Winner Best Story
Disclaimer.... The characters therein do not, repeat, do not belong to me, I am only borrowing them for this challenge and will put them back when I have finished using them unscrupulously.
Warning... There may be a death scene or two concerning the feathered variety of fowl. So if you are upset by a poultry death then please look away. Some Amazons will find themselves in embarrassing situations, and have asked me to tell you that if you repeat anything you read to the rest of the tribe, they know where you live and will deny everything.
Therefore the age warning on this isnít really an issue. However there may be some adult swearing and reference to the loving act of same-sex birds in nests.
Plot... If you find one let me know, I have tried my darndest not to include one. This is but a simple bit of fluff that came to mind and seems to fit the Academy 2005 Challenge rather nicely...
Timeline... This is set in an alt timeline of where Gabrielle decided to take up the Queenís mask in season two, and both her and the Warrior Princess settled into village life.
Acknowledgements... I would like to thank Melissa Good for giving all the Amazons a life in her world of stories, and I hope I do them justice as I borrow them. No infringement is meant.
Also thanks to my beta reader, who turns my non-punctuated nonsense into readable English.
Ok, enough with the blah blahs... Enjoy.
"Come on, be serious, what did she really ask?"
"Drop it, Ephiny... You asked... I told you... end of story... Thatís what she wants." The answer was a growl.
"Oh, come on, you are kidding..."
Ephiny let out a long laugh, unaware of the effect on the warrior next to her, who was starting to tense and shift uncomfortably as the other four Amazons around the fire turned their attention to her.
"She must be suicidal to ask that. Gods, she wouldnít, not that... I mean she knows you caní....t."
Ephinyís voice trailed off as she heard the creatures of the forest fall silent. At the same time, the saliva dried up in her mouth as two ice blue eyes locked onto her.
"I canít what?" The Ďwhatí ended with a warning hiss.
Ephiny coughed, then ran her hand back through her hair, trying to think quickly. Finally she gave up, throwing her arms up in the air and sent a silent prayer to Artemis to get ready to meet her.
"Oh, Heraís tits, Xena... cook, you canít cook! You may have many skills, but that ainít one of them..."
One the younger Amazons snorted at the comment, which quickly turned into a cough as ice orbs snapped around to her.
"She must be mad, I mean has she hit her head recently?"
The snorting Amazon got a reprieve as the warriorís eyes shot back around to Ephiny again.
For a moment, all four Amazons stiffened, ready to rush up and protect their regent, knowing full well it wouldnít be a long fight. All heads bobbed back and forth from the regent to the silent warrior.
Xenaís jaw was tensed, they held their breath.
Finally Xena released Ephiny from her stare, and her shoulders sagged. "I know."
The four exhaled, as did the creatures of the forest.
"So this is her yearly consort challenge, you cook for her?" Ephiny was finding it hard to keep the grin off her face.
"Yep." Xena tossed the stick she was prodding the fire with.
"Our Queen is braver than I thought." Ephinyís tone was teasing.
All Amazons chuckled.
As Ephiny sat down next to her, Xena let her mouth twitch in amusement. "You have no idea?"
Ephiny smiled in understanding, then she rubbed her hands together. "Oh kayyyyyyy. So, knowing our beloved Queen, she isnít going to be asking for a boiled egg."
Xena winced. "If only."
Ephiny dug the warrior in the ribs, leaning into her before pulling away. "So give, what are her instructions?"
Xena reached into her cleavage and handed over a small scroll. Ephiny took it, resisting the urge to comment, which was aided by the accompanying glare. Unrolling the scroll, she read aloud.
"Challenge for the consort. With the aid of four chosen Amazons... Solari,"
At the mention of her name, Solari groaned.
Ephiny grinned at her and continued. "Bajana,"
"Oh shit, I knew this wasnít a tracking mission." The young Amazon kicked at the dirt around the fire.
Ephiny bit back her laugh and continued. "Cara..."
Another moan sounded.
Ephiny bit the inside of her cheek as she read the last name on the list. Glancing up, she met the eyes of the Amazon sat across the fire from her.
Upon hearing her name, the weapons master snapped the twig in her hand. "Son of a baccae."
If looks could kill, the Amazons would have been less one regent; and if thoughts could kill, somewhere in the Amazon village, a queen would have suddenly been eaten by a three-headed hydra.
Ephiny cleared her voice of the laugh brewing and turned her attention back to the scroll.
"The named above will aid the consort in performing the challenge laid out."
Ephiny paused for effect as all eyes focused on her. "A meal will be prepared as instructed, but the cooking will be left entirely to Xena...."
All eyes turned to Xena.
"Yep, sheís nuts." Bajana was silenced as she found herself the other side of the log with her legs in the air, her face showing the fact she had no clue how she got there.
Without breaking her stride of reading, Ephiny ignored the scene and read the remaining part of the scroll.
"The menu will be; trout with raspberry sauce, followed by quails stuffed in bay leaves, with side order of sweet potatoes and green beans, finishing with dumplings and strawberry filling. Wine is optional and all will be served at lunchtime the following day of these orders being dispatched... At no time may any of the aforementioned Amazons help in cooking. If this challenge is not met, or for any reason is deemed a failure, Xena of Amphipolas must give herself fully to the Queen for punishment, as will every Amazon who breaks a rule or fails in their task. My regent, Ephiny, will be the judge and supervisor of all rules and will inform me of any deviation from them...."
Eponin looked up, her eyebrows shooting into her hairline. "Punishment?"
Bajana let out a snigger, and once again found herself upside down the other side of the log. Jumping up, she looked over at Xena, although she hadnít seen her move at all.
"Stop doing that."
The other Amazons sniggered. Xena just raised an innocent eyebrow.
Ephiny stood up, taking charge. "Now... now, children. Our Queen has spoken."
Cara looked over at the warrior. "So I'm guessing that you donít have an idea of how to cook these things?"
Xena sighed. "Iíve watched... the fish; no problems... as for the others, Iíve seen my mother and the Queen... I'm a quick study."
Bajana was about to snigger then thought better of it. Instead, she locked her gaze on the warrior and gripped the log with both hands.
Xena looked down to hide her smirk.
"Can you cook anything? I mean anything at all?"
As Solari asked her question, Xena found herself under the full gaze of all concerned. Looking from each of them, she suddenly felt uncomfortable. Giving her best intense look, she squared her shoulders.
"How hard can it be?"
"Oh, gods. Weíre doomed." Eponin threw up her arms. "Might as well get out my stable cleaning gear now."
The other Amazons all winced while Pony continued her rant.
"What did we all do to piss our Queen off....?"
Xena frowned. "Hey, have a little faith here, itís just cooking."
All eyes turned back to her. Xena, for the first time, knew what it felt like to be a rabbit caught in a chariotís headlight.
"Look, I'm not totally helpless in this. Iíve cooked, I just choose not to... Well, now I want to, so no problem."
Her speech didnít go down as well as she planned as all orbs rolled upward.
Ephiny bit the inside of her lip and stood. "Ok, Solari, you are on trout control."
"Cara and Bajana, youíre both on quail."
Both sets of Amazon eyes shot up. "No way ... Quail... You want us to catch those midgets?"
Ephiny put her hands on her hips, giving her best regent glare. "Whatís the matter, Bajana? Afraid they might be armed?"
Mumbling under their breaths, both Amazons mentioned Ephinyís heritage in a rather doubtful light.
Eponinís snort ended as she looked up to see a bemused regent cross her arms and fix her gaze on her. "Something amusing?"
"Um... no, not really." The weapons master scratched the top of her head nervously, she recognised the look in her loverís eyes. Trouble!
Ephinyís bemused look became a smirk. "Good, because youíre supervising them."
Pony resisted the urge to mumble an oath, knowing full well if she did, she would be sleeping in the barn for the unforeseeable future. Instead, she put on her best-forced smile. "Yes, my regent."
Solari cleared her throat. "Ch_kissarse_ough."
Eponin threw an eye full of daggers her way, along with a not so friendly Amazon hand signal.
Ephiny grinned. "Ok then, we have a plan. The rest we will discuss in the morning." She turned her gaze to Xena. "Anything you want to add?"
Xena looked at each of them. "Youíll need four trout and at least six quail."
Eponin and Solarisí eyes widened. But it was Bajana who opened her mouth and put her amazon foot in it.
"What the Hadesí for? You planning on burning the first victims at the stake?"
Amazons and creatures of the forest once again held their breath when Xena rose to her full height. Bajana gripped the log until her knuckles turned white, her head tilting back, her eyes trailing up the warriors full form before coming to rest on the eyes that were reflecting the firelight. If Bajana had had an Adamís apple, it would have been bobbing up and down at the amount of times she swallowed.
"Nooooooo, Gabrielle has a big appetite. And if you keep up the smartass remarks, I will be giving the quail a unique and special Amazon stuffing...." Xenaís voice dropped to a purr. "Got me?"
Bajanaís head joined her invisible Adam's apple in its bobbin.
Ephiny stepped slowly forward, making sure Xena was aware of her movements. Standing beside the warrior, she looked down at the white-faced Amazon, well aware of the effect the comment had on her friend beside her.
"Bajana, go seep your head in the stream; and any more remarks like that, Xena will have to stand in line to make that stuffing."
Bajana rose, blushing. Stepping back over the log, she turned, then paused. Clearing her throat, she faced up to Xena. "I didnít mean it like... like it sounded."
Xena gave a curt nod and semi-relaxed. "No problem."
Bajana returned the nod, then bowed to the regent and headed in the direction of the stream. Cara rose, and with a questioned glance to Ephiny which was answered with a wave of her hand, she followed her embarrassed friend.
Solari rose. "Iíll take the first watch." Then she too disappeared into the darkness.
Finally the forest breathed again.
Xena returned to her seat on the log. Pulling her sword free, she began to sharpen it.
Eponin glanced over at Ephiny, who returned the concerned look. "Xe... sheís young and a smartass and doesnít think, she didnít mean any harm."
Xena hand paused on its downward movement for a moment, then continued. "I said no problem."
Xenaís hand stopped as she looked over at Eponin. "Whatís that supposed to mean?"
Eponin looked up innocently. "Mean? Nothing, just ahuhing."
Xena scowled at her then continued with the whetstone. After another few minutes of silence, she looked up. "Ok... ok, it got to me," her voice fell for a breath. Then sighing, she wiped down the blade and returned it to the scarab. "I wasnít expecting it. I kinda let my guard down around you guys, you know."
Eponin nodded, and smiled over to Ephiny. "Yea, we know."
With the moment becoming an uncomfortable one, Eponin took a big inhale and slapped Xena on the shoulder. "So... what did you do to piss your bond mate off then?"
Ephiny rolled her eyes and elbowed Eponin in the ribs as she sat next to her. "Some day, Pony, I will show you the true meaning of the word tact."
Eponin grinned as she squeezed the regentís knee. "You can show me anything you like." For added effect she wiggled both eyebrows.
Ephiny laughed, giving her a backhanded slap. " Behave."
Xena smiled at the scene and relaxed even more. Until Eponin turned her attention back to her.
With a sigh, Xena answered. "I opened my big mouth."
"Ah." Eponin nodded in full understanding, but continued staring for more info.
Knowing she wasnít going to get away with just that, Xena added another log to the fire.
"We were having a discussion about things that I can do and things that she can do. It went along the lines of; Gab canít jump as high as I can, I canít write a scroll in lyric to save my life. Gab hates catching eels. I choose not to barter over everything we buy... she canít tell when a sto....... rm...."
Eponin interrupted by clicking her fingers in quick succession. "The point, get to the point."
Xena exhaled sharply. "Ah, Hades. I mentioned that nothing she did in the camp I couldnít do better or hadnít done before."
"Ohhhhhhhhh, those rrrrrrr fightiní words, partner."
"What!" Xena look over to Eponin.
Ephiny patted Eponinís knee affectionately. "Ignore her, sheís been mixing with the Amazons from the West again. What she means is uh oh."
"Uh oh... oh, yea.... Uh oh in a big way... Ya know, I must be slipping because it took me all of three minutes to realise I had said something wrong."
"Really what gave it away?" Ephiny bit her lip, knowing now why she had heard the high pitched screech of her Queen at 3am that morning.
"The silence. Well, that, and a... a pillow hitting me in the face." Xena looked anywhere but at her friends.
Eponin showed her friendship for the warrior by biting the inside of her cheek to hold in the laugh. Ephiny, on the other hand, snorted.
"Well, that doesnít sound too bad, and doesnít really explain..." Ephinyís voice trailed off as she watched Xena shift. "Ok, thereís more here, isnít there?"
"I just didnít know when to shut up and I mentioned along the lines of that anyone can cook, and it was no big deal.... We argued in circles until I said... Why doesnít she make it the next royal challenge." Xena scratched her chin. "I'm not entirely sure how it got to that point."
"Oh, brother." Eponin rolled her eyes.
"Hey, in my defence here, I had two pillows in the face by that time and had already dodged a candle, I wasnít exactly thinking straight."
"Nope, you werenít." Sometimes Eponin wondered at how the so-called Destroyer of Nations and great Warrior Princess could completely lose the plot when a pissed off bard was attacking her.
Xena was about to argue... With her mouth open, she realised she didnít have a valid argument to give. So she closed it and instead sulked.
"Ok, well, that explains why youíre here. Why in Hadesí name are the rest of us? I mean, bar Ephiny..."
Xenaís face creased for a moment and her eyes looked at the fire.
Eponin sat forward. "Xena?"
Xena gave a slight cough. "I um...."
"You, um, what?"
"I may have mentioned that a few Amazons...," she coughed again. "Thought that a...."
"Xenaaaaaaa?" Eponinís voice took on a warning growl.
"That anyone can do camp work."
Eponinís mouth fell open. "You didnít..."
Xena gave a lopsided grin and shrugged. "Well, I wasnít lying, you have said that before."
Ephiny snorted again.
Pony threw up her hands. "So much for the warrior code."
"We have a warriorís code now?" Xena tried to add humour to her tone. "Wish someone would fill me in on the hand signs for that thing."
Eponin threw a sideways look that even Xena had the good sense to wince at and shut up.
"You got just what you deserved, Warrior Princess." Eponin folded her arms and scowled.
"I'm not the only one." Xena folded her arms and glared.
Ephiny looked at both of them, and thought how much Gabrielle was going to really enjoy her retelling of all this.
"Well, here we all are together, such a happy gang." Ephinyís smile didnít falter as both warriors glared at her.
The morning sun peeked through the grey of the disappearing night. Rabbits came forth and frolicked in the spring grasses, while birds soared high and began their chorus of joy into the now beginning blue of the dawning day.
"How the hell are we supposed to track something that leaves tracks smaller than a fly?" Bajana swiped at the midges that were starting to attack.
"Shhhhhhhhh." Cara ducked under the branch Bajana had flicked back at her.
"Donít shhhhhh me, I'm not a pigeon." Bajana huffed.
"Touchy, and who got out of the wrong side of the bedroll this morning?" Cara added a friendly nudge to the shoulder of her friend.
"Oh, shut up, like I got any sleep.... Sleeping next to three warriors who sound like a swarm of bees when they snore."
Eponinís temper-controlled voice silenced them. "Shut up, the pair of you... do you think quails are deaf?"
Bajana stood tall, still flicking at the attacking insects, swatting one on her arm with satisfaction. "Ep, I donít know the first thing about quail... I have no idea what the hell they are. You know as well as I do, if I came back from hunting with those things, the Amazon village would take one look at the meat on their scrawny bones and eat me instead."
Cara let out a youthful innocent embarrassed giggle at the double meaning. Which just got her a tut and an eyeroll from Bajana. "Oh gods, grow up."
Caraís face fell and she stepped to move away, Bajana immediately grabbed her arm. "Hey, sorry, I'm grumpy with no sleep.... Youíre great the age you are."
Cara gave Bajana a smile, which made her blush.
Eponin pushed past, unable to take the young courtship any longer. "Oh, pleaseeeeeee. I havenít even had my oatmeal yet." As she stomped off into the forest, her thoughts were filled of ways to make Ephiny pay for this.
...Meanwhile back at the campsite...
"How big does the fire have to be, Xena?"
Ephiny stepped back casually as the tree, which had once stood tall, crunched to the ground, felled in front of her.
Xena stepped out from the coverage and began to strip the trunk of branches. "Big enough."
"Ahuh." She turned her head back to the campsite where various pans and pots were piled.
She had watched that morning as Xena laid out a plan in the sand bed of the stream, as if it was a military campaign, sending each Amazon out with their assigned task. Then followed Xena back to camp as she laid out each and every cooking accessory into lines as if they were weapons. She had then sat and watched as Xena went over each and everything she would need. First on the list was enough wood to keep a good fire going for both the frying pan and saucepans. After that, Xena had constructed a stone slab oven in the centre of where the fire was going to be placed.
Turning her attention back to the warrior, she had to admit that Xena seemed to have everything under control.
... Meanwhile back in the forest...
Three Amazons were crouched in the long grass at the edge of the meadow.
"So what do they look like?" Bajanaís question came as a whisper.
"Birds." Eponinís eyes searched the area ahead.
Bajana rolled her eyes. "I know that! I mean what markings? I donít want to get the wrong one."
Eponin resisted the urge to sigh. "About the size of your hand, speckled browns, although some can be a darker colour. Oh, and they canít really fly... they kinda throw themselves up in the air and cruise."
"Geez, she couldnít just ask for duck."
"Quiet." Eponinís hand came up and her eyes grew alert.
All three fell silent, then off to the left a sound of, "mweeeeep"
Eponinís head shot to the sound, then she was up, "This way."
... Meanwhile at the stream...
Solari was laid out on a rock, like a cat stretched out to get the most of the sun. A blade of grass was lazily being chewed in the corner of her mouth, her eyes were closed, and one hand was tucked under to support her head. For a moment, she opened her eyes and looked down into the rock pool next to her, which contained four swimming trout. With another chew of the grass and a yawn, she laid back and closed her eyes with a smile and a sigh, going back to her daydream of certain river maiden.
... Somewhere in the depths of a meadow...
"Stop fidgeting." Eponin rolled her eyes for the thousandth time that morning.
"I canít. Somethingís, well, somethingís sticking somewhere." Bajanaís voice was a huff of embarrassment.
Eponin swung round. "Well, unstick it... Gods, I'm working with amateurs here." She turned back to the prey ahead.
Bajana shifted again and tried to ignore the giggles coming from Cara behind her as she tried to search in her undergarments for the culprit tickler. Locating it, she gave out a long sigh of relief and tossed the offending, somewhat shocked, caterpillar back to earth.
Eponin was up at once and running.
Bajana rose with Cara. "Here we go again."
... At the campsite...
Ephiny scowled as she watched another spadeful of dirt fly past the log she was sitting on. Her eyes flicked left to the movement of a certain warrior princess who was digging a hole beside the fire. For a moment, Ephiny began to wonder if Xena wasnít actually preparing for a battle as the hole began to resemble a trench rather than a roasting pit.
... The meadow...
"What do you mean, we lost it?" Bajana wiped the sweat off her brow, wishing they were all somewhere else. They seemed to have been tracking for hours, but from the position of the sun she knew it was no more than one.
Eponinís look silenced Bajanaís question, she returned her gaze to the path she was crouched over, her fingers carefully stirring the dirt. "They have split up, some are leaving a false trail."
Both Cara and Bajana stood either side of her, occasionally scanning the area, they both looked down at the comment.
Cara laughed nervously. "Gods, Eponin, you make them sound like they know weíre after them."
Eponin looked left, then right, then pointed to the path off to the right. "Oh, they know...." For a moment, a strange look entered her eyes. "This way." She rose swiftly and trotted away.
Cara looked at Bajana, who just shrugged her shoulders then both followed.
"How the heck did she ever track down the Romans?"
"I heard that." The growl came from everywhere.
Bajana jumped and then flushed. "Gods, I hate when she does that."
Ephiny sat back against the tree and watched the Warrior Princess first disappear into the forest to the left, then after about ten minutes watched as she reappeared with a bowl full of strawberries. Her head followed the warrior as she strode off again, this time to the forest area to the right, returning about a quarter of an hour later with bowlful of raspberries. And finally, again, she tracked Xena with her eyes as she disappeared into the denser part and returned with a handful of leaves. Leaning back, she looked up to the sun and wondered how her lover was getting on with the newbies. A wicked grin came to her face, knowing full well that at some point Pony was going to make her pay.
"Oh, my Queen, you are just so good at this revenge stuff, and who would have thought it?" She chuckled.
Solari sat up with a stretch, swinging her legs off the rock. With one final, long, joint popping stretch, she rose and reached over to the fishing pole and bucket and began to lift each fish she had caught effortlessly early into the pail of water. Whistling as she did so.
Eponin hunkered down and raised her hand, giving the Amazon signal for the others to silence. Both Bajana and Cara obeyed, scanning the area ahead that Eponin had signalled to. Their eyes flicked to a new signal, reading it, knowing now there were six of them ahead. Bajana reached back and pulled an arrow free, Cara quickly followed, and soon both of them had their bows loaded.
Eponin moved forward in a crouch, and stilled as a breeze caught the air around her. She waited, a tiny bead of sweat leaving a trail down her temple. Without effort, she sprung straight upwards until she was sitting on the branch halfway up the nearby tree, which swayed slightly with her weight.
Bajana and Cara kept still, waiting for the order to attack
Eponin kept her balance, moving along the branch, steadying herself as she felt it groan slightly with her weight, her eyes still fixed on the quarry ahead. Like a stalking cat, she moved further towards its edge, letting the bough bend naturally with her weight, allowing it to lower her directly over the unsuspecting prey below. She signalled to Bajana, Bajana nodded and headed off silently to circle the woods.
Cara moved a little forward, then paused as another movement caught the corner of her eye, stopping her. Her eyes widened as she realised what it was, fully aware that Eponin had no notion that the edge of the lowering branch was headed straight towards it.
Caught between obeying orders and wanting to warn her commander, her attention wasnít on the floor ahead and her foot came down with a loud....
The twig breaking echoed like a legionís shout around the small, enclosed glen. All animals, fowl and insects alike took off at a rate of knots in all directions.
Eponin looked down in utter shock as a squirrel ran along the branch then up her leg, across her chest, then right over her in panic to get to safety. "What the fu..."
Her outburst was cut short as she fought to regain her balance on the branch. With effort, she brought her swinging under control, but not before realising that the limb wasnít built for that sort of movement. She felt it dip with a shudder, her eyes going wide as she heard the unmistakable sound of trouble. It creaked, then gave a tiny Ďsnap.í Another groan, and then finally, ĎSNAP!í
Eponin found herself suspended in mid air for all of a millisecond as the branch beneath her disappeared, then gravity took hold and she followed the now broken branch to the forest floor.
Bajana looked up in alarm. She spun quickly to avoid the crashing limb. Breathing a sigh of relief, she opened her eyes only for them to spring wider as the bare arse of the weapons master zeroed in on her position... Luckily, Bajanaís Amazon training took over, and she rolled aside, and kept rolling until she was stopped by a helpfully placed tree.
Cara also had her problems; before she could cry a warning of what she saw, she found herself at the tail end of the falling branch. Tucking into a ball, she threw herself forward. Rolling quickly onto her feet, she avoided the worst of the branches that raked her back, only to be thrown sideways as Bajana rebounded off the helpful tree into her and tossed both of them into a heap in the foliage.
Eponin opened first one eye then the other; blinking when all she saw was the sky spinning. Leaning up onto her elbows, she groaned and rubbed her head. "Ow ow ."
Blinking again, she tried her vision and shut her eyes tight when she saw little birds circling her head.
Her eyes shot open when she realised it wasnít concussion but the quail. One fluttered to her chest and sat there for a moment, giving her an innocent look, tilting its tiny head at her.
Eponin jumped up, grabbing her dagger, moving too fast. As the whole universe spun again, she steadied herself by leaning into the tree.
"Son of a centaur."
The tiny quail blinked at her then shot off into the undergrowth.
Eponin just stared after it with her mouth open, then her face took on a stern look as her eyes narrowed. "So, itís war."
"Get off me."
Eponin gave the retreating fowl one last death look, then swung around to the sound.
Caraís head appeared out the top of the fan of leaves and branches. She groaned, rubbing the back of her head.
"Cara, GET THE HELL OFF ME!"
Cara rose as fast as she could, considering Bajanaís leg was wrapped around her shoulder and somehow her quill of arrows had gotten tangled in the long red hair of her friend. Eventually, after more curses and groans and short screams of hair being pulled, the two young Amazons were free and standing.
Both of them blanched as they looked up and saw one pissed off weapons master stomping towards them like a charging bear.
"What in Hades where you doing?"
Cara went red. "I'm sorry, I saw..."
Before she finished, Eponinís hand was up. "Just shut up... Shut up. Not one word. One! If you know what's good for you."
Cara bit her lip and looked at the ground.
Bajana next to her was slapping the side of her head.
Eponin looked at her. "What are you doing?"
Bajana looked up, shaking her head. "I think I hit my head harder than I thought." She slapped her ear this time, then shook her head again.
Eponin was finding it extremely hard to control her temper. "And hitting it helps how? And if it does, I'm sure I could help with it."
Bajana looked up, then shook her head again. "I got buzzing, ok?"
Eponin mouth opened, then paused as she realised she heard it too. She shook her head to clear it.
Cara raised a hand. " Um, Eponin."
Eponin smacked the side of her head to clear the now growing sound in her head.
"Um, Ep." There was a little bit more panic in her tone this time.
Eponin looked up. "What!"
Cara pointed over Eponinís shoulder.
Eponin rolled her eyes and turned her head, only for her eyes to grow large as plates. As she turned back, she was already at a full run, passing the two, also staring, Amazons.
They didnít need telling twice, they took off after their weapons master.
Two rabbits looked up from their grazing as the vibrations alerted them, both stilled and waited, then they watched as three Amazons shot passed as if Hades himself was on their tail. Their pink eyes looked higher as they watched the tell tale signs of pissed off hornets in flight. Then with a look to each other that was almost a shrug, they went back to their grazing.
Xena paused in her laying out of the leaves and rose to her full height. Tilting her head, she listened.
Ephiny watched her, then she, too, stood and listened. "Did you hear something?"
Xena stepped towards the forest and stood still, ignoring Ephinyís question for a moment, then she walked past Ephiny back to the fire. "Go tell Pony to stop fooling around, I need those quail within the hour. And tell Solari I want the trout now."
Ephiny looked back at the forest, then over to the now kneeling warrior. "Sure, no problem." Then, grabbing up her sword, she headed in the direction of the stream.
Solari lifted the bucket and slung the fishing rod onto her shoulder, and with a wishful look back at the water she started to head back towards the campsite. Suddenly, she came to alert. Tossing the fishing rod away, she drew her sword, her eyes fixed on the edge of the tree line. She relaxed slightly, about to smile, as Eponin broke from it in an explosion.
"Eponin, what's up?" Replacing her sword, she started towards the weapons master, only to discover that she wasnít going to slow. Solari began to back up, first slowly, then faster, as Eponin began to bear down on her. "Hey... hey, watch it."
Eponinís shoulder connected with Solari, spinning her into a twirl, which caused the bucket to spin with her.
"Whoaaaaaaa." Solari just managed to get her spin under control. That was till Cara and Bajana gave her another nudge. The bucket flew from Solariís hand, depositing its contents back into the stream and freedom.
Solari finally came to a halt, walking as if drunk from the spin, she stopped at the edge of the stream. "What in Tartarus are you doing? Do you know how long it took me to catch those fish...."
Eponin didnít hear, she was already diving into the safety of the stream, which was quickly followed by the two younger Amazons.
Solari stood there as the afterwave soaked her from head to toe. Her mouth opened and closed, unable to form words through the anger.
Cara surfaced first. "Sol, get in nowwwww."
Solari shook her head, realising it was buzzing, then something made her look up. For a second, her brain didnít understand why the tight black cloud above her head was moving, so she just stared at it; that was until the other part of her slightly dizzy brain yelled, "Runnnnnnnnn."
So she did, and dived into the water.
Ephiny paused in her walk as she was sure she picked up a yell. When all she heard was the birds and the forest noise, she shrugged and continued. Stepping off the trail she walked through the trees until, after another few more strides, she cleared them and came onto the rocky area of the stream. She glanced around, frowning when she couldnít see Solari.
Jumping up onto one of the larger rocks, she stopped and blinked. She focused on what she thought she saw. She actually rubbed her eyes. Jumping down, she half ran clear of the larger rocks to give her a full view.
Four Amazon warriors in a line, shoulder deep in the stream with just their heads showing, all of which were looking to the sky.
Ephiny stopped, looking away for a second to compose her face. "Um, what are you doing?"
Cara looked at Bajana, Bajana looked at Solari, Solari looked at Eponin.
Eponin looked at Ephiny. "Swimming."
"Swimming?" Ephiny looked at each of them in turn, which in answer all nodded. Ephiny suddenly felt slightly uncomfortable when the thought that none of the Amazons had bodies, just floating heads, popped into her mind. She shook the thought away.
"In your full Amazon leathers, you took a swim?"
All four nodded.
Cara spoke. "We were hot."
"Hot... ahuh." Ephiny looked at all of them again.
Again they all nodded.
Knowing that she wasnít going to get anything more from them, Ephiny decided to take charge again. "Well, shouldnít you be doing something else?"
Cara looked at Bajana, Bajana looked at Solari, and Solari looked at Eponin, who just sighed as she rose from the water, her head tilted and her eyes searching the sky as she came out of the stream.
Ephiny followed her gaze, unsure why she was now scanning the clouds. When each of the Amazons came out of the water doing the same thing, she was sure she was missing something.
Eponin came to a halt beside the regent, "So, is Xena ready for the quail?"
Ephiny looked back from the sky, aware that Eponin had said something. "Huh?"
Eponin smiled. "The quail?"
"Oh, yea, she said about an hour."
Eponin nodded and pushed Cara and Bajana ahead, back into the forest. "No problem, one hour."
Ephiny was about to ask about the bruises on Eponinís shoulder and why Cara had scratches on her back, but by the time the thought had formed, the three were out of earshot as Eponin quick marched them away.
Solari wrung out the edges of her skirt, stopping when Ephiny looked at her and spoke. "Did I just miss something?"
Solari put on her best innocent look. "Not that I know of..."
Ephiny turned her gaze back to the now disappearing group, then back to Solari. She held Solariís gaze for a moment longer, then shrugged. "Anyway, Xena is ready for the trout."
Flicking back her wet hair, Solari turned. "No problem, be right there."
Ephiny watched Solari as she stopped to pick up the bobbing bucket. Ephinyís brow frowned as Solari started flicking at her eyes and hair, jumping around in panic at some unseen force. Solari then looked back, giving the regent a smile before returning to her task.
Ephiny shook her head, rolling her eyes, and then returned her attention to the forest. Then slowly she began her walk back to camp, feeling the whole time that she was definitely missing something.
Eponin lifted the dark clay, and with three fingers she applied it in streaks to her cheek. Beside her, Cara was tying up the edges of her dagger sheath, pulling it tight to her thigh. Bajana flexed her arm muscles and wrapped the twin leather laces around them, giving her now the effect they were twice the size.
Eponin pulled her hair tight back and clipped the hair buckle into place as she pulled three more streaks of clay across her forehead, completing the camouflage look full fold.
Cara held still as Bajana pulled the bandanna across her forehead and then secured it. All three nodded when they had finished. They looked ready now for war.
Eponin hunkered down, quickly joined by the others.
"They caught us by surprise last time ...but not this time. This time we will be ready for them.... Right?"
Cara looked sideways at Bajana who was also looking sideways at her.
"I said RIGHT!"
Both of them jumped, answering, "Yes."
"Good. What we need is a plan..." Eponin rose and began to pace.
Bajana mouthed the word, "loco" at Cara, who giggled and looked down.
Cara immediately shook her head. She wasnít entirely sure Eponin hadn't landed way too hard on her head, her eyes were looking very strange.
"Good, this isnít funny, because we just got our arses kicked back there, people; by a bunch of feathers. How do you think that is going to go down at the Amazon village?"
Eponinís eyes bore first into Caraís then into Bajana. As Bajanaís mouth opened to answer, Eponin was off again.
"Well, let me tell you, that ainít going to ever happen, because if one word gets out about this... I will show each of you the true meaning of fear... right?... I said, RIGHT?"
Both heads nodded fast.
"Ok, hereís the plan."
Eponin hunkered down, placing one arm over each of the Amazonís shoulders, and then she pulled them in till nearly their cheeks were touching.
Both Amazons cringed as Eponinís hand dug into their shoulders.
Ephiny stepped into the clearing, her head still turned back towards the path.
"Whereís the trout?" Xena stood, one hand resting on her hip.
Ephiny turned towards her, walking until she stopped to sit. "Solariís right on it..." her face was still facing the forest.
Xena took a long inhale. "Something bothering you?"
"Well.... Yea, theyíre up to something."
"When are they not?" Xena gave a grin then went back to the preparation.
Ephiny half laughed. "True."
Bajana and Cara watched as Eponin began to lay out the trap ahead of where they were in hiding.
Bajana shifted closer to Cara, whispering as low as possible. "I think sheís gone nuts."
Cara began to laugh, then snapped her hand over her mouth to hold it in, pausing as Eponin stopped in her work and glanced around. "Shhhhhh, sheíll hear you."
Bajana rolled her eyes. "Oh, come on, you got to think it too, youíve seen the look in her eyes, she has lost it."
Cara gently nudged her friend with her shoulder, trying to hold in her laugh. "No, she is just intense, is all.... Iíve heard warriors get that way after they have been in battle a lot."
Both of them fell silent as Eponin looked at them, then continued her task.
"Yea, well, I think she has taken one too many shots to the head."
This time Cara had to clamp both hands over her mouth to stop the giggle.
Bajana looked at her and grinned, then lowering her voice even more, she continued. "You know, I was sure she was going to send me out to capture one so we could interrogate it and find out what their plans were.... Ya know, place it over a spit or something."
Cara hit out playfully, trying even harder to control her laughter as the image of Eponin interrogating a quail popped into her head. "Bajana, shhhhhh, gods, shhhhhhhhh."
"We havzey wayzzzz of makingggg you squawk." Bajana lent in, giving her best impersonation of the Goths.
It was too much for Cara, who let out a long laugh. "Oh gods, Bajana, pleaseeeeeee."
This time Bajana couldnít keep her own laugh in and joined her friend in merriment.
Eponin jumped up and was by them in less than two strides. "What is it with you two? Do you want to be the laughing stock of the damn whole village?"
Both looked up at her with sheepish eyes.
"Fine, if you want that, then be my guest. Go on, go back to the camp, tell Xena the quail is off the menu."
Eponin stomped away.
Cara looked at Bajana. "Do you think she meant that?"
Bajana bit the bottom of her lip. "Not sure, think I prefer it when she was loco."
Solari walked into the camp carrying her bucket, which she had carried as if it contained a newborn. At every sound, she had stopped and waited, wondering if Eponin was going to appear again in a blaze of panic. But now that she had Xena in her sights, she started to relax a little.
Xena rose and came over, stopping to peer into the bucket, then looked up. "Theyíre kinda small."
Solari shifted uncomfortably, unable to tell the real reason they were that size; that the whole commotion of them diving into the stream had startled every fish for miles into hiding, and the only reason she had those with her was that theyíd been caught in the huge wave that Eponin, Cara, and Bajana caused, and had been marooned on the shore.
So instead, Solari shrugged. "You didnít state a size, I could go back."
Xena took them, then held Solariís eyes until she lowered them. "Theyíre fine. Go get me some beans."
Solari bowed to the regent then took off as fast as she could.
As Xena began to walk past Ephiny, she paused, looking at her.
"Youíre right, they have been up to something."
Ephiny grinned. "Told ya."
"You tell her."
"Hell no, you do it, youíre the youngest, she might not bite your head off as much."
"Yea, right. Come on, Bajana, tell her weíre sorry, we haven't got much time left to catch those things." She batted her eyes as she turned her face to her friend.
Bajana was about to argue, when the sun seemed to suddenly take on a life of its own and completely highlight Caraís face in its glow. For once in her life, Bajana found herself speechless, with a dopey cheesy grin on her face, completely caught up in the moment. Realising she was staring, she stood on albeit suddenly shaking legs, and with a croak of, "Ok," she headed as quickly as she could away from the scene.
Cara blinked, caught off guard. She had expected Bajana to fight back. Her eyes tracked her friendís retreat in question.
Eponin had to hide her laugh as she watched the whole thing happen, wondering how neither of the two had realised yet that they were falling in love. Seeing Bajana getting near, she let her face fall into a stone expression and folded her arms.
"Um, Eponin, could we, I mean, I, talk."
"Like you need permission for that."
Bajana blanched a little. Then turning back to Cara, who was egging her on, she returned her eyes to Eponin.
"True.... Look, we are sorry. I mean, I'm sorry. We would really like to help, Eponin... I mean, those quail, we canít let them beat us, right?" She shifted nervously.
Eponin turned her face away until she could control the smile forming, then she rose, suddenly enough for Bajana to step back unsure.
"Ok, no more fooling around."
Bajana nodded. "I promise."
By this time Cara had moved closer to the two. She too nodded.
Eponin clapped her hands together then rubbed them. "Then we have quail to catch."
All three grinned.
Ephiny watched in wonderment as four pots boiled over at once, and as Xena burnt her fingers for the umpteenth time.
"Son of a bac...." The curse was cut off as Xena sucked her fingers into her mouth.
Ephiny was trying hard not to laugh out loud at the whole scene; the mighty Warrior Princess at the beck and call of boiling pots.
"Where in Hades is my quail?"
Ephiny just raised both arms and shrugged.
Stirring the third pot, Xena muttered under her breath, "Great, just great. Wait till I get my hands on the great white hunter."
Ephiny bit down hard on her lip as another pot decided to join in the rebellion.
Eponin trod slowly through the undergrowth, pausing every so often to listen. The two behind did the same, this time watching where they placed their feet.
All three heads turned quickly to the left.
Eponinís eyes narrowed.
Signalling to the other two, she set off to the right, while Cara took the left, and Bajana, dagger in hand, headed forward.
This time the sound was louder.
Eponin waited for a breath, until the breeze died down; then she gave the broken amazon hand signal for them to all move forward at once. The other two acknowledged the order with a nod of their head. Eponinís mouth twitched into an evil grin as she spotted the quail up ahead. One of them raised its head, blinking little eyes at the surroundings, then trotted over to the other two.
Eponin waited and watched. Then the smaller one mweeeeeeeeeeped.
Still Eponin waited, as did the other two for the command.
Eponin let out a small whistle then ran forward. "Arghhhhhhhhhhhh"
"Aiaiaiaiaiaiai", Bajana joined in the run.
"Yayayayayayay", followed by Cara.
All quail shot off in the same direction, away from the charging humans.
Ephiny looked up from the twig she was whittling as she heard the commotion echo throughout the forest, recognising Eponinís charge yell.
Xena paused in her juggling of pots and looked over at Ephiny, who shrugged, "Think your quail is on its way."
Xena was about to comment when another pot spat at her. "Mother humping...son of..."
Ephiny chuckled and went back to her whittling.
Three Amazon warriors stood grinning at each other, then all looked down at the trap. Five quail looked through the bars up at them. "Mweeeeeeeeeeep."
Bajana saw it. "Whatís up?"
"Arenít they too small to kill?.... I mean, they seem kinda cute."
Eponin rolled her eyes. "Oh, brother."
Bajana looked down at the prey and swallowed, as one of them looked its little eye at her.
"Um, Eponin, does the Queen really wanna eat those tiny things?"
Eponinís mouth fell open. "Youíre kidding, right?"
Both of the Amazons looked at her.
"Oh, Zeus on a stick, youíre not kidding. Theyíre food, ok? Food." She reached in, grabbing one by the neck and lifting it up. "See? Food. We eat them... right?"
She, at that moment, wished she hadn't looked down as she made eye contact with the little eye that was looking back at her. The bird itself wasnít even shaking in her hand, instead it was looking back at her in a very strange way.
"Stop staring at me like that." Eponin immediately replaced it in the trap, for some reason she felt the need to rub her hand up and down on her skirt.
"Eponin, we canít kill them, look at them." Cara had knelt down and had taken one out of the cage and let it sit on her hand, which it did and was all puffed up as it stared at her.
Cara giggled. "This one is only young, Ep."
Eponin avoided looking anymore at the upcoming dinner.
"No way, no way on earth, am I letting them go... Come on here, Xena asked for quail. Hell, more to the point, our Queen, you remember her? Funny mask, lots of feather?... Ourrrrrrrr Queen asked for it. The one who we obey till death."
Both Bajana and Cara looked doubtfully at her.
"Oh, shut up." Eponin glared down at the array of fowl.
Pacing, she ran her hand through her hair, then stopped. Not only did she have five sets of tiny innocent eyes pleading up at her, two Amazons were standing there giving her the same look.
"For the love of Zeus."
Xena uncovered the hole that she had earlier placed the bay leaf covered trout in. At the same time, she was stirring the pot that contained the raspberries, which had now broken down to thick gloopy syrup. Leaving the hole open for a moment to let the fish air, she turned her attention back fully to pouring the hot syrup into one of the wooden bowls to cool. Without thinking, she caught the drip off the pan onto her extended tongue, just as her rational brain screamed not to. But it was too late, the hot syrup hit the edge and her eyes shot wide.
Ephiny looked up to see Xena grabbing for the water skin and begin to gulp water down her throat and over her now scalded tongue.
Xena gave a half grimace, half smile, back. "Just ptheachy."
Ephiny eyebrows rose. "What?"
Xena tried her darndest to make her now blistered tongue work right. "I said, just peachy."
"Ok" Ephiny kept staring, even after Xena gave her a smile and turned away. Then, shrugging, she returned to writing out her report.
With her back now to Ephiny, Xena tentatively began to feel the edge of her tongue with a finger, holding in a groan as the digit located the now raised bubble of a burn.
"Gweath, jwust greatf."
Xena spun around. "Whaft?"
Ephiny pointed. "Err, Youíre standing on the fish."
Slowly following Ephinyís pointed finger, Xena lowered her eyes to her feet, which were indeed standing in the cooking hole and right onto the now squashed trout.
Xenaís jaw tensed. And her eyes slowly rolled to the sky. Then with a calmness that scared the shit out of Ephiny, Xena stepped back and removed the fish off of her boots.
" Nof a probflem."
"Xena, are you lisping for a reason?"
Xenaís jaw tensed even more. "I bifte my tongue, you got a proflem wif thaf?"
For the first time ever in her entire warrior career, upon saying those words, Xena didnít get the usual response. Instead, Ephiny laughed so hard that she dropped the scroll.
With the last straw slowly falling to her back, Xena tilted her head back and let out a yell.
"ARGHHHHHHHHH. EFFFhonin, whef the hell is my quailllllllffffffffffth?"
To which Ephinyís response was to laugh harder and suddenly find herself upended and laying the other side of the log as Xena stomped past her into the woods.
They all looked at each other as Xenaís echoes carried through the trees.
Cara looked slightly confused. "Did Xena sound strange to you?"
Bajana nodded her head.
Eponin listened again. "I will tell you what she sounded." She looked at Cara. "Pissed is what."
With a sigh, Eponin looked at the two pleading eyes of the Amazons, then down at five pleading smaller ones. Taking a longer sigh and shaking her head, she raised the cage.
"Go on, get out of here before I change my mind."
All quail took off in the direction of cover, then one paused before disappearing, "mweeeeep"
Eponin grinned. "Youíre welcome."
When she realised that she was being stared at, she turned to find Xena leaning against a tree, cross-armed, both eyebrows raised in question.
"I prusume that wasf my quail?" Cursing in her head, Xena moved her tongue away from the edge of her teeth.
Eponin blinked for a moment as if she had misheard. "Yep."
Xena stepped forward, concentrating hard not to lisp again. "So, the next question is, why is my quail leaving?"
She looked at each of them, both Cara and Bajana lowered their gaze and shifted. So Xenaís stare fell onto Eponin.
Eponin, seeing she was on her own, stepped forward, laying her hand across Xenaís shoulder, and began leading her away and back towards the camp.
"Well, itís like this, my friend... they fought bravely and with honour, and you know the Amazon code as well as I do; that if that happens, they deserve a chance at life."
"Eponin, havefth you been drinking?" Xena paused to sniff her friend.
Eponin laughed and did the same. "No, have you? Whatís wrong with your tongue?"
They continued walking again.
Eponin held up her hands. "Nothing, just ahuhing, just looks like a burn to me."
"Well, it isnítfth."
"So about my quail?" Xena let out a long sigh.
"Is that trout on your boot?" Eponin looked down.
"No! Look, stop changing the subjefft. Why is my quail still moving?"
"Itís out of season."
"Eponin!" the name came out more as a tired groan than a warning.
In answer, Eponin just chuckled. "Now, Xena, itís like this; There once was this little quail that had four other little quails to look after, then one day, along came a big bad hunter...."
This time, Xena groaned for real. "Eponin, shut upfff."
"Ya know, that really does look like trout on your boot."
With a grin, Eponin turned her head and winked back at the two amazons. Both Bajana and Cara grinned at each other as they set out back to camp, walking behind the now bickering warriors.
"It sure smells like fish."
"Oh, for the love of Zeus, how in Hades does Ephiny put up with you?"
"The same way our Queen puts up with you."
"Whatís that supposeffedd to mean?"
"You sure that isnít fish?"
"Yes, itís fisfftthh... Gods."
Birds twittered and the forest creatures continued on their merry way. The fish swam in the stream and, deep within the forest, a little band of quail sat down to tea and told of their adventure in the forest.
That evening a scroll was placed on the dining room door.
The punishment for Xena and named Amazons for not meeting the Royal Challenge is as follows.
Xena will for one month be involved in the ritual dancing championship training of dancers.
Eponin will for one month be in total charge of guarding and escorting Ephiny the regent on any royal visits to the nation.
Cara will for one month take staff training directly from Bajana.
Bajana will for one month give her full teaching of the staff to Cara.
Solari will for one month be responsible solely for stocking the kitchens of fish.
Thus, herein lies the punishment by Royal Order of the Queen Gabrielle of the Nation.
Authors Note.No one within the nation thought any of it was a true punishment for not meeting a royal challenge. But then again, no one could really argue, especially when they heard their Queen laughing throughout the whole village for more than three hours non-stop. In the end, the nation judged it a fair exchange for making their Queen so happy and didnít argue at all.
3rd May 2005 @ author.
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