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.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Part of the series "Through The Eyes" as the same feast is recounted through four different points of view.  Hopefully, if I've done my job right, it'll make sense no matter which pov you read first.  Spoilers for Hooves and Harlots, The Quest and Blind Faith.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Through the Bard's Eyes
By Del Robertson


As my partner and I made another circle about the bonfire, I reached out, using a well-placed touch to her elbow to get her attention.  Her brow furrowed in question, then as I motioned towards the perimeter, her frown became a bright smile of understanding.  Nodding her head eagerly, she followed me out of the dance circle and to the serving station.

This was something new to the feast that the head cook had thought up and the regent and myself had both approved.  Mytilda had set up a roped-off section containing keg after keg of Amazon wine to be tapped and distributed by servers in wooden pitchers throughout the evening.  And, just to be on the cautious side, we'd approved the use of half a dozen guards to watch over the supplies.  

You see, my Amazons are a rough enough bunch, capable of almost anything when they set their minds to it.  But, add in one former Destroyer of Nations and - well, let's just say things can get dangerous.  Mentally cringing, my thoughts took me back to the incident of the infamous Solstice Festival.  

The opening ceremonies to that festival had started out perfectly, despite my nervousness at formally presiding over my first winter blessing as the queen in residence.  But as usual, Ephiny had taken me under her wing and coached me until I knew the rituals inside and out and supportively stood right beside me as I opened the ceremonies with the appropriate speech and customary dance.  

Things seemed to be going great - up until the point that the head cook had approached me and Ephiny with a very flustered captain of the royal guard in tow.  For the life of me, I still couldn't figure out how they'd managed to haul three casks out from beneath Mytilda's wary eyes and carry them off into the woods.  Ephiny was immediately suspicious, already having her own ideas about who was responsible.  Fists clenching and unclenching at her sides, mumbling beneath her breath about plucking every last feather out of their hides, she began tracking their trail.

A wary glance about the grounds confirmed that a certain six-foot-tall warrior with dark hair and eyes the color of chipped ice was missing.  Bowing my head in resignation and groaning out, "Sweet Artemis, now what has she done?", I trailed my regent into the forest.

Unerringly, deeper and deeper into the forest she led us.  Myself and Pelagia following close behind.  It had been my suggestion for the cook to remain in the village - in case our intrepid thieves tried for another round.  Far from the bonfires and the distant sounds of the drums.  We tracked in silence, making nary a sound, an Amazon war party employing all of our stealth techniques as we tracked our quarry.  

In hindsight, we needn't have been so cautious.  The sounds of splashing water and raucous laughter masked our approach far better than our natural skills ever could have.  Ephiny held up a hand, signaling for us to hold up.  Then, motioning us to remain silent, she urged us to slowly follow her lead.  Stealthily, we crept forward, fingers moving bits of twigs and leaves out of our way.  Camouflaged by bushes and trees, three sets of eyes peered out of the undergrowth.

And, there they were.  My eyes threatened to bug out of my head as I caught sight of the warriors.  Naked warriors.  Naked, wet warriors.  Boots, weapons and leathers lay in discarded bundles upon the rocky shoreline.  I recognized the unmistakable figures of Eponin and Solari standing nearly waist-deep in the frigid waters; Although I must admit I'd never seen quite so much of my loyal warriors before.  Between them, held together in a row by thick rope floated the three casks of missing Amazonian wine.  And, sitting upon the lead barrel as if she were taking Argo out for an afternoon trot, was Xena.  

All three of them held mugs, which they had the foresight to steal right along with the casks, clenched tightly in their thieving hands.  Although, it looked as if Solari had foregone using her own, deciding to simply drink straight from the tap firmly embedded in the keg Xena was perched on.  

"And then she said," Xena roared, knocking her mug against Eponin's in a comradely salute, "If I have to be celibate for the rest of my life, knowing myself won't be a problem!"

Raucous laughter erupted from both Amazons.  Xena almost held hers in, until she snorted, sending Amazonian wine spurting out her mouth and nose, most of it landing on Solari.  Recognizing the story Xena was recounting, mortified by the thought of what other adventures my warrior princess might have shared, my face took on a heated blush.  Beside me, I heard Pelagia snickering.

Without warning, I burst from the thick underbrush, quick strides eating up the ground between the forest and the bank of the river.  Faintly, I heard the rustling of the bushes as my regent and captain of the guard rushed to join me.  Standing on shore, pacing up and down, fists clenching and unclenching at my sides, I leveled a deathly glare at my warrior.  

Sensing my presence, she looked up, blue eyes blinking at me as she tried to focus.  "Oh!  Hi, Gabby."  She said it just as casually as if she'd seen me in the market of Athens.  

"Xena."  My teeth were clenched so tightly, my jaw hurt.  As calmly as I could, I crooked a finger at her, demanding she return to shore.

"Uh-oh."  Her two Amazon escorts had finally noticed the presence of their Queen, Regent and Captain of the Royal Guard.  Instead of coming towards shore like their partner in crime, though, they both tried to back away deeper into the safety of the water.

"I don't think so,"  Ephiny mumbled from beside me, fists balled up on her hips, her own scathing glare fixed on her warriors.  "Both of you.  Here.  NOW!"  She pointedly decisively at the shoreline directly in front of her.

Meekly, both warriors complied, knowing from experience a pissed-off regent was not someone you wanted to mess with.  Trudging out of the waters, they followed Xena onto shore.  If I hadn't been so angry at the situation, I'm certain my blush would have overtaken my complexion as all of their assets came into view.

"Just look at yourselves!  Proud warriors my left eye!"  I started out by immediately disparaging their honor as I paced up and down the rocky bank of the river.  The effect was instantaneous as all three lowered their guilty gazes, staring at their bare feet as toes wriggled nervously about the pebbles biting into their soles.  Stoically, as stoically as you can be while standing naked on a bed of rocks, none of them made a peep.  "STEALING - not one - but THREE casks designated for the Solstice Festival!"  All three flinched at the word stealing.  "SNEAKING out of the festival and down to the river!"  At this point, I jabbed my finger into Xena's chest; she had promised me that just this once, she wouldn't leave a festival early.  "Skinny-dipping in frigid waters while you divide your ill-gotten gains!"  Here, I paused in front of my chief scout.  The brunette was visibly shivering and goosebumps had broken out all over, but she still remained firmly at attention beneath my gaze.

"Water's not frigid, just a little nippy," Xena muttered beneath her breath, causing the weapons master to snicker.

"It's the dead of winter, Xena!  The river has bits of ice in it!"  I snapped, stopping dead in my tracks in front of her, looking her in the eye, daring her to contradict me.  "Hera's left tit, poor Solari is turning blue!"

"Wimp."  The jab was mumbled between Eponin's clenched teeth and directed at the Amazon shivering beside her.  

"Ephiny?" I pleaded, pinching at the bridge of my nose in frustrated resignation.

Immediately, my regent took charge.  "I hope the three of you are satisfied with yourselves."  She mimicked my earlier pacing, hands folded behind her back as she addressed the three miscreants.  "And, I hope you still think it was worth it when you're on duty at dawn cleaning up the ceremonial grounds."

Three sets of eyes bugged out.  If there was one thing my Amazons knew how to do, it was throw a party.  Decorations, music, food, alcohol.  By the time my tribe was done, there was no doubt a celebration had been had.  What everyone tended to forget about, though, was the mess they were making - until the next day when the village was a total wreck and it had to be put back together again.  As a matter of fact, some of our more boisterous celebrations were known to have taken at least six days to completely recover from.

"Aww, Eph - " 

Ephiny stopped dead in her tracks, leveling a thunderous scowl that had the weapons master cringing beneath her stare.  "Another word from you, Eponin, and you'll also be expanding the latrine ditches!  With a SPOON!"

Admittedly, even I flinched at this point.  And, I wasn't even the one in trouble.  Masking my sudden amusement at the situation by coming to stand behind the warriors, I listened in rapt appreciation while my regent gave the warriors a dressing down they wouldn't soon forget.  

Speaking of dressing down - my eyes freely roamed over the vulnerable backs and lower bodies of the three women standing at attention before me.  All three were fine specimens of firm flesh and rippling muscles.  Wow, I didn't know she had a scar there - my gaze zeroed in on a bare buttock.  Wonder what that's from?

"That's it, back to the village," Ephiny continued on, "And straight to the healer's hut with all of you."

"But, the feast - "

" - will continue just fine without you."  At the disgruntled pouts and protruding bottom lips aimed her direction, Ephiny stepped forward, grabbing two ears, pinching them between her fingers.  "You want to act like unruly children, I can treat you like children."

I winced in sympathy as Eponin and Solari were tugged along by their ears.  As they passed the pile of clothes, Eponin reached down to pick hers up - and screamed as her ear was nearly pulled off.  

"Hey!  Wait!  We need our clothes!"  Ep protested, almost getting her fingertips on her leathers before being unceremoniously dragged away.

"Pel," Ephiny halted in her tracks, her gaze fixing on the captain.  "Bring their clothes to the healer's hut.  After you've secured the casks and sent some Amazons - responsible Amazons - to carry them back to the feast."

"We're buck naked!  You can't march us through the village like this!  It's embarrassing!"

Ephiny impassively stared at the two naked, dripping warriors.  Both were bare except for their gauntlets, bracers and a handful of wet, bedraggled feathers.  And, by now, they were both visibly shivering from the cold air nipping at their damp flesh.  

"We're only going as far as the healer's hut.  You'll get your clothes back after Megara's checked you over for frostbite."  Then, she added a wicked grin, "Maybe a little embarrassment will go a long way to helping you think twice before you go skinny-dipping in a half-frozen river."  

"But, Eph - " Eponin continued her protestations as Ephiny continued to forcibly tug the two Amazons along.  

"Warrior up, Ep," Solari shrugged her shoulders, trying to feign indifference to their situation, "It's not so bad."

"Yeah?  Not for you, maybe."  Eponin cursed as a jagged rock bit into her instep.  "Half the village's already seen you naked, anyway."

"At least I still remember the last time I got some!"  Solari shot back, glaring at the weapons master over Ephiny's shoulder.  "Your next lover will have to dust you for cobwebs before she goes down - " 

Their bickering and backbiting faded into the distance as the trio disappeared into the woods.  Captain Pelagia secured the end of the rope holding the trio of casks together, tying it about the trunk of a tree with a double-knot.  Then, with a wink and a grin, she grabbed the two sets of Amazonian clothes and followed her sisters into the underbrush.

"I thought they'd never leave."    Almost immediately, Xena's arm snaked about my shoulders.  "What say we go back to our hut and . . . "

"Sleep."  I finished, easily ducking out from beneath her arm.  "You've got to be on the ceremonial fields early in the morning."

"But, Gabby . . . "

"One MORE word from you," I dared, pointing a finger at my warrior's nose, "And you'll go back naked to the village, too!"

Instantly, her mouth clamped shut.

"Queen Gabrielle?"  The soft voiced question broke me out of my reverie.


Two fine, blonde eyebrows rose.  "Did you require anything else, my Queen?"

Blinking, I quickly looked around.  My escort, Rayne, was standing at my side, two tankards of wine securely in her grasp.  Mytilda and a member of the guard were standing beside a tapped keg, staring at me in concern.  Behind me, a rather long line of parched amazons was starting to form.

"No, that'll be all," I assured Mytilda.  Then, before moving off, I asked the guard, "I trust everything is under control?"

"Yes, your majesty."  A broad grin curled Lexine's lips.  "All the kegs are accounted for."  Then, leaning in to conspiratorially whisper, "And Captain Pelagia has ordered us to keep an eye out for the usual suspects."

"Any sign of trouble from them?"  I asked, knowing all too well the mischief my warrior was capable of.

"Not yet, my Queen.  Xena and Eponin haven't left the tables.  And, Regent Ephiny is with Solari."

Nodding my thanks to the guard, I moved out of the line, my escort shadowing me.  We meandered to the perimeter of the ceremonial grounds, away from the fire and the noise.  As we approached a stump, Rayne gallantly motioned for me to sit while she remained standing as we caught our breath and made small talk.

We talked about her mother and her progressing relationship with Captain Pelagia.  I was somewhat surprised to discover that the charming captain was close in age to Rayne and her sister, Moraine.  As a matter of fact, they had all been in the same training classes and had earned their first feathers together.  

"It's great that you're so accepting of Pelagia being involved with Megara."

Rayne shrugged.  "Believe it or not, mom was more resistant to the relationship than we were.  Us girls grew up with Pel and we know she's a good person.  And, mom was just so lonely after her first bondmate died . . . "

It was a fascinating story.  The aging, cantankerous healer finding a second chance at love with the much younger and stubbornly persistent captain of the guard.  It would be something I'd like to commit to my scrolls sometime.  But, I found my attention - and my eye - wandering even as Rayne rambled on.

Ephiny and Solari were standing well away from the bonfires, engaged in what appeared to be a private conversation.  I watched as Ephiny nodded her head up and down several times in agreement, sending her unruly blonde corkscrew curls tousling about her shoulders.  The brunette beside her gave a sharp salute, then tightened her cloak about her and turned away.

One of Ephiny's hands darted out, catching her on the shoulder, holding her back.  Solari looked puzzled at first, then a broad smile graced her lips at something Ephiny had just said.  She started off again, then turned back, dropping a kiss upon her regent's mouth.

A smile formed as I wondered if Ephiny had blushed at the action.  Of course, she was too far away for me to know for sure; but if the dopey look on her face was any indication . . . my smile widened.  It was amazing what a casual word or two in the proper ear could do.  

I glanced across the grounds, my gaze landing on the far table and the two warriors still seated on the hardwood benches.  They were both hunched over, leaning across the table as they clinked their mugs together.  Then, both tilted their heads back, chugging down the contents of the tankards, followed up by a comradely warriors' forearm clasp.  Grinning, I shook my head.

No way Xena's gonna win if she just keeps drinking with Ep all night!

I watched as my regent made her way back to the table, taking a seat at the bench on the end.  Xena flanked her on the right side, Eponin on the left.  Both warriors lifted their mugs in greeting.  It wasn't long before Xena was pouring Ephiny a mug and passing it to her.

Great.  My warrior's found another drinking buddy.  It's not that I mind if Xena drinks.  And, I'm pleased that my warrior has finally made friends.  It's just that I know how Xena can be.  The more she drinks, the more competitive she gets.  And, while that may work to intimidate the local farmboys and wannabe warriors in the taverns, it did nothing for my Amazons.  Except make them just as competitive and crazy as their idol.

Even Melosa said that Xena was a true Amazon, whether she chose to admit it or not.  I'm not sure how Xena feels about them considering her to be one of the tribe.  I think even though she sees the camaraderie that most of the women share and the close-knit community and longs to be a part of that, she's not sure how to go about it.  I think she has commitment issues.  She's worried that the more time we spend here, the more attached she'll become and how she'll deal with it if something happens.  That, and I think she's afraid they'll make her wear feathers.

Speaking of ruffled feathers - 

My dance partner had concluded her tale and was now firmly embroiled in a heated discussion with another Amazon several paces away.  Nyxona, I recalled, recognizing the woman as one of Solari's lead scouts.  Right now, she was rather rudely jabbing a finger into Rayne's chest, then jerking her thumb in my general direction.  Ever felt like you missed something while your mind was elsewhere?

With a final nod of her head and something hissed between mostly clenched teeth, Rayne broke off from the conversation.  She slowly started walking towards me, Nyxona giving her a little shove at her back to get her going.  

"My Queen, I'd like to thank you for the lovely evening and the pleasure of your company."

Suddenly befuddled, I asked, "Rayne, is something wrong?"

"No," She firmly shook her head, her ponytail swaying with the gesture, "But, it's been called to my attention that I've been monopolizing your time and there are many other amazons who would enjoy the pleasure of dancing with their queen."  Capturing my hand, she gallantly bowed, placing a tender kiss on my knuckles.  

"Oh."  I stated, suddenly understanding what the heated confrontation was about.  "Perhaps we can continue this another time, then."

"It'll be my pleasure," Rayne practically beamed as she backed away, then moved back to the dance circle, easily finding another partner willing to enjoy the beat with her.

"My Queen."  Instantly, Rayne's place was taken by Nyxona.

"Where's Solari?" I asked, almost as soon as Nyxona approached.

"You know Solari."  An enigmatic smile stole across the scout's lips.  "Never can stay in one place too long."  Recognizing my irritated scowl over the obvious jab at my chief scout, she quickly amended, "She's riding out to check up on the border scouts.  Never fear, I'm quite certain she'll return in time to claim her dance with her queen."

Masking my irritation at the presumptuousness of this annoying Amazon, I allowed her to escort me into the circle.  At least if we're dancing, I can't hear her over the noise of the big drums!  As my feet caught the beat and my body fell into the familiar fast rhythm, my imagination was able to block out the image of my dance partner and replace her with that of a certain blue-eyed warrior princess.  

Xena rarely danced with me.  Never in a town or village where the prejudice of the locals might rear its ugly head.  Or, even here at the Amazon village where my sisters were certainly far more accepting of her.  She'd once confessed to me that even though she was fairly certain she was adequate at the dance, she felt awkward and uncoordinated when trying to follow the steps.  Even though I assured her she performed with just as much skill as she did in sword drills or anything else, she said she still felt as if she'd step on my foot at any given moment.  

So, to appease my warrior princess, the only time we ever danced was if we were alone on the open road.  Perhaps late at night around our own, private campfire.  Even though it was one of Xena's many skills, it wasn't one she wished to demonstrate publicly.

Publicly.  My mind latched onto that word and refused to let it go.

When she first appeared in my village, rescuing us from a group of warriors bound to sell us into slavery, I'd had no idea who she was.  All I knew was I had stood up to this big, scary oaf of a man and he had drawn his whip to punish me.  And, just as the first strike was about to land . .  . this wild looking woman in a dirty shift caught it one-handed, stopping the brute in his tracks.  

She'd been amazing.  I'd never seen anything like it.  She defeated more than a dozen men single-handedly.  But, she'd been struck in the head during the fight and we'd taken her to the village healer for tending.  That had been my chance.  I was fascinated by her and took the opportunity to ask her about twenty questions in less than two candledrips.

It wasn't until father and the village elders came in, demanding she leave town immediately that I learned who this mighty warrior was.  Xena.  A shiver ran down my spine at the name.  I had heard the stories.  I knew the legends by rote.  Even in a sleepy little village like Potadeia, we had heard of Xena, Warrior Princess.

And, despite everything that I had heard, I still begged her to take me along.  I pleaded with her to take me away from the dull boring existence of village life, claiming I was destined for so much more.  I must have given her ten different reasons to take me along.  But, she still left me behind.

Even after I followed her, braving falling to my death by crossing a rickety bridge and being eaten by a blind Cyclops - Hey, blind or not, a Cyclops is still a Cyclops! - and saving her from a public stoning in her mother's inn at Amphipolis.  Even after helping her in a fight against the warlord Draco by tripping one of his men, she tried to leave me behind again.

Luckily for her, I was stubborn.  I wouldn't let her give up on me.  I wouldn't let her leave me behind.  To this day, I don't know if she let me tag along because I grew on her and she genuinely wanted my company - or if she just didn't have the energy to fight me anymore.  

The traveling bards that had stopped at the inn in Potadeia had sung the tales of Xena the Conqueror and Xena, Destroyer of Nations.  They told of her ruthless savagery and her brutal slaying of those who stood against her.  They recounted tale after tale of those who had been her lovers  - and betrayed her - and been killed by her.  

But, for all the stories told of Xena the military genius and the brutal barbarian, no one told the truth.  No one spoke of the truth of the woman behind the legend.  Because the tales of battle brought in more dinars.  Because a tavern full of drunken louts rallied around epic adventures such as Hercules and The Defeat of Xena.  Or, perhaps they just didn't know the whole truth.  

It took a long time.  But, she came to trust me and opened up to me and confided in me.  It didn't happen overnight.  And, at times, it was like pulling a bad tooth from the mouth of a fire-breathing dragon.  But, it did eventually happen.  And, one night after a particularly grueling fight with yet another upstart warlord who wanted the glory of defeating the famed warrior princess . . . I had my truth.

The truth of why she had been in the woods on the outskirt of my village that day.  The reason she was wearing nothing but that dirty shift.  Why her sword and chakram were buried beneath the leaves and dirt.  

She'd been alone for so long.  Even at the head of the largest army the world has ever known.  She could trust no one, she could confide in no one.  Day in and day out of never being able to relax her guard.  Never being able to just be herself.  She had to always watch her back, always watch how she acted.  It was hard work heading up an army - it was even harder when you were a woman leading a pack of bloodthirsty men driven by their base desires for glory, greed and lust.

She was tired.  Her conscience had been weighing on her more and more heavily, the faces of her victims haunting her dreams, their voices echoing in her head during even her waking hours.  She was plagued by the knowledge of her past transgressions and filled with a burning ache to return home.  A chance encounter with an orphan in a town that her army had looted and burned to the ground had been the final nail in her coffin.  When she'd buried her armor and weapons in the dirt, she was looking for a way to end her suffering.  

Only the timely cries of village girls in danger changed her mind.  She was exhausted, but even she couldn't ignore the pleas of the innocent.  And, for the first time in a very long time, she found her demons pushed away by some irresistible need to rescue a ragtag band of peasants being menaced by the very sort of men she used to lead.  

That single good deed had led her away from the path of suicide - and onto one of redemption.  She vowed to spend her life trying to make up for the past wrongs she had done.  And, for some reason, she relented and allowed me to accompany her on her quest.  

Maybe she thought it was part of her punishment, being saddled with a naive, nonstop talking, annoying slip of a peasant girl.  Maybe because she was worried I'd get hurt - or worse - if she didn't just take me with her and then I'd be just one more death on her conscience.  Or, maybe after all this time, she just wanted a friend.  

Friends.  Another twirl and a leap brought the queen's table back into my line of sight.  And, the silhouette of Xena drinking and laughing with Eponin and Ephiny.  She's certainly gotten much better at making friends over the years.  True friends.  Suddenly, Eponin went sliding across the surface of the table, colliding with Ephiny and sending her tumbling backwards off her seat.  Looks like someone better save Xena's friends before one of them winds up getting hurt.  As the dance ended and before the big drums could take up the next one, I excused myself and made my way out of the dance circle.

Heart beating rapidly, chest rising and falling heavily as a sheen of sweat poured off my hair and down my neck and back, I weaved a rather unsteady path across the ceremonial fields towards the queen's table.  Not that I was drunk.  I hardly ever drink that much.  And, the little bit that I had consumed this evening had no doubt been worked off by the strenuous dancing I'd participated in.

No, drinking was Xena's thing.  And just about every other Amazon's, I noted, taking stock of the number of warriors already merrily sitting on the sidelines, too drunk to participate in the remainder of the night's festivities.  I winced as I saw one of the healer's assistants curled up in the arms of a very drunken hunter.  Usually, these two got along about as well as oil and water, as evidenced by the less than tender touch Hilaeira had used while stitching up the wound Syaria had received while bringing down a wild boar.  Hilaeira's rather vocal opinion about the hunter senselessly endangering her life by stepping in front of the boar to lure it into the trap was met with louder opposition by Syaria saying if she'd had half a brain in her head, she'd realize that was the only way to kill a boar and getting gored was not something to be ashamed of.

Yet another successful Amazon party brings a lovely couple together.  Hilaeira snuggled closer in her sleep, the slender fingers of one hand worming beneath the waistband of Syaria's leather skirt, her palm coming to rest against a firm abdomen.   At least until daylight comes and they realize who they've been cuddling with!

Speaking of cuddling -

"Enjoying yourself?" I asked, snaking an arm about Xena's upper body and shoulders, giving her am impromptu hug as I came up behind her.

"Uh-huh." She answered, leaning back against me.

Wow.  She was feeling really - mellow.  Usually, she was self-conscious about public displays of affection.  Even around the Amazons.  I eyed the pitchers clustered about the table.  "How many have you had?"

At first, both shoulders shrugged.  "One - two - " She pointed to each pitcher as she counted.  "Three!" She said brightly, pleased with herself. 

"Three."  I looked at her suspiciously, eyes narrowing to tiny slits.  "Xena.  You really expect me to believe you've only had three pitchers?"

"Uh-huh."  Sensing my disapproval, she looked befuddled for a heartbeat, her gaze rapidly flicking between my eyes and the pitchers and back again.  Then, hearing a moan emanating from somewhere on the ground beyond the end of the table, she added with a beaming smile, "Pony and Eph helped."

"You know," I leaned in closer, whispering in her ear, "we never agreed that drinking Pony into submission was fair."

"We never agreed that it wasn't.  You just said I couldn't put the pinch on her," she defended her actions.  Then, letting out a loud chuckle, she added, "You're just having second thoughts about your choice.  I saw you talking her ear off earlier."

"I'm a bard, words are what I do." I added a light slap to Xena's shoulder along with the verbal barb.  "And, if you saw that, I trust you also saw the kiss she gave Ephiny?"

"Yeah, I saw it," Xena snorted into her mug.  "I saw her give your regent a little peck."  

"Yeah?"  Both my eyebrows rose in challenge.  I couldn't believe she was so unwilling to admit that she didn't have a snowball's chance in Tartarus of - Then, I shook my head, recalling exactly how stubborn Xena could be.  "Well, that little peck, as you call it, is just the tip of Cupid's arrow.  She'll come through; you'll see."

"Unh-huh."  Outright laughter from Xena at this point.  "That's why Solari is out checking the perimeters and Ep is - " Xena cast a pointed glance off the end of the table.  

The weapons master was on all fours, straddling the regent, in what looked like a half-hearted, drunken attempt at getting to her feet.  Just as Eponin was making headway and had made it to her hands and knees, a solid kick by Xena's big boot to her shoulder blade sent her tumbling back onto Ephiny again.

"Xena!" I scolded, my mouth dropping open in shock.

"You're a bard; words are what you do."  Xena unrepentantly smirked.  "I'm a warrior; action's what I do."

I would have voiced an objection about interference, but she would have just claimed I was whining because she was winning.  Instead, I took her advice and relied on action.  Scrambling out of her long-armed reach, I approached the end of the bench, staring down at my regent and weapons master caught in a clinch.  Arms folded over my chest as I glared at the Amazons entangled on the ground, I heard Xena's unabashed chortles threatening to send herself tumbling off the bench she was straddling.

Trying to strike an unassuming, less indignant pose with my hands on my hips instead of folded over my chest in a defensive, judgmental manner, I cleared my throat.  "What's going on here?" I asked in as sweetly an innocent voice as I could muster up.  I must say, I projected all the innocence of a pure Hestian virgin - until my agitated regent rolled one indignant, hazel eye in my direction.  Then, it was all I could do to hide my grin and smother my laughter.

Still atop Ephiny, Eponin managed to roll halfway onto her back, craning her neck to peer up at me.  She blinked several times, as if trying to bring my face into focus.  Then, seemingly recognizing me, she attempted a salute and slurred out, "M'Queenie!"

I noticed the glazed cast to her eyes, the remnants of wine about her mouth and lower chin.  Catching me staring, she lasciviously licked all the way around her lips, as if trying to capture a spilled drop of wine.

"Why, Eponin, I do believe you're smashed," I informed her, valiantly attempting to keep the mirth out of my voice, "How many have you had?"

A look of complete and utter confusion appeared upon the usually stoic weapons master's face.  And, I could almost see her mentally attempting the same math Xena  had done earlier.  Unlike her warrior princess counterpart, though, the amazon warrior didn't have the visual help of pitchers lined up on the tabletop.  Blinking, she looked at Ephiny, then at me, then back at the wine generously slathered across Ephiny's neck and upper torso.  I could practically see her eyes following the elusive trail of wine between Ephiny's cleavage and deep into her halter.

Her rakish grin spoke volumes.  "Only a little," she replied with a wink, bending her head back towards the regent's cleavage.

"Pony!" Ephiny shouted, hands frantically grabbing at long, ebony locks in an attempt to keep her from her intended target.  I was nearly peeing myself, I was laughing so hard as Eponin's tongue slathered out, diligently working at cleaning up the spilled wine with long, slow strokes.  "Get.  Off.  Me."  Then, I was quite certain I saw her tongue burrow deeper into Ephiny's cleavage before a "NOW!" was forcibly shouted in the weapons master's ear.

The annoyance in Ephiny's tone, coupled with the seriousness of how quickly things were progressing between these two caused me to once again interfere.  Extending both hands, catching Eponin beneath the arms, I tried to lift her off my regent.  It was slow going, but I eventually had Pony up and almost completely standing on her feet.  Then, I lost my footing on the slick grass and Eponin lost her balance, frantic hands slipping from my shoulders to rudely grab both breasts before slipping down to my waist.  And, before I knew it, we were sprawled on the ground, Eponin falling backwards between Ephiny's outstretched legs and me landing awkwardly upon Eponin.  In the background, my beloved's melodious laughter rang like the sound of a thousand screeching Bacchae.

"Xena," I said in my best effort to keep my voice at a calm, soothing level.  "NOT helping!"

Inspired by my plaintive cry for help, my warrior princess scrambled off her bench and rushed to my side, helping me to my feet.  Then, catching Eponin at the base of her neck, she gallantly aided her friend in standing and guided her back to the table, gently helping to plant her firmly in her seat.  And, while I was assisting my regent to her feet, she wisely pulled a dagger from Eponin's belt and thrust it into the tabletop, instructing Eponin to hang on tightly so as not to fall off the bench again.

I'm bored.  I'm so bored I think my eyes have rolled back inside my head.  Idly, I glanced about the table at my friends.  Eponin was slumped over the table, one cheek resting on the hardwood surface, her other hand still firmly wrapped about the hilt of her knife in true warrior fashion.  Ephiny was wiping with a damp cloth at her upper chest, her furious scrubbing turning her fair complexion a bright red.  And, Xena . . . Xena was still putting back mug after mug of drink.  

This is so boring that . . . this is so boring that . . . it makes tipping cows back in Potadeia look like a fun-filled evening.  Is this what my life has come to; Is this who I am?  

Once again, I looked about the table.  This time, openly evaluating my friends' existence.  Xena was the legendary Warrior Princess, forged in the heat of battle.  Leader of the mightiest army the world has ever known.  And, she gave all that up to seek redemption.  But, she's still no less a legend for doing so.  Eponin is one of the most respected warriors in the Nation; as Weapons Master to the Amazons, she's responsible for overseeing and training literally hundreds of women in the art of warfare and defense.  Ephiny is the youngest Regent to ever rule the Amazons.  Her wisdom and negotiating skills have kept the Amazons at peace with the Centaurs and ushered in a new age of prosperity for our sisters.

"Guys, I thought the purpose of this feast was to honor the return of the Queen of the Amazons."

"It is."  Ephiny paused in wiping herself clean just long enough to give me one of her dubious half-irritated scowls I'd seen so much of when I'd first arrived in the village.

"No, it's degenerated into little more than a drinking party."

"Yeah!" Xena agreed, hoisting her mug in the air in celebration.  "Good times!"

I gave a long suffering sigh at my companion's exuberant agreement with my assessment.  "Xena," I spoke slowly, trying to convey how I wanted to be so much more than just a figurehead to the Amazons.  "As Queen of the Amazons, it's unacceptable that all I accomplish is to have a feast and drink the night away."  I straightened my shoulders, like Princess Diana had shown me, trying to portray as regal an image as possible.  "My reign should be about so much more than a drinking contest."

My declaration was met with profound silence as my companions contemplated the wisdom of my words.  Then, Xena ruined the moment by asking, "You want an eating contest?"

"NO!  I don't want an eating contest!"  I immediately protested.  For Zeus' sake, I was talking about wanting to leave a lasting legacy, a way for my name to carry on after my reign was ended - Pausing, thinking it over momentarily, I added, "Well, maybe later."

"You wanna - " Xena waggled her hand back and forth, nodding her head towards some nearby bushes.  

"No!"  I quickly countered, my face blushing furiously at the thought.  That's Xena for you; after she gets so many under her belt, all she can think about is getting some.  Although, I must admit; I never thought she'd be quite so bold in suggesting it in front of the Amazons.  Maybe she really is starting to get more comfortable around our friends.  About then, Xena scratched her stomach and let out a loud belch.  Yep, definitely getting a LOT more comfortable.

Maybe since she's relaxed enough to openly suggest sex, she might also be feeling comfortable enough to - "I want to dance," I firmly declared.

"You've danced half the night away."

"I want to dance," I repeated, leaning halfway across the table in an attempt to lure her with the sight of my cleavage in the low-slung Amazon top I was wearing.  I used all my charms, speaking in a soft, sultry voice, batting my eyelashes at her.  "Come on, Xena, dance with me."

"No," she responded in her usual gruff no-nonsense way.  I thought I could press her farther, until I heard her add in an embarrassed voice, "Please, not in front of the Amazons."

Eponin's head immediately shot up off the table.  She smiled at me, producing a bold wink as her deep timbre offered, "I'll dance with you, my beloved Queen."

"You don't dance."  Ephiny snorted, openly rolling her eyes.  As I appraised my regent's statement, she added, "Pony doesn't dance.  Ever."  I continued to hold Ephiny's gaze.  "Besides, she's so drunk she can't stand up, let alone dance."  

I turned back to my weapons master, catching her eye.  A slow smirk slowly played across my lips as a knowing look passed between us.  Feeling emboldened by the subtle blush tingeing the tips of Pony's ears, I offered up a mischievous wink of my own.

As the smoldering looks between Eponin and myself stretched out, Ephiny suddenly announced, "I'll dance with you."

"Hold on, Ephiny - " I broke eye contact with Eponin, turning to give Ephiny an appraising look.  "How many have you had?"  The last thing I wanted was to go out to the dance circle and have an inebriated Ephiny stepping all over my feet.

"One."  Under my intense gaze, she amended, "Two.  The one I drank and the one I'm wearing."

Deciding that was more or less a satisfactorily truthful answer, I pulled Ephiny to her feet, snagging the wet cloth she'd been cleaning herself with and tossing it at Xena all in one fluid motion.  

"Ephiny's going to dance with me, Xena," I politely informed my soulmate.  "Please, keep an eye on Eponin and do your best to sober her up."

"Yes, my heart," Xena acknowledged as I led my new dance partner off towards the dance circle.

We hadn't been dancing all that long when the big drums were silenced and the beat and atmosphere was changed to something a little calmer.  I could have continued on for another candlemark or so, but as things slowed down and I found myself cooling off, I began to appreciate the more romantic mood.  

Xena and I rarely made it this far into the feast.  Usually, Xena had long since taken me back to our hut and had me flat on my back as she used the beat of the big drums to set up her own tempo.  Talk about music appreciation!  Xena had the stamina to go for as long as the most energetic of drummers.  By the time the big drums had fallen silent and the lighter beat of the small drums had started, she was laying fast asleep in my arms, exhausted from our strenuous play.

And, although I'm usually very content to lay there in the bed with her, idly stroking my fingers through her thick, ebony mane as she relaxes against me - sometimes I still wish that we were out at the ceremonial grounds.  We'd tenderly hold each other, swaying to the music, eyes closed as we leaned into each other.  I'd press my nose and mouth to her collarbone, inhaling the scent of soft leather and her.

I felt the subtle stiffening of the arms about me, sensed the uneasiness that had tripled the heart rate beating beneath my ear.  I pulled back, concerned eyes searching those of my regent's.  "What's wrong?"

"Are you sure we should - ?"  She compulsively wet her lips, "I mean, do you want to - ?"

"Shush."  I placed a calming finger against her lips, trying to still her fears.  "It's fine.  We're fine."

"It's just that - " I heard her audibly suck in a deep breath as she gathered her courage to ask the question that I knew plagued her every time we visited the village.  "Does she know?"

"About us?" I watched Ephiny's reaction, felt the beat that her heart missed.  "No, I don't think so.  I certainly haven't told her."  Deciding to have some fun with her, I teasingly asked, "Why, have you?"

"No!"  I thought her eyes were going to nearly pop out of their sockets.  "Gods, no!"

"Then, there's nothing for either of us to worry about."  I nearly laughed as her face turned a deathly pale.  Lowering my head to her shoulder, placing my mouth against her bare flesh, I tried my best to hide my devilish grin.  Running my hands through her hair and over her arms and down her back, I tried to project my relaxed aura onto her.  Ephiny was just so easy to tease and I took entirely too much pleasure in riling her up.  Now, I worked to set her mind - and her body - at ease.

She relaxed beneath my touch for about half a candledrip before asking in a tumultuous pitch, "Are you sure you're comfortable with this?"  Her voice dropped almost to a whisper as she gave voice to what I imagined were some very old, persistently nagging fears.  "I mean, I don't want to take advantage. . . "  

Again.  Was the unspoken word that I imagined still hung between us.  I lifted my head to look deep into hazel eyes.  The depth of pain and uncertainty I witnessed there made me feel suddenly very guilty for my earlier teasing.  I never thought she'd be so sensitive about our past . . . "Hey, it's okay."  I ran a reassuring hand through her hair and over her shoulder, fingers lingering in blonde curls and multicolored feathers.  "You didn't take advantage.  I needed comfort and you were there to provide it to me."  Then, I saucily added, "I enjoyed what we did together."

My throat feeling suddenly tight as my emotions welled up, I laid my head back on her shoulder once again.  As if seemingly resigning herself to letting this intimate dance continue, she finally expelled a deep sigh and noticeably relaxed beneath my touch.  As she held me, barely moving to the beat of the nearly inaudible drums, I once again took comfort in her embrace.

It had been the darkest point in my life.  Xena, my soulmate, my very reason for living was dead in her coffin.  Because of me.  Because I'd been too weak, too slow in reaching Niklio.  I was riddled with doubt and self-loathing as I slowly made the trek back to Amphipolis.  I figured for causing her death, the least I could do was see that I honor her last request and take her home.  

I had been traveling for days, putting as much distance between myself and Niklio as possible.  At nights, I would unharness Argo, tending and caring for her in much the same manner I had seen Xena do all those long seasons.  And, for once, Argo didn't give me any grief.  It's as if she knew we were taking her mistress to her final resting place - and she accepted her role in this final journey.  

I would settle Argo down for the night, then build a small fire to keep warm by.  Xena would be so proud of me; it took so long, but I'd finally learned how to light a fire by myself.  But, no matter how high the flames rose, no matter how close I lay, I couldn't get the chill out of my bones.  I would lay there, shivering beneath the blankets, staring into the fire, unable to sleep.  Finally, when exhaustion would take over and Morpheus would claim me, the nightmares I'd kept at bay during my waking hours would overtake me.  I would dream she was holding me and I'd finally confess my true feelings for her - only to relive her death over and over again.  When I'd wake up screaming, I'd look over and see her coffin - and my nightmare would continue.

Near-starvation and exhaustion had overtaken me, muddling my senses and distorting my perception of time.  I had no idea where I was - or when I was - when the figures came rappelling down out of the trees.  My heart nearly stopped at the sight of the Amazons laying their swords across Xena's casket as a sign of respect for a fallen sister.  It started beating double-time when Ephiny pushed back her feathered mask, offering words of condolence and taking me into her arms.

It had been the first time in so long that I'd felt safe.  And, as we hugged, my eyes drifted closed and I inhaled the scent of her leather in much the same manner as I would Xena's.  My comfort was short-lived, however, as I quickly learned of the death of Melosa at the hands of her adopted daughter, Velasca.  In fair combat.

I knew there was more to it than that.  I could see it in Ephiny's eyes, sense it in the palpable tension filling the air.  Noting the absence of her loyal friends, Eponin and Solari, I agreed to escort Ephiny back to the village.  I noticed the scowls and looks of hatred being sent my way by more than one set of eyes.

Velasca wasn't at all subtle in her demanding I turn the mask of the queen over to her.  If Xena had been alive, I never would have considered it.  But, with her gone, I needed to think about my future.  What was left of it, anyway.  My heart was gone, my soul was shattered.  But, I had to keep going on for as long as I could; Xena would have accepted nothing less.  

Returning to Potadeia was not an option.  My one unsuccessful attempt at returning home after traveling with Xena had been a dismal failure.  Now, more than ever, I couldn't return home.  Potadeia was out of the question.  As was staying with Xena's mom in Amphipolis.  She would accept me to be certain, but the memories there would be just too painful.  I was quite certain every time I looked into Cyrene's eyes, I would be haunted by the memory of her daughter.  But, here with the Amazons - maybe I could find acceptance.  And solace.

Solace.  Ephiny's heated breath in my ear, the warmth of her body pressed full-length against mine took my mind racing back to the last time I'd found peace in her arms.

Yet another nightmare had woken me.  Once again, I had seen Xena dying in front of me and I was powerless to save her.  I buried my head in my pillow, crying my tears into the feather-filled material in a vain effort to muffle my sobs.  Ephiny had enough problems; she didn't need to have her sleep stolen by an inconsolable freak mourning the loss of a love she'd never known.

I should have realized her acute Amazon hearing would pick up on the unaccustomed sounds coming from the inner chamber of her private hut.  She had graciously allowed me the large bed in her sleeping quarters, commanding the guards bring in an extra pallet for her to sleep on in the main room.  I'm sure part of her discomfort at not sleeping in her usual bed aided in the disturbance I was causing her.

Shallow breaths and a long shadow on the wall gave away her presence at the doorway.  I could feel her eyes on me, watching me for long heartbeats even as I studied her shadow on the wall, still unable to stifle my soft sobs.  I heard the padding of bare feet as she crossed the room, the rustle of the bedsheets and the pressure on the bed as she climbed beneath the covers with me.

Inexplicably, I was in her arms, sobbing against her shoulder as I tried to lose myself in her embrace.  It seemed no matter how hard I tried, the tears only fell that much more.  Even her strong hands coaxing up and down my back and the soft voice whispering words of comfort in my ear did nothing to console me.

My breathing stilled, my heart pounding in my ears as my mind railed against what she had commanded I do.  But, as my breathing returned to normal and I listened to the soft spoken words, I realized she had no malicious intent.  My friend merely wanted to make me feel better.  And, almost without realizing what I was doing, I found myself taking her breast into my mouth and suckling like a newborn.

It was a long time later, when my heart had finally calmed to the point that it no longer painfully ached with each breath and my tears had long since dried upon my cheeks that I felt a little better.  I don't know if better is really the proper word to describe my condition.  I was feeling less pain, my body taking comfort in the physical closeness.  I was feeling decidedly different and my thoughts were taking me to places I'd only ever imagined exploring with Xena. 

Being a bard, and thereby having been blessed with a curious nature, I eventually turned towards further exploration.  I listened to the change in Ephiny's breathing as I altered the suckling of her breast.  As my teeth closed upon a tight nipple, nipping at the stiffening flesh, a soft gasp escaped her throat and her body arched beneath mine.

Questioning eyes met mine as she seemingly contemplated the wisdom of our actions.  I effectively silenced her unspoken doubts with a well-placed kiss upon her lips.  She responded enthusiastically, her fears quickly laid to rest as her tongue slipped between my lips - and I boldly followed hers back into her own mouth.

She was a caring and generous lover, permitting me to explore at both my leisure and my pleasure.  Nothing was forbidden.  She allowed me to touch her in any way I desired.  And, deep in the night, as I lay atop her, her fingers tenderly slipped into me and she gently as possible welcomed me into full womanhood.

In the dim lighting of a predawn sky, I lay securely nestled in her arms.  She was flat on her back, one arm tucked beneath me, her hand resting possessively upon my hip.  I studied her profile in the early morning light, thinking of how lucky I was that she was a true friend.  As tenderly as possible, I placed a kiss just above her breast, where I knew her heart to be.

She shifted in her sleep, her grip tightening about me as she murmured, "Pony," a contented smile lingering upon her lips.

Slipping out of bed and then out Ephiny's door, I felt compelled to visit Xena.  I stood before her sarcophagus, explaining to her that the Amazons would make me their queen.  And that although I would never forget her, I needed to find a place in the world without her.  Once again, I felt Ephiny's presence lingering in an open doorway behind me.  And, it was beneath her concerned gaze that I reached the decision that I would allow them to give Xena a proper Amazon burial and I would take Xena's ashes home to Amphipolis before returning to rule as their Queen.

As I became dimly aware of the sound of running footsteps approaching, I pulled away from Ephiny's embrace.  I just barely caught sight of the lone teardrop threatening to roll down her cheek.  Briefly, I wondered if she'd been sharing the same memories.

Xena's sudden and fortuitous return from the dead was the happiest moment of my life.  And, I vowed that as soon as we had a little privacy, I would tell her of my feelings for her.  Although, after that whole Autolycus/Xena possession issue, I was more than certain she was already aware.  The dead can hear our thoughts.  Well, I certainly gave her an earful, let  me tell you.

The only thing I've ever regretted was Ephiny.  Not that we were lovers.  Nor, that she was my first.  My time with her was special and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.  She helped me through the darkest period of my life and I will always love her for that.  I only wish I could have brought Xena back without hurting Ephiny.

We tried to talk about it.  Or rather, I did.  Ephiny pulled that usual standard Amazon behavior on me.  You know the one; I can handle anything and who needs feelings anyway because I'm a noble, stoic warrior routine.  I apologized as many times as I could and thanked her as best I could and explained that if only things were different, I could have seen myself being happy with her as my mate.  The only thing that made the hurt and suffering in her eyes bearable was my knowledge that in her peaceful sleep after our lovemaking, she thought my touch had belonged to Eponin.  In my youthful naiveté, I had taken this as a sign that her heart had called out for the weapons master and she would eventually couple with the handsome Amazon.

Yet, all these seasons later, she was as still unattached as she was when I'd said my tearful farewells that day.  With any luck - and a little skillful matchmaking - maybe we'll be able to correct that this visit. 

I listened intently as Solari delivered her news, her exuberance barely contained as she recited the message.  "The scouts have just reported back in.  The Northern Amazons have agreed to a meeting to discuss merging our two tribes."

"That's fantastic!"  I couldn't believe the tribes would one day be united again.  Enthusiastic in my celebration, I pulled both my regent and my chief scout into a firm embrace.

I was laughing and crying and talking all at once, trying to voice my plans for how we'd announce the news to the rest of the Nation.  Of course, it would have to wait until at least tomorrow when everyone was sober.  Suddenly overwhelmed with the possibilities of the future, I enthusiastically returned a three-way hug.

Suddenly, Ephiny was being pulled out of my embrace.  With a growing knot of dread twisting the insides of my stomach, I feared that Xena had finally discovered the truth.  When my tear-filled eyes were finally able to focus, it was to the sight of Ephiny being soundly kissed on the lips by Eponin.

Ephiny struggled, pulling away.  "Pony?!?  What in Aphrodite's name do you think you're doing?"

"Declaring my intentions."

I had to hastily cover my mouth.  There was only one person that could have engineered this.  My eyes darted across the ceremonial grounds.  Xena was sitting atop the table, her mug hoisted in the air, a broad grin on her face as she locked gazes with me.

Arching one eyebrow in my warrior's direction, I silently acknowledged Xena's skills at apparently sobering up a drunken Pony.  Truthfully, I had thought the weapons master had consumed so much wine that Xena would end up having to carry her back to her hut to sleep it off.  I turned my attention back to my Amazons just in time to see Eponin smoothly drop to one knee, pulling her sword free and laying it at my regent's feet.

"As a loyal Amazon, I swear my loyalty to Nation and Crown.  As Weapons Master to the Amazons, I pledge my life to you, my Regent."  A hasty look from Ephiny tried to gauge if I was offended by this pledge to her protection and not mine.  "And, as the woman who loves you more than life itself, I promise my heart to you."

For several long heartbeats, Ephiny remained frozen to the spot.  She had that look on her face I imagine deer get in the forest when they realize they're caught in the sightline of a nocked bow and arrow.  Solari openly stared, her eyes darting back and forth between weapons master and regent, fists clenching and unclenching at her side.  The devious, cunning schemer in me wanted her to step in and punch Eponin out.  But, the romantic in me willed her to remain where she was and not interfere.  Blinking back tears, I tried to offer up a smile to my friend, silently urging her to allow happiness into her heart.

"Ep - " 

She was going to protest.  I could read it in her eyes and in her body language.  So could Eponin.

"I love you, Eph."  From her kneeling position, Pony continued to gaze up at her regent, complete love and adoration visible in her eyes.  And more than a steely glint of determination.  "I'm asking you to be my bondmate."  Wow.  Just like Eponin to never stand for half-measures.  "And, I'm not taking no for an answer."

In the span of a heartbeat, she had lunged forward, catching Ephiny behind the knees and lifting her over one shoulder.  Ephiny screamed in protest, looking for all the world as if she'd toss her earlier dinner and drinks.  Solari's fists and jaw were clenched so tightly I was afraid she'd strain something.  The royal guards moved in to intercept the amorous kidnapping, but a well-timed Queenly glance in Pelagia's direction had the Captain of the Guard ordering her elite squad to stand down.

As the weapons master carried the still struggling and cursing regent off into the forest, I commanded that the drummers take up the beat again.  A few well-placed words in Solari's ear and I soon had her safely in the care of a cute hunter that was more than willing to help her take her mind off her romantic woes.  Let's see; feast back on track, Solari taken care of, Eph and Eponin paired off . . . ah, yes - that only leaves my warrior princess to go . . . 

Propped with my upper back and head against the pillows, a hand leisurely stroking through raven tresses, I sighed contentedly.  Xena was laying between my outstretched legs, one arm wrapped possessively about one of my thighs, her face nestled at the fount of my passion.  She turned her head to place a searing kiss upon my flesh, sending another tremor jolting through my body.  I could feel her lips widen into a broad smile in reaction.

"You're certainly pleased with yourself," I commented.


"I still don't see how you pulled it off."

"I have many skills," was lazily mumbled against the flesh of my inner thigh.

"Yes, you most certainly do," I agreed, recalling the last candlemark in which she'd demonstrated many of those wonderful skills.

What I still failed to comprehend, though, was how she had managed this one.  I had it all sewn up; I was sure of it.  I had spent candlemarks rehearsing just what I was going to say to Solari.  I was positive that just a few words would point the chief scout in the right direction.  And, it had.  But then, she'd gone back on duty and by the time she'd returned to the feast, Eponin was already making her move.  I suspiciously eyed my warrior.

"Xeeennnnaaa, you didn't make Ep do that as the result of her losing a drinking challenge, did you?"

"Why, Gabrielle, I can't believe you think I would resort to such measures just to win."  She peered up at me in her best feigned-hurt/insulted look.  The one where she looks like a sad puppy until my heart melts beneath her gaze.  "Didn't have to," she added, smugly.  "I did something even better."

"What?" I asked, suddenly all ears.

A wicked grin crept across my lover's face.  "Can't tell you.  Warrior's Code."

I HATE that stupid warrior's code!  Anytime she wants to weasel out of telling me something, she brings up that blasted warrior code!  As if I'm not a warrior and she can't tell me . . .  

"Just remember," I reminded her, "it has to last for at least three days.  A drunken tryst will not a wager win."

"Don't worry," Xena assured me, moving up the bed and settling down beside me, "They're going to be great together."

I started to retort when Xena lifted her head from my shoulder and signaled me to be quiet.  My words trailed off, dying in my throat as she cocked her head to one side.  I recognized her full-warrior mode.  Something had caught her attention.  Something wasn't right.  

She made a move as if to get out of the bed.  Then, seeing something hurtling through the open window with the speed of an arrow, she reflexively rolled over instead, shielding me with her body.  I heard a sharp gasp and felt her jerk against me as she was struck in the back.  

I screamed, fearing the worst.  Then, the cold rivulets were cascading through her hair and over her shoulders.  She shook her mane forcefully to clear the water running down into her eyes, soaking me in the process.  The sheets were drenched, as was my warrior.  

Outside our hut, the sound of giggles broke the late night silence.  With a ferocious growl and a menacing stride to her step, six feet of naked, dripping wet warrior princess stormed out the door.  I slipped out behind her, having the modesty to cover myself with a bedsheet before joining her.  A wet bedsheet, mind you, but a bedsheet nevertheless.  

"Amazon, you're gonna pay for this - " she threatened.

"Only if you can catch me," The regent taunted, jogging a few steps back from our porch.  

Ephiny was standing in the courtyard beyond our door, bravely standing her ground as Xena took another menacing step towards her  - and was stopped squarely in her tracks by a bucket of ice cold water being poured over her head.  Being the taller of the two of us, naturally, she took the brunt of the soaking while I was only hit with residual spray.  Still, it was more than enough to soak me to the bone.

With a sputter, Xena slowly wiped the hair out of her eyes and with as much dignity as she could muster, looked up.  Perched on the roof of our hut, holding a now empty bucket in her grasp, was my weapons master.  Elbows and forearms braced against her thighs as she squatted, her weight resting on the balls of her feet, she peered over the edge of the roof and down at us.

"My Queen.  Xena," She acknowledged as if we'd all just been out for a simple stroll and merely bumped into each other.  

"Ep - " Xena growled, a low warning in her tone.

"Now, now, Xena," Eponin waggled her finger at a still-furious warrior princess.  "All's fair in love and war, right?"  

Then, with a cackle, she performed a stunning leap off our roof, landing in a nearby tree.  With the agility of a mountain cat, she scrambled along the branches, agilely leaping to the next tree.  My eyes followed her progress as she leapt from tree to tree until she came to the one in the center of the courtyard.  Scrambling down it, she grabbed Ephiny by the hand, rushing her into the safety of the familiar forest, all the while shouting something about love being like a battle and something else about sneak attacks.

"EPONIN!  You traitor!"  Xena shouted at the top of her lungs, causing several curious Amazons to peek their heads out their doors to stare in bewilderment at the half-crazed, naked, dripping wet woman outside the Queen's hut screaming at the moon.  "I'll get you for this!"

The End

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