"She is the soldier's entertainment since she's been captured. Each week she's made to fight in the ring." Nodding her head toward the flattened open area in front of the slave pens with her dark head, Kunjana continued.
"First two times it was one man, one of their best warriors. She killed each of them. Then next time it was two men. She still won. Last time it was three and they nearly killed her, but she was faster and tricked one into killing his mate and she killed the remaining ones with their own weapons. The general was as enraged as I've ever seen him. I thought he'd kill her himself, but he didn't. Instead, he promised her death next time. She'll face six. Last week was a costly fight, as you can see she's still not recovered from the battle. Look at her wounds."
Kunjana's appraisal was accurate. Tynet had a long gash stitched up her left arm from shoulder to elbow and many fresh cuts and bruises from the ordeal. An angry red scar ran from under her left arm to her waist. Xena nodded her head recognizing an even more subtle enemy, poor nutrition.
Xena looked between the two of them. Week after week of little food would mean diminishing strength. That would ultimately lead to the undeniable conclusion of death in the ring even without adding more adversaries to the mix. Without doubt, Tynet was under a death sentence.
"When is the next fight?" she asked.
Dispassionately, Tynet answered. "In two nights, I die."
Xena reached in through the bars clasping the big woman's shoulder, holding on, forcing her to look into Xena's eyes. "Nothing is for sure, my friend. I know a very determined woman who would move heaven and earth to have you back."
Her voice thick with emotion and the pain of loss, Tynet answered. "And I would give anything to have her."
"Then hold onto that hope, because I'm not giving up."
Defeat etched onto her face, Tynet said nothing.
Turning to Kunjana, Xena began to explain the situation quickly as the light in the east brightened. The new day was upon them; they needed to be gone.
"We need to get back to the others soon. If we get you weapons, can you hide them from the soldiers until the fight tomorrow evening?"
A slow sly smile spread across Kunjana's lips. "Oh yes, you get us weapons, we can hide them."
"All right then. We'll return tonight after the camp is bedded down. You'll have your weapons. And we'll bring food."
"And you my friend," she said to Tynet, "have courage. We'll find a way to even the odds a bit."
Signaling Pony to join her, Xena sprinted to Solari's hiding place.
When all three were together, Xena indicated they should move quickly to the top of the cliffs. Under the crevice, they stopped and peered down into the camp one last time. The soldiers were beginning to stir. The light made it easy to make out details. They could see the four women huddled together in muffled conversation in the center of the pen.
"Let's go." Xena said. Making a foothold out of her hands, she knelt under the opening looking at the two Amazons expectantly.
Solari went first followed by a somber Pony each using the step Xena had created. Being the tallest, Xena easily navigated the short jump to grab onto craggy stone and pulled herself up to the plateau.
At the top before moving another step, Solari wanted to know what had happened.
With the dawn breaking, Xena answered in an urgent, hushed voice. "Tynet is alive. We're out of time; the sun is coming up. I'll fill in everyone at camp."
Solari gasped at the news and glanced with compassion at Pony who was already jogging across the open plain to their hideout in the rocks.
Gabrielle was roused from her bedroll and the six women crowded around Xena. She related the events of the night's reconnaissance. Stunned silence greeted the warrior princess when she divulged the news of Tynet's survival. Xena's obvious admiration of the woman could not be masked as she related what Tynet had endured. All eyes surreptitiously bestowed compassionate looks on Pony.
The woman under scrutiny was quiet, but Xena drew her into the conversation by asking her a question. "Pony, you have anything to add?"
Her mind in such deep turmoil, Pony failed to hear the question. Even though she knew in her heart Adara would never have belonged to her, she couldn't help feeling that she'd somehow been denied even a chance to prove her worth. Basically a good and generous person, she was happy for Adara knowing the joy she'd see on the eastern woman's face when she learned the truth. Yet, she also knew she'd never be able to watch the reunion of the two whose love seemed to be blessed by the goddess herself.
Pulled from the depths of despair, Pony heard her name called a second time. "Pony?"
"Ummm, what? I mean, can you repeat that?"
"I said; do you have anything to add?"
"Only that I ducked inside the supply tent. There're lots of weapons, cross bows, swords, boot knives. Also, I saw regular stores like dried food and extra blankets, that sort of thing."
"Good. We'll help ourselves to a few supplies tonight and then burn that tent to the ground once the battle starts. I want as much chaos as possible during the fight."
Speaking to the group as a whole, but focusing her eyes on Ephiny, Xena laid out the plan for that day.
"Okay, tomorrow… I mean today, you'll need to get some things done, while Gabrielle and I try to find this goddess, Anahita."
Without pausing for breath, she issued the instructions. "Eph, you and the others need to really scout out that camp. I want details, I want numbers and I want locations; see about cover for an ambush near the slave pens. I want absolute times for sentries, number of horses versus numbers on foot. See if there's a way, we can release the horses. Let's put all the bastards on foot. Then I need as many of the Greek fire-tipped arrows as you can make. Also, let's make our own firebombs. We'll fight fire with fire."
Finally finished, she asked, "Any questions?"
Overwhelmed by the warrior princess's energy and personality, the four amazons left to do the work, shook their heads no. With humor in her voice Ephiny sarcastically asked, "Is that all?"
Recognizing the joke for what it was, a release of tension they all felt, Xena replied in kind, "Yeah, see if you can find us a hot springs. I'm gonna want a good soak when this is over."
"Your wish is my command, Warrior Princess." Ephiny rejoined and Xena smirked before issuing her final order.
"All right, the rest of you post a sentry and get some sleep before full dawn. Gabrielle and I need to get going."
Pony said, "I'll take first watch. I'm not that tired anyway." Without waiting for a reply, she turned and walked unsteadily on wooden legs toward the boulders seeking solace and comfort from the lonely desert sky. Her world had tilted off center and she desired to feel nothing at all. Had they been at home, she'd have retreated with a flask of strong port seeking oblivion. Here with the enemy so close, she'd settle for being alone with only hopeless despair as her companion.
Knowing that the weapons mistress carried a heavy burden, Xena nodded but remained silent. She had no answers for the heartsick woman.
Pony moved silently up onto the rocks on which she'd sat the night before waiting for Adara and Xena to return. Now, with a huge sigh, she settled down to watch the horizon and think her lonely thoughts.
Down below her, Xena and Gabrielle walked side by side to their horses speaking in low tones.
"Xena, I feel so badly for her. I wish there was something we could do to help."
"I know, Gabrielle, but there isn't. Even though Tynet is alive, the fact is she might still be dead by the time Adara gets back. For that matter, we could all be dead. Six women against hundreds of huge soldiers equipped with supernatural powers are not the best odds. The only plan I have is to surprise the hell out of 'em and hope that this goddess has a trick or two up her sleeve. I'd love to wait until Adara gets back with more fighters, but we can't. There is no way a malnourished unarmed woman can defeat six men. This is our best chance to surprise them."
When Gabrielle didn't reply, but looked saddened instead, Xena pulled the queen against her, wrapping her arms around the smaller woman.
"Ah Gabrielle, try not to think about it. Everything will work out," she said hoping to convince herself as much as the small blonde in her arms. She could all too easily allow herself to imagine the pain of losing this precious woman, but she could not dwell on that. If she lost her focus, they'd stand no chance at all.
Watching until the queen and her consort were out of sight, Ephiny rose from her bedroll. Careful not to wake the others, she moved silently to where Pony kept watch.
Announcing herself with the Amazon birdcall, she signaled a friend coming in. Pony chirped the answer back to let Eph know that she'd heard.
Casually, so the woman wouldn't think she was the object of concern, Ephiny attempted inane conversation hoping to draw Pony out.
"Moon's almost full."
"Yeah." Pony responded listlessly without taking her eyes from the empty sandy plain,
"Hard to believe it's only been a month since mid-summer, so much has happened."
Well, the subtle approach isn't getting us very far and subtle isn't
my style anyway.
"Pony, if you want to talk."
The weapons mistress looked at her as if she had three heads, but didn't reply.
"You know, just want to get things off your chest. Some people say I'm a good listener."
Dammit, I can't take this. Why doesn't everyone leave me alone? Adara loves Tynet. And who wouldn't love her? The woman is more giving than a goddess and more courageous than Hercules. I stood little chance before, but now… She looked at the regent's compassionate face and her anger flared.
"Gods be damned! I don't want to talk. Just leave me the Hades alone."
Ephiny drew back as if she'd been slapped. Hurt written on her face at the complete rejection of her offer of friendship, she turned away.
Seeing her friend's reaction, Pony felt ashamed at her words. Ephiny has never been anything but kind. What the Hades is wrong with me, turning on my friends?
Softly she called out to the retreating back of the regent, "Eph?"
The regent stopped, but didn't reply or turn. She waited.
"Eph, I didn't mean that. I'm sorry."
Turning back toward the bereft woman, Ephiny sighed. Walking close to her longtime friend, she laid her hand on Pony's shoulder squeezing it, trying with actions to say what words hadn't been able to.
"I'm sorry Eph," Pony repeated, "it's just that… that… talking won't help. And you wouldn't understand anyway."
Ephiny moved to sit next to Pony, putting her arm around the woman hugging her, even as Pony remained immobile.
"That's where you're wrong, Pony. I know exactly what you're going through."
The weapons mistress searched her friend's face expecting to see pity, but saw only compassion and pain mirrored there. Who could ever reject you Ephiny, you're beautiful and smart and strong. Any Amazon would kill to share your sleeping furs. Slowly, enlightenment dawned on the weapons mistress and she glanced back towards camp where Xena and Gabrielle were saddling their horses.
"The queen," She said. It wasn't a question.
A sad smile gracing the regent's face, she nodded, "Yes, the queen."
As surprise registered, Pony said, "Ahhh, Eph. I'm sorry. Her heart belongs to Xena just like Adara's belongs to Tynet."
Pony now returned Ephiny's embrace, each taking comfort from knowing they were with someone who did understand.
"How do you stand it?" Pony wondered aloud.
The regent pulled back attempting a half-hearted smile. Gathering her thoughts, Ephiny drew up her knees and wrapped her arms around her legs.
"At first, I didn't. I just kept believing and hoping that she'd come to love me for what I could give her, someone she could talk to easily, especially as we all know Xena isn't the greatest communicator in the world." Ephiny shook her head at her understatement before continuing. "Anyway, I've come to realize Xena gives her what I never could."
"Xena completes her," Ephiny stated simply, "and Gabrielle makes Xena whole."
"At Solstice I saw you dancing with Gabrielle. I know she cares for you."
"Oh, she does, but as friend. I was stupid that night."
"You mean because Xena was going to kill you?" Pony asked in a teasing way.
Ephiny chuckled. "Well, that too, but I meant because I was coming on to Gabrielle even though I knew she was only having fun. So I was kind of taking advantage and that's what Xena saw."
"I'm not sure how much Xena saw, Eph. She and I were pounding down port. She was pretty far gone."
Ephiny snorted. "Xena will never be so drunk that she doesn't know exactly what's going on with Gabrielle. That's why she was so mad. She saw right through me."
"So how do you deal with seeing them together every day?" Pony re-asked her original question.
"I love her enough."
"Love her enough?"
"To back off and give her what she wants," Ephiny added.
Pony pondered this. Can I love Adara enough? Do I?
Ephiny broke into Pony's self examination. "And it doesn't mean that you'll never find anyone. Love is a funny thing. You might be surprised one day to find someone special where you least expect it."
Pony nodded. "Maybe."
They sat without talking for a while watching the empty desert before Ephiny broke the silence.
"Well, we're a pair to draw to, aren't we?"
Pony chuckled at the irony of it. All her life she could have had any woman she wanted, but the one she did want wanted someone else.
"There's no way, anyone could ever compete with Xena; she's superhuman. And Tynet; it was bad enough when I thought she was a ghost, but the woman is incredible, the Xena of the east."
Nodding her head in agreement, Ephiny said, "Yes, but it's even more than that. They are soul-mates blessed by the gods. They were born for each other. I believe that. Xena could have been an innkeeper and Gabrielle would have loved her as much. And the same seems true of Adara and Tynet."
Unable to argue with the observation, Pony only nodded in reply. Her mind repeatedly asked the question, do I love her enough?
Sitting in quiet contemplation, they watched the eastern sky turn from red to yellow to full daylight before either spoke again.
When they did talk, it was not of unrequited love. They spoke of home and memories shared in the way of longtime friends.
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