DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Eponin, Solari, etc. are owned by Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures.  The other dozen or so Amazons were created by me - because you can never have too many Amazons.  No infringement is intended and no profit is being made.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
CHALLENGE: Written for Epic Proportions 2009.

By Del Robertson



Looking down at the Amazon beneath the fur pelts, a dark brow furrowed in concern. She couldn't recall seeing her guardian so frail looking before. Ever. A bit of humor sparked in Eponin's eyes as that thought settled in. If Devillare even knew her charge was thinking about how weak and fragile she appeared, she'd leap out of that bed and kick her tailfeathers all over the hospice.

Might be worth it, just to get her up and about. Eponin had been sitting in the chair beside the bed for over half a candlemark now. Which wasn't really such a long time, she figured. But, for someone who was normally as cognizant of her surroundings as Devillare was, it was unsettling that she hadn't realized her presence, yet. Maybe I'll talk with Pel about putting a guard on the door, she thought, reasoning that Megara might have given her something to help her rest. Either way, she wasn't comfortable with the elder warrior being so vulnerable.

Light colored eyes slowly studied her guardian's profile. Her brow was soaked, her close-cropped greying hair drenched with perspiration. The fur pelt was pulled up over her chest, almost to her neck. When Ep had first come in and seen her sweating so profusely, she'd wanted to remove the pelt, but Megara had advised against it, stating that the paste she'd used worked best with heat to draw the sickness out of the lungs. Then, she threatened to jab a needle in Pony if she so much as even thought of waking up her patient.

A moan escaped Devillare's lips, drawing Eponin's attention to her face. Her eyes were closed, but Ep could still see the rapid fluttering of lids that came with sleep. A restless sleep, to be sure, as the warrior stirred several times and spoke in her fevered delirium, yet never really awoke. Her sword arm was free, laying at her side on top of the pelt, the fingers rapidly twitching upon the grip of an unseen weapon.

Cracked lips parted, a weak timbre implored "Reyvanne . . . "

Reaching out, Eponin lay her hand on Devillare's, fingers feeling the heat of the flesh beneath her digits. The twitching of the fingers beneath hers slowed, but didn't completely still. Idly, Ep ran the tip of her finger over the faded scar that ran the length of Devillare's forefinger to her wrist. She recalled a time when she'd first come to live with Devillare when that scar had been a fiery red in color. As the seasons passed, it had dulled with time, fading until it blended in more and more with the other nicks and scars so inherent to a warrior's profession.

The fingers of her other hand came up, slipping beneath Devillare's palm until she held her guardian's large hand in both of hers. It was silly; some little something left over from her childhood. After Beroyle had died . . . she'd been wracked with grief, plagued with nightmares. As had so many in the village that had suffered losses. But, she was young. And freshly abandoned by her mother, forced upon this intimidating warrior.

And, remembering Beroyle's words about it being okay to cry only in the presence of loved ones . . . she had tried so hard to control her emotions by the light of day. But, each night in her pallet as she lay awake and alone, the tears would come. She could hear the faint footfalls as Devillare would come in to check on her; she'd close her eyes and stifle her tears and hold her breath, praying to Artemis she hadn't been heard. Most nights, that worked.

She was so frightened that one night when the footfalls stopped just as they did every night prior - but then, she heard them coming closer. She tried to lay as still as possible and pretend she was sleeping. But, through the crack in her eyelids, she watched as this big warrior sat down on the edge of her bed and reached out and ruffled her hair, then picked up her hand and held it in hers. She never said a word, just sat there and held her hand. The flesh was calloused, the skin rough, but Eponin felt such a sense of security and reassuring strength in that big hand that she calmed down almost immediately and drifted off to sleep.

When she'd awoken the next morning, Devillare was gone off to perform her duties for the day. Eponin had worried all day long about what she would say to her when she finally returned home for the evening. She'd dutifully gone to the dining hut and retrieved her meal and had it on the table when she walked in. They sat across the table from each other, eating in silence just as they did every night. And, when the meal was done, Eponin cleared the dishes and prepared Devillare's bath. Still, nothing was said about the incident.

When she finally turned in for the night, she drifted off quickly, exhausted from the day's worries. But, when she woke in the middle of the night, bleary eyes focused on the warrior sitting on the edge of her bed, silently holding her hand. Every night for the next five nights, she would find her hand held in that larger one. And, every morning and for most of the day, she would worry that Devillare would want to talk. Until one night, she was finally able to accept that this was okay and she grew content in their routine.

She lowered her head, bringing it down until her forehead was resting against the leather of Devillare's gauntlet. Closing her eyes, she prayed to Artemis to heal her guardian, her mentor. Both hands wrapped securely about Devillare's, she thought she felt the retired captain's fingers grip hers.

Leaning against the doorframe, the hide covering negligently tossed over and behind a tanned shoulder, the regent stared at the scene before her. Elder Devillare was supine on her back, lost in a restless slumber, coughs frequently wracking her body even in sleep. Half-sitting and half-laying in a chair beside the bed was the Weapons Master to the Amazons.

Her bandaged leg was stretched out before her, her leather boot propped upon an overturned water bucket. Her upper body was turned at an awkward angle, half slumped over the bed. Beneath a thick veil of dark hair, Ephiny was able to discern the line of a proud chin, a distinguished cheekbone, a prominent nose. Her dark brow was furrowed, even as soft snores escaped her powerful frame.

What troubles you even in your sleep, Pony? She knew that was a foolhardy question even as it sprang to mind.

"How's she doing?" Ephiny asked, sensing Megara's presence behind her even before she spoke.

"Inhaled too much smoke. Same as that fool scout." Megara jerked her head in the direction of the outer room where Solari was being given the once over by Iphinome. "Don't expect it'll do any permanent damage, though."

A puzzled look spread over the regent's features before it dawned on her what Megara was referring to. "Actually," she amended, "I was asking about Devillare."

"Oh. I thought - " The look that the healer shot back was one of equal parts confusion and surprise. In the time since the weapons master's injuries, Megara had found the regent stalking the halls of the hospice more and more. Mostly when that fool warrior was supposed to be in therapy sessions with the apprentices. She seldom stepped into the sessions; preferring to remain in the darkened hallways and observe from a distance. Always out of sight, ever vigilant, in her scrutiny of the warrior's care. I thought for certain she - Then, shaking her head, "She's a fighter, but I've seen a lot of tough warriors succumb to the coughing sickness over the seasons. She has, too. Guess that's why she summoned Eponin."

Ephiny absently nodded, hardly even noticing as Megara was beckoned to the outer room by Iphinome to help tend to a stubborn Solari.

She had been in session with the council when the alarm had sounded. She had answered the call like the rest, rehearsing a well-choreographed routine to make sure the blaze was contained and didn't spread to the rest of the village. Everyone pitched in, forming two rows, passing full buckets of water in a straight line up to the burning building and the second row sending the empty buckets back down to be refilled. Even though they performed as efficiently as they had in countless drills, the fire had spread to two other huts before the blaze was contained, causing significant roof and structural damage.

It wasn't until afterwards that she realized exactly whose home had been burning. As the other Amazons slowly dispersed, she saw Eponin crouched beside the smoldering wreckage, a half-full bucket of water still clutched in her powerful grip. Solari was there, a blanket draped about her shoulders, tears caused by the acrid smoke leaving wet streaks on both her cheeks as her body shuddered and heaved with the coughing fits brought on by smoke inhalation. Upon spotting her regent, Solari had immediately waved her over.

Ephiny hesitated, unsure of her reception from the other Amazon. Since their return from the water reclamation project, Solari had easily slid back into her friendship with her regent. That was the thing about Soli - they could have a fight, Ephiny would be forced to discipline her - and by the time the punishment phase was over with, all was forgiven and their relationship was intact again. Guess that's the difference between having a packmate and having a -

Ephiny's thoughts halted as she tried to work out exactly what it was that she had with Eponin. Oh, they were friends, she supposed. But, with Eponin, both their pride seemed to get in the way too much. Ephiny would discipline her - and Ep would take it too personally, holding a grudge for moons at a time. And, of course, she was hardly the first to extend the olive branch of peace, either. They had barely spoken three sentences to each other since that day. Every time she saw Eponin - or Eponin saw her - it seemed one of them would turn and head the other direction. She didn't know why she could fall back into such an easy rapport with Solari and couldn't get past what Eponin had done . . . especially since they had behaved in exactly the same manner. Because you expect more from her, that's why.

It was wrong of her to place so much responsibility, so much expectation squarely on the weapons master's broad shoulders. For no other reason than she thought the woman could withstand anything. Seeing her there, sitting amongst the ruins of her burned out home, Ephiny was suddenly struck at just how vulnerable Eponin could really be.

In that instant, Ephiny approached her, determined to offer a reconciliation. Before she could fully step up to her, though, a messenger had approached. She'd hovered in the background as she overheard the summons that Devillare had issued to meet her at the hospice. As Solari and the messenger aided Eponin to her feet, their eyes had met. Only briefly. But, it was long enough for Ephiny to see a flicker of quiet hurt. Then, it was gone, replaced by a steely resolve as Eponin determinedly turned away from her again.

Standing there in the hall, Ephiny felt something pulling at her to go to Eponin's side. As she approached on stealthy feet, she once again took in the striking body of the athletic Amazon. Coming up behind her, she rested both hands upon powerful shoulders, feeling the tautness of muscle and sinew beneath her fingertips.

"Pony?" she whispered, leaning in close enough to speak softly into an ear.

"Mmm?" came the mumbled response.

"Pony?" Her warm breath tickled the dark hairs curled nearest Eponin's ear. "I need to speak with you."

"Mmm?" Came the reply again. This time, however, it wasn't from the weapons master's lips, but rather from the lips of the elder warrior laying upon the bed.

A glance confirmed that Devillare was beginning to awaken, as well. With a defeated sigh, Ephiny leaned in, placing a kiss at that spot squarely between two shoulder blades before retreating. Deciding this wasn't the time or place to negotiate a truce, she moved towards the door. Retreating to the hallway and then towards the outer room, she negligently flipped the hide covering as she walked past. It settled into place just as Eponin began to stir.

A head lifted up, eyes slowly blinked open as Eponin groggily looked about. Ugh, feels like I've got a breechcloth wrapped about my tongue. Wait - where am I - Oh, yeah. Something woke me -

A crooked half-smile adorned a hardened warrior's face as she took in the momentary sense of confusion that was so apparent on her young charge's face. Very seldom had she seen her ward caught completely unawares. She had been surprised when she'd awoken and found Eponin perched upon a chair beside her bed, both hands wrapped about hers as she slept. The uncharacteristic display of affection and acceptance touched her heart; and she just couldn't stop herself from reaching out with her free hand and ruffling Eponin's black mane of hair.

As realization dawned on Eponin of where she was and why she was there, her gaze flicked to Devillare's face. The elder was awake and watching her through steel grey eyes that appeared glassy with fever. Sitting all the way up, releasing Devillare's hand, wiping at the slobber trying to work its way towards her chin, Eponin straightened her posture.


"Hey yourself, Pup." Devillare offered in return.

Ep frowned at the nickname, quickly glanced over her shoulder to check that they were still alone. Don't need anyone else overhearing what Devillare calls me. Bad enough Eph started that whole business with calling me Pony. Then, thinking of the curly-haired regent and how her insides grew warm whenever that pet name rolled off Ephiny's tongue, she decided it wasn't such an awful thing.

"How you feeling, Devil?" Ep asked, trying out the name she'd so frequently heard during her childhood, but had never let pass her lips.

A greying eyebrow rose in surprise at the use. "Like - " A fit suddenly came on, causing the older Amazon's body to convulse from the sheer force of the coughs. As the coughing finally subsided and she fell back against her pillows, her head lolled to the side so she could see concerned caramel colored eyes staring back at her. "Like a herd of wild stallions have trampled over me."

Eponin gave Devillare's hand a firm squeeze. "You want something to drink?" she asked, already scrambling to retrieve the mug from the table beside the bed.

Another series of coughs wracked Devillare's frame even as she held up a hand to ward off Eponin's offer. "Stuff . . . tastes like . . . hydra piss."

Ep's lip curled up in disgust as she warily eyed the contents of the mug. "Smells like it, too. I could - " she replaced the tumbler on the table " - go get you something else?" She offered, jerking her head towards the door.

"Nah, don't bother." Devillare shook her head. "Even the water in this place tastes like crap." Then, a mischievous glint to her eye and a waggling of eyebrows, she added, "Unless you know where a body could find a cute, little healer to mix up some of that honey-flavored tea I've been hearing so much about."

"It's not like that." A dark head bowed, thick hair hiding an embarrassed, bashful smile. "Hilaeira's just concerned about my injuries, is all."

"And, how is that?"

"Ribs are healing up nice," Eponin waggled her hand back and forth, "Knee's coming along."

Devillare's eyes traveled over Eponin's frame as she attempted to appraise her charge's condition for herself. The bruises had faded out and the cut along the bridge of her nose had scabbed over. Her ribs were still bandaged, but Ep didn't seem as stiff in her movements as she had been. And, the crutches were gone, replaced by the presence of a staff that she suspected was doubling as a cane.

Seemingly mollified by the answer her own eyes confirmed, Devillare nodded her head. Chewing her bottom lip, she glanced about the room, as if debating on something. Suddenly, she turned her gaze back to Eponin. "How's little Ephiny?' she asked.

"Uh - fine?"

Devillare caught the questioning tone in Eponin's voice that didn't really answer her question. "Don't be too rough on her, Pup. Damn Tynette and the rest are giving her a hard time." Her eyes flicked towards the door as she heard someone approaching, then back to the confused warrior at her bedside. "Promise me you won't make things any tougher on her."

Before Eponin could respond, the fur hide covering the doorway was pulled back and Evanthe came into the room, a rolled scroll and a quill case tucked beneath her arm. Wordlessly, she crossed to the bedside, unrolled the scroll on the table and prepared her quill and ink. When she was ready to proceed, she nodded at Devillare.

Devillare wet her dry, cracked lips, cleared her throat before beginning. "Eponin of the Warrior Caste," another round of coughs rattled the elder warrior's frame, "upon my passing, I - "

"What's going on here?" Eyes narrowed in suspicion. Then, glancing from Devillare to Evanthe, realization suddenly dawned. Eponin almost leapt out of her chair. In truth, she might have bolted for the door if Devillare's grip upon her hand hadn't prevented her. "Nuh-uh. No way," she punctuated with a swipe of her hand through the air. "You're gonna get past this."

"Artemis willing."

"It's not your time," Eponin was emphatic in her declaration.

"Probably not," agreed Devillare. "But you can never be certain. And, there's things that need to be taken care of." Grey eyes flicked towards Evanthe.

Evanthe gave a firm nod, but didn't say anything. Her presence was required to witness, nothing more. She lowered her head, made a showing of adjusting her scrolls, trying to provide the two warriors with some small measure of privacy.

Wide-eyed, Eponin turned back to Devillare, wishing she could be anywhere other than right here, right now. "You don't have to do this," she protested.

Drawing a ragged breath, the ex-captain brought her hand up off the bed, holding it up as if to still Eponin's tongue. "I do. It's already written into the scrolls in the library. But, ink fades and scrolls grow brittle with the passing of time. I want to make certain no one can contest it." Another series of coughs wracked the proud warrior's body, causing her grip on Eponin's hand to tighten even more. As the spell passed, she relaxed her grip, fell back onto her pallet. Perspiration was coating her upper lip as she declared, "If anything should ever happen to me, I want you to have my mask and sword."

"I can't do that."

"Course you can; we're family."

Eponin was stunned, left gaping open-mouthed. Only twice in her life, had someone called her family. After she'd saved Gabrielle's life, she'd wanted to present Eponin with the gauntlets. Ep tried to refuse the gift, thinking it was too elaborate; she was only doing her duty. Recalling Ephiny's words of An Amazon Princess doesn't refuse a gift from another Amazon, Gabrielle had used that to her advantage by stating, You're my Amazon sister; you shouldn't refuse gifts from family.

Once by Gabrielle and now, once by Devillare. Even though Devillare had taken her in and raised her, Eponin had always thought it was because she felt obligated to. Then, she figured it was because of Beroyle that Devillare's honor demanded she keep her. Never had she thought that Devillare considered them family.

" I - I can't." Eponin's conscience wouldn't allow her to accept what Devillare was offering. "They belong on display with the other warriors' - "

"You already have Beroyle's." Grey eyes burned with an intensity as they focused on the weapons master. "Promise me you'll place mine with hers - "

Her voice cracked. Evanthe retrieved the mug and pressed it into Devillare's hands. As the warrior drank, Ep's eyes found Evanthe's. The elder met her gaze, silently conveying her intent. Devillare doesn't know.

Uncomfortable at Evanthe's silent request, the weapons master bowed her head. I don't like lying to her. Subconsciously, Eponin raked a thick hand through her hair, pushing it back. As she did, she caught a whiff of lingering smoke. Although, if she wasn't so stuffed up, she'd be able to smell the truth. After receiving the summons, she'd taken time to wash up, not wanting to needlessly worry her mentor with news of her hut burning to the ground. She has enough to do just concentrating on getting well without being concerned about where I'm gonna live. But, she needs to know before she entrusts me with her mask -

As Devillare paused in her drinking and rested her head against her pillow, Eponin opened her mouth to speak. Seeing the subtle shake of Evanthe's head, the weapons master merely nodded her head in agreement.

Resting on her haunches on the charred ground, soot and ash dusted the tops of her leather boots. Soft, brown hair was held back with a leather cord and braided midway down her back to keep it out of her way. A myriad of feathers were interwoven through her braid and attached to her arm bracers and shoulder guards. A thin wraparound style leather skirt displayed firm thighs and strong calves.

Lexine's heart hammered in her chest as she watched from a distance as the chief scout picked her way through the rubble. She was well-hidden amongst the copse of trees beyond the warrior castes' huts and was positive she could not be seen by the muted light of the fading afternoon sun. She had been curious as to who might return to the still-smoking ruin and had been watching from the cover of the trees for most of the day. She had expected Eponin. She was surprised when she'd gotten Solari.

She'd watched earlier as the scout had found the remains of a dresser and used the tip of her knife to pry open the stubborn drawers. She had sorted through the contents, tossing odds and ends into a rucksack she carried with her. When she forced open the top drawer, Lexine saw her remove an intricately carved box. Solari slowly opened the box, peered inside, before closing it again and adding it to the contents of her bag.

Since then, Solari seemingly hadn't found anything else to salvage. Making her way across the ruined floor, she came to stop almost directly across the way from where Lexine was secluded, exactly where the far wall of the hut once stood. Spying something in the debris, dropping down to her haunches, she worked to move charred planks of wood out of her way. Lexine recognized the blackened husk of a mask, only a few ravaged feathers remained hanging from the ruined shell. Solari ran a hand over the bedraggled feathers before placing the mask to the side.

Green eyes watched Solari pull a scrap of cloth from the burlap bag she carried slung over her shoulder. Wrapping the cloth about her hand, she reached for something half-buried in the rubble. Leaning forward as she extended her reach, Solari's halter hung low, displaying an impressive amount of cleavage. The mouth-watering sight caused a tightening in her center and a low moan to escape the young guard's lips before she could bite it back down. Abruptly, Solari's head raised. Lexine closed her eyes, held her breath, praying to Artemis she hadn't been seen. When she dared to open her eyes again, Solari was gone.

Long fingertips searching through the remains of charred wood displaced the grey ash, stirring dying embers. Placing the ruined mask to the side with as much care as possible, Solari's seasoned eyes aided her fingertips in their quest. Spying the hilt of the sword some distance away, feeling the heat coming from the metal, she blindly rummaged through the rucksack slung over her shoulder until her fingers closed upon a bit of cloth. Keeping her eyes on her prize, she wrapped the cloth about her hand and fingertips in an effort to protect them.

Bracing herself, reaching forward, stretching her body in an effort to stay clear from any hot spots lurking beneath the ash she had disturbed, Solari leaned as far forward as humanly possible. Even as her fingers reached the hilt and dragged the sword towards her, she could feel the heat through the cloth. As the broken blade pulled free from the debris covering it, it glowed a fiery red in the dimming sunlight. Reaching back into her rucksack for another cloth, she wrapped it about the grip of the sword.

A noise caught her attention, causing her head to snap up. Eyes scanning the surrounding copse of trees, she easily spotted the guard hidden amongst the greenery. That's the thing about keeping your blade well-polished; it looks pretty, but it can also give away your location. Once she had targeted the last rays of a setting sun reflecting off the blade, she was able to zero in on the rest of the guard's features.

Lexine. As of late, the young guard had taken to shadowing her, showing up at the dining hut at the same time as the scout, coincidently arriving at the communal baths around the same time, bumping into her as she was coming in from her evening run. Guess I encouraged that by flirting with her to get the information I wanted. A slight frown marred her features as she realized just what the guard's vantage point from the trees had given her a good view of. Now I need to figure out a way to discourage that.

Sharp ears caught the distant voices of warriors returning from the practice fields. She recognized the distinct tones of Egeria and Lysippe, two of Eponin's elite squad. Not looking forward to explaining why a scout was nosing around a warrior's hut and taking her belongings, never mind that it was the burnt out remains of a warrior's hut, Solari decided it was best to make a hasty retreat. Time enough to sort Lexine out later, she figured, hefting both the sword and rucksack and slipping off under cover of the lengthening shadows sunset provided.

"So, then," Solari spoke around a mouthful even as she reached across the table to spear another potato, "she tells me that after she'd worked so hard to pull off this daring rescue, turns out this Xena was a Hestian virgin!"

The chief scout leaned back in her chair, a self-satisfied grin on her face as she slapped her thigh and laughed at her own punchline. Her laughter faded as the Amazon sitting directly across from her didn't even crack a smile. Cocking her head to the side, she studied the brunette's face for long candledrips. Her smile slowly turning to a frown, she leaned in, waving her hand back and forth in front of her companion's face. Slowly, light colored eyes blinked back at her.

"Hey, if I wanted such sparkling dinner conversation, I would have invited Xena."

"Huh?" Eponin blinked again. Then, looking down at her plate and then back up, she tried for an apologetic smile. "Sorry. Guess I'm not the best company."

"I've had worse. At least you know what a fork is," Solari teased, nodding her head at the implement clutched loosely in her companion's grasp, "Last time I had a woman over for dinner, I served mutton stew. She never even touched her spoon. Just upended the entire bowl and drank it like it was a mug of ale."

"Ugh." Eponin grimaced at Solari's depiction as she imagined the thick gravy running down her throat. Then, looking about, she leaned across the table, asked in a lowered tone, "Umm, Soli? I'm not - uh - I mean - you didn't cancel a - you know, a date or anything for tonight, did you?"

Solari paused in mid-chew, giving Eponin a puzzled look. She slowly glanced about her hut, wondering what the warrior was looking at. "Oh, no!" she admonished with a wave of her fork. "Sometimes, I like to dress things up a little."

Eponin's gaze slowly traveled once again around Solari's dwelling. The scout's hut wasn't nearly as large as hers - was, Eponin reminded herself. But, it looked very; she frowned, trying to come up with a suitable description . . . lived-in.

There was a bearskin pelt on the floor in front of the hearth, several colorful pillows tossed about nearby to serve as cushions while reclining in front of the fire. Beside the hearth, within easy reach, was a stack of wood and branches to feed the fire with. In addition to the warmth and light provided by the hearth, there were lit candles scattered all about the hut. A sheer curtain was pulled across the other side of the hut; a large four-post bed, dresser and nightstand visible behind it. At the foot of the bed, on either side, there were large urns with potted palms. Eponin couldn't be sure, but she thought the pillows tossed upon the bed were the same silk ones Solari had purchased off that merchant Gabrielle had introduced them to last spring.

That was one thing the chief scout and their Queen shared a passion for; shopping. That last time, in Athens, Xena and she had wisely gone off to the local tavern while Gabrielle and Solari had proceeded to try their hand at haggling with every merchant in the market. Then, they'd had to haggle with the man who owned the stables to purchase a wagon to haul all their loot back to the Nation in.

Even the table for four they were eating at tonight had been purchased in Athens, she remembered, idly running her finger along the two-tone wood inlay on the surface. She eyed the vase in the center of the table, wondering exactly who had picked the wildflowers so artfully positioned. Not Soli, right? Eponin looked across the table at her friend who was busy cleaning her fingernails with her boot knife as she launched into another tale Gabrielle had told her. Nah, couldn't be.

Shifting her position in the tree she was perched upon, Lexine intently stared at the hide covering the doorway of the chief scout's hut. A fire was roaring in the hearth, as evidenced by the smoke escaping through the thatched roof. As of yet, though, Solari hadn't changed the lightweight, summer covering framing the door to a heavier pelt for the winter. With the light from both the hearth and the various candles burning inside, she was able to make out the silhouettes of the two women inside.

Not that she needed the light to know who was inside. She'd followed Solari from the site of the fire earlier, had watched as she'd made her way home. Then, no more than a candlemark later, the weapons master had appeared on her doorstep. She'd assumed Eponin was there to pick up the rucksack of belongings Solari had collected for her before heading out. She'd been more than a little put out when she realized the warrior was staying for dinner.

A dinner that Solari had prepared and waiting on the table, rather than going to the dining hut. How long does it take to eat a meal, anyway? she wondered, checking the position of the stars overhead. It was already a candlemark past full dark. And, it looked like the weapons master wasn't prepared to leave just yet. She leaned fully out on the branch she was crouched upon, giving serious thought to climbing down and going and knocking on Solari's door.

A shadow fell across the path leading towards the row of scouts' huts. Ducking back out of sight, Lexine held her breath, hoping she'd returned to the safety of the branches before she'd been spotted. Using her fingertips to move aside a leafy branch that was blocking her view, she looked to see who was coming.

"That was really a great meal, Solari," Eponin complimented the scout as she pushed her plate away.

"Yeah, I can tell by the vast amounts you shoveled away," Solari teased.

Eponin looked down at her plate in confusion. She'd eaten sparingly, not really having an appetite after the day's events. Mostly, she'd eaten the meat, played with her potatoes a little and avoided the greens all together.

"Sorry," she apologized, "Really, it was good." There was a subtle shrug of powerful shoulders. "Guess I'm just not real hungry tonight."

"Still upset about today?" Solari guessed. Then, moving to the other room, she retrieved the sack of things she'd collected. "Here," she said, holding out the bag, "Got ya something."

Warily, Eponin opened the sack, as if expecting a rattlesnake to come flying out at her. Both eyebrows raised in surprise as she recognized many of the contents from her hut. Reaching in, she ran her fingers over the engraved box Gabrielle had given her. The outside was a little darker than she remembered, but she figured a good cleaning might free up some of the blackness that lingered on the wood.

"You went back and got all this for me?"

"Yeah." Solari tried to perform a nonchalant shrug as if it wasn't a big deal, but she couldn't hide the grin on her face as she presented Eponin with an object wrapped in a deerskin. "And, there's more, too."

Unrolling the hide, Eponin looked up in surprise as Beroyle's broken sword came tumbling out.

"Soli - how?" she asked, fingers closing about the double eagle-head grip.

"Found it beneath a section of the wall." Another detrimental shrug of her shoulders. "I'm afraid the mask was ruined."

"It's okay. This is - " Eponin forced out the words. "This is more than I thought I'd get back." Eyes traveled over the edge of the sword, eyeing the broken blade.

Green pupils nearly bugged out as the figure came into view. Lexine knew the form immediately, the length of the stride, the sway of the hips, the proud set of the shoulders. She should; she'd guarded the regent for long enough to be able to recognize her from a distance of a hundred yards or more.

Ooooh, this is gonna be good! she realized as she saw the regent come around to the front of the hut with almost a jaunty bounce to her step, a flask clutched firmly in her grasp. Her stride faltered, then stopped completely as she saw the two silhouettes framed against the hide covering.

Seeing that her friend was still depressed, despite her thankfulness at having the sword returned, Solari made one more effort at cheering Eponin up. "Hey," she started, coming around the table and nudging Eponin with her hip, "Things will look better in the morning. I'm sure there will be plenty of volunteers to pitch in and repair whatever's needed. Pelagia gave the okay for us to start clearing out the burnt out sections in the morning and begin leveling the ground again. And, Egeria said her and some of the other warriors are going to start bringing in timber by tomorrow afternoon. Bet your place will be bigger and better than before in no time." Solari looped her arm about broad shoulders in a sisterly hug. "In the meantime, you're more than welcome to stay with me."

Eponin glanced around nervously. "Thanks, Solari." She forced a half-smile onto her lips as she rose from her chair. "But, I'll probably just go bed down somewhere."

"Yeah, where?" she asked, already knowing her friend wasn't the type to put someone else out. "You got a branch all staked out somewhere? You'll freeze your tailfeathers off before morning."

"I'll find somewhere," Ep shrugged, already moving towards the door with the rucksack and sword. She had the hide covering partially raised and was just about to duck outside. "Maybe an extra cot down at the infirmary."

"Beneath Megara's nose all night?" Solari shook her head, lifted the sack from Eponin's grip. "Won't hear of it. There's plenty of room here. We'll bunk down together tonight and in the morning, we'll see about bringing in an extra bed." She was already moving back into her hut, clearing space out of one of her dresser drawers and depositing Eponin's belongings into it. 'Besides, it'll really help my reputation when words gets out you're bedding down at my place." She glanced over her shoulder, saw the panic-stricken look on Eponin's face before adding, "I'm kidding, Ep. Pick your jaw up off the floor and get in here."

Outside the chief scout's hut, two figures remained perfectly frozen as they watched the weapons master lingering at the doorway. Then, Eponin released the hide covering, letting it fall back into place as she stepped back inside. From the darkened pathway and the hidden branches of a nearby tree, ears strained, attempting to hear the sounds of muted conversation coming from within. Two sets of eyes remained staring at the dwelling for long heartbeats after the last candle had been extinguished and the sporadic murmurings of conversation had long since ceased.

"Then . . . kill me . . . "

"I - " Gabrielle firmly shook her head.

". . . Kill me . . . "

"No. No . . . I can't . . . "

"If you love me . . . kill me . . . kill me . . . kill me . . . "

"Nooo!" Gabrielle sat bolt upright, hand reflexively reaching for her staff, eyes frantically scanning the campsite.

Xena was beside her instantly, large hands cupping her shoulders, low voice speaking soothing words of comfort in her ear. The blonde felt the cooling perspiration upon her matted hair, her upper body as the fur blankets pooled about her hips. Her erratic breaths hung thick upon the chilly night air as her chest heaved in mighty gulps.

"It's okay, baby," Xena cooed, running her fingers through Gabrielle's hair, over her lithe body, "I've got you now. I've got you." As Gabrielle's senses fully returned, she flung her arms about Xena's body, cleaving her form to hers as she sought the reassuring comfort of her warrior's embrace.

Once again, Xena cursed her inability to help her soulmate. I can fight warlords and gods and monsters, but when it comes to a nightmare . . . I'm helpless. As she cradled her bard in her arms, she placed a kiss against the top of her head, her temple, her cheek. Gabrielle clung to her fiercely, relishing the contact, needing the security of her lover's touch.

Slowly, gradually, the holding turned into more. The firm embrace that had at first been meant to offer reassurance changed into tender, lingering touches. Sensing the difference in the caresses, Gabrielle's body responded. Calloused hands that could scale a sheer cliff wall were suddenly soft as silk upon her skin as clothes were lifted off and away. A mouth that she'd seen with her own eyes breathe fire at her enemies engulfed her in fiery licks and kisses that burned her flesh and seared her skin and left her longing for more. Fingers that could incapacitate and cut off the flow of oxygen to the brain with just a flick gently slid through moistness, finding a warm, snug place to call home.

Afterwards, holding a nearly slumbering Gabrielle in her arms, Xena offered, "What say we get away from all this for a while, huh?" A gentle kiss upon lips as she suggested, "We'll go to Amphipolis, stay with mom for a bit."

"Mmm-hmm," was finally mustered up from lips that were slack from blissful languidness.

One arm reached down, pulling the fur blanket up. Cradling Gabrielle in the crook of her other arm, Xena stared up at the night sky filled with stars. Calculating their position, she mentally figured how many days travel it would be until they reached her hometown. They could stay on for a while; she could do some repairs to mom's inn while Gabrielle helped out in the kitchen, maybe told a few tales to the patrons. Sleep together in a real bed, with a roof over their heads. A rest from the open road would be good for the both of them.

Maybe give this whole mess with the raiders a chance to blow over. So far, the only towns hit were small ones incapable of defending themselves. Amphipolis certainly wouldn't fit that description. She was confident that they would be in no danger in her hometown. A bit of rest and relaxation, a change of pace, might be enough to take Gabrielle's mind off the raiders and the dead Amazon and give her nightmares a rest. Then later, she might be able to slip off and deal with these raiders on her own - without endangering Gabrielle.

Armed with a plan, Xena felt herself drifting off, secure in the knowledge that she was doing what was best for her bard.

Honey-colored eyes blinked rapidly, trying to focus in on her surroundings. It was dark, she couldn't see. But, she could hear - and feel - and smell. She was outdoors; she could feel the light breeze blowing across her exposed flesh, through her hair that hung framed about her face. It was night; the chirping of crickets and the occasional hoot of an owl gave that away.

Suddenly, the area was flooded in light. Light so intense that she had to close her eyes against the harsh brightness. A growing knot of fear tightened in her stomach as the pounding of the small drums began.

Blinking her eyes open, she realized immediately where she was. The field. Looking about, she tried to make out the faces of those hidden behind the torches. She couldn't see the perimeter; only the torches and the unrecognizable forms that held them. Seven more torches blazed to life, drawing her attention to the far end of the field.

There, on the platform, sat the elders in judgment. Only, something wasn't right. Squinting her eyes, she tried to make out the details. They were each seated in their appropriate places. But - cloths were stuffed into each of their mouths, effectively gagging them. And, their hands were tied, fastened with chains to the arms of their chairs.

"There they sit, in stony, silent judgment," came a voice from the darkness, "Impotent in their set ways. Unable to change. Unable to adapt. Unable to endure."

Seven swords materialized from the darkness behind each chair, the metal of the blades brilliantly shining as they simultaneously flashed across seven helpless throats. Eponin winced, her eyes reflexively closing against the arc of red blood on black night.

"Don't close your eyes." The voice demanded. Then, growing in intensity, it shouted, "Look at me! LOOK at me!"

Eponin's eyes slowly opened. She forced herself to look up at the ceremonial platform. Ephiny was there, her hands behind her back, her head tilted at an awkward angle. Amber colored eyes followed the blade of the knife from Ephiny's throat to the large hand and massive forearm to Cordele's rigidly-set features. Her other hand was firmly entangled in Ephiny's locks, holding her head back, ensuring the regent couldn't make any attempt at escape.

"I told you what would happen. I warned you," Cordele hissed through clenched teeth. A sadistic smirk coming to her lips, she leaned in, extending her tongue to lick the side of Ephiny's face. "She's mine."

"Leave her alone!" Eponin screamed in her fury.

"You want her?" Cordele's grin widened as her hand flexed, causing the sharp blade to bite into Ephiny's neck enough to draw blood, "Come get her."

The darkness closed in about her; all she could see was Ephiny and Cordele upon the platform. She couldn't even make out the slumped over figures of the dead elders any longer. Eponin immediately started forward.

She'd only gone three steps before she felt something collide with her knee, causing her legs to buckle. Righting herself, she pressed forward, taking another step before a blow from a staff landed across her bare back. With each step, she was buffeted by unseen assailants intent on taking her down.

Determined in her resolve to reach her regent, Eponin pushed on. Even when her legs would no longer support her weakening body, she continued on, red clay mercilessly cutting into palms and knees as she crawled to the platform. Ephiny and Cordele watched in silence; a look of terror and helpless pleading was evident in Ephiny's eyes, sadistic triumph written all over Cordele's face.

As she reached the bottom of the platform and was extending a hand to pull herself up, she saw the blade flash, slitting Ephiny's throat. Ephiny's face immediately paled, her eyes registering surprise - then distress before her lifeless body was released to fall off the edge of the platform and unceremoniously land on the ground.

"Noooooooooooooo!" shouted Eponin, her fists mercilessly beating the red clay she was kneeling on as Cordele's maniacal laughter echoed in her ears.

Heart beating rapidly in her chest, Eponin breathed through her mouth, trying to calm her rattled nerves. She'd been disorientated when she first awoke, not knowing exactly where she was. There was a body curled against her, furs pulled up over the both of them, the warmth of a fire crackling in an open hearth across the room. Then, remembering the events of the day and realizing she was safe in Solari's bed, she lay back against the cool sheets. Ephiny's safe - just a dream - Ephiny's safe she kept repeating over and over again to herself. Still, it would be several candlemarks before her racing heart and mind would allow her to return to the realm of Morpheus.

The chill wind blew through her hair, ruffling her curls, raising goosebumps and causing minute shivers to run through her body. Arms crossed over her chest, feet planted firmly apart, the regent was oblivious to the cold blanketing her body. Eyes stung from the elements, yet her gaze remained fixed and unwavering.

It had been candlemarks since she'd stopped on the path outside Solari's doorstep. She eyes had watched as Eponin had started to emerge from that hut, then with what Ephiny could only presume was a well-placed plea from Solari, she had gone back inside. Then, the candles had been methodically extinguished one by one.

In her mind's eye, Ephiny could see Solari moving about inside the hut, bending low, bringing her lips to within a hair's breadth of each flame before pursing her lips and blowing. She'd be unrushed and methodical in the process, knowing her guest's eyes would be riveted to her form as she moved with cat-like grace about the main room. Then, as she came full circle, she would blow out the last candle in the room, her circuitous route placing her directly in front of the stock-still warrior. Reaching out, she would take Eponin's hand in her own and lead her past the sheer drape that separated the main room from her bedroom.

The movements inside the hut corresponded with the drama unfolding in Ephiny's imagination, giving credence to her theory. The candles in the bedroom were dimmed one by one, Solari keeping a loose grip on Eponin's fingers as she urged her deeper into her bedchambers. She would turn Eponin around, giving her a gentle push backwards, causing her to gracefully land sprawled out across the mattress. Placing a knee between Eponin's open legs, climbing onto the bed, her body arching as she leaned over Ep's, their bodies would be so close you couldn't slide a scroll between them as she stretched to reach the nightstand beside the bed. Pursing her lips into a lover's kiss, she would blow out the last remaining candle.

It had been many candlemarks since that last, lone candle had been put out. But, in Ephiny's mind, the scenario kept repeating itself over and over again. She tried several times to force her feet to move, to take her away, to anywhere but here. But, like the two Amazons inside, her body had turned traitor.

Could you be any more dramatic, Ephiny? she mentally reprimanded herself. So, Eponin is warming Solari's bed tonight. No big deal. It's not like she's the first woman Solari has lured in with a good meal on a cold evening.

Only, it was. Because she knew Solari's habits intimately. The chief scout was a womanizer, able to have her pick of almost any woman in the village with little more than a bold wink and a sly suggestion. She'd approach them, make them feel like the most beautiful woman in the village, then bed 'em and leave 'em. Ephiny had seen it more times than she could count.

But, she'd never once permitted them to come home with her. She never cooked for them. She never allowed them to spend the night. Just as she never spent the night with them. No, Solari's habit was to be gone and bathed and back in her own bed long before the dawn.

Her hut was her sanctuary, untouched by the debauchery she indulged in with others. It was her place to retreat to, where no one else was allowed. Save Ephiny.

Is that what's really bothering you? she berated herself Not that Solari and Eponin are together, but that Solari allowed her in some place that you thought was yours alone?

She had gone there tonight with the intentions of spending time with Solari as packmates. Like they used to do without needing a reason. Like they did now only when something was really bothering one of them. She'd show up on Solari's doorstep - or she would show up on Ephiny's - bottle of wine in hand. Then, Ephiny would perch on a chair and watch as Solari made them something to eat to go along with their drink.

It wasn't something that anyone else knew, but Solari really was a good cook. Maybe even better than Mytilda. It was just one of those things the scout had a natural talent for. She kept ingredients at both huts for just such an occasion and wouldn't hesitate to fix up something for the two of them. And, she genuinely seemed to take pleasure in the act, whether it be something simple like a stew that they would eat at the table or something more extravagant, like the roasted quail served with sauce and potatoes that she'd surprised Ephiny on her birthday with, setting it out in front of the hearth for them to share while they reclined on the bearskin rug and soaked up the warmth of the fire.

A full stomach, a good wine and better company always made her feel more relaxed. Many a night Ephiny had shown up on Solari's doorstep, her shoulders burdened with the responsibilities of running the Nation in the Queen's absence. By the time dawn's light would creep in, the first rays of the sun caressing their flesh as they lay curled together in front of the hearth, her burdens would be considerably lessened.

That's what had brought her to Solari's doorstep this night. She was feeling out of control and under pressure and ready to explode. The feelings that still resurfaced when she remembered her time spent in the cache - the ordeal with Cordele and the hunters - the pressure she was under from the council to name a suitable consort. It was simply becoming too much. Even if she couldn't tell Solari of the council's demands, she knew she could find acceptance in her company. She could simply just . . . be . . . for one night. No regent's crown, no duties, no demands, no responsibilities.

But, even that had been taken from her. Her refuge had been invaded, her haven compromised. And, she was left out in the cold with no idea where to go now. She unfolded her arms, numbly staring down at the flask dangling from her fingers. Uncorking it, she resolutely raised the bottle to her lips.

The bottle was empty, its contents long since drained dry when she heard the approaching footfalls to her left, given away by the leather lacing tied about the boots. Her ears picked up the faint rustling of a wraparound style skirt gently brushing against upper thighs. An exasperated sigh echoed in her ear, the warm breath rustling her hair, stinging the numb flesh of her cheek and throat.

A thick cloak was draped about her shoulders, adding an oppressive weight to already overburdened shoulders. A calloused hand reached about her frame, fingers gently extracting the empty bottle from her grasp. An arm wrapped itself about her shoulders. Ephiny didn't even blink as her captain of the guard led her back down the path towards her own hut.

Even though her body didn't react, Ephiny's mind absorbed all the details of what was happening. They passed Lexine waiting further down the path, the young guard's face displayed a mixture of worry and trepidation as she turned to fall in step behind them. Arm still wrapped about Ephiny, Pelagia guided her up the stairs of her porch and inside her hut. Removing first the cloak, then her clothes and boots, Pelagia urged her into bed and beneath the covers. Adjusting the pelts, pulling them up to her neck, the burly captain of the guard leaned in, placing a tender kiss on her forehead before moving away. Ephiny's eyes were already drifting closed as she detachedly watched Pelagia start the fire in the hearth and order Lexine to stay with her before stomping back out into the night once more.

Solari shifted her stance, adjusted her position as she moved into the open 'v' of Ephiny's legs. Locking both arms, she felt the two-toned wooden surface beneath her palms as she pressed her full weight on the table. Leaning in, her mouth locked onto Ephiny's, her tongue delving between her regent's parted lips.

A teasing nip from sharp teeth sent her tongue rapidly scampering away. A sexy leer formed on Solari's lips as leaned in to kiss Ephiny again, only to pull back at the last instant. Several times, she teased this way, leaning in until they were so close they were breathing in each other's mouths, only to pull away again.

With a frustrated growl, Ephiny acted. Surging forward, hands capturing Solari's hair and neck, tugging her firmly in, Ephiny sucked and bit at the brunette's swollen bottom lip. Ending the kiss, moving away, Solari wiped at her bleeding lip with the back of her hand. Sandalwood eyes shifted, darkening with lust as Ephiny wantonly stared back at her.

The taste of copper in her mouth awoke the beast in Solari and she surged forward. Her hands were everywhere at the same time, trying to press Ephiny into the table she was backed up against, tearing her halter away, grabbing at the backs of her thighs and lifting, pulling her firmly against her. Dimly, she registered that Ephiny's fingers were tangled in her hair, then tugging at her top, fingernails raking over her shoulders and down her forearms to her gauntlets.

Solari fought to regain control. This was her time, her seduction - and she would not relinquish her power to Ephiny so easily. Capturing both the regent's wrists in her larger hands, she forced them down to her sides. Claiming her mouth once again, Solari shifted, moving until she had both Ephiny's hands behind her back. Slowly, she released her, managing to clutch both of Ephiny's wrists within one of her hands before the regent could turn the tables again.

Panting heavily, chest heaving with the effort of simply breathing, Solari's eyes searched Ephiny's. She saw defiance in those hazel depths. Her grip on slender wrists tightened, the increased pressure causing Ephiny to surge against her. Grim determination flashed in Ephiny's eyes as Solari's free hand closed upon a pert breast. Then, as fingers began to knead, the subtle shift in the size of her pupils signaled the transition from open rebellion to tender surrender.

"Pinch her nipple."

Solari's head snapped up, eyes finding Eponin's as the weapons master stepped forward from the shadows. She was clad in her full uniform, complete with shoulder armor and fully-feathered, her mask pushed back atop her head, the lighter feathers mingling with her darker locks, revealing the sharp angles of her face. Her boots sounded loudly in the close interior of the hut, each step echoing as she confidently strode forward. Only her top was missing, revealing her bare breasts, the nipples firm and erect in the chilly evening air. She was . . . magnificent.

Eponin marched right up to them, eyes narrowing to tiny slits at Solari's noncompliance with her order. Standing so close, Solari could feel her breath upon her flesh, feel a breast brush against the hairs on her forearm, she heard the weapons master demand in a gruff voice, "Do it."

Gaze locked with Eponin's, she did as commanded. Dual gasps escaped Ephiny's and Eponin's parted lips as Solari's fingers tightened upon the already painfully erect nipple. Eponin's eyes hooded as she directed Solari to do the same to the other one.

It was disconcerting to Solari to have Eponin come in and so handily wrest control away from her. Her voice was it's same low huskiness as she commanded Solari let loose Ephiny's wrists. Then, in that same tone, she ordered Ephiny to grab and hold onto the edge of the tabletop. Under no circumstances were her hands to leave the table. If they did, Solari would stop. Knuckles gripping white, Ephiny nodded her understanding - and her compliance.

She had to admit, it was also easily the most erotic experience she'd ever had. Eponin slid behind her, resting her hands upon Solari's hips, planting a kiss between her shoulder blades. She could feel Eponin's breasts against her bare back, her heated breath on her flesh as she looked over Solari's shoulder, the softness of her cheek against hers as they both stared at Ephiny through half-lidded eyes. Then, in that same lowered tone that she always used, she instructed Solari's kneading of her regent's breasts. And, as she followed the explicit instructions, she found her own reward in having the weapons master perform the very same ritual upon her.

Sweat dripping from her body, heart thudding in her chest and her ears, her hands trembling from the exertion it took to concentrate on Eponin's voice and what she was doing to Ephiny and what was being done to her, she struggled to remain standing upright. Ephiny's legs were pulled up, spread apart, Solari's fingers working to undo the belt tied about her waist and lay open the wraparound style leather skirt.

Eyes slid closed, a groan escaped her parted lips at the first sight of those matted down blonde hairs. Inhaling deeply, she breathed in the proof of her regent's arousal. Her legs parted in response to the belt at her waist falling away and her skirt dropping to the floor. She felt the hands about her waist tugging her back, pulling her bare buttocks against the firmness of Eponin's leathers. She squirmed about, openly grinding against Eponin in an attempt to increase the delicious contact.

Eponin growled in her ear before taking a resolute step back, denying Solari the contact she craved. "Hold her open." Solari felt her lips being teased apart even as she coaxed Ephiny's open. "Use two fingers to stroke her." Only Eponin's firm grip kept Solari from falling to the ground as her knees buckled. "Now, circle her entrance." Solari could feel the thick fingers at her opening even as she performed the same act on Ephiny.

Hazel eyes were nearly glazed over with lust as Ephiny looked first at Solari, then past her, meeting Eponin's gaze. It was Solari's body pressed against hers, Solari's touch upon her - but it was Eponin directing the actions; it was Eponin pleasuring her body. Licking her lips, her dulcet tones reduced to a ragged husky gasp, she pleaded, "Fuck me, Soli . . . please . . . Do me, Pony."

Her entire body trembling from the effort it took to hold herself back, Solari wet her lips, waiting for the command to be given to fill her regent's need.

Her mouth was dry, her breathing uneven as Solari lay on her side upon her bed. Eyes open, she stared unseeingly for several long heartbeats at the slowly receding shadows upon the wall of the hut. Dimly, as she returned to herself, she realized the first rays of dawn were beginning to stream in. Whew! she reflected as she stretched out, feeling the tightness in her groin That was one Tartarus of a dream!

Wetting her lips, finding that it did nothing to relieve her parched throat, she attempted to sit up. There was a murmured protest from behind her, a body snuggling closer, a hand firmly tightening its hold. Glancing down, Solari ruefully noted the large hand firmly cupping her center. Turning about, looking awkwardly over her shoulder, a quick glance verifying that Eponin was indeed still asleep beside her.

Biting her bottom lip, struggling with the impulse to simply - move - her hips . . . just a little . . . Solari resolutely worked to extricate herself from Eponin's slumbering embrace. Twice more Ep protested the departure of her companion's presence before Solari managed to work her way beneath a massive forearm and slip out from beneath the covers, unceremoniously landing on the cold floor in the process.

Struggling to her knees, one forearm braced upon the furs covering the bed, sandalwood eyes studied the slumbering form of the warrior curled up on her side. As if sensing her presence, Eponin's hand raised, reaching out for Solari before falling limply at her side, fingers curling possessively into the warm fur blanket.

I wonder, my friend, Solari thought as she studied the weapons master's profile, just who is it that you're dreaming of? She tried to stand, felt her knees buckle, the throbbing in her lower region painfully increase. Oh, Gods! Hunched over, she slowly managed to make her way from the bedroom to the main room with agonizing steps. Eyes landing on the table that had played such a prominent role in her fantasy, she felt her insides clench in response. I have got to get out of here and get some relief! her mind screamed as she inched her way towards the door.



If someone asked her, Solari wouldn't be able to recall precisely how she had managed to make her way from her hut and out of the village in the early predawn light. Only that she had done it, instincts carrying her along familiar paths, urging her on until she was safely nestled in a tall pine in the forest. From her vantage point, she could see both the thatched huts making up the outer perimeter of the village and that little bend in the river she used to go fishing at as a child.

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. Settling back against the trunk, she breathed deeply, pushing a hand through her thick hair as she did so. A peek through the thick foliage revealed that Apollo's chariot was already beginning to rise into the sky.

Probably should have told Ep I was taking off, she reflected, thinking about the warrior that she'd left slumbering in her bed. Even as she thought it, she realized that wasn't realistic. After that dream she had, she couldn't look Eponin in the eye right now. Those warm, amber eyes that looked like honeycomb fresh from the hive when it was thick and dripping off the end of a finger as it was dangled over succulent lips and a waiting tongue - Stop it! She mentally shook herself, banishing the image that sprang to mind.

Nope, definitely couldn't face her right now. Ruefully, Solari admitted she couldn't even stand to be in the same hut with her. When she had awoken, all of her senses had been hyper-aware. 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.

I just needed to get away for awhile, do some thinking. Her thoughts flashed on her two best friends. Eponin did all her best thinking on the practice fields, weapons in hand. Ephiny preferred the privacy of her hut where she could pace - or the ridge when she wanted peace and tranquility. For Solari, it was the outdoors that calmed her. The entire Great Forest was her refuge.

Folding one leg beneath herself, getting comfortable, she thought about what had brought her out here this morning. Besides the throbbing between my legs, Solari snorted. Her mind drifted back to the dream she'd been having. Looking at it now, it was definitely one of the most sexually charged fantasies she'd ever had.

The Chief Scout to the Amazon Nation was by no means a philosopher. But, she was learned enough to realize that sometimes dreams were a means for the mind to sort out and resolve everyday issues. Like when she was planning on putting a new set of trainees through their paces. She'd think about obstacle courses and scouting exercises all day long. Then, when she'd finally turn in for the evening, she'd be running the courses in her dreams all night. It was simply her mind reliving the events of the day.

She reasoned that her fantasies were like that. It had been so long since she'd taken a lover - and there was a prime specimen of Amazonian womanhood curled up in her bed beside her - that she would never admit out loud being attracted to under any circumstances. No wonder I'm having erotic dreams. It was her mind's way of handling the conflicting signals it was receiving from her body.

Subconsciously, she saw Ephiny as that lover she could seduce and claim control of; someone who would be susceptible to her devastating charms. Her mind conjured Ephiny as a fantasy lover whenever Solari felt the need to be in charge. Just as it chose Eponin to represent the lover that could force her into submission. It was a craving she normally wouldn't acknowledge in her waking world, that's why her psyche conjured a formidable warrior to take her, possess her, ravage her. And, really - Solari wondered - who's more formidable than the weapons master?

Solari's center throbbed painfully at the thought of both dominating and being dominated, just as she had been in her dreams. Accepting her desires, surrendering to her fantasies, she moved a hand to cup 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.

Biting her bottom lip, closing her eyes, her hand traveled between her breasts, over her flat abdomen and along a well-muscled thigh. Legs parted as that hand slipped between them and beneath a leather skirt. A sharp gasp escaped as fingers slid into sopping wetness and unerringly found that hidden bundle of nerves.

She was standing in the center of her hut, head thrown back, mouth open in a soundless scream as Ephiny's mouth worked at her neck, sharp teeth leaving bites on her vulnerable throat. A strong hand held her hip firmly in place as determined fingers stroked between her legs, strumming her womanhood into rigid fullness.

Body taut and straining, her head fell back onto a strong shoulder, her entire weight supported by the powerful body behind her. Brawny hands came about, cupping, fingers mauling her breasts as her dark-haired lover leaned over her shoulder. Those hands were crushed against her breasts as she found herself sandwiched between her two lovers. Solari's knees went weak as through hooded eyes, she caught Ephiny and Eponin exchanging a heated, tongue-thrusting kiss.

As the kiss ended, Ephiny kissed her - a much lighter, teasing version than the one she'd just engaged in with Eponin - before licking her way down between her breasts and lower, not stopping until she passed that divot in Solari's stomach. Fingers tangling in golden curls, a guttural moan escaped Solari's lips as she leaned back, feeling Eponin's full body length pressing against her, powerful hips rocking into her, then the pliable leather of a phallus determinedly instigating itself between her thighs.

Ohhh, Gods! Solari arched up into her palm, leg muscles stretched tight and threatening to cramp as her entire body bowed up off the branch she was perched upon. Almost - almost - pressing down and in, her wrist ached from the repetitious circular motions her fingers were making. Teeth were gritted, clenched tightly, perspiration rolling off her brow as she struggled to reach her climax - almost -

"I don't 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. Ears straining, 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.

A lover's tryst? - Solari wondered, hand still beneath her leathers as she listened closely to this gossip-worthy bit of news.

"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."

Artemis' bow! Are they going to stay here all day? Eyes closed tight, teeth gritted, wrist and fingers aching beneath her skirt, Solari began a silent count to a hundred. It was either that or scream in frustration. And, since she was desperately trying not to draw attention to herself, she figured screaming was out. At last, the sounds of the two Amazons walking on carried up to her ears.

Solari tried again to stimulate herself, only to discover that the relief she so desperately sought continued to elude her. Even the sure-fire fantasy of her regent pinning her down while Eponin did to her what she imagined weapons masters did with staff-like objects in bed failed. It certainly aroused her, making her even wetter than before, but it wasn't enough to bring her off. Firmly biting down on her leather gauntlet to muffle her cries, the chief scout screamed in frustration.

Further along the path, Hilaeira looked up, wondering at the animalistic sound that had pierced the quiet of the still morning air and sent the flock of birds suddenly taking flight from the treetops.

Rotating her neck in an effort to work out the stiffness settling there, Ephiny gingerly sipped at the mug of hot tea she carried in her grasp. Stifling the yawn that was threatening to sneak up on her, she scrubbed a hand across her weary face. Shaking off the last vestiges of sleep, she tried to formulate some semblance of coherent thought.

The hairs at the nape of her neck instinctively bristled as she spied Lexine coming down the path. Ever since their last early morning incident, Ephiny was cautious about the whereabouts of the young guard. Her body involuntarily stiffened as the guard came nearer, then visibly relaxed as Lexi took up her position a standard dozen steps distant.

Nice to see I'm not the only one feeling a little rough around the edges this morning, Ephiny thought, taking in the rumpled appearance of the second-in-command of the royal guard. Her sword belt was haphazardly dangling off one hip; there were dark circles beneath her eyes and her normally well-kept blonde hair was sticking out in odds and ends, giving her the appearance of having just been rousted from her bed.

The regent knew there wasn't anything farther from the truth. She recalled Lexine being the guard on-duty yesterday afternoon. Then, she'd lost sight of her shadow, presuming Pelagia had kept her word about respecting her privacy and keeping the guard to a minimum. She hadn't been aware of another guard being present until she'd passed Lexine on the path to her hut well past the time when Artemis' moon reached its zenith in the night sky. And, the captain had ordered Lexine to stay with Ephiny last night, too. By her calculations, it was probable that Lexi had been on duty for the past eighteen candlemarks or so.

Frowning at that realization, Ephiny pursed her lips together, giving a shrill birdcall. Startled, Lexine's eyes snapped open, instantly focusing on Ephiny. With a jerk of her head, Lexi jogged over, offering a crisp salute as she dropped to one knee before her regent.

"Yes, my regent?"

"Lexine, when's my next shadow on shift?"

Lexine frowned at the description as she tried to mentally recall the shift rotation schedule posted in Captain Pelagia's office. "Gryta's scheduled after the noon meal, my regent."

"Good. Go get some breakfast, then off to your quarters for some sleep." At the startled look, she arched a brow and added, "I don't have anything more strenuous than council sessions this morning."

Lexine didn't say anything, but Ephiny noticed the covert look towards the row of scout huts. She's curious about what's going on with me and Solari. I wonder just how long did she watch last night before fetching Pel?

As the silence stretched between them, Ephiny studied the guard, wondering exactly how much she truly noticed what was going on around her. The guards were supposed to be ever vigilant, but she was disturbed that Lexine obviously knew she'd been lingering outside Solari's hut last night. And, now here she was again.

Attempting to diffuse the situation with humor, she leaned in; whispering conspiratorially, she confided, "I hardly think I'm in danger from anything more than dying of boredom."

"Yes, my regent." Then squinting as she realized what she'd just agreed with, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that the sessions are boring. I - " Lexine hastily clamped her mouth shut as the regent waved her off with a well-placed hand and a shake of blonde curls. Scrambling to her feet, she hurried away, pondering on exactly why she found it so difficult to behave with any modicum of intelligence around this woman.

As her guard beat a hasty retreat, Ephiny's gaze once more returned to Solari's dwelling. Small wisps of smoke continued to rise from the roof and the hide covering was still pulled taut over the doorframe. Lips turning down into a frown, anxious eyes checked the position of the rising sun.

Soli never sleeps this late, Ephiny noted. Even when they spent their nights curled together, talking late into the night, Solari was always the first to rise the next morning. Ephiny couldn't begin to count the number of times she'd awoken to find Solari hovering over her, fingers brushing unruly locks back from her face, sandalwood eyes peering down at her as she softly called her name. And, on many of those occasions, Ephiny would drag her body from bed to discover that while she'd been lost in Morpheus' realm, Solari had been awake for candlemarks. How many times have you indulged in breakfast in bed with your packmate? she wondered.

She knew the scouting regime by heart. She'd come here this morning with the intent of catching Solari before she took her second year students deep into the forest for tracking maneuvers. It was an intensive exercise course that was both physically and mentally challenging. Solari and her second-in-command would hide somewhere in the forest. Their mission was to elude the scouts that were tracking them. The students' mission was to capture their leaders. If they were successful in their exercise, they would earn three consecutive days off duty. If they failed, they'd be on night maneuvers for the next six evenings.

The chief scout herself designed this field mission to test strength, endurance and cunning agility. Soli loves running them through that course; she's never missed a trial yet. Then, her pessimistic side caustically bit out, before last eve, she'd never taken another woman into her bed, either.

A fine sheen of cold sweat drenching her body, the weapons master fought down the crashing waves of vertigo that threatened to overtake her as she abruptly sat up. Slapping a large hand down on the table to steady herself, she took several deep breaths. Remaining seated in her chair, Eponin forced herself to relax until the room mercifully stopped spinning.

As the dizziness finally subsided and the buzzing in her ears dulled to a more tolerable level, eyes slowly focused on the lone leather boot on its side on the table in front of her. A shaking hand reached out, trembling fingers grasping the worn leather as she tugged the boot towards herself.

Come on, you can do this. You've been dressing yourself for seasons without help from anybody. Ep dubiously eyed her bare foot, toes wriggling as she gave herself the mental pep talk. True, she'd already pulled one boot on. But, that had seemingly taken forever -- and it'd been her good leg. Come on; quit being a wimp and warrior up already!

Taking a deep breath, then exhaling, Eponin steeled herself. In one quick motion, she bent at the waist, desperately trying to ignore the throbbing in her ribcage and the sensation of a sharp knife being plunged into her knee.

"Gods damned, thrice-cursed daughter of a bacchae!" Ep swore through gritted teeth.

She tried several times, unsuccessfully, in her hunched over position to tug the stubborn boot onto her foot until finally giving in and coming up for air. In a fit of rage, she slung her footwear about. It connected with the vase of flowers that had been their dinner's centerpiece the evening before. The vase flew, skittering off the table, taking flight, landing with a resounding crash on the floor in front of the hearth.

Fingers latched knuckle-white onto the edge of the table. Eyes closed as Eponin fought against the bile that was threatening to rise up in her throat. Her heart loudly pounding, her chest rising and falling in rapid succession, Ep felt the adrenaline coursing through her veins. Closing her eyes, fighting for control, she willed her heart to calm itself.

What in Tartarus is wrong with you? she mentally scolded herself, eyeing the mess of shattered vase, spilled water and crushed flowers laying scattered on the floor. Soli takes you in and gives you a place to stay and you wreck her things --

A lovers' quarrel so quickly? - As sharp hearing picked up on the muted curse, a sadistic grin curved Ephiny's lips into a bow. Then, shaking off that wicked streak, You should be ashamed of yourself. Eponin and Solari are your friends. If they've found happiness with each other, you should be glad for them.

Hearing the sound of shattering pottery, Ephiny curiously edged towards the hut. Besides, sounds like the honeymoon's already over.

What in Tartarus is wrong with you? Eponin berated herself again, her balled fist repeatedly connecting with her upper thigh in fits of frustration. Her rage gave her the determined strength to try her boot once more. This time, she set her jaw, grinding her teeth, pushing past the pain until she wrestled her foot into her boot.

As she completed the move, she forced herself to her feet, ignoring the sparks that flashed before her eyes.

Gods damned infernal buzzing! she cursed, shaking her head side to side. It seemed the only thing that would make it stop was Hilaeira's blasted tea. And, whereas a mug used to take the noise and the pain away for half a day or more, she was now discovering that the brew was becoming less and less effective by candlemarks at a time. Gods, I hope Solari doesn't really talk to Hilaeira about not mixing up any more mugs for me. Already, Eponin was thinking that a visit to the infirmary would be in order. With any luck, she'd be able to elude Megara altogether and would only have to deal with her apprentices.

And you can check in on Devillare, she added with a frown, wondering why visiting her mentor hadn't been the first thought that popped into her mind when she'd thought of the hospice. Because you ain't thinking right, you stupid featherhead!

Eponin had been feeling out of sorts ever since the trial by combat. Before that - she corrected herself - you haven't known which way was up ever since you met the Goddess of Love and she told you to go for it with Ephiny.

Easy for her to say, Eponin thought bitterly, what's Aphrodite got to lose? She's already scored big-time with the Xena/Gabrielle romance. A love like that's gonna go down in the history scrolls as one of the greatest of all times. Not like screwing one up's gonna hurt her reputation any.

Thoughts of her fair regent and how they'd been at odds lately caused a tightening in Eponin's chest. Why can't I just tell her how I feel? Every time I get near her, my words get all twisted up -- or she's angry with me about something. Damn it! Why can't I do anything right around her?

Ephiny's image swam before her eyes. Memories of how the regent had been treating her unexpectedly surfaced. She was Artemis' champion, damn it! And, instead of heralding her as such, Ephiny had been treating her like an unruly child. Disciplining her. Punishing her. Forcing her to surrender the keys to the armory to Egeria. Keeping her occupied with mundane tasks to keep her as far away from the training grounds as possible.

Oh, she'd finally figured it out . . . late last night in Solari's bed . . . somewhere in that period of time when she couldn't sleep in between the nightmares . . . when her mind was replaying the day's events . . . and she'd figured out why someone as beautiful as Soli would welcome her into her bed . . .

Because Ephiny told her she had to be nice to you. The same way she told all the other warriors not to spar with you . . .

Her anger simmering below the surface, ready to erupt, Eponin snatched up her staff. Time to set your priorities straight! Tucking her staff in close to her body, using it to support her weight, she made determined strides towards the door. You're a seasoned warrior and the weapons master to the nation and Artemis' champion -- and it's time you started acting like it!

Ephiny bit her bottom lip in contemplation, wondering if Solari and Eponin really were having a lovers' row, did she have the right to interfere? Then, figuring if it they didn't want the entire village to know about it, they should have kept their disagreement to a low roar, she rationalized her nosiness away. With a shrug of her shoulders, she boldly stepped right up to the hide covering.

And was promptly ran right over by Eponin on her way out.

The warrior felt the negligent impact of a smaller build colliding with her stockier frame. Instantly, she recognized the tangled mass of blonde corkscrew curls as the regent's body jarred with the collision and bounced back. As she stumbled, a strong arm shot out, catching Ephiny about her svelte waist, reeling her in. Automatically, one of Ephiny's arms curled about Eponin's shoulder, her fingers closing about powerful muscle as she struggled to regain her equilibrium.

"You okay?" Eponin's voice rumbled out of her throat.

When Ephiny had first heard Eponin's raised voice coming from Solari's hut, her rage had made her words sound like that of a tigress' roar. To Ephiny's ears, her timbre now resonated at a softer pitch, rolling over the blonde with the same calming warmth that a kitten's purr might elicit.

Her eyes momentarily closed as that thought brought back reminders of last night's dreams. Morpheus had been kind to her for a change, infusing her slumber with images of something other than the nightmares she'd been plagued by ever since her abduction. No, last eve's vision was anything but a nightmare. Ephiny's body uncontrollably shivered as her dream washed over her senses once more.

Her entire hut was awash in darkness, not even the light from the low fire banked in the hearth was enough to see by. Still, she knew she was not alone. She'd innately sensed it even as she was coaxed from her slumber. Mind befuddled, yet senses alert, she slowly became aware of her surroundings.

She was flat on her back, the chill night air whispering over her bare midriff and teasing her pebbled areola. Long, tapered fingers drifted over her taut nipples; eliciting a breath-hitching gasp at how sensitive the aching flesh truly was.

Then, her sluggish mind fully comprehended precisely what had drawn her out of her slumber. The black wolf pelt pooled about her hips was slowly moving against her. And, her eyes threatened to roll back in her head as the slow, languid strokes between her engorged lips drew her arousal from her drenched center all the way to her swollen womanhood.

Pushing the fur covers away, she looked down the length of her writhing body to see dark hairs indolently spread over the intimate area where she was accustomed to seeing only her own downy-fine blonde. As if sensing she was being watched, that dark head slowly rose, revealing eyes the color of molten gold intently watching her. At the intensity of the gaze - and the texture of the flat of the tongue settling over that swollen bundle of nerves - Ephiny's hips abruptly jerked and her own molten liquid erupted.

"Eph? You okay?"

Ephiny heard that same rumbling voice filled with a hint of worry. Rapidly blinking, she brought her gaze back into focus. She inhaled sharply as she caught those same intense eyes from her dream intently staring at her. Then, the same as the night before, she felt a sharp jolt in her groin.

Stop that! she mentally berated herself, even as she forced herself to nod in response to Eponin's question. She belongs to Solari now.

"Um, yeah," Ephiny swallowed against the abrupt dryness in her throat. "You?" she asked, eyes slipping to the hide covering, suddenly remembering the raised voice and the crash she'd heard coming from the hut's interior.

Eponin's eyes drifted towards the hut, the tips of her ears tingeing with heat as she realized what Ephiny had no doubt heard.

"Uh - " she looked down, her gazed dropping to her insidious footwear. "Minor mishap with a boot," she groused beneath her breath.

"Oh." Ephiny frowned, not quite believing what she'd heard. Gods, I know Solari can be aggravating; but Pony wouldn't have outright killed her, right? Curiosity niggling at her, her mind was running rampant, trying to think of a plausible way for her to get past the stocky form blocking the entrance so she could see for herself what was going on in Solari's hut.

That's it; I'm being punished by the Gods for some grievous misdeed in a former life.

The apprentice healers had immediately recognized the waves of hostility fairly rolling off the chief scout as she stormed into hospice. In fact, they were both intelligent enough to not engage the usually amiable Amazon in meaningless chitchat. Instead, they'd merely directed her as to which room to carry the injured scout into.

Solari grunted, readjusting the girl's weight as she had to turn sideways to fit through a narrow door. Depositing Trina on the examination table, she had to forcibly pry the redhead's arms from about her neck. Hera's tits! I thought it was her leg that was hurting her; not her arms! Extricating herself as gently as possible, Solari disentangled herself from the young scout-turned-leech.

Putting as much distance between herself and Trina, Solari explained to Iphinome and Hilaeira that they'd be on a training mission in the forest. The chief scout had just captured Trina and her exercise partner, Neola, when the redhead had suddenly been seized by unbearable cramps in her leg. So much so that she was unable to walk. Sensing it was a ploy to get out of the training mission, Solari had instructed Neola to escort her partner back to the hospice and then return double-time to the exercise site.

When Neola had attempted to assist Trina, the brunette had stumbled and fallen, seemingly twisting her ankle in the process. Alone in the forest with two injured trainees, Solari had no option but to carry Trina to the hospice herself. As she hoisted Trina into her arms, Neola had assured her trainer that she would follow along as best she could.

Now that Trina was on the healer's table and Iphinome had gone to retrieve a poultice for her, Solari had retreated to a darkened section of the corridor. Undetected from her position, the chief scout watched Trina looking about the room, casually swinging her legs back and forth. Both of them. Without a grimace of pain whatsoever. Arms folded over her chest, a scowl marring her features, Solari patiently waited for Neola to arrive.

She didn't have to wait more than five candledrips for the brunette to show, hobbling in the door with a very pronounced limp. Hilaeira immediately went to her, cooing sympathetically and escorting her to the same room her partner was waiting in. Iphinome still hadn't returned from mixing her poultice when an Amazon with an arrow through her hand appeared. Hilaeira settled Neola down on an exam table near Trina and immediately went to the archer's aide.

No sooner had the healer gone than Neola jumped down off the exam table and bounced to Trina's side. Giggling and speaking in animated whispers, the girls were obviously tickled to death with their performances.

"See, I told you it would work," Neola jabbed her cohort in the ribs.

"I know! I still can't believe it!" Trina giggled. "While everyone else is out running around in the cold forest, we're going to get pampered in nice, warm beds."

"Yeah," Neola agreed. "Just think; we'll be all snuggled down, toasty warm while those losers are spending the next six nights out on maneuvers."

"And the best part," Trina cackled, leaning into her friend, "was that I got the chief to carry me."

Solari's blood was boiling so much that she was seeing red.

"Oooh, I know," cooed Neola. "I was so jealous when she picked you up." A wicked grin on her face, she challenged, "If it was me, I would've copped a feel."

"Oh, Gods!" Trina blushed all the way to the roots of her red hair. "I wanted so badly to ask if she'd breastfeed me!"

Solari stepped forth from the shadows, arms crossed over her impressive bust, a thunderous scowl on her face. The instant the two young trainees saw the murderous glint in her eyes, they knew they were in trouble. Centaur-sized trouble.

Iphinome appeared right behind Solari, curiously peering over her shoulder at the two girls huddled together, eyes wide with fright.

"Iphinome," Solari's voice was so tight, her words trembled in her throat, "These two . . . Amazons . . . are in need of a complete examination."

"Thought it was only a sprained ankle and a muscle spasm," Iphinome guardedly looked at the girls that were now visibly quivering beneath the chief scout's hostile gaze.

"They need a complete physical," Solari reiterated, "head to toe. And, everything in-between." Openly glaring at her delinquent trainees, she added, "And, while your fingers are back there, perhaps you can pull their heads out of their asses. They're gonna need to be able to see when they report for night patrol." Then, tossing back over her shoulder, she addressed the girls, "Just so we're clear; you're on night patrol for the next three moons. Got it?"

"Yes, Chief Scout," a flurry of red and brown locks frantically bobbed up and down.

Temper still boiling, Solari stormed out of the examination room and through the winding hospice corridors. She was nearly to the main entrance when she looked up and saw a familiar shock of straw colored hair coming straight towards her.

Make that cursed by the Gods, Solari snapped as she recognized the approaching form of Lexine.

Eponin had started out of Solari's hut with a definite purpose in mind. First, she was going to the hospice for some of Hilaeira's special brew and look in on Devillare. Then, she was going to see if there was anything she could do to speed along the process of clearing the foundation for her new hut. Then, she was going to the training fields and kick Egeria's ass until she relinquished command of the trainees and the keys to the armory.

Her strategy - her purpose - her rage - had all dissipated like the early morning dew upon the grass the instant she'd nearly trampled the regent. Now, holding the woman she'd desired for countless seasons in her arms, seeing her looking at her with those soft hazel eyes, feeling her body still intimately pressed against hers; she'd once again lost all reason.

"Umm, Eph," Lowering her gaze, looking up at her regent through thick, dark lashes, she stumbled over her words, "I know things have been weird lately and all that - " stubbing the toe of her boot against the ground, she offered, " - I umm - you know, I got big shoulders if you ever wanna lean on one or something."

A half-smile formed on Ephiny's lips. The wording was so very similar to something Eponin had offered not so long ago in one of the hospice exam rooms after she'd gotten a little carried away with her staff. Then, like now, even though it was clear that Eponin had her own problems, she was willing to put those aside and offer comfort to her friend.

Some friend I am. An unexpected wave of guilt washed over Ephiny. Actually, it wasn't all that unexpected. Nor, was it undeserved. She'd been having those feelings a lot lately; especially when she took the time to think of how she'd been treating her weapons master, her friend, her Pony.

She'd been a bitch lately. And, taking it out on her friends. Pelagia. Solari. And, Pony. Especially Pony. Seems like every time she turned around, she was reprimanding the weapons master for some thing or another.

And, in all honesty, Ephiny; What exactly were you punishing her for, anyway? Speaking up when you unjustly extended Solari's sentence at the water reclamation system simply because you were irritated with her?

Her mind took her back to that night by the campfire. Or, because she took comfort in the arms of a sister Amazon? She did ask you to join her, you know. As usual, though, you had other obligations. Obligations you refused to set aside for even one night . . . her night. You just couldn't be there for her, even though she'd earned the right by being Artemis' champion, could you? Even though she's always dropped everything to be there for you.

Memories of their time in the bath resurfaced. Something was bothering her, then. She was trying her best to reach out to you. She had been blind to her warrior's pain, unable to see what she needed. She was hurting. She needed someone. It should have been you.

Another feeling of remorse settled firmly in Ephiny's gut. If Eponin had found comfort with Solari, it wasn't her place to wish them ill. Nodding her head to herself, she finally found acceptance in Pony's and Soli's union.

"Thanks, Pony." Ephiny turned in Eponin's arms until she could wrap both hers about the weapons master in a loose embrace. Hugging her, burying her face in her neck, she closed her eyes, relishing the safety and security she found there in Eponin's strong embrace. "That means a lot. Really."

Solari let out an exasperated sigh, leaned her forehead against the wall, closed her eyes. Taking a steadying breath, she braced herself. Fingers inching along the thick hide covering she was standing behind, she drew it back just far enough for one eye to peek out.

Her heart caught in her throat as she saw the second-in-command of the guard steadily advancing down the corridor. She stopped at each doorway, poking her head into each room before ducking back into the corridor again.

"Oh, Gods." She's searching for someone. Morosely beating her head against the doorframe, she groaned out her frustration. "Can this day possibly get any worse?"

"Depends." The low, raspy voice whispering near her ear asked, "What are you doing in my room?"

Every feather bristling, the chief scout stiffened. If there was one thing Solari prided herself on above all others, it was her acute hearing. I can hear rabbits rutting in the forest, for Artemis' sake! It was incomprehensible to her that someone was able to sneak up on her. More than just sneak up on her; feeling a presence looming entirely too close to her backside, she realized whoever it was had completely managed to invade her personal space, as well.

Schooling her face into a mask of cool indifference, Solari straightened her shoulders and turned around with a confidence she just wasn't feeling. The turn put the scout in much closer proximity to the other Amazon than she had anticipated. The move placed her squarely between the wooden wall and the press of muscular flesh.

Her gaze traveled over the expanse of a linen shift. The shift was clearly too short for its wearer, its length ending at the upper part of a well-toned, well-tanned thigh. Too small, as well, Solari noted, seeing the obvious straining of the material, despite the alterations that had been made; a slit had been cut up the length of each side, giving the wearer a bit more room to move.

Sandalwood eyes slowly trailed up over a flat midsection and well-proportioned chest and broad shoulders. Likewise, the shift had been altered at the shoulders, the sleeves cut off, presumably with a hunting knife, leaving the material fraying about both shoulders, revealing impressive muscles.

Mouth going dry at the sight of the flexing biceps, Solari forced her gaze higher. Past a strong jaw and defined cheekbones. Settling on close-cropped dark hair stained with graying strands at the temples. Meeting and locking on a set of eyes matching the exact shade of polished steel -- and looking just as deadly.

You're a fully grown Amazon. Just look her in the eye and don't let her see your fear.

Feeling at once both emboldened and terrified at the simple hug that was stretching out into so much more with each passing heartbeat, Eponin bought herself precious time by turning her head and burying her nose in long golden curls. Inhaling deeply, she breathed in the intoxicating scents of leather, forest and Ephiny.

The embrace imperceptibly tightened, engulfing the woman softly held in arms corded with muscles thick as iron. Large, calloused hands moved across the expanse of a delicate back with so tender a touch Ephiny had not thought possible. One settled at that divot just above the line of her braided belt. The other moved higher, thick fingers tangling themselves in corkscrew curls that ended midway down her back.

Breathing a sigh of contentment, Ephiny felt her body relax for the first time in what seemed like moons. Gods, I could stay like this forever - eyes closed, her mind drifting, the regent felt as safe -- no safer -- than if she had an entire regiment of royal guards surrounding her.

"Umm - Eph - "

The warm breath tickling against her flesh brought Ephiny crashing back to reality. That, and the subtle pulling away she felt Eponin trying to discreetly accomplish. Stupid! - she berated herself - You know she's with Solari! With much reluctance, she edged back, hesitantly looking into light-hued eyes.

"Eph - " Pony nervously licked her lips, but somehow managed to maintain eye contact with Ephiny, " - I was wondering - " swallowing harshly, she asked, "You wanna maybe - "

"Move out of the doorway so we can get by?"

Both Ephiny's and Eponin's heads snapped up in unison and they quickly moved apart. Warily, two sets of eyes zeroed into a couple of chuckling warriors.

"Ain't you featherheads got a class to be teaching or something?" Eponin growled out.

"Just as soon as those third-year wimps of yours finish the run I sent them on around the village. And, the breakfast that's waiting for them in the dining hut." Egeria couldn't keep the wide grin off her face. "Seems the entire squad got into Megara's stash of ale in the root cellar last night. Found the lot of them passed out down there. Punks can't hold their drink."

"Breakfast?" Ephiny curiously inquired, "Right after a run?"

"Yep." Lysippe couldn't help contributing, "Eggs. With the yolks still runny."

"Ugh." Eponin pulled a disgusted face. There'd be recruits puking all over the place. "You're cruel."

"Maybe. But, while they're trying to crawl their way to the practice fields, we've got time to get this set up," Egeria shrugged, subtly hefting her end of the object her and Lysippe and were carrying.

"A cot?" Ephiny's blonde brow quirked in surprise.

"Yeah." Egeria's quick eyes caught the way her commander had jumped away from the regent when they'd walked up. Almost like she'd been scalded with hot water. And, the way the tips of her ears had turned bright red when Ephiny had noticed the cot -- and having figured out long ago the way her esteemed leader got around a certain comely regent, she couldn't help but tweak the situation, "Seems our weapons master is personally recruiting members from the scouting caste these days."

"Egeria - " Ep began.

Lysippe immediately jumped onboard, offering her own salacious opinion, "Yep; you should hear the rapport they've got going on." Snickering, she barely managed to get out, "I heard when you negotiate with the chief scout, though, it's best to bring a really strong staff to the meetings."

"Guys!" Eponin shouted, giving Lysippe a shove, causing the slender warrior to stumble backwards. "It's not like that! Solari's a . . . " casting a lowered glance at Ephiny " . . . a friend."


Egeria caught Lysippe's attention, jerked her head in a motion that indicated they needed to get the cot moved inside. Now. Still, Lysippe just couldn't help making another jibe.

"Wish I had a friend like that."

Eponin lost it; reaching out and grabbing Lysippe by the front of her halter. Yanking the surprised warrior forward, cocking her fist back, Ep had every intention of popping Lysippe right in the mouth. A light touch on her arm caused her to hesitate. Looking back, she saw Ephiny's slender fingers wrapped about her bulging bicep.

Ephiny didn't verbally reprimand her, but the intense look being sent her way gave Pony pause and a chance to reconsider her actions. Still glaring at the warrior, she snarled out, "You wanna insult any more of my friends?"

"No," Lysippe rapidly shook her head, "No."

Eponin let loose the halter, roughly shoved the warrior backwards. Egeria caught her, preventing her from stumbling over backwards. Then, ducking her head, avoiding eye contact, she moved past a clearly agitated weapons master. Giving the framework a rough shake, she forcefully jarred the cot and Lysippe right along with it. Disappearing behind the hide covering with their load, Eponin and Ephiny could clearly hear her hiss, "Gods, Lysippe! I'll bet when you were a kid you used to poke sleeping bears with a stick, didn't you?"

"You still haven't answered my question, scout," rumbled out Devillare's husky timbre, "What are you doing here?"

Trying her best to maintain a cool facade, despite the quivering in her legs, Solari popped back with a blithe, "Hiding."

"Really?" Devillare's lips quirked in amusement. "What're you hiding from, kid?"

"Ironically enough, one of your kind." There was enough of a frost in Solari's tone to intimidate even a battle-hardened warrior. Devillare, however, didn't even bat an eye. If anything, she seemed to find even more mirth in the situation.

Temporarily forgetting her innate fear at standing so near this living legend, Solari glared up at the warrior. "And, I'm not a kid." Folding her arms across her chest, arching an eyebrow, she silently dared the former captain of the guard to say otherwise.

Devillare's attention couldn't help but be drawn down when the shorter brunette openly issued her challenge. She'd already had a wisecrack forming on her lips - something about how she'd seen her mothers chasing her filthy tailfeathers about the village when she was just a toddler. But, that smart remark died on her lips the instant her eyes drifted, sweeping over a luxurious brunette mane and defined cheekbones, then to an adorably crooked nose. Seeing soft brown bedroom eyes gazing back at her, the warrior felt a rush of air escape her lungs. Blindly reaching out, her palm slapped against the wooden wall, her fingers grasping knuckle-white on the edge of the door frame.

As soon as the words had tumbled from her mouth, Solari wished she could bite off her tongue. I should have known - the scout berated herself. Feeling the warrior's gaze raking over her body, she figured those eyes would no doubt have to be forcibly removed from her cleavage. The strong arm braced intimately next to her body, the palm flat against the wall, was a move she'd had to endure countless times before. Knowing the next move would be a slow lean-in, then lips connecting with hers in a kiss, Solari effected a bored expression and looked up, daring to meet the elder's gaze head-on.

Fingers cupped, then lifted, forcing the weapons master to raise her gaze. Eyes the shade of wheat on a summer's day blinked back at her through thick lashes. Hazel eyes searched their depths, trying to fathom what was going on behind that intelligent gaze.

"You and Soli - " Ephiny swallowed, almost dreading the answer, but needing to know. "You aren't - " At the blank look; and not having the patience to be diplomatic, she bluntly asked, " - are you stroking her tailfeathers?"

"What?!?" Eponin's head flew up so suddenly, one would have thought Ephiny had whacked her with a staff again. "NO!" Wha? - I thought Eph put her up to being - Then, somewhat recovering her composure, "Umm, I mean; no." In a contrite tone, Eponin explained, "She's been really nice lately, ya know? Offering to put me up in her hut so I don't have to bunk down in the warriors' barracks and all."

"Oh." Ephiny nervously downed her head, but couldn't keep the pleased grin off her face. Then, feeling guilty, she looked up, "Cause, I mean, if you were a couple, then I guess that would be fine, too."

"No! No! No!" Eponin frantically waved off the notion. "Just friends, nothing more."

There was a long drawn out period of awkward silence that stretched out between the two warriors. It was painfully obvious that both wanted to say more, but didn't know where to begin. Ephiny stood there, staring at the weapons master's bandaged knee. And Eponin nervously pushed a hand through her thick hair, looking everywhere except at her regent.

Suddenly, a loud crash could be heard as either Egeria or Lysippe knocked against something that sounded extremely fragile - and very broken - in Solari's hut.

"So," Ephiny looked up, began with a crooked smile, "You were asking me something before Clumsy and Clumsier interrupted?"

"I was?" Eponin momentarily drew a blank. Then, remembering, "Oh, yeah, I was." Eponin developed a sudden interest in her footwear, uncomfortably staring down at the toes of her boots. Hand rubbing behind her neck, expelling a rush of heated air, she nervously wet her lips. "I, uh - "

Reaching out, Ephiny once again used her thumb and index finger to tilt Eponin's chin up. Keeping her grip firm, she forced Pony to look her in the eyes as she finally asked, "Umm, Eph, would you like to maybe have breakfast?" There was a very noticeable swallow. "You know, with me?"

Ephiny felt the broad smile on her lips widen even farther and she was sure there was a sparkle in her eyes. Moistening her lips, she opened her mouth to reply -

"Regent Ephiny."

There was a sharp, crisp salute against a chest. With a glare that would have made a lesser warrior pee her leathers, Ephiny turned her attention from her weapons master to a member of the royal guard.

"Begging your pardon, Regent Ephiny." Dioxippe nearly cringed, wondering why she'd been singled out to deliver this missive. Not like the elder who issued the order wasn't standing only twenty feet away; she could've just have easily summoned the regent herself. "I'm to remind you of this morning's council session."

Ephiny let out an exasperated sigh and performed a patented eye-roll. "Thank you, Dioxippe. Inform the elders I'll be along directly."

Dioxippe visibly exhaled, clearly grateful she had escaped the fire-breathing regent's wrath unscathed. With another equally crisp salute, she hastily retreated. If either Eponin or Ephiny had bothered to watch her departure, they would have seen the guard accosted as she passed by a nearby hut; grabbed by the back of her halter and forcefully yanked behind the side wall.

Casting a glance at the position of the sun, Ephiny apologized, "I'm sorry, Pony. Breakfast sounds great, but - "

"I understand, Eph.," Eponin offered up an understanding half-smile, "I know the council's really been chomping on your leathers."

There was a sick, gnawing sensation in the pit of Ephiny's stomach when Eponin delivered that sentence. That same nauseous feeling she'd had when she'd awoken and found herself chained up in that cache. Recalling exactly who Pony's mentor was, vividly remembering finding her draped over Devillare in her hospice bed, the pieces clicked into place.

She knows. That's why she's offering -- because Devillare put her up to it --

Anger quickly rising, jaw tightening, fists clenching, Ephiny's eyes flashed menacingly. It took every ounce of her willpower to not lash out and slap Ep across the face. "I don't need your breakfast, weapons master." Turning on her heel, she tossed back over her shoulder, "And, I don't want your pity."

Solari had fully expected to have to ward off the elder warrior's untoward advances. Looking up, though, she realized that it wasn't lust she was seeing reflected in Devillare's eyes. Indeed, she doubted if the dark haired woman's gaze was even focused on her at all.

Her eyes were unfixed and glassy, her pupil's jumpy. Perspiration was dripping from her hair, running down her face and neck, soaking her shift. And, Solari suddenly realized the hand braced against the wall beside her wasn't to keep her pinned in; it was to keep the warrior standing upright. Reaching out, fingers touching a pallid cheek, Solari felt the cool, clamminess of her flesh.

"Hey, you okay?" she asked, as Devillare's knees buckled and she fell into Solari's open arms.

Head lolling against the scout's shoulder, her nose twitching as the feathers resting on Solari's shoulder guards tickled, Devillare managed to rasp out between a fit of coughs, "'M fine."

"Yeah, I can see that."

Rolling her eyes, wondering at what it was that inherently made all warriors so stubborn, Solari got one arm beneath Devillare's shoulder and tightened the other one about her waist. Knowing she lacked the strength to carry the stockier warrior to the bed, the scout improvised, shuffling them along as best she could. With Devillare's back to the interior of the room and Solari unable to clearly see about her bulkier frame, she inched them along until she felt Devillare connect with the side of the bed. Falling backwards, the warrior pulled the scout with her, effectively sending Solari toppling down on top of her prone body.

Confused about what had just happened, but unwilling to let things go back to the way they were when she felt like she was just beginning to make some headway, Eponin impulsively reached out and grabbed Ephiny by the wrist. The regent felt the hand close about her gauntlet, the resistance effectively halting her, spinning her around to face the weapons master once more. Reflexively, Ephiny tried to jerk her wrist free, but found Eponin unwilling to release her hold.

"Eph?" Pony called out. "Are you - are you - " Seeing the agitated glare Ephiny was directing at her, Eponin dropped her wrist and looked down, helplessly shrugging.

"Am I?" When she didn't receive an answer, Ephiny prodded again, "Am I what, Pony?"

"Are you, ya know," again a shrug of powerful shoulders, "You know, mad at me?"

Ephiny cocked her head to one side, wondering if Eponin would confess. "Why?!?" She asked, suspiciously, "What have you done?"

"I don't know." Hesitant honey-colored eyes looked up, then quickly darted away again. "But, if I did something to make you mad -- ?"

"Eponin." Ephiny decided she'd had enough dancing around. Eponin wasn't some slick-tongued counselor or elder. She wouldn't avoid a direct question. "What do you know about the council sessions?"

"Nothing." Then, with a frown, she added, "Just that Devillare told me you were having a hard time cause of some of the elders."

Flipping her hair back over her shoulder, resting her hands on her hips, Ephiny carefully studied Eponin's reaction to her next question. "And, did Devillare also tell you what they were giving me a hard time over?"


That straight forward, one-worded answer was all it took to convince Ephiny that Pony really didn't know about the council's demands. That her friend was simply offering breakfast because she truly wanted to spend time with her. Thinking of how unfair she'd been lately, she spontaneously blurted out, "I can't have breakfast with you, Pony." At the remorseful look, she did make a conciliation, "But, I do owe you an explanation."

"Eph, you don't have to - "

Stepping forward, placing her index and forefinger against Eponin's lips to silence her, Ephiny husked out, "Yes, I do." Turning her hand over, using the backs of her fingers, she tenderly caressed her weapons master's cheek. Leaning in, her forehead against Eponin's, their noses nearly touching, her lips scant inches from Pony's, she breathed into the warrior's mouth, "We need to talk." Pulling slightly away, eyes searching Eponin's, she directed, "Dinner tonight?"

Suddenly lacking the ability to speak, all Eponin could do was mutely nod her head. Regardless, Ephiny grinned at the nonverbal response.

The second-in-command of the royal guard stalked the corridors of the hospice with the long stride of someone who was more than mildly incensed. Against her better judgment, she'd followed her regent's orders and left Ephiny alone and unprotected. Bad enough the acting queen had commanded she leave. Worse, she'd been standing in front of the chief scout's hut when she issued the imperative.

Every fiber in Lexine's being rankled against having to follow those orders and simply walk away. Especially armed with the knowledge that the night before the regent had spent candlemarks out in the bitter cold watching Solari's darkened hut. And, the both of them were painfully aware of exactly who had been having dinner with the chief scout. And, also that she hadn't left Solari's residence prior to the candles being extinguished. All of them.

Memories of the previous evening continued to haunt her, even as she followed the regent's instructions and reported to the dining hut for the morning meal. Sitting there at the table, shoulder to shoulder with her squad, she was still unable to wrest her mind away from the chief scout's hut. Half-heartedly stirring her oatmeal, hardly tasting it, her mind continued to drift to images of the weapons master curled up in bed with Solari.

Thoughts of how she'd herself once had that honor, albeit it was a seemingly innocent evening after they'd both been caught out in a storm, didn't ease her mind any. If anything, it only made the images that much clearer. She pictured Eponin asleep, her head resting on Solari's shoulder, the chief scout's lighter locks blending with the darker, ebony strands of the warrior. Even in sleep, there were smiles of contentment on their faces and their lips were swollen from sharing passionate kisses.

And, those were only some of the mildest scenarios running through her mind. Her imagination had a lot more - some very explicit - ideas as to the sort of things the two older Amazons were doing in Solari's bed.

It had taken Bonadea nudging her in the ribs to make her ease up on the pressure she'd been applying with her closed fist. By the time she released her spoon, the metal was nearly bent in two.

Knowing she was dismal company, she excused herself, fully planning on walking back to her hut and falling into bed for a few restless candlemarks of merciful sleep. She'd been nearly to her door when a messenger arrived, carrying a missive for Captain Pelagia. Opening it, realizing it was from Warden Valen at the highland outpost, Lexine realized she needed to get it to the captain right away.

Checking the captain's office and her private hut and finding them both empty, with no clue on the roster as to Pelagia's whereabouts, she'd tried the council hut. And, the jail. And, everywhere else she'd thought of. With the exception of the hospice.

Sometimes, it was easy for her to forget that Captain Pelagia was bonded to Megara. As a couple, they were as different as night and day. Pelagia was captain of the guard; Megara, the head healer. The captain was outgoing and personable; the healer could easily thrive on a hermit's existence. Then, of course, there was the age difference. And, it was difficult to picture their young captain having grown daughters. Well, they're not hers. Not really. They're Megara's, Lexine rationalized.

No matter what else Lexine may have thought about her commander's relationship with the cantankerous healer, she had to admit they belonged together. She'd seen them interacting whenever Megara would come by the office. Sometimes it was under pretense of checking up on a prisoner's injuries - or a follow-up on a guard's cold - or maybe even just to bring the captain lunch. No matter the reason, she had witnessed the love . . . and the attraction . . . between them.

Recalling that attraction - and not knowing where else the captain might be - she had decided the hospice was the most logical place to check. Problem was, the healer's assistants were both busy. They recalled seeing Megara with Pelagia earlier, but neither could say for certain if they were in the building or not. So, Lexine was reduced to conducting a room by room search on her own.

With no success at all. Annoyed, Lexine roughly jerked open the next hide covering she came to and stepped inside. And froze in her tracks, her eyes widening and her jaw dropping open as she caught Solari in bed atop Elder Devillare.

The regent shamelessly added an extra sway to her hips with each step. The weapons master's eyes were riveted to her backside, following every move; a dazed over, dopey expression adorning her face.

"This -- this -- " Tynette fairly whined " - this cannot be allowed to continue."

"Hush." Nicphellia turned her attention to the guard they'd accosted. "You made no mention that it was us that sent you?" A smile caressed the elder's lips as Dioxippe rapidly shook her head. "Good." Patting the guard's cheek with the palm of her hand, then moving it down a toned arm until she clutched the woman's hand within hers, she ordered, "Let's make certain it stays that way."

Dioxippe fingered the three gold coins pressed into her palm, silently nodded her assent. With another smile and a pat on her back, Nicphellia gave the guard a shove in the right direction. Which was anywhere away from the hut her and Tynette were crouched behind.

Ducking down, both the elders waited until Ephiny had moved past them on the path before poking their heads out again. There was a lightness to the regent's step. And, Tynette was almost certain that she'd seen a smile upon her lips.

Grabbing Nicphellia's wrist once more, she urged, "We can not allow this to happen."

Nicphellia couldn't keep the smirk off her lips. "I thought it was you that was pushing for the regent to take a consort."

"It was. I am." The elder hunter was clearly flustered. "But not to -- to -- that -- cur!"

"Look," Nicphellia placed a reassuring arm around Tynette's shoulders. "I agree with you that the weapons master isn't the most desirable mate for the regent. But, need I remind you, the regent herself has yet to name any candidate."

Taking heart at Nicphellia's reassurances, Tynette began to nod her head in agreement. "And, if I have anything to say about it," she vowed, rubbing her chin as a plan began to formulate, "Eponin won't be in the running for long."

Part 13

Return to Xena and Gabrielle Fiction

Return to Main Page