on the drink.
"But, it is one pitcher," I reasoned. "One for me and," I pointed at Pony. "One for Ep."
"And, the third?" The girl blatantly asked.
"The third?" My eyebrow slightly arched as I tried to think of a plausible excuse.
"Yes, the third pitcher that you're trying so hard to get me to leave along with the other two."
Ya gotta give the Amazons credit; even their youngsters got a set on 'em. I glanced at the girl again. She was young. But, no younger than Gabrielle when she first tagged along after me. Gabrielle still had the sweet innocence of youth about her at that age, though. And, although this girl was young and ripe and sweet, there was no doubt in my mind that she was far from innocent. Still, she just alluded to the fact that she was already giving us two of the coveted pitchers.
"Coralie, it would be pointless for you to carry that lone pitcher all the way back across the field," Eponin jumped in, saving the day, "only to have to carry it all the long way back to us in a quarter of a candlemark."
"Yeah." My centaur-poop eating grin widened as I really got into Ep's con. "We're just trying to think of you."
The girl . . . Coralie looked me over, eyeing me up and down with a dubious expression. "Out of the goodness of your hearts, right?"
Like I said, sweet and ripe, but not nearly as innocent as my Gabrielle. "Of course," I agreed, "We're warriors. Noble is what we do."
"Still," protested the young Amazon, "I overheard my Queen say you were to relax and enjoy yourself. I wouldn't want to put you to any trouble."
"Oh, it's no trouble at all," I reassured her, willing to say anything to keep her from leaving with that pitcher.
It wasn't that I needed it that badly. She'd already agreed to leave the other two. And, I knew she'd bring back more as soon as we finished these off. It was just the principle of the thing, ya know? I mean, here I am, the Destroyer of Nations, Conqueror of the Known World, the freakin' Warrior Princess, fer cryin' out loud, and this little slip of a girl was engaging me in a contest of wills over a freakin' pitcher of Amazonian wine! No, one way or another, I vowed, that pitcher would be mine! Unnoticed, my hand slipped beneath the table, fingers playing along the edge of my chakram.
"Well . . . "
I took my hand away from my weapon, batted my eyes as she began to waver.
"Please?" Right on cue, Eponin reached out, the fingers of one hand landing on the girl's bare hip.
Coralie turned her attention from me, her gaze focusing on where Pony's fingers rested against her flesh before raising, locking with light-colored eyes. I could actually see the girl's resolve crumbling. Almost. She stared for several long heartbeats, scarcely breathing as Eponin tried out her best sad-puppy impersonation. Almost. Just put a little bit more into it, Ep.
Then, in that husky timbre of hers, "We'd really appreciate it, Coralie."
"Well . . . Okay, Eponin. For you." A faint blush tinged the girl's cheeks as she deposited all three pitchers on our table and hastily retrieved the empties. "Just don't tell Mytilda." Then, quickly looking at me, she added, "Or, the Queen."
"Don't worry," I drawled, already refilling my mug, "What your Queen don't know won't hurt me."
The serving girl moved off with a wink for Ep and a jovial laugh for me. Sure, she thought it was funny. She'd never seen my bard when she was angry. Another quick glance around confirmed she was still dancing with some Amazon or other.
Turning my attention back to my drinking buddy, I solicitously inquired, "Where were we?"
"Nowhere. I already told you, Xena. I ain't having a drinking contest with you."
"Yeah, right," I snorted. "Since when don't we have drinking contests together? It's one of the few things I like about you."
"Look, Xena. I don't wanna, okay?" The weapons master looked like she was torn between speaking her mind and biting her tongue off. At last, speaking her mind won out and she blurted, "Every time I drink with you, we end up making a stupid bet and I get in trouble with Eph."
"Not every time."
She looked at me pointedly, began to count off on her fingers.
"Winter solstice - trouble."
I might have known she'd start with that one. In all honesty, I think she would let that one go if Ephiny hadn't marched her all the way back to the village. Naked.
"Summer harvest - trouble."
That one had been good. We'd used tree sap to glue down anything we could find on the tables in the Council Hut. Parchment, mugs, that gavel Evanthe is so fond of banging. We'd even pasted it in the seats of the chairs. It was just bad luck that Gabrielle and Ephiny had picked that day to sit in on a council session. Normally when we're in the village, Eph and Gab blow off as many of those as they can.
"Gabrielle's coronation - big trouble."
I snickered, recalling the look on her face when she'd realized we'd plucked all the feathers off the chickens and dyed them yellow. It didn't take long for the queen and her regent to figure out it was us. Well, the uncontrollable fits of laughter and the fact that the dye had stained our palms yellow was probably what gave us away. The punishment had been severe, but it had been worth it. Every time I passed the pen and saw all those naked chickens, I nearly busted a gut.
As Eponin continued to succinctly point out incident after colorful incident, I casually studied her. My plan hinged on getting Pony drunk. More than drunk, actually. For contest or not, I was sure she was well on her way there already. No, I needed her smashed. Otherwise, this would never work.
Still, listening to her, she seemed so adamant in her decision to not wager with me. My gaze drifted across the ceremonial field, an idea already formulating. Maybe I just needed to provide the proper incentive . . .
"Tell you what," I leaned across the table with a grin, "What if we don't bet on anything stupid?"
Pony paused mid-tirade, mouth hanging open. "What did you have in mind?" she asked with more than a hint of suspicion ringing in her voice.
I half-turned in my seat, peering across the length of the field, beyond the dance circle and past the bonfire. As expected, her gaze followed mine. I patiently waited for several heartbeats, letting her eyes fully take in the sight.
"That's what I had in mind."
She didn't respond, continuing to stare transfixed at the fair-haired, curly-locked Amazon. "Pony? Pony?" I repeatedly snapped my fingers directly in front of her eyes, breaking her stare.
"Huh?" she asked, blinking, turning an agitated glare on me.
"That's our wager," I patiently explained. "Usual rules. Last one standing wins. You win, I arrange it so you get Eph all to yourself in the baths tomorrow after staff practice."
"Xena." I could practically hear the exasperation in her voice. "I'm not a royal. I'm not even a royal's champion." Was it my imagination, or did her wistful gaze seek out her regent even as she admitted it. "Only royals and their consorts are allowed in the private baths."
"Trust me, Ep. You win and I'll make sure the common baths are deserted for two solid candlemarks."
"Two candlemarks?" Both eyebrows shot towards her hairline.
"If that's what floats your boat, sure."
"You can do that?"
I gave her an arched eyebrow of my own in sharp response. "Ep, I have - "
"Yeah, yeah, I know; many skills." She bowed her head, looking almost embarrassed for having even asked. Bringing one large hand up, rubbing the back of her neck, she looked up, squinting at me through one wary eye. "What do you get if you win?"
I took a deep breath. This was the question I'd been waiting for. I had no intention of winning tonight. But, Pony couldn't suspect I'd planned on throwing this bet. Eponin was no dummy. If the stakes weren't believable, she'd know something was amiss.
"You win, private playtime with the regent." I drew this out, making her wait for it. "I win . . . you take my spot as Gabrielle's champion at the next meeting of the Nations."
She shook her head, her ebony locks moving over sun-bronzed shoulders with the motion, "Queen Gabrielle - "
" - Will be fine with it," I promised, crossing my fingers underneath the table. "I'll explain my absence away with a pulled back muscle or something."
"Xena, I don't know - "
Even as she said it, her eyes were drifting back towards where the regent was speaking with her chief scout. A demon solicitously whispering suggestions in my ear, I followed through.
"Hey, if you don't wanna, you don't wanna." I made a shrug of my shoulders as if I didn't care one way or the other. Then, softly added, "Looks like Eph may have someone else in mind for that bath, anyway."
I couldn't have timed what happened next any better if I'd planned it. I'd known Gabrielle had been talking to Solari at the start of the feast. And, I know first-hand just how persuasive my bard can be when she uses her words. But, even I didn't expect Solari to suddenly lean in just then and kiss Eph.
Eponin saw the display and I could swear her ears practically steamed. Continuing to stare unwavering at the intimately close figures of regent and scout, she picked up her mug in a steel-grip, banged it against mine. "You're on."
I downed my drink, grasped her forearm in a warrior's handshake to seal the deal. "May the best warrior win."
That part of my plan successfully under way, it was time to get down to the serious business of drinking. And keeping Gabrielle from throwing a javelin into the works. Believe me, if there's a way to mess up one of my brilliant plans, my little bard could find it. Speaking of . . . my eyes wandered towards the dance circle.
And, I nearly panicked when she wasn't there. Heart hammering in my chest, I felt myself close to screaming out her name. The last thing I needed was for her to be whispering more advice in Solari's ear. Spotting a tuft of blonde hair, I breathed a little easier. When keen eyesight confirmed that it belonged to my little bard, perched on a tree stump as she talked with an Amazon, I loudly exhaled. Gabrielle was just talking with another warrior. Everything was fine.
That thought should have worried me. And, maybe at one time, it would have. Just when did it become fine for my bard to talk with another warrior? Since she became yours, that little voice of reason somewhere in the back of my head reminded me.
It hadn't always been that way. She hadn't always belonged to me, you know. Oh, I suspected . . . when she defied me and ran away from home because she wanted to become a warrior like me . . . I suspected she had a crush on me. Most boys and girls her age did. They saw the fame and the glory and they wanted to be a part of that. And, it didn't matter who they were or where they called home; if I graced them with the pleasure of my glance, if I commanded they give me their bodies, they would come to my bed and I would take anything I wanted from them. As often as I wanted for as long as I wanted and then I'd move on to the next conquest. They were all playthings for my amusement, nothing more.
But not her. I don't know why I allowed her to tag along with me. I was a formidable warrior. I'd led the most feared army the world has ever known. I'd raided countless villages, conquered impenetrable cities, brutally murdered countless soldiers and their commanders. I certainly could have sent one naive, little village girl back home.
Instead, I allowed her to stay. Morning after morning, I'd awaken to find her in the campsite. And, I'd sit and stare at her for countless candlemarks in the predawn light, wondering what it was about her. Why it was I hadn't sent her running, crying home to mama. Why I hadn't taken her the way I had so callously taken so many others before her.
It's not because she was a virgin. I'd had plenty of those before. Other ones, just like her . . . little village girls in dowdy peasant dresses who couldn't wait for the big, bad warrior princess to take them like they were some common tavern whore. No, it wasn't that she was a virgin that saved her. It was because she was more . . . she was pure . . . she was an innocent like none I'd ever known before.
If it had just been desire, I could have handled that. As a matter of fact, I repeatedly tried to convince myself that that's all it was. After all, it'd been over a moon since I bedded my last conquest. And, I'd always had a healthy libido. There was more to it than that. I didn't want to take her to my bed. I didn't lust after her that way. Hades, there was a time when I wasn't even sure I liked her. Not that that was a prerequisite to bedding her. She was annoying and aggravating and more trouble than she was worth. But, there was something about her that wouldn't let me send her home - or abandon her.
Not that I didn't think about it. Oh, believe me, I thought about it. A lot. Every single morning when I awoke and found her curled across the fire from me, I wondered what I was doing allowing her to stay. When I would ride off on a mission, telling her to stay behind, I'd tell myself this time, this time I wouldn't come back for her. And, many times, I didn't. But, I always found myself waiting just down the road for her to catch up. And, I used to bed down every night, vowing the next dawn would be the morning I'd finally send her home.
It was right after the incident with the high priest of Morpheus that the nightmares had started. He had abducted her with the intention of spilling her blood innocence and presenting her as a sacrificial bride to Morpheus. This was Gabrielle's first true look at my past and the path of a warrior. And, the nightmares grew steadily worse for her each night.
After she'd awoken both of us with her screaming - and I'd nearly taken her head off with my chakram in incognizant half-sleep - she tearfully moved into my bedroll. I held her in my arms, stroking concerned hands over her hair and down her smooth back, whispering that I would take care of her. And, as she finally drifted off to sleep, I realized that was my new purpose in life. To protect this innocent and never allow her to know the pain I'd learned the hard way.
I glanced up as Ephiny joined us at the table, taking a seat at the end. Eph had once put to me that same question I'd asked myself so long ago: She's annoying. How do you put up with her? My answer had been something like she grows on you. And, she had. She crept beneath my defenses and into my heart, weaving her way about like an uncontrollable vine until she had firmly entangled her life with mine.
Drinking down my wine, I peered at the regent over the rim of my mug. I watched Ephiny even as she watched Eponin. Her eyes were hooded as she casually raked them over Pony. I took note of the shallow breathing, the unfocused gaze as she stared at Ep with an almost palpable hunger. Slowly, her tongue worked its way across her lips.
This may not be as tough as I'd thought, I realized, There's definitely an interest there. As a matter of fact, judging from the regent's behavior, I'd wager a stack of dinars she was lost in a very heated fantasy about her and a certain weapons master. I caught Ephiny's subtle shift on her bench and wondered, not for the first time, what a woman like Ephiny desires.
Was it intense sparring sessions with muscled warriors on a hot, sweaty day that inflamed her senses? Perhaps it was a rare moment of peace with a poet under the night stars that put her in the mood. Or, maybe it was the thought of bending some young Amazon over a bale of hay in the barn and taking her so hard she'd be walking bowlegged for a moon. Late at night, in the privacy of her hut, what fantasies fueled her libido, bringing her blood to boil? Everything about Ephiny was passionate. Fiery was in her very nature. Still, what would it take to push her over the edge; to make her weak in the knees, willing to say and do anything to reach that sweet release? What would it take for her to lose all her inhibitions?
I thought once again of my little traveling companion. I'd set her up on a pedestal, believing it was my great mission in life, my one chance at redemption to keep her pure and chaste and innocent. To never let anything or anyone harm her, including me. I was determined to always keep her as that sweet, naive, innocent village girl I'd first rescued outside that sleepy, little village.
That very first night in my campsite, when she admitted she couldn't even build a fire, she went to bed without so much as unlacing her boots. It was a half moon before she was comfortable enough to undress in front of me. Even then, she turned her back, modestly trying to hide herself from my sight. She was a shy, innocent girl, embarrassed by her own body.
I tolerated her interest in the local village and farm boys we encountered on our travels. Part of me hoped that she might find a nice one and settle down. After all, she'd been betrothed to that lumbering fool in her home village, hadn't she? But, I always breathed a sigh of relief when she returned to my side after every adventure. And, each night I rested secure in the knowledge that her innocence was intact by the way she continued to modestly turn away from me as she undressed. As long as she did so, I knew she was still that sweet, little girl that needed my protection.
When my back was turned, my little girl suddenly became a woman. It happened while I was fighting to avert a brewing war. And, it happened in the one place it didn't occur to me to be concerned about.
I told her the Amazons would protect her because of Terreis. For once, I wasn't worried about leaving her behind. I knew the Amazons would guard her with their very lives if need be until I came back for her. In my arrogance, I forgot all about what else the Amazons might do with her.
That night, when she undressed in front of the campfire - and me - I knew. For the first time since we'd started traveling together, she didn't turn her back. The realization hit me in the gut like a hot poker.
Gone was my sweet, little innocent that I had sworn myself to protect. And, in her place, was a woman. A woman with curves and a ripening figure that had been kept well-hidden beneath that frumpy peasant dress. I'd thought my eyes bugging out of my head when I returned to find her in that Amazon garb would be my downfall. I never even thought about what the sight of her undressing and climbing into my bedroll that night would do to me.
She looked at me differently, too. I didn't see so much of the adoring, idol-worshipping, Xena-can-do-anything looks. Instead, I was spying the covert glances, the speculative looks as her eyes lingered on my body. Whenever I would catch her in the act, a well-timed arched eyebrow would send a rapid blush to her face and cause her to hastily avert her eyes.
Apparently, the Amazons hadn't taken her virginity. But, they had still done enough damage. Her innocence was still there, although not quite as intact. They'd opened her eyes, made her realize what two women could do together. They'd awakened her to a woman's needs and stirred within her a woman's desires.
Blinking my eyes, pushing the past back down along with the unbidden images of the first time I'd witnessed Gabrielle pleasuring herself in her bedroll, I forced myself back to the task at hand. I didn't have time to fantasize about my bard now. I still had to get Eponin and Ephiny together before that rapidly approaching deadline. And, I'd have to work fast. I'd already seen Gab's efforts at work. And, I was quite certain that when Solari returned, she would want to continue her prior conversation with her regent.
"So, I've been feeling like I'm getting a little lazy. Too much drink, not enough head-busting." I winked across the table at Eponin. "You think you and Eph can give me a decent workout in staff practice for a change tomorrow?"
"Oh, I think that can be arranged." Eponin fairly glared at me. "What do you say, Eph? Wanna help me kick some big-mouthed warrior princess butt?"
Ephiny didn't respond. "Eph?" Ep looked to me, then back at her regent. I shrugged my shoulders just like I'd had no clue what was running through Ephiny's mind. "Eph?" Eponin's boot nudged Ephiny beneath the table. "Staff practice tomorrow?"
"Huh?" Ephiny did a little jump in her seat, a heated blush coloring her cheeks as she rapidly blinked. "Oh, yeah. Staff practice," she bobbed her curly head up and down, "Of course."
"Good." Ep gave Ephiny a toothy smile and a firm nod of her head in acceptance. I was rewarded with that same toothy grin as she looked at me.
It was all I could do to remain stoic like a good warrior should. Here Pony was, just happy that Eph agreed to practice with us tomorrow. I could practically see Ep's mind working overtime, scheming on how she was going to drink me under the table so she could have that private bath with the woman she wanted. All the while completely unaware that Ephiny had been completely lost in a fantasy about her. And, judging by the way she'd reacted when Pony had said staff, I'd be willing to wager more than a sack of dinars that fantasy had involved the use of a phallus. I grinned, unable to hide my satisfaction at finally knowing the answer to the question of what gets Eph all hot and bothered.
Pony, apparently. "Here." I slid my mug of wine across the table at Ephiny. "Looks like you need this more than I do."
Her blush deepened and she refused to meet my eyes; her reaction causing my grin to only widen that much more. Realizing that I needed to get back to the business at hand, I grabbed another mug off the table and immediately refilled it. Ep offered up her own mug and I liberally poured in more wine. Settling back, we both raised our mugs, tossing the contents back in one smooth motion.
Bracing my hand against the table, I shook my head rapidly, trying to clear the alcohol from my brain. One thing about Amazonian wine; it gives a good kick. Not like their ale, but it'll still give ya a good buzz. I'd thought about grabbing Ep by her leathers and dragging her off in search of a good keg of ale. It would certainly speed along our little drinking game some.
But, chances are we'd be caught. By Mytilda. Or Pelagia and her guards that were still keeping us under close observation. Or, Gods forbid, Gabrielle. And, a night in the jail wasn't going to get Eponin any closer to getting under Eph's leathers.
Crude, I know. I get that way. The more I drink, the more my baser needs come to the forefront. Gabrielle set up this whole matchmaker thing to get Ephiny paired off romantically. She wanted to see her friend in a good, stable relationship that might lead to a bonding ceremony. I just wanted to get her laid.
Don't get me wrong; I want Eph to have someone to grow old with, too. But, let's be honest, okay? You can pick out the best-looking person in the hut, strike up a conversation with them and feel like you've known them forever and be thinking the whole time, Yeah, this is the one. But, if you don't have the heat between the sheets, it's not going to last. Don't believe me? Look at Zeus and Hera. Great couple, but why do you think Zeus cheats on her all the time? They say she's more frigid than the River Styx. That's why you got all those little half- and demi- gods like Hercules running around. No sparks in the bedroll.
Although, looking at Ephiny and Eponin, I don't think that's going to be a problem. If the looks bouncing back and forth between these two get any more intense, we won't need Prometheus to bring the gift of fire to us. The sparks these two are causing are gonna be enough to set the entire Great Forest on fire.
Course, it goes deeper than that. I mean, you'd have to be a blind Cyclops to not see that Eponin is in love with Ephiny. Athena's shield, I can see it . . . and I couldn't fathom Gabrielle's love for me until after I'd crossed over and heard her thoughts. Like I said, you'd have to be a blind Cyclops . . . or Ephiny . . . to not see it.
It's in the little things, you know. Things that I might not have noticed before Gabrielle. Maybe it's because Gabrielle's brought out my more sensitive side. Or, maybe it's because I used to behave the exact same way around my little bard. Either way, I'm noticing the signs.
For example; Eponin is one of the most agile, coordinated warriors in the Nation. I've seen her nock three arrows and send them all hurtling into the heart of a deer from a distance of more than thirty yards. But, when she knows a certain regent is watching, she can't hit a practice target from a distance of five paces.
And, Ep is no dummy, either. A lot of folk underestimate us warrior types that way, thinking we can't speak past a few grunts and growls. That's barbarians, people, not warriors! Anyway, all Amazons are educated. Both in the ways of the warrior and the teachings of the scholars. I've heard Eponin carry on in-depth conversations with Gabrielle about Socrates and Plato and the theatre. But, when it comes to speaking with Eph, sometimes it's all she can do to string two sentences together without stammering and tripping over her own tongue.
Not to mention the effect that woman can have on Eponin's basic skills. She can throw Pony's equilibrium off faster than you can say Hermes' winged sandals. One time, Eponin and I were escorting the Queen and Regent to a meeting of the Nations. After preparing camp for the night, we had gone hunting in the forest. We were all more than a little tired of that horrid mutton stew Mytilda had packed us and we thought it might be nice to bring something tasty back to camp. Pickings were scarce and I was quite happy to be able to return with a nice, little bunny for Gabrielle.
Pony came out of the woods with the biggest quail I'd ever seen, looking mighty pleased with herself. One look from that curly haired Amazon and Ep just handed over that bird she'd spent two candlemarks on her hands and knees tracking, insisting she'd find another for her own dinner. Ephiny was so happy, she clasped Ep's arm in a warrior's handshake and pulled her in tight, giving her a firm hug and a quick kiss on the cheek. Pony immediately turned around - and ran dead center into a tree, soundly knocking herself out until morning.
I reached over, grabbing the pitcher in front of me, pouring the last of the wine into my mug. Before I could even think about it, Coralie was instantly at our table. With a wink for Ep, she deposited three more full pitchers on the table, slyly using her movements of removing the empties to mask her actions. Noticing the subtle hand-stroke on Eponin's broad shoulder as she moved behind the weapons master and away, I kicked Pony beneath the table.
She gave a little jerk, briskly rubbing her shin, openly glaring at me. Oblivious to our exchange, Ephiny reached for the nearest pitcher with the intent of pouring her second serving. Eponin smoothly intercepted her, dropping a calloused palm upon Ephiny's hand.
"I got it," she gallantly offered - well, as gallantly as one can when their so sloshed that both their vision and their speech is fuzzy.
Biting down on my tongue to keep from laughing, I watched as Ephiny moved her mug around, valiantly trying to keep up with the steady stream Eponin was determined to pour out on the table. Pony's vision must have really blurred at that point, because she continued to pour even after Ephiny had insisted that was enough. Twice.
Ephiny's scream combined with the effects of the wine and her natural reaction to Eph's proximity had Pony so flustered, she lost control of the pitcher, sending more wine spilling out onto the table. In trying to right the container, Eph hit the underside, knocking it loose from Pony's grasp. Ep made a dive for the pitcher, determined to save the wine. I got there first, agilely plucking it from Eponin's grasp. With her coordination knocked so far out of whack she couldn't see straight, Pony landed awkwardly on the table, sliding headlong towards the end. And Ephiny.
I winced in sympathy as I saw Ephiny fly backwards off the stool, hitting the ground hard. Then, Pony landed squarely on top of her, knocking all the air out of her lungs. There was no movement from either of them for so long, I was beginning to worry that Pony had squashed her flat. When two hazel eyes peered at me over a very broad, very bronzed shoulder, I was laughing so hard, I thought I'd wet my leathers.
"Eph, you should have seen the look on your face - " Was all I managed before launching into a fresh round of laughter.
Eponin squirmed around, looking at me. Her thigh must have caught Ephiny just right, for I heard the regent give a decidedly un-Amazon-like squawk before slamming her eyes shut and laying back against the grass.
"Enjoying yourself?" was breathed into my ear as an arm looped about my upper body and shoulders and squeezing.
Uh-oh. "Uh-huh," I covered, leaning back against Gabrielle's frame, hoping to distract her for a bit longer.
It seemed to be working, for she settled into the embrace, openly cuddling me. I allowed my eyes to drift closed, pleased with myself for this little distraction. The longer I could keep Gab from discovering what was going on, the better. Suddenly, that same voice husked in my ear, "How many have you had?"
Stall. I looked at the pitchers lining the table. Coralie had deposited three full pitchers on the table, taking all the empties back with her. No way Gabby would believe me if I said this was the first one. Hoping she wouldn't look too closely at the content levels, I counted, " One - two - " Take a deep breath and add convincingly, "Three."
"Three." I could hear the suspicion edging her voice. "Xena. You really expect me to believe you've only had three pitchers?"
Erm, well . . . actually, no. But, I didn't want Coralie getting into trouble. Or, myself. My eyes rapidly flicked back and forth between my bard and the pitchers, trying to come up with something plausible. Suddenly, a moan came from the ground near my boot. Figuring she'd know soon enough, I added, "Pony and Eph helped." Hey! I'm not goin' down alone! Noble is noble . . . but I ain't stupid enough to face the wrath of the Queen of the Amazons alone!
Gabrielle gave a cursory glance over the edge of the table. Then, she whispered in my ear, "Xena, we never agreed that drinking Pony into submission was fair."
"You just said I couldn't put the pinch on her." I didn't like where this was going. Gabby was trying to come up with a way to back out of our deal. "You're just having second thoughts about your choice. I saw you talking her ear off earlier."
"I'm a bard, words are what I do." She gave me a solid punch in the arm to go along with her sharp reprimand. "I suppose you also saw the kiss she gave Ephiny?"
"Yeah, I saw it." I buried my nose in my mug so she couldn't see just how much that had bothered me. I knew Solari had nerve, but I didn't realize she'd make her move in front of a whole passel of Amazons. Obviously, I underestimated her. And Gabrielle. Covering with an air of false bravado, I added, "I saw her give your regent a little peck."
"Yeah?" She seemed genuinely surprised I'd seen that. What; does she think all I do at these feasts is drink all night? No, I'm keeping a watchful eye out over her is what I'm doing! "Well, that little peck is just the tip of Cupid's arrow! She'll come through, you'll see."
"Unh-huh." I boldly laughed at this point, unable to keep from rubbing her nose in it. "That's why Solari is out checking the perimeter and Ep is - " I trailed off, casting a pointed glance at the ground.
By this time, Eponin had made it to all fours and was braced on her knees and elbows over Ephiny. I felt Gabrielle stiffen in my arms, knew she was going to interfere. I needed to prevent her for as long as I could. And, help along Eponin's unorthodox courting techniques. You know what they say; desperate times call for desperate measures. Tightening my grip about Gabrielle's waist, I planted a solid kick to Eponin's back, sending her crashing into Ephiny again.
Ephiny's groan covered the slap that Gabrielle delivered to my already abused shoulder. "Xena!"
"You're a bard; words are what you do." I grinned evilly at being able to use her own words against her. "I'm a warrior; action's what I do."
I attempted to hold her back longer, but Gabrielle's midsection was slick from the cooling perspiration from her dance and she was easily able to slip out of my grasp. Hurling imaginary daggers at me, she stood over the pair on the ground, tapping her foot in exaggerated impatience.
"What's going on here?" Gabrielle demanded, sounding every bit like a mother who'd just caught her daughter in the hayloft with the stablehand.
Having no doubt been in that position before and heard that question asked on more than one occasion, Eponin somehow managed to roll over, shielding her love from the wrath of what she no doubt assumed was going to be an angry parent. As I stated earlier, Pony was well on her way to being smashed. I wouldn't be surprised if she hadn't thought they were being attacked by a seven-headed Hydra.
She blinked several times, and smashed or not, somehow recognized Gabrielle enough to offer up a sloppy salute and a slurred, "M'Queenie!"
Her eyes were glazed over. Wine liberally dripped from her lips and chin. And, it was all she could do to remain braced upright against Ephiny. Behind and beneath her, Ephiny struggled, trying to get Pony to get off of her. I could have told her from experience; if a two-hundred-plus pound weapons master don't want to be moved, you ain't gonna move her! On more than one occasion, I'd had to leave Ep on the floor of the royal hut because we'd been drinking and that's where she ended up at, refusing to budge til morning.
Then, looking from the inebriated Eponin to me and back again, Gabrielle asked that dreaded question, "Ep, how many have you had?"
Ep couldn't have answered that question if her life depended on it. She'd passed the point of being able to do calculations long ago. Put on the spot, feeling the pressure, she answered, "Only a little" before diving back into Ephiny's cleavage.
I was laughing so hard, I nearly fell off the bench. Ephiny's screeches of protest only fueled my laughter even more. A glance over my shoulder revealed the Queen's royal guard positioned at a respectable distance, both Amazons discreetly studying the texture of the grass so they wouldn't witness the absurdity going on at the royal table. Gabrielle openly glared at me before moving to help Eponin to her feet.
I had to give my little bard credit. She had actually managed to get Eponin almost completely up. Then, she must have hit a patch of grass soaked in wine. The next thing I knew, Gabrielle had lost her footing. And, Ep had lost her balance. And, they both landed on top of Ephiny.
Gabrielle's bellowing broke through my happy giggles, "XENA! NOT HELPING!"
Knowing I'd be in trouble if I didn't move, I scrambled off the bench and to Gabrielle's side. I helped Pony to her feet, guiding her back to the table and benches. Almost immediately, Ep tried to scramble up off the bench, no doubt to resume her cleaning up of the wine she'd poured on Ephiny's chest. I slapped her back down, one hand firmly planted on her shoulder.
I knew it was up to me to keep her out of trouble. Or, she'd wind up in the jail for sure. And, I'd be on my to Athens by morning's light. I removed Pony's knife from its sheath and thrust it into the tabletop. Then, taking the fingers of one hand and firmly wrapping them about the hilt, I ordered, "Stay!"
"Xena," Ephiny looked at me with that know-it-all Amazonian scowl of hers. "Do you really think giving her a sharp weapon to play with is a good idea?"
A wicked thought ran rampant through my mind and I solicitously inquired, "Would you rather I let her find something else to occupy herself with?"
Ephiny's eyes dropped, following my gaze to her purple-stained cleavage. It was quite obvious the areas where Pony had worked to lick her clean. Without another word, Ephiny plopped down onto the bench.
My plan was quickly unraveling. Eponin was fading fast, almost to the point of passing out. And, Ephiny and Gabrielle were hovering over us, giving us dirty looks if we even thought about taking another sip. If I didn't think of something soon, there'd be no way for me to convince Pony that she'd outlasted me. Which meant she wouldn't have won our bet. Which meant she wouldn't be getting that private playtime session with the regent I'd promised her.
Which also meant that I could kiss my wager with Gabrielle goodbye. I secretly fumed. If Gabrielle would have just kept dancing and not come interfering in things that didn't concern her -
"I thought this was supposed to be a feast in my honor."
"It is," agreed Ephiny from where she sat, wiping at her wine-stained cleavage with a damp rag Coralie had brought her.
"No, it's not," protested my bard. "It's degenerated into a drinking contest."
Sounded good to me. I voiced my enthusiasm, saluting Gabrielle's toast. From where she was slumped over the table, Pony managed to raise her hand in agreement. I knew by Gabby's tone that she wasn't pleased by our responses.
"Xena, as Queen of the Amazons, it's unacceptable that all I do is - " At this point, I briefly zoned out, but caught the rest of what she was saying when she added, "more than a drinking contest."
I thought about that. She wanted more. Now, I pride myself of knowing what my woman wants. So, I was confident in my suggestion when I asked, "You want an eating contest?"
She gave me this look like I was Callisto on henbane, then said, "Maybe later." Do I know my bard or what?
Since she didn't want to drink . . . and she didn't want to eat . . . I naturally suggested the other thing that I know she likes. "You wanna - "
"No!" She cut me off before I could even finish the suggestion.
I gotta tell ya; by this point, I was lost. She didn't want to drink. She didn't want to eat. And, sex in the bushes was apparently out of the question. The big three out of the picture, I didn't know what else she could possibly want.
"I want to dance."
Sure, now she wants to dance. "No."
"I want to dance." She tugged on my fingers. "Come on, Xena, dance with me."
After you've single-handedly sabotaged my plan? "No." She batted her eyes, pleading and pouting, hoping she'd get her way. I felt my resolve crumble until I sensed Ephiny staring at us and I remembered where we were. "Not in front of the Amazons."
"I wanna dance." Since when did I ever refer to Gabrielle as a sweet, young girl? Bratty, spoiled rotten -
"I'll dance with you, my Queen."
Let's hear it for my good friend, Eponin. A true warrior and a truer friend. Even though she could barely see straight, she was still willing to throw herself on her sword for her sister in arms. She was willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good. Which, in this case, was me not having to dance in public.
"You don't dance." Ephiny sounded suspiciously jealous. "Pony doesn't dance," she curtly informed her queen. "Besides, she's so plastered she can't stand up, let alone dance."
Eponin and Gabrielle openly stared at each other. My bard wanted to dance. That much was obvious. And, Eponin was desperately trying to work out how to accommodate her so I didn't have to suffer a fate worse than death. I couldn't ask it of her. I could ask many things of Pony - and know she would do them without blinking - but I couldn't ask her to endure that kind of torture for me. No, it was time I warriored up and did what I had to do.
I audibly exhaled, breathing a sigh of relief as Ephiny stepped up and volunteered. Gabrielle hesitated for all of a half-heartbeat before jumping to her feet and taking Eph up on her offer. As she led the doomed regent off to meet her fate, she smugly tossed back over her shoulder, "YOU sober Pony up!"
I poured pitcher after pitcher down Pony's throat, trying to get her coherent enough that I could put my alternate plan into place. She protested the rough treatment as I held her head back and her mouth open, liberally pouring the water in. As it hit her stomach, it almost immediately came back up. I signaled for Coralie to keep the pitchers coming.
It was imperative that I get Ep sobered up as quickly as possible. I had a bad feeling in my gut that Solari would be returning soon. And, Ephiny was in the dance circle with Gabrielle, completely vulnerable to a sneak attack.
They made a good couple, dancing intimately close together in the moonlight, arms wrapped about each other as they swayed to the slow beat of the smaller drums. Ephiny held Gabrielle close, her chin resting on my bard's silky blonde hair. Gabrielle's hands were linked at the small of Ephiny's back, her face buried in Eph's collarbone. As I watched, I slowly sipped from my mug, wondering how they looked curled up in bed together after a night of lovemaking.
See, I may have been a lot of things in the past; brash and arrogant being just two of those. But, I was also meticulously thorough. When I planned to conquer an enemy, I studied them relentlessly, learning everything I could about them before I attacked. There wasn't anything I couldn't learn once I set my mind to it. The teachings of Lao Ma took me seasons to master. Caesar's crucifixion techniques were learned in short order. I studied with Cyane's tribe for moons before I became the Destroyer of Nations.
In learning to become an Amazon, I studied their philosophy, religion, healing techniques, stealth and fighting skills. And, I learned the Amazonian way of offering comfort to a sister in need. When I possessed Autolycus, commanding him to steal my body back from the Amazons, I knew where she was. And, I knew how much she despaired over my death.
When I first came back, I was incredibly weak. It was all I could do to sit by the fire and warm myself while Gabrielle spoke with Autolycus and some of her sisters. At that point, I was just happy to be back among the living - and with Gabrielle. It wasn't until after the King of Thieves had said his goodbyes and Gabby and I decided we'd stay on in the village until she was certain I was completely healed, that my mind began to work overtime.
I was under healer's . . . and Queen's . . . orders to laze about and regain my strength. I was regulated to watching staff practice and sharpening swords; they wouldn't let me do anything else strenuous for fear I'd fall over dead again. So, all that left was watching . . . and thinking.
For the most part, I was able to rationalize away Gabrielle's tryst. She was in pain and her sisters only wished to comfort her. It didn't mean anything, right? But then, I'd see an Amazon standing a little close, talking a little too familiarly, looking a little too long . . .
It almost drove me nuts, wondering which Amazon had the good fortune of comforting my Gabrielle during her time of need. Looking about the village, I could easily imagine any of them jumping at the chance. Jealousy slowly eating away at my insides, I carefully watched Gab's interaction with every Amazon she came into contact with.
My mind had settled on Solari first. She was constantly giving Gabrielle knowing looks and making little comments. And, the almost constant touches were maddening. Until I saw how Solari interacted in much the same manner with all the pretty Amazons and I realized just how big a flirt she really is.
Then, watching Gabrielle working on her staff drills, I immediately put Eponin at the top of my list. I recalled when I'd arrived back from the Centaur camp during our first visit to find her standing behind my bard, holding her close as she helped her aim the bow and arrow she was learning how to nock and shoot. And, I also remembered seeing the look in Gabrielle's eyes as she watched Eponin teaching her the staff. The way her eyes would freely roam over her instructor's body like she'd wanted to lick the glistening sweat from the Amazon's tightly muscled stomach . . .
My gaze darted back to Eponin, watching that same stomach convulse tightly as she regurgitated the vast amounts of water and wine she'd consumed. When the heaving stopped and she was able to rest her sweat-soaked forehead against the tabletop, I slid another mug of wine to her. She accepted it, gratefully, gingerly sipping, using it to rinse the vile taste out of her mouth.
"Pony, who do you fancy in the village?"
"What?!?" the contents of her mug came spewing across the table, hitting me squarely in the face.
Wiping the wine off with the back of my hand, I repeated, "Who do you like? I don't recall seeing you with any of the local girls "
"Artemis' bow, Xena! I'm not some Hestian virgin, if that's what you're getting at!" Her eyes narrowed at the implication. 'I just don't brag about every time I get some like you and Sol do."
"Now, don't get riled, Pony." Hmm. Seems I may have struck a nerve. "It's just that I realized I don't know your type. I mean, you like blondes or brunettes? Is there someone in particular you got your eye on?" She was getting ancy with my rapid fire questions, squirming on her seat as she tried to avoid my eyes and the conversation. "Come on, Ep . . . who gets your leathers in a wad? Which sweet piece of Amazon do you dream about tasting?"
Her head shot up so quickly, I was worried she'd snap something. Flashing caramel eyes boring into me, she held my gaze for several long breaths. And, I thought she was actually going to confess. Instead, she said, "Xena, what in Tartarus - ?"
So much for the subtle approach. Time to change tactics.
I narrowed my gaze, eyeing her suspiciously. "You know, Ep, I think maybe I was wrong about you all along." She eyed me warily. I continued my cold stare, rubbing my chin as I looked at her with a look of disdain. "The more I think about it, the more I realize that I've never even seen you look at another Amazon. You didn't even look twice at that little serving wench that's been fawning over you all night."
"What's your point, Xena?" I could tell by the brusque tone that I was finally starting to get her attention.
"I'm just figuring, maybe you're not a normal Amazon, is all." I shrugged my shoulders with feigned indifference. "You know, you could have just said you preferred men." The speed at which her eyebrows shot up and her mouth dropped open was almost comical. "You're my friend, I wouldn't judge. We could have ridden out after the opening ceremony, found a little farmhouse out in the country somewhere. Those stableboys are always looking for a good tumble. Most of them are hung like horses, too. We could double-up . . . "
"Xena! I'm not . . . I don't . . . I . . . " Her eyes frantically darting about, she leaned in closer, harshly whispering, " . . . I don't like . . . THAT."
"Sure," I nodded, winking at her as if I were helping her keep some secret.
Folding both arms over her massive chest, she leveled a glare at me. "I like women. You know that."
"Yeah, sure, Pony."
"Xena." She rolled her eyes at me. "Stop it."
"Maybe if you tell me who you like."
"Come on. Tell me, Pony. Or, I'll guess. It's that healer's assistant with the big - "
"That cute brunette you were speaking with when I met up with you yesterday morning?"
Ep's brows furrowed in concentration as she tried to recall who she was with when I'd reminded her we had an appointment with a lake and some fish. Her eyes lit up in recognition, then promptly narrowed to tiny slits. "Xena! That was a priestess from the Temple of Artemis!"
I shrugged, then realizing what was even worse than suggesting Pony was after one of her Goddess' virgins, I coyly suggested, "You and Solari have been spending a lot of time together."
"XENA!!!" Bowing her head, she pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers. "It's Eph, okay?" She peered up at me with a pained expression as she admitted it. "I like Ephiny."
My gaze darted back to the dance ring. Couples were pairing up, barely swaying to the music as they relaxed into each other's embrace. Others were already making their way off the field, moving through the shadows towards the privacy of their huts. Still others, passions enflamed to the point of not being able to wait any longer, were actively seeking relief. I saw more than one hand covertly moving beneath her partner's leathers. And, in the midst of it all, Ephiny continued to hold my bard securely in her arms.
I can't describe how relieved I was when I found out it was Ephiny. I think if it'd been Eponin that had first taken Gabrielle, she wouldn't have given her up without a fight. Eponin doesn't do anything by half-measures. Rest assured, if Ep had been intimate with Gabrielle, it wouldn't have been over with after only a night. Whether I'd come back from the dead for her or not. She would have challenged me for the right to be the Queen's champion. Her honor would demand it.
Ephiny never raised a hand in protest, never even said a word about it. Not because she possesses any less honor than Eponin. But, simply because she knows in her heart that no matter the outcome, she would still lose Gabrielle. It takes a lot of courage to fight for the one you love. It takes even more to put their happiness before yours and just let them go. In my eyes, Ephiny earned my respect that day more by allowing Gabrielle to walk away than if she'd single-handedly taken on a whole legion of Romans.
I'd gotten Ep to finally admit she's got a thing for her regent. But, just getting that admission from her had been like pulling teeth. I still had to convince her that she needed to act on those feelings of hers. I was running out of time. I needed to move things along. Quickly.
"Look, Ep. I need you to sober up. And, I need you to do it, now." Taking a deep breath, I added, "Ephiny's in danger."
Her eyes instantly cleared, an alertness that hadn't been there all evening lighting in them. She reached to pull her sword from it's sheath across her back. Quickly, I placed my hand over hers, preventing the drawing motion.
"Not that kind of danger," I drawled. "She's in danger of either spending her life alone or ending up with the wrong person. An even more confused look; Was I not speaking plain in Greek tonight? Great. This was going to take a lot of explaining. And, I couldn't just out and out tell her about the wager - "Look, Ephiny is a beautiful woman, right?"
She eyed me warily, her grip on her sword refusing to relax. "Yeah."
"And, you're in love with her, right?"
"Xena!" Her eyes frantically darted about, looking everywhere except at me. "I don't know what's in that wine you've been drinking - "
"Ep, this is important." I tightened my grip on her hand. At the pressure on her wrist, she finally looked me in the eye. "You're in love with her, right?"
Unable to hide the truth any longer, she exhaled loudly, her answer coming out in one long, heated breath. "Yeah."
"Listen up, Ep. If you love Ephiny. If you truly love her and want to be with her, you're going to have to let her know. If you don't, someone else is going to come in here and snatch her away from you. You saw Solari with her earlier; do you want that to happen? You need to quit being a wimp and just tell her how you feel. Or, do you want Ephiny to be with someone else?"
Hesitant eyes looked at me. I know what she was thinking; that I'd cracked, that maybe I'd been dipping into the henbane. When at last she answered, what I got was, "My only desire is for my regent to be happy."
"Eponin! That's a load of Centaur crap and you know it! I've seen the way you look at her. The way your eyes move over her body when you think she's not looking. The way you act like an adolescent fool around her. The way you would do anything for her." I was on a roll now, and determined to keep pushing. "Except give her your heart."
"She knows she already has it."
"No, she doesn't," I insisted. "For some reason, she's just as blind in this as you are."
"Maybe it's you that's not seeing clearly, warrior princess."
She was using my title. Good. That meant I was finally starting to crack her armor and get beneath her thick skin. I plucked the knife from Eponin's grasp, waved it beneath her nose in warning as I gave her the best advice I could. "Don't leave it too late, Pony. Don't make the same mistake I did with Gabrielle."
It's something that happened in their past that I wasn't a part of. And, in a way, I'm grateful that Ephiny was there for Gabrielle when I couldn't be. I'm sure Eph was a kind, gentle and patient lover and she was probably very proud to have been Gabby's first.
But, sometimes it still bothers me that it wasn't me. I should have seen it. The looks of hero-worship being replaced by looks of longing . . . and love. The gentle words, the tender embraces. I was always able to push them aside, reasoning that she deserved better than someone like me. It wasn't until I'd . . . died . . . that I discovered what I had missed. The opportunities that had slipped through my fingers like shifting sand.
It was only pure, dumb luck that I was given a second chance to make it right. And, as soon as I was able, I told Gabrielle exactly how much she meant to me. I would die for her - I'd come back from the grave for her. And, nothing was ever going to take her away from me ever again. Gabrielle was so happy, she must have cried a river that night.
"Go on." The tone couldn't have been laced with more suspicion than if I'd just told her I'd given birth to Medusa.
Still, she was listening. And, that's all I could ask for. Looking her in the eye, I tried to explain the facts of life in words warriors like us could understand. "Look, warriors are supposed to be brave and strong and unflinching in battle, able to wade into carnage waist-deep without batting an eye, right?" She was nodding her head. So far, she agreed with me. "Well, love's like that." Her nose wrinkled in disgust. "Not the waist-deep carnage and gore. But, it is like a battle. You can plan all you want, you can strategize until you're positive nothing could prevent your complete and total victory. But, when you take the field the next day and find that a freak storm has washed out the bridge you were planning on using to move your troops across, there's nothing you can do about it. Got it?"
She opened her mouth as if to respond, then just clamped it shut, mutely shaking her head.
Okay. Maybe if I keep going, she'll get it. "You're hopelessly outnumbered and there's no chance of victory. But, you can't retreat and you can't surrender. So, you do what you have to and charge right in anyway and give it all you've got." I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, preparing myself for what I was about to say. "That's what I did with Gabrielle."
"You charged her?" Eponin snorted.
"Not literally." I rolled my eyes. Sometimes, us warriors could be so . . . dense when it came to feelings. And love. "I strapped on my sword and waded into the thick of battle and threw down my gauntlet and dared Gabrielle to deny she loves me."
At this point, I was feeling that I needed to add a little bravado to my story. Ares' sword, I am a warrior. It's not like I was going to confess that I'd come crawling into Gabrielle's arms, weeping like a baby as I told her I loved her and I couldn't live without her. Even though I was certain she loved me now, I was terrified to death that she was going to reject me. If she'd said no . . . let's just say the flames of Tartarus wouldn't be able to compare to the searing heat of my despair.
Pony was staring past me, at the dance circle beyond the bonfire. Her gaze was locked on the gently swaying figures of Queen and Regent. Gabrielle stood on tiptoe, brushing the locks from Eph's shoulder, whispering something in her ear. A brief flicker of something closely resembling the look a warrior gets when you thrust a sword into their gut and twisted flashed across her usually stoic visage. Eyes the color of amber turned dark with melancholy.
Sometimes, I can see the same sadness mirrored in Ephiny's eyes when she looks at her Queen. Usually, these are unguarded moments when she thinks no one else is looking. There - then gone - in little more than a heartbeat. But, I've come to recognize them, lurking just below the surface, the lingering looks masking a pain that threatens to consume her from the inside out.
And, I've seen the guilty looks of the Queen.
Not because she feels she did something wrong by loving Ephiny. But, I know she thinks that telling me of her night with her regent would hurt me. Hurting me is the last thing my Gabrielle would ever intentionally do. When we finally made love, she never tried to pretend that I was her first the way some village girls might. And, when I softly asked who'd had her before me, she merely averted her gaze, dropped her voice and replied a dear friend. I think it would hurt her more than me if she thought she'd ever disappointed me. So for her sake, even if she decides to tell me one day, I'll never let on that I've known the truth all along.
Gabby is such a good person, with a heart as big as the sky. Her guilt stems from the knowledge that she hurt Ephiny. She sees the sadness and the hurt in those hazel eyes and feels ashamed because she's the one that caused it. And, I think she won't feel better until she knows her former lover is no longer lonely.
That's why I don't mind when we come to the village and Gab spends time with her. I know nothing's going on between them. Other than a past that still haunts them both. I know Gabrielle would never cheat. And, Ephiny would never try anything, either. She's too good of a friend to both of us. She deserves to be happy.
My carnal side often brags that it knows of a way to make the regent happy. Very happy. But, that's mostly late at night after I've had too many ales and I'm safely tucked in my bedroll where I can't do any damage. Thoughts of the three of us together have kept me toasty warm on many a cold, winter's eve.
A fantasy. That's all it was. And, all it could ever be. Even if I could arrange it - and even though I really like Ephiny - I'm far too jealous to allow anyone else to pleasure my mate.
Usually, I'm content to sit back and wait and merely watch her schemes to get Ephiny paired off. Gods knows she's tried to play matchmaker before without success, but she still refuses to leave the love-thing in Aphrodite's hands. This time, she set her sights on matching Solari with Ephiny. Knowing Solari's reputation, I immediately ridiculed her idea and said she'd be much better off with Eponin.
And, that's all it took. Before I knew it, we were taking bets and wagering on who could pair who up with Ephiny first. Gabrielle would put all her faith in Solari. While I would wager on Eponin's warrior skills to conquer the regent's heart. We pledged to keep our wager a secret. Anything was acceptable, short of bribing our respective Amazons to bed Ephiny or ordering them to be Eph's mate (Gabrielle), or simply putting the pinch on them and forcing them (Me). And, of course, under pain of death, no one else could know of our wager. Not Pony or Sol. And, certainly not Ephiny.
The wager was that if I won, we took a trip to a romantic beachside cave nestled in a remote cove that I had discovered ages ago. Where we would spend the next moon living in the caves and making love on the beach and fishing. There'd be no inns, no farmboys, no villagers. And, no Amazons. No one else period. Just me and my bard.
If Gabrielle should win, I would have to take her . . . I shudder to even think of it . . . shopping. Three days in the city of Athens, home to the largest market in the known world. And, I had to go with her. To every stall. I couldn't just hole up on a stool in a tavern somewhere until she was done. No, I had to be beside her for every agonizing browse, barter and purchase. And, I had to offer my opinion; answering that dreaded question of Does this skirt make my butt look big? And, carry all her purchases around as she shopped.
We'd had this bet mapped out ever since we'd arrived in the village almost a moon ago. Up to this point, neither one of us had been successful. And, the deadline was dawn's light day after tomorrow. If either of us were going to win, we'd have to step up the pace. And, you know, Cyrene's little girl never could stand losing.
Solari quickly approached, interrupting the dance between Queen and Regent. Time was running out. And, Eponin was no closer to making a move on Ephiny than she'd been a moon ago. Solari was going to sweep in and charm Ephiny off her feet. Pony was going to be heartbroken. Gabrielle was going to be ecstatic. And, I was . . . going shopping.
It was time to pull out all the stops.
This could cost me big. This could ruin my friendship with Eponin. But, it was the only thing left in my little bag of tricks
"Now that I've had a chance to think about this more, Ep - " Pony curiously looked up from where she'd been using her knife to carve little hearts in the tabletop, completely unaware of the dangerous game we were about to play. "The more I think maybe you're not the right Amazon for the job. I mean, really . . . you and Ephiny?"
I could see the tightening of her grip on the handle of her knife, the blade biting sharply into the table, sending a piece of wood flying off. This never would have worked if she'd been sober. But, I was counting on the vast amounts of alcohol still in her system to muddy her senses enough to allow me to goad her on.
"You're not really serious about this, right?"
Her eyes narrowed to tiny slits at the question. I knew I was treading in dangerous territory here. I'd long suspected there was more to the weapons master's past than she let on. She'd been hurt once. I didn't know by who; it didn't matter. But, the pain had left its mark on her. She knew where this was going. I could see it in the steely glint in her eyes. She was anticipating it; was bracing herself for a blow to the gut. So instead, I went for the jugular.
"She's the Regent of the Amazons, Eponin. You think she's really gonna be with a freak whose own mother didn't want her?"
It was pure speculation on my part, but the instant blanch from Eponin revealed I'd correctly targeted at least one of Ep's hidden insecurities. You would have thought I'd just hit her in the face with the blunt of my sword. Before she had a chance to shake off the staggering blow, I pressed my attack.
"You lay in your pallet at night - alone - don't you, Pony? Just lay there thinking of all the things you'd do with her if you only had the guts." I could see the hard ridges of her jaw tightening as she ground her teeth. Her knuckles clenched white as her grip on the knife handle increased. "What makes you think she'd ever be with you, ya over-muscled freak? What makes ya think you're good enough for her?" She was up off the bench and starting around the table. "Now Solari . . . That's an Amazon. Smart, good-looking, strong without the body shape of a Minotaur." I quickly scrambled backwards off my bench.
"Solari's got talent, too. You don't know the number of Amazons I've heard say she's great in bed. I wonder if Ephiny's tried her, yet?" She was advancing on me with controlled, determined steps. I was steadily retreating backwards, around the opposite way, praying she wasn't furious enough to go for her sword. "Probably has, you know. I mean, Eph's easy on the eyes. Bound to be someone keeping her bedroll warm at night." In an uncharacteristic bout of clumsiness, I misjudged distance, my lower back connecting soundly with the edge of the table as I backed into it. "Is it true the last lover you took was Melosa? Course, her blindside was on her right. That's probably the only reason she let you get close enough; she couldn't see it was you." I had nowhere left to run. It was time to lay it all out on the line. "You hoping Ephiny will need a break from Solari after a while? I hear she can really wear a girl out with that tongue of hers. Maybe while Eph's resting up, you can sneak in and get a turn at her." She was so close, I nearly spat the next words in her face. "Zeus knows, it's the only way you'll ever get some - "
Her fist connected with my jaw, the force of the blow sending me sprawling backwards across the table. She went with the movement, using her momentum to pin me to the table, her hands wrapped about the shoulder fastenings on my leathers. She pulled me halfway up so she was looking down on me, nostrils flaring, breathing heavily on my face. "Give me one reason I shouldn't kill you now." She growled, hissing each word out between clenched teeth. In that instant, she looked so completely feral, I was almost convinced she was going to bite into my throat with her teeth.
"You do - Solari gets Ephiny for sure." I shouted, managing to wrest her grip free from my armor long enough to wildly gesture towards the dance circle where Gabrielle and Ephiny and Solari were. "You see her down there with her? You think they're just friends? Look closely, Ep! Look at how close Solari's standing to your regent. Look at the way she looks at her! If you don't make a move now, you're going to lose her forever!" My words were like another slap to Eponin's face. "You're a warrior! More than that, you're the Weapons Master. That makes you THE warrior for the Amazon Nation. Don't let Solari or anyone else have what you want! Go take her!" I urged. "Now!"
A wild, untamed Amazon war cry on her lips, Ep slammed me hard against the table and charged across the field. I lay there blinking, catching my breath, staring up at the stars in the night sky. The back of my head throbbed where it had slammed into the hardwood table. And, I was almost certain she'd nearly broken my jaw. I'm really getting too old for this Centaur crap! I sensed a presence beside the table, lolled my head to the side to see Coralie staring at me with a bemused expression on her face.
"Should I even ask?"
"Couldn't tell you even if you did," I shook my head, wincing at the movement as I allowed her to help me to a sitting position. "Warrior's Code of Honor," I offered as way of explanation.
Coralie and I sat by side, perched atop the tabletop, watching Eponin charge across the field and come sliding to a halt amidst Queen, Regent and Chief Scout. Before anyone realized what was happening, she had pulled Ephiny out of what looked like a three-way embrace and planted one right on her lips. Beside me, Coralie let out a sharp gasp of surprise. I couldn't hide my glee if I tried. Like I said before; Eponin doesn't do anything by half-measures.
From our perch across the grounds, Coralie and I couldn't hear what was being said. And, we were too far away to accurately read lips. But, even without the benefit of sound, we could both tell that Pony had caused an uproar. All activity had halted. The drums had stopped. The Queen and her Chief Scout looked like they were trying to swallow their tongues. Eph and Ep were squared off and it looked like the curly haired regent was really giving the weapons master what for. And, when Pony drew her sword and knelt before Ephiny, placing her weapon at the regent's feet, both my eyebrows shot up in dismay.
Classy, Ep. I thought as I realized her intent. If nothing else, Eph should give her credit for being chivalrous. Instead, she looked just like Pony did earlier right before she hurled all that wine. Her body stiffened and I felt my gut clench. She can't be seriously going to rebuke Eponin's gesture?
The same fear must have run through Eponin. Before anyone could react, she'd lifted Ephiny and hoisted her over her shoulder. Unexpectedly, Gabrielle looked up, her eyes finding and locking with mine. Folding her arms over her chest, she leveled a look at me that spoke volumes. Behind her, Pelagia and her royal guards made a move as if to intercept Eponin. A quick glance over her shoulder at Pelagia had the Captain of the Guard signaling her Amazons to stand down. Solari was still rooted to the spot, staring with her mouth open like a fish out of water. Without any resistance, Eponin carried Eph off the field, disappearing into the thick cover of the forest.
I watched with interest as Queen Gabrielle regained control of the situation. The drums resumed their steady beating. Dancers retook field. The royal guard resumed their unassuming positions in the background. And, after a few candledrips of what looked to be consoling words directed at Solari, Gabrielle handily passed her along to the attentions of an attractive blonde-haired Amazon. Then, she turned to gaze across the field at me. An imperial pose to her stance, a smirk on her face, she coolly appraised me. And, I must confess . . . I felt a tiny shiver of dread shoot down my spine.
It hadn't gone as badly as I'd imagined. I'd thought Gabrielle was going to be beyond irritated with what she was sure to deem trickery on my part. I had almost timidly trailed along after her to our hut, thoroughly expecting to be scolded for my behavior.
I'd been stunned beyond words. And more than a little slow on the uptake when instead of being displeased by my actions, she seemed just the opposite. I was still floored when she took off her full Amazon regalia and insisted I join her in the bed. Mama didn't raise no fools . . . and I dismembered any protests that might have tried to work their way past my lips.
Afterwards, I lay stretched out between her legs, leisurely placing lingering kisses upon her sex, enjoying the aftertaste of her passion. I stretched sensuously beneath her touch, feeling her fingers stroking lazily through my hair. As I thought about how I'd soon be enjoying this on a secluded beach, just me and my bard, a broad grin formed on my lips.
"You're certainly pleased with yourself."
"Uh-huh," I mumbled contentedly, feeling myself drifting towards sleep.
"I still don't see how you pulled it off."
"I have many skills," I answered, finding the energy to demonstrate my point with a long, slow stroke of my tongue.
"Yes, you most certainly do," she breathlessly agreed, her fingers tangled in my hair tightening upon my scalp.
"Xeeennnnnaa," she hissed between clenched teeth as my tongue once again trailed over her heated flesh. "You didn't make Ep do that as the result of her losing a drinking challenge, did you?"
"Why, Gabrielle, I can't believe you think I would resort to such measures just to win." Just to win a bet, probably not. To get out of shopping, definitely. I looked up at her with my best innocent look, batting the baby blues I knew she had no defense against. "Didn't have to," I added smugly, "I did something even better."
"What?" she asked, her curiosity piqued.
Great. I should never have gloated. If I tell her, she's going to be mad. Madder than that time I used one of her scrolls to wipe with. How to get out of it? "Can't tell you." I grinned at my cleverness. "Warrior's Code."
I LOVE the warrior's code. Anytime we have a conversation and she asks me something embarrassing or uncomfortable or the answer would cause me to get into trouble, I can always fall back on the code. She's a bard and a queen; she has no privy to the secrets of the Warrior Code.
"Just remember," she reminded me, "It has to last for at least three days. A drunken tryst will not a wager win."
"Don't worry," I assured her - and myself as I moved up the bed, settling down beside her. "They're going to be great together." If Pony doesn't do something to stupid to screw it up before they ever get started!
I felt a momentary twinge of guilt as I thought of Pony. It wasn't one of my prouder moments, exploiting my friend's insecurities. I knew she feared she wasn't smart enough, good-looking enough, worthy enough . . . those were the doubts that plagued her. I know because at one time, with Gabrielle, those had been my doubts, too.
As I lay there in my lover's arms, I pondered my actions. I'd purposely manipulated my friend for my own gain. But, because of me, Ep had finally admitted her true feelings for Ephiny. And, with any luck, things would work out for the weapons master and the regent. And, hopefully, Pony will find it in her heart to forgive me.
I cocked my head to one side, listening intently. I thought I'd heard something. Ears straining, I listened intently. The hair's on the back of my neck bristled and stood on end. Something wasn't right. I could feel it. Motioning for Gabrielle to stay where she was, I started to climb off the bed to go investigate.
Movement at the open window caught my attention. My first thought was an assassin's arrow. I reflexively rolled, pinning Gabrielle to the bed, shielding her with my body. I jerked, nearly screaming as cold water was unceremoniously thrown on me. I shook my head ferociously to clear the water from my eyes. Below me, an Amazon Queen had caught the residual spray from my body.
The sound of giggles echoed outside our hut. Cold shock gave way to my fiery temper. With a ferocious growl, I stormed across the room and out the door. I sensed Gabrielle at my back, wrapping a bedsheet about herself. Standing on our porch, I stared in disbelief at the Amazon prankster. The dead Amazon prankster.
She was the last person I expected to see outside our door tonight. "Amazon, you're gonna pay for this " I threatened.
"Only if you can catch me," The regent taunted, jogging backwards, her steps carrying her away from our porch.
She stopped in the center of the courtyard, standing her ground, continuing to taunt me. Surely she didn't think I'd hesitate to chase her about the village even naked. She must have forgotten that was her Queen, not me, that suffered from an acute case of modesty. I took a menacing step towards her. And, was stopped dead in my tracks by another bucket of ice cold water being poured over my head.
Sputtering, slowly dragging a hand over my face, wiping the wet hair away, I looked up. Balanced so precariously I half-expected her to fall off, Pony peered over the edge of the roof at us.
"My Queen. Xena." I gotta admit; when Eponin plays it innocent, she plays it more innocent than anyone I know, including several Hestian virgins I could name. If it hadn't been for the bucket the now empty bucket incriminatingly clutched in her grasp - I might have actually believed she was up there to check the thatching on our roof.
Her Centaur-crap eating grin and low, deep laughter quickly dispelled that image. What's she doing here? She should have her nose so firmly entrenched in Ephiny's leathers at this point, that she won't be able to smell anything else for a quarter moon. For Zeus' sake; what's she doing on my roof?!?
"Now, now, Xena." Pony had the nerve to shake her finger at me. "All's fair in love and war, right?"
Flabbergasted, I stood there with my mouth open, staring as she leapt off our roof, landing in another tree. Like a squirrel in heat, she clambered over the limbs, leaping from tree to tree until she came shimmying down the tree that Ephiny was casually leaning against. Grinning, she grabbed Eph by the hand, tugging her back into the forest. Their dual shouts echoed back at me, taunting me as they ran for cover. "Love may be a battlefield, Xena! And, you may be a military genius! But, you forgot to watch for sneak attacks!"
Son of a Bacchae! "EPONIN! You traitor!" I shouted at the top of my lungs, furious at her for turning the tables on me. I thought she'd be too enthralled with her new love to think about paying me back for I stopped mid-tirade as I reasoned this out this had the stink of the regent all over it. "I'll get you for this!" I'll pay you both back! Let's see how you like waking up with naked chickens in your hut . . .
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