DISCLAIMER: Warriors, Hestians and Harlots - not mine. The plot (what plot? This plot!) - I take complete blame for.
SUMMARY: Hestian virgins (are there any other sort?) in the Amazon village during the Solstice season. Oh, my.
Copyright © 2011. All
Bard Solstice Challenge #26 - Quoth the Raven, Nevermore
HESTIANS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH
"You've obviously never been neck deep in nuns."
"What?" Ephiny was confused. "Nuns?"
"It's a term for Hestians." Gabrielle glared over her regent's shoulder at Xena. "A derogatory term that we don't use."
"I don't get it."
Gabrielle looked to her consort for explanation. Of course, after making that comment and being scolded for it, the warrior was now just standing there, rocking back and forth on her heels, hands clasped behind her back as she studied the overhead leaves in the trees with sudden fascination. She pursed her lips, whistling a jaunty tune that made her seem carefree and innocent. Well, as innocent as Xena could ever manage to be.
"It - um - has to do with their - " Gabrielle could feel the heat suffuse her cheeks. Gods, why did Xena always do this to her? She knew the bard was uncomfortable talking about " - their sexual habits."
The captain of the guard had been standing by, seemingly bored with the conversation. Both ears perked up and she rapidly looked about as her Queen mentioned "Sex?"
"Yes, Solari." Xena couldn't help but snicker. "Sex. As in, Hestians don't have any. That's why we call them nuns; cause they don't get none."
"That's why other people - insensitive people - call them that." The Amazons worked to keep the smirks off their faces as their young Queen corrected the seasoned warrior princess. "They've made a life choice of chasteness. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that."
Both Solari and Eponin cast dubious looks towards the border markers leading into their lands and the twelve beautiful women, all dressed in identical bilious white gowns, that patiently waited there.
"You mean," Eponin's voice was heavy-laden with suspicion, "They're all -"
" - Pure as the driven snow."
"Virgins?" Solari's eyes went round as twin chakrams. "They're virgins?"
"Yep." Xena couldn't contain her mirth. "And, your Queen here thought it would be a great idea to invite a whole passel of them into the Amazon Nation."
"Well, honestly; what else did you expect me to do?"
The heated exhalation of breath that sent Ephiny's curls lifting off her forehead was answer enough. She'd wanted Gabrielle to say No. Instead, she'd done the complete opposite. By some small miracle, Ephiny had managed to hide her irritation and appear supportive of Gabrielle's decision. At least until they'd reached the village and the Hestians were shown to a series of guest huts. Then, she and Gabrielle had sequestered themselves in the Queen's hut for a private conversation.
"Their temple was desecrated," said Gabrielle. "I couldn't just turn them away. Where would they stay?"
"Ever hear of an inn?"
"It's nearly Solstice. There's no room at the inn. Any of them."
"What about another temple?"
"Ephiny! I'm surprised at you. A group of travelers ... women travelers ... turn up on the Amazons' front step and you want me to slam the door in their faces."
"Amazons don't have doors," deadpanned Ephiny. "Fur hides covering the doorways, remember?" At the stony-faced look from her Queen, Ephiny pleaded, "Aw, Gabrielle. Come on; they're Hestians."
"They're homeless Hestians." Gabrielle clasped a hand on her friend's shoulder and looked her square in the eye. "Ephiny, virgins are people, too."
Ephiny threw her hands up in the air. "Ugh. Fine! You win. The virgins can stay."
"Thanks, Ephiny." Gabrielle surged forward, kissing the other Amazon on the cheek. "You won't even know they're here. Promise."
That promise proved to be short-lived. Starting with the seating arrangements in the communal dining hut. A nearby table had to be cleared solely for the use of the Hestians. Near the royal table, of course. So that curious Amazons wouldn't be tempted to try influencing innocent virgins.
That meant that Ephiny had to caution her warriors against getting drunk and swearing and fighting and gambling and essentially enjoying themselves. And, it wasn't just the average, everyday run of the mill warriors that were suffering, either.
Gabrielle had insisted the Head Priestess of the Temple of Hestia be seated at the royal table. Which meant that Ephiny and her companions couldn't indulge, either.
The regent silently cursed beneath her breath. She was actually looking forward to dinner with the warrior princess. True, her Queen was a bard with a talent for telling intricate, beautifully crafted stories. But, Xena was a warrior. And, if she was plied with enough drink, she told the best dirty jokes and battle stories. Ephiny really looked forward to hearing some of those.
Instead tonight, she was forced to play the diplomat. That meant proper manners. No belching after a particularly good meal. No picking her teeth with her dagger. No boots on the table as they enjoyed a spirited game of dice and daggers. In short; No Fun.
"So, tell me, Gabrielle, what's it like to run a society dominated solely by women?" asked the priestess.
"First, I don't run the Amazon Nation. Ephiny and I share a joint rule."
The priestess looked surprised. "And, you find that an acceptable arrangement?"
Gabrielle smiled fondly at the curly-headed blonde seated at the opposite end of the table. "Of course. Ephiny is my sister. We're all sisters. We may not always get along all the time, but we're still family." Gabrielle raised her goblet high in the air and pronounced, "To a strong Amazon Nation."
Every Amazon followed suit, echoing the toast and drinking from their goblets.
Priestess Leah let the noise settle down before raising the question, "And, you don't mind living without men?"
"Not at all. Living in the temple, you essentially have the same sort of arrangement."
"To a degree. But, men built the temple and see to it's upkeep. There's a militia that keeps the town protected. We rely on farmers to till the land and bring us offerings of food. I understand you don't have any men to do that sort of thing for you here?"
"No, the Amazons are completely independent and self-sufficient."
"Listen," Solari took a huge swallow of ale. "Only one thing a man's good for. And, most of us don't even need them for that." The captain raised her mug as if in toast. When no one at the table joined her, Solari gave a shrug and downed the remainder of her drink.
At a look from Gabrielle, Ephiny covertly snuck the jug of ale out of Solari's sight. And reach.
"Unh." Eponin sat with her head bowed, elbows on the table, fingers tangled in ebony locks. She looked up through bleary eyes as Xena jostled the table as she sat on the low bench across from her.
Xena didn't think she'd ever seen the weapons master look so ragged. "Wow. Rough night, Ep?"
"The worst." Eponin reached for her mug of cider, grimaced against the taste of the hot beverage. "How much longer are those Hestians staying?"
Xena arched an ebony eyebrow. "Last night, you said things were going smoothly." As far as Xena knew, the Hestians had gotten settled in, had dinner and then a tour of the village before retiring to their quarters for prayers and bed. Things seemed to have gone smoothly their first night in and she hadn't expected any complaints from either group.
"Yeah, I did."
"Then, what's the problem?"
"Problem is," Solari spoke around a forkful of quail's eggs, "Ep here doesn't like being awoken by the cooing sound of Hestian doves."
"Cooing doves my tailfeathers." Eponin sent Solari a look. "More like squawking hens."
"You wouldn't know a hen from a goose, you tone deaf old warrior," shot back Solari.
"As much as I enjoy watching you two featherheads squabble about birdcalls ..." Xena motioned for them to get on with it.
"Um, yeah." Eponin looked around the hut to make sure no Hestians were present. Then, she leaned forward and dropped her voice as if imparting invaluable military intelligence. "They were singing, Xena. Singing."
Xena gave Eponin a blank look. The weapons master let loose a heavy sigh. Reaching across the table, she grabbed a half loaf of bread and tore off a piece. Maybe food would quell the pain she was feeling in her gut.
"Started before first light. Way before first light. It was still dark out, for Artemis' sake."
Xena looked to Solari for confirmation.
"I don't know what the big deal is," Solari shrugged. "I heard them when I passed by on my morning jog. They were singing Solstice carols. It was beautiful."
"Yeah? Well, your hut ain't located near the guest huts. I wonder how beautiful you'd think it was if you'd heard the same tunes over and over again. All. Night. Long."
Xena grimaced in sympathy. "Ouch."
"Ouch is right. Thought about jamming knives into both ears to block out the sound."
The cook appeared at Xena's elbow, placing a plate filled with scrambled quail eggs in front of her. Xena nodded her thanks, then noticed the older Amazon placing a large ceramic urn on the table next to Eponin.
"What's that?" she asked, while already removing the lid and peering inside. Green leaves floated in a steaming liquid.
"Herbal tea," grunted the cook. "Steeped with the leaves still in it. As requested."
Eponin groaned. "That's right. The priestess asked about it last night. Said it soothes their vocal cords. Hopefully, this will be the only pot I have to deliver."
"I'll take it for you," Solari immediately volunteered.
"Hate to break this to you, Ep." Xena had gotten the news from Gabrielle as they'd curled up together in their bed last night. "The competition isn't for another five days. The Hestians are under our care until then."
"Oh, Gods. Five days. Five days means four more nights." Eponin scrubbed a hand across her weary face. "That's it, then. I'll have to find somewhere else to sleep."
"Yeah, Ep." Xena and Solari shared knowing looks. "Singing Hestians. That's the reason you're looking for another bed."
Eponin threw a piece of hard bread, hitting Xena squarely in the face with it. "Ah, shut up."
Xena sat there for a moment in stunned disbelief before giving her battle cry and launching herself across the table at the weapons master.
Ephiny tried not to stare. But, the resemblance was just so uncanny. She'd seen it immediately at the border. Then again, last night at dinner. In both instances, she'd been able to find something else to fix her attention on. In the privacy of the Queen's hut, though, it wasn't as simple to avoid.
If Xena were dressed in Hestian robes, or if the priestess were dressed in Xena's leathers...if there wasn't bruising beneath Xena's right eye...if there wasn't an inherent meekness about the priestess. If only all these things; Ephiny wouldn't be able to tell them apart.
"You might have mentioned that Xena's double is the Head Priestess of the Temple of Hestia before she showed up at our border."
Gabrielle stood side by side with Ephiny as Xena and Leah discussed the priestess' current predicament. Never taking her eyes off the duo, Gabrielle leaned towards Ephiny and spoke in a low voice. "Oh, Leah's not Xena's only double. Remind me to tell you about Diana and Meg. One's a princess. A real princess that lives in a castle, not a warrior princess forged in the heat of battle. And the other; well, Meg is...Meg runs a brothel."
Ephiny gave a skeptical look. "A warrior, a princess, a tramp and a priestess. I just know there's a joke in there somewhere."
"Yeah well, no one was laughing when I first met Leah tied to a burning stake. A zealot priest had convinced Meg to pose as Leah and conned Leah into donning a copy of Xena's armor. Xena disguised herself as Meg pretending to be Leah while Leah posed as Meg at the brothel."
Blonde eyebrows crept towards the regent's braided crown in disbelief. "Sounds confusing."
"Definitely," agreed Gabrielle. "Also useful. Don't think it can help us in this situation, though."
Xena looked at the woman in front of her. It was still disconcerting to see an image of herself dressed in priestess' robes staring back at her. And, if she'd lived to see a hundred more seasons, never would she have imagined she'd be having a conversation with the Hestian virgin in the middle of an Amazon village. Like most things in her life, though, the warrior princess took it all in stride.
"Exactly when did the trouble start?" Xena asked Leah.
"Almost as soon as the nominations for the finals were announced," confessed the priestess. "Oh, Xena. You don't think one of our competitors would stoop to dishonest tactics, do you?"
"If they thought you were a threat. Just how good are you?"
"Well, it's bad form to boast. But, I'd say my virgins could go all the way."
"Uh-huh. And, this little contest of yours; is the prize valuable enough that someone might feel the need to stack the odds in their favor?"
"Xena, this little contest is not some drink-swilling, ballad-belching brawl held in one of your common taverns," Leah looked offended at Xena's seeming obliviousness to the existence of such a prestigious event. "Only the best choirs are even considered. The final three compete before an independent panel of judges in Athens. The winners will be given a performing contract and heralded as the newest inductees into the Trans-Grecian Orchestra."
"Huh. Doesn't seem like the sort of thing you Hestians normally go in for."
"The Goddess Hestia has said that when we win the contest, it will mean touring throughout all of Greece. We can use it as a means of spreading Her word through music and praise to all."
Xena eyed Leah dubiously. "And, Hestia told you this?"
"I know what you're thinking, Xena." The last time they'd met, her priest had tricked her, using her blind devotion against her and her virgins. "I assure you, I threw the stones myself and Hestia spoke to me through them. I have faith in my Goddess' will."
"Was it Hestia's will that your temple be ransacked and you and your followers driven out into the street in the middle of the night? Was it Hestia's will that someone set fire to Meg's place after she took you and the other virgins in? Was it Hestia's will that everyone else turned their backs on you?"
"A Hestian virgin is welcome everywhere."
"Every innkeeper told you he had no rooms available. Every traveling merchant said their was no space in his wagon. You all have blisters on your feet from walking the entire way here."
"The Goddess works in mysterious ways. Through hardship comes strength. Through piousness comes righteousness. I believe She has set us upon the path in which we might do the most good."
"She set you on a path straight to the Amazon Nation."
"Then, that is where Hestia has willed me to be."
Xena knew there was no arguing with Leah. Once a religious nut job had made up her mind, there was just no reasoning with her. Like when it comes to a certain bard I know. Time for another tactic.
"Leah, tell me about your competition. Who are you going up against?"
"A quartet from the Order of the Light from the Temple of Harmonia."
"Followers of the patron Goddess of Music?" Xena rubbed her chin. That sounded like some serious competition. "Who else?"
"A group of sixteen sponsored by the Sisters of Gaia."
"The nuns?" slipped out before Xena could censor herself.
"The orphans." Leah made no mention of the warrior's slip of the tongue. Hestia knew in a village of heathens, she would need to pick her battles wisely. The use of a single derogatory word was not one she had the luxury of engaging in now. "Our opponents are children from the Sisters of Gaia Orphanage."
Xena exchanged looks with Gabrielle. There was no clear bad guy here. Not like with the priest that was trying to kill all the virgins in a plot to convince Hestia's followers to convert to his chosen religion.
"Well, one good thing about your goddess guiding you here." Xena placed a reassuring hand on Leah's shoulder. "You couldn't be safer. The Amazons have vowed to protect you and see that you make it safely to that competition. So until then, just relax and enjoy the hospitality of the Amazon Nation."
"I. Am. Not. Enjoying. Myself."
"You could if you'd just relax and go with it. You're usually much more - responsive - than this."
Xena wriggled her fingers. Gabrielle groaned. The contact just wasn't enough. Not that she didn't enjoy what Xena was doing. Gods knew the woman had many skills. Determined, Gabrielle tilted her hips into Xena's touch. If she could just -
"I. Can't." Gabrielle grabbed two handfuls of hair and screamed in frustration.
Xena's responding grunt reflected her aggravation, as well. Normally, Xena enjoyed spending time in the Amazon village. It was one of the few places she and Gabrielle could express their love for each other without worrying about facing the recriminations of others.
It had always been a concern of Xena's. Especially in the early days of their travels. If any of her enemies suspected the true nature of their relationship - if any of them guessed how much she loved Gabrielle, it could make the young woman from Potadeia a target. Then, she realized one day that even if no one suspected them of being lovers, it was obvious to any that cared to see that she was important to the warrior. In the end, by trying to protect Gabrielle from harm, she was the one that was hurting her by not admitting her true feelings.
Even now, she was careful. Always wary on the open road. Always on the lookout before indulging in any displays of public affection. Even more cautious when they shared a room at an inn. It wouldn't do for anyone to overhear the passionate love cries coming from her room at night, then the next morning, see her come down the stairs with an armful of bard.
In the Amazon Nation, though, in a village full of women who loved women, they could be themselves. As often and as loud as they wanted.
Ever since the Hestians had crossed over into Amazon territory, they hadn't had the opportunity. It seemed like every time they turned around, there was always a virgin underfoot. With a dozen of them in the village, it seemed as if you just couldn't get away from them. Now that they'd found some alone time and a chance to be intimate, Gabrielle couldn't reach orgasm.
Xena rested her forehead on Gabrielle's firm stomach and growled.
"It's because your mind's on those damn virgins."
"Oh, Xena. Don't blame the virgins. It's not their fault. Entirely."
Gabrielle fell silent, stroking her fingers through Xena's ebony locks. Xena allowed it, indulging her bard, even though there was a throbbing between her own legs that insisted the girl's fingers could be put to better use elsewhere.
She didn't want to. She knew she had to, though. Screwing her eyes shut, she summoned up all her warrior courage and asked, "Wanna talk about it?"
"Xena, are you sure?" Gabrielle raised up on her elbows, looking down at the warrior princess. "I mean, I know you need some relief, too." Gabrielle smell her lover's arousal, feel it pooling on her thigh. She felt guilty for letting Xena down. "Just because I can't, doesn't mean you have to go without. We could still... "
"Great!" Xena's eyes lit up. Then, seeing the look on Gabrielle's face and realizing that her bard really did want to talk and that she'd accepted the offer a bit too eagerly, she suggested a compromise. "Tell you what; maybe you can tell me while you, you know..."
Gabrielle smiled wickedly.
"So, Priestess Leah interrupted Eponin's training class to extol the virtues of peace and lecture her on the senseless acts of violence she was instilling in others."
"That's not all. It's like they're intentionally trying to torment Ep."
Xena was flat on her back, eyes closed, a wide smile on her face. Her arms were about Gabrielle, her hands stroking up and down the bard's back as she leaned over her lover. Xena's legs were pulled up, her feet braced flat on the straw-filled mattress as Gabrielle's fingers stroked her open.
"I mean, have you seen her? She looks positively haggard. The Hestians are practicing their singing at all candlemarks of the night, keeping her awake."
Gabrielle leaned forward, blowing a puff of air on that hard little nubbin at the apex of Xena's womanhood. It instantly stiffened, growing in response.
"I caught her banging her head against the table in the dining hut."
"Banging's good," murmured Xena.
"For you maybe," Gabrielle teased, slipping a finger through Xena's moisture with a specific destination in mind. "Not for Pony, though. She was trying to stop the lyrics from some song that keeps repeating in her head. And, to top it off, not only are they keeping her awake with their singing, but they've got her bringing them tea at all candlemarks of the day and night."
"Unh. With the - with the leaves steeped in the pot. Soothes their throats."
Gabrielle fell silent as she watched Xena's body respond to her touch. She was in awe of the warrior's body. Every line of muscle, every thick vein in her arms and hands. The flare of her hip. Her magnificent breasts.
Speaking of breasts -
"I had to speak with Ephiny about the dancers," said Gabrielle. "Seems a couple of the virgins turned up at the bonfires last night."
"Uh-oh. What happened?"
"They were giving a performance." There was a pause during which Gabrielle deliberately slipped her finger inside before adding, "Topless."
Xena's hips gave a slight buck.
"Oh, you like the thought of topless Amazon dancers, do you?"
"Well, I'm certainly not against it."
Xena found herself unable to respond as fingers stroked against what she had come to term her 'g-spot'. Because it was a spot that sent a bolt of lightning straight through her body every time Gabrielle touched her there and also because Gabrielle was the only lover that had ever been able to do that to her.
"So anyway," Gabrielle continued on as though she didn't know what effect she was having on Xena, "I asked Ephiny to make sure all the dancers keep their tops on."
"Probably a good idea. Wouldn't want any of them to come down with chest colds. Bet Ephiny didn't like it, though."
"Not one bit. Ephiny griped and bitched about it, but I eventually got her to promise that all the Amazons would be more discreet while the Hestians are here."
"Unh - unh - " Xena struggled to keep her breath. Gabrielle really shouldn't try to make her laugh during sex. "Discreet - discreet Amazons?!? That's almost as funny as Hestian virgins in the Amazon village!"
Unexpectedly, Gabrielle withdrew her fingers and rolled over onto her back. Xena looked stunned. Stifling a groan, she managed to prop herself up on an elbow and look down at her bard. Gabrielle had her head tossed back and she was staring up at the ceiling.
"Gabrielle?" Xena choked out.
Gabrielle turned to look at her lover. Big, blue eyes pleaded with her. "Oh, Xena. I'm sorry. I just can't do this."
"Gabrielle, if it's because of what I said - "
"Oh, Xena. Did I make a mistake, allowing the Hestians to stay? They had nowhere to go and we did tell Leah that if she ever needed us again, all she had to was ask. But, I never imagined she would track us to the Amazon Nation. Oh, Gods, Xena. What if I've ruined Solstice for the Amazons?"
"Gabrielle, hush. It'll be fine. The Amazons are big girls. They can take care of themselves." Xena kissed her bard's temple. "And, as for the Hestians; remember one of Leah's rules of Hestia? To thine own self be true. As long as you follow your heart, Gabrielle, you can never go wrong."
"Xena," Gabrielle raised up, kissing her warrior's lips. "You are my heart. I love you. Thanks for letting me talk. It's really helped to take some of the pressure off."
"Love you, too, Gabrielle." Xena smiled softly, then worked to extract herself from her bard's embrace.
Gabrielle had a puzzled expression on her face. "Xena? Where are you going?"
"I have some pressure of my own that needs some taking off." The shy smile on Xena's lips told her bard there were no hard feelings. "I'm thinking a trip to the river might help."
"Xena? It's winter. That river's cold."
"I'm counting on it, Gabrielle." Xena grimaced as she donned her shift and walked slightly bowlegged towards the door. "I'm counting on it."
Xena stood outside the Queen's hut, allowing her eyes to adjust. It was a grey, predawn morning, the first rays of sun not yet having penetrated the treetops. Slowly, her sight acclimated and the shadows began to retreat from her vision. Gingerly, she stepped off the low-slung porch, grimacing with the motion.
"Yep, definitely a soak in the river," she said.
Across the way, she saw the thick hide covering a doorway pushed back. A lone Amazon stepped out onto the porch. At first, Xena thought she'd been too loud and woken the hut's occupant. She was just about to shout an apology when the hide flap opened again.
Against the illumination of the glow from the fire-pit inside, Xena was able to clearly make out their silhouettes. The first one was stocky and muscular, with an unmistakable physique that could only belong to the weapons master of the Amazons.
The Amazon that followed her out onto the porch was more slender and slightly taller. She slipped her arms about Eponin's waist from behind. Ep turned in the embrace, capturing the woman's mouth with her own. It was a long, drawn out passionate kiss that served to painfully remind Xena of why she was out on the Queen's porch in the first place.
The kiss ended and Ep started off the porch. Xena thought about calling out to her, see if she wanted to get in some sparring. She raised her hand, then abruptly lowered it as the other Amazon reached out, grabbing Eponin by the back of her belt.
She tugged her back, using a leg spin and pivot to press the weapons master's back against the wall as she assaulted her with a deep, tongue-thrusting kiss. When their mouths parted, Eponin's heated breath was visible in the cool air. The Amazon pulled away, letting her hand trail down Eponin's arm. When she reached the tips of her fingers, she gave a tug, pulling Eponin towards the hide covered entryway. The weapons master willingly followed.
"Well, good for you, Pony," Xena muttered beneath her breath. "Looks like you found another place to bed down after all."
Despite her uncomfortable situation - and that her bout of voyeurism hadn't helped her problem any, Xena couldn't keep the smile from her lips.
She'd immediately realized whose hut Eponin had been coming out of. About time, she thought, knowing that Eponin had been wanting Ephiny for at least as long as she'd desired Gabrielle.
Xena was nearly to the river when she spotted them.
Argh! Not again! she nearly screamed as she ducked behind a tree.
Luckily, the couple didn't see her. Or, maybe unluckily. If she had stuck to her course and stumbled upon them, it would have merely been awkward. Now, if she was spotted coming out from behind a tree and approached them, it would be so much worse.
Maybe they'll move on soon.
Xena peered out from behind the tree.
No more than ten paces distant, Solari and another woman were standing beneath another tree. Solari had her arm up, her hand braced above her companion's head as she leaned back against the trunk.
It was considerably lighter now than when she'd spied on Eponin and Ephiny and Xena could make out a great many more details. Solari's head was lowered and there was a smile upon her lips as she drew little, sipping kisses from the other woman's mouth. Her free hand hovered above the woman's fine neck, her fingers tracing along the curve of a jawline.
The woman had bright red tresses that fell in cascading locks about both shoulders. She was shorter than Solari, having to stand on her tiptoes to pursue the captain's lips for another kiss when Solari drew back.
Solari laughed, her grin widening. Xena was close enough she could see the flash of Solari's tongue as she ran it along her companion's lips. The redhead pulled back from the kiss. Solari pursued another one, only to have sharp teeth nip at the tip of her nose as she leaned in.
The redhead's laughter was rich and melodious and freely given. Then, her laughter broke off. With a serious look, she reached out, capturing Solari's fingers that had been tracing the line of her jaw. She turned her head, as if studying the palm. Then slowly, deliberately, she placed Solari's hand upon her breast and squeezed.
Xena bit her bottom lip and spun around; banging the back of her head against the trunk of the tree she was hiding behind in the process. She closed her eyes, wishing she could block out the sight of the captain of the Amazon guard's hand closing upon the delicate fabric of a Hestian virgin's robes.
Xena was feeling decidedly better.
A soak in the river had been just the thing to successfully tame her raging libido. Now that the swelling had gone down, she was able to relax and enjoy a nice soak. Really, the chilly temperatures weren't so bad once you got used to them.
Xena leaned back and closed her eyes, floating on the water, confident that she was all alone.
In truth, if Xena had to bathe in the river, she preferred it to be in the early morning before anyone else was up. Last thing she needed was a bunch of teeny-bopper awestruck Amazonettes trying to sneak a peek at her warrior nakedness.
Especially after the morning I've just had. Xena dreaded the trip back to the village and to the Queen's hut. She knew she had to tell Gabrielle. Both about Ephiny and Eponin and Solari and the Hestian.
The first wouldn't be bad. Gabrielle had a fondness for both her regent and her weapons master. So did Xena, despite initially getting off on the wrong foot with Ephiny. Then again, so had Gabrielle, recalled Xena, remembering both their initial confrontations with the intense Amazon.
The second bit of news, Xena did not want to be the bearer of. She couldn't begin to imagine the implications of an Amazon deflowering a Hestian. Not that Xena was entirely certain that had happened. The two had indulged in a little more heavy petting, then Solari had seemingly put a stop to things and escorted the Hestian home. Her home, not Solari's, thank the gods, Xena thought. If Priestess Leah had found one of her virgins in an Amazon's bed, she had no doubt there would be Tartarus to pay.
The unwelcome sounds of giggling and incessantly perky chattering interrupted Xena's quiet musings. She warily opened one eye and cast a look towards the shore. Hastily, she shifted from her floating position, hiding her nakedness beneath the water.
She'd expected a gaggle of giggling Amazonettes. Instead, she counted just under a dozen Hestians. Xena didn't see Solari's redhead of earlier amongst the group. But, she did see quite a bit of the rest of them. Much more than she'd intended.
The virgins had already disrobed, folding their gowns and placing them upon the bank of the river. Xena averted her gaze as, in unison, they bent over with their backsides to the water and began unlacing their sandals.
Xena studiously kept her back turned. Before she knew it, there was the telltale splashing of multiple bodies displacing the water and she felt a nearby presence. Xena's eyes widened and she visibly stiffened as a damp hand closed about her shoulder.
"What - " Did that squawk actually come from the famed warrior princess? "What are you doing here?"
"We came to cleanse our bodies in the water, of course. And now that we've found you here, we can also cleanse our souls at the same time," answered a very high, very feminine voice. "It's time for declarations, priestess."
Xena nearly groaned. She remembered at the Temple of Hestia, when the virgins had mistaken her for Leah and cornered her, stating they had to confess their sins to her at the same time every day. She turned around, mouth forming a silent 'o' as she recognized the very same virgin that had rambled on about something or another with summer squash. Xena hadn't been listening at the time. She'd been too busy fighting off an attack from the evil priest's henchmen.
Obviously, this girl is some sort of head virgin or something. Xena noticed how the rest of the virgins hung back near the shore while this one approached her individually. Xena started to tell her she'd made a mistake, then thought better of it. Which would be far more embarrassing for her; to wade out of the river and give the virgins and eyeful - or to pretend to be Priestess Leah and hear their confessions?
Xena decided to stay put. Hearing their confessions wouldn't be an embarrassment to her. After all, it was their confessions, not hers. Besides, what could they have possibly gotten up to if Leah had them confessing their sins on a daily basis?
Xena gave serious contemplation to drowning herself. She might still, if the voluptuous blonde Hestian continued to drone on and on about spying on a group of Amazon warriors during staff practice and her subsequent, illicit thoughts of said warriors and staffs. It had been candlemarks. Winter clouds had rolled in, blotting out the warmth of the sun and turned the river chilly. Xena was beginning to lose feeling in her lower extremities.
Worse still, this was still that same virgin that had initially approached her. Xena glanced towards the shoreline. She still had ten more declarations to get through.
"Look," Xena placed both hands on the girl's shoulders and looked her square in the eye and said, "There's nothing wrong with a little fantasy now and then. It's not a sin if it stays in your own mind."
"Oh, okay." The virgin nodded. "But, I still remember your advice. The advice about taking matters into my own hands. And, sometimes that works. But since we've left the Temple, there's never enough privacy. I'm never alone."
Xena slapped a hand against her face. She'd given this virgin some solid, well thought out philosophy and still this virgin wanted to talk. Xena's teeth were fairly chattering from the cold and she was positive her areola had taken on a blue hue.
Well, no more.
"That's why it's important to have friends," she snarled, before pushing past the head virgin and wading to shore. She snatched up her shift and donned it, all the while mumbling and grumbling as she strode barefoot back to the village.
Eponin gave a languid stretch as she stepped out onto the regent's porch for the second time that morning. This time, the curly haired seductress that had lured her back to bed didn't follow her outside. Eponin had left her sleeping, the languid smile of the well-satisfied still upon her lips.
It had taken all of the weapons master's much vaunted strength to make herself leave that bed. It was warm. And, so was the woman still in it. Hades, Ephiny could be classified as downright hot. If she thought the regent had a fiery, passionate nature on the training fields, it was nothing compared to how she was between the sheets.
After dinner last eve, Ephiny had stated she was going to turn in early. Constantly seeing to it that the village remained virgin-safe had been wearing on her and she wanted nothing more than to go to sleep. Eponin had made an offhanded comment about how she wished she could get some. That had prompted an explanation about how the Hestians' singing was keeping her awake.
When she joked about looking for a bed partner to share with, Ephiny had gotten this odd look on her face and asked where she should apply for the position. Eponin's laughter died in her throat when she realized that the offer was a serious one.
Then, it was a hasty dash to the regent's hut. From the moment the hide covering had fallen across the doorway, they were all over each other. Eponin didn't get any sleep last night, either. This morning, though, she didn't mind a bit.
All night long and still enough left over to coax me back into her bed this morning.
A soft smile caressed Eponin's lips as she ducked back inside the hut and spied Ephiny naked and facedown, the quilt tangled about her lower legs and ankles and hanging off the bed. Eponin leaned over, depositing a soft kiss to a bare shoulder blade before quietly grabbing her staff and sneaking back out again.
She stepped off the porch, finding some room out in the open so she could swing her staff. She took several practice swings about her body, loosening up her joints. A few more reps and she'd be ready to head to the practice fields.
"Xena," Eponin called out, spotting her friend.
The warrior princess was clad only in a shift. Her hair was wet, as if she'd just come from the baths. But, she wasn't carrying a towel. And, she was shivering as though she were freezing to death.
"Xena?" Eponin cautiously approached the warrior. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," snarled Xena.
"I'm headed to the fields for some practice." Eponin gave her staff another twirl. "Wanna come?"
Xena spun around so abruptly that Ep was forced to take a step back. "No. No, I do not want to come." The finger she jammed into Eponin's chest was brutal. "And you, weapons master, had better keep that staff to yourself."
"What?!?" Eponin saw Xena's gaze fixed somewhere over her left shoulder. She turned and looked, seeing Ephiny's hut in the distance. Thinking Xena was making a crack on her, Eponin lost her temper. She used both hands to give the warrior a shove. "What's your deal?"
Xena tilted her head from side to side, causing her neck to crack. "Oh, Amazon. You are so gonna regret that."
"Yeah?" Eponin hefted her staff, motioned for Xena's approach. "Come get some. Princess."
The warrior princess snarled and took two steps before hearing, "Xena?" She turned to see a sleepy Gabrielle standing in the doorway to their hut, yawning and stretching. "What's going on?"
Likewise, a bleary-eyed Ephiny stepped out onto her porch. "Pony?" she asked, wiping the sleep from her eye.
"Xena?" asked Gabrielle, "Are you just coming from the river?"
Eponin corked an eyebrow. Only one reason she knew of that any warrior would go bathing in the freezing river in the dead of winter when there was a perfectly good set of heated springs close by.
Xena caught the weapons master's knowing smirk.
"Um, yeah. I - "
Xena's stammering explanation was interrupted by an Amazon guard running pell-mell towards them. "My Queen! My Queen!" She skidded to a halt in front of Gabrielle. "There's trouble with the Hestians."
Gabrielle gave her consort a backhand to the gut. Turning to the guard, she asked, "What's the trouble?"
"They've all been poisoned."
"Poison oak, actually," diagnosed the head healer.
Gabrielle glanced at the young Hestians all sitting in chairs lined up against the wall.
"I don't see any spots," she said.
"Inside," the head healer stated.
Xena's eyes widened and she clamped a hand over her mouth. She'd left them at the river. Naked at the river. She had a momentary flash of them all coming out of the water, going into the bushes to take care of business and getting poison oak in an indelicate area.
Seeing her warrior's reaction, Gabrielle's eyes narrowed to tiny slits. "Xena?" she asked suspiciously, "What did you do?"
"You gave the Hestian virgins advice on mutual masturbation techniques?"
Xena cringed before the righteous fury of the Queen of the Amazons. Gabrielle's face was beet red, every one of the veins in her neck were bulging out and Xena was quite positive they'd heard her all the way in Amphipolis.
Eponin turned to Ephiny, burying her face in the regent's shoulder as she struggled to contain her mirth. And lost. Loud guffaws escaped the weapons master and her entire body shook with laughter.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time?" The warrior offered up in a weak voice.
"A good idea? A good idea?" Gabrielle clenched both fists and stomped her feet in frustration. "Do you realize you're solely responsible for giving the Hestians...the Hestian virgins...poison oak on their - their - " Gabrielle helplessly gestured towards the groins of several wide-eyed, frightened Hestians.
"Actually," interrupted the healer, "It's inside their mouths and throats. They ingested it."
"Wow, said Xena. "I wonder if anyone's told Solari."
Priestess Leah was beside herself when she arrived at the village hospice and learned the news.
"The nearest I can tell, they drank it." The healer took the lid off a large urn and peered inside. "Yep, poison oak leaves in the - " she sniffed at the contents.
"It's tea," Xena supplied. "To soothe their singing voices."
Eponin abruptly fell silent.
"You deliver the tea to the Hestians," Xena accused her. "And, you've been the only one I've heard complaining about their singing."
"Cause I'm the only one that's being honest about it. And, I don't cook it."
"Brew it," corrected Leah.
"You don't cook tea. You brew it."
Eponin shrugged. "Point is, the cook brings it to me and I bring it to you."
"That's right," agreed Ephiny. "Where were you when they were being poisoned?"
"I - I was in prayers, asking Hestia for guidance."
"On the best way to make certain they all swallowed?"
"Stop that, Eph," said Xena. "Leah is the Head Priestess of the Temple of Hestia. Why would she want to poison the Hestian virgins?"
"It was only a theory."
"Look," interrupted Gabrielle. "The important thing is that everyone's okay." Suddenly conscious of the fact that none of the afflicted virgins had uttered a word, Gabrielle asked the healer, "Uh, they are okay, aren't they?"
"Sure. They will be. In time. With lots of rest and plenty of warm, soothing liquids." She gave a wry smirk. "Course, I'd stay away from the tea. And, I wouldn't recommend talking until the sores have healed."
"No speaking?" Leah's eyes went wide. "What about singing?"
The healer gave the Hestian an incredulous look. "Definitely not."
Priestess Leah staggered, clutching at her chest. Gabrielle started to reach out to catch her, thinking she'd been poisoned, also. Then, she realized the Hestian was just being overly dramatic.
The hide covering the doorway of the healer's hut flew back and a flustered captain of the guard rushed inside. Spotting her redheaded friend sitting in a chair alongside the other virgins, she rushed to her, kneeling before her. She took both the girl's hands in her own.
"I heard there'd been some trouble," Solari husked out. "Thank Artemis you're okay."
When the girl didn't respond, Solari tightened her grip on her hands. "You are okay, right?"
The Hestian turned her head, steadfastly avoiding the Amazon's concerned gaze. Solari cupped the girl beneath her chin, using her fingertips to force her to turn her head. The Amazon ducked her head, leaning in closer.
"Solari," Xena rushed forward, knocking Solari off balance and to the ground, "Don't kiss her."
All sets of eyes turned to zero in on the warrior princess. It was Gabrielle that finally found the words to ask, "Xena, why would you even think you needed to warn Solari not to kiss a Hestian?"
"Um - "
Leah sat at the table, morosely picking at her venison stew. Xena was directly across from her. Beside the warrior princess sat the weapons master, Eponin. Ephiny and Gabrielle were at opposite ends of the table, Gabrielle closest to Xena and Ephiny nearest Eponin. The captain of the guard, Solari, was suspiciously absent.
As were all the Hestian virgins. The next table over had been left set for them, in case any of them felt like coming to dinner. Understandably, none of them had.
Xena had thought with the absence of the virgins, the Amazons might take the opportunity to cut loose and be more raucous. But, there was no heavy drinking. No dirty jokes. No dice games going on at the tables. If anything, the Amazons were...subdued, the atmosphere morose.
"We'll be leaving at first light, then."
"Priestess Leah, there's really no need for that. The Hestians still need their rest."
"I can't risk having my virgins defiled." Leah sent Xena a stern look. "They can rest in the temple upon our return."
Xena was no longer listening. The Hestian priestess had made it abundantly clear that she blamed the warrior princess for what had occurred more than she did Solari. Xena had tried to explain that it wasn't her fault. Her words, though, had fallen on deaf ears.
So, she'd decided to give Priestess Leah the same treatment. Xena was determined to sit there and enjoy a hot meal and not give it another thought.
Mind made up, she'd been trying her best to eat her stew. But, every time she lifted her spoon, she collided with Eponin's elbow and her meal spilled back into her bowl.
Finally, Xena had enough. When Ep went to lift her spoon again, Xena purposely elbowed her. Hard.
"Ow! Hey!" Ep glared at Xena.
"Use your right hand."
"Xena, I'm left-handed."
Xena ignored Eponin's protest, lifting her spoon again. Yet again, she collided with Ep. A growl rumbled up from the warrior princess' throat.
"Switch hands, ya freak," Xena ordered through gritted teeth.
Xena couldn't believe her ears. Ep had actually refused. She turned to give Eponin the look. As she did, she noticed the weapons master's right hand was somewhere below the tabletop and the muscles in her arm were repeatedly flexing beneath her taut skin. Xena dropped her spoon and grabbed Eponin by the ear.
Gabrielle shot the two warriors a look, but didn't say anything. She was used to the two of them squabbling like children. Gods knew if Solari was there, she'd be right in the middle of it with them.
Keeping her voice low so that the blonde bard wouldn't overhear, Xena heatedly whispered in Eponin's ear, "Hey, you featherhead! Keep it holy. Your regent," Xena shot Ephiny a pointed look, "promised Gabrielle that the Amazons would show some discretion."
Eponin's hand stilled completely. She covertly wiped her palm against her leathers. Then, her hand made an appearance on the tabletop. She went to switch her spoon from her left to her right.
Xena cuffed Eponin upside the head. Ep's hand dropped her spoon and she sat contritely staring into her stew bowl. Ephiny leaned forward, looking around Eponin's form, openly glaring daggers at Xena.
"It's simply not a healthy environment for my virgins. Temptation and corruption is all around." Leah looked directly at Xena.
"If you look hard enough," reasoned Gabrielle, "temptation can be found anywhere. Besides, your lives may be in danger."
"We'll make do. Once the announcement is made that the Hestians are withdrawing from the competition, I doubt if we'll have any more trouble."
"That's it, then? You're just quitting?"
"What choice do I have, Gabrielle? You heard the healer's diagnosis. My girls can't speak, let alone sing. It's not as though I can grow a new crop of virgins overnight."
The dining hall fell silent. The only sound to be heard was that of Priestess Leah's spoon against the side of the bowl as she turned loose her grip. Her appetite effectively as quelled as her virgins', the priestess folded her cloth napkin and placed it on the table beside her bowl.
"I've suddenly grown very weary." Priestess Leah rose from her seat. "So, I will bid you all a good night."
"Priestess, wait," Gabrielle called out. "Don't go. There's still time. We could still think of something."
Leah turned to look at the young Queen of the Amazons. A soft smile etched the lines around her mouth. "I may be a Hestian virgin, Gabrielle, but you are the naive one. It would require nothing short of a miracle."
The sound of singing pulled Xena from her slumber. Very off-key singing to be sure, but singing nonetheless. It took her a few heartbeats to realize the racket was coming from somewhere outside their door. Xena sat up, jostling Gabrielle awake.
The bard protested and tried to go back to sleep, going so far as to cover her face with her pillow. Until the sound reached her ears, too. She slowly lifted the pillow away, a bewildered look on her face.
"Xena, is that...?"
The warrior shrugged. "Sounds like Solstice carols to me."
The warrior and her bard stumbled from the Queen's hut, blinking their eyes against the harsh light of midday. They were greeted by the sight of Priestess Leah working with an assembled group. Instead of the recuperating Hestians they'd envisioned, though, they saw harmonizing Amazons. Solari, Eponin and Ephiny amongst them. Seated on the ground beneath a copse of trees, the injured Hestians eagerly watched.
"Ephiny?" Gabrielle motioned for her regent. She jogged over, Eponin and Solari along with her. "What's going on?"
"Well, after Priestess Leah left and you two turned in, some of the Amazons got to talking and they felt kind of bad for her. You know, having to give up her dreams of singing and all."
"Actually," pointed out Xena, "she called it more a vision than a dream."
"Anyway - " Gabrielle motioned for Ephiny to continue.
"Anyway, some of the Amazons went to meet Priestess Leah after her morning prayers and asked her if we could help."
"Ephiny, are you telling me the Amazons volunteered to be Hestian virgins?"
Xena burst out laughing. Ephiny heroically ignored her.
"Just to compete in the singing competition."
Xena struggled to get each word out through her laughter. "Singing. Amazon. Hestian. Virgins. That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."
"That's what I thought," Priestess Leah said. She'd seen Gabrielle and Xena and had been approaching the duo when she heard Xena's derisive snort. "Until I heard them through."
"Really?" Both Gabrielle's eyebrows shot up to her hairline. "Ephiny, you're okay with this?"
"Sure." The regent shrugged. "Amazons don't really celebrate Solstice with carols. It's been forever since I've sang anything besides funeral dirges. It's fun."
"And," Leah's eyes gleamed, "she has the most amazing voice. She's a natural for the solo in our final number."
"Whoa. Whoa Whoa." Xena suddenly grew somber. "You're serious about this? It isn't a joke?"
Priestess Leah blinked back at the warrior. "No, Why would it be?"
"Because - because - " Xena struggled to stammer out, "Hestians entered the competition. Everyone knows Hestians are virgins. You know, pure and unsoiled. You can't just go substituting Amazons for Hestians. It'd be... well, it'd be unethical. And cheating."
"Leah thought so, too," said Ephiny.
"At first," chimed in Solari.
"But then," said Eponin, "she said it would be okay to stand in for them as long as we were still virginal."
"Virginal Amazons?" Xena gasped as Gabrielle elbowed her in the ribs, but didn't let it deter her from asking, "So, where are the age twelve and younger Amazonettes?"
"Hah. Think you're funny, warrior princess." Eponin crossed her arms over her massive chest and smugly said, "Fat lot you know. We're still virgins. According to your High Priestess of Hestia, a virgin is and I quote, A woman who has never lain with a man. End quote."
Xena snorted. Still laughing, she turned to Gabrielle. Gabrielle was standing stock-still, a deer caught in the crossbow's sight expression upon her face.
"Okay, okay." Xena wiped a hand across her face in an attempt at somberness. Clearly, everyone else was taking this seriously. "Okay. Her - " she said, pointing to Eponin, "Fine. I get that. But you - " Here, she indicated Ephiny, " - no way. You have a kid."
"Oh, my!" Priestess Leah's voice shot up an octave. "You've been blessed with the gift of immaculate conception."
Gabrielle's eyes bugged out.
Xena sputtered. "Immaculate conception, my - "
A boot solidly connected with Xena's shin.
"Actually," Ephiny visibly squirmed beneath Priestess Leah's gaze as she admitted, "His father was a Centaur. My son is a Centaur."
Priestess Leah gasped and laid a hand to her chest over her heart. "Bestiality." Thinking she might faint actually faint, Ephiny instinctively reached out for her, only to be shooed away. "Unhand me, you filthy harlot! For shame! It's a wonder you didn't burst into flames on the spot!"
"I was really, really drunk at the time," Ephiny mumbled.
"Yes well, you'd have to be, wouldn't you?"
"Stop. Stop." Gabrielle had regained her wits enough to step between the priestess and the regent. "Please. Everyone, let's just take a deep breath and calm down."
Amazons and Hestians openly glared at each other with varying degrees of hostility. Gabrielle looked to Xena, wondering what to do. For once, the warrior princess had no ready-made plan. This was a mess. A Cyclops-sized one.
In a move purely meant to comfort Ephiny, Eponin reached out and clasped her hand. Ephiny drew strength from the touch. It seemed only natural to lean into her lover's embrace. Before she thought about her actions, Eponin chastely brushed her lips against Ephiny's.
There were shocked gasps. Delighted ones from Gabrielle and the other Amazons that had long hoped for their beloved regent to find happiness. Horrified ones from Leah and the Hestians.
"Ack!" Leah pointed a shaking finger at the couple. "Incest!"
"Incest," repeated Leah. "The act of having illicit encounters within your own family."
"Oh, gods," said Gabrielle. "Leah, when I said all Amazons are sisters, I didn't mean it literally. I meant it more as a 'we're all united in sisterhood' slogan."
Eponin and Ephiny stood looking at each other. Ephiny turned to the priestess. "Really?" she asked, waggling a finger between the two of them. "Do we look like we have the same mothers?"
"Not all family resemble each other," Leah sniffed haughtily. Looking to Xena, she added, "Sometimes, complete strangers resemble each other more closely than true family."
Eponin snickered and whispered in Ephiny's ear, "The things I want to do with you, we couldn't do if we were true sisters."
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Ephiny couldn't help but giggle at Eponin's comment. Besides, Pony's breath tickled her ear.
The regent's levity at the situation snapped the priestess' last virginal nerve. "Unhand that harlot," she commanded.
"Priestess." Ephiny's nostrils flared, her eyes flashed.
"Wanton strumpet," countered Leah. "Eponin, come away from there. You can still be a good virgin. I'll train you for the competition solo." When Eponin didn't immediately comply, she harshly accused, "Or, are your loins so filled with lust," Leah pointed a quivering finger at Eponin's anatomy, "that you would rather bed down with a purveyor of filth?"
"Don't you dare talk about Ephiny that way."
Before anyone could react, Eponin had the priestess' robes clutched in her hand and her fist cocked back.
"Eponin, no." commanded Gabrielle.
Both Ephiny's hands were tight about Ep's bicep, trying to hold her back. "Pony, stop. She's a holy woman. It's probably a sin to kill her." If it was possible, Ephiny could swear she felt Eponin's muscles tighten more. "Please, honey. It's just words. Words don't hurt. Pony, please."
Eponin didn't argue, even though she knew Ephiny was wrong. Words could hurt. Sometimes, they cut more deeply than the sharpest blade. It was so tempting to make the priestess feel the same amount of pain as she inflicted upon her regent.
But when Ephiny spoke to her in those dulcet tones, when she said please, when she called her Pony...Ep could refuse her nothing.
Slowly, so slowly it was possible to hear joints creaking with the effort it took, the Amazon warrior's fist unclenched. Still maintaining her gaze with the priestess, Eponin let loose the Hestian robes.
In the center of the Amazon village, it was eerily quiet, save for the sounds of heavy breathing in the air.
"Now," interjected Gabrielle, holding up her hands. "Some heated things were said on both sides. Let's all take some deep breaths and let bygones be bygones and go back to practicing, okay? I said, okay?"
There were mumbled words of agreement from both sides. Until Priestess Leah pointed to Ephiny and said, "Except for her. I won't have a heathen harlot in my choir."
"Oh, yeah?" Ephiny planted a hand on her cocked hip and shot back, "I wouldn't sing in your choir if you got down on your Holier-than-thou knees and begged me."
"Blasphemer!" Leah gasped and went to the well once-too-often with the hand clutch to her chest.
"Oh, bite me!" Ephiny tossed back and stormed off.
"Well, I never."
"I'll bet that's right," Xena sniggered beneath her breath.
The priestess appeared so distraught by the regent's words and behavior that she was using her hand to fan her heated face. "I need a moment of quiet reflection. We'll resume in five."
Eponin let out a deep growl as she glared at the retreating priestess. "You know, that Hestian's really starting to rub me the wrong way."
A bead of sweat appeared on Eponin's upper lip. She groaned in agonized frustration.
"Again," instructed Priestess Leah.
Each time she failed, the priestess instructed she make the attempt again. After a candlemark's time, Eponin felt as if her throat were raw from the effort.
"Priestess - "
"Leah. You, Eponin, may call me Leah."
"Leah. Maybe you should pick someone else."
"Nonsense. You will make an excellent virgin."
"I can't do it."
Eponin growled, then did as requested. And failed again.
"I see the problem." The priestess moved around behind Eponin. She reached out a hand, placing it palm down against Eponin's muscled abdomen. "You have to sing from the diaphragm." She pressed in with her palm. "Try it again. You can do it. Hold the note, Eponin."
Gabrielle flipped aside the hide covering, entering the guest hut unannounced. A blonde brow rose in an eerily similar fashion to Xena's as she took in the unorthodox sight of the Hestian priestess with her hands all over the other woman.
"My Queen," Eponin saluted, clearly relieved to see Gabrielle.
"Eponin. Are you okay?"
"She's fine," answered Leah. She removed her hand from Eponin's chiseled stomach, gave her a pat on the back. "You make a fine virgin, my child."
Eponin warily eyed the priestess. "You mean for singing, right?"
"For now." There was an enigmatic smile upon the priestess' lips as she declared, "Go now. You need to rest your body and mind for the competition."
"Before that," Gabrielle interrupted, "Xena's been wanting to get in some staff practice with you."
"Yes, my Queen." Eponin eagerly saluted and raced out the door before the priestess could call her back again.
Queen Gabrielle and Head Priestess Leah silently eyed each other. The quiet stretched on for an interminable amount of time until, at last, Priestess Leah spoke.
"I suppose you're here to tell me that you won't allow the Amazons to compete in the competition?"
Gabrielle thought about saying just that. But, it would be a lie. And, she was certain lying to a priestess couldn't possibly be good. No matter how much she wanted to.
"No. No, I haven't. The Amazons pledged to help you. They'll continue to do that. No matter if it's appreciated or not."
"I see. I know what you want then, Gabrielle. And, the answer is no. The position has already been filled. I neither require nor desire Ephiny as a Hestian."
"Ephiny is an Amazon. As are all the members of your choir," reminded Gabrielle, "Eponin included."
"An unfortunate detail that is of little concern right now."
It hadn't escaped Gabrielle's notice that Priestess Leah had seemingly taken a special interest in the Amazon weapons master. Perhaps because she was most assuredly what Leah termed, a true virgin. Or perhaps it was, as Gabrielle suspected, because she knew that her personal tutoring of Ep would sufficiently ruffle Ephiny's feathers.
And, it was running poor Eponin ragged. When the weapons master wasn't performing her duties, she was literally at the head priestess' beck and call. Somehow in between her duties as an Amazon and as a temporary Hestian, Ep was also still trying to be with Ephiny. Discreetly, to keep the peace as Gabrielle had asked.
By no means was it in Gabrielle's nature to be up before the crack of dawn. But, it was in Xena's. And, her warrior had confided in her that she continued to see Ep come dragging from Ephiny's hut in the wee candlemarks of the morning.
"You're hurting Eponin by trying to force her to choose between you and Ephiny."
"I don't know what you are talking about, Gabrielle."
"Don't play the innocent with me, Leah. Your motives aren't as pure as you pretend." The priestess' lips formed a tight line and there was a harsh look in her eyes that Gabrielle presumed was reserved for ill-behaved virginal disciples. Undaunted, Gabrielle pressed on. "You're using Eponin. You know she's fiercely loyal. She's also very honorable. It's tearing her up inside that singing with you is hurting Ephiny. But, she also gave her word that she would help you."
"Yes, well. It'll all be over with soon enough and then Eponin may choose for herself whether she desires to be a virtuous Hestian or an unrepentant harlot."
"You know, I thought after you'd walked a mile in Meg's shoes, you were more open-minded." Gabrielle's eyes narrowed to tiny slits. "But, here you are, still biased and judgmental of others."
"Oh, very well, Gabrielle. If it will make you feel better," Leah conceded, "The wanton strumpet may join the choir. As an alternate stand-in." That way, she thought, there will be no chance in Tartarus of the harlot competing.
Ephiny was tired of having this same conversation. It was getting old. Actually, it had gone past old two days ago and now was on the verge of becoming ancient. And, quite frankly, Ephiny was tired of defending herself.
"Gabrielle, no. For the last time, I will not participate in the Hestian choir. After what she did - after what she said - everyone should consider themselves lucky that I haven't ousted all the virgins from Amazon soil."
"Really, Ephiny?" Gabrielle crossed her arms. "Every one of those Amazons in that choir are virgins. Including Solari and Eponin. Are you planning on banishing them, too?"
"Solari's slept with over half the eligible women in the village, Gabrielle. She can hardly be called a virgin. And given what Pony's been doing in my bed lately, neither can she."
"According to Priestess Leah's definition, they both still qualify."
"Not if that definition extends to the use of phalluses."
Gabrielle felt as if she'd just taken a blow to the gut with a staff. She blindly reached out, reflexively clutching at the back of a nearby chair.
"You mean - she's - you've - " Gabrielle knew her face had gone molten red. "Ep's allowed you to - with - "
"No, of course not," Ephiny scowled.
Gabrielle actually felt herself breathe a sigh of relief. Not that it should matter at all, Gabrielle thought. What two Amazons do in bed together is still nobody's business but their own. Still, the thought of her regent in an intimate encounter with her weapons master with Ephiny wielding a - Gabrielle shuddered - not altogether in abject horror - as the taboo image popped into her bardly imagination.
"If it'll keep that Hestian daughter of a Bacchae from sinking her claws into my lover, though, I might consider it," threatened Ephiny.
"How'd it go?" Xena asked as she placed a tender kiss to the top of her bard's head in greeting.
"Not good." Gabrielle wrapped her arms about Xena and gave her a hug. She'd been so glad to see that Xena was there when she'd returned to her hut after dual conversations with Leah and Ephiny.
"I finally got Leah to agree to let Ephiny participate in the choir. But, I can't convince Ephiny to budge."
"Can't say as I blame her any."
Gabrielle gave Xena an incredulous look. It was a rare thing indeed for the warrior princess to take the regent's side. On anything.
Xena gave a shrug. "Leah is casting judgment against Amazons on Amazon land. If they can't be themselves on their own soil..."
"I never asked any Amazon not to be who she is."
"No, you didn't," agreed Xena in a soft, soothing voice. "But, you did ask them to downplay their public displays of affection. Loving women, showing their love for women, is a part of who the Amazons are."
"The Hestians were driven out of their home, Xena, forced to take refuge amongst strangers with strange customs. I didn't want to make them feel any more uncomfortable than they already were."
"So instead, you made the Amazons feel that way. In their homes."
"Oh, gods." Gabrielle buried her face in Xena's breastplate. "Why can't Amazons and Hestians all just get along?"
Xena gave an elegant shrug of broad shoulders. "I don't know, Gabrielle. But, maybe it's time to accept that you can't fix what's wrong between Ephiny and Leah. Could be that they can't, either. Hard as it is to hear, sometimes two people simply can't get along."
The lead singer representing the Order of the Light from the Temple of Harmonia sized up her competition. They had already beaten out hundreds of other groups in their providence to have the honor of competing for the coveted place with the Trans-Grecian Orchestra. She should be proud to have just made it into the finals.
Instead, she was sick to her stomach. They were representatives from the musical capital of Greece. They were expected to be good. Better than good. They were expected to be the best. But, they were competing against orphans. And virgins. If any of the panel judges had a heart, that alone would earn them a sympathy vote.
There was four of them; a quartet representing the Order of the Light. Their voices were strong and practiced; but there were only so many ranges they could hit. The orphans could quadruple that by sheer numbers alone.
Sixteen of them were on stage now. They wore plain, disheveled, ill-fitting clothes, the dust of the road still on their oversized boots. She'd heard that without a sponsor to support them, they'd walked the entire distance from the orphanage. She'd spied the Sisters of Gaia with them backstage right before they went on, mercilessly pinching their cheeks between their forefingers to add the adorable rosiness of youth.
She stole a look at the Hestians. There were a lot of them. Not as many as the orphans, but still a lot. And, all of them virgins. Sweet and innocent and all that being a virgin implied. They all wore identical gowns, but they were clean and presentable. Pure as snow, as the term 'virgin' suggested.
An older woman, several seasons older than the rest, stood with them. Her gown was the same style as theirs, only longer in length, reaching nearly to the ground, the hem covering her sandaled feet. The others seemed full of nervous energy. She exuded a quiet decorum. She immediately recognized her as the Head Priestess of the Temple of Hestia.
Her stomach churned. We don't stand a snowball's chance in Tartarus, she realized.
The Amazons dressed as Hestians waited off stage, watching as their competition took their bows.
"Did you hear their bridge?" asked Eponin. "Some of those orphans' voices were cracking bad."
Solari nudged Eponin. "I remember yours changing worse than that when you reached that same age. Don't think you could finish an entire sentence in the same tone."
Eponin's face reddened.
"Dangers of growing up," Solari grinned. She patted Eponin on the back. "Don't worry; we've got this."
"Careful, girls," warned Priestess Leah, "Overconfidence is a sin and pride often comes before a fall."
Eponin and Solari ducked their heads, duly chastised.
"Still though," the priestess continued, turning and brushing a bit of lint off the shoulder of Eponin's gown, "there's nothing wrong in having faith in one's abilities."
Gabrielle and Ephiny stood shoulder to shoulder in the crowd. Both Amazons were wearing hooded cloaks so as not to draw attention to themselves. Throughout the audience, there were many more hooded Amazons, weapons discreetly hidden beneath the folds of their cloaks.
Ephiny's eyes swept the audience once more, looking for danger. So far, the competition had been uneventful. Unless you counted the wardrobe malfunction from one of the members of the Order of the Light. Luckily, when her shoulder strap had given way, several other singers in the group stepped in front of her, providing cover until she could readjust her - um - assets.
The regent's gaze settled on the stage. The twelve women led by Priestess Leah were singing a haunting rendition of Happy Solstice, the War is Over. Solari and Eponin were at each end of the front row. The chorus grew softer in pitch. The two brunettes stopped singing completely and stepped forward. Looking across the stage at each other, they gave reassuring smiles to one another before launching into their duet of I'll Be Home for Solstice. In the background, the rest of the group maintained the chorus of Happy Solstice. The crowd erupted into applause.
Gabrielle saw the delighted look on her regent's normally somber face. She nudged Ephiny in the ribs with her elbow, leaning in close so she could say in her ear, "They sound good, don't they?"
"Gods, yes." Ephiny agreed. "Damn. They look good, too."
Gabrielle had to admit, given the amount of fidgeting and material tugging going on when the Amazons had first donned the Hestian gowns, she hadn't thought they'd make it all the way onto the stage in complete costume. And, even as they were being introduced, there was a fair amount of costume adjusting going on. Gabrielle cringed at the visual memory of that one big girl obviously struggling with an undergarment that had ridden up on her. Once they'd actually started singing, though, it was as if a transformation had taken place. They were suddenly dignified and graceful and - beautiful.
Gabrielle caught the gleam in Ephiny's eye as she stared at the amount of cleavage displayed by Eponin's Hestian costume. "Down girl. You can ravage the conquering virgin after she's won the competition."
Ephiny didn't reply, just continued to watch the Hestians on stage. She'd given serious thought about not attending the competition, especially since she and Leah hadn't buried the battle axe after their confrontation in the village. Gabrielle hadn't made it an order, but she had asked. And whether she knew it or not, sometimes Gabrielle's asking was more powerful a weapon than that chakram Xena wielded with such skill.
Besides, I wouldn't have wanted to miss this for the known world. Ephiny was glad she hadn't allowed the priestess' condemnations of her life choices, including those that celebrated her love for Pony, stop her from attending. Ever since Leah's accusations, Eponin had been skittish around her, as if she thought the priestess' opinions might sway her. Her presence here would reaffirm to Ep that she hadn't allowed the priestess' prejudices to change her mind - or her heart.
It's important to show my support for Eponin, thought Ephiny. And, damn; that outfit looks really, really good on her.
Ephiny's gaze swept over the rest of the singers. Solari's cleavage had always been ample. And, the costume she wore did nothing to disguise that. Ephiny wondered at that for a heartbeat. Why did the sight of Eponin in a Hestian gown make her lower regions clench in response, but the view of twelve other amply endowed women didn't elicit the same twinge?
"Gabrielle," Ephiny suddenly spoke into her friend's ear, "Have any of the Hestians recovered from the poison oak enough to perform?"
"Um, no, I don't think so."
Gabrielle pointed to where Xena stood off to one side of the crowd. With her were eleven cloaked figures. Leah's followers had wanted to attend, to show their support for their priestess. Xena and she hadn't thought it was a good idea in case they were recognized. Disguises were discussed, but Leah put her foot down when it was suggested they dress in Amazonian costume. Finally, a compromise was reached and they were allowed to attend, provided they all wore heavy robes over their normal attire and they stuck close to the protective sword arm of the warrior princess.
"There's an extra singer."
Gabrielle looked to the stage. "Are you sure?"
"Twelve singers, plus Leah leading them, makes thirteen. There's only eleven in Xena's group."
"Maybe Leah recruited an extra Amazon."
"No," Ephiny shook her head. "The priestess was adamant about having the same amount of virgins to maintain, as she termed it, their harmonic integrity."
"Well, maybe Leah forgot to count herself. I do it all the time when I'm planning seating arrangements for festivals," Gabrielle shrugged. "It doesn't seem to have affected their performance any. They sound wonderful."
Beneath her cloak, Ephiny's feathers were ruffled. Uneasily, she scanned the faces of each of the singers in turn. The Amazon Nation was thriving. And, with the influx of unwanted baby girls abandoned at their borders and the neglected and battered housewives seeking refuge with them, their numbers were continually growing. To the point that Ephiny couldn't begin to hope to recognize all of them on sight. Still, though -
"Gabrielle," Ephiny pointed to one singer in particular. "Do you recognize her?"
"No," Gabrielle shrugged. Then, she focused on the flowing red tresses and something clicked. "I remember Xena mentioning her. I think she caught Solari and her in a rather intimate position," recalled Gabrielle. "Ephiny, she's a Hestian virgin."
Ephiny frowned. Gods knew Solari could captain an entire platoon of royal guards and brilliantly come up with military strategy that would outwit any Roman legion. But, she had no common sense when it came to women. It would be just like her to give her heart to someone as incompatible as a virgin. Maybe it's not her heart, but her libido that's ruling her mind, Ephiny amended, her gaze sweeping over the full figure of the redhead.
Hazel eyes settled on the redhead's feet. Her breath caught. Her gaze quickly flitted over the feet of the other singers.
"Gabrielle," Ephiny blindly grabbed her Queen's forearm. "She's no Hestian - uh, Amazon - um, virgin. Oh, Ares' balls!"
Ephiny cupped her hands to her mouth, letting loose a long birdcall. The spectators nearest her barely flinched. The warning sound refused to carry, both due to the acoustics of the venue and the sheer number of dense bodies making up the audience.
"Damn it." Ephiny snatched Gabrielle's staff from beneath her cloak and started pushing her way through the crowd. "Gabrielle, that Hestian is no Hestian. She's an orphan."
Gabrielle took off after Ephiny, trying to sneak past jostling elbows. The Amazon regent had the advantage of her staff to tap against the shins of those reluctant to move out of her way. Gabrielle was left to follow as best she could. The short blonde kept bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet, both to keep Ephiny in sight and in hopes of attracting Xena's attention.
Xena spotted the Amazon regent pushing her way through the crowd. The hood of her cloak had fallen back, revealing those distinctive corkscrew blonde curls that were recognizable a mile away. Not that the swatch of hunched over and hobbling people she'd left in her wake wasn't enough to call attention to herself. Blue eyes zeroed in on her small bard wading through the aftermath of Ephiny's assault.
"Stay here," Xena instructed the buxom blonde virgin at her elbow, "And keep out of trouble."
Xena performed a running leap and a flying double somersault that placed her and Ephiny in front of the stage at the same time.
"The redhead," Ephiny said, pointing at the Hestian in question.
The redhead spotted the warriors. Panic shone in her eyes. She pushed the singer closest to her, sending her bumping into the woman next to her. A domino effect was created, with Amazons/Hestians stumbling into each other, creating chaos on the stage.
"Subtle, Eph," Xena frowned. "Real subtle."
Ephiny gave a shrug. "Amazons don't do subtle."
Priestess Leah tried to maintain control, using her baton to keep the singers still standing on tempo. The redhead saw her opportunity, snatching up the dagger that Solari had tucked into the back of her Hestian robes.
"Stop her!" Ephiny shouted.
Eponin and Solari looked about in stunned confusion, not readily certain where the threat was.
Ephiny planted her staff, used it to vault onto the stage. Xena merely gave a flat-footed leap into the air, landing on the hardwood at the same instant Ephiny touched down. Looking about, Ephiny tossed the staff to a waiting Gabrielle. The little blonde used it to perform a vault worthy of an Amazon Queen, placing herself on the stage alongside her regent and her warrior.
The redhead saw her chance slipping away. In sheer desperation, she gave a shout. Knife held above her head, she charged at the Head Priestess of Hestia.
Eponin and Solari rushed after her. Xena flipped over Leah's head, placing herself between the priestess and her would-be assassin. It was Ephiny's mad dash across the stage and her subsequent flying tackle that brought the redhead down, though.
The redhead struggled, trying to disentangle herself. The knife arced wildly, catching in the regent's cloak, the blade tearing into both the material and Ephiny's flesh. The redhead drew back the knife for another strike.
Xena's voice was as cold and sharp as the edge of the blade she held to the redhead's throat. She looked down the length of Xena's blade. The knife fell from her fingers, clattering uselessly upon the stage.
"Are you okay?" Eponin asked, rushing to kneel beside Ephiny.
"Um, yeah, think so." Ephiny opened up her cloak, revealing a thin red line across her abdomen where the assassin's blade had sliced her. "Just a flesh wound."
Solari slowly approached. Green eyes beneath a cascade of flaming red hair looked up at the captain of the guard. Solari's heart lurched in her chest.
"Xena, may I?" Solari asked, her eyes indicating Xena's sword.
Xena lowered the blade and took a step backwards. She fought down the instinctive urge to tighten her grip upon the hilt as Solari reached for her weapon.
Solari gave a nod of thanks as Xena relinquished her grip. Artemis knew she would have preferred her own sword, but there was no place on a Hestian gown to attach a scabbard.
"On your feet," Solari ordered, using the tip of the sword to none-too-gently poke the redhead in the back. "Attempted murder of a Hestian Head Priestess. Not to mention bodily harm of an Amazon royal. Come on, I'm sure this town has a nice, dank dungeon you can call your new home."
Solari tugged the woman to her feet, then pushed and shoved her along in front of her. At the edge of the stage, a group of local constables waited to take the foiled criminal into custody.
"Ephiny?" Gabrielle knelt before her fallen regent. "How did you know?"
"Her shoes. They aren't Hestian sandals."
All heads turned to look. Sure enough, instead of wearing standard Hestian footwear, the redhead was sporting a pair of worn and tattered boots.
"Damn. They're growing those orphans big nowadays," Xena said, recognizing the standard issue boot worn by most attendees of the Sisters of Gaia Orphanage.
"I guess even orphans have to grow up sometime," said Gabrielle. "I can't believe she would pose as a Hestian and drink poisoned tea along with other virgins, though."
"Maybe she didn't," Xena reasoned. "It was easy for her to blend in, both as an Amazon and as a Hestian. There were so many Hestians in that hospice, that maybe the healer didn't realize she hadn't examined them all. Or, maybe she was so fanatical that she really did drink the tea."
Gabrielle turned to a pale and visibly trembling Leah. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, yes, I'm fine." The priestess vigorously nodded her head. "But, that really was rather close, wasn't it?"
"I was between you and her," reminded Xena. "You were in no danger."
"Of course." Leah swallowed against the large amount of saliva gathering in her mouth. She was safe. Her flock was safe. Everything was okay. "Still, an attempt on one's life like that. It really is quite disconcerting."
Xena and Gabrielle locked gazes. "Disconcerting," they said in unison.
"Right." Leah flashed a smile that was meant to reassure herself just as much as it was others. "Keep calm and carry on, right? Shall we continue?" she asked, looking to the judges for approval.
"Uh, Leah - " Gabrielle started to try to explain, then just settled for grimacing and indicating a spot over her shoulder.
Priestess Leah's eyes went wide. Her mouth formed a silent 'O' of mingled shock and disbelief. At first, it had slipped her notice that the entire assembly, including the judges, had fallen silent. At first, she'd thought they were as stunned as she was by the series of events unfolding upon the stage. Then, she realized the true reason behind their stunned silence.
Ephiny was reclining, braced against Eponin's frame as the weapons master sat upon the stage behind her. Her arms were wrapped about Ephiny's waist, her body protectively curled about the lithe blonde's. Ephiny's head lolled against Eponin's shoulder. Her eyes were closed and there was a tremulous smile upon her lips. Ephiny's arm was clutched tight against her midsection in an effort to staunch the flow of blood.
To the healer that approached the couple - and to everyone else looking - it was the perfect image of a Hestian virgin comforting a wounded Amazon.
"When I saw the blade flash and you went down - " Eponin's voice cracked and she placed her lips to her regent's braided crown.
"Hey, shush you." Ephiny forced a smile through her grimace as the healer pressed against the flesh around her open wound. "Take more than a knife wielding psycho orphan to put me down."
"Priestess Leah," spoke one of the judges, "If you'd care to continue?"
Leah gave a curt nod and motioned for her remaining Hestians to take their places. Solari returned to her spot on the stage. At the priestess' questioning look, Eponin shook her head, choosing to stay by her beloved regent's side.
The priestess cast a worried look at the Amazon regent. She was in obvious pain, both arms clenched tight about her midsection as she was aided to her feet. Despite her brave words, the priestess knew the wound could have very easily proven fatal. If the blade hadn't become entangled in the loose fitting cloak - Priestess Leah closed her eyes, refusing to imagine that brutal image. The crowd applauded as Ephiny made it to the edge of the stage and she was helped down the steps.
The Head Priestess of the Temple of Hestia turned back to her choir and raised her baton. Her singers took a deep breath, ready to deliver their first notes. She prepared to give the signal. Then, unexpectedly, Leah's hand dropped by her side.
"Wait. I have a confession to make." Leah turned, her eyes seeking and finding those of the Amazon regent. "When others turned the Hestians from their doors, the Amazons took us in. They sheltered us and protected us. And we - I - judged them unfairly." There was a pause before Leah added, "I should have realized that when a cowardly assassin's deadly poison prompted them to step into our Hestian sandals with no thought for their own safety. I was wrong. Please, accept my apology."
Ephiny's response was a simple pain-filled smile and a firm nod of her head.
"Hold it." One of the judges rose from his seat. "Are you telling me these - " he gestured, indicating the women on stage dressed in identical gowns " - are actually Amazons?"
"Yes," Leah answered.
The judges looked skeptical. "Then, priestess, where are your virgins?"
"Praise Hestia. They are all safe and sound. And, here." Leah swept an arm towards the audience. As one, the Hestians pulled off their cloaks, revealing their true identities. Her smile was radiant. "Thanks to the Amazons."
It was a solemn group of assembled Amazons and Hestians. Even though she hadn't competed, Xena felt a twinge of resentment for the group receiving their laurels center stage.
"I'm sorry the judges disqualified you for not competing with the original members of your group."
"Yes, well." Leah sniffed. "Short-sightedness on their part. But, I suppose rules are rules."
"The Order of the Light, though?" Eponin asked, eyeing the trophy they were receiving. "They weren't the best."
"The Hestians were disqualified for not being real virgins," Solari reminded her. "And, the orphans were eliminated for - well, for trying to eliminate the competition. Who else did you think they were going to pick?"
Eponin fought the urge to say Us. As weapons master, she was unaccustomed to losing at any competition. And, even though she was reluctant at first, once she warmed to the idea of singing in a public forum, she really thought they could win.
Sensitive to her weapons master's internal conflict, Gabrielle reached out, giving her a quick hug. Not a big enough one to upset the Hestians' sensibilities about public displays of affection, but enough to let Eponin know she cared.
"Hey," she nudged Ep with a bump of her hip. Priestess Leah's eyes widened and she hastily looked the other way. "At least the winners are from Harmonia. It is the musical capital of Greece."
"Yeah, I guess." Eponin gave a dejected sigh, kicked at a loose pebble with the toe of her boot.
"Nice save, Eph," Xena compliment the Amazon regent. "You do, of course, realize it was completely unnecessary?"
"Yeah, I know." Afterwards, when the healer was stitching her wound closed, Ephiny had time to replay the incident over again in her mind. Xena had placed herself between the would-be assassin and the priestess. Xena probably could have taken her down with a quick jab of her fingers to a vital organ. Ephiny's flying leap and subsequent tackle had been overkill. "Don't know what I was thinking."
Gabrielle thought she did. "You weren't thinking with your head, Ephiny. You were thinking with your heart."
"Ugh." Ephiny's lip curled up in disgust at the sappy sentiment.
"So..." Xena felt the need to diffuse the situation before Gabrielle started a group hug. Turning to her doppelganger, she asked, "I guess it wasn't your goddess' will that Hestian virgins travel door to door spreading her word?"
"No, I suppose not."
"Oh, Leah, that's right. Your temple is still in ruins." Warning looks from Xena and Ephiny cautioned Gabrielle against offering to let her group come home with them. The big-hearted bard was still concerned, though. "What will you do now?"
"Have no fear, Gabrielle. Hestia will provide."
"Amazing." Ephiny had carefully stayed in the background, hoping to avoid any further conflict with the holy woman. Artemis knew they had a temporary peace. But really; Amazons and Hestians together...How long could that last? "All of this - " the regent made a gesture to encompass everything about them " - all that has happened and it still hasn't shaken your faith?"
"I believe that there is a purpose for all things, Regent Ephiny. I interpreted Hestia's word to mean we should enter a singing competition to spread her praises throughout Greece. If it was truly Hestia's will, we would have won. Perhaps I misinterpreted her original message, but I have no doubt that Hestia brought Her devout followers to your village with a specific purpose in mind." At the blank looks she received, Leah said, "Don't you see; Hestia works in mysterious ways. She sent me on a mission. It may not have been on as grand a scale as I originally thought, but one must take baby steps before she can run to Marathon and back."
"Let me get this straight. You're telling me that Hestia sent you to us to prepare you for some higher purpose; like training for the Olympics?"
"Exactly, Gabrielle." Priestess Leah clasped her hands together, got a wild gleam in her eye. "Today, I made virgins out of Amazons. Imagine the possibilities. After all, tomorrow is another day."
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