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



"What in Tartarus does she think she's doing?" Gabrielle demanded, mouth open, eyes flashing.

"Relax," Solari interjected, turning Gabrielle's face to hers.  She instinctively tightened her embrace as she felt Gabrielle begin to back away.  "It's a feast, remember?  Any couplings here don't mean a thing come morning."  She gave a sheepish shrug at Gabrielle's incredulous look.  "It's an Amazon thing.  Everyone gets a little wild."

"Not Xena!" protested the young blonde, prying Solari's fingers from her waist.  "And, not with my regent!"  Shoving Solari away, fire blazing in her eyes, she stalked straight across the dance area.

"What in Tartarus are you doing?" Ephiny asked, unknowingly echoing her Queen's sentiments.

"Trying to convince your friend over there we mean business,"  Xena's voice came out muffled as she paused against the flesh of Ephiny's neck long enough to answer.  "Trust me; this'll convince her that my 'she's with me' routine is the real deal."

"Xena - " Ephiny's hands came up, palms pushing at broad, leather-clad shoulders in a feeble attempt to put some distance between Xena's mouth and her neck.  "I don't think - "  Her words trailed off, her mouth went slack, her eyes rolled back in her head as Xena bit at her pulse point.

"That's right," encouraged Xena.  "Don't think, Eph.  Just feel."

Across the clearing, just on the perimeter, Cordele's entire body went rigid.  Blood rushing to her face, her jaw clenched in rage, every vein in her neck stood out in stark contrast.  Breathing heavily, nostrils flaring, she glared hot daggers at the woman attached to her regent's neck.  Blood lust clouding her vision, she blindly reached for her shouldered bow.

"Xena - " Ephiny feebly protested, her left hand tapping out a tempo on the warrior's leathers in an attempt to bring her to her senses.  

She knew often times, Xena's plans were nothing short of unorthodox.  After all, Gabrielle had told her about the whole flying parchment to bring down a giant scenario Xena had cooked up because she was feeling creative.  But, this - this was bordering on insane!  The Queen's consort had her locked in an embrace, mouth eagerly working at her neck during the middle of a feast dedicated to the very same queen in full view of every amazon in the village.

Oh, Gods!  Ephiny felt a well-muscled hand slide down her back, pausing only momentarily before darting beneath her cloak and landing at the waistband of her skirt.  Fingers splayed across the small of her back, Xena's smallest digit insistently inched its way beneath her leathers.  Sweet Artemis!  Ephiny openly gasped at the sensations.  She's really starting to get to me!  

"That's it, you bacchae in warrior's clothing!  Back off!"  Eponin shouted, clamping down a massive hand on Xena's shoulder.  With a grunt, she tugged, pulling the warrior princess off the regent.  "Back off!  Now!"  She brought the sword up in an arcing sweep.

Xena spun quickly, extracting the breast dagger, bringing it up to catch the blade of the sword  "Ep, you don't know what you're doing - " Xena warned, using both hands to stave off the force behind the weapons master's blade.  Using her superior height to her advantage, she leveraged the blade into a semicircle, sending it spinning from Eponin's grip.  Both weapons harmlessly clattered to the ground several feet away.  

Fists clenching and unclenching, blood pounding in her ears, Eponin's eyes quickly darted about.  Her vision was fuzzy, but she was surprisingly able to make out a few key forms.  Cordele and her group were lingering on the edge of her peripheral vision like a pack of hyenas, waiting to scavenge whatever was left of the battle.  Pelagia and her royal guard were slowly moving up on her left flank, wary of making any sudden moves.  Xena was the primary focus of her attack, and the most readily identifiable presence.  Behind her, Ephiny was huddled over, her hand instinctively clutching at the tender flesh of her neck as she sought to catch her breath.  Gabrielle hadn't yet reached the scene, but was rapidly approaching, Solari hot on her heels.  Around them, all other activity had stopped, every amazon seemingly entranced by the confrontation.

Acutely aware of every eye on her, the stares and unwanted attention bringing back memories of a painful childhood, Eponin lashed out at who she saw as her greatest tormentor.  With a primal scream, she charged, her force propelling her into Xena's midsection.  Xena misinterpreted Eponin's attack, overcompensated, felt herself being flung backwards.  Reflexively, she clutched at the amazon's body, bringing her down with her.

"Ep!  No!"  Ephiny shouted, natural instincts carrying her forward into the fray.  The stumbling body of the warrior princess, coupled with that of the weapons master, caught her off-guard, bringing her to the ground in the melee.

Blinding sparks danced before her eyes as she lay on the cool clay, trying to decide up from down.  She lay curled up in an innate effort to protect her injured shoulder as two muscular bodies fell over the top of her, gouging her farther into the dirt.  A sharp cry escaped her lips before she could clamp it down.  Swallowing quickly, she tried to fight down the queasiness spreading up from her gut.  

She felt comforting hands on her back and about her waist.  Someone was kneeling beside her, brushing sweat-soaked hair back from her face.  Breathing deeply, steadying herself, she was finally able to open her eyes.  Two sets of concerned eyes were blinking back at her, one brown, the other green.  As the spinning slowed somewhat, she was able to correctly match them to Solari and Gabrielle.

"Are you okay?" Solari asked, hands rapidly running over Ephiny's prone form.

Not yet trusting herself to answer verbally, Ephiny settled on a slight nod.  Satisfied that she hadn't done any additional damage, Gabrielle instructed Solari to take care of her.  Scrambling to her feet, Gabrielle stomped towards where Xena and Eponin were standing a few feet distant.  Coming to stand in front of the two warriors, she balled both fists defiantly on her hips.

When they realized they'd potentially injured Ephiny, both warriors had immediately stopped fighting.  Now, they were standing mere inches from each other, chests puffed out as they aggressively postured.  A cheek muscle twitched, a jaw clenched, teeth ground, nostrils flared as both women glared at each other.

"That's enough!  Both of you!"  Gabrielle raised her voice, commanding their immediate attention.  Reluctant eyes slid away from each other, focusing on the Amazon Queen.  "What is the meaning of this?"

"She just - " Xena began, broke off with a snarl.

"She - " Eponin's mouth dropped open as she pointed an accusing finger at Xena.

"Enough!"  Gabrielle snapped, eyes flashing.  "Since you two can't act like grown warriors, I'm sending you off to bed with the rest of the children!" 

Two sets of rounded eyes stared at Gabrielle in disbelief.  "Bed?  You're ordering us to bed?" and  "Aww, come on!  You're not serious, right?"  met the queen's ears.  

"Fine!"  Gabrielle relented, "But you can't stay here!  And, I don't want any more trouble out of you tonight.  Either of you!"  She folded her arms across her chest, her smug look daring either warrior to protest her decision.  

Xena rolled her eyes, not believing Gabrielle was really doing this!  Hera's left tit!  Ep attacked me!  And, Gabrielle's taking her side!  And, trying to send us off to bed - ! Her rolling gaze fell on the crowd gathered at the edge of the clearing.  Spotting the young stablehand among the onlookers, she picked her breast dagger up out of the dust and sauntered over to the amazon.  "Come on, Dori, help me saddle up Argo," she requested with a backward glance over her shoulder at Gabrielle.  At her soulmate's unrelenting posture, she firmly stated, "I need a long ride in the fresh air."  

Eponin hesitated a half candledrip before stalking across the field and picking up the discarded sword.  Angrily, she thrust it into Pelagia's waiting hands.  "Come on," she growled out through gritted teeth, a similarly displeased glare directed at Gabrielle, "I need someone to spar with."  Before the captain of the guard could protest, her halter was clenched in Eponin's tight fist and she was being dragged across the clearing.

Satisfied, Gabrielle turned to the scout kneeling on the ground beside the regent.  "Solari, help me get Ephiny back to her hut."  Then, she leveled her gaze at the rest of the observers.  "As for you," she gestured at the crowd, wrestling a regal smile to her lips, "This is a party isn't it?"  At the befuddled, yet confirming nods,  she added, "And, you are Amazons, right?" This time, she was encouraged by affirming cheers and catcalls.    

Despite the gravity of the situation, Gabrielle almost smiled at her own ingenuity.  She'd averted the all-out brawl that could have easily ensued when Eponin and Xena clashed.  She'd protected her regent.  And, she'd worked the crowd enough to know that her people were motivated to continue the feast even without her presence.  Even the hunters seemed satisfied with her at this moment, finally moving into the main arena for the first time that eve.  I wouldn't be surprised if they don't dance till dawn!  Pleased with herself, Gabrielle rushed to Solari's side to assist her felled regent to her feet.

It was slow going back to the living quarters.  And, for the hundredth time that evening, Ephiny cursed her decision to have the royal huts positioned farther away.  When Melosa had ruled, the royal hut stood between the center of the village and the dining area.  Centrally located, the mature queen preferred to be in close proximity to the hub of everyday village life.

"She must have been very close to being completely deaf."  Gabrielle had loudly voiced her opinion to Ephiny one night as they both attempted to bed down during the Autumn Harvest Festival.  Ephiny laid her head back on her pillow, fingertips rubbing small circles at her throbbing temples in an attempt to ward off the threatening headache looming behind her eyes.  She raised her voice to be heard over the insistently pounding drums that shook the entire hut.  "Melosa never left a party early a day in her life.  Many thought it was due to her unquenchable thirst of good  wine and strong women," Ephiny reminded her, "I guess now we know the rest of the story."

After Velasca had destroyed half the village, the decision was made to rebuild the royal hut, as well.  With there being both a Queen and a Regent, the current hut was just too small to house both women while they were in attendance.  Ephiny felt that being the regent, she should surrender the hut to the queen whenever she was in residence.  And, being the kind-hearted woman Gabrielle was, she refused to displace her friend to the barracks or another hut whenever she chose to come for a visit.

So, the logical decision was to build two royal huts.  And, at the suggestion of the council, it was strategically sound that the two huts be built some distance apart from each other.  That way, if the village was attacked again, the odds of both royals being endangered were greatly reduced.  Elder Devillare herself had pointed out the validity of each royal being responsible for defending and then launching a counter strike from her side of the village.  Ephiny had used her influence to insure that both residences were built as far from the dining huts and ceremonial fields as possible.  

"Me and my bright ideas," Ephiny muttered beneath her breath.

"Hey," Gabrielle had heard the soft mumblings, the muted curses, "You need to stop for a bit?"

Ephiny felt the gentle hand upon the small of her back, heard the soft voice at her ear.  She turned her head, catching the concern reflected in wide, green eyes.

"No, I'm fine!" came the immediate, terse response.

There was a soft snort of disbelief from her other side.  For the first time since they'd left the feast, she pushed down her restless thoughts and focused on her surroundings.

There was a definite chill in the air tonight as the hour grew late and the moon disappeared behind quickly gathering clouds.  The courtyard was deserted, a soft wind blowing leaves across the ground, swirling about the feet and ankles of the three women traipsing along in tandem.  In the distance, the faint sounds of beating drums filled the air.  Glancing back and forth between her self-appointed escorts, a pang of guilt punched her in the gut.

"Look, I don't need a couple of nursemaids."  Realizing how horrible that sounded even to her own ears, Ephiny forced her next words out in what she hoped was a gentler tone.  "Listen, I didn't mean it like that.  I appreciate the help."  At another derisive snort from Solari, she added, "I do.  But, I can make it back to my hut on my own."

"We know you can," Gabrielle smoothly interjected, sensing where the proud amazon warrior was going with this.  "But, there's no harm in a couple of friends walking you home, is there?"

"No, I suppose not," Ephiny relented with a deep sigh.  "But, I don't want you to miss the feast on my account.  It is in your honor, you know."

"I know," Gabrielle assured her friend, "Believe me, I know."  She rubbed soft, soothing circles along the tense muscles of the regent's back as she purposely slowed her stride another half-step.  She looked across Ephiny's wiry frame, meeting Solari's worried gaze.  She's noticed it, too, then.  As they walked, Ephiny's breathing had become slightly heavier, the puffs of hot breath increasingly visible in the chilled air.  A light sheen of perspiration was coating her flesh and her steps had become noticeably uneven.  Imperceptibly, Solari adjusted her own steps, her stride matching the slower gait of her queen.

"Your majesty?" Lexine asked nervously, catching her queen just before she ducked into the regent's hut.  

Moving her hand from Ephiny's back, Gabrielle motioned for Solari to proceed without her.  Watching until the scout guided Ephiny in with a well-placed hand at her elbow, the queen slowly trained her gaze on the guard.

"Lexine?" She warily asked as the guard saluted.

"My Queen.  The Captain of the Guard requested - "

Gabrielle interrupted with a wave of her hand.  "What does Pelagia want?" she asked, folding her arms over her chest.  It was beginning to get downright chilly out and she wasn't looking forward to a long, drawn out conversation laden with titles in the night air.

"Pel - That is, the Captain wants to know if you want someone to fetch the healer for Ephiny."  

"Megara isn't at the feast, is she?" Gabrielle asked, mulling the question over, already knowing the answer.  The cantankerous healer would have been present for the opening dedication and the initial feast, but she would have retreated to the quiet of her own hut well before the big drums truly got underway.

"No, your majesty."  She waited another half candledrip before adding, "Should we wake her?"

Gabrielle bit her bottom lip, glanced in the direction of the hut.  "No," she decided, with a firm shake of her head.  "I think Ephiny just got shaken up a little.  Go on back to the feast."

"Begging your pardon, your majesty," Lexine nervously adjusted her leathers.  "Captain Pelagia ordered me to escort you back to your hut.  She said with Xena not being around and all, she was assigning me to look after you."  The last part was supposed to be a statement of fact, but it sounded more like a question coming from the young guardswoman.  

"Very well," Gabrielle relented, deciding it best not to give the clearly inexperienced guard too rough of a time.  She cocked her head to one side, a bemused smile tugging at her lips as she caught a rather undignified squawk and muttered curses coming from the direction of the hut.  "Just let me check in on Ephiny and we'll go."

"Yes, your majesty."  Lexine breathed a sigh of relief as the queen disappeared behind the pelt covering leading into the regent's hut.  

Ephiny warily eyed Solari as she knelt down, carefully banking the fire she had started when they entered the hut.  Retrieving a pot of water and a rag she'd left heating by the coals, Solari ambled back over to the chair she had guided Ephiny to earlier.  Placing the pot on the table, Solari unceremoniously dropped to her knees at Ephiny's feet.  

"I can take off my own damn boots," she protested, feeling the insistent tugging on her leg.  

"Uh-huh."  The scout struggled with the other boot, yanking with all her might.  "Hera's left tit, Eph, you put these on with roofing tar?"  With one final, frustrated tug, the boot abruptly pulled loose, sending Solari sprawling backwards, landing on her backside on the floor.

Pointedly ignoring Ephiny's snickers, Solari scrambled to her feet.  Glaring at the insolent boot still clutched firmly in her grasp, she hurled it away, sending it to land with a sharp thump against the opposite wall.  Predictably, Ephiny's gaze followed, watching in amusement as it hit the wall, then bounced back a little before losing its momentum and crashing to the floor.  

Solari took the momentary distraction as an opportunity to move forward, coming to stand between Ephiny's outstretched legs.  Dipping her fingers into the pot of water, she closed her hand about the warm rag.  Ephiny's head whipped back around as she felt the warmth of Solari's breath upon her flesh.  Eyes slid closed, her heart trip-hammered as the wet cloth was brought up, coming to rest against her brow for a candledrip before trailing a warm path around a temple and over a well-defined cheekbone.  Solari repeated the gesture, rewetting the rag, applying it to the other side of Ephiny's chiseled face.

Hazel eyes met, locked with sandalwood as Ephiny craned her neck to peer up at the woman standing between her open legs.  Refusing to break eye contact, Solari blindly reached for the pot of water.  Ephiny shuddered as the damp rag was gently ran across her throat and into that little divot at her collarbone.  Solari's eyes hooded at the movement, desire easily discernible in their depths.  Her hand curved, her fingers boldly daring to trail a path lower.  

"I think that's far enough," Ephiny's voice came out in a low, slow drawl.

"Or, not nearly."  Solari's gaze held a hint of seduction, a taste of the passion she could elicit.  

Ephiny felt as if her heart were going to explode in her chest, she was breathing so rapidly.  Her senses fairly screamed at her, her body achingly aware of Solari's proximity, her touch, her every breath.  She kept both feet planted firmly on the ground in her struggle to not acknowledge the presence between her legs.  Still, her body's reactions betrayed her as she focused on the heat emanating from Solari as the scout shifted against her.  It was all Ephiny could do to not close her legs about the bare flesh of Solari's well-toned calves as she moved in impossibly closer.  And, when Solari leaned across her, reaching to dampen the cloth again, Ephiny's eyes immediately traveled down a supple neck to land on abundantly generous cleavage; emphasized by a tiny halter held in place with an amazingly strong clasp cradled her magnificent breasts.  An image of her reaching out, fingers deftly undoing that clasp, palms replacing the halter, flashed in Ephiny's mind.

Another shudder racked her body and her eyes slid closed as she deeply inhaled Solari's scent.  She always knew Solari had this effect on women.  There was something about her that was - it just drew them to her presence.  Of its own accord, her arm began raising, her fingers determined to lock around the curvaceous hip before her.  A mere finger's length away, she caught herself, pulled her fingers back.  Balling her hand into a tight fist, she struggled to keep her hand at her side.  As the warm cloth was pressed firmly against the flesh of her neck once more,  Ephiny found her voice again.  

"Don't you have something better to do?" Ephiny growled.

Solari tossed the damp rag back into the pot, flashed a sexy leer.  "You mean other than you?" she asked, hands deftly reaching for the clasp at the front of Ephiny's cloak.

Ephiny's hand shot out, a surprisingly powerful grip in her fingers as her digits closed about Solari's wrist.  The moment dragged out, both women openly appraising each other.  Solari noticed the steel glint in the hazel eyes, the firm set of Ephiny's jaw, realized immediately she had overstepped her bounds.  Great.  Nothing like a ticked off regent.  "Just trying to lend a hand," she attempted a disarming smile as Ephiny's grip on her wrist increased.

"I can take care of myself," Ephiny pointedly responded, letting the double meaning hang thickly in the air between them.  "I thought you'd be eager to return to the feast."

"You're certainly determined to get rid of me," Solari smirked.  "That's what, the third, fourth time, you've insisted I leave?"

"It's just that I know how you like to party."  A twitch tugged at the corner of Ephiny's mouth.  "I'm sure Syaria and Nyxona are wondering where you got off to  by now.  Along with half the women you were dancing with."

"The only person I was dancing with tonight was Queen Gabrielle."  Solari had to bite down on the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.  Oooh, a jealous regent!  Seems my antics from last night did get under your skin after all!  Priceless, Eph, absolutely priceless!  She almost managed to successfully hide her mirth except for the mischievous twinkle strongly reflected in her eyes.  "But, you already know that, don't you?"

Ephiny's eyes narrowed to tiny slits, nostrils flared, she fixed a deadly glare on the woman standing before her.  Drawing a ragged breath, she bit out, "Solari, don't.   Gabrielle's not the sort to be trifled with."  

"Don't worry, I won't.  At least not before I bed you."  Solari folded her arms over her chest, looked down at the amazon she was currently towering over, a smirk covering her lips.  "Queen's orders."

That statement immediately brought Ephiny to her feet, sending her chair toppling over backwards with the sudden movement.  Solari refused to give ground as the regent shot up, placing them standing chest to chest with no more than a hair's breadth separating the two.

"It'll be a cold day in Tartarus," Ephiny ground out between clenched teeth, each word stressed to the breaking point, "before you get me into bed."

"Wanna bet?" Solari let loose a low chuckle, completely unfazed by her regent's legendary temper.

A startled squawk escaped as Ephiny was bodily lifted and tossed over the chief scout's shoulder in one swift movement.  She found herself dangling over Solari's back, a hand firmly wrapped about the backs of her legs as she was carried across the hut.  Ephiny struggled with her full body, indiscriminately kicking and punching at any part of Solari she could reach.  Spitting and cursing a blue streak, she demanded Solari put her down.  

Abruptly, Solari swung her around, flinging her down on the bed.  The momentum caused her body to bounce upon the hay-filled mattress, roughly jarring her shoulder.  "Damn your hide, Solari!" Ephiny growled, clutching her arm in reflex, eyes hurling imaginary daggers at the laughing woman.

"What's going on?" Gabrielle asked, picking that particular moment to step inside the hut.

"Just putting the regent to bed," Solari smirked, both hands on her hips, feet planted firmly apart as she effectively used her body to block Ephiny's indignant glare from Gabrielle's view.

"Ooookay," Gabrielle slowly responded, sensing there was more going on than that statement suggested.  "You doing okay?" she asked, stepping around Solari.

"Fine!"  snarled the regent.

Letting the tone go unchallenged, Gabrielle continued on as though completely unperturbed by Ephiny's attitude.  She reached out, deftly unclasping both of Ephiny's shoulder guards, working each fastening loose, then gingerly lifting them from toned flesh.  She carefully handed each shoulder guard to Solari, instructing her to place them on the dresser.  Gabrielle briefly considered removing the cloak, but decided Ephiny could use it for added warmth.  A storm was brewing and it was liable to get downright chilly before morning.  Ephiny suffered through the mothering efforts of her queen as she deftly tucked the cloak about her body as a makeshift blanket.  

Ephiny reddened beneath the attention, her eyes darting to the amazon standing just behind and to the left of Gabrielle.  A broad grin was firmly etched on Solari's face as she absorbed the sight of the Queen tucking in the Regent.  Oooh, yeah, this'll be a good tale for a chilly winter's night about a blazing campfire!

"There, all comfy," Gabrielle declared, leaning in, dropping a firm kiss against Ephiny's forehead.  

"Gabrielle - "  Ephiny had every intention of admonishing Gabrielle for treating her like a toddler.  The scathing words had been on the tip of her tongue.  Then, she saw the innocent naive look she used to flash to get her way when she'd first met the amazons - and her heart just wouldn't let her hurt the younger woman.  No matter the cost to her own, personal pride.  Instead, she merely requested, "Don't be too mad at Xena.  She was just trying to be creative.  Like when she used your frying pan to beat up those bandits?"

"You're telling me this was all part of one of Xena's unconventional plans that went awry?" Gabrielle's voice rose an octave as she remembered that particular frying pan - and the raw fish she'd had to consume because of Xena's need to be artistic in a fight.

"Umm, yeah?"  Ephiny shrugged, a helpless expression on her face.  Please don't ask me to explain in front of Solari.  Please? 

"Right."  Gabrielle sucked at her bottom lip, nodded her head as her thoughts ran rampant over the sixty-odd ways she could torture the warrior princess.  None of them particularly pleasant.  "Tell you what," she patted Ephiny's forearm reassuringly, "When she comes back to the hut, I'll give her a chance to explain before I tell her I've moved all her stuff to the stables."

"You're going to your hut tonight?" Ephiny caught that phrase, latched on to it.  In the past whenever Xena was acting like a centaur's butt or when it was just too late, Gabrielle had been known to bunk down at the regent's.  Even though she'd never admit to it, Ephiny was hurting and was secretly hoping tonight would be one of those nights that Gabrielle cuddled up against her.  Maybe if I promise to let her mother me a little more?  

"The way Xena was when she left, I want to be there when she gets back.  And, Pelagia sent Lexine to escort me," she explained, "You want Solari to stay with you for a bit?"

"I think I should go with you, Gabrielle." interrupted Solari, careful to use the queen's birth name, knowing it was what Gabrielle preferred and that it would also serve to further agitate the already irritated regent.  "Lexi is a good kid, but she's still wet behind the ears.  I'd feel better if I stayed by your side until Xena gets back."

"If you think it's for the best," conceded Gabrielle.  Turning to Ephiny, she reached out, a tender hand gently stroking over unruly blonde curls, fingers tucking golden locks behind an ear.  "I'll look in on you before breakfast," she promised, "Sleep well."

"Sleep well," Ephiny offered in return, feeling the anger she'd been harboring for Solari slowly draining from her form.  Solari was a terrible flirt and a horrible prankster, but she wasn't known to be intentionally malicious.  Deep down, she knew the scout was only trying to get her riled up.  And, in Gabrielle's presence, she knew she could never maintain her irritated facade for long.  As the energy needed to keep her temper up dissipated, she felt the languidness of sleep slowly seep into her bones.  Her eyes drifted shut before Gabrielle and Solari were completely out the door.

A fiery sensation in her muscles jarred Ephiny awake as she attempted to roll over in her sleep.  Guess Xena's sorcery is finally starting to wear off.  Ephiny lolled her head to the side, taking in her surroundings, attempting to place the time.  It was still dark, the only light in the hut emanating from the fire Solari had banked earlier.  She listened intently for the distant sound of the ceremonial drums that would indicate the party was still going on strong.  Perked ears picked up the usual night sounds, but nothing to suggest that anyone was still up and around.  Not like them to pack it in before dawn.

A sudden flash of lightning briefly illuminated the interior of the hut; the rumble of thunder quickly chasing on its heels.  Ah, guess that explains it.  Looks like the storm's come up.  As a child, Ephiny had always loved the rain.  Anytime there was a storm, her mothers could find her out playing.  Even in the middle of a flashflood, Ephiny vividly recalled an incident involving her and Solari in a makeshift boat attempting to raft about the village.  Somehow, they'd lost control and smashed their craft against the tall pine in the center of the courtyard.  They had to scramble up the tree and into the branches, just barely avoiding being swept away by the rising waters.  By the time their mothers and Captain Beroyle had managed to rescue them, both girls were little more than a shivering, soaked mess of wet leathers and drowned feathers.

But, come the very next storm, we were both right back out in the middle of it again, weren't we?  As she heard the first drops of rain fall against the roof of the hut, she shifted about on her pallet.  Adjusting her pillows, she craned her neck, attempting to see the rain falling outside her window.

As she turned awkwardly, Ephiny felt a tearing sensation ripping through her shoulder.  Grimacing, she brought her left hand up, cupping her injury, applying pressure to the wound.  Exploratory fingers dipped beneath the bandage, gingerly feeling along torn and battered flesh.  Gritting her teeth, she trailed her fingers over the wound, feeling the moisture coating her fingertips.

Breath coming raggedly in irregular gasps, clammy perspiration beading against her flesh, she willed her rapidly pounding heart to slow.  Closing her eyes tightly against the lancets of pain shooting across her vision, she cautiously withdrew her hand.  Exhaling loudly, blinking in the dim lighting, she focused on her hand.

Dark liquid stained her fingertips, the tinge of copper filled the air.  Not good, Eph she recognized her predicament, rubbing her blood slicked fingertips together.  Closing her eyes, she laid her head back on her pillow with a calm detachment while weighing her immediate options.

Xena rode hard, pushing Argo on, further and further away from the village.  She didn't slow the warhorse down as she approached the border patrol, ruffling their feathers as she charged past without acknowledging their presence.  If she'd been inbound, they'd have raised their weapons against her.  But, as she was heading out of the territory, the patrol leader presumed Xena was on a mission for Queen and Nation.

Past the border, Xena continued on, oblivious to the first drops of cool rain as they fell on her heated flesh.  Her visage set in grim determination, strong muscles flexed the reins in her grip, guiding Argo onwards.  The sound of hooves stomping over hardened ground echoed the cadence of her heart beating wildly in her chest.

Miles later, as Argo crested the top of a steep incline, Xena allowed her to slow to a trot, then reined her in for a complete stop.  Both hands clasped about the saddlehorn, Xena shifted, sitting taller in the saddle as she surveyed the surrounding territory.  Clouds were completely obscuring Artemis' moon now, casting the countryside in a bleak darkness that closely matched the warrior princess' mood.

The road stretched out before her, a darker black on a sea of midnight as it led into the valley below.  She knew from previous journeys that tall salt grass lined both sides of the road, nearly chest high in places as it grew wild and unchecked in this remote territory.  The road was little more than a trail that wound its way through the valley and into a foreboding forest that was a breeding ground for thieves and murderers alike.  Beyond the reach of the woods lay an impenetrable swamp filled with quagmires and beasties and a tendency to flood across the roadway in severe weather, making it nigh impassable by cart or wagon.  Too far from the closest town, yet too near to the fearsome Amazon nation, this backwater trail was seldom used by anyone other than seasoned adventurers.

Or fools that don't use the common sense the Gods gave them.  Xena patted Argo, urging her forward.  With a flick of her mane, the mare slowly picked her way down the treacherous hill, forging a path into the pitch black night.  And, my momma didn't raise no fools.

She brought her staff up just in time to avoid the blow that threatened to break her jaw.  Another thrust was parried, then knocked away as she was propelled steadily backwards.  The blows had started out strong.  And, increased steadily.  During the first candlemark, the blows were barely controlled with an underlying seething rage.  By the next half candlemark, they had gone from being precise and clean to erratic and unpredictable.

A sharp rap against Pelagia's knuckles caused her to loosen her grip, sending her staff hurtling away.  Dropping down to avoid the next blow, the Captain of the Royal Guard tucked and rolled.  Loosing her footing on the rain slicked grass, the amazon slid through the mud, landing against the railing lining the perimeter of the practice field.  Upside down, feet in the air, backside braced against the wooden post, Pelagia groaned, rubbing an aching hand across her drenched face.  Eyes widened as a pair of leather boots charged across the field at her.  Groping blindly, fingers closing about the smooth grip of her staff, she was just barely able to raise it in time.  The blunt end connected, catching her opponent in the breadbasket, sending her hurtling over the fence line.

I've never seen Ep like this.  Pelagia scrambled to her feet, using the fence rail to quickly pull herself up.  She stood there in the rain, chest heaving as she struggled for breath.  Being both an amazon and the captain of the royal guard, she was no tenderfoot.  But, even she was hard pressed to match the weapons master's skill and endurance.  She's always been tough, but I've never seen her so emotionally vested in each attack.

If anything, the weapons master had built a formidable reputation on remaining calm and levelheaded during any engagement, whether it was merely practice or a full-scale battle.  Over the course of the years, Pelagia had seen many adversaries attempt to lure the staunch amazon into making a fatal mistake by taunting her or seeking to rile her.  Never had anyone made her cool mask of confidence slip.  Not even the legendary warrior princess during some of their more enthusiastic sparring sessions.

I'm glad no one's here to witness this.  Normally, any session involving the weapons master would attract a crowd.  But thankfully, the Queen had interceded, encouraging the amazons to continue with the feast in her honor.  Add to that the lateness of the night and the brewing storm, they were the only ones on the practice field.  Brewing, my feathers!  Pelagia cursed, swiping her wet hands on her already soaked leathers.  Palms initially slipped, then gripped onto the wooden staff, readying for Eponin's next attack.

Maybe she's beginning to tire, the captain silently hoped, noticing it was taking longer for the weapons master to find her way to her feet.  The lucky blow that had sent Eponin sailing over the fence had also managed to plant her firmly in the middle of a swelling puddle.  As Eponin scrambled to her feet, she found her boots sliding beneath her, sending her sprawling lengthways in the mud.  Twice more she struggled to rise, only to find her legs slipping from beneath her, sending her tumbling to the ground.

She shouldn't have laughed.  Even as the snickers were working their way up her throat and past her lips, the captain knew she should have held it in.  But, it was just so funny!  All that leather and flying feathers and mud - Pelagia's laughter abruptly died on her lips as with a bellow of rage, Eponin found her footing and charged.  Instinctively, Pelagia began backpedaling as the weapons master climbed the fence and hurled herself off the top rail.

She paced the length of the room, hands clasped firmly behind her back.  Up and down, back and forth, until her pacing threatened to wear a path into the floor.  As she reached the far wall again, she turned sharply, eyes raking over the desk sitting in one corner.  The candle was low, the wax curved inward around the wick as it burned down.

I'm not an unreasonable person.  In fact, most would agree that Gabrielle was pretty calm and understanding.  Her Amazons would claim she was the most compassionate and benevolent ruler to ever grace their tribe.  Youthful, energetic and passionate, her tribe doted on her whenever she was present.  Of course, it took a lot of energy to keep up with her unruly pack of amazons.  It seemed they were constantly in one predicament or another.  Whether it be something that affected the whole tribe, such as an upcoming treaty, or something that affected one or two individuals, like a lovers' quarrel, the Queen was always determined to look at both sides of the dinar and act in the amazons' best interests.  It takes a lot of patience to be Queen to the Amazons.

Damn it, Xena!  Where are you?  she cursed, her gaze falling on the familiar sword in its sheath, laying upon the clothes chest.  We're supposed to be partners, able to share anything.  But, whenever something's bothering you, you have to ride off like some maniac for candlemarks at a time without telling me what's going on or where you're going or when you'll be back.  And, you just expect me to be here when you return, don't you?

On her next pass, Gabrielle spotted the two staffs leaning up against the corner nearest the doorframe.  Pausing, she took a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship involved in making the weapons.  As part of her training, Eponin had tried to teach Gabrielle how to make one, exhibiting more patience with the uncoordinated queen than she'd thought was humanly possible.  Reaching out, her hand closing about the grip on her staff, she briefly considered joining the weapons master on the practice field.  

Nah, probably not a good idea after the incident at the feast.  Reluctantly, she returned her staff to its customary position.  Her gaze fell on her quill and parchment that lay unfurled on the desk.  She had attempted to get some writing in while she was waiting, but had found herself distracted after the third paragraph.  Deciding another attempt was in order, she crossed the room, sat down in her chair.  Twirling the feathered quill between her fingertips, she bit her bottom lip, reading over what she had already written.

It was a scroll she would leave here when she departed again.  A tale to immortalize the women that lived in the village.  Not just the Regent, the Weapons Master and the Chief Scout.  Although, they were central to any story depicting the Amazon Nation.  No, she had also included the healers and the mothers and the leather workers in this masterpiece, lovingly describing them in detail and mentioning them by name as she recounted their positions in the tribe and what they contributed to the nation.  

And, especially the cooks, she recalled, paying special attention to the elaborate dishes Mytilda went out of her way to prepare for the Queen.  That woman has a way with venison and stuffing!  Gabrielle's mind went back to the feast and the barbed words exchanged between Xena and Eponin when the weapons master had been a little too enthusiastic at eating off her regent's plate.  

That pleasant line of thought gave way to the events that occurred later on in the evening.  Xena dancing with Ephiny.  Thought Megara's terms didn't include dancing.  I'm surprised Xena allowed it.  She bit her bottom lip, dropped her quill back onto the parchment.  Not just allowed it, openly encouraged it, judging from where her hands - her lips - were.  

Gabrielle jumped up from her chair, using her arm to clear off the contents of her desk in one swipe.  Her mug of cider went crashing to the floor, the liquid spilling, the pottery breaking as it landed.  The resulting clatter caused the curtain at her doorway to briefly flutter open before settling into position again.

The guards checking up on me, she realized, coming back to her senses.  For the first time, she noticed the heavy beats of rain falling against the roof, the rumbling of thunder overhead.  Sighing heavily, feeling guilty, she made her way to the doorframe.  Pulling the hide covering back with just her fingertips, she peered around the edge of the frame.

Solari remained at her post, eyes staring straight ahead into the darkness.  Lexine turned at the sound of the rustling curtain, wide green eyes blinking up at her.  Water cascaded off the roof, landing squarely on the guard's head, running down her face as she continued to gaze up at her Queen.  Gabrielle bit the inside of her cheek, determined not to laugh at the image of bedraggled hair, leathers and feathers.  

Aww, they look just like wet critters.  "Come on," she jerked her head towards the hut, "Both of you."

Lexine immediately started to move inside.  Solari merely grunted, looking up at the lithe blonde outlined in the doorway.  "We're to guard the Queen," Solari reminded the young guard, a restraining hand at her elbow.

"You can guard me just fine from in front of the fireplace," Gabrielle reasoned, grabbing the young guard by the hand, pulling her inside.  She flicked a glance over her shoulder at Solari, adding, "There's a pot of warm cider brewing inside."

With an exasperated sigh and a mumble beneath her breath, Solari followed the duo into the warm hut.  Lexi was already perched beside the fire, attempting to dry her wet feathers.  She was quite a sight, dripping on the floor in the Queen's hut, a puddle pooling around her boots.  The queen herself was wrapping a towel about her shoulders, attempting to dry her young guard off.  Lexine looked torn between the gentle ministrations of her queen and the reprimanding glare from the chief scout.

As Gabrielle moved towards her with another towel and a fresh mug of warm cider, Solari finally relented.  With a frustrated growl and a deep exhalation, she pierced the guard and the queen with a scowl.  "Fine.  Just don't tell anyone else about this, huh?"  She frowned at the queen's beaming smile.  "Just what I need, for every Amazon in the village to find out the Queen pampered us like a couple of wet pups afraid to stay out in the rain."

"Don't worry, they won't hear about it from me," Gabrielle promised, settling the cloth over Solari's head, ruffling brown locks as she towel-dried the scout.  The crackling of one of Zeus' lightning bolts startled her, causing her to jump.  Nervously, she glanced out the window at the ever-increasing falling rain.  Oh, Xena!  Where are you?  

Argo's ears flattened, a snort escaped her nostrils.  "I know, girl," Xena reassuringly patted the mare, her eyes furtively scanning the darkened woods about them.  Heightened senses analyzed, recognized and discarded each sound permeating the desolate night.  Argo's heavy hooves crunching loudly on the brambles and twigs lining the forest floor.  Her leather saddle ominously creaking as she shifted her weight to match Argo's swaying gait.  Hot breath from both mare and rider simultaneously filled the cool night air.

Rain fell steadily, moisture hanging from tall trees, soaking into leaves before cascading down to fall upon dense foliage.  The rustling of leaves in the underbrush started out slow, gradually building in cadence until Xena was certain every bush was moving.  

"Steady girl," she murmured in Argo's ear, her hand slowly moving towards her sword.  She silently cursed as she remembered; Gabrielle insisted she leave her sword in the hut.  At least I still have my chakram, she thought, reassured by the familiar weight of the metal hanging at her hip.

As she rounded a bend in the path, eight men burst from the woods, blocking her way.  More loud rustling and a quick glance over her shoulder revealed that five more had closed in behind her, seeking to cut off any path of escape.  Each man was well-armored in light leather and brandished swords and daggers.  With an arch of her brow, Xena turned back in her saddle, eyeing the scruffy man with the largest sword.

As she suspected, he was their self-appointed leader, eagerly stepping forward to issue his demands.  "Hand over your purse and we might leave you with only minimal scarring."  He licked his lips lasciviously, his grin splitting his face from ear to ear, "That way, your family can identify your body."

"This purse?" The woman asked coyly, reaching into her bodice, pulling out a corded leather purse by her fingertips.  At the leer on the men's faces and the catcalls, she allowed a smile of her own to grace her lips.  Reaching her fingers back into the bodice, she hurriedly withdrew them again, reflexives throwing the breast dagger faster than the eye could follow until it was already lodged in the leader's throat.  A shocked look on his face, hands clutching desperately at the handle, he fell to his knees.  

With a fierce battlecry and a leap off the back of her horse, she came to land in front of him.  "Hang onto that," she advised with a meaningful look at the dying man, "I'm gonna want it back later."  

In one swift move, she wrenched his sword from his hand and kicked the leader in his chest, using his armor as a springboard to launch herself at the other dozen bandits.  "Let's play," she snarled, a feral grin on her face as they charged her.

When she blinked her eyes open again, the rain was coming down in droves, loudly echoing off the roof as drops pelted the hut.  Frequent bolts of lightning danced across the sky, sporadically illuminating the room in flashes of crackling light.  A stiff breeze blew, ruffling the light hide covering the door.  A definite chill permeated the air.  And, a quick glance at the fireplace confirmed that the wind had long since blown the fire out.

Must have passed out, Ephiny realized.  The throbbing in her shoulder was persistent now, forcing her to grit her teeth to keep from crying out.  Determinedly, she attempted to pull herself to a sitting position.  Stabbing daggers pierced her flesh with every move.  Breathing heavily, she closed her eyes, resting her panting form against the wooden bedpost.  

Ears honed from years of experience picked up the sound.  Eyes trained to hunt the most elusive prey in the dead of night darted about the interior of the hut, rapidly identifying and discarding each visible silhouette.  Her gaze fell on one darkened corner, the stillness saturating the air as Ephiny scarcely breathed.  A single feather rustled with the incoming breeze, betraying the otherwise immobile shadow.

Solari.  Her mind sifted and processed the events of that evening, resolving them into the scout's presence in her hut.  Xena must have finally come home.

"Sol?"  Ephiny's voice echoed out in a raspy gasp.  A frown creased her lips as she received no answer.  "Come on, Solari," supporting her weight on her good arm, holding herself up, she glared into the darkness.  "This is no time for one of your pranks.  If you were ever my true packmate, I need you now."

That'll get her.  No matter what else was going on in their lives, no matter if they were arguing, each amazon had sworn to the other that if they ever truly needed each other, they would call upon one another as packmates.  Over the course of the years, they had seldom used the word.  But, whenever one of them had, the other dropped everything to be there for her first friend.  Without question, Solari had bailed on a date with an amazon she'd been after for six moons when Ephiny had invoked the term.  And, without delay, Ephiny had forfeited at the games four summers ago when she tossed down her staff and walked out on the final round of competition when Solari needed her.

Startled, the regent felt the presence beside her bed, not realizing until now that the amazon had moved from her original position.  Reflexively, her eyes darted to the corner before moving back to the woman beside her.  Her sight hadn't completely focused yet when the wooden bow connected with her jaw, the blow sending her sprawling backwards across the bed.  Her temple struck the hard wall, the impact sending her hurtling towards oblivion.

Dawn was pressing in the window, the first rays of sunlight falling across the bed, hitting the Amazon Queen squarely between the eyes.  Blinking against the harsh intruder, Gabrielle moaned, rolling over.  Her palm settled over a taut abdomen, fingers splayed instinctively against warm body heat.  Head cradled against a soft breast, she murmured, snuggling down for a return to Morpheus' realm.  Her hand instinctively traveled from the abdomen up to its favorite resting place on Xena's opposite breast.

Eyes closed, her brows nevertheless creased into a frown.  That's not right, her mind slowly urged, realizing that the size didn't exactly match that of her beloved soulmate.  Experimentally, she cupped her hand, lazily enjoying the warm weight pressed against her palm.  Her thumb instinctively performed its familiar caresses across a relaxed nipple.  A contented smile came to her lips as she felt the nipple hardening beneath her touch.  It took several more candledrips before that niggling thought she'd had fully registered in her sleep-laden consciousness.

With a sharp gasp, Gabrielle shot upright, both eyes coming open in panic.  Memories of the night before flashed into her mind, confirming what her eyes were slowly beginning to assert.  After they had consumed several mugs of cider and she'd gotten her two guards to loosen up a bit, they'd settled into an easy round of conversation.  Even managed to lure Lexi into the discussion after the first candlemark, she thought of the shy guard.

Finally, after much coercing on her part, Gabrielle convinced the two women that the storm was not likely to blow over before the next morning.  And, no one in their right minds would be out on a night like that, anyway.  Therefore, she was perfectly safe in their company for the evening.  And, after even further coercing, she was eventually able to convince them to change out of wet leathers and feathers into night clothes.

One of Gabrielle's extra tunics had been large enough to modestly cover Lexine, although the cloth did ride up too far with every little movement, as evidenced by the wolf whistles elicited when she bent over to stoke the fire, inadvertently flashing her two companions.  Gabrielle decided that one of Xena's old tunics would be the best fit for Solari.  As Solari stripped down and redressed herself in the large shirt, the other two women couldn't help laughing.  Solari was bigger than both of them, but Xena's shirt still dwarfed the scout, coming down to almost her knees.  

"Why, Solari, I didn't realize you were so modest," teased Gabrielle, "I don't think I've ever seen you with more clothes on."  

Solari had shot both Lexine and Gabrielle a dirty look as she struggled to roll the sleeves past her hands and over her wrists.  They'd teased her mercilessly, well past the point when she'd insisted both Lexine and Solari share the large bed provided for the queen.  Solari had adamantly refused, stating the queen's guards would sleep on the floor.  She only relented when Gabrielle had quipped that it was just as well because she wasn't sure she could keep her hands to herself when Solari was wearing such sexy nightclothes.

Gabrielle gingerly slipped from the bed, careful to not awaken the two sleeping amazons.  As she quietly dressed, she frequently cast glances towards her bed.  The sunlight was streaming in now, casting rays of brightness across the room, landing on the pallet.  She paused from pulling on her boots to study the bed's remaining occupants.

Solari was laying on her back, the tunic unlaced to midbreast, a curve of flesh hinting at the abundant treasures hiding beneath.  Abundant is right, Gabrielle smirked, recalling where her hand had been no more than half a candlemark ago.  She was stretched out, one arm casually tossed above her head.  The shirt had ridden up in the night, now exposing most of Solari's muscular thighs.  Gabrielle had learned firsthand last night that Solari was somewhat of a restless sleeper.  And, she wasn't surprised to find that Solari's covers were nowhere to be seen.  

Or, were they?  Lexine was bedded down beside Solari, curled into her side.  The younger woman's head rested firmly upon the scout's shoulder, her pale blonde strands of hair intertwining with Solari's darker locks.  Soft snores were emanating from her lips as her chest rose and fell with each breath.  Gabrielle counted at least two sets of covers tucked about her body.  So, that's where all the blankets kept disappearing to!  

Not wishing to wake the two women, Gabrielle tore off a piece of scroll, hastily scribbled her whereabouts on the parchment.  Folding the paper in half, she crossed the room, gingerly tiptoeing to the side of the bed.  Aww, Amazons are so cute when they're sleeping!  she couldn't help but think as she lay the note in Solari's open hand.  

On tiptoe, Gabrielle snuck across the hut, slipping out the curtained door and into the early morning.  Behind her, soft snores echoed throughout the Queen's hut as her guards slept on in Morpheus' care.

A lone warrior guided her warhorse in through the front gates at a slow trot.  Rising sunlight framed her back, casting a makeshift halo about her long, ebony tresses.  She sat comfortably in her saddle, riding at a relaxed gait.  Twelve swords were corded together with rope and tied to her saddlehorn, the blades securely wrapped in cloth.  Anyone who saw the woman would be impressed by such a collection of weapons.

Yeah, if anyone were awake, she mused, urging Argo through the seemingly deserted village.  Not that the village wasn't secure.  The guards at the border were alert.  They'd spotted her coming in and met her at the first set of treetops.  And, she knew if she'd been trouble, they'd have managed to alert the rest of the village long before its inhabitants could be endangered.  

While there was no doubt that the Amazons loved a party and went all out, most of them paying the price the next day, they were also a trained army.  And, an army was always ready no matter what.  It's just that the Amazons were so good at it that they made it look like it took no extra effort at all.  Hades, how do you overtake a village where the elders, the mothers and even the toddlers are armed to the teeth?  

Despite all the razzing she gave Gabrielle about the Amazons, the truth was, they had her trust and respect.  There was nowhere else Xena felt she could leave Gabrielle secure in the knowledge that she would be protected.  With the lifeblood of every Amazon, if necessary.  That alone was of great comfort to the warrior princess, knowing that if something were to ever happen to her, Gabrielle would find safety in a home where she was cared for and loved.  

If anything, the Amazons are a little too overprotective of their Queen, Xena reflected, recalling an earlier tryst at the springs that was interrupted by an overzealous guard that thought her queen's screams of passions were cries of distress.  The look on her face! - Xena couldn't control her laughter as the guard dove in the water and attempted to swim towards shore with a naked, frustrated queen firmly in her grasp.  Took her long enough to convince the guard she wasn't drowning!  A chuckle escaped Xena's lips as she vividly replayed the scene over and over again in her mind.

Speaking of overprotective Amazons - Xena spotted the weapons master coming out the front door of the infirmary.  She sported several gashes about her arms and thighs.  A cut along her lip looked rather painful and her right eye was about ready to swell shut.  Leaning most of her weight on her staff, she slowly limped away from the hut.  

Eponin's path was suddenly blocked by a large golden mare.  Recognizing the horse's flank, the saddle and the boot and thigh of the rider, she wearily looked up.  A set of equally tired blue eyes gazed down at her.  

"Hey," Xena offered.

"Hey," Eponin responded with her usual eloquence.

Xena shifted in her saddle, offering a timid smile.  "You okay?"

"Huh?" Eponin looked at her in confusion, then glanced back over her shoulder, realizing where she'd  just been coming from.  "Oh, yeah.  Just had to drop Pelagia off."

"You know, you look like you could use a healer yourself."

"Nah, I'm not that bad off."  Eponin shrugged uncomfortably beneath the warrior princess' appraising gaze.  She's a warrior.  She can see exactly what the damage is.  "Besides," she added, "Megara's so ticked at me, I wouldn't want her within twenty paces of me with a needle."

"What you get for trashing her new bedmate," Xena snorted.  "If you want, I'll help you stitch those after I put Argo in the stables?"

Eponin rubbed her chin, thought it over for a candledrip or two.  "Yeah, okay," she relented.  Squinting up at Xena, she remarked, "Looks like ya got a couple that might need stitching, as well?"

"Yeah."  Xena grinned.  See, this is how warriors work their problems out.  For some reason, Gabrielle thinks we have to be all sensitive and chatty and stuff.  Like Ep and I are gonna ever talk through our feelings then share a cry and a hug?  

"So, who you tangle with?" Eponin asked experimentally,  "I mean, since I wasn't there to kick your ass and all - "

"Yeah, like you could've after all that wine you put away last night," Xena rejoined, sliding down from her saddle to walk beside the weapons master.  "Found a few fellows to play with down by the swamps."

"Huh."  Eponin let out a noncommittal grunt, knowing exactly the location Xena referred to.  "Save any for the rest of us?" she asked.

"Sorry."  Xena shrugged, a wicked grin appearing, "Brought you souvenirs, though."

She slowed her gait a little, pulling Argo to a halt.  Reaching over, she lifted the cord from her saddlehorn.  Unwrapping her bundle, she displayed the dozen swords for Eponin's inspection.

"Nice.  Those will make a fine addition to the armory."  She couldn't resist a mild tease.  "But, you know, my morning class has twenty-six students."

"Girls'll have to double up," Xena rejoined, "Besides, sharing's good for them."

"True.  But, Xena?  Even if they double up, that's still not enough.  Twelve and twelve? Twenty-four the way I count."

"Ah."  Xena feigned the fool by deliberately counting on her fingers.  "You know, you're right."  She suddenly snapped her fingers.  "I left the last one embedded in some guy.  Went straight through his spine and into a tree.  We can go back after breakfast and get it if you really want it?"

Grinning broadly, Eponin was just about to take the warrior princess up on her offer when a resounding scream echoed throughout the village.  Argo snorted, stomping her feet, forcing Xena to tighten her grip on the reins.  Both warriors looked at each other in shock.

"What in Tartarus was that?" Eponin asked, quickly glancing about.

"Gabrielle!"  Xena shouted, throwing down Argo's reins, already running in the direction the scream had come from.

"Oh, of course," Eponin mumbled beneath her breath, as if the queen screaming her head off so early in the morning was a natural every day occurrence.  "Why didn't I realize that?" she added, rushing to keep up with Xena's long-legged pace.

"Guards!"  Gabrielle shouted again, "Guards!"

Xena abruptly appeared in the doorway, both hands braced on the frame as she paused, eyes darting about, looking for any sign of trouble.  Eponin was there the next instant, skidding to a halt, running into Xena from behind.  Xena barely moved beneath the impact.

"Gabrielle?  What's wrong?" she urged, rushing forward, grabbing her bard by both shoulders, looking her up and down, ostensibly checking for injuries.

"It's Ephiny - " Gabrielle managed in a distressed voice, motioning helplessly towards the regent's pallet.

Gabrielle was a strong woman.  Calm and level-headed in a crisis, not usually one to be distraught over any little thing.  True, she was still young.  But, she'd been exposed to a lot while traveling in the warrior princess' company.  A lot, Xena reflected, warily moving deeper into the dimly lit hut, uneasy about whatever could have set her young bard off like that.

She sensed rather than felt Eponin's presence by her side.  Xena tried to place the bulk of her body between the bed and the weapons master's line of sight, uncertain if this was something her friend should witness.  Especially considering who it is.  Then, her warrior's feelings reasserted themselves and she realized that she'd want to - no, need to - see if this was Gabrielle.

The bed was in complete disarray.  The light covering was down about the end, haphazardly half on and off the bed.  Ephiny's down-filled pillows were slashed open, their contents scattered about the floor.  The bedding itself was stained a deep crimson, blood liberally soaking into the once-white fabric.  Tentatively, Xena stretched out a shaking hand, laying it upon the bed.

Something akin to a whimper reached Xena's sensitive hearing.  She half-turned, experienced eyes raking over Eponin.  The weapons master was the picture of reserved calm, her face completely devoid of expression.  At first glance, one would have thought she was the customary unflappable, stolid Amazon warrior, completely unfazed by the scene.  But, to those who knew her best, to Xena, the pain was unmistakable.  

She stood a little too stiff, clenched her fists a little too tight, the veins in her arms standing out harshly against the muscled flesh.  The set of her jaw was much too tight, to the point that Xena thought her teeth might crack beneath the pressure.  And, the fire burning in those honey colored eyes burned deep with a smoldering rage.  

Wordlessly, Xena stalked away from the bed, using only a solid pat upon Eponin's shoulder to convey her feelings.  Blue eyes sought out Gabrielle's, offering unspoken reassurances.  The little queen was still obviously distraught, as evidenced by the tears slowly edging from her eyes and running unchecked down her cheeks.  

Solari  had silently arrived some time ago, Xena realized, taking note of the chief scout standing beside her queen, her arms tightly wrapped about the smaller woman in a gesture of soothing support.  Xena's brow slightly arched as she recognized the pale blue tunic tucked into Solari's customary skirt.  Her sapphire eyes met and locked with Solari's sandalwood brown in unspoken challenge.  Solari held her gaze for several long heartbeats before urging a look towards her distraught queen.

Time for that later, she agreed, Gabrielle comes first.  "Hey," Xena stepped closer, taking both of Gabrielle's small hands in her larger, calloused ones.  Wisely, Solari stepped back, giving them their space.  She moved off, edging her way to speak with the dozen guards that were hovering both inside and out the hut in anxious speculation.

"Hey," Xena repeated, consciously working to keep her voice low and soothing, "The bed's cold, Gabrielle.  She's been gone for candlemarks." 

Part 5

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