DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, the Amazons and anyone else who might wander into this tall tale along with their back-stories are owned by Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No infringement is intended and no profit is being made.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To delrobertson[at]ymail.com
By Del Robertson
"Amazon, my patience is wearing thin."
Ephiny was trying. Really, she was. When she first saw Xena coming at her, she'd somehow found the strength to shove Gabrielle out of harm's way. And, when she'd seen the warrior's fingers form to deliver the blow, she'd had the presence of mind to send a silent prayer to her beloved goddess Artemis to make her death a quick one. But now that Xena was expecting an answer from her, she couldn't form any words.
Probably because she was in shock.
Ephiny knew, given their earlier confrontation, that there were still unresolved issues between the two of them. Just as she also knew the warrior was capable of just about anything. She'd heard the bardly tales - and not just Gabrielle's versions - of some of the more colorful things Xena had done to her enemies. And, given that she'd no doubt just witnessed her lover in her arms....again...
Ephiny had fully expected to have the pinch put on her, followed by Xena's voice telling her that she had just cut off the flow of blood to her brain.
What she got instead was Xena's fingers jabbing into a spot just below her collarbone. Oh, it had hurt. It hurt like the pain from a thousand stinging bees. But then, the sensation was gone and the persistent pain in her shoulder along with it.
Before her mind could fully process what had just happened, Solari was there. Her packmate had hobbled forward, using her staff as a crutch. Then, in a move that not even the warrior princess herself anticipated, she shifted the staff from beneath her arm and whacked Xena squarely in the breastplate.
"Ow." was Xena's only reaction as she first looked down at her breasts then up at the offending Amazon.
Solari had placed herself squarely between Xena and Ephiny. She was standing on one leg so as to keep the pressure off her injured appendage. Her staff was held in a horizontal grip in front of her body. A dark brow arched above a blue eye as Xena noted the filthy bandage on her right hand and the way she balanced the staff on the bone of her wrist rather than in her palm.
She could take Ephiny's self-appointed protector out in one easy maneuver. Ephiny knew it. Xena knew it. More importantly, Solari knew it.
"Solari, Ephiny's not in any danger," Gabrielle said.
When she saw where Xena's fingers had landed, she realized that her warrior was actually trying to help her regent. The situation was still a volatile one, though. If Solari dared to strike Xena again, she couldn't be responsible for her consort's actions.
Devillare had already reached the same conclusion as her little queen. That's why, even though she was sworn to protect her regent with her life, she hadn't rushed to the rescue. True, Xena was fully capable of killing with only a flick of her wrist. But, her gut told her that the warrior princess had no intention of physically harming the regent.
Then, that crazy scout had rushed in. Now, she couldn't step forward, for worry that any move on her part might be misinterpreted and the situation escalated even more.
Xena took a step nearer.
"Don't you dare touch her." Solari hefted her staff in warning.
"You've got a set on you today, Amazon, and you smell like an alehouse." Xena pointedly sniffed the air. "But I know you. No amount of drink would give you the fortitude to raise that staff against me again."
The warning tone in Xena's voice finally spurred Ephiny to action. She placed a restraining arm about her packmate's midsection, spoke to her in a soft voice, trying to make her listen to reason.
Solari's eyes narrowed, her body tensed and it looked for all the known world as though she was seriously contemplating hitting Xena again. Before she could, Xena reached out, easily lifting the staff from Solari's grasp.
"Give me one good reason I shouldn't use this to whack some sense into you."
"Wait." It was at that point that the assistant healer stepped forward. "It's not her," Iphinome said, "It's the Satyr-cloves."
"You gave her Satyr-cloves?" Xena thrust the staff back at Solari, fixing it in the scout's grasp so that it was simply a cane again. "with alcohol? Are you insane...or does stupidity just come naturally to you?"
Iphinome violently shook her head. "She was in pain. I was out of herbs - "
"Is that what Megara's teaching her apprentices these days; to travel unprepared?"
"I - "
Iphinome fell silent. What could she say? Here she was, standing amongst these living legends. And, while she didn't expect any of them to place laurels upon her head, she at least thought they would value her skill as a healer. Instead of being treated as an equal, she was being lectured like a toddler.
It wasn't fair. She thought she'd packed enough supplies. Even with needing to treat the regent's shoulder, the captain's cough, the scout's hand...she was sure she had brought enough along. But, when Solari was on the operating table and she reached into her cloth bag, she discovered her supplies were diminished to nearly nothing.
I failed. My patients. Megara. There was no defense good enough. But, she didn't deserve to be talked down to by her elders.
The warrior was just about to launch into a tirade when her soulmate's voice breached the red haze of her anger. She stopped, focused, clearly seeing Iphinome's bottom lip quivering and the tortured expression she wore.
Xena released a heavy sigh. "What's done is done. Nothing for it now."
What Iphinome had done was serious. An experienced healer...Xena stopped herself...that in itself was the problem. Iphinome was only a healer's apprentice. Still, that should have been one of the first things Megara had stressed to her staff.
Xena would fully explain it to Gabrielle. Later. Gods knew if they found themselves in similar circumstances, she certainly wouldn't want Gabrielle to give her mead laced with Satyr-cloves.
"Someone will need to keep an eye on her," Xena said, indicating Solari with a tilt of her head, "To make sure she doesn't do anything else stupid."
"Let's move this back to the inn," Devillare suggested. She'd been keeping a steady watch of their surroundings. "I don't like having the royals so exposed."
Xena glanced around. Potadeia was a sleepy little farming community. But, its inhabitants were nothing if not resilient. Their town had a long history of being repeatedly raided by warlords and slavers. For them, it was almost a way of life.
Sure, they'd be traumatized for a good candlemark or two. Then, the men would gather in the local bars for at least twice that long. Then, after they'd drank enough, they'd pat themselves on the back for how brave they'd been and they'd gather up their courage and stagger home to their womenfolk for a hot meal and a hearty poke.
She'd seen it the very first time she'd been in Potadeia. Looking around, she could see that nothing had changed. Already, the streets were filled with women, chatting and leading their children home. A group of young men, mill workers from the look of them, were making their way back to the river.
Fools. These Amazon renegades aren't common warlords. If, when, they come back -
As if sensing her soulmate's thoughts, Gabrielle reached out, capturing Xena's upper arm. She solemnly shook her head.
"It's their way of life, Xena. They have to put food on their tables."
"There won't be any need for food if they're all dead."
"I've already spoken with the town leaders." Gabrielle let out a heavy sigh. That conversation had been a colossal waste of time. Especially since her father had a vote. "They haven't asked us to leave. Yet." Gabrielle saw the raised brows, both from her warrior and her regent. "But, they've made it clear; they won't allow us to disrupt their lives, either."
"Disrupt their lives?" This time, from Ephiny. "They aren't going to have any lives left if they don't take action."
"Like I said, the Potadeians won't stand in our way. Don't expect any of them to go out of their way to help us, either. Although, Darius is still offering the use of his inn."
"Kind of him." Ephiny snorted. "Since we've already paid good coin for the run of the place."
"Darius is smart. He knows that providing us with shelter may put him in danger, too. If not from the renegades, then from extremist Potadeians." Gabrielle glanced about, fully expecting to see varying degrees of smirks and grins. After all, Potadeians didn't exactly have a reputation for being fanatics. No one so much as cracked a smile. "We'll use his inn as our base of operations. Maintain a rotating shift of perimeter guards. No one makes a move in Potadeia that we don't know about."
Xena gave a subtle nod of approval. Gabrielle's strategy was strong.
"They're licking their wounds now. Regrouping. Mark my words, though, they will be back."
"What makes you so sure?" Ephiny asked, "For all we know, they could be halfway to Amphipolis by now."
"No." Of course, Xena wanted her mother safe. But, she had no doubt that Cyrene was in no immediate danger. Amphipolis had a trained militia. And, Cyrene personally had a full complement of Amazons guarding over her. Besides, her mother didn't make a very tempting target. "It's royal blood they're after. And they already know you and Gabrielle are both here."
It was a silent, grim procession full of wary eyes that made its way towards the inn. It wasn't that Potadeia was a large, sprawling town. But, as was traditional with most towns, the stables where Gabrielle had ran into Ephiny at were located at the far end of town, strategically positioned downwind. Darius' inn was located at the opposite end of town. Given the nature of Ephiny's and Solari's injuries, their journey was understandably slow going.
Xena stopped yet again. Sometimes, having legs as long as Mt. Olympus is tall could be a real pain in the butt. Like now.
She turned to look back. Gabrielle flanked Ephiny's side, Solari the other. Ever since their earlier perceived altercation, the chief scout hadn't strayed a foot from her packmate. And, while all other eyes were watching their surroundings, Solari's were fastened to every move Xena made.
Iphinome and Devillare walked side by side a few paces behind the royals. It looked like the young apprentice healer was trying to chat the elder's ear off. Xena noted that the captain of the guard kept both eyes moving and one hand on the grip of her sword and didn't utter a single word in response. Iphinome didn't seem to notice at all.
Solari's step faltered. Iphinome was instantly at her side. Good; maybe all that chatter will keep Solari grounded. Iphinome wrapped an arm about Solari's waist and draped Solari's free arm over her shoulders.
Hampered by the assistant healer's aide, Solari's pace fell off and she dropped slightly behind. Xena used the gap to smoothly step into her space, easily adjusting to Ephiny's pace.
"You never answered my question."
Confused hazel eyes darted about Xena's face.
"Where's Eponin?" Xena asked. "Figure I could use her expertise here."
Solari brushed off Iphinome, pushed forward and spoke over Ephiny's shoulder before the regent could answer. "Eponin's not with us."
"Sure she is. I saw her earlier, during the battle."
"She's riding with the renegades," Solari said, "as a traitor to the Nation."
"Oh, please." Gabrielle couldn't believe her ears. "Eponin?"
"Guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, does it?" Iphinome asked. Smirking at their stunned expressions, she decided to tweak the situation a little more by adding, "Or, I guess in Eponin's case, the mongrel doesn't stray too far from the litter."
Iphinome suddenly found the front of her halter caught tightly in Devillare's fist. She was abruptly lifted off her feet and sent flying. She landed with a big splash in a nearby horse trough. She came up, sputtering and spitting, pushing bedraggled dark locks back from her face. Accusing eyes glared at the captain of the guard.
"Next time you speak, make sure you don't sound like a horse's ass," Devillare advised before storming off.
"Ephiny?" Gabrielle asked, turning to her regent for answers.
"I - " Ephiny's voice cracked and her words caught in her throat. With a shake of her head that sent riotous blonde curls flying, she limped away as fast as her sprained ankle would allow her.
Pairs of green and blue eyes fixed on Solari. The chief scout stood, listing to one side, despite having her staff for support. She blinked back at the Queen and her consort and eloquently asked, "What?"
"You okay?" Xena asked, unknowingly echoing Ephiny's earlier sentiment.
They'd been in bed for candlemarks. Two pillows were propped against the headboard, Xena's head and upper body braced against them as she rested mostly flat on her back. Gabrielle was on her side, curled into and against Xena, her head resting in the crook of her consort's arm.
Xena tilted her head, blue eyes peering down at an awkward angle at her soulmate. Gabrielle's face was puffy, her nose red. There were pronounced dark circles beneath both eyes and her lids looked heavy. Despite the lateness of the night and the repeated closing of blonde lashes over green eyes, Xena knew her lover hadn't had a wink of sleep. Neither of them had.
It had been a very rough night. For the both of them. Her bard had finally told Xena about the run in with her father. Xena had immediately tried to climb out of their bed, only to find herself restrained by her teary-eyed lover.
"I won't kill him, Gabrielle, I promise. I just want to have a sensitive chat with him about his family values," she had said.
Somehow, Gabrielle had convinced her to let it go. For now. Gods knew they had enough to deal with without adding Herodotus' ignorance to their troubles.
Gabrielle had wanted answers. Truth be known, Xena did, too. That was why she'd asked the question in the first place. Little did she know the jar of worms she'd be responsible for opening.
If I had, I would've waited until after dinner.
As if in reminder, Xena's stomach gave an uncharacteristically loud grumble of protest at the missed meal. Usually, it was her teasing Gabrielle about the insatiable beast residing in her stomach. Given that her bard passed up the rare opportunity to poke fun at her in return gave testament to the bleakness of her mood.
Given the answers we got, can't say I'm happy, either.
Just getting those answers had been difficult enough. Ephiny was being uncooperative. Despite her injuries, the regent had reached the inn well ahead of them and sequestered herself in her room. Devillare had reassigned herself to the perimeter and left Bonadea to guard Ephiny in her stead. And, Solari was drugged out on Satyr-cloves. They'd been reduced to getting their information through second-hand sources.
"There's more to the story than what they're telling," Gabrielle said.
"You don't have to be an oracle to see that, Gabrielle." Xena silently cursed herself, fully expecting her bard to be offended by her less than sensitive comment. When she didn't so much as bat an eye, she added, "None of them are telling us everything."
"That's it." Gabrielle propped herself up on her elbow so she could see Xena. "They're not telling us everything. You're the problem."
"No one's going to open up to me while a warrior's glaring at them over my shoulder."
"You think anyone's going to wanna spill the beans in front of their queen?"
"Why not? You're tall, dark and deadly. I'm sweet, sensitive and friendly."
"I'm sure Iphinome wouldn't agree. Sweet, my breechcloth."
The Queen did not look amused. If anything, she looked decidedly pissed.
Uh-oh. Shouldn't have brought up that healer's name.
"Come on, Gabrielle. I mean, the woman had barely climbed out of the trough when you pushed her back in."
"Yeah, well she had it coming." Despite being in bed, Gabrielle still managed to fold both arms over her chest and effectively mimic a pouting, foot-stomping action. "Devillare's right; she's a horse's ass."
"Be that as it may, you can't go around pushing people into horse troughs just because you don't like what they've got to say."
"Xena, that was Eponin she was talking about. Eponin! Eponin's always..." Gabrielle's voice broke, she choked up as memories of all the dark-haired warrior had done for her, especially during those first awkward days as a princess surfaced "Eponin's a very good friend. I thought you considered her to be that, too."
"I do. I owe her a lot." If it weren't for her, that pack of wolves would have - "Truth is, if you hadn't pushed Iphinome into that trough, I might have." Xena used her thumb to gently stroke over Gabrielle's cheek. "But, you're the leader of the Amazons, Gabrielle. And, as their leader, you have to be able to put your personal feelings aside and be fair and impartial. Otherwise, you'll never know if they're telling you the truth or only what you want to hear. Is that something you can be, even where Eponin's concerned?"
Gabrielle frowned, but slowly nodded her head.
"Okay, then first thing in the morning," A blue eye glanced towards the lone window in their room at the rapidly lightening sky, "Okay, later this morning," she amended, "we'll separate and question them individually and see if we can figure out what it is they're not saying."
"I'll take Ephiny. No offense, but she'll never open up to you, Xena, not even if you put the pinch on her."
Xena fought against the frown she felt forming. Given their recent past, she wasn't sure she wanted Gabrielle spending any private time with the curly-haired Amazon. Come on, you're over this. "Okay. I'll take the warriors. They'll be more apt to talk to one of their own." Hopefully in the tavern over drinks.
"Agreed. Except - " Gabrielle poked Xena in the chest. "- I get Devillare." At the arched brow, she said, "We really bonded on that last visit."
"Fine. You can bond with all the elders you want."
Gabrielle froze, then laughed, slapping Xena's arm. "I meant we've got a rapport."
"Oh, I know what you meant. I always knew you were into older women, but I thought you'd draw the line at dating someone old enough to be my mother."
"Hey, I could do worse than your mother," Gabrielle said, "At least Cyrene can cook."
"Fine, next time we're in Amphipolis, I'll fix the two of you - " Xena stopped mid-sentence, wrinkling her nose as her mind finally caught up with what her mouth was promising. "Never mind. You win."
"Of course, I do. How many times have I told you to never argue with a bard?"
"Gabrielle, when I said you had a talented tongue, I didn't mean as an orator."
Gabrielle's mouth dropped open. At first, Xena thought she was going to be kicked out of the bed. Then, Gabrielle let out a tiny snort. Then, a full blown guffaw.
It was just what was needed to relieve some of the tension in the room.
Suddenly, Gabrielle got a look in her eyes. Blonde eyebrows waggled suggestively. "I'll show you some oral skills, warrior."
Gabrielle shoved the blanket down, planting a kiss just below Xena's navel. She dipped her tongue inside, swirling it around before dragging it down, wetting those downy fine hairs just below her bellybutton.
Xena closed her eyes, throwing her head back, tangling one hand in Gabrielle's blonde hair.
Just then, there was a sharp rap at the door. Gabrielle had barely climbed back up the length of Xena's body and uttered the word, "Come," before Bonadea was pushing the door open. A flick of Xena's wrist had the blankets repositioned before the guard could see anything inappropriate.
"Begging your pardon, my Queen, Queen's Champion." Bonadea saluted, "it's about Solari. You said someone needed to keep an eye on her on account of the Satyr-cloves." Bonadea paused, shifted nervously on the balls of her feet, "I escorted her to her room earlier. But, the captain's out on patrol and I was guarding the regent's door."
"I went to look in on her a couple of candlemarks ago and she was sleeping soundly." A shrug of broad shoulders. "I checked again just now and she's gone."
"Gone?" Xena was already climbing out of bed, ignoring the guard's wide-eyed look at her nudity.
"Egeria helped me searched the inn. We can't find her anywhere. She's missing."
Xena visibly breathed a sigh of relief. Missing. She had thought it was something much worse.
"Go back to the regent's door. Stay there. I'll find Solari," Xena instructed.
Bonadea nodded, gave a sharp salute before leaving. Not once did she think to question why she was taking orders from the Queen's consort instead of the Queen herself.
"Xena?" Gabrielle had seen her warrior's reaction, had also feared the worst. "Are the side effects of Satyr-cloves really that dangerous?"
Xena was almost completely dressed by now. She paused in pulling on her boots. "Can be, if enough are ingested. Iphinome said her supplies were diminished, though."
So far, Gabrielle didn't see a real problem. Solari was a grown Amazon. Surely she could take care of herself.
"So, what are the normal side effects?"
"It's kind of like you on henbane-laced nutbread, Gabrielle. Lowers inhibitions. Makes someone think they're twelve feet tall and arrow proof. She's liable to say or do anything."
"I still don't remember any of those things you say I did."
"Convenient, that," Xena teased.
She'd gotten a great deal of pleasure out of reciting to Gabrielle all the things she'd said and done while strung out on henbane. According to Xena, the most memorable thing Gabrielle had done was pantomime several verses of one of her scrolls. While completely naked.
"Real problem is Iphinome supplemented her lack of herbs with drink. Alcohol intensifies the effects."
The first rooster crowed its morning call. Gabrielle suddenly sobered. Being strung out on Satyr-cloves in the Amazon Nation might be one thing. Here, in conservative Potadeia, it was another matter entirely.
"Xena, you have to find her. Fast."
This was not her beloved Amazon forest. Artemis knew, this sparse population of trees surrounding Potadeia could barely be called woods.
But, Solari was desperate. She was itching so badly for some privacy. And, Gods knew she wasn't comfortable in a...town. She'd lain awake in bed for candlemarks in that inn. Trapped in a room with four walls, she couldn't hear any of the reassuring night sounds she was used to. Instead, all she heard was every creak of the door hinges, the muttering of voices in the hall and the adjoining rooms, every loose floorboard as it was stepped on. If she stayed there one heartbeat more, she thought she'd go insane.
She'd slipped out of the inn, closing her cloak tightly about her frame to keep out the chill. Leaning on her staff, she'd made her way down the quiet main street. She knew she couldn't go as far as the perimeter patrols. But, she couldn't stand to stay this close to what these folks called civilization, either.
So, she'd found this place nearly halfway between the two. The familiar smell of freely flowing water had led her here. In the distance, she could see the outline of the building that served as the lumber mill. The area nearest the water had already been cleared, only stumps left behind as testament that proud trees had once lined the banks.
Solari closed her eyes, blocking out the sight. Come full morning, she knew, men would return to this site, to cut down more trees, sending them tumbling into the water to float downstream to the mill. But for now, these woods belonged to her.
Feeling a sense of serenity washing over her, she stepped around the stumps and into the wooded area. There! - Acute hearing caught the faltering step of a doe as she stopped still in her tracks. Solari stopped, too, waiting. Leaves rustled as the doe bolted, rushing deeper into the safety of the woods. Solari smiled.
She breathed deeply, inhaling the mingled scents of water, trees and freedom. She looked up, seeing the stars through the canopy of leaves towering high over her head. She sighed heavily, longing to climb just one tree.
That'll be a long time coming. Solari flexed her leg, feeling the tight pull of stitches. Sandalwood eyes looked down the length of her arm at her hand. Her jaw clenched at the sight, the familiar stirrings of anger threatening to displace the serenity she'd come here looking for.
Serenity. For some reason, that word made Solari feel overwhelmingly giddy. A high-pitched giggle escaped her lips before she could clamp a hand over her mouth in shock. Then, realizing there was no one save that lone deer to hear her anyway, she dropped her hand.
Serenity. She giggled again. Relief, you mean. She had called the act she was about to perform a lot of things over the seasons, but never once had she referred to it as serenity.
"Call it whatever you like." Solari spoke to the nearest tree as she leaned her staff against its trunk," either way, it's going to feel oh, so good."
A little unsteady on her feet without the help of her staff, Solari still managed to undo the clasp on her cloak and spread the cloth out on the ground. "See, here's the thing..." she nearly fell against the tree before catching herself. She placed a finger to her lips, then glanced around before looking back and addressing the tree again, "...this time..." she pulled something from the waistband of her leathers "...this time, I've come prepared." She wagged a set of chobos at the pine "...Ha. Come. Get it?"
Chestnut brown hair was splayed out, falling about her shoulders and her cloak. Her head was tossed back, sandalwood eyes staring unseeingly at the branches, leaves and stars overhead. Her mouth was open, throat muscles constricting, no sound coming forth.
Her halter was unfastened and opened at the front, revealing a set of perfect breasts. The first bite of chill air had caused the nipples to tighten and stiffen with arousal. It was the bite of sharp teeth nipping at each of them in turn that kept them that way.
Solari had thought she'd been alone, that her pleasuring was to be hers and hers alone. To say she was surprised when she turned her head to the side and saw herself eye to foot with a pair of Amazon boots at the edge of her cloak would be an understatement.
Her gaze had traveled up those boots, over long legs, stopping momentarily at a set of dark leathers and lingering over a well-filled suede halter before climbing as high as her face. Sparkling eyes were filled with mirth and a brow arched as a gaze settled on the set of chobos beside her on the cloak.
That had been the first - and only - word Solari had spoken. It had been enough.
Enough to have her sister Amazon dropping to her knees on the cloak beside her. Enough to have lips and teeth and tongue on her breasts and meandering a lover's path down her undulating stomach. Enough that arms moved beneath her raised thighs, wrapping securely about thrusting hips as kisses and licks were freely given. Then, a hand moved lower, fingers spread her apart, holding her open as an open-mouthed kiss was placed on that most intimate of places.
Lips suckled. Solari felt that mass of springy flesh tighten and swell impossibly more. The suckling increased. A gasp was torn from her lips.
There was a blast of cold air as that talented mouth suddenly left her flesh. Solari's eyes opened. She looked down the length of her naked body, her eyes widening in amazement as that talented tongue was now licking up and down the length of a chobo. Then, those luscious full lips wrapped themselves around the weapon -- and Solari was unable to bite back her groan.
A hand was raised, long fingers wiping at a bit of spittle at the corner of a mouth. A wicked smile formed on those Gods-blessed lips and the hand holding the chobo was lowered.
She felt the phallus-like weapon positioned at her sex. The fingers of one hand held her open while the other used just the tip of the chobo to spread her moisture between her lips. The hardwood connected with her throbbing sex, causing her to arch up in response. More pressure was added, as if the chobo was being used to force her hips back down.
Solari complied, feeling the chobo retreat back the way it had come, drawing more of her copious amounts of moisture from her willing flesh. Several more times, this process was repeated, until Solari thought she would go out of her mind from the wanting.
"Please. Oh, please," she heard herself pleading.
The chobo was poised at her entrance. Anxiety momentarily gripped Solari as for the first time she considered the chobo might be too big. But, she was throbbing so much...she was so wet...so open...so ready. Solari's hips were in a constant writhing motion now. The hand holding the chobo visibly trembled. Another hand was added, the palm laying flat on slick, short brown hairs as Solari was held in place.
"Oh, please." Solari put every bit of her pent-up lust into that single plea. "I need..."
"Solari." Ephiny's voice was laden heavy with desire. "Solari."
"Unh." Solari strained, feeling the stitches in her thigh threatening to rip....and not caring.
"Solari." There was a hard edge to Ephiny's voice this time. "Stop. You have to stop."
It was a bone-weary captain of the guard that walked her large warhorse down the main street of Potadeia. A cough rattled her and she placed a hand to her chest in response.
Damn damp night air.
Devillare could practically feel the congestion settling in her chest.
She'd intended to ride out in the morning to check the perimeter detail. But, then that healer had opened her fool mouth about things she had no knowledge of and she'd reacted, pushing her into the horse trough. Then, Devillare just needed to get away. Work off some energy before she did anything else stupid.
Like haul off and whack the Queen's champion with a staff.
"Oh, scout." Devillare smiled, shook her head ruefully. An image of the cute brunette appeared, balancing a staff while hopping on one leg, looking righteously indignant as she defended her regent's honor and life. That had been a sight indeed.
She'd thought about sharing that with Tynette. It was the sort of humor her fellow elder would enjoy. But, as she'd ridden about in circles for candlemarks, she realized that the stubborn hunter was avoiding her.
Her petty idea of payback. She figured the hunter was still sporting a grudge over her pulling rank and this was her way of proving she was no one's subordinate. Her suspicions were confirmed when she'd finally spotted Tynette emerging from the bush, leading her horse behind her.
Devillare had intended to work off her excess energy and mend some broken fences at the same time by taking the rest of Tynette's shift. By the time the hunter finally showed herself, though, Devillare was so annoyed at her that she'd gruffly snapped, "Report," and barely gave Tynette time to respond before riding off to relieve Lyonene instead.
The other hunter heard her warbling birdcall and responded to it in kind the first time she'd heard it. Lyonene had been amiable and laughed heartily as Devillare recited the tale of the consort and the scout. She'd ridden off, promising to relieve the captain again come first light.
True to her word, Lyonene had arrived right on time. With an extra canteen of still warm spiced tea. Devillare had gingerly sipped at it on the ride back, grateful for the warm liquid as it soothed her aching throat.
The first rays from Apollo's chariot were just spreading along the ground, melting the frost as she walked her horse into the stables. Strong arms flexed as she lifted the saddle off the mare's back.
"A rubdown, a nice bag of oats." Devillare was already reaching for a thick-bristled brush. "Then, check in on lil' Eph and off to bed. Sound good, girl?"
"Exactly how do you plan on getting that big horse up those tiny stairs at the inn?"
Devillare paused mid-stroke and turned around. She's getting much, much better at her stealth. "My Queen," Devillare gave a perfunctory bow.
Gabrielle waved off the formality and took the brush from the captain's hand. She moved slowly, cautiously approaching the horse. She held out her hand, allowing the black mare to snuffle her palm.
"Good girl." There was an answering huff from a nearby stall. Green eyes flicked over the stall wall at the buttercup mare. "Easy, Argo. We're old friends." Gabrielle spoke softly as she ran her hand over a familiar white splash that extended over one ear and down the center of a forehead. "Aren't we, Lightning?"
Unsure of what else to do, Devillare picked up a spare brush and began stroking it along Lightning's opposite side. Being an Amazon, the captain knew the value of a good horse. And, no doubt about it, this was a good horse. By far, she was the fastest in the Nation. Anyone would give their eyeteeth to have her.
Devillare had mixed feelings about that.
Lightning was Eponin's horse. After her - Devillare's mind stumbled over the word incarceration - there had been much debate over what should be done with the fine animal. Many had tried to lay claim to her, citing various reasons why the mare should be theirs. Others, those with seemingly more claim, never stepped up to petition for her.
Surely, had she wanted her, the horse would have been given to the regent. Ephiny had never said a word on the subject. Eventually, it had been the mare herself that had made the decision. She would allow none save the regent and the captain to approach her. Not even the stable master could get close enough to do more than toss her some fresh feed. As Ephiny seemed to not want the responsibility, ownership fell to Devillare.
She has the power to charm dumb animals and Amazons alike, Devillare thought, watching as her tiny queen spoke softly to the powerful horse.
"So, Xena has gone off in search of Solari."
Devillare blinked, realizing that Gabrielle had directed that last part towards her. Dimly, she recalled that the Queen's champion had said that someone needed to keep an eye on the scout.
"Bonadea - "
"- couldn't be expected to keep track of her and Ephiny both unless she'd put them in the same bed together."
Damn. "My apologies, my Queen. It was an oversight on my part."
Gabrielle nearly let the captain off the hook. After all, it wasn't like Devillare was shirking her duties. Gabrielle had known she'd taken the night patrol. And, the woman looked the worse for it. She had heard the warrior comment to the horse that she wanted to go off to bed. But, Gods forgive her, Gabrielle wanted answers. And, if she had to, she'd fight dirty to get them.
"That's not like you, Devillare. What were you thinking?"
That was easy. She wasn't. "Again, my apologies, my Queen. I allowed my emotions to cloud my judgment."
"I gathered that when Iphinome went flying into the horse trough." Gabrielle indulged in that memory for a heartbeat before adding, "Devillare, we need to talk."
"Of course." Devillare nodded. "I'll accept whatever punishment you deem for my actions."
Gotcha. "What I want, Devillare, is the truth."
"I've heard about what's happened with Eponin." Gabrielle caught the quick swallow, the downward look. "I know what she did. But, that doesn't explain what Iphinome said. Or your reaction."
A head abruptly snapped up. The steel grey eyes that focused on Gabrielle were filled with anxiety.
"Iphinome said the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. I want to know what she meant."
The bloodcurdling scream came out of nowhere, startling her so badly that it made the warrior princess jump.
Then, everything went quiet. Xena spun around in circles. Realizing someone wasn't being attacked - and no one was attacking her - she sheepishly sheathed her sword.
Taking a guess as to where the scream had originated from, the warrior stomped off towards the wooded area near the river.
"Solari?" she called out in a voice loud enough that she thought the scout might hear. "That had better be you," Xena added beneath her breath.
Reality rudely came crashing down around Solari's feather-clad shoulders. Her fantasies had brought Ephiny to her. In spirit, if not in the flesh.
But, in the midst of her passion, just as she'd done in real life, her fantasy-Ephiny had used the very same words to douse the flames of her desire.
Solari sat on her cloak upon the ground, her back against a tree, her forearms draped over her knees. She gave a deep sigh, scrubbed her hand over her face. Nostrils flared as she caught the scent of her arousal upon her palm. She jerked her hand away; wiped her palm against her thigh with a frustrated growl.
Only a well timed dodge prevented the warrior princess from being struck by a set of flying chobos. They whizzed past her, landing in a dense thicket of underbrush. Brow arched, Xena stepped out from behind a copse of trees and leveled a look at Solari.
"Ugh. My tongue feels like it's been used to polish my boots with."
"Side effects. It'll wear off." Xena nodded her head at the skin Solari held in her grasp. "Finish that."
Solari made a face, but dutifully took another long draw.
"Just once, I wish the cure for what ails me wasn't herbal tea."
"You really wanna give the Satyr-cloves and alcohol another go?"
"Is that what we're doing out here?" Solari asked, looking around.
They were on a footpath on the outskirts of a sparse set of woods. In one direction, she could see smoke rising from the roofs of the buildings that marked the town of Potadeia. In the other direction, she could make out the faint blue of water. It was the direction of the town that they were headed in.
Right now, she was leaning with her hip braced against a large boulder, her staff tucked beneath her arm like a crutch. Her hand was itching. Her leg was throbbing. And, she had the beginnings of what was sure to be a blinding headache.
"You brought me out here to work through the Satyr-cloves?"
"You brought yourself out here. Think you had some issues of your own to work through."
Solari's cheeks tinged pink.
Interesting. Seems the Satyr-cloves haven't completely addled Solari's senses. "So, did you?"
"Did I what? I didn't do anything."
Xena let out a boisterous laugh. "I think the Amazon doth protest too much. And much too quickly." Xena reached out, "Geez, Solari." She felt the tight muscles beneath the taut flesh of the scout's back, noticed how she jumped at the lightest of touches. "You're strung tighter than your bow. One good strum is all you need, huh?"
Solari prayed that the ground would open up and swallow her whole.
"It seems like I've been trying for the longest time to get a little relief," Solari confessed in a strained voice. "Before I was serious about changing, I had no trouble sneaking off with someone for a quick tumble."
"I don't think you'd have problems finding someone for that now, if you wanted."
"I can't risk that. I can't afford to give in to old habits."
"It can be tough, trying to outrun your past."
"I thought it would be easy. But, Xena...the temptation. I could take care of things myself. But, there's never been the opportunity. Circumstances. The mission. I just haven't been able to...to...you know..."
Gods, I hate sensitive chats. At least Solari seems as uncomfortable talking about this as I am. Xena looked up and down the dirt road. So far, it was deserted. That would change as soon as the Potadeians started their work day.
"I could keep an eye out, if you wanna - " There was a wagging of eyebrows, a twitching jerk of raven tresses.
Solari glanced over at the bushes located just off the path, bit her lip in serious contemplation before resolutely shaking her head.
"It can wait. Celibacy hasn't killed me, yet."
"No, but better get some soon, Amazon, or the Hestian virgins might try recruiting you." Xena punched Solari on the arm. "Amazonian Hestian Virgins. I just gotta tell Gabby."
Solari looked absolutely mortified. "Gods. Is that why you're here? Does the Queen know I was - "
"Relax. Gabrielle thinks you just wandered off. As far as she's concerned, I came to fetch you back before you could get into any real trouble." Xena caught the incredulous look. "What? You think you're the only one with tracking skills, scout?"
"No, of course not. But - Xena, come on; you're telling me I made it all the way out here on my own?" Solari pointedly looked around at their surroundings, then ducked her head as if indicating her current physical limitations. "I can hardly go ten paces without stopping."
"Like I told your Queen; under the influence of Satyr-cloves, your mind thinks your body can do anything. Now that the effects are diminishing, you're feeling your mortality. The aches and pains are only going to get worse. More than likely, this little excursion of yours has done some serious damage. Won't know for sure until we get back, but I expect you won't even be able to get out of bed on your own later."
"Great." Solari winced, looked away. There was a below the breath grumbling that anyone else but Xena would've missed.
"What?" Xena asked, even though she had clearly heard every word.
"I said I don't want to be a cripple!" Solari snapped at the warrior before she could bite back the words. As soon as they tumbled from her mouth, she looked instantly chagrined. "Xena, I'm sorry. I just - "
" - Needed to get that out." Xena clasped the scout's shoulder. She'd been surprised when Solari hadn't listed her injuries along with the other obstacles preventing her from seeking her pleasure. "It's okay to feel angry, Solari. It's okay to get that rage out. You have to, or it'll end up gnawing at your insides."
Solari said nothing. Swallowed harshly. Blinked back the sting of tears. She felt a tightening in her chest, a heavy sensation in her body. Xena's hand left her shoulder, stroking down her arm, stopping at the edge of the bandage at her wrist.
"Let me see," Xena spoke softly, undoing the knot on the filthy bandage.
The bandage was slowly unwrapped. Solari bit her lip, averted her gaze. Xena caught the reaction, didn't say anything. When she reached the end of the bandage, Xena used a gentle touch on Solari's wrist to turn her hand over. Blue eyes took in the seriousness of the wound.
"Solari, that's a severe burn." The wound's old; she didn't get this in today's battle. "You need to leave that bandage off when you can; give it a chance to breathe." I haven't seen tissue damage like that since - An image flashed in Xena's mind of herself, during her warlord days, thrusting a man's hand into a fire and holding it against the coals as he screamed for mercy. Xena shook her head, banishing the memory. "How did this happen?"
The sky was lightening from dusty grey to oyster pink. Solari escorted Ephiny through the sleepy village, to the regent's hut. She guided her inside, steering her towards the bed. Any other time, Solari might have taken advantage of the chance to undress Ephiny, perhaps even sneak a feel under the pretense of tucking her packmate in. Not tonight. Not today. Not after - Solari swallowed against the hurt, leaving quickly, brushing past Lexine in her hurry to outdistance the pain of her aching heart.
She hadn't stopped until she reached her own hut. She needed her sanctuary, a chance to lick her wounds, recover from the emotionally draining evening. Gods knew she wouldn't be able to sleep, no matter how exhausted she was. But, she could at least try to get some rest. Yawning, she flipped back the hide covering and stepped inside her home. And froze.
Even this part of her life was in disarray. A vase was broken upon the floor, the flowers scattered and trampled underfoot. A chair was overturned.
She spotted the mug on the short table. Wet rings were forming on the mahogany wood. It was the final straw in an already wretched day - night - morning. Angry at Ephiny, Eponin, herself; Solari was already cursing as she snatched up the mug.
The pain was searing. She tried, but couldn't immediately turn the mug loose. She screamed. Fell to her knees; clutched at her wrist, protectively curled her fingers inward towards the palm of her hand.
She was still on her knees, rocking back and forth when the hide covering was torn down in the guards' haste. Swords drawn, they stumbled inside, eyes widening at what they found. The chief scout was on her knees in the center of the room, in obvious agony. The assistant healer was huddled in a ball on the floor between the end of the pallet and the wall; the girl was nearly completely naked and weeping hysterically. On the pallet, the weapons master was just beginning to stir. By the time she blinked both eyes open, the tips of two swords were biting into the flesh of her throat.
"Eponin. Is. No. Rapist."
The words were said with such deadly intent that Solari feared she would find Xena's chakram embedded in her throat.
"Xena, look, I wouldn't have thought Eponin capable of it, either. But, Hilaeira made a formal statement. She knew Eponin was staying at my hut. She came to check in on her, brought her a mug of warm broth. She said Ep was down, she stayed to cheer her up. When Eponin put the moves on her, Hilaeira tried to tell her she didn't like her that way. Ep didn't take 'no' for an answer."
"That's not something Eponin would do."
"Normally, no." Solari held up her hand, stilling the warrior princess' rising protest. "Xena, you haven't been around. You haven't seen Pony. She's been different since the challenge. Almost...vulnerable."
"Come on, Solari. You just described the Weapons Master to the Amazon Nation as vulnerable. Next, you'll be saying she's sensitive."
Solari shrugged. "I think Ep's been feeling her own mortality since the challenge. And, Hilaeira was obviously infatuated with her. Always bringing her tea. Looking at her. Staring at her. Flirting. Finding excuses to touch her. I think Eponin may have finally reciprocated. Once she did, Hilaeira's attraction for her dissipated. It's not right, her leading Ep on like that, but no still means no."
"I don't believe it." Xena shook her head. "The Eponin I know wouldn't take something that wasn't freely given."
"I wouldn't have either, if I hadn't been there." Solari reached out a hand, clasping the warrior's shoulder. "Xena, I know what I saw."
"You didn't see it. You weren't there when it happened."
"I also wasn't there when she locked Pelagia into a weapons box and left her to freeze to death while she escaped with a band of renegades. I just saw the aftereffects. Same as in my hut."
"Solari, I spoke with Egeria. She told me Eponin didn't leave with the renegades. Matter of fact, Egeria said you're the one that found her tracks. Going in the opposite direction." Xena folded her arms over her breastplate, gave Solari the look. "You know she's no traitor. So, what gives? What's your real issue with Eponin?"
"The mongrel doesn't stray far from the litter."
"I don't know what Iphinome meant, if that's what you're asking, Xena."
"I'm not buying it, Solari." Ice blue eyes bored holes into the scout. "I helped you track your missing regent, remember? You were at Eponin's throat, blaming her for Ephiny's abduction. Think you probably called her every name you could think of."
"I never called her that! I never would! She's my - " Solari's throat constricted around friend, refusing to allow her to voice the word.
Thoughts of Eponin swirled around in her brain. Friends. Were we ever really that to each other?
They'd been a lot of things to each other over the seasons. Childhood adversaries. Drinking buddies. Comrades-in-arms. Sparring partners. And, most recently, more than that. In the days since Cordele's challenge, they'd both been getting along. Much better than ever before. With Eponin's injuries, Solari saw a vulnerability that she'd never noticed before. And, much to her dismay, she'd found that she actually had a tender spot in her heart for the surly warrior.
Xena caught a flicker of something reflected in the chief scout's eyes. "Solari? I know you and Ep both have a thing for Eph. But...you and Eponin...aren't...are you?"
"What?!? Gods, no! I let her move in, but I swear, nothing happened." The look Xena gave her let Solari know the warrior thought she had once again protested much too quickly. "It's just we're...we were getting along. It was nice, her being there."
"No." Solari limped to the side of the road, leaned against a fencepost surrounding a farmer's field. She waited until Xena noticed she'd stopped walking and turned around, coming back to stand beside her. "You said Huh. What's that supposed to mean?"
"Look, Solari, I'm no Plato. The only philosophy I look for is at the end of a sharp sword. But, it seems to me that your - uh - " Blue eyes drifted low " - problem - isn't so much physical. Your issues with Eponin are what's preventing you from taking the edge off."
"No way, Xena. My problem started before Eponin's banishment."
Choosing one of the thickest branches, Solari straddled the limb, planting her tailfeathers firmly upon the rough bark, allowing her long legs to dangle off either side. A peek through the thick foliage revealed that Apollo's chariot was already beginning to rise into the sky.
She thought about the warrior she'd left slumbering in her bed. She could still feel the warmth of Eponin's body pressed snugly against the length of her backside, hear the soft snores in her ear and feel her breath cascading across her bare shoulder, feel every finger on that thick hand as it pressed between her legs, smell the heady scent of arousal in the air. Hers - as well as Eponin's.
It had taken everything Solari had to move that hand away and slip out of the shared bed. Even then, she'd turned and looked, staring for long heartbeats at the sleeping warrior. She'd reached out a trembling hand, stroking a sun-burnished cheek with the backs of her fingers. Eponin gave a moan and writhed in her sleep and Solari very nearly climbed back into that bed. Gods only knew how she found the strength to stumble from her hut and into the forest and up that tree.
Solari's center throbbed painfully. A hand cupped her breast, squeezing and fondling her erect nipple through her halter. Eyes half-lidded, she glanced down at the forest floor so many feet below, confident that the thickness of the branches and the bountiful leaves shielded her enough that she couldn't be seen by prying eyes.
Legs parted as her hand slipped beneath her leathers. A sharp gasp escaped as fingers slid into sopping wetness and unerringly found that hidden bundle of nerves.
Solari arched up into her palm, her entire body bowed up off the branch she was perched upon. Her wrist ached. Her teeth were gritted. Perspiration rolled off her brow. Almost - she increased the pressure as she struggled towards climax.
"I just don't feel right about this - "
The voice drifting up into her bower caused Solari's breath to immediately catch, her fingers to abruptly still. She listened as the sound of leaves crunching beneath boots on the forest path came closer. Bracing her back against the tree trunk, feeling the bark rake against her heated flesh, chest heaving, she prayed to Artemis that they would quickly move on.
Golden blonde hair came into view as an Amazon passed beneath her. She identified the sound of a leather gauntlet impatiently tapping against the trunk of a tree. Leaning over, she held her breath, realizing that they had stopped and were now standing directly beneath the tree she was sequestered in.
" - my bedmate is suspicious already - " protested the voice again. "I don't want her to suffer - " Solari recognized the high-pitched tone, could just make out the features of Hilaeira through the thick foliage.
"What about your sister?" asked the other Amazon that Solari couldn't see. "You never wanted to follow in your mother's footsteps - " Brow furrowing, Solari tried to place the other voice, but couldn't identify it. " - she allowed you to turn your back on tradition. Does walking your own path mean abandoning her now?"
"No. I owe her everything."
"Then, now is the time to pay her back."
At last, the sounds of the two Amazons walking on carried up to Solari's ears.
Solari tried again to stimulate herself. She was clearly aroused, but her release was elusive. Even her most erotic of fantasies wasn't enough to send her over the edge. All it did was increase the pressure she already felt. Firmly biting down on her leather gauntlet to muffle her cries, the chief scout screamed in frustration.
"Mm. Wonder what that was about." Solari's nonchalant shrug suggested it was nothing more than a lover's quarrel. Never mind. Amazons. "Anyway, my point is; you were already conflicted. You were starting to make changes in your life when Gabrielle and I were in the village last. Plus, you're unsure of your relationship with Ephiny."
"I'm not unsure, Xena. I couldn't be more sure. I want her."
Xena pointedly ignored Solari's comment. "You were experiencing new feelings for Eponin. Then, the belief that she betrayed you..."
"Not just me. The entire Amazon Nation. Eponin is - was - the first warrior for our whole tribe. For gods' sake, Xena, she was named as Artemis' champion. She held the respect, the adoration of our Goddess." And our Queen. "For her to just stomp on that and throw it away..."
"What if she didn't?"
"Something's not right." Xena cocked her head to the side. Eyes widened as ears picked up the thundering of hooves. "Riders. Coming fast."
Xena turned her back to Solari, placing herself between the injured scout and the open road. A hand hovered at her waist, fingertips brushing against the comforting metal of her chakram.
She inhaled deeply through her nose, exhaled through her mouth. Waited the span of four heartbeats.
Three riders appeared. Even cloaked from head to foot in heavy furs, Xena recognized them for what they were: Amazons. Specifically, three members from the band of renegades that had attacked Potadeia. All three rode with bows braced against their thighs, arrows nocked upon the strings.
They drew up short as Xena stepped into their path. In unison, they raised their bows. Xena's arm moved faster than the eye could follow. There was a whoosh! a split heartbeat before two of the bows snapped in two, their arrows falling harmlessly to the ground.
The third renegade raised her bow. Xena held up her hand, waiting for the return of her chakram. The arrow was released. Xena caught the chakram, balanced it, released it with another flick of her wrist.
Chakram and arrow missed by the barest of inches. The chakram sailed on, slicing through the renegade's bow. The arrow flew true; spiraling towards Xena's heart. Xena reached for her sword.
The arrow stopped just short of her breastplate. Xena looked down, seeing the shaft and fletching protruding from where it had caught the wood of Solari's staff.
"Thanks," Xena said, unsheathing her sword and giving it a one-handed twirl.
"No problem." Solari snapped the arrow off, flung it to the ground. Balancing her weight to take the pressure off her injured leg, she hoisted her staff into a defensive position.
The renegades threw their useless bows to the ground. Two of them dismounted, their horses immediately running off. The third remained mounted. All three drew large hunting knives from their waistbands.
Xena arched a brow in response, gave her sword another twirl. Her free hand reached into her bodice, removing her breast dagger.
"Two ways we can do this, ladies. The hard way or - " Xena dodged, feeling a thrown dagger whiz past her cheek. Blue eyes looked down as a lock of her raven tresses drifted towards the ground. "Now the only way is the hard way."
There was a flick of a wrist. A flash of metal. Then, the renegade that had thrown the knife at Xena was staring down at her own chest, at the dagger embedded to the hilt in her flesh. It was the last thing she saw before her lifeless body crumpled to the ground.
The mounted renegade kicked her horse's flank with her heel, spurring him into action. Brandishing her knife in one hand, clutching an arrow in the other, the second renegade gave a war whoop and charged them on foot.
Xena dropped her sword, grabbed Solari by the back of her halter. She performed a backwards somersault that had both warrior and scout flying through the air and coming down on the opposite side of the farmer's fence.
The renegade pulled on the reins. The horse whinnied, nostrils flaring, eyes wild as horse and rider narrowly avoided a collision with the fence.
Solari found herself on the ground, her staff beneath her, the warrior princess sprawled across her. The second renegade was rushing at them, maintaining her grip on her weapons as she ducked low beneath the fencing.
Xena's hand was at Solari's waist, sliding along warm flesh beneath the folds of the scout's cloak.
The renegade raised her knife into a throwing position. Xena's fingers closed about the hilt of Solari's belt dagger. She pulled the knife free, rolled off of Solari and flung the dagger all in one motion.
The renegade abruptly stopped as the dagger hit its mark, piercing her flesh and severing her heart. She tried to swallow, but blood bubbled between her lips. She was dead before she hit the ground.
The third renegade turned her horse around. She needed to finish this. She needed to avenge her sisters. Without ending up dead like them.
She reined in her horse, weighing her options. The warrior and scout were on the other side of the fence. Her mount could make the leap, but that would leave her vulnerable to a strike as they passed overhead. She hefted her knife, wondering if she could throw it with enough precision and force from this distance to strike true.
There was a whinny from another horse. She nudged hers, turning him so she could see. On the road behind her was another Amazon.
Xena and Solari saw her at the same time. Eponin. The former weapons master reined in as soon as she spotted the warrior princess and the scout. Her horse pranced as she reached for and drew her sword. Xena's fingers caressed the edge of her chakram.
The renegade looked from the mounted warrior to the two on the ground and back again. She had only her knife left against a sword, a staff and that round-killing thing. Her sisters lay dead in the dirt road. And, this fight wasn't the one she had come for.
"Yah!" she shouted, gripping the reins and kicking with both heels.
Xena's grip tightened, her arm flexed as she started to throw her chakram. Then, she looked towards Eponin, their eyes meeting, and she hesitated. By the time she broke the stare, the renegade was already out of range.
Eponin tore her gaze from Xena's. Amber eyes drifted towards Solari. The scout was sprawled on the ground, obviously wounded. Ep bit her lip. The instinct to go to the brunette's side was a strong one. Solari had been kind to her when she'd been injured. But that was before - Ep flashed on the image of Solari publicly stripping her of her honors.
Ep shook her head, banishing the painful memory. She gave a yell, spurred her horse, charging down the road after the fleeing Amazon.
Forearm braced across her thigh, Xena crouched down between the renegades, studying them. She supposed she should be glad that it was her and Solari that had intercepted them. If they'd gotten closer while the town's inhabitants were still abed, the outcome would have been disastrous.
But, a group of three wasn't enough for a raid, not even on a town as small as Potadeia. Their attack had served no purpose. Two dead, one on the run. Xena wished she had been able to get the pinch on at least one of them.
"Solari? Can you make it to the inn?"
Solari had been gathering their attackers' knives and arrows from the ground. She'd already stripped the quivers from both bodies and was in the process of hoisting them onto her shoulder to carry back. It was one of the first things an Amazon learned about battle; never leave behind a weapon that could be used against you later. At the sound of Xena's voice, she looked up. It took a heartbeat to process what Xena was asking. Finally, the scout nodded her head.
Xena came to Solari, placing her thumbs beneath the scout's eyes. Solari's pupils weren't anywhere near being the right size. And, she was clammy to the touch. But, she'd been coherent enough for their sensitive chat of earlier. Of course, the Satyr-cloves probably had a good deal to do with the loosening of Solari's tongue.
With the diminishing effects of the Satyr-cloves, the trek back to the town would be an increasingly difficult one for the scout. But, Xena thought Solari had the fortitude to make it to the inn. Besides, she didn't have time to waste.
Solari swayed on her feet.
"Listen to me." Xena clasped a firm hand on Solari's shoulder to ground her. "Tell the captain to pull her guards back to the inn."
"Xena, the perimeter guards are the town's first warning against a raid."
"Well, they obviously got past your warning system. Besides, it's not the town that's in danger." Xena kicked herself, thinking she should have realized it sooner. Such a small group. No heavy weaponry like swords or armor to slow them down. Bows and arrows; long-distance weapons. Knives; close quarters, good for stealthily slitting throats. "This wasn't any raid." A kick from the toe of Xena's boot had the closest renegade's body rolling over. "This was an assassination attempt."
A final search of the bodies yielded two more knives. Xena tucked both into her boots while Solari removed their bracers.
"Not that I'm against the idea, but we don't have time to strip them naked."
Solari gave Xena a startled look. Huh. Maybe there is something about us Amazons Xena doesn't know. Many in her tribe had long debated how it was that someone who vehemently denied being an Amazon knew so many of their ways. There had even been rumors that Gabrielle wasn't Xena's first Queen. But for Xena to not know the significance of - Solari glanced back at the bodies, wondering if she and Gabrielle often divested corpses of their clothing. "Um, their bracers are all I need."
"Good." Xena absently nodded, her mind already moving onto other matters. "Tell Devillare what's happened. And, I'm sure they won't like it, but tell Eph and Gabrielle that I said for them both to cooperate with the guards and stay put. I don't want either of them stepping foot outside that inn until I get back."
"Xena, Gabrielle's gonna ask."
There was a deep breath, a flaring of nostrils. "If she does, tell her I'm going after Eponin."
"It takes an Amazon to track an Amazon."
"Xena may not be a true Amazon, but she tracks nearly as well as the chief scout."
"Nearly being the key word. Xena won't be able to track us. And Solari can't. Gryta made certain of that."
Cordele looked to Gryta as she said it, the two of them openly laughing. Cordele's laughter faded as she grimaced and placed a hand to the bandage about her throat. It was a grim reminder to the hunter that she hadn't fared as well as desired in the battle.
"Don't be cocky. The warrior princess is nothing if not resourceful," said their cloaked and hooded leader.
Cordele's jaw tightened. Gryta caught the change in Cordele's mood, swiftly moved away. The former guardswoman joined the renegade currently crouched by the fire circle. The woman had ridden in like Hades himself was after her, telling of the deaths of her two companions and of her own narrow escape. Even now, she was still visibly shaken.
Their leader had arrived sometime in the interim between when the trio had ridden out and the lone survivor had made it back. She'd ordered them to stay put, lay low and rest and heal until she decided their next move. Upon arriving at the camp, she hadn't realized that any of their number was missing. But now that she knew they were....as well as the reason, it was clear she was not pleased.
"That was reckless, sending in such a small group and so soon after the battle."
"To do nothing is even more reckless. A stealth attack is something they wouldn't expect," Cordele said. "It was only dumb luck that they encountered Xena on the road into town."
"There is no honor in killing our enemies in their sleep."
"Don't speak to me of honor. It's a hollow word that has no value." Cordele spat upon the ground. "Honor means nothing to me."
A resonating backhanded slap echoed like thunder.
"It means everything to me," the leader's words were spoken through gritted teeth and her voice was low and deadly. "Family, honor, tradition. Values that were made abundantly clear to all."
A hand went to Cordele's cheek, covering the stinging flesh. The sting, she knew, was more the result of the shame than the actual slap. Eyes frantically darted about the camp, noting who had seen. Anyone that had been openly looking quickly averted their gaze.
"What about those villages, those towns that we razed to the ground? Your orders were to Kill them all. Was there honor in that?" Her leader's eyes darkened. Thinking she saw a hint of regret, a possible weakness, Cordele maliciously poured salt in the wound. "What good were those values to them?"
"Amazon values for Amazons. Not the worthless treaty breakers and stealers of land."
In truth, the slaughter of men, their breeders, their offspring didn't weigh heavily on Cordele's mind. What bothered her was that it didn't matter how much land they liberated if there wasn't a Queen willing to expand their borders and lay claim to the territory.
That, in part, was the reason she agreed to follow this woman and call her leader. She had a vision to restore the Amazon Nation to glory. Too long they had been weakened by those that would make peace with the enemy, sign treaties, allow impure outsiders to receive the caste. With her dying breath, Terreis had grievously wounded the entire nation. Gabrielle's death would go a long way to restoring their strength.
Strength. At one time, was it only as recent as this past summer season?, Cordele had possessed such strength. She had taken pride in herself, her abilities, her heritage. She had been the lead hunter, her skill with the bow unparalleled. Many a woman desired her. Many more envied her. She basked equally in the looks from both as she would walk through the main village after a hunt, head held high, a fallen deer draped about both shoulders. She would carry her prize to the kitchens, where Mytilda would carve and cure the meat, separating the choice cuts. Cordele would accept her bounty of antlers and hide as was her right as lead hunter. Then, she would claim the rest of her bounty; some willing tribeswoman that she would take to her warm hut and even warmer bed.
Then, she'd held a position of power in the village.
Now...she was hiding hiding! - on the outskirts of a valley bordering backwater Potadeia. Gone was her insulated hut, her spacious bed, her warm hearth. Replaced by a canopy of trees and only a cloak to ward off the rain that had replaced the snowfall of earlier. The fires burned low due both to the elements and to ward off discovery. Low fires meant poor meals. Most of their numbers were hunters; they could find the game. No matter how long it cooked, though, it all tasted half-raw. Words of family, honor and tradition did nothing to quench the ache in her belly.
"Keep your values. They've done nothing for me."
"Except save you from a lifetime of labor in prison. Except to place you in this position." The leader met Cordele's stony gaze. "Your sister took great risk to give you this chance. Would you make her risk meaningless?"
Cordele's eyes narrowed as she surveyed the campsite. Keleos was on her side on her bedroll, legs curled up, knees touching her chest, her arms crossed. A heavy bandage was about her hand, soiled with the blood from her missing digit. More profound than the loss of her finger, though, was the loss of her bondmate. Kynthia had fallen on the regent's sword in battle and Keleos' eyes had been vacant ever since. Gryta was walking bowlegged, thanks to a slice to her inner and upper thigh by the chief scout. And, as for her own wounds? Every movement, every spoken word, every swallow was a reminder to Cordele of her slit throat, also courtesy of the regent. In addition to Kynthia, five more of their sisters had died in battle. Add to that the two from their most recent failed attempt.
Somehow, Cordele highly suspected that this was not the chance her sister had envisioned her having.
And, speaking of risks....
"You take none, do you? Like now. If we're discovered, it's on us. Like during the battle. I saw you, safely tucked out of sight. Never in any real danger. You take none of the risk, do you?"
A hand shot out from beneath a cloak and closed about Cordele's throat. "I take all the risk. Who saw you freed from that prison wagon? Who gave you horses and weapons? Who brought you supplies from the healer's kit to stitch your wounds closed? Who is it that stands between Xena and you now? Xena's no fool. No doubt, she's already wondering how your group got past the perimeter guards." Her hand reached Cordele's waist, none-too-gently yanking the hunter's knife from her braided belt. A finger tested the sharpness of the blade. "I need to get back before she realizes I'm gone. No one - " she stressed " - no one makes another move without my word. Understand?" When Cordele's answer didn't come quickly enough, the blade flashed, nicking at the bit of exposed flesh between her chin and the top of the bandage. "Under...stand...?"
Cordele nodded and the blade was instantly removed. Temper boiling, the renegade hunter glared imaginary daggers at their self-appointed leader as she turned her back and walked away. She mounted and took up her reins. A final glare passed between them as she spurred her horse towards Potadeia.
Cordele's lips curled into a snarl. How dare she speak to me like that? How dare she treat me that way in front of others? At one time, I was to rule the Nation. Cordele stalked to her bedroll, picked up her bow and one arrow from her quiver. Eyes never straying from their so-called leader's back, she nocked her arrow. I will not be spoken to in such a manner.
The bow was raised, the string drawn back, thumb grazing her cheek as she found her anchor position. Their leader was cresting the ridge, passing between two large shade trees. I will not be treated in such a manner.
Fingertips slipped from the bowstring. The arrow flew straight, the fletching flying true. Horse and rider picked their way down the hill, disappearing from view a heartbeat before the arrow embedded itself past the steel point in the heart of the nearest tree.
Cordele lowered her bow, her knuckles stark white as she clenched at the grip. She saw Gryta approaching, no doubt with words of consolation on her lips. A low warning growl soon convinced the guardswoman that her comfort was neither necessary nor desired.
Darius used the bar rag to wipe out the mugs by rote. It was mindless work, one of the many mundane tasks that he performed daily. Usually, at this time of the morning, he was alone with only his thoughts for company. After all, other folks had a living to make, too. And, Potadeia certainly wasn't any sort of place that regularly saw travelers. No, most of Darius' patrons were simple farm folk that might come in to slake their thirst after a hard day in the field.
That's why it was such a novelty for him to come in from the bedroom behind the kitchen to find two customers seated at a table. He'd immediately roused his wife and set her to work making porridge while he built up the fire in the hearth. Thankfully, the snow had stopped. But, the rains had started again and a persistent chill hung in the air. It wasn't until the room was warmer and the women removed their cloaks that Darius recognized the captain of the guard...and Gabrielle.
He'd finally stopped thinking of Gabrielle as Herodotus' little girl. Especially after he'd seen her in that outfit. Then, he'd seen the way the other deferred to her and it suddenly struck him that the rumors circulating around the bar last evening were true.
He was uncharacteristically nervous as he brought their breakfast, two bowls of porridge and two mugs of cider, to their table. So nervous that he dropped one of the bowls, spilling porridge onto Gabrielle's forearm.
Thankfully, the porridge had cooled some and hadn't scalded the girl. Queen, Darius amended. He tried to stammer out an apology. The stony-faced warrior seated across from Gabrielle...Devillare, that was her name, offered him a glare. And a growl. Gabrielle called her off with a well-placed hand atop hers and soft words. To Darius, she offered a smile. She wiped the porridge off her arm, back into the bowl, then licked the remnants from her fingers.
After one taste, Gabrielle's smile widened. She told Darius to ask his wife to make a second pot; that the rest of her sisters were certain to want something hearty to warm their bones. Then, she reached into a bag tied about her belt and extracted three dinars as payment in advance.
Gods, I love Amazons, Darius thought, already adding up his profits in his mind. With the number of them that was staying at his inn, if they all ate at least two meals a day, plus drinks....he nearly ran back to the kitchen to throw another pot on the stove himself.
Now that the excitement had worn off a bit...and there was plenty of porridge heating on the fire...Darius was back to his normal, daily routine. With the exception of surreptitiously watching Gabrielle and her breakfast companion. They'd eaten their first bowl and were both on their second. Mugs of cider, too. But, whereas they'd hurriedly downed the first round, they were taking their time now. Now, they weren't eating to satisfy hunger or slake their thirst. Now, they were lingering over conversation. The big one, Darius couldn't read her expression. But, if Gabrielle's was any indication, then it was a very serious conversation, indeed.
"I saw your reaction. As soon as the word mongrel left Iphinome's lips, your fist clenched. The healer's assistant should count herself lucky that she was only pushed into that trough."
Steel grey eyes blinked. It had happened so fast, she didn't think anyone had seen that heartbeat in which she'd very nearly pummeled the girl. It seemed nothing escaped her little queen's notice, though. Perhaps it was because a traveling bard's craft required such an eye for detail.
She is full of surprises, Devillare thought. Many had wondered what Terreis had seen in Gabrielle that with her dying breath, she bequeathed the innocent peasant girl her right of caste. Melosa's one-time captain of the guard had seen it, too; that very first time she'd appeared before the Council of Elders. There was a presence about her, like she had wisdom beyond her years. Gabrielle was no mere innocent peasant girl.
"A misunderstanding on my part. Nothing of import. It won't happen again."
"I'm no fool, Devillare. I think of all of us, only you understood the full meaning behind Iphinome's cryptic words." Gabrielle reached out, clasping one of Devillare's hands within her own. "Eponin's my friend and I love her. You owe me an explanation. As your Queen, I demand the truth."
Devillare drained her mug dry, slammed it down on the table. Leaning forward in her chair, folding her arms on the tabletop, she looked Gabrielle squarely in the eye. "Then, as my Queen, you shall have it."
Two large Amazon warhorses broke through the underbrush on the edge of the forest. They charged through the open field, hooves kicking up large clumps of grass as they maintained a frenzied pace. They crested a hilltop. Both riders pulled tightly on the reins, pulling their mares up short.
Energy fairly crackled off the Amazons as they sat proudly in their saddles. The horses seemed to sense the spark of lightning between them, pranced anxiously in reaction. They held their mounts securely, refusing to give them free rein. Horses and riders both breathed heavily.
Devillare swallowed harshly, struggling to keep her heart rate under control. Perspiration dripped from her thick mane of ebony hair, getting into and stinging her eyes. She hefted her water skin, drinking heavily, letting the water run out of her mouth and down her chin and throat, soaking her halter. A mixture of water and sweat rolled down her chiseled abdomen, soaking into the blue sash tied about her waist.
With an audible sucking sound, Devillare pulled the skin from her lips. Replacing the cork, she tossed the skin to her companion.
"How far ahead do you think they are?"
"She travels with a full complement of guards. As well as young Melosa. Traveling with a toddler will slow anyone down. Even our Queen." There was a wicked grin as Captain Beroyle looked to her second. "And, we fairly blazed a path through the forest. I would estimate we've cut their lead to a candlemark. At most."
Devillare nodded. She had guessed very nearly that, also. A candlemark distant wasn't all that far. Not by horse. But, in the sweltering heat of the summer sun, it seemed like the distance of a thousand leagues.
The Queen and her royal guard were en route to the nearby Centaur colony. Their purpose, an invitation from the Centaur King to celebrate the birth of their new prince and to negotiate terms for a firm boundary between their two peoples. In a shrewd diplomatic maneuver, Reyvanne seized the opportunity to bring young princess Melosa along as a means of emphasizing the similarity of belief in family values strongly held by both Centaurs and Amazons.
The wind shifted, carrying something odd on the breeze. Something oddly familiar and yet completely unsettling at the same time. Both women looked towards the gathering clouds.
"I have a bad feeling in my gut," Devillare said. "I do not like my Queen being so far from the protection of my sword."
"Agreed. Something isn't right." Beroyle tapped her horse's flank. "Yah! Let's ride!"
If they'd ridden hard and fast before, it was as nothing compared to the speed they had now. They crested hill after hill, racing towards the ominous storm clouds looming on the horizon.
They came over the final hill, never pausing in their charge even as their eyes took in the heart-rending sight in the valley below.
The Queen's wagon was splayed out on its side across the road. Princess Melosa sat on the ground nearby. Her face was bruised and battered, tears streaming down her cheeks as she clutched her cloth doll in one chubby fist and used the other to hit at the shoulder of a guard. The guard was face-down, her body crushed beneath a wheel. The repeated screams of "Mama! Mama!" issued forth from Melosa's mouth.
The lifeless body of another guard lay in the center of the road on the opposite side of the wagon. It appeared as if she'd been thrown from the seat when the wagon overturned. Sitting along the side of the road, lengths of chain shackling them together at wrists and ankles were the remaining guards. Men, slavers from the looks of them, were milling about, laughing at the Amazons, kicking at them with their boots, poking at them with their swords. The Queen was nowhere to be seen.
There was a bloodcurdling yell, a blinding rage, a red haze. Then, the men in the road were dead. Beroyle cut the ring of keys from around the wrist of one of the slavers, tossed it to one of her sisters who immediately set about freeing herself and the others.
There was shouting and cursing and more men came running from behind the wagon. Devillare and Beroyle were on foot, running and swinging their swords, blades cutting through flesh, muscle and bone as if they were nothing more substantial than soft butter.
They fought their way to the back of the wagon. The steady stream of attacking slavers abruptly ended when the final one ducked beneath the draped covering and found himself impaled on Beroyle's sword.
Devillare pushed past Beroyle, taking the lead. The covering kept hitting her about the face and shoulders and she reached a bare hand up, grasping and ripping down the offending cloth. A break in the cloud cover allowed the summer sun to pour in, casting light upon the dim interior.
Trunks with clothing and scrolls, necessities needed for their intended three day stay amongst the Centaurs had been overturned and now lay crushed up against one side of the wagon. Devillare pushed and kicked debris out of her path, Beroyle right behind her. Devil stumbled over a small trunk, one designed to specifically carry the belongings of the princess. Devillare cursed her size and clumsiness, fought to right herself. As she did, she saw her queen.
Reyvanne was sitting on the side - now the floor - of the wagon. Her face was bruised, her lip split open and bleeding. Her hair was in tangled disarray about her face and shoulders. In her arms, she cradled the battered body of one of her guards.
Her clothes had been torn away, leaving her naked, her body clearly showing signs of physical and sexual abuse. The woman's face was a broken and bloody mess, one brown eye completely swollen shut, the other barely visible through a thin slit. Blood ran from her nose and mouth. Atop her head, she wore the Queen's gold and silver banded crown.
"They - they came for the Amazon Queen," Reyvanne's voice trembled, her entire body shook from the effort it took to speak the words. "To shield me from danger, Valeria took my place."
Gods, can it get any worse?
Solari felt the water crest the top of her boots and slosh between her toes as her foot dragged through yet another puddle.
It seemed like the rain had started as soon as Xena left. It wasn't bad. At first. Truth be told, Solari had been feeling uncomfortably warm, despite the cooler temperatures of the winter morn. As the first drops fell, she'd even turned her face to the heavens, allowing the drizzle to wash the perspiration from her face and cool her flesh.
Her appreciation soured quickly as the rain changed from a drizzle to a deluge. The dirt path became a mud quagmire that seemingly sucked at her boots with every step. And, each step was more torturous than the last. The Satyr-cloves were fading fast. And, with them, Solari's imperviousness to pain.
The rain weighed her cloak down, making it a burden on her already slumped shoulders. The mud pulled at her staff, requiring increasingly more and more effort to pull it free. Her boots, her legs were heavy. There was a pain that started in her foot and shot all the way up to her hip.
Solari dug deep, determined to keep pushing. She needed to reach the inn. Gabrielle. And Ephiny. Her Ephiny. She would push past the pain. For Ephiny. The way she had during the battle.
Solari's words to Xena had been true. She didn't want to be a cripple. But, she knew that sword thrust from Gryta could have very easily done that to her. Or worse. If Gryta hadn't been so intent on toying with her, prolonging her suffering, it might have. It still could, if the injury didn't properly heal..
She knew the wound was severe. Severe enough that she shouldn't have been able to stand on her own two feet, let alone hobble the distance she had to reach Ephiny. She had, though. Deep in her heart, Solari knew that she would have crawled on her belly to reach her packmate. That distance was as nothing compared to what she commanded her body do now.
Can't believe I made it so far from the inn on my own, thought Solari. Not on my own. Satyr-cloves. Iphinome must be using the good shit for me to have gotten such a hit off that dose.
Solari had always been somewhat of a free spirit. Especially in her youth. She'd experimented with Satyr-cloves before and knew the side-effects. Still can't believe I made it this far under just the power of Satyr-cloves. An image of her ill-fated fantasy in the woods reminded her it wasn't solely the herb that had motivated her. A good dose of lust goes a long way, too.
Her knees buckled. She stumbled, crumpled to the ground. The chief scout was on her knees in a puddle, cheek braced against her staff; the only thing keeping her upright. She tried to rise and failed. She clasped a hand to the back of her thigh. She held her hand before her face, watching as the rain washed the mud and blood from her palm. Solari screamed at Zeus, at Artemis, at any deity that might listen.
Pride overrode pain. Gripping the staff, digging deep, screaming from the effort it took, Solari pulled herself to her feet. She took one step. Another. Yet another. Solari prayed there was enough residual Satyr-cloves in her system to see her through. Just until she reached her Queens. Then, if it be Artemis' will, she would surrender her leg.
"Did she live?" Even as Gabrielle asked, she couldn't help feeling guilty over being enthralled by Devillare's tale.
"She did. Although, from the sound of the screams coming from the hospice, I'm certain she often wished she had truly died in the back of that wagon."
"But, where there's life, there's hope."
"Fine words for a philosophical debate," Devillare said, "Much harder to believe when it's your life that's been shattered."
"You may go in."
The red-head turned from the doorframe. "What?"
"You are her bondmate." Megara offered a soft smile. "It is permitted, if you wish to be by her side."
Bright green eyes darted from the face of the kindly assistant healer back to the examination room. Valeria sat upon the wooden exam table, legs dangling, the toes of her bare feet barely scuffing the hard-packed dirt floor. Her arms were ridged, her fingers clasped firmly about the edge of the table. Her jaw was so tightly set that it was possible to clearly see the outline of bone.
"No." Laurentia's words were soft-spoken, but firm. "No offense, but Valeria detests what she terms the poking, prodding fingers of healers. It would embarrass her too greatly to know of my presence."
"Then," Megara said, wrapping an arm about the dancer's trim waist, "We will support her from here."
Inside the examination room, Valeria tilted her head back, staring at the ceiling, as if praying to Artemis that this torture would soon be over. Weathered, calloused palms were on her legs, removing the braces. Then the healer was running her hands over both legs, from knees to ankles, mmm-hmming and uh-huhing the way healers do when they press and poke and prod at still-healing flesh.
"She's very brave, your warrior." Megara spoke without taking her eyes from the exam. "They say not once did she give them the satisfaction of screaming out."
"Yes, she's very brave."
Laurentia forced a smile. If Megara had been looking, though, she would have seen that it never reached Laurentia's eyes.
Upon her return to the Nation, Valeria had been hailed as a hero. Even as she lay upon what many believed would be her death bed.
After the first moon had passed and she was finally able to sit up in bed and eat solid foods again, the Queen and her highest officers visited, reciting words of praise and decorating Valeria's mask with many feathers for bravery and merit.
The passing of the second moon found Valeria able to stand upon her shattered legs with the help of braces fashioned by the blacksmith. The metal was fastened to the bruised flesh of her legs by quarter inch pegs. Dried blood was still visible around the pegs, each one driven home by the blacksmith's hammer, even as Valeria accepted the accolades bestowed upon her at the feast held in her honor.
They all raised their mugs to her. They slapped her on the back and offered easy smiles. They all marveled at her eagerness to return to duty, even if it was to be a light duty to accommodate her still healing injuries.
Brave. Courageous. Valeria was such a....warrior.
Only Laurentia saw the truth carefully hidden beneath the warrior's mask. At night, in the privacy of their own hut, Valeria's nightmares would awaken her every night. Every night, Laurentia would stumble from her own bed in the adjacent room and come to stand at the doorway to keep watch; to keep the demons of the night at bay.
Sometimes, Valeria would stir, open her eyes, lift her head to look at Laurentia. A hand would motion, summoning her, pleading with her bondmate to come near.
With all the grace bestowed upon a dancer, Laurentia inexplicably found her feet rooted to the spot every single time. Even as she commanded her body move, it refused to enter that room.
She couldn't. She tried. Gods, how she had tried. She'd tried to hold Valeria, to comfort her, to let her know that all was as it was before that day. But, no matter how desperately she tried, she couldn't make herself maintain the embrace. Worse, she couldn't allow Valeria's touch without first flinching away from the contact.
Like now. Megara had offered to allow her into the room. In truth, Valeria would probably appreciate her presence, knowing that her bondmate had come to offer her support. But, Laurentia couldn't. The best she could do was bear silent witness from a distance.
The healer replaced the last brace, tightened the last peg into place. True to her brave heart, Valeria barely even offered up a wince. Calandra checked Valeria's head, examining the stitches in her skull. Held her chin up as she looked deep into her eyes.
Laurentia could see their lips moving, imagined Calandra was asking questions about the clarity of Valeria's vision. It was often a question healers asked after any kind of injury to the head. She saw Valeria's head nod, imagined her response was a typical warrior 'I'm fine' answer.
She frowned as Valeria's fingers touched her midriff. The healer's hands followed. Laurentia thought perhaps a stomach illness. As of late, Valeria hadn't been able to keep down her drink. And, her bowels had taken to running off.
Calandra assisted Valeria in reclining back on the table. Her hands worked over Valeria's abdomen, loosening the royal blue sash tied about her waist. She plied open the front of Valeria's leathers, cupping her hands about her lower belly.
The room was spinning. Laurentia's fingers clutched at the doorframe for support. Her knees buckled and she collapsed. The last thing she saw was Megara reaching to catch her.
"Oh, Gods," Gabrielle could scarcely form the words, "Valeria was with child."
Devillare wordlessly nodded.
"Wait. I know you were at the sight of the attack. But, you weren't at the hospice. How do you know that's what happened?"
"Sources through the seasons have provided bits and pieces to the puzzle. That last, as with most of what unfolded in the hospice, was provided by Megara's own wine-soaked lips." There was a grim set to Devillare's features as she made a firm demand of her queen. "And, I would ask that it's never to be spoken of again."
"I'm a bard, Devillare. But, trust me when I say none shall ever hear of this from my lips. Continue with your tale."
"The healers tell me that bone is mending."
"Yes, my Queen."
Devillare stood at attention and watched from her position behind and to the left of the Queen's throne, Beroyle from her right. Reyvanne had been holding audience all morn, listening as those of her people with grievances or petitions approached her throne. The line had been short, the procession had moved speedily, until there were but a handful of those left in attendance.
Among them, the young hero, Valeria. Devillare frowned. Reyvanne had made no mention of bestowing yet more honors upon the guard. Not that she didn't deserve them. Without a doubt, Valeria had been brave of deed and suffered greatly for it. But, her actions were no more than what Devillare would expect from any tasked with the duty and privilege of serving the Amazon Queen.
"Would that flesh would also so readily mend."
Valeria looked as though she'd been slapped. "My - Queen?"
"The healer tells me you yet refuse treatment. You are not so far along that the barrenroot would not take."
Valeria's ears caught the whispered murmurs from those few remaining in attendance. Her hand instinctively went to her stomach. She wasn't so large yet that she was obvious. But, with the Queen's acknowledgement, it would not be long before the entire village became aware. Including Valeria's bondmate.
"I - I've felt the stirrings of life within me."
"Although an unconventional practice, it is a thing not completely unheard of. Especially given the circumstances. As Queen, I grant my blessing to partake of the barrenroot."
"Begging my Queen's pardon, but I would ask for a blessing of a different sort."
"Valeria, you are being hailed as a hero, the protector of the Amazon Queen." Reyvanne smiled. "Put voice to your desire and see it fulfilled."
Valeria hesitated. Surely Queen Reyvanne thought she meant to ask for promotion, or a faster horse, perhaps a larger hut. She wondered if what she really desired would be met with such warm regard. Despite the awkwardness Valeria felt about expressing such an intimate desire, especially in a public forum, her voice softened with the request.
"I petition the Queen to allow my baby to live."
Queen Reyvanne silenced the murmured gasps with a single swipe of her hand. She sat forward on her throne, leaning towards Valeria, staring her young guard in the eye.
"Have you given thought to this?" she asked. "Given what occurred, what you endured, is this what you truly desire?"
"I have endured much." Valeria maintained her queen's gaze. "I would see a daughter as reward for my suffering."
Reyvanne cocked her head to the side, the way she did whenever she considered anything of importance at length. "Very well." She gave a curt nod. "But, know this, Valeria. If the child is a boy, he will be put to death."
"When Valeria petitioned Queen Reyvanne, she thought Laurentia was unaware of the pregnancy?" asked Gabrielle. "Laurentia never told Valeria that she was there that day?"
"Apparently not. Valeria and I spoke of it. She thought no one save herself and the head healer knew. Until the very heartbeat that the Queen herself spoke of it, Valeria hadn't even considered that Calandra would tell Reyvanne." Devillare shook her head, a semi-wistful smile caressing her lips. "Ah, the naïveté of youth. Even as Valeria conversed of such things with me, she never once stopped to think about how it was that I already had a modified duty schedule to accommodate her carrying to term. With her injuries, though, she was already on light duty. So, not much had to change."
"With all due respect, Devillare, it seems as if everything in Valeria's life was changing."
"I suppose you are correct," Devillare acquiesced. "And, not everyone welcomed the change. Valeria confided to me that Laurentia was fit to be tied."
"How dare you?!" The slap echoed throughout the interior of their tiny hut. "How could you do this to me?"
"Laurentia," Valeria's palm worked to soothe the sting from her cheek. "I was going to tell you."
"When? When you could no longer cover it - " Laurentia pointed an accusing finger at Valeria's belly " - with the continued loosening of your sash?"
"No." Valeria came to Laurentia, took both her hands in her own. "When the time was right. I swear to Artemis, I was going to tell you."
"You should have told me first. As your bondmate, it was my right. We could have taken care of it together. Discreetly. No one need ever know. Instead, you've made a laughing stock of me. How can I show my face at the dance circle with everyone whispering behind my back? I was to become lead dancer this season. Do you think that will happen now?"
"Of course it will, my love. If not this season, then next." Valeria raised Laurentia's hands, brushed her lips across her knuckles. "Allow another the position this season, my love. For now, let's concentrate on building our family." Valeria brought their hands to her stomach, placed Laurentia's palm flat against her belly.
Laurentia jerked her hand away. "You aren't keeping it."
"Yes. You heard; I petitioned the Queen. She said yes."
"No." Laurentia's eyes were full of pleading. "We'll have one of our own. Please, Valeria, let this one go."
"When, Laurentia, when? Three winters ago, I asked you for a child. You've always placed your dancing before my desires."
Laurentia's eyes flashed. "Dancing is my purpose, just as guarding the Queen is yours." She saw the hardening look in her bondmate's eyes, amended her answer. "I'll withdraw my name for the season. Next season, too, if need be. I'll speak with the healer; ask her to add my name to the mating lists. Please, Val, I promise. I'll give you the family you want."
"Laurentia, you must know, I've prayed for that for so long." Valeria was torn. She longed to believe Laurentia. But, she couldn't give up what she already had in fervent hope that she might be given what she always longed for. "The Goddess Artemis gave this as answer." Valeria's hand lovingly caressed her stomach. "I will not refuse my goddess Her gift."
"Blessed Artemis, guide me, give me the wisdom to know what is right and the strength to see it done."
It was a prayer that Ephiny's mother had taught her as a child. Then, it was just yet another prayer in a long tradition of prayers. As the seasons passed, though, Ephiny found more and more understanding in its meaning. Standing against Melosa, telling Gabrielle to choose her weapon or choose her champion...she had never dreamed that doing what was right would mean defying her Queen. Refusing Velasca, urging Gabrielle to take the Queen's mask without the support of the then-dead Xena...it took great courage to do the right thing. Then, when Gabrielle had seemingly abandoned them, riding off on Xena's casket with the King of Thieves...Velasca had seized the opportunity, demanded Ephiny take a squad and hunt her down and kill her. Standing against Velasca then, with only the support of the ever-loyal Solari and her royal guard, Lexine...doing the right thing then was nothing short of terrifying.
Those defining moments; they were as nothing compared to what it had cost her when she'd been forced to exile Eponin.
Gods, she was my weapons master. Ephiny turned beseeching eyes out the window of the room she was staying in, her gaze turned towards the very heavens as she beseeched her goddess. Blessed Artemis, she was Your champion!
Ephiny stared at her reflection in the window, not really seeing the rain running in rivulets down the pane. The sky rumbled, the rain fell heavier, the dismal weather matching the regent's mood perfectly.
Governing the execution of Eponin's sentence had been very much akin to asking Ephiny to sever her own right arm with a dull blade.
No one, including herself, had truly appreciated what the weapons master brought to her position. After the injuries suffered in the challenge, her training classes had been distributed between Egeria and Devillare. With Devillare's illness, those responsibilities had been shifted to another trusted member of Eponin's elite squad.
Those earlier shifts had helped to somewhat ease the transition. Devillare had trained Eponin. Eponin had in turn trained Egeria and her squad. But, something was...different. Ephiny could sense a palpable change, even without stepping foot out onto the practice fields.
It was because Eponin was the weapons master. True, it was a position, a rank she held; her job. Anyone could be trained to do a job. No single Amazon was irreplaceable. Not even a queen. Gods, How many of those have I seen in my lifetime?
A warrior was replaceable. A queen was replaceable. A weapons master was also replaceable.
In theory. Only, to Ephiny, that theory didn't apply to Eponin. Pony wasn't just another nameless, faceless Amazon that looked good in a set of leathers and carried a big stick. True, someone else may be able to take her job, but no one else could do it the way that she had.
Gods, Pony. Ephiny had taken for granted that Eponin would always be the weapons master. That she would always be there. Strong and indestructible, like the great oak tree upon the cliff overlooking the ocean at their coastline. It grew perilously close to the edge. So close that if you were to stand near the edge and lean out, you could see some of its roots growing through the soil and rock, creeping towards midair. But, the roots running around and beneath the main trunk of the tree were thick and solid. That tree would not fall. Ephiny would stake her crown on it.
I thought the same of Eponin. Ephiny pulled off her crown, strands of her tangled hair getting caught in the braiding as she yanked it free. She held it in her hand, fingers worrying the braiding as she stared at the center medallion. The crossed arrows represented the legendary golden arrows of Artemis, patron goddess of the hunt and the Amazons. The portrayal of them in the regent's crown signified her loyalty, duty and responsibility to both her goddess and her people.
The medallion in her crown had been fashioned by the most talented blacksmith in the nation. Thoughts went back to the white birch staff safely tucked away in the regent's office at the village. It bore the exact same crossed arrow design as her crown; painstakingly crafted by the talented hands of the weapons master.
Did Eponin ever truly know how much that gift meant to me? Ephiny knew how rare white birch was. And how rarer still it was to find a piece suitable enough to be carved into anything of significance. Most pieces were too short, too curved, too covered in knotholes or knicks, or just too brittle to work with. Eponin would have had to spent moons just curing the birch. She could only imagine the candlemarks of work that went into shaping the temperamental wood. Then, she'd taken time to carve designs into the wood above and below the grip.
The clincher, though; the thing that had made Ephiny's heart seize in her chest was that Eponin had weaved the material of her cloak into the final work. It had been the last gift she'd ever received from her mother. It'd been ruined beyond repair, another casualty of her kidnapping. Queen Gabrielle had ordered it destroyed; for Eponin to take care of it. Pony had stretched the meaning of Gabrielle's words to their limit. Instead of burning the cloak, she'd salvaged what she could and created a sapphire braid complimented with feathers to adorn the staff.
Did I ever tell her? Ephiny remembered being so overcome with emotion that it had taken all her strength to just place a trembling hand atop Eponin's on the staff. She'd thought that simple gesture had conveyed just how much it had meant to her. But, did she really know? Eponin had just stood there, staring at her, not saying anything.
Again, an image of that great oak flashed before Ephiny's eyes. Then, Eponin standing beneath it, looking perfectly at ease, the fingers of one hand resting on the leather of her belt. For Ephiny, the comparison between the tree and the woman was an easy one to make.
Like the great oak, Eponin had withstood the test of time. She'd been on the front line in countless battles. She'd faced down Centaurs, Athenians, Spartans, Gauls and Romans. Two winters ago, Xena had been out of her mind with fever. In her delirium, she had thought Gabrielle was her sworn enemy, Callisto. Eponin had gone toe to toe with the warrior princess to protect her queen. She'd come back from being half dead to beat Cordele in that last challenge. She'd endured it all and never fallen. For her to be toppled by a charge of rape from some twiggy, little Amazonette assistant healer that barely had enough assets to fill out a halter...
Ephiny clenched her fist so tightly about her crown that she felt metal digging into the flesh of her palm. She squeezed even harder. When she couldn't squeeze any harder for any longer, she let out an animalistic growl. Slowly, she opened her hand and looked down. A deep angry indention in her flesh surrounded the metal center of her crown. The medallion lay face up, the emblem of Artemis clearly visible. Ephiny stared at the crossed arrows, imagining she heard her Goddess' voice whispering in her ear. Loyalty, responsibility, duty, my regent.
Loyalty to the Amazon Nation demanded she see that justice was done. It was her responsibility to ensure the sentence laid out by the council was carried out. Her duty to do what was right had cost her dearly. More than anyone else would ever suspect.
She'd stood there on the dais, overseeing the proceedings, her regent's mask carefully intact. On the outside, she was the living, breathing epitome of duty. Beneath the surface, beneath her mask, she was certain that she was bleeding uncontrollably from a mortal wound she could never hope to fully recover from.
As Eponin had finally been led away, chained inside the back of the wagon, Ephiny was seized by an overwhelming sense of vertigo. Her entire world was spinning and even though she was standing perfectly still, she felt as if she were falling into a giant chasm.
It was only Solari that kept her grounded. She was aware of her packmate's presence at the edges of her peripheral vision. She only vaguely remembered Solari taking her by the arm, guiding her, leading her home, putting her to bed.
Solari's home, Solari's bed. Ephiny was okay with that. The surroundings were at once familiar and comfortable. Much more so than her own hut. She still wasn't at ease in her own home. Not since - no, here she could let her guard down, knowing she was safe beneath Solari's ever watchful eye.
She had worried that she'd hurt Solari. She was afraid she'd irreparably damaged their relationship by rejecting Solari's advances, her offer of consort.
If anything, Ephiny's refusal seemed to make Solari even more supportive. She continued to be there for Ephiny. Especially in the days since Eponin -
It seemed as if Solari was always there, a silent presence in the background. A set of ears always ready to listen if she should feel the need to talk. Not that much was ever said; Ephiny was still a warrior, after all. Conversing never was one of her strengths.
No, what she needed was more of a physical presence. And, Solari had been more than capable of being that. A shoulder to lean on when she needed one. Strong arms that would wrap around her as they sat before the fire. A warm body to bed down with. Solari had been, and continued to be, her friend, her protector, her packmate.
After she'd gone back to her room last night, she'd been surprised Soli hadn't come knocking on her door. She'd been even more surprised when she'd awoken that morning and Solari hadn't been there. As chief scout, Solari was always up well before first light. Even in those days when she'd had to remove herself from active duty, she was always first up. It was just one of those ingrained habits.
Cut her some slack, Eph. She was hurting and stoned out of her mind on Satyr cloves. She'd left her room with the intention of collecting her packmate and finding some breakfast. She was standing outside Soli's door, preparing to knock when a guard told her that Solari had left the inn. The regent had sullenly trudged back to her room.
Ephiny stared out the window. The wind had shifted, causing the rain to fall in horizontal sheets. Cold wind blew in where the window wasn't properly sealed, causing the regent to shiver. Hazel eyes searched the deserted streets. Oh, Solari, where are you?
Hooded cloak covering her bowed head, shoulders slumped, leaning heavily on her cane as she dragged her useless leg behind her, Solari resembled an old crone trudging to market. The driving rain and the rumbling thunder coupled with her entire focus on each step, the chief scout didn't hear the pounding of hooves until they were nearly upon her. Suddenly aware, she turned around, finding herself almost nose to hoof with a rearing mare.
Apparently, she'd also caught both horse and rider just as unaware. The rider had a firm grip upon the reins, forcefully tugging, trying to turn the flailing hooves away. Hooves came down hard, striking the earth, the horse's mud-splattered flank turned towards Solari. A shiver shot down Solari's spine. Not because she'd nearly been trampled, but because she feared the cloaked rider was yet another assassin.
Solari's heart sank as the rider pushed back the hood of her cloak, revealing her face. I would have much preferred the assassin. Solari's lips were tight, her tone terse. "Thought you were assigned perimeter duty."
"I was," Lexine confirmed. "I was attacked from behind. Stabbed." The guard pulled open her cloak, revealing a dark stain spreading across the front of her heavy winter halter. "Xena found me, commanded I return to the inn with news of the attempt. You?"
"The same." Solari nodded. "With words for the Queen."
"Then, our destination is the same." Lexine's smile broadened. It seemed ridiculous to Solari that out in the middle of a thunderstorm, soaked to the bone, nearly killed by an assassin's blade...and still the girl was smiling at her. "Come on, Solari, I'll give you a ride back."
Solari stared at the blonde-haired guard leaning down from the saddle, arm extended to aid her. Memories of the last time Lexine had extended her hand to her flashed in Solari's mind. Her heart rate increased exponentially at the remembrance of the guard rushing to help her instead of protecting their regent.
Lexine noticed the wary look in Solari's eye, the almost imperceptible step back. Inexplicably, her temper flared. Eyes narrowed as she gave the chief scout a hard look.
"Trust me." Lexine's eyes shifted to where she still held her extended hand palm up. "Or walk. Choose. Now."
"It's not fit out for man or beast." Darius placed two mugs of hot cider on the table. "Nor Amazons." He offered up a smile and a wink for Gabrielle before returning to his bar across the room.
Nor warrior princesses, thought Gabrielle. She was, of course, concerned for the well being of her warrior. But, she also knew Xena had the sense the Gods gave a horse. She'd hunker down somewhere until the weather cleared.
Speaking of horses - Argo was safely tucked away in the stables. That meant wherever Xena was tracking Solari to, she must have figured she wouldn't need a horse. Really, how far could Solari have gotten, wounded and stoned out of her mind? Probably as far as the nearest farmer's daughter's bed.
No, she figured Xena was nearby and would drag Solari back to the inn just as soon as the weather permitted. Gabrielle spared a glance out the large window. The wind was fiercely howling, the rain was driving down in sheets. She sipped at her cider, thankful that Darius had stoked the fire even higher.
Hope you've got a fire, Xena, thought Gabrielle. She could imagine her warrior hunkered down before a fire, impatiently poking at it with a stick while she had a sensitive chat with Solari about the improprieties of tumbling all the farmers' daughters in her Queen's hometown.
Speaking of sensitive chats...
"Did Valeria really believe that her rape had been Artemis' answer to her prayers?"
"I don't know." Devillare shrugged. "I don't think so. But sometimes a person needs to believe that bad things happen for a reason. Maybe her desire for a child was the reason that Valeria needed."
"Even if it wasn't what her bondmate wanted?"
"That's why Laurentia sought her own audience with the Queen."
"My Queen, I beg of you."
Laurentia knelt at Reyvanne's feet. She'd come to the home of the Queen of the Amazons late at night. The guards had blocked the door, barring the entrance. She'd insisted, her voice rising in volume until she'd woken the Queen from her slumber.
Reyvanne sat down in her high-back wicker chair in the main room, donned her crown and crossed her legs, looking every bit the portrait of dignified royalty. Even in her nightclothes. Then, she commanded the guards allow the distraught woman to enter.
Devillare silently watched from the shadowed recesses of the royal bedroom. She cradled a cranky Melosa in one arm, trying to soothe the toddler back to sleep. The fingers of her other hand closed about the comforting grip of her sword as she waited to see if the redhead would prove to be a threat.
Kneeling on the floor, hands clasped, tears openly streaming down her cheeks, the dancer hardly looked menacing. Still, Devil was not the sort to take chances. Especially when it came to the safety of her family. This woman had already had the audacity to disturb the entire household without so much as a word of apology.
"Would your purpose not have been better served to wait until morning to petition your cause?"
"Please, my Queen. But, this matter plagues me so much that sleep eludes me."
"Be that as it may, it does not elude the entire tribe this night."
"No, my Queen." For the first time since her arrival, Laurentia looked abashed by her behavior. "Forgive me, but it's not only this night. I have not had a full night's sleep since the healers permitted Valeria's return to our hut."
"Then, perhaps the healers can prescribe something to aid in your quest for slumber."
"Begging your pardon, my Queen, but I have tried that method. With sleep come the dreams. I am haunted by dreams, plagued by nightmares that this babe is a spawn from the depths of Tartarus itself and that it will destroy the entire nation." Laurentia took a steadying breath. "Please, my Queen, you must command Valeria ingest the barrenroot."
"Demon or not, I think the Amazon Nation can stand strong against one babe. We somehow managed to survive Melosa's terrible two's, didn't we?"
Watching from the darkened royal chamber, Devillare gently bounced the young Melosa, placing a tender kiss to her temple. The young princess was thankfully fast asleep, a chubby cheek resting against Devillare's shoulder, drool running from the corner of her mouth.
In truth, Devillare was surprised that Reyvanne had managed to retain her sense of humor this long. To anyone else, she was sure the Queen looked perfectly calm and in control. But, Devillare could read her like an open scroll. She saw the change in posture, the tapping of a finger against the arm of her chair. The dancer was pushing it.
"Queen Reyvanne, this is no joke. I've had dreams of the destruction this child will wrought if permitted to live. Please, you must administer the barrenroot."
"Valeria petitioned me to allow her baby to live. I granted her request." Reyvanne's open palm slammed down upon the arm of her chair and she half-rose from her seat. "Once given, I will not go against my word."
"Then," Laurentia's lip trembled, her voice broke. "Then, I must petition my Queen for the severing of the bond."
Reyvanne was caught so off-guard that she nearly fell back into her chair. Only a lifetime of being bred as a royal saved her from that indignity. As calmly as possible, she retook her seat. Cold, hard eyes stared down at the dancer.
"You would ask that the union between bondmates be broken if Valeria is permitted to keep her child?"
Laurentia nodded. "As Queen, you have the power to grant my petition. Grant mine as you did Valeria's."
"The Queen may grant a separation of union only in extreme circumstances. Impending motherhood hardly qualifies."
"But, my vision - "
"First you were sleepless. Then, you had dreams. Dreams that became nightmares. Now, you lay claim to visions."
"Mark my words, for I have seen. She will bring the queen to her knees."
"Enough!" This time, when Reyvanne's hand slammed down, she did come all the way up out of her chair. "Valeria is a hero to the Amazon Nation. She sacrificed much, endured more. She will not suffer the pain of a mate who desires their union broken. And, you would do well to keep such 'visions' to yourself, lest they be considered treasonous."
"My Queen?" The hide covering the doorway flapped in the breeze created by the captain of the guards' sudden entrance. Beroyle wisely didn't mention that she'd heard Reyvanne's increasingly rising voice before she'd stepped foot on the first stair outside the Queen's hut. "Do you require assistance?"
"No, captain. My visitor was just leaving."
Beroyle snapped her fingers. Immediately, two guards appeared, their hands firmly clasping Laurentia by her upper arms as she was lifted to her feet.
"Escort her to her hut. See she remains there throughout the night," Reyvanne commanded.
The guards saluted, increased their grip as they steered the woman towards the door.
"Laurentia." Reyvanne's voice called the procession to a halt. Fear easily discernible in the dancer's eyes, she turned to face the Queen. "She is your mate. Her child will be your child."
Captain Beroyle watched with an appraising eye as the clearly agitated woman was taken away. She was struggling, flames of red hair whipping back and forth about her face, incoherent ramblings pouring forth from her mouth.
"Are you alright?" Beroyle asked as soon as the trio was down the stairs, their footsteps receding into the night.
Reyvanne nodded, scrubbed a hand across her weary face.
"You're trembling." Beroyle reached out, placing a steadying hand on Reyvanne's arm. "I'll stay."
Reyvanne clasped Beroyle's hand, removed it from her arm. "I'm fine. Devillare is here."
Beroyle sighed, but gave a curt nod. "I'll be outside the door, should you need me." Before Reyvanne could protest, the captain said, "You sent your detail to guard a dancer's door. It's my duty to guard yours."
Devillare swallowed harshly, loudly sniffed. "Damned cold. Can't seem to shake it," she said.
Gabrielle said nothing, just silently watched as the captain raised the still-warm mug of cider to her lips and downed the contents. When she slammed the mug back down on the table, her warrior's mask was once again firmly in place.
Sensing the need to deflect the conversation away from that night, Gabrielle instead forced the focus back on the other characters in Devillare's tale.
"I can't believe Laurentia wanted to force Valeria to give up her child. Then, to think that when that didn't work, she was capable of asking that their union be dissolved."
Devillare looked askance at Gabrielle. "Oh, Laurentia was capable of a lot more than that."
Gabrielle's face paled. Her hand trembled as she placed it atop Devillare's. "Oh, Devil, please tell me she didn't - "
"I...can't..." Megara hissed from between tightly clenched teeth.
"Please." Laurentia clutched at the assistant healer's hands. "I'm begging you."
"She's too far along. It's too late."
Green eyes flashed. "It wasn't when I first asked."
"I told you, there's nothing I can do. Only the head healer has access to the barrenroot."
"You know where she keeps it hidden."
Megara wet her lips, nervously looked through the open doorway into the room where her mentor and Valeria were. "Laurentia, it's too late," Megara repeated, "Your bondmate is in labor."
"It can still be done," Laurentia insisted. "There are ways - "
Megara clamped a hand over Laurentia's mouth, moved her to one side of the hall as the first assistant healer passed. She watched as her counterpart helped by prepping water, rags and swaddling. As second assistant, it was Megara's job to take care of the other mother. Usually, that consisted of keeping the over-eager, over-protective bondmate out of the head healer's way so the baby could be delivered. It had never included keeping the second mother from -
"Laurentia." Megara firmly clasped both of the dancer's upper arms, forced her to look her in the eyes. "Let it be." Her tone softened at Laurentia's look of resigned despair. "You have to accept this."
"I've tried. Gods, how I've tried." Laurentia was openly weeping in Megara's arms now. "I've tried to act as if nothing has changed. I've tried to make our lives the same as before. But when I look at Valeria, when I try to touch her, I can't stop thinking about how she gave up her body to those men."
"To protect the Queen's virtue."
"I know. But she gave away something that should have belonged to only me. To us." A strangled cry tore from Laurentia's throat. "Gods, I know it sounds so selfish, but I can't stop thinking about how ashamed I am that Valeria is carrying the offspring of any of a half-dozen of those murdering thugs."
"Laurentia, everyone knows the circumstances. No one in the village thinks any less - "
"I've got eyes, Megara; I've got ears. I see the stares. I hear the whispers." Laurentia angrily swiped at her tears, determined not to cry over this anymore. "In the food line. At the river, doing the laundry. In the baths. At the temple."
"I had thought you were at the temple seeking guidance from the priestesses, not listening to idle gossip."
"Hah! The priestesses are the worst. It was in the temple that I overheard the term 'demon spawn'. Tell me, Megara, if even the priestesses of Artemis will not accept this baby, then how can the rest of us be expected to?"
Megara didn't say anything. How could she? She had no words. Instead, she turned to look again into the room. Valeria was struggling. Her hair was matted down, perspiration was clearly coating her body and her entire face was contorted from the strain. The healers were working feverishly; giving instructions, holding Valeria down, hands and fingers between her legs.
In the doorway beside Megara, Laurentia was desperately clutching at straws. "It's not too late. It could be a still birth. Or a boy."
Megara pretended not to hear; pretended she didn't hear the words or the hopeful glee in Laurentia's voice; choosing to concentrate instead on the delivery.
"The baby's in the wrong position. We'll have to turn it."
Screaming. Straining. More screaming.
"One more, Valeria. Just one more. Push."
One final scream.
Megara could swear she heard Laurentia's sigh of relief.
Then, the sound of a newborn babe's cries filled the air.
The healer began the cleanup. Exhausted, Valeria fell back onto the pallet. Her breathing was still labored, her body shimmering with perspiration. She could barely turn her head, her eyes blearily focusing on the doorway and her bondmate.
Calandra brought the wrapped bundle over to the doorway. There was a full head of the thickest, blackest hair coupled with the lightest colored eyes Megara had ever seen on a newborn. Calandra held the baby out to Laurentia.
"Meet your new daughter. Meet Eponin, first born to the house of Valeria and Laurentia."
"Give her to her mother." Laurentia refused to hold out her arms to accept the bundle. "I won't coddle Valeria's mongrel."
Tears were openly streaming down Gabrielle's cheeks. "That's what Iphinome was referring to. Eponin's mother was raped and Eponin, in turn, raped someone else. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. The mongrel doesn't stray far from the litter."
Devillare bristled. Gabrielle reached out a hand, running the palm down the elder's arm in what was meant to be a soothing manner. The feel of smooth skin belied the coiled tension beneath flesh.
"I didn't say I believe it, Devillare. I'm only repeating what Iphinome said."
"That's the problem." Devillare released a huge sigh, trying to expel some of her anger along with it. "That fool healer's assistant is young. Young enough that she probably doesn't even fully know what she was saying." An agitated finger repeatedly tapped against the surface of her mug. "Unless some idiot's been filling her head with damned bigoted notions." Devillare grew silent as Darius appeared with a new mug of cider.
Gabrielle wanted to immediately jump back into the conversation, but instead nodded her head in thanks and remained tight-lipped until she was sure Darius was out of earshot. Best not to bandy Amazon business about within hearing range of the locals. As he moved away, she leaned across the table, placing her head close to Devillare's and speaking in a low voice.
"But...but why would anyone want to call Pony a - a - " Gabrielle couldn't even wrap her tongue around the word again. "She's one of our most loyal, honorable warriors."
"It's not about who Eponin is. It's about who her father was."
"I don't get it. Given their rather...um...free-spirited nature, I would think the Amazons of all people wouldn't care one way or the other about who the father is."
"Gabrielle, most Amazon families think long and hard before one of the mates has a child. Contrary to popular belief, we don't just strip down naked and go riding about the countryside, randomly bedding stable lads and farmboys until one of us comes up with child. At least, not as a rule. There's a process."
"A. Process. Of course."
"Developed ages ago and handed down throughout the generations. Generally, it is the nurturer in the family that bears the child. A warrior rarely considers it due to the physical changes and loss of training time. Traditionally, though, she does take part in the selection."
Gabrielle felt as lost as if Devillare had suddenly started speaking some language other than plain Greek. "Selection?"
"As approved by the priestesses. The whole procedure is long, drawn out, complicated and boring, if you ask me. The original purpose was to ensure the continued growth of a strong Amazon Nation. Can't do that with inferior stock." Devil snorted. "So, they came up with this list of criteria to check for desirable candidates based on intelligence, skill, physical attractiveness, and healthy, undiseased..." The warrior paused, at a loss for an acceptable term to use in the Queen's company "...umm...for..." she made a series of helpless gestures towards her groin area.
Gabrielle's eyes grew as round as twin chakrams. "Donors," she quickly said. "Let's refer to them as donors."
"Donors." Devillare shrugged. Good a word as any, I guess. "Anyway, that's the way things used to be done. We've become more, how you said, free-spirited since those days." There was a sardonic smirk. "Still, though, we don't have whole bands of naked Amazons roaming about the countryside looking for...um...donors...to mount."
Cider spewed from Gabrielle's mouth. "Devillare!"
The captain grinned at the reaction she'd solicited in her young queen. Then, she sobered. "Although as a people we've become more progressive, there are still traditionalists that remember the old days and the old ways."
"These traditionalists considered anyone like Pony to be - "
" - undesirable. Impure. Curs and mongrels."
Like me, Iphinome may have only been repeating what she was told, thought Gabrielle, or she's been raised with those beliefs. Gabrielle wasn't sure which was more disturbing. To ignorantly repeat something malicious or to have it systematically taught by your parents.
She remembered the lessons she'd learned from her father; both the good ones and the hateful ones he tried to beat into her. Like not to play with the little boy three farms over because his mother was a Spartan. She wanted to believe her Amazons were better than that. But, I guess anyone can be taught to hate.
"Laurentia was of the mind that Eponin was one of those undesirables."
"But, it wasn't like Valeria was out roaming the countryside looking for donors. She was violated in the course of her duties."
"And, if she'd never come up with child or if she'd ingested the barrenroot or even if she hadn't been able to carry to term...no one would have spoken of it ever again," Devillare said. "But, by keeping Eponin, she was a constant living reminder. Laurentia was triply shamed in that it wasn't a traditional conception, in that everyone knew Valeria intentionally kept the pregnancy secret until she petitioned Queen Reyvanne and in that someone of impure blood was named by the healer as their firstborn. To Laurentia, it was a stain on her house and on her name."
"Laurentia tried everything she could to prevent the birth. Gods, how could anyone hate an innocent baby so much?" Gabrielle asked, remembering the part of Devillare's tale where Laurentia resorted to claiming visions in an effort to sway the Queen's support. "At least Eponin had one parent that loved her." At Devillare's silence, Gabrielle's voice choked, "Oh, Gods, Devil. Tell me Eponin at least had Valeria. Devil? Devillare?"
Dark brows furrowed, grey eyes threatened to stare a hole right through the table.
Gabrielle reached out a hand, placing it atop the warrior's forearm. Devillare blinked, looking at Gabrielle with a quizzical expression. It seemed very much to the bard as if the captain of the guard had been lost somewhere in the past.
"Devil?" she asked again, "What happened to Valeria? Don't tell me she turned her back on Eponin, too."
"What? Oh, no." Gabrielle thought she saw warmth reflected in Devillare's eyes as she said, "As you said, Eponin knew the love of at least one of her parents. Even if she was too young to remember it."
"Damn ignorant daughters of a Bacchae." The Queen made no attempt at lowering her voice as she stormed out of the council hut and across the village. "Couldn't find their tailfeathers with both hands if their lives depended on it."
Beroyle did a double-step, increased her stride to keep step with Reyvanne. Devillare flanked her, keeping pace at the Queen's left shoulder.
"My Queen, the council consists of hunters, healers and craftswomen. The warrior caste has no voice to represent us."
"Because there is no warrior of age to sit on the council." Reyvanne turned on Beroyle, anger flashing in her eyes as she used her finger to poke the captain of the guard in the shoulder guard as she emphasized each word. "Because the warriors have all gotten themselves killed whilst protecting the basket weavers, cooks and farmers!"
Both members of the guard uncomfortably looked around. Fortunately, most everyone had heard the start of Reyvanne's tirade and wisely remembered other places that they needed to be. Devillare secretly breathed a sigh of relief. Reyvanne was the Queen, but not even she could afford to cast disparaging remarks about like so many bread crumbs.
"My Queen, time and memory keep them from remembering the role that the warriors have always taken in protecting them and this village. Seasons of peace have made their minds drift towards thoughts of trade agreements and profits."
"Trade draws attention to us. In their haste to fill our coffers, they forget that not everyone who appears at our borders is interested in baskets and blankets. Men are greedy, filthy beasts. Already, there have been reports of some of them with eyes on more than just the pretty baubles on offer."
"At least two of which resulted in battle."
"Minor skirmishes, my Queen, nothing more."
In truth, the young merchants had been armed with little else save hunting knives and overzealous eagerness. They'd stood no chance against the patrolling guards and their spears. It hadn't taken much to convince them that their attentions would be better served if kept on the business of trade, not love.
"Captain, they are pushing at our boundaries, testing us. It is only a matter of time."
Beroyle exhaled loudly, clasped her hands behind her back. She had no wish to contradict her Queen, but Reyvanne had as of late been most unreasonable. She'd presented her concerns to the council, demanded the trade convoy to Athens be cancelled, the buyers appearing at their borders turned away.
The council refused. As was their right.
Reyvanne stormed up the front steps of the Queen's hut. Beroyle and Devillare cast wary looks at each other behind her back before ascending the stairs together. The two guards flanking the doorway simultaneously drew to attention and saluted. The Queen saluted by rote, her pace never slowing.
She took one step inside before grabbing the doorframe with both hands and stopping. Devillare and Beroyle saw; hastened their steps, thinking something was wrong. Hands tightened about their swords. Reyvanne backed out of the hut, stopped and stared at the guard on the right side of the door.
The captain and her second froze. Their pulses quickened as both wondered what was wrong. The guard was in uniform. Her sash was correctly tied and positioned. Her stance had been acceptable, her salute impeccable.
Hands clasped behind her back, Reyvanne looked the guard up and down.
"My Queen." Valeria kept perfectly still, not even daring to blink.
"Is my residence secure?"
Dark eyes darted to the doorway and back to Reyvanne's face. "Yes, my Queen."
"I see. I thought there might have been some trouble."
Valeria had started to sweat. She moistened her lips. "Uh - no, my Queen. No trouble."
"Ah. Then, perhaps you could explain the need for a third guard at my door?"
"A - third - ?" Valeria's voice trailed off. She craned her neck over her shoulder and down.
She'd been perfectly still, concealed in Valeria's long shadow. Her upper body and feet were bare. Two chubby legs poked out through the holes in her swaddling. The cloth diaper hung low, exposing the divot of her backside. One tiny hand clutched firmly at the inside of her mother's leg. She was sucking the thumb of her other hand. Golden-hued eyes peeked out from beneath unkempt, ebony hair. She tilted her head back, looking up at the faces looking back at her.
"Hello, little one." Reyvanne's voice was as soft as the smile upon her lips. "Are you to be the newest member of my guard?"
Big eyes blinked and it looked as if she were trying to stand straight up at attention. She tilted too far back and fell on her bottom. Instead of crying as most youngsters might, little Eponin just sat there, quietly sucking her thumb, staring up at the Queen of the Amazons.
"It would certainly be her birthright," Beroyle said, fixing a look at Eponin. "Although, I've never tried to recruit one before they're out of their swaddling."
"Apologies, captain. I know it's against protocol."
"Then, why would you bring a child on duty with you?"
"I didn't - I mean, she wasn't - I - " Valeria looked at the floorboards as if contemplating crawling beneath the Queen's residence and staying there for the rest of her life.
"Valeria?" The Queen's voice commanded she look up. "Where is her other mother?"
"At the dancers' circle. They called a final practice to prepare for tonight. The celebration for Princess Melosa - " Valeria winced as she admitted, "Ep was underfoot. Laurentia couldn't focus - "
Beroyle crossed her arms over her chest, stared the young guardswoman down. "Your focus is supposed to be on your duty. Right now, your duty is guarding the Queen's door."
"I have done my duty." Valeria's eyes flashed. "I've never left my post."
That statement hung solemnly in the air. Everyone knew to what Valeria was referring. The only reason her daughter was here now at the Queen's door was because she had done her duty for both Nation and Queen.
"In the future, I suggest if you both have obligations, you entrust her to one of the caregivers."
A troubled look crossed Valeria's face. She chewed her bottom lip, as if contemplating how much she should reveal. "Some of the caregivers refuse to take her. Because she's - she's - "
"Nonsense." Reyvanne reached down, picking Eponin up. "She's nothing but a little sweetie, aren't you?"
Eponin giggled as her tummy was tickled. The guards all waited and watched as Reyvanne doted on the squirming toddler, her face reflecting Eponin's joy. A small hand reached up, fingers touching Reyvanne's crown.
Reyvanne's gaze flicked to her guards. The transformation was instantaneous. Gone again was the nurturing mother, in her place was the Queen of the Amazons. Eponin obediently stilled in Reyvanne's arms as her mother was addressed.
"Valeria, none of the caregivers shall ever again refuse your child. Beroyle, see that it is done." The Captain gave a curt nod. "Devil, see to this." The Queen passed Eponin to the second-in-command, "Guard duty is no place for a child." Reyvanne reached out, stroking a hand down one of Eponin's cheeks. "Not even for one so...dutiful."
"Yes, my Queen."
Reyvanne gave a regal nod, then turned towards her doorway. Valeria gave a rapid-fire salute, resumed her position at the Queen's door, eyes straight ahead, her warrior's mask firmly in place. Beroyle started down the steps. Devillare stood there, on the Queen's porch, sniffing the air and dubiously looking at the tiny warrior as she held Ep at arm's length.
Beroyle froze on the bottom step. "Yes, my Queen?"
"See that Laurentia is removed from the dancers' lists for the next moon." There was a heartbeat pause before the Queen added, "Including tonight's celebration."
Gabrielle grimaced. "Knowing how Laurentia felt about her dancing, I'm sure that didn't earn poor Ep any favors."
"No, I'm sure it didn't." Devillare released a heavy sigh. "Reyvanne meant well, but she didn't always think through the consequences of her commands. As much as Valeria loved and adored Eponin, Laurentia felt the opposite."
"I'm sure that moon's time Laurentia was banned from the dancers' circle was pure torture for Eponin."
"It probably was. When Valeria was with her, Ep was protected. But, when she was alone with Laurentia - " Devillare gave a harsh swallow, looked away. "I'm shamed to say that none of us thought about what was being done to her."
"Oh, Devillare." Gabrielle sniffled; her nose visibly red. "By nature, most Amazons are loving parents. How could you be expected to know?"
Devillare's head remained lowered. She closed her eyes, scrubbing a hand over her face and holding it there. Gabrielle wrapped an arm about trembling shoulders.
"Devillare? Devil, look at me." When the elder guard didn't comply, Gabrielle gripped her chin and forced her to look. The warrior wasn't crying, but she wore such a tortured expression that it broke the bard's heart. "Devillare, listen to me. It wasn't your fault. You didn't know." Gabrielle's expression and her tone hardened, "But, Valeria should have. If she loved Eponin as you claim, how could she leave her with an abusive parent?"
"Because, Gabrielle, Valeria had no other choice."
Xena crouched down, one forearm braced across her thigh, the fingertips of her other hand tracing a faint impression in the mud. The rain was falling heavily, soaking everything, the warrior princess included. The track was mostly washed away. It was amazing that Xena had spotted it at all.
Damn. Could've really used Solari. The chief scout had been invaluable at tracking down her missing regent. Xena was no slouch when it came to tracking. But, while it was just one of the many skills she had learned and honed over the seasons, with Solari it was so much more. For the scout, it was a gift from the Gods.
Using Solari's gift this time, though, was out of the question. Both because of her physical condition and because she needed the scout back in Potadeia to warn the others.
The hairs on her arms and the back of her neck stood on end. She had an eerie feeling, almost akin to the one she always got just before Ares materialized. Blue eyes warily looked up, half expecting to see the God of War.
Instead, what she got was a riderless horse standing still in the rain, watching her. Xena waited. Gods sometimes appeared in the form of animals. Zeus, in particular, was fond of that trick.
The warrior princess slowly rose to her feet. The horse didn't move. Cautiously, she approached it, murmuring soft words of reassurance with each step. As she drew nearer, she recognized it as being one of the runaways from the assassins' group. And, from the way it was favoring its hoof, she knew in an instant it was the one she'd been tracking.
She'd lost the initial trail when she'd found that Amazon guard - whatshername; Lexine. The area around the guard's position was too trampled to discern for certain which set of hooves she was following. She'd taken her best guess, believing she was after Pony. Or, that renegade Pony had ridden off after.
Instead, I ended up with this one. Xena held out her hand, letting the horse get her scent. The horse took a hesitant step back before relenting and allowing Xena's touch.
"Well, you're certainly no Argo. My horse has enough sense to come in out of the rain." Xena patted the horse's neck. Then, she checked its hoof. "This isn't too bad. Any decent blacksmith should be able to keep you from going lame." Xena suspiciously eyed the horse. "You're just aimlessly wandering, aren't you? You don't even know the way back to your camp, do you?" When the horse just blinked at her, Xena shook her head in resignation, "Nope, definitely not Argo."
"Come on, then." Xena took the reins, motioned for the horse to follow her. "Neither one of us is doing any good standing out here in the rain."
The horse refused to budge.
"What do you mean, Valeria had no other choice?" Gabrielle demanded to know. "As Eponin's parent, she had an obligation to protect her."
"Yes, she did. But before her own needs, or the needs of one child, she had an obligation to protect the entire Nation."
Beroyle took a deep breath, steeling herself. Raising her fist, she knocked loudly on the doorframe. She heard noise coming from inside the hut, waited. Just as she raised her fist to knock again, the hide covering was pushed aside, revealing a frazzled looking Laurentia.
Green eyes registered surprise. Then, she recovered. A hand quickly brushed through red tresses, smoothing them down. A brilliant smile graced her full lips.
"Captain Beroyle," Laurentia stepped aside, motioning the handsome captain of the guard inside. "Please, come in."
Beroyle gave a curt nod, ducked her head as she entered the hut. Hides were drawn over the windows, allowing in only a minimal amount of light. Beroyle moved into the center of the hut, near a hand-crafted table for two.
"Would you care for some spiced tea?" Laurentia asked, appearing by her side with a mug and a plate, "Honey-cake?"
Alert eyes caught movement at the mention of the treat. A child's small form moved from the shadows of the room. One look from Laurentia had her scurrying back into a corner.
"Um, no. No, thank you."
"No sweet tooth?" Laurentia's brow arched. "Or, do you desire a treat of a different kind?"
If Beroyle was startled by the blatant innuendo, the only indication was the step she took to place some distance between herself and the young dancer.
"Laurentia, this is official business."
The dancer allowed herself a moment of cocky bliss. "I knew it. Reyvanne has changed her mind and rescinded the order banning me from the dance circle. I knew she would never be able to enforce a moon's time. Not with the Festival of Demeter forthcoming."
"It's not about that." Beroyle decided the best method was to just be out with it. "The merchants that are camped along our borders; some of them have repeatedly crossed into our territory unannounced and uninvited. A group of basket-weavers went to the river to gather reeds. There was an...incident."
Laurentia was perplexed. "Basket-weavers?"
"Some of them are quite...healthy. With the need to enter the river to gather the freshest reeds and with it being so hot - " Beroyle trailed off. Surely Laurentia could fill in the details that led to their tops and skirts piled upon the bank. "The perimeter patrol heard the screams. They were at the river within heartbeats. There were four men. Valeria waded in after them. She was ordering them to back away from the two weavers they'd cornered. Their leader appeared, demanding they do the same. By all accounts, they were complying, marching past the guard towards the shore when one of them suddenly pulled a hunting knife from inside his tunic. Laurentia, Valeria's dead."
The plate filled with honey-cake crashed to the floor. Laurentia clutched at the back of the nearest chair.
"I imagine Valeria's funeral pyre hadn't even cooled before Laurentia abandoned Eponin."
"No. No, she couldn't. Amazon bonds are not so easily broken, Gabrielle. Not even by death."
"I'm sure Laurentia found a way. She didn't love Valeria. She certainly held no affection for Eponin."
Devillare appeared startled by Gabrielle's words. "My Queen, perhaps I have failed to do justice to Laurentia's character."
Gabrielle nearly snorted. "If your intent was to paint her as the villain of your tale, then you have succeeded."
"No one is completely bad. Or all good."
Something flickered in Devillare's eyes; unseen ghosts from her past making their presence known. Gabrielle didn't notice as she was thinking of her own warrior's troubled past. I've heard the tales of Xena's warlord days. If I had listened solely to the bards' versions, I never would have given the true Xena a chance.
"The news of Valeria's death greatly affected Laurentia. Even though their relationship began to crumble after Valeria's attack, they'd had a great physical attraction for each other prior to that."
Thinking about her own responses to Xena's physique, Gabrielle thought, well, I can certainly understand that. "But, you can't build a lasting relationship on just physical attraction."
"You also can't sustain one without it. Valeria confided to me that she and Laurentia hadn't been intimate since her rape. Valeria was young, strong and considered by most of the village, a hero. She could have had any number of women. The one she wanted, though, was Laurentia."
"Yet Laurentia no longer wanted her."
"Laurentia visited the healer's hut more than once asking Megara for a concoction or herb that would help her to be intimate with her lover again. It's not that Laurentia didn't desire Valeria. It's that she couldn't get past what had happened; what Valeria had allowed to happen."
Gabrielle's blood began to boil. "It all comes back to that, doesn't it? Laurentia felt slighted and just couldn't move on."
"The heart isn't easy to understand, my Queen. A single word can cause it to suffer a wound as painful as any thrust from a sword. Yet, it still goes on beating."
Devil's gaze drifted to the window. She stared out, watching the rain falling in sheets. When it rains, the Gods are crying, Reyvanne had told her as they'd stayed in their bed in the royal hut on such a morning. In her carefree youth, she had asked Reyvanne why the Gods themselves had reason to cry. Before she'd gotten her reply, she'd silenced Reyvanne's words with kisses and slow lovemaking. I wonder now, if I'd given her the chance, what would her answer have been?
"Laurentia grieved mightily for Valeria. After the tears, came the inevitable anger. Valeria was gone, leaving Laurentia to raise their child alone. A child that grew to look more and more like her dead lover every day. Given how she'd treated her in their last days together, can you imagine what torture that must have been for Laurentia?
In her despair, she turned to Beroyle. Beroyle's heart went out to her in pity. I think it was intended to be only one night's consolation. The Goddess of Love will never allow a simple solution when there's a more complicated one to be had, though. Laurentia pursued the relationship. As time wore on and she saw how the woman treated Ep, it broke Beroyle's heart to leave her in that home."
"Then, she should have had Eponin removed from Laurentia's hut. Beroyle obviously had the Queen's ear."
Devillare gave a heavy sigh. "Reyvanne herself declared that as Valeria's mate, her child would also be Laurentia's. Once she gave a decree, she was not likely to rescind it. And, I doubt if anyone could convince her that it was best to take little Ep away from her mother."
"Laurentia wasn't her mother!"
"Reyvanne decreed that she was. As a woman and a mother, Reyvanne greatly believed in the importance of traditional families. As Queen, she had the power to enforce her beliefs."
"So, you're telling me that poor Eponin was abandoned to Laurentia's care to fulfill the Queen's delusional dreams of a happy family?"
"How do you measure the line between discipline and abuse? Although cruel in nature, Laurentia didn't display any outward signs of physical abuse. Eponin certainly never spoke of it."
"So, the child's to blame because she was too afraid or too ashamed to say anything?" Gabrielle slammed her mug down with enough force that some of the cider splashed over the rim. "That's centaur crap and you know it!"
"Hey." Ephiny made a showing of wiping cider from where it had splashed her. "What's going on?"
Hazel eyes flitted from Gabrielle to Devillare and then back to Gabrielle again. Artemis knew she hadn't employed any method of stealth to sneak up on them. Honestly, given her condition, she hadn't thought it was possible. Judging from their reactions, though, neither had heard her approach.
"What did I miss?" she asked.
"What?" The question clearly caught Gabrielle off-guard. "Oh, nothing."
Ephiny's eyes darted back to the captain. The warrior had already recovered and stared back at the regent with typical warrior aplomb. The bard never was so adept at hiding her emotions. Gabrielle's face was still red. Her blush spread down her neck, covering her upper chest. Whatever Ephiny had interrupted between the two, it had been intense.
"Doesn't look like nothing." Guessing that whatever it was, if it involved Gabrielle, it also involved a sensitive chat, she asked, "What're you talking about?"
"Family values," said Gabrielle.
"Oh, Gabrielle." Ephiny placed a hand on her friend's shoulder. "I'm sorry about your father." She tightened her grip, giving Gabrielle's shoulder a firm squeeze. "But know that the Amazons will always be your family."
Gabrielle offered up a smile. In truth, after last evening's conversation with Xena, she'd managed to put Herodotus' disapproval in perspective. It still stung to think about her father so callously disowning her. But, she'd known seasons ago that he would never approve of her or her love for Xena. That had been the real reason she'd avoided going home for so long. Because she knew she no longer really had a home in Potadeia.
Ephiny's misinterpretation saved her having to lie about her conversation with Devillare. She didn't want to deceive her friend, but she'd given her word. Ephiny wouldn't hear of Eponin's past from her.
Gabrielle rubbed her chin thoughtfully. But Eph's reaction; she couldn't hobble away from that trough fast enough. "Hey, aren't you supposed to be keeping your weight off that?" she asked, indicating the regent's bandaged ankle and motioning for her to sit.
"Yeah, well, since no one's going to serve me breakfast in bed, thought I'd better come get my own."
Ephiny obediently took a vacant chair between Devillare and Gabrielle. The captain signaled for the innkeeper. Darius approached with a third mug of cider, refilled both Devillare's and Gabrielle's. Devillare spoke softly with the innkeeper, pressing a coin into his palm to ensure expediency as she secured her regent's morning fare. Darius nodded, offering a smile at the three women before backing away towards the kitchen.
Gabrielle saw the bandage wrapped about Ephiny's shoulder, extending down her arm nearly to her elbow. She recognized the scent coming from the wrappings as something her warrior often used for easing aching muscles. A similar bandage was wrapped about Ephiny's ankle.
Ephiny caught Gabrielle's speculative look. "One of the guards brought liniment-soaked bandages by this morning. Smells horrible, doesn't it?"
"I've smelled worse. How are you feeling?"
Ephiny placed her hand to her shoulder, rotated it, felt the subtlest of aches with the movement. Still, it was the best it'd felt in a long time.
"Like I went one-on-one with a Minotaur." There was that trademark wry smirk as Ephiny added, "And won."
Both Gabrielle's eyebrows rose at the description. "I take it that means better?"
"Mm. Wish I could say the same for my ankle." Ephiny tried the same rotation she'd performed with her shoulder and winced with the effort. "Think I only slept three candledrips all night."
"Throbbing?" Gabrielle asked, although she had a hunch it was more than an injured ankle that was robbing the regent of her sleep.
"Thank Artemis it's only a sprain."
Devillare spotted Darius approaching with Ephiny's meal, rose to meet him halfway. The regent's comment about only three candledrips of sleep reminded the captain that it was three candledrips more than she'd gotten. Suddenly, her eyes burned, her bones ached, and that bed with the lumpy straw mattress in her room appeared as appealing as one to be found in any royal bedroom.
Duty wouldn't allow her to leave the Queens, though. Even if they were merely sipping cider in front of the inn's hearth. The royals were her responsibility. And, as long as they stayed within the less-than-hospitable town of Potadeia, Devillare would be worried for their safety.
It had been many seasons since Devillare had stepped foot outside the Amazon Nation. But, she still remembered the treatment they usually received in patriarchal societies. Men in general were intimidated by a society of women that could function -successfully- without need of them. It had been men much like these in Potadeia that had coined the term Amazon harlots. Those same men would eventually try to seduce the Amazons. When that didn't work, they would resort to trying rape. Instead of being angry with their men, their womenfolk would blame the Amazons, calling them home wreckers and sneering at them like they were nothing better than something to be wiped off the bottom of their shoes.
Devil judged that Darius was not like his fellow Potadeians. Perhaps because he was the local innkeeper and barkeep. He'd probably endured much the same treatment from the women that were upset that their men frequented his establishment so much.
So far, Darius had been kind to the Amazons. He'd continued to put them up at his inn, even after the rest of Potadeia's council had decreed they would not assist the Amazons. Although, the captain suspected that the depth of his kindness was directly tied to the size of the profit in his coin purse. As long as they continued to pay him, Darius' loyalty would continue.
As Devillare started back to the table, she saw Gabrielle lifting Ephiny's leg, placing the regent's injured ankle in her lap. Ephiny looked decidedly uncomfortable, her gaze repeatedly alternating between the window and the door.
"Stop squirming," Gabrielle commanded. "You need to keep that elevated."
"Really, Gabrielle, it's not that bad."
"It's just keeping you from sleeping." Gabrielle caught the guilty look that flicked across her friend's face. Ah, caught you. "And wearing boots."
"You know us half-naked savages, my Queen. Hate to sleep indoors. Love any excuse to go barefoot."
A well-placed touch of Gabrielle's palm against Ephiny's anklebone wiped the smile off the regent's face and had her coming halfway up out of her chair. Devillare deftly avoided the sudden movement and placed Ephiny's bowl on the table in front of her. Carefully masking her amusement, Devillare moved away. The captain kept her back to her queens as she stood looking out the large window. The warrior allowed them their privacy, even as she kept one ear on the conversation.
Need to know just how hurt lil' Eph is so I can make adjustments to her security detail, was Devillare's rationale for her eavesdropping.
"You should've gotten Xena to take care of that for you," Gabrielle advised, using a much more gentle touch to soothe Ephiny's ruffled feathers.
"Yeah, right." Ephiny performed an eye-roll. She wasn't stupid. She knew it had been Xena and not Iphinome that had supplied the guard with the treated bandages. She just wasn't ready to acknowledge the warrior's help, yet. "She had her chance. And, I don't remember her touch being that of a healer's."
"Depends on the healer. I don't think you'd get a more sympathetic touch from Megara, do you? Of course, if it's babying you want," Gabrielle couldn't resist teasing, "I'm sure we could find a healer's assistant or two to dote on you."
Gabrielle felt the immediate stiffening beneath her fingers. Damn. Hilaeira and Iphinome. What was I thinking? Gabrielle increased the firmness of her touch, the palm of her hand drifting from Ephiny's ankle to her calf and around her knee. Gradually, she felt the tension lessen.
"Anyway, you never did tell me what that was between you and Xena."
A half-hearted shrug sent corkscrew blonde curls tumbling over a shoulder.
"Come on," Gabrielle coaxed, "You know I don't like it when you two fight."
"She started it."
"Ephiny. You weren't exactly the innocent Hestian. So, what gives?"
A heated sigh. "I don't know, Gabrielle."
Ephiny looked away. Her gaze found Devillare standing with her arms crossed, one shoulder propped against the frame as she stared out the window in typical warrior repose. There was a quiet dignity about her, a fluid grace to her strength and even though she looked at ease now, Ephiny knew that the slightest movement could efficiently produce at least three different weapons.
How many times had she seen that very same pose? From almost every seasoned warrior in the village at one time or another. The warrior she was reminded of, in particular, was her weapons master. It wasn't just the stance, though. A pose was easy enough to duplicate. No, there was more to it than that. It was something that couldn't be taught on a training field. A warrior either had it or she didn't.
Eponin and Devillare both possessed it. There was that quiet strength, that calm exterior, that efficiency of movement. Ephiny thought them comparable to large wild cats. They were deadly, savage predators. Yet, there was something about them that was so beautiful that it made you forget about the danger and made you want to reach out a hand and pet them.
It had always been that way with Eponin. Despite the danger, Ephiny was fascinated with her. In this instant, watching her, Ephiny also recognized it in Devillare. And of course, Xena had it, too.
Is that why we're so at odds? Ephiny wondered. Because Xena and Pony are so much alike? Because Gabrielle's warrior princess reminds me of the warrior I've lost?
They were hard questions that Ephiny wasn't certain she could answer right now.
Ephiny's breath hitched as she felt Gabrielle's distracting fingers inch higher. "Maybe she's jealous?" Hazel eyes indicated the bard's hand that was now intimately caressing the flesh of her inner thigh.
"Xena has no reason to be jealous of our relationship. We're friends. She knows that."
Ephiny recalled a private conversation that had taken place between herself and the Queen's consort.
"She said you two were friends. Good friends." There was a long pause before Xena said, "Good friends with romantic feelings for each other." Ephiny remembered her heart threatening to beat out of her chest as the warrior said that. "And, she said I had to accept that you two might occasionally feel the need to touch. And cuddle. And stuff like that." It was at that point that Ephiny was surprised she was still breathing. "And, she said that sometimes, as women, you two needed to have that closeness. And, that I needed to understand that what she needed from you as a friend was different than what she got from me as a warrior."
At the time, Ephiny wondered if Xena wasn't stoned out of her mind. Now, she knew it had to be the result of that blasted enchanted bracer. Gabrielle's words about them being friends rang in her ears.
Xena knows she has no reason to be jealous of our relationship, was what Gabrielle had said.
Maybe she knew that before the bracer caused us to express our friendship on a more...physical level. But now? - Ephiny wondered - does Xena have a reason to be jealous now?
Ephiny allowed herself a moment to study her young Queen. There had always been something about Gabrielle, right from the start. At first, Ephiny had thought it was just that she was annoying. Then, once she'd gotten over her mourning of Terreis and unjustly blaming Gabrielle for her loss, she began to look a little deeper.
There was something about her that made her different from other girls. Gabrielle certainly wasn't like any Amazons that Ephiny knew. She wasn't like any of the other village girls Ephiny had known outside of the Amazon Nation, either. No, there was something unique about the innocent village girl from Potadeia. Unique enough that she'd managed to charm Queen Melosa into honoring the bestowing of Terreis' right of caste upon her.
She was certainly good-looking. But, in all honesty, Ephiny could say that she'd seen more attractive women. She'd met Helen of Troy. And Cleopatra. They'd both managed to turn the corkscrew blonde's head. Gabrielle's beauty certainly paled in comparison to both of those women. Yet inexplicably, Ephiny had woken from more than one dream that had prominently featured a naked bard and her quill.
Looking at Gabrielle now, Ephiny knew that any fantasies about taking the Amazon Queen to her bed were just that; long ago fantasies. She still dearly loved Gabrielle as one of her closest friends. But, she didn't feel an irresistible desire to be with her in that way.
Hmm, Ephiny thought, guess Xena doesn't have anything to be jealous of. Wonder if she realizes that? Eyes darted over the door and the window again. "Where is tall, dark and deadly?"
"Still tracking down Solari, I imagine."
"Solari?" Ephiny abruptly sat up, dislodging Gabrielle's hand. "What's Solari doing out in this weather? She shouldn't be out of bed, let alone out wandering around."
"Seems she slipped her guard." Gabrielle said, noting out of the corner of her eye the captain's bristling at her comment.
Suddenly, the door banged open, bringing in a swirling mass of wind, leaves and rain and two cloaked travelers.
Devillare had spotted the solitary horse trudging up the street. As she'd heard the first boot on the step outside, she'd moved from her place at the window and positioned herself behind the door. Her sword was in hand as they entered. The one in the lead was limping, but carried an array of weapons that included a walking staff and a couple of quivers of arrows. The shape of a sword hilt was visible beneath the cloak of the second. As the second intruder passed by her position, Devillare stepped up from behind, firmly placing the edge of her blade to a jugular.
Ephiny was on her feet, bracing herself between the two intruders and her Queen. She wasn't certain how menacing a figure she made in her bare feet with a visibly bandaged ankle and a heavily wrapped sword arm. But, the intent behind her snarl was clear. If they wanted her Queen, they'd have to go through her first.
"Nice, Eph. You kiss your mother with that mouth?"
"Solari!" Gabrielle gasped, immediately recognizing the voice, if not the woman.
Solari pulled her hood back, revealing her red nose and wind-burned cheeks. Devillare kept her sword steady even as she reached up and tugged off her detainee's hood, revealing a shock of straw colored hair.
Devillare snatched her sword back and forcefully shoved Lexine forward. The guard stumbled, then caught herself, stopping just short of bumping into Solari's backside. The Queen and the Regent were looking at her with speculative gazes. She could feel the Captain's eyes burning a hole in the back of her head. Feeling intimidated beneath the scrutiny of these formidable women, Lexine found herself staring at the floorboards.
For once, Gabrielle was speechless. She had expected her chief scout to be with Xena, taking shelter from the storm somewhere. Instead, she was surprised to see two cloaked and hooded, soaked and bedraggled Amazons standing before her like they'd been washed in with the rain.
Ephiny was first to recover. Hazel eyes critically raked over the brunette's body. She noted the awkward stance, the way Solari leaned a little too heavily on the staff. There was pain etched in those sandalwood eyes.
"Just what were you thinking; ditching your guard, wandering around in your condition? In this storm? Look at you; you're soaked to the bone."
"Don't worry, I managed to pick up another." Only Ephiny and Gabrielle saw Solari's eye roll that indicated Lexine standing beside her.
"Ephiny, there'll be time enough to scold them later." Gabrielle spotted Darius hovering near the kitchen door, motioned for him to bring some cider. "For now, let's see about getting them warmed up by the fire."
Gabrielle reached out a hand, intending to take Solari by the arm to help guide her to the hearth. To her dismay, Solari flinched away from her touch, sidestepping her. Gabrielle dropped her hand, silently moved away.
Gabrielle tried to mask her feelings, but Solari caught the hurt expression and felt a momentary twinge of guilt. Then, it was forgotten as Solari heard a sound behind her, recognized it as being that of a sword being slid back into a scabbard. She pivoted, very nearly jumping as she inexplicably found herself nearly nose to chin with Devillare.
She wanted to ask the warrior how she'd managed to sneak up on her. Again. She needed to give her sisters news of Xena's message. Instead, she found herself dumbly staring at the deep cut on the captain's chin. The idea of reaching up, running a finger over the injury popped into her mind. Solari shook her head, trying to clear her obviously still addled senses.
For her part, Devil wasn't oblivious to Solari's gaze upon her. She'd known she'd startled the scout. Just as she knew her ability to do so confounded Solari to no end. Devillare's mean streak urged her to mercilessly tease the girl about it. Later. Other, more pressing matters demanded her attention now.
Grey eyes glared over the scout's shoulder at the member of the guard. Her temper boiled as she realized that Lexine was steadfastly doing everything she could to ignore her presence. Should have kept that blade to her throat. The captain reached out, grabbing the guard by the hood of her cloak and tightening her grip until she was forced to meet her gaze.
"You're supposed to be on perimeter duty." Devillare said and fought the urge to add Not sniffing around after the chief scout. It was not an accusation she would give voice to in front of the Queens.
She sensed the scout shift beside her. Steel grey eyes flicked to Solari then Lexine. As usual, Lexine was looking at Solari with big doe eyes. For her part, Solari met Lexine's gaze, then just as quickly looked away. Given Solari's earlier reaction, Devil was both confused and angry at seeing the scout with the guard.
"This is twice now you've abandoned your duty." Devillare's voice was low and dangerous. "Is there a single reason you can think of I shouldn't run you through now?"
Lexine's heart was hammering wildly. Her hands were sweating and trembling. Her mouth was unbearably dry. She didn't even realize it was her speaking until the words that reached her ears resonated in her own voice.
"Because someone else already has."
Lexine's fumbling fingers pulled aside her cloak, revealing her winter halter. Lexine placed her palm against the moist fabric, then held her hand out, displaying her digits soaked in blood.
Ephiny already had hold of Lexine, guiding her towards a chair. "Devillare, send for Iphinome. Now."
"Solari? Xena went out after you." Instead of coming back with Xena, Solari had arrived with an injured Lexine. Gabrielle's voice sounded very small as she asked, "Where is she, what's happened?"
Darius kept his distance, but maintained a watchful eye. Had ever since that tall Amazon had placed her hands to her mouth and let out this shrill noise that sounded like a birdcall. Might as well have been, he figured, seeing as it brought that other Amazon running in. There were hastily spoken words, then the Amazon was gone again, coming back with their healer in tow.
The healer was immediately directed towards the Amazon sitting huddled in a chair nearby the fire. Gabrielle and that curly-headed blonde were seated at another table. Gabrielle was nervously wringing her hands while the blonde was worrying a hunk of leather with a knife. That cute brunette was standing beside the table, leaning heavily on her staff as she watched the blonde work. That other Amazon - the big one - she paced back and forth between the window and table, occasionally pausing to peer over the blonde's shoulder at her progress.
Something was going on, Darius knew it. Curious, he approached under the guise of needing to stoke the fire in the hearth. He passed by the table, slowing his gait as he tried to discern what the blonde was tinkering with. He thought he felt the tall one's eyes on him, quickly averted his eyes and hastily skittered by, not daring to breath until he was safely past the table.
He chanced a look back. All four women were hunkered about the table, engrossed in conversation. Apparently, his presence was of no concern as he thought none of them gave him so much as a second look. He regained his confidence and swagger as he approached the hearth.
The healer was standing between the open legs of that younger Amazon as she sat in a chair nearest the fire. Darius knelt down on the stonework in front of the hearth. Picking up the long-handled tongs beside the fireplace, he braced one hand against the top of the hearth for balance and proceeded to turn over an ash-encrusted log. His position put him at the perfect angle to see and hear everything.
"Will you stop squirming?" Iphinome said, using the back of her hand to brush away Lexine's cloak. For the third time.
"It's stitches; they're not supposed to feel good. Wound's not that deep. I'd be done by now if you'd just - " Iphinome ground her teeth as the guard moved again, causing her needle to pierce her flesh much deeper than she'd intended. " - Hold still and quit being such a baby. And keep that damned cloak out of my way."
"Fine." Lexine's bottom lip puffed out. With a huff, she complied, pushing the cloak back so that it was completely off her shoulders.
Darius' eyes nearly bugged out. The Amazon's breasts were bare. His eyes skittered away, spying her top and her sword upon the floor near her feet.
"I'm cold," Lexine whined.
"I can see that." Iphinome smirked. "And, here I thought perhaps you were just glad to see me."
Darius fought the urge to peek. And lost. He was a man, after all. And, he hadn't seen a pair other than his wife's in nearly thirty seasons. He had to look. He couldn't help it.
These were nothing like his wife's. His wife was a large woman, with pendulous breasts that had succumbed to both weight and age. These - these were small and pert without a hint of sag. The nipples were a pale shade of pink, nearly the size of a dinar. They looked just as hard and Darius' fingers trembled with the need to touch them.
The sound of metal clattering on stonework drew Devillare's attention to the hearth. The innkeeper caught her gaze and quickly looked away, appearing flustered. She saw him grab the poker from beside the hearth and use the metal point on the end to retrieve the long-handled tongs from the fire. Apparently, he'd lost them while attempting to turn the logs.
Beneath Devillare's watchful gaze, Darius retrieved the long-handled tongs and dropped them on the stonework to cool. He rapidly stoked the fire with the poker then quickly replaced it beside the hearth. He kept his head down, his gaze lowered as he retreated across the room to the relative safety of his bar.
"Xena wants the perimeter guard pulled back to the inn," Solari concluded.
Ephiny looked up from where she was using the tip of her knife to pry beneath the leather bindings of a bracer. "That leaves the rest of Potadeia in danger."
"Xena's convinced the rest of the town isn't their real target." Solari looked to her Queen and her Regent. "You two are."
Gabrielle's eyes darted towards the fireplace. "But Lexine - "
" - was in danger because she's an Amazon. They tried to kill her because she stood between them and you. They would have made the same attempt on me and Xena if they'd been able."
"It was an attack from behind; a coward's strike." Lexine had overheard the tail end of the conversation. As Iphinome finished her last stitch, she pushed the healer's hands aside and stood on wobbling feet. She pulled her cloak closed as she approached the table. In her determination to defend her honor and her abilities, she forgot to be intimidated by these women. "It's my blade they would have tasted if they hadn't snuck up behind me."
Devillare scrubbed a hand across her face. There were so many things inherently wrong with the kid's statement that she didn't know where to start. The fact that it was the Queen's champion herself that took out the assassins? That Lexine was deluded enough to think she'd stood a chance against them? That they'd managed to sneak up on the guard in the first place?
Instead of wasting her breath giving voice to any of those finer points, Devillare settled on, "Take up Bonadea's post and have her ride out to the perimeter with orders for them to do a sweep and head back in."
Iphinome was packing up her meager supplies, which to her consternation consisted of hardly anything more than her herringbone needles, twine and bandages when she heard the captain's orders. With no thought to her actions, she marched up to the warrior. Nearly jabbing Devillare with the sharp end of her needle, the healer gesticulated heavily as she made her objections known.
"She's just been stabbed." At the impassive look from the captain, Iphinome expounded, "The wound wasn't severe, but there was still blood loss. She needs a chance to rest before you have her up on her feet guarding doorways and such."
An eyebrow arched as Devillare stared down at the tip of the needle pointed dangerously close to her chest. As if just noticing what she'd been doing, Iphinome quickly removed the offending needle, safely palming it in her hand. The way she continued to stubbornly invade the captain's personal space, though, reminded Devillare of the cantankerous Megara.
Devillare pointedly exhaled and rolled her eyes before turning to address Lexine. "Have Bonadea ride out. Then, find Egeria and have her take over Bonadea's post." There was another heavy sigh before Devillare added, "You relieve Egeria after you get some rest."
Lexine worked to keep the smirk off her face as she smartly saluted and left before the captain could rescind her order and call her back again. With a satisfied smile of her own, Iphinome retreated towards the fireplace to finish her cleanup.
The captain looked to Gabrielle, already knowing the words about to form on her Queen's lips. How often had Reyvanne called her out for doing the very same thing; anticipating an order before it was given?
"It's my duty to follow my Queen's commands," Devillare smoothly cut Gabrielle off. "Just as I am also honor-bound to do everything in my power to protect the life of my Queen."
Ephiny paused from working the leather, watching the exchange with interest. Her gaze darted to her packmate. Solari had been uncharacteristically quiet throughout. She was standing still, leaning on her staff, her head lowered, eyes closed.
She's tired, Ephiny thought, that excursion took more out of her than she'll admit.
"No," Gabrielle shook her head. "You're right, of course. I would have given the command. I trust Xena's judgment. And yours." She offered the captain a tiny smile. "Just give me a chance to make the call next time, okay?"
"Yes, my Queen." Devillare nodded, giving formal salute.
Now that duty is done - the captain turned her attention to Solari, fully intending to antagonize her over an aged warrior's continued ability to sneak up on hapless scouts. Instead, her teasing barb froze on her lips.
The brunette had remained standing throughout her report to the royals. Albeit, standing meant mostly leaning. Judging from the stark delineation of the muscles in her forearm, Devillare guessed the scout was resting her full weight upon that staff tucked beneath her arm.
Her head was lowered, her gaze down. But, Devillare clearly spied the puckered brow and the clamminess of her skin. Her gaze traveled lower, down the winter cloak Solari still wore, despite the warmer temperatures inside the inn. The cloak was long, ending just above leather boots heavily caked in mud.
Solari started as she felt a hand close about her elbow. She looked up, finding herself staring into eyes the same shade of her sword's blade. The captain's gaze was unwavering and Solari felt her cheeks flush beneath the silent appraisal.
"You've done your duty, scout; time to let go."
Gabrielle and Ephiny had been sitting at the table, Gabrielle chattering on, wondering what her warrior had gotten herself up to now while Eph silently worked at the bracer. As Devillare's words registered, they both looked to the two women standing beside the table. Solari was staring at the captain, a look of incomprehension on her face.
"You've delivered your message. The Queen is safe. Your duty is done," Devillare repeated the mantra in a low tone that was designed to imply safety.
As the words sank in, something within Solari broke. The strength she'd been clutching to abandoned her. Her knees buckled and she felt herself falling.
"Devillare, catch her!" Gabrielle commanded, coming up out of her chair.
The order was unnecessary. The captain was already there. On some level, she'd been anticipating the scout's collapse. She caught her, easily supporting her upper body as her feet dragged uselessly on the floor behind her.
Ephiny was there, her arms going about her packmate in a fierce hug as the captain worked to strip the quivers from off Solari's back. Ephiny's gaze locked on the pool of blood seeping into the floorboards. Her eyes narrowed as she spotted the steady rivulet of crimson coming from beneath Solari's cloak. Shaking fingers pushed the thick cloak aside, revealing the bandage about her thigh drenched in blood.
"Oh, Solari." Ephiny's voice broke. "Why didn't you say something?"
Solari clung to Ephiny. She closed her eyes, drank in the strength of her packmate. She didn't know how long Ephiny would allow the embrace, but she would take every heartbeat she could get.
"Needed - needed to warn you."
"Yeah, well, you could have done that while Iphinome was treating you, you stubborn daughter of a bacchae."
"Xena said once I was down, I wouldn't be getting up anytime soon." Solari winced as a stabbing pain lanced through her thigh. "Wanted...wanted to stand on my own just a while longer."
Gabrielle looked to Iphinome. The healer was kneeling on the floor, cutting away the sodden bandage and examining the leg as best she could from her current angle. She met her Queen's gaze, nodded her head in confirmation of Xena's diagnosis.
"Most of the stitches have ripped out. The wound's reopened. Gods, what is that; mud?" Iphinome let slip as she inserted her fingertips into the wound and drew out a dark substance, rolling it between her fingers. "The wound has to be irrigated. She'll need to lay flat. And still."
"Do it," Gabrielle commanded.
"Aww, no, no, no. Not again." Darius' voice rang out as he approached the group of Amazons. "Come on, Gabrielle. Not my bar. I got a business." His eyes pleaded with the little blonde. "Please?"
Both Ephiny and Devillare looked like they were ready to use their hunting knives to remove the innkeeper from his hide. Gabrielle reached out a hand, placing it on Ephiny's arm, stilling her regent.
"Of course, Darius." To the Amazons, she said, "He's right. It's not sanitary. And, if Solari's going to be incapacitated for any amount of time, I want her to be as comfortable and secure as possible. She can't be either with a tavern full of drunken Potadeians gawking at her."
"There's no one here now," Ephiny protested.
"Trust me, Ephiny. They'll be here soon enough. If the farmers can't work their fields because of the weather, their only other choices are staying home with their wives or drinking."
"Nothing says we have to let them in."
A warning look from Gabrielle silenced Darius before he had chance to raise protest. "Ephiny, we can't interfere with Darius' right to make a livelihood."
Ephiny had that look that said she thought they could do precisely that. In seasons past, she would have rolled her eyes and huffed at Gabrielle's soft-hearted consideration. In the days since becoming regent, it seemed that the hot-blooded warrior had learned some diplomacy. Well, as much as any Amazon could. The eye-rolling was gone, but the puff of heated air that sent blonde hair lifting off her forehead was still there. As were the folded arms and annoyed tapping of her foot.
Gabrielle calmly looked at her friend, as if waiting for Ephiny to say something. And, somehow, Ephiny knew whatever objections she might voice, Gabrielle would have a sensible comeback. Gods, I hate that, Ephiny thought.
Warriors were easy. Their arguments were passionate and heated and usually ended when someone got whacked by a staff. Arguing with a bard was - hard. Ephiny was staring at Gabrielle, debating on if it was really worth it when she remembered Xena's words of wisdom whispered in her ear - Never argue with a bard. You can't hope to win against someone who makes a living with words.
"If we're moving her," Iphinome advised, "it needs to be now."
Gabrielle looked to the captain. "Devillare?"
Devillare resolutely nodded. Ephiny shifted, giving her burden over to the older warrior. Devillare found herself crouched down in front of the scout, nearly nose to nose. Big brown bedroom eyes stared directly back at her.
Solari's arms were draped over Devillare's broad shoulders. She felt boneless, her entire upper body limp against the warrior's. One of Solari's feathered shoulder guards tickled at Devillare's nose. She sniffed and moved, trying to evade the annoying feather. The shift caused a moan to escape Solari's lips.
Devillare tensed at the sound, the heated breath that tickled her ear. She took a steadying breath, licked her lips. Steeling herself, she asked, "You ready, scout?"
"Ready," Solari grimaced. "Just watch where you're putting those big paws of yours, warrior."
"You should be so lucky."
Devillare braced herself, lifting with her legs. She tried to be as gentle as possible in her efforts not to cause the scout any more discomfort than necessary. Ephiny was beside them, a soothing hand stroking through brunette tresses as she whispered childhood promises made long ago to her packmate. Gabrielle rushed ahead of them, leading the way and holding open the door leading into the inn's interior. Iphinome gathered up her bag of supplies and followed.
Solari felt queasy at the intense feeling of vertigo. She clung to the warrior, using her frame as a point of reference to ground herself. She felt the powerful arms tighten about her, smelled the strong scent of oiled leather. Taking comfort in the familiar smell, Solari rested her cheek against the captain's shoulder guard. Not that she would ever admit it, but she felt...safe...in the warrior's arms. Solari felt her eyelids closing. And, instead of fighting this time, she finally let go.
Solari's screams tore through the walls.
Devillare remained at attention, trying to ignore the heart-rending sounds. Darius appeared at the interior door leading from the bar, wiping his hands on a rag, looking anxious. As soon as he spotted Devillare staring back at him, he gave a curt nod and made a hasty retreat.
She's shrewd, Devillare thought, realizing that Gabrielle had more than the well-being of Darius' coin purse in mind when she agreed to have Solari moved out of the bar.
She'd had Devillare carry her down the corridor, not quite as far as the double-doors leading into that big room that the regent had secured as her temporary office. Four doors down, the room she'd chosen wasn't spacious. There was a bed, a chest, a table and a chair and little else. There were definitely better rooms to be had.
Not that the interior decor mattered. No, what was important here was security, not aesthetics. There was no view. Because there was no window. The shutters had long ago been nailed shut, boards secured crossways over the framework. There'd be no getting in or out that way.
Any intruders would have to either come in through the main door as Gabrielle had done when she'd first come in search of her parents. Or, through the interior entrance leading from the bar where Devillare had spied upon Solari's initial confrontation with Lexine. Either way, they would need to come down the long corridor if they wanted to reach any of the rooms. With the captain of the guard positioned directly outside her door, the chief scout's safety was assured.
If she survives what Iphinome's doing to her, Devillare thought as another anguished cry resounded in her ears. The warrior glanced over her shoulder, eyeing the door. Resolutely, she drew herself to attention again.
Of their own accord, she felt her eyes drifting towards the closed door again. Devillare berated herself for her wandering eyes. A guard was supposed to do just that - guard. But, it had been many seasons since she'd been a mere guard. Many more since she'd been their captain. She was first and foremost, a warrior. And, warriors acted.
With a deep sigh, she placed a hand on the latch, opening the door.
"Stop," Gabrielle pleaded. "Just stop."
Solari was face down on the bed. Her hand desperately clutched at the edge of the bed, knuckles white as fingernails dug into the wool blanket draped over the straw-filled mattress. Her other arm was protectively curled about the down-filled pillow. There was a growing wet spot as the brunette's teeth clenched about the pillowcase.
Ephiny knelt on the floor at the end of the bed. Her arms were about Solari in an awkward hug. She was leaning forward, her forehead pressed against her packmate's. She kept her voice low and calm as she tried to soothe the clearly suffering Amazon.
Iphinome had one knee braced on the bed and one foot on the floor as she leaned over, trying to see by the dim light given off by the brazier positioned on the wall above the headboard. She held a waterskin in one hand, a reed securely fastened through a cork at the opening. By squeezing on the skin, she was able to force a pressurized stream of water through the reed to flush the blood out of her way as she used a herringbone needle to extract foreign debris.
So far, she'd managed to get out several caked on layers of mud. She was rooting around, trying to dig out what looked like a blade of wheat grass. Every time she managed to almost get her fingers upon the end of the blade, it would stubbornly move this way or that and she'd lose it back into the open wound again. Gritting her teeth, giving serious debate to just thrusting both her fingers in there and being done with it, Iphinome determinedly once again gave chase with her needle.
The needle slipped off the edge of the blade of wheat grass, driving deeper into the wound. Solari tensed impossibly tighter, an animalistic howl erupting from deep within her throat.
"You're hurting her." This time, Gabrielle placed her hand upon Iphinome's arm, stilling her before she could thrust the needle home again. "Stop. Now."
Iphinome stood back, breathing heavily. She felt a twinge in her lower back as she finally straightened from her leaned over position. She hadn't realized how intense her work had been until she had a chance to breathe. She used a cloth to wipe sweat from her brow and critically eyed her work.
"The wound has to be irrigated," she said. "If infection takes root, she could lose the leg." Iphinome looked to her queen, hoping her words conveyed the seriousness of the situation. "If disease takes hold, even amputation may not stop its spread."
"She's in agony. Give her a stronger dose to deaden the pain."
Gabrielle didn't like the way the assistant healer suddenly averted her eyes, refusing to look at her.
"Iphinome? Did you hear me? I said to give her a stronger dose."
"What?" Gabrielle was certain she hadn't heard what she'd thought she'd just heard Iphinome mumble.
"I didn't give her anything."
Ephiny's head snapped up. "What?!?" If the regent could have figured out a quicker way to get up off the floor without putting more strain on her injured ankle, she would have been across the room and throttling the healer.
As it was, Gabrielle was already there, using both hands to push Iphinome away from Solari.
"Let me get this straight; you're just aggressively rooting around inside her open wound and you didn't think to give her something to deaden the pain? What kind of an idiot are you?"
"I'm not stupid." Iphinome gritted her teeth. It wouldn't be permissible to hit the Queen; they never forgave that sort of behavior. "I couldn't give her any pain killers because I have none to give."
"I thought this was addressed with Xena. You were to replenish your supplies, healer."
Iphinome caught the formal designation, the displeasure in her Queen's tone. Iphinome ducked her head beneath the stern stare of green eyes. She had this overwhelming feeling of shame, as if she'd disappointed one of her mothers. Inexplicably, she found herself shuffling her feet upon the hardwood floor. When she spoke, even to her own ears, her voice sounded as small as that of a scolded toddler's.
"I - I tried, my Queen. I could only find enough wild aloe to harvest a small batch. It was barely enough to create a paste for Lexine's needs."
"Potadeia has its own healer. You should have visited his shop."
"I did. He refused my coin."
"It's true," said Ephiny. Gabrielle looked to her regent. Ephiny remained kneeling before Solari, stroking her fingers through chestnut locks in a loving, soothing manner even as she confirmed the ugly truth of Iphinome's words. "Ever since their elders made their proclamation against helping Amazons, none of their shopkeepers will sell us their wares."
"Darius - "
" - didn't turn us out. But, they refuse to sell any supplies to him that they believe would be funneled to us."
Gabrielle let out a groan of frustration.
Ephiny hated to make the suggestion, but she had to ask, "Satyr-cloves?"
Iphinome shook her head. She'd known she should have had more than enough. Was positive she did when she left the Nation. Ever since her less than pleasant encounter with the Queen's consort, she'd been thinking heavily on that. She was certain she'd had more than enough of all her supplies. Clearly, though, some things had gone missing. And, she'd been wondering which of her sisters had developed a secret penchant for herbs.
It wasn't unheard of. Certainly, even their head healer, Megara, was known to partake of a supplement to ease her endless bouts of restless slumber. Both her assistants, and no doubt her bondmate, were aware that she would burn her special herb in a small dish, inhaling the sweet smoke that soon relaxed her enough so she could sleep.
No, having sisters that indulged in herbs and draughts was neither surprising nor shocking. What was disturbing, though, was that one of them was so obviously addicted that she felt the need to sneak her stash. It was an act that endangered the well-being of them all.
"My Queen?" Iphinome's eyes went to Solari. The chief scout was writhing against the bed, despite Ephiny's urgings to remain still. Blood pooled in the gaping wound, spilling out onto her bare thigh and soaking the bed covers. "I know it's agony, but I must proceed."
"No." Gabrielle's hand closed about Iphinome's wrist, preventing her from using the waterskin and reed to clear more blood from the wound. "Wait. Argo's saddlebags are in my room. Xena always keeps healing supplies on hand."
Gabrielle was across the room, pressing down on the latch, pulling open the door. Devillare was coming through the door in the same instant and nearly stumbled over the shorter royal.
Devillare felt a steadying hand on her arm as Gabrielle slid past her into the corridor. The captain looked to the occupants of the room, then to the Queen. Wordlessly, she started to follow.
"It's okay, Devillare. Stay with them." Gabrielle turned to look back at Iphinome. There was a cold edge to the Queen's voice that before today, her subjects had been unaccustomed to hearing. "Don't you dare lay a hand on her until I get back. Captain, see that it's done."
Iphinome wiped the blood from her hands. She gathered the soiled linens and rags and tucked them into her bag. She would feed them to the fire as soon as she returned to the warm tavern and its large hearth.
"That's all I can do. The best thing for her now is rest."
"Thank you, Iphinome," said Gabrielle. "You should get some as well."
The healer nodded, took her leave.
Gabrielle looked down at the blood upon her hands, hastily used some of the remaining water to wash it away. Blood had always disturbed her. Especially blood upon her hands. Now, she found it even more disturbing when that blood was from one of her beloved Amazons.
Upon her return, Gabrielle had assisted Iphinome, helping to irrigate the wound as Iphinome's needle dug deep into flesh. Despite her aversion to blood, Gabrielle had endured, providing Iphinome with a much needed second set of hands. Now that the procedure was complete and Iphinome was gone, Gabrielle collapsed into the nearby chair.
Devillare stood at the door, leaning against the wall, arms folded over her chest. It didn't escape Gabrielle's notice, however, that the captain had taken to guarding the door from the inside. Or that her attention clearly wasn't focused on the corridor outside, but rather on the room's inhabitants.
Gabrielle's gaze drifted to Solari. Thankfully, the draught she'd mixed had dulled Solari's senses enough that she hadn't been in more pain. It hadn't been strong enough to put her out; Xena avoided using anything that had the power to completely incapacitate. Gabrielle understood. Out on the open road, it was foolhardy to take something that might hamper her ability to defend them from trouble. And, as she quickly learned in her first days of traveling with Xena, danger was waiting around every bend in the road.
Solari had fared admirably. It was clear that she was still in pain, despite ingesting the entire mug of the concoction Gabrielle had presented to her. She'd bravely held onto the bed with her good hand and bit down on one of Ephiny's gauntlets, sharp teeth leaving deep impressions in the leather. If Ephiny had been surprised when Solari grabbed her hand and brought her wrist to her mouth, she hadn't shown it. The regent endured the indignity of having her gauntlet drooled on like a pup's chew toy with quiet stoicism. Gabrielle wasn't entirely certain if it was warrior bravado that motivated her or a need to muffle Solari's screams.
Now that the draught had taken full effect, Solari was more relaxed. Not to the extent that she'd been while under the influence of the Satyr-cloves. But, enough that she clearly wasn't feeling the pain now. It was obvious, though, that the ordeal had drained her. She rested with her head turned to the side, her cheek pressed against Ephiny's arm as she twined and untwined one of the regent's golden curls about her finger.
Ephiny indulged her, remaining seated upon the floor, back and shoulder propped against the bed as she endured Solari's playing with her hair. Her head was bent, her brow furrowed in concentration as she worked with the bracer she was holding.
"What is that you're doing?" Gabrielle asked, leaning forward in her chair. "You've been fiddling with those bracers ever since Solari gave them to you."
Ephiny had just finished pulling the last piece of cording through an eyelet. Strong fingers worked to pries apart the two pieces of leather. She looked up at Gabrielle, as if surprised that the bard didn't know what she'd been working on. Or why.
"Putting names to our would-be assassins." Gabrielle's expression remained blank. Clearly, her Queen hadn't read that particular scroll in the library. Probably daydreaming about Xena instead of focusing on her history lessons.
Given the rather dubious task of "see that she's trained" as instructed by Melosa, Ephiny had personally marched the young princess to the library and made her sit on a hardwood bench as she'd pulled down stack after stack of musty scrolls and pointed a demanding finger at them as she commanded, "Read them". After a candlemark, she'd left Gabrielle there and gone off to spar with Eponin, confident in the fact that the princess would be stuck there until her butt had gone numb. Or she got splinters. Whichever came first.
"The name of every Amazon is etched into the interior lining of her bracers. It's a practice that dates back to our earliest recorded wars. During battle," Ephiny took a deep breath, obviously disturbed by what she added next, "or when an Amazon is captured and raped, her body may become so severely damaged that a positive identification is impossible. Sometimes, this is done on purpose. To either hide the crime or as a means of torturing her family more. There have been times when all that remains is a skeleton picked clean by Harpies."
"What's to keep your enemies from simply taking the bracers?"
"No one, save another Amazon, knows of this practice. It's one that you yourself were unaware of. A face may be disfigured, a corpse may rot, an arm may even be severed. But, it's unlikely that anyone will take the effort to hack off both arms. As long as one bracer remains intact, an Amazon can be named."
A final tug had the two pieces of leather pulled far enough apart that Ephiny could clearly read the engraving.
"Whose is it?" Gabrielle asked, seeing the frown marring her friend's features.
"I'm not sure. The name seems familiar, but I can't place it."
Ephiny showed the bracer to Solari. The scout turned her head, dreamy eyes staring blankly at the piece of leather. When she received no reaction, Ephiny tossed the bracer to Devillare.
The captain reached up a hand, easily one-handed catching it. Strong fingers peeled the leather back, sharp eyes studying the name. She looked at the regent, started to shrug her shoulders, when she remembered.
"She's a hunter. Think back three, no four winters ago. She was withholding meat from the tribe."
Ephiny snapped her fingers. "That's right. I remember her now. She was stashing the best cuts in a cave in the foothills, then curing it and selling it to traders in the area."
"I remember her, too," drifted up Solari's soft voice. "Big, grisly woman. Think she ate more than she sold."
"Every hunter has sworn an oath to provide for the tribe." Gabrielle was proud that she'd recalled that bit of information from her long-ago lessons. "By keeping food from the children, the mothers, the elders, the warriors, she deprived the entire nation. What did you do when you caught her?"
"I think at that time, we were faced with an unseasonably harsh winter. Game was scarce. The entire tribe was feeling the pangs of hunger," said Devillare. She vividly remembered countless nights of taking no more than two or three bites of her meal, then giving the rest over to a hungry child. In her mind, it was better to feed a child and provide for the future than it was to honor an elder with full portions. "When her crime was discovered, her punishment was severe. She was sentenced to life at hard labor to compensate the tribe for those lives that needlessly suffered because of her."
"Obviously, she got out," Ephiny deadpanned.
"Who's to say she ever made it to the prison? Gryta was a guard and she's obviously riding with the renegades." The contempt when she said Gryta's name resounded clearly in Solari's tone. "We all saw Cordele, Keleos and Kynthia. I'd wager none of them ever saw the inside of those prison walls, either."
Ephiny's hand stroked down Solari's cheek and over her arm, offering support and reassurance. Solari felt...loved. She attempted to nuzzle deeper into Ephiny's arm. A memory flashed in her mind - of her and Ephiny in each other's arms, of Ephiny's rejection, and her realization that it had been Eponin she'd intended to meet. Solari found herself biting down on her bottom lip to keep from adding Eponin's name to the growing list of candidates that had been sentenced to prison and never made it there.
That would only hurt Ephiny. And gain nothing. Solari vowed to say nothing. If anyone saw the tear glistening at the corner of her eye, she was sure they would attribute it to the pain of her injury.
Gabrielle paced the length of the room, her repetitive footsteps threatening to wear a path into the floorboards. It was a habit she'd had since a child; whenever she was trying to think through a problem - or whenever she was just plain bothered by something - she paced.
Ephiny, Solari and Devillare watched in silence.
Gabrielle's hands had started out with her fingers laced behind her back. As she'd gotten into her pacing and her agitation had grown, though, she'd taken to muttering beneath her breath and pounding an open palm with her fist. As she reached the far wall and turned around again, her mutterings had increased to full-out grumbling.
"Okay, so her, we know nothing about."
Gabrielle had stopped her pacing and was now pointing at the second bracer Ephiny had disassembled. No one amongst them had recognized the name of the second would-be assassin. Ephiny had tried to explain to her bard-Queen that it was possible they just didn't know her. There were many sisters in the Amazon Nation; it wasn't feasible for them to remember every single name. Perhaps when they got back to the village, they could look it up in the birth/death scrolls housed in the library.
"This one, though," Gabrielle pointed at the other bracer, "you're positive she was exiled three, four winters ago?"
"I don't get it."
Solari felt her irritation grow. She'd been feeling decidedly tranquil as the effects of the draught had taken hold. That proved to be short lived as the bard's pacing managed to successfully harsh her mellow. Even though her body still felt relaxed, her mind was in churning turmoil. And, Gabrielle's incessant talking about the situation was starting to get on her last feathered nerve.
"Gryta's corrupt. Her riding in with Cordele and the renegades prove that." We thought she'd been killed in the attack, her body lost. Now, we find out she turned on Pel, leaving her to freeze to death. "No telling how many more of the guard are. They've been letting criminals escape for seasons. Now, they're coming to kill the Queen. What part don't you get?"
"Solari - " Ephiny's tone had an edge to it.
"It's okay, Eph." Gabrielle waved off her regent. "Solari can be forgiven; she's still under the influence."
Ephiny cast a sidelong glance at Gabrielle. True, Solari's tongue had no doubt been loosened by first the Satyr cloves and then the draught. But, Ephiny still recalled a time in their recent past when Solari had also been critical of their Queen. I attributed that to the effects of the enchanted bracer. I wonder; How much of what she said then did she truly believe?
"Gryta was corrupt, I'll give you that. We have to presume the prison outpost is secure, though. You've received regular reports from the warden?" Gabrielle asked Ephiny.
"Written in her own hand," the regent nodded, "the reports delivered at regular intervals with the returning supply wagons."
"Then, they haven't taken control of the prison. We can also assume that the 'escapes' aren't occurring within the prison walls themselves. Even if some of the guards, even if the warden herself was corrupt, word would have reached our ears. They couldn't quiet everyone."
"They had to be turned loose on the trail between the village and the prison," Ephiny agreed.
"And, it couldn't be every prisoner or the warden would have sent inquiry." Devillare looked to the scout. "So, not every member of the guard is corrupt."
"Of course not. No one thinks that." Gabrielle reached out a hand, stroking it down Devillare's arm in a similar fashion to one she'd adopted when she needed to calm her own warrior. "But, is it possible that they were able to arrange it so that only those that are could work together?"
Devillare shrugged. "It's possible, I suppose. As captain, Pelagia dictated the shift rotations. I don't think she's part of this, though. From what I've seen since taking over her duties, I'd say she's loyal to the Queen and fair with her people. As with most squad leaders, I'm sure she's allowed them to switch shifts amongst themselves so long as their duties were covered."
"It's feasible that they manipulated their way onto certain prison details," said Gabrielle.
"They've been selective about who they recruit, then. Probably picking the most disgruntled ones; those with the biggest labrys to grind."
"What I don't get," Gabrielle gave the chief scout a long look that indicated her slight may have been forgiven, but not yet forgotten, "is why now? If these 'escapes' have been going on for at least the past three winters, why hasn't anyone come after the Queen's mask before now?"
Devillare started to rub her chin in thought. As her finger connected with her forgotten injury, she jerked her hand away. "It takes time to raise an opposing force."
"Velasca seemingly raised one overnight."
"Velasca was Melosa's adopted daughter. Many considered her royalty and thought she had legitimate claim," reminded Ephiny. "It would have been much more difficult if she'd been just an ordinary warrior, hunter or scout. Nearly impossible if she'd been of any of the other castes. And, remember, even though Velasca already had the support of many, even she didn't have an organized, trained group of followers. Before her attempted coup, she had to make certain key members of the royal guard and the warriors were out of the village. She had the numbers, but they were more mob than skilled. If she hadn't found and ingested the ambrosia that gave her the powers of a God, our warriors would have easily taken back the village upon their return."
"It wouldn't have been that easy," said Devillare. "The village would have been retaken eventually, but not before it was torn apart by civil war."
Something flickered in Devillare's eyes. Gabrielle had noticed the same haunted look once before. It had been when she'd last been in the village. They'd been having a discussion and the elder had made the cryptic comment "Love makes a fool out of all of us".
"Kind of makes me miss the days of Velasca," sighed Gabrielle. "At least with that sadistic bitch, you knew where you stood."
"Tied spread-eagled facedown on her bed if you weren't careful."
All heads rapid-fire turned to Solari. She was stretched out on the bed, oblivious to the fact that she was in a position eerily similar to the one she had just described.
Ephiny looked to Gabrielle, inexplicably feeling the need to explain. "Velasca had something of a reputation for - ah - um - " Ephiny helplessly made a gesture indicating the bed.
"I get it." Gabrielle's face turned crimson as she stared at Solari's rather undignified position.
"What?" Solari asked, blinking up at queen, regent and captain. Her pupils were impossibly large due, no doubt a side effect to the strong draught in her system. The scout's head tilted back too far, lolling on her shoulders. Following everyone else's gazes, she turned her head at an awkward angle until she could see part of her back and tailfeathers. A raucous guffaw erupted from her lips. "Oh, no! Not me! I was never on Velasca's list of things to do."
I think I'm high on her list of things to do, Ephiny had said when Xena and she had asked the Amazon warrior if she could intercept, distract and delay Velasca. Despite Xena's warnings to be careful and not get anyone killed, Gabrielle had wondered how it was that Ephiny and a handful of Amazons could have hoped to stand against a Goddess.
Both Gabrielle's brows rose and it was now Ephiny's turn to blush scarlet. Seeing Gabrielle eyeing her speculatively, the regent vehemently shook her head, denial pouring forth from her lips. "She never had me in her bed, either."
"Not for lack of trying," smirked Solari. "You were always high up on that list of hers and you know it."
Devillare overtly cleared her throat. "Think we're getting off topic."
"Right. Anyway, the point is that Velasca was able to move so quickly against Melosa and you - " Ephiny indicated Gabrielle " - because her status provided her support."
"These are just common criminals, renegades. It would take time to bring enough of them together, to train them to be a cohesive force. Armies aren't cheap. They'd need money for food and supplies."
Common criminals. Renegades. Renegades. Solari's foggy brain locked on that word. It was familiar. She had heard it. Recently. Like that very day recently. But, her elusive memories were like quicksilver and she had trouble catching them.
Solari suddenly snapped her fingers. The noise echoed loudly in the room. She looked up sheepishly, seeing three sets of eyes on her.
"Renegades," Solari said. She waited, but no one else seemed to react. Then, she realized she hadn't said the rest out loud yet. "Renegades. When we were walking back to Pity - Potty - Potato - town... Xena said there were other towns, towns that bordered Amazon lands that had been raided, razed to the ground."
Ephiny's mouth dropped open and she stared at her Queen in disbelief. "Gabrielle, is that true?"
Gabrielle screwed her eyes shut and silently nodded in admission.
Ephiny abruptly stood up. With her human pillow suddenly gone, Solari's cheek unceremoniously thumped against the surface of the bed. She gave her packmate a less-than-kind look.
Ephiny didn't notice. She was already standing in front of Gabrielle, a hand clasped on her friend's shoulder. "Gabrielle, why didn't you say something?"
"I - There hasn't been time."
Even as the words came tumbling from her mouth, Gabrielle knew that wasn't true. Amazon renegades are razing towns, murdering men, women and children. There. How long would it have taken to say that? Truth was, she hadn't wanted to make the time, hadn't wanted to tell it out loud.
"That's a lie. I should have taken the time. But, Ephiny, I swear; at first, I didn't know. We kept finding town after town, whole communities destroyed. I - I wasn't handling it well and Xena - she took me to Amphipolis to shelter me until I guess she thought I was ready. But, truth is - truth is, I didn't want to see that it was Amazons." Gabrielle's nose was red, her eyes brimming with tears. She released a shuddering breath. "Oh, Ephiny. When we found that Amazon dying in the ruins of Demeter's temple, I thought she was just another victim. I couldn't - didn't want to - face that Amazons were responsible."
"Gods, Gabrielle." Ephiny felt her throat constricting with emotion. "If we'd known then, we could have tried tracking them - No." Ephiny resolutely shook her head. "No. You aren't to blame. The presence of one lone Amazon shouldn't have been enough to make you suspicious. Amazons don't always go around in packs. How many times did I travel alone outside the Nation?" Seeing the pointed look from the captain of the guard, Ephiny quickly amended, "When I was just another warrior. Before I became regent. No way would I think of stepping a boot outside our borders without an escort now."
"This from the woman that's barefoot," Devillare pointed out.
Ephiny smiled sheepishly. So, there'd been that one time. She'd been annoyed by the guard stationed outside her office. She had a habit of chewing a rubber paste that Xena had taught them how to make from the sap of trees. Ephiny was positive Xena had showed them just to irritate her. Not only could it be chewed, but they soon discovered they could make noise with it and blow bubbles and use it to stick pieces of parchment to the walls. This particular guard had perfected the art of noise making; the sound of smacking driving the regent to distraction.
Finally, she couldn't stand it anymore. Ephiny had pushed aside the treaty negotiations she'd been reading and thrown her quill down on the desk and snuck out the window. She'd been well into the forest and on her way to the river when she'd run into Devillare, leaning against a tree, ankles crossed, arms folded across her chest, a stern look on her face.
Ephiny huffed, rolled her eyes and hung her head as she was dutifully marched back to her office. But, really, I was nowhere near the border.
That had been the first and only time under Devillare's watch that the regent had tried to ditch her royal guards.
Gabrielle wasn't finished berating herself. "You're right, Ephiny. If I had sent word sooner, maybe so many lives wouldn't have been needlessly wasted. Gods, I'm so stupid!" Gabrielle ducked her head, scrubbing her hands across her face and through her hair, fingers clenching into fists. "She was an Amazon. One of my sisters. She was dying and she spoke to me as if she knew me. And, I didn't even know her name. Didn't even have the thought to ask before she passed on."
"Gabrielle, what's done is done and there's no point in blaming yourself for things you have no control over. You can't expect to know every Amazon by name. I don't."
"Yeah, right." Gabrielle snorted.
"Honest. You know, there's a seamstress in the village. Before every Solstice feast, she presents me with a brand new set of ceremonial leathers. Has every winter since I took the regent's crown. Does magnificent work. For the life of me, though, I can't tell you her name."
Gabrielle wasn't convinced. "What does that say about us as royalty, Ephiny? That we can't remember the names of our sisters?"
"It says that the Amazons are growing and thriving and prospering beneath our joint reign." Ephiny tightened her handclasp about Gabrielle's shoulder. "We're only mortals, Gabrielle. Artemis knows we can't be expected to know the name of every Amazon that ever lived."
"Gods! That's it. I am such an idiot!" Gabrielle slapped her hand against her forehead. "She lived. She lived as an Amazon."
"I've lived for far too long to be subjected to this sort of abuse."
"Would you shut up already?" growled Lyonene. "You've done nothing but bitch the whole way back."
"If you weren't my own age, I swear I'd beat you with a staff." Tynette drew up short so suddenly that her horse bumped into her, jostling her forward. "That's the problem with today's Amazons, you know. No respect for their elders. Spare the staff, spoil the child, I say."
Lyonene grunted as she took the saddle off her mare. "There are no children here, you senile old coot."
"Exactly. They grow up. Look at that milksop Lexine. I remember her from when she was a toddler, always running around, pushing and shoving the other kids her age. Half the adults, too. With her mothers never saying word one to her about it. Ill-mannered children grow into ill-mannered Amazons, I tell you."
Lyonene began brushing out her mare's coat. She tossed another brush at Tynette so she could care for her own horse. No way was she going to do all the work on both mounts while the only thing Tynette exercised was her gums.
"Hard to believe you once had one of your own."
"I raised her right, too. With values and manners. Both my grandchildren, too. They never sassed their elders." There was a half-heartbeat before Tynette added, "Twice."
Goddess Artemis, bless Paxynne's memory. She must have had the patience of a Hestian to put up with Tynette's surly old tailfeathers for as many seasons as she did.
After the battle, when she'd spotted Tynette in the blacksmith's shop, she couldn't think of anything else except bending her over a workbench and thrusting her fingers beneath her leathers and relentlessly jamming and twisting them into her steaming wetness. Now, hearing the elder hunter going on and on about proper childrearing and what was wrong with today's Amazons, Lyonene praised Artemis that they'd been interrupted before her battle lust could be sated with Tynette.
Gods, talk about dodging an arrow. Bad enough we did it the night of the feast. At least I was drunk and can't remember any of it. The morning after was bad enough -
Lyonene shook her head, clearing the cobwebs from her mind. Tynette had already replaced the brush she'd been using on the wall hook and filled a bucket of oats, placing it in front of her mare. Lyonene gave her horse's tail a few final strokes and a loving pat for good measure. By the time she readied her mare's bucket, Tynette was already on her way out of the stables.
Lyonene hurriedly fastened her cloak about herself. She grabbed the latch of the stable door, using her full weight to swing it open. She stepped out into the freezing rain, feeling the ice-laden drops stinging her face. She quickly pulled the hood of her cloak up and looked around for Tynette.
She'd expected her fellow hunter to be halfway to the inn. Instead, she spotted her heading in the opposite direction.
"Hey!" Lyonene called out. Tynette gave no indication that she'd heard her. "You're going the wrong way."
Lyonene looked towards the inn. Bonadea had delivered her message and then rode back ahead of them. Her horse was already stabled and she was no doubt already taking up her post inside the inn. Devillare's orders had been for them to return as quickly as possible. An order that had not set well with Tynette, not well at all.
"Hey!" Lyonene called after Tynette again. Whether she couldn't hear above the rain - or simply chose not to, Lyonene wasn't certain.
Lyonene looked to the inn again, tempted to leave Tynette to weather Devil's temper on her own. She'd made up her mind to do just that. Resolutely, she drew her cloak tighter about her shoulders. Lyonene took all of three steps before stopping.
"Stupid, deaf old bacchae."
With an exasperated huff and a roll of her eyes, she set off after Tynette.
Lyonene's long legs quickly ate up the distance between them and she caught up to Tynette just after she'd stepped foot into the shop. She reached out, grabbing Tynette, her grip closing about her cloak at the elbow.
"What are you doing?"
"Wh - at?" Tynette's voice cracked. Her eyes gave testament to the fact that she hadn't heard Lyonene's approach.
"We're meant to be at the inn."
"I - " Tynette's gaze darted about the blacksmith's shop. "I - wanted to see about oil for my saddle. It's been out in this miserable weather for so long, it needs to be treated."
Lyonene cocked her head to the side. Saddle oil? It was an odd thing for Tynette to think of, especially when they were preparing for another attack. And, the way she'd caught her off-guard...Lyonene narrowed her eyes in suspicion.
She'd seen erratic behavior before. Other elders that were seemingly fine one day then weren't the next. She'd witnessed it with one of her own mothers. There were days she couldn't remember her first name, followed by bouts of clarity in which she could describe a hunt that had happened thirty seasons ago in vivid detail, as if she were reliving it moment by moment. She'd tried not to show her hurt when her mother forgot her, forgot that she'd been bonded in love and that Artemis had blessed her and her beloved with a baby girl of their own.
It wasn't as if Lyonene had been the only one. No, her mother had slowly forgotten everyone and everything at some point or another. Her horse. Her daughter. Their home. The Queen. The only person she never forgot was her beloved bondmate, Lyonene's other mother. She did, however, forget that she'd passed on ten seasons gone. There were days she spent countless candlemarks aimlessly wandering through the village, looking for her mate, worrying when she couldn't find her. Lyonene had once made the mistake - and only once - of trying to tell her mother that her bondmate had passed on. Her mother had reacted violently in her grief, tearing clumps of her thin white hair out of her head and lashing out at anyone who came near to try to calm her.
They'd cared for her as best they could. The healers had told Lyonene that there was nothing else they could do. There were no known herbs or treatments that could cure her - and no explanation as to why her mind wasn't right. That's just the way it is sometimes with elders, she'd been told.
Indeed, Calandra herself was seemingly afflicted with the disease from time to time. How else to explain her explosive outbursts about consorts and phalluses in council sessions?
But, for Tynette to be struck --- No, Lyonene didn't want to think about it. True, Tynette was older than her, but they'd been in the same classes. And, it seemed to Lyonene that as their years lengthened, the differences in their ages didn't seem nearly so vast as they once had. Tynette herself had no longer than a candlemark ago said that they were the same age.
Tynette had always had been sharp of mind and quick of wit. With an even sharper tongue to match. Lyonene refused to think that her once-rival was beginning to lose her edge. After all, if Tynette was beginning to display signs of senility, how long before she followed? At least Tynette still had a granddaughter to care for her in her crone years. Lyonene had never bonded, never had children; she would face her senility alone.
Lyonene cursed her ability for dramatics. She lived in an Amazon village. Despite Tynette's grumbling, Amazons were raised to respect their elders. They were valued and revered and treasured. She quite literally had hundreds of sisters to care for her in her crone years.
The question that haunted Lyonene was what if she became like her mother and didn't know anyone from one day to the next? She knew her sisters would care for her. But, she didn't want to become a burden to others as her mother had become to her. She didn't want anyone else to be faced with the task of dressing her, feeding her, changing her breechcloth because she didn't have wits enough to control her own bowels.
Lyonene stole a look at Tynette. The hunter was standing still inside the blacksmith shop, looking as if she wanted to go to the workbench, but didn't because of Lyonene's restraining grip. At least her granddaughter is a healer; she's used to caring for others. Despite knowing what she thought the future would hold for Tynette, Lyonene still couldn't help feel a bit of envy and a twinge of regret for never making the time for a bonded family.
"There'll be time enough for that later," Lyonene said. Deep inside, she knew she meant for the both of them. For Tynette to care for her saddle and for Lyonene to face the truth of her impending senility.
"I need that oil," protested Tynette.
"And, our Queens need us." Lyonene's tone was firm, her grip firmer as she led Tynette from the blacksmith's and towards the inn. "Their lives may depend upon us."
"She lived as an Amazon."
Gabrielle dug to the bottom of the saddlebag, pulled out the bracer that she had taken from the dying woman in the rubble. Xena had wanted her to get rid of it. But, Gabrielle couldn't. And, after seeing the determination in her bard's eyes and hearing her reasons, the warrior princess wouldn't force her to, either. They'd compromised. Gabrielle had allowed Xena to wrap the bracer in a cloth and place it in the bottom of one of their saddlebags until it was taken home to Gabrielle's Amazon village.
"It's what you said earlier, Ephiny. An Amazon can be identified by her name etched into the lining of her bracer."
Gabrielle handed the bracer over to Ephiny. The regent took it, turning it over, examining it. Brow furrowed, she reached for her dagger.
"There's no need for that, Ephiny." Solari spoke up just as the tip of Ephiny's dagger found purchase in the leather. "I know whose bracer that is."
"You do?" Both Gabrielle's brows rose. "How?"
"Because I'm the one that sent her to her death."
"I swear, horse, you're going to be the death of me."
As if in retaliation, the horse dug its hooves into the mud, refusing to budge. Xena felt the pull in her shoulder as the reins were stretched taut and refused to give. She growled below her breath, turned to fix the horse with an icy blue stare.
"Y-es?" she drawled out the word.
The horse snorted, shook out its mane.
"Look, I'm trying to help you."
When she realized that she'd lost the trail and the horse was favoring its leg too much to be of use, she'd set them on a path back to Potadeia. She'd been glad to see the perimeter outposts that the Amazons had set up were deserted. At least Lexine had delivered that message and they'd reacted.
It was unbearably slow going back, their pace hampered by both the horse's injury and the foul weather. The rain continued to pelt down, ice lacing the drops so that each splatter against Xena's flesh felt like a thousand stinging bees. If I wasn't so thick skinned, I'd be a bruised mess by now.
As it was, even the famed warrior princess was beginning to feel the effects of the cold. Her joints ached, the pain of scores of old battle wounds making their presence known. She found her mind drifting with each step, longing for the comforts of a warm bath, a hot meal, a raging fire in the hearth. And, most of all, the arms of her hot little bard wrapped about her in bed.
"Come on, horse, let's go. Nearest shelter's in Potadeia."
The horse dug in its hooves, whinnied, shook its head from side to side.
Exasperated, Xena placed a hand on her hips.
"Keep it up and I'll leave you here."
The threat was hollow. She knew it. Worse, the horse knew it. It whinnied again, showing its teeth, bobbing its head up and down. At first, Xena thought she was being mocked.
Then, she saw it. Set back away from the road. Nestled midways between the mill and the woods she'd found Solari in.
"Nope, not Argo. But, I guess you're not so bad, either."
Xena slapped the reins against her thigh, gave a tug. The horse followed.
The outline of the building had been barely visible through the downpour. Xena had missed it the first time she'd come this way. Knew she'd miss it a second time if that horse hadn't dug in its heels and refused to budge.
Now, as she drew closer, she could see the fine plume of smoke rising from the stone chimney. There was the faint smell of gruel on the wind. A battered tavern sign swung about haphazardly, secured by only one rusted chain. The other had obviously broken off ages ago.
Xena tethered her horse to the hitching post.
"Be good and I'll bring you something," she told the horse.
Xena walked around the hitch, running her eyes over another horse tethered to the post. Her hand drifted to its mane and over its back. The horse shifted beneath her touch. The horse she'd led in snorted.
Blue eyes sent it a knowing look. "Maybe I'll bring you a tasty, snack-sized Amazon."
"What are you talking about, Solari?" asked Gabrielle. "How do you know this Amazon? What do you mean you sent her to her death?"
Solari muttered low beneath her breath.
"Soli?" asked Ephiny.
The scout huffed. She looked at Gabrielle, looking decidedly uncomfortable at having to answer the Queen's question.
"Her name's Desma."
"Desma?" Ephiny's eyebrows rose so high they nearly touched the braiding of her crown. "She's one of yours."
"What was a scout doing riding with raiders?" asked Gabrielle.
"She wasn't." Solari wet her lips before confessing, "I sent her to find you."
"For what reason?"
"To bring you back."
Gabrielle's brow furrowed. "I don't - "
" - I do." Ephiny's jaw was clenched so tight that it was possible to clearly see the outline of every one of her teeth. Nostrils flared and she directed a cold stare at Solari. "She sent Desma with instruction to bring you home, knowing that where you go, Xena goes. She wanted Xena here for the trial by combat."
"I sent Desma well before the trial by combat was issued," protested Solari. "I sent her as the opening statements for the first session were being called."
Ephiny folded her arms over her chest. "You sent her without my knowledge or my permission."
"Ephiny." Gabrielle reached out a hand, placing it on Ephiny's forearm. "Solari was clearly acting to protect Eponin."
"No, I wasn't." Solari, it seemed, was determined to shoot herself in the foot with an arrow rather than allow Gabrielle to erroneously defend her. "I was thinking of Ephiny."
Devillare had been standing motionless near the doorway. At the mention of Eponin's name - and Solari's vehement denial - she visibly stiffened. Absently, she rubbed at the bleached white scar on her hand as she forced herself to impassively listen and not act.
Gabrielle didn't like the direction this conversation was going. To think that Solari would deliberately summon the Queen's champion to a fight to the death-
"Solari, you said you acted before the trial by combat was issued. If Ephiny wasn't in any immediate danger, why would you send Desma?"
"Because I knew Cordele wasn't the only danger my regent faced." Sandalwood eyes darted to the doorway and the elder standing guard over them. "You knew the council would demand an inquiry; that there would have to be a trial. You should have stayed. Instead, Queen Gabrielle, you left. Again."
Ephiny placed herself squarely between Solari and Gabrielle, blocking the scout's view of her queen. "Gabrielle stayed as long as she could. She and Xena needed to get back on the open road..."
"...Leaving you to handle..."
There was an edge to Ephiny's tone that no one present had ever heard before. Gabrielle thought it was very much akin to the icy chill she'd once experienced in a blizzard. Like that blizzard, this too had the ability to freeze everyone and everything.
"You forget yourself." Ephiny's scowl was thunderous, the glare she fixed on Solari murderous. "It's not your place - or anyone else's - to champion me. I'm done with this."
Gabrielle, Solari and Devillare stared in stunned disbelief as Ephiny yanked the crown from her head and threw it down on the floor. She hobbled past Devillare, bumping into the captain, her elbow catching the elder warrior in the breadbasket.
The warrior couldn't have been more surprised if she'd been attacked with a feather.
Gabrielle was the first to recover. "Go after her. Don't restrain her, but don't let her leave the inn."
Devillare looked from the open doorway to the Queen, hesitation clearly showing on her face.
"Go," Gabrielle repeated. "I'll stay here until Bonadea returns."
Devillare nodded, saluted, then was on her way down the corridor after a fast-paced limping Ephiny. Gabrielle watched her for a heartbeat before turning and fixing Solari with a cold stare.
"Besides," she addressed the chief scout, "I think you and I need to have a private chat."
Gabrielle pointedly bent to pick the braided crown up from off the floor, emerald eyes never wavering from Solari.
Solari audibly gulped.
Gods be damned; since when was she ever so fast? Better yet; when did I get to be so slow?
For a warrior charged with protecting the royal family, it was disconcerting to Devillare to be so handily outpaced. Especially by one with a sprained ankle. For Gods' sake, she used to have less trouble catching Terreis - and that girl had grown into a sprinter.
It's because I was caught off-guard, Devillare reasoned. She mentally cringed as that excuse rattled about inside her brain. She was the captain of the guard, for Artemis' sake. For her, there was never an off-guard. Every heartbeat of her life was dedicated to being alert. The lives of the royal family depended upon it.
But, when was the last time she'd seen a royal remove her crown? Of course, Reyvanne removed hers every night, hanging it from the corner post on her side of their large bed. Well, not every night, Devil smirked, recalling a time when Reyvanne's leaving it on had added an extra spark to their sex life.
She'd also seen the crown removed in sorrow and grief. Reyvanne, when her sister had been slain. Melosa, when her sister, too, had been murdered. Never before had she seen or heard someone fling it away with such obvious frustration, rage and hurt.
The look on poor Ephiny's face had been torturous, the pain that echoed in her voice had been like that of a wounded animal's cry. And, like any wounded animal would do, Ephiny lashed out.
Devillare remembered a hunt she'd once gone on with her friend Nicphellia. The hunters had followed the tracks, employing stealth to creep up on a pair of wild boars. As they'd drawn near, she could see that it was a mother and her offspring, snuffling around in the leaves in a large clearing. The hunters spread out, encircling the clearing. The mother boar snorted, sniffed the air, sensing something was wrong. The hunters froze, waited until she lowered her guard again. Then, as she returned her attention to her young, they attacked; springing forth from the trees and bushes, yelling and waving their arms.
The boars bolted, the young one bleating as its short legs scrambled to keep up with its mother's. The hunters gave chase. Devillare felt her heart pounding in her chest, the unbridled exhilaration as her blood ran hot in her veins. There was a snap and a loud crashing sound. Devillare increased her speed.
As Devillare emerged from the thick underbrush, Nicphellia grabbed her by the arm, holding her back. Devillare stopped, one booted foot hanging off into thin air. Breathing heavily, sweat rolling down her face, stinging her eyes, she turned a questioning look to Nic.
Nicphellia nodded her head, indicating Devillare should look. Broken branches and leaves had covered a large hole in the path. If Nicphellia hadn't grabbed her, Devil would have fallen in.
Devillare regained her footing, peered over the edge. It wasn't a hole, so much as a pit. It was easily four feet deep and lined with sticks embedded into the mud at the base, their sharpened points aimed skywards. The infant boar was dead, its limp body skewered on three of the sharpened sticks. The mother was still alive, although she had been impaled on numerous spikes and blood drenched her thick coat. She was struggling, making a vain attempt to reach her dead young.
The hunters had surrounded the pit. They were taunting her, poking at her with their sharpened spears. The sounds of her pained howls swallowed the sound of their laughter. But, Devillare could vividly see it in their faces.
When they returned to camp with the carcass, the Queen had praised the hunters for their fine skill. She declared a feast in their honor. Devillare was in attendance, but found she couldn't in clear conscience ingest so much as a single bite. It was the last hunt Devillare ever went on.
The slamming of a door ended Devillare's reverie. Too late, she realized that the hobbling regent had reached the end of the corridor and the sanctuary of the large room she'd claimed as her temporary office. Devillare reached the double doors, paused with her hand above the latch as she heard a key being turned in the lock.
A heartbeat later, the sound of objects being thrown across the room, crashing against the walls met her ears. She imagined the splintering of wood she heard had once been a chair. No doubt, the only use to be had from it now would be as kindling for the fire. All too soon, the crashing of furniture quieted. To be replaced by a throat-rending howl.
Like a wounded animal, Devillare thought, and we're the ones that drove her into that pit.
Devillare felt a wave of guilt akin to the one she'd felt over her part in the death of the boar wash over her. Then, it had just been an animal she'd chased to its death. This time, it was Lil' Eph that they were hurting.
That she was hurting. True, she was only one voice on the Council of Elders. One voice carried one vote. Her vote had been cast in open support of the regent's rights. The council had claimed that they were acting in the best interests of the Nation in their insistence that the regent officially name consort and champion. The nearly daily sessions were, they said, a means of aiding the regent in reaching a decision. Devillare knew, though, that ultimately, the council was doing nothing more than hounding the poor girl. Like the hunters in the bush, they were shouting and shaking their spears at their frightened prey.
Devillare raised her hand to knock when she heard someone call out her name. She turned to see Bonadea marching the length of the corridor. She pulled up a few feet distant, drawing to attention, smartly saluting.
Devillare returned the crisp salute. "Has the perimeter guard returned?"
"Griping and bitching the whole way back," Bonadea couldn't suppress her smirk. "Don't know which perturbed Tynette more; that she had to pull guard duty or that you pulled her off it. She and Lyonene are stabling their horses now."
"Good. The stable's in direct line of sight from the inn. Have them both take up position so that they can see who's coming and going."
"I'll place them at corner windows."
Devillare nodded. It was a sound strategy. Both were legends with a bow. If either spotted so much as a renegade feather at the stables, they possessed the skills to hit it from the distance of the inn.
"Make sure the shutters at all the windows are secured from the inside. I don't want anyone outflanking us and sneaking in. I want Egeria at the main door of the inn. Anyone will think twice about trying to get past her. I want you at the interior door leading from the bar in case one of the renegades tries sneaking past as a patron."
"Be better to close the tavern and set up positions at the windows inside."
"The Queen favors the barkeep. She won't allow us to disrupt his business. We have full run of the entire inn. With the exception of his bar," Devillare said. Still, Bonadea's suggestion had given her an idea. "Position Lexine inside the tavern. She can act as the first line of defense in case they come in that way."
"I'll see that it's done."
The guard had already started back down the corridor. At the sound of her captain's voice, she stopped. Turning, she raised expectant eyebrows.
"Instruct the barkeep that he's to give her nothing stronger to drink than cider."
Bonadea saluted. As she turned back to her duties, she couldn't keep the smirk from her lips. She didn't know what Devillare's beef with Lexine was precisely, but she knew she was glad that it wasn't her the captain had a problem with.
"Do we have a problem?"
Solari stared dumbly up from her prone position on the bed. Gabrielle towered above her, arms crossed, foot impatiently tapping against the hardwood floor as she awaited an answer.
"Well?" she asked, one blonde brow rising. "I've always considered you a friend, Solari. But ever since I've arrived, you've been nothing but hostile."
"That's not true."
"Isn't it? At least three times now I've tried to hug you and you've avoided me each time. Then, you practically accuse me of turning my back on the Amazons."
"Haven't you, though?" Solari cursed the draught for making her tongue so loose. But, Gods knew every word that fell from her mouth was the truth. "It's nothing that hasn't been said before."
Solari shrugged. "There's been talk around the campfires. Xena, they can understand, her not being a real Amazon and all. You, though, you were given right of caste by Terreis. Then, you accepted the mask of Queen, refusing Velasca the right. If you didn't want to be our Queen, you never should have accepted."
"My heart has always been with Xena. You know that." Indeed, Gabrielle recalled her earliest days in the Amazon village. She had spent many candlemarks in Solari's company, asking her questions, soliciting her advice on how to turn an oblivious warrior princess' head - and heart. "When I agreed to stay and rule the tribe, it was because Xena was dead."
"And, when she was revived, you couldn't wait to leave with her."
"Xena's place is out on the open road. My place is with Xena. That's why I promoted Ephiny to regent."
"To rule in absentia."
"To make decisions in my stead, yes. I trust Ephiny to do what she feels is best for the tribe. Even if I'm not always here, it doesn't mean I'm any less of an Amazon."
"Are you sure about that?" The resentment rang clear in Solari's tone. "Isn't that what you're saying when you consistently choose to leave with Xena instead of stay with us?"
"You know Xena and I are soulmates. And, I won't defend my relationship with her. Not to you. Not to Ephiny. Not to any of my sisters."
"That's my point. You're a good bard, Gabrielle. You know which words to use. Like now. Now, you call us sisters. But earlier; earlier you said What's to keep your enemies from simply taking the bracers?. You didn't say our enemies. You clearly said your enemies."
"I misspoke. Of course, I meant to say our. Come on, Solari. This isn't about just one misplaced word."
"No, nor just one word, Gabrielle. But, it's things like that. Things that add up."
"Like what? Tell me, Solari. Give me examples."
"Okay." Solari wet her lips. "Like when we've worked so hard planning a feast in your honor and you and Xena joke about it. Do you really think Amazons just party all the time? We plan those feasts to show you that we love you and miss you and to welcome you home. Then, when you talk about us, half the time, you aren't including yourself in the us. It's like you're saying you don't think being an Amazon is a good thing to be."
Gabrielle was floored. She'd never known that Solari had thought that about her. She wanted to blow off the insinuation. Obviously, though, this was something that had been weighing heavily on Solari's mind for quite some time. Gabrielle was quite certain that Solari's deeper feelings would have continued to go unvoiced if it hadn't been for that draught she'd given her. The resentment, the distrust would only take deeper root.
"How many more in the tribe share your view of me?"
There was an awkward shrug of shoulders. "I'm not sure."
"Mm." Gabrielle hated to voice the next question, but knew it would eat away at her until she did. "Solari, do you think Ephiny feels the same way?"
"I - " There was a furrowing of mahogany eyebrows.
Solari downed her head. Gabrielle waited for her to look up again, to meet her gaze, to finish her sentence. Instead, the brunette Amazon kept her gaze fixed on the wool blanket on her bed.
"Solari?" Fine, thought Gabrielle. If she won't come to me, I'll just have to go to her. The bard knelt on the floor at the foot of the bed. She braced a forearm on the mattress, her face scant inches from Solari's. "Solari, I need to know. Does Ephiny feel the same about me?"
"I - I don't know. I don't think so." Solari chewed her bottom lip in contemplation. "If she does, she's never said anything."
"Well, let me make one thing perfectly clear. I'm proud to be an Amazon." When there was no immediate response from Solari, Gabrielle felt the need to say more. Even as her voice broke, she confessed to the other woman, "Did you know that my family disowned me for being an Amazon? For telling them that I'm one of you? It's true. Lexine and Bonadea were there when it happened. You can ask them. I had to choose. I walked away from my mother, my father, my sister. But, you know what? It's okay. They were my relatives. I chose to take Xena as my bondmate, my champion, my consort. I chose the Amazons as my family."
Thick lashes fluttered, creating star-like shadows on Solari's cheeks. Gabrielle thought she saw a hint of moisture clinging to one of those lashes. Still, the brunette wouldn't look up.
Gabrielle reached out, catching her at the back of the neck with one hand. She gave a firm squeeze, then moved her hand around to caress a cheek. Cupping Solari's chin, she used a firm touch to force sandalwood eyes to meet her gaze.
When Gabrielle spoke, her voice was thick with emotion. "I love being an Amazon. I love the Amazons. I love Ephiny." Her voice cracked as she added, "And, I love you, too, Solari. Even if you're so angry at me that you can't love me back enough to even give me a hug."
Solari's eyes were glistening with unshed tears now. She ducked her head, wiping them on her forearm. When she looked up again, she forced a smile onto her lips. "Gods, Gabrielle, you are some kind of bard. You've convinced me. But - um - not giving you a hug had nothing to do with me being angry with you."
"It didn't?" She'd been so sure. Gabrielle cocked her head to the side, confused. "Then, why?"
Solari ducked her head again.
"Oh no, you don't." Gabrielle caught Solari beneath the chin, forced her to meet her gaze. "To quote Xena; you've already shown me your brass phallus. No reason to go getting all shy on me now."
Solari sputtered, snorted, then laughed. Those words were definitely straight from the warrior princess' mouth.
"So?" prompted Gabrielle.
Solari's smile fell.
If it was possible to uncomfortably squirm in the prone position she was in, Solari managed to do it. Despite Gabrielle's earlier words, she ducked her head, suddenly shy. When big brown eyes finally looked up at her through thick lashes, there was a bashfulness about her that Gabrielle had never suspected her chief scout possessed.
Solari dropped her voice so that no Amazon guards lingering in the corridor might overhear. "I - I love Ephiny."
Gabrielle's expression remained fixed. "That's hardly news, Solari."
"No, Gabrielle." Solari met Gabrielle's gaze, refusing to look away again, no matter how embarrassing this was becoming. "I mean, I really love Ephiny."
Solari frowned. She knew she was speaking plain Greek. Yet, Gabrielle had yet to show any real reaction. Solari took a deep breath, determined to soldier on.
"Ephiny's looking for a consort." There. She'd said it. She waited another full heartbeat before admitting the rest, "And, I really want that position, Gabrielle."
"Oh." Gabrielle's irises perceptibly widened. "And?"
"And," Solari rested her chin on her forearm and sighed deeply as she admitted, "And, I haven't always made the best choices when it comes to... demonstrating... my affections. I want to show Eph that I've changed and I'd make a suitable choice."
"You know," Gabrielle reached out, using her fingertips to tilt Solari's chin up until bright brown eyes met hers, "it's fine to change some things, but you should never be ashamed of who you are. And, never change the important things. One of which is that you give great hugs. And, as your Queen, I expect you to hug me."
Solari attempted a half-hearted smile. Her hand balled into a fist and Gabrielle could see her scout was having a hard time controlling her emotions. She wasn't afraid of Solari striking her; rather she was worried the scout might rupture something with her attempt at self-restraint.
"Hey, if you think it's unbecoming to hug your queen," Gabrielle shrugged, "Don't worry; I command hugs from everyone. Everyone. Xena. Ephiny. Egeria. Even Devillare."
Solari was unable to control her snort.
"You don't believe me?" Gabrielle stood up, placed a hand on a cocked hip. "I'll prove it." The bard made a showing of looking about the room, as if surprised that they were alone. "Now," she said, placing a finger against her chin and tapping it, "where's a good looking Amazon warrior when you really need one?"
There was a sharp rap on the door. Bonadea still had her hand on the latch as the door was yanked open and she was pulled inside. Twin eyebrows scurried up Bonadea's forehead as she suddenly had her Queen's arms wrapped about her frame. There was a quick squeeze, then she was released.
"Bonadea?" Gabrielle grinned at the guard's open-mouthed confusion. "You wanted something?"
"Oh - um - I - " Bonadea rapidly shook her head from side to side. It was just a hug, no big deal. Bonadea berated herself. It was perfectly normal for her Queen to hug her. Except, Regent Ephiny never hugged her. Melosa had never hugged, either. Ever.
"Um - Devillare - the Captain." Bonadea used her thumb to gesture over her shoulder. "She asked me to tell you that the regent is in her office." Once again, Bonadea needlessly pointed towards the corridor.
"Thank you. I'll be right there."
The smile never left Gabrielle's lips as the guard saluted and stepped backwards, banging her tailfeathers into the doorframe. Bonadea sidestepped the door, backed out into the corridor.
"There. See; perfectly acceptable Amazonian social behavior," Gabrielle said to Solari. Emerald eyes lost a bit of their mirth as she asked her chief scout, "We okay?"
"Good. Next time you're up on your feet, I'll expect my hugs."
A frown marred Solari's features. She turned her head, trying to get a good look at her injured leg. "That could be a while."
"It'll take as long as it takes. I'll wait."
"Um, Xena also said I should ask you about putting something on my hand?"
The words came out as more of a question than a statement. Gabrielle watched as her chief scout pulled her arm out from beneath her prone body. It hadn't escaped Gabrielle's notice that Solari had been keeping the appendage hidden. Now, she knew why.
Gabrielle had to channel her inner-Xena to keep from reacting. She'd seen burns before. Even recently, in those towns that had been raided. But, those poor souls had already been dead and beyond suffering. Solari - poor Solari.
The bard used the pretense of having to rifle through the containers in the saddlebag as an excuse to turn away. It hurt her heart too much to think of what Solari must have suffered. Still was, considering she'd mustered up the courage to ask her queen for treatment. She was glad she'd forced Solari to talk through her feelings. Otherwise, the scout might never have asked.
Gabrielle carefully mixed the contents of several containers together, just the way Xena had taught her. By the time she had the thick paste ready and turned back around, she thought her roiling emotions were under control once again.
Solari cooperated, holding her appendage out and as steady as she could. It didn't escape Gabrielle's notice, though, that the scout averted her eyes, avoiding looking at her own injury. Gabrielle used as gentle a touch as possible to apply the thick paste. Solari flinched as the first dollop made contact. She inhaled sharply, then forced herself to settle back down. As she did, she purposefully turned her face away.
It looked as if all the damage had occurred to the palm and digits, as if Solari had been reaching for something when she'd gotten burned. Solari intimated she'd already had a run-in with Gryta. Gabrielle wondered if the renegade guard had thrust Solari's hand into the fire.
Given how fresh and raw things were between them now, Gabrielle knew she couldn't pry too much. She'd been around warriors enough to know when one was on the verge of shutting down. No, she couldn't ask Solari. Not now. Fortunately for the sake of the bard's curiosity, though, she knew someone she could ask. Her soulmate. As soon as she returned.
"Did Xena tell you to keep the bandage off, to allow your hand a chance to breathe?"
Gabrielle had expected as much. Given Solari's aversion to the burn, she was certain the Amazon wouldn't have voluntarily removed the bandage. She could only imagine an impatient Xena tackling the scout to the ground and forcefully cutting away the cloth rags.
"Xena's a very good healer, you know."
Again, Solari nodded.
"I'm learning, too. She's really a good teacher." Gabrielle bit her bottom lip as she confessed, "Of course, she had to teach me. All those injuries she's sustained over the seasons. It only makes sense that she teach me, in case something happens and she needs me."
"Gabrielle, I've seen her pop her own dislocated shoulder back into place."
"I know." Gabrielle finished up, wiped her hands on the hem of her skirt. "I just want you to know that there's more to Xena than just the warrior princess she lets you see."
This is because of my comment about Xena not being an Amazon, thought Solari. Gabrielle thinks she needs to justify her choice of consort.
"Anyway, she's taught me all sorts of things since we started traveling together. Things I know I'd never learn on my own. Healing techniques, fighting, tracking, hunting. I really hate hunting. But, there's things I've gotten really good at. Things that have surprised Xena."
I'll bet. "Gabrielle, can I ask you a question?"
"Exactly when did you show Xena your brass phallus?"
If the question caught Gabrielle by surprise, she did a good job of covering.
"It was a gift from our last visit to Egypt. That, however, is a bard's tale for another time. Right now, I need to go check up on Ephiny."
There was an awkward bout of silence after Gabrielle mentioned the regent's name. Solari's brow furrowed and the bard could only hazard a guess as to what thoughts might be careening about inside her chief scout's head. Gabrielle made a showing of standing up and straightening her skirt.
"Make sure you put this on again in a few candlemarks," Gabrielle instructed, placing the paste mixture on the nearby table. Gabrielle paused with her hand on the door latch. "Hey, Solari? Did I mention that there's a pair of balls to match?"
Gabrielle gave a mischievous smile and a wink before heading out, pulling the door closed behind her.
Solari was left with her mouth hanging open. It started out as a giggle. Then, before she could stop it, Solari was flat out laughing.
"Oh, Gods," she choked out, "Gabrielle's got a set of brass balls."
Gabrielle pressed her ear to the door.
"It's quiet. Too quiet."
"You wouldn't have thought so if you'd been here ten heartbeats ago."
Gabrielle straightened up and moved away from the door. She gave the captain a surprised look.
"I would have been if you'd sent Bonadea to Solari's room as soon as she'd arrived."
It was obvious to Gabrielle that the guard had been back for some time. When she'd appeared at the doorway, her cloak was gone and her cheeks had lost some of the rosy red hue she would have expected from being out in the winter rain.
"I commissioned her to shutter all the windows and secure the entry points. Besides, I knew you were safe. The shutters in that room are nailed shut. And, I have a clear view of the entire corridor from here."
Gabrielle's face lit up. "Ah, but if someone came in through the main door - "
" - They would encounter first Egeria, then Bonadea. By way of the tavern, Lexine, then Bonadea and Egeria." Devillare smiled. She knew her little Queen was trying to best her in a game of strategy.
"If, by some wild chance though, that person made it past them, you couldn't reach the doorway - "
"- A throw of my knife from here would be adequate enough to sever a throat."
Gabrielle looked back down the corridor, trying to judge the distance to the door. There was a clear view. But, it seemed like such a long ways. Xena could make it with her chakram...
"I'll take your word for it," Gabrielle decided.
Then, something odd happened. Gabrielle thought she'd seen something out of the corner of her eye. Nah, couldn't be. She'd almost convinced herself she was imagining things. Then, she saw it again.
Devillare had - stifled an yawn. What's more, her red-rimmed eyes were definitely threatening to creep close. With a flush of guilt, Gabrielle remembered that she had first seen Devillare just as she was returning Lightning to the stables early that morning. The captain had been having a one-sided conversation with the horse, mentioning going off to bed when Gabrielle had intercepted her.
"Oh, Devil. Place a guard at Solari's door and then go get some sleep."
The soft voice startled the captain wide awake and into an alert at attention stance. Out of habit, she saluted.
"My Queen. Protecting the royal family is my first priority."
"Let me ask you this, captain. What makes someone a member of the royal family? Am I?"
"Of course you are. You're the Queen."
"And Ephiny? Is Ephiny part of the royal family?"
"As Regent-Queen, she is." Devillare knew she was being baited by the little Queen, but was powerless to stop it.
Devillare bristled. The council had decreed that the warrior princess be award Amazonian status in their tribe. Xena had never formally accepted. "Yes."
"And," Gabrielle tapped the tip of her chin with her index finger. "I believe you are - "
" - not," was Devillare's short, clipped answer.
Gabrielle stopped mid-sentence. She was confident. She'd done her research. Several elders had confirmed that Devillare and Queen Reyvanne...
As if reading Gabrielle's thoughts, Devillare added, "Consorts do not receive automatic entitlement. That requires an officially sanctioned bonding ceremony."
Gabrielle was floored. After hearing that Devillare and Reyvanne had shared the Queen's hut and how the guard member doted on the young princesses Melosa and Terreis, she'd naturally assumed.
"I do not possess royal status. Neither does the chief scout."
"Solari risked life and limb to give us warning. I think that warrants a little royal treatment, don't you? Just for today?"
"Even if I agreed, and don't think for a heartbeat that I do, I don't have the guard to spare."
Gabrielle frowned. She was determined to make this happen. Especially after her heart-to-heart left Gabrielle feeling as though she'd been neglecting her sisters.
"Devillare, which guard did you assign to myself and Ephiny?"
"A name, Devillare. Who is it?"
"Thought so." Gabrielle stared at the captain. "You were going to ignore my order to get some sleep and continue to stand guard out here after I'd gone inside, weren't you?"
"Yes. Your safety is my duty."
"Your first duty is to take care of yourself. What good will you be to me, to anyone, if you collapse from exhaustion?"
Devillare had no argument for that.
"You need your sleep. It'll be okay. As you pointed out, the windows are secure, guards are posted at the entrances. If we need help, Bonadea is within shouting distance."
Devillare smirked. "If you're using Ephiny's lungs, the entire Amazon Nation is within shouting distance."
"Loud?" Gabrielle asked, a tilt of her head indicating the closed double doors.
"I would guess no fewer than three chairs will never be a threat to anyone ever again. Since then, though," Devillare's voice trailed off and she gave a shrug.
Gabrielle frowned, concerned. An irate, foul-mouthed, furniture throwing regent she was certain she could handle. But, one that had shifted from physically displaying her anger to something else? A chill ran down the queen's spine.
Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle reached out for the door latch, preparing to go in.
Both blonde brows scurried up Gabrielle's forehead. Locked? Since when did Amazons know what doors were for, much less know how to lock one? Clearly, this is far more dangerous than I thought.
"Go on," Gabrielle urged Devillare. "You check in on Solari and grab some shuteye. I'll face down the fire-breathing regent."
"Best wishes, my Queen." Devillare bowed low. "If you are successful, the bards will sing many tales of your bravery."
Gabrielle offered up a weak smile. "If I'm not, make sure they build my funeral pyre tall enough it reaches all the way to Mount Olympus."
Gabrielle took a deep breath, steeling her nerves and raised a hand to knock.
It had taken nothing less than a direct order from her Queen to force the regent to open the door. Ephiny had turned the key in the lock, then left it there as she retreated across the room.
Cautiously, Gabrielle opened the door and stepped inside, wary of any objects that might be launched in her direction. She used the toe of her boot to nudge a broken vase out of her way so she could close the door behind her. She leaned with her back against the thick wood, a subtle turn of her wrist had the door relocked and the key pocketed in a fold of her skirt. Leaning back against the door, Gabrielle surveyed the damage.
Devillare had been correct in her assessment. Gabrielle identified the remnants of three busted chairs. The fourth was overturned in a corner. The desk had been cleared; scrolls, a map, an inkwell and quill scattered upon the floor. A tapestry that used to hang above the hearth had been torn down and was now scattered upon the floor.
She spotted a pallet set up in a corner of the room. Ephiny was curled up in a protective ball on the bed, her knees drawn up to her chest, her arms wrapped about a pillow.
Even here, she hasn't separated the two.
It seemed that not only had Ephiny taken this room for her office, but she was also sleeping there. That had been something else Devillare and Gabrielle had discussed; her regent's habits.
While she'd been an elder on the council, Devillare had been aware of the regent's schedule. It was no secret her days were filled with meetings and diplomatic duties. It wasn't until she'd taken over Pelagia's duties as captain of the guard that she'd been privy to the details of the regent's nights. Specifically, that they too were filled with work. She never went home to her hut; instead, burning the midnight candle in the regent's office until she fell into an exhausted slumber. Devillare had confided to Gabrielle that she was worried for the well being of her young regent.
For good reason, it would seem, thought Gabrielle. There were dark circles beneath her eyes. Even accounting for her injuries, she looked positively worn down. Then, there'd been that incident with the crown. It was a reaction she never thought she'd see from the proud, independent Amazon.
"Hey, you okay?" she asked, settling down on the edge of Ephiny's bed.
Ephiny hugged the pillow tighter.
"Don't want to talk about it."
"Like you warriors ever do?" Gabrielle forced a tiny smile, reached out and gingerly used her fingers to stroke blonde curls off Ephiny's forehead. Without her crown to keep her locks in place, they fell back, hiding hazel eyes from view. "That's one way scouts are better than warriors."
As predicted, that garnered a response of "Huh?"
"Solari. After you left, we talked."
Ephiny was certain she didn't like where this was going. "Damn scouts talk too much."
"Maybe. But if I waited for you warriors to tell me, I'd never know anything that went on in the village."
There was a resigned sigh. "I guess she told you about the Council of Elders insisting I name a champion?"
"Mm." Gabrielle didn't comment more than that. It was a trick she'd learned long ago when dealing with Xena. Never press a warrior for more details than she thought you already knew. If she let on that she knew the council was pushing for Ephiny to take a consort, odds were she'd clam up.
"They're treating me like I'm this fragile bit of pottery that might shatter into a million shards if I'm not handled delicately. It's like they want to put me up on a shelf somewhere out of harm's way." Ephiny's hands were balled into fists, her knuckles clenched white. "Damn it, I was a warrior long before I became regent. I don't need coddling and protecting. I can protect myself."
Gabrielle made a showing of looking about the wrecked room and slowly nodding her head. "I count three chairs and a tapestry that would agree with you. If you ask me, that chair over there had it coming."
Despite her best efforts not to, a tiny snort of laughter escaped Ephiny. She gave Gabrielle a sheepish look and asked, "I guess I may have overreacted a bit, huh?"
"Yeah. If by a bit, you mean by epic proportions." There was a pause before Gabrielle added, "Ephiny, I need to know. By being out on the road with Xena, by not being in the village more, am I putting too much pressure on you?"
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry. Solari was out of line."
"Yes. Yes, she was. But, she told me some things that needed to be said. Some things that I needed to hear. Solari's helped me to realize a few things."
Ephiny suspiciously eyed Gabrielle. "Like?"
"Like that some of the Amazons think I'm not proud to be one of them." Ephiny opened her mouth to protest, but Gabrielle stopped her. "That they think I don't appreciate them. That I don't show some of them - that I don't show you - how much I care for you and what your being regent means to me."
"Gabrielle, I never - "
" - said anything. I know. And, Solari never said you told her, either. It's important to me, though. Ephiny, do you feel that my being away from the village ... being with Xena ... Ephiny, am I a bad Queen?"
"Gabrielle," Ephiny reached up a trembling hand, cupped her friend's cheek. She met and held Gabrielle's gaze. Her voice was steady as she said, "Artemis knows I would love to have you stay in the village full time. And, I know you will. When it's time. But now is not that time."
"Sooo, you don't mind being the regent?"
"No." There was a heavy sigh of resignation. "Most days, I don't mind being in charge of the loonies."
"Today, I lost it. It's just - I've been fighting this champion thing with the council. Then, the issues with the renegades. Then, finding out Solari sent Desma to find you and Xena. Her going behind my back was the last straw."
"But, she didn't. Not really. You yourself said Desma was one of Solari's squad. I'm sure as chief scout, Solari doesn't tell you every time she gives one of her scouts an assignment."
"No, of course not. But, for this - for a mission outside the Nation ... she shouldn't have kept it from me. She shouldn't have sent Desma in the first place. If I'd known - "
"Don't you think that's why Solari didn't tell you?" asked Gabrielle. "If you had known and the counselors had questioned you at the trial? Or, if the Council of Elders had pressed you? Solari didn't want to put you in that position."
Ephiny fell silent. She knew Gabrielle's words were true. Solari had acted as she always had, with her best interest in mind. She wondered, though, if it ever even occurred to Solari how often she had done this to her; overstepped her bounds in her efforts to be protective of her regent.
"Solari forgets her place. She forgets who I am."
"I disagree. Out of all of us, yourself included, I think she's the only one who never forgets who you really are. Ephiny, what's going on between you and Solari?"
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. It was nowhere near the look that her partner managed, but it was still enough to convey the intended meaning.
Ephiny rolled her eyes. "Fine." Fingers picked at a frayed corner of the quilt upon the bed. "We've been sleeping together."
"Eph!" This time both eyebrows climbed in tandem. "With Solari, really?"
"It's not like that. It's just physical." Hearing how that sounded, even to her own ears, Ephiny hastily added, "It's not sexual. It's been mostly " there was a slight frown, a shrug, " cuddling " Gods, that sounds lame. Since when do Amazons snuggle? "When I'm with Solari, I'm more relaxed. I can let my guard down. For the most part." She saw Gabrielle's look, misinterpreted it, felt the need to explain further. "With everything that's been happening, it's had me questioning everyone. If someone were to come in this room right now and tell me it was snowing, I'd go to the window to check for myself."
"Are you that distrusting, Ephiny?"
"Right now, yes."
"I I think it started with my abduction. It wasn't a moon after you left the village that the trial began and the council started pushing me. For answers. To name a champion. And - and a consort." Ephiny's teeth bit into her bottom lip. She didn't name Eponin. She couldn't. Not even to Gabrielle. "They all want something. They all have their own secret agendas. I'm about to go out of my mind looking for hidden motives."
"Has never made a secret of what she wants." There was a wry smirk. "I trust Solari because I know her motives. That's why it ... hurt ... so much today when I found out she'd gone behind my back like that."
"Oh, Ephiny. Solari didn't betray you." Gabrielle leaned in, enveloping her friend in her arms. "But, it sounds a little bit like you're using her."
"It's not like that." Ephiny allowed the hug, returned it in kind. It was nowhere near as comforting as being held in Solari's arms, but it would do. "I was honest with her. I told her I couldn't give her what she wants. I thought that might drive her away. But, she's been really supportive."
"I'd hate to see that supportive nature of hers get her hurt."
"Gabrielle, she's my packmate and I will always love her."
"But, she's not your warrior, is she?"
The warrior stood uncertainly in the corridor. She started to raise her hand to knock, then lowered it, began to walk away. Two steps and she found herself back in front of the door again.
She hated this. She never felt this way. That was the problem; feelings. Warriors, especially captains of the guard were supposed to be about duty and honor and responsibility. Nowhere did feelings come into that.
This was all that bard's fault. Devillare had been perfectly content to stand outside the regent's door. But, Gabrielle had ordered her away. Worse yet, she'd insisted that they'd be fine, no reason to post a guard outside the room where the two queens were.
What is a member of the royal guard supposed to do when her Queen has told her that her presence is neither required nor desired?
Devillare knew she was projecting. At no point had Gabrielle been overly dismissive of her or her position. In all likelihood, the littlest royal was only trying to be considerate. After all, kindness was in Gabrielle's very nature.
She was certain that was what had motivated Gabrielle's next command. Dismissed from her duties of guarding her Queens, she was instead ordered to check in on the chief scout and then get some sleep.
That's why she was a bundle of pent up energy now. Devillare cast a lingering glance towards the end of the corridor and the closed double doors. She briefly wondered if either of the Queens would notice if she took up a position just outside the doors again?
Even as she thought it, she knew that wasn't possible. She was bound; just as much by her own sense of duty as Gabrielle's words. Taking a resolute breath, she lifted her hand to knock.
Devillare paused mid-strike. There was no point in knocking. She doubted if the scout's voice would carry through the dense wood. And, it wasn't as if she could get out of bed and open the door for her. Hand upon the latch, Devillare slowly opened the door and slipped inside.
The brunette was in essentially the same position she'd been in when last Devillare had seen her. She didn't even stir when the captain closed the door, the latch clicking into place. Face down on the bed, she was dead to the known world.
Devillare stood just inside the room, back pressed against the wooden door. One hand was still firmly on the latch as she once again contemplated leaving.
Gabrielle had ordered her to check in on the chief scout. And, she'd done just that. One scout passed out upon the bed. Check.
Only, she couldn't convince herself that following the letter of Gabrielle's command was the same as following the intent behind it. As she'd argued with herself in the corridor earlier, Gabrielle was a kind person. No doubt, she'd had Solari's well-being in mind when she asked Devillare to look in on her.
In Gabrielle's efforts to be kind to the scout, it'd slipped her mind that she might be slighting Devillare. Or, that she had also slighted Eponin.
She'd known as kids that Ep and Solari weren't close. Oh, they may have hung out together and all, but she could tell those times that Eponin would come home after a particularly trying day. Eight times out of ten, her frustrations would be due to the teasing she'd received from a certain daughter of two scouts.
After one such incident, Devil had actually asked Ep, "If you don't like her, why do you continue to hang out with her?"
In all those seasons that had passed since, she'd never forgotten Ep's simple reasoning. "Because it's the only way I can be friends with Ephiny."
Even back then, Pup would have done anything for that curly-headed blonde.
After that, Devillare made a point of checking up on things. What she discovered was that Ephiny and Solari had been thick as thieves from the time they could toddle about together. It wasn't until much later that Eph and Ep became friends - after an intense rivalry with nearly every weapon imaginable in the armory.
As near as she could tell, Eponin and Solari didn't care for each other. Not one bit. But, they both put up with the other so they could stay friends with Ephiny. As for lil' Eph? She seemed to treat them both as equals, never favoring one over the other.
She also never seemed to notice how doe-eyed they both were over her. Devillare had mixed feelings about that. At first, she'd tried to find fault with Ephiny. She'd even gone to the girl's mother, accusing her of teasing the two youngsters, leading them on. Her behavior had struck a chord with the captain, reminding her of Reyvanne.
It wasn't until much later that Devil realized she'd been in error. Ephiny wasn't some seductress that was using her feminine wiles to keep both suitors on the line. No, much worse than that; Ephiny was completely clueless about the dual effect she had on both Eponin and Solari.
She kept watch over the trio as they grew from childhood to adolescence and into womanhood. Ephiny continued to remain equal friends with both young women. And, as the seasons wore on, Ep and Solari went from intense dislike to begrudging tolerance of each other. At one point, she'd thought they might have actually become real friends.
She'd seen enough at the end of the challenge to know that Solari was the first one out into the circle. The scout had sprinted to Eponin, wrapping her arms about her, holding her until the healers came. Because of her position, Devillare had been very careful to not show any outward emotion during the challenge and its immediate aftermath. But, despite outward appearances, she'd felt the lump in her throat and the swell of her heart in her chest as she realized there was someone else that really cared about her Pup.
Then, just a little over a candlemark ago, that scout had renounced her friendship, claiming that she'd acted not for Ep's welfare, but for that of the regent. She didn't begrudge Ephiny her friendship. But, she hated that Ep's had to suffer for it.
At this point, she wasn't sure what to think of Solari, either. Then, as always, she'd covered her emotions with a warrior's masque. She'd escaped into the corridor without anyone knowing how much those words had bothered her. But now - because of Queen Gabrielle's big heart, she was once again face to face with the scout.
More or less.
Solari was face down on the bed. Dead to the known world, she hadn't so much as twitched since the captain had entered. Devillare's heart gave a quick flutter as she wondered if Solari hadn't indeed passed on. She stood still, watching, trying to see whether or not Solari was breathing.
Her gaze narrowed on the suede halter stretched across the chief scout's back. Devillare cautiously approached the bed. She held her hand in front of the scout's nose and mouth.
Frowning, Devillare at last knelt before the end of the bed. She used her fingertips to brush soft brunette locks away from an ear and off a shoulder. She placed two fingers to a supple neck, checking for a pulse. It wasn't until she felt a faint pounding beneath her fingertips that she breathed a sigh of relief.
Gods knew she wasn't exactly thrilled with the younger Amazon, but she in no way wished her harm.
"Scout?" Devillare asked in a low voice. "You okay?"
"Mm?" Solari murmured. Although, that was apparently to be the extent of her stirring.
Somewhat satisfied by the response, Devillare climbed to her feet. Joints stiffened from the cold protested the movement. The captain looked around the tiny room, saw an unobtrusive chest against one wall.
She opened the lid, pulled a large quilt out of it. She brought it to her nose, sniffing. It smelled, but it felt warm. Devillare draped it over both shoulders, wrapping it about herself.
As she closed the lid and turned around, her gaze fell across the scout's body. The summer linens upon the bed when they'd carried Solari in gave testament to the last time the room was rented. When I carried her in, Devillare amended, remembering the solid weight and the warmth of the scout in her arms.
The linens had been ruined, stained with Solari's blood and soaked with the water used to irrigate her wound. After the procedure, the linens had been stripped off and taken away by Iphinome to be destroyed. A wool blanket had been found to cover the straw mattress, the excess used to drape over Solari's prone body as best as possible.
In this case, their best wasn't nearly good enough. There was barely enough blanket to cover a hip and one leg and part of her shoulder and midriff. Her heavy skirt had been hitched up to give Iphinome room to work. The healer had neglected to tug it back down over the bandage when she finished. The result was that most of Solari's long legs were exposed and her tailfeathers were just barely covered. Given the dampness that clung in the air, she had to be chilled.
With a resigned sigh, Devillare took the quilt from about her own shoulders and draped it across Solari. The scout murmured, wriggling in her sleep. The quilt shifted, sliding from her body. With a one-handed catch, Devillare grabbed the quilt before it could hit the floor.
Leaning over and across the bed, Devillare tucked the edges beneath the mattress. She made sure to leave it hanging loose on Solari's injured side. The warrior had endured enough injuries over her lifetime to know that undo pressure against a wound would only make it throb that much worse.
Standing back, crossing her arms, she surveyed her handiwork. Solari remained still, oblivious to Devillare's eyes upon her. The captain thought about leaving, but didn't want the scout to go losing her covers as soon as she was out the door. So, she decided to stay and watch. Just for a while longer. Just to make certain.
She tried to ignore the chill settling in her bones. A cough rattling in her chest reminded her that she was far from fully recovered from her illness.
Devillare dragged the room's sole chair over beside the bed. The wood creaked as she sat down and Devil wondered if the aged furniture would hold her. As she didn't immediately go crashing to the floor, she gingerly settled down. Reaching over, she dragged a corner of the quilt from the bed and draped it about her chilled frame.
Devillare didn't notice as the increased warmth crept up on her and the weight of her eyelids became too heavy to bear. Before long, her eyes had closed completely and she had drifted off to sleep.
"Eph? Ephiny? Are you okay?"
Gabrielle watched her friend with mild concern. Ephiny hadn't said anything when Gabrielle had made the comment about her warrior. But, there'd definitely been a reaction. The woman had gone suddenly pale and the pulse at her neck visibly fluttered.
"What?" Ephiny tried to shrug off the question. "Of course."
"I am." There was a half-heartbeat pause before Ephiny said again, "I am. Really. I'm fine."
"Sure you are." Gabrielle tried the Xenaesque eyebrow approach again, this time without success. "Ugh. You're such a warrior sometimes."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that I know you. The exasperated sigh, the eye roll, the tightly clenched jaw. That's all normal behavior for you. Throwing your crown on the floor, storming out, tearing a room apart is not you. Something's wrong."
"I already told you; the problems with the council-"
"-Have you at your wits end?" Gabrielle snorted. "Like I said, I know you. You're not going to let a bunch of feathered elders tell you how to run the Amazon Nation. Or your life."
I might have agreed with her once. Before I was abducted. Before I - died. "Gabrielle, I'm not entirely positive I know myself right now. How can you be so sure you do?"
"Ephiny, you know I love you. So, don't take this the wrong way. You are the most competent, responsible, reliable Amazon I know. I couldn't ask for a more dedicated regent." Gabrielle's eyes twinkled as she smiled and reached out, familiarly stroking a hand down her friend's arm. "But, you're so tightly wound all the time. You are so in control - of the tribe and yourself - that you make a date with a Gorgon look like a good time."
"Damn. Tell me how you really feel, why don't you, Gabrielle? Seriously, don't hold back."
Despite her words, there was a playful tone to Ephiny's voice. The tiny smile upon her lips never reached her eyes, though, letting Gabrielle know that it was only for show. Ephiny fell silent and Gabrielle was left wondering where her friend had gone.
Am I? Am I in control? Of the tribe - of my life - of anything? Ephiny searched her memory, letting her thoughts take her back to the recent past.
The words echoed inside her head. They were said in her voice. It was she that had given the command. The words had formed on her tongue, the order had fallen from her lips. The order that condemned Eponin. And ruined both their lives.
Then, she could no longer hear anything over the blood rushing in her own ears. Her vision was swimming before her eyes. She felt like she was engulfed by a tsunami's wave.
She could feel her packmate's presence, knew she had her by the elbow and was guiding her somewhere. Yet, Ephiny still felt as though she were trapped beneath the water, running out of breath, having no idea which way the surface was. If it hadn't been for Solari anchoring her, she would have drowned.
Then, she was in Solari's hut, in Solari's bed. Megara was there, giving her something. Dimly, she thought about what it must have cost Solari personally to ask for the healer's help.
Whatever Megara had slipped her had the desired effect. Ephiny no longer felt. Pain. Anything. Except numbness. And, through that numbness, she was able to figure out how to get through day by day again.
Ephiny knew she was only going through the motions, but she felt that if she concentrated on just doing her duty, on just being the regent, that she would survive.
As regent, she had a duty, an obligation to the Amazon Nation. The council had asked that she do her duty. And, Ephiny knew that when this mess was behind them and they were all safely back at the village that if - no, when; for it was only a matter of time - the council next demanded she name a champion, would relent. But, by no means was she ready to consent to a consort.
To do so would be too personal. To take a consort; that would require an emotional investment on her part. Right now, she was neither willing nor able to give that of herself.
Gods knew Ephiny would give anything for her tribe. Her sword arm. Her body. Her life. Everything.
Except her heart.
Ephiny knew she had a duty to her people. She had a purpose to serve. And, she would gladly serve it. But, no one could ask her to leave her heart unguarded and vulnerable. Not again. And, as regent, she didn't have to.
"Gabrielle?" Ephiny blinked, coming back to the present. "Do you have my crown? I think I need to be the regent again."
Lexine pushed an agitated hand through her blonde hair. Green eyes narrowed to tiny slits.
"You can glare at me all you want," said Bonadea, "won't do you any good."
An exasperated huff soon followed.
"You forget; I've got kids and they can pout and throw temper tantrums with the best of them."
"I'm not throwing a temper tantrum." Lexine puffed out her cheeks. "And, I'm not a little kid."
"No," Bonadea smirked. "But you're pouting like one."
"Aww, come on, Bon-Bon." It was a term of endearment left over from childhood. When she was little, she couldn't wrap her tongue around Bonadea's full name. Every time she tried to say it, she'd end up having to start over again. Hence, Bon-Bon. She hadn't used it in seasons, but if Bonadea wanted to compare her to a child ... "I just wanna see her."
"For Artemis' sake, don't call me that," hissed out Bonadea. "You want Egeria to overhear?"
Bonadea cast a furtive glance down the hall towards the main door. Egeria was standing in an at-ease position, holding her big labrys across the back of her massive shoulders, her wrists resting on the thick wood. Luckily, the large warrior didn't seem to be listening to their conversation. If she'd overheard Lexine's nickname for her, Bonadea would never live it down.
"If you don't want everyone to know, let me pass."
"Blackmail don't work on me, kid. And, for the tenth time; the answer is no." Bonadea blocked the entryway leading from the tavern bar with the bulk of her body. "She's resting and you're on duty."
"Please. Iphinome said she was in a bad way."
"Which is all the more reason she needs her rest. She can't get well if you're in there pestering her."
"I won't pester her. I just want to see her." Seeing the look of complete indifference on Bonadea's face, Lexine tried another tactic. "She wouldn't have made it back at all if it hadn't been for me."
"If that's true, Lex, then you're a hero and I'm sure you'll get recognition for that act of bravery when we get back to the village. Being injured in the line of duty, saving the chief scout's life; both of those should earn you a couple of new feathers in your mask." There was such a look of pride on the younger guard's face that Bonadea almost felt guilty for what she had to say next. But, it was time that someone said something. "Look, kid. You did good. Today. But that doesn't make up for whatever it is you've been doing that's been ruffling Devillare's feathers."
"Ah, she shouldn't be in charge, anyway," complained Lexine. "She's ancient and out of touch."
Bonadea reached out, grabbing Lexine's ear between her thumb and forefinger and pinching. "The term is elder. Show some respect. Devillare's earned it, along with every feather in her mask. Besides, Regent Ephiny herself reinstated her so she could come in Pelagia's stead."
"I'm Pelagia's second-in-command. She should've named me."
"For this mission; you kidding me? You want to be in charge of tracking down the former weapons master and a whole passel of renegades that have already put Pelagia in the hospice and possibly crippled Solari and are now coming after both the Queens? Kid, no one's sporting enough feathers to want that mission."
"Except Devillare." Lexine nearly spat the name on the floor. "Like you said, Regent Ephiny herself reinstated her as captain."
"You think Devillare wants the position, this mission? Have you forgotten that Eponin's her daughter?"
Lexine's complexion visibly paled. She hadn't forgotten. Worse, she'd never made the connection. It wasn't something that she'd ever heard anyone mention.
Oh, Gods. Were they close? Lexine's mind raced, trying to remember if she'd seen Devillare come to visit Eponin at all when she'd been in the jail. She didn't think so. Devillare had been sick during that whole time. Hadn't she? What if she did see her sometime before the sentencing? Did Eponin tell Devillare - did she tell anyone - everything that had happened that night? Did anyone know that she was the one that lured Eponin to that ridge? Never mind that she'd done it with the sole intent of breaking up her and Solari; it was the final act that sent Eponin over the edge and caused the rape of Hilaeira.
No. If anyone knew - if anyone even suspected - I'd have been in jail or worse. In her heart, Lexine knew she'd be held culpable for her part in Eponin's crimes. No matter how seemingly innocent her intent.
The random thought of Solari brought Lexine back to her original purpose.
"Okay, fine. Maybe Devillare is the right woman for the job and it's petty for me to be jealous. But come on, how would you feel if you thought you were up for a promotion and then they brought someone else in to take over instead?"
Bonadea hedged about and then finally admitted, "I might be a little put out, too." Seeing the triumphant look on Lexine's face, Bonadea hastily added, "But, I'd still perform my duty."
"And, I will, Bon." Lexine let the last part die on her lips. She was this close to getting what she wanted; no need to ruin it over sore feelings because of a nickname. "Look, I just want to check in on Solari. That's all. I won't even be five heartbeats. Promise." Thinking she'd managed to cajole the steadfast Bonadea, Lexine sweetened the pot, "Captain Devillare need never know."
"Oh, I think she'd know, kid." Bonadea couldn't keep the smirk off her lips. "The captain's with her."
Lexine's head spun; her eyes widened. "With..."
"...Solari." The guard added a wink for good measure. "Slipped into her room over a candlemark ago. Hasn't come out yet."
Gabrielle's fingers trailed a path along the braided leather crown she held in her grasp. Fingers touched the medallion, traced the crossed arrows. She looked down at the symbol of royalty as she contemplated Ephiny's request. Does she still truly desire to be regent - or is she hiding behind the crown?
"Before we get to that, Ephiny...I need to know. If things are that bad within the Nation, at the village, with you...why did you come to Potadeia?"
"I - you were in danger. Your birth family was threatened. I came on a mission to protect my Queen's family."
"And, I thank you for that." Gabrielle reached out, capturing both of Ephiny's hands within hers. Thumbs caressed the backs of her friend's hands as she posed her next question. "But, is that the only reason?"
"Of course." Ephiny blinked. It was, wasn't it?
"It just seems to me that if you were hurt," Gabrielle purposely chose hurt over injured, "and there was a chance of you being hurt further, you should have stayed at the village. There was no sense in endangering yourself, Ephiny."
Ephiny extricated herself from the bard and the bed. There was a momentary twinge of pain as she stood on her bandaged ankle. She pushed it down, ignoring it as she limped about the room in an aggravated huff.
Gabrielle let her go, silently watching from her place atop the bed. Ephiny continued to pace up and down, her stride lengthening, her speed increasing.
Ephiny was struggling. She knew Gabrielle was a friend and she was only trying to help. But, her words...they were much too close to what Xena had said directly after the battle. You had no business leaving your village, Amazon.
That had long been a bone of contention between them. That she was an Amazon and Xena was not. She had duties, responsibilities that neither concerned nor burdened a wandering warrior like Xena.
As an Amazon, it was her duty to protect her Queen. As a warrior, it was her duty to bring an escaped band of fugitives to heel for their crimes. As regent, it was her duty to see that justice was done. She was doing her duty. For Queen and Nation.
As regent, I'm charged with serving the entire Amazon Nation. Was I serving them when I left the village? Their Queen was already outside their borders. Was it right for her to endanger herself by leaving? There were no laws stating that at least one Queen must remain in the Nation. But, she had known there was a clear and present danger and she'd left anyway.
At the time, she was able to justify it away as a need to see for herself that Gabrielle and her family were protected. She defended her actions to the council, stating that their Queen's birth family would be more apt to cooperate if another member of royalty were at the head of the delegation.
Why are you really in Potadeia?
Gabrielle's question rattled about in Ephiny's head. And her heart. Deep down, she knew the reason. The real reason. The reason she hadn't wanted to admit, even to herself.
No. Ephiny pushed that thought back down. I am the regent. I command the entire Amazon Nation. I am both controlling and in control.
Gabrielle could practically see Ephiny's turmoil. She chewed her bottom lip, trying her best to bite back her words. This was something Ephiny had to work out for herself. Well, maybe another little push wouldn't hurt, she thought.
The bard's voice was soft and tender, yet it was strong enough to cut through Ephiny's haze of self-flagellation. The agitated warrior stopped her pacing, turned to look at her friend.
"Ephiny, the reason you're here?" asked Gabrielle, "It's the same answer as to who your warrior is, isn't it? The one that you said will never be yours?"
Ephiny's throat constricted. Her breath came in short pants. A clamminess had broken out all over. She could scarcely hear over the blood roaring in her ears. But, even if she couldn't hear Gabrielle's next question, she could clearly read it on her lips.
"Ephiny, it's Eponin, isn't it?"
Every gaze save one shifted to the door as the bitter cold blew in along with the stranger. One look from the formidable warrior and all eyes slid away again. An icy gaze scanned the interior of the darkened bar. Spotting her quarry, Xena confidently cut a path through the center of the room.
Eponin's nose was buried so deeply in a tankard of mead that she didn't even look up as Xena came to stand next to her. She hadn't looked up once, not even when the door had first opened and she'd heard the shifting in the seats and the low murmurings of the locals. She'd known immediately who it was that had come for her, had been expecting it for over a candlemark now.
Xena hooked her boot on the metal bar running the bottom length of the counter, leaned both elbows against the wooden surface. Holding up a finger, tossing a dinar on the countertop, she signaled for a mug of her own.
Uncomfortable with the rugged looks of both the latest arrivals, the barkeep quickly poured the thick mead into a mug and slid it along the bar before retreating to serve a group of locals at a table. A table as far away as he could get from the bar and the two women.
"Figured I'd find you here."
Ep snorted into her mead. "You check every bar in town already, did you?"
"That's the thing about small towns like Potadeia. There's only two places to get a drink. The inn where the rest of the featherheads are staying and - " a shrug of her shoulders, voiced the unspoken and this dive.
No way was Xena going to admit to Ep that she hadn't even known this place existed. Still wouldn't know if it hadn't been for that stubborn hobbled horse of an Amazon renegade.
She hefted her mug, took a hesitant sip. She grimaced as the potent brew burned her throat and gullet. She saw Eponin watching her for a reaction. Wordlessly, Xena took another, heartier swallow. Nope, there were a great many things she wasn't ready to admit to, yet.
The silence stretched between the two warriors as they steadily drained their mugs. Figuring Xena wasn't going to haul her out of there by her leathers, Eponin began to relax, leaning her elbow on the bar, running a large, calloused hand through her thick hair. Idly, she rubbed at her temple even as she signaled for another mug.
The bartender appeared instantly. True, he wasn't very comfortable with the obviously dangerous looking women in his establishment, especially since the town elders had put out that order that none should allow them service. But, the town elders weren't here. Never drank here. They always took their drinks at Darius' inn. His bar was for a rougher crowd; the mill workers and the rough necks. Besides, it wasn't the town elders that were going to tell them Amazons that they couldn't get a drink there.
And, the shorter of the two had already dropped more than a dozen dinars on the bar. He reasoned that if the taller one had as healthy an appetite for the drink, he might get to close the bar early for the Solstice season this year. Eagerly, he slid a full mug across the countertop, glanced up at the warrior standing beside her. He was noticeably disappointed when the brunette with the pale blue eyes waved him off.
Xena's narrowed eyes followed the bartender's retreat. She guessed from his reaction to her refusal of a refill that her companion had been downing the brew at a fairly steady clip. There was no doubt in her mind that if she hadn't come along, he would continue to let Eponin drink until she passed out.
Her gaze traveled over the other patrons. They were locals. Farmers and mill workers that had slipped off for a drink when the rain started. Harmless enough sorts. After all, this was the sleepy little town of Potadeia. Then, her gaze fell on a corner table. Four unwashed young men, also possible mill workers, looked like they'd already indulged a little too much. They were a little too rowdy, a little too boisterous for Xena's liking. And, their glances towards the bar were becoming a little too frequent, a little too long and more than a little too friendly.
Uh-oh. Looks like Pony might have caught the eye of a few of the locals. Better dissuade them quick. Slinging an arm across Eponin's broad shoulders, Xena made a point of leaning in and turning so that the hilt of the sword slung across her back was clearly silhouetted in the dim lighting. She purposely avoided turning around, trusting the sudden visibility of her weapon would be enough to discourage any potential troublemakers.
With a grunt and a glare, Ep turned to look at the warrior standing beside her. Not expecting to see those intense blue eyes quite so close, Eponin gave a startled jerk backwards. Only Xena's strong arm about her shoulder stopped her nearly falling off her stool. Bracing her forearm on the bar, Eponin steadied herself upon her seat again.
"Xena, what the - "
"Stop it," Xena warned, feeling Eponin trying to shift out from beneath the firm grip she had on both shoulders. "Just relax. There are four locals eyeballing us, thinking they might want to get friendly."
"Yeah?" Eponin asked, a smile forming on her lips as she tried to twist around in her seat.
"Well, don't look!" Xena hissed out, her other hand leaving the handle of her mug and clamping down on a muscular thigh, fingers digging into Eponin's flesh.
"What're you worried about?" Ep asked, peering at Xena over the brim of her mug. "Four locals? We've taken more than twice that many...with you being so drunk you couldn't climb off your barstool."
"Exactly." Seeing the perplexed look, Xena explained to her inebriated friend. "Look, this is Gabrielle's hometown. Meaning, she grew up with all these locals. How would it look if I had to go tell her I put some of her childhood friends in the hospice?"
"Fine." Eponin morosely took another swig of her mead, rubbed her fingers in a circular motion at her temple. She had really been looking forward to getting a chance to bust some heads. "What do you want to do, then?"
"Sit here and finish my drink." Hidden by her mug, Xena let a smile cross her lips. She was secretly relieved that Pony decided to be reasonable. "So," she asked, still not removing her arm from the warrior's broad shoulders, "What's a nasty Amazon like you doing in a nice place this?"
Eponin's entire body stiffened at the come-on. "Ex-Amazon." Her words were tersely forced out between clenched teeth. "Surprised you hadn't heard by now."
"Oh, I heard some nonsense or another about that. Think some featherhead said you're a traitor to the Nation or something." Xena slowly removed her hand from Eponin's thigh, retrieved her mug of mead. Gingerly sipping, she casually asked, "So, that why you're in Potadeia?"
Why are you in Potadeia? Why are you really in Potadeia?
Ephiny was broken.
It's because of Eponin, isn't it?
Gabrielle had pushed too hard and something inside of Ephiny had just...snapped. No sooner were the words out of Gabrielle's mouth than Ephiny was falling, crumbling to her knees. Gabrielle was beside her in an instant, taking her into her arms, rocking her, stroking her hair and cooing soothing words to her as if she were a small, frightened child.
"Shhh. Shhh, it's okay, honey," Gabrielle placed a tender kiss atop Ephiny's head. "It's okay."
"No it's not," came Ephiny's voice, raw with emotion, "Gods, Gabrielle. It'll never be okay again."
Ephiny couldn't stop herself, couldn't stop the words tumbling from her mouth.
Gabrielle sat, listening in stunned silence as Ephiny made her confession. For once, the bard was speechless. Not that she would interrupt, even if she could find the words. That was another thing she'd learned from Xena. Once a warrior started talking, don't do or say anything that'll make them shut up again before they're done.
And, it seemed Ephiny had a lot to say. Some of it, Gabrielle had guessed long ago. Like the fact that Eponin had touched a tender place in Ephiny's heart.
What's the saying about not missing something until it's gone?
Gabrielle had thought Ephiny's turmoil came from realizing her true feelings for her weapons master too late. She had attributed her lovelorn melancholy to a lost chance.
It wasn't until the confession had been ripped from Ephiny's throat in heaving, ragged gasps that Gabrielle knew she'd realized her heart's desire in time. Worse, that she'd opened her heart, arranged a romantic evening for them, had planned to tell Eponin how she felt. Only to have her heart ripped from her chest by one) Eponin never showing up and then stomped on by two) finding out that Ep had chosen to be with someone else instead.
"I was freely offering what she took from another."
Gods, what must that have been like to go through? Despite her bard's imagination, it was something she just couldn't wrap her mind about. What must it have done to her to have to exile the woman she loved? What more was it doing to her, having to hunt that love down?
"Ephiny, I heard about the crime. I don't believe Eponin did it. Ephiny, look at me." Gabrielle caught her beneath the chin, forced Ephiny to meet her gaze. Green eyes studied her intently, as if she could see right through to Ephiny's soul. "You don't believe it, either. I know you don't."
"It doesn't matter what I believe." Ephiny moved out of Gabrielle's embrace. Slowly, methodically, she made her way to her feet. She smoothed out the folds of her skirt. Her posture straightened. "As regent, I need to fulfill my duty." There was a brief look of uncertainty in those hazel eyes and Ephiny asked, "I am still your regent, aren't I?"
Gabrielle's fingers worried the braided leather she held in her hands. She thought of denying Ephiny. Her friend was putting up walls, fortifying her heart, hiding behind her title. What would the woman do if she couldn't hide behind the regent? Unsure of the answer, Gabrielle couldn't risk pushing further.
"Of course." Gabrielle looked down at the crown clenched tightly in her grasp. "It's yours if you want it. As long as you promise not to go throwing it away."
"It won't happen again."
"Good. Because I have a strict no return policy on these."
Gabrielle stood. She reached up, standing on tiptoe, then motioned for Ephiny to duck her head. Ephiny complied, allowing Gabrielle to settle the crown in place. As she stepped back, Gabrielle couldn't stop the smile that graced her lips.
"Looks good on you," Gabrielle complimented.
"Gabrielle, um - thank you." Suddenly bashful, Ephiny stared down at her bare feet. "For - um - listening and all."
"Hey, sensitive chats. That's what queens are for, right?"
"Yeah." Ephiny smirked. "Cause Gods know I used to curl up in Melosa's lap for a good cry." There was an awkward pause before she felt compelled to say, "Look, I'm sorry if I kind of fell apart there. I'm in complete control now. Promise."
"You're conflicted, Ephiny. There's the regent. Then, there's the woman. You have to find a balance between the two. Otherwise, this could happen again."
"It won't." Ephiny defiantly tilted her chin, as if offended by the very notion. "Like I said, I'm in control." I'm the regent.
Gods, for your sake, I hope so. Gabrielle caught both Ephiny's hands within hers, gave them a firm squeeze before letting go. "Get off that foot, huh?" she shoved Ephiny towards the bed. "Get some rest."
"Where are you going?" Ephiny asked, reclining on her elbows.
"Back to my room for a nap. You're exhausting when you're emotional."
"Thought Xena wanted us to stay together."
"As tempting as that is," Gabrielle purposely waggled her eyebrows at the sexy image of the leggy Amazon stretched out on the bed, "Do you really want Xena to come back and find us in bed together?"
"Uh. No. No, I don't."
"Didn't think so." Especially since I'm sure my warrior is bringing your warrior back with her.
"That what you think?" As Eponin's body impossibly tensed even more, Xena really had to work to keep that restraining arm about her shoulders. "That I came here with the intent of slaughtering Gabrielle's kin; maybe the Queen herself?"
"If I thought that, you'd be dead already." Xena pulled back, eyeing this one Amazon that she felt a camaraderie for above all other Amazons. Maybe because I see a little of myself beneath that gruff exterior. That part of myself I can only share with Gabrielle. "Way I figure it, you came to Potadeia by yourself to try to stop those other featherheads."
"Yeah? Well, you're here now."
Eponin didn't say more than that. She didn't have to. They were both warriors. And, they both knew what it was that Ep wasn't saying.
"You hit your head or something?"
"What?" Eponin was clearly taken aback. "Why; because I'm smart enough to recognize my own limitations? My Queen is a bard and you, Xena, are the hero of all her stories."
"No. Because you've been rubbing at your temple ever since I walked in." At Xena's observation, Eponin's fingers stopped their circular motion, fell away from her head. "So, give. You hit your head in the battle?"
"Nah." Eponin shook her head, then closed her eyes as a wave of vertigo swept over her with the unexpected action. Reaching out, strong fingers latched onto the edge of the bar.
The movement didn't go unnoticed by Xena. Blue eyes narrowed as she took in the uncharacteristic trembling of Eponin's hand as she lifted her mug for another drink. "But, you have suffered a head injury recently," she concluded, reaching out, running her fingers along Eponin's temple and into her hair.
"Got my bell rung during a challenge couple of moons ago," Eponin acknowledged, trying to move out from beneath Xena's probing fingers.
"Uh-huh." Xena pursed her lips, her focus narrowing as her fingers came in contact with scarring above Eponin's ear.
"Would you stop that?" Ep hissed, finding her attempt to jerk her head away blocked by Xena's firm grip. "It's fine."
"Too dark in here to be sure," Xena declared, still ruffling her fingers through Eponin's hair, trying to check for any more bumps. "We'll have to go somewhere a little more private."
"I know a place."
Xena's eyes rolled at the sound of the deep voice directly behind her.
These are Potadeians, Xena reminded herself. Give them the benefit of the doubt. "What did you have in mind?" she forced herself to ask in a sweet voice.
"Mill ain't far from here. And we're shut down on account of the weather. We won't be disturbed."
Xena visibly stiffened as a masculine hand clamped down on her waist, giving a firm squeeze. She closed her eyes against the triple assault of sawdust, cheap ale and stale sweat that threatened her nostrils. Beside her, Eponin was already bracing both hands against the edge of the bar.
"Thanks for the offer," Xena drawled, smoothly removing his unwanted fingers. "But, all my friend and I are looking for is a little peace and quiet."
"Yeah? That's what we're looking for, too." There was a pause as the man shifted so his full bodyweight was pressed against Xena's.
When he caught sight of the group bothering the Amazons, the bartender had started over. Zeus knew they were just good ol' boys looking for a good time to pass away a rainy day. They usually weren't much trouble. But, they'd been really putting them back and he figured the heavy drink mixed with a strong case of boredom couldn't bode well.
Xena was doing her heroic best to remain perfectly still. She kept repeating the mantra over and over again in her head that These are Gabrielle's childhood friends. You can't kill them. These are Gabrielle's -
Xena's eyes went wide as a masculine hand slid up, moving over her breastplate. She caught sight of the approaching bartender, tried to signal him to back off with just her eyes.
The bartender retreated as soon as he saw the knife.
Xena felt the cold edge at her throat, the blade pricking her skin, causing a drop of hot blood to well up onto the tip.
"So, let's all of us real quiet like go out the back door over there." He made a point of thrusting his hips against Xena's backside. "Play nice and give me and the guys here a piece and we'll let you and your friend go." Another hip thrust bumped his swelling manhood against Xena's leathers. "What do you say, girls?"
"What do you say, Ep?" Xena asked, cooperating with the thug as he backed her away from the bar at a steady pace. "We gonna play nice?"
Eponin took one last drink from her mug, slammed it down. Slowly, she slid off her stool, fingers clutching the edge for support. There was the predictable amount of wolf-whistles and crotch-grabbing as the four louts were already anticipating having both women servicing them throughout the remainder of the day.
Eponin stepped up to the man closest to her. He was the biggest of the lot. Even bigger than the one holding the knife to Xena's throat. He looked very much like he could lift whole trees out of the ground.
Ep made a point of looking him up and down. "Damn. You're big."
"Yeah?" He seemed unsure of what to make of that. Then, deciding it was a compliment, he developed a cocky grin and a swagger. "Yeah. Yeah, I am."
"Hey!" One of his friends stepped up, giving the bigger man a shove. "Hey. You go last. You know that."
"Not this time."
Xena's eyes narrowed and her voice dropped dangerously low as she asked the man that held the knife, "You've played this game together before, then?"
"Yeah." He caught Xena's look, misinterpreted it. "But, it ain't like that. Nothing queer about it. We take turns." He jerked his chin towards the biggest man. "And, he goes last. We make sure of that."
"Kind of you," Xena muttered, knowing full well it wasn't out of consideration for the pleasure of their conquests.
"Not this time," the big man repeated, adding a one-armed shove for punctuation.
His companion went sprawling backwards over a table. Satisfied that he wasn't going to get up and attack him, he turned his attention back to the dark-haired woman. He'd been watching her since she came in. She was short. Really short, he thought, looking down at her. The top of her head came to his chest and she had to tilt her head pretty far back to look up at him. But, she looked sturdy. The local farm girls were thick and sturdy. But, she looked - healthier. Built stocky and not any fat that he could see; he figured she'd do okay. If he got her before his friends had a chance to break her.
"I want her," he said, spearing the group's ringleader with a look that said he better not even think of refusing. At the shaky nod of permission from his leader, the big guy turned back to Eponin. He touched himself, his grin widening as he saw her eyes go to where his palm was boldly stroking. "I'm gonna like playing with you," he said.
With a smile upon her lips and a twinkle in her eye, Eponin reached out, brazenly placing her hand over his where it was rubbing at the front of his pants. "Didn't anyone ever tell you?" she asked, adding a purr to her voice as she tightened her grip. "Amazons don't play nicely?" A scream escaped the big man's lips as his hand and his member were both crushed beneath the vise-like grip on his crotch. "Especially with little boys."
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