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



"VICTORY!" Eponin roared, arms raised in triumph as she straddled the prone body of the hunter.

As the shock dissipated, chaos erupted. She was swept away in surreal imagery as the silence erupted into a series of shouts and wild, savage battle-cries. Then, the arena was awash in a sea of activity as her sisters rapidly took the field. Arms drooped in exhaustion, wrists dangling limply over her thighs as she remained straddling the hunter.

As Eponin's victory cry reverberated through the still night air, Solari was the first to recover. Letting loose her grip on Ephiny, she pushed past her regent. Fleet of foot, the chief scout was the first to reach her friend, sliding to a halt as she skidded to her knees at Ep's side. Kneeling, she reached out, catching Eponin's upper body in a fierce hug. Pulling the drained warrior to her, she dragged her off Cordele until they were both sitting sprawled on the ground, an awkward tangled mass of arms and legs.

Eponin cleaved to the Amazon, only dimly aware of who was holding her. Digging deep, finding the reserve strength somewhere, Eponin lifted one arm, bringing it up and around Solari's neck. Burying her nose in the waves of soft brunette hair scented with the smell of leather and forest, she fell into the embrace. She felt the solid body beneath her trembling form and took solace in the strength of her sister's protective arms.

Pelagia was the next to regain her senses, giving her bondmate's hand a final squeeze before she left her to perform her duties as captain of the guard. She quickly and efficiently moved about the arena, shouting orders in rapid-fire succession. Egeria and her squad quickly took the field, moving with deadly precision to erect a human barrier between their vulnerable weapons master and the still stunned group of hunters hovering along the edges of the arena. Clutching her huge double-edged labrys in both hands, Egeria cast anxious looks between the hunters and her commander.

Suddenly, the crowd had caught up with Solari, overtaking the huddled warriors. There were pats on the back and shoulders, emotional words of congratulations and gawkers simply awed by the intensity of the battle and seemingly drawn in for a closer look.

Through it all, Eponin kept one arm clutched tightly about her friend's broad shoulders, her face firmly buried in the warmth of Solari's neck. Her body that had been overheated from exertion, covered in perspiration, was now cooling off, the night air settling over her sweat-soaked skin causing her body to tremble with chills. The adrenaline rush was starting to wear off. And the fatigue - and pain - was just beginning to make itself known. She struggled to control her ragged breathing, to calm herself. She couldn't handle all of - this. The crowd, the stares - everything.

Then suddenly, Megara was making her way through the crowd, indiscriminately shoving Amazons out of her way as she marched straight for the combatants. Her two assistants moved in, jointly carrying a stretcher, mumbling apologies as they followed closely through the sea of bodies their mentor had parted.

The cantankerous healer knelt on the ground beside the weapons master and the chief scout, mmm-hmming and uh-huhing as she frankly looked over the injuries she could visibly see from the position her patient was in. Brushing Eponin's drenched hair away from her neck with two fingers, she gingerly pressed against her pulse point, counting the beats.

"Can you move?"

Eponin recognized the voice as belonging to the healer. Only - it was said in a whisper in her ear. A kind whisper. Unable to reconcile this behavior with the normally hostile demeanor of the healer she was familiar with, Eponin could only mutely nod her head. Thin fingers brushed through her hair, landing upon her shoulder and firmly squeezing in response.

"Don't you all have somewhere better to be?!?" Demanded Megara, turning her full ire upon the crowd of assembled Amazons.

Immediately, the pack broke and separated, everyone suddenly finding other things to do than stand around and watch the healer tend to her patient. Even the hunters that had been assembled along the perimeter sullenly moved off. Egeria and her warriors stayed, backs to the downed Amazons in a valiant attempt at ensuring privacy. Pelagia and her guards hovered outside the arena, ready to take charge of the situation as soon as Megara was done.

Only her apprentices were left, awkwardly hovering in the background as they awaited Megara's commands. Solari looked up, sandalwood eyes meeting Megara's cold gaze. She kept her arms firmly locked about Eponin's waist, her hands splayed over back muscles still convulsively twitching with the aftershocks of adrenaline as she openly dared the healer to demand she break the embrace. Megara impassively held the bold stare, arching a brow at the chief scout's bout of impertinence.

"You can help lift her onto the stretcher," Megara relented, realizing that as much as Solari was unwilling to end the embrace, it seemed Eponin was unable to. Determined to prove she wasn't going soft, the crotchety healer solidly popped Eponin in the back of the head with her open palm. "When I tell you to use that knee brace, I mean for you to wear it, you featherhead!"

Eponin's eyes flew open at the unexpected assault. She shifted in Solari's arms, reluctant to end the comforting clinch. Feeling Megara's rough hands probing and prodding along her sides for signs of internal injuries, Ep allowed the examination. Peering over Solari's shoulder as she endured the little jabs and pokes from the healer's fingers, she tried to focus on something other than the pain she was feeling. Slowly, her attention settled on the ceremonial dais.

Counsels for both the Accused and the Defense were striding away from the grounds, heads gravitating closer together as they were firmly engrossed in conversation. The Council of Elders was slowly breaking up, the older members being aided to their feet by their spryer counterparts. As they exited the dais, Devillare was the last down the steps, her eyes locked on the events unfolding in the center of the arena.

As her feet came into contact with the soft earth, her legs moved of their own accord, carrying her towards the arena. She had taken no more than three steps when she felt a touch upon her elbow. Meeting Nicphellia's steady gaze, she relented, allowing herself to be led in the opposite direction of the field. Carefully, she erected an air of indifferent impartiality as she rejoined the rest of the elders. Only the glance back over her shoulder, the uncharacteristic uncertainty glimmering in her eyes gave away the warrior's true emotions.

Standing in the shadows of the ceremonial platform, illuminated only by the wavering and flickering flames of the torchlights, the Regent of the Amazons unblinkingly remained rooted to the spot.

As soon as her duty was done and she was able to do so, she slipped away from the rest of the pack. Casually, she made her way to the private huts of the Nation's warrior caste. Standing with her back to the hide covering stretched tautly over the doorway, she furtively looked to her left, then her right.

Athena's brass girdle! The chief scout was heading her direction, a determined glint in her eye, a solid purpose to her stride. Stepping back, she moved to the side of the hut, trying her best to blend in with the branches of a tree.

Solari kept coming, striding right up to the door of the hut. One hand firmly closed about the hide covering, she lifted it and bent to duck inside. Just as her head and shoulders disappeared, a set of hands closed about her elbow and upper arms, dragging her back out.

Clearly caught off guard, Solari was easily turned about, coming face to face with an entourage of younger Amazons. She watched from her hiding place as the trio of young women - all dancers judging by their skimpy tops and loin cloth costumes - surrounded the chief scout. Despite the scout's adamant objections, two of the Amazons latched onto an arm, then a hand, leading Solari away from the hut. The third did this kind of hop and skip routine where she'd demonstrate some dance move or other, then come running back to Solari's side, batting her eyes and asking her opinion.

Solari looked back once more over her shoulder, seemingly making just one more feeble protest before she relented and allowed herself to be dragged away. Huh. Don't know what's so irresistible, was the thought as she stepped out from her impromptu hiding spot. Looks just like any other Amazon. An appraising eye swept over the chief scout's retreating form. She does have a really nice set of tailfeathers, though.

She resumed her position in front of the doorway, her back to the hide covering. Once again, she scanned her surroundings. There were Amazons all about. She cordially nodded to a couple of warriors as they strode by. Then, satisfied that no one was looking, she reached one hand behind her back, catching the hide in her grasp. Lifting the flap, she took a casual step backwards, quickly ducking as she backed into the hut.

Turning about, striking flint against a torch embedded in a brazier in the wall, experienced eyes quickly swept over the familiar interior. The hut was spacious, as befitting a warrior of the weapons master's status in the tribe. But, bereft of the luxuries many of the warriors favored. She'd seen many a hut where her sisters had decorated with vases from Crete, throw rugs from Sparta, tapestries woven by the old women in Ipithia. The weapons master's hut was sparse in comparison to most of the other warriors' homes.

Moving swiftly, she crossed to the dresser located beside the bed. Opening the third drawer, she reached inside, rummaging amongst the few articles of clothing inside. Withdrawing a fresh set of leathers and halter, she tossed them on the bed. Closing the third drawer, opening the second, she hastily retrieved a clean breechcloth. Adding it to the pile on the bed, she quickly rolled the clothes into a tight bundle and tucked it beneath her arm.

She was just turning about, ready to leave when it caught her attention. She knew they were there of course, was painfully aware of their presence every time she entered Eponin's hut. Most times, she was prepared, having steeled herself before hand. This time, perhaps because of the emotional turmoil of the trial, she was caught unawares.

Steel grey eyes locked on the artifacts hanging on display on the interior wall of the hut. A battered warrior's mask, a jagged gash along the left side nearest the chin guard had taken a three-inch chunk out of the sturdy material. The feathers were mottled with blackened ash, grime and blood, their once vibrant hues discolored with the passages of time and disuse.

A warrior's weapon hung on display beneath the mask, held in place by wooden pegs hammered into the wall of the hut. The blade was broken near the tip, a deep scar in the metal running from the jagged bit of the once-sharp edge to the very tip of the hilt. She felt the urge to reach out and touch the sword, but she was worried if she did, the blade would split the rest of the way apart. The jeweled crest on the hilt marked the sword as once belonging to the captain of the guard, its owner sworn to protect the Queen of the Amazons with her life.

And, she did. Unblinking eyes remained fixated on the objects from her past, her turbulent thoughts taking her back in time.

The Nation was in upheaval, the village in chaos. The acrid stench of fires raging out of control burned her nostrils. The Amazon Nation was burning. And, fully armed with her sword clutched firmly in her hand and daggers secured at her waist and tucked into her boots, she was still defenseless.

Devillare was soaked in sweat and covered in blood. Bile crept into her throat at the realization that the blood coating the blade of her sword and dripping onto the pommel, making it slick beneath her grasp belonged to her sisters. Until that morning, her beloved sisters. Her sisters no more.

They'd taken up arms against the guard, against the Queen. There had long been unrest in the Nation; the controversy over the Queen's decision to spare a Centaur hunting party that was caught poaching on their lands. A hunting party that she pardoned and demanded leave their territory at once. The same Centaur party that returned no more than a half-moon later with extra reinforcements and repaid the Queen's leniency by abducting an entire platoon of young Amazons training in a remote glen away from the main village. They gave restitution to the Queen's compassion in full. By repeatedly raping the Queen's own blood sister before slitting her throat.

That had been the catalyst for the Queen demanding blood. The Centaurs were captured and brought before the throne and summarily executed. Exhausted from her mourning, guilt-ridden for not dealing more decisively with the trespassers from the start, Reyvanne wanted nothing more than to put the whole sordid affair behind her and concentrate on being a good ruler to her people and mother to her children.

Others were not satisfied with her decree. Her need for vengeance had been sated with the execution of her sister's murderers. But, what of the families of the other six girls that were brutally abused and slaughtered? Where was the justice for them? Where was their vengeance? Dissenters cried that the Queen was unfair and there was only justice if you were a princess.

Despite the Queen's and her advisors' best efforts at calming the masses, there were still hard feelings amongst many in the tribe. There was a clear rift between those that still supported their monarch and those that wanted someone else on the throne. Someone that would openly declare another war against the hooved beasts that murdered their children.

A full-fledged Amazon war-cry rang out from the Queen's hut. Death's icy hand firmly clutched at Devillare's heart as the cry reached her ears. There was no mistaking that sound. It could only belong to one Amazon.

Thrusting her arm up, she instinctively blocked a blow, scarcely feeling the rattle in her sword arm as two weapons clashed against each other. Without even acknowledging her opponent, Devillare efficiently ran her through and tossed her off her sword. Shoving allied Amazons out of her way, fighting those she had to, she allowed nothing to further delay her as she ran pell-mell towards the royal hut.

That was where she was supposed to be. Duty had taken her away, prevented her from reaching her Queen sooner. Duty done, she had returned to protect her Queen. Coming up the front steps and onto the veranda that surrounded the royal hut, she ripped the hide covering clean off the door. Rushing in at full charge, she didn't stop until she reached the entranceway to the Queen's private chambers.

And froze.

Teleria, the leader of the rebellion, was locked in battle with Beroyle. The two warriors were between Devillare and Reyvanne. Queen Reyvanne who was laying sprawled on the floor, her back against the wall, an arrow lodged just below her breast. There was a fiery red trail of royal blood on the wall behind her where she had been struck and then slowly sank to her knees. Blood was coating her skin and beginning to seep from her lips as she looked up at Devillare through glassy, unfocused eyes.

With an enraged war-cry, Teleria charged. Beroyle brought her sword up to block. Devillare recognized the form, knew that Beroyle had reacted quickly enough to keep the blade at a safe distance. She'd seen Beroyle do it a hundred times over in practice. She'd stop the blade, then perform an underhanded arc that would cleanly wrest the weapon from her opponent's hand.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the unthinkable happened. Beroyle's sword broke beneath the force of Teleria's strike. The jagged projectile was suddenly airborne, and in a twist that only the Fates themselves could have conceived, it slashed across Devillare's hand from fingertip to wrist, causing her to drop her weapon in both shock and pain. She crumbled, her profusely bleeding sword hand cradled against her chest at precisely the same instant Beroyle was crashing to the floor. Teleria's sword had struck true; in one fell swoop, it had broken the Captain of the Guard's blade and still carried enough momentum to cleave through the warrior's mask and into her neck.

Planting her boot on the captain's chest in a final brutal attempt at humiliating Beroyle, Teleria wrenched her sword free, then turned on the Queen. Reyvanne still had a grip on her sword and brought it up to counter Teleria's thrust. She was weak, unable to stand, barely able to lift her sword arm in defense. It would be over soon. She knew it. Teleria knew it. And, somewhere just past Teleria, where they could no longer shield her, she knew her two protector's realized it, too.

Devillare was on her knees, unsteady from the blood loss, desperately trying to fight her way to her feet. The wound was deep, her sword hand useless as the blood flowed freely on the floor, mixing with that of her swordmate's. From where she lay half propped against the wall, crimson blood poured out of Beroyle's wound and down her torso, pooling beneath her at an alarming rate. Moving at a snail's pace, twitching fingers imperceptibly found their way to her belt. Beroyle's fingers blindly searched the expanse of leather until they tightened upon the hilt of the dagger at her waist. Eyes fixed on her Queen, she concentrated on focusing her remaining strength to pull the dagger free from its sheath.

Reyvanne barely parried the blow that threatened to lob off her head. Teleria was toying with her. This was her moment and she wouldn't be rushed. "A Queen's death should never be easy," she prophesied, using a flick of her wrist to sink her blade into the Queen's unprotected shoulder. Verdant green eyes the color of Artemis' forest shone with sudden clarity as Reyvanne boldly lifted her defiant chin, looking up for the blow that would send her to the Amazon Land of the Dead.

The raised sword suddenly tilted, sliding from lax fingers and clattering to the floor. Fingers desperately clawed, instinctively yanking a dagger out of a punctured neck. Life-blood that had coated the dagger's blade to the hilt immediately spurted and poured out onto the floor. Teleria had only a heartbeat's time for dismayed eyes to focus on the royal crest marking the handle of the guard's knife. Then, her eyes glazed over, she sank to the floor, her heart forever stilled.

"I saw you sneak in," came the muted voice from somewhere over her shoulder. "She wouldn't mind you being in here, you know."

"I know." Devillare made the acknowledgment without turning to meet Lyonene's eyes. "I don't want to embarrass her by having some snot-nosed punk ask her why some doddering old, spinster warrior is bringing her clean drawers."

"I hardly think that's going to happen. She's never resented your being around and you know it." Lyonene came all the way into the hut, moving to stand beside Devillare. Peering up at the mask and sword, she declared, "Artemis, how I miss her." Casting a sidelong glance at her longtime friend, she added, "You've always been there to protect her. She knows that." With a comradely pat to the former Captain of the Guard's shoulder, Lyonene shifted away. "I'll see you at the ceremony. Don't be long."

That rather innocuous statement caught Devillare decidedly off-guard. Ah, just being overly sentimental, she tried to shrug off the words Lyonene had spoken. Still, they niggled at the back of her mind, and she couldn't help but wonder - Was she referring to Eponin or Beroyle?

The distant pounding of the drums coming from the ceremonial grounds solidly echoed a threatening headache. Ephiny pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers in an attempt at warding off the pain looming just behind both eyes. Pushing the discomfort down, stolidly erecting the mask of the regent in place, she ducked beneath the thick hide covering the entranceway to the hospice.

And ran right over Megara, spinning the older woman about and nearly toppling her over. The healer's satchel slipped off her shoulder, landing on the floor, scattering bandages, twine and herbs about. Reflexively, Ephiny reached out, hands catching the healer around both arms in an attempt to steady her. Megara got her footing, then shooed the offending hands away.

Ephiny instantly knelt, scrambling to shove Megara's paraphernalia back into her satchel. "I'm sorry, Megara. I didn't know you were coming out - "

Megara waved off the apology as quickly as she had Ephiny's attempts at helping her. "No small wonder, the way you people come charging in and out of here at all candlemarks of the night with your pleas of Help me, Megara. There's a branch stuck through my leg, Megara. I cut my arm during practice, Megara. I have an ingrown hair where there shouldn't be any hair growing." Megara momentarily paused in her tirade, suspiciously eyeing the curly blonde haired woman kneeling on her floor studiously avoiding her gaze as she repacked the satchel. "Just what are you doing here, anyway?"

Ephiny's entire body stilled. Then, fingers closing about the last packet of herbs, she deliberately settled the bundle in the satchel. Steeling herself, she smoothly stood, clasping the bag in one hand.

"Me?" she asked, with her best innocent-look, then added, "Relax, Megara. I can assure you I don't have any branches or knives or sharp objects of any sort sticking out of anywhere."

"Yeah, you," Megara snorted. That look hadn't worked on her since . . . well, since the last time she used it. The healer cocked her head, hearing the faint beating of the drums. "Isn't there a celebration going on?"

"In honor of the outcome of the trial by combat, as blessed by our goddess Artemis," Ephiny nodded in confirmation.

"Uh-huh. I know what the celebration is for," Megara snorted, giving Ephiny a disparaging look. "Just like I know it's the duty of the regent to be in attendance."

"Then, you also know that the purpose of this celebration is to not only honor the strength of Artemis, but also to give accolades to her champion."

If Megara had been a little younger in seasons and hadn't been the first woman to see Ephiny's naked backside when she was born, she might have been suitably intimated by the intense glare of the regent's hazel eyes. Instead, she was decidedly nonplussed by Ephiny's best scowl; a fact that irked Ephiny to no end.

With a defeated hand upon her hip and a long, exasperated sigh, Ephiny asked, "How's Eponin?"

"Stubborn as a mule and with as about much sense, if you ask me." The healer snatched her bag from Ephiny's hand, began rearranging the contents to her liking. Without looking up, she began rattling off the extent of the weapons master's injuries. "Cracked ribs. Gash above her ear needed some stitching. That knee's gonna take even longer to heal now. If it heals at all. Not to mention the other assorted abrasions and scrapes." Megara paused in her rummaging long enough to meet Ephiny's worried gaze. "And, that's just off the top of my head. We won't be sure about the rest until we get her cleaned up a little. That red clay really gets embedded into the skin, you know. I've got her soaking in a tub of heated water to open up her pores and draw out any nasty germs she might have gotten into those skinned places." As almost an afterthought, Megara added, "And that doesn't even include that nasty concussion she's sporting."

"But, she's . . . " The regent knew head wounds were among the worst injuries someone could receive. And, also the most unpredictable. Ephiny stumbled over her words " . . . I mean, will she - is she - "

"The damn, stubborn fool's hurting, but won't admit it." The healer added a long-suffering sigh, "Warriors." She didn't explain further, as if that one word summed up the entire problem. And, maybe to a healer like Megara, it did. "Listen," the healer shouldered her bag, "I'm gonna go down to the jail to check on that other featherheaded idiot. Wouldn't do to have the prisoner dying of infection before the yahoos at the outpost get a chance to kill her with hard labor." She shuffled towards the door, off-handedly tossing back over her shoulder, "Get one of the girls to give you some herbal tea for that headache . . . if you can pry their attention away from the hero long enough to mix up the powder."

Ephiny's jaw unhinged. How did she know - Eph started to ask, but Megara was already out the door. And, even if she had chased her down, she didn't expect the healer would give her an answer anyway. Shaking her head ruefully, she began wandering the hospice in search of Eponin and the apprentice healers.

She heard the sharp growl long before she found her quarry.

"For the tenth time, Hilaeira, I don't want any broth!"

That was followed up by a younger, shriller voice.

"Megara left strict instructions . . . "

"I don't care if Megara left them written on a golden scroll. I'm not sick and I don't want any stinkin' broth!"

"Actually, I think that broth's probably laced with something to make you feel better."

Eponin's ears perked up at the dulcet, huskier timbres of a woman's voice. For the past two candlemarks, she'd been subjected to the gigglish, high-pitched tones of the healer's assistants. And, although the girls were boundlessly energetic and pleasantly attentive, their enthusiasm was quickly wearing on Ep's already frayed nerves. Stifling a sigh of relief, Eponin glanced towards the doorway.

What she saw threatened to take her breath away. Ephiny was casually leaning against the solid wood frame in a relaxed pose, arms nonchalantly crossed over her chest, one ankle crossed over the other. Riotous blonde curls fell about both shoulders, creating a soft cascade that ended a hand span above the curve of her breasts. An indulgent smile played over her lips as intense hazel eyes stared back at her.

"My regent." Eponin tipped her chin in acknowledgment, even as she forced herself to use Ephiny's official title.

"My honorable and victorious weapons master." She returned the greeting, aware that Eponin was attempting to display an appropriate amount of respect for her position as leader. No doubt trying to impress a sense of protocol upon the youngsters. Ephiny's lazy smile turned to a sardonic smirk. Although, rank doesn't exactly seem to be what these girls are most impressed by.

If she had to be honest with herself, Ephiny had to admit that she shared that quality with the two young Amazons. She'd been leaning against the doorframe, taking a few unharried, uninterrupted heartbeats to simply indulge herself. Being an Amazon since birth, she naturally appreciated the nuances of a woman's body. The curve of a solid calf muscle, the strength of an arm giving sway to a supple wrist, the expanse of broad shoulders leading into a strong back and tapering to a svelte waistline and rounded buttocks.

Even though Ephiny's attention was elsewhere, she was still cognizant enough to realize that the two younger Amazons had taken Eponin's cue and saluted her in greeting. She returned the greeting by rote, even as she shook off a few illicit thoughts and focused on the scene unfolding before her.

When Megara had said she'd left Pony soaking in a tub of heated water, Ephiny should have guessed exactly where she'd be. After all, she'd been there for the construction process when Xena and Gabrielle had presented the village with the blueprints. Apparently, they'd rescued an inventor named Daedalus from a warlord that was exploiting his talents for invention to make weapons of destruction. In gratitude for saving his life and freeing him, the kindly inventor had shared many of his inventions with the warrior princess and her Amazon queen.

Including the plans for this amazing room.

The room was spacious, the floor lined with a cool, marble surface. Amazon engineers had worked closely with the warrior princess, overseeing the construction, taking precise measurements as the pool was dug out. It was easily three body lengths long and that many wide. There were carved steps at one end that gradually descended into the water, while at the other, a gently sloping incline made it possible to simply wade into the pool. Even Megara was beside herself with the realization that a patient unable to walk could be simply carried into the water on a stretcher. At its deepest point in the center, the depth averaged roughly four feet.

The truly wonderful part of the design, though, was the pipe that carried the water from the main springs to the hospice and into this room. There was a spout with a valve wheel on the side of the pool that regulated the water pressure and could be easily turned on or off. When it was fully opened up, the water was pumped straight into the pool. And, molten lava rock had been carefully packed between the layer of decorative marble making up the bottom and sides of the pool and a secondary layer of metal plating. The properties of the molten rock were conducive to retaining heat and maintaining a warm water temperature. According to the healers and spiritual leaders, the therapeutic benefits that came from just being able to soak in a hot bath could mark a significant difference in the length of a patient's convalescence.

Therapeutic benefits that the weapons master was soaking in, from the looks of things. She was standing at the far end of the pool, water lapping about the little indentation at the small of her back. Her forearms were resting upon the cool marble lining the edge of the pool as she looked up at a young girl of no more than twenty summers with flowing blonde hair coyly draped over one shoulder and a giggling lilt to her voice. She was kneeling before Eponin, one knee upon the cold marble tile, the fingers of one hand wrapped firmly about the handle of a mug. The nails of her other hand were familiarly stroking up and down the length of Eponin's bare bicep as she tried to coax the stubborn Amazon into taking the steaming mug of broth.

In the pool, hovered another Amazon. A brunette with her long hair tied back in a leather thong and braided down the center of her back. Ephiny judged her to be older than her counterpart by only a season or two. Her body was bare, the water lapping at her firm flesh, her pert breasts gently swaying as she used a sea-sponge to liberally soak the weapons master's back. Ephiny stared as the sponge was repeatedly dipped into the water and brought up, suspended a hair's breadth above Eponin's broad shoulders before it was firmly squeezed, sending warm water trickling over Ep's flesh and down her defined back.

"Hilaeira," Ephiny commanded, coming back to her senses and finally moving into the room with long, sure strides, "Megara said you would fix me something for my headache."

"Of course, my regent." The blonde bowed her head. She carefully placed the mug she'd been holding down by the edge of the pool. Using Eponin's arm as a brace, she smoothly rose to her feet. "I'll go mix some herbal tea." With another bow, she hastily scampered around the edge of the pool and out of the room.

"Thank the Gods," Ep breathed a sigh of relief, lowered her chin to her wrist. "I know she means well, but that's the third mug of broth she's tried to give me in the past candlemark."

"Really?" Ephiny asked with an arched brow as she settled down nearby. "What happened - " she grunted as she yanked off one boot, then the other. " - to the other two?" she coyly asked as she dangled both legs over the edge of the pool, a contented sigh escaping her full lips as the water swirled over her aching arches and tight calves.

"Um . . . " Ep only slightly grimaced as she confessed, " . . . they may have accidentally gotten spilled."

"Uh-huh. Maybe accidentally, huh?"

"Maybe." Eponin caught the reproachful look. "Maybe not so accidentally?"

"That's what I thought." Ephiny tried to inject a suitable amount of sternness into her tone. But, it was difficult. It was just broth, after all. And, it smelled awful. And, Ep was making those puppy dog eyes at her. "Still, that stuff's supposed to make you feel better. And, you need to drink it."

"Hunh." If it was possible for a two-hundred plus pound mass of muscle, too-tough-for-my-leathers warrior to pout like an unrepentant toddler; that was precisely the look Eponin was pulling off.

"And, it could be worse."

She looked up at Ephiny with baleful eyes. "How?"

"You get the youngsters' healing touch." Ephiny leaned in low, as if conveying sensitive state secrets. "Megara herself is on her way down to the jail to personally tend to Cordele."

"Ooooh. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy." A short pause. Then, with a wicked grin and a nod of her head, she quickly amended, "Yeah, yeah, I would."

That earned her an equally wicked laugh from the regent, quickly echoed by girlish giggling. Girlish giggling that had Ephiny looking around Eponin's shoulder into the pool. Her own spontaneous laughter died at the sight of the apprentice healer still dutifully washing Eponin's back while avidly listening to their exchange. The sponge kept straying lower and lower - and Ephiny's eyes narrowed in response to the image of the younger Amazon's free hand firmly gripping Ep's waist in such a familiar way.

"Iphinome." The healer's head snapped up at the sound of command in the regent's tone. "Get dressed and go help Megara down at the jail."

"My regent," protested the girl, "Megara ordered me to attend to the needs of the weapons master."

Something about the way the girl said needs ruffled every feather on Ephiny's mask. Temper simmering just below the surface, jaw threatening to lock, nostrils flaring in agitation, she commanded through tightly clenched teeth. "Go. Now." Then, looking the apprentice healer squarely in the eyes, she added, "I'll personally attend to the weapons master's needs."

Iphinome must have recognized something in the look in Ephiny's eyes, caught the veiled threat in her regent's tone. Before Ep had even realized what had happened, the sea-sponge was tossed onto the wet marble near her arms and her attendant was out of the water and beating a hasty retreat.

A smirk curled at the corner of her lips and Eponin was about to make a comment when Ephiny's head snapped up. Turning about, Ep watched with interest as Hilaeira entered the room with her head bowed and her eyes lowered. Ephiny's watchful gaze followed her every step of the way as she scurried across the distance of the room and with trembling hands, passed a mug to her without ever once meeting the regent's eyes. "Your tea, my regent," she mumbled before bowing low and quickly scampering out the way she had come, the hide covering over the doorway fluttering behind her as she left.

A look passed between Ephiny and Eponin. It was a full two heartbeats before the weapons master broke into raucous laughter. "You done scaring the feathers off the kiddies?"

"Impertinent, ill-mannered, eavesdropping, snot-nosed - "

" - Careful, there, Eph," Ep added with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, "You're beginning to sound more than a little like Megara."

"That reminds me." Ephiny effected her fiercest scowl and her sternest voice, "You've got until the count of five to drink that broth, warrior."

"And if I don't?" Eponin had answered with a certain amount of playful cockiness.

"You really wanna find out?" One blonde brow arched beneath the regent's crown, edging its way towards the leather braiding that encircled her head. When Ep didn't immediately acquiesce, she added, "One."

"That crown's on a little too tight if you think you can make me drink that broth, Eph."


Eponin's tease lingered on her lips.


She quickly lost her smirk, though, when she caught the don't mess with the regent glare Ephiny sent her way.


Suddenly apprehensive, Eponin swallowed quickly, nervously licked her lips. Her eyes rapidly darted about, taking in every subtle movement, every nuance. She knew that steely glint of determination in Eph's eyes. She'd been on the receiving end of that glare on more than one occasion. And, it meant just one thing. She was in trouble. Big trouble. Xena-sized trouble. Eyes met, a heartbeat passing between them before Ephiny's lips moved.

"Fi - "

A hand darted out, catching the handle of the mug, shakily bringing it to her lips. Before Ephiny could finish forming the 've' of 'five', she was already forcing down the tepid liquid, grimacing as the foul tasting brew assaulted her palate.

"Glad you decided to be reasonable."

Ephiny raised her own mug, blowing the steam from the still-hot tea. Gingerly, she sipped, noting with pleasant surprise that the usual bitter herb taste was almost undetectable beneath the sweet flavor of honey. She had downed more than half the contents when she realized Eponin was still struggling with the aftertaste of her broth.

"Here, wash it down with this," she offered, passing her mug to her friend.

Eponin took it with more than a hint of trepidation, suspiciously sniffing at it before lifting it to her lips and taking an experimental sip. Licking her lips, taking a bigger draw, she swished the sweet tea about the interior of her mouth.

"Why do I get something that tastes like it died three days ago and yours tastes like the cook down at the dining hut personally prepared it?"

"Megara knows I can't stand the taste of herbal tea, so she keeps a special blend on hand for me."

"That's favoritism, you know."

"Privileges of rank, you mean."

"No, I mean favoritism," Eponin succinctly replied, taking another long draw from Ephiny's mug, "You've got that grouchy old healer wrapped around your finger and you know it."

"All just part of my natural charm," Ephiny's voice held more than a hint of teasing.

"Careful there, Eph, now you're starting to sound just like Sol . . . "

Any additional comments she might have considered making died on her lips as her regent smoothly raised her halter over her head. Amazons weren't modest by nature and it certainly wasn't the first time she'd seen Ephiny topless. But, the sight of those magnificent breasts never failed to steal her breath away. They were full and firm and luscious and . . . just the sight of them made Ep's mouth water and her pulse quicken.

Her gaze was so fixated that she didn't realize Eph had removed her weapons, gauntlets and bracers until they hit the floor. She didn't even blink until Ephiny had risen to her feet and unfastened the belt at her waist. Long, nimble fingers deftly worked at unwrapping the ash grey colored leathers, revealing long, tantalizing legs. Eponin's heart was racing so fast she thought it'd gallop right out of her chest.

"What?" Ephiny asked, pausing with her leathers wadded in one hand, suddenly very aware of Ep's stare.

"Eph, you're . . . uh . . . " Eponin shook her head briskly, trying to knock loose her tongue. "You don't have to . . . "

Standing there in just her crown and breechcloth, Ephiny felt distinctly self-conscious beneath Eponin's scrutiny. Steeling herself, she nonchalantly tossed the leather skirt away, adding it to the growing pile of Amazonian clothing.

The blonde regent ducked her head, coyly looking up at her weapons master through hooded eyes. "I said I would attend to your needs, Pony, and that's exactly what I intend to do."

"Well, I certainly hope you're satisfied."

A low growl rumbled inside Cordele's throat as she warily eyed the healer.

"Stop that," Megara commanded, nonplussed as she rummaged through her bag for the vial of wolvesroot.

That spill with little Ephie had jumbled everything up. And, if there was one thing Megara couldn't stand, it was a disorganized infirmary. And to her, that's exactly what her worn, leather bag was; a traveling hospice. She kept everything in there she could possibly need for treatments in the field. Bandages, splints, painkillers, herbs for treating infection, webs to clot the blood, even the roots she used for handling pregnancies. She prided herself on being prepared for any contingency. Never knew what kind of trouble those reckless Amazons could get into away from the tribe.

Although, some of them don't even have to go as far as the borders to find trouble. Fingers at last closing on the elusive vial, she opened it and squeezed a healthy amount of the thick, gooey mixture onto the palm of her hand. She inched forward in a crouch until she was able to comfortably reach the woman that lay sprawled out on the floor with her back braced against the wall of her cell. Thick fingers liberally applied the salve, working it into every inch of exposed skin. With a satisfied smirk, she caught the subtle recoil, the slight grimace as the noxious odor quickly drifted from her neck up to her nostrils.

"Hold still." Megara retrieved a thick bandage from her bag, quickly wrapped it about Cordele's neck. Instinctively, the hunter's fingers immediately went to the restricting cloth. "Leave that on there. That salve will keep your throat from swelling up during the night and cutting off your air." A pause as Megara searched for her herringbone needle and leather twine to begin stitching closed the worst of Cordele's wounds. "Big, dumb featherheads don't have the sense the Gods gave a horse." There was barely a wince from the hunter as Megara jabbed the needle into her thickly muscled forearm. "Trial by combat." She vehemently spat out the words. "What are we; Amazons or Barbarians?"

The muscles in Cordele's arm tightened in reflex as her entire body stiffened at Megara's criticism. She purposely adjusted her position on the floor, knowing any movement would cause the chains shackled to her wrists and anchored to the wall to clang together. Most Amazons weren't comfortable with chains. On themselves or any of their sisters. Not even the guards. More than one had seen her in chains and clearly averted their eyes whenever they came in to bring her food and water.

Even Regent Ephiny was clearly rattled by their presence when she'd come to bargain for that bitch's life. When she'd jerked her chains then, she saw something in Ephiny's eyes, something that looked almost like a wave of anxiety roll over her before vanishing in the blink of an eye. Experimentally, she rattled her chains again, looking for a reaction from the healer. She was disappointed, but unsurprised, when there wasn't one. Megara didn't so much as pause in her methodical stitching.

Most Amazons had an ingrained, adverse response when it came to any form of captivity. Possibly because they'd been raised on tales of how their captured mothers and grandmothers were first enslaved and then tortured and defiled while their sisters were forced to helplessly watch, powerless in their manacles and shackles.

Personally, Cordele had always been secretly fascinated by those darker tales of terror and shame. And, as she grew from childhood to adulthood, the thought stayed with her in her mind, developing and evolving as the seasons passed. Until it slowly took form, niggling somewhere at the edges of her consciousness . . . What did it feel like, to wield that much control, that much power . . . and what did it take for an Amazon to surrender to her captivity?

Princess Velasca had recognized the hunger within her. The need. The need to control . . . and to be controlled in return. Before Melosa had her adoptive daughter sent away, before Terreis was named heir, Velasca had approached her, whispering in her ear, taunting her, telling her she knew what she wanted.

She had toyed with her for a solid moon, tormenting her with her words and her body, delivering unspoken promises of what she could do. Then one day, when she should have been on patrol, the princess boldly walked right up to her and without so much as a word, shoved her hand beneath Cordele's leathers. One quick, searing drag with her fingernail and then her hand was gone, her finger suddenly in Cordele's mouth, her tongue in Cordele's ear. Following the lewdly whispered command, she willingly abandoned her post and followed the princess to the royal hut.

What they had done there in the Queen's private chambers was disrespectful and taboo and oh, so exhilarating in its depravity. If they'd been caught, they would have both been humiliated and stripped of their feathers. They would have been disgraced before Queen and Nation. They would have risked their careers - their very lives - for nothing more than a fuck. There were no cooed words of love, no decrees of bonding, no promises of tomorrow. No pretenses of caring or being cared for in return; only the base need to rut. And, that's what made it hotter than anything Cordele had ever known before.

Velasca had taken her, taught her the secrets of domination and bondage and pleasure and pain so deliciously exquisite she thought she would die from the sensations. Restrained, powerless, out of control, she prayed to Velasca to stop the torture. Then, when she finally mercifully relented, begged her to give her just a little more. Her princess was a master of her art, skilled at intertwining both bliss and despair into a swirled mass of confusion until no coherent thought existed other than the need to do Velasca's bidding.

When she thought she was ready to learn more, her princess brought another playmate for them. A younger Amazon, clearly subservient to Velasca. And, she'd taught Cordele how to use chains and other toys to both punish and reward. She caught on quickly; having experienced Velasca's touch, she innately recognized what their submissive was feeling. And, she soon learned what gave pleasure and what gave pain and which she enjoyed permitting. She eventually discovered that she had a talent for antagonizing her victims and took great pleasure in getting beneath their skin. Physically as well as mentally.

Cordele was satisfied with their arrangement and would have been quite content for it to continue on that way. Unfortunately, Queen Melosa had learned of some of her adopted daughter's more outrageous antics and had summarily had her removed from the main village. Their playmate went with her - and Cordele was once again left alone with her frustrations.

Only this time, it was worse. Before, she had only her imagination to tease her with what she could have. Now, she had experience to add to her torment, plaguing her with the knowledge of intimately knowing first-hand exactly what it was she was craving. She fought the urges for so long, not knowing which of her sisters would appreciate her desires. Until one day, she'd finally broken down and confessed her sins to a cute young thing that she thought had the same mannerisms as Velasca's subservient playmate. When she'd first whispered the suggestions into the girl's ear, she'd been decidedly aroused by the notion. Then, in the midst of their lovemaking session, Cordele produced the manacles. She'd barely fastened one about the Amazon's wrist before she saw the look of terror and revulsion as the naked weaver bolted off her bed and out of her hut.

She had seen that same unmistakable look of terror when the stablehand had confined them in the cache. That thought took her and she suddenly realized that Ephiny's earlier sudden discomfort in her cell may have been caused by memories of her own brief imprisonment. Apparently, the impenetrable armor her regent wore had a vulnerable chink in the metal, after all. She fears relinquishing her control.

For some reason, that realization sparked a sadistic response in Cordele and she smirked at the idea of what future damage she could do with that knowledge if given half the chance.

"Trial by combat my left titty." Megara's grousing brought Cordele's immediate circumstances back into perspective. Having lost, she might never get the chance at her retribution. Megara glanced up from her stitching to pointedly look Cordele in the eyes. Her badly swollen and brutally blackened eyes. "Proves nothing more than who's bigger and stronger and more willing to bash in the other featherhead's skull."

"What choice . . . did . . . I have?" Her voice was raw and strangled and it physically pained her to form each word.

"What choice? What choice?" Megara snorted even as she used her short knife to cut off the end of the leather twine. Moving on to the gash in Cordele's thigh, she responded with, "How about the choice that you could have kept your honor and just plead guilty and avoided - " she gestured at the hunter's battered body in indication " - all this."

"And spend a life sentence at hard labor?"

"You're headed there anyway. Might have saved yourself a beating along the way, you damn fool!"

"Could have just as easily gone the other way," Cordele reasoned. "I was this close" she held up her thumb and forefinger scant inches apart "to exacting revenge on her for that unwarranted attack at the cache."

"Save it for the cons up at the outpost. I'm not your counselor, I'm not your warden, and I'm not buying what you're selling." She pressed the two folds of loose skin on Cordele's thigh together, holding it in place as she ran the needle through both parts. "You got mad because you didn't get your way and you went after her and got your tailfeathers kicked. You know it. I know it. Half the village knows it."

There was a soft knock at the door of the cell. Megara didn't even look up, expecting it to be one of the guards. Or, even her bondmate. Gods knew Pel was sweet, but she was such a worry-wart sometimes. Since Megara had entered Cordele's cell, she was positive her bondmate had stepped in just to check on things no fewer than seven times. She heard the soft clink of leather braids against the boots the younger girls favored and recognized the footfalls immediately.

"What are you doing here?" she asked, without so much as turning about. "Thought I told you to take care of that fool weapons master."

"Yes, Megara." Iphinome answered with more than a hint of trepidation in her voice. Whether it was because of the fearsome healer or the dangerous convict chained to the wall, she wasn't entirely certain. Perhaps it was more than a little bit of fear of the both of them. "Regent Ephiny said she would tend to Ep." Seasons of training beneath the healer had taught her to recognize the subtle stiffening in body language that indicated Megara's displeasure. When she'd first started her apprenticeship with Megara, she'd see her body take on that rigid positioning quite often. Since she'd become more adept at her duties, those occasions had become more and more infrequent. Nowadays, she usually only saw that reaction when Hilaeira was lax in her duties or one of them forgot their manners. Realizing the slight, she quickly amended her indiscretion. "I mean, the Weapons Master. Regent Ephiny commanded I come assist you while she attended Eponin's needs."

"Yeah, I'll bet," Cordele snorted.

Megara flashed her a warning look. "Take the bucket," she commanded her apprentice, "Tell the guard in the corridor you need more water."

"Yes, Megara." Iphinome gave Megara a respectful nod, then warily eyed the prisoner as she retrieved the bucket and hurried to do as the healer requested.

As soon as Iphinome was out of the cell, Megara addressed her obstinate patient. "You've always resented Eponin. I accept that." Her voice took on a frigid tone as she looked Cordele in the eyes and demanded, "But, your lack of respect for the regent is intolerable."

"I've always been loyal to my regent. It's not her abilities that I resent." There was a significant pause as Cordele baited the healer. "It's her choice in bed partners that I find reprehensible."

Cordele smirked, delighted that she'd caught the healer flat-footed. It was several heartbeats before Megara recovered enough to make a response.

"Who the regent does or does not take to her bed is no concern of ours!"

"It is when she's making a mockery of the purity of the royal line by spreading her legs for a mongrel - "

The rest of Cordele's outburst was cut off by a loud scream and a sharp gasp. The scream was caused by Cordele finding her thigh suddenly pierced by a herringbone needle jabbed in all the way to the needle's eye. The gasp came from the doorway of the open cell where Iphinome was standing with her hands clasped over her mouth and the guard carrying the bucket of water stared with eyes wide open in shock.

"Watch who you're calling derogatory names," warned Megara through gritted teeth, "Or, you're liable to get hurt." She pointedly twisted the needle as she extracted it from the hunter's thick thigh. Grabbing the bucket from the still stunned guard, Megara upended it, pouring ice-cold water all over the chained prisoner. "Let's go, Iphinome," she ordered, turning her back on the sputtering, cursing, thrashing hunter and striding purposefully past the guard through the open cell door, "Our work here is done."

Every nerve was on end as she endured the torturous assault. She was on shaky footing, unable to trust anything she might say or do. If I could somehow even find the strength to move. Silently, Eponin thanked Artemis that she had been at the end of the pool with both arms braced on the edge when her regent had stripped down in front of her. If I'd been in deeper water, I probably would've drowned. She distinctly recalled the sensation of every muscle in her body quivering and her legs giving out when Ephiny unwrapped her skirt.

"You don't have to . . . "

"Pony." Ephiny's tone brooked no argument. "Hush."

Apparently, her tongue was still loyal. Even though her lips moved, her mouth opening and closing repeatedly, no sound escaped her suddenly parched throat. Somehow finding some of her motor skills still intact, she unsteadily lifted the nearly empty mug of tea to her lips. Even as she sipped the almost too-hot liquid, her traitorous eyes remained firmly locked upon her regent's form.

Ephiny descended the steps leading into the pool one at a time, feeling the warmth of the water swirling about her knees. She enjoyed the sensation, reveling in it as each step brought the soothing water higher and higher up her legs. As her foot came off the last step and the warm wet engulfed her breechcloth and lapped at her navel, she let out a contented sigh.

She took a few candledrips to indulge herself, bending at the knees until the water came up to cover her torso, her breasts, her neck. Closing her eyes, she allowed herself to drift. The warmth swirling about her neck and chin, gently moving the strands of hair away from her face felt like a lover's caress. A caress that it had been too long since she'd last felt. Lost in the sensations, a decadent moan escaped her lips.

An answering moan brought her back to herself. Eyes slowly sliding open, she focused on Eponin's form. The stocky brunette was still firmly anchored to the wall of the pool, her back turned towards her regent. Ephiny noticed the death-grip she had on the handle of the mug and realized Ep must still be in a lot of pain. A wave of guilt washed over her for pampering herself while her friend was suffering.

Resolutely, Ephiny moved to Eponin's side. Leaning in, her fingertips brushing over Ep's arm, she reached past her, grabbing the sea-sponge laying on the marble tiling. Mind resolutely set on her duties, she quickly wet the sponge and laid it upon Eponin's broad shoulders. Wet rivulets worked their way over defined muscles, Ephiny's eyes rapidly following every bead of water as it cascaded over firm flesh, between arched shoulder blades and down a rigid spine before pooling into that indentation at the small of a strong back and rejoining the rest of the water in the shallow pool.

She repeated the process over and over, mesmerized by the dual dance created by the cascading water and the twitching muscles. Experimentally, Ephiny would bring the sponge up to different heights on Ep's body, sometimes making it all the way to her shoulders, sometimes stopping midway. Then, she would move the sponge this way or that as she squeezed, fascinated by the trail the droplets followed as they worked their way back towards the depths of the pool.

Sensitive ears caught the sharp inhalation as her sponge strayed farther to the side. Pausing in her administrations, Ephiny reached out, her palm upon Eponin's hip as she turned the weapons master so she could see better in the muted lighting.

"Oh, Pony . . . "

Sharp teeth bit her bottom lip as Ep felt the sponge connect with her side. She knew it was bad. She'd felt the skin tear off as Cordele had thrown her to the ground. She couldn't tell how many cuts she'd sustained and how many bits of clay were embedded in the scraped flesh, but she was acutely aware of the burn of raw skin.

No stranger to pain, she'd felt tree burn before. Had endured countless candlemarks of having Megara's less-than-gentle hands picking bark out of her flesh. Every Amazon had endured that at one time or another. It was to be expected when traveling through the treetops was a way of life. Briefly, she flashed on Solari, sympathizing with the chief scout's profession. Scouts were always more susceptible to the hazards of tree climbing and running branch to branch.

Eponin choked back another gasp, concentrated on simply breathing. Her senses were overwhelmed. The pain in her side was excruciating; the touch of Ephiny's palm on her hip was nothing short of intoxicating. She felt Ephiny's fingers, guiding her hip, turning her around as the fingers of her other hand worked as gently as possible at cleaning her skinned hide. Closing her eyes, she melted into the dual sensations of pleasure and pain.

Using her fingertips upon a solid hip to guide her, Ephiny slowly turned Eponin around. Her attention was focused on tending the abrasions that covered Ep's side and part of her torso. The skin was rubbed raw and there were numerous lacerations covering what Ephiny strongly suspected were the set of broken ribs Megara had referenced. As tenderly as possible, she ran her fingers over the wounds in an attempt at cleaning them. She heard the quick gasp, noted the tightly closed eyes, the erratic breathing.

Poor Pony.

Her heart went out to Eponin. She was in pain, that much was obvious. But, she would never admit to so much as a hangnail if she could keep from it. That's just the way she was. That's what made her an Amazon. A warrior. The weapons master. As Eponin settled beneath her touch and her expression lost some of its painful grimace, Ephiny took the chance to study the proud Amazon's profile.

Years of work in the sun had tanned her flesh a deep, bronze color. Wielding weapons since she was old enough to pick one up had developed the strength in her upper body. Endurance exercises had fortified her legs and calves, making even a simple thing like walking look like fluid grace in movement. Rigorous training had defined the corded muscles of her abdomen and back.

As her hand dipped down to retrieve more water, Eph's fingers strayed of their own accord to Eponin's abdomen. Fingertips marveled at the contrast between soft skin and ridged flesh. Her touch lingered, eyes watching in fascination as hardened muscles fairly danced beneath her fingers. Laying her whole palm along the expanse of flesh, she could feel Ep's entire stomach convulsively twitching.

A glance confirmed that Eponin's eyes were still closed. White teeth were noticeably biting her bottom lip, leaving distinct impressions in full, pink lips. Her powerful chest heaved with each breath she took. Strong hands were at her sides, thick fingers clenching and unclenching in response to Ephiny's actions.

Eyes dropped, regaining their focus on where her hand was still intimately caressing Ep's tight stomach. Logically, she knew it was her hand, her fingers that were making contact; could acutely feel Eponin's flesh beneath hers. But, even as her touches became bolder, she felt as if she were outside her body watching someone else.

It wasn't her touching her weapons master in such an intimate manner. Couldn't be her hand that was steadily moving lower and lower upon that chiseled abdomen. And, it certainly wasn't her impetuous digits that slipped below the water, touching the first wisps of downy fine hairs.

Something akin to a rumbling growl startled Ephiny, bringing her senses back into alignment. Trembling, she forced her errant hand to scoop up another handful of water, bringing it up to wash the raw skin covering her Amazon's ribs. Breathing deeply, then exhaling a long shuddering breath, she slowly forced her eyes up.

Ep's features were classic. A chiseled jaw, defined cheek bones, a proud nose and long, ebony locks falling about strong shoulders. The most amazing thing about her, though . . . more amazing to Ephiny than her perfectly toned body . . . were her eyes. They were light in color, almost the shade of honey as it was pulled dripping straight from the comb of the beehive. They're exactly the shade of honey, Ephiny amended, sweet and warm and capable of drawing you in and ensnaring you.

It was easy to fall into Ep's eyes and get lost in them. But, no matter how deeply she looked, Ephiny felt like she wasn't able to really see what lay beneath the surface of that gaze. She'd known Eponin nearly all her life . . . and so much of her was still a mystery. She didn't know the emotions the stoic warrior kept hidden deep within - her hopes, her fears, her desires.

What do you long for most in this world, Pony? Ephiny bit her bottom lip as she contemplated the question. And, is it something that's in my power to give you?



Eponin opened her eyes to find shimmering hazel staring back at her. She'd been so startled by the intensity of the gaze boring into her that her knees nearly buckled. Blindly reaching out, seeking support, both hands unerringly locked upon her regent's slick waist.

Ephiny felt the calloused palms upon her flesh, the heat emanating from each fingertip as they firmly clutched at her hips. Unable to meet that remarkable gaze any longer, her eyes fluttered, rapidly moving over Eponin's face, retreating to safer ground. Her gaze landed first on Eponin's customary leather choker, watching the pendant rise and fall against the hollow of her throat with each swallow. Deciding that wasn't any safer than where her gaze had previously been, she averted her eyes, looking at some point over Ep's shoulder instead.

What is wrong with you? Ephiny mentally chastised herself. Pony's your friend. And, she needs your help. And, you . . . you need to get a grip. Taking a deep breath, she tried to calm her rapidly beating heart. What are you thinking, anyway? You wouldn't be acting like this if the council hadn't demanded -

Eponin noticed Ephiny's averted gaze, the way her flesh trembled beneath her fingers. "Hey," she asked, somehow finding the strength to speak. Her voice was husky and deep, a growling timbre resonating with desire as she asked, "You okay?"

Ephiny cut off her mental flogging. Steeling herself, she met Eponin's gaze. Per usual, she couldn't read Pony's deepest emotions in her eyes, but she could still see concern shimmering in their light hues. She conjured up a soft smile.

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine." She absently nodded. "Just thinking about some stuff." Seeing the unspoken question in Eponin's eyes, she supplied, "Regency stuff." A slight shrug of her shoulders as she offered, "Council of Elders, actually."

"Thought they'd settle down once this whole trial thing was put to rest."

Ephiny's eyes quickly darted away. Biting her bottom lip in contemplation, she looked back again, finding Eponin patiently watching her. "The trial by combat may be over, but things have hardly been put to rest." Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Ephiny confessed, "Thank Artemis that Cordele and her flunkies will be out of my hair tomorrow. But, there's still plenty of unresolved issues that need to be rectified. The Council wants resolution on the Doretta situation. We need to decide if she's going to reside with the priestesses permanently or be sent to a hospice in Athens more capable of dealing with her mental issues. Although, personally, I'm against sending any sister to a city for any reason. Then, there's security issues. They want to know how a kid managed to smuggle both myself and a skilled hunter out of the main village undetected. And, that's only the tip of the arrowhead. You should hear some of the other issues they've put on the table as a result of this debacle."

"You want me to have a talk with Devillare?" Eponin asked, "Maybe ask her to get them to back off of you a little?"

Ephiny was clearly taken aback by the unexpected offer. Of course, she was fully aware that Devillare had at one point been Eponin's mentor. But, her stoic weapons master was always so closed mouthed about her past. And, the retired captain of the guard was no chatterbox, either. They both belonged to that old warrior's school that dictated actions were more important than words. Although, neither of them were what you could term openly demonstrative in their feelings, either. Given those circumstances, it was easy to forget that Devillare was the closest thing to family that Eponin had.

Oh, they were all sisters. There was no denying that. And being sisters, they were of course, all family. But even in the Amazon Nation, there were still strong, traditional familial ties. When she had first realized all those seasons ago that the fierce captain was the quiet warrior's guardian, she asked Ep why she didn't publicly acknowledge Devillare. Surely she would be promoted to a higher rank in the warrior caste much more quickly if her superiors realized who her mentor was.

When she suggested it, Pony cornered her and made her promise not to tell. Anyone. She wanted to earn her feathers on her own, not have them handed to her because of who she knew. She didn't want anyone to be able to say she hadn't earned what was hers. She needed to be able to stand on her own abilities, to build her own reputation. Those are most likely the deepest emotions Pony's ever shared.

Now, to think that Eponin was openly admitting her connection, offering to speak to Devillare on her behalf -

"Typical," she murmured, running a hand along Eponin's shoulder and collarbone. "You're bruised and battered and hurting." She caught Ep's mouth opening in protest, put a finger against her lips to still her objections. "But, as usual, you're more worried about someone else before yourself."

Ep waited, remaining silent as Ephiny's finger left her lips. She'd been so tempted to just purse her lips and kiss that finger . . . but as was normally the case when it came to Ephiny, her body was just a little too slow to react to all the impulses coming from her brain.

An open palm landed on her cheek, softly cupping and caressing. But, before Eponin could respond, it was gone again, sending lingering touches upon her heated flesh. She next felt that palm at the side of her neck, fingers stroking their way through her feathered earring.

"Eph." Hooded hazel eyes met hers again and she nearly crumbled. Swallowing convulsively, she looked away, unable to meet Ephiny's gaze. Okay, breathe. Form the words. She nervously licked her lips. Recalling the advice the Goddess of Love had given her, she reminded herself Aphrodite said they didn't have to come out perfect, as long as they came from the heart. "Umm . . . I think you're," she wet her lips again " . . . umm . . . worth worrying about."

"Thanks, Pony." A half-heartbeat and then, "I was worried for you, too. When Cordele hit you and I saw all the blood . . . " Her voice trailed off as her fingers worked at trying to dislodge some of the dried crimson from the feather hanging off Eponin's lobe.

"Actually, Eph . . . "

She was acutely aware of Ephiny's gaze fixated on her neck and her touch upon her body. One hand was on her shoulder, fingers brushing through her dark mane. The fingers of her other hand were still working at the feathered earring she wore. Brow furrowed in concentration, she leaned in impossibly closer, invading Eponin's space completely.

Invading. Conquering. Pillaging. Ep was having difficulty stringing two coherent thoughts together, let alone articulate a complete sentence. She breathed in deeply, tendrils of Ephiny's blonde curls tickling at her nose. The hand that had been clutching her shoulder moved about her neck until Ep was suddenly caught in an awkward hug. Reflexively, Eponin's hands moved from Eph's waist, repositioning themselves at the small of her back.

"I wanted to tell you - " Eponin tilted her head, trying to get a look at Ephiny's profile to gauge her expression.

"Hold still, Pony," Ephiny admonished, "I've almost got it."

Intent on her task, Ephiny pressed in closer, her slick breasts sliding across Eponin's. Her regent's body was fully pressed against hers, and not for the first time, Ep longed to feel what was beneath Ephiny's breechcloth. The throbbing between her legs matched the beating of her heart and echoed the pounding in her ears. Eyes threatening to roll back in her head, Ep struggled with the urge to simply turn Ephiny about, press her back against the wall of the pool and take her.

You'll scare her off, acting like a lust-crazed barbarian some part of her brain managed to form that thought. Words. Use your words. Ephiny shifted against her. By the Gods, does she know what she's doing to me? Eponin bit down on her bottom lip, teeth drawing blood as she fought to keep from moaning aloud. Mighty Aphrodite! . . . Help me!

"There. Got it."

Abruptly, Ephiny was no longer hugging her neck; that delicious body was no longer crawling all over her. She felt both Ephiny's hands slide down her forearms as she disentangled herself. Ever so slowly, Eponin managed to bring her rioting heartbeat back under some semblance of control.

Ephiny was standing before her, a triumphant smile on her face as she held the blood encrusted feather up for Eponin's inspection. "Now, what did you want to tell me?" she asked, fingers still absently stroking the feather, smoothing out the ruffled plume.

"Umm . . . " Eponin's gaze was firmly fixed on Ephiny's fingers, her mind associating the stroking action the feather was receiving with something else. "I was trying to say that I wasn't just worried about you today . . . Not that I wasn't worried about you today. I was . . . " Even though Ephiny had ended their embrace, Eponin was painfully aware that the regent was still encroaching on her personal space. "I mean, I worry about you more than just . . . " Nervously, she wet her lips, trying to find the words as those hazel eyes looked at her expectantly. "I mean . . . I have . . . I like . . . " Shyly, she ducked her head, peering up at her stunning regent through thick, dark lashes. "Eph, I think I have feel - "

"Regent Ephiny!"

Metanira stopped just inside the door, the hide covering still clutched in her fist as she slid to an unsteady halt on the slick marble tile. At Elder Tynette's insistence, she'd ran all the way from the ceremonial fields in search of the regent. Youthful, inexperienced eyes widened at the sight of the regent and weapons master locked in a compromising embrace.

Ephiny turned within Eponin's arms, leveling her most irritated scowl at the intruder. "What is it?" she fairly growled.

"My apologies, my regent." Metanira hastily averted her eyes, suddenly finding the tiled floor extremely fascinating. Don't look up. Don't look up. "Elder Tynette asked me to remind you that your presence is required at the celebration." A soft snort demanded she look up, and she caught an eyeful of naked Amazon breasts. Four of them. Or, two sets, her mind rationalized. Wet from the bath and their nipples . . . she quickly dropped her gaze again. "She asked me to also tell you that she wished a . . . " if it was possible, her entire body blushed at the next set of words " . . . private discussion at your earliest convenience."

Folding both arms across her chest, Ephiny leveled a glare at the scout. A glare that was decidedly wasted as the poor girl was too terrified to even raise her eyes from where they were locked on the tile floor. With an exasperated sigh that sent her blonde curls lifting off her forehead, she rolled her eyes.

Guess I can't kill the messenger; Queen Gabrielle doesn't allow that sort of thing, anyway. That thought brought an evil smirk to Ephiny's lips. Besides, my bow's back in my hut.

She suddenly realized that with the scout's intrusion, her shift in position had placed Eponin at her back. And, she slowly became cognizant of the feel of full breasts pressing against her shoulder blades. Looking down, she noticed the set of powerful arms that still encircled her waist. Sliding her hands down Eponin's forearms, her fingertips touched the backs of strong hands.

At her touch, Eponin's hands dropped away and Ephiny felt her take a decisive step backwards, putting some space between them. I thought she - Confused, she glanced over her shoulder, but Eponin's gaze was fixed on the other end of the room, her unreadable warrior's mask firmly in place. Taking a shuddering breath, Ephiny turned her attention back to the waiting scout.

"Thank you, Metanira," she managed to respond, sounding every bit in command once again, "Tell the elders I'll join them directly."

"Yes, your majesty." The young scout briskly saluted, sharply striking her chest with her closed fist. Then, she bolted from the hospice as fast as her long, lanky legs could carry her.

"Sorry." Ephiny's apology was already forming on her lips before the scout was completely out the door. "Drawback of being in charge, I guess. Everyone wants something from you." She was to the side of the pool in three brisk strides and pulling herself out of the water. "Now I know why our Queen travels with Xena. Only way she can get any peace and quiet." She deftly wrapped her skirt about her still wet flesh, fastened it into place with her belt. Slipping her gauntlets on, securing them, she paused in her grumbling long enough to flick a glance back at the pool. "What were you saying earlier, Pony?"

"Ummm . . . " Eponin studiously averted her gaze as Ephiny lifted her halter over her head, settling it into place. "I . . . that is . . . " Frustrated at the intrusion and the lost opportunity and her inability to express herself, she loudly exhaled and pushed a hand through her thick hair. "I . . . " she caught Ephiny's expectant gaze. "It's nothing."

"Oh. You are gonna make it to the celebration later, aren't you?" Eph asked, using her fingers to shake some of the moisture out of her hair. "After all, you are the champion."

"Yeah, sure." Ep nodded, "Just as soon as I can get cleaned up and get out of here."

"You need anything?" she asked, pausing with her foot in one boot and the other dangling from her fingertips. "I can send someone by with some fresh leathers. Maybe a royal escort?"

"Nah, I'm good. Devillare dropped me off some clean clothes earlier." She managed what she hoped was a convincing smile. "And, I'm hardly the sort to need a royal escort, anyway."

"Never know," Ephiny shrugged, "Sometimes, they come in pretty handy." She stopped at the edge of the pool, bent down low, running a finger over a cut across the bridge of Eponin's nose she hadn't noticed before. "That's going to swell," she pronounced, wagging her finger at the steadily darkening area.

Ep self-consciously used her hand to cover her nose, fingers experimentally pressing at the tender flesh about her nose and eyes. She watched as Ephiny rose to her feet, made her way across the room. She was strong and elegant and graceful. Gone was the tender woman she'd been in the baths with; in her place was the Amazon Regent. And, she was glorious.

"I'll see you at the celebration no later than a candlemark from now," she commanded. Pausing at the hide covering, Ephiny tossed back over her shoulder, "You okay?" At Pony's mute nod, "You look like something's bothering you." She caught a glimpse of something reflected in Eponin's eyes and asked, "Wanna talk about it?"

"No! No." Ep waved her off, "It's fine. I'm fine. I mean, it'll keep."

"Okay then, I guess I'll catch up with you later." Eph gave a shrug of her shoulders, offered a tiny smile. "In about a candlemark or so?"

"Umm - right. I'll, uh, save you a spot."

Ephiny gave a surprised arch of her brow, then nodded curtly, sending her damp curls tousling about her shoulders. Then, she was gone. Eponin intently listened for the sound of her retreating boots before repeatedly banging her head on the edge of the pool and berating herself with "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!"

Artemis' full moon was at the apex of its power, casting full light upon the Amazon village. The celebration was in full force in honor of Eponin's victory. The drums beat loudly, the dancers moved wildly about the larger bonfires and the drink flowed freely.

The ceremonial platform where the Queen's and Regent's chairs were usually decked out in resplendent decor was abandoned. The banquet table empty, with not so much as a crumb of bread to mar the surface. The braziers remained unlit, shrouding the platform in darkness.

This night was not about the return of their Queen. Nor, was it about a celebration for the fully-feathered status of their newest warriors. Nor, to commemorate a myriad of other important ceremonies that lay steeped in tradition. There were no eloquent toasts, no rehearsed speeches, no blessings by the priestess. As a matter of fact, the Priestesses of Artemis were decidedly absent from this festivity. As were all of the Amazons under the age of womanhood.

This, too, was a ritual steeped deep in tradition. Harkening back to the earliest days of the Amazons, long before there were scrolls to record such events. Passed down orally from generation to generation, retold over and over again. It's purpose was to give homage to the power of their Goddess Artemis and honor her wisdom in blessing her champion with the strength to defeat her enemies in battle.

It was a glorification of the strength, power and skill required to be Artemis' champion. This feast was about the nature of the beast. Savage in its intensity, excessiveness was customary and the need for physical gratification unrestrained. There was a reason Artemis was goddess of the hunt, protectress of the forest, patron of the Amazons. All three of Artemis' passions were wild, untamed and beautifully dangerous. Raw, savage and primal. It was the way of the sacred hunt and the great forest. It was the way of the Amazon.

The guest of honor sat in front of a small fire circle, her back braced against a log. Despite her late arrival, the best site had been reserved for her, a large banner tied to a post indicating her camp. As champion, her campsite had been set up so she had an unobstructed view of practically everything that was occurring at the celebration.

There were more than seventy of these diminutive rings of fire sporadically positioned about the field. And, around each site were numerous furs spread out over the ground. Soft murmuring and giggling could be heard from couples that were already huddled together beneath their furs. A few of the more amorous pairings were seeking their pleasure on top of the furs rather than beneath, their lovemaking on display for any that cared to look.

Self-consciously, Eponin averted her gaze from a not-so-distant pairing. Her earlier encounter with Ephiny was still too fresh for her to watch and remain unaffected. And, she was hardly bold enough to do something to relieve that ache now. Even if it was considered socially acceptable given her current surroundings. Discreetly, she reached for one of the furs littered about her own fire ring. As champion, she didn't expect to make it back to her own hut tonight, but she also wasn't planning on being chilled to the bone if there was a sudden fur shortage.

Winter wasn't quite upon them yet, but the nights were markedly cooler and she was anticipating there being a frost on the ground by morning. Leaning forward, positioning the rolled fur behind her back, she once again settled against the log. Shifting into a comfortable position, she folded her hands across her stomach and lazily watched the celebration unfold about her.

The Amazons that hadn't already staked out their own fire circles were drawn to the activity in the center of the field. The large bonfires were giving off plenty of heat and wineskins were being liberally passed about the spectators. Unexpectedly, the tempo of the drums increased, setting a faster pace. The dancers keeping up the frenzied pace about the flames were visibly flushed from exertion, heat and drink. Their movements were wild, their hair whipped about their faces, the slick sheen of perspiration drenched their bodies.

As the beat continued on unchecked, more than one dancer unlaced her top. Catcalls and wolf whistles abounded and shouts of encouragement to take it all off! could be heard. One of the dancers, a redhead whose highlights were magnified tenfold by the flames towering behind her, sashayed her way to the perimeter of the dance circle.

Reaching out, she managed to caress Gryta's cheek and cup her chin even as she continued to maintain the beat set by the drums. Before the young guard could protest, the dancer's hands were locked about her wrists and she was being pulled into the dance circle. Good-naturedly, Gryta followed the bold dancer's moves, doing her best to keep up with the quick-paced steps. Encouraged by the shouts and claps of her sisters, she even went so far as to remove her top, giving it an underhanded toss towards the perimeter of the dance ring. But, when the dancer brazenly reached for the leather ties at the side of her loincloth, the flustered young guard was forced to beg off.

As far as celebrations go, this sucks swamp water! Ephiny frowned at that overly dramatic allusion. Listen to me; waxing philosophical. That's what happens when your Queen is a bard. Next thing you know, all the warriors will be reciting Sappho by the light of the moon.

That ironic thought carried her along, taking her mind in a decidedly mischievous direction as she imagined Devillare and Egeria and even Xena on a stage, recanting soliloquies about the lamentable life of a warrior blessed with a strong sword arm and an even stronger libido, but cursed with an unconquerable heart. That image tickled her enough that she nearly smiled; despite the graveness of her current situation.

Feet planted firmly apart, arms folded across her chest, she knew she was projecting what Gabrielle would term a defensive, unapproachable front. Which, was just fine with her. She'd been ambushed, overwhelmed by superior numbers and backed into a corner. And, the last thing she was feeling right now was hospitable or diplomatic.

"Regent Ephiny," Tynette exhaled loudly, "We sympathize with your position, but surely you must realize, that in light of recent events, we have concerns."

"I have concerns, as well." Ephiny cocked her head to the side, leveled a glare at the elder hunter. "I'm concerned about you poking your noses into my private life!"

"As Regent of the Amazons," reminded Nicphellia, "You gave up your right to a private life without scrutiny when you accepted the crown."

"Scrutiny, fine! I have nothing to hide; you can scrutinize my life until you're blue in the face. But, actively meddling in it? No!" Ephiny emphasized with a swipe of her hand "I never agreed to that!"

At her explosive outburst, Devillare took a step back from the huddled group, gave a cautious look around. She hadn't wanted to do this. Not like this. Not now. But, Tynette had insisted. The hunter argued that the regent might be more approachable if they spoke with her privately before the official session. When they were fewer in number so it didn't seem like the entire council was against her. Always the diplomatic scholar, Evanthe had readily agreed. And, to her surprise, so had Nicphellia. Devillare had somewhat hesitantly acquiesced, hoping her presence might keep anyone from getting too far out of line.

So, they'd sent the young scout to find the regent. And, she'd promptly reported back, stating that Ephiny would join them shortly. Devillare had mixed feelings about that, as well. Tynette had worded the message in such a way that it sounded like Ephiny was shirking her duties. In truth, the regent's presence amongst her sisters this night was for little more than a showing of good leadership and support of Artemis' choice of champion. The regent wasn't expected to serve in any real capacity this evening.

With the regent not required to give an announcement and with no need for an official to begin the night's activities, the celebration had commenced almost as soon as Eponin was carried off the field and Cordele was dragged away to her cell. By the time the regent had arrived, most of the Amazons had indulged in more than a few skins of drink. Including a couple of their esteemed elders.

It was a simple matter to accost the regent before she'd been able to even secure her first skin. They'd met her almost as soon as she'd come out onto the field. Ushering her to a private arena at the edge of the darkened woods, the four of them had encircled her, informing her that they wanted to further discuss the rather delicate matter they had presented her with before official council sessions resumed again.

Doesn't matter how pretty we worded it; fact is, we ganged up on her. Devillare quickly glanced at her cohorts that were standing squared off against the regent. Tynette and Nicphellia were on edge, bristling from what they thought was a less than cooperative attitude from the clearly ticked off regent.

"As Regent," interrupted Tynette, "You have an obligation to the Nation."

Careful there, Tynette! thought Devillare, rolling her eyes. She's not some meek puppy that's going to cower in the corner when you bark at her. Insult her loyalty and you might lose a hand.

"As Regent," Ephiny ground out through gritted teeth, "I have fulfilled all of my obligations." She firmly fixed her ire on Tynette. "And, the next time you send a messenger to request a private meeting with me," At this, she purposely allowed her gaze to drift to the other three assembled elders before returning to intensely focus on Tynette, "Make sure it's in private."

"No one is trying to imply you have been less than exemplary in the performance of any of your duties." Nicphellia glared daggers at Tynette, silently urging her sister to keep her mouth shut "We're merely . . . requesting . . . you give further consideration to your responsibilities as ruler and give due thought as to how your . . . unattached status . . . may have contributed to the recent chaos in the Nation."

Ephiny felt her anger rising, her nostrils flaring as she sharply inhaled; the tightening of every muscle in her body as she tensed up. Even that little nerve at the corner of her eye felt like it was trying to twitch itself right off her face. Eyes narrowing, she wondered would anyone notice if we were suddenly missing four elders come morning's light?

Fingers laced together, palms resting atop her stomach, Eponin idly continued to watch the dancers down by the large fire circles. It's a good thing they gave me the best site; cause all that I can do; watch. She could swear every bone ached and every muscle in her body screamed in protest at the slightest movement she made. Even after the soak in the warm water and that second mug of broth. She did have to admit, though, the throbbing pain was beginning to subside.

Nothing like a sharp, stabbing pain to remind you not to move the wrong way, though. Now, if that blasted buzzing in my ears would just stop - Ep tried to put it out of her mind, but no matter how she tried, it just kept coming back. And, she was getting bored. What good was it to be champion if you couldn't enjoy the festivities? Oh, there were plenty of well-wishers who came by to congratulate her or offer her a skin of Amazonian wine. But, according to healer's orders, she wasn't allowed to drink tonight. And, with each wineskin she was forced to turn down, her good mood was starting to wear thin.

It was to the point where she was starting to feel downright sour by the time Solari joined her. Sweat was coating the Amazon's upper body and torso and she was meandering a rather unsteady path towards Eponin. A wineskin was clutched firmly in one hand, a scrap of cloth in the other. The chief scout collapsed rather unceremoniously upon the closest bearskin.

"Having fun?" Ep asked, noting her friend's flushed appearance.

"Oh, yeah," Solari grinned. "You?"

"Time of my life."

"Brought you something," offered Solari, tossing the scrap of cloth at Eponin before rolling over and propping her folded arm behind her head.

"Whose is it?" Eponin asked, unwadding the top, holding it up by just one of the leather ties.

"Don't know." Solari shrugged, turning her head so she was able to examine the leather more closely. "Although if I had to guess," she answered, pointedly leering at the cup size, "I'd say Nephele."

"Uh-huh. And, don't you think she might be needing this back later?"

Solari allowed her gaze to wander to the dance circle. "Nah. Looks like Gryta's got everything well in-hand."

"You're bad, Solari." Ep shook her head. "You are so bad." She dubiously eyed the top still clutched in her hand. "So, what am I supposed to do with this?"

"Oh, my friend, if you don't know what to do with an Amazon's halter," Solari's toothy grin was huge, "Then there's more wrong with you than even the healers can cure!"

"Funny, Solari. Very funny." Eponin wadded up the top, tossing it so that it smacked the chief scout squarely in the face. She mumbled below her breath, "As if I could do anything tonight even if I had the chance."

Solari's hearing was amongst the sharpest in the Nation. She could hear a pine needle fall from the highest tree in the forest. Therefore, it was no surprise that the chief scout had heard Eponin's under-her-breath grumbling. Even over the sounds of the drums and the celebration. Rolling over, ending up on her stomach, she propped herself up on her elbows, both eyes raking over the weapons master's body.

Even in the dim lighting cast by the glow of the fire, Solari could tell that Eponin's face was swollen, her eyes darkened with bruising. There was a small strip of plaster stretched across the bridge of her nose and another patch for her neck. Solari knew exactly what that bandage was covering, had seen the gashes when she'd gone to Ep directly after the fight. That bitch wasn't out to just defeat Ep; she was trying to inflict as much damage as possible.

The proud warrior's body was a myriad of cuts, scrapes and bruises. Another set of bandages encircled her torso, covering her ribcage. Solari had heard Eponin's ragged breathing on the field, had already guessed she'd broken some ribs. Oooh, that's gotta sting! She thought, noting the expanse of raw, exposed flesh stretching along Eponin's side, starting below the line of the bandage and disappearing beneath the waistband of Ep's leathers.

Her knee was firmly wrapped in the brace that Megara had berated her for not wearing. And, a set of crutches lay nearby. She'd seen Eponin arrive at the celebration earlier, watched as the healer's assistant guided her to the campsite and helped her sit down before disappearing and then reappearing no more than ten candledrips later with a mug of something for the weapons master. Spying the nearly empty mug nearby, getting a whiff of the odor, she assumed it was some of that broth Megara was always trying to get them to drink whenever they had an ailment of any sort.

She didn't know what was in that brew. In truth, she didn't think anyone did. Not even old Megara herself. Rumor was, she'd just mix up a batch in the hospice, throwing in every root and bramble and herb she could find and leave it steeping in a gourd until it was good and rotten. Then, she'd get her kicks out of forcing poor, hapless warriors to drink her vile concoctions.

When they were younger, her and Eph had followed Megara into the forest, watching from a distance as she gathered her roots and herbs. When they saw her digging up wild onions and putting them in her leather bag, they were sure that was what had accounted for the brew's foul smell. She'd nearly peed her leathers when Ephiny made the most Gods'-awfulest face she'd ever seen when they witnessed Megara using her knife to scrape moss and bark and fuzzy-bugs off a tree. They'd continued to follow her, watching from a distance, ducking out of sight whenever they thought the healer was aware of their presence, only to reemerge on her trail mere candledrips later. This routine continued on and on throughout most of the day; until they'd seen Megara down by the river picking up mushrooms and tadpoles indiscriminately.

Wonder if poor Ep knows what she's been drinking - shaking off the sudden chill that went down her spine, Solari put that thought straight out of her mind. Best to not think about it. She vividly remembered shortly after their spying mission on Megara, there'd been a raging downpour of a storm. And, her and Eph not having enough sense between them to come in out of the rain, had both come down with the coughing sickness.

They'd tried to hide it from their superiors for as long as they could and thought they were doing a pretty good job of it. Then, Ephiny's mom had heard them in Eph's bed, both coughing loud enough to wake the dead. And, instead of sending them to the healer, she'd gone out in the middle of the night and brought the healer in to them. One look at them and Megara had prescribed that dreaded broth.

Oh, they tried to get out of drinking it. It had became almost a competition of sorts to see who could get rid of theirs in the most creative way possible. They'd poured it on a plant that Eph's mom had brought into the hut to cheer up the place a bit until it was on the verge of wilting and dying. They dug a hole in the floor in Eph's room and poured it in, then covered the hole with a animal pelt. After a while, it started to smell like the animal had died in that room. So, they started taking to chucking it out the window. That worked up until the point that Queen Melosa was passing by and got her feathers drenched with the foul brew.

They were in for it then. The both of them together in Ephiny's bed, huddled beneath the covers, shivering despite it being the hottest of summer days. Ephiny's mom, Queen Melosa and Megara all standing around the bed, arms folded over their chests, staring down at them with stony expressions Medusa herself would have been proud of. Then, having to endure candlemarks of lectures from each of them about how they were wasting valuable resources by being sick and not doing their best to make a speedy recovery. Solari remembered Melosa's lecture by rote. You're taking Megara's time away from more serious patients. You're taking your mother away from her duties by making her play nursemaid to you, you're depriving the warriors that she trains of their teacher. You're both missing your duties, forcing us to redistribute your workload to others. And, you're wasting my time by having to come in to lecture you, thereby pulling me away from my duties.

Hard-headed and stubborn even then, Ephiny had gotten that annoyed look in her eyes and jutted her chin out defiantly. And, before anyone could stop her, she was up and out of that bed, determined to prove she was still capable of pulling her weight. Until she'd stumbled and would have fallen if not for Melosa's quick reflexes. Then, she had to endure the embarrassment of having the Queen of the Amazons herself tuck her skinny backside into bed. And, from that point on, whenever their broth was brought in either Ephiny's mom or Megara would stay in the room with them until they were certain they'd drank every lost drop.

Solari's gag reflex kicked in at the dual assault of memories combined with the smell coming from Ep's mug. She swallowed briskly, squeezed out a mouthful of wine from her skin in an effort to rinse out the remembered taste of the broth. Then, she realized the odor was getting noticeably stronger.

Rolling over, Solari noticed the leather boots with the braided fastenings come into view first. As they came closer, her eyes wandered up, following the length of long, trim legs to a fawn colored skirt with a braided belt that was looped twice about a slim waist. Small, pert breasts were covered by a matching top with darker brown feathers hanging from the shoulder straps. Long, flowing blonde hair was draped over a rounded shoulder. Dark brown eyes were staring at her from beneath two raised brows.

"Solari," the young healer nodded in greeting.

"Hilaeira." Solari's timbre resonated with a smooth mellowness.

Feeling relaxed from the wine she'd consumed, Solari continued to lay on her back, one arm tucked beneath her head as she unabashedly let her eyes roam over the nubile body of the healer's assistant. Hilaeira seemed unsettled by the chief scout's appraising look, but not entirely displeased. Mostly, she seemed uncomfortable by the attention. Finally finding the strength to tear her eyes away from Solari, she pointedly turned towards Eponin.

As the young Amazon knelt at Eponin's side, Solari noticed that the blonde held another mug of that Gods-awful broth in her hand. Nimble fingers reached into a healer's pouch dangling from the belt tied at her waist, retrieving a small, thin candle and a bit of flint. Glancing about this way and that, she proclaimed, "Here, hold this" and passed the mug of foul-smelling broth to Solari. Grimacing slightly, Solari took the proffered mug, holding it as far away from her sensitive nose as possible.

Hilaeira deftly struck the flint, lit the well-used candle. She cupped her hand about the wick, shielding the newly lit flame from the slight evening breeze. As the flame caught and held, she moved her hand away, slowly leaning in closer to the weapons master.

"Follow the light," she instructed. When Eponin began to turn her entire head, the blonde reached out, using her thumb and index finger to catch a strong chin. "Using just your eyes," she explained, "Follow the flame with just your eyes."

Solari watched in muted fascination as the healer moved her hand left, then right, up and down, the fingers of her other hand still holding Eponin's jaw firmly in place. Each movement she made, Eponin's eyes followed. Her eyes held and reflected the flame, changing the hue of her eyes from light brown to golden yellow, their color reminding Solari of a huge wildcat she'd once come eye to eye with on the thick branch of a tree. She, too, was mesmerized by the action, her eyes following both the flame and Eponin's eyes. As the exercise stretched out, she noticed Ep's eyes momentarily falter as the flame moved left then right at a quicker pace before she compensated and anticipated the next movement back to the left again.

Hilaeira leaned in closer, trying to gauge the size of both pupils compared to each other. Her hair fell in her eyes, blocking her view and she roughly pushed the strands back, tucking them behind her ear. She huffed in frustration, unable to hold the candle and maintain her position and see what she was doing all at the same time.

"Hold this," she commanded Solari, urging the scout to move closer. As she did, Hilaeira thrust the cumbersome flint and candle into her hands. In one swift movement, the healer scrambled across Eponin's form, straddling a thickly muscled thigh, feeling the fur beneath her knees as she settled into a crouch. Reaching out, using both hands to cup Eponin's face as she examined her, she instructed, "Now, bring the light closer."

"What is it?" Eponin asked, trying her best to be patient and not move. When the healer didn't immediately answer, she growled beneath her breath.

They had started with four. They were down to half their number now. When Ephiny's temper had flared, Devillare had been concerned that the regent might suddenly take Tynette down with a leg sweep. Would have served her right, too. When the elder hunter had first suggested the notion of approaching the regent, Evanthe, Nicphellia and herself had agreed because they thought it might be more appropriate to discuss things in a sociable environment. None of them thought Tynette was going to openly attack the regent and question her loyalty to the Nation.

Fortunately, saner heads had prevailed and an all-out bloodbath had been avoided. The fight had been settled with a minimum of icy stares and heated words being exchanged. Nicphellia had noticed the tightened fists and had caught Tynette's forearms and dragged them behind her back. And, Devillare had casually looped an arm about Ephiny's waist, effectively restraining her. Then, Evanthe defused the situation by stepping between the two verbally sparring Amazons and suggested in that calm voice of hers that everyone sleep on it and table the discussion until the next day's council session. In Evanthe's words: We shouldn't borrow trouble when there's plenty enough to go around now.

Evanthe was always spouting some philosophical saying or another that no one was quite sure what the true meaning of it was. Including Evanthe, some suspected. But, she had read every scroll in the Amazonian library from top to bottom and she could hold her own in any literary or philosophical discussion with Queen Gabrielle. No small feat, to be sure, judging from the conversations the elder and the little queen would engage in while she was in the village. Many an Amazon had overheard the beginning of a topic at breakfast and then picked up the same thread still being carried on over the evening meal.

It was no secret that the Queen's traveling companion was a stoic warrior not given to much conversation. Gabrielle had often remarked that there'd be entire days where she was ecstatic when she'd gotten Xena to string two grunts together. And, few Amazons - including her mate - had the stamina to keep up an in-depth conversation with Evanthe. Therefore, it was both a relief for Gabrielle and the entire Nation when she came to visit and spent time with Evanthe. It was also no surprise that when she left, Evanthe found herself once again surrounded by people who just didn't understand her . . . and often gave in to her suggestions simply because it was easier than trying to decipher or dispute anything she had said.

And, that's how it came to happen that despite Tynette's initial machinations, she was convinced to leave the matter be for the night and simply enjoy the evening's celebrations the way they were intended. And somehow, again at Evanthe's suggestion, Nicphellia found herself joining the elder hunter in splitting a flask of wine. And, how I came to be escorting Evanthe to her campsite with lil' Ephie in tow, Devillare ruefully shook her head, still wondering at precisely how such an event had transpired.

How do I get myself into these situations? Ephiny was wondering as she found herself casually meandering across the celebration field with two elders. Two of the nicer elders to be sure, but still - Gods, I deserve a drink!

Evanthe was flanked on either side by the retired captain of the guard and the current regent of the nation. Her old joints were aching tonight, especially her hip. Although, it always tended to give her problems in cooler weather. As a twinge of pain assaulted her bones, she reached out, wrapping her long fingers about Ephiny's arm.

At the elder's touch, Ephiny slowed her pace just a bit. Patting the elder scout's wrinkled hand, she repositioned it, settling it into the crook of her arm. Ephiny was raised to respect her elders. And, despite the ambush she'd endured earlier, she found she couldn't hold a grudge against Evanthe. The retired scout had done her best to remain diplomatic throughout the confrontation. And, in reality, Ephiny knew she couldn't fault her.

And, Devillare hadn't said two words since they'd cornered her. Evanthe was short, even for a scout, and her frame was beginning to stoop with age. Ephiny had no trouble looking over her head at the taller Amazon flanking Evanthe's left side. They were just beginning to pass the largest of the dance circles and Ephiny noticed how the light from the bonfires cast a glow upon Devillare's skin.

Devillare had been young when she'd been promoted to her rank as captain of the guard. And, if Ephiny had to guess, she'd say the former captain was the youngest of the women on the council of elders. She was certainly the most fit. Her muscles were still toned, her flesh still firm, her strength still evident. Scrutinizing her with a critical eye, the only signs of aging Ephiny could find were the laugh lines deeply etched about eyes and mouth and the salt-and-peppering of once solid black hair.

I wonder if Pony will age as well. It was a natural comparison. Eponin was Devillare's protégé. From the first time she'd seen Ep practicing on the field, Devillare had been there. She hadn't noticed it immediately, because the captain of the guard was usually in the background, only offering instruction or advice when Ep truly needed it. But, when she finally took the time to truly notice, she realized that when it came to Eponin, Devillare was constantly nearby.

Then, one day, the resemblance struck her and she asked Pony if the captain of the guard was her mother. Ep had gotten the strangest look on her face, almost as if she'd plunged a dagger into her gut when Ephiny had innocently asked her that. She just stared at her for long candledrips, with this wounded expression on her face.

"Regent Ephiny!" Eph suddenly found two hands clasped about one of hers, fervently tugging at her fingers. "Time to dance!"

Surprised, Ephiny turned to look directly into the eyes of a very enthusiastic Moraine. The dancer's face was flushed from the dance, the tip of her nose red from the wine. A fine sheen of perspiration coated her entire body. A glance at the rest of the dancers still shaking their tailfeathers about the fire circle revealed that more than half of them had discarded the top portion of their costumes, leaving themselves clad in only their loincloths.

"Come on," Moraine implored again, waggling Ephiny's fingers in an insistent attempt at drawing her out to the dance circle.

Her twin sister joined them, expertly maneuvering herself between Evanthe and Ephiny and just as skillfully dislodged the elder's hand from the crook of Ephiny's arm. Catching Ephiny's now free arm, Rayne sidled up to the tall blonde. Draping Ephiny's arm about her body, she placed the regent's hand solidly upon her hip. Then, she began to do a little shimmy against Ephiny's frame.

Her sister quickly joined the act, reeling herself in until she was securely tucked beneath Ephiny's other arm. Standing on tiptoe, she heatedly whispered in the regent's ear, "Dance with me." She caressed the back of the regent's hand that rested on her hip with the tips of her fingers. Slowly trailing her nails up the blonde's arm, she huskily added, "I'll show you some . . . " she pointedly ground herself on Ephiny's thigh " . . . new moves."

Oh, Gods! Ephiny's eyes slammed shut as she realized there was nothing else beneath Moraine's loincloth.

"We both have some moves you might like," another voice husked in her other ear. Lips worked their way along her jawline. "There's a reason everyone likes twins, you know," the voice added as a hand dipped down between Ephiny's breasts, over her deer-hide top, making its way to her fluttering stomach, "You get double . . . " twin sets of hands were guiding her fingers beneath the waistbands of matching loincloths " . . . of everything."

"I - uh - appreciate the offer," Ephiny quickly worked at divesting herself of four wandering hands. "But, um, duty calls." She shrugged her shoulders, offering what she hoped was a suitably satisfactory apology as she retreated on decidedly shaky legs.

"What about you?" Moraine and Rayne were instantly at Devillare's side, twin sets of hands were rushing over the obviously flustered warrior's body faster than she could follow them. "You don't have any . . . pressing duties . . . tonight, do you?"

"Ah - um - " Devillare extricated herself, swiftly backing up and managing to firmly hold the previously wandering hands at arms length. "I don't dance."

"We can teach you," offered Moraine.

"You look like a quick learner," added Rayne.

"It's an . . . intriguing . . . offer." Devillare disentangled herself, swatting at questing fingers that were getting a little too friendly as she backed away. She practically scurried to Evanthe's side. "As you can see, though, I'm needed to escort Elder Evanthe and Regent Ephiny. Perhaps another time?"

Both dancers shrugged their shoulders, offering amiable grins as they quickly rushed off to find another, more willing dance partner. They didn't have to look very hard for a suitable replacement. They were back at the dance circle with a scout sandwiched between them in less than a candledrip.

With a nudge of her elbow against Ephiny's side and a wink, Evanthe asked, "Notice how it's always the biggest, gruffest of warriors that come unnerved at the mere mention of sex?"

"What?!? They asked me to dance!" protested Devillare. "Dance! That's all!"

"You expect to sell that tale in a tavern for dinars?" Evanthe clucked her tongue at the sputtering Amazon. "I can't wait to tell Myrina and Lyonene."

"You wouldn't." As Evanthe looped her arm through Ephiny's once again, guiding the regent away, Devillare found herself chasing after the two chuckling women. In desperation, she called after them. "Evanthe! Aww, come on!"

Evanthe continued on, unmindful of the ex-captain's protestations. Patting Ephiny's forearm, she made the observation, "The really stoic types are the ones that blush like Hestian virgins in a Roman bathhouse."

Ephiny impulsively turned her head, glanced over her shoulder at Devillare. Having overheard Evanthe's latest declaration, she had stopped dead in her tracks, both hands on her hips, spitting and sputtering. "Warriors don't blush!" Devillare yelled, her face the deepest shade of red Ephiny had ever seen. "And, they don't dance!"

The elder scout stopped so quickly, Ephiny's arm was nearly yanked out of its socket. Evanthe slowly turned about, cocking her head to one side as her eyes raked over the indignant warrior. "Oh, Devil." There was a gleam in her eye, a wicked twitch to her lips that eventually curved into a grin as she reminded her, "I can recall at least one occasion when you were convinced to dance."

Devillare's mouth dropped open, her eyes widened, hands slipped off her hips.

"Come along, dear," Evanthe urged Ephiny, "I want to get back to my bondmate before dawn."

The Nation was in a state of flux, caught in that swirl of instability between the death and mourning of a Queen and the ascension of the new ruler. Queen Reyvanne's ashes still lingered on the funeral pyre, the embers not yet cooled from the heat of the flames even after two days time. Her daughters were sequestered in the temple, the eldest being purified and prepared for her coronation to take place three nights hence.

The rest of Artemis' daughters were left adrift in a myriad of chaotic circumstances beyond their control, struggling to pick up the pieces left behind by the rebellion. They were lost and without purpose, suddenly unsure of their lives they had thought so carefully planned out from the time of their births. After all, what meaning did their lives truly hold if their goddess could stand by while sister fought against sister as the Fates and Celesta conspired to rob them of their futures?

These were the questions that had been put forth to the priestesses at the Temple of Artemis as Amazon after Amazon tried to find her own measure of solace and resolution. The priestesses counseled as many as they could, taking rotating shifts to ensure there was someone at the temple for every candlemark of the day and night that they were needed. They spoke with each woman who would come to them on an individual basis, encouraging those with doubts to still call upon the goddess for comfort and not abandon Her in their hour of darkness. And, for those that did not willingly come to the temple under their own power, the Head Priestess herself would come down to the village to meet with them.

Every Amazon was in some way affected by what had transpired within the Nation, but none more so than the royal guards. These women were trained from the time they received their calling; their whole lives dedicated to one purpose above all else.

They were sworn to protect their Queen. At all costs. Even if that meant their very lives. To them, there was no greater privilege bestowed than knowing that they were the protectors of the Amazon Queen. Any of them would lay down their lives for their Queen. They would willingly take an arrow through the heart for their ruler. They would breathe their last breath into her lungs if it would ensure her survival over their own.

But - what became of the guard if there was no Queen to protect? For all their vaunted training and bravery, for all their diligence and preparations; What happened when the royal guard failed? Their honor was shattered, their purpose destroyed, left to burn on the pyre along with their Captain and their Queen.

These were the women that the Head Priestess herself came to speak with. Out of all the guard, only one had been to the Temple. When she had approached the altar and prayed before Artemis, she begged her goddess to forgive her for failing in her duty. It had taken three of the priestesses to wrest the sword away from her after she attempted to fling herself on her own blade.

That was the fate the Head Priestess was worried awaited the remaining members of the guard. She was afraid that if they didn't let out their pent-up emotions and find some sort of closure, they may all crack under the burden of their guilt. With Captain Beroyle's death, her second was in command until the new Queen made the decision of who her Captain would be. But, one look in that warrior's tormented eyes revealed she was suffering the worst in her guilt and grief; having actually been in the royal hut when the attack occurred and failing miserably in her duty to protect both her Queen and her Captain. The priestess knew she couldn't call upon the second to rally her troops. And, these were the biggest, fiercest Amazons in the Nation; None of them were likely to come seeking a sensitive chat and counseling on their own.

In sheer desperation, the Head Priestess had approached the Council of Elders, demanding they emerge from their seclusion and invoke a celebration in Artemis' name. It was to commence at dusk and be absent of any kind of formalities, including the presence of priestesses and children. The elders were to be in attendance, but only in so as to reaffirm their confidence in the tribe; they were to hold no other influence over what transpired at the festivities. And, the royal guard members were to be honored above all others for their loyal service.

The priestess gambled that a celebration would release the Amazons baser needs and promote venting their pent-up emotions in a healthier way than letting the stress eat away until someone snapped and starting lobbing off heads with a labrys.

Her gamble had paid off.

For the most part. When the first hesitant drums had started up, the Amazons were on the field as required. But, they were aimlessly milling around until cask after cask of ale was carried out to the field. The kegs were tapped and the drinking began, but the atmosphere was still subdued. It wasn't until the dancers came out and began their routine around the bonfire that the Amazons allowed themselves to let loose.

And for a time, grief was let go and the Nation found a celebration of life in the beating of the drums that echoed like a symphony of pounding hearts. Solace was found at the bottom of more than one mug of ale. And, many an Amazon found absolution in the loving embrace of another.

Forgiveness would not come so easily for the temporary captain of the guard. She was at the celebration, as ordered, but she refused to allow herself to find any enjoyment. The only comfort she took was from the mug of ale she'd been nursing for over well over a candlemark.

More than one member of her guard had tried to entice her into relaxing. Many had tried to coax her with a fresh mug of ale and a shoulder to lean on. Devillare accepted the ale, but refused the offers of companionship, whether it be comradely or more. She merely sat on her furs, legs drawn up, arms encircling her knees, staring unblinkingly into the flames of the dance circle. In those flames, she could see reflected the royal hut burning - her queen and the captain inside fighting for their lives - and their corpses upon their funeral pyres.

When Nic had brought her a fresh mug of ale and tried to invite Devillare back to her campsite for the night, Devil had snapped, shouting at Nicphellia to just leave her alone. Nic had been visibly stung by the rebuke, staring in open-mouth shock at her friend until her lover came and took her by the hand and led her away. Before long, word had spread of her moodiness and all the Amazons were steering clear of her campsite. Except one that may have had a death wish of her own.

"Odd. I never guessed you were the sort that was into self-flagellation."

That remark was original enough to have the warm ale Devillare had been drinking come spurting out of her mouth and nose. As the coughing fit subsided and she was able to breathe again, the warrior looked up to see who had the audacity -

The Amazon was tall, with flaming red hair that ran over her shoulders and midway down her back in long, wavy locks. Full lips were pursed together in an effort to remain serious beneath the warrior's critical stare, but nothing the Amazon could do would hide the mirthfulness dancing in the greenest eyes Devillare had ever seen.

Dancing. As Devillare's stony gaze continued to rake over the body of the woman standing before her, she noticed the sweat-slicked heaving breasts encased by the too-tight top and the short loincloth hugging her hips, the slit at the side revealing her creamy thighs, making already long legs look impossibly longer. Seashell bracelets adorned both ankles as bare feet nervously tapped out a rhythm on furs she was boldly treading upon.

"What brings the leader of the dancers to my campsite, Laurentia?" Devillare asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Ah, that's just precisely the reason I'm here," an enigmatic smile showed off a set of dimples.

"Warriors don't dance."

"No, but you do a marvelous job of brooding."

"It's much more effective when I'm alone." Devillare took another draw from her ale, suspiciously eyed the half-empty mug. "And, when I have a strong drink."

Laurentia cocked her head to the side, as if contemplating something. Then, abruptly, she reached down, snatching Devillare's mug from her grasp. Upending it, she downed the remaining contents in one swallow. Tossing the empty mug back to a startled Devillare, she proudly declared as she reached down, grabbing both the temporary captain's wrists in her hands, "Now, you have neither solitude nor drink as an excuse."

Despite the objections of both mind and heart, her body responded and Devillare found herself allowing Laurentia to smoothly pull her to her feet. As she stood, the combination of strong drink and the lack of rest made themselves known, causing her to precariously sway. The dancer's quick reflexes came into play and a well-positioned hand at the small of Devillare's back helped to steady her. And, despite her earlier protestations, the warrior soon found herself in the dance circle, doing a reasonably good job at following Laurentia's lead.

It wasn't to be the last time that evening that her traitorous body would betray her heart.

She had known what Laurentia had wanted. Had known it almost from the start; had seen the hunger burning brightly in the depths of her eyes. If she'd been even just a little bit more sober, her mind would have railed against it. But, with each heated touch and passionate kiss, she was able to fool herself into believing that just one more would be enough to dampen the pain that had been cleaving her heart in two.

Looking back, she should have been ashamed at how easy Laurentia's conquest had been. Devillare had stood at the Battle of Rycirrus alongside her Queen and the other warriors, refusing to yield even when she was cut off from her sisters and surrounded by no fewer than five of her enemy. At the overwhelming odds, she had raised her sword above her head and given her most fearsome Amazon war-cry and charged into the heat of battle.

Laurentia had commanded her surrender with little more than a nuzzle against her neck and the press of soft breasts against her flesh. By the time the dancer had taken one of Devillare's powerful hands and instigated it beneath her loincloth to cup her fullness, the warrior's defenses were shattered.

Before Devillare's mind could fully process her body's actions, the warrior had lifted the dancer off the ground. Both arms and legs wrapped about the solid body, Laurentia deepened her tongue-thrusting kiss, not allowing Devillare to break for air until after she'd felt the warrior carry her back to her campsite and deposit her on the furs.

Devillare knelt before her on the furs, chest heaving as she took in great gulps of breath. As steel grey eyes the exact shade of a sword's honed blade swept over her body, Laurentia suggestively licked her lips. Reaching behind herself, provocatively arching her back, nimble fingers deftly worked loose the leather ties of her top.

The warrior fell upon her with lips and tongue and teeth. Her mauling of Laurentia's breasts was by no means tender, but judging from the way the dancer's fingers were clutching at her hair and her hips were thrusting up to meet her, Devillare guessed tender wasn't what Laurentia was looking for.

Rocking back on her heels, Devillare's eyes took in the sight of the delicious woman writhing unabashedly beneath her gaze. Her breathing was quick, her chest rising and falling rapidly. Erect nipples, wet with saliva, puckered in anticipation of further ravening. The muscles in the dancer's flat abdomen were clearly visible as they clenched and unclenched with each writhing motion. A tan colored loincloth moved with each indrawn breath, threatening to slip off womanly hips.

With one hand, Devillare reached out, snatching off that loincloth with one firm tug. Steel grey eyes narrowed to tiny slits, nostrils flared as the heady scent of arousal permeated the air. With a curl of her lips and a ferocious growl, Devillare fell upon her with a feral hunger.

Both arms clasped beneath squirming hips to hold her prey still, Devillare lost track of everything save the need to taste more. It wasn't until she sensed another's presence on the furs that her tongue slowed. Still licking her lips, Devillare raised her head . . . and met a set of light amber eyes staring directly at her.


Shocked, Devillare hastily scrambled backwards, wiping her mouth on her gauntlet as she retreated. Not knowing what else to do, she mutely stared. The girl was young, not yet having received the first curves that signaled the onslaught of womanhood. A wild mane of dark black hair hung about her shoulders and she wore a sleeping shift that was three sizes too large on her frame. Her dirty feet were bare and nervously shuffling upon Devillare's furs. But, there was a defiant tilt to her chin and a determined glint in her eyes as she stood between the woman she called mama and the Amazon that was kneeling before her. Feeling a surge of awkward embarrassment, Devillare averted her gaze.

Laurentia wasn't nearly so contrite or discomfited. Sitting up, not even reaching for a fur or a scrap of cloth to cover herself with, she roughly grabbed the child by her arm, jerking her forward. The fingers of her other hand closed firmly about a jaw, forcing bright eyes to stop staring at Devillare and refocus on her.

"Didn't I say for you to not dare stick your nose outside of your room tonight? What are you doing here?" she hissed, her angry visage scant inches from the child's.

A soft shrug of shoulders, a worried furrow to a brow as she admitted, "I had a bad dream. About the fire and Queen Reyvanne."

Devillare's heart tightened at the mention of her Queen. Intrigued by this girl's reference of the Queen and the uprising, she studied her intently. She had seen her before, she was certain of it. But, in a village this size and naturally being a warrior with no maternal instincts to speak of - That's when it hit her. She had seen the child with a warrior. On an almost regular basis, she could be seen tagging along with Captain Beroyle, following her out to the practice fields.

"I was worried about you," The tiny voice added.

"Eponin, what kind of fool do you take me for? I see your nightmare for what it really is; a convenient excuse for you to slip out to the celebration with the adults," scolded Laurentia. Moving her hand to the scruff of the girl's neck, indiscriminately catching hair and flesh together, she tightened her grip and gave three quick, consecutive swats to the girl's backside. "Go to the hut. Now." She thrust a finger at the girl's nose. "And, don't think you'll step foot outside that hut to attend a festival until you're well past your first moon flow." Laurentia's eyes raked over the stocky form of the trembling girl and added with a derisive snort, "Although, we'll have to requisition a cask of Amazonian wine and a rucksack to put over your face well in advance to even get a pity fuck for you, I'm sure. Maybe one of the elders with failing eyesight could be enticed . . . " Seeing the downcast eyes, the trembling bottom lip, Laurentia's smirk widened.

Devillare was stunned by Laurentia's taunts. "If you knew the child was plagued by nightmares," she couldn't help suggesting, "perhaps you should have arranged for her to stay with another couple."

Laurentia's head snapped up. A quick glance confirmed that Eponin had the good sense to keep her eyes fixed firmly on her toes. "The celebration was called at the last candlemark; I had no time to find someone willing to take her."

"You could have placed her with the priestesses at the temple. They're already tending the princesses. I'm sure one more - "

"I never asked to be a mother!" Laurentia snapped. "You think it's easy, raising - " she pointed an accusing finger at Eponin " - her? By myself?"

"You're hardly alone, Laurentia." Sensing curious eyes watching from beyond the circle of her campfire, Devillare tried to keep her voice lowered, her manner reassuring. "The entire village - "

" - Has done a fine job of turning their backs on me!" Hot, angry tears were visibly streaming down the dancer's face. Glowering, spiteful eyes turned on the small Amazon standing in her night shift and bare feet, trembling and shivering, her lip quivering. A sudden rage ran through Laurentia and all she saw was blinding white. "Because of you!" she screamed in Eponin's face, launching a huge backhanded strike that landed across the child's cheek and jaw with enough force it swept her off her feet.

"Stop!" Devillare moved swiftly, instigating herself between Eponin and Laurentia. "Just stop!" With one large hand, Devillare was able to lift Eponin up and safely tuck her behind her hip and waist. "No matter how angry you are, you don't have a right to take it out on a child." She purposefully held Laurentia's angry gaze. "Any child."

"Fine!" The dancer spat at the ground, swiftly gathered her discarded top and loincloth. "You think you can be a better mother?" she thrust a finger in Devillare's chest, "Be my guest."

It was the last thing Devillare had expected. Laurentia stormed off the field, leaving a tiny, tremulous Eponin in her less-than-adequate care.

Part 7

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