DISCLAIMER: Story mine/characters not. Title not, either...Oz said recycled , not stolen
**** HONORABLE MENTION ****
Honor Among Thieves
The heavy temple door was pushed open a fraction of an inch, barely enough to knock the ages old dust from its frame. The fingers of a hand stole around the opening, seeking purchase. There was a soft grunt, a flexing of muscles and the grating sound of stone grinding upon stone.
A sliver of Artemis' moon shone in, providing the barest of light to see by. There was a glint of a sword hilt riding high upon a set of broad shoulders, the whisper of a footfall as boots crafted from the softest leather made first contact with the stone floor. Otherwise, the Amazon's entry went unannounced.
She was a full five paces in, confidently striding towards the altar, when there was a loud hissing sound, followed by several more such hissing and popping sounds. Then, the temple was awash in bright light. The Amazon froze, only her eyes darting about, taking in the suddenly lit braziers.
The influx of fresh oxygen igniting dormant embers, Eponin silently told herself, nothing to be worried about.
Only thing was, she was worried. More worried than she'd been that time Ephiny and Gabrielle had caught her and Xena red-handed, swapping out the ceremonial wine and replacing it with something much, much stronger just prior to the fertility festivals. Xena had actually tried to convince Gabrielle that she had the Amazons' best interests at heart; explaining that more inebriated Amazons equaled randier Amazons equaled more little Amazons come spring. At the sight of Ephiny's hazel eyes narrowed in her direction, Eponin froze like a deer caught in a set of crossbow's sights.
She'd listened to Xena then and done something very much out of character for her and gotten caught. This, she figured, was very much like that. For some ungodly reason, she'd found herself listening to the warrior princess and doing something stupid. Again. Not that Xena had told her to break into a temple. Not in so many words. But, she'd certainly planted the idea in Eponin's head.
Honestly, do I look like the sort of Amazon that sneaks into temples in the middle of the night and...and... Eponin rushed forward, kneeling and placing the wrapped bundle on the altar in offering... oh, Hera's saggy tits...
There was a blinding explosion that had Eponin staggering back, nearly falling down the altar steps. She instinctively shielded her eyes with one hand and drew her sword with the other.
"Like, totally not the devoted prayers I normally hear."
Dark eyebrows rose so high they nearly touched Eponin's hairline. "Aph - Aphrodite?"
"Got it in one, Amazon babe." The blonde goddess giggled and flashed a dazzling smile that displayed deep dimples. "So, like, what's shaking?"
"Sh - shaking?" Eponin cursed her newfound inability to speak without stuttering.
"Yeah, shaking. Like, what brings you to one of my temples. We're not exactly on your home turf, ya know."
There was no immediate answer forthcoming from the Amazon warrior. She appeared to be completely stunned and utterly speechless. It was exactly the sort of reaction Aphrodite was used to from most mortals.
Aphrodite wasn't concerned. If this mortal was like the others, well, she'll recover eventually.
The goddess used the time she had while Ep was finding her absent motor skills to allow her goddess-like senses to take in all there was of the Amazon. Aphrodite was a renowned connoisseur of the mortal form and she didn't restrict her tastes to one specific gender.
Especially when the treat looks so deliciously tasty, Aphrodite thought.
This Amazon had biceps, triceps, deltoids and the most amazing set of sculpted abs Aphrodite had ever seen. She hadn't seen a set of stomach muscles that chiseled since she'd inspired that sculptor...what'shisname...to carve that piece on display in Athens. He was gifted by the Gods, but for all his talent, even he wouldn't be able to capture this warrior's most distinguishing feature. She had the most totally bodacious eyes; light-hued and emphasized by a deep, bronzed tan and dark, ebony locks framing her face. To Aphrodite, they appeared to be the exact shade of ambrosia.
Mm, definitely a treat worthy of the Gods. Whether she was thinking of the ambrosia or the Amazon, even Aphrodite herself couldn't say for certain. Her gaze slowly traveled over every inch of Eponin's toned body, finally settling on a defined forearm, a large hand, fingers - Aphrodite frowned as she saw the sword firmly clutched in Eponin's grasp.
"Hey, stud muffin, I'm all for kink," Aphrodite pointedly used the tip of her finger to touch the blade, redirecting the sharp end towards the floor, "But, I didn't think you Amazons went in for that sort of obvious phallic-stuff."
"Huh?" Eponin blinked in confusion, focusing first on Aphrodite, then on her weapon. "Oh." Eyes went round, cheeks blushed deep and suddenly, Eponin couldn't sheathe her sword fast enough.
"Sooo..." The goddess slowly circled Eponin, the fingernails of her hand trailing up one arm as she did so. She paused, lips at the shell of an ear as she said, "what's a nice Amazon like you..." Aphrodite leaned in impossibly closer, peering over Eponin's shoulder, having every intention of looking down her halter, "....Oh, presents!"
Having spotted the new object on her altar, Aphrodite was instantly across the temple. Picking up the bundle, she unwrapped the twine and hide covering as quickly as any child on Solstice Day. A finely crafted knife fell out of the wrapper and into the palm of her hand. If it was possible, Aphrodite's entire being radiated disappointment.
"What is it?" she asked, holding it by just the tips of her thumb and index finger.
"A hunting knife. Um, I carved the hilt myself from deer antler."
The reaction was instantaneous. As soon as Eponin said antler, Aphrodite screamed and flung the knife away from herself. "Bogus! Do I look like Artemis to you?" She made a face, wiped her open palm against her diaphanous pink nightie. "Like, what were you thinking?"
"I - I thought...I don't know what I thought."
Eponin spun around, planting her tailfeathers on the stairs leading to the altar. Her shoulders were hunched. Her head was bowed and she was staring dejectedly at the toes of her boots.
The Amazon looked absolutely crestfallen. Aphrodite's heart went out to her. She descended a few steps, then gracefully sat beside Eponin. She used her shoulder to nudge the warrior.
"Sweetcheeks, did you really think that was a good gift?"
"I - " Eponin shook her head. "I messed it up. Just like I always do." She felt something stinging her eyes, blinked rapidly, angrily scrubbing a hand across her face. Her other hand closed into a fist, repeatedly striking against her thigh as she berated herself. "Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. I never ever get it right."
"Whoa, Whoa, Pony!"
If Eponin caught Aphrodite's play on words, she gave no indication. She didn't even seem to give a second thought as to how it was that a goddess would know her nickname. Especially considering they'd never even met before tonight.
Yet, here she was, in the flesh. The Goddess of Love herself. And, she was reaching out, her fingers closing about Eponin's wrist, preventing her from striking herself again. Then, she was adjusting her grip, intertwining her fingers with Eponin's until they were holding hands.
"Oh, sweetie. This is so about more than just a knife, isn't it?" Aphrodite grinned as the warrior morosely nodded. "You're in love, aren't you?"
"And, you're bummed because - " Aphrodite left the question dangling. Seeing the chagrined look, she already knew the answer before Pony's lips moved " - Aw, you so haven't told her, have you?"
"I've tried...but I...she looks at me and I can't breathe... and my hands get sweaty and then I'm wiping them on my leathers...and..." Eponin forced in a deep breath, then exhaled, her gaze focusing on the knife firmly embedded in a stone pillar directly across the temple from where she sat. "It's like the knife...I just can't get it right."
"Sweetie," Aphrodite cupped Eponin beneath the chin, lifted until she could look her in the eyes, "love's not that hard. Just be yourself and tell her how you feel."
"Being myself is the problem. I'm a warrior, not some bard."
"Hey, love isn't perfect. Even if the words don't come out quite right, she'll know if they're said from the heart."
"I...I can't. I try and something else comes out of my mouth. Usually, something stupid. Or, nothing at all." Eponin wore an absolutely tortured look. "I'm just not good with words like you and Gabrielle are."
"Oh, sweetcheeks." Aphrodite felt truly bad for the Amazon. She wanted to make her feel better, but knew that anything she said wouldn't convince Pony that she had the ability to speak what was in her heart. That's when it hit her. "Like, duh!" Aphrodite slapped a palm to her forehead. "I'll say it for you."
Aphrodite stood up, using both her hands to pull Eponin up with her. "It's like you said; Gabrielle and I are good at words. We both speak the language of love. Don't you see; I'm going to give you the gift of gab." Seeing the perplexed look, Aphrodite amended, "Not your Queen, Gab. Just her gift of words so you can say what's in your heart and well, win over your sweetie's heart."
"I don't know."
"You came here looking for my help, right? Well, here I am, totally ready to give it."
Before Eponin could say anything else, Aphrodite had taken Pony's hand and was placing her open palm against her chest, over her heart. Ep was surprised by the feel of the warm softness of the flesh beneath her hand. She was even more startled to feel the goddess give the top portion of her breast a quick squeeze before repeating the move, placing her palm over the warrior's heart.
"Amazon warrior full of courage, brave of heart. Wield wisely my gift of words, the essence of love."
Pink, shimmering hearts fell over them like a light misting of rain. Eponin felt a slight tingling sensation, but otherwise felt no different.
"Is that it?" she cautiously asked.
"You were expecting heralding trumpets and fanfare?" Aphrodite giggled, gave Eponin's shoulder a playful shove. "Go on, get outta here. Go find your sweetie and tell her you love her." Then, with a twitch of a pert nose and a wiggle of her fingers, the knife she'd embedded in the column fell to the floor. "Keep your offering, sweetcheeks; this one's on me."
Eponin rushed down the altar steps. She picked up the knife, tucked it into her waistband and gave a curt nod in Aphrodite's direction. Ep took all of three paces before turning around and running back up the steps. She looked the goddess in the eye, then ducked her head, shyly smiling. She moved quickly, leaning in, dropping a kiss on Aphrodite's cheek.
Pony drew back. "Thank you," she said, before bolting for the door.
"Godspeed, stud muffin," Aphrodite said, even though her temple was once again just as deserted as it had been a mere candlemark before the Amazon's arrival.
Feeling extremely satisfied with herself, Aphrodite was just about to snap herself out of there and to a place with gnarly waves. Then, she spotted the other offerings scattered about her altar. These had obviously been there awhile, layers of dust having settled over them.
"Still, a gift's a gift," she giggled, "and, I do love a gift."
It was several candlemarks later that Aphrodite sat on the steps of her altar. If she'd been bummed about the gift from Pony, she was doubly bummed now. At least the Amazon had given her something that had some significance; even if it was only to herself. What she had here was nothing more than offerings of food - all of it having long ago spoiled - and baubles and trinkets that she wouldn't be caught dead wearing. There wasn't even a decent carving of her likeness anywhere amongst these presents.
Aphrodite stood up, wiping her hands as if to brush off the bad vibes of her gifts. "That's it. I'm so out of here and tanning on a beach."
She closed her eyes and snapped both fingers. When she opened them again, she was surprised to find herself not on a sandy beach full of hot bodies, but instead still in her abandoned temple. She snapped her fingers again. Nothing. Impatiently tapping a pink heel against the stone floor, she placed a hand on a voluptuous hip and tried again.
"Like, total bummer."
There was the ominous rumbling of distant thunder. Gabrielle checked the sky as she exited the dining hut. There was a lone, dark cloud visible on the horizon. Maybe we'll get lucky and actually get some rain. The summer sun had only just risen and already the humidity was heavy in the air.
Pulling her top away from where it was uncomfortably sticking to her body, Gabrielle contemplated doing nothing more strenuous than taking a swim in the lake. The telltale sounds of staffs striking against each other met her ears. Sounds like someone has more energy this morning than I do. A particularly loud strike rang out, followed by raucous cheers. A knowing smile on her lips, she headed towards the practice fields.
The crowd was already beginning to disperse when she arrived. She made her way to the perimeter, braced the sole of her boot against the lower railing and pulled herself up so she was sitting on the wooden fence.
Verdant eyes drank in the sight of the warrior princess. To Gabrielle, she was all tanned flesh and long legs, her body glistening with sweat. She moved with an easy grace, the wooden staff held loosely in her grasp as she approached.
Xena uncorked the waterskin that had been hanging from the fencepost. She took a long draw, then poured the rest over her head. In slow motion, she whipped her ebony locks back and forth, shaking the water from her hair, sending droplets flinging towards the bard.
Gabrielle licked her lips, having the sudden urge to lick the remaining moisture from her warrior's body. As if sensing her thoughts, Xena looked up, intense blue eyes meeting and locking with green. The sparring session had already elevated Xena's heart rate. The sight of Gabrielle caused her heartbeat to increase even more.
Despite her many skills, Xena didn't seem to hear the Amazon's approach and was caught by surprise when she jogged up next to her and reached out, taking the waterskin from her. There was an irritated sound, then the empty skin was slapped against the front of her leathers, hitting Xena squarely across the breasts.
"Would it have killed you to leave me a drop?"
It was difficult to believe the sincerity of the apology due to the smile tugging at her lips. Xena grabbed a scrap of cloth from the fence line and wiped it over her face, her arms and legs before one-handed tossing it at the woman next to her. She deftly caught it, only slightly grimacing as she performed the same maneuver, swiping at the sweat that was covering her from head to boot.
"Better get in a good soak at the mineral springs. Take it from someone who's used to going one-on-one with the warrior princess. If it feels bad now, it'll hurt that much worse once the muscles have a chance to stiffen up on you."
"I'll take your word for it, Gabrielle." Her eyes sparkled with mischief. She imagined more than half the village had heard those two going one-on-one late last night. She turned, pierced the warrior princess with a look. "You owe me one, Xena."
"Thanks, Eph." Xena patted the regent on the shoulder. "You don't know how much I need my morning workout."
"Yeah, I do. Which is the only reason I agreed. Can't afford to have you take out the entire guard, can I?"
It was then that Gabrielle realized why Ephiny was sparring with Xena.
Xena tried to appear aloof, but that simple, terse two-worded response spoke volumes.
"That's not like Pony."
"Maybe she got tired of me kicking her butt all the time."
The words were already forming on Ephiny's lips in defense of her weapons master's reputation. Then, she looked at the warrior and her protestations withered.
Xena's head was bowed and she was picking at a callous on the palm of her hand, so she missed the look that passed between queen and regent. Ephiny was a stranger to the sight of six-feet tall of pouting warrior princess. She half expected to see a bottom lip protruding and the toe of a boot kicking at the dirt any heartbeat now.
Gabrielle bit back a smile. Xena was behaving just like a little Amazon she'd seen sitting in a puddle and crying her eyes out because her friend didn't come out to play with her. Turned out her playmate had broken her mom's best bow and was grounded. She figured this was exactly the same; Xena's feelings were hurt and she was lashing out because her friend hadn't come out to play.
"Be fair, Xena. Ep's never missed a session with you." Gabrielle reached out, catching Xena beneath the chin and lifting until blue eyes were looking up at her through thick lashes. "You two were going at the wineskins pretty hard last night. Maybe she's still sleeping it off?"
"Checked her hut." Was that an actual pout? "Bed wasn't slept in."
Ephiny had been enjoying the exchange between warrior and bard. There was a relaxed playfulness about her, a jovial twinkle in her eyes and an easy smile upon her lips. That changed in an instant. A veil descended over her eyes, her lips tightened in a firm line, her entire form tensed up. She firmly planted her staff, took the fence in one vault.
"Ephiny?" Gabrielle called after her. "Where are you - ?"
Hazel eyes flashed as Ephiny looked back. "Think I could use that soak now." She tossed the staff at Xena, who extended her hand and caught it with negligent ease.
Eponin traveled through the village on winged sandals. At least, that's how it seemed. She'd been running on pure adrenaline ever since she'd left Aphrodite's temple. She'd pushed her horse, traveling at a blistering pace to reach the borders of the Amazon Nation. She'd barely returned the birdcalls from the trees at their perimeter and the salute of the gate guard, she was in such a hurry. She'd stabled her horse, performing the feeding and rubdown routine by rote before rushing off again.
She ran the entire distance, not slowing until she reached the practice fields. She saw Xena standing at the fence, speaking with Gabrielle, two staffs leaning against her body. She was going to call out to the warrior; apologize for being late. Then, she saw Xena tilt her head, lean in close, her lips meeting Gabrielle's. Her Queen eagerly returned the kiss. It didn't look like they were going to stop any time soon.
She spotted Ephiny. Her heartbeat increased and she swallowed against the sudden dryness in her mouth. Come on, this is what you wanted. Taking a deep breath, she called out to her regent.
Ephiny didn't stop. Eponin yelled again. There was a slight falter to her step, but Ephiny continued on as though she hadn't heard. Eponin jogged the short distance, catching her by the elbow, drawing her up short.
"Hey, Eph, wait."
The regent stopped and turned, jerking her elbow out of Eponin's grasp as she did. Eyes narrowed as she glared at the weapons master.
"Aren't you late for a sparring match?" she pointedly asked.
"Yeah, but I don't think Xena minds." Dark eyebrows waggled suggestively. "She and Gabrielle are doing a different kind of sparring."
"Minds?" A blonde brow arched beneath the regent's crown, edging its way towards the leather braiding that encircled her head. "She was tearing through guard after guard until I volunteered to spar with her."
"So, she's already had her morning work out. Great. Cause I really wanted to...uh...can we talk?"
Gabrielle was standing at the fence line, the warrior princess at her back, arms wrapped about her waist. They were watching the exchange between Eponin and Ephiny. The rigid stance, the glaring eyes, the jaw clenched so tight you couldn't slide a dinar between her lips...Ephiny's temper was legendary. And, for some reason, Eponin didn't seem to have a clue she was in mortal danger.
"Do you think we should go over there?"
"Nuh-uh. Not enough dinars in the known world to pay me to get in the middle of that. Ep's on her own." A sudden thought struck Xena. "Hey, if Eph's not gonna soak in the mineral springs, what say you and I give it a try?"
"Mm." Gabrielle smiled, giving the suggestion serious consideration. Xena tugged on her hand, trying to lead her away, but Gabrielle was reluctant. Oh, she wanted to go and she knew she'd give in to Xena before long, but her curiosity urged her to see what would happen between Ephiny and Eponin first.
Her arms were folded defensively over her chest, her muscles prominently displayed beneath gauntlets and bracers as Ephiny silently glared at Eponin.
"I wanted to tell you...I mean I have something to..." Eponin couldn't fathom what was happening. When she'd first spied Ephiny, she'd gotten those butterflies in her stomach that she always got around her regent. But she'd powered through, finding the courage to approach her, to even stop her in her tracks. Now, though, she was having difficulty. "I mean, I wanted to ask you..." Nervously, she wet her lips, trying to find the words as those hazel eyes looked at her expectantly. Aphrodite said the words would come. Just warrior up and say them. "Look, Ephiny, it's like this. I'm in love."
Temper simmering just below the surface, Ephiny was desperately wishing she hadn't given her staff away. Her jaw clenched so tightly that it was threatening to lock, she demanded through gritted teeth, "Who is she?"
"What?" Clearly not the response Pony was expecting.
"Your bed wasn't slept in. So, what's her name?"
"It's not like that."
Eponin reached out a hand, placing it on Ephiny's shoulder. She was surprised when Ephiny grabbed her hand, removing it, applying pressure to the palm.
"It's not like what?" Ephiny asked, squeezing harder with each subsequent question. "Your bed wasn't empty? You didn't blow off a match with your friend? I didn't just get my tailfeathers handed to me on a plate while you were rolling around in some harlot's bed? Which of those was it not like?"
"Eph, stop!" Eponin was on her knees from the pain. "Please. Don't move. Don't say a word. Just listen."
Ep felt the pressure on her hand lessen. Standing up, she held her injured appendage in her other hand. She didn't look up; she couldn't look at Ephiny. Not now. Not when Eph thought --- she prayed that Aphrodite's spell would truly give her the right words.
"Ephiny, it's you." She nearly winced, expecting Ephiny to explode any heartbeat now. When the regent didn't utter a word, Ep took a deep breath and continued on. "It's always been you. I adore and worship you. If there's one thing I've always wanted, it's for you to want me the way I want you, for you to love me the way I love you."
Eponin didn't know what else to say. She just stood there, staring at the ground for what seemed like an eternity. She didn't know exactly what she was waiting for. She wasn't sure precisely what reaction she'd expected Ephiny to have.
But, she'd expected her to have one. She hadn't been slapped. And, Ephiny hadn't laughed and walked away. She knew because her boots were still there, standing in front of hers. She'd have at least thought Eph would say something. Anything.
Her heart was beating wildly. Her pulse was pounding. She couldn't stand it any longer. Wetting her lips, taking a deep breath, she looked up.
It was a fuming Goddess of Love that stomped down the dirt road. Road, Hah! That was an understatement. Athens had roads. This...this...was little more than a goat trail.
Or, a deer trail, Aphrodite amended, remembering the Amazon's offering.
Aphrodite cried out at the very real pain of twisting her ankle. Gingerly, she hobbled her way over to a tree. She ignored the territory markers hanging from the branches. Just as she had the first set she'd trudged by. Bracing herself against the trunk with one hand, she turned this way and that, trying to see down the length of her leg. With an exasperated huff, she took the offending shoe off, staring dubiously at the broken heel.
"Great. Just great." She looked up into the tree branches. "I hope you know this is my favorite pair!"
There was no answer. Not that she expected there would be. "Look, I can understand why you wouldn't want Ares and the others to have their temples on your property. Sacred lands, yada-yada. But, come on, would it really hurt anything for me to have one on Amazon soil?"
Aphrodite was feeling decidedly put out. She'd had to walk - walk to get to land of the Amazons. No godly poofing! to get there.
And, it wasn't like it was just a hop, skip and jump down the road, either. No, her sister was so protective of her warrior women that she went and had them settled in the most remote places she could find. Not that she could blame Artemis. Gods knew that if they were convenient to get to, every red-blooded male in Greece would be trying to sneak across their borders.
"Hellooo!" Aphrodite gave the treetops one last disgruntled look before slipping her injured shoe back on. "Like, so not a man here."
"Oh, you're most certainly not that."
Aphrodite heard the disembodied voice and actually thought that her sister was coming to her rescue. Then, she saw the group of masked warriors come hurtling from the trees. As soon as their feet touched the ground, they surrounded her, drawing their weapons.
Several tense heartbeats passed as no one moved. Then, one of the women raised her feathered mask, smoothly pushing it back on top of her head. The Amazon walked a slow circle around the intruder. Sharp brown eyes traveled up and down the voluptuous beauty clad in a sheer, bilious pink nightie and not much else. She drew to a halt directly in front of the gorgeous blonde, her gaze lingering.
"No." Solari slowly shook her head, "No doubt about it. You are most definitely all woman."
Aphrodite giggled. She couldn't help it; it was an ingrained response to any compliment she received. And, to know that she could garner this sort of attention, even without her godly powers -
"What brings such a lovely young woman to the Amazon forest?" Solari asked.
"I need to see your Queen." Wait. What had Gabrielle said about someone ruling in her absence? "Um, your Regent." No, wait. What if Gabs was in residence? Did Gabrielle even still have her caste? "Um, your Queen-Regent. Maybe it's Regent-Queen." Ooh, mortals and their titles! Aphrodite nearly stomped her foot in frustration. "Your ruler. I need an audience with the head woman in charge. It's important."
Solari flashed an indulgent smile. A flick of her head sent the other women back into the trees to resume their patrol. Solari watched them go, then turned back to the blonde. She made a move to the side as if to allow Aphrodite to pass, then deliberately blocked her path.
"You'll have to be checked for weapons first."
Aphrodite's eyes widened and her mouth nearly unhinged. She gestured at herself as if to ask exactly how could she possibly conceal a weapon given her rather revealing attire.
"Procedure." Solari shrugged, trying her best to keep from licking her lips as her eyes locked on the blonde's bountiful, heaving breasts. "To protect the Queen. You understand, right?"
Aphrodite rolled her eyes, looked up at the heavens. With a resigned sigh, she held her arms out by her sides and waited for the Amazon to do her duty for Queen and Nation.
"Eph? Ephiny? Ephiny!"
Gabrielle had both hands braced on her regent's upper arms and was roughly shaking her. Ephiny's body went with the motion, corkscrew blonde locks bouncing in response, but there was no other visible reaction.
"What's wrong with her?" Gabrielle asked.
Eponin's mouth opened, but no words would come out. Gabrielle's screams had already attracted a crowd. Someone had been dispatched to fetch the healer as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, Xena was looking their regent over from head to foot.
Xena placed her fingers to Ephiny's neck, feeling for a pulse point. "She's alive." An audible sigh went up from the group. "And, she's okay. As far as I can tell. But, she's not moving or talking." Xena waved a hand in front of Ephiny's face. "Not even blinking." Arching an ebony brow, blue eyes locked on the clearly shaken weapons master. "You were with her. What happened?"
"I - I - " don't know. I just wanted her to listen. "I - "
"Like, so totally stole my powers."
All heads turned to see a curvy blonde clad in a pink bikini and diaphanous robe coming at them with a very pronounced limp. A flustered Solari was right on her heels; her pink heels with the fluffy tassels on them that bounced as she walked. One of the heels was clearly broken and listing to the side with each step she took. Still, it didn't seem to slow her down any as Solari was nearly jogging to keep up with her.
Aphrodite stopped, glanced at Ephiny, then Eponin. "This your sweetie?" she asked. Taking the crimson blush as answer enough, Aphrodite looked Ephiny over, openly appraising the regent. She lifted one long, blonde corkscrew curl and let it fall back into place. "Totally cool 'do."
"Aphrodite?" Gabrielle asked, "What are you doing in the Amazon village?"
Xena pinched the bridge of her nose in a vain attempt at warding off the pressure building behind her eyes. She'd wanted nothing more from today than her morning sparring session with her friend and a soak in the hot springs with her lover.
Instead, she'd had to spar with someone that wasn't the weapons master. That in itself had been irritating, as it had thrown off her routine. Then Ephiny had been paralyzed. And, they'd been standing in the middle of the village for well over a candlemark now, with the sun beginning to heat up her leathers, making her decidedly uncomfortable. And, she still hadn't gotten her bath with her bard.
Thank the Gods Gabrielle had ordered the gawking tribeswomen that were milling around staring at the scantily-clad Aphrodite back to their duties. That left only herself, Gabrielle, Eponin and of course, a whining Aphrodite.
"You so don't understand. I need my powers back. Like now. I have responsibilities. There are countless mortals the known world over waiting for me to help them."
"Pffft. Any idiot can fall in love," Xena snorted. "Love isn't like sword fighting; it's not a real skill."
"Oh, puh-lease. Anyone can figure out you aim the pointy end at the other guy. But not even the most wise of scholars have been able to unravel the mystery of love. Love is like totally the most bodacious super power. Ever. Wars have been waged, won and lost in the name of it. Entire kingdoms have been built on its foundation or brought to ruin because of it. It transcends the barriers of class, language and age. There's nothing that can defeat it. The power of love is...well, it's me..." Aphrodite looked immensely pleased with herself. Then, she looked at Eponin and her expression immediately soured. "Except she stole it from me and I want it back."
"I've never stolen anything in my life," Ep tried protesting, but was ignored by both Aphrodite and Xena.
"For love being this great power, you didn't have any trouble losing it."
"Bite me, warrior babe."
"Hey, hey. That's enough. Both of you." Gabrielle purposely stepped between the warrior and the goddess. To her satisfaction, both Xena and Aphrodite fell silent. However, they continued to glare daggers at each other over the bard's head. "Now, Aphrodite. Given your current...um..." Gabrielle faltered as she took in Aphrodite's broken heel, the dirt upon the hem of her gown and an actual bead of perspiration forming on her brow. "...state...there's no doubt that you're mortal. But, there's absolutely no proof that it was Pony that stole your powers."
"Oh, reaalllly?" Aphrodite jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the stock-still, unblinking Ephiny. "Looks like a standard Gorgon-spell to me. Do all Amazons have the many skills needed for that?"
"Now hang on."
Up until now, Eponin had been very careful to be respectful of the goddess, despite being called a thief. But, saying that she had done something to hurt her regent...god or not, Aphrodite was way out of line. Temper boiling, Eponin began wildly gesticulating as she stepped into Aphrodite's personal space.
"There's no way I cast a spell on Ephiny. I didn't steal your blasted powers - "
A blast of shimmering pink hearts shot from the tips of Eponin's fingers. Startled, she immediately jerked her hand back. The blast flew past Aphrodite, just narrowly missing her bouffant of hair.
Solari had been lingering about, her curiosity piqued by the woman she'd escorted in from their borders. Gabrielle had clearly called her Aphrodite. But Aphrodite was the Goddess of Love, an immortal. And, Solari would swear upon her mothers' funeral pyres that she had felt very real, very mortal flesh beneath that pink gown.
Lost in thought, Solari was caught off guard, a bolt of sparkling hearts hitting her squarely in the chest, knocking her off her feet. She hit the ground hard. She stayed down, too dazed to move. Then, a leather gauntleted wrist and hand was reaching down and she was being helped to her feet.
"Are you okay?"
"Unh. Think so."
Solari was shaking her head side to side, trying to make the ringing in her ears stop. Still dazed, she looked up into the aged face of one of the village elders. She suddenly reached up, taking the elder's face in both hands and tugging her head down by her ears. Their lips met in a heated crush, Solari's tongue darting out of her mouth and into that of the elder's as she deepened the kiss.
"I - I didn't - "
Eponin helplessly gestured towards Solari and the elder tribeswoman. As she did, another bolt shot from her fingertips, this one going wide and long, simultaneously striking two burly warriors that had been sparring with each other on the practice field. They stopped and stared at each other, mutual dopey expressions adorning their faces, their swords falling from lax fingertips.
"Chill, Amazon woman. Minor love bolt. It'll fade soon." Aphrodite cocked her head to the side, watching the two warriors rolling around on the grass. "Whoa. Gnarly wrestling move. That's so not a legal hold." She watched for a few more heartbeats, then flicked her gaze to Ephiny. "Can't say the same for your regent babe. Seriously more complex spell."
Eponin had found a flicker of hope when Aphrodite said the spell on Solari and the others wouldn't last long. That immediately dissipated upon hearing that Ephiny's affliction wouldn't fade so simply.
Pony went to rake a hand through her hair. Her arms were immediately pinned to her sides. She looked around, startled to find herself staring into Xena's blue eyes as the warrior princess held her tightly from behind.
"Stay still," Xena instructed, "And, for gods' sake, don't point at anyone."
Gabrielle was circling around Ephiny, looking her over as though she were a particularly fascinating piece of art. Eponin had taken to sitting on the grass, forlornly gazing up at her frozen regent. Xena was keeping a wary eye on Ep, just in case she even thought about moving wrong. Aphrodite was staring in abject horror at a chip in one of her nails.
Gabrielle rapidly waved her hand back and forth in front of Ephiny's face.
"You said Eph was hit by a Gorgon-spell?" Gabrielle asked, looking towards Aphrodite.
"But, she's not stone." Gabrielle reached out, grabbing Ephiny's cheek between her thumb and forefinger and jiggling. The skin moved easily beneath her tweaking. "Definitely flesh."
"You're thinking Medusa, eldest of the Gorgon sisters. Cursed by Athena, gnarly hair, yada-yada, has the power to turn any mortal who looks upon her to stone. Her hagster sisters possess only the power to immobilize." Aphrodite gestured towards Ephiny. "Hence, the term Gorgon-spell."
"But, I didn't - " Xena grabbed Pony's hand before she could complete the motion, forced it down by her side. Ep shot her a look, then continued " - no pink bolts."
"It's not what you did, it's what you said." At the blank look from Eponin, Aphrodite said, "Like what I did in my temple?" She rolled her eyes. "Gods, amateurs!"
"Wait. You recited a spell? You didn't just - " Gabrielle waggled her fingers to indicate a more physical approach.
"Nuh-uh. The kind of major mojo Ms. Amazon Sticky Fingers here needed requires the spoken word. I swear, you mortals think a goddess can just wave her hand and - "
"So, bottom line," Xena growled out, "you messed up a spell. Again."
"Xena, stop." Gabrielle was chewing her bottom lip, pacing around Ephiny as she thought. She paused, draping an arm around Ephiny's shoulders, looking at her, seemingly asking her regent, "Could it really be that simple? Aphrodite, do you remember the exact wording of the spell you cast?"
"Well, like duh! I'm not a total airhead, ya know."
Xena started to say something, but a scathing look from Gabrielle had her tightly shutting her mouth.
"Recite it. Word for word. Maybe that'll put things back the way they belong."
"Okay, sweet pea, guess it couldn't hurt anything."
Again, Xena's remark withered on her lips beneath Gabrielle's gaze.
Aphrodite took up her position, placing Eponin's hand over her heart and hers over Eponin's.
"Amazon warrior, full of courage, brave of heart. Wield wisely the gift of my words, the essence of my love."
Everyone waited, watching the sky as if expecting pink shimmering hearts to suddenly manifest. The air was clear and still, except for that lone storm cloud and a rumble of thunder.
A raindrop fell. Then, another. Aphrodite screamed, covered her head with both arms and ran for the shelter of the nearest hut.
Solari blinked. "By the Gods, my head's pounding." She placed a hand to her temple, rubbing her fingers in a circular motion. "What happened?" Solari looked around, surprised that it was raining. When did that happen? She remembered arriving at the village, finding Ephiny, ogling at Aphrodite, getting knocked down.
"Call it destiny or perhaps the will of the Fates. Call it love."
Solari's eyes grew wide as she looked into those of the elder that had husked those words into her ear. They grew even wider when she saw where that elder's hand was.
"Call it a concussion." Solari used both hands to shove the older woman away.
"Like enough already."
Aphrodite turned beseeching eyes to Gabrielle. Out of the entire village, the goddess thought the bard was the only one who might take pity on her. She certainly wasn't going to get any from that warrior princess. Or that warrior that stole her powers. Not even that cute Amazon she'd bestowed an iota of her affections on in the woods had shown her any love.
No, she was in cahoots with the other two. They'd thrown a cloak - an ugly wool cloak that did absolutely nothing for her - over her head and dragged her kicking and screaming out into the rain. Then, they'd made her stand out there in a puddle - a puddle! - and recite the spell again. And again. And again.
"That's it, sweet pea. There's just no more go-juice."
"Please. Try it once more," Gabrielle pleaded above the noise of the driving rain.
Aphrodite sighed, placed her hand above Eponin's heart and Eponin's hand above hers again. With the warrior wearing the same style of shapeless cloak she was, it didn't have the same appeal for Aphrodite this time around. A blank expression on her face, no inflection in her voice, she repeated the spell. When, yet again, nothing happened, Aphrodite abruptly dropped Eponin's hand.
"That wasn't right," Pony protested.
"Exsqueeze me?" Aphrodite's voice rose an octave. "Expert here. I think I know how to do a verbalization spell. Standard stuff. Totally worked wonders for that Cyrano fellow in Cyprus."
"But - what you said at the temple - that wasn't it." Ep paused, momentarily daunted by the narrowed eyes, the stern expression, the hands balled on Aphrodite's hips. "The first part was the same, but then you said wield wisely my gift of words, the essence of love. "
There was a sharp gasp. Aphrodite clutched a hand to her chest as if she'd been pierced by an arrow. "Oh! Like total transposition of key words."
Xena folded her arms over her chest. The only part of her face visible beneath her hooded cloak was the ice blue eyes of her frosty stare. "Guess we know now what part went wrong."
"Okay, Aphrodite. Try it again. Repeat it just the way Eponin said."
There was an exasperated huff and a rolling of eyes. In the end, though, they all knew she'd do as Gabrielle asked. When nothing happened, Aphrodite helplessly shrugged her shoulders.
"Maybe it's Ep that needs to say it." All eyes turned to look at Solari. "I mean, if she did steal Aphrodite's powers, maybe she's the one that has to say it now."
"Go on, Pony, give it a try," Gabrielle ordered.
"I feel really stupid doing this, but here goes." She repeated the process of placing her hand over Aphrodite's heart and Aphrodite's over hers.
Eponin tried the spell. Both ways.
It was Xena that gave voice to the obvious. "No sparkles. No poof. No anything."
"Well, duh! It's because she's like a novice. It takes decades to learn the simplest of incantations. For something as complex as this, it could take a century to learn - or undo."
"A c-century?" The devastation in Eponin's voice rang clear. She knelt at Ephiny's feet, clutched one of Ephiny's immobile hands in hers. Looking up at Ephiny's impassive face, Eponin was unable to keep the moisture from welling up in her eyes.
"Yeah, well, we don't have a century. With the exception of Ep, we'll all be bones by then." Xena leveled a look at Aphrodite. "Even you. Without your powers, you're mortal, remember?"
Gabrielle looked to her regent. When the rain started, they'd tried to carry her to shelter. It was as if she'd grown roots. Not even the combined strength of Xena, Eponin and Solari was enough to budge her.
"We can't just leave poor Eph like this."
"I don't know, Gabrielle. I actually kind of like her this way."
Xena winced as she felt the backhanded slap through her cloak and leathers.
"She's not stone. She's living, breathing flesh. What if she's vulnerable to weapons? What if she still continues to age?" Gabrielle lowered her voice. "How cruel would it be for an immortal Eponin to helplessly stand by while the love of her life dies?" She fixed Xena with a look and hissed out, "What if it were me? We have to fix this."
"Any idea how? I'm like totally open to suggestions."
The silence dragged out for heartbeats. Xena felt like a heel. She'd been enjoying the situation, even egging Aphrodite on, not considering the implications if they didn't return things to normal. If it were Gabrielle, Xena knew she'd never rest until things were put right. But, this wasn't some monster she could slay, some warlord she could defeat, some greedy merchant she could make see the error of his ways. This was nothing more than a freak accident. What good are the many skills of a warrior princess against a slip of words, a twist of fate? Unless - Xena snapped her fingers.
"There's a legend Hercules told me about a crystal. It's big; has the power to reflect the true nature of whoever possesses it. I'm willing to bet that it can put you and Pony right again."
Aphrodite nodded. "The crystal of truth. Hey, don't look at me like that, I didn't name it."
"So, the legends are true? It does exist?"
"Oh, most definitely. But, it's like totally hidden in Hera's main temple, under the care of an order of priests sworn to protect it with their lives."
Xena grinned. "Grab your purses, gals. We're goin' jewelry shopping."
"Are you serious?" Eponin asked, "We're just going to waltz into Hera's temple and ask if we can pretty please borrow one of her prized baubles?"
"I never said anything about borrowing."
"Stealing? We're going to steal a crystal from the Queen of the Gods?"
"Why not?" Xena shrugged. "You've already ripped off one goddess today. Besides, if you want Eph back..."
Eponin's gaze drifted to Ephiny. The regent was just the way she'd been ever since Ep had spoken those words that had turned her. All I said was don't move. And, she hadn't. Not a muscle. Even with the rain steadily pouring down on her, drenching everything, there wasn't so much as a twitch in response.
On trembling legs, Eponin stood before Ephiny. Her hand shaking so badly it was visible, she tenderly touched her regent's cheek, wiping away some of the rain from her flesh. She gazed into unblinking hazel eyes.
"I'd never do anything to harm you, Eph. I'll make this right. I swear."
Sensing the intimacy of the moment, the others moved away. Even Aphrodite was sensitive enough to not make a caustic comment.
"I'll get the horses." Xena asked Gabrielle, "Can you get some supplies, meet me back here?"
Gabrielle nodded. Aphrodite started to go with her. "I'll totally stay out of the way in a dry hut until you get back."
"Hold it." Xena grabbed Aphrodite by the hood of her cloak. "You're coming with us. We can't waste time bringing the crystal all the way back to the village."
"Bummer. I'm so not equipped to travel as a mortal."
"Pony, you're in charge of weapons." Solari started to go with Eponin, but Xena held her back. She spoke in a low tone so as not to risk that the weapons master might overhear. "Solari, I need you to stay here, just in case what Gabrielle said about Ephiny being vulnerable is true. Don't need any Velasca-wannabe's coming after her."
"I'll protect her with my life, Xena."
Xena nodded. Maintaining her grip on Aphrodite's cloak, Xena steered her towards the direction of the stables. "Oh, Solari?" Xena called back over her shoulder, "Set up a tarp or something, huh? Don't wanna get back and find she's caught her death of a cold."
"Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow."
Xena ground her teeth, her grip upon Argo's reins tightened. Gabrielle's body pressed against the length of her back. Both arms were loosely wrapped about Xena's frame. The palm of a hand stroked across her midsection, just below her breastplate. Xena relaxed into the familiarity of the touch.
Until Aphrodite's next series of "Ow. Ow. Ow." Then, all the tension returned.
"Okay, that's it." Xena held up a hand, signaling for her group to stop. " Everyone dismount."
Eponin reined in. She warily surveyed the landscape. Behind them was a field of wild grain, the path their horses made through the center still visible in the tall stalks. Ahead of them was a forest and a well-worn path that disappeared between the trees. The path was barely wide enough to accommodate two riders side by side.
Ep smoothly slid from her saddle, softly landing on both feet. She gave her horse a reassuring pat before walking the short distance to Xena's horse. She caught Argo's bridle in one hand, offered the mare an apple from her pack.
Xena was still in the saddle, blue eyes darting about the interior of the darkened forest. Behind her, Gabrielle was struggling to get both her legs on the same side of the horse.
Eponin forced a smile onto her lips as she looked up at Xena. "Trouble?" she asked, her voice conveying none of the serenity she was attempting to display.
Xena knew what the weapons master was asking. They'd already encountered one ambush. The forest was a likely place for another.
"Not unless you count Aphrodite's horseback riding skills." Xena braced herself as Gabrielle used her body as a ladder to climb off of Argo. "Just want to find a good place to make camp."
Eponin glanced towards the sky. "There's a couple of candlemarks of light left. We could still get in a few more miles."
"It's going to get darker faster in the woods. And, we're already tired. We'll cover more ground tomorrow if we're well rested tonight."
"Ow. Ow." Aphrodite winced with every move she made. Gabrielle was standing beside her horse, reaching up for her, trying to help her friend out of the saddle. "Ow."
"Besides, do you want to endure another few candlemarks of that?"
"Uncool! I heard that." Aphrodite lost her grip on the pommel, slipped from the saddle with a jarring lurch. "Ow."
"I'll go that way." Pony pointed to a direction deep in the forest, well off the path. "Quail call when I find something."
"I don't know why she's being so mean to me," Aphrodite pouted. "It's not my fault. I'm really a good horseback rider."
"As a goddess, maybe," Xena growled, "As a mortal, no way."
Xena threw up her arms. Gabrielle was always taking Aphrodite's side. She moved away, grabbed the bedroll from behind Argo's saddle and proceeded to spread it out on the ground.
Aphrodite had already commandeered the other two and would have claimed the third if Xena hadn't put her foot down. Xena sat down on the bedroll and pointedly crossed her arms over her chest. No way was she going to spend a miserable night on the hard ground while Aphrodite slept in pampered luxury.
Well, maybe not that pampered. Aphrodite was stretched out on her stomach, the bedrolls beneath her. She was using one of the saddlebags propped beneath her midsection to give her posterior some elevation. Her very bare posterior as her customary pink gown was pushed up past her hips and her pink bikini bottoms were lowered to expose her hindquarters.
"It hurts. Can't you do something?"
"I don't know. Don't you have some lotion or something?"
"I have horse liniment in my saddlebag," Eponin volunteered, "But, I don't think you want that rubbed on there. It goes on cool, but heats up fast."
"That's it!" Aphrodite snapped her fingers. "I need something cold. Like snow."
"Mind telling me just where you think you're going to get snow from? In case you hadn't noticed, it's the height of the summer season."
"From Amazon babe." Aphrodite looked at Eponin. "You can zap some snow here."
Both eyebrows shot up. "I can?"
"Sure. It's a visualization thing. You have my powers. It's time you started learning how to use them. Just close your eyes and concentrate."
Eponin closed her eyes.
"See the snow. Feel the snow. Take the snow."
Eponin's arm reached out, her hand closing in midair as though she were grasping something.
"Bring the snow here."
Eponin felt a sudden weight. She blinked her eyes open. In her hand was a bucket filled with tiny cubes of ice.
"That trick will come in real handy at festivals," Xena said. "You can call it Amazon Ice and sell it hut to hut."
"Just ignore her." Aphrodite glared at the warrior princess. "Maybe snow was too ambitious. We'll start with something smaller." Aphrodite shifted on her saddlebag, winced as a sharp pain reminded her of the need for her current choice of position. "Tomorrow."
Naturally, Xena heard it first. Or, maybe she sensed it. She lay perfectly still atop her bedroll. Her eyes were closed, her breathing perfectly even. Beside her, Gabrielle snored in her ear, oblivious that anything was out of the ordinary.
She heard a sword being slowly inched from its sheath; knew that Eponin was awake also. Awake and ready.
There was the weight of a foot stepping onto the edge of the bedroll. Xena leapt into action, springing from her supine position and into a standing one in one fluid motion. Her fingers were a blur as she struck.
The first intruder dropped, going down onto both knees. The second rushed passed Xena's bedroll, charging straight for the weapons master. Eponin was on her feet, in a ready position. The intruder barreled through her defenses, catching her off-guard, ambushing her with smothering kisses all about her face.
"Pony." Another series of kisses. "Thank the Gods I've found you, my love."
"My...love?" Eponin used both hands to push her attacker back to arms' length. "Ephiny?!?"
"Ephiny?" Xena echoed Eponin's surprise. She looked down to see an Amazon kneeling at her feet, desperately gesturing for Xena to take the pinch off. "Solari?"
Solari rubbed her throat. Despite her discomfort, she couldn't help the repeated glances towards the pile on the bedrolls. Or Aphrodite's bare posterior shining by the light of the moon.
"Saddle bruises." Xena lowered her voice so Aphrodite wouldn't hear. "She was actually doing pretty good until we ran into that band of thugs."
"Ah. Saw some unwashed types nursing their wounds along the side of the road."
"I explained mine. You explain yours."
Solari's gaze drifted across the campsite. Eponin was pinned with her back against a tree, vainly trying to fight off the attentions of an amorous Ephiny. The regent was meticulously trying to make a tribal tattoo of love bites about her weapons master's neck.
"Don't know," Solari shrugged. "You guys were a candlemark, maybe two, outside of the village when she just suddenly snapped out of it and demanded we find you guys before you got to Hera's temple. At least I thought she snapped out of it." Solari turned her head sideways so she could better see what was happening. "That's just not normal."
"Ooooh, stud muffin," cooed Aphrodite from the safety of her bedrolls. "What did you do to her?"
"N-nothing." Eponin placed both hands palms up in the air where they were clearly visible. "I haven't touched her."
"Silly. I meant, it looks like you cast more than a simple Gorgon-spell. When you were pouring out your heart, what else did you say to her?"
"I - I don't know exactly. She was using pressure points on my hand - " Ep shot Xena a look. "Thanks for teaching her that, by the way."
Xena smirked. "Oh, yeah. That's when your regent had the mighty weapons master down on her knees in the dirt."
"Go on, Pony." Solari joined in the teasing. "I want to hear what sweet nothings big, tough warrior whispered in Ephiny's ear."
"Trust me, from where Eponin was kneeling, it wasn't Ephiny's ear she was whispering in."
"Guys, come on."
"Well?" Aphrodite asked. "If you don't tell me what you said, I can't help you figure out what you did."
Eponin looked to where her so-called buddies hovered like carrion eaters.
"Come on, Aphrodite. Don't make me say in front of Xena and Soli."
"Okay, girlfriend." Aphrodite gestured with both hands, "Come on, come over here."
Eponin struggled to disentangle herself from a clinging Ephiny. She walked the short distance to Aphrodite's bedrolls. Standing beside the doubled up goddess, feeling as though she were addressing the wrong end, Eponin felt decidedly uncomfortable. She examined her options from several angles before finally lowering herself onto her hands and knees beside Aphrodite.
To her dismay, Ephiny climbed onto the bedroll beside them. Ep heard the raucous laughter from Xena and Solari. Trying to block them out, she propped herself up on her elbows and spoke in hushed tones to Aphrodite.
"I told her that I adore and worship her." Eponin ducked her head, blushing as she confessed her entire profession of love. "I told her I wanted her to want me the way I want her, to love me the way I love her."
"Ooooh! An obsessive-infatuation spell. Very tricky stuff there." Aphrodite looked suitably impressed. "You go, Pony!"
"Okay, so how do we fix it?"
"We can't," Aphrodite shrugged. "At least not until we steal the crystal of truth from Hera so I can get back the powers you stole from me."
Pony scrubbed a hand over her face, banged her head against the bedroll covered ground. It was going to be a very long night.
"This sucks. This sucks. This sucks."
"Do you suppose Aphrodite thinks this sucks?"
"Sweet pea! It's bad enough I have to endure the ridicule from her, but from you, too?"
"I'm sorry, Aphrodite." Gabrielle offered up a smile. "I was only teasing."
"Yeah," Xena said, "We're only joking. Don't be so sensitive."
"Well, don't be so mean. This whole mortal gig is hard enough without you making fun." Aphrodite's ankle twisted and she stumbled. She reached out, only just managing to save herself from falling by latching onto a nearby Solari. "I'm so not built for this traveling on foot."
"Thought after yesterday, you'd be glad to be off the horse."
"Well, duh. But, not like this."
In spite of her merciless teasing of the newly mortal goddess, Xena wasn't that pleased to be without the horses, either. They'd encountered more bands of raiders that morning. One group had attacked them as they'd been in the process of breaking down their camp. The second had waited until they were out of the cover of the forest. It had been after the third attack that Xena decided they had to get off the open road.
Unfortunately, there was only one sure route she was positive raiders wouldn't follow. But, it meant setting Argo loose with the instructions to lead the other horses back to Amazon territory. They'd have to go the rest of the way on foot.
"Gasp!" Aphrodite's eyes widened as she caught sight of the green slime firmly embedded around the hem of her pink gown. Experimentally, she lifted a shoe. The same offending slime stubbornly clung to the blob that had once been a pink tassel. "This was designer," she wailed.
"Maybe you can start a new fashion," Xena smirked, "Swamp chic."
"This sucks swamp water."
"And so do you, warrior princess." Aphrodite balled her hands on her hips and glared at Xena. "No wonder your friend is still mad at you."
Gabrielle quirked a brow. She'd noticed that there was a distance between Xena and Eponin this morning. More than just the physical one. When they'd been on the horses, Ep had maneuvered her mount so that there were several riders between her and Xena. At first, Gabrielle had thought it was strategy; having their two toughest warriors on the outer edge of the pack in case of an ambush. As they'd dismounted and headed into the swamp, though, Eponin had steadily increased her pace so that she pushed ahead and away from the others.
They were at odds over something. Gabrielle was certain of it. Never mind, I'll get Xena to tell me about it later. Right now, she had more pressing matters. Like diffusing the tension between Xena and Aphrodite.
"So, a dual spell, huh?" Gabrielle asked Aphrodite, indicating Ephiny with a nod of her head.
The regent wasn't a part of their immediate group, either. She'd been hot on Eponin's heels ever since they'd entered the swamp.
"Yeah. Totally rocks for a beginner."
"Ephiny just came tearing into camp and into Eponin's arms?" Gabrielle had awoken that morning to find her weapons master covered in bruises and love bites and her regent tied to a tree. "Can't believe I slept through that."
"I can't believe you slept through Xena nearly killing me atop your bedroll." Solari self-consciously placed a hand to her bruised throat.
"Gabrielle can sleep through anything. Even se - " There was suddenly a bard's hand clamped down over Xena's mouth, cutting off her words.
"Speaking of. The attacking, not the sex." Aphrodite pointed at a section of the swamp.
The green slime began bubbling. Then, it moved. There was an ear-piercing shrilling noise as a large black mass came bursting up through the surface, displacing huge amounts of water.
"Of course." Xena swiped a hand over her wet face and down the front of her leathers. She reached for her chakram. "What's a swamp without a giant eel?"
"I'm telling you, Hera will stop at nothing to keep us from getting the crystal of truth and restoring my powers."
As loathe as Xena was to admit it, "I'm afraid Aphrodite's right."
"If she can't find enough mortal minions to send after us, she'll unleash more monsters like that one from the swamp."
"I swear I'll never eat another eel ever again." Gabrielle suppressed a shiver. That thing had been huge.
They hadn't stopped running until they reached solid ground. Even then, they'd gone an extra mile to make sure they were well out of the reaches of anything else that might be crawling around in that swamp. They'd stopped at a lake, jumped in clothes and all to get the stench and the slime off.
Now, they were standing in a clearing at the height of an already unbearably hot day with a blazing fire going a fire circle.
"Xena, I am not hiking across the countryside wearing wet underwear," Gabrielle said.
And, that had been the end of it. The warrior princess folded, meekly taking off her undergarments and draping them on a rock beside her bard's.
"Xena's good, but she's no Hercules. Sooner or later, she'll come up against a monster that can't be beaten with chakram or sword. You need to learn to use my powers to fight."
Aphrodite came to stand behind Eponin. She placed her chin on Ep's shoulder, grasped her wrist gauntlet and raised her hand. A jealous Ephiny started to charge Aphrodite, but was restrained by Gabrielle.
"Now, see that boulder? I want you to imagine blasting it in half."
Eponin took a deep breath, steadied herself. She was expecting a burst of lightning followed by the explosive shattering of the boulder. After all, following Aphrodite's instructions, that's what she'd visualized. Reality was a short pink burst that fell considerably short of its intended target.
"Sparkles?" Eponin dubiously stared at her fingertips. "Why are there sparkles? And, why are they pink?"
Xena and Solari burst out laughing. At a warning look from Gabrielle, Xena fell silent.
"Ignore them," Aphrodite advised. "Okay, if you can't fight, then flight."
Eponin looked scandalized. "Amazons don't run."
"I'm not talking about running. I'm talking about something so much cooler. Teleportation. Like you did with the bucket of ice?"
"That was pretty cool," Ep admitted.
"This is just like that. Only with people. We'll start small. Close your eyes. Visualize yourself standing right here. Now, visualize yourself standing there, on the other side of the fire."
Eponin concentrated. She could feel her whole body tingling. She saw sparkling lights behind her eyelids. Exhaling loudly, she opened her eyes.
Aphrodite was still standing right next to her. Gabrielle was still standing directly across from her, restraining a ticked off Ephiny. She hadn't moved an inch. Pony frowned. She was so sure it had worked.
Xena stood with her arms folded across her chest, a fearsome scowl on her face. Ep's eyes traveled the length of Xena's body down to her boots. The warrior princess was standing in the center of the fire.
"Enough practice." Her boots still smoking, Xena stepped out of the fire circle and retrieved her underwear from the stone it had been drying on. Slinging the still moist garment across her shoulder, she said with as much dignity as she could, "Let's go, we're burning daylight" before walking away.
Dusk found them stopping to camp for the night with little incident. Xena was returning from the woods with a couple of rabbits for dinner. Gabrielle and Aphrodite were coming back from a trip to the bushes. Of all the things Aphrodite hated the most about being mortal, it was the toiletry needs.
"Like, speaking of needs."
Ep was seated on a log, with Ephiny and Solari on either side of her. Both had a firm grip on her arms and her upper thighs to prevent her from getting up. Not that it looked like Eponin was trying to do that. For good measure, they were each licking, biting and sucking at dual earlobes.
Eponin looked up at the sound of Aphrodite's voice. "Oh, thank the..." her voice rose in pitch and her head fell back on her shoulders as Ephiny's hand moved higher up her thigh and beneath her leathers. "...gods! Make them stop, would ya?"
"You're the one that's doing it, Amazon babe. You're like totally giving off lust pheromones." At the confused looks and wrinkling of noses from Xena and Gabrielle, Aphrodite said, "What? Am I the only one that can see it?"
Solari's hand found Eponin's breast. "Please?" The look on Pony's face was torturous.
"Okay, this one is simple. To dispel a lust spell, just think of something else. Something not sexy."
"Not sexy. Okay." Eponin swallowed against the dryness in her mouth. "I can do this. Not sexy. Fishing. Latrine duty. Arrow wounds. The healer stitching closed arrow wounds."
"Wha -?" Solari placed a hand to her throbbing head. Slowly, she became aware of where her other hand was resting. "Oh, gods." She snatched her hand away and rushed off into the woods.
"It worked on Solari," Eponin said as she grabbed Ephiny's hand and tugged it away from between her legs. Ephiny struggled to return her digits to the warm place where they'd been nestled. Eponin increased the pressure of her grip. Ephiny winced. "Why not her?"
Sensing that things were about to turn ugly, Gabrielle told Xena, "You go after Solari. I'll take Ephiny."
"Right," Xena agreed, glad for any excuse to leave.
Gabrielle tugged her regent to her feet. "Come on, Eph. Let's go for a nice walk in the woods."
As soon as they were gone, Aphrodite came and sat beside Eponin on the log. "You already hit her with that obsessive-infatuation spell. As long as that's in effect, you can't cast another spell over the top of it."
"Ugh. I can't stand it. She's all over me, all the time. I can't take two steps and stop without her plowing into me. And, her hands. Her hands are everywhere."
"That's what you wanted, though, right?" Aphrodite asked, "You wanted her to worship you. So, give in and bask in her adoration."
"Not like this. This isn't what I want."
Aphrodite sagely nodded. "Then, you have to stop it."
"How can I do that? I can't even get any of the stuff you're teaching me right."
"We get the crystal. I get my powers. I fix your cutie pie."
Eponin buried her face in both hands. "I don't know that I can wait that long."
"Well, then, there's only one other option." Aphrodite patted Ep's shoulder as she delivered the news, "You two need to have a sensitive chat."
Full-on night found full stomachs and bedrolls. Not unexpectedly, Eponin awoke to find Ephiny in hers.
"Ephiny, Eph," Eponin caught both of Ephiny's wrists in her grasp. "We have to stop."
"Why?" Ephiny managed to lean in and steal another kiss. "Everyone's asleep; no one will hear."
Why? Why? Eponin's mind struggled to come up with a single good answer to that question.
"Because...because...I don't want you."
Ephiny jerked her wrists free from Eponin's grasp, sat bolt upright, straddling the warrior. Her eyes narrowed to tiny slits, her voice trembled with rage. "You don't want me? You'll have to do better than that, weapons master." She dropped her voice to a low hiss, "Don't forget, I've already felt what's beneath your leathers. I'd say you want me plenty."
"You're right," Eponin struggled with the truth, "I do. I always have."
Ephiny smiled triumphantly. In one fluid motion, she yanked her halter over her head, revealing her breasts. They were pert and firm and full and...
"Oh, gods..." Pony groaned. "Gods know I want you, Ephiny. Just not like this."
Ephiny tilted her head to the side. "You wanna be on top first?"
"Yes. No. I mean - " There was a pause as Eponin took a resolute breath. "I want this more than anything. But, I can't...I won't take advantage. When this happens...if it ever happens...it'll be when it's right for the both of us."
Ephiny blinked several times, swallowed harshly. Her voice cracked as she spoke, "You'll regret this. Then, you'll come crawling to my bedroll on your hands and knees."
Ephiny leaned forward. Eponin braced herself, thinking the angry regent meant to strike her. Instead, she retrieved her top and stood up, carrying it in a one-handed clutch back to her own bedroll.
"Are you awake?"
"Yes, Gabrielle, I'm awake."
There was a long pause before Gabrielle whispered again.
"What's wrong?" Xena shifted, tilted her head so she could look down at her lover cradled in her arms.
"Do you think powers make the hero or is it the hero that makes the powers?"
"This about Eponin?"
Xena had heard Ephiny leave her bedroll, steal across the camp to Eponin's. She'd seen their silhouettes, watched as Eponin rebuked the gorgeous regent, sent her away.
"Xena, I'm worried she's changing. Earlier, when we all came back to find her on the log between Ephiny and Solari." Gabrielle sniffled. "That wasn't her. That wasn't our Pony."
"Shhh. It'll be okay." Xena stroked a hand through Gabrielle's tresses, placed a reassuring kiss on her head. "It'll be fine. Promise."
Her words worked to calm Gabrielle and before long, the bard was dreaming of happier times. Xena lay awake for long candlemarks after that, staring at the night sky, wishing she could be so sure things would work out.
"We need to talk."
Eponin hated that phrase. It never preceded anything good. Letting out a long suffering sigh, she stood up and followed Xena into the bush.
Aphrodite had gone to the river to wash up. Solari had gone along in case Hera sent anymore of her minions after the vulnerable goddess. Ephiny was sitting with Gabrielle on her bedroll, softly talking. Ever since Eponin had rejected her advances, the regent had been unusually subdued.
Xena's keen hearing had picked up a snippet of their conversation.
"You know how warriors are, Eph. Can't see what's in front of them unless you hit them between the eyes with a staff."
"I will, if it'll get her attention."
"Before you do that," Gabrielle reached around behind her, discreetly moved her staff out of Ephiny's reach, "let's try something a little more...subtle."
"Amazons don't do subtle."
"Don't I know it? You've been pretty obvious in...what you want from Ep, right?" Gabrielle waited for Ephiny's nod of confirmation. "That's the problem. See, she's cocky, thinking she can have you any time she wants you. But, if you play hard to get, withhold your advances...well, thinking you aren't interested is only going to make her want you that much more."
"Hard to get, huh?"
Xena caught the note of curiosity in Ephiny's voice. Good girl, Gabrielle. That'll keep her out of Eponin's hair for a while. Speaking of -
"Xena, if this is about what happened between Solari and Gabrielle...don't blame Solari. I'm still learning how to use my powers."
I don't blame Solari. There was a twitching of a jaw muscle. "I don't like you hanging around with Aphrodite so much."
"There's nothing going on. She's just training me."
"I know that. But, Aphrodite can be a bad influence on others." Eponin's words came back to her, "And, did you notice you called them your powers?" Xena frowned, "Just what were you doing in her temple, anyway?"
"Not stealing her powers, if that's what you're thinking. That was an accident."
"You didn't answer the question. Why were you there?" Xena's eyes narrowed as she studied Eponin's face. "You took her something, didn't you? An offering? For what? What did you ask her for?"
"I - I...aw, don't give me a hard time over this, Xena. I just wanted some love, okay?"
"If that's all you wanted you could've got that at a brothel house. Heck, you could've gotten a couple of them at the same time if that's what puts the arrow in your quiver."
Eponin grimaced. "Not that. Not a quick tumble or a roll in the hay. If that's all I wanted, I could get that back at the Amazon village." She cast a glance towards the campsite. Solari had returned and was now sitting on the bedroll between Gabrielle and Ephiny. She was laughing easily and had an arm draped about both their shoulders. "Heck, Soli's always been game for anything casual. I could have that any time I wanted. With almost anyone. Except Eph."
"Last couple of days, she's been willing."
"I don't want sex." Eponin's eyes drifted towards the camp; and to Ephiny. "Well, not just sex. I want more. I see how Gabrielle looks at you. I see how you are when you're together. There's something palpable about your love. Xena, I want what you and Gabrielle have."
Both Xena's eyebrows went up. It wasn't the answer she'd been expecting. But, it certainly explained Pony's motivation.
"I've gotta tell you, Eponin. A love like ours isn't easy. But, I will admit it's worth it. The day I told Gabrielle my true feelings..."
There was a very unladylike snort. Both warriors turned to see Aphrodite peering back at them from the other side of the bush.
Xena folded her arms over her chest, arched an ebony brow and gave the former goddess the look.
"Puh-lease. I may have lost my powers, but I so did not lose my memories. I tried for the longest time to get you to come to your senses where the bardly babe was concerned. But, you were just sooo stubborn. Warriors...pfft. Took dying to get you to admit you loved her."
Xena was left sputtering and fuming as Aphrodite linked her arm through Eponin's and led her off. "Come on, stud muffin. Let's go practice your lessons somewhere a little more private."
Aphrodite and Eponin trailed along behind the pack. Ephiny and Solari were in the middle, side by side. It hadn't escaped Eponin's notice that Ephiny was spending more of her time with Soli. A lot more time.
Xena and Gabrielle walked at the front. Gabrielle was chatting amiably, probably telling Xena about the outline of a story idea she'd had. The warrior's head kept swiveling from side to side, no doubt watching for any signs of an ambush.
Aphrodite noticed she also kept looking back at them.
Aphrodite smiled, pleased that the Amazon no longer struggled against the moniker.
"Xena doesn't like us spending so much time together, huh?"
Eponin frowned, shook her head. "Naw."
"Because of the Solari/Gabrielle thing?"
Aphrodite had thought as much. Nothing had happened. Not really. Eponin had been trying to teleport again. And, failing miserably. She was already at the brink of frustration.
Then, Solari had made fun of her one too many times.
"Why do you put up with that from her?" Aphrodite asked. "You're almost a god. You're better than her."
"Solari's a friend. She doesn't mean any harm."
"Some friend. She doesn't respect you. Neither does Xena. You need to show her. You need to show both of them."
It had been a kiss, not much more. The spell had dissipated almost immediately. But, Xena finding her soulmate with her lips pressed against another woman's; Solari and Gabrielle regaining their senses to find themselves in each others' arms....It had been enough to prove a point.
Eponin frowned. Xena hadn't said anything. Not to Gabrielle. Not to Solari. She'd just turned around a pierced Eponin with a look that she felt all the way to her soul. Gods, Xena's my friend; why would I have done that?
Aphrodite reached out, smoothing the furrow in Ep's brow. "Don't worry about it. She's just got 'tude because she's just got skills. You've got real super powers, babe."
Eponin nodded, her conscience seemingly placated by Aphrodite's words. They continued to walk along in companionable silence for several heartbeats before Ep asked, "Aphrodite?"
"Yes, stud muffin?"
"If love's such a great power to have, why does it have to be pink and all girly? Why can't it be big and strong and tough?"
"Like an Amazon warrior, you mean?" Aphrodite giggled. "It's a physical manifestation of your inner self. Cupid has arrows. I have pink, sparkly hearts. And, if you'd be willing to admit it to anyone, including yourself, you'd know that deep beneath that gruff warrior exterior, there beats a very real, very sensitive heart."
"Huh." Ep paused, rubbed her chin. "Guess pink's pretty cool. But, something in blue would be awesome, too."
"Now you're starting to get it, girlfriend."
Gabrielle stood, feet braced apart, staff gripped tightly at a diagonal angle. She was the last line of defense between the monster and the mortal goddess.
Solari and Ephiny had tried to protect them. Both were now unconscious on the floor, victims of a powerful swipe of the monster's tail. Xena was slumped against a column, the marble stained red from where her head had impacted.
Aphrodite squealed as the monster's massive jowls snapped at them. "Whack it with your staff, Gab."
Gabrielle rushed forward, thumping the three-headed dog on one of its noses. He yelped, backed up, shook his head from side to side. Growling, he advanced again. Gabrielle tried a repeat of the move; only to have one of the dog's other heads snap and close its teeth about her Amazon staff and wrench it from her grasp as if it were nothing more than a throw stick.
Xena shook her head. That was Gabrielle's Help Me! cry. Instinctively, she reached for her chakram. And came up empty. Bleary eyes found and focused on her weapon embedded in a far wall. She tried to stand, digging her fingers deep into the creases of the marble column to pull herself upright.
They had ventured inside, thinking this secluded building was the Temple of Hera. Instead, it turned out to be the lair of Cerebus, the three-headed dog. And, he was not in playful mood.
Xena took a step, felt her legs buckle. She latched onto the column for support. Her chakram was too far away. With the room spinning, she couldn't risk throwing her sword or breast dagger for fear she might hit Gabrielle.
"Eponin! Ep!" The Amazon weapons master lay facedown a distance halfway between that of Xena and Gabrielle. "Eponin!" To Xena's relief, she moaned, began to stir. "Listen to me. You've got to get up. Your Queen is in danger."
Eponin was on her hands and knees, struggling to reach her feet. She dragged her sword beneath her body, using it as a crutch to help herself up.
Cerebus had Gabrielle pinned against Aphrodite, Aphrodite pinned against the wall. The left and center heads were focused entirely on their prey, hot saliva dripping from their jowls as they showed all their teeth. The right head was contentedly gnawing on Gabrielle's staff.
The two aggressive heads growled, snapped.
Eponin took a step forward, wobbled, went down on one knee. She was quickly discovering that immortal didn't mean invulnerable.
"Ep! Get up." Xena's plea was one of desperation. "Do something."
Eponin tried to get up again, couldn't. She flung her fingers. Pink hearts shot from her fingertips, enveloping the massive dog.
Cerebus whined, then rolled over onto its back. Gabrielle and Aphrodite carefully stepped around the frolicking dog. They joined their companions, rousing Ephiny and Solari, helping them to their feet. Gabrielle placed Xena's arm about her shoulder, supporting her lover's weight fully.
They edged along the far wall in case Cerebus regained his senses. Xena had replaced Gabrielle's staff with the hipbone from a skeleton and the right head was contentedly chewing on it. The left and center heads were nuzzling and licking at each other.
In all her adventures, Xena had never seen anything like it. "Ep, what'd you hit them with?"
Eponin shrugged. "I just aimed and fired."
"Warriors." Aphrodite giggled. "Don't you recognize a case of puppy love when you see it?"
"Huh." Xena nodded. "Guess maybe love isn't such a dumb super power to have, after all."
Fingertips parted the bushes. A set of blue eyes peered out. Followed by five other sets of eyes in varying degrees and shades of color.
Xena scrubbed a hand across her face, expecting someone to notice the unnatural rustling of the bushes any heartbeat now.
The entrance to the temple loomed in front of them. Xena took note of the gravel path leading up to the wide stone steps and the large double doors. There wasn't a bit of cover to be had between their current position and the doors. Once they emerged from the bushes, they'd literally be out in the open.
The warrior princess had planned on being able to mingle with the other worshippers and simply walk into the temple. And, indeed, there was a steady stream of the devoted walking up the path and through the doors.
"I've seen only men so far. No women or children," Gabrielle said.
"Like duh! Old cow-face is serious about protecting her precious gems."
"Maybe you shouldn't call her names until your godhood - goddesshood - godliness? - is restored."
"True that, sweet pea. Anyway, old...um...Hera figures women, families, are a major distraction. That's why only priests are allowed in her main temple."
"These are more than just your ordinary everyday priests." Xena's eyes shifted to a passing group.
They all wore the same style of loose fitting brown, hooded robes. Around each of their waists they wore plain brown leather scabbards and swords. Xena counted groups ranging between four and eight priests going into the temple in intermittent intervals.
"Priests armed with swords means no regular soldiers to guard the temple." Xena huffed. There went her alternate plan of using Aphrodite and Solari as a pair of scantily-clad, flirtatious distractions. Priests sworn to a lifetime of celibacy wouldn't be so easily swayed by a woman's bountiful charms.
"Xena, I have faith in your many skills, but how are we going to steal the crystal of truth if we can't even get inside the temple?" asked Gabrielle.
Blue eyes narrowed as she studied the temple. The outside was made of stone. If she could reach a far wall undetected, she might be able to scale it. There were no windows, though. Only a large glass dome some twenty feet up. Even if she managed to climb up there, she wasn't sure she could break the glass and get inside without raising an alarm.
Damn. Where's the King of Thieves when you need him? Autolycus could just waltz right in there.
"Xena? Why are you smiling?"
"Because, Gabrielle. If we can't beat them, we're going to join them."
Xena saw an approaching squad of priests. "We're about to become brothers of the cloth."
"You're wasting time. You have to come out. Now."
"As if! I can't be seen in this...this...thing."
"We're all wearing them."
"That doesn't make it right."
Gabrielle reached into the bushes, grabbed Aphrodite by the wrist and pulled her out.
"Sweet pea, please." Aphrodite squirmed beneath her robe, pulling it out and away from her body, trying to get some much needed air underneath. "For the love of Zeus, who wears wool in the summer? And, really, brown? Top to bottom, shapeless and drab. And this belt accessorized with this sword? Puh-lease. I'm telling you, this is one big fashion nightmare."
"Can we go now?" The impatience in Xena's tone was obvious. "Sooner we get in, the sooner we get out, the sooner you," she pointedly looked at Aphrodite "can lose the robe."
Xena headed up the path towards the temple doors, Solari, Eponin and Ephiny right behind her. Gabrielle's eyes narrowed as she saw Ephiny sneak her hand from beneath the long sleeve of her robe and try to clasp Eponin's.
Have to watch that, Gabrielle told herself, a couple of handholding priests are sure to blow our cover.
Gabrielle started after her group. Aphrodite headed back towards the bushes. Until Gabrielle grabbed her and tugged her back. She bodily turned the despairing woman around and marched her in the direction of the temple.
They walked together, Gabrielle keeping one eye on Aphrodite in case she tried to bolt. The blonde goddess walked with her head hanging down and her feet dragging. Then, she began squirming again.
"Will you stop it?" Gabrielle urged, "You're supposed to be a devout priest."
"I can't help it. I have sensitive skin. Wool itches." Aphrodite scratched a rather indelicate spot.
"Stop that." Gabrielle reached out, slapping Aphrodite's hand away.
"I think my guy had something." Aphrodite tugged at the sleeve of Gabrielle's robe. "Trade with me."
"No. Now, come on." Gabrielle forcefully yanked on Aphrodite's arm. "And, you'd better keep this up." Gabrielle pulled Aphrodite's hood on.
The goddess gasped, placed a hand to her chest. "My hair! This is so totally heinous."
The doors to the temple swung open, bringing in the harsh glare of the sweltering afternoon sun along with six robed figures. They paused as one, eyes darting about the temple from beneath the confines of their hoods.
The group that had entered the temple ahead of them was walking down the main aisle, heads lowered, softly chanting. When they reached the altar at the front, they stopped before a priest dressed in a white robe with burgundy trim. Instead of the customary wool material like the other priests wore, his was made from linen. A finely made sword hung in the jewel encrusted belt riding low on his hips.
As the group came before him, he said an invocation to Hera. The group answered a response in unison. The priest held up his hands, palms together in a 'v' formation.
Xena felt a hand squeeze her arm.
"I know, Gabrielle." Xena made sure to keep her voice lowered.
In his hands, the head priest held a crystal. It was diamond-shaped and big enough that it spanned the entire surface of his palms.
In unison, the group bowed low, paying reverence before standing and moving off to the left of the altar to kneel at the end of a row. Blue eyes darted about, taking a visual count. Already, there had to be well over a hundred priests in the temple.
With more coming in all the time.
Xena heard the creaking of the doors opening behind her, felt the heat of the sun invading the cool interior of the temple. She lowered her head and began softly chanting. She took one measured step down the aisle, followed by another and another.
Beneath the cover of her hood, Gabrielle grimaced. Xena always did have a pair on her. With no other options available, she took a steadying breath and followed her soulmate. The others followed suit, with Ephiny prodding Aphrodite forward when the mortal goddess hesitated.
The cloaked warrior princess led the procession through the heart of the temple. She stopped at the altar, making sure to keep her head lowered as the priest recited his invocation. When the group before him didn't immediately answer, he said the invocation again.
In a breach of religious protocol, only the squad leader responded with the customary devotional. The words were correct, but the intonation was stilted, the dialect wrong. The priest accepted the response and continued on with the ceremony even as he suspiciously eyed the squad.
"Intruders!" Upon seeing the toe of a soiled pink shoe protruding from beneath the hem of a woolen robe, he raised the alarm. The squad leader reacted quickly, snatching the jewel out of his hands and running for the door. "Stop them! They have the ceremonial crystal! Seal the temple!"
A large burly priest stepped into Xena's path. She shucked off her robe, rolled it into a long strip and snapped it. The priest doubled over, clutching at his eye. Xena planted a hand, used his back as a brace to vault over his bulk. She used a powerful kicking leg sweep to knock down five charging priests.
She bolted up the aisle, five robe clad figures right behind her, the last one holding up the robe's hem, exposing a pair of very feminine legs and pink pumps.
Xena skid to a halt, grumbling as several bodies plowed into her from behind.
"Hey! Why are we stopping?"
"You think we can get through that?" Xena asked, gesturing towards the closed doors and the thirty sword wielding priests blocking them.
Eponin shrugged, raised her arm. "I could try - "
" - blasting the entire temple to bits with us in it? No thanks." Xena grasped Ep's arm, forced it down by her side. "Come on," she said, drawing her sword, "I'll take the half on the right."
Xena felt the insistent tug on her leathers. Xena rolled her eyes, looked back at her bard. "Yeesss, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle wordlessly pointed. The remaining seventy or so priests that had been worshipping in the temple were stalking them en masse, swords drawn, determined to surround them on all sides.
"Oh." Xena tilted her head to the side, causing her neck to crack. As she righted her head again, she saw it. A tapestry hanging on the left side wall. The corner of the tapestry was curled under, caught in the framework of a hidden door. "Come on," she urged, grabbing Gabrielle by the scruff of her cloak and yanking her along.
"You know, for the crystal of truth, it's not all that impressive," Gabrielle remarked as she held the jewel in her hand.
"It's big." Xena grunted as she pushed a large oak chest against the door. "What were you expecting?"
"I've seen bigger," Aphrodite said.
"I'm sure you have." Solari openly ogled Aphrodite as the buxom blonde worked to tug her robe off.
"Ugh, finally. That was most definitely a fashion don't." Aphrodite's robe joined the discarded pile already on the floor.
"I hate to say it, but Aphrodite's right." Ephiny gave Eponin a sultry look. "There is such a thing as too much clothing." She reached for the shoulder strap of her halter.
"Whoa!" Gabrielle rushed forward, stopping Ephiny before she could pull the strap completely down. "Down, girl. Playing hard to get, remember?" When Ephiny didn't appear to be listening and continued to give Pony the eye, Gabrielle added, "Um, that's an order from your Queen."
Xena braced a couple of chairs against the chest for good measure. Already, the door was being banged into the chest, causing it to slide on the stone floor. A corner of the chest caught on the edge of a raised tile, impeding the door's progress.
"Let's get this show on the road." Xena took the crystal from Gabrielle, tossed it to Aphrodite. "Go on."
Aphrodite and Eponin held the crystal between them and waited for something to happen.
"Well?" prompted Gabrielle.
Eponin shrugged. "I still feel the same."
"So do I," said Aphrodite.
"Try doing something godly."
Aphrodite snapped her fingers. She waited, expectantly watching the air. Nothing materialized. Eponin closed her eyes, snapped her fingers. A loaf of nutbread appeared.
It hung suspended in midair for a moment, then fell. Gabrielle lunged for it, catching it just before it hit the ground. She lay belly-first on the floor, gazing up at a clearly disappointed Aphrodite.
"Aphrodite, I'm sorry. But, Pony," Gabrielle took a huge bite from the loaf, "That was so cool."
"I didn't see a reflection. Maybe we have to be outdoors so it can catch the light?"
The group turned and looked. As far as the eye could see, stretched the length of a long, narrow corridor. The ceiling, floor and walls were all made of stone. And, there wasn't another door in sight anywhere.
A loud bang shook the door behind them, causing the group to give a startled jump. The chest shook from the impact, but held.
"Let's go." Xena set off down the corridor. "We've still got to find a way out of this place."
"Aw, come on, Xena," said Eponin.
"Let me try."
"I know I can do it."
"For the last time, No."
"What's going on?" Gabrielle had heard the raised voices, retraced her footsteps through the narrow corridor until she was standing with Xena and Eponin.
"This one," Xena jerked a thumb over her shoulder, "wants to try teleporting us all out of here."
"Xena, it's been candlemarks and we haven't found so much as another door. Maybe you should let her try. She has been practicing."
Confident with the support of her Queen, Eponin raised her hand and snapped her fingers. Or, she would have, if Xena hadn't grabbed her hand at the wrist and used pressure points to keep her from closing her fingers.
"The last time she practiced, I ended up materializing in the center of the fire circle." Blue eyes narrowed. "The answer is no."
"That's not true. I made the nutbread appear, didn't I? Please? Aw, I said please."
The warrior princess ignored the Aphrodite-style whine coming from the Amazon warrior and pushed by her so she could continue down the corridor.
"We've been walking for like forever," Eponin called after her. When that received no response, she shouted, "You're just jealous cause my superpowers are better than your many skills."
Xena's step faltered. She clenched her fist. Nostrils flared. At a single touch from Gabrielle, she tamped down her growl. Xena shook it off, opening her hand and smoothing down her leathers. Held held high, she continued down the corridor, studiously avoiding the taunts from Eponin.
Don't look. Xena knew from experience that was the worst thing to do when being chased by an angry mob; slowing down to look back.
From the echoing sounds of running boots, shouted curses and the occasional strike of steel against stone, Xena guessed they were at best two corners behind them. She wanted to turn and fight. But, the same narrow corridors that were hampering the drawn swords of the temple priests were also cramping Xena's skills. She could draw her sword easily enough, but she didn't have the room needed to really swing it. And, there just weren't any angles to be had for a good chakram throw. Without room to maneuver, she'd be overrun by sheer numbers alone.
No, better to just dig deep and keep moving. If only the featherheads in front weren't so slow.
Solari was directly in front of her. She and Xena had taken the rear to protect their flank. Eponin was in the lead, moving so fast that she was clearly outdistancing them. It was Aphrodite behind her, way behind her, that was slowing the pace of the others. Gabrielle and Ephiny jockeyed for position behind Aphrodite, both of them prodding and pushing the goddess turned mortal ahead of them as they ran.
"Come on, move it!" There was a yelp from Aphrodite as Ephiny got a little too motivational with the tip of her dagger.
Xena felt the restraining hand grip her shoulder, the hot breath on the back of her neck. She raised her arm, smiled in satisfaction at the crunch! as someone ran into her fist. There was the multiple sounds of clanging swords and armor as he fell and his comrades closest behind him toppled over him in their haste to reach her.
Already, they were making their way to their feet. Others were scrambling over and around their fallen brothers. A badly thrown knife whizzed past Xena's ear, hitting the wall behind her hilt first and falling to the stone floor. Several more knives followed suit.
"Kill them! Kill the defilers!"
Xena turned and ran. She burst through a set of doors and plowed right into Solari's backside. Looking about, she saw the large wooden crossbeam designed to fit into the iron hitches.
"Quick, help me bar the door!"
Solari rushed to help Xena. Between the two of them, they pushed the doors closed and lifted the bar into position. They had just settled it into place when they heard several bodies collide against the other side of the doors. Dust fell from the hinges and the entire frame shook beneath the combined weight of their pursuers.
"That won't hold them long," Xena said, grimly eyeing the wooden bar as it rattled in the hitches.
"Xena," Gabrielle's voice drifted to her, "I think we've found the real crystal of truth."
"Good. Let's grab it and find a back way out of here."
"Um, don't think it's going to be quite that simple."
Xena turned around. When she'd first rushed in, she'd been too busy to look around. Now that she had the chance, she was suitably impressed. This room was voluminous. She'd seen palace treasure rooms that weren't as big as this one.
Gabrielle and Ephiny were standing side by side about midway down an elegantly carved marble staircase. Eponin and Aphrodite were already down the stairs, in the center of the room. The marble pedestal in front of them towered over both their heads. Resting on the pedestal, delicately positioned upon the largest velvet pillow she'd ever seen, was a multifaceted crystal. Xena tilted her head back, looking up and up and up. The crystal had to be nearly fifteen feet tall and was nearly touching the top of the dome-shaped glass ceiling. Sunlight streamed in through the ceiling, hitting and reflecting off the crystal.
"Huh. Guess no one's putting that in their pocket and walking out with it."
"Hercules always did have a gift for understatement."
"Understatement? Xena, saying that crystal is big is like saying you're cute."
Xena gave Gabrielle one of those smiles reserved just for her. "Which is just one of the many reasons I'm with you and not him."
"Hey, not wanting to break up a major love-fest, but like - " Aphrodite gestured to indicate the massive crystal in the room " - what're we doing here?"
"We knew going in that we might have to do this on the fly." The pounding at the door caught Xena's attention, causing her to look at the reverberating crossbeam. Already, the wood was beginning to splinter. The edge of a sword made an appearance between the two doors. "You and Pony work your magic on the crystal. The rest of us will hold off the priests."
Solari and Xena, swords drawn, took up defensive positions on each side of the doorway. With skill and luck, they'd take out many of their attackers as soon as they broke through the barricade and stumbled into the room. Gabrielle and Ephiny waited at the bottom of the marble stairs as a last line of defense. Ephiny had her sword in one hand and her knife in the other. Gabrielle kept her eyes focused on the doors, her wooden staff at the ready.
"Come on," Eponin urged, stooping and lacing the fingers of her hands together.
Aphrodite looked dubious at first, but then gamely placed one foot in the stirrup of Pony's hands and braced both hands on broad shoulders. Ep flexed, giving a practice bounce, then a three count before lifting and standing. Aphrodite was sent tumbling over Eponin's head, colliding with and then rolling onto the base of the marble pedestal.
Eponin walked a few paces distant from the pedestal. She turned, took a deep breath and ran full out towards the base. One mighty Amazon war cry and a huge vault later, she was perched on the marble. Reaching down, she helped to untangle the mess of arms and legs that was Aphrodite.
The four defenders waited, watching the entrance, listening as Eponin and Aphrodite moved into position behind them. The pounding at the doors was incessant, the framework rattling in its hinges constant.
Then, it just all stopped.
The shouting. The pounding. All of it. Not a sound to be heard. Except for their own rapid breathing in the air.
Xena signaled for them to remain still. Solari's eye twitched; she changed her sword to a one-handed grip so she could use her forearm to wipe the sweat from her face. The lacings of Gabrielle's boots gave away a shift in her position. Ephiny's fingers flexed about the pommel of her sword.
One solid wham! shattered the silence as the doors were hit by a single unified force. The doors shook. The wooden bar bowed. An ominous creak echoed throughout the room.
"Get ready," Xena said, "Here they come."
Aphrodite and Eponin clasped wrists as they both struggled to maintain their footing atop the gigantic green velvet pillow. A balance was struck and their arm clasp became a mutual handhold, then merely the intertwining of fingers. Their joined image was reflected in the multi-faceted prism of the crystal.
They reenacted the move first initiated by Aphrodite in her temple; Aphrodite's hand above Eponin's over her heart and Eponin's hand atop hers in a perfect mirror image. Eponin took a deep breath, recited the words that were now etched into her memory.
"Amazon warrior full of courage, brave of heart. Wield wisely my - "
She stopped, her concentration broken along with the shattered crossbeam that had barred the doors. A half dozen priests toppled into the room, sprawling over the wooden bar. More streamed in behind them, going around or climbing over their fallen brothers. Those that made it through found Xena and Solari waiting for them on either side of the door; the warrior princess and the Amazon both taking down foe after foe.
One priest looked to where Xena was dispatching his brother at the end of her sword. Instead of engaging the warrior princess in battle, he broke, running for the staircase. He charged down the marble stairs, screaming wildly, raising his sword. Ephiny met him with hers.
His lifeless body had barely fallen from her sword, staining the white marble crimson with his blood before two more priests were rushing to take his place. Ephiny stepped directly into their path, placing herself between them and her Queen. One engaged the regent, meeting her strikes with a skill she hadn't anticipated. The other sidestepped Ephiny and his brother, charging Gabrielle, going after her with an overhand strike. Gabrielle reacted instinctively, raising her staff, feeling the reverberation against her palms and down into her arms as metal connected with wood.
Eponin was already drawing her sword from its sheath when she felt Aphrodite's restraining arm at her elbow.
"No way, Amazon babe. It'd be a total bloodbath." Aphrodite felt Ep's muscles tense, knew she was about to be shooed off like a fly. "We have to complete the spell. It's the only way you can save them."
Eponin sheathed her sword. She returned to her position in front of the crystal, placed her hand over Aphrodite's heart. Her voice shook as she started the incantation again.
"Am - Amazon warrior full of courage, brave of heart - "
Aphrodite felt the wildly beating heart pulsating beneath her palm. Eponin's words had faltered again; she was staring transfixed at the doorway. Solari had an arm clutched tightly about her midsection. Blood was pouring between her fingers as she raised her sword in a purely defensive move. A smirk on his face, the priest swung his bloodstained blade again.
Aphrodite caught Eponin's chin in her hand, forced ambrosia-hued eyes to turn towards her.
"Go on, sweetie. You can do it."
Despite Aphrodite's grip, Eponin's eyes darted towards Xena. The warrior princess' knees gave way and she was toppled, then buried beneath a surging wave of priests as they piled on top of her.
Aphrodite increased her grip. Eponin felt the pressure in the bones along her jaw, looked back at the mortal goddess.
"The spell," Aphrodite said, an uncharacteristic forcefulness to her voice.
Eponin wet her lips. "Amazon warrior - "
The priest came in low, swinging his sword even lower, forcing Ephiny to leap over his blade. She came down awkwardly, twisting her ankle on the bottom step. She fell backwards, her sword clattering from her hand.
"Yeah, that first bit isn't really necessary. More of a confidence booster than anything else. Let's move on, huh?"
"Wield wisely my gift of words, the essence of love."
Gabrielle was between a marble pedestal and a hard place. The pedestal was to her back. To her front and both sides were heavily armored and armed priests. They wore breastplates over their robes and wielded some of the biggest swords the bard had ever seen. They attacked her individually, forcing her to alternately lash out at each of them in turn with her staff. She knew this ploy; they appeared to be operating independently of each other, but in fact, they were working together as a team. First, they would tire her out. Then, they would attack en masse to bring her down. With the pedestal securely at her back, there was no way to break away from them.
They saw it reflected in the crystal first. A soft, shimmering glow that gradually grew in intensity. Many thought it was the crystal itself generating the power. Then, it became clear that it was coming from the woman clad in pink. The glow brightened until she was almost a golden hue. She stretched, her movements graceful and decadent in the same instant as she basked in the light. There was a toss of luxurious blonde locks and a twinkle in her eye. She turned towards the horde of armed priests.
Aphrodite waved one arm in a huge arcing motion. Sparkling pink, white and red hearts fell from the ceiling like rain, falling over everything. The effect was instantaneous. Swords fell to the floor, clanging and bouncing off marble tile. Dazed expressions on their faces, the priests turned to each other, openly embracing one another.
Gabrielle lowered her staff as the priests backed away. Ephiny cautiously grasped the hand of the one that was determinedly helping her to her feet. Solari was being given the torn hem of a priest's robe to use as a bandage around her midsection.
A pile of bodies slowly parted. Xena climbed to her feet.
"Go in peace," the head priest told her.
Xena's blue eyes automatically sought out and found her bard, then raised to see Aphrodite standing on the pedestal almost directly above Gabrielle's head.
"Yep," Xena said, "Definitely feeling the love."
Aphrodite giggled, her deep dimples clearly showing.
Xena, Gabrielle, Aphrodite and the Amazons paused in a clearing on the outskirts of the temple.
"Yes!" Aphrodite squealed, jumped up and down in excitement, causing her considerable assets to jiggle with the motion. "My bodacious powers are like so totally restored."
To illustrate her point, she made a gesture and all about them, flowers instantly started blooming.
"I guess that means you'll be heading straight for Mt. Olympus?" Gabrielle asked.
"Nuh-uh, sweet pea. Figure Hera will be ticked about the whole crystal-thing for a while. I'll need to lay low, do the exile thing til she chills like an ice age."
"Aphrodite," Gabrielle reached out, placed her hand on the goddess' arm. There was genuine concern in her voice as she asked, "Where will you go? Where will you stay?"
Xena arched an ebony brow. Not with us. Not with us. Gods, please, not with us.
"Aw, thanks for caring, sweet pea." It wasn't until Aphrodite placed both hands on her hips and gave Xena a pointed look that said she knew what the warrior had been thinking. "But, I'll be fine. The breakers at Pompeii are usually pretty gnarly about now. If the waves aren't happening there, though, maybe I'll do a tour of my temples."
Xena breathed a sigh of relief, but couldn't help jabbing, "Wow. Tough exile. To think all I had to endure was running a gauntlet."
"Hey, just because I'm a refugee doesn't mean I can't do exile chic."
"Fine. Just promise you'll resist the urge to start granting wishes to every dumbstruck, lovesick fool that leaves you a pretty bauble as offering, huh?"
"Easy for you to say, warrior babe." Aphrodite's eyes sparkled as she looked at Gabrielle standing with her arm wrapped around Xena's waist. "You've already got your soulmate. Some mortals need a little more help than others in the love department."
Xena and Gabrielle followed Aphrodite's line of sight. Eponin was looking decidedly uncomfortable. Ephiny was standing almost on top of her, leaning into her as she determinedly braided flowers into Pony's hair. Every time Ep opened her mouth to protest, Ephiny silenced her with a well-placed kiss.
"Someone so needs to teach her Amazons what playing hard to get means." Aphrodite let out a heavy sigh. "Gods, sometimes my job sucks."
The Goddess of Love gathered her resolve, adjusted her pink bikini top and confronted the couple.
"Hey, stud muffin. Just wanted to say you're kind of cool and no hard feelings about you stealing my powers."
"I didn't steal your powers. You gave - "
Aphrodite gave a dismissive wave of her hand. "You say gave; I say stole. You say potato, I say Potadeia. Same diff." Aphrodite took a step back as Ephiny nudged her out of the way with her hip so she could strategically place a bright yellow flower near Pony's ear. "Anyway, I guess you know I need to fix the love vibe, right?"
Eponin gave a curt nod.
Aphrodite raised her hand, started to motion, then paused. "You sure, stud muffin? This could totally break your heart."
"Yeah, I know." Already, there was pain etched in Eponin's voice. "I'd rather see her heart free to love another than to be like this with me."
Aphrodite flicked her fingers. A shimmering golden hue enveloped Ephiny. As the glow dissipated, Ephiny screwed her eyes tightly shut and placed a hand to her temple.
"Oh, my head."
Ephiny shook her head side to side, slowly opened her eyes. When she did, she was startled to see the side of Eponin's head entirely too close. And, what was that in her hair? Ephiny took a reflexive step backwards.
Seeing her reaction, Eponin wordlessly moved away. Gabrielle came to stand beside her. Discreetly as possible so that no one else - specifically Ephiny - would see, Gabrielle placed a comforting hand at Eponin's back.
Xena cast a wary glance at the darkening sky. "We'd best get moving. It'll be night soon."
"Oh! I can like save you the journey of a thousand steps with one wave of my arm."
"NO!" shouted everyone at once, prompting Aphrodite to stop the motion mid-wave.
"I mean," Gabrielle said, "after everything that's happened, it'll do us good to walk back to the village under our own power."
"Yeah," Xena added, "Give us all a chance to revel in the love."
Aphrodite wasn't sure of the sincerity of the words, especially since they were coming from a warrior princess who Gods knew didn't have a romantic bone in her body - but she'd had a totally bogus stint as a mortal and she was determined to go with the flow as a divine goddess.
"Okay, enjoy. Just like don't revel too much. You know, in case the spell on the priests doesn't hold."
Gabrielle blushed like a Hestian virgin. Xena just winked and smirked. "Don't worry; we'll wait until we're a safe distance from the temple before starting the celebration."
"See, that's what I'm talking about; revel responsibly." Spotting Solari standing on the outskirts of the group, Aphrodite grabbed her arm, pulled her forward. "Since this one's not taken, you don't mind if I borrow her for my own little celebration, do you?"
"Um - " Solari weakly offered up " - I'm wounded?"
"Minor scratch." Aphrodite waved off the sight of the blood soaked cloth tied about Solari's waist. "A little TLC and you'll be good as new. Then," she fixed the flustered Amazon with a look, "you and I can finish our discussion about boundaries. "
Aphrodite hooked two fingers into the waistband of Solari's leathers. With a giggle, a bold wink and a wave of her hand, both disappeared in a shimmering of sparkles.
Xena sat on a log, sharpening her sword with a whetstone. Across the fire from her, sitting side by side, were Gabrielle and Ephiny. Gabrielle had a parchment spread on her lap, a quill in her hand. She'd jotted down a few lines, but the scroll was mostly blank. Green eyes kept glancing up, meeting blue across the flames.
Ephiny also had her sword braced across her thighs, a whetstone and polishing rag in hand. Unlike Xena's methodical sharpening, though, there was no real rhythm to Ephiny's motions. Gabrielle always recognized that Xena's sword didn't need that much sharpening. Gods, no one's blade could need that much sharpening. I don't care how many warlords you slay with it. It was more therapeutic; a way for the warrior princess to process the day's events and unwind. For Ephiny, it was having the opposite effect. Instead of relaxing, the uptight regent seemed to be even more wound up.
"Gods. I can't believe she put a spell on me."
Gabrielle looked across the campsite. The topic of their current conversation was standing some distance away with her back to them. Eponin hadn't said two words since the temple. As soon as they stopped and camp was set, she'd voluntarily placed herself on perimeter watch. She hadn't even joined them for the evening meal Xena had managed to snare.
"I'm sure it wasn't intentional. Things just kind of got away from her, that's all. Um, how's your head?"
"The stabbing pain has diminished to a dull ache."
A look passed between Gabrielle and Xena. The warrior princess reached over and retrieved a saddlebag. She withdrew a pouch of herbs, sprinkled some into a mug. She added water from a skin, placed the mug beside the fire to warm. Once it steeped, it would be a healing tea that would ease Ephiny's headache.
"I just don't get it. She sneaks out of the village, goes traipsing about the countryside until she finds that blonde goddess' temple...for what?"
Ephiny was now running the whetstone so rapidly over her blade that Gabrielle feared her hand would slip and she'd sever a vein. Reaching out, Gabrielle gently took both of her friend's hands in her own.
"Ephiny, Eponin made an offering to Aphrodite."
"An offering? Why would a warrior of Artemis make an offering to the Goddess of Love?"
"Isn't it obvious? Pony needed advice on how to tell you that she's in love with you."
"That's it, Gabrielle. Hold it beneath her nose while I tilt her head back."
Ephiny winced, jerked her head back at the pungent aroma. She opened her eyes to find Xena's face hovering over hers.
"Don't be ridiculous." Ephiny struggled to sit up. "Amazons don't faint."
"Of course not," Gabrielle solicitously agreed, "Must be an after-effect of the spell you were under."
"Right," Xena nodded. "I'm sure it had nothing to do with you telling her that Eponin's in love with her."
Ephiny's eyes went round as twin chakrams. Gabrielle elbowed Xena in the ribs. The warrior princess retreated, going back to her spot on the other side of the fire. After all, this was Gabrielle's area of expertise, not hers.
Ephiny reclaimed her seat in front of the fire. She'd reached for her sword by rote, but Gabrielle had instead taken it from her grasp and replaced it with a long stick. Ephiny didn't even bat an eye in response.
The heartbeats passed as the trio sat in silence. Xena went back to sharpening her sword. Gabrielle reached for her scrolls. Ephiny stared into the flames of the fire, repeatedly poking at the burning wood with her stick.
"What?" Gabrielle asked as casually as if she were asking Ephiny to repeat the lunch special at the dining hut.
"Back at the village. I accused her of spending the night in some trollop's arms. She just stood there and didn't say a word." Ephiny aggressively stabbed at a charred log with her stick. "Why would she do that? Why didn't she tell me the truth then?"
"Talk to her, Eph. You'll never know what she was thinking unless you ask her."
Ephiny let out a heated sigh that ruffled her hair. Hazel eyes darted back and forth from the fire to the perimeter of their campsite then back to the fire again. From across the distance of the fire, Xena's keen hearing clearly detected the guttural growl. Finally, she snapped her stick in half and tossed it into the flames.
"Gods, I hate sensitive chats."
Emerald eyes filled with mirth watched as Ephiny unexpectedly leapt up and stormed away.
Gabrielle bit her bottom lip to stifle her laughter and clamp down on her smile. It wouldn't do to find humor in her regent's plight. No, it was best not to poke fun at warriors in general. It was also wise to specifically not tease warriors that wielded sharp weapons with deadly proficiency.
Gabrielle dared to look across the fire at her warrior. To the untrained eye, Xena was the picture of heroic stoicism. But, Gabrielle was both trained as a bard and trained in all things Xena. She was able to spot the glint in her eye, the telltale tugging at the corner of her lips. Before long, her warrior was sporting a smirk.
Gabrielle gathered up her things, clutched her bedroll about herself. Trudging to the other side of the fire, she unrolled it near Xena's boots and settled down. Before long, the warrior had abandoned her sword and whetstone. Placing both to the side, she slid off her log and took up her place beside her bard.
Gabrielle rested with her head on Xena's shoulder. Looking up at the night sky, they soon became engaged in a favorite pastime of theirs; picking out constellations. Gabrielle started to point to one, then altered the motion, covering her mouth to stifle a yawn.
"Don't fight it if you're tired, Gabrielle. Grab some sleep while you can. Tomorrow's going to be here soon enough."
"I know, but what if Ephiny needs me...or Eponin? I don't think I can get a good night's rest if I know either of them is hurting."
"Such a big heart for such a small Queen." Gabrielle tried to elbow Xena for the remark on her height, but Xena easily thwarted the move and caught Gabrielle's lips in a kiss. "Rest easy, Gabrielle. Your Amazons are going to be just fine. Both of them."
With the loss of Aphrodite's powers, Eponin was already beginning to return to her old self. And, with the canceling of the spell, Ephiny too was back to normal. Except for the lingering headache.
"How can you be so sure, Xena? You know how stubborn Eponin can be. You know how Ephiny's temper is."
"Yeah, I do. But, what Ep doesn't know yet is that Ephiny's in love with her, too."
"Ephiny? In love with Pony?" Gabrielle pulled a face. Of the two of them, she was the one with the flair for matchmaking. "I haven't seen that."
"I'm not sure Eph has yet, either. You know what they say; love is blind."
"That phrase sounds like one coined by Aphrodite after a lovemaking session involving blindfolds."
"Clever bard." Xena kissed each of Gabrielle's eyelids in turn. "Remind me to try that when we get back to the royal hut."
Eponin's back was to the campsite. She stood, arms crossed over her chest, hands tucked into her armpits as she leaned her weight against a tree trunk. She was staring out into the darkened forest and didn't hear Ephiny's approach until the regent was standing right next to her.
"What in Tartarus were you thinking?"
"Just now?" Eponin jerked her chin in the general direction of the forest. "I was thinking that if Hera's priests got the urge to follow us, planning to slit our throats while we slept, they'd come through that underbrush there."
"No. Earlier. When you left the village and rode off to Aphrodite's temple and - " Ephiny paused, helplessly gesturing before adding " - Gods, Pony, you could've just told me how you felt."
"Yeah, right. Real warriors don't talk about their feelings."
"I've known you for more seasons than I can count, Pony. We've been friends for more than half that. So, don't give me that big-warriors-don't-cry routine. I want you to tell me why you thought you had to sneak off to some some goddess' temple in the middle of the night. How could you tell her and not me?"
Eponin was intently staring at the underbrush, desperately wishing a couple of those fanatic priests would attack. But, really, they had no reason. They hadn't damaged the crystal of truth. And, they'd given back the ceremonial crystal. Ep wondered if she had enough residual powers left to materialize a couple of sword wielding priests. When it became apparent that wasn't going to happen, she raked a hand through her hair and gave a heavy sigh.
"Because - blessed Artemis, do you know how hard it is to talk to you, Ephiny? For gods' sake, you're the regent. You can be kind of intimidating. And confident and aggressive and smart and beautiful and...and you could have your pick of anyone in the nation."
Ephiny was stunned. All the things that Eponin had just said; she'd had no idea the weapons master thought all those things about her.
"Yeah, I can," Ephiny agreed. She stepped closer to Eponin, placing her fingers beneath her chin, forcing her to look up. A smile ghosted the regent's lips as she placed a kiss on Pony's.
"Try me sometime."
Eponin looked like something caught in a crossbow's sights. Ephiny softly chuckled at the usually unflappable weapons master's flummoxed expression. She circled around Pony as she turned to head back towards the fire. She took a few steps, then faltered, stopped and placed a hand on Ep's shoulder.
"By the way, thanks."
"For - um - " Ephiny felt the heat rising to her cheeks. "For protecting my - virtue. I threw myself at you like some...some wench in a brothel. And, well, you had the decency to say no ."
Both Eponin's eyebrows rose. "You remember that?"
"Gods, please don't make me describe it blow by blow, Pony."
"But, Solari said she didn't remember anything."
"Lucky girl. I remember every embarrassing detail."
"Huh." Ep remembered every detail, too. Vividly. A smile tugged at the corner of her lips. "Hey, Eph? You think maybe - "
"Not tonight, Eponin."
Ephiny paused, gave a sideways look at Ep's back. There was a perceptible stiffening of broad shoulders, a stubborn tilt to a proud chin.
Suddenly, there was a resounding slap to a set of leathers and Eponin visibly jumped.
"Don't stop asking."
"I - " Eponin placed a hand to her stinging buttocks, "I won't."
"Yessss!" Aphrodite pumped her fist. "Love triumphs again."
She swirled her fingers over the scrying bowl. The images of a warrior princess and three Amazons bedding down in the woods faded into a whirling mist.
"So, you told them that you didn't remember anything that happened while you were under a love spell, didn't you?"
Solari nodded. She was reclining against a large mound of pillows on a heart-shaped bed. Her hands were stretched above her head, her wrists loosely tied with a pink sash. The bandage wrapped around her wound was the exact same shade as her bindings. A matching cloth was tied securely over her mouth.
Aphrodite's high heels clicked on the marble floor as she slowly sashayed towards the bed. Solari hungrily drank in the sight of the approaching goddess. She was clad in pink stiletto high heels. And nothing else.
"Naughty Amazon. I understand, though."
Aphrodite snapped her fingers. Solari's eyes widened as a pink whip suddenly materialized from thin air. Aphrodite gave the whip a practice crack. Solari struggled against her restraints, muffled sounds coming from her gag.
"Don't worry, sweetcheeks." Aphrodite flashed a wickedly dazzling smile that fully showed off her dimples. "What happens in the temple, stays in the temple."
No goddess' extraordinary super powers were permanently harmed during the production of this story. Much like the title, they were simply recycled.