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



"Is there any other business on the table that needs to be discussed?" Lyonene directed an agitated glare at Tynette as she added, "other than needling the Regent about naming a consort?"

"It's hardly needling if it's a legitimate concern," Tynette snarled back.

Evanthe's first reaction when these two started hurling spiteful looks and comments back and forth was, as usual, to grab up her gavel and begin banging on the hardwood table. As her hand closed upon thin air, however, she remembered the futility of that particular action.

Seemed that her trusty gavel had gone missing. Again. Oh, it had happened once before. But, that had been when the Queen's champion was in attendance. And, as everyone very well knew, Xena was not currently residing in the Amazon village.

And, a certain ex-captain of the guard was off the suspect list, as well. No doubt about it; she'd certainly threatened in the past to put that gavel where the sun wouldn't shine on it. But, Devillare also wasn't in attendance. She was, unfortunately, still under Megara's care in the hospice.

"What crawled up your tailfeathers and died, anyway?" barked out Lyonene. "It's ludicrous to suddenly demand that our rulers must take consorts!"

"It's the duty of every Amazon ruler to think of her position, her people, her Nation before committing to an individual. Her choice must be the right choice for all of us." volleyed back Tynette. "And, if you weren't so pigheaded, you'd realize that every Amazon Queen needs a suitable consort!" volleyed back Tynette.

Without Evanthe's gavel to subdue her -- and Nicphellia finally seeming to back her on this issue, the elder hunter was feeling pretty confident in her position. And, it also helped that with Devillare out of commission, the regent couldn't rely on the warrior caste for help.

Still, even if she was the only one to voice protest, Lyonene would not back down without a fight. "Melosa had no need of a consort!"

As if that were her cue, Calandra's head snapped up and she gurgled out, "Only one thing you need a consort for -- "

As Tynette and Lyonene continued their squabbling, and having neither the voice nor the resolve to speak over them, Evanthe sat back in her chair and quietly waited for the bickering to end. She didn't know what had gotten into the water today. Certainly Myrina and herself were acting normally. As was Calandra, in her own predictably senile way. What was out of character, though, was Nicphellia. She never agreed with Tynette on the best of days. But today, it seemed as if she were in cahoots with Tynette in her persistent demands that the regent take a consort. And, of course, Lyonene was determined to fight her every step of the way.

Evanthe groused beneath her breath, wondering how much of Lyonene's animosity with Tynette had to do with them spending a very drunken night beneath the same bed furs the night Artemis' champion was honored. Told Lyonene a thousand times she needed to lay off the mead. Maybe she'll listen now. Although, it had been nigh on hysterical when the shrill scream resonated throughout the early morning when Lyonene realized exactly whose thighs her nose was buried between. Big, tough hunter screamed like a girl!

Speaking of uncharacteristic behavior -

Evanthe's attention was drawn to the table where the Regent of the Amazons sat as contentedly as a well-fed cat. Her head was bowed, her blonde lashes lowered as she stared at the tabletop. Seemingly oblivious to the bickering and backbiting going on about her, she was completely engrossed in twirling what appeared to be a blue feather between her fingertips.

Most curious - Evanthe searched her memory. Of course, as the Regent, Ephiny possessed countless articles of clothing and weapons that were adorned with blue feathers. It was, after all, the primary color associated with any royal. But, there was more to it than that. The way Ephiny gingerly stroked the feather, smoothing it out as she twirled it between her fingers. Then, lifting it to her cheek, allowing the tip to run over her tanned flesh and her curved lips.

That's when Evanthe knew for a certainty that there must be something wrong with the water supply. The Regent was . . . smiling. When's the last time that happened? Oh, they were all used to seeing that familiar wry smirk. Or, even a wild grin once in a while. But, a genuine, true smile ....? Fascinated, Evanthe nudged her bondmate in the ribs and pointed out the phenomenon. At first, Myrina didn't get it. But, then, comprehension dawned as she, too, settled back in her chair to observe the uncharacteristic behavior of the curly-haired warrior.

When they had fallen, Solari had landed awkwardly, tumbling onto and over the elder's body. And, the feverish Devillare had hardly helped matters any in her semi-conscious state by ending up half on her back and half on her side, her momentum dragging the lighter scout along with her. Fingers clutched blindly, digging into the straw-filled mattress as Solari fought against both the blood rushing to her head and gravity, struggling to remain on the bed.

Fighting her way upright, the chief scout found herself half-straddling the warrior, one leg tucked beneath her torso, her leathers riding up, her inner thigh grazing against a jutting hipbone. Still sensitive from her unsatisfying morning endeavors, the touch felt like something akin to a lightning bolt, charging Solari all the way down to her toes. There was a sharp gasp; and Solari instantly bit down on her lower lip to muffle the sound.

Then, she realized the sharp intake of air had come from another source. Bracing the palm of one hand upon the warrior's broad upper shoulder, sandalwood eyes turned towards the doorway. Her first impulse was to disembowel the annoying guard that had been doing nothing short of stalking her this past season. But then Devillare stirred beneath her and she pushed down that little thought of self-indulgence and instead put the ill warrior's needs before her own.

"Get Megara."

Solari's palm stroked along a burnished, feverish cheek. She was burning up with fever to the touch, but her body shivering uncontrollably. Eyes cracked open, pupils glassy as steel-grey looked at her without ever really focusing. Then, a convulsion racked her entire body and her eyes rolled back in her head.

"Get Megara!" Solari reiterated her shout to a stunned Lexine still standing immobile in the doorway. "NOW!"

Hilaeira stretched to reach the top shelf, replacing the remaining bandages back into the woven basket kept in the supply cabinet for just that purpose. And, the bloodstained needle handcrafted from deer antlers was dropped into a bucket of water along with the bloodied bandages to be disposed of later.

That was something that Megara was adamant about - even during emergency situations - don't reuse cloths or needles that had been tainted with bodily fluids. Rumor was that old Megara had seen that happen first hand; she'd been traveling with one of Queen Melosa's entourages and they'd come across an entire village decimated by first a warlord's army, then disease from the frantic healers reusing needles, blades and bandages to administer to the wounded and dying. In the end, the Amazons had been forced to torch the entire village to prevent the further spread of plague.

The young healer reflected on that; barely able to imagine what it must have taken for Megara as a healer to realize there was no hope except to purify a whole community with fire. It was something that she didn't think was a decision she would ever have the courage to make. And, she prayed to the goddess Artemis that she would never have to find out.

How lucky we are to be living here. Now. In this community. While she was praying to Artemis, she included a blessing of thanks that she'd also never had the experience of traveling outside of her home village. Not like their new Queen. She'd listened as Gabrielle told her tales of life out on the road. And, quite frankly, the more Hilaeira learned about that life outside the Nation, the more she was content to stay within the safety of the village.

Like the rest of her sisters, she had been intrigued when Gabrielle had first woven her tales of life on the road with Xena, the Warrior Princess. But, as she'd heard story after story about unwashed brigands, bloodthirsty warlords, the amorous attentions of both the King of Thieves and the God of War, unscrupulous merchants and worst of all, maidens who dedicated their virginity to the goddess Hestia and the slavers who tried to kidnap them . . . . the more she heard, the less she could stomach.

Thank the goddess we don't have any of that nonsense going on around here. And, I'm not about to go wandering around the known world looking for it, either! As a matter of fact, Hilaeira was so determined to not know any more about Gabrielle's outlandish adventures than absolutely necessary. So much so, that she'd taken to volunteering to be on duty at the hospice every night her new Queen was in residence.

Nope. Perfectly content with my nice, quiet life -

The young healer was so engrossed in rolling the unused leather twine that she'd used to stitch closed the wound on the archer's hand that she was completely oblivious to the fact that someone had come up behind her. As a hand clamped down upon her shoulder, she gave a startled yelp and jumped, the ball of leather twine flying from her hands.

In her delirium, Devillare blindly reached out, her large hand clamping down upon the flesh of Solari's upper thigh. "Rey---vanne ---." Was husked out between parched, cracked lips in a voice so low Solari almost missed it.

Ignoring the touch of calluses caused by countless years of handling a sword, the chief scout reached across the warrior for a bowl of water positioned on a stand by the bed. Retrieving a damp cloth, she dragged it across the warrior's fevered brow. "Megara'll be here soon," she attempted to reassure the restless patient by smoothing her fingertips through short, salt-n-pepper hair damp with perspiration, "It'll be okay," she cooed in a soft voice.

Devillare's hand slipped around Solari's thigh, catching her at the back of her leg. "Nooo!" she ground out through gritted teeth as her grip tightened, short nails digging into flesh.

Wincing against the pain, Solari reached back, capturing Devillare's wrist in her hand. She squeezed, hoping the pressure would be enough to make the older woman relinquish her hold. Damn, that's gonna leave a mark, thought the scout as she realized she didn't have enough force to budge the stronger warrior's grip.

"Don't – nooo." The warrior's face turned side to side as she vehemently denied whatever was happening in her world of illusion. Not knowing what else to do, Solari caught a square jaw in her hand, her fingertips tightening as she tried to still Devillare's movements.

"Shush, it's okay." Despite the pressure still being applied to her leg, Solari let loose her grip on Devillare's wrist and instead focused on brushing her fingers through the elder's dampened hair as if she were a giant housecat. "It's okay," Solari cooed in a voice near Devil's ear, "It's okay, sweetie. I won't do anything, I promise."

The chief scout had no idea what she was or was not promising to do. Or, even if sweetie was a familiar term of endearment that someone often associated with this fierce warrior. She only knew she would say anything she could to calm this woman down. Unexpectedly, steel-grey blinked open and gave Solari a wild-eyed look. A brow furrowed as some part of Devillare's fevered brain tried to make sense of the image before her. Solari knew full well, however, that it wasn't really her the warrior was seeing.

"Don't," she pleaded, "I need – ." Despite the weight of the woman sitting upon her torso, the warrior tried to push herself upright.

Solari held on firmly, refusing to budge from her perch, despite the buffeting her body was taking by the determined warrior. Feeling the ache of abused tendons in her leg, she realized the futility of attempting to distract the warrior's hand from there. Instead, she gambled on clamping both her hands about the wrist of the other appendage that was now reaching for her throat. Using her full body weight, the Amazon scout was able to leverage the warrior's hand and forearm against the mattress.

Leaning in, she held on, praying to Artemis and Athena and anyone else who might be listening that Lexine would hurry in retrieving Megara. In truth, Solari didn't know what else to do. Gods knew she was no healer. But, she felt that whatever else she did, it was imperative to not allow the clearly delusional Devillare out of bed.

Unexpectedly, the vise-like grip upon her leg went slack and Devillare's head fell back against the pillow. Exhausted from their brief struggle, Solari slumped against the warrior, idly wondering what events were transpiring behind her now-closed eyes.

"I'm really sorry about scaring you," Eponin apologized again. "I called your name a couple of times - "

" - I guess I was lost in thought," Hilaeira waved off the warrior's apology.

They had moved out of the storage room and were now standing in one of the corridors. When she had recovered from the shock of the weapons master sneaking up on her and fully regained her senses, she finally had the presence of mind to ask what the warrior was there for. She had already surreptitiously checked the warrior's body over for new injuries, half expecting to discover she'd been out on the sparring fields against healer's orders.

It had been an endearing sight indeed that had stirred her heart when the normally gruff and stoic warrior had ducked her head, raising her eyes just enough to barely look at her through thick lashes and ask in an almost shy voice for another mug of tea.

She had barely had a chance to stir the mixture together and hand Eponin the mug before the warrior had upturned the mug and drained its contents dry. What a difference a little sweetening makes, Hilaeira thought, remembering the night she'd had to practically straddle the warrior and forcibly pour the brew down the stubborn woman's throat.

Now that she'd had her second mug under her belt, the weapons master was looking a lot less harried than when she first approached Hilaeira. As a matter of fact, she was leaning one shoulder against the wall of the corridor, one arm loosely wrapped about her staff -- and she was actually smiling.

"Feeling better?" Hilaeira asked in a low voice.

"Mmmm-hmm," Eponin answered, thankful that the infernal buzzing in her skull had finally retreated to a near nonexistent level.

Emboldened by the stern warrior's almost mellow persona, Hilaeira found the courage to step closer to this woman. She'd never been the type to go in for a lot of muscles; that much was obvious from her relationship with Tyrienne, Megara's youngest daughter. While the girl was toned and fit from her training as a hunter, she was slight of build, like her blood sisters who had followed in their first mother's footsteps and become dancers. No, Tyrienne would never develop the sort of muscles that the true warriors did.

And, usually, that would suit Hilaeira just fine. Lately though -- ever since Eponin was first hauled off the field of combat and brought to the hospice -- she'd been noticing a certain . . . beauty . . . to her physique. And although she was certainly in love with Tyrienne, she couldn't help but admit she found herself physically attracted to this fit warrior.

Hilaeira realized that the warrior hadn't retreated when she'd invaded her personal space. In fact, Eponin had maintained her relaxed posture, still leaning one shoulder against the wall. Summoning up her courage, the young healer boldly placed her hand upon the dark haired warrior's upper arm, allowing her hand to slowly travel over a firm bicep and toned forearm.

Diverting from her path, running the palm of her hand down a trim side until it rested on a cocked hip, Hilaeira looked directly into light-hued eyes. Moistening her lips with her tongue, she inquired, "Is there anything else I can do for you, warrior?"

The council session successfully tuned out, Ephiny's thoughts were instead focused on a warrior. One warrior in particular. The warrior that belonged to the blue feathered earring she was now idly twirling between her fingertips. Unbidden, a smile caressed her lips as an image of her weapons master sprang to mind.

Specifically of their shared bath. Of course, they'd shared baths together before. As she had with nearly every Amazon in the tribe. It was just one of those facts of life when you lived in a village full of women. Sooner or later, you were bound to end up in the communal baths with everyone.

That was why she generally preferred to bathe early in the morning. Because most everyone else went directly after the day's work was done. Oh, it was great to see the camaraderie of her sisters relaxing together, but more often than not, Ephiny could do without the crowd, the covert looks, the overwhelming din of warriors boasting of past deeds and the hushed murmurings of the gossiping hens.

Since being elevated to the status of regent, Ephiny was allowed the luxury of indulging in the private royal springs. But, these were located at the base of a foothill well beyond the outskirts of the village, near what was once the training grounds for the royal guard. Before it was decided that the weapons master to the nation could train both the regular troops and the elitist guard. Since then, the training grounds inside the main village had been expanded so that all their forces could hone their skills in the same environment.

Occasionally, the need for privacy won out and Ephiny would make the longer trek to the heated springs. But, it was a lonely journey past the abandoned training grounds that had fallen into disuse and become overgrown with the encroaching forest. Gabrielle had once confided to her that it was exciting, seeing where the Queen's forces once trained in secrecy. Knowing that according to the history scrolls, the Queen herself was often in attendance, observing firsthand the skills of her royal guard.

Of course, Gabrielle has the imagination of a bard. Ephiny had stood there for over a candlemark, trying to see what her little Queen did. Gabrielle had even admitted that the view had inspired romantic feelings inside of her. The only feelings Ephiny had inspired were those of loneliness and melancholy.

Perhaps if I had six-feet of tall, gorgeous warrior princess as my bathing partner, I'd feel a little more romantic, too, Ephiny wryly thought, recalling the last time she'd interrupted the queen and her consort in the private baths together. Standing there in the muted light given off by the torches, linen towel held loosely in her grasp, Ephiny had stared in open-mouthed awe.

She vividly remembered the brilliant shade of red that had tinged Gabrielle's cheeks as she mumbled something about Xena washing her back. An excuse that was met with a skeptical look from the regent and an almost cocky arch of an eyebrow from a certain warrior princess. Still, neither dared to contradict their little queen, even as both their gazes were drawn to the rather large hand clamped over a pert, bardly breast. And, when Gabrielle had tried to move away from Xena and towards the other end of the pool . . . well, it was rather apparent just where the warrior's other hand was beneath the water when the Queen's forward momentum was abruptly halted.

Gabrielle was mortified. Ephiny was embarrassed. And, Xena? Xena was -- an image of the sultry, devilish look those blue eyes had flashed her way . . . Xena had been anything but self-conscious. That scenario -- and the endless possible outcomes -- had fueled Ephiny's dreams for many a night after that.

Mostly though, in her waking hours, it served only as a painful reminder that she had no one to indulge in such past times with. Oh, there was, of course, Solari. Packmates since nearly birth, they'd taken so many baths together, Ephiny had long ago lost count. And, it wasn't unusual for one or the other to wash each others' hair or back, or even offer up an impromptu massage or a gentle caress. But, being the regent's packmate didn't translate into royal status for the chief scout. So, all their bathing together was regulated to the common baths. And, it was nothing like what the Queen and Xena had shared.

Nope, definitely gotta have a consort for that, Ephiny mused, reflecting that she had indeed found at least one other use for a consort than what Calandra had so vocally suggested in an earlier session. Again, unbidden images of Eponin sprang to mind. No question about it; that private bath they'd shared in the hospice was easily one of the most intimate, erotically charged experiences Ephiny had ever experienced in her life.

A sly smile stole over her lips as she brushed the tip of the feather across her mouth, her mind lost in the past, recalling exactly how she'd ended up with the weapons master's earring. At the time, she'd been able to convince herself she'd had no other ulterior motive. And, of course, it had been a purely unconscious act that had led to her taking the personal item with her own possessions as she'd hastily dressed to meet with the elders. As for what prompted her to keep the blood-encrusted earring, wearing it tucked in beneath her right gauntlet . . . Ephiny couldn't help but wonder if Ep had ever noticed its disappearance. She was a little distracted, Ephiny recalled as images of her Pony -- her completely naked Pony -- in the bath once more resurfaced.

Apollo's chariot was edging into the early morning sky, the warmth of the sun's rays caressing Devillare's shoulders and back as she guided her young charges towards their destination. Melosa had risen easily, tumbling from her bed with a quiet fluidity, dressing with determined purpose. Her younger sister, Terreis, however -- a smile tugged at Devillare's lips as she glanced at the disheveled mop of russet curls falling down and into the sleepy-eyed gaze of a more than reluctant to wake toddler. Even after Melosa had dressed her and Devil had picked her up and carried her from the house, the youngest princess had merely settled back into her bower created by strong arms and with a very pronounced, regal yawn, promptly dropped back off to sleep, content in her trust that Devillare would awaken her when they got to wherever it was they were going.

The young warrior hadn't told the princesses of their destination. She'd wanted it to be a surprise. Both for them and their mother. It was no secret that the Queen had been more than stressed about the whole affair with the Centaur hunting party that was caught poaching on their lands.

There were many that wanted the Centaurs to be made an example of. How else were the filthy beasts to learn their boundaries and to respect the Amazons' rights? Still other, saner heads, called for justice tempered with leniency. The Amazons beneath Queen Reyvanne's banner had already fought in battles against both men and Centaurs. And, they reasoned a firm, but fair reminder of what the Amazons were capable of would encourage the Centaurs to stay off their lands.

Devillare pondered again the burden of the crown. It was oft times a difficult position, requiring long, arduous, thankless candlemarks that demanded her attention away from the simple pleasures in life. When was the last time the Queen was able to attend a feast without having to preside over a ritual celebration or make a speech beforehand? How often did she rise from her bed before her daughters had awoken and returned to find them sound asleep long after Artemis' moon had risen high in the night sky? Hades' balls; when was the last time she was able to even enjoy a simple dinner without the intrusion of a messenger?

One of the few amenities afforded the Queen that somewhat alleviated the weight of the crown was the privacy of the royal baths. Even during the most trying of times, it was still one of the few luxuries Reyvanne afforded herself.

That was why Devillare had decided early this morn that she would bring the two princesses out to the royal baths. There were demonstration matches scheduled today; something to show the Queen and their fellow sisters exactly why they were chosen as members of the Royal Guard. She knew Reyvanne would take the opportunity to soak in the nearby naturally heated springs before attending. And, she figured, what better opportunity for mother to spend an unhurried candlemark with her daughters.

"Reyvanne?" Devillare called out as she adjusted Terreis' form cradled in her arms.

True to form, the youngest princess remained asleep. Meanwhile, the ever-alert Melosa had heard the warrior call out her mother's name and cocked her dark-tressed head to the side as she awaited an answer.

Devillare paused at the entrance. In truth, the entrance to the springs was little more than a lashed together wooden door covering the opening of a natural rock wall formation. Knowing that the actual spring that Reyvanne favored was located much deeper in the cavern, it came as no surprise to her that her Queen hadn't heard her calling out.

Picking their way through corridors caused by the rock formations, Devillare swiped a hand across her forehead, pushing ebony black locks from her eyes and wiping at the moisture caused by steam rising from fissures. Their scholars had deemed the caverns a great find; volcanic rock buried deep beneath the surface emanated waves of heat, warming the springs that form in various parts of the cave. As a warrior, Devillare didn't care for the why or the how; all she knew was that the heated water felt good whenever she eased her aching bones into it.

Coming around the last blind corridor, Devillare spied Reyvanne's distinctive tresses, her hair pulled back, secured in place by a gold hair clasp, its length still enough run down the center of her back and disappear into the water that lapped at the curve of her ribs. Curving into a smile, Reyvanne's name was upon Devillare's lips.

The utterance died before sound could be given to form. Catching Melosa by the shoulder, holding the eldest princess back, having the presence of mind to turn away to shield the youngest from the sight before her, Devillare's numb mind struggled to process what she was seeing.

Water cascaded over firmly toned arms as the Queen brought them up out of the water. Wrapping them around a muscular upper body, she tilted her head back, lips parting as a tongue delved deeply. Lilting laughter echoed throughout the cavern as Reyvanne playfully nipped at the Captain of the Guard's bottom lip. There was a hearty chuckle and a promise of payback.

"I'm the Queen," reminded Reyvanne with an imperious, albeit teasing tone, "I can't attend council sessions with bite marks on my lip."

"Oh, believe me, my Queen," came the breathless reply, "The set of lips I intend to mark, none of your esteemed council members will see the bite."

That response elicited a very undignified squeal from the Queen of the Amazons. Screeching, she splashed water at the Captain of the Guard and retreated deeper towards the center of the pool. Laughter and promises escaping her lips, Beroyle whole-heartedly gave chase.

When Megara first entered the hospice room, the sight that greeted her had made her come to an abrupt halt with the palms of both hands braced against the doorframe. She fought down the scathing remark that formed on her lips as first Iphinome, then Lexine, both failed to stop before running into her backside.

To say the healer was annoyed with the interruption would be an understatement. She'd just about convinced her lover to let her put her down for a nap when that snot-nosed guard had burst in on them. She worried about Pelagia. Her responsibilities as captain seemed to have nearly quadrupled since the regent's abduction.

Extended training programs, longer shifts for both her guards and herself, the secret investigation that she'd only confided to her lover in because she was convinced that the regent couldn't have been snatched out of her bed by one lone stablehand. Even a mentally unbalanced one. Not to mention how many times Pelagia had arrived home late at night, to fall exhausted into bed, only to be awoken a few candlemarks by one of those featherheaded idiots of hers thinking they'd lost the regent again.

Not that Pel hadn't always been a hard worker. But, she was pushing herself too hard. And even though Ephiny had never said it . . . she knew her lover well enough to know she was thinking it. She was to blame. The regent's safety - and royal's safety - was the primary responsibility of the captain of the royal guard. To think that a high-ranking official -- that she was sworn to protect with her life -- could be taken right out of their own village without anyone being any the wiser...the guilt was eating Pelagia alive.

In a rushed voice, Lexine had told them that Megara was needed in Devillare's room; that the warrior was having some sort of seizure or something. Then, she'd produced a rolled parchment for Pelagia, a missive from the Northern outpost. Pausing just long enough to deposit a kiss upon Megara's cheek, Pelagia announced that she needed to see the council. Then, she was gone again; with entirely too dark circles still beneath her eyes to suit Megara's taste.

Lexine hadn't been issued an order to do so and Megara was surprised when the second-in-command of the guard had followed her back through the corridors. Shouting for her assistants, only Iphinome had heeded the call, nearly colliding with the healer and guard in route to the elder warrior's room. Now, standing in the doorway, Megara realized full well exactly why the young guard had tagged along.

Devillare lay upon the pallet, the bedsheets tangled beneath her, nearly off the mattress completely as she writhed uncontrollably. Straddling the warrior, leaning forward, breasts seductively brushing against Devillare's body, that randy scout was using both hands to pin Devillare to the bed.

When she'd asked Eponin in a sultry voice if there was anything else she could do for her, this certainly wasn't what she'd had in mind. Surely, nearly anyone else would have picked up on the intended innuendo and had her flat on her back with a hand beneath her skirt at this point. Instead -

Instead - Hilaeira had to shake her head ruefully. Eponin had caught her completely off-balance with her request. Even now, standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame, one ankle crossed over the other, she couldn't believe what the weapons master had asked of her.

A bath. A simple bath in the heated pool. Hilaeira had hesitated - because she was stunned - not because, as Eponin had initially thought, that she wouldn't honor the request. When Ep had explained that it was a long walk made longer with an aching knee to the bathing hut and it was already well-past dawn . . . and that she usually bathed early in the mornings when no one else was about . . . well, she couldn't very well refuse, could she?

Even knowing that if Megara discovered she'd let a non-residing patient use the hospice bath, she'd be singularly emptying out bedpans for the next seven moons. At least. Wondering at exactly why she was risking her career for a warrior that Megara so obviously disdained, Hilaeira nonetheless felt a smile tug at her lips as she appeared in the doorway with a bathing towel draped over one arm.

The weapons master had her eyes closed, her arms raised as she generously lathered soap into her hair. Then, taking a deep breath, leaning back, she dunked her head beneath the water. Resurfacing, she shook her head from side to side, sending droplets of water scattering everywhere. A happy tune was hummed between closed lips as Eponin soaped up her hands and ran them over her chest and upper torso.

Unobtrusively watching, leaning against the doorway, Hilaeira grinned at the thoroughly enchanting sight. Then, her smile fell as another pang of guilt stabbed her in the gut over what she was about to do.

"Move off her!" Megara barked out, securing the last strap into place.

Solari slid off the bed, eyes still riveted on the warrior. She felt Lexine's gaze upon her, staring, those green eyes drilling holes into her just as they had been ever since she appeared in the doorway with the two healers. Ignoring her, scarcely feeling the sting of a poultice as it was applied to the back of her leg by Iphinome, sandalwood eyes remained fixed on Devillare.

Lexine was rooted to the spot, her anger seething, her attention on the chief scout. She had seen Solari straddling the elder, her leathers pushed up, the expanse of bare flesh revealing that the brunette wore no breechcloth beneath her skirt. Her rage flared again at the thought of what the weapons master had indulged in last night. And, now --to find her with the retired captain of the guard. Lexine's irrational bout of jealously left her immobile, unable to move from the doorway.

Even as Megara and Iphinome had moved into the room, the head healer struggling to hold the warrior still as Iphinome readied the concoction that would be injected directly into Devillare's bloodstream via a sharpened, hollowed out reed that would be used to pierce the skin. Nor did she move as the warrior fought against the sedative, her entire body lifting off the bed as she attempted to struggle from beneath Solari's weight. Nor when Megara had finally been forced to produce the straps to restrain the thrashing woman to the bed.

It wasn't until well after Megara secured the final strap about the warrior's wrist and ordered Solari from the bed that Lexine was able to even blink. And, before she knew it, the chief scout was pushing her way past her and escaping into the corridor. Lexine watched her go, tempted to follow. A ferocious growl and the repetitive banging of bedposts against the wall as a delirious Devillare struggled against her restraints momentarily drew her attention back into the room. Frowning, the second-in-command of the guard wondered what battle Captain Devillare was reliving.

Devillare saw her opportunity, didn't hesitate as she rushed forward. A sword was raised in reflex, the defensive move enough to parry Devillare's thrust. Determined, the second-in-command of the royal guard pressed her attack, sending repeated blows raining down upon the sword raised against her.

Teeth gritted, feeling the reverberation of each sword strike against her blade jarring her all the way to elbows and shoulders, Captain Beroyle found herself unaccustomedly on the defensive -- and steadily losing ground. Beroyle frowned; this was supposed to be a friendly sparring match, a demonstration put on for the Queen and the rest of the tribe standing along the perimeter of the training grounds. But, nearly as soon as the match had started, Devillare had come at her with fire in her eyes.

The handsome captain of the guard's eyes flicked to the dais where Reyvanne watched, the two princesses at her feet. Melosa's intelligent gaze was fixed upon the match. Whereas Terreis was more intent on chasing butterflies. As Beroyle caught Reyvanne's eye, the Queen graced her with a sultry smile.

"Hey!" chided Beroyle, dodging her head to the right even as she brought up the tip of her sword to knock Devillare's away. "That last swipe nearly nicked my ear."

"Perhaps you should pay closer attention to your duties, Queen's champion," Devillare suggested.

Swords came together, crossing, metal screeching against metal as their blades slid down until they were locked together at their hilts. Muscles flexed, veins bulged, tendons strained as both harnessed the strength in their upper bodies to lean heavily against one another.

Still not yet realizing the danger she faced, Beroyle retorted with what she thought was a playful, teasing comment, "If you ever want to trade duties, just let me know, Queen's consort."

With a snarl, face contorted with rage, Devillare twisted her wrist, causing her blade to turn . . . and for Beroyle's to twist right along with it in an underhand motion. As they came out of the arc at its highest point, Beroyle's blade flew from her grasp, landing on the field several paces away. With a roguish grin, Beroyle held up both hands, palms up, in mock surrender. Breathing heavily, chest heaving, steel grey eyes continued to bore into her as Devillare kept a firm grip on the pommel of her sword.

The captain bowed magnanimously, her charming smile firmly in place as she played to the applauding crowd. Beroyle glanced down, her grin widening as an unobserved Princess Terreis toddled out on the field, completely engrossed in her chasing of butterflies. Bending down, scooping her up into her arms, the captain blew a raspberry kiss on the toddler's bare stomach. Terreis made a face, upset that she'd been hoisted off the ground just as she was about to finally touch one of the butterflies she'd spent all morning chasing.

Then, seeing Devillare, she squealed, holding out her arms to the tall woman. Not yet ready to relinquish her hold, Beroyle struggled to control the temperamental, cranky princess. Finally, an ear-piercing shout of "want Devil" convinced the captain of the guard to hand her over to the other warrior.

Thrusting the tip of her sword into the ground, Devillare held out her arms, motioning for Terreis to come to her. Having had her fill of the littlest princess, Beroyle eagerly passed the toddler off to her second. Seeing how the formerly cantankerous princess settled right down into Devillare's arms and contented herself with playing with Devil's boar's tooth necklace ruffled Beroyle's feathers the wrong way.

"She's spoiled," Beroyle claimed as she retrieved her sword and replaced it in its scabbard. Moving off so the next pairing could take the field and begin their demonstration, she complained, "If I or my siblings behaved like her, rest assured, we'd get a tanning with a belt."

"She's a princess," Devillare reminded the captain as they both watched the Queen and Melosa already engrossed in the next pairing. "Somehow, I don't think it's permissible to take a leather belt to the backside of a royal."

"You never know," Beroyle bantered back, "perhaps a royal tanning is just what spoiled princesses need."

"And perhaps," Devillare answered, her voice low enough for only Beroyle to overhear, "you should attend to your own family."

Beroyle was stunned, momentarily taken aback by the comment that was clearly meant as a warning. Watching Devillare and her charge rejoin Melosa and Reyvanne, spying the kisses the Queen placed first upon Terreis' cheek and then Devillare's, she frowned. Her frown deepening, Beroyle turned to find little Eponin intently watching from the sidelines; as usual, her mother nowhere to be found.

By the time Lexine's gaze left Devillare and once again returned to the hall, Solari had disappeared.

As the elders continued to argue amongst themselves, an idea began to form in Ephiny's mind. Inspired by her memories of Gabrielle's romantic inclinations after seeing the ancient training grounds, she began to ponder on what she could do for her rendezvous with Eponin.

She had no intention of inviting the weapons master back to the royal baths for an intimate washing of the sort Xena and Gabrielle were inclined to. True, she cared for the warrior, but she was reluctant to rush into things. She wanted a nice, relaxing evening. And, if things turned more affectionate between them, that was fine, too.

But, all she'd offered to start with was dinner. Both because she truly wanted to spend time with her and because she did owe the poor woman an explanation for her as of late erratic behavior.

Unfortunately, my cooking skills are about as legendary as Xena's. And, asking Solari was definitely out of the question. Eponin had already experienced Soli's cuisine skills last evening. No way would she not know who had fixed their meal. And, she didn't relish the idea of trying to have an intimate conversation with Pony in a crowded dining hut. Belatedly, Ephiny began to worry that dinner had been the wrong decision.

Then, she recalled the picnic lunch Solari had packed for their trip to the waterfall. It should have been perfect; the good food, privacy, the scenery. Under other circumstances, Ephiny's heart might have thawed that day. It was Solari that pushed you into the water, she recalled as she remembered the tail end of that outing. When the enraged chief scout had rode off, leaving Ephiny to walk more than half the distance back on foot when Honeycomb had thrown a shoe.

Although beautiful, the waterfall was much too far of a distance to travel to late in the day. And, the abandoned training grounds reminded Ephiny too much of the Queen's romantic rendezvous with Xena. Rubbing her chin thoughtfully, the regent was suddenly struck by inspiration as she recalled the kissing tree.

Perfect! Reaching across the table, grabbing up parchment and quill, she hastily scribbled two messages. One for Mytilda, detailing what she would need. And, one for Pony, informing her of where they should meet. Blowing on the parchment so it would dry quickly, Ephiny read over her instructions before rolling both scrolls and tying them closed with leather twine.

Gryta immediately straightened her posture, struck her closed fist against her chest in salute to her captain's approach. Eyes straight ahead, Pelagia returned the salute by rote. Reaching out, she grasped the hide covering in her tight grasp.

Surprised at the spear blocking her path, the hand closing about her elbow, the captain of the guard turned a clearly agitated look upon her subordinate.

"Begging your pardon, Captain," Gryta lessened her grip on Pelagia's elbow, but not her spear, "They're still in sessions," she explained with a jerk of her head towards the council hut.

"Good," Pelagia shoved the weapon aside, "Because this can't wait."

"Regent Ephiny." Tynette pointedly turned away from Lyonene and addressed the unusually docile royal. Erroneously believing she had finally worn down the regent's defenses, the hunter prepared to move in for the kill. "This farce has gone on long enough. As an elder of the Amazon Nation with our peoples' best interests in mind, I must insist you fulfill your obligation to your tribe and select your consort and/or champion!"

"And I must insist," Lyonene growled at her counterpart, "that you kiss my wrinkled tailfeathers!"

In a fit of frustration, Tynette snatched up a scroll off the table and stormed across the room. Thrusting the parchment beneath Ephiny's nose, she pleaded, "Regent Ephiny, I implore you. Merely select a name from this list of candidates we've drawn up."

Blonde eyebrows knitted as Ephiny glanced at the list of five names, briefly wondering who the we Tynette referred to was.

Undaunted by Ephiny's furrowed brow, Tynette plunged ahead. "Select one. That's all we ask. Give it a mere four seasons time." Seeing the dark glower, Tynette hastily amended, "Until Solstice, then. Just long enough to appease the tribe. Then, if you don't agree with the selection, we can still abort the bonding ceremony and choose another."

"Bonding?" Ephiny's voice significantly raised.

"Well, I assumed that after - " Tynette wheedled, realizing too late she'd gone much too far.

"Listen to me," Ephiny rose from her chair in a decidedly slow and deadly manner, planted the palms of both hands on the wooden table as she leaned forward, murder in her eye as she squared off against the elder hunter. "When I choose to name my consort and champion, rest assured, she will not be selected from an approved list and it will not be done as a means of appeasing the tribe!"

"Regent Ephiny!" Tynette protested, slapping her hand down on the council table.

"Or the Gods-be-damned Council of Elders!" Impulsively drawing the knife at her waist in a fit of anger, the curly-haired Amazon threw the dagger across the room. Tynette didn't even flinch, knowing that the regent's aim was harmlessly directed at an unoccupied portion of the room. "Do I make myself clear?!?"

"I'd say perfectly," Pelagia deadpanned as she stared at the knife embedded in the doorframe, the blade still vibrating from the impact.

The captain of the guard had unwittingly dragged Gryta in behind her as the woman refused to completely relinquish her grip on her superior. It was one of the first things hammered into them in their training; always protect the royals. And, never allow anyone to interrupt the council sessions. Ever.

Looking down at her profusely bleeding arm, Gryta now questioned the rationale of that training. Certainly the royals and the council needed no protection if they were hurling about sharp objects in close quarters.

"Gryta!" The regent's eyes had gone wide and she apologized profusely, "I am so sorry. I didn't expect anyone to walk through the door - - "

In truth, it had been a once in a lifetime chance. Gryta had been on duty outside the council door often enough that she knew from the sounds of raised voices and broken furniture coming inside that the sessions tended to get . . . spirited. Add to that the volatile nature of some of the elders -- and the regent -- and someone was eventually bound to end up getting gutted.

Before she was fully aware of what was happening, the guard was engulfed by concerned elders. Calandra hobbled towards her, using her staff to shove everyone else aside as withered hands and eyes inspected the wound.

"Ah, it's just a graze." The elder healer sounded almost disappointed as she inspected the jagged slash across Gryta's upper arm. Then, recalling something that seemed to make her feel somewhat better, she supplied, "You know, though, some of these royals lace their blades with poison." Calandra openly winked at the guard. "Just in case, you know." At the guard's uncomprehending shake of her head, she explained, "Kill them outright -- or kill 'em with a scratch. Makes no difference as long as their enemies are dead."

"Oh, for the Gods' sake!" Ephiny retrieved the dagger from the doorframe, held the blade up for all to see. "There's no poison on my knife!"

"Still," Calandra leaned in and spoke in a stage whisper, "Might not hurt to get it checked out, right?"

"Oh, Gods." Ephiny rolled her eyes, buried her face in her hands. "Fine! Gryta," she addressed the guard, waving the blood splattered blade beneath the nervous woman's nose. "Go to the hospice." Gryta visibly flinched as Ephiny pointed the blade at her wound. "Get Megara to clean that out."

"Yes, my Regent." Unsure what else to do, Gryta made a bow as she began to back out towards the door.

"Oh, and Gryta?" The guard halted as the regent called out to her. "Deliver these to the food hut and the weapons master when you're finished?"

"Yes, Regent." Gryta accepted the scrolls, tucking both into the waistband at her belt. With another quick bow, she scampered out the door before anyone else could call her back.

"Now," Ephiny turned to address Captain Pelagia, folding both arms over her chest as she did so, her knife still held loosely in her grasp, "Perhaps you'd care to explain why two members of the royal guard felt the need to charge into a council session unannounced?"

Iphinome silently watched as Megara ran a wet cloth over the retired captain's sweat-drenched brow. Once they'd gotten the sedative in her and it'd finally taken effect, the warrior had gradually settled down. She was no longer thrashing about, but she was still clearly lost somewhere in a realm of memories and dreams. Iphinome didn't know exactly where Devillare's mind was, but there'd been a few revealing phrases that suggested she was reliving bits and pieces of her past.

As one of their past Queen's names slipped from the ex-captain's lips, closely followed by the word Teleria, a startled look had flashed across Megara's features. She'd turned abruptly then, snatching the bowl Iphinome had been holding as she'd been dampening the warrior's sweat-slick flesh right out of her grasp. And, in a tone that brooked no argument, the head healer demanded both her and the guard that had summoned them leave. Immediately.

She'd known better than to outright disobey Megara's command. Without another word, she grabbed the guard with the straw-colored hair by the arm and steered her from the room. Then, she'd escorted her to the end of the corridor before curiosity overcame her and she stealthily backtracked her way back to the elder's room.

With the hide covering pulled back just the barest width of two fingers, Iphinome peered into the room. Megara was hovering over the delirious warrior, continuing to run a damp cloth over the warrior's flesh as she murmured words designed to soothe.

"It's okay, warrior, it's okay," Iphinome heard Megara repeating over and over again.

"T - Teleria." The patient's voice cracked as she struggled to form the words past parched lips. "The princesses -- "

"Shush, now."

Megara had hoped that would cause Devillare's ramblings to desist. Instead, her brow furrowed deeply as she became more insistent; her sword arm tugging forcefully against the leather restraint.

"Royal family. She'll kill them." The tugging intensified, the buckle on the restraint beginning to slide through the grooves carved into the leather. "Family . . . must save --"

"It's okay," Megara reiterated, fretfully eyeing the warrior's flexing sword arm, the raised tendons in her wrist. She didn't know what would happen if the restraint loosened. If Devillare's fevered mind convinced herself that the healer was actually Teleria . . . "You saved them." Gambling with half the truth, Megara took a chance on remaining at Devillare's side in an attempt to calm her. "You saved them all."

"Family?" Devillare mumbled out the question, as if her addled brain instinctively knew that wasn't quite right.

"Yeah," Megara repeated, "The family. The family's safe."

Devillare's head tossed fitfully side to side as she clasped onto that one word and refused to let it go. Family.

The temporary captain had done what she could, escorting the girl back to her quarters and setting up a makeshift bedroll for her for the night. She thought come morning, Laurentia would have a change of heart and come looking for her daughter.

She had that same thought each night she rolled out the pallet for Eponin to sleep on for the next few evenings. And, when Melosa at last ascended the throne and made Devillare her permanent Captain, she thought for certain that Laurentia would step forward to lay claim to her daughter.

The Captain continued to hold out that belief each day as little Ep woke up on her own as Devillare was dressing each day. She'd never told the youngster her routine was to rise a candlemark before first light; it was something she'd picked up on her own. The child would silently dress herself for the morning and then follow along behind the Captain as she headed out to the training fields for her morning regime.

After training, before checking in at her office, Devillare would take a side trip by the building where Evanthe and the other scholars taught classes. Ep would trudge along behind her; out of sight, never saying a word, never making a sound. If it hadn't been for Devillare's keen hearing, she wouldn't be able to identify the exact heartbeat her little ghost left her to amble up the front steps and disappear into the building for her classes.

And, each night when she went off duty, she was surprised to come home and find that the tyke had gone to the dining hut and fetched her dinner and had prepared a hot bath for her. And, while Devillare was soaking, Eponin would appoint herself the task of cleaning up the dishes and polishing her caregiver's armor.

After more than a moon of this, Nic suggested that Devillare find a hut willing to take in Eponin. After all, if Laurentia didn't want her, there must surely be a couple in the village somewhere that wanted a daughter. Besides, how could the handsome and eligible captain entertain thoughts of finding and keeping a mate with a growing child already in the hut? No Amazon wanted to date a woman with children from a previous relationship.

Devillare rolled her eyes. "She's hardly from a previous relationship."

"You know what I mean."

"What about you?" she spontaneously asked the couple standing before her. "You've been in a stable relationship for ages now. Ever thought of - "

Nicphellia's lover reached out, silencing Devillare with a well-placed hand upon her forearm. "Actually," she confessed, "Nic and I . . . well . . . we've talked about children. And truth is, on that last leave we took into Athens, we sort of . . . " biting her bottom lip, she glanced to Nicphellia for support.

"Phaedriana missed her last moon flow."

Devillare's eyes widened, as did her smile. "You mean?" she asked, already stepping forward, rubbing her palm over the hunter's still flat abdomen.

Phaedriana nodded enthusiastically. "Megara confirmed it this very morning. We'll have the baby right before the Spring Festival."

"A good omen," Devillare moved to her weapons chest, withdrew a concealed flask, "calls for a good wine." As she uncorked the flask and poured the contents into three mugs - to the top for herself and Nicphellia - only a quarter-full for Phaedriana, she toasted, "To a strong Amazon daughter."

"To a strong Amazon daughter," echoed the proud lovers.

Eponin had heard the conversation from the next room and by the time Devillare had gone in to tell her goodnight, the girl had her bedroll tucked beneath one arm and her staff balanced in the other and was halfway out the window. Devillare caught her and hauled her back in, carrying her by the back of her halter to the permanent bed. Tossing her down, she sat upon the squirming child, adding just enough pressure to prevent further attempts at escape and demanded to know just what was going on.

"I was only taking what was mine. My clothes and my staff." At Devillare's pointed look at the discarded bedroll on the floor of the hut, Eponin added, "And the bedroll you gave me." A tiny shrug by way of explanation. "I expect it gets cold out in the forest at night."

"I expect it does," Devillare confirmed with a sage nod of her head. "So, why would you want to sleep out there?"

"Cause you won't be able to find someone else who wants me." There was a painful hitch in her voice as Eponin added the next bit, "No one would."

Devillare pursed her lips, studied the girl. "What makes you think I'd want to?"

"I heard what Nicphellia and Phaedriana said. You can't find love cause you've got me underfoot."

"Not quite what they said." The captain cocked her head to one side, quizzically stared at the tiny warrior that she'd so easily taken into her home. "Maybe the reason I can't find love is because I'm not looking for it, little one." Then, ruffling the youngster's already unruly hair, she added, "It may be a very long time before I'm ready to find love again. But, I guarantee you, if I do, she'll have to understand from the start that nothing comes between me and you."

"Really?" Eponin's eyes widened in awe.

"Sure," nodded Devillare. "We're like family, right?"

Eponin paused, biting her lip. It saddened the captain that the child had to think so hard for a response to such a simple question. She sighed deeply, thinking how unfair it was that this little child -- any child -- would be uncertain as to what a family should be like.

Determined to lighten the heavy mood settling in the air, she teased "And, you're my little pup, right?" she asked, adding a furious tickle to Eponin's ribcage. "Cause you follow me wherever I go, right?"

"No." Eponin giggled beneath the onslaught.



"Right?" Grabbing the little warrior about her ankle, turning her around so she was helpless on her stomach, Devillare ruthlessly attacked the sole of her foot.

"No!" Ep let out a squeal as the tickling reached a new level of torture. "Yes! Yes!"

"Let me hear you say it," insisted Devillare, her fingers not letting up for an instant.

"Okay! Okay!" Eponin was giggling so much, her entire face was beet red and she was panting as she tried to catch her breath. "I am! I'm your little pup!"

At the admission, Devillare relented, pulling her little charge up into a fierce hug.

The next morning, Devillare petitioned Queen Melosa and the Council of Elders for legal guardianship of the child. The council ruled that the matter had to be addressed in a public forum before the entire Nation. She had seen Laurentia in the crowd of onlookers, expected her to protest the action.

When the Queen and Council granted her petition, Devillare let out the breath she never realized she'd been holding. After the uprising, the captain didn't think anything would ever be right with her world ever again. She had lost everything, and thought she had nothing left to live for save duty and honor. But, with the unexpected responsibility of caring for a child, she found a new purpose in her life.

If Iphinome hadn't seen and heard it with her own eyes and ears, she never would have believed it. Cantankerous, tougher than nails Megara at a warrior's bedside, running a dampened cloth over a fevered brow, holding a calloused hand within her own as she offered up words of comfort. No one would ever believe it; not in a million seasons, the apprentice healer marveled as she found herself unable to tear her eyes away from the heart-warming scene.

"It's not polite to stare, you know."

Solari had to bite back a devilish laugh as her words whispered in Hilaeira's ear caused the apprentice healer to nearly jump out of her skin.

"Sooooooo," asked Solari, peering around Hilaeira's shoulder and into the room. "What's so interesting, any - " Two dark brows rose in tandem " - Oh."

Solari's eyes widened, her heart skipped a beat as she spied Eponin's backside as the warrior bent over to pull her breechcloth up. Her very wet, very naked backside, Solari amended her thoughts. Feeling a tightening in her chest and throat, the chief scout swallowed harshly.

Remembering the feel of this warrior pressed up against her in her sleep, recalling how aroused she'd been that morning -- and to think Eponin was the source of that discomforting arousal . . . . and realizing she wasn't alone as she stood staring from the doorway; Solari felt decidedly uncomfortable.

Needing a way to diffuse the thick tension in the air, Solari impetuously snatched the towel Hilaeira had draped over her shoulder and charged into the room.

Twisting the towel, rolling it, as she shouted, "Pony!!!!"; the dripping wet weapons master barely had time to raise her head in reaction before her tailfeathers were given a resounding slap.

"Solari!?!" One hand reflexively covered the reddening welt across her stinging buttocks. "You are so dead, scout!!!"

Hilaeira's eyes widened to round discs as a nude weapons master charged at a nearly doubled over with hysterical laughter chief scout that was desperately trying to get herself together enough to run away. Her jaw nearly hit the floor as Eponin let out her war cry and tackled Solari about the waist, sending them both flying headfirst into the heated pool.

Solari came up first, sputtering and swiping a wet hand through her equally wet hair, shoving it out of her eyes. Eponin followed suit, coming up behind the scout, using the opportunity to duck her beneath the water once more. Coming up a second time, giving Ep a mock glare, the tribe's biggest prankster made a showing of wiping at her soaked hair with her even more thoroughly soaked towel.

"Truce?" Solari asked as she climbed from the pool, offered a hand to Eponin.

"Truce," Eponin agreed, after giving a sharp tug that made Solari think she was going headfirst back into the water.

After they embraced forearms to seal the pact, Solari used both hands to playfully scrub her towel through Eponin's hair, ruffling the dark locks until the ends were riotously sticking out in every direction. As Ep raised her arms to ward off Solari's antics, the chief scout leaned in, deeply inhaling.

"Ep - " Solari sniffed again, " - you smell . . . ni - ice." Then, eyeing Eponin suspiciously, she asked, "What gives?"

"W - what do you mean?" Ep asked, clearly startled.

"I mean, bathing in the middle of the day? Using . . . soap?" Rubbing her chin thoughtfully, she asked, "Who do you have a date with?"

"N - no one!" Ep responded a little too briskly. "I just came by to see Devillare, that's all."

Solari realized that in her playfulness, she'd neglected to tell Eponin about her mentor. Mentally cringing, she thought about how Pony would react to the fact that the elder had to be sedated and strapped down to the bed. No doubt, she wouldn't like it. No matter what the reason. I should tell her.

"Hey," she offered up instead, reluctant to dampen Eponin's good mood, "I just passed by there. She's sleeping."

"Yeah?" Ep was surprised; she didn't think Soli would look in on Devillare for her. Lately, though, Soli's been so . . . . nice.

"Yeah. Why don't you let her rest; check on her later?" Solari asked hopefully, mentally crossing her fingers behind her back. Then, in an effort to distract Pony, she leaned in, loudly sniffing at the warrior again.

"Get offfa me, Soli!" Eponin roughly shoved the chief scout away.

Solari couldn't help but grin. Mission accomplished.

"Hey, what's a girl gotta do to get a couple of stitches around here - ?"

Gryta's question trailed off as she joined Hilaeira in the doorway just in time to see an almost completely naked, dripping wet weapons master standing in just her soaked breechcloth push an equally dripping wet, but completely clothed chief scout. The sound of a feather falling could have been heard as four sets of eyes bounced back and forth about the room, no one knowing quite what to say about the situation.

"Aren't you supposed to be guarding the regent?" Eponin was the first to put forth the question.

A sandalwood eyebrow arched as Solari wondered just how the weapons master knew exactly which guard was on rotation. "Is Ephiny okay?" she asked, as soon as the implication of an injured royal guard set in.

"Oh, she's fine," reassured Gryta, "Her aim might be a little rusty; but rest assured, she's fine."

"Gryta - "

The guard took an instinctive step back as her name was growled with ferocious intensity from both Eponin and Solari in unison.

"Hey, relax!" she held up both hands to ward off the advancing Amazons. "She's the one that did this to me." Seeing the further narrowing of eyes, she hastily emphasized, "It was an accident! She's in council sessions!"

"Come on, Eponin." Hilaeira stepped forward, taking the warrior by the hand and pulling her towards the door. "Let's go find you a dry towel and get some leather twine for Gryta's wound."

Dumbfounded, both Gryta and Solari watched as Eponin grabbed up her bracers, gauntlets and clothes and followed the apprentice healer out of the room. At first, they wondered why Hilaeira didn't just take Gryta instead, but then they both realized neither one of them wanted to be the one left alone with an agitated weapons master.

"Soooooo," Solari flashed a disarming smile at Gryta, "Must have been one Tartarus of a council session you walked in on, huh?"

"You don't know the half of it," Gryta responded, applying pressure to her still bleeding wound, "Surprised the regent hasn't killed the entire council."

"Wonder what's got Eph so riled up she's throwing daggers about the room?"

"You mean you don't know?" A wicked smile crept onto Gryta's face as she conspiratorially leaned in close and lowered her voice in case Eponin and Hilaeira were already on their way back from the supply room. "You see . . . "



A left fist blindly struck out, solidly connecting with an unprotected chin. There was the satisfying sound of someone cursing, spitting out blood. Eponin cockily smirked, drew back her fist for another punch.

Then, her arm was grabbed, several hands restraining her as rabbit punches were quickly delivered to her midsection; ribs and kidneys stinging beneath the onslaught. Her head snapped to the side as a right-cross brutally landed. Then, the business end of a chobo jabbed into her already punished abdomen sent her doubling over despite the firm grip on her upper arms.

"What in Tartarus - Stand down! Stand down NOW!"

Instantly, the hands that had been holding her were gone and Eponin's legs collapsed beneath her, unceremoniously sending her to the cold, stone floor. She lay there panting, watching with dim interest as the guards scattered at the sound of Pelagia's voice.

"Report to my office at first light."

"But, first light's when - "

"I know what happens come first light." Pelagia's stony gaze swept over the face of each guard in turn. Romany and Dioxippe defiantly met her gaze while Lexine flinched and cast her eyes down. "I'll personally be on hand to attend to the matter. While you three are waiting for my arrival in my office." Then, getting right up in their faces and yelling, "Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, Captain."


Arms folded across her chest, a scowl on her face, Pelagia watched as the three members of the guard marched single-file out of the cell and down the hallway. It wasn't until they were completely out of sight that she turned to look at the Amazon still crouched upon the floor. Holding out her hand, she braced herself as she helped to pull Eponin up.

"Thanks, Pel." Ep sat down on the edge of the cell's single cot. "Good thing you stepped in when you did. I had those featherheads right where I wanted them." Eponin winced slightly as she tested the mobility of her jaw.

"Don't thank me. I didn't do it for you. I did it for me, for my honor." Pelagia's look of disdain closely matched the expression she'd had on her face when she'd caught the trio of guards beating on Eponin. "I won't have a prisoner abused while under my control. Any prisoner."

The captain of the guard watched with cold eyes as the woman she'd once called weapons master and friend downed her head. Crossing the small space to lean against the bars, crossing her arms once more over her chest, she mutely stared as Eponin idly picked at the calluses of one hand.

Pel frowned, chewing the inside of her lip. She knew she was too close to the situation. She'd thought she could pick out a dangerous threat in a heartbeat. But, she'd been wrong. Eponin had fooled her. Hades, she'd fooled them all.

Anger clouding her better judgment, she stalked back across the cell, stopping directly in front of Eponin. Alone, with the open cell door at her back, she knew it was a risky move. And, she didn't care. She almost wished Eponin would take a chance at escaping.

But, would I stop her - or let her go?

Pelagia was unsure as to the answer to that question. Hating herself for not knowing for the first time in her life and blaming Eponin for putting her in that unfamiliar position, she lashed out. Grabbing a handful of ebony hair, she brutally yanked back until Eponin looked up at her.

"Know this," she forced out between tightly clenched teeth, "If it had been any of Megara's daughters, nothing . . . nothing would stop me from claiming retribution."

Letting loose Eponin's hair, using the motion as an excuse to push the warrior away, Pelagia stormed out the cell door, slamming it behind her. Never once did she turn back to look at her prisoner.

Fists clenching and unclenching, cursing up a storm, Pelagia traveled on swift-moving legs. Her mind was already working at a harried pace, trying to sort out all the things she still needed to accomplish. She'd have to fill out a report as to what had occurred in the cell. And, she'd have to advise the council. She'd picked up on the slight wheeze that was exhaled with each breath; it could mean re-injury to previously broken ribs. Although, Pelagia wasn't sure she could convince a healer to help with this one. Not even Megara.

Unconsciously, Pelagia picked up her pace. First light would be upon them before anyone was ready. As she stepped out into the cool night air, she nearly ran right over the top of someone. Expecting it to be the guard she'd assigned to watch the door, Pel was taken somewhat aback when she realized it was Lexine.

"I thought I dismissed you." Pelagia snapped as she returned the on-duty guard's salute as she briskly walked past.

Lexine rushed to keep up with Pelagia's long-strides. "Yes, captain. I just wanted to - "

Pelagia came to an abrupt halt, turned to stare at the flustered guard. "Out with it," she demanded.

"I just wanted to - " Lexine glanced away as she said the word " - apologize - " before looking back again " - what we did was wrong. And, it's something I never thought I'd be capable of doing to a prisoner ... but when I think of what she did. For Gods' sake, Captain; it happened in the chief scout's hut. It could have been Solari."

Pelagia cocked her head, giving Lexine a speculative look. She'd long suspected the young guard had a crush on Solari. But, from what she'd observed, the chief scout hadn't been actively encouraging Lexine's attentions. As a matter of fact, she'd been under the impression that Solari was avoiding the amorous guard's advances. And, she'd hoped that the more Solari ignored her, the quicker Lexine's infatuation would dissipate. If anything, though, her obsession with the brunette had seemingly increased.

"Solari was never in any danger from Eponin." Despite her current feelings towards Ep, Pelagia couldn't help defending her from gratuitous accusations. "As I recall, if it hadn't been for Eponin stepping in front of a Roman sword two seasons ago, Solari wouldn't even be here."

"I know that. And, I know there's been a lot of other good things she's done. Things that maybe I forgot about." There was a slight pause before Lexine added in a slightly lowered voice. "But, I won't forget again. And, I'd like to request that I still be allowed on the detail tomorrow."

Pelagia scowled. That was another thing she'd forgotten. Lexine was scheduled to escort the wagons to the outpost in the morning. "While I appreciate the sentiment," the captain's words were crisp and clipped, "I need someone I can trust in that position." Reaching out, she pointedly snatched out the chobo that had been tucked into the waistband of Lexine's skirt. Roughly pushing past the chagrined guard, she added beneath her breath, "And, I don't know who that is anymore."

Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Eponin repeated the mantra over and over in her head in sync with each punch that landed against the stone wall. Her knuckles were scraped and battered, but she was well beyond feeling the physical pain. Especially when the wound to her heart hurt so much more.

Did you really think you could be happy? As the words washed over Eponin, she sat back on her bunk, unconsciously cradling her injured hand against her body as she did so. Settling with her back against the cold stone wall, her mind drifted, a bittersweet smile etching her lips as she realized for just a short while, she truly had been. For just a short while, I was happier than I've ever been in my life.

As she'd returned from the supply cabinet with Hilaeira, Gryta had pulled her aside, informing her that the regent was requesting her presence in her office at dusk. Eponin had momentarily frowned, thinking that meant business and not the dinner she'd been promised. Then, recalling their moment together in front of Solari's hut; their repeatedly interrupted moment; she figured Ephiny wanted to meet somewhere a little more private.

She'd spent the afternoon holed up in Solari's hut, polishing her gear. And, practicing. Not with her favorite staff; but her words. She saw that morning's run-in with Ephiny as a turning point in their relationship. Finally, she had an inkling that the curly-headed blonde might have feelings for her, too. Gathering her courage, steeling her resolve, the weapons master vowed that this would be the night she confessed her love to Ephiny.

She'd arrived early at the regent's office, rapping loudly on the doorframe before she entered. She was taken aback that Ephiny wasn't already there. Then, figuring she was probably on the way, she sat back to wait. And wait. And wait. And wait. After over a candlemark had passed, the weapons master was impatiently pacing the length of the floor.

At last, figuring Ephiny had been detained, she started towards the door, determined to go find her errant regent. She stopped when she noticed several pairs of boots on the other side of the hide covering the doorframe. Her brow furrowed as she recognized first Lyonene's voice, then Tynette's.

"It's bad enough that you harass the regent during each and every council session, I won't have you disturbing her evenings, as well."

"A true ruler doesn't take evenings and festivals off," shot back Tynette. "I suppose if the enemy was at our walls, you would want us to not bother her until after her morning breakfast?"

"I think the enemy may already be in the gate."

Eponin's eyebrow corked at Lyonene's response. She thought about announcing her presence, but decided she'd already overheard enough that no matter when she was discovered, it would be awkward. Besides, she was curious as to if this was the reason for Ephiny's as of late funky moods.

"Lyonene, calm down." Nicphellia's voice drifted in. "Tynette only wants what is best for the Nation. As do we all."

"What's best for the Nation, is to leave the regent alone. Or at the very least, allow her to make her own choice."

"And, who would you have her choose?" There was no disguising the venom in Tynette's voice. "That - that - warrior?"

"She's a far better choice than any that are on your so-called approved list."

"I won't stand for it. Council majority won't stand for it." Tynette's voice loudly boomed. "And, I'll make that clear to the regent right now."

"As long as we're making our intentions clear," Lyonene's arm stretched across the doorframe as she effectively blocked Tynette's attempt at entry, "I'll advise her that if this is her choice, she'll have my vote. I'm quite certain Evanthe and Myrina will pledge theirs, as well. And, as for Devillare - well, by my calculations, four is majority."

"Devillare is still in the hospice and has no vote on the council."

"At this time." Lyonene's voice was low and deadly. "Rest assured, we can find a way to prolong this until the warrior caste is duly represented. Or, if you prefer to press for expediency, perhaps we should send for Queen Gabrielle's consort. Xena was granted the right to sit in session in case of dire circumstances."

"The other castes will protest. There'll be a revolt of the kind not seen since the time of Queen Reyvanne."

There were several expletives, followed by the unmistakable sounds of a scuffle. Eponin imagined Nicphellia inserting herself between the other two elders as her voice carried into the office.

"Lyonene, we all know that Eponin would be about as suitable a consort as . . . as a two-headed centaur would be." There was a curse from Lyonene and a snort from Tynette. Then, Nicphellia cautioned, "However, Tynette, until the regent herself submits a choice, we can not outright veto her decision. For now, there is nothing the council can do. Other than get some rest tonight and render our advice at tomorrow's council session."

Eponin stood in shocked silence, one hand covering her mouth. She fairly reeled as her mind worked to process what she'd just heard; and the implications. A consort. Ephiny must choose a consort. Pony's heart hammered in her chest, her throat constricted as her mouth went suddenly dry.

Moisture clouding her vision, Eponin blinked her eyes, coming back to the present. The chill from the stone wall had settled into her shoulders and lower back, causing her to shiver. Morosely, she stared at the cell's wrought-iron bars, recalling what Nicphellia had said about a centaur being a better selection than her as consort. Tynette's voice, promising a revolt, persistently reverberated in her ears.

What, did you think you deserved happiness? Eponin fairly snorted at herself in derision. Or, did you honestly think she'd pick you?

Solari absently rubbed at the palm of her right hand, wincing as she felt the hint of pain even through the thick bandage. Reflexively, she curled and uncurled her fingers, feeling the tightness the action produced. Holding her hand up, she intently studied her palm.

The bandages nearest the skin were cut from soft cloth, the softest Solari had ever felt before in her life. As Megara had mixed up a healing salve, the chief scout had ran the fingers of her uninjured hand over the material, marveling at the texture. When she asked the head healer about it, Megara had grunted out that it was something their Queen's consort had brought back from the land of Chin.

After the painkillers had started taking effect, Solari had watched with detached interest as Megara had coated her entire hand in a cold, thick salve before she wrapped the burned flesh of her fingers and palm in a sheath of that silken material. Then, she applied another coating of salve over the material before wrapping another, heavier bandage about her hand, encasing her thumb and all her fingers so she couldn't separate them.

Slowly, the chief scout stalked the deserted corridors of the hospice. She knew it was late, but she'd come by in hopes of getting some tea or something to deaden the pain. Even though she'd roused Iphinome from her slumber, the apprentice healer had been kind enough to mix something up for her.

Running a tongue over her teeth, frowning at the after-taste, Solari had to admit it didn't taste nearly as good as the tea Hilaeira had been providing Pony with. As her bandage was changed, Solari idly mentioned that to Iphinome; the healer had gotten this defensive look on her face and seemed to take offense at the insinuation that the other woman could make better tea. It's all made the same way echoed in Solari's ears as Iphinome pulled her bandage uncomfortably tight in retaliation. Iphinome had then pronounced she was done for the night and that the chief scout could find her own way out.

Deep in thought, Solari idly picked at her bandage as she mindlessly roamed the halls. Two days and it's still not feeling any better. Being on the inactive roster because of her injury had really been an eye-opener for the chief scout. Being right-handed and completely untalented with her left, she hadn't even been able to assign herself to paperwork. And forget scouting exercises. Or training. Even meals were a frustrating chore. Especially when she had the likes of Trina and Neola volunteering to lend a hand.

Gods, is this how Pony felt?

Solari's step faltered as thoughts of Eponin came to mind. Waves of confusion, pain, anxiety overwhelmed her. With a deep sigh, Solari leaned against the nearest wall and buried her face in her left hand.

Memories of their recent past surfaced. After the challenge, with Ephiny acting distant towards her, her hut being burned to the ground, Devillare falling ill . . . through it all, she felt herself growing closer and closer to the usually unapproachable weapons master. And, with that closeness, she'd found herself in the unfamiliar position of . . . developing deeper feelings . . . for the moody Eponin.

There'd always been a - distance - between the scout and the warrior. Ever since they were kids and Ephiny had first noticed the older girl with the staff on the practice field taking on adults twice her size. Eph was instantly interested. Solari was immediately jealous. After all, her and Ephiny had been practically joined at the hip since they were old enough to crawl.

She tolerated Ephiny's growing friendship with Eponin. But, only just. She kept her interaction with the dark-haired girl to a minimum, not wanting to give an inch. Just as Ephiny was determined to befriend Pony, Solari was just as determined to not like her.

It wasn't until after that incident with the bear while on that training mission that Eponin had garnered her respect. Solari gave it begrudgingly at first, then as the seasons went by, that warrior had slowly worn down the scout's defenses. She couldn't say exactly when they'd become what she'd term friends, but she vividly recalled the look on Ephiny's face when they had given her that surprise birthday party. When Eph found out they'd worked together on it . . . the smile on Ephiny's face when she simultaneously wrapped her arms about both their waists and said it was the best present they could have gotten her . . .

"Dammit, Pony!" Solari slapped her open palm against the wall.

Feeling the stinging sensation working its way out from her palm, causing her fingers to tingle all the way to the tips, she bowed her head against the wall, closing her eyes. Eventually, a rasping sound reached sensitive ears, drawing her attention. Solari looked up, pushing all thought from her mind other than tracking. Following the noise, she felt a sense of calm overtake her where there had been only chaos before. This was what she did; this was what she lived for. She was a tracker; more than a tracker, she was the chief scout. And, she was the best in her Nation.

Moving on feet that made not a sound, she followed the sound down the corridor, passing doorway after doorway. Finally, she stopped outside one, hearing the noise coming so much louder from here. She hesitated only briefly at the doorframe before stepping inside and crossing to the room's single bed.

The moonlight streaming in through the window offered minimal light. The Amazon lay on her back, her covers pushed down low on her hips. With each rise and fall of her chest, the same raspy sound that Solari had unerringly followed echoed loudly in the quiet room. A sheen of sweat covered her face and arms, soaking the front of her sleep shirt. At Solari's approach, the figure restlessly stirred.

Solari stared down at the former captain of the guard. Her gaze stole over the restraints still fastened about both wrists. As far as Solari knew, the cuffs hadn't been removed since Megara had ordered they be put on three days ago. Likewise, the older Amazon had also been kept heavily sedated since then.

Sandalwood eyes watched as a fist repetitively clenched and unclenched even in slumber. Unbidden, the fingers of Solari's left hand reached out, the fingers touching the leather of one restraint. She noted with idle curiosity that the interior wrist was worn, small cracks appearing in the thick leather. She wondered if Megara would realize the restraints were weakening and replace them before the elder's repetitive flexing broke through the leather completely. Of their own accord, her fingers strayed along the back of Devillare's large hand, tracing the line of prominent veins caused by seasons of sword-work.

The fist slowly clenched and relaxed. Mesmerized, Solari's fingers ran along the length of that powerful hand. With lightning-quick reflexes, the hand reacted, capturing the scout's hand before she could draw it back. She felt pressure on her fingers, a momentary sense of panic washing over her as she felt a sharp tug.

Her trepidation eased somewhat when she realized that the warrior had laced their fingers together and a crooked smile etched her lips. Something familiar about that half-smile niggled at the back of Solari's mind, making her think she'd seen its likeness somewhere before. Then, it hit her like a staff solidly between the eyes.

"Oh, Gods." Mahogany-hued eyes looked from her decidedly trapped hand to the warrior's face, relaxed with sleep. "What's gonna happen when someone has to tell you about Ep?"

That question echoing in her mind, she silently wondered Who's gonna be the poor soul that tells you? She thought first of Pelagia, thinking it might be her duty as Captain of the Guard. Then, perhaps the Council of Elders as they'd been the ones to deliver the verdict. Then, a sinking feeling settled in the pit of her stomach as she realized It'll have to fall on Ephiny's shoulders.

She was standing beside her bed, casually disrobing, the cotton shift she'd laid out for warmth spread upon the fur covers. The recently stoked fire cast a warm glow over the room, slowly heating the interior of the hut. There was still a palpable chill in the air, though, as evidenced by the shiver that coursed through her as the soles of bare feet connected with the cool floor as she kicked off her boots.

Hands reached for her halter, fingers pulling the material over her head in one smooth, fluidic movement. Feeling her nipples react to the biting chill in the air, hooded hazel eyes looked down as her fingers moved of their own accord; coaxing her stiffening buds into taut arousal even as her palms cupped her breasts, hefting their weight in both hands.

Giving a firm squeeze as if to announce its departure, one hand stole away from her breast, her palm briefly grazing a pebbled nipple as it slipped to her ribcage, then to her taut abdomen, passing over her navel before sliding over her doeskin skirt and pressing the heel of her hand against her pubic bone. Tilting her head back, her blonde curls tousling against the nape of her neck, a moan of contentment escaped from between parted lips.

Her head snapped up, fingers stilled as she sensed someone else in her hut. Breathing erratic, chest heaving, hazel eyes frantically searched the interior of the hut. Then, her gaze fell on her - standing across the room, just inside the doorway, the hide covering hanging at her back. A dark haired warrior with eyes the color of hardened honey. Holding Ephiny's gaze, she boldly moved deeper into the regent's hut.

"Stop." Ephiny's voice came out as a strangled whisper. Fingers passed over her shift, finding and tightening about the staff resting against the wall near the head of the bed. Swinging the weapon into a defensive position, she threatened, "I'll call the guards."

"Your guards have been . . . " Honey-hued eyes raked over Ephiny's form, their focus not on the weapon in her regent's hands, but rather her bare breasts. ". . . dismissed for the night . . . "

She took a step forward. Ephiny's grip tightened upon her staff. Another step. The regent reflexively retreated a step. Another step. Hazel eyes narrowed. A lazy smile graced Eponin's lips as she reached up with one hand and stopped the staff mid-swing.

Without missing a beat - or a step - the weapons master deftly wrenched the white birch from Ephiny's grip and negligently tossed it away. Hazel eyes locked with molten gold and refused to look away. Eponin's breath blew hot against her throat as the warrior invaded her personal space, leaving only a scant hair's breadth between their bodies.

Before Ephiny could further protest, Eponin's lips claimed hers in a bruising kiss and her tongue thrust its way deep into her mouth, invading and conquering. The kiss ended just long enough for the dark-haired warrior to pull away, her eyes lustfully watching as her large hand closed about a breast, squeezing and mauling, then tweaking and twisting the nipple.

Ephiny felt a calloused palm steal down her side, then close about her waist. There was a ripping sound, then her skirt was on the floor. Damp, chill air swirled about her thighs before a hand instigated itself between her legs.

The regent wanted to scream her outrage, rail against the assault. Her voice was frozen, locked somewhere deep inside and wouldn't come out. Nor could she find the strength to raise her arms to push the warrior away. Her eyes slid shut, mortified at her reaction as that hand worked its way higher and thick fingers discovered for themselves the depths of her arousal.

As two fingers thrust fully inside, a whimper at last escaped her lips. Then, Eponin's mouth was upon hers once more, again reasserting herself through the dominance of her breath-stealing kiss. Her heated mouth and tongue moved down, engulfing the very breast that her hand had been torturing.

She was lifted, tossed upon the bed, landing upon her back. Eponin was upon her instantly, straddling her. Ephiny could feel the weapons master's arousal paint itself on her bare stomach. Reaching behind herself, she dipped into Ephiny's essence. Withdrawing her fingers, eyes hungrily staring at the moisture there, she brought her digits to her nose, inhaling deeply.

Amber-hued eyes glowed brightly as Eponin blinked, focusing on the writhing woman beneath her. Bringing her fingers down, she smeared the thick moisture across Ephiny's lips before leaning in and licking it away with her own tongue. Ephiny was shocked to feel her lips opening beneath Eponin's touch, her tongue welcoming Pony's thrusting oral digit.

Eponin broke off the kiss, pulled back to gaze into hooded hazel eyes. Breathing heavily, she asked, "You done fighting me now?"

The word 'no!' formed on her lips even as 'yes!' screamed in her skull. Before she could give voice to either word, though, her traitorous body answered for her. Hips tilted as she arched upwards, her body opening as thick fingers once again slid into her. Ephiny's leaden arms at last moved, hands coming up, clutching at powerful forearms, fingernails leaving deep marks in the muscled flesh.

Ephiny screwed her eyes shut as Eponin's face loomed above hers. No matter how tightly she closed her eyes, though, she couldn't completely block out what was happening. She still had her sense of smell; the scent of arousal permeated the air. And, of course, her sense of touch; she was acutely aware of every movement Eponin made, inside as well as out. And, her hearing; the sound of Pony's panting as her arousal grew, the thumping sound as the bed repeatedly banged against the wall with each thrust . . .

Ephiny reacted, sitting up in bed without really knowing the reason why. Forearms propped on her knees, she scrubbed a hand across her weary face. Turning her head, she glanced towards the open window. The deep grey of a chill sky heralded the coming of morning.

She yawned widely, joints popping as she stretched. Sleep had been elusive last eve, Morpheus coming to claim her only after several candlemarks of tossing and turning. And, predictably, with sleep had come the dreams. Looking wistfully at her pillow, she contemplated on stealing a few more heartbeats of sleep.

The pounding at the doorframe resumed just as she fell back against the straw-covered mattress. Realizing that had been what had initially roused her, she stifled a groan and sat up again.

"Stop that infernal banging and enter already!" She grabbed her throbbing head as her words echoed in her skull. Dimly, she recalled hearing that same, rhythmic banging in her dreams.

Only it was you that was being banged then, wasn't it, Eph? she wryly smirked as that thought flitted through her brain. Then, Pelagia pulled aside the hide covering and stepped into the hut. Ephiny noted the full captain's uniform. Her smirk abruptly fell as she remembered what first light meant. And the official duty she must perform as Regent of the Amazons.

There was a definite bite in the morning air, fiercer than any so far this season. Cold permeated old wounds, causing joints to ache. A worried gaze looked up at the still, grey morning, heavy clouds hanging low. The slow beat of the drum rang an ominous knell with each step taken.

Eponin felt Pelagia's hand close about her bicep, the captain of the guard supporting her as much as guiding her as they left the confines of the jail. The knee brace was firmly back in place. Absent, however, was the staff she'd taken to using as a crutch.

Probably afraid I'd use it as a weapon. Eponin thought about the irony of that considering she could probably take out a good quarter of the tribe even weaponless if she had a mind to. Hades, Pelagia had foregone the leg shackles; she might even be able to make it to the stables and mount up before they could stop her.

Again, if she had a mind to. But, Eponin had no intention of running. A fact she'd made abundantly clear to her defense counsel.

"Look, I'll level with you. It looks bad. Really bad." Alcestis once more reviewed the scroll with the formal charges. "But, it's not hopeless."

"You heard Symaethis' opening statement. There's overwhelming evidence."

"What there is," protested the diminutive counselor, "is overwhelming speculation. Trust me; I know a way to derail the prosecution's entire case."

There was an uncomfortable knot lodged in Eponin's throat as she asked, "How?"

"I'll put the chief scout on the stand."

"You can't do that," Eponin protested. "Symaethis entered Solari's statement as evidence for the Nation."

"Exactly. The last thing Symaethis will expect is for me to call on her key witness." The gleam in those green eyes and the wicked grin the tiny redhead was now sporting was enough to make Eponin's blood run cold. "I'll start off with an innocuous line of questioning. Perhaps open with having her describe the events the night of the Champion's feast." Alcestis began pacing back and forth as she worked out her plan. "I can string together a series of events, getting Solari to illustrate in her own words how your accuser was always flirting with you, leading you on. And, although Solari may have found the two of you in her hut, she never actually saw anything . . . because she wasn't actually there at the time of the incident."

"Alcestis - "

"Eponin, it's her word against yours. And, I can discredit hers in a heartbeat."


"What?!?" The single word had caught the counselor for the accused completely off guard. She stared at the weapons master, mouth agape.

"No. I don't want you to do it that way."

"Have you been smoking henbane?" Alcestis eyed the warrior in disbelief. She'd always known there was something a little off about Eponin. Looking at her askance, the counselor tried to figure out what was running through the weapons master's mind. "If I can discredit your accuser's testimony, counsel for the nation won't have a leg to stand on; they'll have to dismiss the charges. Anyone in their right mind would jump at this chance."

"No." Eponin pushed a hand through her thick hair, let out a heated breath. Resolve firm, she met Alcestis' gaze. "I won't allow you to call her a liar." Especially when every word might be true.

A tug on her arm jostled the chains shackled about her wrists, jolting her back to the presence. Seeing the assembly and the wagons awaiting her, Eponin purposefully increased her stride.

Hands firmly clasped behind her back, chin held high, the regent of the Amazons stood alone at the top of the three-step dais. Counselors for the Nation and the Accused stood at the bottom of the dais, standing side by side without the captain of the guards' usual presence between them. All members of the Council of Elders, save Devillare, were likewise in attendance. The chief scout was in her customary place, two steps below and to the left of the regent. The place beside her to the right was conspicuously vacant.

Hazel eyes watched with cool reserve as the captain of the guard led the prisoner into the courtyard. Most of the assembled Amazons were wrapped in fur-lined cloaks or hides this bitterly cold morning. The prisoner wasn't even allowed that comfort, clad only in her usual clothing. Ephiny thought she must be freezing, but the sturdy form didn't so much as shiver beneath the elements.

The prisoner was led to stand in front of the dais, Pelagia's hand firmly clasped about the warrior's upper arm. The entire village grew eerily silent as Ephiny's gaze swept over Eponin. There were fresh bruises about her face and upper body; bruises that everyone knew weren't present when she'd last appeared at trial. Ephiny's jaw tightened in response, hazel eyes sweeping out over the crowd in an attempt to determine who was responsible. The only set of eyes that averted themselves beneath her scrutiny belonged to the woman standing before her in chains.

Ephiny stared at her for several long heartbeats, as if she could will Eponin to look up at her by her thoughts alone. But it seemed no matter how long she waited, the ebony-haired warrior would not lift her gaze. Giving in, knowing she could wait no longer, she raised her hand, giving the signal to begin.

"By your own admission, you have been found guilty of the charges against you." Ephiny's voice was loud enough that it carried to all assembled, even though her attention was focused solely on Eponin. "Therefore, the ruling body has no choice but to uphold the sentence set forth by the Council. You are hereby stripped of your status within the tribe and all rank and position held rebuked."

On cue, Solari strode the two steps down the dais to stand before the warrior. Her hands trembled as she reached out, her fingertips brushing against Ep's flesh as she removed the leather shoulder guard that designated Eponin's rank as weapons master. Pelagia felt a bicep flex beneath her hand, increased the pressure of her fingers on Eponin's arm to keep her grounded.

Solari took a step back, the shoulder guard held outstretched in her hands, palms up. Sandalwood eyes met and held amber-hued, looking for reaction. The scout's fingers lingered over the brass and gold inlays that she had painstakingly polished for candlemarks on end that very morning. Then, taking another pronounced step back, she threw the armor upon the ground. Noting the reflexive flinch, the only sign of emotion Eponin had thus far shown, Solari pointedly used the side of her boot to intentionally kick dust onto the discarded shoulder guard.

Eponin steeled herself, knowing that her gauntlets and bracers would follow next. Like her shoulder guard, they had been carefully oiled and polished before being given to her to put on this morning . . . only so they could be painstakingly and humiliatingly removed in front of the entire tribe. Pelagia jerked her arm, signaling for her to raise her wrists as Solari once again stepped forward.

Ephiny's heart seemingly slowed as her chief scout removed Eponin's right gauntlet, then her left, purposely tossing each one upon the ground. By outward appearances, Ephiny was the epitome of the ruling body; regal and detached from the proceedings. Inside, she was a swirling mass of turmoil and confusion, unable to wrap her mind around the events that were unfolding.

Gods, Pony - she wondered - How did it ever come to this?

Her mind locked out the proceedings, taking her back several days. To the evening when she was so eagerly looking forward to her dinner with her warrior.

She'd been unable to keep the grin from her lips for most of the afternoon; something that she knew had surprised more than one Amazon. She knew for a certainty that Mytilda had been startled when she suddenly appeared at the cooking hut, wrapping her arms about the older woman and peering over her shoulder and into the pot she was stirring over an open fire.

Mytilda had teased her mercilessly, wanting to know who the lucky lady was she had her sights set on. Ephiny had held out, refusing to let the name escape her lips. The last thing she wanted was for the rumor mill to start something before . . . well before something was even started.

Still, as Ephiny eagerly sat beneath the kissing tree with all the patience of a three year-old, she decided all the teasing had been worth it. The aroma coming from the basket was wonderful, causing her taste buds to water. She resisted the urge to pull anything out, but repeatedly gave in to the temptation to lift the lid and sniff. Roasted quail and freshly baked nutbread assaulted her nostrils. And, she was certain she spotted a skin of wine in there, as well.

She checked the position of the sun once again. The descent of Apollo's chariot was agonizingly slow this day. And, the thought struck her more than once that she should have suggested in her note that Eponin meet her sooner.

"Still," she reasoned, "if it's to be dinner, I couldn't very well ask for a time sooner than two candlemarks before dusk, could I?"

Reaching beneath her gauntlet, Ephiny pulled out a blue feathered earring and held it gingerly in her hand. Instantly, thoughts of its owner came to mind. Ruffling the plumage beneath her fingertips, she imagined brushing back thick, ebony locks and gazing into eyes the color of ambrosia.

Her feelings carried her imagination, causing her to vividly picture herself kissing Ep, leaning in and tenderly tasting her lips. And she wondered, not for the first time, if the warrior's lips would also taste like the nectar of the Gods. That thought snowballed, giving way to another, more deliciously wicked one as she contemplated where else her Pony might taste like ambrosia.

Ephiny felt a tightening in her abdomen and lower as she allowed her fantasy to take shape before her eyes. That very morning she had been able to rationalize that she would take things slowly with the weapons master and see what developed between them at a gradual pace. Those cool calculations had now swiftly departed upon Cupid's wings and she knew without a doubt that if her Pony were here right now, she would whole-heartedly pursue the warrior's affections.

A chill passed through her. Blinking, Ephiny looked about, slowly realizing that Apollo's chariot had nearly completed its course for the day. Soon, the sun would disappear completely and Artemis' moon would once more dominant the sky.

"Where is she?" Ephiny wondered, lifting the lid of the basket and realizing Mytilda's delicious-smelling quail was now stone cold. "She doesn't have any duties . . . "

Her thoughts trailed off as Honeycomb nickered in warning. Ephiny's heart leapt as she thought that perhaps Pony had finally arrived. Ducking out from beneath the shelter of the overhanging canopy of the kissing tree, Ephiny stepped out to greet her. Her step - and her smile - faltered as she realized it had been not one, but two horses she'd heard approaching.

Her mind dimly registered the blue sash about the waist that signified a member of the guard. At first, she thought that perhaps Pelagia had reneged on her promise to go easy on the watchdogs and had sent a chaperone. The first rider dismounted, then moved to the second horse, hands slipping about a trim waist as her partner slid from her saddle.

Ephiny's eyes widened as she recognized the second rider and realized that these weren't two members of the guard riding out to check up on her. Her suspicions were confirmed when the guard pulled her companion into a kiss. A kiss that turned very heated, very quickly as the guard's fingers set some sort of speed record for slipping beneath the other Amazon's leathers.

Ephiny tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, trying to melt back into the shadows of the tree. Her retreat was thwarted, however, by the rustling of leaves beneath her boots. Two sets of heads looked up, turning to look in her direction.

Realizing she'd been spotted, Ephiny boldly stepped out from beneath the cover of the tree.

"Nephele." Ephiny nodded as she greeted the dancer. "Gryta."

"Regent," both women answered in unison.

Nephele looked embarrassed, her cheeks tinting as her gaze dropped and she tried to move a distance away from Gryta. Gryta seemed startled, but not the slightest bit embarrassed, as evidenced by her unwillingness to remove her hand from beneath the backside of the dancer's skirt.

It was Nephele that spoke first. "Our apologies, my regent. We were unaware - " her eyes darted to the thick covering of the kissing tree " - we'll go somewhere - "

"No," Ephiny stopped the dancer's protest with her raised hand, "No, there's no need."

She began to move away, whistling for her horse. Honeycomb responded instantly, appearing a short distance away. Ephiny casually walked past the duo, determined to reach her horse with as much dignity as possible. Then, pausing, she turned back.

"Gryta?" she called over her shoulder.

Nephele moved away, discreetly ducking beneath the lush covering of the tree to offer the regent a modicum of privacy. Gryta cast a lustful look back at her companion before joining Ephiny.

"Yes, my regent?" she asked, the huskiness of her voice speaking volumes.

"Did you deliver my messages today?"

"Yes, my regent. To the cook, right?"

Ephiny nodded. "And, the weapons master?" she prodded.

"Yes, my regent."

There was a hesitation in Gryta's voice this time. And, she hastily averted her eyes as she gave the answer.

"Gryta? Where's Eponin?"

"I - ummm - " there was a shuffling of feet " - I don't know, my regent."

Ephiny let out a breath, nodded her head in acceptance. "I see. Gryta, where was she the last time you saw her?"

"In the bath, my regent." There was a half-heartbeat pause in which Gryta hastily moistened her lips and added, "With Hilaeira."

Ephiny blinked as Solari regained her position on the second step of the dais. As the final act of stripping Eponin of her rank, Egeria and the rest of her elite squad stepped forward, forming a straight line in front of the weapons master. Withdrawing their swords from their sheaths in unison, they aligned them vertically in uniform precision. Then, they briskly turned about so they showed Eponin only their backs. They would remain like that throughout the rest of the proceedings to symbolize that they no longer acknowledged her as a warrior or their leader.

Drawing upon the feelings that assaulted her when it was revealed to her that Eponin had opted for the bath with that - that healer's assistant - rather than dinner with her, Ephiny channeled all those feelings of hurt, embarrassment and anger to aid her in fulfilling her duty. Staring down upon the warrior before her, she heard the words leaving her mouth without ever being really conscious of saying them herself . . . the words that delivered the sentence to send Eponin to the Northern outpost. For a lifetime.

As the final sentence was handed down and most of the assembled Amazons began to disperse, Pelagia turned custody of Eponin over to Gryta. Despite Eponin's cooperation, the guard's hand enthusiastically closed about the length of chain stretched between the manacles and gave a brutal yank. Pelagia worked to keep the smirk off her face as the forceful tug caused the dark haired warrior to barely budge an inch. Eponin coolly stared down the clearly annoyed guard.

Stepping up beside them, Pelagia lowered her voice, speaking softly into Eponin's ear before moving away. As she joined her bondmate, a last glance over her shoulder confirmed that Eponin was now moving into the back of the wagon. Gryta followed, securing the chain to the eyelet in the sideboard before moving forward to take up her position in the front of the wagon.

A hand upon her arm distracted her and Pelagia turned her attention back to Megara. There was a solemn cast to the healer's eyes, her lips set in a tight line.

"Hey." Pelagia reached out, using her thumb and forefinger to cup Megara beneath her chin and divert her gaze from the waiting wagons. "Hey, what's wrong?"

"I don't want you to go." There, thought Megara, I said it.

"Meg, I have to." Pelagia clasped her bondmate about her shoulders, looked her squarely in the eye. "It's my duty."

"You're the captain; you can assign someone else."

"We talked about this," Pelagia reminded her. Pulling her bondmate closer, she pursed her lips, solidly planting a kiss upon the healer's forehead, "This time, it has to be me."

Taking a step backward, Megara looked up at her lover, moisture blurring her vision. "I know." Reaching out, she lovingly caressed Pelagia's cheek, a bittersweet smile forming as Pel turned her head, pressing her lips against her palm. "Here. Take this." Megara produced a pelt from beneath her arm, the extra one she kept draped across the foot of their bed for cold nights. Along with a set of fur-lined boots. "And, make sure you wear them," she warned, tapping Pelagia on the tip of her nose and lowering her voice, "Got too much invested in you to have to be cutting pieces off on account you went and got frostbite."

"Yes, my love." Despite the somber atmosphere of the day, she couldn't keep the smile from her lips at Megara's gruff display of affection.

Pelagia wanted nothing more than to sweep her bondmate into her arms and carry her back to their hut. Knowing that was an impossibility, her second wish was to be granted enough time to return to her office and take care of the three subordinates she had caught red-handed last night. Knowing that also wasn't an option, she reminded herself that Bonadea was more than capable of administering any reprimands in her absent. The captain of the guard gave Megara a final kiss, then turned and sharply saluted her regent before taking up her position in the back of the prisoners' wagon.

Usually when a sentence was carried out, both counselors immediately left the courtyard, meeting in the dining hut to offer congratulations and discuss the case over a hot breakfast. This day, though, Alcestis shrugged off Symaethis' offer. The counselor for the nation looked at the tiny redhead, disconcerted by the break in their routine. In her mind, it was important that they bond after each trial. And, it bothered her that Alcestis wasn't ready to do that this time. But, she could understand; this was one case she didn't feel good about winning. Symaethis allowed her to be and moved away.

Alcestis pulled her fur-lined cloak tightly about her slender frame, involuntarily shivering as a wind coming in from north blew her hair across her face. Moving the strands out of her eyes with her fingers, she looked about the now almost deserted courtyard.

The elders had been amongst the first to leave the courtyard, many of them clamoring about putting something warm in their bellies. The regent had promptly descended the trio of steps, then stood rooted to the spot at the bottom of the dais. The chief scout, of course, was standing beside her. Megara was still there, too, watching as her bondmate got settled into the back of the second wagon. Gryta was already seated in the front, holding the reins in her hands. As was the guard in the driver's seat of the lead wagon.

Green eyes narrowed as Alcestis was able to peer inside the opening of the tarp covering the secondary wagon to see the captain making a few last adjustments to Eponin's chains. The counselor rubbed her chin, thoughts of the prisoner still consuming her.

She'd lost cases before. Enough that she knew that's not what was bothering her. No, what was truly bothering her was that she'd lost this one. She could have won, she was certain of it. And, even if she couldn't have proven Eponin innocent, she was positive that Symaethis couldn't have proven her guilty.

But, Eponin had been, to use the term loosely, uncooperative. She'd fought Alcestis every step of the way, refusing to take her counselor's advice. It's like she wanted to lose, reflected Alcestis, Worse than that; it's as if she wanted to be punished. And, as long as she lived, the defense counselor knew she'd never forget what had occurred in the courtroom on that final day.

"While this has all been very entertaining," Alcestis dramatically paced the length of the courtroom, pausing in front of the blonde-haired woman seated at the accuser's table beside Symaethis. "But, I'm afraid that's all it is; entertainment, a fantasy."

Alcestis bit back her smile as already low murmurings could be heard from the back of the room. She took her time, looking about the room for reactions. As usual, the elders' faces were unreadable masks. Symaethis, though, arched a curious brow even as she placed a reassuring hand upon her client's trembling one on the table.

"Council." Alcestis turned her full attention back to the elders. After all, they were the ruling bodies in this trial; it was them she would need to officially void the charges. "Counsel for the Accused would respectfully ask that - "

" - you pass judgment."

A startled gasp went up throughout the courtroom. Alcestis' posture went rigid, her mouth dropped open. Slowly, she turned to look at her client. Eponin had pushed back her chair and was now standing beside the defense table.

Alcestis promptly turned on her heel and stomped the short distance to the table. "Are you insane?!?" she hissed through tightly clenched teeth.

"Not legally, no."

Alcestis fought down her temper as nearby, Symaethis snorted. "I have a defense!" The counselor's voice rose in pitch. "You can't just throw that out like last year's leathers!"

There was snickering throughout the courtroom and the loud pounding of Evanthe's gavel. "Order!" As the noise level diminished, the elder looked over the counselor's head and addressed her client directly. "Eponin, do you understand what you've requested?" Evanthe asked, her voice taking on a decidedly softer tone.

The warrior looked the elder dead in the eye and answered, "Yes."

"Then, your request is granted." The gavel was soundly rapped three times. "Court is adjourned until tomorrow morning. Captain, escort the prisoner back to her cell."

Alcestis had been beside herself, standing motionless inside the courtroom for candlemarks after everyone else had left, pondering on how her client had successfully managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. What could have happened, she wondered, indulging in one last look at the former weapons master, to make someone so desperately want to give up on their life?

The wagons had long since moved out and the first snowflakes had begun to fall. Solari stood beside her regent, shivering from the cold. Once again, she wished for a cloak, or at least a hide to throw over her bare shoulders. As the weather had turned decidedly colder, she'd gallantly given up her own cloak, draping it over Ephiny's trembling shoulders, then securing the clasp about her neck.

Now, she was seriously reconsidering that decision. Should have gone back to her hut to get her a heavier cloak. Better yet, we should've gone back to my hut to a nice fire. Even as she thought it, Solari knew it wasn't an option. Ephiny wouldn't leave until she was ready. And, as long as Ephiny wanted to stay, Solari wouldn't leave her side.

She cast a sidelong glance at her packmate. Hazel eyes were still firmly fixed upon the trail the wagons had taken, unmindful of the ever increasing wind blowing her blonde corkscrew curls riotously about her face. There were no tears, but Solari could see pain etched into the creases at the corner of her eyes and around the tightness of her mouth.

Not for the first time, Solari longed to move closer. She wanted to move into the warmth of that cloak, wrap her arms about Ephiny and hold her tight. Her left boot slid upon the ground, moving nearer Ephiny before she consciously stopped herself. She bit her bottom lip, feeling awkward, unsure as to what she should do.

She'd been decidedly out of sorts for days and nights now. Ever since she'd ridden out that evening and found Honeycomb near the ridge. And, Ephiny in their usual place beneath the gnarled tree.

As Solari approached, she took a few heartbeats to study the view. At this elevated point, with the unobstructed view of the river and the valley below them, the sunsets were always spectacular. Not that she expected Ephiny had ridden out here for the scenery. The blonde was seated beneath the sheltering branches of the tree, her arms wrapped about her body as it softly shook.

Wordlessly, Solari slipped between Ephiny's back and the tree trunk, sliding down until she settled into her usual spot. She felt the chill of Ephiny's body as she positioned long legs on either side of the regent's, her inner thighs blanketing the regent's hips and calves. Wrapping an arm about Ephiny's shoulders and upper body, she leaned back, tugging the curly-headed blonde with her.

Ephiny went with the motion, allowing herself to be turned until she was half-leaning, half-laying against her packmate, arms and legs intertwined. Hiding her face against a strong shoulder, burying her nose in brunette locks that smelled of the forest, the regent finally relinquished her control.

Solari said nothing; even though her heart ached with each sob that escaped her packmate. Hot tears dampened her shoulder, the front of her tunic. Still, she continued to hold Ephiny in her arms, gently rocking, stroking her fingers through long, blonde curls and down an elegant back.

When she'd seen Gryta in the hospice earlier that day and the guard had revealed what all those secret council sessions had been about . . . Solari was skeptical to say the least. To think that in this day and age that the council of elders would actually demand their regent take a consort . . . Then, the more Solari thought about it, the more realistic the situation became. So much so that it was all she could think about, making her unable to focus on anything else the remainder of the day.

Finally, curiosity had overridden common sense and she'd tracked her elusive regent down to see if their was any validity to the rumors. Finding Ephiny in the secret place, despondently huddled beneath the tree, she now knew the truth.

"Hey," Solari turned so that she was able to look down at the woman she held in her arms. "Hey," she repeated, gently jostling her shoulder until Ephiny looked up at her through tear-filled eyes. "You wanna talk about it?"

There was a morose shake of a head, sending soft blonde curls brushing against Solari's bare shoulder. Solari leaned in, firmly placed her lips to Ephiny's temple as she debated on what she should do next. She tightened her grip, just holding her injured packmate for long heartbeats.

Then, she decided to just jump in with both feet. "Ephiny," Solari took a deep breath and raggedly blew it out before confessing, "I know about the council demanding you choose a consort."

As expected, Ephiny reacted violently, struggling to extract herself from Solari. Solari held on tightly, refusing to let Ephiny run. Finally, the blonde stopped fighting her and collapsed into Solari's arms, burying her face in her packmate's chest.

"Gods, Solari!" she wailed, "What am I going to do?"

"Shush." Solari's hands stroked over hair and body alike. "Shush. It'll be okay."

"Huh." There was a muffled snort from the area of her chest as Ephiny disagreed.

"It will be," Solari insisted, shifting their bodies until she had Ephiny cradled in her arms where she could comfortably look down at her packmate. "You can fight the council on this, you know."

"I've been fighting them. Since just after Gabrielle and Xena left the last time. I even told them that my personal life is my own and when I feel the time is right for a consort, it'll be my decision. But, how can I argue with them when it's common knowledge that even Artemis was so concerned that she commissioned help from the goddess of love?" Ephiny's next words were whispered in a voice so low that even the chief scout's sensitive hearing almost missed it. "And, I'm just so tired of fighting."

Solari didn't know what to say. She'd known her packmate was behaving out of sorts. But, she'd attributed most of that to the trauma of her recent abduction. She'd had no idea she'd been embattled with the council every single day for so long over this issue. Gods, she thought, no wonder Eph's been wound up tighter than one of her curls.

Consumed with her own thoughts, Ephiny's fingers idly toyed with the feathers attached to the strap of Solari's halter. "Now the council's come up with some kind of list of suitable candidates that they want me to consider. Like that's gonna solve anything." Ephiny lifted her head, bright hazel searching Solari's face. "Gods, Soli . . . what does that say when even a goddess can't fix you up?"

Large eyes the color of sandalwood took in Ephiny's features for long heartbeats. The hair was disheveled, her eyes and nose were slightly red from crying, and there were tear tracks staining her cheeks. "What is says," Solari husked out, trembling fingertips tracing the line of those tears, "is that there's absolutely nothing about you that needs to be fixed."

There was a hint of a tumultuous smile in response to her whispered words. And, in that instant before her mind could caution against it, she leaned down and kissed Ephiny.

Ephiny's own mind was desperately trying to keep up with events. But, drained and exhausted from fending off the council every day, coupled with the obvious rejection she'd just suffered through a candlemark before - even her thoughts were splintered as her lips opened beneath Solari's mouth. There was a fleeting voice in her head that told her she needed to stop this - but that was quickly replaced by a much louder, more insistent voice that reminded her that she was safe, this was her packmate she was with - - and besides that, Solari really was a very talented kisser.

She felt those skillful lips leaving hers, trailing a path along her jawline and down her neck. Tilting her head back, granting fuller access, Ephiny gave in to the temptation of someone actually desiring her. All coherent thought abandoned her completely as her halter was unfastened at the front and chill air wafted across her breasts and nipples, only to be quickly chased away by large hands and a heated tongue and mouth.

Then, Ephiny felt herself being gently lowered to the ground and onto her back. Sensations overwhelmed her as she was subdued by lingering kisses, licks and nips to seemingly everywhere not covered by clothing. And, Solari's hands were quickly moving aside and removing any clothing she deemed to be a hindrance. Ephiny's body responded instinctively, her back arching seductively as Solari braced herself on one arm; sandalwood eyes reflecting the dying light from the setting sun as a set of knees nudged Ephiny's thighs apart.

In spite of the cold, Solari was feeling decidedly warm. And moist. She cast a sidelong glance at Ephiny. The curly-headed blonde's attention was still focused on the now vanished wagons and Solari wondered what it was that Ephiny was really seeing behind her eyes. Bringing her hand up, Ephiny absently tucked a strand of blonde hair behind one ear. Solari's eyes locked on that elegant, tapered finger and felt her groin clench in response.

Firmly pushing her lecherous thoughts down, the chief scout desperately looked about for something - anything - to distract her from the woman standing beside her. Her eyes fell upon Metanira. The young scout was waiting at the edge of the courtyard, standing beside her freshly saddled horse. Solari bit her bottom lip in contemplation, then gave the young scout the signal for follow. With a subtle nod of her head, Metanira immediately mounted up and directed her mare out of the village.

Despite having pulled closed the leather drawstring ties on the tarp, the wind still found a way in, bringing in swirling masses of snowflakes with it. Shivering, tucking her hands beneath her armpits as she huddled down beneath the warmth her pelt provided, Pelagia sent another silent thank you to her bondmate. Colder out here than Meg's feet at night. Still, could be worse; at least I'm not the one driving this rig.

Displacing her fingers from their warm haven, Pelagia opened the tarp flap at the front of the wagon just far enough to peer through. Gryta's back was to her, hunkered down low on the seat, snow blanketing the top of her head and shoulders. One hand poked out through a tiny opening in her wrap-around style cloak to hold the reins.

Steel-grey eyes moved beyond their wagon and horses, searching the almost completely snow-covered trail. In the distance, barely visible through the steadily falling flakes, she spotted the dark wood backboard of the supply wagon. Concerned about the lead wagon outdistancing them in the mountainous pass, Pelagia gave a two-fingered tap to Gryta's shoulder.

Gryta looked over her shoulder, startled from a near-sleep by the firm touch. Giving her captain a brisk nod, she tightened her grip on the reins. The horses responded accordingly, picking up the pace. Feeling her commander's hands brush against her calves, she dutifully lifted her feet, bracing them on the buckboard so that Pelagia could lift the wooden panel located beneath her boots. She heard the captain rummaging beneath the weapons kept there, felt the brush of fur as Pelagia removed two additional fur pelts before replacing the wooden panel again. Gryta lowered her feet, stomping her boots several times to secure the loose wood into place once more.

Satisfied, Pelagia pulled the tarp closed once more, securing the leather drawstring into place. Blowing chilled breath into her colder hands, she settled down cross-legged in the bed of the wagon. Taking off her worn, leather boots, she quickly replaced them with the fur-lined ones Megara had sent along. Bracing her back against the boards making up the wagon's side-paneling, she rearranged two of the pelts about her body.

The third, she tossed across the width of the wagon, to the woman seated directly across from her. In truth, Pelagia hadn't expected the ex-weapons master to react; she hadn't moved since the length of chain about her wrists had been ran through the thick, steel eyelet and secured into place. Instincts die hard, though, and despite being hampered by her shackles, Eponin caught the pelt an instant before it would've hit her in the face.

Pelagia watched with barely veiled annoyance as the darker haired warrior apathetically let the pelt fall, landing haphazardly across her lap.

"Fine, don't cover up. Be stubborn and act like the cold don't bother you." When Eponin didn't rise to the taunt, she added, "Big, tough warrior. I can see your goosebumps from here."

Still, there was no response from Ep. She just continued to stare at a knothole in the floorboard, just as she had been ever since they'd left the village. With an agitated huff, the captain of the guard tossed her own pelts aside and crossed the width of the wagon. Crouching over Eponin, she roughly snatched up the pelt and draped it across the other woman's body.

"Stupid, stubborn daughter of a bacchae," Pelagia bit out, as she none-too-gently tucked in the edges about Ep's legs, feeling how cold to the touch the warrior's body really was, "freeze to death and you won't ever be able to come back."

Slowly, Eponin turned her head, focusing her gaze on the woman crouching over her. For the first time since she'd been stripped of her rank, Pelagia saw something flicker in those pale eyes.

"Pel." The name hovered there in the air for several heartbeats. The captain of the guard felt a shiver go down her spine as the low, menacing voice rumbled out, "You need to back off. Now."

Giving a final adjustment to the pelt, Pelagia retreated to her side of the wagon. "Just trying to help. No reason for you to act like a centaur with a stick up his butt," Pel complained, struggling to get comfortable beneath her own pelts once more.

Eponin was unable to bite back a retort this time. "Yeah, you royal guards are real helpful."

"Now you step down, Eponin! Don't you dare make yourself out to be the victim here!" Movement near the front of the wagon caught Pelagia's attention. A quick glance confirmed that her voice had carried loud enough for Gryta to hear. Spotting her captain looking back at her through the opening in the tarp, the guard pointedly readjusted the drawstrings, tugging the tarp closed, separating herself once more from the two women in the back of the wagon. "Lexine and the others have already been disciplined for last night's activities. Anything else you've suffered, you brought down on yourself."

It finally settled in that Pelagia thought she was referring to the beating she'd been handed down by the guards while in the jail. She briefly thought about calling her old friend out, asking her if she knew just how helpful Lexine really was. But sensing Pel wasn't in a place where she could confide in her right now, Eponin chose to hold her tongue instead. Huddling down deeper into the warmth of the pelt, she turned her attention away, her eyes unseeingly watching the trail beneath them go past through the knothole in the floorboard.

It had taken some time for the weapons master to wrap her mind around what she had overheard inside the regent's office. And, the ramifications of exactly what Ephiny choosing a consort would be. For the Amazon Nation. For Ephiny. For herself.

Lost in thought, she'd been wandering aimlessly, her feet taking her wherever they would lead. Dimly, she registered the neighing of horses. Looking up, she was somewhat surprised that she had ended up at the stables; specifically, inside Lightning's stall.

Taking up a brush, she began to carefully groom her mare, quickly becoming lost in the routine as her hand repetitively stroked over the horse's hide. She was still brushing down Lightning when another rider came in. Spotting Lexine leading her horse in, Eponin gave a curt nod in greeting.

Then, her gaze falling on the blue sash tied about the younger woman's waist, and before she even realized she was doing it, she was asking the member of the royal guard where her regent was at.

Lexine had been most helpful.

She'd been the one that had told Eponin where to find Ephiny. Even had her saddle Lightning up so she could lead her up to the remote area where she said the regent liked to go to be alone. Then, as she'd dismounted at the edge of a field, Lexine had pointed her in the right direction and then announcing she was going to give them some privacy, turned her horse back towards the village.

Eponin picked her way through the field, every movement silent even as she used her staff as a cane over the uneven ground. It wasn't an action she was conscious of, although stealth was one of many skills taught to all Amazons in their training sessions. With the weapons master, though, it had been ingrained in her since she was old enough to walk.

Little Ep had learned early on in life that things went better for her sometimes if she just stayed out of her momma's sight. Out of sight, out of mind often also meant out of trouble. That theory also tended to backfire whenever Laurentia would unexpectedly turn around to discover Ep behind her somewhere. She couldn't begin to count the number of times she'd had her ear pulled as her momma harshly whispered at her to stop sneaking up on her.

Using the lone gnarled tree up on the hilltop as a focal point, Eponin decidedly pushed down any thoughts of her momma. Laurentia was in the past; and the past couldn't hurt her anymore. Her knee protesting the uphill trek, Ep wondered why Ephiny had changed her mind about where to meet, then worriedly hoped that her regent hadn't been waiting long for her. "No matter," thought Eponin, "Eph will understand when I tell her I didn't get a message with the change in plans."

To Eponin, the blow felt very much like that one from a blade. First came the confusion that something wasn't quite right. Then, the awareness that there was a foreign piece of metal sticking into your body. Followed by the queasy feeling that hit right before the actual pain did.

That's exactly how it felt to Eponin when she spotted her two best friends in the distance. Despite realizing was something was wrong almost instantaneously, her feet continued to move, bringing her in closer with every step. The slighter build and the curly locks were a dead giveaway and Ep's lips bowed into a smile as she recognized Ephiny laying on her back in the grass. Then, her step faltered, her legs turning to wood as she finally sorted out that Solari was on top of Eph.

Unable to move, unable to look away, Eponin helplessly watched as her mind painfully processed what her eyes were so vividly seeing. Ephiny's upper body was bare, her beautiful breasts exposed to the night air, the nipples jutting towards Artemis' moon as if in offering to the Amazons' goddess. Her knees were bent, her skirt bunched up about her upper thighs. Solari's mouth was at her waist, her lips and tongue working the expanse of flat stomach just above the line of Ephiny's belt. The scout was between Ephiny's open legs, one hand cupping her regent's kneecap. Ephiny's hands were both braced on Solari's broad shoulders. Eponin couldn't see where Solari's other hand was.

But she could guess.

Seeing her friend - and the woman she loved enough to go up against some Amazon twice her size in a challenge to the death - together intimately . . . hurt and anger rose up together, clouding Eponin's vision.

Huddled beneath her pelt, Pelagia stared across the bed of wagon, a combination of confusion and concern clearly etched on her face as her disbelieving eyes caught sight of one lone tear rolling down Eponin's rugged cheek.

Solari continued to stoke the fire, her efforts hampered by the awkwardness of using her left hand. Silently, she once more thanked the spirit of her mother for teaching her it was easier to build a fire once and keep it burning than it was to have to rebuild it each time it went out. As long as the fire pit was built in a central location with no chance of a stray spark landing on something flammable, she felt secure in leaving her hut without fearing that it would be burnt to the ground before she returned home.

The dying embers glowed brighter, the flames gaining strength. Feeling the warmth on her cheeks, Solari gave the wood a final nudge with the stick she'd been using before tossing it in, adding it to the fire. Absently, she wiped her soot-covered palm on the hide of her skirt. Crouched down in front of the fire pit, she idly studied the bandage on her right hand, feeling the tautness as she flexed and unflexed.


A dark head raised as the low voice carried across the hut. Sandalwood eyes softened as Solari gazed upon the sight of Ephiny in her bed, covers pulled up over her breasts, bare arms on top of the pelt, blonde curls splayed out upon Solari's pillow.

"Hey," Solari responded in kind, rising to her feet and leaving the warmth of the newly rekindled fire.

The promise of a warm fire and privacy had finally been what it had taken to lure the regent back to her packmate's hut. A discreet word with the guard that Bonadea had assigned to the door had been enough to also bring the head healer. Despite Megara's initial obvious bristling at finding herself in Solari's home, she'd gotten over her discomfort when she discovered she was there to treat Ephiny and not the chief scout. Just as Solari knew she would.

A sedative administered under the guise of warm, flavored tea soon had Ephiny drifting towards sleep. With a stern warning from the healer to keep her hands and all other relevant body parts to herself, she'd somewhat dubiously left the regent in the scout's care.

Solari stood beside the bed, looking down upon the woman curled up there, a languid expression on her face. Hazel eyes flecked with gold gazed up at her through drooping eyelids. A hand lifted as if towards her face, then seemingly lacking any strength to reach that far, fell to land instead upon a hip. Solari's stomach tightened in response as fingers idly toyed with the leather bindings of her belt.

"Hey," Ephiny's mellow voice floated up to her. Hazel eyes took upon a brief hint of clarity before clouding over once again. A ghost of a smile etching her lips, she asked, "You okay?"

"Soli? Are you okay?" the words echoed over and over again in her ears.

Solari found herself unable to answer. Her mouth moved, but for some reason, no sound would come out. And, her mind was frantically trying to work out how she'd gone from being on top of Ephiny - this close to having what she'd always wanted - to standing near the edge of a sheer drop-off. Nearer than she'd ever stood before, the toes of her boots literally sticking out past the edge. Arms folded over her chest, she stared down at the winding, twisting river some twenty-five feet below.

"I'm sorry, Soli. It's just that - " Cautiously, Ephiny reached out, placing a hand on a bare shoulder, running it down a toned arm to the chief scout's elbow. " - Oh, I do love you, Soli. It's just that I can't see us lasting as a couple and I can't commit to you unless I can see us having something long-term."

Solari swallowed down the lump in her throat. Taking a deep breath, gathering her courage, she forced a flirtatious smile upon her lips. As she turned from the edge, she said, "Fair enough. How about something just for tonight?"

"I don't think either of us would be satisfied with that. And, we've been friends and packmates too long to throw it away on a candlemark roll in the hay."

"Oh, Ephiny," Solari leered, "I was planning on taking at least twice that long."

Despite the teasing lilt in her voice and the smoldering look in her eyes, Ephiny had known her packmate for far too many seasons to be so easily fooled. Not certain as to whether or not her touch would be welcomed, Ephiny inched forward. To her relief, Solari opened up her arms and drew her in, wrapping her arms about her and resting her chin upon her head.

Solari exhaled loudly, the breath raggedly tearing from her chest. She'd never hurt so much before in her life. Holding Ephiny, even touching her, was killing her. But, she knew no matter how much pain it caused her, she'd hold onto Ephiny for as long as she was allowed.

And honestly, how long will that be, huh? Self-doubt crept into Solari's mind. You've never been 'relationship' material . . . and Eph can't do one-night stands. - You're eventually going to lose her.

With her head bowed and her nose and mouth buried somewhere near chest-height, Solari almost missed Ephiny's muffled words.

"Soli, I don't want to hurt you. I just want us to be right together. You're my friend and my packmate and I love you . . . but I can't choose you as my consort."

Solari closed her eyes against the blow. "It's okay, Eph, I understand. But you can't put the council off forever. If not me, then who?"

Ephiny mumbled in her sleep, stirring and turning over, her fingers limply slipping from around Solari's braided belt. Sandalwood eyes brimming with tears, Solari bent down, placing a lingering kiss on Ephiny's lips.

She angrily brushed away her tears. She snatched her cloak off the peg hanging on the wall and wrapped it about her shoulders. Pausing at the doorway, the thick hide covering clenched in her curled fingers, she gave one last lingering look at the woman sleeping in her bed before ducking out into the rapidly chilling air.

It was cold enough in the back of the wagon that Pelagia could see her own breath every time she exhaled. And, her nose felt like it weighed twenty pounds. And, she wasn't at all certain she could even feel her fingers and toes.

Still, as cold as she was, she suspected the woman seated directly across from her was even colder. But, she was handling it far better than the captain of the guard. Far, far better. To Pelagia, it seemed as if Eponin was somewhere beyond the point of registering such mundane things as heat and cold.

She'd been sitting in that same position, staring at the same knothole for candlemarks now. The fur pelt was still covering her waist and lower body, but her top part was partially exposed, her left arm having slipped from beneath the pelt long ago. As a matter of fact, that was the only sign of life emanating from the once weapons master; the repetitive clenching and unclenching of her fist causing the heavy chain to clink rhythmically against the eyelet shackle nailed into the sidewall of the wagon.

Somewhere in the distance, there was the echo of a lone wolf howl.

Eponin had gone back to the chief scout's hut with the sole intention of gathering her few belongings and leaving. She hadn't yet figured out where she would go, she only knew she needed to leave. Focused solely on that task, she completely oblivious as to everything else until she turned to leave.

Then, her gaze had fallen on the shattered vase on the floor. Dimly, she recalled - was it only just that morning? - that Egeria and Lysippe had carried the extra pallet into Solari's hut. She'd been standing outside, so wrapped up in Ephiny that although she had heard the breaking of glass, she'd never once investigated what her clumsy friends had broken.

Abjectly staring at the mess, it briefly crossed her mind to just leave it be. But, that sense of responsibility she'd had beaten into her as a youngster wouldn't allow her to do that. Dropping her bag of meager belongings, she gingerly lowered herself to the floor, distributing all her weight onto her good knee.

Settling herself down, one by one, large fingers dutifully picked up shards of broken pottery. One hand and knee braced on the cold floor, Eponin mindlessly gathered the bits of shattered pottery, stacking the pieces one on top of each other. As she performed the chore, memories of what she'd witnessed on the ridge came back to her in painful, colorful images.

Hand closing into a fist, Eponin dimly registered the large pottery shard she'd been holding breaking in her grasp. Feeling a sharp twinge in the palm of her hand that matched the painful ache in her heart, Eponin tilted her head back, letting out an anguished wail that ravaged her throat.

A cold shiver ran through Hilaeira as she stood outside the chief scout's door, her hand closed about the hide covering. Tynette had been the one that had informed her that Eponin had been seen tearing into the village on horseback. As directed, she'd gathered her courage along with her things and made her way to Solari's residence. Now, standing outside, having heard the mournful wait that to her had sounded like an animal in pain, she was having second thoughts about entering the dwelling.

Pushing down her fear, she slowly pulled aside the hide covering and entered. Eyes slowly adjusting to the dim interior, Hilaeira paused mid-step, her mouth dropping open in shock.

Eponin was crouched in the middle of the floor, surrounded by the remains of a shattered vase and a wilted bouquet. One fist was clenched tightly closed, blood running in small rivulets down her wrist and forearm. Seemingly oblivious to her presence, the weapons master's head was bowed and her eyes were squeezed tightly shut.

"Eponin?" Hilaeira called out, placing the mug of tea she'd brought with her on the table before cautiously approaching.

No answer.

Her healer's instinct to aid someone in need overrode her fear, demanding she try again to reach out to the wounded warrior. Careful to avoid the pottery shards, she knelt down on the ground in front of the dark-haired woman.

"Eponin?" Slowly, trembling fingers reached out, "You've injured yourself. I'm here to help you." Her fingers lightly caressed the warrior's closed fist. "I need you to open your hand for me."

There was no response other than Eponin's compliance with her request. Hilaeira went into healer's mode, working quickly and efficiently to staunch the flow of blood. Luckily, the cut wasn't deep and it didn't appear as if any shards had embedded themselves into the wound. She quickly flushed the cut out and applied an ointment, then a bandage.

"Come on," she said, trying to tug Eponin up with her, "Let's get you up before you cut yourself again."

To her relief, Eponin complied with her request and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. Spotting the pallet across the room, she guided Eponin to it and pushed her down until she was seated on the edge. She retrieved the mug of tea and returned to Eponin, kneeling on the floor in front of the warrior.

Holding the mug in both hands, she lifted it to Eponin's lips. The warrior's mouth remained tightly closed. "Please?"

Eponin felt the press of the mug to her mouth more firmly this time and parted her lips. The taste of honey filled her mouth, warm liquid seeped down her throat. She swallowed convulsively, feeling the warmth spreading throughout her stomach.

Hilaeira felt a wave of relief course through her as Eponin drained the mug dry. Slowly lifting it away, the healer's assistant made sure the mug was completely empty before depositing it on the floor. Then, she sat back on her heels, eyes traveling over the warrior's body, taking in her features.

She'd been nothing short of mesmerized when she stood staring at the weapons master's body from the doorway at the hospice. Her dripping wet, naked body. Recalling precisely just how good Eponin had looked to her then, she wet her lips in remembrance.

Even knowing she shouldn't, Hilaeira couldn't help herself. And suddenly, a shaking hand was reaching out and soft fingertips were touching a rugged cheek. To her surprise, the weapons master responded to the touch, tilting her head so Hilaeira was cupping her cheek. Then, she was leaning forward, one hand braced on Eponin's muscular thigh for support.

She planted a kiss at the corner of Eponin's mouth. Then, more fully on the lips. The warrior's mouth opened beneath hers. Hilaeira's tongue flicked out, the hand resting on Eponin's thigh slid higher. Tasting the honey flavoring, Hilaeira retreated, moving her tongue towards Eponin's chin, placing a soft bite there.

There was a large hand cupping her hip. Hilaeira felt the strength behind that touch. Biting her bottom lip in response, she watched Ep through heavy-lidded eyes.

"Eponin?" She gasped aloud, clearly startled as eyes the same hue as molten gold burned into her.

Eponin heard her name being called, as if from far away. With some difficulty, she opened her eyes, trying to focus. Her lids seemed to weigh a ton and everything was fuzzy. Spotting the blonde hair, she immediately asked, "Ephiny?"

Then, everything went black.

Eponin felt the wagon jostle as a wheel dipped into another chug hole in the road. Looking across at the captain of the guard, she could tell that Pel had finally drifted off and was oblivious to the rough ride. Feeling her legs cramped from being in one position for too long, Pony wiggled about, trying to get some circulation back into her limbs.

The wagon took a sharp curve, sending Pony sliding across the bed of the wagon; at least as far as her chain would allow her to go. Grey eyes wearily blinked open, checking her prisoner before they started to drift closed again. Eponin watched her for a heartbeat; Pelagia's breathing evened out as sleep quickly reclaimed her.

Eponin struggled to return to her side of the wagon. But, then stilled as something caught her attention. A noise. Several noises that didn't sit quite right with her. Cocking her head to the side, she discovered she could see out of a two-inch gap through the tarp flap at the back of the wagon. Grey darkness and snow met her steady gaze.

Something drifted into her line of sight and she suddenly realized what she'd heard.

Hoof beats. Several of them.

"Pelagia! We've got trouble!" Eponin shouted, seeing a rider coming in closer, raising a bow and aiming it directly at the back of the wagon.

Dammit! Solari thumped her hand against a hapless tree trunk. Never should have sent her out alone!

It was late, dark was rapidly approaching. And, still no sign of Metanira. When she'd signaled the scout to follow, she figured the youngster would know to only track the wagons for a candlemark or two at most and then head for home.

Only, she hadn't arrived at home. Or, at the scout's office. Or, the dining hut where her mother was sure to be. Not even at Admeta's. And Solari knew that would be one of the first places Metanira would stop by as soon as she returned. Solari left word with one of the patrol details that as soon as they saw Met return, they should have her report directly to her commander.

Sighing heavily, not yet ready to return to her own hut, Solari pushed open the door to the hospice and went inside. She knew if Metanira had come in injured, someone would have told her immediately. But, she couldn't stop herself from checking, anyway.

No one greeted her as she closed the door behind herself. Pelagia had left that morning; Megara had no doubt taken the rest of the day off. Where Iphinome was hiding was anyone's guess. Megara's probably got her counting bandages or something.

Without any reason sense of purpose or direction, Solari followed her feet. She was more than a little surprised when they took her directly to elder Devillare's room. Standing in the hallway, she could see the older warrior was sitting up in bed, her back braced against a set of pillows. Her face and upper body were covered in a clammy sweat. Hilaeira was standing beside her bed, wiping her with a cloth, holding a mug pressed to her lips.

Watching the apprentice healer tending to the ex-captain of the guard, Solari couldn't help but wonder; Does she know who you are? Does she know of your ties to Eponin? Has she told you yet what's happened? Solari took a step backwards, moving so she could see inside the hospice room without, in turn, being seen.

Solari could've been knocked over with a feather when Ephiny had confessed to her that she'd had someone in mind for her consort.

"Pardon me for pointing this out to you, but you don't seem all that thrilled by the prospect," Solari observed.

"I was going to tell her tonight over dinner." Ephiny turned away from Solari to hide her embarrassment. "She didn't come."

That's when her heart officially dropped into her gut. The instant she realized exactly why she'd walked in on Pony in the bath. Eph - - and her?!?

"Ah, well - " Solari shrugged off the incident as unimportant " - her loss, whoever she is." Pulling back to look her packmate squarely in the eyes, she said, "Well, if you decide she's not worth the effort and the council's on your back and you change your mind . . . well . . . "there was a shrug of broad shoulders.

Ephiny softly stroked her palm over Solari's cheek. "You'll be the first to know. Promise."

Dawn was just edging over the horizon when Solari entered her hut. She'd spent the entire night on the ridge with Ephiny, holding her in her arms, talking as they snuggled together beneath the stars. It had been a little awkward at first, but then Solari fell back into the old routine of just being there for her packmate and was able to make it through the hurt and pain to support her friend.

She walked Ephiny back to her own hut, catching the hardened stare of Lexine standing post at the regent's doorway. Escorting her in, seeing her to bed, Solari had quickly left, walking right past Lexine despite the guard's repetitive calling of her name.

Yawning, she flipped back the hide covering and stepped inside her home. To find her sanctuary turned upside down. Her favorite vase was broken upon the floor, the flowers scattered and trampled underfoot. Eponin lay sprawled crossways across the pallet, one foot on the bed, the other braced against the floor. Her arms were flung over her head, one across her eyes. Her halter was untied and opened, exposing her breasts. A dark eyebrow arched at the obvious bite mark marring one of them.

Spying the mug sitting on a short table near the pallet with nothing beneath it to protect the mahogany wood finish from wet rings, she softly cursed. Finding a weaved coaster she'd had made for just that purpose, she retrieved it, intending to slide it beneath the mug.

Solari screamed, grabbing her wrist as her flesh was seared by the unbearable heat. Cursing loudly, she knocked the mug away. Already, her flesh was an angry, fiery red in color. Waves of nausea crashed over her, causing her to break out in a cold sweat.

Still, her acute hearing picked up on another sound in the hut. An almost quiet, pitiful whimpering. Pushing down her pain, she concentrated on following the sound. There, huddled in a ball on the floor between the end of the pallet and the wall was Hilaeira.

Her hair was tousled, her lips swollen and bruised, tears streaming from her eyes. A short doeskin skirt lay on the floor nearby. Solari's stomach lurched as she saw the girl wore no breechcloth - and there were angry, mottled bruises between her thighs.

Solari felt a set of eyes upon her, looked up to meet a set of steel grey eyes staring directly at her. Impossible, she can't have seen me. Regardless, Solari took another step backwards in an attempt to blend into the shadows. Her heartbeat increased, pounding rapidly as Devil continued to look dead center at the spot where she was standing. Then, grey eyes slid closed and she relaxed back against the pillows.

Feeling less than an inch tall, Solari lingered in the hallway for several long candledrips, watching Hilaeira tend to the ill warrior. I should have gone in. But, she knew she couldn't have. She couldn't walk into that room and tell Devillare the truth. That her protégé had taken the healer's assistant against her will, raped her, then been convicted and sent away that very morning.

Acrid smoke burned and seared her lungs, making breathing difficult. The wagon was on its side, one wheel spinning out of control. Flames licked at the side paneling, casting an orange glow over everything. Pelagia was laying several feet distant, having hit her head on one of the wooden boards as she was knocked off her feet when the wagon flipped.

The length of chain was wrapped about both of Eponin's hands and she was on her feet, frantically tugging, desperately trying to pull it free. A sword thrust deeply into the tarp and was pulled down, ripping it open. A big boot entered first, followed by a shoulder, a sword arm and head.

"Well, well, look at we've got here." Cordele's lips curved into a broad grin as her gaze fixed upon Eponin. With slow, determined steps, she stalked her prey, twirling her sword grip with each step. "Oh, I'm gonna enjoy this sooo much."

The flap at the front of the wagon was opened and Gryta ducked her head as she entered the rear.

"Gryta! Let me loose!" Eponin yelled, eyes darting to where Pelagia's set of keys were laying several feet distant.

Warily watching Cordele, Gryta kept her sword up, moving about until she was near the keys. Still keeping her eyes on the hunter, she bent, feeling for them with her fingertips. As her fingers closed about the cold metal and she stood up, Cordele took a step towards her.

The keys went flying as Gryta tossed them.

"No!" Ep shouted as the keys went sailing through the slit Cordele had cut in the tarp and landed somewhere in the snow outside.

Cordele spun around, planting a large boot on Eponin's knee, causing the warrior to crumple beneath the attack. Standing over her downed foe, Cordele twined her fingers in ebony hair and brutally tugged until Eponin's head was forced back, every cord in her neck straining as she was forced to look up at the hunter. The cold metal of Cordele's blade pressed against her throat.

Eponin's mind flashed back and she vividly recalled every word Cordele had hissed when she'd been in a similar position once before.

"You ruined me," Cordele hissed through clenched teeth. "Everything I had, you took from me. My home, my family, my honor. Everything. Now, I'm going to do the same to you. I'm going to take it all from you."

"I've broken you." Cordele leaned down until she look Eponin square in the eye, watching for a reaction. "Retribution is mine."

The edge of the blade bit into Eponin's throat. Cordele licked her lips as the first traces of warm blood spilled from the wound. Sadistic glee in her eyes, she drew back her sword, preparing to deliver the final blow.


The restraining grip on her gauntlet gave her pause. Turning, she glared at the woman who dared to interrupt her. Blue eyes narrowed with contempt as the leader of the renegades stared back at her without fear.

"There's no honor in killing a helpless foe."

"Honor is something I no longer care about."

Cordele tried to jerk her arm free, but felt it still effectively restrained. "I do." A blonde eyebrow climbed as if daring Cordele to further protest. "Ride with me, follow my command," she warned.

There was a heavy breath through flared nostrils. Cordele growled low in her throat as she continued to stare down this latest obstacle. At last, she nodded her ascent. Satisfied, the leader turned her back on hunter, exiting the wagon.

Still fuming, Cordele turned to glare at Gryta. The guard member remained where she was, waiting for the hunter to exit first. Knowing she couldn't kill Eponin outright without having Gryta go running to their leader, Cordele tried to think of some other way to torment her foe.

Kneeling beside her, Cordele dipped her fingertips into the blood freely flowing from the former weapons master's neck wound. Bringing her fingertips up, clenching Eponin's jaw between the fingers of her other hand, she purposely trailed the blood from the warrior's temple, over her cheek and all the way down to her chin. Then, she slapped her with a powerful backhand.

Pony's head snapped back with the blow. Hearing the buzzing echoing in her skull, she turned her head back again, leveling her gaze until she was glaring at her tormentor.

Satisfied she had Eponin's attention, Cordele smirked. Leaning in close, her lips scant inches from Eponin's, she whispered in a voice so low only the warrior could hear her.

"Maybe I can't kill you outright. But," her gaze flicked to where the flames were steadily lapping at the wooden slats of the overturned wagon, "I'll take great satisfaction in knowing that you'll either burn to death . . . or die of exposure." Laughing at the way Eponin jerked against her chains, struggling against her bonds, she added, "Those were fashioned to hold the Destroyer of Nations. You can't break them." Then, cocking her head to the side, "But, go ahead and try if it makes you feel better. And in the meantime, while you're busy fighting for your life, know this: you won't be lonely in death; you'll soon be joined by your pathetic Queen and her family."

"Cordele, let's go!" urged Gryta, seeing the flames climbing higher.

The hunter rose to her feet, taking great satisfaction in one, final kick to Eponin's midsection. Eponin angrily watched through slitted eyes, gritting her teeth as she struggled whole-heartedly against her restraints. Stretching, she was able to just reach Pelagia's downed form with her foot. Desperately, she nudged the captain with the toe of her boot, repeatedly calling her name.

Pelagia groaned, raised her head, trying to focus. Then, her eyes rolled back and her head collided with the wooden slats as she lost consciousness once more.

The End

Return to Xena and Gabrielle Fiction

Return to Main Page