Name: Del Robertson
TITLE: THROUGH THE WEAPONS MASTER'S EYES
Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Eponin, Solari, etc. are owned by Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. The other Amazons were created by me - because you can never have too many Amazons. No infringement is intended and no profit is being made.
Fandom: Xena Warrior Princess
Pairing: Xena/Gabrielle Ephiny/Eponin
Summary: A feast honoring the return of the Amazon Queen as seen through the Weapon Master's eyes. This is intended as part of a series entitled "Through The Eyes" as the same event is recounted through four different pov's. It should make no difference as to which order the four pieces are read in. Spoilers for Hooves and Harlots, The Quest and Blind Faith.
THROUGH THE WEAPONS MASTER'S EYES
By Del Robertson
Xena was disagreeing. Which, in itself, isn't a big surprise; Xena's a very disagreeable person. This wasn't just anyone she was harassing, though. This time, the Warrior Princess had chosen to accost the one person in the village that no one else in their right mind would mess with.
I'd seen her stand up to warriors three times her size without batting an eye. She had brought more than one Amazon to her knees, begging and pleading for leniency. Even I wouldn't tangle with her. And, I'd been known to wrestle the mighty Xena.
Her honor was without reproach; she couldn't be bribed. She had a reputation of showing no mercy. And, one word in the ear of the Queen or Regent would have us on patrol duty faster than Xena can throw that chakram-thing of hers.
Her name was Coralie. And, she was our server for the night's feast. She held the power of the Amazonian wine in her hands. With just a word, she could have us cut off for the evening. And, Xena was messing with her.
"Of course you can," Xena growled. "Pitchers. Table. Leave them on." Then, her lips curled into something that looked like a cross between a wolf's smile and a constipated beaver's expression.
I buried my nose in my mug to keep from laughing. If there's one thing you don't do, it's laugh at the warrior princess when she's attempting to pull off a scheme. Coralie was a little braver than I was, openly giggling at Xena's expression.
"I can't," she tried to explain for the umpteenth time, "Mytilda will be furious. She gave me strict instructions to only give you one pitcher at a time."
"But, it is one pitcher," Xena protested. "One for me and," She just had to pull me into her scheme by pointing me out, "One for Ep."
In all fairness, I really can't blame Mytilda for instructing our server to limit us. If I was her, I would limit us, too. Hades, I might even cut us off. Then, I shook my head, scratching that idea. A drunken warrior princess was a handful. But, a warrior princess that was denied the alcohol she craved was TROUBLE.
Surprisingly, Coralie had relented and with just a slip of her tongue, had promised a second pitcher of wine to us. I would have been happy with that. Hera's left tit, I would have been ecstatic. I might have even climbed up on the table and did my happy dance.
But, not Xena.
No, she wouldn't be content until she'd had all the pitchers on the poor girl's tray. It didn't matter if it was three or thirty. She wouldn't rest easy until she'd had them all. That's just the way she is; unable to let the little things go.
Tired of the conversation, I decided to try to win with diplomacy what Xena wasn't able to obtain with trickery. "Coralie, it would be pointless for you to carry that lone pitcher all the way back across the field only to have to carry it all the long way back in a quarter candlemark."
"Yeah," Xena jumped in, almost ruining my chances of reasoning with Coralie, "We're just trying to think of you."
"Out of the goodness of your hearts, right?" I caught the tone in Coralie's voice, rolled my eyes at the warrior seated on the bench across from me.
A look she completely ignored as she responded with, "We're warriors. Noble is what we do."
Yeah. When we're not nobly trying to steal your wine, that is. Their verbal sparring continued back and forth. What had started out as an interesting challenge for Xena was now slowly beginning to get on her nerves. I could see it in her eyes, in the agitation clearly etched along her twitching eye, the hand that stealthily stole underneath the table. And, Coralie had no idea the danger she was in.
"Please?" I stepped in, drawing the girl's attention by placing a distracting hand on her hip. No, I wasn't trying to flirt or be charming. It's just that she was standing closer to Xena and I couldn't reach her hand.
Coralie's green eyes blinked at me, clearly unnerved by my forwardness in touching her. It wasn't something I'd normally resort to. But, whether she knew it or not, she was in peril and I needed to get her away from Xena.
"We'd really appreciate it," I added.
She hesitated before finally relenting. "Well . . . okay." I breathed a sigh of relief as she acquiesced. "Just don't tell Mytilda. Or, the Queen."
"Don't worry," Xena drolly remarked, "What your Queen doesn't know won't hurt me."
Now that she'd gotten her way, she was trying to be charming, openly flirting with the youngster. I buried my nose in my mug again, doing my best to block out the sound of Xena's teasing voice and Coralie's lilting laughter. If I had someone like the Queen, you wouldn't catch me flirting with anyone else. But, that's just the way her and Solari are, I guess. Flirting is in their nature.
Don't get me wrong. I like Xena. Really, I do. And, I'm not trying to talk bad about her or imply that she'd ever be unfaithful to the Queen. She wouldn't. Gods knows that cute, tiny blonde has that big, bad warrior wrapped about her little finger. I don't think there's anything that Xena wouldn't do for her love. Hades, she'd gone to Tartarus and back for her!
All I'm saying is . . . that sometimes, I think Xena takes it for granted, ya know? The moonlit walks that Gabrielle drags her out for every evening after dinner. How after we've spent the morning sparring, Gab makes sure there's a steaming bath waiting for her warrior. The way we'll be sitting around just drinking and Gabby will come up behind her and wrap her arms about her and tell her it's time she come home. Then, she'll wait until Xena gets up and then takes her hand, intertwining their fingers as they walk back to their hut.
If I had someone like that, I wouldn't take advantage. I wouldn't roll my eyes and give that smirk that makes it seem like I'm only going along with things to indulge my mate. I'd revel in the attention. I'd let her do whatever she wants; even if that meant getting teased by the other warriors by letting her hold my hand in public. And, I wouldn't put up a fight when she wanted me to do things with her. Even if it was something I didn't like doing. I'd just grit my teeth and bear it until it was over. But, I'd never tell her no. Not when it was something she really wanted.
"Where were we?" Xena asked. Now that our server had successfully escaped, she'd turned her attention back to me.
"Nowhere," I growled. "I already told you, Xena. I ain't having a drinking contest with you."
"Yeah, right. Since when don't we have drinking contests?"
"Look, Xena. I don't wanna, okay?" We'd been round and round about this all evening. Now, Xena's a good friend and I don't mind having a drink or two with her. But, every time we get a little carried away and things get a little crazy and then we - "Every time I drink with you, we end up making a stupid bet and I get in trouble with Eph."
She rolled her eyes. "Not every time."
I stared in disbelief at her, then began counting off on my fingers to emphasize my point. "Winter solstice - trouble. Summer harvest - trouble. Gabrielle's coronation - big trouble." Although, that last one had been sheer genius. The look on the Queen's face! Course, when her and Eph figured out it was us, we were both in the doghouse.
Seems I always got it worse than Xena, too. Cause she was a guest of the Nation and the Queen's consort and I was a trained Amazon warrior since birth and I should know better. In Ephiny's own words just before she'd ordered me to muck out the stables. Alone, so I could think of what I'd done. Have you ever smelt the mess Amazonian warhorses make? The fumes are so bad you can't breathe, let alone think!
Xena's punishment? Escorting both Queen and Regent to the negotiations meeting with the Centaurs across the river. Some punishment, right? Sitting in a tent, out of the sun, eating grapes and drinking ale while your mate and her second iron out treaty negotiations.
"Tell you what," Xena grinned, already leaning across the table like she had some great secret to let me in on. "What if we don't bet on anything stupid?"
Us? Not get drunk and do anything stupid? This, I had to hear. "What'd you have in mind?"
In answer, she half-turned in her seat, pointing across the length of the field. My eyes followed, taking in the scantily-clad figures keeping up a frantic pace in the dance circle. Beyond the bonfires, near the perimeter, two Amazons were standing intimately close, carrying on a private conversation.
Her cloak hid her figure from sight, but I could tell by the way she stood, both hands clasped loosely behind her back that it was Solari. It's a habit she's had since childhood. One I've often tried to break her of. I don't know how many times I've told her; it leaves her vulnerable to attack. There's no way she could reach her sword in time if she needed it. She'd finally listened to reason and had taken to tucking a knife into the waistband at the back of her leathers. Not that it would do her any good in cold, rainy weather when she insisted on wearing that damnable cloak.
I could have named the woman she was speaking with from a distance of five yards or fifty. She was easy to identify and I could name every one of her characteristics by memory. The way she stood with her hands on both hips, the proud lift of her chin. Not to mention the long, blonde curly corkscrew locks that fell about both shoulders, ending just above her breasts. Heart pounding in my ears, I openly stared at Ephiny, Regent of the Amazons.
Xena's annoying fingers snapping repeatedly in front of my face drove me to distraction.
"WHAT?!?" I snarled, glaring at her.
"That's our wager," She grinned. I felt my blood boil at the suggestion. How dare she suggest Ephiny be the stakes in some stupid wager - "Usual rules. Last one standing wins. You win, I arrange it so you get Eph all to yourself in the baths tomorrow after staff practice."
"Xena." I shook my head in resignation. She just didn't get it, did she? "I'm not a royal. I'm not even a royal's champion." No matter how much I'd like to be. My gaze flitted towards Ephiny before flicking back to Xena again. "Only royals and their consorts are allowed in the private baths." And, I'm neither of those.
"Trust me, Ep. You win and I'll make sure the common baths are deserted for two solid candlemarks."
"Two candlemarks?" Just how long did Xena think it took to wash?
A wicked grin. "If that's what floats your boat, sure."
"You can do that?"
Her brow arched at my audacity. "Ep, I have - "
"Many skills." Yeah, yeah. I'd heard that one often enough. Anytime she did anything the rest of us were amazed by. Or, bragged about something none of us would have tried in the first place. Still, what she was offering - I wondered what it would cost me if I lost. "What do you get if you win?"
She took a deep breath, stalling, as if she had to really give it some serious thought. I'm no dummy. She already knew what she was going to ask for before she suggested the wager.
"You win, playtime with the regent." She stalled further, trying to make me sweat for it. "I win, you take my spot as Gabrielle's champion at the next meeting of the Nations."
The Queen enjoyed having her champion at her side too much to go for that. "Queen Gabrielle - "
" - Will be fine with it," she cut me off with a nonchalant swipe of her hand. "I'll explain my absence with a pulled back muscle or something."
This from a woman who stormed a castle to rescue my Queen after she was blinded by Sumac oil in a fight with an obnoxious braggart out to prove his mettle? No way. Gabrielle would never buy it. "Xena, I don't know . . . " Even as I said it, my eyes were already being drawn back towards the distant figure of my regent. What Xena was suggesting was insulting and disrespectful and conniving . . . and just too tempting to pass up.
"Hey, if you don't wanna, you don't wanna." I felt a sword plunge deep into my gut when I saw Solari lean in and kiss Ephiny. Xena saw it, too and rubbed salt in my wound by adding, "Looks like Eph may have someone else in mind for that bath, anyway."
I lifted my mug, banged it against Xena's. "You're on," I agreed, then slammed my drink back before I had second thoughts. She eagerly clasped my forearm in a warrior's pact to seal the deal.
When our drinking challenges involved Solari or any of the other Amazons, our rules were much stricter. The drinks had to be taken consecutively, everyone downing their contents at the same time. It was the only way to keep things fair. Otherwise, some featherhead would point a finger, accusing someone else of intentionally holding back. And, before we knew it, a friendly drinking contest would turn into an ugly brawl.
It was more relaxed when the fun was kept between me and the warrior princess. She valued her honor just as much as I did. And, I could trust her word. We'd both play fair, refilling our mugs as often as they were emptied.
Amazon wine is some potent stuff. And, chugging as many mugs as possible in a candlemarks time wasn't healthy. It didn't prove who was the better person. Only who had the stronger stomach. No, we weren't drinking to see who could hold their drink in the longest before they puked up their toenails.
That was a game for the younger warriors. Stupid, younger warriors who didn't have the sense the Gods gave a horse. Xena and I had matured beyond that. After waking up in the pig pens covered in slop and our own vomit one too many times.
Now, instead of speed, we competed for endurance. It was no longer about who was the fastest, but who could last longest. It was about stamina, strength and determination. And, catching sight of my gorgeous regent casually strolling across the ceremonial grounds towards us, a gentle sway to her hips, I was more determined than ever to drink Xena under the table.
She offered me a soft smile, a firm hand clasping my shoulder in greeting as she settled upon the bench at the end of the table. I offered a smile of my own in return, before hiding my growing grin behind my mug.
The first time I had seen Ephiny smile had been when she'd knocked me senseless with her staff. She's a couple of seasons younger than me and I'd already been training for quite some time with weapons. I was pretty good; Devillare even let me train with the fully-feathered warriors sometimes. But, I'd never really gotten used to people watching me practice.
She'd been coming around for quite some time. Just sitting on the fence, all bony elbows and long legs and blonde curls that bounced every time she moved her head. I could feel her eyes on me, watching me, staring at me. It had unnerved me. And, before I even thought about what I was doing, I had charged across the field and grabbed her by the front of her halter and threatened that if she didn't stop staring at me, I'd knock her down and use my staff to paddle her tailfeathers.
The next day, as I was warming up, I glanced over to the fence railing. She wasn't there and I thought I'd seen the last of her. Until she came charging out to the field and right up to me and planted this staff two sizes too large for her squarely on top of my foot and called me out.
Once I'd stopped hollering and hopping around, clutching my throbbing foot in one hand, it took me all of three heartbeats to sweep her legs out from beneath her. Angrily, I thrust her staff back in her hands, commanding she "Go home, little girl!". A rigid set to her jaw, she picked herself up and dragging her staff behind her, wandered off the field. I thought for sure she was going home to cry to momma.
But, she continued to come back day after day. Each day she would challenge me, demanding I fight her. Even when I pointedly turned my back on her, implying she wasn't worth my effort, she would push me until I couldn't ignore her anymore. And, just like that first day, I would knock her down and hand her staff back to her.
If it wasn't bad enough that I'd wipe the field with her, she'd bring this little tag-a-long with her to watch. I guessed she must have been a season or two older than the little blonde terror that was harassing me. Short, cute brunette with big, brown eyes and dimples. Grew up to be a taller, cuter brunette; goes by the name of Solari.
One day, we were out on the field and, as usual, she issued the challenge. All the bigger featherheads had seen me wipe the floor with her so many times now, they were no longer entertained by it. So, they pretty much left and we had the entire practice field to ourselves. Anyway, we were out on the field and I'd noticed that this little blonde was really starting to get good. Where I'd had no trouble knocking her flat before, now I was having to work at it.
I decided to see what this little Amazon really had. So, I traded hits with her. We'd parry back and forth, working our way all around the field. I'd press her a little, then back off, testing her stamina. She was starting to sweat a little, perspiration trickling down her brow and off her face. Her arms shone with a fine sheen and she kept adjusting her hands on the sweat-slick staff. As we continued our dance, I could tell she was beginning to tire. She didn't hold her staff nearly as high, nearly as proud as when we'd first started. Her arms were beginning to weaken.
Somewhere along the way, she must have made an impression on me. At one time, I wouldn't have hesitated to demean her. Not because I was being purposely cruel. Okay, maybe I was, a little. But, I also wanted to toughen her up. A pretty thing like her had to learn that life was rough and there were people who weren't going to think twice about knocking her down.
I was thinking twice about it. I was debating on whether I should keep going and let her arms tire out naturally on their own until she dropped her staff and was forced to admit she couldn't keep up with me. Or, if I should spare her the humiliation and just knock it out of her hands now.
I was still contemplating that when a quick movement out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. I glanced over to the fence. The perimeter of the field was deserted except for this little blonde's friend who came to watch her get her feathers kicked everyday. I was floored when this charming, little brunette with the dimples and big smile blew me a kiss. Then, she stood up, turning full around on the fence until she was facing away from me. And, with a wink and a saucy smirk, she lifted her skirt and showed me her bare tush. I didn't even see that staff coming until it connected with my jaw, spinning me completely around before knocking me to the ground. Before I could clear my head, Ephiny was already on top of me, tugging my skirt up and paddling my ass the way I had threatened to do her our very first meeting.
Coming out of my memories, my eyes lazily drifted back to where that same curly-haired Amazon sat next to me. Only now, she wasn't all elbows and long legs. Oh, she still had the long legs. But, the rest of her had grown out quite nicely. I'd definitely think twice about grabbing her by the halter and dragging her off the fence these days.
My mind drifted towards what that halter was covering. Not that I haven't seen Ephiny naked before. Amazons aren't modest by nature, you know. And, even though she's the regent now, she wasn't always. Once, she was just another warrior like the rest of us.
And, that meant washing up in the communal bath. Or, the river when we felt the need for more privacy. Embarrassed to admit it now; I haven't always been so suave and cool around Ephiny. My annoyance with her as a youngster slowly gave way to stronger feelings. Seems the more she developed over the seasons, the more my appreciation for her grew, too. And, the more I seemed to regress.
I could hardly look her in the eye and form two sentences when she was fully clothed. When she was naked, I could barely breathe, let alone even think about speaking without stammering and stuttering and tripping all over my tongue.
It got so bad that I had to give up being caught in the bath with her. I found myself rising a candlemark before dawn to slip down to the baths and wash up before anyone else was up and about. Sure, I'd occasionally run into one of the other Amazons as I was drying off and leaving, but never Eph.
And, when she suggested we wash up right after training, I was ready for that, too. I began using the excuse that I needed to stow the weapons away to delay going to the baths. I would sit in the darkened weapons hut for a candlemark after I'd put all the equipment away, hoping that she'd be out of the bath by the time I'd gotten there.
Then, Melosa had died. And that bitch Velasca was overthrown. Gabrielle was officially crowned Queen. And, she made Ephiny her Regent. No longer was I worried about embarrassing myself in front of a dripping wet, naked Ephiny in the baths.
Although, now that Xena had offered that very thing to me as the prize for winning our wager, I couldn't think about anything else. Resolutely, I lifted my mug, feeling the heady wine slipping between my lips and over my tongue before working its way to my gullet. Warily, I glanced at Xena. She was sipping from her own mug, a wry smirk on her face as she caught me eyeing her. I needed to win this. I needed Eph in that bath with me tomorrow.
But first, I had to make sure she was planning on sparring tomorrow morning and not sitting in on some council session with the Queen.
"So, I've been feeling like I'm getting a little lazy. Too much drink, not enough head-busting." Xena flashed me a not-so-subtle wink; Seems she was addressing the issue for me. "You think you and Eph can give me a decent workout in staff practice for a change tomorrow?"
"Oh, I think that can be arranged." I shot Xena a look, warning her to cool it before she tips Ephiny off. "What do you say, Eph? Wanna help me kick some big-mouthed warrior princess butt?"
There was no response. I glanced to Xena, then back to Ephiny. Still, no reaction. Concerned, I nudged her shin with the toe of my boot. "Staff practice tomorrow?"
I must have kicked her harder than I thought, cause she jumped a little and blinked at me. "Oh, yeah. Staff practice," she nodded at me. "Of course."
"Good." I gave a curt nod in confirmation, trying to keep the grin off my face.
Xena passed her mug to Ephiny, then retrieved a fresh one for herself. Refilling both our mugs, we clanged them together before settling back on our benches and downing the contents in one gulp. Eagerly, I put my mug forth to be refilled again. I had a drinking contest to win.
Xena and I were starting to put the wine away at a pretty good pace, now. And, she was beginning to look a little fuzzy around the edges. Not to mention, every time she downed a mug, she had this habit of shaking her head from side to side like a wet dog. Why? I don't know. Trying to shake the alcohol from her brain, maybe.
But, if she kept it up - and I kept watching her - I was gonna be sick. I needed something else to divert my attention. Something that I could focus on. Something that would keep me -
My head lolled to the side and my eyes were suddenly riveted to Ephiny's cleavage. My thoughts of how she'd grown up to fill out her halter came rushing back to me. And, with a warmth growing between my legs, I drifted into a fantasy of what tomorrow could bring.
We were both hot and sweaty. Staff practice was grueling. But, Xena had been true to her word and no one else was about. If Ephiny thought it odd that the baths were empty this time of day, she made no mention of it. Instead, she swiftly moved into the room, slung her towel over a nearby bench and immediately stripped down.
Moving to the opposite end of the room, I proceeded to do the same. Starting with my boots. Keeping my eyes riveted on the tiled floor. That task complete, I turned my back to Ephiny and pulled my top off over my head in one fluid motion. Efficiently, I removed my belt and unlaced my leathers, letting them drop to the floor at my feet.
I could feel her eyes on me, watching my every move. I stalled for as long as I could, picking up my clothes and folding them neatly - twice - and laying them on the stone bench. Her stare sent the hairs at the nape of my neck bristling. Steeling myself, taking a deep breath, I slowly turned around. And caught hazel eyes looking right at me.
Her eyes were glued to my torso. Slowly, surely, they raised bit by bit, taking in my abdomen, my breasts and finally, my face. A slow, sultry smile spread over her lips as she leaned back against the cold, tile wall of the baths and crossed her arms over her breasts.
"What?' she asked in that smoky voice of hers.
"You're . . . umm . . . staring?"
"You have an awful lot to stare at." She licked her lips, sauntered towards the edge of the pool.
Hastily, I dove into the water, hoping the chill would clear my senses. As I resurfaced, shaking the water of out my hair, I blinked my eyes to find her still looking at me. "It's not polite," I offered.
"You gonna threaten to take down my skirt and spank my tailfeathers like you did the first day we met?" she asked saucily.
"You're . . . you're not wearing a skirt."
"Guess that'll make things just that much more . . . convenient."
Where my entrance into the pool was hurried and rushed, hers was slow and elegant and graceful. She took each step one at a time, the waters swirling languorously about her flesh as she slipped in inch by delicious inch.
The water came up just past her navel, effectively covering the part of her anatomy we'd been discussing. That still left her breasts exposed, though. Her perfectly sized, mouth-watering breasts. The nipples were stiff from the coolness of the water and her breasts gently swayed with each step she took towards me.
"You were so cross at me for staring," she continued speaking with each step she took. "But, did you ever stop to ask yourself why I was watching? Why I've continued to watch you after all this time, Pony?" I wasn't sure where she was heading with this, but she was making me nervous. So much so that with each step forward she took, I reflexively took another backwards. As she advanced, I steadily retreated. Until finally, I could run no farther. My back connected solidly with the edge of the bathing pool. Trapped, I had nowhere to run as she stepped right up between my legs, pressing herself into me. "Maybe it's because I like what I see . . . "
The short nails of one hand ran along the flesh of my cheek as she leaned in to touch her lips to mine. As she pulled back to look at me, there was a fiery passion blazing in the depths of her eyes. "I watch you on the field all the time, Pony. Practicing for candlemarks on end." Her fingers trailed over my shoulder and down my bicep. "So strong." She reached down into the water, taking one of my hands, lifting it. Her eyes settled on my digits even as she caressed my entire appendage with her gentle fingers. "You've got powerful hands. I've seen you break open walnuts with them." She lowered her head, kissing the palm of my hand, then licking each of my calluses in turn.
I tried to reach for her. I needed my hands on her breasts . . . on her waist . . . my fingers between her legs, buried inside her. She caught me off-guard, capturing both my wrists in her hands and bringing them up the sides of the pool with a strength I didn't know she possessed.
She leaned in, giving me another kiss, her tongue foraging into my mouth this time. As she drew back, licking her lips, her eyes hooded with pleasure, she commanded, "Don't move." before trailing her fingers over my collarbone and down to cup my breast, her nails scratching at my nipple before traveling over my abdomen and my fluttering stomach muscles to curl possessively in the hair nestled between my legs.
Her mouth followed the path blazed by her fingers. My fingers were convulsively clutched about the edge of the bathing pool, desperately trying to dig into stone and tile. My voice couldn't work its way past my constricting throat muscles, but my hips jutting forward into her touch more than conveyed what my lips couldn't say.
Her fingers stroked their way between my open legs. Her teeth bit at the soft flesh of my breast. The fingers of her other hand finally released my wrist, burning a searing trail up my arm, over my bracer and settling in a firm clasp on my shoulder.
Abruptly, she kicked me. Recovering, briskly rubbing my aching shin, I glared at a certain warrior princess. A jerk of her head refocused my attentions to where Ephiny was reaching for a pitcher of wine. Taking the hint, I intercepted Eph's reach, dropping my hand down on top of hers.
"I got it," I offered, smoothly taking the pitcher from her.
For some reason, Ephiny couldn't seem to hold her mug steady and I found myself chasing it all across the table, wondering just how much the regent had indulged in before joining us at our table. Apparently, Xena thought something about the entire situation was funny, cause she kept snickering under her breath. I flicked an irritated look at the princess, then turned my gaze back to Ephiny, my eyes finding and locking on her cleavage somewhere along the way.
I must have been staring for longer than I thought. Ephiny's scream broke my concentration, and I nearly dropped the pitcher of wine. The burgundy liquid was liberally soaking the table and I made a dive to reach the toppling pitcher and Ephiny's teetering mug. Xena got into the act, yanking the container out of my grasp and giving me a shove forward in the process.
I lost my balance, landing hard, coming down on my shoulder. Then, I was sliding the length of the table and crashing into Ephiny, sending us both flying. I landed on top of Eph, hearing her soft Ooomph! as her backside hit the ground. I felt something decidedly wet and looked down between us to see the contents of Ephiny's mug splattered along her upper chest and cleavage. Reflexively, I felt my mouth water.
Her eyes blinked open, staring up into mine. We were nose to nose, so close our lips were practically touching. Just as I thought to press forward into a kiss, she slammed her eyes shut and her head back against the ground. Behind us, I heard the warrior princess cackling.
Gathering her strength, Ephiny raised up onto both elbows. Her nose brushing against mine, she leaned past me, peering over my shoulder at Xena.
"Eph, you should've seen the look on your face - "
Sighing heavily, rolling my eyes, I tried to turn about to see what all the fuss was about. My arms and legs were still firmly entangled with Ephiny's. I must have moved the wrong way, cause her eyes slammed shut again and she let out a sharp gasp of pain.
Slowly, I worked to extricate myself from my embarrassment. Somehow, one of my gauntlets had become caught on the dagger situated at her waist and I had a Tartarus of a time disentangling it. Somehow, I finally struggled my way to my elbows and knees. Looking down, I peered into the most mesmerizing hazel eyes I'd ever seen. I contemplated trying another kiss.
Then, I felt the boot connect solidly with my back, sending me tumbling forward into Ephiny's arms again with a loud "Whoomph!" My first instinct was to cut off the foot lodged in that size ten boot with the dullest knife I could find. Then, I realized where Xena's untimely kick had landed my nose.
Directly in the bosom of my regent. The bosom of my regent that was covered in Amazonian wine, to be exact. Mind fogged with alcohol and lust, my tongue slipped out of my mouth and began earnestly slathering across anything it could reach. I felt Ephiny stiffen beneath me, but I also heard the soft whimper escape her lips and felt the strong hands firmly clutching my sides.
Suddenly, a voice belonging to a screeching Harpy broke through my contented haze, demanding to know, "What's going on here?"
"Pony!" Eph's voice was added to that of the Harpy's and her hands were suddenly tangled in my hair, tugging my head up.
I looked up at her through slightly foggy vision. Then, remembering the Harpy, I flashed a reassuring grin her direction before rolling over to shield my love from the demon. Laying there on my back, half-propped on Ephiny, I briefly considered going for my sword. Deciding I couldn't reach it in the position I was in, I instead went for my dagger at my waist.
Just as I reached it and looked up, I discovered the demoness Harpy had been scared off the by the fierce Amazon now standing over us. "My Queen!" I managed to exclaim, delighted that the monster hadn't gotten her.
"Why, Eponin, I do believe you're smashed." Huh? That Harpy didn't lay a hand on me! "How much have you had?"
I paused, mouth hanging open as I tried to reason out just what my Queen was asking. I'd just fought off a flesh-eating Harpy that had tried to attack my love and she wants to know how much I've had. I looked at Ephiny, hoping for a little help. Then, seeing the remnants of the wine still coating her breasts, I realized the answer to the question and replied with confidence, "Only a little," before returning to the task of cleaning up my mess.
"Ponnnyyyyyyyyyyy!" Ephiny drew my name out, putting more emphasis on it than I'd ever heard before. Even that time we'd gone fishing and I'd tossed my line back and accidentally hooked her halter and sent it flying into the river. She looked just about the same shade of angry then as she does now, I realized as my head was unceremoniously yanked up by my hair and I was once again staring into her eyes. Only this time, they weren't happy eyes. These were the eyes of the don't-mess-with-me-because-I'll-make-you-dig-latrines-with-a-feather regent. Not happy eyes at all. Or tone as she commanded "GET OFF ME NOW!"
Gabrielle reached out both hands to me, offering her support. Making it to my knees, clutching at her thighs with both hands, I peered about her legs, keeping an eye out for that renegade Harpy. My Queen caught me beneath the arms, trying to help me to my feet. Suddenly, she fell, causing me to go down with her. As we both landed on top of Ephiny and I heard Xena's cackling, I wondered if she hadn't pushed Gabrielle, too.
"Xena!" reprimanded my Queen. "NOT helping!"
The next thing I knew, a large hand was at the back of my neck and I was being lifted off the ground. Literally lifted. There was no dirt beneath my feet. Then, I was slammed down onto the bench so hard that the impact rattled my teeth. Looking over, I saw Ephiny and Gabrielle struggling to their feet. I tried to get up to go help them, but felt a very large, very restraining hand clamp down on my shoulder.
I felt fingers fumbling at my belt, then my knife was being flung blade-first into the tabletop. It stuck solid. Then, my hand was caught in a vise-like grip, my fingers being forcefully splayed apart and forced to grasp the dagger hilt.
"Stay." Xena suggested.
Good idea. You never know when that Harpy might come back.
Our drinking contest was going nowhere fast. As a matter of fact, since the Queen joined us, I don't think either Xena or I had finished a mug between us. I lifted my head, looking about the table. Everyone looked depressed. Bored, I laid my head back down on the table. As far as feasts go, this party was turning into a bust. Then again, I guess an invasion of Harpies will do that. I tightened my grip on my knife handle, keeping one eye open, ready for anything.
"I want to dance."
My Queen's voice interrupted my concentration. I raised my head off the table, looking across the table at Gabrielle. "I'll dance with you, my Queen," I was the first to gallantly offer.
"You don't dance" came the pointed observation from the end of the table. "Pony doesn't dance," Ephiny directed this at the Queen.
I turned my head, looking at Gabrielle. A secret smile passed between the two of us. I knew the same memories were occupying her thoughts as she flirtatiously winked at me.
When we had first encountered Xena and Gabrielle, I knew to keep a watchful eye over the dangerous-looking warrior. I could fairly smell trouble rolling off of her like a bad odor. Her traveling companion, I dismissed as no threat whatsoever as she walked side by side with Princess Terreis. Then, the attack came and the girl tried to save my princess by covering her body with her own - and I was forced to take a second look.
Seems I wasn't the only one that wanted that second look, either. Hunh. Wonder if Gabrielle ever figured out that Magdelus and I weren't supposed to be the ones helping her dress that day. Solari had put forth the idea first. She's the one who asked the question What's she hiding beneath that Gods-awful peasant dress?
A very nice set of womanly curves, as it turns out. Once she was out of that dowdy dress and into some nice, Amazonian leathers, I thought I'd have to beat the warriors off with my staff. Now that her - erm, assets - had been revealed, everyone wanted a chance to meet the new princess. I'd never seen such a crowd watching us as there'd been while I was teaching her the staff.
Not everyone was happy. Ephiny had an arrow so far up her butt, she couldn't walk straight. She'd been rude to the new princess and we'd traded heated words over her. Then, Eph disappeared into the forest, leaving me to keep a watchful eye over my charge.
And, keep a watchful eye, I did. A very watchful eye. As we settled into the celebration honoring our new royal, I made sure I sat closest to her, tapping out a steady beat on a small handheld drum. When it looked like she was finally relaxing into the music, I tossed my drum at Magdelus and tugged the princess up with me, demanding, "Time to dance, Princess."
Now, keep in mind, what Ephiny said was true. Much like Xena, I don't dance. But, that didn't stop me from dragging a protesting princess out to the dance circle. I tugged her along by the hand, turning her loose when we'd reached the center of the circle. I didn't even stop; I just continued walking until I'd reached the perimeter of the circle and turned around to watch her.
Gods, she was awful. You ever see a chicken when it gets its head cut off? The body continues twitching long after the head's been severed. It was like watching that. But, she was game, I'll give her that. Instead of retreating to the nearest corner, she stayed out there and tried her best to follow the movements of the others.
I'd seen Magdelus and Pelagia watching from across the way, these ridiculous smirks on their faces. Seems that the Princess' dancing had made them both think twice about approaching her like they'd boasted about earlier. Both of them had bragged that given half the chance, they'd be the first to dance with the new princess. From the looks on their faces, I'd guess neither of them would dance with her now if they were paid to do it!
It was like watching her with the staff all over again. She was awkward and uncoordinated and I was worried she was going to hit herself in the head again. But, there was something raw and talented and untapped there, also. She had the potential. I could see it in her. And, that's not all I could see, I realized, watching the smooth fluidity of her leg muscles as she danced past me.
I let my eyes freely wander over her body as she unselfconsciously let herself move with the beat. She had a woman's curves and a child's unbridled enthusiasm and boundless energy and I wondered how much of that contagious energy she brought into the bedroll with her. I was just thinking of how to approach that topic with her - she seemed very open and willing to try new things - and I didn't think it would take more than a well-worded suggestion or a well-placed touch.
Then, Melosa interrupted. That woman always did know how to ruin a good party. And, she demanded I bring Gabrielle up to the dais with her. The Princess was confused; she didn't know our customs and she didn't know what was happening. And, never in a hundred years could she have guessed that she'd be called upon to kill someone.
After Melosa had made the announcement and ordered that the party resume, I looked about for my little charge. She had slipped away as soon as Melosa had dismissed us. I just saw a flash of long, blonde hair disappearing into the thick covering of the forest.
I had started to go after her immediately, but Melosa had held me back, pulling me aside for a private conversation. The Queen was concerned. About many things. Xena had gone across the way to the Centaur camp. Ephiny had been spotted following her. And, many of the Amazons were rocked with grief over the death of the Princess. Solari, in particular, seemed inconsolable. The healers had brought it to the Queen's attention because when she'd first heard the news, Solari had been returning from a scouting mission and she'd collapsed in the field and had to be carried back by her fellow sisters.
I'd reassured the Queen as best I could that everything would be fine. How could it be? Her sister was dead and war was looming. A war that Melosa seemed determined to push us into. Because of her maddening grief, her thinking was becoming clouded. How else could she command an innocent like Gabrielle kill someone - or be killed? I'd made certain my Queen had retired to her hut for the evening and was in bed with a good, strong cup of spiced tea. Then, I went off in search of my Princess.
I'd tracked her to a spot about eighty paces into the forest. In all honesty, it wasn't hard. She hadn't stepped far off the well-worn path. And, was now seated on a large boulder, one foot curled up beneath her, shoulders hunched, arms wrapped about her torso. Her entire frame was shaking. And, I knew even before I stepped out of the underbrush, she'd been crying.
"Wha - ?" She jumped as I emerged from the darkness, one delicate hand going to her throat in a reflexive effort to stifle a scream. "Eponin! You nearly made me jump right out of my skirt!"
I cocked an eyebrow, thinking that might be a sight worth seeing. Pushing that thought to the side, I focused on the situation at hand. She was clearly upset about something, that much was obvious. I've never been good with emotions. Mine or anyone else's. Normally, I might try to direct her to a more motherly-type figure. That worked with the youngest of the trainees on the practice fields. At the first sign of a skinned knee and the potential for tears, I'd promptly dismiss the little one and send her off in search of her mothers. Or, somebody else's mother; there was always at least one or two watching the classes. Whoever I could get her handed off to quickly. Clearly, Gabrielle's parental figure wasn't around. Xena was off on some mission somewhere. Not that I thought she was the sort to know any better than me what to do in this situation. So, alone in the woods with my princess, with no sensitive Amazons in sight, the duty of making her feel better fell to me.
"My apologies for startling you, Princess. I'm sure the music from the party masked my approach." She cocked an ear. In the distance, the sounds of the drums could be heard coming from the village. I took a tentative step closer. "I noticed you left the feast. Is something wrong?"
"That's pretty much it." I furrowed my brow in confusion, prompting her to explain. "Princess."
"I could call you Princess Gabrielle. Or, my Princess, if that title pleases you more."
"That's not really what I meant, Eponin." A few more tears sprang forth. She quickly swiped them away with the back of her hand in frustration. "Don't you get it? I'm not a Princess. I'm not even an Amazon."
"You are," I objected. "You have Terreis' right of caste."
She looked down, refusing to meet my steady gaze. Nervously, she played with the hem of her skirt as she confessed to me in a low, ashamed whisper, "I'm not a warrior like you. I've really never even held a weapon before today. I'm not some great adventurer like Xena. Before she came along, I'd never even set foot outside my home village." Fresh tears brimming in her eyes, she added, "I'm just a simple, plain village girl from the sleepy, little town of Potadeia." She determinedly dug the toe of her boot into the soft earth at the edge of the boulder she was perched upon.
Wondering how this young woman had gotten beneath my tough, thick hide so quickly, I found myself stepping forward. Cupping my fingers beneath her chin, using as gentle a touch as I possessed, I lifted until her eyes met mine. Holding her gaze, I professed, "There's nothing simple and plain about you, Gabrielle. You're a beautiful young woman that anyone would be proud to claim as their Amazon Princess."
"Yeah, right." She did this charming little half-laugh, half-snort. "Ephiny doesn't feel the same. Neither do some of the others. You've been very nice, Eponin, but I've seen the looks from the other Amazons."
"Eph's not usually like that. Terreis and her were close, Gabrielle. And, her death's hit Eph hard. Give her time, she'll come around." I flexed my muscles, added a cocky little grin, "As for the rest, tell me who they are and I guarantee they won't be giving you those sorts of looks anymore."
"Yeah, I'll bet you could sort them out real good. I saw the way you flipped that tall blonde over your shoulder in hand-to-hand combat training." A twinkle to her eye, she reached out, fingers tracing experimentally up and down my bicep. I felt a shiver run through my veins at the light touch. "Wish I could do that."
"You can." I nearly purred beneath Gabrielle's continued stroking of my muscles. Does this girl have any clue what her touch is doing to me? "That move isn't about strength. It employs the principles of leverage. Even the tiniest of Amazons can master that skill."
"I don't know," she shook her head in doubt, "I still haven't gotten the hang of not hitting myself in the head with the staff. And, forget archery. I've already sent one Amazon to the healer's. Hades, I can't even dance right." She suddenly sobered, the playful caste in her eyes abruptly gone. "And, Melosa expects me to kill the Centaur tomorrow."
"You'll get it. You've already surpassed some of my second year students on staff training. It just takes time. No one said they expected you to learn to be an Amazon overnight." In an uncharacteristic move, I reached out, taking both her hands in mine, loosely holding the digits in my grasp as I pledged, "And, as for what Melosa wants . . . it's my sworn duty to guide and protect you, my princess. Believe me when I say that you won't have to harm anyone." I'll defy the Queen and slit his throat myself before I'll allow her to force you to take a life.
I was literally caught off-guard when she launched herself off her boulder and into my arms. I could feel the warmth of fresh tears against my neck. Her arms were wrapped about me in a fierce hug. Hesitantly, I found my arms coming up to hold her, my hands stroking reassuring patterns along the length of her back.
"As for the dancing - " I stepped out of Gabrielle's embrace. Finding the fingers of one hand, I asked, "Remember what I taught you about the staff? How to find your center?"
"Uh-huh." She nodded her head, bright eyes intently studying me. "You told me to listen to the beating of my heart. To use it to guide me."
"Dancing's the same way," I advised, taking her hand and placing it above my breast.
"Eponin, I - " she began, nervousness clearly ringing in her voice.
"Shush." I placed two fingers to her lips, keeping my other hand firmly on top of hers, encouraging her to leave her hand where it lay. "In staff work, you listen to the beat of your own heart. In dance, you have to feel your partner's."
The sounds of the forest gave way, silent except for the distant beating of the village drums. We stood still for several long heartbeats, staring into each other's eyes, neither speaking, neither moving. Slowly, I brought my hand to her chest, laying it above her breast. In a reflection of the move I'd made earlier, she covered my hand with hers. Feeling the beat beneath my fingers, I concentrated on matching my breathing to hers. I saw the wonderment flash in her eyes when she realized our hearts were beating in synchronicity.
"That's amazing." Her astonished voice never climbed above an astonished whisper. "Can you teach me, Eponin? Can you teach me all there is to being an Amazon?"
"I'll do my best, my princess." I felt the heated flush on my cheeks, hoped it didn't show in the dim lighting of the forest.
Sounds closely resembling a stampede of wild boars drew my gaze from her verdant green eyes. We both looked towards the direction where the noise had come from. My hand dropped to my side, fingers moving swiftly to Pushing the princess behind me, I prepared for the attack.
Two Amazons broke through the cover of the trees not more than twenty paces distant. I felt Gabrielle breathe a sigh of relief against my back. Eyes only for each other, the couple was completely oblivious to our presence. The lilting laughter of Amazons in love filled our ears. Pausing beneath a tree, their lips met in a passionate kiss.
Behind me, I heard Gabrielle's muffled gasp, felt the cadence of her breathing change upon my flesh. Her chin rested on my shoulder, hands gripping both my hips as she peered out from behind my back, staring in rapt fascination. One of the Amazons brought her hand up to cover her partner's breast in a quasi-mock reflection of the way Gabrielle and I'd been touching earlier. There was some touching beneath a halter top, a hand lifting the backside of a set of leathers. More passionate kissing and then they were stumbling off together in the direction of the residential huts.
"Wow." A heated rush of breath hit me solidly as she rapidly exhaled. I turned to gaze at her, concerned of what her reaction might be. "That was - that was - wow." I mentally cringed. Don't say it. Please, sweet Artemis, don't let her say it. I'm a warrior. We don't have these sort of conversations. "I didn't realize that two women could - "
" - dance?" I helpfully supplied, forgetting in my haste to fill in the word, that that was just what I'd been trying to instruct her in right before we were interrupted. My eyes went wide as I realized what I'd just implied.
"Dance?" She caught my deer in the crossbow's sights look and giggled. "I've never heard sex described quite like that. But, I like it. Nice euphemism, Eponin." She grinned wickedly. "Those aren't the same moves you were planning on teaching me, are they?"
This time, I was certain she saw the furious blush heating my face. I didn't know this demure young woman could be so - I nearly swallowed my own tongue. As the sound of her teasing laughter filled my ears, I managed what I hoped was a witty response. "My princess, I would be honored to dance with you anytime."
To my delight, the intensity of her blush surpassed my own. "Thank you for the more than generous offer, Eponin." She acknowledged my offer with a regal tip of her head. "But, I think I'll . . . postpone the dance lessons for now."
"If you should change your mind, princess," my deepening timbre let her know it wasn't just a fleeting whim or a playful jest, "all you have to do is ask."
"Xena, Ephiny's going to dance with me." How did that happen? I thought I was to be her dance partner. I frowned in bewilderment, my gaze bouncing wildly back and forth between Queen, Regent and Warrior Princess. "YOU sober Pony up."
"Hades, Xena! Water's for bathing; Not drinking!"
I railed against pitcher after pitcher of water being poured down my gullet. When I refused to willingly drink the vile stuff on my own, Xena had launched herself across the table and attacked me, tossing me to the ground. I'd fought as best I could, but she had leverage on her side and was able to get me into position so she could force my head back and my mouth open. I had barely finished throwing up the first pitcher full before she was pouring the next down my throat.
She finally let me loose when the retching became violent enough to send me doubling over, clutching my stomach in agony. My throat and nose burned as water and wine came back up in wave after wave. When the torture finally stopped, I weakly crawled back to the table, pulling myself up onto one of the benches. Resting my face flat against the tabletop, I glared at a grinning warrior princess.
Finally, she took pity on me and passed me another mug of wine. Insides still in turmoil, I gingerly sipped at the liquid, bringing just enough of it into my mouth to rinse the vile aftertaste of regurgitating away.
"Pony, who do you fancy in the village?"
"What?" Her question was so out of the blue, that I ended up spewing the contents of my mouth in her face. Serves her right for torturing me.
Wiping the wine off with the back of her hand, she repeated, "Who do you like? I don't recall seeing you with any of the local girls - "
“Artemis’ bow, Xena! I’m not some Hestian virgin, if that’s what you’re getting at!” Just what was in that wine? "But, I don't brag about every time I get some like you and Sol do.”
“Now, don’t get upset, Pony. It’s just that I realized I don’t know your type. I mean, you like blondes or brunettes? Is there someone in particular you got your eye on?” I couldn't believe she was asking this stuff. Warriors don't talk about this! Maybe if I just ignore her, she'll drop it. “Come on, Ep . . . who gets your leathers in a wad? Which sweet piece of Amazon do you dream about tasting?”
Ephiny. My head shot up, my eyes searching hers, trying to see if she'd discovered the truth. I'd been so very careful about keeping my desires hidden. “Xena, what in Tartarus - ?"
Her gaze narrowed, like she suspected I was keeping some dark secret from her. "You know, Ep, I think maybe I was wrong about you all along." She rubbed her chin as she stared at me, a cold look of appraisal in her ice blue eyes. "The more I think about it, the more I realize that I've never even seen you so much as look at another Amazon. You didn't even look twice at that little serving wench that's been fawning over you all night."
She was really starting to get under my skin. "What's your point, Xena?"
"I'm just figuring, maybe you're not a normal Amazon, is all." What in Tartarus does that mean?!? "You know, you could have just said you preferred men." I was so stunned, you could have knocked me over with a feather. "You're my friend, I wouldn't judge. We could have ridden out after the opening ceremony, found a little farmhouse out in the country somewhere. Those stableboys are always looking for a good tumble. Most of them are hung like horses, too. We could double-up . . . "
"Xena! I'm not . . . I don't . . . I . . . " How could she even think - and to say it out loud - and who might have overheard - My eyes frantically darted about. The last thing I needed was someone overhearing this conversation. Gossip in an Amazon village spreads faster than wildfire. I leaned in close, desperately trying to keep my voice low, ". . . I don't like . . . THAT."
"Sure," she nodded, winking as if this were some cover story to be kept just between the two of us.
She was being stupid. Folding my arms over my chest, I tried to strike my most intimidating pose. "I like women. You know that."
"Yeah, sure, Pony."
"Xena." Why won't she drop this?. "Stop it."
"Maybe if you tell me who you like."
"Come on. Tell me, Pony. Or, I'll guess. It's that healer's assistant with the big - "
"That cute brunette you were speaking with when I met up with you yesterday morning?"
I tried to remember who she was referring to. Our village is overrun with brunettes. You can't throw a dinar in the air without hitting one in the head. Let's see, she was meeting me to go fishing . . . "Xena! That was a priestess from the Temple of Artemis!"
She shrugged, not even bothering to think twice about what it would mean to defile one of Artemis' priestesses before she made an even more ludicrous suggestion. "You and Solari have been spending a lot of time together."
"XENA!!!" I pinched the bridge of my nose, trying to ward off the blinding headache that was rapidly appearing behind my eyes. "It's Eph, okay?" I checked her reaction as I confessed it to her. "I like Ephiny."
I'd thought once I'd finally admitted it, she'd drop the entire conversation. Really. I mean, this wasn't one of our normal conversations. Usually, we'd be content to talk about battles and weapons and fishing and stuff. Not - this. And, never feelings. Instead, she seemed more determined than ever to beat me over the head with this.
"Look, Ep. I need you to sober up. And, I need you to do it, now. Ephiny's in danger."
That got my attention. Finally, I was gonna get to bust some heads. I reached for my sword - and found Xena's hand over mine, preventing my draw.
"Not that kind of danger," she drawled. "She's in danger of either spending her life alone or ending up with the wrong person." What the - she just said Eph's life was in danger! "Look, Ephiny is a beautiful woman, right?"
I kept my grip on my sword, watching her warily. She was acting fruitier than anything and I was wondering if she wasn't about to snap.
"And, you're in love with her, right?"
"Xena! I don't know what's in that wine you've been drinking - "
"Ep, this is important." She tightened her grip on my hand, forcing me to look her in the eye. "You're in love with her, right?"
Maybe if I just admit it, she'll drop it once and for all. Unable to hide the truth any longer, I sighed deeply, finally admitting, "Yeah."
"Listen up, Ep. If you love Ephiny. If you truly love her and want to be with her, you're going to have to let her know. If you don't, someone else is going to come in here and snatch her away from you. You saw Solari with her earlier; do you want that to happen? You need to quit being a wimp and just tell her how you feel. Or, do you want Ephiny to be with someone else?"
Solari? My insides clenched in reaction. Solari was my friend. But, I knew she liked Eph, too. I'd often worried that someday Ephiny might return Solari's flirtatious looks. Unable to tell anyone else about this - even Xena - I fell back on the standard Amazon answer. "My only desire is for my regent's happiness."
She nearly exploded. "Eponin! That's a load of Centaur crap and you know it! I've seen the way you look at her. The way your eyes move over her body when you think she's not looking. The way you act like an adolescent fool around her. The way you would do anything for her." A short pause as she caught her breath before adding, "Except give her your heart."
"She knows she already has it."
"No, she doesn't. For some reason, she's just as blind in this as you are."
"Maybe it's you that's not seeing clearly, warrior princess."
She snatched my knife out of my grasp, waved it beneath my nose as she threatened me, "Don't leave it too late, Pony. Don't make the same mistake I did with Gabrielle."
"Look, warriors are supposed to be brave and strong and unflinching in battle, able to wade into carnage waist-deep without batting an eye, right?" I slowly nodded, not yet seeing where she was going with this. "Well, love's like that." Ewww! "Not the waist-deep carnage and gore. But, it is like a battle. You can plan all you want, you can strategize until you're positive nothing could prevent your complete and total victory. But, when you take the field the next day and find that a freak storm has washed out the bridge you were planning on using to move your troops across, there's nothing you can do about it. Got it?"
Two words - Xena's cracked. I just shook my head. Maybe I shouldn't have, cause she tried to explain further.
"You're hopelessly outnumbered and there's no chance of victory. But, you can't retreat and you can't surrender. So, you do what you have to and charge right in anyway and give it all you've got." Then, she had to boast, "That's what I did with Gabrielle."
"You charged her?" Yeah, right! Gabrielle would have knocked you flat on your leather-clad ass!
"Not literally." She rolled her eyes at me like I was being intentionally dense. "I strapped on my sword and waded into the thick of battle and threw down my gauntlet and dared Gabrielle to deny she loves me."
As Xena continued to brag on about her great love for Gabrielle and how she'd won her heart, I blocked her out. My gaze wandered past her, to the dance circle beyond the bonfires. Gabrielle and Ephiny were dancing together. Not the fast-paced dances that rocked the grounds earlier, but the slower, gentler dances that preceded lovers pairing off for the evening.
They looked good together. Gabrielle stood on tiptoe, brushing the locks from Ephiny's shoulder, whispering something in her ear. Intimate secrets, heated whispers, lovers' promises.
Painful memories took me back to the night I'd come in off of patrol duty. Velasca had already killed Melosa and laid claim to the mask. Only Gabrielle stood in her way. And, it was clear Velasca didn't think she was much of a threat. Especially with her champion dead.
She'd set her sights on Ephiny. I'd seen the looks, the barbed jabs, the deliberate attempts to keep her separated from those loyal to her. Solari and I in particular had been sent out on patrol after patrol in an effort to keep us from being near Ephiny.
I was worried about her. Something was niggling at the back of my brain that night, causing the short hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end. It was an uneasy feeling I'd carried with me throughout my entire shift. Bone-weary, on the way back to my hut for much-needed sleep, I decided to peek in at Eph's to make certain things were as they should be.
I slipped into her hut. Not wanting to disturb her rest, I stole into the main room, nearly tripping over the pallet set up in the center. She must have moved it in for Gabrielle, I realized. Stealthily, so as not to wake Gabby, I moved towards Ephiny's bedroom.
The rustling of sheets was enough to halt me in the doorway. I stood frozen in my tracks, staring as Gabrielle straddled Ephiny's outstretched body, her hips moving in a steady rhythm as they -
My heart bleeding from the wound, I blindly stumbled out of Ephiny's hut and towards my own. I'd scarcely made it a dozen steps before I was retching up my last meal.
That memory reminding me of the torture I'd so recently endured at the hands of the warrior princess drew me back to the present. She was still going on about how Gabrielle finally admitted she worshipped the ground Xena walked on and that she couldn't live without her. Wonder what Xena's reaction would be if she knew what had transpired between queen and regent after her death?
My eyes caught sight of Solari's rapid approach, interrupting the dance between Gabrielle and Ephiny. Still entangled in one another's arms, the couple moved out of the dance circle. Huddled together, the three of them looked like they were having a very private conversation.
I tried to rationalize my fears. Logically, I knew that Ephiny's tryst with Gabrielle had been short-lived. In reality, it had only happened because Gabrielle was hurting and in desperate need of comfort. It didn't have to be Ephiny. It could have been anybody.
Me. Solari. Any number of warriors would be there for Gabrielle if she'd turned to us. My gaze settled on Solari. There was no doubt she was attractive. And, a good warrior. Anyone would be lucky to have her for a mate.
But, I wasn't sure she was ready for that level of commitment.
In our youth, she had been an outrageous flirt. And, she knew how to have a good time. Such a good time that she earned a reputation. More than once, I tried to ask her about that. She merely brushed me off, saying she was doing what she wanted and for me not to worry about her. It was only later that I realized Sol was looking for the same thing I was - for someone to want me, for someone to love. In a lot of ways, Sol and I carried the same wounds.
My inadequacies and insecurities had been channeled into training. It took up all my time. Solari was a bit more balanced, juggling her warrior duties with her - well, with the women she pursued. I'd watched Sol. She enjoyed the chase. She pursued a woman, had her fun, then got out before she could get hurt. I could see how that might be enticing. The chance to get intimate with someone without complications. But, come the end of the day, the results were still the same; Solari was just as alone as I was.
“Now that I've had a chance to think about this more, Ep - " I glanced up from where I'd been idly carving random designs into the tabletop with my knife. “The more I think maybe you're not the right Amazon for the job. I mean, really . . . you and Ephiny?"
I heard the mocking tone, felt my hand tighten about the grip of my knife. The blade bit into the table, sending a chunk flying, narrowly missing Xena's head as it flew past.
"You're not really serious about this, right?"
I knew where this was going. I could tell by the look in her eyes, the taunting of her voice. She thought I wasn't good enough for Ephiny. She thought Eph could do better than me.
"She's the Regent of the Amazons, Eponin. You think she's really gonna be with a freak whose own mother didn't want her?"
Her eyes gleamed in triumph as she realized she'd struck home with that one. I felt a momentary surge of panic swell within me. How did she know? I thought that was buried in the past. Had someone told her?
“You lay in your pallet at night - alone - don't you, Pony? Just lay there thinking of all the things you'd do with her if you only had the guts.” How dare she? My jaw clenched in anger as I thought of Xena - Xena, Destroyer of Nations passing judgment on me! “What makes you think she'd ever be with you, ya over-muscled freak? What makes ya think you're good enough for her?” That was enough. I was up and off the bench, coming around the table at her. “Now Solari . . . That's an Amazon. Smart, good-looking, strong without the body shape of a Minotaur.” She delivered the taunt, then scrambled backwards off her bench in a cowardly retreat.
“Solari has many skills, too. You don't know the number of Amazons I've heard say she's great in bed. I wonder if Ephiny's tried her, yet?” My anger carried me on slow, steady steps. “Probably has, you know. I mean, Eph's easy on the eyes. Bound to be someone keeping her bedroll warm at night." Xena tried backing her way around the table. A misstep sent her back colliding with the edge of the table. “Is it true the last lover you took was Melosa? Course, her blindside was on her right. That's probably the only reason she let you get close enough; she couldn't see it was you.” My fists were clenching and unclenching at my sides. Melosa and I - A low growl snarled out of my mouth. She had nowhere left to run. And, she knew it. She was trying to goad me into making a mistake so she could slip away. “You hoping Ephiny will need a break from Solari after a while? I hear she can really wear a girl out with that tongue of hers. Maybe while Eph's resting up, you can sneak in and get a turn at her.” A smirk played over her lips as she delivered the next blow. “Zeus knows, it's the only way you'll ever get some - "
I put everything I had behind my swing. My fist connected solidly with her jaw, sending her sprawling across the table. I followed up, leaping onto the table, hands grabbing for the leather armor nearest her throat. I pulled her up so that she was looking at me. Snarling into her face, I dared her, "Give me one reason I shouldn't kill you now."
“You do - Solari gets Ephiny for sure.” She breathed, managing to wriggle out of my grasp enough to point across the ceremonial field. My gaze automatically followed her finger. “You see her down there with Eph? You think they're just friends? Look closely, Ep! Look at how close Solari's standing to your regent. Look at the way she looks at her! If you don't make a move now, you're going to lose her forever!" I was stunned. First Xena tells me I'm not good enough, now it sounded like she wanted me to go down there and fight Solari for Ephiny's hand. "You’re a warrior! More than that, you're the Weapons Master. That makes you THE warrior for the Amazon Nation. Don't let Solari or anyone else have what you want! Go take her!” I urged. "Now!"
Something snapped inside of me. With a wild battle cry, I pushed Xena away from me and leapt off the table. I hit the ground running, my legs quickly eating up the distance between the Queen's table and the bonfire. I scarcely had a chance to slide to a halt on the slippery grass before yanking Ephiny out of the embrace she shared with the queen and the chief scout. And, before I even had time to realize what I was doing, my hands were on either side of Ephiny's face and my lips were locked firmly on her mouth.
It was several heartbeats before she came to her senses and was able to extricate herself from the kiss. "Pony?!? What in Aphrodite's name do you think you're doing?"
"Declaring my intentions." I pulled myself up to my full height, trying my best to look imposing as I looked her solidly in the eye and admitted my attraction for her.
Fists balled on her hips, she asked, "Your intentions of what?"
"Of my love."
"Love?" She was staring at me like I'd just picked something up off the practice field and ate it. "For?"
"You." Clearly, this was going to call for drastic measures. I needed to get her attention. Decision made, I dropped to one knee, pulling my sword free from the sheath across my back, laying my weapon at her feet. "As a loyal Amazon, I swear my loyalty to Nation and Crown. As Weapons Master of the Amazons, I pledge my life to you, my Regent. And, as the woman who loves you more than life itself, I promise my heart to you."
She didn't respond, looking about in shock at the reactions of everyone else. I could feel their eyes on me. The Queen, Solari, Pelagia and the royal guard, the other dancers, even the drummers had stopped pounding on their instruments to witness my embarrassment. I could feel their eyes staring, boring into me, judging me. I kept my gaze focused on Ephiny, refusing to look elsewhere. If I just blocked everyone else out, I could do this. I repeated a mantra over and over in my mind that no one else mattered, no one else was watching. That silent, repetitive mantra was what kept me focused and allowed me to hold my ground.
"Ep - "
She was going to refuse me. I could see it in the stiffening of her body language, the narrowing of her eyes.
"I love you, Eph." I continued to kneel at her feet, refusing to break eye contact with her. "I'm asking you to be my bondmate. And, I'm not taking no for an answer."
I caught her off-guard, charging her so quickly, she had no time to react. I caught her at the back of her knees, my shoulder pushing into her taut stomach. I felt her upper body curl over my back. Using the muscles in my legs, I was able to find enough leverage to easily pick her up.
"Pooonnnnnnyyyyyyy!!!!" She shouted, fists punching at my lower back and sides, legs flailing wildly, feet kicking me in both thighs.
I half expected Pelagia and her guards to try to stop me. Or, even for Solari to chase after us. Surprisingly, I was allowed to carry the regent across the field and disappear into the privacy of the forest with her. I'm quite positive I had a certain queen with a soft, romantic spot to thank for that.
Her shouts and struggles and protests and cursing my ancestors continued well after the forest had swallowed us up and there was no one but me to hear her complaints. At last, when I'd had enough of her punching me in the kidneys, I stopped. Gingerly, I lowered her to the ground, using my touch to make certain she was steady on her feet before releasing her and moving away.
We stood still, staring at each other. When I had charged across that field, Xena's words ringing in my ears, and knelt before Ephiny, I had been acting on sheer adrenaline. And, picking her up and carrying her into the woods had been instinct. Now, standing there, staring at her in the moonlight, her jaw locked with rage and looking angrier than I've ever recalled her looking; I suddenly wasn't so sure. I wanted Ephiny. I always would. But, I was beginning to have my doubts about the way I'd gone about it.
Her mouth worked soundlessly as she struggled to find the words.
"Why?" She finally settled on.
Decidedly unsure of myself, I wavered before answering, "Because I love you."
Is that what she thought? Hands outstretched, I took a step forward, "I've loved you since forever . . . "
She held up a firm hand. It connected solidly with my chest, halting my forward advance. "Why did you decide to . . . declare your intentions now? All these seasons and you've never said a word. What made you suddenly charge across a crowded feast, profess your undying love and carry me off over your shoulder like some barbarian?!?"
"I - uh - " Unable to look at her, my gaze abruptly dropped. I stared at the forest floor, trying to find some words to explain myself to her. I could make them work in my mind, but I couldn't get them out past my lips in any coherent order.
"Pony - "
"I - " Frustrated, my fists clenched and unclenched, beating at my sides as I struggled with my emotions. "Xena was razzing me about being alone at every feast she's ever attended. She accused me of . . . " Here, my voice trailed off.
"Of?" She asked. When no answer was forthcoming, she insisted, "She accused you of what, Eponin?"
"Of . . . " I couldn't say it out loud. My voice lowering, I hissed out, "Of liking . . . " I checked to make sure no one else was about. I couldn't afford to have this spread around the village, " . . . men." This last part was said so low I was afraid she'd asked me to repeat myself.
"Men?" It was obvious from the shrill pitch that she'd heard me alright. "Men?!?" She repeated, her voice sounding too loud in the still forest. "Xena actually accused you . . . the biggest, baddest Amazon warrior in the entire Nation of liking men?" She actually snorted.
"Well, I'm glad you can find the humor in it."
She was doubled over with laughter, hands clutching at her middle as her sides and chest heaved uncontrollably. She staggered to a nearby tree, practically hugging it in an effort to stand upright. She took one look at me and immediately burst into hysterical guffaws again.
"Sorry. Sorry." She apologized, wiping tears from her eyes, struggling to bring her breathing back under control. "I'm sorry." I waited for her to lose it again. "Okay. After she accused you of - " I distinctly heard the giggle she tried to stifle " - of what she accused you of, which we both know is blatantly false, and you denied it, what happened next?"
"She kept harassing me, claiming it was true. And, she wouldn't leave me alone until I told her which Amazons in the village I found . . . enticing."
"Amazons?" Her eyebrows stole into her hairline, the laughter dying on her lips. "And your response was?"
Lowering my eyes, I admitted, "I finally just said you."
"So she would stop teasing you?" Was that a wounded note I heard in her voice?
"Because it was true."
I felt decidedly uncomfortable under her steady gaze and unrelenting interrogation. "She kept teasing me. Saying I'm a wimp for not coming straight out and telling you how I feel."
"And?" There was an edge to her voice that I wasn't feeling very good about, either.
"Well, she just kept going on. About how warriors aren't supposed to be afraid of anything. And we're supposed to be strong and brave and unflinching in battle. And, then she said how love is like a battle."
"And," It seemed that once my mouth finally started working, it didn't know when to shut up. Before I could cut my tongue out with my own knife to stop it's rattling on, I'd told her Xena's entire battle strategy. "You can't retreat and you can't give up. And, even when it looks like you're hopelessly outnumbered with no chance of victory, you have to sometimes just wade into the thick of things and lead the charge."
"And," I stammered on, hoping it would make more sense as I went, "She told me how she'd just taken the field and thrown down her gauntlet and challenged Gabrielle." Even as I said it, aided by the incredulous looks I was receiving from Ephiny, I realized just how asinine this was sounding. "And . . . it all made perfect sense . . . when she was saying it . . . " I rubbed at the growing knot of tension developing at the base of my neck.
"So, like some great conqueror," Her flashing eyes and the tone of her voice would have made a regiment of seasoned warriors piss their pants. "You decided to rush into battle and - What?!? - Take me like I was the spoils of war?"
"Well, when you say it like that," I helplessly shrugged, hoping she would show mercy, "I guess it does sound pretty stupid."
She didn't say anything. She didn't move. She just stared at me with this look on her face that I'd never seen before. I wondered if this was the stage just past that of the jaw clenched so tightly in anger she might actually break her teeth. Maybe this was the look she got just before she killed.
Realizing I'd gone too far, I decided to give her an out. Lowering my eyes, dropping my arms to my sides, I slowly backed away. "Look, Eph. I'm sorry . . . really, I am. I . . . ummm . . . I'll - " My voice cracked as I worked my courage up, forcing my tongue to say the things I needed to before it curled up in my mouth like some dead thing in an effort to not vocalize what I had to say. " - I understand if you don't want to spar with me anymore. Or you don't want to talk to me . . . or see me . . . " I was so focused on the forest floor and not meeting Eph's gaze, that I backed into a tree. Shaking it off, I quickly spun around, turning my back on my regent as I fled deeper into the woods.
I was running as fast as I could, willing my shaking legs to carry me as far from the sight of my disgrace as possible. I wanted to run faster than a hunted deer. I wanted to keep running and never stop. Until I came to the edge of a cliff and ran myself right off the edge.
Thing is, when you bulk up like I do, when you're nothing but muscle, you can't run as fast as some of the other Amazons. Let's face it; I'm built for endurance, not speed. And, before I knew it, Ephiny had caught me, her hand closing about my upper arm. I wanted to shake her off. I wanted to ignore her and keep running. I knew she couldn't hold me back. I knew she couldn't stop me.
At the feel of her touch on my heated flesh, my body betrayed me. My legs stopped working. Everything froze. Except my mind. It raced as quickly as my heart, trying to sort things out. I had to get away - she didn't want me - I couldn't stay in the village, seeing her day in and day out, knowing she would never want me as I wanted her -
Slowly, hesitatingly, I turned around, still unable to meet her gaze. It was as if I didn't look in her eyes and see the disgust and rejection there, the knife buried in my heart wouldn't be nearly so painful. Fingers reached out, torturously tracing my jawline with a tender touch. They worked their way beneath my chin, stroking and lifting, forcing me to look at her in my shame.
I fought back the tears. Warriors don't cry. She studied me for long heartbeats, watching as I tried to erect my stoic mask into place to hide my emotions. And, failing miserably. Trembling fingers edged higher, catching a traitorous tear on a lone fingertip and examining it.
"Pony, what you said at the feast, did you mean it?"
"Oh, Eph." I swallowed hard, daring to hope that she didn't hate me. Imagining that she could actually care for me. I'd already risked everything by my earlier actions. Further admission wouldn't bring any more shame to my door. "Every word."
I was stunned when she pressed her lips to mine. I whimpered beneath her assault, her tongue pressing the attack as it scouted the interior of my mouth. Her arms were about my neck, fingers stroking through my hair as she held her body pressed tightly against mine. Still unsure of myself, I kept my hands tightly gripped on her hips.
She paused, looking at me with a smoldering fire in the depths of her hazel eyes. Without warning, she backed me into the nearest tree. Her mouth savagely took mine, her hands mauling my breasts through my top. The rough bark of the tree repeatedly scratched against my back and butt as she aggressively rocked into me.
When we were both too weak to stand, we retired to a bed of leaves littered about the forest floor. She took me repeatedly. And, for the first time, I surrendered myself to a lover's touch. I put all my trust in her - and she paid me back in kind. Sated, lazily lapping at one of her perfect nipples, I heard soft laughter escaping her lips.
"What?" I asked, pausing just long enough to raise my head to peer up at her through hooded eyes. I was almost certain where her mind had gone to.
"Well, I was just thinking how pleased I am that we proved you don't prefer to bed men." A growl and a sharp bite at her nipple was my only response. I was pleasantly surprised when the rough nip caused her nipple to stiffen even more. I filed that information away for use at a later date. Her fingers in my hair effectively diffused my mock sternness. "So, I guess in a way, we have Xena to thank for this."
I stopped chewing on my new favorite toy. Her thick nipple fell from my mouth with an audible pop. "Yeah, I guess so," I begrudgingly acknowledged.
In truth, I wasn't ready to give the warrior princess any words of thanks in this matter. She'd played me. Goading me on, knowing just the right things to say to send me into enough of a frenzy to charge across that field without thinking and take Ephiny - I felt my eyes narrow as I wondered exactly what Xena stood to gain out of our coupling.
"Although, I think we still owe her one for how she went about it." Even as her body reacted beneath mine, she briskly scrubbed both hands over her face, as if trying to erase a memory. I stiffened, remembering exactly how I'd taken Ephiny out of the village. By morning, word of what I'd done would be on the lips of every Amazon. We'd be mercilessly teased for moons - if not seasons.
Yep, the warrior princess needed to pay. Big. "You got something in mind?"
A wicked streak I didn't know Ephiny possessed emerged as she related her plan of retrieving buckets of icy water and carrying them back to the Queen's hut. Given the amount of wine Xena had consumed - and she didn't have a helpful friend to help her regurgitate hers out of her system - it shouldn't be any trouble to sneak up on her.
She was so deliciously wicked, I couldn't resist tasting her one more time. Ephiny delighted in my touch, cooing my name as she rode the crest of her pleasure. When we were done, in amidst kisses and caresses and promises of more, we dressed. Tugging on her halter, my love led the way back to the village.
It was quiet as I made my way onto the roof of the hut. In the candlemarks since we'd been gone, the feast had concluded and everyone had settled down for the night. Including one warrior princess. As I moved into position, I heard lazy voices drifting through the thatching of the hut's roof.
"Just remember,” my Queen's voice softly spoke, “It has to last for at least three days. A drunken tryst will not a wager win.”
“Don’t worry,” drifted up the warrior's lazy drawl, “They’re going to be great together.”
My eyes narrowed in realization, my grip on the bucket handle tightened. A bet!
I signaled Ephiny. With a thumbs up signal and a cocky grin, she launched our attack. Stepping up to the window nearest where we knew the Queen's bed to be located, she hurled the contents of the bucket. There was a satisfying sound of wet colliding with naked flesh and the sharp scream of a soaked warrior princess.
Ephiny retreated off their porch, laughter racking her body. I briefly wondered if she'd managed to see what had happened. I had to remember to get her to describe it to me . . . in great detail . . . later. A mountain cat's growl eerily echoed in the night and I looked over the edge of the roof to see a very naked, very wet warrior princess stalking out her front door. Behind her, a wet sheet fruitlessly wrapped about her curvaceous body, was my queen.
“Amazon, you’re gonna pay for this – “ Xena threatened.
“Only if you can catch me,” My regent taunted, jogging backwards, her steps carrying her away from their hut.
She stopped in the center of the courtyard, standing her ground, continuing to taunt Xena. I frowned, worried that she was overplaying her hand. We wanted to rile Xena up enough to follow Ephiny, but we didn't want to raise her suspicions. Xena was smart. And, she could smell a trap a country mile away.
Her legendary skills failed her this night, though. Ephiny continued to goad her until she lost her famed cool and stepped out into the open. When she finally stepped into range, I upended my bucket, pouring a surge of ice cold water over her head.
She stopped dead in her tracks, her entire body convulsively hunching at the water temperature. Warned her water was for bathing. Sputtering, slowly dragging a hand across her face, her steely-eyed gaze drifted up to the roof. And me.
“My Queen. Xena.”
Deciding discretion was the better - and smarter - part of valor I wisely kept my comments at bay. But, although I tried my best, I couldn't hold back my laughter.
“Ep – “
“Now, now, Xena.” Confident Xena wouldn't climb a thatched roof completely bare, I wagged a lone finger at her, “All’s fair in love and war, right?”
She stood there, mouth hanging open, staring at me. I caught the look in her eye, decided she just might be ticked enough to brave climbing the thatching without clothing. As I said, discretion is the better part of valor. Hand in hand with that is knowing when to stay and fight and when to make a hasty retreat. Stepping to the edge of the roof, I jumped, trusting I would land in the tree located just off the side of their hut.
I leapt from tree to tree, keeping things moving at a rapid pace in case Xena decided she wanted to try to get a piece of me. Coming to the tree in the center of the village, I casually lowered myself limb from limb until I was standing beside Ephiny. Grinning, I grabbed my lover by the hand, tugging her back into the safety of the forest. Xena was good, but we were Amazons. The forest was our home. If we decided to disappear, I was confident that even Xena wouldn't be able to track us.
Ephiny just couldn't resist one final taunt. And, I joined in, tossing back over my shoulder, “Love may be a battlefield, Xena! And, you may be a military genius! But, you forgot to watch for sneak attacks!”
“EPONIN! You traitor!” Her furious bellow shook the leaves in the tallest trees in the forest. “I’ll get you for this!” As we ran, I wondered why it was Xena was so quick to lay all the blame on me when it was clear I had an accomplice. Then, Ephiny flashed a grin at me and I forgot all about worrying when Xena was going to take her revenge. For once, I was living in the moment. I had the woman I wanted. The woman I loved and who loved me in return. And, I was going to enjoy myself.
I'd worry about the warrior princess tomorrow.
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