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



"Tilt her head back," Xena instructed.  "Hold her steady, Ep."

Eponin did as she was commanded.  Solari knelt down, leaned forward.  Squeezing Ephiny's jaw between her fingers, she opened her regent's slackened mouth.  Xena uncorked the skin, reflexively curling her nose and holding the offending odor as far away as possible.  Resolutely, she placed the skin to Ephiny's lips and poured.

Ephiny felt a momentary surge of panic as the woman advanced on her.  The candle flickered as if blown by an unseen wind.  Things seemed to grow darker, except for around the woman and the candle.  Clenching and unclenching her fists, blowing air out of puffed cheeks, Ephiny prepared herself.

Then, a light, tiny at first, then seeming to grow stronger in illumination shone off to the side.  The light grew larger and larger, drawing Ephiny's attention.  She felt herself being pulled away from the woman and towards the light.  Icy fear clutched at her chest as he felt herself being dragged into the offending brightness.  Desperate once again for the comfort she had felt emanating from woman, she locked her legs, refusing to budge another inch.

She felt her feet sliding, losing traction as unseen hands grabbed her by her forearms, relentlessly tugging.  Frantic, she glanced back over her shoulder, eyes pleading with the woman.  "Celesta?" 

The persona of Death smiled wistfully, sadly shook her head.  "It seems it is not yet your time, Ephiny."  In a soft voice, she added, "Don't worry, when the time does come for the Regent of the Amazons, I will be there to escort you home."

Pain swept through Ephiny's body with each convulsing, racking cough.  She spewed the rancid goat's milk out, sending it hurtling out her nose and mouth, onto the blanket and floor beside her.

"That's it, Eph, get it all out," encouraged the owner of the hands reassuringly rubbing along her back.  

Chest heaving, she fell back onto the floor.  Dimly, she was aware of hands lifting her up, removing the soiled blanket and replacing it with another.  A damp cloth wiped at her clammy flesh, settling over her face, cleaning her nose and mouth.  Gasping for air, she looked up into the relieved faces of Solari and Eponin.

Her head lolled to the side, aching eyes taking in the vision of the warrior princess on her knees, Doretta's head cradled in her lap.  She had a skin pressed tightly to the stablehand's lips and was forcing her mouth open.  Ephiny impassively watched for several heartbeats before seeing the convulsions racking the stablehand's body, signaling the beginning rumblings of the uncontrollable retching.

"How you feeling?" Xena asked, concerned baby blues blinking down at her.

"M'kay," Ephiny managed.  Her throat felt raw and it burned from the effort it took to answer.  

Sensing her difficulty, Xena felt the need to carry the brunt of the conversation.  "I had to give you something to force up the witchroot.  Your insides will probably be sore for a day or two, but you'll survive.  Doretta, too.  Although, if we'd gotten here any later, Nyxona and the kids would be building funeral pyres instead of litters."

Blonde locks tousled wildly as she turned her head, fevered eyes searching the cave's interior.  From her position, all she could make out were several sets of leather boots standing in front of the fire.  She tried to lift her head, only to discover she didn't possess the strength. 

"Don't struggle," Xena advised, using one hand to push Ephiny back as tenderly as possible, "What do you need?"

Ephiny's eyes darted back to Xena's face.  "Packmate," she managed.

"Packmate?"  Xena's brow furrowed.  "I don't know what - "

" - She means me," Solari's smooth voice answered as she came up beside the warrior and the regent.  "It's an endearment from our childhood," she explained.  Smoothly settling back on her haunches, she reached out, the fingers of one hand loosely gripping her friend's, the other lightly caressing a bruised cheek.  "I'm here, Eph."

A tiny smile edged Ephiny's mouth as she gazed up into familiar sandalwood eyes.  Solari's bright smile beamed back at her.  As a chill raced through her body, she saw the smile falter in concern.  She tried her best to set her packmate's mind at ease.

"M'fine."  She caught the incredulous look.  "Hurts," she finally admitted.

"Yeah?" Interjected Xena, reaching out one large hand to ruffle Ephiny's hair, "Not many people can take an arrow, then go to an amazon party and ride off cross-country and feel great the next morning," she teased.

"You could," Ephiny flatly stated, returning Xena's playfulness as best she could given the circumstances.

"Ah, but I have many skills."  Xena's teasing lilt turned suddenly somber as she reached for Ephiny's sling.  "Let's see what you've got going on under here, hmmm?"

If Solari noticed the way Xena's hands trembled as she removed the sling, she gave  no indication.  Holding Ephiny's hand tightly in her grip, intertwining their fingers, she gave a reassuring squeeze.  Her reward was another half-hearted smile from the blonde.  Leaning down, she pursed full lips into a tender kiss upon Ephiny's forehead.

"Ewww, speaking of dirty swaddling - " Xena's voice caught Solari's attention.  She pulled away, focusing on the warrior.  "Really, Eph!"  Xena held her nose against the odor.  "The smell!  Phew!"

"If I'd known I was gonna have company, I would have washed up."  Ephiny felt somewhat reassured by the joking banter of the warrior princess.  Maybe she can pass some of that bedside manner on to Megara.  "Arrggghhhh!" Her body arched up off the blanket, she ferociously clamped down on Solari's hand as Xena's fingers mercilessly prodded the flesh about her wound.

Breathing heavily, heart pounding rapidly, she felt herself being pushed back down.  A cold compress was dabbed across her face and neck, then over her collarbone and shoulders.  Through a pain-filled haze, Ephiny watched as Xena rose to her feet, stalked the length of the cavern.  Ephiny's gaze followed, observing every movement as she searched through a crate of supplies.

Her eyes involuntarily blinked closed and another shudder racked her body as Solari repetitively applied a soaked cloth to her fevered flesh.  She wanted so desperately to just relax beneath Solari's tender touch and never open her eyes again.  Knowing that was an impossibility, she willed herself to stay awake.  By the time she managed to open her heavy lids again, Xena was on her way back.

As she moved closer, all Ephiny could see were an unique pair of thickly padded knee guards and thick, black boots.  Beside those walked another pair of worn boots made from soft, brown leather.  A muscular hand came into view as it reached down to retrieve a stick from beside the fire.  Her head lolled back as both sets of boots walked towards her, stopping at the edge of the blanket.

Solari continued to brush Ephiny's fevered flesh with damp compresses as the regent lay prone beneath her administrations.  Ephiny turned her head, her gaze slowly traveling up over the two pairs of boots and knees.  An amazon skirt came into view, followed by the most amazing set of abdominal muscles.  Hazel eyes hesitated momentarily over an impressive bust before traveling higher.  Her fevered brain recognized the distinctive hawk-like nose and the warm caramel colored eyes blinking back at her.


"Yeah, your Pony's here."  Xena drawled with a jovial smirk, answering for the suddenly mute weapons master.  "Ponies.  Packmates.  You amazons got a regular wildlife sanctuary going on, don't ya?"

Xena dropped to her knees beside Ephiny.  Tugging on the leather skirt that was now at her shoulder level, Xena tried to regain Eponin's attention.  The usually stoic weapons master had seemingly frozen when she'd looked into Ephiny's eyes.  Shaking her head to clear the cobwebs, Ep sank down beside Xena before the warrior's insistent tugging could yank her skirt off.

"Listen, Eph."  Xena reached out, cupping Ephiny's chin, urging her gaze away from that of the weapon's master's.  "I need you to look at me, okay?"  Hazel eyes lucidly blinked back at her.  "Good girl.  Now, you've got a nasty infection going on in that wound of yours.  I need to reopen it and drain the puss out.  Understand?"  At Ephiny's slow nod, she continued, "Okay, these two lovely amazons are going to hold you still while I do that.  Try not to fight them, huh?"  

Ephiny nodded once in affirmation.  Her eyes blinked, her gaze leaving Xena's.  She focused on the face of Solari, hovering over her.  Dimly, she realized her head and upper body were cradled against the chief scout's body, long arms wrapped about her in silent reassurance.  Pony moved in closer, leaning over her, bracing her entire weight against Ephiny's legs and lower body as her strong hands gripped Ephiny's wrists, pinning them to her sides.  She felt something brush against her lips, looked down to see the warrior princess holding a stick in her hand.  

"That's right, Eph," Xena encouraged, stroking a reassuring hand through tangled locks as the blonde slowly opened her mouth.  "Bite down on the nice stick."

No sooner had Ephiny's lips closed about the piece of wood than she felt Xena's fingers working at her shoulder.  Eyes slammed shut as a thousand fiery pokers were thrust into her wound.  Muscles straining, her upper body was able to come up off the blanket a half inch before Solari pressed down, slamming her back against the cave floor.  Leg muscles strained, but were unable to move the dead weight that rested atop them.  Head tossed back, veins in her throat and neck bulging, Ephiny's teeth clamped down on the stick, threatening to bite it in two.

The sky was still a soft shade of oyster shell pink when Gabrielle stepped out onto her porch.  She cast a glance upwards, looking at the construction work that had been started the day before.  The crew of amazons had completed most of the framework yesterday.  Today, they would finish the rest of the frame and begin on laying the thatching across the beams.  By the day after next, the project would be completed.  

Then, they can begin work on Ephiny's porch.  Gabrielle's mind drifted to thoughts of her friend.  It wasn't the first time since she'd been gone that the little queen had felt an icy fear of apprehension seize her chest whenever she thought of her missing regent.  Indeed, it had been thoughts of the gorgeous woman with the distinctive corkscrew curls that had frequented her waking hours and haunted her restless dreams.

"Rough night?" asked a smoky, smooth voice from somewhere over her shoulder.

Startled, Gabrielle abruptly turned, a hand to her throat, the palm covering the rapidly beating heart swelling in her chest.  "Pelagia!  I didn't know you were there!"

"That is the goal of the royal guard, isn't it?" joked Pelagia, "To be so unobtrusively diligent in our duties that you don't notice us until we're needed?"

The Captain of the Guard sat perched on the railing running the length of the porch.  Her leg was heavily bandaged with thick padding visible from the top of her boot to the bottom of her skirt.  Strong hands flexed upon padded grips and a square chin rested on the underarm padding of a set of wooden crutches.  

"You should be on bedrest!" Gabrielle admonished, "What are you doing here?"

"Megara says if I can find the energy to participate in a senseless brawl, I shouldn't expect the luxury of laying about in bed all day." She shrugged, then added a teasing smile to her banter.  "Besides, someone has to guard the queen."

"And, just how do you propose to guard me if you can't keep up with me?" Gabrielle asked, returning the witty repartee.

"How difficult will it be to guard you when you're reading scrolls all day?"

"Oh, Pel."  Gabrielle bit her bottom lip in contrition.  She hadn't told the captain - "I sent word to Evanthe last night, releasing her of her duties.  There won't be any more petitions or treaties or the like sorted through until the regent returns.  I simply can't stand anymore of that mind-numbing inactivity."

"You aren't the first queen to hate that part of the job."  Two sets of eyes turned towards the amazon sauntering up the porch steps.  "As I recall, Melosa would sooner toss the petitions on a funeral pyre than read them."

"Devillare!" Gabrielle exclaimed with undisguised delight.  She had feared that after yesterday's conversation, the elder amazon wouldn't return to her side.

"Devil."  Pelagia curtly nodded.

"Pel."  Devillare caught the arch of the eyebrow, the subtle quirking of the lips as the queen caught Pelagia's use of her nickname.  Great, now she's gonna want to call me that, too.  Masking her inner frown, she turned, bowed low before Gabrielle.  "My Queen."

"You're up early," Gabrielle commented, nodding her head at the handful of amazons arriving to begin the construction work.

"It's good for a body to get up early.  There's too much to be done in any given day to waste daylight by laying around in bed," was the automatic response.

Pelagia leaned forward, pointedly explaining to Gabrielle, "Devillare believes that the decline of the amazon nation's strength can be directly blamed on the laziness of today's youth."  Ignoring the glare from the former captain, she continued, "If she had her way, even the rooster would crow before dawn."

"I think it's nice that you have so much energy."  If she only knew that it takes Xena candlemarks to get me out of bed in the mornings.  "You know, I really should stop by the tannery."  Worried that one of the carpenters might overhear, she hastily added, "I want to see about a new hide covering for my door."

Catching onto the ploy, Devillare asked, "Why, my Queen, are you asking me if I'd care to accompany you?" 

"Well, I do need an escort.  And, since you did break my captain's leg - " she trailed off, eyeing the reactions of both captains.  

Never missing a beat, Devillare bowed low before the blonde, giving a sharp salute.  "Then, I suppose it's my duty to escort her highness," she offered, gallantly extending her hand.  

"Who said chivalry was dead?" Gabrielle inquired, taking the proffered hand, allowing herself to be led down the stairs.  

"Not dead," corrected Devillare with a grin.  "Just severely beaten and left wounded by the side of the road by the laziness of today's youths."  She boldly looked at Pelagia, purposely sending the jibe her way.

Pelagia appeared amused by the former captain being pressed so easily into escort duty by the little queen.  But then, she saw the agitated looks of the amazons in various stages of assembling the porch roof.  These women didn't know Devil's peculiar brand of humor and more than a few scowled at her, tempers barely held in check.  Elders were a rare commodity in the village, and as such, they were treated with respect.  No matter what.  Devillare's only reaction to the blatant looks of animosity was a well-arched eyebrow.  Then, remembering her duties, she allowed her new queen to hook her arm through hers and lead her away.

Unbearable throbbing accompanied by relentless jostling pulled Ephiny from merciful unconsciousness.  Stifling a low groan, hazel eyes reluctantly blinked open.  Blinded by intense light, she hurriedly shut them.  Raising her forearm to shield her sight from the bright sunlight, she made the attempt again.

She was laying on her back, the unyielding crossbeams of a litter supporting the weight of her body.  The litter pitched unforgivingly as the horse she was being pulled behind trotted at a steady pace.   Her left hand snaked out, grabbing the pole on the edge of the litter for support.

Summoning up the strength to raise her head and upper body, she settled her gaze on the riders following closely behind the litter.  The proud amazon riding closest to her sat heavily in the saddle, shoulders hunched, head lolling with the hypnotic pace the mounts were keeping.  As her eyes slid closed, her head jerked sharply and she bolted upright.  Solari's tired eyes met hers, dark circles clearly visible beneath normally bright sandalwood.

We've been traveling throughout the night, Ephiny guessed from the weary image the chief scout portrayed.

Solari saw alert eyes the color of spun gold intently watching her.  A renewed sense of vigor coursed through her veins, replenishing an energy she thought was long spent.  Passing her reins to Nyxona, Solari stood in the saddle, then leapt straight into the air, performing an amazing somersault before cleanly landing on the ground.  Shaking off the impact, she hurried to keep pace with Ephiny's litter.  Walking alongside, she reached out a hand, lightly catching Ephiny's digits within her grasp.

"You've been hanging out with Xena too much," Ephiny rasped, referring to Solari's boisterous display of acrobatics.

"Who you think taught her?" Solari grinned, pleased by Ephiny's attempt at teasing.  Sweet Artemis, when I think about how close she was to dying - "Hey, how you feeling?" she solicitously inquired.

"Feels like I've been used as a chew toy for Cerberus."  She gritted her teeth as the litter roughly bounced over a large rock in its path.  "Can't believe you, Xena and Ep all came to get me.  What was Gabrielle thinking, sending the big three?"

"Guess that's why Xena wants to keep pushing until we get back to the village."  Solari was relieved that Ephiny was feeling well enough to hand out her normally droll comments.  Wanting to keep the conversation on a lighter level, she tried to not inflect too much concern into her tone.  "Think she's concerned that since the three of us are out on this field trip with you, that Gabrielle might be having a little difficulty controlling some of our more rambunctious youngsters.  We've been making decent time - "

"- But you can't set a good pace dragging litters," Ephiny finished Solari's unspoken thought.  "Bet Xena's going out of her mind."  She heard the sound of approaching hooves, looked up to see a proud warrior sitting tall in the saddle, two bright blue piercing eyes looking down at her.  "Hey, Xena."

"Hey, yourself."  Xena leaned down impossibly far in the saddle, dragging her fingertips lightly over Ephiny's arm.  "How's the shoulder feel?"

"Wretched."  She softened her words with a tiny smile.  "But, it's nothing compared to the beating my backside's taking from this litter."

"Sorry.  Ground's a bit rough."  She silently rode beside the litter, commiserating with each grimace Ephiny made as she was hauled over the terrain.  "Could use pressure points on you?" she offered.

"Unh-uh.  Learned my lesson from last time.  Hurts just that much more when it wears off.  I'll suffer until we get to the village, thank you very much."

Xena's gaze swept over the landscape.  She'd insisted to the amazons that they immediately pack up as soon as she thought it was safe to move Ephiny.  They had left Gabrielle in a potentially difficult situation, and knowing her bard, a difficult situation could turn into a deadly one in the blink of an eye.  "Still a longs way off."  

"I could ride, you know."  A solitary, dark brow edged towards an ebony hairline.  "Come on, Xena," Ephiny cajoled.  "I'm strong enough.  And, I won't fall off the horse.  Promise."

Small hands pushed open the door leading into the old tannery building.  She blinked rapidly, trying to adjust her eyesight to the difference in lighting from the bright outdoors to the gloomy interior. She took another step inside, then abruptly stopped short as she felt the cold steel  blade of a sword pressed against her throat.

Immediately there was a flurry of activity as the larger figure trailing the smaller woman into the building took offense at the raised weapon.  In two swift moves, she had wrenched the blade free from their attacker's grip and had turned it on its owner.  Three more women took up their weapons, charging the intruders.

"Stand down!" ordered Lexine, recognizing the little blonde outlined in the doorway.  "It's Queen Gabrielle!"

Immediately, there was a clattering of steel as weapons were hastily dropped to the ground.  The women instantly dropped to their knees, bowing and saluting their ruler.  With a pleased expression  on her face, Gabrielle looked first at the formidable captain standing beside her, then at the statuesque amazons before her.  

"Some days," she quipped, motioning for her subjects to arise, "It's good to be the Queen."

"Queen Gabrielle, what a surprise!  If you had sent word you were coming - " 

"If I'd sent word, Lexine, this would hardly be a surprise, now would it?" Gabrielle asked, leaning in conspiratorially.  "Relax, I just came to see how things are going."

The youthfully exuberant guard rose to the invitation, showing her queen what they had accomplished in the short time they'd been there.  Instead of merely having the hunters guarded, Gabrielle had put both groups of amazons to work.  It had been her idea to renovate the old tannery, turning it into a combination outpost and supply depot.  Her thought had been that both the guards and the hunters would benefit from an enclosed structure located outside the main body of the village.  

That way, whether they were out on patrol or hunting parties, the amazons could rest and replenish their supplies as needed.  It would also serve as a drop-off point for some of the larger game to be skinned and prepared before hauling to the main kitchens.  That way, some of the smaller amazons wouldn't be needlessly traumatized by the carcasses of dead animals being carried through their playgrounds.  Of course, amazon children aren't as sensitive as normal village kids, Gabrielle mused.

The Queen spoke with each amazon in turn, praising all for their hard work and attentively listening as some presented their ideas for additional structures to be added on at a later time.  It brought a smile to Gabrielle's face to see her amazons so accepting of the concept of expanding outside the main village.  In her mind's eye, she could see her people growing over the next few years, building more huts and slowly absorbing the outpost in the process.

Only one amazon seemed to resent everything their queen spoke of.  Seated near the back of the building, morosely working fletching onto an arrow, sat Kynthia.  She warily eyed Gabrielle through a thick veil of red hair, eyes openly glaring as the tiny blonde approached her.  

"Kynthia."  Gabrielle greeted the hunter.  Purposefully, maintaining eye contact, Gabrielle tried not to focus directly on the woman's obviously broken nose.  Sitting  on the bench beside the redhead, she daintily folded her hands into her lap.  She gave what she hoped was one of her friendliest smiles.  "Do you like the idea for the new outpost?"


"Why not?" asked the bard.  "It seems to me that as hunter, you would appreciate having someplace closer than the main village - "

" - I appreciate things the way they are," snapped Kynthia.

Ah.  Someone else who doesn't like change.  "You know, Kynthia, all things in life change.  Deer that once lived in the valley have learned that it is no longer safe from predators.  Now, they make their home farther out, hiding in the camouflage of the trees and shrubs.  But, brave hunters like yourself have adapted your techniques to be able to pursue them anywhere."  Gabrielle sent up a silent prayer, hoping she'd altered her standard everything changes speech into something appropriate for the woman seated beside her.

"Don't pretend you're doing this to help us!" spat out Kynthia.  The arrow she was gripping so tightly snapped in two beneath the pressure of her closed fist.  "You sent us out here so we'd be out of the way while your death squad hunts down Cordele!"

A low grumble emanated from Devillare's throat.  Lexine took a reflexive step forward.  Holding up her hand, Gabrielle urged them both to back off.  With the next movement, she had both of the hunter's hands firmly clasped within her own, soothingly stroking in an effort to make her release her death-grip upon the arrow.

"I sent Xena and the others to find Cordele.  And Ephiny.  And Doretta.  And bring them all back here so we can find out what's going on and resolve the situation.  Peacefully."  She concentrated on keeping her words as mellow as the touch she was placing upon the hunter's skin.  "It's true, I wanted to remove your group from the village.  Not to imprison you, but to silence your anger long enough for the others to return.  I didn't want a simple misunderstanding to escalate into a dispute that would pit sister against sister."

"The Regent is missing and you're blaming Cordele!"  Kynthia shouted, indignant rage beginning to swell.  "That doesn't sound like a simple misunderstanding, does it?"

"No, it doesn't," agreed Gabrielle.  "That's why I need you all to stay here until this is resolved."  She reached out, cupping the hunter's chin, drawing her gaze up to meet hers.  "And, just so you know, this wasn't some harebrained idea of mine just to keep all of you busy.  I'm serious about wanting this place refurbished for your use."

With a menacing glint to her eye and a firm set to her jaw, Kynthia snarled,. "I've prayed to Artemis that the next assassin's arrow would find your heart before you lead us all to ruin."

"In case you haven't heard, Artemis has left the temple."  Gabrielle rose to her feet, leaving the hunter baffled as to the exact meaning of her words.  Halfway to the door, she turned, calling out to the belligerent amazon.  "Oh, and Kynthia?  Change is coming, whether you're ready to embrace it or not."

I must be crazy to have agreed to this, Xena thought for the umpteenth time as she crested the top of a hill.  Slowing her horse to a halt, she patiently held  Lightning back as the rest of the party passed her at a steady canter.  Her gaze swept over the ragtag band, scrutinizing the group.

After calling a halt to get organized, she'd settled on what she thought was the best plan, given the circumstances.  Doretta was lifted onto the back of Cordele's stallion, her wrists securely tied to the saddlehorn.  Not that anyone expected the young stablehand to be a threat to anyone but herself.  Clearly, she had swallowed most of the vial of witchroot before coaxing the remaining mixture down Ephiny's throat.  Ephiny had recovered because she'd ingested the least amount of poison and had the will to live.  It seems that Dori no longer possesses her will, mused Xena as she watched the unconscious form slumped across the horse that carried her.

Midnight's reins were tied to Nyxona's horse, the scout was responsible for handling both mounts.  If I can keep both hands occupied, maybe she'll keep them off of Solari!  Cordele was doubled up with Keleos, riding behind her fellow hunter.  She looked a little worse for wear, both from her confinement and the beating from Eponin, but she rode with as much dignity as she could muster up.  Admeta and Metanira rode side by side, excitedly talking about their grand adventure.  Smiling at the youngsters maternally, Solari guided Thunder into a trot past her apprentices, then edged into a gallop, pulling alongside Honeycomb.

Eponin guided the golden mare, riding assuredly in the saddle.  Doubled up in front of her was Ephiny.  After much debate - okay, argument - it was decided that the weapons master was the best amazon capable of supporting her regent's weight.  Ephiny had protested, claiming she was perfectly capable of staying in the saddle on her own.  At that point, Xena had given her two options; either ride in front of Pony or be tied back down to the litter and dragged behind the horse the whole long way home.

Looks like she's gotten over her initial protestations quite nicely, Xena noted with a wry grin.  The regent was curled up comfortably in the saddle, one leg slung over the saddlehorn as she leaned back into Eponin's frame.  Powerful arms banded with corded muscles of strength folded gently about Ephiny's midsection.  Blonde corkscrew locks fell back upon commanding shoulders as she nuzzled against Ep's neck.  Shifting the reins to one hand, Eponin reached for Ephiny's cloak, settling it about the blonde's frame like a blanket.

Xena's eyes narrowed to tiny slits as she caught sight of the blue cloak.  The cloak had been pooled about Ephiny's slim hips when she'd first found her laying in the cave.  Once she'd taken care of the whole poisoning and puss-draining situation, she had finally settled back on her heels, thinking the worst was over.  Then, her gaze focused on the regent's cloak.  It was stained with dried blood.  Lots of it.  And, where it was laying across her lap - and the look on Eponin's face - 

She had convinced Solari to move Eponin away.  The two amazons had hovered nearby, an impromptu pair of guards providing a small measure of privacy.  As she lifted the cloak away, she spared a glance towards Eponin.  Solari had her firmly by the shoulders, turning her so she was facing away.  Ep's strong hands had a vise-like grip on the other woman's hips as she sought solace in Solari's arms.  Solari kept her gaze locked on the tableau before her, either unwilling - or unable - to look away.

Clenching her hands into tight fists to stop their trembling, Xena took several meditating, deep breaths.  Willing herself to remain calm, she relaxed the muscles in her hands.  Resolute fingers lifted the edge of Ephiny's skirt, gentle hands nudging  her thighs apart.  

Xena vividly recalled thanking every deity in the pantheon that the amazon's - ahem, virtue - wasn't compromised.  Solari and Eponin had been so ecstatic when she'd delivered the news that they immediately leapt upon her, sending her tumbling backwards over Ephiny's legs.  Thank the Gods Eph was unconscious or she would've killed us all!  

After their impromptu celebration, Xena had snatched up the cloak, determined to burn it in the fire.  Solari had chased after her, rescuing it from Xena's grasp, hurriedly explaining that it was important to Ephiny.  Still want to burn that blasted thing, Xena thought, her gaze settling uncomfortably upon the cloak wrapped tightly about the regent.  Her irritation turned into a spreading feeling of warmth as she caught sight of Ephiny's head cradled against Eponin's chest.  The look on Eponin's face as she gazed down upon the woman in her arms was unmistakable.

Shaking off the warm, fuzzy feeling, Xena thought, I've REALLY gotta get home to Gabrielle!  With a deep sigh, she urged Lightning into a full gallop, charging down the hill with renewed vivacity.  The amazons spurred their mounts on in an effort to keep pace with the warrior princess as she rushed past at break-neck speed.

"Did you accomplish what you sought, my Queen?" asked the long-legged amazon as she hurried her stride to catch up with Gabrielle.  She fell in step beside Gabrielle, using her staff as a walking stick as the two made their way on a narrow path through the woods.

"I think it was a good visit," Gabrielle affirmed, "At least now I know for sure that most of the women see the benefit in what I'm trying to accomplish."

"It is a pretty good idea.  You've brought a lot of positive growth to the nation," shrugged the amazon.  "Just wish everyone would see things your way."

"Is that why you lagged behind; to try to convince the one dissenter in the group?" she caught the chagrined look on Devillare's face, knew she had hit the nail on the head.  "I learned long ago, you can't please everyone.  And," she looked pointedly at the warrior, "you can't bully them into submission."

Properly chastised, Devillare accompanied her queen in relative silence.  It  had been so long since a ruler - since anyone - had called her on her actions.  She knew that was partially due to her status as an elder.  It was no secret that the elders were revered in the tribe, whether deservedly or not.  It's a cryin' shame when you're respected not for how many feathers you've earned, but because you've somehow managed to outlive everyone else.  Grudgingly, she had to admit that the other reason no one ever called her out anymore was in part due to her reputation.  A reputation that I worked long and hard to build, I might add.  Thinking back, she tried to remember the last time someone had challenged her.  Not like those punks yesterday, I mean a real challenge.  As she walked beside the tiny queen, she pondered if it had indeed been as long ago as the youthful days of Princess Melosa.

"Do you need to be back right away?" Gabrielle broke through her reverie, suddenly realizing she'd never once considered if Devillare had other plans for the morning.  Her conversation with Kynthia had triggered something in her mind and her bardly curiosity was getting the better of her.  Just hope I remember where they built the thing!

"I took the initiative of canceling the sessions for today.  Wouldn't have been much of a class, anyway.  At least half those lazy featherheads are camped out in Megara's infirmary.  If they're going to act like babies, she should send them home and have their mommies kiss their boo-boo's."

Gabrielle made no reply, merely continued her trek through the forest.  She'd only been there a once before when they'd visited the village and she wasn't sure if she could find the building straight from the tannery.

"And, I never bully," Devillare added as the silence suddenly became unbearable, "I speak forcefully and carry a big stick."  

"Now I see why your nickname is Devil."  Gabrielle's lilting laughter echoed throughout the amazon forest.  "You know, you sound just like a certain weapons master I know."  

"That little scamp always did know how to back up her words."  Devillare's eyes twinkled with unspoken memories.

"Little scamp?" To her credit, Gabrielle's stride never slowed as she picked her way along the path.  However, she did bite her bottom lip as images of a toddler-sized Eponin wielding a full-size staff leapt into her mind.  "I take it you know Eponin well?"

"Yeah, you could say that.  Kid was always hanging around the practice fields.  Never saw an amazon take to learning weapons as quickly as she did.  Not just the staff, either, she worked until she mastered every weapon in the arsenal."

"I can just picture a tiny Eponin taking on amazons three times her size."  In her mind's eye, the little toddler that wore the fierce weapons master's patented scowl was landing blows left and right to fully-grown adult amazons, taking them out at the kneecaps.

"Yeah, that kid was something else."  Devillare was now lost in the memories, seeing the charge she had inherited from Beroyle mastering the field.  Beroyle would've been so proud.  

Gabrielle paused for a moment on the path where the trail she was following intersected another, sparsely trodden path.  Glancing both directions, she finally decided on her bearings and set out once again.  The woman accompanying her never once made mention of her liege's indecision.  Nor, did she ask where they were bound for.

"You know," continued the elder captain of the guard as she ambled along beside her new, young queen, "Never thought I'd see the day someone would beat her so easily."

"You mean Xena?" asked Gabrielle, referring to the many sessions Eponin and Xena had together.  

Before the warrior princess had come to the amazon village, the weapons master was regarded as just that - the master.  The only person that was known to go toe-to-toe with the amazon and occasionally come out on top was Xena.  There was a time when that had bruised the proud amazon's ego. And, although Xena wouldn't admit it to anyone, Gabrielle knew Eponin's initial reaction had hurt the warrior princess.  There weren't a lot of women the formidable Destroyer of Nations admired - Hades, there aren't a lot of people she admires, period - but Gabrielle could tell Xena had taken a liking to the muscular amazon.  Once the ice had been broken - thanks to a pretty clever bardic princess - and they grudgingly admitted the other was pretty good, egos had been mended and a friendship had been forged.

"That punk?" snorted Devillare.  Gabrielle's eyebrows shot up into her hairline farther than they'd ever gone before.  "Nah, I'm talking about this little slip of a girl that had been coming around, watching the older amazons practicing on the field with little Ep.  I guess she'd been watching for moons and we'd all just come to regard her as a permanent spectator.

Lil' Ep never did care none for people watching her.  And, I guess one day, she'd had enough.  Finally screwing up her courage, she stormed across the field and grabbed that girl by the collar and told her if she didn't stop staring at her, she'd knock her down and use her staff to paddle her tailfeathers."

"That certainly sounds like Eponin."  Gabrielle cringed at the image Devillare's description brought to mind.  "I bet that poor little girl ran straight home and never came back again."

"That's what we thought, too."  As they came to a rope bridge, Devillare extended her hand, supporting Gabrielle as she guided her across.  The amazon was sure-footed, keeping her queen moving at a balanced pace.  "Until the next day, when that same little slip of a girl came out on the field looking as proud as you please, curly blonde ringlets bouncing all over her head as she marched straight up to Eponin and jabbed her mother's staff down onto Ep's foot and called her out."

"Ephiny - " Gabrielle uttered as she recognized the description, a sinking feeling of dread spreading in the pit of her stomach at the thought of a little Ephiny facing off against an obvious bully like Eponin.

" - got knocked down flat and had her staff handed back to her." Devillare caught sight of the furrowed brow and the worried look.  Reaching out a hand, she patted the queen's arm in what she hoped was a reassuring manner.  "Without a word, she set her jaw and picked up her staff and trudged home.  Thought for sure that would be the end of that girl.  Hera's left tit if she didn't come back the next morning."

Gabrielle risked a glance over the side of the rope bridge.  What looked to be a culvert to divert water from the village during the rainy season now looked like little more than a large mud slide.  At best guess, Gabrielle would estimate the distance to be twenty feet down and thirty feet wide.  Bet that was really flowing during that last storm.  As they stepped back onto solid ground, she turned her attention back to her escort.  "And?" Despite being worried about the outcome, Gabrielle was thoroughly enjoying the tale Devillare was weaving.  She'd been the bard for so long that she'd forgotten how good it was to hear someone else's story.

"She got knocked down again," Devillare shrugged, "Keep in mind, Ep was older and more experienced.  Everyday, that curly haired blonde would march up to the practice field and demand Eponin fight her.  And everyday, lil' Ep would knock her flat.  And everyday, this cute little brunette would come out onto the field and pick up her friend and take her home."

Cute little brune - Solari?  "You just let Eponin bully her?"

"Every day for over a moon.  I felt bad for her, even talked to lil' Ep about going easy on the kid.  But, in Ep's mind, if the girl was big enough to heft a staff, she was big enough to keep it from being taken away from her."

"That's definitely Eponin," Gabrielle conceded.  "I still can't believe you didn't do anything."  She sounded like a petulant child, heartbroken to learn her new hero wasn't so heroic after all and was only made of flesh and blood like everyone else.  

"I thought about approaching the girl's mother about it.  Even followed her and the little brunette home one day.  I was going to go speak with her mom the next day while Eph was out at the practice field.  But, before I could leave, she got in a lucky shot and - "

Gabrielle's eyes grew wide.  Devillare gleefully nodded in response.  "You mean -" Gabrielle reached out, clutching at the captain's forearm.  She simply couldn't take it if Ephiny was beaten yet again. "Did Ephiny finally - "

" - wiped the field with her."  That devilish grin was spreading rapidly as Devillare recounted the tale.  "Had Ep facedown in the mud, her skirt pulled up over her hips and was paddling her bare ass like there was no tomorrow."

"Oh, my!" Gabrielle covered her mouth with her hand in a vain effort to hold back the threatening snickers.  She failed miserably as snickers gave way to body-racking laughter.  "Eponin must have been mortified!"

Devillare nodded.  "Wouldn't show her face at mealtime for a solid moon.  Then, one day, she walked into the food hut and marched straight up to where Ephiny was having her breakfast.  Thought for sure she was going to try to drown the poor girl in her oatmeal.  But, the next thing I know, she's leaning across the table, looking lil' Eph in the eye and asking But, are you any good with chobos?."

"Oh, no!"  Gabrielle shook her head, already imagining where this was leading.

"Yep, they spent the rest of the day knocking each other silly with those things.  Been good friends ever since."  Devillare enjoyed the raucous laughter coming forth from the queen.  Her sense of humor was deliciously genuine, as evidenced by the loud, uncontrollable and decidedly unregal-like snorts coming from her small frame.  As they crossed the bridge and rounded a bend in the path, she pulled up short, looking up at the majestic marble structure looming in front of them.  "Now, my Queen, would you care to tell me what business we have at the Temple of Artemis?"

Hands clasped behind her back, Xena's long-legged stride carried her the length of the clearing.  A barely discernible twitch tugged at the corner of her left eye.  Abruptly, she turned around, nearly knocking Metanira over in the process.  Scowling at the girl as she ducked and hurried out of the way, Xena continued her pacing.

Suddenly lashing out, strong corded muscles snapped as lightning fast, her closed fist struck out at the tree she had just passed.  Her gauntlet connected with the trunk, knocking a large patch of bark from the aged tree.  Startled by the loud noise, every amazon turned to openly stare at the warrior.

"You're scaring the feathers off the kiddies again," Solari observed, emerging from the thick forest.

"You in charge of changing their swaddling?" Xena barked.  Seeing the impassive face of the chief scout, Xena exhaled loudly, rubbed at the base of her neck.  "Didn't mean to snap," she brusquely apologized, "Guess I'm just a little tense."

"That's like saying Medusa is a little ugly."  Solari grinned at her own joke.  "Don't take this wrong, Xena, but you're supposed to be worked up on the way to the daring rescue mission.  Eph's safe and we're on the way home.  You should be basking in the satisfaction of a job well done."

"Guess I'm just a little anxious to get back to Gabrielle," Xena admitted.  "You know your queen can't stay out of trouble for more than a candlemark."

Solari grinned good-naturedly, but didn't respond.  For all Xena's grumbling, she knew the stoic warrior was missing the infectious bard.  With a pat on the back, she moved away, ambling across the clearing.

Xena watched her go, moving with a graceful stealth inherit to all amazons.  Even though they were on the way home and her guard wasn't up, every movement the scout made attested to her training.  She moved with fluid grace, expending no more energy than required.  There's a certain beauty to all the amazons, Xena realized.  Sometimes it's a deadly, savage beauty, but it's captivating, nonetheless.  Even when it's Eponin.

The weapons master was crouched down, resting on the balls of her feet, massive forearms braced against muscular thighs.  Feathers hung from her hair, bracers and gauntlets.  Xena recalled the proud warrior's mask hanging in her hut back at the village. It was decorated with more feathers than any other mask, even that of the queen.  Truly a testament to her agility, dexterity and prowess.  In my army, she would have been a formidable general.

Even at her most relaxed, a quiet strength pulsed through the veins of the amazon.  Crouching there in the leaves, she was conversing in hushed tones with her regent.  But, looking at Eponin's position, Xena knew the amazon had a clear sightline of the rest of the clearing.  And, her body could easily spring into action in a heartbeat.  No one could get near the regent without facing off against the weapons master first.

Ephiny was sitting with her legs curled beneath her, her back against the trunk of a massive tree.  Her right arm was out of the sling, cradled against her body.  Although she tried to put up a brave front, Xena could tell that her wound was bothering her.  She had been a little too hesitant dismounting from the horse, held her a body a little too stiff as she walked across the leaf-scattered ground, a little too compliant when Ep guided her with a supporting arm about her waist.  Her eyes had only briefly met Xena's before she averted her gaze, lest Xena offer to use pressure points again.  For a proud warrior like Ephiny, she would see it as a slur on her reputation to accept the offer when she'd refused once before.

Eponin and Ephiny both glanced up as Solari approached.  The scout knelt beside the regent, speaking in hushed tones.  At a subtle nod from Ephiny, Solari reached out, loosening the clean bandage Xena had fastened about the regent before they'd left the cache.  Solari poured water from her skin onto a scrap of cloth, pressing it directly to the wound.  Xena caught the subtle movement as Ephiny reached out, questing fingers clutching Eponin's hand.  An equally subtle movement of a wrist and Eponin smoothly had their fingers interlocked.

Respecting the private moment between the trio, Xena averted her gaze, studying the rest of the amazons.  Nyxona was with Admeta and Metanira, caught up in idle conversation as they tended the horses, soaking them down with cool water.  They'd been riding hard and had worked up a fine lather on their coats.  The three scouts worked diligently to care for the trusted animals.

Farther away, the two hunters sat together, Cordele resting with her back against the trunk of a tree in a manner reminiscent of Ephiny's.  Keleos sat on the ground, shoulder to shoulder with her fellow hunter, her gaze darting back and forth between Ephiny's group and the stablehand.  Doretta was slumped against and securely tied to a tree, hands and feet bound with thick rope.  Although she was conscious, she kept her head lowered, her gaze focused on the ground.

"Yeah, all's well that ends well, right?" Her own frustration momentarily forgotten, Xena walked over to the stablehand, knelt down in front of her.  Even though Dori refused to acknowledge her presence, Xena persisted in speaking to her.  At length, the young woman finally looked up, not quite meeting the warrior's persistent gaze.

"What are we waiting for?' Keleos asked, eyes darting furtively about the camp.  "We should strike now."

Cordele's head lolled to the side as she looked at her companion out of the one eye that wasn't swollen shut.  "No."

"What do you mean no?"  persisted Keleos, watching as Solari headed back into the woods with Eponin in tow.  "We're not going to have another chance like this."

"I said no," repeated Cordele.

"You mean you're going to let her get away with this?" Keleos asked, gesturing wildly at the stablehand.  "You know once we get back to the village, that bleeding heart Gabrielle won't let any harm come to her!"

"That featherhead abducted and attempted to kill her regent.  Do you think the Queen will allow that to pass unpunished?" Cordele cast an appraising look at the stablehand.  Xena was with her, talking to her in a low voice.  "Besides, we won't get within three feet of her with Xena around."

Keleos grunted, rolled her eyes.  "She isn't as tough as everyone thinks.  You know, they all thought you did it."  She spat on the ground.  "Took the regent."

"I would have thought the same," agreed Cordele.  She still had trouble wrapping her mind around the fact that it was the stablehand that had gotten the better of her and dragged her off, slung across the back of her own horse like a sack of grain.  The stablehand!  Not even a fellow warrior!

"What about Gabrielle ordering your entire squad to be confined while her flunkies hunted you down and dragged you back by your tailfeathers?"

Probably one of the smartest moves she's ever made.  Cordele reached over, snatching up Keleos' spare waterskin.

On a roll now, Keleos continued her tirade.  "And, that watchdog, Eponin? You just gonna let her get away with pummeling you?  By Artemis' bow, Cordele, she was bent on killing you!"  

To protect the regent.  As the water slid over her busted lip, Cordele fought against the sharp grimace.  With a scowl, she turned her head, spitting, blood mixed with water staining the leaves littering the ground.

"She's in the woods with the scout.  Solari won't stop us.  Together, we're strong enough to take that bitch down," urged Keleos, rising to one knee.  A hand reached for her boot, fingers closing about the handle that protruded from beneath the soft leather.

"Now is not the time."  Cordele's hand snaked out, catching Keleos' shoulder in a tight grip.  "I've seen Xena in action.  Despite what you may think, the legend of the Destroyer is not exaggerated."  Adding pressure, she forced her fellow hunter back down.  "I'll handle things back at the village," she hissed through clenched teeth, pointedly looking at Keleos.  "Privately."

Resolutely, Gabrielle pushed open the majestic doors leading into the Temple of Artemis.  It was dark inside, illuminated only by several strategically placed candles upon the altar.  The braziers that normally illuminated the walls were eerily silent, their flames extinguished.  Cautiously, queen and guard entered, scrutinizing their surroundings.

They walked side by side, a mere hand's breadth apart from each other, eyes scanning the dark recesses, fingers twitching upon their weapons.  As they stepped onto a marble inlay design of a mighty stag in the room's center, the doors behind them slammed shut.  Startled by the sound, Gabrielle jumped, turning around quickly.  

The wind? she wondered, even as she dismissed the notion.  The temple was as still as the grave.  "High Priestess?" Gabrielle called out, her voice echoing as she took another tentative step.  

"Priestess?  Are you here?" Devillare took up the call even as she moved away from her queen.  She circled the perimeter of the room, surreptitiously looking for passages leading to other parts of the temple.  Seeing none, she approached the altar itself.

The altar was in disarray, the offerings left for the goddess scattered about the stone slab at the top of the steps in chaos.  The customary grapes left each day by the priestesses were rotten, a pungent odor coming from the bruised fruit as flies swarmed about the golden bowls that held the offering.  Arrows left by devoted followers lay scattered about, the fletching on some damaged by careless disregard. 

"Artemis!" Gabrielle shouted, head back, looking towards the heavens.  "Artemis!  Show yourself!"

The temple shook violently, the floor shifting beneath their feet.  Gabrielle was thrown off balance, saved from hitting her head on the stone altar only by her quick reflexes.  As the quakes continued, both amazons fought to stay on their feet.  The golden bowls tumbled to the ground, sending rotten grapes rolling haphazardly across the temple floor.  Likewise, the arrows lining the altar were negligently sent flying.

Instinctively, Devillare's hand closed about her staff in a defensive gesture.  She didn't know what sort of chance she might stand against a god, but she vowed she wouldn't go down without a fight.  Slowly, the quake subsided, the ground stilling beneath their feet.  Warily, the two amazons looked around the temple, as if expecting another quake to follow close on the heels of the first one.  Reaching out, picking one of the arrows up, Devillare examined it, passing it to her queen.

"We've got to go,"  Gabrielle declared, rolling the shaft between her fingers, inspecting the damaged fletching.  "Something's not right here."

Ephiny felt a light touch caressing the length of her arm.  Hazel flecked with gold slowly opened, blinking at a familiar pair of sandalwood eyes.  The chief scout was riding alongside them, Honeycomb and Thunder keeping a matching gait.  Spying her lifelong friend, Ephiny graced her with a sleepy smile.

"You okay?" Solari asked in a low voice.

"M'fine."  Ephiny's usual dulcet tones came out a much huskier pitch.  "Tea was good," she lazily drawled, referring to the tepid brew Solari had mixed up during the last break they'd taken.

Solari smiled at the praise.  She knew Ephiny had said she'd suffer until they'd made it to the village - but she was just so miserable that it pained the brunette to look at her packmate.  So, while everyone else rested beneath the shelter of the trees, she had trekked deeper into the forest, searching for the leaves and roots she knew would make a suitable brew.  It had taken only a minimal amount of coaxing to persuade the stubborn regent to drink what she referred to as a 'vile-tasting concoction I wouldn't polish my boots with'.

As if remembering her own words, Ephiny peered down at her bare feet resting about the horse's mane.  Experimentally, she wriggled her toes.  "Where're my boots?" she asked, looking forlornly at Solari, "You make tea out of 'em?"

"Hey, where you think you're going?"  Eponin had noticed Ephiny leaning precariously forward, firmly tugged her back against her torso.  "You trying to fall off?"

Ephiny felt the strong hands pulling her back and compulsively reached out, grasping the large forearm beneath her fingers.  Arms thicker than small tree trunks wrapped themselves about her torso with a surprisingly gentle touch and Ephiny felt herself falling back into the warmth of the protective embrace.

Eponin kept her grip secure as she felt the unruly regent squirming around, turning this way and that upon the saddle.  Resolutely, she ground her teeth, suffering in silence as Ephiny's body intimately brushed against hers again and again.  She heard mirthful snickers from the scout riding beside them and turned to roll her eyes at Solari.

"Comfy?" The brunette asked, barely able to contain her amusement.

The question had been directed at the decidedly uncomfortable looking weapons master.  Solari was surprised when the sleepy answer came from the regent instead.  "Umm-hmm."  She settled down, her cheek resting on the swell of Eponin's breasts.  Frowning, she raised her head, awkwardly used her fingers to nudge at the ample flesh peeking out from Pony's halter.  "Fluffy pillows," she murmured, settling back down, closing her eyes.

Solari lost it, gales of laughter threatening to knock her from her saddle.  Slowly, one of Ephiny's eyes opened, studying her friend's odd behavior.  Shrugging it off, she closed her eyes, melting into the comforting presence once again.  Eponin's jaw clenched, her fists tightened upon the reins until every vein in her hands prominently stood out.  She was glaring flame-tipped arrows at the chief scout when Xena rode up beside them.

"Problem?' she asked, eyeing the nearly hysterical Solari.

"Problem?  Unh-uh.  No problem here."  Eponin kept her eyes facing front, refusing to look anywhere except at the horse directly in front of her. If she was going to live through this embarrassment, she couldn't look at the amazon cackling like a rabid chicken beside her.  Or, the gorgeous woman nuzzling into her cleavage.  And, definitely not at the formidable warrior riding next to her.  "Someone," she jerked her head in Solari's direction, "slipped the regent too much henbane."

"Ah," Xena nodded her head, remembering Gabrielle's experience with the narcotic.  "Look at it this way," She spared a glance at the woman trying to wriggle her way deeper into the cleavage of Eponin's breasts, "Those things will probably keep her entertained the rest of the journey to the village."

Xena nudged her horse ahead with a swift tap of her boot, swiftly moving out of striking distance.  She smirked as Solari's cackling increased, threatening to dislodge the scout from her saddle.  Wisely, Solari also spurred her horse ahead before the weapons master could get her hands around her neck.  A flustered, spitting, cursing Eponin tightened her grip about the woman bundled in her arms, set to give chase to her tormenters.  Instead, she was forced to pull up short as Ephiny wormed her way deeper into her cleavage.  Oh, sweet Artemis!  Eponin's grip spasmed tightly about the reins.  Was that her tongue? 

The Queen of the Amazons was firmly entrenched in another session with her members of council when they heard the distinct sound of horses' hooves rumbling past.  Captain Pelagia, who had been leaning against the back wall on her crutches, covertly slipped outside.  In less than a candledrip, the heavy pelt covering the entrance was pulled back, rays of light from the bright sunshine abruptly illuminating the interior of the darkened council room.  

Gabrielle had been leaning with her palms pressed against the table, repeating her position to the elder she had started recognizing as 'flapping jowls'.  The rest of the council had listened to her and Devillare's accounts of the morning's events with an open attitude.  The only source of aggravation for the young queen was this hard-headed, obstinate woman who seemed to be intentionally challenging every statement that came out of her mouth.  If I said the tree standing outside the hut was an oak, she'd say it was a birch just out of spite.  

Already agitated, Gabrielle pointedly looked at the open doorway as the unexpected rush of sunlight penetrated the gloomy room.  Who dares to interrupt the  - 

Framed by the sunlight, Pelagia proudly announced, "They're back.  The rescue party has returned."

There was complete silence as Pelagia's words took a moment to register.  Then, before anyone could react, Gabrielle was already at the entrance and pushing her way out past the Captain of the Guard.  Devillare rose from her chair, pounded her fist once on the hardwood table.  "This session is adjourned," she declared.

Gabrielle moved at a fast clip, weaving her way in and out of the throng of amazons in the main village.  Craning her neck, she struggled to see past broad shoulders and muscular backs.  Great Artemis, why must all amazons be so blessed tall?  Bouncing on the balls of her feet, she bobbed up and down as she mixed with the throng working its way through the village center.

As she made her way between two slower strolling amazons, Gabrielle was afforded a view of the hind quarters of horses and riders. She could make out two slender figures bringing up the rear dressed in familiar amazon leathers.  The two young scouts, she surmised, knowing the more experienced riders would be at the head of the pack.  Jumping up and down, she valiantly tried to spy any sign of a tall, dark haired warrior.

A hand reached out, grabbing Gabrielle at the elbow.  Startled, the queen turned to find herself looking up into Devillare's steel grey eyes.  With a jerk of her head and a pull of her arm, she tugged Gabrielle out of the throng and behind a set of buildings.

"Sometimes, it's best not to follow the crowd," Devillare pointed out, guiding the way through a deserted stretch behind the huts lining the main route.

Frequent glances between the huts they passed revealed to Gabrielle that they were indeed making much better progress than if she'd tried to navigate the much busier main square.  "Xena!  Xena!" Gabrielle yelled, spotting sight of the warrior's familiar armor.  She knew Xena had heard her, pale blue eyes were scanning the crowd, but failed to pinpoint Gabrielle's location.

"Come on," Devillare grabbed her wrist, tugging her along.  "Looks like they're headed for the infirmary."

Finally able to discern a destination, Gabrielle and her escort ran ahead, no longer mindful of keeping the procession in sight.  Dodging past sporadic trees and laundry hanging from lines stretched between trees and huts, they soon broke cover no more than ten feet from the building designated as the infirmary.  Sprinting, they ran up onto the porch.  Leaning against the railing, chests negligently heaving from their spontaneous run, they looked towards the main route.

The steadily moving procession was just coming around the closest bend, horses and riders coming in at a slow, yet steady pace.  Eponin and Solari rode at the lead, guiding their mares side by side.  Gabrielle's heart stopped as she saw the figure bundled in a blood-soaked cloak.  Her eyes were closed, her head tilted back, her jaw slack as her boneless frame lay slumped against the weapons master.

Eponin's posture was rigidly straight, her carriage that of a proud warrior as she rode tall in the saddle.  There was a firm set to her lips, her face void of expression.  A hooded gaze revealed none of her emotions.  Unflinching beneath her queen's gaze, she stared straight ahead.

Fortunately for Gabrielle's nerves, Solari was the less stoic of all her warriors.  The chief scout with the charming personality and big, easy smile had an even bigger heart.  As such, Gabrielle was usually able to read the amazon like a scroll.  And,   even though she had managed to remain as impassive as Eponin while riding through the throng, one look at her little queen and she was undone.  There was a slight upturn to her lips and behind tired eyes, Gabrielle could see a hint of Solari's usual playfulness.

Ephiny's okay, she realized, moving aside as Megara and her assistant healers rushed out the door of the infirmary.  At Megara's urging, Devillare rushed down the steps, smoothly taking Ephiny from Eponin's arms.  With a quickened stride, she followed the healer inside, the regent carefully cradled in her arms.  

Then, Gabrielle saw her.  Sitting astride a black horse, mane as dark as that of the rider.  She was resplendent in her leather armor, her breastplate gleaming in the sunlight.  Sapphire eyes sparkled as they caught sight of the bard.  Leaping from the saddle, she coiled her body in midair, doing a double-flip before coming to land in front of the Queen of the Amazons.

Without a second thought, Gabrielle rushed down the steps, flinging herself into the arms of the warrior.  Smoothly leaning in, Xena lowered her lips to Gabrielle's, drinking deeply from her succulent mouth.  As the kiss ended and she blinked her eyes open, Gabrielle felt the tremor run through her lover's body.

"You okay?" she asked, concern showing clearly in her expressive, emerald eyes.

"Just a little tired," she answered in a low voice.  

Gabrielle knew what that admission cost Xena.  She wasn't one to admit to weakness of any kind.  And, for her to even hint at not being a hundred percent -

"I'll assign someone to take the horses," she decided.  "Let's get you home to bed."

"Bath, first."  Xena draped a heavy arm about Gabrielle's shoulders, leaning into her.  "You, next.  Then, bed."

Gabrielle's hear trip-hammered at the soft-spoken innuendo and she went weak in the knees as the seductive tone washed over her.  Despite being half asleep on her feet, Xena still wanted her.  Praising the Gods that her lover did indeed possess many skills, she found the strength to somehow move her legs and lead her blue-eyed warrior away from the infirmary.

As the other riders pulled up, Keleos and Cordele dismounted from the same stallion.  Cordele was a sight, but she was moving under her own power.  As Keleos followed her friend into the infirmary, she paused on the steps just long enough to glare at the queen.  Gabrielle was shocked when she saw Doretta being hauled off the horse Nyxona had been leading in, her hands firmly tied with rope.  

"Xena, what - " 

"Shush."  Xena covered Gabrielle's lips with her own, needing to feed off the strength of her soulmate once again.  "Bath first, explanations later," she ordered, using her bulk to cut a swath through the bevy of curious amazons.

The Queen and her consort didn't make another appearance until supper.  Sitting at the Queen's table with Xena on her right, the chair to her left was left unoccupied.  The regent's chair.  It had sat empty for every meal since - Gabrielle pushed that troubling thought aside, remembering that every chair at her table had been empty during the regent's disappearance.  For the first time since coming to the Amazon village, the cooks were concerned.  It seemed no matter what they prepared for their beloved queen, she had no appetite.

Now that the rescue party had returned, so had her appetite.  She had just finished off her second plate when Solari approached, carrying a plate of fruit.  Placing it on the table, she firmly gripped Eponin's shoulder as she swung one leg over and eased herself onto the low bench.

"If I never ride another horse, it'll be too soon," she grimaced as her sore tush connected with the unyielding wood.

"Thought you'd be used to that," Eponin smirked, "As many times as I knock you on your ass during staff practice."

Gabrielle laughed aloud as Solari stuck her tongue out at Eponin.  With lightning quick reflexes, Eponin struck, catching Solari's tongue in her grasp.  Solari tried to pull away, but found herself firmly caught.  Snarling, the weapons master quickly plucked up her knife, pointing the blade at the extended digit.  Solari's eyes widened as the blade came nearer.

"Careful, Ep," Xena chortled, "That's Solari's best feature.  There'd be an awful lot of upset amazons if you were to cut it out."

With a deadly look and a menacing move like she was going to follow through on her threat, Eponin abruptly drove the blade of the knife into the tabletop.  With a wry smirk, she lifted her mug, drinking heartily.  Casting a mischievous look out of the corner of her eye, she saw the wide-eyed look still on Solari's face.

"Next time, think carefully about how you're using that thing."  Her tone was low and menacing, but there was a decidedly playful cast to her eyes.

Solari bobbed her head up and down, rapidly agreeing to the weapons master's demands.  She slumped over her plate, head cradled in her hands as she breathed a sigh of relief.

"Are you two jesters done?" asked Gabrielle pointedly, reaching over and smoothly sliding Solari's plate away.  The distressed scout didn't even have the nerve left to complain about the theft after her run-in with Eponin.  Popping a piece of fruit into her mouth, she continued, "Because if you are, we've got serious issues to discuss."

Dawn the next morning found a surprised bard awakening to the unexpected sight of a warrior princess still curled about her.  Xena was notorious for being up before first light, starting the fire and catching breakfast before her first attempt of several to haul the sleepy bard from their bedroll.  Gabrielle inhaled deeply, catching the scent of freshly baking bread.   Ah, the benefits of awakening in the Amazon village, she thought, stretching luxuriously, feeling the hay-filled mattress conform to her movements.  When's the last time I was able to do that on a bedroll?  Subconsciously, she rubbed her back at the memory of a particularly sharp rock that had recently plagued her on the trip from Athens.

Lifting Xena's muscular arm from her torso, easily slipping from beneath a powerful thigh, Gabrielle slid from their bed.  Quietly and efficiently she dressed, watching her sleeping lover all the while.  So rarely did she get to see this side of Xena.  Usually, it was the fearsome warrior that protected her or the doting guardian that cared for her that she awoke to each morning.  The vulnerable lover was rarely on display, even for her.

She felt the strings of her heart tug as Xena rolled over in her sleep, instinctively invading Gabrielle's space.  Arms closed about the pillow, hugging it tightly, a lazy smile forming on Xena's lips as she caught her lover's familiar scent.

Gabrielle momentarily considered stripping her clothes off and climbing back into bed to curl up against her sleeping lover.   Or, maybe I'll wake her up, she idly considered as Xena shifted again, causing the covers to slid down, revealing the straight line of her spine, the curve of her hips, the cleft of her backside.  Xena's teasing banter of last night about Solari's best feature came to mind and she briefly let her imagination dwell on all sorts of deliciously wicked paths her tongue could map out on her warrior's body.

With a body length shiver that jarred her from head to toe, Gabrielle shook off her lusty haze.  I have too many things to do this morning. And, she's too exhausted to be one of them.  As they'd discussed the occurrences in the village, Xena had been grudgingly pleased with Gabrielle's actions in removing Cordele's squad and enlisting the aid of the elders.  A disapproving cast had come over her features as she'd been forced to confess how she'd gotten the shiner and why the captain of the royal guard was not available for her inspection of the tannery.  And, finally, the hardened warrior's mask gave way, revealing the lover's concern etched on Xena's face when she'd told her about the visit to the temple and the disappearance of Artemis.

Anything dealing with the Gods always set Xena's nerves on end.  She'd asked them to wait until morning, but Xena was having none of it.  She'd wanted to question the priestess upon her return, anyway.  "You ever track a goddess before, scout?" was all it took to entice Solari.  And, of course, once those two were involved, it was a foregone conclusion that Eponin would be in the thick of things, too.  They'd set off right after dinner with orders from their queen to be careful and come straight back once they'd finished.  No overnight camping, no fishing expeditions, and no sparring - she reproached, looking each of them in the eye as she said it.   

The three of them are like little kids when they're together.  They had returned no more than four candlemarks ago, all three bedraggled and limping, mud and leaves caking their clothes and hair.  Solari had so much caked on her until she looked like a walking mud monster.  Already suspecting what might have happened, she nevertheless gave the warriors a chance to come clean, so to speak.  None of them would look her in the eye as she repeatedly asked what had happened.  Her queenly temper in an uproar, she'd grabbed Solari and Eponin by the ears, dragging them from the hut.  A piercing glare over her shoulder at Xena had the warrior princess meekly following along behind.

She'd thrown all three into the baths, demanding they wash up.  And just to ensure there was no horseplay, she stayed to watch.  She had eyes like a hawk, as evidenced by the tongue lashing she'd given Solari when she tried to hide the soap from Xena.  With a contrite expression, she somberly handed the bar over to the warrior, all playfulness suddenly gone from her demeanor.  Not that Xena or Eponin got away squeaky clean, either.  At least, not right away.  

Memories brought a grin to Gabrielle's face as she remembered pulling Xena to the edge of the tub and roughly grabbing her by the ears and scrubbing them with a rag.  Eponin thought that was the funniest thing she'd ever seen; the indomitable warrior princess having behind her ears cleaned by the little bard.  Until her queen pierced her heart with a deadly glare.  A dangerous smile and a crook of a finger soon had the weapons master fearing for her life.  And, before she knew it, she was backed against the wall beside Xena, her ear caught between Gabrielle's thumb and forefinger in a mighty pinch as a washrag mercilessly attempted to scrub off several layers of dirt and skin alike.  Upon seeing the two most powerful warriors in the nation soundly defeated, Solari did the smart thing and kept her mouth shut.

Grinning ruefully, she shook her head, casting a last glance at her sleeping lover's form as she tugged on her boots.  Once they'd returned to their hut alone, she'd been able to ruthlessly extract a confession from Xena.  They'd found the temple and gotten inside without incident.  And, they'd even managed to locate the missing priestesses, firmly ensconced in the catacombs beneath the temple, choosing to seclude themselves from worldly things until their goddess' return.  Xena had tried to convince them even the catacombs beneath the temple may not be safe, but the priestesses had refused to budge, stating their faith in their Goddess would provide adequate protection.  

Actually, what Xena said was that the younger priestesses would have gladly left with the warriors had the High Priestess not shamed them into staying with her religious beliefs.   Recalling the imposing figure of the High Priestess during the opening ceremony of the feast, she could imagine how the young virgins would be petrified of disobeying any of their superior's commands.  Faced with the option of simply leaving or forcing them from the temple, Xena had decided that they had to respect the wishes of the Priestesses of Artemis and allowed them to stay.

It wasn't until the trip back that things got out of hand.  Meekly, Xena admitted that she didn't think Solari would fall from the rope bridge quite so easily.  That had shed some light on how the scout had become so entrenched in mud, but it didn't explain the disheveled appearances of her warrior and weapons master.  And, no matter how much Gabrielle prodded, she couldn't get Xena to reveal any more details.  Some things are just between warriors, Xena finally said, refusing to divulge more.

We'll just see about that, my warrior, Gabrielle thought as she placed a chaste kiss on her sleeping partner's temple before stepping outside to greet the morning.  Sooner or later, I will have the truth.

Nibbling on the corner of her slice of nutbread, Gabrielle swiftly climbed the steps of the infirmary.  It was still early morning - and she'd seen both the healer's assistants at the dining hall - so she knew the hospice would be fairly deserted.  Slipping past the hide covering the door, she made her way to the private area where she'd seen the arrow removed from her regent just days before.

Surprised to find the room empty, she wandered back out into the main room, hesitantly looking around.  After several undisturbed moments of perusing the four walls, she surreptitiously  glanced down the corridor leading to the area where the healers tended the sick and wounded.  Gabrielle had visited the injured several times after a battle and was fairly certain she knew where Ephiny would be.  Destination decided, she made her way down the narrow hall.

They really put some thought into the design when they rebuilt.  Before Velasca's fiery temper tantrum that destroyed half the village, the infirmary was little more than a one-room shack with the ill and wounded tended to in one area.  It was crowded at best and an unsanitary breeding ground for disease during battle.  As it was described to Gabrielle when she first saw the conditions, 'amazons are born to fight.  A sharp sword at your side is more important than a comfortable place to lay dying'.  

Sure, they had healers.  Good ones.  But, with the amazons, emphasis was never placed on improving their medical facilities.  Gabrielle and Xena had influenced a change in that area, slowly introducing new concepts to Megara that were being taught in large cities like Athens and Corinth.  Look at the place now, Gabrielle reflected as she came to a door flanked by two guards, it could easily rival any hospice in Athens.

The guards came to attention, saluting their queen as she ducked into the room they were guarding.  There were twelve pallets lined in two rows stretching the length of the room.  They were spaced far enough apart to allow room for the healers to work, but didn't offer much privacy otherwise.  Not that it mattered; amazons were raised in a matriarchal society and were for the most part, fairly uninhibited.  

Currently, two of the pallets were occupied, one at each end of the room.  The first was occupied by a blonde that Gabrielle recognized from the feast.  Cordele, the hunter.  Her eyes were closed, hands folded across her stomach.  The blanket that was covering her slid lower with each indrawn breath, revealing more and more of her upper torso.  Gabrielle closed her eyes, not from embarrassment at the hunter's toned flesh, but at the actions of her amazons.

Purplish-yellow flesh gave testament to the bruises around her eyes that were slowly beginning to heal.  A plaster had been mixed and was covering the bridge of her broken nose, forcing her to breathe through her mouth.  Her lips were swollen and cracked and it hurt Gabrielle just to look at them.  Bruises mottled her chest and upper body.  And, a bandage was firmly tied about the hunter's wrist.

"By the Gods, Xena, what happened?" Gabrielle had questioned her lover.

Xena explained that as they had found the cache and were preparing to enter, Cordele came rushing out, armed with a bow.  "Eponin saw her - " Xena winced at the memory " - and may have gotten a little over-enthusiastic."

Keleos had approached the queen last evening after Xena and the others had left. She told her version of the events and demanded retribution for her friend's undue persecution and suffering.  Gabrielle assured her that she would, of course, investigate the allegation and appropriate measures would be taken.  

She knew she would need to speak with Cordele and get her side of the story, but she was sure it would match Keleos'.   Keleos' body language had been stiff, her words stilted as she used a vocabulary she was clearly unfamiliar with.  She was coached.  Gabrielle could spot a rehearsed story when she heard one.  No doubt, Keleos and Cordele had spent a great amount of time going over exactly what would be said when they pleaded their case.  I'll deal with it later.  For now, best to let sleeping dogs lie, she thought as she moved past the dozing amazon and further into the room.  

On the last pallet was Doretta, the stablehand.  She lay on her back, one arm raised above her head, staring morosely at the thatched ceiling.  As Gabrielle moved closer, she realized the woman's arm was raised because there was a manacle about her wrist.  A length of thick chain ran from the manacle to an iron ring secured in the wooden wall.  

Doretta blinked at Gabrielle's approach, but otherwise, made no acknowledgement of her queen's presence.  The lithe blonde stood beside the amazon's bed, intently studying her.  She had been so confused when she'd seen the young woman hauled in, hands tied to her saddle.  She'd been promptly dragged up the front steps of the infirmary and Gabrielle hadn't seen any more of her until this very moment.

Although Xena had explained it to her, she still had problems wrapping her mind around the details of what had happened.  To think that this reliable young woman that they'd entrusted with Argo's care could do the things she did - to think that any amazon could -  Gabrielle shook her head in silent frustration.

"I spoke with her," Xena broke the news to her, clutching the bard's hands within her own as she delivered the blow, "She's the one that tried to assassinate you, Gabrielle."

For the first time in a long while, Gabrielle had found her bardly tongue completely and utterly unable to form a syllable, let alone a complete word.  Gods, I don't think I've reacted to anything that badly since Xena confessed her love for me!  It had been a full quarter candlemark before Gabrielle had been able to respond with - 

"Xena, that's insane!" Yeah, that was really eloquent.  Quickly followed by several dozen questions in rapid-fire succession too fast for even the warrior princess to keep up completely.

"Gabrielle," Xena had caught her by the shoulders, looked her in the eyes and lowered her voice to that tone she used when she wanted Gabrielle to be quiet and not interrupt until she was done, "Dori has a thing for Ephiny." As Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest, she found Xena's fingers placed firmly against her lips.  "Listen to me.  It's not just a crush.  She's obsessed with her.  She tried to tell the regent her feelings and Eph rebuked her.  Then, when she saw how - close - you and Eph have been lately - " Xena shrugged.

" - She decided to take out her queen with an arrow?"  Gabrielle's initial shock had quickly turned into righteous indignation.

"She says she was only trying to scare you away from Ephiny.  She didn't mean for anyone to get hurt.  Then, when she saw that didn't work and realized the night of the feast she had more competition than just you, she kind of snapped and took off with Ephiny."

"KIND of snapped?  Kind of SNAPPED?"  Gabrielle's indignation was now full-blown fury.  "Xena!  She tried to assassinate the Queen!  She assaulted and abducted the Regent!  I don't think 'kind of snapped' covers what she's done!"

"She's just a stupid, heartsick kid that made a lot of bad choices.  Really bad choices," she conceded at the hostility radiating from the bard.  "She's not even sure how it happened, but she knows things got way out of hand.  And, the more she tried to fix it, the worse things got.  Gabrielle, when we reached the cache, she'd ingested witchroot."

"Witchroot? Xena, that's almost as deadly as nightsbane!"

"And,"  Xena braced herself, mentally screwing her eyes tightly shut as she delivered the next bit, "she forced some on Ephiny."

Admittedly, at that point, Gabrielle herself had, in Xena's own words, 'kind of snapped'.  She had a vague recollection of screaming and throwing things and yelling for the guard.  She'd launched into a tirade, demanding the council be notified and she wanted the girl's head - 

The guards had stood there in muted shock.  Pelagia herself had been summoned, coming to the Queen's hut as quickly as she could on her crutches.  She  had immediately dismissed the guards upon her arrival.  And, between her and Xena, they'd finally gotten the nearly hysterical bard calmed down to a reasonable level.  

Pelagia had described the Queen's options at that point, seeking help from Xena whenever the regal became too agitated by any of the suggestions.  After some deliberation, it was finally agreed upon that Doretta would be confined to the infirmary, under chain and armed guard, until she was well enough to be moved to the more secure jail.  Then, she could be brought up on formal charges and tried in an Amazon court of law.  At that time, she could be charged with treason and summarily executed.

Gabrielle stepped up closer to the pallet Doretta was laying on, studying her intently.  The woman remained rigidly passive, the only indication of awareness, her blinking eyes.  Picking up one hand within her own, Gabrielle felt the thready pulse beneath the flesh of her wrist.  The fingers of her other hand gently threaded their way through a tangled mass of brown locks.  

Leaning down, her heated whispers filled Doretta's ears, "When you tangle with me, that's one thing.  But, when you mess with my friends - " She paused, letting those words sink in before delivering the next, "By the time I'm done with you, you're going to be wishing that witchroot had worked."

The pulse trapped beneath her fingers increased in direction proportion to Gabrielle's whispered threats.  Seeing the pulse rate beat triple time in the girl's throat made Gabrielle's blood race.  This - this - amazon had crossed the line.  And, as queen, Gabrielle would make her pay.  Delighting in the girl's torment, her lip curled into a sneer as she prepared to hurl further threats at her victim.

A loud clattering followed by a bellow and several loud curses made Gabrielle's head snap up.  That was followed by another, louder voice and more expletives, including a colorful phrase involving a staff and an amazon's tailfeathers.  

Curious, Gabrielle moved away from the bed.  A quick backward glance at Doretta confirmed there was still no reaction, not even to the sudden commotion going on elsewhere in the building.  Gabrielle marched up the aisle created by the rows of beds.  As she passed, Cordele creaked one eye open, following the movements of the clearly agitated queen.  When Gabrielle stormed out the door barking orders at the guards posted outside, a slow, painful smile spread across Cordele's lips.

Gabrielle was drawn to the heated confrontation like a moth to a flame.  She followed the sounds of the raised voices, tracking them to the end of the corridor and into another large room.  This one was lined with more pallets, all of them empty.  At the far end of the room was a thick hide covering another door.  

Pelagia stood, awkwardly balanced, the foot of her injured leg lifted off the floor to keep the pressure off.  Her weight was supported by one crutch stretched across the width of the entrance, firmly braced against the door frame.  Both hands tightly clenched the wooden crutch.  Her other crutch lay uselessly on the floor.  Megara stood in the entryway behind her, hands braced on her lover's protective shoulders.

Facing off against her was Eponin, her back to Gabrielle.  Every corded muscle in the weapons master's back stood out in stark relief.  Feet were planted firmly apart, calf muscles twitching with pent-up agitation.  Massive forearms were stretched out before her, bracing her weight against the doorframe as she leaned into Pelagia's personal space.  

As Gabrielle slowly worked her way around the weapons master's body in a steady approach, she suddenly regretted her hasty decision concerning the guards.  They had both remained impassively motionless in the hall, having been threatened by their queen to within an inch of their lives if they left their post for any reason.  Wonder if I yelled for help now if they'd come?

As she approached, Gabrielle took in the classic features of the amazon.  Her features were chiseled, but not severe.  Her flesh was a bronzed tan from the many years spent in the sun.  She possessed a strong jaw, a proud nose.  Long, ebony locks falling about her shoulders reminded Gabrielle of her own warrior's luxurious mane.  But, her most startling feature were the warm, caramel colored eyes that hinted at the fiery nature kept hidden deep within.  

"I could hear you clear down by the dining hall," Gabrielle allowed her bardic talents to embellish, "What in Artemis' name is going on here?"

"She - I - she - " Eponin awkwardly gestured back and forth between the three of them.

"Eponin."  Gabrielle's voice came out as something akin to a low growl.

Recognizing the same tone that had preceded the ear-scrubbing of the night before, Eponin's head dropped in defeat.  "Aww, Gabrielle," she finally settled on jabbing a thumb in the healer's direction, "She won't let me in to see Eph."

"I've had to put up with no less than fifteen of these fools this morning," Megara fired back at the queen, "All bound and determined to see the regent."

Stunned, Gabrielle's gaze flicked back and forth between the healer, the weapons master and the captain of the guard.  I don't get it.  Ep's the strongest warrior in the village.  IF she wanted to see Ephiny that badly, she could have just - 

Her gaze slid back to Eponin.  The usually formidable weapons master lowered her gaze beneath the queen's scrutiny, suddenly finding the stitch work on her amazon boots very fascinating.  With a deep sigh, Gabrielle bent to retrieve Pelagia's discarded crutch.  

Now I see, Gabrielle thought, recalling exactly who Eponin had dragged off to the practice fields to work out her frustrations with after Xena had taken off.  Pelagia's a friend.  And, no matter what, the honorable Eponin would never deliberately raise a hand against a friend.

"Here," Gabrielle pointedly thrust the crutch at her captain.  "There are two guards posted down the hall.  Perhaps you can round up two more to keep watch at the regent's door."

"Yes, my Queen," Pelagia nodded once, bracing her crutches beneath her arms.  She moved as swiftly as she was able, pausing only long enough to give a meaningful look back over her shoulder at Megara.  The healer gave her a soft, reassuring smile that confirmed she would be okay in her lover's absence.  

"In light of recent events," Gabrielle addressed Megara, "I can certainly understand your desire to keep to a limit the number of visitors the regent receives.  Which, I presume, is also the reason you've tucked her away in the far recesses of the hospice."

"I don't want to take the chance of any of those featherheads getting a wild hair like that fool stablehand."

"I know.  And, I appreciate that.  But, I think we can all agree that Eponin would never do anything to endanger the regent."

"Yeah," drawled out Megara, casting a wary glance at the contrite looking weapons master, "I suppose you're right."

"Tell you what, though, if it'll make you feel any better, why don't you confer with Pelagia about drawing up a list of suitable visitors for the regent?" suggested Gabrielle.  "Make certain mine and Xena's names are at the top of the list.  And, Eponin's."  Then, she added, "Oh, and Solari, as well."  She reached out, grabbing Eponin by the hand, giving a sharp tug.  "Come on, Ep, let's go look in on Eph."

Sunlight from a single window shone in, spreading across the bed, bathing Ephiny's blonde curls in a radiating glow.  Soft locks fell across her bare shoulders as she lay supine on the bed, a blanket pulled up over her chest.  Clean, padded bandages covered Ephiny's wound.  Her arms rested atop the blanket, bracers and gauntlets emphasizing the strength in defined arms.  Scattered bruises on her face and body were already fading to a dull, yellowish hue.

Gabrielle moved into the room, settling into a chair beside the bed.  Eponin moved with her, coming to stand unobtrusively on the opposite side.  Reaching out, Gabrielle ran her fingers over the sapphires embedded in the bracer she'd so recently gifted her friend.  Her hand gliding down, she brushed her fingertips over the back of Ephiny's hand.

"Ephiny?" she called out.  When she received no response, she looked up at Eponin.  

"Megara may have given her something," the weapons master shrugged.

"Ep?" Emerald eyes bore into warm caramel.  "Where did a kid like Doretta get her hands on witchroot?"  Eponin audibly inhaled.  She shifted uncomfortably beneath Gabrielle's steady gaze.  "Ep?  I'm waiting."

"At the cache, in the bottom of the weapons chest."   Eponin exhaled loudly, found her composure.  "It's standard inventory in case of an emergency."

"An emergency? I don't get it."  Then, the lethality of the poison came back to mind.  "Eponin!"

"Listen, Gabrielle."  Eponin bit her bottom lip, ran a shaky hand through her hair.  This wasn't something that was talked about amongst her people.  It was just something they all knew about.  It was just something that was - How could she explain it to the young woman, who although she was a great Queen to the Amazons, she was still in so many ways an outsider. "Every cache is a veritable fortress stocked with enough food and weapons to mount an adequate defense against a small army.  But, if the worst were to happen and the cache is overrun, if an amazon faces defeat, the witchroot is there for them."

Tears were threatening to stream from Gabrielle's eyes.  One of the blessings - and curses - of being a bard was the ability to picture in her mind vividly detailed events as they were described to her.  "Eponin!  Amazons don't commit suicide!" 

Eponin momentarily bowed her head.  "Which would you rather; for your amazons to depend upon the mercy of their attackers and face the possibility of rape, torture and slavery or die from their own hand by ingesting poison?"  At this point, Eponin looked up, her eyes cold and devoid of emotion as she asked, "If it were your friend, your lover, which fate would you have them choose?"

"To live," Gabrielle answered assuredly.  "Where there's life, there's hope."

"But, to a free amazon, imprisonment is death."

Biting her bottom lip, Gabrielle ran a hand over her face.  She understood her weapons master's point of view.  To a race like the Amazons, there could be no other choice.  But, I wasn't born Amazon.  If I had to, what choice would I make?  Dimly, Gabrielle recognized that this was a solution borne of necessity.  Obviously, this scenario had taken place at some point in her people's long history.  Her heart silently ached for the suffering warriors she had never even met.  In quiet despair, she increased her grip on Ephiny's hand.

As if sensing the increase in pressure, blonde lashes fluttered open.  Hazel eyes blinked against the intense sunlight as they focused on the silhouette seated beside her bed.  Her eyes were clear and alert as she looked up into the smiling visage of her queen.  A soft smile stole across Ephiny's lips at the sight.

"Hey."  Her raspy voice came out something of an off-key squawk.

"Hey, yourself," Gabrielle responded, offering her friend a sip from a nearby mug.

The cool liquid parched Ephiny's incredibly dry throat.  She didn't know what herbs Megara had been pumping her with, but the stench was horrible and the after-taste was worse.  Not to mention it leaves my tongue feeling like it's been dipped in tanning solution.  Gratefully, Ephiny took another long draw of water before Gabrielle moved the mug back to the bedside table.

"You know, it'll take a lot more than this to get you out of treaty negotiations," Gabrielle teased.  At Ephiny's half-hearted attempt at a grin, she asked, "How are you feeling?"

"Like Ep tied me to the bed and beat my tailfeathers off with her set of chobos," she confessed.

"Oh? And, just how would you know how that feels?" Gabrielle asked with a giggle  and a twinkle in her eye.  "Speaking of which, Eponin's here," she added, gesturing with her chin.

Ephiny struggled, craning her neck to look over her injured shoulder.  Eponin was standing in a relaxed position, her hands resting on her belt as she intently studied her regent's rapidly increasing blush.  "Hey, Pony."

"Eph," came the arched brow and cool response that spoke volumes.  

Uh-oh.  I'm in for it when Gabby leaves.  "Thought you were tall, dark and dangerous," she lamely offered.

"And, that would make it okay, how?"

"Speaking of?" Ephiny turned back to her queen, desperately trying to change the topic of conversation.

"Sleeping in," offered Gabrielle.  "Which, is where I thought this one would be," she gestured towards Eponin.  "Xena, Eponin and Solari had a late night mission at the Temple of Artemis."  At Ephiny's furrowed brow of confusion, Gabrielle expanded, "Seems you aren't the only one to go missing lately."

"The priestess?" asked the regent.

"The Goddess.  Anyway, the three kids investigated and Xena thinks they've found some answers."  She gave a helpless shrug at Ephiny.  Xena loved to keep everyone in suspense, including her.  "We're going to meet with the council in a little while."

"Mmmmm."  Ephiny shifted, bringing Eponin back into her line of sight again.  She eyed her friend suspiciously.  

"Don't ask me," Eponin shrugged.  Her mind drifted back to her conversation with Xena about the strange behavior going on around the village.   Xena seemed to think there was some sort of hex involved.  The weapons master agreed something was going on, but she wasn't as quick to believe in curses and sorcery.  She preferred to believe in the tangible.  Reserving her opinion, she chose not to offer more of an answer.

Eponin's eyes shifted to the window, noting the position of the sun.  Abruptly, she moved in closer, laying a powerful hand atop Ephiny's corkscrew curls.  She chuckled at the reflexive flinch that accompanied the sudden movement.  "I have to go," she explained, "Weapons practice.  Can't expect Devil to fill-in forever."  She leaned in, whispering into Ephiny's ear, "Don't worry; you'll get yours when the Queen's not here to protect you."

Gabrielle feigned interest in the room's decor, pretending not to hear the teasing threat from Eponin.  Or, see the gentle kiss that was lovingly pressed to her regent's  forehead along with the ruffling of curls as she straightened to her full height.  With a last lingering touch trailing across a cheek and over her shoulder, Eponin moved away from the bed. She was almost to the door when Gabrielle called her back.

"Eponin?" As the weapons master turned around, Gabrielle bent down, reaching for a wad of material balled up on the floor beside the bed.  In one, swift motion, she had the cloak in her grasp and was tossing it across the room.  Eponin deftly caught it in one hand.  

"Gabrielle - " protested Ephiny, pleading eyes searching Eponin's face.  

"Ephiny." Gabrielle folded her arms firmly across her chest, already sensing where this was going.  Xena was the same way about her favorite shift.  Artemis knew it was thread-bare and had more holes in it than a sieve.  Yet, it had taken her six moons before she finally convinced the warrior to burn it.  Me!  The same bard that talked a Cyclops out of eating me in less than half a candlemark!  "That thing is so stained, it will never come clean.  And, it's an unsanitary breeding ground for disease." Gabrielle almost laughed aloud at the comically disgusted look that suddenly flitted across Eponin's face.  "Quite frankly, I'm surprised Megara's let you keep it this long."

"But - "

"Take care of that, would you?" Gabrielle asked Eponin, while motioning her out the door.  Gods knows if I don't get it out of her sight soon, she'll look at me with those sad puppy dog eyes and beg me to keep it.  "Now," she declared, effectively dismissing the weapons master and turning her full attention back to her regent, "We need to talk about some of the changes I've implemented while you've been on holiday."

Xena pulled back the heavy hide covering the door and slipped into the room.  A thin smile formed on her lips as she visually took in the sight of the two forms on the bed.  Ephiny was flat on her back and appeared to be dozing.  Gabrielle was on her side, her head resting in the crook of Ephiny's arm.  The amazon's hand rested familiarly on her queen's hip and Gabrielle's hand lay atop Ephiny's.

Further proof that everyone in this village has gone insane.  She'd had problems getting past the guards posted outside.  First time around, Megara was all too eager to let the regent go gallivanting around with a serious injury.  Now, she's equally determined to keep her confined to bed for the rest of her life.  Xena hadn't wanted to injure the guards.  Gabrielle had a tendency to get miffed when she was too rough on her amazons.  So, as gently and considerately as she could, she knocked them out and tied them to a bed with a set of sheets.  Now, I come in and find these two napping like a couple of toddlers.

As Xena approached the bed, hazel eyes slowly opened.  "Hey," Ephiny greeted, trying to gently rouse her sleeping queen.  Gabrielle mumbled something incoherent and tried to snuggle in closer. "Hey," Ephiny said again, repeating the gesture, "Tall, dark and deadly is here."

One finely sculpted ebony eyebrow arched at the description, but no other reaction was forthcoming as she saw her soulmate's verdant green eyes slowly blink open.  "Xena?" Gabrielle croaked, wiping the sleep from her eyes.

"Yeah."  Xena leaned in, placing a light kiss on her lover's lips.  It was intended as such, anyway.  It soon evolved into several tiny, open-mouthed touches that ended with a playful nip to her bard's bottom lip.  Looking up, she saw Ephiny intently watching them.  When Xena's gaze met hers, the regent quickly looked away, a warm blush rapidly spreading across her cheeks.  "When I didn't find you in the dining hut, I figured you'd be here."

"Umm - " Gabrielle craned her neck, trying to check the position of the sun.  "Is it time to go already?"

Xena nodded, reaching out a hand, helping Gabrielle off the bed.  "Council should be assembling soon.  Say bye-bye to Eph."   

Gabrielle turned back to the bed, placed a gentle kiss on Ephiny's lips.  Ephiny allowed the intimacy, but didn't return it in kind.  It was one thing to have Xena know that Gabrielle was affectionate towards her - but to have the warrior princess witness it? - that was another thing all together.  And, not something she was entirely comfortable with.

Sensing her regent's trepidation, Gabrielle patted her reassuringly on the arm, "I'll check in on you later, okay?"

Mutely, Ephiny nodded.  She watched her queen turn to leave.  Then, she felt Xena's big hand ruffling her hair in much the same manner as Pony had earlier.  Warriors! she huffed, running a hand through her unruly locks in some small hope of straightening them into some semblance of order.

"Order!"  Tynette declared, banging her gauntleted fist on the table.  "We need order!"

The murmurings of the council members dropped to a lower pitch, but never abated altogether.  Twice more Tynette attempted to call the session to order, only to be drowned out each time.  A sharp whistle screamed over the din, shocking the elders into a stunned silence.  As one, all eyes turned to the source of the shrill sound.

Xena had delivered her part of the speech Gabrielle had wanted her to make, then sat back in her chair, one foot propped up on the table as total chaos ensued.  She had tried to warn Gabrielle this would happen, but in all honesty, couldn't see any way around it.  Nonplussed, she calmly picked her fingernails with the sharp tip of her dagger.  Baby blue eyes blinked up as the council room fell silent.  Sensing all eyes on her, she offered up a cocky, lazy smile.

"Ya'll done, now?" she asked, mischievously.  "Cause if ya are, Tynette over there looks like she's chomping at the bit to put her two dinars in."

The elder glared at the warrior princess.  She was grateful for the restoration of order, but she was disturbed by the disrespectful cockiness frequently displayed by the queen's consort.  Did her mother never teach her proper manners?  "Thank you," she nevertheless graciously nodded at the warrior.  "Now, we need to discuss this matter calmly and rationally - "

" - How do you suggest we calmly discuss the abandonment of the nation by Artemis?" protested Nicphellia.

"Now, hold on!  Nobody said Artemis abandoned the Amazons!" objected Gabrielle.  This was the same argument they'd gone round and round about yesterday when she and Devillare had reported their findings.  She had hoped that by this morning's session, some headway would have been made.

"Her temple is deserted," Evanthe pointed out, "Her priestess in seclusion.  That is abandonment in my scroll."

"How do we even know the temple is inactive?" protested the elder Gabrielle still only recognized as flappy jowls.

Gabrielle tried to raise her voice, but was drowned out by heatedly debating elders once again.  In her chair at the opposite end of the council table, Devillare watched the proceedings with a cool, practiced eye.  She didn't display the arrogance of the queen's consort, but when she banged her gauntlet on the table, all heads turned in her direction.

"The Queen and I visited the temple," Devillare calmly reminded her fellow elders.   

Xena arched a brow at this new information.  She hadn't realized the elder that had accompanied Gabrielle had been so - strikingly youthful in appearance.  I'll have to talk to my bard about that little oversight in detail later on.  

"And," continued the former captain of the guard, "The fruit from the offerings was rancid, the arrows left in piousness broken like worthless toys."

"It's not deserted," Xena looked up from picking her nails long enough to offer her opinion, "Just not inhabited by your goddess."  At the blank expressions, she added, "When your queen called upon the goddess, the temple quaked.  Did the same thing when I visited last night with a couple of your warriors.  Some other deity has taken up residence in Artemis' temple."

Cordele stumbled from her bed.  Every muscle ached from the pounding she'd taken from Eponin.  The apathy caused by the bedrest forced upon her by Megara only added to her discomfort.  Megara, fearing the hunter may have sustained a concussion, had cautioned her against rushing her body's ability to heal.  But, to a warrior like Cordele, the inactivity was slowly killing her.

Speaking of which - Cordele painfully strode the length of the room to the only other occupied bed.  The stablehand was in the same position she'd been in ever since they'd brought her in.  She'd seen her in the forest, speaking with Xena about what had occurred in the cache.  Even from the distance Cordele had sat watching the interaction, she could tell that the stablehand's responses were lethargic at best.

She'd heard Megara speaking with the Queen about it earlier.  Xena had reached the regent in time and purged her system of the deadly poison.  But, Doretta had ingested an unknown amount of the witchroot prior to forcing some upon the regent.  Xena had performed the same treatment on the stablehand, but it was possible that traces of the poison had already started to seep into her bloodstream.  If that was the case, Dori would gradually worsen as the poison slowly pooled in her heart.

She certainly looks like she's knocking at Death's door.  The stablehand had slipped into a near catonic state.  She made no visible reaction when approached, but she could still blink and her eyes responded to changes in light.  As Cordele stepped up to the side of the bed, she saw the flicker of recognition behind Doretta's eyes.

"Ah, so you are still in there somewhere.  I'm glad."  A slow sneer danced upon her lips.  "I'd hate to think you'd skip out on getting your reward."  

Cordele had feigned sleep while the healer conferred with the queen about the possibility of Doretta never being competent enough to stand trial for her crimes.  After all, what was the purpose of punishment if the perpetrator couldn't even comprehend the consequences of their actions?  It would serve to make me feel better, for starters!   

"Perhaps I can show you the justice you have to look forward to," Cordele hissed, "while you're still able to appreciate it."  Reaching out, she deftly removed the sheet covering the stablehand's body.  Folding it end over end, she made it into a tight roll, then tied a loose knot in the ends.  Purposely, she drew out her actions, enjoying the rapidly increasing pulse fluttering at Dori's neck. 

Almost gently, she raised Doretta's head, slipping the rolled sheet beneath her neck.  Lowering her head, Cordele made a point of holding the knotted ends up where the stablehand could see them.  Then, she began to tighten the knot.  

Doretta's shallow breathing noticeably increased, the pupils of both eyes widened.  Cordele watched the ever increasing pulse points.  With an dark smile, the hunter paused in her tightening of the noose.  "Lay here and think about it for a while," she sneered, unceremoniously dropping the corded noose against Doretta's chest.  

Helplessly, the stablehand could only lay there, listening to the sound of fading footsteps.

Part 9

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