The night passed quietly... though that was not unexpected. Lorac had assured them that the Amazons wouldn’t cause any problems – at least not at first. Ares had given instructions that Randi and her entourage were to be left alone... given time to settle in before the Amazons made their move. So the watchers observed in silence; the only shift was the changing of the guard at the darkest part of the night. And even that was done in complete silence. It would have been unnerving, given the amount of animosity they could feel, had it not been for their knowledge of the truth. So they were happy to simply keep watch in the night. Action would come soon enough.
Gwen dropped Randi’s hand and moved to the far side of the bed, smiling when the door was closed firmly and locked with a distinctive snick. She stretched out on the bed and crossed her ankles, tucking her hands behind her head. Randi turned and took in the picture she made with a predatory smile on her face.
“Now, about that negotiation....”
Gwen smirked. “Well, let me hear your terms and we can go from there.”
“My terms?” Randi said as she strutted across the room, dropping onto the empty side of the bed and rolling onto her side. “My terms,” she repeated, running a finger up her ribs and watching Gwen squirm and bite her lip to keep from giggling. “Well, I want it all.”
Gwen caught Randi’s fingers in one hand and rolled over to face Randi. “Well, at least you’re right up front about it. What if we’re not prepared to give you everything?”
Randi made a show of looking around the room. “We? Who exactly is we?” She paused and cocked an eyebrow at Gwen. “I thought the deal was I take care of them... you take care of me.”
“Yeeeeesssssss,” Gwen drawled. “But....”
“No ‘buts’. Negotiations over,” Randi declared firmly. “I. Want. It. All,” tugging Gwen into her embrace. Gwen rolled over with a smile, wrapping her arms around Randi’s neck and nudging her closer, until she could lean her forehead on Randi's.
"All that I have, all that I am is yours."
"That is so not fair. I thought I was going to get a fight out of this."
Gwen giggled and curled her body into Randi's, sighing when Randi surrounded her with warmth and love in an all encompassing embrace. "You just want hot make-up sex," Gwen teased and nuzzled into Randi's neck with abandon. Randi chuckled at the sensation and squeezed Gwen tighter.
"I would never turn down hot make-up sex... even if we weren't fighting. I love sharing that with you," she added firmly, turning them until she was spooned behind Gwen. Randi gently caressed the bare belly her hand was resting on, feeling the goosebumps trail her touch. "But I like this a lot too," she confided. "Just being close to you is wonderful for me... I didn't realize how much until you were gone. I'm not gonna miss an opportunity to do this whenever I can ever again. Life's too short for those kinds of regrets."
"Life's too short for any regrets, love."
"Um... except for the ones I'm gonna give to Ares."
"Well, as soon as we give the Amazons the antidote, the rest should be a piece of cake. He has no idea what he's started."
"No, but he will have when we get finished. Just imagine how the Amazons will feel. But we can worry about that later." Randi reached down and pulled the cover up over them. "Let's get some sleep. I have the feeling tomorrow is going to be a long, ugly day."
"You think someone will challenge?"
"I think there are a few who would like to see me lose... no matter what instruction they were given. And I wouldn't put it past some of them to try tomorrow, regardless."
"Just another day in paradise. I'm glad we've got each other's backs."
"Me too, sweetheart."
Dawn came, but there was no sunrise to be seen deep in the belly of the mountain. Instead, the Sabres functioned by their inner sense of timing and some really reliable, synchronized watches. They all met for breakfast as planned, though there was really nothing for them to report.
"I'd rather they had tried something," Brenda groused. "This waiting is making me nuts."
"Don't worry, Bren," Randi said with a smile as she and Gwen exited their bedroom together. "I have a feeling there may be some action today... regardless of the orders the Amazons have been given. There is a great deal of resentment against me from certain members of the Nation. I can't see them passing up an opportunity like that, especially with the power and fury of Ares' warrior tonic burning through their blood."
"They are gonna be in for quite the surprise then, aren't they?" Gwen smirked. "They have no real clue what they are dealing with."
"No, they really don't. I have a feeling after today they will have much better understanding of just exactly who and what their queen actually is." The Sabres whooped and cheered. They had seen Gwen in action against Randi; they were looking forward to Gwen kicking a little Amazon ass.
"Please tell me you will leave a little for us, my queen," Brenda whined.
Gwen laughed and so did Randi, causing a ripple effect of laughter to run around the room. Gwen took a seat and began filling her plate. Randi sat down beside her and did the same. They exchanged glances and Randi shrugged and nodded, motioning to Gwen and indicating her willingness to follow her lead. Gwen swallowed and looked back at Brenda.
"I promise, Brenda, if it turns into a free-for-all, there will be plenty of action for everyone."
"And if it doesn't? Wait... I'm not trying to start something with the Amazons, as much as I would love a good fight. But I want to know what the protocol here is." She looked at Gwen, then Randi. Randi didn't move; she merely kept eating, sending her message subtly. Brenda turned back to Gwen, understanding that Randi was sincere in her desire to follow Gwen's lead in Amazon matters.
"If it doesn't, I will handle it. I would prefer not to, but I have no qualms about showing the Amazons that I can lead by arms if necessary."
Brenda blinked. She clearly remembered how passive Gwen had been before, but she'd also seen her hold her own against Randi in sparring. The determination in the gaze that met hers was firm and clear and Brenda acquiesced with a nod. "By your command, my queen."
"Thank you, Brenda," knowing the scout would understand what she was saying without Gwen needing to spell it out. Gwen finished eating and her plate was removed from in front of her before she could move. She looked up at Randi, who held their empty plates with a twinkle in her eyes. Gwen grinned back at her. "Ya know," she said cheekily, "A woman could get used to this kind of service."
"For all the rest of your life, sweetheart." She leaned down to whisper softly in Gwen's ear. "We can negotiate terms for eternity later."
Gwen wiggled her eyebrows. "I like negotiations with you. I can't lose."
"All right, you two... break it up. I can't even hear you and I'm getting a sugar rush from the vibes you're giving off. I'm gonna get diabetes at this rate," Reed complained.
Randi growled, then glared at Reed who met her expression with a Cheshire grin of her own. "I'm gonna give you something in a minute."
"Randi... no offense, but try it with someone who doesn't know better, all right? I am enjoying this; I can't help it. And I plan on enjoying it for some time to come. However," she conceded to Randi privately as they walked slowly together into the kitchen, "I'll try to contain my enthusiasm. I don't want you to be uncomfortable around me or self-conscious about the fact that you're finally happy and complete. I want you to be as excited about this as I am."
"I am, Reed... honestly. But...."
"But you're a very private person and I am making you nuts... especially here and now, when you’re expected to step up and be our leader – Empress and Commandant."
"Something like that, yeah. It’s a little different in the privacy of the kitchen at the compound or at your place or at home."
Reed nodded her understanding. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Randi said casually as she shrugged.
“Thanks, Randi. I’ll try to remember ....” Reed would have said more, but Gwen walked into the kitchen area then and looked at both of them questioningly.
“Everything all right?”
Reed crossed the space and put a hand on Gwen’s shoulder. “Everything is great,” exchanging a look with Randi. “Now let me go make up an escort and go see what the Amazon Nation is up to. Today is gonna be a good day, I think.” She walked out and Gwen watched her go, waiting until the Sabres were involved in their discussion before she approached Randi.
“You all right, sweetheart?”
Randi nodded slowly. “Yeah... mostly. I just feel a little overexposed around Reed now – like she knows something she shouldn’t.”
Gwen walked around until she was standing in front of Randi and took chilled hands in her own warmer ones. She chafed them gently, and eventually blue eyes met hers. “Randi, Reed probably knows you better than anyone else in the world now... except me, of course. I don’t think she holds that knowledge lightly. Remember, she was in pain because of us; I think her reaction now is due to the release from it.”
“I know,” Randi readily agreed. “And I really don’t blame her for being excited or relieved or happy or whatever. I just don’t like being the focus of it. It makes me uncomfortable... especially since she does know so much about us both now.”
“You want me to talk to her?”
Randi smiled. “No, love. I already did. She promised to try and contain herself a little more around me, but thanks for looking out for me.” She brushed a light kiss across Gwen’s lips, pulling away before she could deepen it. “Now, c’mon, your majesty. Let’s go impress your subjects.” She tugged gently on the hands still holding hers and smiled back when Gwen grinned up at her. “What?”
“You’re gonna be with me, right, Empress?”
The eyebrow cocked at the title, but she didn’t lose her smile as she drawled, “Yeeeeeessssss.”
Gwen loosened one hand from Randi’s and double snapped her fingers. “No problem, then. You make a lasting impression all by yourself.” Randi laughed and wrapped Gwen up in a hug. Then they headed out of the kitchen into the living area where the Sabres were geared up for escort duty.
Gwen blinked and gasped in surprise. She had expected them to be armed; she had not expected them to be dressed as Amazons. She looked up at Randi. “Wow,” she breathed. Randi laughed and the Sabre Amazons stood a little straighter at her words. Then Gwen cleared her throat and they dropped to a knee in respect. She looked at Randi in alarm. Randi just motioned with her hands and stepped back a pace to stand behind the Amazon Queen instead of beside her.
“Rise, my friends,” Gwen said softly. When they stood, Jess stood at the forefront and bowed her head again.
“We await your command, my queen.”
“Are you all really...?” She motioned to their garb. They all smiled and nodded. Jess chuckled aloud.
“Yes, my queen. Thanks to your consort, all Sabre women spend some time in Amazon training... enough to earn their card. That makes us all real Amazons and you our queen, above and beyond your relationship with Randi as the queen of the world.”
Gwen wrinkled her nose and leaned her head back into Randi’s shoulder. “Okay, I don’t like the way that sounds either. We are gonna have to work on that whole title thing sometime soon.”
Randi rolled her eyes and planted a kiss on Gwen’s nose. “Keep it up, bard. You’ll wind up with some ridiculous designation like love slave. And I don’t think either of us would live that down.”
The Sabres did admirably – none of them even cracked a smile. Gwen blushed and giggled at the outlandish conversation. No wonder Reed feels the need to tease. We’re being outrageously sappy. She cleared her throat again and tried to affect a more serious demeanor. “Good point. We can figure something out later. For now....” She motioned to the door. “Ladies, let’s go see what sort of trouble we can find.”
Rosie watched as the Sabre Amazons formed an escort around Gwen and Randi. It was fascinating. They created a cup that allowed Gwen and Randi to walk freely in the front of the entourage but still enabled them to cover them completely if the need arose. But seeing the determined glint in Gwen’s eyes, Rosie didn’t think they’d get the chance.
They left slowly in reverse order so the guard was in place when Gwen and Randi stepped into the hallway. Rosie’s gaze followed them down the corridor until they turned out of sight. Then she turned back to Lacey who was in her doctor garb finishing the prep work she needed to do on the supplies in her medkit. Rosie crossed the room and hefted the backpack she’d volunteered to carry. Lacey looked up at her with a smile.
“Thanks, Rosie. You sure about this? I don’t think it’s gonna be nearly as exciting as what will probably happen where Gwen and Randi are.”
“Good,” Rosie said with a smile. “I could use a little peace... though we both know that no matter where they are, whatever happens will reach us sooner rather than later.”
Lacey laughed. “That is so true. There hasn’t been a dull moment since they got together – though come to think of it, things weren’t particularly calm before Gwen became part of Randi’s life.”
“Really? You must have some interesting stories.” They headed out the door in the opposite direction. They were going to check on the Amazons who had been given the antidote the previous day. With a little luck, they would be up and ready to help distribute the next batch to the younger Amazon leaders. If not, at least Lacey would be able to help speed their recovery.
“I do, but I’ve gotten the distinct impression Randi is really uncomfortable with people knowing things she hasn’t shared with them. God knows she is probably the least forthcoming individual I have ever met when it comes to her personal life, but I can’t help but respect her decision. Even if she wasn’t my friend, she is still my boss.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to share anything personal about Randi, Lacey. I’ve seen her reactions lately as well....” She hesitated, then decided against airing her thoughts aloud. “No, I was thinking more about things that happened before - when you were out on missions. Surely it wasn’t all work and killing and death.”
Lacey smiled wryly. “No, it wasn’t,” her smile fell, “though it was never easy, even on the occasions when we got down time together.”
Her words were compelling as was the expression on her face and the tone of her voice. Lacey stared into her eyes for a long moment, measure the person she saw Rosie to be against the weight of what a Sabre carried as lifelong baggage. Satisfied with what she found, Lacey nodded and started speaking in a hushed voice, and the two slowly made their way down the corridor towards the Amazons’ quarters using the map they had memorized once Lorac had provided them with it.
“Ella, it’s Jill. Do you have a few minutes to talk?”
Ella blinked as Jill’s visage popped up on the vid screen in her kitchen. Only a few people were cleared to come right into her kitchen phone and when she saw Jill’s haggard expression, Ella was glad Jill was one of them. She wiped her hands on a towel and came around the counter to lean against it, giving the other woman a smile.
“Absolutely,” she said as she took a seat on the barstool behind her. “Tommy is at work and Randall is at school for a while longer. What can I do to help?” Jill was silent for so long Ella rose from the stool and moved closer to the screen. “Jill? Talk to me, hon. How are you doing?”
Jill bit her lip, then took a deep breath. “Sorry,” she said smiling through her tears. “I was just a little lonely and wanted to talk to a friend. I didn’t realize just seeing a familiar face would make me lose it so easily.”
“Is there something I can do to help?” Jill hesitated and Ella pressed forward. “What do you need, Jill?”
She blew out a breath and bit her lip again before she spoke. “I can’t ask Gwen or Randi to come up here right now... I asked them for some space to sort things out by myself first. Besides, I know they are up to their eyeballs trying to sort out the rest of the world so they can just go home and live.”
“Jill, would you like me to come up there for a few days? Maybe help you clean out a closet or two?”
Jill gave Ella a watery smile. “Would you mind? I promise I wouldn’t keep you very long.”
“I wouldn’t have made the offer otherwise. I’ll even go one better if you’re willing; I’ll bring my mother with me. I think you would like her and she could use another friend. After being off-world for so long, she’s having to re-establish her circle of friends here. Besides,” Ella confided, “she is great at cleaning out closets.”
“That would be nice, Ella. Thanks. A lot of my friends here aren’t sure how to act now and I don’t know what to tell them. I want them to be normal, but I don’t feel normal anymore. Anyway, it’ll be good to have you and your mom here. You just can’t have too many friends.”
“That is so true. Let me go make a few arrangements and call my mother, then I’ll call you back and let you know when we’ll be there, all right?”
“Thanks, Ella. I appreciate it. Are you sure Tommy won’t mind?”
“Yeah. I got a husband who’s one in a billion. I’ll call you back shortly.”
“I’ll be here,” Jill said, but this time the smile on her face was genuine.
It was still early, but most of the Amazon Nation was already up and working. That made the silence that followed the queen and her entourage more than a little unnerving. Although half the women were already outside working, those who remained watched the group with sullen, brooding expressions. Still, Gwen was content to walk around in silence, knowing she and the women who were accompanying her were more than able to take care of themselves and handle any threat that was presented to them, though it didn’t lessen the stress that was settling in her shoulders.
As word spread of their presence, more and more women came in from their assigned tasks outdoors to stand and stare as Gwen and Randi slowly made their way through the complex. No one hindered their subtle investigation, but the hostility throughout the compound was palpable.
Despite the obvious antagonism, the Amazons had been busy remaking and remodeling the mountain complex into a viable, living, workable community. Gwen was pleased with the improvements that had been made so far. Obviously, the Amazons were determined to make this new home as comfortable and contemporary as possible.
They had managed to nicely combine tradition and technology, and Gwen nodded and smiled in approval. Once they got this little problem solved, the Amazons would be able to settle in nicely. She felt Randi stiffen behind her seconds before she heard Corky’s obnoxious voice.
“Well, well, well... if it isn’t our illustrious queen and her Amazon wannabes.” Corky folded her arms over chest and chuckled when the Sabre Amazons stood straighter and pinned her with glowering stares. “Oh, that was good; did you all practice that to be able to do it together?” She turned her attention to Randi and laughed out loud. Then she turned to the Amazons who were watching her display with fascination.
“This is priceless... the Empress of the World deferring to the Queen of the Amazons – or is that hiding behind her cute little skirt? Damn, Blondie, you must be hotter than I thought. May have to try it once....”
Whatever she had been about to say was lost in a groan of pain when Gwen’s staff met her collarbone with a bone-crunching sound, forcing Corky to drop to her knees.
“You know,” Gwen said conversationally as she leaned against her staff once more. “I don’t consider myself to be an overly aggressive person, but if I hear you talk about the Empress or me or these warriors like that one more time, I will personally rip your tongue out of your mouth.” She smiled sweetly at Corky’s shocked expression. “I don’t expect much from the Nation, Corky; I don’t have much to offer in return. But I don’t think asking for the same respect you’d afford to any of your other sisters is unreasonable. Do we understand one another?”
Corky gazed at her for a long moment. “Yes,” she hissed. “But when I heal, I am going to challenge you for the throne. You don’t deserve to be our queen.”
“You go right on down to the medical facility and get that fixed. It should only take the regen unit a few hours to make you better than new. Then you come back and find me and you can have your little challenge. But I want you to be very clear on something – when I kick your ass, Randi will get to decide your punishment... because I won’t kill you.”
“All right, on one condition. When I win, I’m not gonna kill you either – you have to become my consort instead of hers.”
It wasn’t visible, even to the Sabres that surrounded them, but Gwen felt Randi flinch behind her and reached a hand back and pulled her forward until they were standing side by side once more. Randi’s arm shifted to drape across Gwen’s back to clutch her hip possessively. Gwen leaned into Randi’s body and wrapped herself around it.
“No problem, Corky. With that kind of incentive, I won’t lose.”
Corky growled. “Bitch! We’ll just see about that!” Then she struggled to her feet and headed for the elevator to take her down to the medical level. Gwen leaned her head back to look up into Randi’s eyes.
“I could use some fresh air. Would you like to go outside with me?”
“Lead on, my queen. I am but your humble servant.” Then she glared when Gwen poked her in the side. Only full control of her reflexes kept her from flinching and squealing. It didn’t stop Gwen from laughing though. Then she took Randi’s hand in hers and together they headed for the fields outside the mountain stronghold.
It was beautiful in the daylight and they took a long moment to appreciate the breeze and sunshine. They glanced at the neat, orderly rows of vegetation that had been planted. Then Randi tugged on Gwen’s hand. “C’mon. I wanna see the wildflowers.”
“Thank you, Lacey. I feel much better after a good night’s sleep, but I appreciate you checking on me like this.” Lorac’s words said one thing, her tone of voice another and her eyes something else again. Lacey got the unspoken message and nodded, realizing Ares would definitely be listening in to everything that went on in this room. She stood to her feet.
“I’m glad I could help. I do think you should get outside for a bit if you can manage it. The fresh air could only help.”
Now it was Lorac’s turn to nod, conveying her understanding of what was not being said. “I will. I have duties outside anyway and now would be just as good a time to take care of them as any. It must have just been a twenty-four hour virus or maybe something I ate.”
“Maybe,” Lacey agreed casually. “Have you heard of any other outbreaks among the women here or was yours an isolated incident?”
Lorac stood and took Lacey’s arm and the three women headed towards the door. “Actually, now that you mention it, it might be a good idea to check on the council – in case it’s a virus. I met with them yesterday.” She paused, making it seem as though she was reluctant to ask the next question. “Would you mind terribly checking on them? I am already late meeting the queen,” said with a sneering twist. “I would count it as a personal favor.” The last grated out like it was causing her pain to ask.
Lacey shrugged. “I can, though given the hostility level around here....”
“Yeah, well.... There’s a lot going on here you don’t understand, but if the council feels as bad as I felt yesterday, they’d make a deal with the devil himself to feel better.”
“I’ll try not to take that personally.”
This time Lorac shrugged. “I need to get going,” opening the door and ushering Rosie and Lacey through before closing it behind herself and locking it with the old-fashioned key it required. Lacey turned and passed her several vials.
“Are you sure about this, Lorac? It could be dangerous if Ares finds out,” in a low tone.
“It would be if I thought he would come out of hiding for the next few days, but he made it clear he was going to stay secluded long enough to give the queen and the empress time to settle in comfortably before making his next move. By the time he does, I am counting on Randi kicking his ass. But to be honest with you, I’d do it even if he did find out. After what he has done to us....”
Lacey squeezed her shoulder. “Well, hopefully nothing unexpected will happen while Randi and Gwen are scouting out the Nation, but with those two....” She let the thought trail off and both Lorac and Rosie chuckled. “Yeah, well... we can always hope.” Then they went their separate ways, Lacey and Rosie continuing on to check on the other council members while Lorac headed for the outdoors, taking the scenic route along the way in hopes of inoculating a few of her sisters unaware along the way.
“It really is nice here,” Gwen said as she closed her eyes and breathed in the world around her. The sunshine was warm and the flowers fragrant and despite the tensions among the Amazons currently, she was glad she and Randi had come to this place. She opened her eyes to find Randi’s eyes on her with an intensity that made her blood race. Fortunately, the Sabres had spread out to keep watch once they had arrived in the meadow and no one was left to witness the passion in Randi’s eyes except Gwen.
When Gwen responded in kind, the look in Randi’s eyes melted into something akin to utter devotion, though her words answered Gwen’s. “Yeah, it is. I’m glad they kept this part natural.”
“Yeah, we talked about it awhile, but we all wanted to leave as much of the land in its natural state as possible. The area here is just too nice to destroy; the plan is to cultivate only what is necessary for living and leave the rest.”
“I think that’s a good plan.” Randi blew out a breath and stepped up behind Gwen, laying her hands on her shoulders. “Are you all right? I know it was really uncomfortable in there.”
Gwen shrugged. “I’m fine. We knew they were going to be hostile; I was prepared for it. Besides, you are beside me and we have the finest of the Black Sabres backing us up.”
“We figured someone was going to be aggressive enough to challenge. She was the most likely candidate. There has always been a grudge between you two and she’s like a dog with a well-gnawed bone. She is using me to get to you.” Gwen laughed and turned in Randi’s arms so they were face to face. “Too bad she did nothing but give me the best reason to win.”
Randi grinned, then she sobered. “Are you sure you want to handle the challenge, love?”
“You don’t think I can?” asked with a hint of hurt in her tone and in her eyes.
“I *know* you can, Gwen,” letting her hands drop to Gwen’s waist. “You can hold your own against me.” Randi paused. “I... I just... I’ve always been the warrior. It’s hard to watch you become that.”
“I’m not, sweetheart. I’m still the bard... still the peacemaker. This is not about being a warrior, because despite her words, she’s not challenging me as Queen of the Amazons. It isn’t a challenge to the death. This is about protecting what is mine because she is coming after me to hurt you. And I won’t let her do that.”
“Always looking out for me, hmm?”
Gwen reached up and gently traced the familiar features above her. “Always, Stud.”
“All right. Just remember who your champion is if and when the time comes.”
“No problem there,” Gwen assured Randi with a leer. “She fills my dreams.”
“Does she now?”
“Yep, but any more discussion about her is gonna have to wait. Lorac is headed this way,” Gwen commented, seeing Jess’ signal.
Randi huffed. “Always something. I can’t wait to go home.”
“Me either, sweetheart.” Then Lorac was within hearing distance and they turned together to watch her approach, pleased to see a look of satisfaction on her face, though her body language was at odds with her expression. Maybe there was finally good news on this front.
She walked up to them, stopping short as though in anger or disdain. Until all the Amazons had been inoculated, it was safer to keep up appearances. No reason to give anything away before it was necessary, and that was always a possibility as long as some were under Ares’ control. Thanks to the Sabres’ vigilance, no one could get close enough to be able to see her expression, and any surveillance equipment was useless. Still, Lorac’s body language said she was only talking to Gwen with great reluctance and more than a little anger.
Randi automatically assumed a position of defense in front of Gwen, watching as Lorac’s fists flexed open and closed. A touch on her back caused her to step aside, but only so far as to allow Gwen to come up beside her. Her posture and attitude were still threatening and intimidating to anyway observing them from a distance. Close-up, however, was a different story.
Lorac kept the smile off her face, but the twinkle in her eyes wouldn’t be denied. “My queen, it truly is good to have you here. How are you?”
What Gwen wanted to do was to lean back into Randi’s body. What she did was raise a finger and point at Lorac forcefully, not quite poking but coming very close. Her brows were furrowed together and her mouth was pulled into a grim line, but her eyes sparkled with good humor.
“We are wonderful, Lorac. Thank you for asking. How are you? And how is the rest of the council doing this morning? We weren’t sure what sort of punch that antidote was going to have since ya’ll were already under the influence of the virus.”
Lorac grimaced genuinely. “Well, it was bad enough for Ares to leave me alone to sleep off the ‘illness’ I had last night. Fortunately, a good night’s sleep went a long way in clearing away the feelings of nausea. Lacey was checking on the others after we parted ways.” Her face grew indisputably angry. “But when I think about what Ares did – to me and the rest of the Nation....” She clenched her fists hard and shook them at her sides.
Randi deliberately moved in front of Gwen. “Hold onto your anger, Lorac. It won’t be much longer.” A poke in her back caused Randi to turn enough to see Gwen glaring at her.
“Was that necessary?”
“Yes,” Randi said starkly, “and completely instinctive.” Gwen held her fierce expression another minute before moving back up to stand beside Randi again. Lorac couldn’t help the smile and she hoped if anyone was watching them they would mistake it as gloating at the sudden tension between Randi and Gwen.
“How is distribution going?”
“Slowly, as expected. I got several of the warrior leaders on my way out and Lacey was going to instruct the rest of the council on who each of them needed to target. And we should be able to do another round after lunch and a third after the evening meal.”
“Just be careful. We don’t want to put anyone in excessive danger.”
“Not a problem, my queen. Even if we have watchers....”
“We do,” Randi confirmed. “We have had since we stepped outside. Hence the reason the rest of the group made a perimeter sweep and why they are still out there keeping everyone a safe distance from us. The Amazons can’t counter the Sabres tech abilities.”
“Was there anything to find? We haven’t set up surveillance out here yet.”
“Nothing we couldn’t handle.” She glanced discretely at the nearest tree for a brief moment. “They can still see, but no one can hear us... not even the Sabres. All they can see is body language.”
“Good – then all they will be able to report back to Ares is that I am still angry at your unwelcome presence here.” Without warning, Lorac lifted a hand to Gwen, only to find it caught in a bone-crushing grip as Randi forced her to the ground face down. She grunted when Randi knelt on her with one knee. “Um, Randi,” wheezing from the pain and distinct lack of air she felt, “do you think you could lighten up just a little? You’re really hurting me.”
Randi looked up to see Jess coming at full speed and bent down to hiss in Lorac’s ear. “What the fuck did you think you were doing?” asked as she pulled back slightly without seeming to.
“I wanted it to seem real,” nearly falling over when Randi jerked her into a standing position. She staggered, trying to keep her feet under her. “Ares would have expected something like that; he knew how angry I was before you got here.”
“Treat her like a prisoner for now,” Randi instructed Jess as she arrived on the scene, “but don’t hurt her. Take her to our quarters and wait for us there.” Jess’ eyebrows rose to her hairline, but she merely acknowledged the directive with a succinct nod of her head. Randi turned to Lorac. “Next time you feel the need to try something like that, you might want to warn us first. I could make it a little less painful for you.”
Lorac nodded and winced when the cuffs were slipped on her wrists. “I’ll keep that in mind, Consort, but I hope the need never arises again.” Jess yanked on her arm and Lorac made a token effort to resist; the arrival of Shibata put a quick end to that and slowly the trio made their way back inside the mountain complex. Only then did Randi turn to an unmoving Gwen.
The green eyes were swirling with a myriad of emotions. Randi reached out slowly, waiting for Gwen’s gaze to track to her. After a few moments, Gwen blinked and her focus sharpened; she let out a long-held breath.
“You all right?” Randi asked quietly, enveloping Gwen in her arms.
Gwen sighed again and nodded her head against Randi’s chest, squeezing the firm body beneath her return the embrace fervently. “Yeah,” she finally said after a moment’s silence. “That was just unexpected... and scary.”
“I know. I told her not to try it again without a little warning. She’d prefer there not be a next time.”
“So would I,” Gwen said honestly, “though I do understand her reasoning behind it.”
“Hopefully, it will keep Ares off the scent for another day or two. That is all we need to convert a majority of the Nation; another round of antidote will be distributed this evening.” Randi bent slightly and scooped a surprised Gwen into her arms. Gwen didn’t protest but snuggled deeper into the embrace, brushing a kiss across the base of Randi’s neck that left tingles behind in its wake. Randi caught her breath at the sensation and looked down at Gwen with her eyebrow arched in question. Gwen grinned back at her devilishly.
“I figured I should take advantage of the situation.”
“Troublemaker,” Randi muttered under her breath. Randi looked around at the Sabres who had moved the perimeter in at Jess’ signal as soon as Lorac had taken a swing at Gwen. They faced outward, searching for indications of more trouble. When she felt Randi’s glance, Reed turned and shook her head. Randi nodded. Reed gave the command and immediately the Sabres reformed the detail around the queen and Empress and they headed back towards the mountain. Gwen looked up at Randi.
“You wanna let me down now, Stud?”
Gwen waited but when nothing more was forthcoming her brow furrowed. “Um... okay. Why not?” thinking it was odd for Randi to be making such a public display of affection after what had happened earlier between her and Reed.
“Because, sweetheart, we are playing a part. We want the Amazons to underestimate you. Word will get back to Ares and he will underestimate you as well.”
“And that’s a good thing?”
“That is a great thing. One of the first rules of being a Sabre is to never let the enemy know your strengths.”
“Guess what I did to Corky kinda put a crimp in that, huh?”
Randi smiled. “Maybe, but it was worth it to see the look on her face. Besides, I’ll bet word’s already spread about your need to be carried back in. Corky will be dancing in the infirmary, thinking what you did to her earlier was a fluke.”
“So this is all just for show?”
“A little bit for show – mostly because I like having you here.”
“Yeah, but I’m no lightweight, sweetheart and we still have quite a ways to go to get back to our quarters. How about you put me down and let me walk now? I know it’s a strain, love.” Her voice lowered significantly. “I can see it in your pulse and feel it in your breathing.” Randi pouted. Gwen bit her bottom lip to keep from laughing. “It’s all right, Stud. I won’t tell.”
Randi slowed, acknowledging the truth in Gwen’s words. The Sabres around them slowed as well and broadened their circle around Gwen and Randi to allow them a bit of privacy. Gwen slid out of Randi’s arms and let Randi’s hands on her waist steady her on her feet.
“Yep,” taking Randi’s hand. “C’mon. It’ll be lunchtime soon and I want to talk to Lorac a little more before Corky shows up to challenge me again.”
“Yeah, we should probably fortify you before you have to kick her ass,” Randi smirked.
Gwen squeezed her hand. “You’re suddenly enjoying this, aren’t you? Why?”
Randi shrugged. “I decided I may as well. You won’t let me fight this fight for you, so I am going to do the next best thing and watch you beat the snot out of her.”
Gwen laughed and leaned into Randi’s body, dropping her hand to wrap an arm firmly around her waist. Randi encircled Gwen’s shoulders and they continued on toward the mountain.
“You’re sure about this?”
“I saw it with my own eyes, my lord. Her consort took Lorac down to the ground, then picked the queen up and started carrying her back.”
“And Lorac was taken...?”
“... to their quarters. Speculation is the Empress will decide her punishment – not the queen – given that the Empress is the one who stopped the attack. Not that I blame Lorac for finally taking a swing; the queen seemed to be pushing her pretty hard for a while.”
“Seemed to be?”
“Yes, my lord. We couldn’t hear anything, and we could only observe from a distance. Her honor guard somehow disabled our listening devices and insured we couldn’t get close enough for anything else.”
Ares pinched his lower lip between his finger and thumb and turned his back to the Amazon who waited patiently. What game are you playing at, Randi? He spun on his heel to pin the first Amazon in place with his eyes. “And you’re sure she attacked Corky first... without provocation?”
“Oh, she provoked her all right. But the queen was the first to use physical aggression.”
“Well, well, well – so the little queen isn’t as peaceful as she’d like to pretend to be. I can use that.” He nodded to himself. “If she has that much anger in her, perhaps I can twist it to my advantage.” He held out his hand, palm up and open. “You know what to do with this. Make sure it happens before her bout with Corky.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“If it doesn’t,” Ares said calmly, though the edge in his voice was clear, “then give it to Corky. I’m sure she can manage it,” waving a hand in dismissal at them. When they didn’t make a move to leave immediately, Ares barked at them, grinning broadly when they jumped before scurrying away. Then he chuckled and rubbed his hands together. Though not at all like he had expected, things were finally becoming interesting.
There was quite a gathering near their room when Gwen and Randi finally made their way into the compound and down to their quarters. Apparently word had spread rather rapidly over what had taken place out in the meadow, and many were anxious to learn the outcome of Lorac’s fate. Gwen realized that many of the ones waiting for word were elders – those who had already been given the antidote. With a word from her, the Sabres separated the throng, hustling the council to one side and moving the rest to a safe distance from the room.
“The council will join us in my chambers for the sentencing of Regent Lorac for crimes against the throne. The rest of you disperse and return to your duties.” When no one made a move to leave at her words, Gwen spoke again. “Now.”
Randi stepped up beside her to reinforce the order. “Do it. Or as Empress, I will have you all summarily executed.” She felt Gwen’s breath catch in her chest, but Randi didn’t turn around to acknowledge it. She kept her eyes focused on the Amazons who tried to return glare for glare. Instead, they found it necessary to drop their eyes from her fiery gaze and they wandered slowly back down the corridor muttering and mumbling among themselves.
“Show the council inside and make them comfortable, please,” Gwen instructed the Sabre unit. “And call the rest of the team together unless they are currently sleeping. I want everyone to be a part of this briefing.” Reed nodded and the rest of the Sabres followed her lead, opening the door and waiting for Gwen and Randi to enter the room once Jess confirmed their identities. Randi growled in frustration. The mountain fortress was nice enough, and very secure, but the technology definitely left a lot to be desired. Gwen took her arm and firmly guided the two of them into the privacy of their bedroom. Randi raised her eyebrows when Gwen closed the door behind them.
“Are you sure we have time for this, Gwen?”
“Nice thing about being the queen – I can take whatever time I need.” She crossed her arms over her chest and glowered at Randi. “Would you like to tell me exactly what you thought you were doing out there a minute ago?”
“’As Empress, I will have you all summarily executed’? Randi, what were you thinking?” Though her eyes were still angry, her voice conveyed more than a hint of sadness.
“I was thinking I would show them that the Empress stood behind the Amazon Queen!”
Gwen uncrossed her arms and cupped Randi’s face in her hands. “Sweetheart, they know. *I* know. You don’t have to threaten my Amazons with execution. C’mon, love... don’t get spooked now. He is not going to win. I won’t let him... and neither will you. The truth is – we’ve already won; he just won’t admit it yet. You don’t have to do anything more than stand by my side here. That’s enough.”
Randi bit her lips pensively and shook her head. “I know all this. Why am I reacting?”
“Nerves,” Gwen answered succinctly. “Happens to the best of us,” said with a twinkle in her eye.
“Oh it does?” Randi replied with a tiny grin.
“Oh yeah. And it’s the worst when you’re a rookie performer.”
“Uh huh. But don’t worry... you’ll get used to it. Now c’mon,” before Randi could open her mouth to retort. “Let’s see how things are going. We should be able to give the council another round of antidote to distribute. At this rate, we’ll be done ahead of schedule.”
“Good – because I am ready to smell the ocean and we still have to go back to the capital before we can go home.”
They opened the door silently and stood together watching the council and the Sabres talking quietly while they waited for Randi and Gwen to come back out of their bedroom. Reed noticed them first and her glance in their direction broke the tableau. Silence reigned in the room and everyone rose to their feet when Randi and Gwen moved out of the doorway and into the living area. Gwen motioned them to their seats before sitting, then waited expectantly.
Randi crossed behind Gwen and moved to stand out of the limelight in a corner where she could watch everything without being the focus of attention. Gwen looked back at her with a smile before turning to Lorac. She placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Are you all right, Lorac? You took us by surprise.”
“I’m fine, my queen. I’m sorry I couldn’t warn you, but I wanted it to seem real.”
Gwen chuckled. “Did it seem real enough to you, Lorac?”
“Oooh, yes,” drawing more chuckles from around the room. "Though I have to admit I’m glad your consort has such amazing self-control. I got the distinct feeling I would have been bleeding otherwise.”
“Probably,” Gwen agreed matter-of-factly. “She tends to be a little protective where I’m concerned.”
“No, really?” one of the council members called out drolly. “We never would have guessed.” That elicited another round of laughter throughout the room and the atmosphere relaxed even further. Gwen exchanged a loving, amused look with Randi, then clapped her hands together to bring everyone’s attention back to her.
“All right then... where are we with the distribution? How are things going?”
Dalia exchanged a look with Lacey and stood to speak. “Things are progressing well, my queen. We have managed to distribute all the antidote Lacey provided us with this morning so a number of our warriors are now suffering from those lovely aftereffects. However, we are all recovered, thankfully,” making her face grimace in distaste. “So the good news is that the aftereffects don’t seem to last but about twenty-four hours... maybe a little less.”
Gwen nodded. “Excellent, though I am sorry about the aftereffects. We didn’t expect them to be so severe. It didn’t affect any of us that strongly.”
“Probably because it was a preventative measure for us, my queen, and not a cure,” Lacey provided. “The Amazons here were already infected. So it’s taking a little longer for them to recover, but it’s also not unexpected. I factored in some recovery time when I was working on the figures for the distribution timetable.”
“So are we on schedule?”
“No, but it was set up to be flexible, so we’re not off schedule either.”
Gwen blinked and shook her head. “Well... good. And we’re sure that Ares doesn’t suspect anything?”
“As sure as we can be, my queen,” Nairobi replied. “He hasn’t left his hideaway yet.”
“Do you know where his hideaway is?” Randi spoke quietly from her corner, but the entire room heard the edge in her voice. Nairobi looked and Gwen who just sighed and nodded.
“Yes, Chosen... mostly.”
Nairobi nodded. “We know he staked out some space in the lower levels, but none of us have ever been done there past his security.”
“Whoa,” Randi said, holding up a hand and pushing away from the wall with her shoulder. “He has his own security?? You’ve allowed him to simply move in and settle down like he owned the place??”
Gwen moved to stand beside her. She didn’t say a word, but caught Randi’s eyes wither own and everyone except Reed and Lacey watched with amazement when Randi visibly calmed with only a look and a touch from Gwen. Randi took a deep breath and smiled gently at Gwen. Then she looked back at the assembly, pinning Lorac with her gaze.
“So what happened? How did he get in and established here?”
“Not like you think, but easier than you can imagine.”
“He didn’t come to us as Ares or as a god. He came to us a sick, delusional man. By the time we knew who he was, it was too late. We had been infected and just didn’t care. We wanted him here as Ares... as the god of war. He promised we would be strong again – that we would assume our rightful place in history. And it sounded so good.” Lorac shook her head. “I know it is just so much bullshit now, but that drug....”
Randi blew out breath. “So why did he set up security? Wasn’t the whole point to um... be accessible to the Nation?”
“Oh no. We were accessible to him, not the other way around. He made it clear that he needed a place that was estrogen free.”
“It’s not completely estrogen free,” Dania stated firmly. “I saw a couple of Amazons coming out if there earlier.”
Nairobi’s eyebrows went up to her forehead. “Really? Well, that explains a lot.” At Gwen’s questioning expression, she continued. “According to Lorac, he is unable to scry here – there is something about the construction of this place that distorts that particular power. The only way he can monitor things is to have a direct link... like a vid feed. And yet he has always been aware of everything that goes on here. It only makes sense that he has an informer or two.”
“No wonder we found so much low-tech shit in here. What a moron,” Randi muttered and turned away to walk back to her chosen corner. Gwen chuckled under her breath, her grin drawing the attention of everyone watching. When she shared, the rest smiled.
“My queen?” Gwen turned to Mason and her brows jumped.
“Mason? Aren’t you supposed to be sleeping?”
The Sabre chuckled. “I was awake... figured I would come and listen to the briefing.”
“All right then... what can I do for you, Mason?”
“Did Corky really challenge you? Are you really going to fight her?”
“Yes, she did and yes, I am. Why? Don’t you think I can take her?”
“Oh no, my queen. I know you can. I just want to make sure I am there to see you kick her ass.”
Gwen’s shook her head in amusement and turned to look at Randi who simply smirked back at her. “Has she annoyed *everyone* in the Nation?”
Nairobi sighed, and the seriousness of her tone caused Gwen to focus her attention on the elder. “Mostly, yes. When she lost the princess’ favor, she became angry and bitter. She moved from tribe to tribe, hoping she would find the satisfaction she was looking for that would make her happy. But it always seemed just out of her reach and nothing any of us did was enough.”
“She seemed to settle down after her last bout with Randi – the one a couple years ago at the festival. No, most of us were not there, but we certainly did hear about it, and a number of us saw the feed as well,” in response to Gwen’s unasked question. “Anyway, after that, Corky seemed to settle down, and if she wasn’t happy, at least she wasn’t making everyone around her miserable. It was getting progressively better; to the point that she stood up for both of you as queen and consort when the discussion was brought to the Nation.”
“So the serum...?”
“Helped her return to being an asshole again,” Dania said. “It didn’t take very long.”
“It wouldn’t,” Randi said unexpectedly. “The poison that Ares uses to bind a warrior brings out their most aggressive tendencies.”
“How did you beat it, Empress?” Nairobi asked. “Ares assured us you would be one of us in the new world order he was establishing here. And from the little we know of what took place in Reed’s village, I can only assume that he infected you first and you are the reason we have a vaccine.”
“It took the love and support of a lot of good people, Nairobi, and a spirit walk with my soulmate.”
“And significant strength of will as well, Nairobi. Don’t let her make you think it was easy.”
“Oh no, my queen. After wishing I could die for the first twelve hours after I got the antidote, I would never think there was anything easy about recovering from this nasty stuff.” She shuddered and it was repeated around the room. “However, I for one am grateful for whatever you went through. Even though most of us here were too old to be violated by him physically, it didn’t take the craving away.” Her forehead scrunched up in thought. “Do you suppose that was added specifically for the Amazons?”
“I dunno,” Lacey commented. “The whole compound was very strange. It was very hard to work with.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Lorac cut in. “He had it; he used it; it worked. You found an antidote and it worked. Can we move on to something else, please?” She stood and crossed to kneel in front of Gwen. “I am sorry, my queen. I am ready to accept whatever punishment you see fit to dispense for my act of aggression against you.” She dropped her head and waited.
Gwen touched her on the top of the head. “Rise, my friend. We know why you did what you did and all is forgiven.”
Lorac stood. “You know the Nation is going to expect some sort of retaliation.”
“No worries. By the time your ‘punishment’ is an issue in the Nation, the Nation will be back to normal and no one will expect you to be punished.”
“Thank you, my queen.” Lorac took Gwen’s hands in her colder ones. “Just be careful when you fight Corky today. One thing about that stuff Ares gave us – it infused us with a need to win... no matter what the cost. She won’t fight fair.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“And I’ll keep her in sight.”
Randi’s words made the whole room relax, and their attention turned to what to have for lunch.
“How are you doing, baby? Things there okay?”
Reed smiled at the vid screen. No wonder she loved Tiny so much. He was always looking out for her, even when his plate was full. She nodded. “Yeah. Gwen has a challenge later today, but the distribution is going well. With luck we are looking at less than a week. Then we will be returning to the capital. How are things there?”
“Busy. But the rebels... sorry, the students are making enormous progress – much better than expected. Most of them have discovered a real passion for learning. Everything else is on hold til Randi gets back here to implement the restructuring. But the groundwork she gave me is being laid and for the most part, it seems to be working.”
“Seems to be?”
“Yeah, it’s not like we can test it fully until Randi gets back. She’s gonna want to take a look at it before we run it for real. It’s gonna change everything.”
“I’m glad,” Reed sighed. “I just wanna go home and raise puppies for a while.”
Tiny smiled. “I know how you feel, sweetheart.”
Reed lifted her head and turned towards the door separating her room from the conference room where everyone else was gathered. Tiny raised an eyebrow when he saw her nostrils flare in anticipation. “Who’s cooking?” knowing from her unconscious clues what was going on.
“Smells like Rosie did the honors again.”
“Do you know how much I hate you right now?” he grumbled.
“I love you too, baby. We’ll be home soon.” Reed blew him a kiss and closed the connection before he could respond. Then she made her way back into the main room of Randi and Gwen’s quarters. She knew she’d pay for teasing Tiny later, but for now she was going to enjoy Rosie’s cooking.
It was quiet in the room after lunch. The council had departed with more vials of the serum to spread among the sisters and the Sabres that were not on guard duty had scattered back to their rooms or out into the population. Reed and Jess had moved Lorac to their room, leaving Randi and Gwen alone in solitary splendor.
"You know what I would like to do?" Gwen asked as she sat down next to Randi. She leaned into her body and smiled when Randi's arm came down around her shoulders almost automatically. Gwen snuggled a little deeper into the embrace and patted Randi on the belly.
"Dance a gavotte and a jig?" Randi said, causing a ripple of laughter to explode from Gwen's lips.
"Um, no," Gwen finally said when her laughter died down. "Where did that come from anyway?"
Randi blinked and shook her head. "Dunno... it was something I saw a long time ago... sort of absurd like this whole situation has become. Besides, you're a very graceful dancer; you could probably do either with very little trouble."
"Maybe, but if I'm gonna dance, I'd rather dance with you."
Randi smiled – the rare full kind that Gwen knew meant she'd hit the mark. She leaned slightly and brushed a kiss over Gwen's temple. "That still doesn't tell me what you'd like to do."
"I'd like to go tell stories. The kids weren't infected the same way everyone else was. I'd like to see if I can undo some of the damage Ares did without making them suffer through the antidote. Besides, I miss being a bard, and we have been so busy lately, I haven't really had a chance to do much storytelling. I'd like to try."
Abruptly, Randi stood to her feet, taking Gwen's hand and pulling her up along with her. "All right. Let's go find the kids."
Gwen grinned and wrapped her fingers more tightly around Randi's. "There was a large group of them in the nursery area earlier. You think they're still there?"
Randi glanced at the time. "Probably. Let me grab a contingent...." She broke off when a grimace passed over Gwen's face. "I'll keep them in the background, love, but they still have to be a presence... at least for a little while longer."
"Even around the kids?"
"Especially around the kids. It would be seen as a weakness if we don't."
Gwen sighed, knowing it to be the truth. "All right. As long as they stay in the background."
"They will. They'll be glad to just for the excuse to go along and listen to your stories." Randi stroked her cheek gently, chasing the blush that followed her words.
"Yes, well...." clearing her throat gently. "C'mon then. Let's gather up the big children so I can go tell stories to the little ones."
Randi chuckled and led them out into the corridor, gathering up Sabres as she went.
The space was filled to a standing room only capacity – a surprising fact to Gwen given the amount of animosity that was still prevalent throughout the members of the Nation who had yet to be inoculated... especially since half the people gathered in the room were adults. But Gwen put all that aside and focused her considerable concentration on the children. They were genuinely happy to see her and it showed in their smiles and hugs as they welcomed her.
She took a seat at the front of the room on the floor and the kids rushed to gather around her. The Sabres scattered throughout, some sitting among the children; the rest threaded between the Amazons or leaning up against the wall. Randi stood behind Gwen against the wall, smiling tightly when Gwen leaned back into her legs. Then Gwen started talking, and the room fell silent to listen.
She told an old story – one about the original soulmates she and Randi had been once upon a time when she had first been the Queen of the Amazons. Not so different from this experience, and yet nothing like what their life was like now. It wasn't a story that was written in the scrolls and everyone paid close attention as Gwen's words flowed over them. It was a lighter tale, filled with humor and mishap that kept them all in stitches.
As she drew to a close, everyone clapped in appreciation of her skill and the children begged for a second tale. Only Corky's presence in the doorway put a halt to any effort and cast a pall over the entire company.
"Aw... now ain't this just too special? She can't lead warriors, so she hangs out with the babies. Figures," she snorted in derision. "Let's go, queenie. It's time for me to kick your ass."
So fast no one even saw her move, Randi caught Corky by the ear and twisted so hard it brought the big Amazon to her knees. Corky clawed at Randi, but the fire in the blue eyes burned hot and Randi pinched the hand holding hers between the thumb and forefinger, smiling with grim satisfaction when Corky stilled all movement.
"I believe the queen asked you just this morning for a little common courtesy and simple respect. Now either you can figure out how to give that to her, or I am going to take you down like the dog you are – challenge be hanged. You got me?"
Corky stared defiantly at Randi with hatred blazing from her eyes. Then Randi twisted a little more and pinched a little harder and Corky's eyes dropped to the ground. "Yeah," she finally ground out. "I gotcha." She swallowed hard and turned her attention back to Gwen. "I am hereby challenging you, Queen Gwen of the Amazon Nation for the right to rule. Challenge will commence in one hour in the center of the village meadow." She looked back at Randi. "All right?"
"Now get out," Randi growled. "I'll take care of your discipline when this is over," throwing Corky away from her and not blinking when she fell on her ass. Corky glared up Randi for a long moment, then stood and sneered.
"You won't get the chance, Empress. When I get done, she will be mine."
To her surprise, Randi just laughed. "Corky, you couldn't handle her. Now get out," she reiterated, "before I show these nice kids what happens to stupid Amazons who think they are better than they really are."
Corky snarled and glared again, but she couldn't break the amusement in Randi's face. Without another word, she turned and stomped out of the nursery as everyone's eyes followed her progress. Randi moved to stand beside Gwen who had risen as soon as Corky had made an appearance. Gwen rubbed a hand over Randi's back, her gentle touch settling the tension she could feel singing throughout Randi's body. Her attention was distracted by a jerk on her pants' leg. She looked down to find a young girl smiling up at her impishly.
"Yes, little one? What is it?"
"Will you tell us a story about a queen and her champion?"
Gwen's grin grew exponentially, and the twinkle in her eyes lit up the room. "I think I could come up with something." Cheers rang throughout the room, even from the Amazons who had been hostile before.
As the hour for the challenge approached, Gwen wound her story down to renewed cheering and applause. The tale she had shared with them was true, though unknown to the Amazons, it came from the journals and not Randi and Gwen's current lives. Randi recognized it and worked hard to keep the blush off her face as all eyes turned in her direction when the champion prevailed and knelt before the queen to receive her due reward.
"That is a wonderful story, your majesty," one of the older Amazons commented. "Is it true?"
"As a matter of fact, it is," Gwen supplied. "But now it is time for me to go be the champion."
"Why? Isn't that *her* job?" sneering and pointing at Randi. She didn't react – just kept her arms folded across her chest and waited.
"It would be," Gwen answered honestly, "if this was about defending the throne. But Corky is not challenging me for the throne. She is challenging me because she doesn't like Randi... not as my choice of consort nor for any other reason. She has made this personal and I am personally going to answer her as I will anyone who threatens my home. Now if you'll excuse me...."
A word from Randi and the Sabres cleared a straight path to the door and Gwen walked through. She felt the pinprick at her neck and clapped her hand to it, swiveling her head to discover what had happened. Randi was at her side instantly.
"I dunno; it felt like something bit me."
"Gwen, there are no bugs in this facility."
"Let me see your neck, sweetheart."
The Amazon who had been derisive only moments before cackled. "There is nothing you can do, Consort... it's too late. She belongs to Ares now."
Randi didn't even move. Shibata had the woman down on the ground before she could say anything else. The children stood stock still, watching the unfolding drama. Randi scooped Gwen into her arms and walked swiftly out the door without a backwards glance. Jess herded the youngsters out of the nursery while the rest of the Sabres began inoculating the adults without hesitation or compassion. They didn't set out to deliberately injure, but they took no care to keep from bruising either. And soon there were a number of previously belligerent Amazons tossing their cookies as fast as they could get somewhere to do so.
Meanwhile, as quickly as they were done, most of the Sabres headed back towards the queen's quarters to await the outcome of her poisoning. This was a most unexpected turn of events.
Gwen could feel the burning flowing through her veins, waking every nerve ending she had and standing them straight up on end. She snuggled deeper into Randi's neck, knowing instinctively she was the only sane hold Gwen had left in the world.
Randi strode into their quarters, past a surprised Rosie and directly into their room, shutting the door firmly behind her. She sat on the bed and lay back, then rolled over until Gwen was tucked completely beneath her body. Randi waited for Gwen to open her eyes and see her, then she ducked her head and captured her lips in a passionate, possessive kiss.
Gwen resisted at first, but Randi persisted until she felt Gwen relax into the kiss and start responding. She let her arms wrap completely around Gwen and swallow Gwen in her embrace. Time stopped for both of them as the kiss went on, tongues dueling fiercely for dominance and hands gently tracing bodies. Slowly Randi pulled back from Gwen and smiled down into now unfocused, darkened green eyes.
"He doesn't get to win, Gwen. That burning... that feeling belongs to us. Use it to your advantage, but don't let it control you."
Gwen blinked. "This is how you felt? All that time - *this* is how you felt?"
Randi shook her head. "No... mine was different. Mine was based on hatred. This is based on lust."
"It's amazing," Gwen breathed. "No wonder they didn't care what he did once they were infected." She reached up to smooth the lines off Randi's forehead. "Funny thing though," she said looking up from between her lashes. "I have no desire to do anything with or for him unless it involves me kicking him in the nuts. But the things I want to do with you right now...." She let her words trail off and tenderly began to trace the features she had come to cherish more than anything else in the world.
Randi closed her eyes and enjoyed the sensations, knowing they didn't have much time, but just not caring. Nothing and no one was more important than this – right here, right now. Everything else could just go hang for all she cared.
Suddenly Gwen pulled back. "We have somewhere to be right now, so I am going to hold this thought for when we get back. After that, all bets are off for you for the rest of the night." She took Randi's hand and rose from the bed, then turned in her arms. "One kiss for the road," she demanded.
It was long and languorous and took her breath away. When they finally separated for air, Randi leered at Gwen who promptly licked her lips. Randi's nostrils flared in response and Gwen smirked. "More for that later, Stud. For now, it will be sufficient motivation to get this over with in a hurry."
"Well, if you need added incentive, there is plenty more for you where that came from."
She led Randi to the bedroom door and together they stepped out into a living area filled with waiting Sabres. "Let's go, ladies. I have lots of things to do, so let's get to it because most of them are far more important than dealing with PMSing Amazons today."
"Ooh... it is gonna suck to be Corky," Brenda commented to her nearest companions. Reed just held on to Rosie tightly and concentrated on her breathing, hoping to survive the latest influx of energy between them.
Corky was waiting in the center of the village meadow surrounded by every Amazon who was able to be there when Gwen and Randi arrived with a small contingent of Sabre guards. To her surprise, not all of them were standing behind her and there was not nearly the support for her challenge that she expected. She was committed at this point, however and strutted around cockily trying to convey an air of nonchalance.
The Amazons let Gwen through and formed a circle around the two combatants. Randi stepped up beside them to referee and Corky balked.
"I don't think so. I want a neutral observer to umpire this challenge."
"And I want to string you up by your thumbs and flay you alive. But I haven't done that yet, so you're just going to have to deal with me as the referee of this bout. Otherwise, you can concede defeat and I will move on to determining your punishment." Randi grinned evilly. "Your choice."
"No real choice there. Fine... whatever. It's not like I'm not going to win. Then you won't be an issue anymore."
"Move to your corner," Randi said calmly and she nodded to the Sabres who immediately stepped between Corky and Gwen. Randi turned her attention to Gwen whose eyes were blazing with aggression and anger. Randi cupped Gwen's face in her hands.
"Focus," Randi breathed. "Let it work for you."
Gwen wrapped her hands into Randi's dark hair and savagely pulled her down into a fierce, claiming kiss. There was nothing gentle about it; it was about domination and power. Randi let it go on for a long moment before she took control and transformed it into love and desire. She smiled when Gwen melted against her and kept it up until Gwen pulled back to breathe. Then Randi smiled.
"Now go kick her ass... we have business to finish."
Gwen stepped back from Randi and the Sabres took that as their cue to move from between the two opponents. The Amazons widened the circle to allow them to become a part of it, then all attention turned to Randi.
"Here ye all who are gathered here – this is a challenge for the Amazon throne, but it is not a challenge to the death. Special conditions have been set for the dispensation of judgment once the victor of this contest has been determined." She turned to Gwen. "As challenged, you have the right to choose your weapon, my queen."
"I choose the staff."
Randi turned to Corky. "The weapon of choice is the staff. Opponents, choose your weapons and retreat to your corners." She waited until they followed her instructions, then resumed speaking. "When I drop my arms, the contest will commence and will not end until a winner has been established. That will be decided by one woman's inability to continue fighting – either by surrender or debilitating injury as determined by myself as the referee." Randi paused and looked between Gwen and Corky. "Are these conditions understood and accepted by both parties?" Both heads nodded, though Corky was much slower to acknowledge her words.
Randi spent a long moment staring at Gwen before turning back to look at Corky and dropping her arms. "Begin," she said softly, and the fight was on.
They circled one another first, neither of them making a move to engage the other. Suddenly, Gwen stopped and planted one in of her staff on the ground. Corky halted, but didn't drop her staff from its defensive position.
"Ya know, we could do this all day. But I have far more interesting things I would rather be doing. So can we pick up the pace a little?"
"You that anxious to give me a tumble there, your majesty? We could just skip the foreplay this fight is and get right down to business. Tell your consort over there she's now an ex and we'll go get it on."
Corky didn't even see her shift, but without warning her staff was flying across the circle and out of the enclosure. Gwen stood back and waited for someone to pass the weapon back to Corky. Corky took it slowly and moved back into position. Then she went on the offensive, twirling and slashing at Gwen who simply wasn't where Corky expected her to be. A look in her green eyes and Corky realized Gwen was playing games with her and that made her mad.
She pulled back for an overhead move that she always used to overpower her smaller opponents. The comical look on Corky's face when Gwen blocked and held her staff in place made Gwen smile. "Please, Corky – do you really think you can defeat me? Randi taught me everything I know and she is the one I learned to defend against."
Corky growled and stepped back a pace to rethink her strategy. Gwen waited, then blinked rapidly when her eyes started to burn from the powder Corky had just released from an unseen compartment on her staff. Gwen heard the staff coming towards her and raised her own to stop it – only to hear it stopped by the clap of wood on bare skin.
"What the hell??" Corky snarled. "This between me and her – there were no rules about...." This time the sound Gwen heard was that of skin against skin as Randi slapped Corky so hard her hand made an instant imprint on Corky's cheek.
"Give me a reason," Randi ground out from between clenched teeth. "Just one."
"Step away from her, Randi. This is my fight and I intend to finish it."
Randi turned slightly to look at Gwen. Her eyes were red and there were obvious tracks where the tears had streamed down her face in an effort to relieve the burning. But otherwise there was no sign of distress... only determination. She nodded in answer to the unspoken question in Randi's expression. Randi twisted back around to face Corky.
"Please," she said softly enough only Corky could hear her. "Be stupid." Then she released Corky's staff and stepped from between the two.
Corky wasn't ready for Gwen to go on the offensive. Legend had it that this Amazon queen never had and never would. It came as a very unpleasant surprise to Corky to find out that this one not only did, but she knew what she was doing.
She felt the first blast to her ribs as a sharp pain accompanied by bright lights. Then she heard the bone in her arm snap a second before the pain made her knees crumple. The last thing Corky felt was the searing pain in her head before the bright lights faded and everything went black.
There was dead silence from everyone when Corky fell over in a fetal position unconscious. No one had expected the violence and savagery they had just seen come from their reputedly peaceful and bardically inclined queen. Without a hint of remorse, Gwen directed two of the Amazons she knew had already been vaccinated to gather Corky up and deliver her immediately to the infirmary. The Sabres she nodded to, knowing they would inoculate as many of the remaining Amazons gathered together as they could manage. Then she took Randi's hand in her own and walked calmly out of the circle, heading back towards the mountain.
No one made a move to follow them, which made the Sabres' job easier... until the women started reacting to the serum. Fortunately, there were enough that had already suffered through the aftereffects of the antidote who knew what to expect and the rest just put it down to reaction since Gwen's explosion had left many feeling more than a little queasy.
That delay, since even those who had not been inoculated stayed back to help their stricken sisters, gave Gwen and Randi plenty of time to reach their quarters unhindered. Only the Sabres who stood guard at the door saw them and Mason looked around for the remainder of the guard contingent. She didn't have a chance to ask either Gwen or Randi where the Sabre guard was as they walked into their room and shut the door behind them immediately. She and Iroque exchanged glances and shrugs and returned to watching the corridor.
Gwen went through the living area of their quarters, bypassing Reed and Rosie without a word of acknowledgment. Randi glanced in their direction but a motion from Reed sent her into the bedroom behind Gwen without hesitation. She would check on them later, but for now, Gwen was her priority.
Gwen was already in the bathroom by the time Randi entered and closed the door. Randi heard the retching and quickly crossed to her side. Gwen pulled away, or tried to, but Randi wouldn't let her and held on to Gwen tightly until she finished throwing up. Then Randi wrapped Gwen in her embrace and wiped her face.
"Feel better?" after a long silence.
Gwen nodded. "Sort of, but mostly I feel disoriented and drained." She stood slowly and grabbed her toothbrush. Randi stood behind her and held onto her waist while Gwen brushed and rinsed. When she was done, she leaned back into Randi's body. Randi reached down and scooped Gwen into her arms without objection and moved them back into the bedroom.
When Randi lowered Gwen onto the bed, Gwen held onto Randi and drew her down on top of her, savoring her weight. Knowing instinctively what Gwen needed and would never articulate in her current state, Randi captured Gwen's lips and rolled them over, letting Gwen take the lead.
Gwen immediately assumed control of the kiss, turning voracious in her need and desire. Randi remained submissive, responding to the need but not trying to control. As quickly as she had claimed dominance, Gwen released Randi's lips and buried her face into Randi's neck. Randi wrapped her up tighter until Gwen was completely surrounded.
"I feel like I am coming out of my skin. I want to devour you and I want to cry; I want you to protect me and I want to kill Corky – I could have very easily. The worst part is – I don't feel bad for what I did to her and part of me thinks I should. Hold me, Randi... hold me tight and don't let go. I don't want to lose myself in this feeling. I hate the way it feels."
"I gotcha, baby. I gotcha. You just hang on to me and I'll guide you all the way home."
There was silence for a few minutes while Gwen absorbed the warmth and the words Randi was offering her. Then she pulled back just slightly to look into bright blue eyes that stared back at her with loving concern.
"This is what you felt like, isn't it? All those months, this was burning through your veins."
"Yep," came the matter of fact answer. "That is why I haven't called Lacey for the antidote for you."
"You want me to suffer like you did?" The fury in her eyes was sexy as hell and Randi didn't resist the urge to address it with love. She knew the minute Gwen lost her anger because she felt the change in her kiss. Then the embrace became passionate again and Randi just lay back and let it happen. Slowly, Gwen pulled back and glared down at Randi.
"No," answering the question. "I didn't want you to die, and we don't know what the antidote will do to you and me. I know we can get through this together – we've already done it once. We *are* the antidote... as far as each other are concerned."
"So you don't feel like you're going crazy now?"
Randi gave her a teasing grin. "No more than I have ever felt when you're around," mock-pouting when Gwen swatted at her. Then her expression turned serious. "I still have my moments – you've seen that. But our spirit walk together got rid of the burning. So we can defeat this."
"With another spirit walk?" Gwen bit her lip. "Randi, I don't think I can do that again so soon."
"No, love. No more spirit walks. I don't think I could go through that again ever," unable to stop the small shudder that passed through her frame at the thought. "We can use the bond we formed there to bring your burning under control... to give you the power to direct your feelings into whatever outlet you feel most comfortable expressing them."
"As sure as I can be about anything. I would never knowingly expose you to danger."
Gwen nodded and patted Randi's chest before laying her head back over Randi's heart. "I know, sweetheart. I didn't mean to imply you would. I'm just scared. I hate feeling totally out of control like this." A beat. "Is this the way the Amazons felt?"
Randi shrugged. "I dunno, but I don't think so – given the way they've all described it so far. I think the bond we formed is making what should have been simple warrior aggressiveness look for other outlets besides war and fighting. For me it was different because I had already learned to channel most of that years ago, so the only war I was fighting was with myself."
Gwen nodded. "That is exactly how I feel – like I am fighting with myself, being pulled in directions I don't understand or have any control over."
"Close your eyes."
Gwen tilted her head up to find Randi's blue gaze focused intently on her. She studied them for a long moment, then, having found the answers she needed, closed her eyes and curled her body deeper into Randi, coveting the strength and warm she found there.
"Good girl," Randi encouraged. "Now I want you to focus that considerable will you possess when you are storytelling. Whatever calming and meditation techniques you use to put yourself into the zone, find it now and harness it. Once you have that, the control will be there and we can work through the lust that is running rampant in your system. Defeating that will be easy, and once that is done, Ares won't be able to touch you again – you will be immune."
Gwen nodded but didn't speak, centering herself as though she was going to do the bard thing. Slowly she felt her heartbeat settle and her rage calm and she gradually opened her eyes to find herself in the dell in her dreams.
"I'm right here, love," stepping from behind the oak. "I figured you would come here. I did the same thing."
"So what do we do now?"
"We go to sleep. It will give the anger a chance to cool and when we wake up, only the lust and passion will be left. And I think we can figure things out from there."
Gwen smiled. "I think so too. Will you hold me here?"
"For as long as you need me to, sweetheart."
"Then Ares has no chance. Goodnight, Stud."
"Goodnight, my queen."
"Are you sure you infected her?"
"Yes, my lord. I saw it hit and I witnessed the burning in her eyes as well."
"Then why hasn't she called for me? No one can resist the binding once the burning starts."
"I only know what I saw, my lord. We gave her the potion just as you instructed. She defeated Corky with no difficulty, even when Corky tried to cheat to win. Once the bout was over, she and the Empress returned to the mountain. No one has seen or heard from them since."
"All right... get out."
"My lord... there is one more thing."
Ares sighed. "What is it?"
"There is a sickness going around. It seems most of the Nation has caught it. Is there something you can do to keep it from spreading? It is making the sisters violently ill. I think it was brought in by the queen and her entourage – they seem to be immune, but it didn't start until after they arrived."
Ares nodded, pinching his lip thoughtfully. "I'll look into it. Now is not a good time for the warriors to be getting sick. For now, make sure you and the rest who have not been infected by them stay very clear of them. We cannot afford any complications. See to it."
The woman nodded and bowed low before scampering out of his presence. Ares sat brooding for a long moment before coming to a decision, shimmering out if his hideaway to find Lorac. He needed some real answers.
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