DISCLAIMER: Story mine, characters not.
“No. Nuh-uh. No way. No how.”
“Gabrielle, it's part of your Amazon training.”
“Right now, I'm rethinking this whole Amazon-thing, let me tell you.”
“With her dying breath, Terreis gave you her right of caste.”
“About that. Who gives their cast to a total stranger, anyway?”
Ephiny rolled her eyes before storming off.
As soon as the intense Amazon was gone, Gabrielle said, “Yep, the more I think about this, I'm sure Terreis meant for her caste to go to someone else. Like Ephiny. I can see her being a princess. She's already a royal pain in the – ”
“Gabrielle. Tree climbing with Solari,” Eponin reminded the new princess. “Then, weapons training with me.”
Gabrielle tilted her head back, staring up the length of the tree. Perched midway up was Solari.
“You ever consider a tree with leaves? You know, in case someone falls.” Eponin's stern look motivated Gabrielle to step up to the tree and place both palms on the trunk. “Did I mention I have a fear of heights?”
“See that she's taught.”
That had been Queen Melosa's command.
Ephiny tried to speak with Eponin without staring at her obviously broken nose and two black eyes.
“Fighting staffs?” she asked.
“Completed,” Eponin confirmed.
Solari downed her head. “Four candlemarks and never got both feet off the ground.”
“Melosa expects Gabrielle to be trained by the time she and Xena return from the peace talks with the Centaurs. We only have three days.”
Eponin scratched beneath the bandage wrapped about her ribs. “Completed.”
Ephiny's next question caught in her throat as she saw Solari leading a bow-legged Gabrielle towards the hospice.
“Don't worry, my princess,” Solari soothed, “The healer has a special ointment for tree burn.”
“Short” sword died on Ephiny's lips as Eponin pointedly glared at the bandage wrapped about her hand.
“Eph, she's a menace,” Solari rubbed her lower back. “Three feet off the ground and she fell on top of me.”
Exasperated, Ephiny looked towards the dance circle. Their new princess was twisting about, arms and legs flailing wildly. Ephiny nudged her friends.
“Oh yeah. That's…” Eponin and Solari cocked their heads to the side as Ephiny ran to Gabrielle, picking up a stick on the way, telling the confused girl to bite down on it. “…how she dances.”
Eponin was stretched out on her stomach, chin resting on her forearm, the rhythmic sounds of falling rain lulling her towards sleep. In the background, she could hear Ephiny and Solari.
“Melosa returns tomorrow. She'll expect Gabrielle to have earned her feathers.”
“First thing in the morning,” Solari swore, “Even if I have to carry her up that tree myself.”
“Just be careful, Solari.” Ephiny sat on the bed, one arm braced on the other side of Eponin's hip as she lifted the cold compress off.
“Eph, please don't touch that,” Eponin's voice drifted back.
“Poor Pony,” Ephiny kissed two of her own fingers, placed them on the tender flesh surrounding the injury.
“At least weapons training's done,” Eponin murmured.
“Huh. Gabrielle said she couldn't hit the broadside of a barn with a bow and arrow.” Solari smiled wickedly as she openly appraised the weapons master's naked hindquarters. “Guess your broadside's bigger than the average barn, Ep.”
“Pony, no!” Ephiny grabbed for Eponin. “You'll rip your stitches!”
Three Amazon warriors and one princess stood in the forest.
“She did this. I know she did.” Ephiny glared daggers at Gabrielle. “I may not know how she did it, but I'm sure she's responsible.”
“Now, Eph. That was a really bad storm we had last night and that tree is awfully old.”
Ephiny turned her dagger-glare-of-death on Eponin, causing the weapons master to take a reflexive step backwards.
“Solari climbed that very same tree yesterday, Eponin, and she weighs at least…”
“Hey!” Solari experimentally pinched her waist. “There's not an ounce of fat….”
“Anyway, Solari's a little bigger…” Ephiny shot Solari a questioning look, making sure that term was acceptable. The scout gave a begrudging nod “…bigger than Gabrielle. If it could hold her weight…”
“Our mothers' mothers' mothers earned their feathers climbing that tree. It's stood in the center of the Amazon forest for over six generations.” Ephiny's voice rose with each word as she pointed at Gabrielle, “She managed to topple it in three days!”
Gabrielle knelt beside the fallen tree, fingers caressing the scorch marks covering its trunk. “Zeus' lightning bolts struck it.” Looking up, tears brimming her eyes, she asked, “Does this mean I won't get to be a real Amazon like you three?”
That simple, innocent question melted three Amazon hearts.
“Of course not, my princess.” Draping an arm around Gabrielle's waist, Solari led her away. “We'll find another tree. There's an entire forest…”
Eponin saw Ephiny drop her head into her hands. Cupping Ephiny beneath the chin, she said, “Don't worry, Eph. With any luck Melosa will be delayed another day or two.”
“I'm not worried about facing Melosa, Pony. I'm concerned for the future of the entire Amazon nation.” Ephiny shook her head morosely. “Even that tree couldn't survive Gabrielle. And, someone still has to teach her what it really means to be an Amazon.”
“Oh, no.” Eponin's eyes went wide. “Eph, no. I've survived her dancing. Fighting staffs. Chobos. Do I need to show you the arrow wound again? No.” Pony shook her head animatedly. “I'm afraid teaching the new princess about sex could actually get someone killed.”
The sound of girlish giggling resounded in the forest. In the distance, Solari had Gabrielle backed against a tree, their heads lowered close together. Ephiny and Eponin looked at each other, eyebrows rising in unison.
“First things first,” Ephiny grabbed Pony by the hand, dragging her along. “Maybe we can find a small, sturdy bush for her to climb…”