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.
CHALLENGE: Submitted as part of the Epic Proportions challenge.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Simply Irresistible
By Del Robertson



Gabrielle strolled the well-trodden path, a lively gait to each step.  She swung her staff with a sense of freedom, her movements light and fluid.  A smile spread over her face, she was whistling a catchy little tune she'd picked up in a tavern in Athens.

"Won't it be nice?" asked Gabrielle, shielding her eyes from the sun to look up at her traveling companion.

"Won't what be nice, Gabrielle?" Xena wondered, keeping her eyes on the road and the surrounding area, never once glancing down at the blonde.

"Visiting the amazons," Gabrielle answered.  "You know, just visiting."

"Uh-huh," Xena responded noncommittally, half-turning in her saddle.  She thought she'd heard someone behind them.

"I mean, really, think about it."  Gabrielle was counting off her fingers as she went along.  "No trade delegations.  No summons for some impending crisis.  No challenge for the mask.  I'm not dying.  You're not dying.  Not even a festival."

"Give your amazons half a candlemark, they'll think of something."  Xena's eyes narrowed as they passed the inner perimeter markers unimpeded.  

"Xena!  I thought we agreed you were going to behave this time!"

"Just because I'm telling the truth doesn't mean I'm misbehaving."  Xena stopped her scrutiny of the trees long enough to indulge in teasing her companion.  "Come on, even you have to admit that given half a chance, your amazons can find any excuse for a festival."  Now it was Xena's turn to count off on her digits.  "The Festival of Dionysus.  The Festival of Artemis.  The Summer Festival.   The Harvest Festival.  The Amazons Shake What They Got Dance Festival."

"Hey!  That last one isn't even a real festival!"  Her indignant scowl was quickly replaced with a wistful smile.  "But, you've gotta admit, my girls love to party.  And, they all dance so beautifully."  As if to demonstrate, Gabrielle did a little shimmy with her staff.

"Uh-huh."  Xena covered her grin with her hand.  The first time the Amazons had seen their Queen dance, they thought she was having some sort of seizure.  The sight of their healer rushing to Gabrielle's side, insisting she bite down on a stick had sent Xena into fits of laughter, rolling on the ground until the amazons thought she was touched in the head, too.

Gabrielle continued to shimmy and twist and turn with every forward step, keeping a tune in her own head as she went along.  Xena rolled her eyes and stoically rode along beside her little bard.  As Gabrielle continued her impromptu dance, Xena felt Argo begin to slow her trot, letting Gabrielle pull a little ways in front of them.

"I know, girl," Xena spoke in hushed tones, leaning down to whisper in Argo's ear, "I'm embarrassed, too."

Truth be told, it had been Xena's idea to visit the Amazon Nation.  She hadn't told Gabrielle the real reason behind their visit, though, preferring to let her companion think she'd done it just to be thoughtful.  And, she certainly expressed her gratitude at your generous, thoughtful nature, didn't she, warrior?  Twice.  

Not that Xena's motives weren't pure.  Well, maybe not pure, but certainly good.  As Gabrielle had dragged her through the market at Athens, pausing at each booth they passed, Xena's attention had wandered.  It didn't take long for her sharp eyes to notice the number of soldiers in the marketplace.  And, there seemed to be more arriving every candlemark.  Their army was amassing for some reason - and it wasn't the reasonable prices.  

The way she figured it, they had two choices.  Stay and fight - or leave.  Xena had been in enough battles to know it wasn't the place for her bard.  And, she was quite confident that the Athenian army could handle any problems heading their way.  Best to not get involved in politics, anyway.  So, she quietly made the suggestion to Gabrielle that they visit Ephiny and the Amazons.  As predicted, the young queen jumped at the chance to visit her sisters.


Gabrielle suddenly stopped in the middle of the road.  Xena had to quickly pull Argo's reins, causing her to halt before she ran into the middle of the bard's back.  As she slowly turned around, a puzzled expression on her face, Xena was suddenly worried that Gabrielle may have overheard her comments to the mare.

"Xena, that's the kissing tree, isn't it?" she asked, pointing at a tall, shaded tree with overhanging leaves that created a cascading canopy of greenery over a lush field at the top of a hill.  The sounds of gurgling water revealed the location of a slow-moving river just the other side of the hill.

"Uh-huh."  My little friend may not know poison ivy from moss, but she knows what the kissing tree looks like.

"That's well within Amazon territory."

Another "Uh-huh."

"Well - "  Gabrielle placed one hand indignantly on her hip, gestured wildly with the other, "Where are my Amazons?"

"Unless I miss my guess," Xena's sensitive hearing picked up a series of soft chuckles drifting down from the treetops, "They're about to make an appearance."  Out of respect and caution, she clasped both hands above her head in the Amazon sign of peace and friendship.

Five leather and feather clad figures abruptly broke cover, coming to land in a pattern surrounding the warrior princess and the bard.  Each wore their masks and were armed to the teeth, knives at their hips, bows and quivers slung across their backs.

"My Queen," came the husky tones of their leader as she saluted and knelt on one knee in front of Gabrielle; The rest of the amazons instantly following suit.

"Solari?" asked Gabrielle, unsure as to whether or not she had placed the voice correctly.  I understand their reasoning for the masks, but it makes it so difficult to tell them apart sometimes.

"My Queen," repeated the chief scout, rising to her feet, smoothly pushing the mask away from her face.

"It is you!"  Gabrielle rushed forward, launching herself at the amazon.

Solari was momentarily stunned by the display of affection, as demonstrated by her involuntary step backwards when she suddenly had a hundred-plus pounds of queen thrust into her arms.  She hesitantly put her arms about Gabrielle's back as the embrace continued.  Her mind took stock of the situation, mentally cataloging where the Queen's hands rested on her back and where their bodies naturally pressed together and then, slowly, becoming acutely aware that in their current position, her Queen's nose was firmly entrenched in her generous cleavage.  Over the pounding of her heart, she heard the snickering and murmuring of her pack.

Summoning up her resolve, she cast a severe glance at each member of her squad.  The snickers died off, but the smiles remained firmly in place.  Rolling her eyes, Solari's gaze fell on Xena.  The Warrior Princess' face was an unreadable mask, but one eyebrow was dangerously arched.

Blushing fiercely, Solari managed to disentangle herself from her Queen's embrace and step towards the woman still on horseback.  Reaching up, she stretched out her arm in a warrior's greeting.  Tense moments passed until to her relief, Xena smiled, firmly clasping Solari's forearm in response.

"Xena!  Good to see you!"

"You, too, Solari.  Now that I can see you, that is."  At Solari's questioning gaze, Xena explained.  "I could sense you were trailing us."

"Since the first set of markers," Solari confirmed.

"But, I never could spot anything out of the ordinary.  For the longest time, I only had the sensation of being watched."  She looked around at Solari's squad.  "They've really gotten good," she complimented, recognizing that Solari's group was made up of several younger amazons.  Judging by their youthful expressions, she'd guess they'd barely earned their first feathers.

"They're quick learners, Xena."  Solari accepted the compliment graciously.  Truth be told, she was fighting down the urge to crow like a rooster.  As their teacher, it was her responsibility to train her scouts in ways of camouflage and stealth.  That they were being praised by the Warrior Princess was no small feat.  She proudly glanced around at her squad.  Two of the youngsters were caught in conversation with the Queen.  The other two were standing in awe of the Warrior, scarcely believing their teacher was on good terms with the legendary Xena.  Guess the kiddos really like me now, huh?, she thought, remembering how many grumbles of protest she'd heard when she'd rousted her troops before dawn to scout the forest.  "When did you first know for sure we were there?"  she asked, always eager to turn any interaction into a learning experience for the younger women.

"When your Queen broke into her dance routine."  Xena turned to look at each woman in turn.  "I know you all tried."  She couldn't hide her blossoming smirk.  "Even valiantly biting down on your own leathers," Xena observed, noting the decidedly wet leather armguard on one of the scouts, the shape clearly resembling a mouth-print.  "But, I could hear the snickers and chortles from the treetops."

"Ah."  Solari sported what was meant to be a severely chastising look.  The young woman with the wet leathers had the decency to blush beneath her leader's scrutiny.  "Undone by the Dancing Bard of Potadeia."  Leaning towards Xena in an exaggerated whisper, she grinned, "Not even the fiercest of Amazons have a defense for that."

A hearty roar ripped through Xena, startling most of the other women, causing at least a few to jump.  Gabrielle broke off her conversation, looking at Xena with a rueful expression.  Xena's laughing like a maniac.  Solari's blushing like a Hestian virgin.  It's already starting.

Shaking her head, Gabrielle grabbed the arms of the closest women, spinning them around.  With the women suddenly pressed into escort duty, they found themselves flanking their Queen, making their way towards the main village.  Solari signaled for the other two women to return to their posts.  With a forearm salute, they quickly disappeared into the thick foliage of the trees.  Xena dismounted, walking alongside Solari, wiping stray moisture from her eyes as ribald laughter continued to sporadically assault her body.

It's going to be a long walk, Gabrielle thought, inwardly cringing.  Her escorts frequently glanced back over their shoulders, eyeing the Warrior Princess as she burst into another series of snorts and chortles.  "Don't mind her," Gabrielle advised, pulling her scouts' attention back to their Queen, "She's always been a little touched in the head.  Why, I remember this one time the Furies - "

She was standing in the center of the village, anxiously awaiting their arrival.  She had seen the signals, then heard the birdcalls, the cry of the dove marking the approach of friends.  The runners had arrived a full two candlemarks ago, confirming their beloved Queen and her consort were well within Amazon territory and on the way to the main village.  Diligently and efficiently, the entire Royal Guard had been summoned and now awaited the arrival of their prodigal royalty. 

"Stop fidgeting," she chastised, catching the movement out of the corner of her eye.

"Yes, My Regent," apologized Pelagia, making one last adjustment to her leather top.  "But, we've been waiting well over a candlemark."

"And, we'll wait another candlemark, if that's how long it takes for their arrival."  Ephiny saw the slight wrist movement, subtly turned her head to glare at the captain of her guard.  "I'd suggest in the future, you remember that there's always significant shrinkage after the first wash."

She fought down the smirk as Pelagia fairly blushed, jerking her hand away from her top as if she'd been burned.  Yes, My Regent."  Gods knew she wasn't trying to be difficult - but they'd been waiting for so long and she was so uncomfortable -

"Here they come," Ephiny advised, straightening to her full height, "Everyone look sharp!"

Gabrielle was flanked on each side by Admeta and Metanira, so engrossed in animated conversation that Ephiny doubted if the young Queen had even realized they'd arrived in the main village.  Following a discreet distance behind were Xena and Solari, also conversing, but obviously in a much more subdued manner.  She had no doubt Xena knew their whereabouts, though, as her eyes kept darting about the village, as if expecting an attack at any moment.

It wasn't until she'd almost ran right over them that Gabrielle became aware of the Royal Guard.  Ephiny gave the customary salute, bending to one knee, lowering her gaze.  In unison, the entire village followed her lead.

Almost instantly, she felt the cool hand upon her shoulder.  The touch lingered momentarily before moving, fingers cupping her chin, lifting her gaze to meet the smiling visage of her Queen.  "Ephiny, my Regent."  Delight shown in the sparkling green eyes as she took in Ephiny's features.  It still amazed her to no end that this woman that had taken her in and shown her what it meant to be Queen would bend a knee to her.  Still, she knew that her regent insisted on it as equal parts tradition and respect.  "Ephiny, my friend, arise."  There, that sounded very regal.  Then, because she couldn't resist, she added, "Get up here and give your Queen a proper greeting.  I want hugs.  Now."

With a wry smirk, Ephiny stood, moving into the open embrace.  "Well, I suppose you've improved somewhat," she grudgingly admitted, "At least you didn't pinch my cheeks this time."

"There'll be time for that later," Gabrielle teased with a wink and a mischievous gleam in her eye. 

Feeling the threat of a blush coming on, Ephiny gently extracted herself from Gabrielle's embrace and approached the warrior at Solari's side.  She caught the cool, ice blue gaze as they stood awkwardly in front of each other, each openly appraising the other.  There had always been an underlying tension between the two right from the start, perhaps because they each sensed that the other held such a strong influence over the young bard's future. 

"Xena."  She gave a curt nod, extended her arm for a warrior's welcome.

"Ephiny," Said with an identical terseness. 

No one dared breath as the two women faced off, the warrior coolly staring at her rival, the Regent meeting her gaze, refusing to lower her arm in supplication.  Solari subtly shifted beside them, her eyes silently absorbing the subtle nuances of the confrontation.  Surely Xena wouldn't dare insult the Regent by - Xena reached out, clasping Ephiny's forearm in greeting.  Audible sighs could be heard throughout the village.  Ephiny visibly relaxed, her shoulders loosing some of their tension.  Then, she felt a hard tug and she was fairly yanked off her feet, coming to land solidly against Xena's muscular frame.  She tried to pull back, to regain some distance, but found herself firmly entrenched in a fierce hug.  Struggling, craning her neck to look up, she met ice blue eyes staring down at her. 

"Relax," a low, rumbling voice advised.  "I don't bite."  A feral grin firmly in place,  Xena leaned forward, teeth lightly nipping at the tip of the blonde's nose.  "Much."

Ephiny suddenly found herself let loose from the impromptu embrace, fighting to steady herself on shaking legs.  She could feel the burn of a deep blush coloring both cheeks.  Reflexively, she brought the back of her hand up to swipe at her nose, as if to ascertain the tip was indeed still intact.  Casting a wary glance at Xena, she saw mirth crinkling at the edges of her eyes. 

"I'll escort you to your hut," Ephiny managed to croak out, turning her attentions back to where an amused Gabrielle was standing.  With an affirming nod from the Queen, she started off, acutely aware of every eye on her.  She stopped long enough to toss back over her shoulder, "Solari, you escort the Warrior Princess to the stables and assist her in tending to her horse."

"As you wish, my Regent," Solari agreed with a tip of her head and a wink at Ephiny.

Irritated, Ephiny grasped Gabrielle's hand firmly within her own, stalking away from the source of her embarrassment.  Gabrielle felt the sudden tug, the tight firmness on her hand as Ephiny gripped a little too hard on her appendages.  She had to fairly jog to keep up with the Regent's long-legged stride.  Hmm.  That was new, Gabrielle thought, reflecting on the subtle inflection in Solari's tone and the quick wink.  I'll have to ask Xena if she noticed.

As they stepped up onto the wooden porch leading into Gabrielle's hut, several amazons carrying empty buckets came rushing out from the interior.  Each gave a quick nod at the Regent, quickly scurrying past.  With a bemused look, Gabrielle pushed the hide covering aside, stepping into the dwelling.

"Oh, my!" she broke into a huge grin upon seeing the large tub in one corner of the room. 

Steam from the hot water rose into the air, creating a slight mist.  Gabrielle sniffed lightly, noting the sweet fragrance.  Coming to stand beside the tub, she dipped her fingers into the water, swirling them about, causing the flower petals to toss upon the sudden waves she was making.

"This is - this is - "

"For once the bard with the quick-silver tongue is speechless?" Ephiny guessed, grinning at her friend.  She reached out, deftly lifting Gabrielle's traveling pack off her shoulder.  "Go on," she nudged, "Enjoy."

"Oh, you are a godsend, Ephiny!"  Gabrielle gushed, leaning in to place a quick kiss on her friend's cheek.

Hiding her blush at the gesture, Ephiny turned to lay the traveling pack across the large bed on the other side of the room.  When she turned back around, Gabrielle's top was off, exposing both pert breasts to the chilly air.  Hands abruptly clammy, mouth suddenly dry, Ephiny screwed her eyes shut and promptly spun around, turning her back on the vision of perfection.

Drawing a ragged breath, she willed herself to think about other things.  Things other than naked Gabrielles.  Like treaty signing.  Or, staff practice.  Or, even archery.  Horse riding.  She gasped sharply as that thought brought to mind Gabrielle's last visit when she'd insisted upon riding with Ephiny.  On the same horse.  For most of the afternoon.  If she closed her eyes and concentrated, she could still feel Gabrielle's arms tighten about her midriff as she spurred her horse on, the feel of her body pressed tightly against her back as she ran the horse across the river, her thighs -

Ephiny swallowed loudly, attempted to block the memories from her mind.  She heard the rustling of clothing, correctly identified each item as Gabrielle's amazon belt fell to the floor, quickly followed by her skirt and breeches.  Double thumps confirmed her boots being kicked off, one skidding to a halt no more than two feet from the regent.  The rippling of water and an audible sigh revealed Gabrielle's descent into the tub. 

Only when she was certain Gabrielle was safely submerged into the nearly full tub did Ephiny turn around.  Very slowly, she opened one eye, then the other, hesitatingly looking at her Queen.  Gabrielle was directly across from her, leaning back, her eyes closed, hair draped over the rim of the tub.  Both arms were thrown back, elbows and palms resting on the hardwood.  With each breath, the water lapped at the tops of her perfect breasts, teasingly threatening to expose more of the Queen's considerable charms.  With a luxurious sigh, she slowly opened her eyes, leveling her gaze at Ephiny.

"So, are you going to bath me, or what?"

"What?" Ephiny asked, shaking her head, certain she couldn't have heard correctly.

"I said; What was going on with Pelagia?" Gabrielle repeated.  "I've seen more modest attire on brothel girls."

"Oh."  Ephiny shrugged, somewhat relieved that her hearing was deceiving her.  "I think her leathers shrunk in the wash."

"Ephiny, those weren't her leathers."  Gabrielle's mind took her back to the image of the royal guardswoman standing in the center of the village, valiantly attempting to keep her rather generous buxom contained within a device that was painfully obviously too small for her.  At the perplexed look from her regent, Gabrielle added, "I've never known Pelagia to wear a clasp with an owl design on it." 

"An owl - " Ephiny's mouth worked as her mind frantically sought to remember who in her tribe wore a clasp like - "Oh.  Oh!"  She exclaimed, suddenly recalling where she'd seen such a clasp before.

Gabrielle grinned wickedly.  "Does that mean the Amazon Healer has been going around most of the day in a top too large for her?"

"I'm not certain," Ephiny confessed, "But it might be worth a trip to the infirmary to find out!"

Gabrielle giggled at the thought of herself and her regent paying an impromptu visit to the medical facilities and having the flustered healer attempt to be cordial and show them around all the while holding up a top that was three sizes too large for her frame. 

"Maybe we should - " Gabrielle started to get up, rising about halfway from the water, then decided, "Nah.  I'd rather have the bath.  I'll torment Megara later."  Closing her eyes, she slid back into the water with an audible sigh.  A split heartbeat later, she opened one eye, staring at her open-mouthed friend.  "Wash my back?" she pleaded.

Just shoot a flaming arrow through my heart now, why don't you?  Ephiny thought, moving to the edge of the tub.  It would be a much quicker way to kill me!

Dipping her fingers into the water, she retrieved the large sea sponge floating on the surface.  Slowly, she moved around the tub, each step taking her painstakingly closer to her goal.  Sliding into position behind Gabrielle, she closed her eyes, inhaling deeply.  She breathed in the smell of the heat, the petals - and Gabrielle.  Gingerly, she dipped the sponge into the hot water, feeling the weight as the material absorbed the water.  Hesitantly, she lowered the sponge onto Gabrielle's shoulder, gently squeezing.  She reflexively licked her lips as the moisture flowed out of the sponge, over Gabrielle's creamy skin.

Ephiny repeated the process, moving her hand to the other shoulder.  Gabrielle inched forward, granting Ephiny greater access.  A low moan escaped her lips as she felt the sponge travel down her spine. 

"Mmm, lower," she pleaded. 

There was a slight hesitation, then a rustling sound as Ephiny was forced to kneel down to obtain a better angle.  She was acutely aware of the heated sponge moving over her wet flesh, the feel of Ephiny's breath along her ear, the touch of blonde curls as the ends tickled along her shoulder.  There was an awkward grunt as Ephiny was forced to shift her weight to her other knee.

"It might be easier for you just to climb in," she offered, her voice sounding low and intimate in their current surroundings.

"Hey, Ephiny, I thought we were - " Gabrielle's eyes flew open at the sound of the familiar voice.  "- oh."

Eponin, the Weapons Master, was standing in the doorway to the hut, one arm holding back the thin hide covering.  In her other hand was a bow, her fingers so taut over the grip that her knuckles were fairly clenching white.  Every muscle in her well-toned body was tensed, as if expecting an attack.  Her gaze slowly traveled from Ephiny to Gabrielle.

"Hey, Eponin!"  Gabrielle smoothly greeted her former teacher, "We're just washing off some trail dust."

"I - see."  Another look darted from the Queen to the Regent.  "I guess I'll see you around, then."  Turning around, Eponin leaned the bow she'd been carrying against the wall and silently left out of the hut, the pelt curtain falling back into place with her departure. 

Gabrielle moved her legs, kicking away from the wall.  Twisting about, she turned until she was near the center of the tub.  Ephiny was still kneeling on the floor, one arm draped over the rim, her chin resting on her forearm, a deep crease furrowing her brow.  Gabrielle made her way back to the edge.  Bringing her hand up, she allowed wet fingers to gently stroke through blonde corkscrew curls. 

"What was that about?" she prodded in a soothing voice.

Reluctant hazel eyes slowly lifted, meeting with Gabrielle's verdant green.  "I think I forgot a promise for archery practice," she admitted.

"Ah."  Gabrielle's fingers continued to stroke through blonde curls, her other hand coming up to rest on her friend's wrist.  "Do you want to go?"

"Nah, when Pony's like this, it's best to just let her be for a while."  Another frown creased Ephiny's brow.  "Besides, the mood she's been in lately, she's liable to truss me up and use me as the target."

"Pony's - " Gabrielle tried the nickname on for size.  " - Been acting odd lately?" Gabrielle guessed, wondering why she'd never noticed Ephiny's term of endearment for the stout weapons master before.

"Yeah, for a couple of days now.  Half the village is," Ephiny shrugged morosely, staring into the bathing water.  "Must be something in the air."

"Yeah, must be," Gabrielle agreed, her mind recalling the earlier odd behavior of both Solari and Eponin.  Probably just hormones.  "Hey," she called out, grabbing Ephiny's fingers, gently waggling them, "You coming in or what?" she asked.

"I would," Ephiny put on her best smile, swishing her fingertips through the water, "But, Xena will probably be along any moment now and I don't think her reaction will be quite as - " her mind searched for the appropriate word " - subdued as Eponin's was."

Gabrielle couldn't help but laugh at the image that thought brought to mind.  A helpless Regent caught naked in a tub with her Queen, frantically trying to explain herself while a Warrior Princess held her underwater with one hand.  "Yeah, guess you'd better go," she agreed. 

"Lunch later?" Ephiny asked, drying her hand on a nearby cloth.

"Sure.  After my bath and a nap."  She caught the amused look.  "Traveling makes me sleepy sometimes.  And, after that bath, I'm more tired than hungry."  As an after thought, she added, "Besides, Xena caught fish for breakfast.  Believe it or not, I'm still full."

"I'm not sure I believe it, but I'll take your word for it," Ephiny laughed, picking up the discarded bow.  "Have a good rest," she encouraged, before disappearing out the door, visions of a naked and wet Gabrielle still invading her senses.  Maybe I will head to the practice field, after all.  I suddenly need to work off some excess energy!

"Xena?" Gabrielle murmured drowsily.

Xena had arrived shortly after Ephiny had left, coming in as Gabrielle was stepping from the tub.  Sweeping her up into her arms, she had carried the blonde to the bed and laid her across it, sensuously licking every droplet of water from her body.  Sated, Gabrielle had gone from tired and needing a nap to exhausted and knocking out.

Now, a lethargic smile etched on her lips, her eyes still closed, she blindly ran a hand along the straw mattress beside her.  Eyes slowly opened as her mind registered the absence of one warrior princess from her bed.  "Xena?" she called out again, slowly sitting up.

Must have gone out.  Stretching luxuriously, she felt the satisfying pop of joints.  Ah, nothing like an afternoon session with Xena to leave me feeling reenergized!  She thought about just laying around in the hut, waiting for Xena's return, but a loud grumble from her stomach strongly protested that idea.  Guess I'll go find her and see if she's ready for something to eat.  She moved off the bed, picking her skirt up off the floor.  Something else, I mean she mentally corrected herself, a lewd grin lingering over their prior activities.

Squinting, Gabrielle stepped out of the hut, shielding her eyes from the blazing afternoon sun.  Now, if I was a warrior princess, where would I be? Confidently, she set off in the direction of the practice fields.

Gabrielle knew she was on the right track when she came around the corner of the huts and the practice field came into view.  Or rather, what would be the practice field if she were able to see past the throng of women gathered around the perimeter of the field.  Xena always does draw a large crowd.

The women were stacked three and four deep, each jockeying for a better position as she slipped into the crowd.  Dodging reflexively, twisting her body this way and that, she worked her way through the throng of bodies.  She heard a rousing cheer, then had to duck to keep from catching an elbow to an eye as one woman lifted her arm in a pumping motion, then abruptly brought it back down.  

Deep down, she knew if she were to simply announce her arrival, the women would instantly part and allow her to pass.  But, really where was the fun in that?  As a bard, she liked to watch the action, both on the field and off.  There was nothing like mingling with the masses, witnessing their reactions to the combatants, hearing their comments.  Helps me to be a better bard, she thought, Let's me keep my characters' dialogue realistic.

She eased her way between two tall amazons, the top of her head passing just below the breasts of a brunette.  Wow, they're certainly growing them tall in Amazonia these days.  Looking left and right, all she could see were eyefuls of cleavage and halter tops.  

There was a rousing cheer from the brunette.  "Great moves," she commented.

"Yeah," agreed the amazon on the other side of Gabrielle, "And, she looks great in those leathers, too."

Guess there's no doubt now who's on the field, Gabrielle grinned, slipping from between the two women and working her way further along through the crowd.  After some careful maneuvering, she was able to slip between another set of amazons, ending up in the second row, her view impeded by a burly arm and a sharp elbow.  From where she was, she was able to make out the silhouettes of Xena's tall form in her customary leathers and her opponent, slightly shorter and definitely wearing leathers and feathers.  She tried to edge her way closer in, but was blocked.  With a sigh, she tried to follow the match from her current location, keeping an eye on the opponents and an ear on the crowd. 

"She's got her in a pin," came a husky voice from somewhere in the background.

Wrestling, huh?  Gabrielle shrugged, unconcerned.  Usually Xena picks staffs or swords, but she's a good wrestler, too.  

"Get a load of those legs.  I'd like to have those wrapped around me sometime." 

A frown crossed Gabrielle's face at the comment.  She was used to having men make crude remarks about her friend, but she wasn't prepared for it coming from her amazons.  Sure, I know they look.  Boy, do they look.  But, they aren't usually so vocal and crass about it.  She turned her attention back to the field.  Xena was laying across her opponent, using her upper body to pin her foe to the ground.  Beneath her, a well-muscled thigh was flexing, the owner's boot firmly planted on the ground, seeking purchase on the slippery grass.

A chorus of shouts went up as the amazon found leverage and was able to push Xena off.  The wrestlers rolled away from each other, both rushing to reach their feet before their opponent.  Xena's back was to Gabrielle, effectively blocking her view of the warrior princess' adversary.  

Eponin should knock off these childish challenges or Xena's going to seriously hurt her one day, Gabrielle thought, already figuring the weapons master would be the only amazon gutsy enough to challenge the warrior princess her first day back in the village.  It always happens this way, doesn't it?  We're scarcely here before they're strutting around each other like a pair of roosters, feathers rustling, both clucking at each other until they have a good-natured row in front of all the hens.  Gabrielle grinned at her impromptu analogy.  That sounds great.  Have to remember to work that phrasing into a story sometime.  I can see it now.  I sing a story about Xena, Warrior Princess and the Weapons Master of the Amazons -

Warily, they circled each other, looking for an opening, a weak spot in their defenses.  Xena feinted, darting forward, then rushing back, trying to catch her opponent off-kilter.  There was a yell, then a charge as the amazon's body plummeted against the warrior's, catching her full-on in the breadbasket.  The charge caught Xena off-guard, sending her stumbling backwards half the length of the field.

Fighting for purchase, she found her feet flying out from beneath her.  With a loud crash that shook the ground, she landed unceremoniously on her backside.  Pressing her advantage, the amazon dropped her full weight on her opponent's upper body.

"Yeah!  You've got her!"  came a sharp whistle, a deep voice Gabrielle instantly recognized as belonging to Eponin.

Reaching out, strategically placing her palms on the bare hips of the amazon in front of her, Gabrielle managed to slide her way around the woman's torso and into the first row.  Taking a deep breath, she hesitantly looked up to see if the woman was offended by her daring move.  To her relief, the amazon flashed her a broad, toothy grin before turning her attention back to the match.  Leaning over, looking the length of the fence line, Gabrielle saw the weapons master standing just inside the perimeter of the field, shouting and whistling, rooting for her fellow amazon.  Gabrielle's head jerked back around, her gaze darting back to the two women laying on the ground.  "Ephiny?" she mouthed, recognizing the blonde mass of corkscrew curls.

Xena fought, struggling to bring one of her shoulders up off the ground.  Ephiny was having none of that, though, and leaned in, placing more weight against Xena's upper body.  

"Oooh, I'd love to be in that position," was murmured somewhere just over Gabrielle's left shoulder.

Hey!  That's a bit much!  I mean, I am standing right here!  Gabrielle was fairly miffed.  How dare they speak of the Queen's champion in such a manner - especially in her presence!

Trying the same move Ephiny had pulled off earlier, Xena planted one foot on the ground in an attempt to lift.  Ephiny quickly compensated, bringing one leg about, using the instep of her boot to sweep Xena's leg from beneath her.

"Maybe if I say I need help honing my moves, the regent will pin me down like that."

Gabrielle's jaw literally dropped open.  Ephiny?  They're talking about Ephiny?  She was still in shock when she saw the half-hearted wave from Xena signaling that she gave in.  With a triumphant yell, Ephiny jumped to her feet, hands thrown in the air in victory.  Eponin rushed the field to congratulate her, catching the exuberant victor in her arms, swinging her about in a fierce hug.  Solari and the rest of her squad quickly took to the field, lending their enthusiasm to the celebration.

As Ephiny was led off in search of a round of drinks and revelry, Xena slowly struggled to her feet.  The crowd had dispersed quickly with Ephiny's victory, leaving only a handful of women still mingling about the field.  It was easy for Xena to spot her faithful bard still standing at the fence, a shocked expression on her face.  Wearily, she made her way across the field, coming to stand in front of Gabrielle.

"Hey," she asked, "You okay?"

Gabrielle slowly nodded.  "You?"

Xena gingerly rubbed the back of her neck with her hand.  "Yeah.  A little wiped, but I'm fine."

"Uh-huh."  Gabrielle blinked, noticing the grass stains streaking both knees and the back of Xena's legs.  Reaching up, she dug a clump of mud out of Xena's brass breastplate, flicking it off the tips of her fingers.  "Come on, bath time for you."

Eyes closed, Xena let the hot water flow over her, soaking into aching joints and muscles.  She felt Gabrielle shift closer, then lay a cloth on her back, gently caressing.  "That feels sooo good," she breathed with a sigh.

She melted into the sensations, murmuring her appreciation.  Until the caresses abruptly changed.  Gone was the gentle, soothing touch, replaced by a hard scrubbing as Gabrielle attacked Xena's left ear.

"Hey!  That's attached you know!"

"Yeah?  So's the dirt, mighty warrior.  I swear, Xena, I don't know how you get mud in half the places you do."

"You try having someone laying across you, pressing your head back against the ground and see if you don't get a little dirt behind your ears."

"That reminds me."  Gabrielle changed ears, scrubbing the other just as roughly.  "Just what was all that about?"

"What?" asked Xena, the picture of pure innocence.

"That!"  Gabrielle stated emphatically, rubbing even harder.  "Since when do you wrestle Ephiny - and since when do you lose?"

"I'd already beaten nine of your amazons, including Eponin," Xena shrugged, "And, for your information, your regent challenged me."

"Is that why you lost?" Gabrielle asked, lowering the cloth back into the water, moving around to face Xena.  "Did you let her win because she's my regent?  Xena, did you throw that fight?" Gabrielle asked, staring Xena in the eye.

"No."  Xena hesitated, biting her bottom lip, sliding her gaze away from Gabrielle.  "I was tired.  And, I slipped.  Even a warrior princess can have an off-day, you know."

"Uh-huh."  Gabrielle folded both arms across her chest, seemingly unconvinced.

"Honest truth, Gabrielle."  She eloquently shrugged both shoulders.  "Could have happened to anyone."

"Not to you," insisted the blonde.

"Yes, even to me."  Why can't she just let this go?  "But, you have to admit, your regent defeating me on the practice field in fair combat can go a long ways to boosting your amazons' morale."

"Oh, believe me, Xena, my amazons do not suffer from low self-esteem!"  she snorted.  "You should have heard half the women out there!  They wanted to trade positions with you on the ground beneath Ephiny!"  Gabrielle's eyes narrowed to tiny slits.  "Come to think of it, it didn't look like you were in any hurry to get out from beneath her, either!"

"What the - ?!?" Xena raised a hand, let it abruptly drop into the tub with a resounding splash.  Shooting an incredulous look at Gabrielle, she moved to the edge of the tub, pulling her taut body from the water.  Crossing the room, not even taking the time to dry off, she began throwing her leathers on.

"Where in Tartarus do you think you're going?" Gabrielle yelled from the center of the tub.

"To finish my bath at the river!"  shouted Xena, grabbing both boots in one hand, storming towards the door.  "Maybe I'll come back once we've both had a chance to cool off!"

"Get back here!  I haven't dismissed you!"  Gabrielle brought her hand down, slapping the top of the water, jumping back as the splash came up and hit her squarely in the face.  "Damn you, Xena!  Xena!"  

"Gabrielle?"  The hand swiftly moved the hide covering to the side, the lithe body slipping in the door.  Eyes rapidly adjusting to the change of light from outside to in, she stealthily moved to into the hut.  Peering over the edge of the tub, she intently watched the object of her search.

Her eyes were closed, head tilted back, resting against the edge of the tub.  Arms were thrown back, propped against the boards rimming the edge in support.  The water lightly moved with each breath in and out, the waves caressing smooth flesh just above luscious mounds.

"Gabrielle?"  she repeated, kneeling on the floor, leaning in to whisper lightly at the blonde's ear.  "You awake?"

A distinctly unregal-sounding snore escaped the queen's lips.  

"Gabrielle?" Biting her bottom lip, she hesitantly reached out, dropping her hand onto Gabrielle's shoulder. Quickly shaking her, she called her name again.

"Wha - Huh?!"  Gabrielle shouted, sitting up with an undignified snort and a splash.  Slipping below the water, she quickly resurfaced, spewing lukewarm bathwater from her mouth.  She wiped a hand briskly across her face, pushing her hair out of her eyes.  "Ephiny!  What are you doing sneaking up on me?" she screamed.

"I didn't sneak, I just walked in."  The regent shrugged.  "I called your name several times."

"Yeah, well to you damn Amazons, it's walking.  To the rest of us, it's sneaking!"

Ephiny cocked her head to one side.  "Need I remind you that you're one of those damn Amazons, my Queen?"

"Huh, so I am."  Gabrielle shrugged, a playful grin spreading across her features.  "What boon do you seek from your benevolent Queen, my loyal Regent?" she asked, putting on her most royal of airs.

"Your Highness."  Ephiny attempted to play the game, but lost it in a series of giggles after the second word left her lips.  "I missed you at lunch," she simply stated.

"Ah.  Funny thing, that.  I woke up from my nap, quite ready to go meet you for a good meal when I was distracted by an impromptu wrestling match on the practice fields."  She grinned at the dawning realization evident on Ephiny's face.  "Seems someone dumped six-foot of warrior princess on her backside in the mud."


"Yeah.  Bathing suddenly seemed more important than eating."

Ephiny casually glanced about the hut, her gaze coming to rest back on the countenance of her queen.  "I don't see six-foot of angry, muddy warrior about anywhere," she observed.

"No.  We had a disagreement and she went to the river to pout."

Ephiny draped one arm over the tub, dangling her hand over the water.  Resting her chin on her arm, she looked at Gabrielle through the top of her lashes.  "She left you all alone in this big tub, huh?" she asked, mischievously.

"Uh-huh."  Gabrielle found herself drawn in closer to the regent's startling gaze.

"Knowing anyone could walk in on you at any given time?" she pressed.


Ephiny nodded her head in affirmation.  "You know, if I was of the mind, I could grab all your clothes and run out of here before you could stop me."

"You could do that," Gabrielle agreed.  "Or, you could take yours off and join me."

Ephiny's breath caught in her throat.  She had only been playfully teasing Gabrielle with easy banter.  She hadn't thought Gabrielle would - thinking of her options, Ephiny allowed her fingertips to skim the surface of the water.  "Water's gone cold," she observed.

"Mmmm, yeah," Gabrielle murmured, as if only just now realizing that.  A shiver ran through her body.  Resolutely, she moved to the edge, reaching for a towel to dry with.  "It's chilly.  Hand me a shift from my bag?" she asked, indicating the bag laying across the room on the floor beside the bed.

Immediately, Ephiny rose to her feet, snatching the bag up.  Deftly, she undid the fastenings, rummaging through the contents as she held the bag over the bed.  Her hand closed on a rolled garment and pulled it free.  As she did so, an object tumbled out.  Reaching out, Ephiny barely caught it before it hit the floor.

"Oh, that's for you," Gabrielle casually called over her shoulder.  Ephiny glanced quickly from the sapphire-studded bracer to Gabrielle and back again, her jaw working, but no sound coming out.  "Do you like it?" Gabrielle pressed.

"I - " Ephiny looked up her queen, still steadily wiping herself dry, the towel strategically covering her left breast, her stomach and between her legs.  Her right flank and the curve of her right breast was still very much visible to her regent's hungry gaze.  "I - it's beautiful," she stammered, lowering her eyes to look again at the bracer held in her grasp, her thumb lightly stroking over one of the sapphires.

"Yes, it is," Gabrielle agreed, crossing the room to stand in front of Ephiny.  "I saw it at the market as we were leaving Athens, and I immediately thought of you."

"But, it's not my birthday - " Ephiny's eyes came up, meeting Gabrielle's.  "Or, solstice.  Or - "

"Hush."  Gabrielle stepped forward, placing a finger against Ephiny's lips.  "I don't need a special occasion to give my friend a gift.  Now, just say thank you and shut up and let me put it on you."

"Th - thank you," Ephiny stammered, still in awe.

She stood there, rooted to the spot, still clutching a rumpled shift in her hand as her queen reached out, deftly unfastening the bracer on her left arm.  Hazel eyes followed every movement as Gabrielle took her old bracer and laid it down on the bed.  Scarcely daring to breath, she watched as Gabrielle took the new armband  from her loose grasp.  Bringing it to her lips, she placed a slow, deliberate kiss on a sapphire stone before lowering it, bringing it about Ephiny's arm.  Ephiny's heart hammered in her chest as the bracer was securely fastened into place.

"Thank you," Ephiny repeated, her normal dulcet tones coming out at a husky pitch.

"Think nothing of it."  Gabrielle's own voice was deeper than usual as well.  Her touch lingered on Ephiny's arm, fingers trailing up and down the bracer.  Ephiny followed the touch with her eyes, feeling her tongue come out to lick suddenly too-dry lips.

"What in Tartarus is going on in here?" came a shout from the doorway.

The aforementioned six foot of warrior stood menacingly in the center of the room, glowering at the queen and her regent.  Or more accurately, Ephiny realized, the mostly-naked queen and her regent, in an easily misinterpreted position at the foot of the queen's bed.  Ephiny quickly disentangled herself from the intimate touch and scooped her discarded bracer up off the bed.  She hurried along the perimeter of the room, studiously avoiding the warrior's long-armed reach.

"Just came by to tell you both that there's a celebration scheduled for the evening after next," she hastily spoke, "A feast to welcome the return of the Queen of the Amazons."  Looking down at her hand in surprise, she tossed the rumpled shift at Xena.  Feet moving rapidly, she bolted for the door, risking a quick glance back over her shoulder, relieved to see a stunned Xena still rooted to the center of the floor, speechlessly holding a limp shift in her large hands.  Not taking any chances, she scrambled across the courtyard, suddenly remembering at least three other places she should be at that precise moment.

Ephiny lay sprawled on her bed, her blanket pulled up to her hips.  She had kept very busy for the remainder of the afternoon, checking up on this project and that, making sure everything was on schedule for tomorrow eve's feast.  If she was honest with herself, she'd admit that mostly she was spending excess energy darting here and there, doing her best to not stay in one place for too long lest the irritated warrior princess manage to track her down.  

Her plan had worked too well.  She'd not seen Xena for the entire afternoon. But, she had run herself ragged in the process.  Very late that evening, well after sundown, she had stumbled back to her hut, stripped off her leathers and fallen into bed, too tired to do little more than even think about a warm bath.  Then, before she knew it, Morpheus was bringing her dreams of wrestling warriors and naked queens.  

Something niggled at the edge of Ephiny's consciousness, pulling her from her dreams.  Wearily, she opened one eye, looking for the cause of her disturbance.  At first, all she heard were the usual night sounds of the village.  An owl hooting in the distance, the crackling of wood in the hearth as the fire burned low, the off-key tune of someone singing about the regent.

Both eyes flying open, Ephiny bolted upright.  Sweet Artemis, not again!  She groaned, tossing the blanket back, climbing out of her warm bed.  She padded across the floor, standing near the curtained door, peering out.  Across the square,  Ephiny could make out the the profile of a woman standing beneath the giant tree in the center of the village, holding a bongo drum in her hand.  To Ephiny's sheer horror, the woman began to sing in tempo to the beat.

For the love of the Regent ---There's nothing I wouldn't do --- I'd fight for her and die for her ---- Yeah, that's what I'd do.  For the love of the Regent ---

Burying her face in her hands, Ephiny turned from the curtained doorway, determinedly stalking across the room.  Resolutely climbing back in bed, she pulled her blanket up past her waist.  Rolling over, she determinedly beat her pillow repeatedly with her closed fist, venting some of her pent-up frustrations.  Then, at last, fluffing the down-filled pillow, she laid down, covering both ears in an attempt to block out the off-key love song.  Closing her eyes, she tried to will herself back to sleep.

Ephiny took a bite of her oatmeal, slowly chewing the fruit the cook added to disguise the lumps.  She confidently swept her gaze across the communal dining hall.  There were six warriors in the room already, and more sporadically trickling in.  

Allowing herself a small smile, Ephiny silently congratulated herself on the success of her plan.  Studiously avoiding Xena had been a stroke of genius.  Of course, it's only a half-candlemark past dawn, mused Ephiny, casting a glance skyward.  The real challenge won't be until after the Queen rolls out of bed.  

Lost in thought, she used her spoon to swirl around the thickening oatmeal in her bowl.  I should be fine if I avoid the practice fields.  And the stables.  The hunting parties.  She'll want to eat with the Queen.  Cradling her head in both hands, she let out a frustrated groan.

"Pony?" asked Solari around a mouthful of bread as she swung one leg over the bench across from her Regent.

"What about her?" asked Ephiny, lifting her head just far enough to look at Solari out of one bleary eye.

"I don't know," the scout shrugged, chasing her bread with a swig of cider.  "But, I find whenever you're looking this exasperated, it's safe to assume she's involved."

"Eponin's innocent."  A wry smile broke through the dark visage.  "This time."

"Hunh."  Solari seemed to mull that over for a moment.  Propping both elbows on the table, she leaned in closer, her nose scant inches from Ephiny's.  "Then," she asked, gesturing at Ephiny's bowl, "Who peed in your oatmeal?"

"Solari!"  Ephiny sputtered, nearly spewing a mouthful of cider across the table.

"Nope, wasn't me.  I've been out on patrol," Solari proclaimed her defense with an air of innocence.

"Hey!"  Ephiny checked the position of the sun again, narrowed her eyes at Solari.  "Aren't you supposed to still be in the Northern Quadrant?"

"Metanira and the rest of the kids got it under control," Solari waved off the regent's concern.  "I came back to get you.  I think there's something you should see."

Ephiny silently assessed the situation.  If it was trouble, Solari wouldn't have calmly strolled in and eaten half her breakfast before approaching her.  But, the fact that Solari had ridden back early - instead of sending one of the youngsters with a message - to bring her attention to the situation - "Important?" Ephiny asked, already knowing the answer to that question.

"I'd like to think so, yes," the scout nodded.

"Important enough to disturb the Queen?" 

"I'd rather show you first, Eph."  Solari lowered her voice.  "Then, if you decide we should include the Queen - " She leaned back, breaking off her sentence with a shrug.

"Give me a half candlemark to take care of a few details and saddle my horse"  Ephiny took a final sip of her cider before rising.  "Meet you at the stables."

Solari nodded in agreement, reaching across the table to snatch up the regent's abandoned mug.  Sipping the cider, she used her thumb and forefinger to pull over Ephiny's bowl.  Contentedly, she finished off the half-eaten breakfast.

They'd been riding for several candlemarks, guiding their horses ever northward.  They'd crossed the inner perimeter markers a while back and were now less than a quarter mile from the markers for the outer perimeter.  

Must be a border-issue, Ephiny thought, Hope it's not another instance of  'centaurs-on-our-hunting-grounds' thing.  

Ephiny's gaze furtively scanned the horizon.  Solari had taken the lead early on, and had maintained it for most of the journey.  Every time Ephiny's mount pulled even with hers, it seemed as if Solari purposely edged her horse a little farther ahead.  Not that I mind the view.  The regent allowed her hazel eyes to linger upon Solari's firm back and strong calves.  It was a warm day, with only a slight breeze to cool the heated flesh of horse and rider.  Ephiny unconsciously licked her lips in response to the light sheen of perspiration on the scout's toned body.

Course, I'd like to be able to do more than just look.  Ephiny nudged her mare, encouraging her to match the pace of Thunder.  Slowly, they began to pull alongside.  To her consternation, Solari spurred her own horse on, taking the point once again.  I wonder why she's so determined to avoid talking to me?

They'd passed four girls from Solari's squad a distance back.  Ephiny knew there were a total of six in the unit.  She was mildly surprised they hadn't seen the rest of the squad on their way deeper into the hill country.  Solari hadn't seemed perturbed at all, taking only a moment to acknowledge her troops, giving them minimal instruction before pushing on again.

I hope those youngsters didn't scout too far ahead on their own without Solari's approval.  Her squinted eyes traveled the line of the horizon again, settling on a thick copse of trees in the distance.  She scanned the treetops, eyes seeking a hint of leathers and feathers.  The foliage is thick, the branches strong.  Perfect place for an ambush.

She'd been so consumed with her thoughts, she hadn't realized Solari had urged her mount to the left, slowly angling away from the copse of trees and open fields towards an outcropping of rock that led farther up into the hills.  Without a word or a backwards glance, Solari guided her mare down a narrow path, its width sufficient for only one mount at a time.  Ephiny urged Honeycomb to follow at a distance.  The horse obediently followed, picking her way along the rocky incline.

As the mountain pass continued up at a steep incline, Ephiny lost sight of Solari around a series of crooks and bends.  Her horse continued to guide her along the proper path, cautious upon the loose, rocky ground.  Thick vegetation darkened the path, lending an eerie aura to the trail.  In the distance, Ephiny could hear the roar of fast-moving water.

By the time she rounded the last bend and found the path widening out into a plain, Solari had already dismounted and removed her saddle from her horse, leaving her gear beneath a tall tree.  Thunder was drinking from a swiftly moving river bed, enjoying her mistress' touch as she rubbed her down.  

Judging from Solari's behavior that it was safe to do so, Ephiny guided Honeycomb into the secluded glen and dismounted and unsaddled.  By the time she led her horse to the water beside Solari's mount, the scout had wandered farther downriver.  She was standing, hands on both hips, her back to Ephiny, staring out into the distance.

A war party camped along our borders?  Ephiny wondered, coming to stand just behind and to the right of her friend.  Wordlessly, she peered over Solari's shoulder, taking in the surrounding area.

From their vantage point, they could see for miles.  The river they were camped at turned from a lush glen to a rocky shoreline.  Beyond the outcropping of rocks, the water turned to rapids, leading to a magnificent waterfall that towered over the lush valley below.  The animals are usually the first to sense impending danger.  She listened intently; the usual sounds of the forest met her ears.  A hunter's keen eyesight revealed only birds and deer to her gaze.  

"What is it?" she asked, leaning close, dropping a hand onto a sun-bronzed shoulder, whispering in her scout's ear.  "Raiding party?"

Wordlessly, Solari shook her head.


Again, Solari shook her head.

Ephiny frowned, biting her bottom lip in consternation.  True, she wasn't a scout of Solari's caliber, but she felt she was competent enough to know when something was amiss.  Nothing about this feels wrong.  Ephiny was deeply disturbed that her senses weren't registering some sort of trouble.  

"What is it, then?" Ephiny hissed in Solari's ear, unsure of whether she should even be speaking in a normal tone of voice.  Solari hadn't hidden, so they obviously weren't in danger of being seen, but still - impatiently, she nudged Solari's elbow.

The scout slowly turned around, her upper body scant inches from Ephiny's.  She could feel the body heat emanating from her friend.  "A glorious view fit for a regent," replied Solari, with an ear-to-ear grin.

"What?!?"  Ephiny took a giant step back.  

Solari calmly watched as Ephiny's fists clenched and unclenched.  She paced the length of the riverbed, her leather boots displacing the water along the bank with each forceful step.  At each turn towards her, Solari viewed the clenched jawline, every muscle from chin to ear clearly defined beneath a barely constrained mask.  With each step taken in the opposite direction, she was afforded an opportunity to study Ephiny's strong back, the rigid set of her shoulderblades framed beneath strands of curly blonde locks.  Stopping mid-stride, audibly inhaling and exhaling several times, Ephiny gradually shook the tension from her taut frame.  "You're telling me - " asked the regent in a dangerously low tone " - that you willingly left your squad unattended and dragged me away from my duties to come all the way out here to look at a waterfall?!?"

"No," Solari countered, decidedly unperturbed by Ephiny's tone.  "I brought you out here to look at a waterfall and have a picnic lunch with me."  

Ephiny's gaze darted back to the clearing where they'd left their horses and saddles.  She noted for the first time the bulge of Solari's saddlebags.  Definitely well-packed enough for a blanket and lunch, she realized.  I can't believe Solari would - "I know in the past I've accused you of being an irresponsible prankster, but I never thought you would deliberately shirk your duties - "

" - I put a capable student in charge of drills for the day.  It's good for the youngsters to strut their stuff without me hanging over their shoulders every time they squat to pee.  And, as for dragging you away from your duties - " Solari stepped forward, clasping both hands on her friend's shoulders " - I dragged you away from that village with its hectic problems and never-ending demands that are starting to wear on you."  She softened her next words, "When was the last time you took a day - Hades, even just a few candlemarks - for yourself?"

"I'm in charge of that hectic, demanding village, Solari.  And, its lunatics," she added, pointedly commenting on her friend's unsettling behavior.  "I can't just up and take off whenever I feel like it."

A not-so-subtle arch of an eyebrow.  "Gabrielle does."

Ephiny let out a derisive laugh.  "In case you haven't noticed, I'm not Gabrielle."

"Oh, believe me, I have most definitely noticed."  Solari boldly raked her eyes over Ephiny's form.

Ephiny fairly blushed at the thinly veiled comment, the suggestive look.  "I mean, I'm not the Queen."  She let that comment hang in the air between them for a moment.  Alone or not, she couldn't encourage a member of her tribe to make comparisons when it came to her and the Queen.  Not even Solari.  Determinedly, she moved back to the meadow where the horses were grazing, her long-legged stride carrying her to the tall oak in quick steps.  Bending down, she deftly lifted her saddle onto her shoulder, carrying it to her mare.  Though her back was to her companion, she could feel Solari's even stare.  Flinging the saddle over the horse's back, she gave an irritated glance over her shoulder.  "You do realize I'll have to think of a suitable punishment for you, don't you?"

Solari came to stand on the other side of the mare, intently meeting Ephiny's gaze.  "I'd expect no less, my Regent."

"A dozen of your sisters saw us ride out of the village this morning."  Ephiny was unsettled by the calm gaze.  Her fingers noticeably trembled as she sought to tighten the fastenings about the saddle.  "Your own squad saw us heading in the direction of the falls."

"I deserve to be chastised," Solari agreed, reaching out to lay her hand on Ephiny's forearm.

"I mean, really, what kind of precedent would I be setting if I didn't?"  Ephiny asked, looping the end of one fastening through a buckle and cinching it tight.

"You need to be strict," Solari readily supplied, "Let the punishment fit the crime."

"Right."  Ephiny took a deep breath, her tentative gaze coming up to meet Solari's steady one.  The combination of those sultry eyes and the lingering touch of fingers trailing up and down her arm was driving her to distraction.  "Something appropriate."  She cast a glance at her horse.  "Mucking out the stables.  For a moon."

Solari nodded her consent, moved away from the horse.  Ephiny watched in silence, thinking she meant to retrieve her saddle and prepare her own horse.  To her surprise and consternation, Solari opened her saddlebag and pulled out a blanket, spreading it out beneath the tree.  Then, she reached into the saddlebag again, pulling out several wrapped bundles and placing them gingerly on the blanket.


The scout looked up at the sound of her name, a rueful grin spreading across her features.  "If I'm doing the time, I may as well get the full pleasure of the crime," she explained with a smirk.  Settling on the blanket, she opened her other saddlebag, pulling out a flask of amazon wine, dangling it from her fingertips in seductive offering.

Shaking her head, sending her mass of blonde curls flying, Ephiny uncinched the saddle, lifting it off her mare.  Carrying it over one shoulder, she made her way back to the tree, dropping it to the ground.  Then, scarcely believing it even as she was doing it, she dropped to both knees, joining Solari on the blanket.

"The horses should rest before the ride back," Ephiny rationalized.

"Of course, my Regent," Solari responded with a sultry look before passing the wine.

I have to admit, this is nice.  Ephiny sat beneath the tree, her back braced against her saddle, her legs stretched in front of her, crossed at the ankles.  One hand rested at her side, the other on Solari's midriff.  The scout lay on her back, her head cradled on Ephiny's thigh, hands folded just beneath her breasts.  Eyes closed, her chest rose and fell with each slow, deep breath.    

A lazy eye studied their campsite.  'Lunch' had been early.  Solari had packed wisely, bringing along cheese and crackers and half of a roasted chicken from last evening's dinner.  After some initial awkwardness on her part at sharing such an intimate encounter with a long-time friend, Ephiny had eventually found herself leaning forward to take a bite of cheese and cracker from Solari's fingertips - with her teeth.  The experience had been scary and thrilling and more exciting than anything Ephiny had done in quite a long time.  

After getting over the initial shock - and fortifying herself with a fair amount of wine - she'd found herself somewhat unencumbered by the strict protocol she'd displayed earlier.  They'd resolved their differences, and Solari had agreed to the punishment, so it was with a lighter heart that she found herself laying on the blanket, propped up on her elbows, feeding bits of crackers and cheese and chicken to Solari.  Sometimes, Solari would lean in and cleanly take the offered snack from Ephiny's fingertips.  Other times, she would linger a little too long, her tongue unhurriedly sliding over fingertips before gently sucking them into her mouth.  And, always the prankster, Ephiny wasn't surprised when she discovered Solari to be a tease, taunting her by keeping each bite just out of reach until she was practically begging for it.  

Amazing the damage a little amazon wine can do, Ephiny reflected.  'A little' wine had turned out to be the entire flask, consumed between the two of them.  And, after the food was devoured and the wine polished off, Solari had laid back on Ephiny's thigh and slowly allowed her eyes to drift shut.  It wasn't long before soft snores were coming from the attractive amazon.

Attractive?  Ephiny paused at the thought, mulling the description over in her mind.  It wasn't a term Ephiny would normally put towards her friend.  Just because she'd never allowed herself to consider it.  They'd been packmates since the time they were old enough to toddle about the village under their own power.  Always together, always into mischief.  As they grew older and Ephiny discovered first sports and then weapons, while Solari discovered other girls, they'd remained inseparable friends.   Even though Solari was a shameless flirt and occasionally made veiled comments towards Ephiny, they'd never once crossed that line.  

Ephiny only vaguely realized that her fingers were tracing slow patterns upon Solari's abdomen, the muscles reacting beneath her fingertips.  You've had half the women in the village trailing after you at some point or another, haven't you, my friend?  she mused, But, for all your flirting, you've never found one you're serious about, have you?  Ephiny thought on that subject for a while, wondering if her friend was ever lonely, even though she never wanted for companionship.  Indeed, Ephiny couldn't remember the last time she'd seen Solari leave a festival alone.  

She hadn't realized how close she'd been to drifting off until she heard the twig snap and her eyes flew open.  Her palm tapped out an urgent message on Solari's tight stomach.  Eyes the color of sandalwood blinked open, searching Ephiny's face in confusion.  She came halfway up off her human pillow in reaction and Ephiny took the opportunity to slip out from beneath Solari.

Swiftly moving, she rose to her haunches, using the tree for cover as she furtively scanned the surrounding area.  Uneasily, she clutched at the knife at her waist, slowly rising to her feet.  Behind her, she was aware of Solari moving off the blanket.  That's right, Solari, easy.  Don't let on we know they're there.  

Still, she didn't see anything out of the ordinary.  Biting her lip in contemplation, she slowly strolled towards the river.  Kneeling on one knee, bracing herself on one hand, she made a showing of reaching into the water, bringing a handful of water to her lips.  Warily, her eyes darted behind thick lashes, scanning the copse of greenery directly across the river from her.  

Come on, I'm a perfect target.  Where are you?  Straining her ears, she willed herself to become one with the forest the way Melosa had taught her in her youth.  She had taken Ephiny out into the woods alone and showed her how to isolate each noise, to identify each sound, to block out nature's resonance until all that remained were the echoes of what didn't belong.  

She focused on those lessons now, using her knowledge to identify, isolate and eliminate each sound she heard.  The roar of the waterfall.  Isolated and gone.  The rushing of the river as it ran past.  Dismissed.  The whickerings of their mounts.  The stealthy footsteps of Solari padding on the soft earth behind her, her shallow breaths as she came closer.  The call of a wolf in the clearing below.  The sound of a deer deep in the forest chewing greenery.  

One by one, Ephiny evaluated and discarded each sound.  Until, she was left with nothing.  What intruder makes no disturbance in nature?  she pondered, slowly rising to her feet.  Xena.  Eyes narrowed, slowly skirting the trees, looking for the telltale black leathers.  But, I heard no approaching horse.  Nostrils working, she tried to distinguish any clue lingering on the winds.  Nothing.  Then again, she does have many skills.  

She slowly became aware of Solari's presence.  The scout was standing directly in front of her, a concerned look on her face.  "Hey, what's going on?" she asked in a soft voice.

"I heard something."  

Solari glanced about, letting her own eyes scan the forest and the surrounding area.  She trusted Ephiny, but had seen no sign of any intruder.  They were alone.  She was sure of it.

Sensing the hesitation from her friend, Ephiny insisted, "I know I heard something."  Not something.  Someone.  Xena.

"Whatever it was, it's gone now."  

There was no response from Ephiny as she continued to worriedly glance at the wilderness about them.  Solari reached out, clutching at Ephiny's upper arms.  Leaning in, she deposited a lingering kiss, coaxing Ephiny's lips open, slipping her tongue in to gently caress and stroke the recesses of her mouth.  

Sharp ears caught the sound of the moan, an experienced tongue felt the vibrations rumbling from the regent's throat.  She pressed her advantage, her left hand coming up to gently stroke through Ephiny's curls.  Catching the regent at the back of her neck, she pulled Ephiny in closer, effectively deepening the kiss.  The action served to bring Ephiny's entire body length into contact with her own.  And, Solari didn't waste any time instigating a firm thigh between the regent's legs.

Solari controlled the kiss, enflaming, then stoking her regent's passions.  She knew how to tease and please and openly invite the need for more.  Unhurried in her confidence, she slowly disentangled her tongue from Ephiny's, dragging the digit between swollen lips at an agonizingly slow-paced retreat.  

As she pulled back, slowly blinking her eyes open, she found fevered hazel flecked with gold staring back at her.  She thrilled as she saw Ephiny quickly lick her lips in reflexive response, noted the hurried swallow, reveled in the rapid rise and fall of the regent's chest.

A confident smile spread over Solari's face.  Gotcha.  "What are you thinking about?"  She longed for the answer, wanting to savor the sound of it coming from Ephiny's lips.

Without hesitation, Ephiny replied, "Xena."

Solari's mouth worked, but no words came out.  Eyes widening, she clearly mouthed the name 'Xena' before reaching out, shoving Ephiny away from her with all her might.  Ephiny felt herself being pushed backwards, then stumbling on the loose rocks, sliding down the bank.  She landed awkwardly in the river, sending up a loud splash as her momentum carried her underwater.  

Breaking the surface of the water, a sputtering Ephiny took in great gulps of air.  By the time she shook off her disorientation and made her way to shore, she saw Solari already on her horse, frantically spurring it away from the meadow at breakneck speed.    Wringing water from her leathers, Ephiny stared after her until she was out of sight.  Not once did Solari look back.  "Now, what?"  she grumbled out loud, running a hand through her hair, pushing wet, disheveled curls from her face.

It was a tired, bedraggled and still slightly damp woman that slowly pushed open the door to the stable and led her mare inside.  Throwing a bucket of oats on the floor for the horse, she allowed the animal to feed while she uncinched, unfastened and unbuckled the various straps and harnesses.  Lifting the saddle off, carrying it a short distance, she grunted as she threw the saddle over the railing.  With a weary sigh, she limply draped an arm across the wooden rail.  Her other hand rested on the pommel, her cheek laying heavily on the leather saddle.  

"My Regent?" asked a hesitant voice from the doorway.  Groaning in protest, Ephiny opened one eye, slowly lifting her head from the saddle.  "Are you ill?" persisted the voice, stepping farther into the stable.

"No," Ephiny mustered up the strength to weakly answer.  Wearily, she forced herself to straighten to her full height, mustering up as much dignity as possible before turning around.  "I'm fine!"

She saw the young woman wince even as she herself realized her response had been much too loud.  Great going, Eph, she scolded herself, Just jump down the poor girl's throat for asking a simple question!  She frowned, briefly wondering where Theracles was.  Oh, yeah; visiting relatives in Corinth.  This is her apprentice - what's her name again? - Ah, that's right; Doretta.  

Noting the young woman hadn't so much as dared breathe loudly since her outburst, Ephiny opted for a different tact.  Trying for what she hoped was a sincere smile, she approached the girl, keeping her voice low and intimate.  "I had to walk her in," Ephiny explained, "My horse threw a shoe."

The girl's big brown eyes darted to where Honeycomb was happily munching away at her bucket of oats, staring at the hooves as if to ascertain if the regent was being sincere.  Noting the way the horse held its front  hoof, Doretta gave a brief nod in acknowledgement.  Wordlessly, she approached the horse, being careful not to startle her, running a hand through her thick golden mane in familiar greeting.

Kneeling down, reaching out, she gingerly lifted the hoof, examining it.  Feeling the length of the horse's foreleg, she pulled a vial from a pouch on her belt, liberally applying it to the mare.  Skilled hands spread the liniment, liberally working it into the flesh.  The smell of peppermint wafted into the air as she wiped her hands on a rag.  One hand continuing to hold the hoof up, her other arm braced across her thigh, she looked back at the regent.  "She'll have to be re-shod."

"I expected as much," Ephiny nodded.  

Trusting the stablehand to care for her mare, Ephiny grabbed oil and a cloth from where Theracles kept them stored for easy access by the riders.  Moving back to where she had hung her gear, she uncorked the bottle, liberally pouring oil onto the saddle.  With the cloth, she generously coated the leather, working it into the cracks and creases.  

She continued to rub, loosing herself in the motion, only dimly aware of the slow burn beginning in her joints from the work she was doing.  Muscles flexing, she repeatedly polished the oil into the leather, inhaling the combined scents of oil, leather and hay.  As she continued her assault, she unconsciously reached up, rubbing at her aching shoulder.

Her tired mind didn't even register Doretta's nearness until she smelled the peppermint, felt the coolness on her bare flesh.  A palm closed about her shoulder, strong fingers kneading and rubbing, working the tense muscles beneath.

"What are you doing?" Ephiny asked through closed eyes and gritted teeth.

"Liniment will soothe the ache," the young stablehand explained.

An uncontrollable moan slipped from Ephiny's lips as Doretta increased the pressure.  The liniment began to warm with the friction of contact between Doretta's fingers and Ephiny's shoulder, sending a tingling heat spreading over Ephiny's body.  Surprisingly strong hands worked pliant flesh, easing the tension.  Ephiny felt herself becoming lost in the sensations - until she felt a downy fine kiss being placed upon her opposite shoulder, then the whisper of a breath and teeth working at her earlobe.

"No."  Ephiny managed to ground out the command between tightly clenched teeth.  She tossed an incredulous glance over her shoulder at the youthful stablehand.

"You have other places that ache, as well," Doretta offered coyly.  "Allow me to soothe all your tensions away."  With a tiny smile, she advanced on the regent, attempting to trap her between the railing and her supple body.  If she could just touch her again, she was certain the Regent would allow it.

"No!"  Ephiny repeated, placing both hands on the brunette's shoulders, roughly shoving her away.  "Don't touch me!"  Ephiny shouted, pushing past the stunned woman, storming out of the stable.

"Damn, stupid son of a bacchae!"  More than a few startled amazons eyed the regent uneasily as she stormed past, fire in her eyes, a fury in her step that they hadn't seen since that time last winter when a drunken Eponin had challenged her friend to an impromptu duel of staffs on a log stretched across the river and had managed to unceremoniously dump Ephiny onto her rear in the nearly iced-over waters.  Now that they had time to think about it, the regent's leathers were slightly wet - and no one had seen Eponin since breakfast.  "I'm not a nursemaid for snot-nosed Amazons barely out of swaddling - "

Ephiny's tirade was abruptly broken off as a hand reached out, catching her by her collar, effectively pulling her off her feet and behind the corner of a hut.  With a sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach, Ephiny warily looked behind her.  Her gaze started mid-breast and gradually climbed up until she was looking into a set of ice blue eyes.  

The fingers of one hand still firmly wrapped in Ephiny's collar, the others drumming out a beat on her hip, a sardonic smile slowly crept over thin lips.  "Problems?" Xena drawled out, eyeing the amazon speculatively.

Ephiny sighed.  "Doretta."

"Doretta?" Xena asked, pursing her lips together, as if trying to place a face with the name.  "Oh, Dori.  Stablehand, right?  Cute kid."

"That kid tried to suck my earlobe off!"  

"Could be worse," Xena said with an evil grin, "She could have tried to put liniment on your - " her voice trailed off, an eyebrow arched wickedly as she caught the flustered look.  "Oh, I see."  

"Knock it off!"  Ephiny struggled to disentangle herself from Xena's grasp.  "Nothing happened."

"Of course not."  Xena still couldn't keep the grin off her face.

"It didn't!"  insisted Ephiny.  "She's just a kid."

"That kid is nearly nineteen summers old," Xena reasoned.  "Well into the age when you amazons are considered to be women."  She lowered her voice, leaning in, looking straight into hazel eyes.  "Relax.  She's a little homely, but I'm sure you wouldn't be her first, if that's what's worrying you."

"That's not what's bothering me!"  sputtered Ephiny, indignantly.  "I wouldn't - couldn't - never - " She growled with a swipe of her hand, trying to effectively signal the end of the conversation.  "It's not going to happen, okay?"

"Ah, I think the amazon doth protest too much."  Xena bit off a smirk, draping her arm over the regent's shoulder in commiseration.  "Must be tough having all those little ones idolize you."

"You should talk," Ephiny argued, "You know all  the kids in the village - and half the women, too - hero worship you.  Why, even Gabrielle - " her voice trailed off at the mention of the young queen's name.  She had slowly relaxed into the conversation, thinking that Xena had forgotten about the incident from yesterday.  And, I just had to go and remind her, didn't I?  she mentally kicked herself.

"About that."  Xena swallowed loudly, took a deep breath.  Looking Ephiny in the eye, then darting her gaze away before quickly looking back again, Xena lightly coughed.  Stubbing the toe of her boot in the loose dirt, she awkwardly fidgeted, slowly meeting Ephiny's expectant gaze.  

Please, Sweet Artemis.  Just let it be over with quickly!  Ephiny braced herself, expecting the full-onslaught of Xena's fist to her face.  Or her gut.  Or, maybe even a combination of moves.  Maybe she'll hit me really hard just once.  She felt her entire body stiffen in anticipation.

"I owe you an apology."

Ephiny screwed her eyes tightly shut, waiting for the blow.  What?  her mind numbly registered, her eyes slowly opening.  "What?" she squeaked  out loud this time.

"Yeah," Xena shrugged.  "Gabrielle explained it to me."

I wish she'd explain it to me, Ephiny thought, unsure of what the Queen could have possibly said to diffuse the situation.  "She did?" she eyed Xena warily, half-expecting a trick of some sort.

"Yeah," continued Xena.  "She said you guys were friends.  Good friends."  Ephiny let a sigh of relief escape her lips.  "Good friends with romantic feelings for each  other."  Both of Ephiny's eyebrows scrambled towards her hairline.  "And, she said I had to accept that you guys might occasionally feel the need to touch - " the warrior momentarily hesitated " - and cuddle - " she took another deep breath " - and stuff like that."  She tried unsuccessfully to read the expression on the amazon's face, unsure whether or not she was explaining herself properly.  "And, she said that sometimes, as women, you guys needed to have that closeness.  And, that I needed to understand that what she needed from you as a friend was different than what she got from me as a warrior."  There, just the way Gabrielle had explained it.  "Make sense?" she asked.

"Uh, yeah?" managed Ephiny, still trying to process what she'd just heard.  Gods knew that was the most Xena had ever strung together in one breath before.  And, oh, what a breath it had been.  Ephiny was still reeling from it all.

"Good."  Xena reached out, placing a hand on Ephiny's arm.  Ephiny let out a startled gasp as Xena's fingertips lingered on her flesh before traveling over the metal of her bracer.  "Nice," she complimented.  "Gabrielle told me she gave it to you."  She leaned in closer, dropping her voice to a low growl.  "I trust you said thank you."  At the sudden paleness blanching Ephiny's face, Xena couldn't help but grin.  She just loved teasing the amazon.  "Glad we understand each other."  She nodded once at the regent, slapping her soundly on the arm before trudging off.

Ephiny stood dumbstruck, leaning against the side of the hut, only her eyes moving as they followed the retreating form of the warrior.  She watched as Xena walked to the center of the courtyard where Gabrielle was waiting for her.  Sliding up beside her, placing a perfunctory kiss on Gabrielle's lips, they talked animatedly for a moment.  Then, her arm securely wrapped about Xena's waist, Ephiny saw Gabrielle turn to look in her direction, a smile gracing her lips before she turned away, leading Xena towards the dining hall.

The weapons master hefted the staff easily, leveling it on the open palm of her outstretched hand.  The staff rested perfectly in her hand, a testament to the fact that it was perfectly balanced.  Holding it steady, she peered at the wood closely, studying it for any blemishes or imperfections.  None visible to the naked eye.  The wood was smooth and even, the surface honed for candlemarks. 

Clasping it in both hands, she brought it around, performing a few perfunctory swings, then settling into a rhythm of twists, turns and twirls that even the most legendary of warriors would be hard-pressed to rival.  Dimly, a sense of being watched prickled around the edges of her mind.  She was acutely aware that there were several sets of eyes on her.  

In fact, being the weapons master, she was used to always having gangly teens and curious warriors milling about, watching her work.  It had made her nervous when she'd first experienced it, unused to having people looking at her.  She was used to being the wallflower.  Growing up, her mother had told her flat out that she was never going to be the prettiest or the smartest in the village.   That had hurt.  I mean, what mother tells that to their own kid?  I tried to keep a stiff upper lip, but I think I was bawling like a baby by the time I ran out the door and hit the bottom porch step.

Her mother had never made so much as a move to go after her.  But, her mother's lover had seen the hurt in her eyes and followed her that day.  She'd sat for hours by the river, chunking pebbles into the water.  Beroyle had stood along the edge of the bank, keeping silent vigil over her for candlemarks.  Eventually, once Eponin had stopped throwing rocks, she'd made her way down the embankment, coming to silently sit beside the girl.  And, as Apollo's chariot slowly made its descent, casting rays of russet orange across the water, she slipped a comforting arm about Eponin's shoulders.  It wasn't until Artemis' moon was high in the sky that they finally spoke.

Beroyle gently asked if she was ready to go back, explaining that her mother would start to worry.  Eponin felt a hot set of tears flood her cheeks at the mention of her mother's name.  Angrily swiping at the shameful tears with her fingers, she apologized to Beroyle for being so weak.  Beroyle reached out, a large thumb tenderly gliding across Eponin's tiny cheek, gathering the moisture onto her pad.  In that deep, thundering voice of hers, she told Eponin tears were nothing to be ashamed of.  Sometimes, when it was too difficult to speak and the emotions were too many to push down, the tears were a way to release the pain that was inside.  Then, she did the most amazing thing she could have ever done in Eponin's eyes:  she admitted that she cried sometimes.  

Eponin wasn't the brightest of the litter, but she certainly wasn't dumb.  Therefore, it took a good deal of explaining from Beroyle to convince Eponin that she spoke the truth.  After all, Beroyle was the Captain of the Queen's Guard.  She had served faithfully and protected the Queen at the Battle of Rycirrus against the Centaurs, taking three arrows in the chest to shield the Queen.  Already, there were ballads sung about the bravery of Beroyle of the Amazon Nation.  She was a living legend, their strongest and fiercest and most noblest - and she'd just confessed to a slip of a girl that she cries, too.

After convincing her that it was perfectly natural to cry sometimes - as long as it was done discreetly and privately and only in the presence of a loved one - and assuring Eponin that she did, indeed, love her - Beroyle cradled her in her arms and allowed the distraught girl to bury her face in her leathers and cry her eyes out.  And, then, when the tears were dry and the jagged sobs had subsided and her breathing had evened out, Beroyle had looked her in the eyes and spoke in that gruff voice that Eponin had come to trust.  She could still hear Beroyle apologizing for not knowing how to help her be the smartest or the prettiest, but she did offer to teach her how to be the toughest.

Eponin had jumped at the offer, eagerly agreeing to meet the Captain of the Queen's Guard on the practice fields at sunrise.  Looking back, she wasn't positive that Beroyle honestly expected her to show up, but she did, proudly dragging along her mother's staff that was still three hand-widths too large for her.  The Queen and some members of the guard were on the field with Beroyle when she had arrived, all dressed in formal gear.  Chuckles and off-handed comments had burned her ears as the grownups had spied her approach.  The Queen herself had ended their banter with a quick command and a swipe of her hand.  And, Beroyle looking at her as proudly as any true parent would, hefted her own staff, waiting patiently as Eponin took the field.

And, she continued to show up.  Even after the first solid hit she'd taken to the back by Beroyle's staff.  She'd been so sore the next morning that she'd literally had to drag herself off the side of the bed.  She struggled to dress, hardly able to walk upright out to the field.  But, walk out onto the field she did.  And Beroyle, noticing the pain etched in the tiny face, commended her on being a brave warrior and spent the day teaching her how to polish and care for her staff.

Under her guidance and tutelage, Eponin had learned not only how to wield every weapon in the armory, she learned how to clean them and maintain them.  And, she learned that she had a gift for making them, too.  She had learned the bow first.  It had been the easiest to construct out of young saplings and hemp.  After she had mastered that, she moved on to arrows and knives and swords and crossbows.  Until, there wasn't a weapon she wasn't skilled at making and wielding.  

But, what she truly excelled at was the staff.  It took moons to select the proper wood, plane it to the appropriate height and width.  Whittling it down, shaping it out of the wood.  Curing the wood, letting it soak for days on end.  Then, allowing it to thoroughly dry before carving a design into the wood.  Every one was unique, every staff had its own design.  Then, finally, selecting the hemp and cloth braiding to complete the project.

Her body a fluid form of movement, she wielded the staff expertly, her activities carrying her over the entire area of the practice field.  Years of work had toned the body of the weapons master, melting away pounds of baby fat until only hard muscle remained.  A light sheen of sweat trickled from her hair, sliding down her neck to glisten upon her tanned flesh.

With a final thrust followed by a spinning kick and sweeping motion, Eponin came to land perfectly centered in the middle of the field.  Keeping her wrist locked, she bounced the end of the staff on the ground, keeping a critical eye trained on the recoil.  With a satisfied grunt, she caught the staff in the middle of the grip, adjusting it over her shoulder.

Perfect!  Allowing herself a satisfied smile, she trotted from the field.   A staff truly fit for a queen!  Whistling an uncharacteristically happy tune, she jogged in the direction of the huts.

Part 2

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