Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, the Amazons and anyone else who might wander into this tall tale along with their back-stories are owned by Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No infringement is intended and no profit is being made.
Note: Thanks to Step and the Academy for inviting me to play in their Halloween sandbox. Thanks also to K.S. Harrington for the title that inspired this fic (it’s all her fault!)
LEGEND OF THE HEADLESS CENTAUR
"Would you tone it down?" was hissed from between clenched teeth.
If anything, the glower intensified. "It's a waste of perfectly good Amazon wine."
"Are you trying to start an international incident?"
"Look at them, Xena." Eponin pointed to a particularly large, boisterous group. "They're swilling it." Her lip curled in disdain as she added, "They're so wasted they could be drinking Centaur piss and not know the difference."
Within the indicated group, a head abruptly rose up, a set of shiny, inebriated eyes focusing on them. Xena grabbed Eponin's wrist, forcing the weapons master's arm back down by her side. Xena returned the stare; the warrior princess forcing what she hoped could be construed as a disarming smile upon her lips.
"Oh, I'm pretty sure they'd know." Xena's gaze panned the center of the village, quickly sizing up the thirty-odd Centaurs surrounding them.
The bonfire burned brightly, pushing back the encroaching shadows and warming the chilled night air. Heated branches split and popped, sending embers and the heady scent of pine wafting on the breeze. Within the perimeter of worn stones, dancing flames had the power to hypnotize.
"Hey, you okay?" When no answer was immediately forthcoming, Gabrielle nudged the Amazon sitting beside her, "Eph?"
"Hmm?" Hazel eyes blinked. Ephiny turned her head, focusing on her friend and queen. She gave a tiny smile and offered an, "I'm fine," before turning away again.
"Uh-huh." Gabrielle knew better. Despite her regent's words. She could hear it in her listless tone, see it in her weary eyes. No matter how brave an Amazon she was, this trip had to be a difficult one for Ephiny.
Not that it's been a real joy for any of us.
Bright green eyes searched for and found the warrior princess. Xena and Eponin were shoulder to shoulder, drinking mugs clutched firmly in their grasps. Xena's cloak was settled about her shoulders, the hood pushed back. Pony wasn't wearing hers; and the woman looked decidedly chilled with her shoulders hunched and her arms folded over her chest. A sidelong glance confirmed that the weapons master's cloak was securely clasped about her regent's shoulders.
Gabrielle's brow creased as she studied Xena's body language. There was a subtle stiffening of posture, a tightening at the edges of her mouth, a slight twitch of the index finger on her sword hand. All inconsequential, easily undetectable to the untrained eye. But, not to Gabrielle. After all these seasons of traveling with the deadliest warrior in the known world, the bard was well versed in all-things Xena.
A knot beginning to form in her stomach, Gabrielle quickly checked their surroundings. Then, she spotted them. Two Centaurs had broken away from their group and were cantering towards Xena and Pony.
They were big, even by Centaur standards. Broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, washboard stomachs, with the biggest hooves Gabrielle had ever seen. And, judging by their unsteady gait, she guessed positively blitzed.
Her suspicions were confirmed when one of them reached out and brushed Eponin's hair back from her shoulder before planting one beefy hand there. When the other Centaur made a similar move towards Xena, the warrior took a deliberate step backwards. Both Centaurs laughed. Judging from their stony expressions, Xena and Eponin didn't share in their humor.
Gabrielle saw the rigid set of Eponin's jaw, the clenching of her fist. The darker-haired Centaur said something, making Xena's head whip towards where his companion with the blonde mane still maintained a firm handclasp on Pony's shoulder.
Xena's hand went to her hip. And connected with the empty hitch where her chakram normally hung from. Laughing, the Centaur advanced another step towards Xena. Gabrielle's breath caught in her throat.
Even now, long seasons after Xena and Tyldus had made peace, it seemed that many were not yet ready to forget the past. It had been made abundantly clear that the warrior princess' presence as the Amazon Queen's champion had been only grudgingly tolerated because it had been Tyldus' command.
And, as Gabrielle had been reminded of many times over the past few days, Tyldus no longer ruled the Centaurs.
Two Days Ago —
The staff caught her squarely in the face. Eponin cringed at the sound of crunching cartilage. Her staff hit the ground and she immediately went to her knees.
"Jusss mfff pride."
Xena’s answer was muffled by her hands covering her nose and mouth. Her fingers wiggled her nose this way and that as she tried to ascertain the extent of the damage. Nothing seemed to be broken or crushed beyond repair. It looked like the weapons master had gotten in a good, clean hit.
"Damn," Xena muttered, looking at the copious amounts of blood she had smeared onto her hands in an effort to stop her nosebleed. "Should’ve gone hunting with Solari."
"Soli’s not hunting." Eponin wiped the grass stains from her knees as she rose to her feet. "She went out scouting a good three candlemarks before you rolled your lazy tailfeathers out of bed."
"Trouble?" Xena asked, one lone eyebrow arching.
"Night patrol on the western perimeter didn’t come in this morning." Eponin gave a shrug. "Lexine and Dioxippe are lovers. Wouldn’t be the first time they forgot to check in."
"Three candlemarks, huh? Bet I could still catch up with her." There was a cocky grin as Xena added her trademark, "I have many skills."
Eponin fought down the urge to make a sarcastic comment in return. She’d already overheard the royal guard snickering about the many skills Xena had displayed in the Queen’s bedchambers last evening. No doubt that had contributed to Xena’s oversleeping this morning; leaving the weapons master waiting for her on the practice fields since dawn.
Eponin bent to retrieve two staffs off the ground. As she did, her gaze drifted to the ceremonial field where the head priestess and the regent flanked their Queen. As a prelude to the opening of the Harvest Festival, Gabrielle was conferring the Queen’s Blessing on the newest infant in the tribe. Ep briefly caught sight of the doting parents, standing with their hands clasped tight.
Lexi and Dioxippe. Xena and Gabrielle. Wonder if Aphrodite -
Eponin shook off the thought. She tossed one staff at the warrior princess. Xena extended her hand, just barely catching it. The near miss didn’t escape the weapons master’s notice. She snorted. "Huh. Maybe you should go after Soli; your mind sure ain’t on sparring."
Xena tried walking off the strike that Eponin had gotten in. She paced a few steps, used the edge of the staff to knock the dirt from the soles of her boots. She shook her head side to side, rolling her shoulders, swinging the staff around her body. She took up her position, planting her feet firmly apart, holding her weapon at the ready. Eponin took up a similar position. Since she’d gotten the last strike in, she waited for Xena to signal she was ready to spar by tapping her staff lightly on top of the one she was holding.
She just barely had time to register the tap before Xena reversed her grip on her staff and performed a leg sweep that had Eponin off her feet and flat on her backside before she could bat an eye.
"Now whose mind isn’t on sparring, weapons master?" Xena taunted Eponin, swinging her staff, circling her downed foe like a lioness stalks her prey.
Eponin was instantly up on her feet and dusting her leathers off. She gave a perfunctory spit, then took up her position. Xena readied her staff, waiting for Eponin’s tap.
And, she waited. And, waited. And, waited. Just as she turned to see what had distracted the Amazon now, she felt Eponin’s staff come slamming down on her fingers.
Ephiny smiled at the priestess, pretending she hadn’t heard the din occurring less than fifty yards from the ceremonial field. The cursing was vulgar enough to make a randy Satyr blush. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, willing herself to remain calm. She repeated the mantra over and over again in her head. I will not look. I will not look. I will not look. Slowly blinking her eyes open, she focused all her attention on the ceremony at hand.
For about three heartbeats before turning and glaring at the practice fields.
Warriors. Eph thought as she recognized the cause of the commotion. Worse than warriors. Xena and Pony. Xena was holding one hand clutched over the other and cursing at Ep. From the look on Eponin’s face and her body language, she was obviously apologizing to Xena. Then, the warrior princess flexed her hand, stood up straight and crooked her finger for Ep to come closer. Whenever those two get together, they’re like a couple of kids. Pony’s hands were held up defensively in front of her and she was backing away from an advancing Xena. At least Solari’s not with them; that would be asking for trouble. Eponin’s strategic retreat was brought to an abrupt halt as her back solidly connected with a tree. Xena’s grinned widened as she took another step forward, effectively pinning Pony in place.
The priestess’ voice called Ephiny back to the ceremony at hand. Ephiny stepped forward, offering the totem stick twined with feathers to the parents. Then, she leaned forward, placing a kiss on the infant’s left cheek. Smiling, she returned to her position. Gabrielle stepped forward, reciting the Queen’s Blessing. Then, she placed a kiss on the infant’s right cheek. There were unshed tears of joy shimmering in Gabrielle’s eyes as she stepped back, rejoining Ephiny.
Ephiny avoided looking at Gabrielle; hoping against hope that if she didn’t make eye contact, Gabrielle couldn’t make her acknowledge that the background noise wasn’t part of the priestess’ chant. The racket grew in volume, forcing the priestess to raise her voice. The din increased. Her queen elbowed her in the ribs. A heated breath blew Ephiny’s unruly curls off her forehead. With a long-suffering sigh, she turned to see what Xena and Pony had gotten up to now.
"Unhand me, Amazon."
Hearing the Centaur’s command, seeing him surrounded and held at swordpoint, brought back a rush of memories. For Ephiny as well as many of her on-looking sisters. The tableau was eerily reminiscent of a time in the distant past when an Amazon princess had been killed by a strike of Centaur arrows and Ephiny had captured who many had thought was her murderer.
"Solari?" Gabrielle asked.
"My Queen." The brunette Amazon bowed her head reverently, giving a one-handed salute Gabrielle presumed was more for the Centaur’s benefit than hers. Solari turned and scowled at her prisoner before jerking him forward by yanking on a rope secured about his neck. "He was trespassing on Amazon soil."
Gabrielle was acutely aware of just how many sets of eyes were on her. Solari had attracted a lot of attention by dragging a bound Centaur into the center of the village. While most Amazons bore no ill will towards the Centaurs, there were still a few that had long memories and weren’t yet ready to embrace their neighbors across the river. Unfortunately, those with the longest memories also seemed to have the loudest voices. If she weren’t careful, some might use this opportunity to have those voices heard.
The Queen of the Amazons caught sight of Xena standing on the perimeter of the crowd. Gabrielle took comfort in the silent presence. And, she knew that if she needed her, Xena would step in.
"The Amazons and the Centaurs are at peace." Gabrielle’s words were carefully chosen to remind both Solari and everyone else present of that fact.
"My Queen, Lexine and Dioxippe are missing. I tracked them to the river." Solari gave another rough tug on the rope. The Centaur resisted by giving a defiant toss of his head and a stomp of his hoof, "Where I caught him."
"I already told you, harlot," The Centaur’s nostrils flared as he glared down at Solari, "I saw Amazon tracks; on our side of the river. But, there was no one there when I crossed the bridge."
A murmur of discontent went up from the crowd at the Centaur’s use of the derogatory term. Gabrielle was acutely aware of the bristling of her regent. Ephiny's temper was legendary. In seasons past, Gabrielle knew, the woman standing at her elbow would have had her dagger drawn and at the Centaur’s throat in a heartbeat for the insult. But, it seemed that with time and the braided leather crown of royalty about her head, had come wisdom and diplomacy.
Still, best to gloss over his ill choice of words before she has time to react. "Is that why you crossed the bridge; you were tracking Amazons?"
"I came to give the Queen of the Amazons a message." The Centaur indicated a rolled scroll that was tucked into his leather chest armor.
"Cut him loose." When Solari hesitated, Gabrielle added a stern, "Now."
The scout snatched her dagger from the sheath at her waist. She raised her arm, holding the blade so that the sharp edge was pointed towards her prisoner. The Centaur didn’t flinch, but he did tilt his head to the side. The dagger easily sliced through the rope that had been knotted about his neck. A follow-through slice effectively cut away the ropes that had bound his wrists.
With a flourish, the Centaur produced the rolled parchment, presented it to the Queen. Under the watchful eyes of her sisters, Gabrielle unrolled the scroll. She silently read the bulk of the missive.
"The Centaurs have received an offer of alliance. From the warlord, Draco. They’re insisting that we," Gabrielle indicated herself and Ephiny, "meet immediately to renegotiate the terms of our treaty."
"I can’t believe Tyldus would send such a message," Ephiny protested, reaching out and taking the scroll from Gabrielle.
"He didn’t," responded the Centaur, "that was written by our leader."
Grave looks passed between Ephiny and Gabrielle.
Gabrielle commanded, "We leave immediately."
"I can’t believe Gabrielle made us leave." This far from the warmth of the village, Eponin’s breath was visible on the chilly night air. She shot a look at Xena. "I can’t believe you let her just…dismiss…us like that."
A line of disheveled Centaurs stood before their leader, heads bowed as he gave them a dressing down they wouldn’t soon forget. He finished by ordering his second-in-command, "Maxus, take them to the stocks. Then, come dawn, have them dig new latrine trenches. With handshovels."
"Well, what are you waiting for, you worthless animals — You heard him! Get your tails moving!"
The disgraced Centaurs limped, hobbled and generally made their way off the field. Brom turned his attention to the two women left standing side by side. Like his Centaurs, they were also battered and bruised from their brawling. Unlike them, however, these two didn’t hang their heads in shame. Far from it. They looked almost proud of themselves.
"It was wise of me to insist these savages not be allowed their weapons."
Brom turned, looking at their queen expectantly. It was several long heartbeats before she reacted.
"Xena," Gabrielle had said to the warrior princess, "You have to go."
"Xena, please." Gabrielle’s voice dropped to a whisper. "You’re jeopardizing the peace."
It had been the pleading look in her eyes that had finally made the warrior turn and wordlessly walk away. She clamped one hand over Eponin’s mouth. With the other, she caught the back of the weapons master’s neck in a crushing, one-handed grip and forcibly dragged the Amazon away.
Their horses were waiting for them at the edge of the Centaur village, already saddled, their weapons hanging neatly from their respective saddlehorns. Xena fairly tossed Eponin up onto her horse, then leapt onto Argo’s back. Xena leaned down from her saddle, grabbing the reins dangling loosely from the bridle of Eponin’s horse. With her head held high, she led both horses past a group of beaten, but smirking Centaurs and out of the village.
Now, they were guiding their horses at a sedate pace towards the Amazon border. It seemed Eponin, though, was still feeling reckless, verbally poking at the warrior princess.
"I can’t believe we’re just riding away."
"Shut up, Ep."
"But, Xena! We’re just…leaving…Ephiny and Gabrielle…" Eponin gave a wild one-armed gesture in the direction they had come from.
"…we’re riding off and leaving the Queen and the Regent unprotected."
"Maybe," Xena’s tone was lethal as she drew Argo up short, "you should have thought of that before you threw the first punch."
Eponin reined in Lightning, causing her mount to turn in a circle on the path until she was facing the other warrior. "You were there, Xena. You heard what they were saying."
"They were goading us."
Xena had been so angry with Eponin that she had avoided even looking at the Amazon for most of the journey out of the village. Now, though, she found herself studying the weapons master by the dim light of a silvery pale moon shining through heavy cloud cover. Even in the dark, she could see the various cuts and scrapes covering the Amazon’s flesh. She’d seen Eponin get popped in the face, knew she’d be sporting at least one black eye come morning. Shallow breathing and stiff movements gave away that she was nursing a set of broken ribs. And, from the way Pony was holding her left hand cradled against her body, Xena guessed she had broken it when she’d shattered that Centaur’s jaw.
Xena almost smiled at the memory. The Centaur had clamped a hand down on the weapons master’s right shoulder. From the expression on Eponin’s face, Xena could tell that he was steadily applying pressure, bearing down with a vise-like grip. She'd set her jaw, gritting her teeth against the pain, refusing to give him the satisfaction of crying out. He’d been so confident in his physical dominance over Pony, that he hadn’t even considered she wasn’t right-handed.
True, she drew her sword and her knife with her right, as did most warriors. But, anyone who'd spent any real time with her knew she drew her bow with, wrote with, ate with her left. How many times have we bumped elbows while eating? So many that Xena had actually snatched away Pony's fork and threatened to stab her with it. If the Centaur had been paying attention to any part of her body other than her cleavage, he might have known that. The look on his face when she hauled off and clocked him with her left...
"The Eponin I know wouldn’t have been baited so easily."
"You would’ve done the same thing for Gabrielle."
Xena had no argument for that. She knew Eponin’s words were true. If she were honest with herself, she would admit that she had instinctively gone for her chakram well before Ep had thrown that punch. And, she hadn’t thought twice before she leapt head first into the ensuing brawl.
It was a pretty good fight, Xena admitted to herself, reaching up and fingering her sore jaw. What had started off as a disagreement between them and two Centaurs had quickly escalated into no fewer than eight Centaurs going after them in a free-for-all. Which, Xena had figured was pretty fair odds, with four for her and four for Pony. She was actually having fun, until one of them got in a lucky shot and made her drop her mug that she’d been so careful about not spilling during the fight.
That brought up another sore subject. "What were you thinking, anyway, drinking that much, if you’re so concerned about leaving your queens unprotected?" Xena looked at Eponin and accused her, "You’ve been off your game ever since we stepped foot on Centaur land."
Two Days Prior -
"These are the tracks Maxus mentioned," Xena confirmed, referring to the Centaur that had handed them the message and then hung around to provide an escort to his village. "Centaurs don't wear boots."
Xena was kneeling on the ground, fingertips brushing aside broken blades of grass, revealing an imprint in the mud made by the toe of a boot. One hand braced against her thigh, Xena swiveled around on the balls of her feet, studying the rest of their surroundings from her crouched position.
Maxus was standing at the mouth of a well-trampled path, his arms folded over his chest, a look of disinterest on his face as he patiently waited for the Amazons. Ephiny and Eponin stood near the center of the wooden bridge that served as a link between the open plains of the Centaurs' lands and the thick forests of the Amazon Nation. Their heads were bowed low together in quiet conversation and Xena imagined they were discussing the possibility of the missing patrol being in the water. Their mounts were on the Centaur side of the river, grazing on the lush grass along with Argo. Solari and six members of the royal guard stood on the opposite bank, well within the clearly marked boundaries of Amazon territory.
Xena looked up, blue eyes blinking against the bright sunshine as it framed Gabrielle's golden blonde hair. For a heartbeat, time slipped away and Xena was lost in her soulmate's beauty, the ugliness of why they were disrupting this tranquil setting forgotten. She wanted nothing more than to kneel at the Amazon Queen's feet and worship her body.
Then, Eponin's words of the two guards being lovers; echoed by Ephiny's later remark of it being worse than them being just lovers, they were new lovers, rang loudly in Xena's head.
"They were standing by that tree," Xena said as she rose to her feet, "toe to toe."
Gabrielle's gaze followed Xena's pointer finger. She blinked, but didn't ask why, if they wanted to stand beneath a tree, they didn't choose one of the many on the Amazon side of the river. She still recalled her and Xena's new love, when they first began physically expressing themselves. They couldn't get enough of each other, the constant looks, the endless touches, tumbling into the bushes at every opportunity.
"They were surprised." Xena discreetly made no mention of the Amazonian breechcloth she'd spied hanging from one of the lower tree branches. "There aren't enough trees here to provide adequate coverage for hiding. They stepped out into the open."
Xena's eyes swept the terrain and she crouch-walked through the thick grass. She paused, reaching a hand into a dense clump. She retrieved three arrows, holding them up for Gabrielle's view. They were intact, having been fired, but not damaged.
"They broke and ran." Xena's gaze shifted, indicating the path to the bridge. "Back towards Amazon territory."
"Xena, Solari couldn't find any tracks leading away from the bridge."
"I know." Xena stood rubbing her chin thoughtfully. There was something else bothering her. The fact that she hadn't found any additional tracks other than the ones belonging to the Amazons and Maxus. Maybe he had killed Lexine and Dioxippe and tossed the bodies in the river. Maybe Solari had the right idea, bringing him in with a rope about his neck. Her gaze flicked to the scout standing on the opposite bank. "Solari looks like she's about ready to chew off her gauntlets and spit them out."
"She's still miffed because I ordered her to return to the village with the guard."
"Not a bad idea," Xena agreed. Ephiny was making her way across the bridge, Eponin following close on her heels. They would be the only ones permitted to accompany their queen, "emotions are already running high. Best to keep the group small."
"Thank you for that, by the way," Gabrielle reached out, placing a tender touch on Xena's arm, "for being there, but not - "
Xena gave a curt nod, leaving the word between them unspoken. Xena wasn't sure what the right word was, anyway. It wasn't strictly interfering. Not even intentionally stepping on her toes, really. It was more that her presence was just - overbearing? Intimidating? Overshadowing? Gabrielle probably knew the right word, but she had never voiced it aloud.
But, out on the open road, it was constantly there. People always looked past Gabrielle and spoke directly to her. Hers was always the voice they listened to. She was the leader and Gabrielle was lost somewhere in her shadow.
Except in the Amazon village. Here, Gabrielle ruled. And, Xena was her companion. Always in the background, her presence felt, if not seen. And, Xena went to great lengths to ensure it stayed that way. She always made it a point to defer to Gabrielle while in the presence of the Amazons, to allow her to make the decisions that affected her tribe.
"Come on, my Queen," Xena leaned in and whispered low in Gabrielle's ear, "It's time you got this procession moving."
It was late in the day when they finally reached the village. Maxus led the way, as he had ever since they'd entered Centaur country. Xena and Eponin were next, walking their horses in, eyes constantly scanning for any hint of a threat. Ephiny kept a loose grip on the reins in one hand, a much tighter one on the knife sheathed at her belt as she walked side by side with Gabrielle. Like the other warriors, every fiber of her being was telling her to be on guard as all about them, Centaurs parted a path for them into the heart of the village.
"Ah, the Amazons." The deep baritone voice belonged to a huge Centaur. He had long, flowing black hair, cascading in thick waves over two broad shoulders and most of the way down his back, matching the same shade of midnight coat covering the horse-half of his body. His chest and upper body were sculpted, fit and toned. He had a strong, proud chin. Two strikingly green eyes stared at them from beneath the shadow of a wreathed crown. He took a step forward, arm extended in greeting. "I'm Brom, leader of the Centaurs."
Gabrielle brushed past Xena, offering her arm in return. "Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons. My regent -"
Before Gabrielle could finish the introduction, Ephiny stepped forward, standing almost toe to hoof with the Centaur. Looking up, she demanded to know, "Where's Xenon?" At the bewildered expression, she charged ahead, "Grandson of Tyldus, Prince of the Centaurs. If something's happened to Tyldus, Xenon is next in line to rule."
Brom looked annoyed. Until Maxus stepped forward and spoke in muted tones with his leader. Then, he nodded his head in understanding.
"You didn't know?" he asked, his voice once again smooth and confident. "Tyldus and Hercules set off nearly a moon ago in search of a rumored colony of lost Centaurs. Tyldus' grandson accompanied them on the journey."
"Seems there's a lot of changes in the Centaur village we haven't heard about."
"Ephiny!" Gabrielle admonished.
Apparently, Gabrielle's earlier acknowledgement of Ephiny's improved diplomacy had been premature. She was just about to apologize for her regent's lack of manners when Brom's face lit up with recognition. His smile widened and he caught Ephiny's forearm in an enthusiastic clasp.
"Ephiny of the Amazons, mate of Phantes. You are an honored legend among my people." Everyone was caught off-guard as the charming Centaur managed to maneuver the handclasp on Ephiny's forearm into a brushing of his lips against the stunned woman's knuckles. "You are even more beautiful than the stories describe."
There was a none-too-subtle clearing of a throat as Xena masked the sound of her forcing Eponin's dagger back into its sheath. Fortunately, no one else had seemed to notice the weapons master's impetuous action. However, she was now faced with every set of eyes focused intently on her.
"Our escorts, Eponin and Xena," Gabrielle supplied the introductions.
"The warrior princess. Scourge of the Battle of Corinth." There was no mistaking the hard edge that crept into Brom's voice. "Your title is also well known amongst my people."
"Then, you also know her as Xena, Champion of the Queen of the Amazons," Gabrielle smoothly interjected. Over the years, she had grown quite adept at dispelling some of Xena's more colorful aliases. "Also responsible for saving the life of Tyldus' son and ensuring peace between the Centaurs and Amazons."
Even if he wasn't pleased by Gabrielle's reminder, Brom gave a sigh of resignation. While there were some that believed as he did about Xena, he knew there were also those that considered her an ally. Even he couldn't condemn the woman outright.
"Very well," he acknowledged, "you are all welcomed guests of the Centaurs."
Then, he gave a hand signal. Three Centaurs stepped forward from the assembled crowd. One of them reached for Xena's sword, only to find himself on his knees as the warrior applied pressure to the palm of his hand.
"No weapons are allowed in the main village." Brom flashed that smile that was quickly getting on Xena's last nerve. "In the interest of peace, you understand."
"Your weapons will be safe in the stables alongside your horses," Brom reassured the Queen as she was the first to surrender her staff.
Gabrielle caught Ephiny's glare of death directed at her as the regent slowly unbuckled her sword harness and handed it to the nearest Centaur. Eponin grumbled low beneath her breath as she followed suit. And, did Xena actually growl as she unhooked her chakram? Then, it degenerated into a contest to see who had the most concealed weapons, Xena or Pony.
"I've heard that Xena is on a quest of redemption."
"Xena has made up for the deeds of the past," Gabrielle said, "Although, she still helps those in need as she fights for the greater good."
Brom speculatively eyed the warrior princess sitting cross-legged on the ground on the other side of the low-burning fire. Her head was bent as she spoke with the Amazon seated beside her.
They had spent the remainder of the afternoon and into the early evening going over the details of the existing treaty. It had been Brom that suggested with the onset of night that they table the discussion in favor of a meal and a chance for conversation.
He had managed to maneuver the setting so that the two blondes were comfortably perched on a couple of large boulders near the fire. He brought their plates over, then stood between them as they ate and talked. Their escorts were left to fend for themselves. By the time they'd gotten their plates and returned, the only spots left available to them were all the way on the other side of the campsite.
Brom may have succeeded in separating the escorts from their charges, but he could still feel their eyes on him, watching every movement he made.
"Are the Amazons’ coffers so full they can sustain your travels with the warrior princess?"
Gabrielle flashed a look at Ephiny. It had been Brom's suggestion to end the treaty discussions for the evening. But, he was still fishing, trying to determine the depths of the Amazons’ treasury. Well, she refused to rise to the bait.
"My expenses aren’t paid with Amazon coin. Any purchases Xena and I require while on the open road are paid for by the wages I earn."
"Ah," There was a note of recognition. "I do recall hearing that you’re some sort of a traveling minstrel."
"Bard." This time, Gabrielle did bite. "As in attended The Royal Academy of. You know," Gabrielle shook her head ruefully at Ephiny, "This is typical. When I’m traveling with Xena, no one believes I’m an Amazon. When I’m with the Amazons, no one believes I’m a bard."
"Then, perhaps you should prove it with a tale," suggested Brom.
"If you insist." Gabrielle searched her memory, trying to come up with a story that would entertain the Centaurs. A smile upon her lips, Gabrielle leaned forward in full-storyteller mode. Around the campsite, conversation fell away as most recognized the distinctive tones of a performing bard. "I sing of a time when Xena delivered the Prince of the Centaurs, son of Ephiny, in a temple ravaged by catapults, caught in the crossfire of the Mytoan/Minoan war."
A round of applause brought Gabrielle out of her storyteller mode. She blinked, sitting back upon her stone perch.
"Most entertaining," Brom congratulated her, a broad hand slapping Gabrielle on the back. He turned his attention to Ephiny. "And you, Amazon!" He grinned broadly, wrapping an arm about Ephiny's shoulders. "Not many Amazons would embrace a former enemy. Fewer still would survive giving birth to his Centaur heir."
Gabrielle watched as Ephiny smoothly shrugged off the unwanted touch. Brom didn't seem to pay any heed to Ephiny's suddenly quiet mood, he was too busy clinking his mug against anyone else's who would drink a toast to the mate of Phantes.
Gabrielle cringed. When she'd started her story, she'd meant only to entertain the Centaurs with the story of their prince's birth. She'd forgotten that joyous event was inexplicably tied to the horrific death of Phantes. A death that Ephiny had witnessed first-hand as he was torn apart by a pack of hunting dogs.
She leaned forward so that she could better see Ephiny around Brom's wide bulk. Ephiny's head was bowed, unruly corkscrew locks falling about her face, hiding her expression from view.
"Eph, are you okay?" Gabrielle asked.
A shiver shook Ephiny's entire frame. Gabrielle tried to figure out how to go to her without the Centaurs thinking either of them were weak.
Then, Eponin was there, standing behind Ephiny, taking her cloak off and draping it about her regent. Eponin's honey-colored eyes reflected the light from the fire, making them glow eerily as she met her queen's gaze over Ephiny's shoulder.
"She's just cold," Ep supplied in a tone that brooked no argument, "We left in such a rush, she didn't have time to grab her cloak."
Brom suddenly became aware of the stockier Amazon's presence. His eyes narrowed at the sight of Ep's hands resting reassuringly on Eph's shoulders. They narrowed even more as Ephiny leaned back into the brunette's touch, rather than shrugging it off the way she had his.
"If you're cold, I'll see you to your quarters for the evening. There are more than enough blankets - "
"Brom," Gabrielle quickly called the Centaur's name, "It's your turn." At the questioning arch of both his eyebrows, she explained, "I told my story. Now, it's time for one of yours."
"You want me to tell a story?" His voice rose right alongside his eyebrows.
"It is customary," Gabrielle shrugged.
Brom's gaze flicked towards Ephiny. And, Gabrielle thought he meant to refuse.
"Let it go, Gabrielle," The warrior princess' raised voice garnered everyone's attention. "Only story a Centaur knows is about Chiron, anyway. If you've heard it once - "
Xena broke off with a shrug of her shoulders. Silently, Gabrielle thanked the Gods for Xena's intervention. She, of all people, knew that Centaurs were an aggressive, proud race. She knew Brom's arrogance wouldn't let her words go by unchallenged.
"Very well." Brom rose his voice for all to hear. "I, too, have a tale of Xena. It was after the Battle of Corinth, where many a Centaur fell beneath the sword of the warrior princess. Tyldus ordered a retreat of the wounded. A young Centaur, inexperienced in his first battle, had taken a sword thrust to his flank. He wanted to stay and fight, but his commander ordered he escort his more grievously injured brother back to the village for treatment.
They traveled by night and rested by day in an effort to avoid Xena's forces that were scouring the area for any Centaurs that had gotten away. They were within miles of this village when they were spotted. His brother was taken down instantly as Xena's forces erupted from the woods, swords wildly hacking and slicing.
His dying brother screamed for him to run. He wanted to stay and fight, but knew he couldn't take on the Scourge of Corinth's crazed killers alone. He bolted, galloping blindly, ignoring the cuts and strikes of tree branches hanging in his path. The bridge stretching across the river was in sight. Heart beating wildly in his chest, he raced towards it, seeking the safety he thought was on the other side.
And, as he stepped foot onto the bridge, Xena's murderers leapt from where they'd been hiding along the bank and beneath the wooden boards. They fell upon him, stabbing and cutting at him until they severed his head from his shoulders, sending it rolling down the bank and into the river.
Legend is his ghost still haunts the path between this village and the river. His spirit can't rest until he finds his head. Know this, though, if you're traveling the road and see the Headless Centaur, you must reach the safety of the bridge...or he might take yours!"
"Very - " Gabrielle's voice squeaked and she had to clear her throat "imaginative, Brom. A tale worthy of a bard."
She had underestimated him. Brom had managed to take Xena's challenge and turn it around, making her the villain in his story.
Gabrielle's eyes met Xena's across the fire. Ice blue eyes stared at her unblinkingly. Gabrielle tried to read her emotions, but couldn't. The warrior's mask was firmly in place.
Xena saw it. And, she wished she had borrowed Pony's move; circling around the campsite so she could be where she was most needed.
"Oh, Gods. That's it, isn't it?" Xena couldn't keep the disdain out of her voice as she turned to accuse Pony, "You're in love with Ephiny."
Eponin downed her head, unable to look her warrior friend in the eye. And, despite the almost near darkness, Xena was positive the Amazon was blushing.
"Gods, you are, aren't you?" Xena shook her head. "It makes perfect sense. I should have seen it coming a mile away."
"What?" Ep had the nerve to look offended.
"You haven’t told her, have you?"
"And, that possessive kick you've been on ever since we arrived in the Centaur village? You've been constantly tagging along right behind her, always on her heels. I swear, if she makes a sudden stop, you'll be so far up her tailfeathers - "
"Xena," Eponin warned in a low voice.
"You're jealous." Xena snapped her fingers. "You think Eph's interested in that big Centaur, don't you?"
"Xena!" The Amazon held a finger to her lips in a 'quiet' motion. She turned her head to the side, tapped her ear with her fingertips.
Xena fell silent as she got the message. Closing her eyes, turning her head, she listened. There was her breathing. And, Eponin's. The usual night sounds to be found in the wild. And, the clip-clopping of horse hooves.
Only - her eyes snapped open. She'd reined in her mount when she began her argument with Pony. And, Ep had done the same; both of them sitting motionless in their saddles on the deserted path.
"Um, Xena? Was there any truth to that story Brom told about your army?"
Every hair on the back of Xena's neck stood on end as she turned to look. A Centaur was on the path behind them. Alone. And headless.
A thick lather coated their mounts, despite the heavy chill in the air. Xena spurred Argo on, even as she felt her horse begin to slow. Beside her, Eponin's mount was breathing fiercely, nostrils flaring, thick puffs of air clearly visible as Lightning snorted and wheezed.
Ep turned in the saddle, looking back over her shoulder.
Xena didn't need to look. She already knew. The Headless Centaur was gaining ground. Barely visible in the distance ahead of them was the outline of the bridge. It didn't matter. The horses were exhausted. They wouldn't make it half the distance.
Xena leapt from the saddle. Argo veered from the path, slowing as she realized she no longer carried the warrior's weight. Eponin followed suit, slowing her horse so she could dismount on the run. She came to a stop about ten paces distant down the path.
The warrior princess stood in the center of the trail, head held high, arms at her sides, feet slightly spread. Ebony locks blew back and away from her face. Her even breathing was barely visible.
Eponin's was coming fast and heavy by comparison, thickly condensing with each quick breath in and out. Her heart sounded far too loud, her blood pounded in her ears. Steeling herself, she drew her sword.
Xena waited. As the Headless Centaur drew ever closer, she could see the gleaming sword clutched firmly in his grasp. The thundering of his hooves made the ground shake beneath her feet. Still, she held steady.
He raised his sword.
"Xena!" Eponin shouted, raising her sword as she rushed to her friend's side.
Ice blue eyes didn't even blink. But, the fingers of her right hand twitched.
There was a whooshing! sound as the chakram sliced through the air. It flew straight, cutting through the material of the Centaur's cloak. It arced in the air, then turned, coming back. Xena raised her arm, neatly catching the chakram on the fly.
"Thanks," Xena nonchalantly accepted the compliment as she returned her weapon to its place on her hip.
"Would've taken his head clean off...if he had one."
Xena looked up in surprise. She'd expected the Headless Centaur to be nothing more than one of those idiots that they had brawled with back at the village. She'd thought a warning shot across the neckline of his cloak would make him realize how stupid a prank this was. But then, she saw the cloak fluttering harmlessly to the ground - and heard ghostly laughter on the wind.
A single, dark brow arched.
A flick of her wrist and her chakram was off her hip and once again whistling through the air. This time, the throw was lower, aimed at his chest. The chakram connected.
"Damn." Xena said as the metal disc passed straight through the Centaur's body as though he wasn't tangible.
"Centaur Crap," echoed Eponin from beside her.
The Centaur raised his other hand. Instead of holding another sword, this one conjured up a ball of energy. A flaming ball of energy that he threw directly at them.
"Hurry!" Xena shouted, "Cross the bridge!"
Despite Xena's legs being much longer than Eponin's, she was still only about five paces ahead of her when her boot connected with the first plank. She heard the creak of the boards beneath their combined weight, imagined the black waters of the river swirling below them, ready to take them should they fall in.
Eponin heard the heavy footfalls behind her, felt the boards shift beneath the Centaur's weight as he galloped onto the bridge after them. Impossibly, she picked up her speed, nearly running into Xena. Her legs ached from the effort of trying to match Xena's pace. She felt the burning in her lungs as she tried to take in great gulps of air despite her broken ribs. Perspiration poured down her face, getting into and stinging her eyes.
She used her forearm to swipe at the sweat. She risked a frantic look back over her shoulder. Just in time to see the Headless Centaur send another energy ball streaking towards them.
"Xena!" Ep shouted, her legs becoming entangled with the warrior princess', both of them going down, tumbling head over heels, hands and knees striking the last board on the bridge as they fell, then sliding on the wet grass that lay beyond. The last thing she saw was the looming trunk of a fig tree as she crashed against it, striking her head.
Xena raised her head in an effort to shake the cobwebs free. She tried to struggle to her feet, but couldn't get her legs untangled from Pony's. She made it to her hands and knees. Just as the cracking energy sphere hit her squarely in the back.
"I thought Centaurs didn't lie."
"That's a bold accusation, Amazon Queen."
"Then, prove I'm wrong," Gabrielle dared Brom, "Send for Draco. Or, any one of his men." When the Centaur made no move, she said, "You can't, can you? Because Draco never offered an alliance with the Centaurs, did he?"
"No," admitted Brom, "No, he didn't."
"Wait." Ephiny's face screwed up in confusion. "Then, why send a message demanding we renegotiate the treaty?"
"To prove himself," Gabrielle guessed. "Fairly new leader, looking to make a name for himself. Imagine if he could leverage more land out of the Amazons' hands. Am I right?"
They'd been sequestered in his tent all day, going over the terms of the treaty when the Queen had finally figured out his ruse. He'd immediately dismissed his second when he realized Gabrielle knew. They were quite alone, now. Just him and the two Amazons. He had no fear of anyone else overhearing their conversation.
"Let's just say I was feeling my oats." He broke into a broad grin. "No real harm done, right?"
"No harm done? No harm done?" Gabrielle's voice rose in volume until Brom began to rethink his notion of no one else overhearing. "You drag us away from our homes under the implied threat of war. There are two missing Amazons we should've been out searching for. Instead, we're sitting around here for the past two days, debating boundary lines while you and your cohorts take cheap shots at my consort and my weapons master."
Brom frowned, looking at the map on his desk, the newly drawn up treaty beside it. It had been an ambitious plan, with the Amazons giving up nearly a third of their hunting grounds.
"We'll reinstate the previous treaty," Brom shrugged, "leaving all boundaries intact."
"No, I don't think so. We reinstate the treaty with the Centaurs signing over a quarter of their land rights to the Amazons," Gabrielle countered by picking up a burning candle off the desk and holding the wick beneath the edge of the parchment. "Or, there is no treaty."
Brom hesitated, licking his lips as he contemplated. He looked to Ephiny. The regent was silent, staring in wide-eyed shock at her queen.
It was no secret that Gabrielle was ticked. She'd spent most of last evening and today alternately apologizing for the actions of their escorts and trying to negotiate a fair treaty with a stubborn Centaur. Only to discover those negotiations had taken place under false pretenses. But, was she really willing to risk the consequences of having no treaty at all?
"You're bluffing," he decided.
"Am I?" Gabrielle held the flame close enough that the parchment began to darken. "Your legends tell of Xena at the battle of Corinth. I'll turn over command of my forces to her. Do you really want to battle Xena at the head of an Amazon war party?"
The leader of the Centaurs pressed his wax seal against the parchment.
"You drive a hard bargain, Amazon Queen."
"I'm just glad we could come to an agreement."
She looked at Ephiny, indicating with her eyes that they should go now. Ephiny took her cue, ducking out of the warm tent and into the chill evening air. Gabrielle trailed after her.
"Before you go," Brom reached out, grabbing Gabrielle by the upper arm.
Gabrielle turned, pointedly looking at where Brom was gripping her bicep. He followed her gaze, hesitating for a moment, then dropping his hand. Gabrielle looked at him, expecting him to make one last offer.
"It's clear that you ride with the warrior princess, Queen of the Amazons." Gabrielle bit down her smile. How many negotiations had ended with the other party asking if either she or Xena were romantically available? "But, I believe that your regent has not bonded since the death of her mate." Gabrielle's smile began to falter. Ephiny? "Imagine how strong the alliance between our two peoples would be if she were to consent to an union."
Brom's confidence was back in full-force. "Well, I am the leader of the Centaurs."
"Gabrielle?" Ephiny ducked her head back into the tent. "You coming?"
Seeing the object of his desire, Brom poured on the charm. "How about a ride, Amazon?" he offered.
Ephiny gave him an odd look. "I'd rather walk, thanks."
"What in Tartarus?" Pony gasped, placing a hand to her throbbing head.
"Good guess," came a distinctive male voice from the darkness, "Although Hades has yet to make an appearance."
Slowly, Ep’s eyes began to adjust, her double-vision clearing. Or, at least she thought it was, until she saw the silhouette of a Centaur towering over her. Make that two Centaurs, one a miniature version of the other. From Eponin’s prone position on the ground, though, they both appeared as giants to her.
She tried for an over-handed reach for her sword. She made it only half the distance before the shooting pain in her broken hand and the searing sensation tearing across her busted ribs stopped her short. She was on her side, unable to reach her waist dagger with her right hand. Grunting from the effort, Ep tried to pull herself up into a sitting position. A wave of vertigo nearly sent her toppling back over.
"Easy there, Pony." Xena was kneeling at her side, pressing her shoulders back down. "You’re among friends."
Instinctively, the Amazon continued to struggle against being held down. Until, her mind caught up, reminding her that this was Xena. I can trust Xena.
Now that she was no longer in fight-or-flight mode, Eponin became aware of several things at once. She was leaning back against the tree that she had collided against. Xena was tearing long strips of cloth, wrapping them about her ribs to keep them secure. And, more importantly, that the two Centaurs peering over Xena's shoulders at her both had heads.
"Tyldus?" Both eyebrows shot up. "Xenon?"
"Friend Eponin," The elder Centaur nodded his head in greeting, "It's good to see you, despite the circumstances. Your other companions are here, too."
"Eph?" Eponin tried seeing around Xena's bulk.
The warrior easily pushed her back down. "Not Ephiny," she said, jerking a thumb towards two Amazons attempting to catch fish out of the river with their bare hands. "He means Lexine and Dioxippe."
"Mother?" Xenon cantered forward, having latched onto the Amazon regent's name. "I saw her on the bridge with you. Is she okay?"
The corkscrew blonde curls were a dead giveaway. And the eyes were almost an exact match. She hadn't seen him in a while, but there was no doubt that this child was Ephiny's. "Um, yeah, I think so," Eponin was unsure what to say.
Xena smoothly stepped in, placing a reassuring hand on Xenon's shoulder as she spoke with him. "Your mother and Aunt Gabrielle are just fine, Xenon. They sent Pony and me ahead to scout the way. I'm sure they'll be along soon." She leaned in, speaking in a stage whisper. "Listen, Pony's hurt and she needs my help. But, I have a mission to complete."
"Can I help?" was the anticipated response.
"Well," Xena pretended to rub her chin as though she had to give it considerable thought. "I guess I can count on you. I need you to watch out for your Aunt Gabrielle and your mother. Give me a signal like this, "she cupped her hands together and whistled, "when you see them coming."
Xenon's eyes instantly lit up. "Like this?" He asked, trying out the whistle.
"Exactly like that."
Xenon clopped away, his head held high, his chest puffed out. Lexine called out to him from the river. Xenon responded, no doubt telling the Amazon he was on a mission. The youngster stopped at the foot of the bridge, turned and waved.
Xena, Tyldus and Eponin returned the wave with reassuring smiles. As soon as Xenon looked away, they dropped the false personas.
"Now, will someone please tell me what in Tartarus is going on?" Pony's eyes darted from Xena to Tyldus and back again. "Xena, are we dead?"
Gabrielle and Ephiny walked side by side down the road, Ephiny's mare obediently trailing along behind them. They had put some considerable distance from the Centaur camp beneath their feet. But, they still had miles to go before they reached the bridge that would take them into Amazon territory.
Hazel eyes glanced towards the darkening skies. Gabrielle knew that Ephiny was chomping at the bit to mount up. She'd even offered to let Gabrielle ride in front while she guided the horse. Gabrielle had begged off, saying it wasn't the riding the horse she had difficulty with, it was that Zeus had made them all so blessed tall.
If it'd been Xena, her warrior would have already been in the saddle while she walked along beside Argo. Gods knew they traveled like that all the time. But, Ephiny was no Xena. The uptight Amazon would consider it a breech of protocol for her to ride while her Queen walked. And, Gabrielle knew it.
Just as the young bard knew another reason why Xena rode. Ephiny had mentioned it once when they first met, when she thought Gabrielle was nothing more than an annoying peasant girl. She hadn't known what the Amazon had meant at the time and she'd put it in the back of her mind, meaning to ask Xena about it later.
She didn't have to ask. She eventually figured it out on her own. After she noticed the sheer number of times she said, "Xena, when we need to talk" and the warrior suddenly mounted up. Or, anytime their conversations broached on a sensitive subject.
It was nearly impossible to hear the person walking along beside Argo. If Xena didn't feel like talking, or if she didn't care for the subject of the conversation, she could immediately take to the saddle and not have to hear a word Gabrielle was saying.
Well, her regent didn't have that luxury. For Ephiny, there would be no escape.
"Eph, are you okay?"
"Uh-huh," came the typical warrior answer.
"I can tell something's bothering you." Come on, Ephiny, let me in. "We can you know - "
Ephiny's head whipped about, a deer-in-the-crossbows-sights look upon her face. Oh, Gods, Ephiny thought as she desperately clutched her horse's reins in her hand, she wants to -
" - talk," Gabrielle said.
"I had a nice long talk with Tyldus and the Amazons while you were unconscious," Xena informed Eponin, "Their stories are all similar to ours."
"Headless Centaur?" Pony asked, keeping her voice lowered so Xenon couldn't overhear.
She needn't have worried. The young Centaur was still on his mission, watching the bridge like Xena had asked. Lexine and Dioxippe had abandoned their fishing, coming to stand side by side with Tyldus as they conversed.
"We never even saw him coming," Lexine said.
Eponin's jaw clenched. She knew exactly why Lexine and Dioxippe hadn't seen anything. But, she bit back the caustic remark. There would be time to address that issue when - if - they got back home.
"Our arrows went right through him," Dioxippe concluded their recounting of events.
"As did mine," said Tyldus.
"We had a similar experience." Xena frowned, recalling her ill-fated chakram throw.
Eponin let out a low whistle. "Ghost?" she asked.
"Worse." They'd all encountered the Headless Centaur. Each of them had used the bridge crossing. And, they all remembered getting hit by some sort of energy sphere. "Sorcery."
Blue eyes scanned their surroundings. Everything was just as she remembered it from three days ago. The trees lining the Amazon side of the river. The fig tree Pony had smacked into. The lone oak on the opposite side, where she had initially discovered the missing guards' tracks. The bridge that joined Amazon and Centaur land.
Her instincts told her something wasn't right. She had sensed it almost immediately, though it took her a while to figure it out.
The sky was dark. At first, Xena had thought it was still the same night. Or, perhaps that energy ball had knocked her out for the rest of the night and all the next day until evening had rolled around again. That wasn't it, though. Even night had different stages, changing from the orange amber of a setting sun to twilight to pitch black before lightening to a pale grey just before dawn. Ever since she had awoken, though, the sky had remained a consistent shade, casting a gloomy dreariness over everything.
Everything's the same - only not.
Xena snatched her chakram off her hip, giving it a wild throw that caused Tyldus and the Amazon guards to reflexively duck as it went whooshing! overhead. They watched speechless and wide-eyed as the deadly weapon hurtled towards the bridge, barely missing an oblivious Xenon. About halfway across, it stopped in midair, as though it had hit something and bounced back.
As the chakram sped back, causing Tyldus and the Amazons to duck yet again, Xena raised her hand, smoothly catching the spinning disc on its return. She turned, sending the chakram hurtling in the opposite direction, towards the Amazon forest, meeting with the same results.
"We're trapped," she holstered her weapon, tersely delivered the news to her companions, "in a shadow realm."
"Gabrielle, how did you know it was a trick? That Brom was lying about the alliance with Draco?"
The queen knew what her regent was doing. They had gone another mile since Gabrielle had broached the subject and Ephiny had tried everything she could to change the topic.
"He was trying too hard; trying to charm us, trying to one-up Xena, trying to push too hard for a treaty resolution when he had a supposed 'warlord ally' waiting in the wings." Gabrielle snorted. "Not to mention his choice of imaginary allies. If Draco were really here, he'd demand to be in the middle of anything going on. Blame it on Centaur arrogance and male pride."
Ephiny frowned. "That attitude's a little condescending, don't you think?"
"Yes, I suppose it is. But it mirrors many I've seen in the Amazon village. It certainly reflects Solari's."
"Solari has never really forgiven them the death of Terreis."
"But, you helped Xena prove that the warlord Krykus was responsible for her murder, not the Centaurs."
For several long heartbeats, there was no reply as they continued to walk down the trail side by side. And, Gabrielle was beginning to think the warrior had effectively shut the conversation down. Then, she heard the deep sigh.
"Terreis pleaded with Melosa for many years to make peace with the Centaurs. It took her death to make anyone listen. Solari blames the Amazon/Centaur conflict for taking Terreis' life. But, she blames herself even more for not being there when it happened."
"You were there, Eph. We both know there was nothing Solari could've done."
"That's a difficult thing for an aching heart to admit, Gabrielle." Ephiny's eyes stung, she swallowed hard against the lump in her throat. "When it's someone you love...if you're not there - and even if you are..." she swallowed again, tasting her tears. Her entire body shook as she spoke. "I'm an Amazon, damn it! I should've protected him. Instead, I hid in the bushes while hunting dogs tore him apart!"
Gabrielle was there in an instant, wrapping her arms about her friend, whispering soft words against her hair. She held Ephiny, allowing the normally in control regent to break down, to cling to her for as long as she needed. Finally, the sobs began to lessen.
"It wasn't your fault," Gabrielle whispered, "There was nothing you could do. Phantes would have wanted you to stay safe." She stroked a hand through Ephiny's hair and down her back. "You know that, don't you?"
Ephiny stepped back, ending the embrace. She was nodding her head, using the palms of both hands to swipe the moisture from her cheeks, roughly wiping them against the fabric of her cloak.
"I've - " Ephiny's voice was hoarse, but somehow less strained " - felt guilty for so long - " She stopped mid-sentence. Cocking her head to the side, brows furrowing, she asked, "Which is what you wanted to talk about all along, wasn't it?"
"Sorry about that, by the way," Gabrielle shrugged sheepishly at having been found out, "choosing that story, opening old wounds. It was never my intention to deliberately hurt you."
"I know." Ephiny wiped her hand across her still runny nose. Well done, my Queen. And they say Xena's the one with many skills. "Don't think for a heartbeat you'll get Solari to open up so easily."
"You call that easy?" Gabrielle tossed back over her shoulder, picking up the pace, suddenly anxious to get home to her warrior.
"It's literally a shadow version of the world you know. And while you're in it, so are you," Alti said.
The first time Alti had opened a shadow realm for her had been when she was a warlord. Her army was attacking a stronghold in Europe. Xena had been laying siege to the castle for nearly a moon without gaining a foothold. Alti's shadow spell had allowed her to walk freely into the castle, infiltrate its deepest depths, stand beside the king as he mapped out his plans, then slip back out undetected. The next day, she razed the castle. Her army thought it was her military prowess that had turned the tide and won the day. No one ever suspected it wasn't her legendary skills, but a witch's spell that had turned the tide of battle.
The second - and last - time had been when Alti had instructed her to attack a Hestian Temple. She said there was an amulet there the virgins were protecting. A magical amulet that would give her great powers. Xena captured the maidens easily enough, but none of them would tell where the amulet was hidden. Alti opened a portal, creating a shadow realm. Xena took great glee in pushing them through the portal, promising them they'd be begging her to talk when she returned. When Alti opened the portal again, all the Hestians were dead.
"You said you wanted the realm confined to this room so there was no chance of escape." Alti nearly cackled, "I told you before, shadows can't interact with the living world. What doesn't exist in the real world at the time of the spell doesn't exist in the shadow world."
The Hestians had starved to death because there was no food in the room when Xena had Alti cast them into the shadow realm.
As the memory faded, Xena swallowed harshly against the bitter taste of her past. With a scream of rage, she brought her fist back, punching at the thin air. Her knuckles connected, causing ripples to appear in the invisible barrier before dissipating.
A rapid succession of punches had the exact same effect. As did the series of kicks she performed. Defeated, the warrior slapped her open palm against the railing of the bridge.
Turning around, she saw a wide-eyed but trembling Xenon staring at her. As soon as he saw her looking at him, he galloped away, finding Tyldus' flank a likely place to hide behind. The elder Centaur shot Xena a disapproving look before placing a comforting hand on Xenon's head. A glance at Lexine and Dioxippe found the two Amazons intently gutting a fish as they studiously avoided looking at her.
Only good thing about us being stranded here is that there's fish in the river, figs on the trees.
Xena's gaze drifted to Eponin. She had ordered the weapons master to rest. Naturally, Pony had protested. Until Xena told her that if she didn't allow those ribs time to knit, she could puncture a lung. So far, the Amazon had obeyed. Right now, she was leaning back against the tree, eating a fig.
We won't die of starvation. Xena remembered Alti's words; knew the food supply that had been trapped with them wouldn't last forever. Real fish couldn't be caught in the shadow realm. New figs wouldn't grow on the trees in their realm. No, we won't starve to death. At least not before I can set something right.
The path was awash in slivers of light and shadow as Artemis' moon played hide-and-seek between the branches of the forest trees. A damp chill hung in the air. A mist swirled about their ankles, a precursor to the thicker fog that would be roiling in from the river.
"Despite the issues with Brom, we need to work closely to build a better relationship with the Centaurs," Gabrielle said, "I mean, I feel for her, but Solari and those that think like her have to practice tolerance."
"The history between the Centaurs and the Amazons is a long, complicated one, Gabrielle, that can't be instantly erased by some words on a parchment."
"The treaty is a place to start, though, isn't it?"
"Well you know, if that's not good enough for you," Gabrielle playfully nudged Ephiny, "You could lead by example and bond with Brom."
"What?!?" Ephiny's step faltered.
"You didn't know? Brom suggested a joining with you to," Gabrielle grinned, "seal the union between our two peoples."
"I trust you told him no?" Ephiny laughed. "Gabrielle?" Her laughter faded, her smile faltered. "Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle kept right on walking.
Ephiny ran to catch up, stopping short directly in front of Gabrielle's path. The young bard was the picture of innocence as she turned to face her regent. Until she couldn't hold it anymore and starting giggling.
"Relax, Eph, your virtue's safe. I'm not planning on ordering you to wed Brom."
"Well, thank Artemis for that." She gave a cursory glance of their surroundings. She figured the bridge couldn't be that much further off. The fog was rolling in much thicker and she was worried they might miss the bridge completely and walk right into the river. "Course, it is the best offer I've had in ages."
"Oh come on, Eph. I hear you've got 'em lined up outside your hut."
"Huh." Ephiny's eyes warily darted about. Subtly, she shifted her horse's reins to the other hand. "Trust me, Gabrielle; no one's knocking down my door."
"Oh, I could think of at least one Amazon who'd like to hang her cloak by your hearth."
Gabrielle gave her best sultry smile as she touched the shoulder of the cloak Eph was wearing. She ran her nails down Eph's arm, all the way to the palm of her hand, then sauntered away, adding a seductive sway to her hips.
Ephiny looked down. Vaguely, she recalled that she had forgotten hers back at her hut. Clarity struck like a branding iron as she remembered precisely whose cloak she was wearing.
"Hey, Pony," Xena nudged the stocky Amazon with her knee as she sat down on the grass beside her, "How ya holding up?"
"Couldn't be better."
"Amazons got a pretty good fire burning under that fish."
"Probably toasty warm over there."
Xena cast a sidelong look at the weapons master. Her lips were pale. There were goosebumps upon her goosebumps. Xena noted a light blue cast to her flesh.
"Yeah, I know what you mean." She shrugged out of her cloak, purposely left it on the ground. "I'm so hot, I'm burning up."
She was crouched down in the bushes beside the road. Ephiny was upon her mount, her sword at the ready as she faced off against their attacker. Further up the road, she could just make out the silhouette of a Centaur pacing from hoof to hoof. Wicked laughter carried ominously on the wind.
"Do you remember what I taught you?" Ephiny had asked.
Eponin had been tasked with training Gabrielle in the use of the fighting staff. When Ephiny had asked for a report, the weapons master had graciously said that she wasn’t bad, just a bit rough. Being Gabrielle, she couldn’t just keep her mouth shut and let it go at that. No, she made the mistake of chiming in and telling Ephiny that it was fun. She thought Eph was going to explode. Instead, she described in graphic detail exactly how to take down a Centaur.
As a Centaur passes at full gallop, the staff goes here, to crack the knee at the joint. As the Centaur falls, a strike to the lower shoulder dislocates the two front legs. Once you have him on the ground, an overhead strike breaks the neck.
Gabrielle carefully shifted, trying not to give her position away. Her palms were sweaty as they closed about her staff. Her heart was in her throat.
The Centaur charged.
Artemis' moon peeked out, spilling light upon the forest floor. Gabrielle's eyes widened as it revealed nothing but empty space between the Centaur's shoulders.
Ephiny was leaning down, her hand extended out. Gabrielle rushed out from the bushes. Then, she was on the back of the horse behind Ephiny. Eph tugged on the reins, turning her mare around. A swift kick to the sides had her mount racing down the trail. Gabrielle looked back. The Headless Centaur was bearing down on them.
Xena didn't know how long they'd sat there before she saw Eponin reach out, her fingertips grazing the edge of her cloak. Then, it was a painful series of starts and stops in which it took her well over a candlemark to finally pull Xena's cloak all the way over until she could wrap it about herself.
"Hey." Xena kept her voice low, her expression neutral, her eyes on the two Amazons frying the fish. "Sorry about giving you such a hard time in the forest." Silence. "But, it bothers me that you haven't had the guts to tell Ephiny how you feel about her."
There was a loud snort. "This from the woman who had to die and come back to life before she told Gabrielle."
"Exactly. I was - " Xena cleared her throat, turned her head and spit. "I was afraid to tell her. Then, when I finally did, I found out she had the exact same feelings."
There was another long silence. Worried she'd overstepped her bounds, that maybe she'd said too much, she turned and looked at Eponin.
The Amazon was sitting very, very still, hands clasped about her knees as she stared at the ground. When she finally spoke, it was in a voice so low that Xena had to strain to hear. "That's just it. I don't know that she does. Have those feelings, I mean."
"That's my point. You'll never know if you don't tell her how you feel."
"I tried. After Terreis - " there was a shrug of large shoulders " - I didn't want something to happen to me and Eph not know."
Xena could guess what was coming. Phantes. He'd beaten Pony to it.
"She left the village. Had a child." Eponin's voice was strained, "For Gods' sake, Xena, she fell in love with a Centaur!"
"She fell in love with a person who just happened to be a Centaur." Xena reached out, clasping a hand on Eponin's shoulder. "Why can't you give her that same chance to fall in love with you?"
Eponin downed her head, shaking it as she stared at her boots.
"Hey," Xena nudged her. "Come on. You've got a lot going for you. Weapons Master to the Amazons. Decent left hook. Abs sculpted by the Gods. Eyes the exact shade of honey pulled dripping from the hive." Eponin's head shot up and Xena nearly clamped a hand over her own mouth as she realized what she'd just said. "Anyway, point is, any Amazon would consider herself lucky to get you. You should tell Eph that you want her to be that Amazon."
"I guess." A blush colored Ep's cheeks as she thought about it. "But, it's kind of a moot point, isn't it? Unless one of your many skills includes the ability to escape from shadow realms?"
"Xena?" Xenon's voice called out, quickly followed by a loud whistle. "I see them. Mother and Aunt Gabrielle. They're coming!"
Xena turned and looked. Ephiny was riding for bear, Gabrielle on the saddle behind her, arms clutched tightly about the Amazon's midsection, hanging on for dear life.
The Headless Centaur was right behind them, arm raised, crackling energy sphere forming in his hand.
"Gabrielle!" Xena shouted out, rushing forward.
The mare's hoof hit the plank at an awkward angle. Her rear hoof slid on the grass, spinning her around, giving Gabrielle an extremely up close look at the galloping Headless Centaur.
"Hang on, Gabrielle!"
The tendons in Ephiny's forearm stood out in stark contrast as she fought to keep her grip on the reins. With the other hand, she struggled to maintain her hold on both her sword and her queen. In the end, Gabrielle won out and Ephiny's sword fell from her grasp, clattering uselessly on the bridge's wooden boards.
Gabrielle interlocked her fingers about Ephiny's trim waist. She felt the horse regain her footing, heard the solid wood beneath her hooves as she galloped headlong across the bridge. Ephiny spurred her on, urging her to run faster and faster.
"Eph!" she shouted, "Duck!"
Xena stood in center of the bridge. She saw Ephiny and Gabrielle charging right at her, the horse bearing down on her.
"Xena!" Eponin shouted.
Xena closed her eyes, bracing for the impact. She waited. Then screwed one open. Looking down, she just managed to catch a glimpse of the horse's tail passing through her body.
Then, she saw the Headless Centaur. He reared up at the edge of the bridge, holding the energy ball high in the air. With a booming laugh, he threw the sphere, sending it hurtling straight at Gabrielle and Ephiny.
They reflexively ducked. Xena instinctively drew her sword.
Hooves slid on the grass on the opposite side of the bridge, but managed to right themselves. Thankfully, the mare managed to stay on course this time.
Gabrielle looked back.
The blur of crackling energy sped directly at them.
They weren't going to outrun it.
She closed her eyes and prayed, "Sweet mother of Zeus - "
Xena swung her sword. Shockwaves reverberated through her body as the swing connected. The sphere went shooting up into the night sky, its energy crackling and dissipating harmlessly in the heavens.
She felt hugs of congratulations as the others joined her on the bridge, the biggest coming from Xenon. Eponin had tried, but hadn't made it to her feet, yet. But Xena could see her look of thanks easily rivaled that of the young Centaur's.
She turned, just catching a glimpse of Gabrielle's back as Ephiny urged her horse deeper into the forest and towards the safety of the Amazon village.
It was a solemn Amazon search party that was gathered by the river. They'd been there since first light, scouring the area with a fine tooth comb. Solari had immediately spotted the tracks made by Ephiny's horse the night before. And, the regent's sword laying discarded on the wooden bridge.
Those discoveries had been made early on. Now, several candlemarks later, they were all tired, hungry and discouraged. Solari trudged back up the riverbank to rejoin queen and regent.
At the expectant look, she somberly shook her head.
Gabrielle bowed her head, chewed her bottom lip. "Something's not right."
"The two best warriors in the Nation have disappeared without a trace." Ephiny's frustrated exhale came out as something akin to a growl. "I'd say there's a whole lot of things not right about that."
She'd been so relieved when her horse finally made it back to the village last evening. They were exhausted, they were half scared out of their minds, but they were safe.
And, as the adrenaline rush wore off, Ephiny was almost able to convince herself that she'd been seeing things. Her imagination was just fired up because of Brom's story. And, it was just a story, wasn't it? After all, that bridge between the Amazons' and Centaurs' lands hadn't even been built until after Xena helped them make peace. And, she certainly wasn't a bloodthirsty warlord then.
Yep, Ephiny had just about managed to convince herself that it was all a figment of her imagination. Then, they had learned that Xena's and Eponin's mounts had returned riderless.
"No, it's more than that." Gabrielle looked around, making sure no one else was near enough to overhear what she was about to say. "Last night, as we were crossing the bridge, I heard Xena calling my name."
"Gabrielle, someone was chasing us." No way was Ephiny going to admit in front of Solari that she ran from a monster. "The only thing you could've possibly heard was the thundering of hooves racing across that bridge."
"I'm telling you, Eph, I heard Xena's voice."
Solari cocked her head to the side. "You mean, like a ghost?"
"Gabrielle," Ephiny felt a shiver shoot down her spine, "Are you saying Xena and Pony are dead?"
"She heard me." Xena shouted for the others. "Gabrielle heard me."
Lexine and Dioxippe had been following the rest of the search party, listening in as the others commented about the disappearances. Theirs, as well as Xena's and Eponin's. Xenon had been standing at his mother's side, not understanding why Ephiny couldn't see or hear him. Eponin and Tyldus cut off their conversation, coming to see what Xena was yelling about. They too had been curious when the search party had first arrived. But, the novelty of the situation and their interest had waned after the first couple of candlemarks.
"I'm telling you, she heard me. Last night. She said she heard me calling her name." Xena shouted out for her soulmate again. "Gabrielle! Gabrielle!"
Gabrielle didn't even flinch. "Everyone try," she urged. "Call out to anyone. Someone's got to hear us."
"Gabrielle," Ephiny asked, "Did someone kill Xena and Eponin?"
"No, I don't think any one person could easily kill those two. You know a warrior princess and a weapons master wouldn't go down without a fight." She glanced to Solari. "For the best scout in the Nation to not be able to find a trace of their trail...this smells of sorcery."
"Alti?" Ephiny asked, recalling Gabrielle's tales about the evil shamaness. Beside her, Solari warily drew her sword.
"No," Gabrielle shook her head. "Alti's style has never been subtle. If this was her doing, she'd be here right now, bragging about it."
"It's no use, Xena. We've tried everyone. No one can hear us."
"Gabrielle! Gabrielle!" Xena was right on top of her bard now, practically screaming in her ear.
"Xena, stop. It's no use."
Gabrielle moved towards the center of the bridge. She turned in circles, looking all about. "This is where I heard her." Suddenly, not caring if the other Amazons thought she'd been touched by the Furies or not, she tilted back her head and yelled, "Xeeennnaaaaaaaaaa!!!!"
"Quickly," Xena urged, motioning them to her.
As each person stepped onto the bridge, Xena grabbed them, positioning them precisely where she thought they should stand. Gabrielle stood still, held tilted back as she screamed out for Xena. What she didn't know, was that she was completely surrounded by shadows.
"She's reaching out," Xena said, "This may be our only shot. Okay, everyone scream out her name. Now."
"Xena?" Tears were forming in Gabrielle's eyes as she turned to tell the gaping Amazons, "I can hear her." She reached out a trembling hand to the thin air. "Xena and I share a special bond that allows me to hear her."
Ephiny looked askance at her Queen. "I don't know how special it is, Gabrielle. I can hear her, too."
"So can I." Solari cocked an ear, intently listening. "I hear Lexine, too." She scrunched up her nose. "And a male's voice?"
"That sounds like Tyldus."
"Xena?" Gabrielle called out. "Xena, just hang on. We'll figure out a way to get you out!"
Gabrielle sat on the bridge, legs dangling off the side, hanging above the water. Her aching head was held cradled in her hands as she rocked back and forth. Ephiny and Solari sat at the opposite end of the bridge, their backs braced against the railing.
They silently stared at Gabrielle as she tried talking through the problem. Again. Just as she had been for the past three candlemarks.
"Okay, it's a spell." They'd figured that much out on their own. "They're trapped in a shadow realm." Xena and the others had managed to convey that message to them. "We were able to hear them because the veil between realms was thin." Again, that was something they'd figured out candlemarks ago.
Ephiny fought down the urge to repeatedly bounce her head off the post she was leaning against.
In the shadow realm, everyone sat around in pretty much the same dejected pose as the Amazons in the real world. Their feelings had been jubilant when they'd managed to first contact their loved ones by shouting in sync.
That elation dissipated as they discovered no matter how they shouted, they weren't able to convey anything more to them. One by one, they'd finally given up.
All except Xena. She stood right by Gabrielle, continuing to talk to her bard, whether she could hear her or not.
Much like Ephiny, Pony wanted so badly to kill something.
"It's not Alti; this spell isn't powerful enough. Almost, almost like the conjurer is inexperienced."
Gabrielle kept right on mumbling to herself, both unable to hear Xena trying to communicate with her from the shadow realm and oblivious to the discontent of her sisters in the real one.
Ephiny rolled her head on her shoulders. Beside her, Solari was playing a dangerous game with her hand splayed out on a wooden plank as she rapid-fire stabbed her dagger between each of her spread fingers. She's either gonna lose a finger or whittle the bridge down to nothing. A glance towards the shore revealed her other sisters in various stages of lethargic inactivity.
There was no response from the queen. Ephiny unfolded her numb legs, climbed slowly to her feet. As she did, she clasped her cloak tightly about herself in an effort to keep the chilling wind at bay. Even though she'd returned to her own hut last night, spending a fitful evening in her own bed, she'd still put on the slightly shorter cloak instead of her own. If anyone had noticed she was wearing the missing weapons master's cloak when they'd left the village this morning, they hadn't said anything.
"Gabrielle?" Ephiny clasped a hand on the young blonde's shoulder, lowered her voice as she spoke, "Gabrielle, it's growing later and we're on a road traveling nowhere."
Gabrielle nodded her head, exhaled loudly. She knew Eph was right. This wasn't a safe place to be. But, she just couldn't leave, knowing Xena was here. Sort of.
"Eph, remember what Brom said about Tyldus and Xenon going off with Hercules to investigate a lost colony of Centaurs?"
"Of course I remember," Ephiny snapped, "You don't have to point out to me that I'm a bad parent for not knowing my own child was gone."
"I wasn't. Listen, maybe Tyldus and Xenon did willingly leave the village." Gabrielle dismissed Ephiny's outburst with a flick of her hand. Gods knew the situation was making all their tempers short. "But, traveling with Hercules? That sounds like another version of the Draco alliance tale...a load of Centaur poop.”
Xena looked to Tyldus for confirmation. The Centaur nodded.
"I was taking Xenon across the river, a surprise trip to visit his mother. Ephiny's duties as regent keep her from visiting often and I know she misses the boy."
"Brom's ambitious, aggressive. He wanted leadership of the Centaurs. He's physically strong, he could have simply killed Tyldus outright. But, with Xenon next in line as the rightful heir, he knew he had to get them both out of the way at the same time. He used sorcery to do it, conjuring the legend of the Headless Centaur."
"Okay, then." Ephiny drew her dagger, arched an inquiring brow. "Tell me, my Queen, how do I kill a sorcerer?"
"With a little magic of our own."
They used the darkness of a moonless night to mask their movement through the familiar forest. The thickness of the fog provided an extra layer of protection, making them appear as nothing more than wisps of smoke as they dashed across open ground. Deerskin boots traveled soundlessly across wooden planks. In the next breath, no fewer than twenty Amazons, fully armored and heavily armed stood on the Centaur side of the river.
The eerie sound of disembodied laughter rang out, closely followed by the ominous sound of thundering hooves.
Through the dense fog, a silhouette emerged.
A warbling bird call drifted on the breeze.
As one, twenty arrows were drawn and nocked on bows. In unison, they were raised, strings anchored at chins, then touching cheeks.
“Now!” the command was shouted.
Twenty arrows flew, many of them hitting and passing straight through their target.
The Headless Centaur charged.
“Reload! Reload!” came the command. Arrows were hastily drawn and nocked, bows raised. “Fire!”
Again, a volley of arrows flew harmlessly through the apparition.
A renewed round of boisterous laughter taunted them. A crackling ball of energy formed out of nothingness, taking shape in the Centaur’s hand.
“Fall back! Fall back!”
The line of Amazons broke, running for the bridge.
“Well, that was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen.”
“Ugh.” Solari lay face down, her quiver turned askance, arrows spilling out uselessly on the ground. She’d been one of the first Amazons taken out by the hurtled energy ball. Rolling over onto her back, she blinked the dirt out of her eyes. Xena stood sternly looking down at her, arms folded over her chest.
The scout sat up, rubbing at her aching back. She’d been expecting a minor jolt when the electrical charge hit. But, those things packed a wallop like Zeus’ lightning bolts. There was another flash and three more Amazons were sent tumbling into the shadow realm.
Xena ground her teeth as in rapid succession, two more Amazons came crashing down in a tangled heap. “We’re starting to run out of breathing room around here.” A newly appearing Amazon skidded, colliding with Xena’s legs, almost taking her down. Xena growled out, “Tell me, Solari; was it your plan to move the entire Amazon Nation into the shadow realm?”
“Hey, it’s not my plan,” Solari shrugged, “I’m just the diversion.”
Brom was standing hunched over a crystal ball on his desk. He drew back his arm and let loose with a throwing motion. The crystal reflected a scene of two Amazons being hit by an energy blast, being sent tumbling head over heels before they disappeared into the shadow realm. Another shot had an Amazon dodging and weaving, tucking and rolling. She’d just come up out of a crouch when he zapped her.
He howled with laughter. Blasting these Amazons was like shooting fish in a barrel. He raised his arm, drawing back for another throw.
The Centaur felt the object pressed against his flesh, believed it was the blade of a sword threatening to slice across his throat. Until he looked down and saw that it was the little Queen of the Amazons with a double-handed grip on her fighting staff. Muscles tensed as he completed the motion. He smirked, knowing Gabrielle’s threat was hollow.
“You do,” a low voice warned, along with the press of cold steel, “and I’ll turn you from a stallion into a gelding with one strike.”
“So Brom used magic and you used sleight of hand?” Xena asked.
“Well, with Solari and the other warriors serving as a distraction, it was much easier to sneak into Brom’s tent and get the drop on him.”
“I’m surprised Maxus didn’t run you through when he came charging in.”
“He’s actually very nice.” Gabrielle said, spotting Maxus talking with Lexine and Dioxippe. “When he and the other Centaurs learned of Brom’s deception, they turned on him in an instant.”
Gabrielle didn’t offer more details. And, Xena didn’t ask. She knew enough of Centaur justice to be certain that his punishment was both swift and brutal. Whether Brom had chosen to end the spell on his own or if the Centaurs had caused it by killing him, she didn’t care. Just as long as she was back where she belonged.
They were sitting beneath a tree, Xena leaning back against the trunk, Gabrielle leaning back against the warrior. Amazons and Centaurs alike had gathered at the river and were mingling with each other on both banks. Tyldus had reverted back to his role as leader of the Centaurs. The regent had taken care of business, handing Tyldus back the treaty Brom had forged. Now, she was enjoying spending time with him and Xenon, the young Centaur staying close to his mother, eating up the attention.
Solari and Eponin stood together. A couple of Centaurs approached, wineskins in hand, asking permission to offer a toast to Solari. The scout was being heralded as quite the hero, having been the deciding factor in saving the leader of the Centaurs as well as their prince. Not to mention a certain queen’s champion. Solari graciously accepted. As they led her off to join their friends, Solari turned, beckoning Eponin to come along.
The weapons master waved her off. She gave another glance towards the riverbank, took two steps before faltering. She changed direction, heading for the safety of the bridge. The toe of her boot had just hit the first board when she heard,
She hesitated, looking back over her shoulder.
Gabrielle elbowed Xena in the ribs. “Look.”
Xena, of course, had already noticed. As Eponin walked near, Ephiny held out her hand, physically pulling Pony into the conversation. At first, the warrior looked uncomfortable, but then Xena saw her interlock her fingers with Ephiny’s. Before long, her free hand reached out and ruffled Xenon’s hair.
“Oh, yeah,” Xena shrugged, “Had a sensitive chat with Pony while we were trapped.”
“Really?” Gabrielle’s brows rose. “I had one with Ephiny on the way back from the Centaur village.”
“Then, I guess our work here is done, my bard.”
Xena leaned her head back against the tree, closing her eyes. She tugged Gabrielle back tighter into her embrace until she could rest her chin on her bard’s head. This was what she’d missed most when she was stuck in the shadow realm; being able to touch Gabrielle, to hold her, to just…be…with her. She sighed deeply, perfectly content.
Gabrielle stroked the back of Xena’s hand with her fingertips.
“Now, if we can just get Solari to settle down.”
Xena’s eyes flew open in horror.