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 in intended and no profit is being made.
Note: Classic Xena story submitted as a competing entry for Bards' Challenge #21.
Special Note Just for Oz: Amazons!!!! We've got AMAZONS!!!! Five of them to be precise, so I can claim the bonus points.
Are We There Yet
“Gods, how does Xena do it?” asked a nearly breathless Amazon Regent.
Gabrielle lowered the ladle from her lips, distractedly allowing it to fall back into the water bucket as she followed Ephiny's line of sight. The blonde regent was staring transfixed as Xena walked across the main square of the village. Sculpted thighs flexed beneath a battledress with every step she took; long legs masking her natural stride, making it appear as though she were out for a leisurely stroll. Tanned muscles rippled as she balanced three six-foot planks of wood on one bronzed shoulder with negligent ease. In her other hand, she carried a large double-headed ax, the tendons in her forearm standing out in stark delineation as her fingers gripped the handle.
Amazons' heads turned, mouths dropping open in tandem as Xena passed by. Two women walking in opposite directions were so intent on ogling the warrior princess that they actually collided with each other. A craftswoman kneeling on the ground, hammering the framework for a wall together didn't realize until she went to stand up that she'd nailed her skirt to the lumber. An Amazon leaned over too far and fell off the roof she was thatching. Luckily, she landed on top of another woman who'd stopped dead in her tracks as Xena walked by.
“Oh.” Gabrielle nodded in understanding. “One of the warrior princess' many skills; sheer animal magnetism.”
“Actually,” Ephiny wiped a hand across her sweat-dampened brow, “I was referring to how she can stand to dress like that in this heat.”
Startled, Gabrielle's head whipped around. “Oh, the weather.” Her cheeks flushed. “I thought you meant – ”
“ – A different kind of heat,” Ephiny smirked.
“Ohmygods,” Gabrielle muttered, dropping her face into her hands.
Seemingly oblivious to the distraction she was causing, Xena approached the section of wall Eponin and Solari were working on. The weapons master was standing with her feet braced apart, arms stretched above her head as she held two sections of wall in position while Solari hammered the support beam into place at the base of the structure.
Xena leaned her ax against a sawhorse, then bent down to deposit the beams she'd been carrying on the ground. In that same instant, Solari turned to retrieve another handful of nails. Her change in position afforded her a perfect glimpse beneath Xena's leathers. Solari's eyes widened, her lips formed into a perfect ‘o', and her aim faltered.
To the weapons master's credit, she didn't make a sound, not even a whimper. Perspiration dripped from Eponin's furrowed brow, her jaw came unhinged, her complexion instantly paled. Other than her throat muscles constantly working as she repeatedly swallowed against the saliva building in her mouth, she didn't make a move. Likewise, Solari was seemingly frozen in place, still kneeling on the ground in front of Eponin. Only her eyes moved, rapidly darting back and forth between the hammer and Eponin's foot.
Gabrielle risked a peek through parted fingers. Ephiny was casually leaning against the fence surrounding the perimeter of the training grounds. One booted foot braced behind her, arms folded across her chest, she intently studied Gabrielle through thick lashes. When she caught Gabrielle shyly looking at her, hazel eyes danced with mirth and a hint of a smile threatened to curve the regent's lips.
“So, you're attracted to Xena,” Ephiny shrugged, “Nothing wrong with admitting that.” Unable to resist teasing, she quickly added, “Of course, anyone who happened to be within a five mile radius of the Queen's hut last evening can testify to just how attracted you really are.”
“Heard that phrase last night.” Ephiny grinned broadly as she counted off on her fingers, “Along with Yes Xena, By the Gods Xena and my personal favorite, Yes-yes-yes-ooh-Xenaaaaaaa-yes! ”
“Ohgodsohgodsohgods.” Mortified, Gabrielle once again hid her face in her hands.
Ephiny chuckled, amused by her queen's bashfulness. Reaching out, capturing delicate wrists in both hands, she gently tugged, pulling them away from Gabrielle's beet red face.
“Gabrielle, it's okay. There's no reason to be embarrassed. You and Xena are in love. And, a physical expression of that love is only natural.”
“Oh, Eph. It's not that I'm ashamed of my love for Xena. It's just that -” Gabrielle's voice hitched and she averted her gaze “well, let's just say that not everyone is as tolerant as the Amazons.”
Ephiny's gut clenched. She'd suffered enough of Melosa's tolerance during her brief relationship with Phantes. Melosa's views of the filthy beasts were widely known, even before Terreis' death. The princess' demise provided the catalyst for peace, if not acceptance. Ephiny had been allowed to come home only after the death of her lover. And, it'd been put to her in no uncertain terms that Xenon's presence in the village would be tolerated only until he was of age to be separated from his mother.
“Gabrielle? Has something happened? Did someone - ?”
“No, Ephiny. It's okay. Traveling with the warrior princess provides a certain level of protection.” Gabrielle gave a half-hearted smile. She knew that Xena's mere presence deterred a lot of potential confrontations. Even if it didn't always prevent the looks, the whispered comments. “But, not even Xena can stop everyone.”
Ephiny flinched, swallowed harshly as memories of her torment at Velasca's hands resurfaced. If anyone dared do to Gabrielle what Melosa's adopted daughter had done to her . . . “Tell me, Gabrielle. I'll organize a group. I'll – I'll - ”
Fists clenching and unclenching, Ephiny made a move in the direction of the stables. Gabrielle smoothly stepped into her path, bringing Ephiny's forward momentum to an abrupt halt.
“You'll what, Ephiny, ride into Potadeia and kill my father?” Gabrielle snorted. “I've got Xena for that, if I wanted it.”
“Your . . . father?” Ephiny's jaw trembled with her rage. “What did he do, Gabrielle?”
“Nothing much.” Gabrielle shrugged, turned away. Walking the short distance back to the water barrel, she peered in, watching her reflection as she confessed, “Called me an abomination. Said I was dead to him. To get out and never let my shadow darken his doorway again.”
“Oh, Gabrielle.” Ephiny came up behind her friend, placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “When?”
“Couple of moons ago. We were passing through my hometown. And, we'd already told Xena's mom. Father didn't like Xena even before . . . I don't know what made me think it'd be a good idea . . .” Gabrielle blinked back the sting of threatening tears. Her voice cracked and she felt Ephiny's arms slip about her waist, pulling her into a hug. “As soon as I told my parents, father got this kind of twisted up look on his face. Then, he started yelling and he cocked his fist and he - - he hit Xena.”
Ephiny's brows rose. “Xena?”
“My ears are burning; someone talking about me?”
The yelp of surprise in Ephiny's voice, the guilty flush, the way she fairly leapt away from Gabrielle didn't escape Xena's notice. One lone eyebrow arched over a blue eye as she speared the regent with a look.
“Ya getting' a little too friendly with my mate, Amazon?” She took a menacing step towards the regent.
“Wha -? No! I – ?” Hands held in front of her in a nonthreatening gesture, Ephiny reflexively took several steps back. “Xena, I wasn't really . . . I mean . . .” Hazel eyes frantically darted about, no doubt looking for help from the now conveniently scarce royal guard. Her gaze latched onto the form of her weapons master in the distance, hopping about on one foot, struggling to hold up a section of wall, her face turning a bright crimson as she shouted expletives at a now retreating Solari. “I've . . . uh . . . I have to go . . .” She helplessly gestured in Eponin's direction.
“Relax, Eph, I ain't gonna kill ya.” There was a flash of a dangerous smile. “At least not until Gabrielle can find some other suitable featherhead to take over your position as regent.”
Ephiny adamantly nodded her head, sending corkscrew curls flying as she backed away from the warrior princess. With furtive glances over her shoulder, she said, “I've gotta go check on Pony.” Then, she turned and fairly ran across the village square.
Smiling blue eyes turned and met Gabrielle's. “Hi.”
“Hey,” Gabrielle nodded, drawing the ladle from the water barrel, she passed it to Xena. “You really enjoy doing that, don't you; terrorizing my Amazons?”
Xena took a long drink of water, wiping the excess that dribbled down her chin with the back of her hand. “What makes you think that?”
“Well, I can't feature anyone, not even you, being all that thrilled by back-breaking construction work.”
“Maybe I just like working with my hands.” Then, there was a broad grin before she added, “And, we'll be done soon. Tomorrow, tomorrow evening at the latest. Then, my Amazon Queen,” Xena moved around Gabrielle, capturing her in a hug, “Then, it's just you and me and a trip to the happiest place in the known world.”
Now Gabrielle understood. Xena had been a sweetheart, really. Offering to travel to the Amazon Nation with her as soon as they'd received the message from Ephiny that they'd fallen under attack. And, when they'd arrived to discover much of the village in ruins, she hadn't so much as batted an eye when Gabrielle promised her sisters they'd stay to help rebuild. But, she also knew Xena had gone to great lengths to plan a vacation for them. And, even though her warrior hadn't said a single word about it, she knew that the longer it took to get back on the road, the antsier she'd become.
Just like a kid, sometimes. Gabrielle smiled into Xena's collarbone. Then, her ears picking up on some particularly heated profanities, she glanced around. Frowning, she looked at the spectacle Eponin was making, hopping around on one foot while several other Amazons, Ephiny included, worked to relieve the burden of the structure she was holding up from her shoulders. “What's wrong with Pony?”
Xena looked up. “Ah, probably fried her brains from standing in the sun all day.” Then, she grabbed Gabrielle, tugging her into another embrace. “Just don't pay her any attention; it'll only encourage her.”
Head gingerly cradled in both hands, Ephiny slumped over her mug, deeply inhaling the scent of mint leaves sprinkled in her hot tea. She winced, screwing her eyes tightly shut as the table was roughly jostled. Her nose scrunched up as a plate of scrambled hen eggs appeared on the table directly across from her.
The regent slowly raised her head, glaring at Xena through the tops of bloodshot eyes. If Xena were an Amazon under Ephiny's command, she might have considered steering clear of the fire-breathing regent. But, she wasn't an Amazon. And, she most definitely wasn't under Ephiny's command. Stretching one large hand across the table, Xena playfully ruffled Ephiny's blonde locks.
Grinning maniacally at the glowering look Ephiny was shooting her way, she advised, “Give me a good morning and I'll stop.” Xena made a point of casually looking around the dining hut, knowing Ephiny's eyes would follow. Several scouts who would have normally been too afraid to even make eye contact with the regent now openly met her gaze – and snickered. “Otherwise . . . “
“Fine,” was spat out between clenched teeth, “Good morning, Xena.”
“There now, that wasn't so hard, was it, Amazon?” Satisfied, Xena's hand retreated to her side of the table. Digging into her eggs, she contentedly ate until several long heartbeats had passed with no answer. Looking up, she found a disgruntled Ephiny with her chin propped up on one hand, trying her best to glare at Xena through slowly drooping eyelids. “Gods, Eph, you look like Celesta warmed over. What time did you roll into bed last night?”
“Which time, Xena?” Ephiny asked around a wide yawn, “There were several.”
“Oh, Eph. It's good to be regent, isn't it?” Xena smirked, playfully punched her tablemate in the arm. “So, was it one lucky lady, or were you trying to work your way through the entire troupe of ceremonial dancers?”
“Just me. I was alone, Xena.”
There was a wince of sympathy. “Well, I guess sometimes ya just gotta handle those things on your own.”
There was a look of bewilderment on Ephiny's face until she suddenly realized exactly what the warrior princess was implying. “Gods, Xena! I wasn't doing . . . THAT! It was just too noisy to sleep again last night.”
“Oh, right. Sorry about that. Gabrielle mentioned it to me. We tried to keep it down. But, you know how your Queen is.”
“Xena, you don't know how grateful I am to say it wasn't your love cries that kept me awake last night.” Leaning across the table, lowering her voice, Ephiny directed Xena's gaze to the other side of the dining hut where two Amazons were now involved in a shoving match. “I think I must have broken up at least seven of those quarrels last night.”
“It's the heat, Eph. Shortens tempers and lengthens stupidity.”
“Well, at this rate, there'll be more Amazons cooling their heels in jail than helping you with the construction work.” Her words suddenly reminding her, she added, “Umm, wanted to thank you for answering my summons and agreeing to help rebuild the village.”
“No big deal, Ephiny.” Xena shrugged off the unfamiliarity of the regent's compliment. “I knew Gabrielle wouldn't be happy unless we came. You know I'd do anything for my bard.”
“In that case, I'm positive my Queen would enjoy staying with her tribe until after the fall harvest.” Finally, Ephiny felt a genuine smile tugging at the corners of her lips.
“No offense, Amazon, but as soon as the last structure is standing upright, we're outta here. Then, it's just Gabrielle and me and a well-deserved vacation free of warlords, deities and featherheads. Now, if you'll excuse me,” Xena slid off the bench, boldly stealing the regent's mug of tea from beneath her very nose, “It's off to work I go.”
Dumbstruck, Ephiny could only watch as Xena worked her way across the dining hut full of women, weaving her way in and out with an energized bounce to her step. She paused at the doorway, looking back at Ephiny's table. Seeing the regent watching her, she gave a brilliant smile and raised the mug in salute. Exiting the hut, the sounds of Xena whistling a jaunty tune drifted along behind her.
Ephiny raised her eyes to the heavens. “Sweet Artemis, protect us from cheerful warrior princesses.”
Dinnertime found the regent once again seated at her usual table. If it was at all possible, she was even more miserable than she'd been that morning. Gods knew it was unbearably hot; sweat soaked her hair and her clothing, causing her leathers to stick in the most uncomfortable places. Add to that the growing number of instances that could be attributed to the insurmountable heat. It seemed like anything could spark a fight; someone looking at someone else the wrong way, someone accidentally bumping against someone else, someone monopolizing the drinking ladle at the watering bucket. Not to mention that damn jaunty tune of Xena's that was driving half the village mad.
Her head was cradled in both hands, fingers tangled in her unruly corkscrew curls as she tried to forcibly squeeze that singularly annoying tune out of her head when she felt the table jostle. Worried that it was the warrior princess come to torment her again, Ephiny warily looked up. To her relief, this time it was Gabrielle that was seated directly across from her.
“Here, Eph, grabbed you some fruit.”
Ephiny one-handed caught the nectarine that Gabrielle tossed in her direction. She noted the plate in front of her friend was laden with slices of melon, grapes, apples and practically every other variety of fruit to be found within the Amazon Nation.
A disturbance at the other end of the dining hut caught Ephiny's attention. It only involved two women in the food line, their voices slightly elevated as they waited their turn. It didn't appear to be much of anything – yet. But, she maintained one watchful eye on the situation to make sure it didn't escalate.
“The chefs have declared the kitchen stoves officially closed on the grounds that it's too hot to cook.” At the shocked expression, Gabrielle confirmed, “Yes, even for their beloved Queen. So, the choices are fresh fruit or last night's leftover venison. Cold venison.”
Ephiny grimaced. “Ugh. Glad you chose the fruit.”
“Hey, I'm not just another good looking Amazon Queen, you know. I always try to rule justly and fairly and use my brains over brawn.” Looking around the dining hut, Gabrielle asked, “Speaking of brawn, have you seen my other half?”
“Xena? I've seen her around.” Then, muttering beneath her breath, “Practically every time I've turned around today, I've seen her.”
“Ephiny?” Blonde eyebrows rose in tandem at Ephiny's unexpected reaction. “Has Xena done something wrong?”
Ephiny chewed her bottom lip in contemplation before admitting, “No, not really.”
“Has she not been pulling her share of the workload?”
“No. If anything, she's done the work of five Amazons today.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle sat back, nodding her head in feigned understanding. Warriors. Sometimes you've just got to give them enough rope to hang themselves. “Then, if she hasn't done anything wrong and she's done her share of the work, what's your problem?”
“She's – ” Ephiny let out an exasperated huff. “Gabrielle, Xena's been – well, she's been – happy.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle tried to hide her amusement. “And, her being happy is disturbing you?”
“Quite frankly, yes. Xena's always been this bigger than life, take no prisoners, kill ‘em all type of warrior. It's what I've come to expect. This trip, though, she's been different. Most times, I think she just tolerates the Amazons because of you. But, lately, she's been almost friendly towards us. Some might even say she's actually been playful. My Gods, Gabrielle, she was whistling!”
“I'll have you know, Ephiny, Xena's a very good whistler,” Gabrielle deadpanned. “Seriously, Eph, there's more to Xena than what you see. Beneath that tough warrior veneer, she's actually a smart, funny, caring person. Did you know she's the one that insisted we come to the village to assist with the repairs?”
“You're telling me it was Xena's idea to come here?” Ephiny dubiously eyed her queen. In light of that morning's conversation with the warrior princess, Ephiny had thought Xena was only there to help at Gabrielle's insistence.
“Yep,” Gabrielle confirmed, smiling because she thought she'd made her point. “Delayed our vacation to help the Amazons.”
“Xena mentioned something about a vacation – ” Ephiny's voice trailed off as the two women she'd been watching stepped out of line and squared off against each other.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle rattled on, oblivious to the fistfight that was starting at the other end of the dining hut. “Xena made all the arrangements. And, she seems so excited. It's been forever since we've been on a real vacation.”
“Good for you, Gabrielle.” Ephiny's attention was no longer on her queen as she braced both hands on the table and pushed herself to her feet. “The only vacation I've taken lately is the repeated trip to the jail.”
Gabrielle swiveled around on the bench, her eyes widening as she saw two Amazons exchanging punches. Pursing her lips, she watched as Ephiny stormed across the dining hut, her fists clenching and unclenching at her sides, the tension visible in her shoulders and back. She winced as an errant fist caught Ephiny on the jaw, sending her reeling. And, she actually cringed as her regent slowly made it to her feet. The fighting had immediately stopped when Ephiny had been hit, both combatants standing with their bruised hands hanging limply at their sides. However, that didn't stop Ephiny from grabbing a two handfuls of material and skin and tugging them along by their halters to the nearest members of the royal guard.
“Now then, where were we?”
Gabrielle stared incredulously at her regent. Ephiny had just seemingly broken up a fight, shaken off a punch to the jaw, grabbed two ales and then, nonplussed, calmly rejoined her at their table, ready to pick up their topic of conversation.
Speaking of not really knowing someone. Oh, Ephiny had a temper. Gabrielle knew that. Hades, the entire village knew that. But for her to bust a few heads and then be so nonchalant about it -- reminds me of my warrior.
“I was saying how you shouldn't judge a scroll by its cover.”
“Oh, right.” Ephiny took a sip of her ale, wincing as the alcohol made contact with her injury. “You were trying to convince me that there's more to Xena than the big, brooding warrior.”
“There is,” Gabrielle nodded, taking a drink from the other mug of ale. If there was one thing the bard enjoyed, it was a good debate. And, debating always made her thirsty. “Remember when we first met and you kept giving me these odd looks and you wouldn't tell me why? Then, you eventually admitted it was because you couldn't figure out why a great warrior like her would be with a peasant girl like me?”
“Gabrielle, I - ”
Gabrielle held up a hand to cut off Ephiny's interruption. “It's the same thing I've been saying all along. You just don't know the real Xena.”
“Yeah, I guess not.” Ephiny took another swig of ale, swishing it around the inside of her mouth as she mulled over what Gabrielle was saying. “The Xena I know wouldn't stand for someone raising a hand to her. I take it from our earlier conversation that she didn't kill Herodotus?”
“Who'd I kill?”
Ephiny nearly jumped out of her leathers as the familiar drawl met her ears. Looking up and behind her, she saw Xena towering above her, arms crossed over her chest, blue eyes staring down at her.
“Xena, come sit by me.” Gabrielle's face instantly lit up at the sight of her mate.
Xena menacingly glared at the bug-eyed regent even as she walked around the table and slid in on the bench close to Gabrielle. Even as she took Gabrielle's mug of ale and drank from it, her eyes still threatened to bore a hole into Ephiny. Spying Xena's antics out of the corner of her eyes, nearly laughing out loud at the reaction she was causing in her regent, Gabrielle gave a backhanded slap to Xena's midsection.
The warrior princess instantly broke the gaze she had locked with Ephiny. Turning on the bench, she wrapped one arm about Gabrielle's waist, nuzzled the nape of her bard's neck. Contentedly, Gabrielle snuggled back into her lover's embrace, leaning her head against Xena's breastplate.
“How's the construction business going?” she asked, green eyes looking up the length of Xena's neck to her face.
“All but finished.” Xena bent her head, dropping a quick kiss on the tip of Gabrielle's nose. “The main work is done. All that's left are minor details. Ep and Solari are shoring up the last of the structural supports on the west wall. Once that's done, no one will be able to breech the defenses of the inner village.” There was a smug look directed at Ephiny as she added, “Not even insane, goddess-powered imbued featherheads.”
Ephiny's gaze narrowed, her jaw muscles tightened.
“Bite me, you over-muscled freak!”
“I'll kick your feathered ass from here to Athens!”
Xena and Ephiny stared at each other, heads askance, bewildered expressions adorning their faces as they both realized that neither one of them had voiced those two particular threats. Likewise, Gabrielle was also puzzled, having fully expected her warrior and her regent to go toe-to-toe over Xena's insensitive Velasca comment. Curious, queen, regent and warrior tracked the sound of raised voices outside the dining hut and into the courtyard.
To their surprise, the cause of the disturbance turned out to be Solari and Eponin. Eponin had Solari facedown on the ground, one arm twisted behind her back as she pressed a knee into the chief scout's spine. Solari's free arm flailed about wildly and she was able to reach around to dig her nails firmly into the weapons master's thigh.
The warrior princess stepped into the middle of the fray, smoothly pulling Eponin off the top of Solari and dragging both Amazons to their feet. The weapons master was a wet, bedraggled mess, water streaming from her hair, streaks of mud covering her upper arms and torso. By comparison, the chief scout was fairly dry, appearing to have only picked up residual mud and moisture from her roll on the ground with Eponin.
Xena held both the culprits in place with a firm handclasp to the backs of their necks. Ephiny started to approach them, but Gabrielle caught her by the arm, holding her back. The regent stood down. Gabrielle paced back and forth in front of the two women before finally stopping and turning to face them.
Gabrielle's tone was calm as she said, “Okay, you two want to tell me what the fighting's all about?”
There was no answer.
“Eponin? Solari? Okay then; what started it?” Again, there was no answer. “I'm surprised at the both of you. The weapons master and the chief scout, the cream of the Amazon crop brawling in the streets like a couple of drunken degenerates.”
As the duo downed their heads in shame, Gabrielle did a double-take. Eyebrows raised, she moved closer to her chief scout. And closer. And, closer still. Determinedly, Solari stood her ground, even as Gabrielle invaded her personal space. Not that she could have retreated all that far with six-foot of warrior princess standing directly behind her.
Solari's nerves were beginning to fail her. Her knees trembled and she appeared decidedly nervous as her queen's nose was practically buried in her cleavage. She let out a surprised squawk as she felt Gabrielle's fingers on the swell of her breast.
“Eponin! Are those your teeth prints on Solari's breast?!?”
The weapons master visibly flinched.
“Aww, Gabs, you don't understand,” protested Eponin, “She was asking for it. She just kept goading me on and she wouldn't stop and then she told me to bite her!”
“Ep, I can't believe you would resort to biting.”
Eponin started to say something else, but then went silent as she saw the gathered crowd staring at her, straining their ears for her answer. Wordlessly, she stared at her mud-encrusted boots. Gabrielle sensed there was something else going on. Looking around the courtyard, spying the royal guard, she gave a signal. In no time, the main square had been vacated with the exception of the queen, the regent, Xena, Eponin, Solari and a couple of guards.
“Ep?” Gabrielle stepped in front of Eponin, taking both the weapons master's hands in her own, soothingly rubbing her thumbs over the calloused palms. Solari started to open her mouth in protest, but a withering glare from Gabrielle had her biting her tongue. “Tell me, Ep; what did Solari do?”
“She – she -” Eponin helplessly gestured in Solari's direction. “Aww, Gabrielle, she was calling me names.”
“Names? What sort of names?”
“Pony. She was calling me Pony.”
“Oookaaaay,” Gabrielle drawled out, “But Xena and Ephiny call you that. I call you that. Hades, more than half the village calls you Pony.”
“Yeah, well, “ Eponin shot a disgruntled look at a smirking Solari, “No one else makes neighing sounds when they do.”
“It's your own fault, Pony,” Solari shot back, “You're the one that ducked your head into the horse trough.”
“Horse trough.” Xena snickered. “Pony.”
“Aw, don't you start, Xena. I was just trying to cool off.”
“You can both cool your heels in the jail,” Ephiny stepped in, motioning for the guard.
“Wait, Eph. I have a better idea.” A wicked smile caressed Gabrielle's lips. “Take them both down to the river and toss them in.”
“Hey!” protested Solari, “That water's ice cold, Gabrielle!”
“Good, maybe a nice swim will cool both you hotheads off.”
As the weapons master and the chief scout were escorted away by the guards, Ephiny caught the wicked gleam in Gabrielle's eyes. A shiver raced down her spine as she thought of what would have happened if she'd had the opportunity to respond to Xena's earlier taunts.
Turning, she looked up at Xena. “We okay?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Xena agreed, sagely nodding her head, “Won't be bringing up the Velasca-thing again anytime soon.”
“Me, either.” Ephiny watched the fading figures of Eponin and Solari for a few more heartbeats before turning to the warrior princess and asking, “Want to split a cask of Amazon ale?”
“Right there with ya, Eph.”
The two warriors had just opened the ale and poured their first drinks when Gabrielle settled down on the bench between them.
“Get everything settled?” Xena inquired.
“Oh, yeah. Trust me, a dunk in the river, we won't hear another peep out of those two tonight. Maybe I should make it a royal edict; keep the jails freed up.” Xena and Ephiny chuckled until Gabrielle added, “Actually, I had another idea.” The two warriors felt a similar sinking feeling in their guts as Gabrielle linked her arms through both of theirs. “I want Ephiny to go on vacation with us.”
“WHAT?!?”Both warriors shouted in unison.
Xena leaned back on the bench, shooting a glare at Ephiny behind Gabrielle's back.
“A – Actually, Gabrielle, I don't think that's such a good idea,” stammered Ephiny. At an arched look from her queen, she hastily added, “I mean, you saw what happened with Soli and Pony. I can't leave those two alone right now. One or the both of them would be dead before we reached the main gates.”
Breathing a sigh of relief at the regent's diplomatic answer, Xena took another healthy swig from her mug.
“So, we'll take them along.”
“What?!?” Xena choked, spewing her ale halfway across the room. At Gabrielle's look, she explained, “You can't do that, Gabrielle. You can't take the big three out of the village at the same time.”
“Xena, Ephiny needs a break. And, we can't leave both Ep and Solari here. And, it's not fair to take one and not the other.” At Xena's look of resignation, she confidently added, “Besides, you're the one that said no one can possibly breach the new defenses.”
“Well, yeah, but – ”
“Think of this as a test, Xena. We'll leave the captain of the guard in charge. With the support of the council of elders, of course.” Xena and Ephiny both downed their heads in defeat as Gabrielle proclaimed, “It'll be fun. Just think of it as a family vacation.”
It was a very agitated warrior princess that paced back and forth in front of the stables. In addition to Argo, she had four other horses saddled and ready to go. She paused in front of a mare made skittish by her pacing and petted its mane. As she talked to the horse in soothing tones, she cast a furtive glance at the rapidly lightening sky.
“Two candlemarks before dawn, in front of the stables. I know that's what I said.” The horses nickered in agreement. “But, of course, is anyone here? Noooooooo.”
“Relax, Xena,” Gabrielle advised, stifling a yawn as she appeared, Ephiny and Eponin beside her. They all three looked like they'd just rolled out of bed. Eponin had a severe case of bedhead, Gabrielle couldn't seem to stop yawning and Xena was pretty sure Ephiny's skirt was on backwards. “We're here.”
“You should've been here a candlemark ago. We agreed we were going to get on the road before it got too hot.” Xena continued her lecture even as she cinched up the saddles on the horses, all three bleary-eyed Amazons just standing back and watching her work. As Xena got to the last horse, she stopped, suddenly asking, “Where's Solari?”
“Here. I'm here. Don't leave without me.”
The warrior turned; ready to give the scout a piece of her mind. Out of all the Amazons, she at least expected the chief scout to be used to rising early. Then, she saw that Solari's left leg was heavily bandaged and she was using a set of crutches.
“Solari! What happened?” Gabrielle asked in concern.
“Tripped,” supplied Eponin. “On the way back from the river last night. Eagle-eyed scout didn't see the tree root stretched out in front of the path.”
Mahogany eyes narrowed as Solari glared at Eponin. “I was pushed.”
“Doesn't matter,” Xena smoothly interjected, “You can't go with us.”
“What? Why not; I'm here, aren't I?”
“Doesn't matter. You're not going.”
“Aww, come on. You know what it's like for a scout to be on crutches? There's nothing to do all day. I mean, nothing. No scouting, no tree climbing, no patrolling, no nothing. Please, please, you gotta take me with you.”
“Solari, you can't even mount a horse, let alone ride it.” Xena gestured at the bandage that started at Solari's ankle and ran the length of her entire leg, disappearing somewhere beneath her short skirt. “You'll have to stay behind.”
“That's not fair. Pony pushed me. Why does she get to go and I don't?” Solari turned pleading eyes to her regent and queen. “Come on, you can't just leave me here.”
Gabrielle's heart melted. She turned to Xena. With a defeated sigh, the warrior gave in.
Anything for Gabrielle, right? “Fine. We'll take a wagon. Ep, help me unsaddle the horses and hitch up the wagon.”
Gabrielle, Ephiny and Solari all patiently watched the warriors work for a total of three heartbeats before declaring, “Well, as long as we're taking a wagon, I'm going to the dining hut to pack up some extra food for the trip” and “There are a few things I want to grab from my hut” and “That reminds me, I wanted to take some trinkets the craftswomen made to barter along the way.”
And, before Xena could utter a word of protest, everyone else was gone.
A single horse struggled to pull the wagon down the well-traveled road. Xena sat up front, her boots propped up on the buckboard, the reins held loosely in her grasp. Beside her sat Gabrielle, studiously working on a scroll she'd brought along. The back of the wagon was filled to overflowing with supplies and packs. Three Amazons were perched precariously on top of the load, fingers digging into the material of the packs so they wouldn't bounce out of the wagon.
Eponin nudged Solari. “Hey, pass me some water.”
Solari slowly lowered the water bag from her lips. “Drink your own.”
The ebony-haired warrior held up her bag, shaking it. “It's empty. Must've had a hole in it.”
“Only hole around here's in your head if you think I'm gonna share with you.”
“Solari,” Ephiny cut in, “Just give her some of your water.”
“Not my fault big, dumb warrior drank all hers the first quarter-mile. Scouts are smart enough to know to conserve water when traveling.”
At the look Ephiny shot her, Solari reluctantly passed her water bag to Eponin. The weapons master placed the opening to her lips, tentatively tasting at first. Then, she upended the bag and began to swig down the contents. In a panic, Solari snatched the water bag away from her. Retreating to the far side of the wagon with her bag, she uncorked it, peering inside. To her dismay, she discovered Pony had finished off all but a couple of swallows.
“Damn you, Pony! Eph said to share; not for you to drink it all!” She started to lift the water bag to her lips, then stopped, suspiciously eyeing the rim. “You didn't backwash, did you?”
Eponin stuck her tongue out at Solari in retaliation.
A few heartbeats of silence passed. Then –
“Hey,” Eponin twisted about until she could tap Xena on the shoulder, “pass me some water.”
“Pony, if you just drank all that water, I don't think you should have anymore right now,” drawled out Xena.
“Aww, come on, it's hot and I'm thirsty.”
“You wouldn't be so hot so soon if we'd left when I'd wanted. There's a reason for mapping out a schedule. Things work when the schedule's followed.” Eponin tried to reach around the warrior. Xena defensively moved her water bag beneath her feet, well out of Eponin's reach. “Pony, you'll make yourself sick, drinking that much water.”
“I'm thirsty.” Pony sat glaring at Xena's back for a while before declaring, “It's hotter than Tartarus, Xena. How in Hades' name can you dress in full warrior princess gear and not have a drop of sweat on ya?”
“I've been to Tartarus, Pony. The heat here is nothing once you've sunbathed upon the fiery shores of the River Styx.”
“Thanks for the visual, Xena,” Pony grumbled, “Now I'm even thirstier.”
Gabrielle reached beneath her seat, pulling out her water bag, “Here, Ep, you can have mine.”
“Thanks, Gabrielle,” Eponin quickly snagged the water bag before Xena could prevent Gabrielle from giving it to her. She settled back on the mound of cloth she was riding on and happily uncorked the water bag.
Another half-candlemark passed before Xena heard, “Pull over, I've gotta pee.”
“Oh, gods. Oh, gods.” Ephiny screwed her eyes tightly shut as another wave of nausea passed over her.
Eponin crouched over Ephiny's back, holding her hair back from her face as she hung her head over the side of the wagon. As her regent made loud retching noises and pleaded with Artemis for mercy, Pony tried cooing words of encouragement in her ear.
At last, Ephiny lifted her head, wiping the last bit of spittle from her mouth with the back of her hand. Turning over, she found herself looking up into concerned eyes.
Pony produced a mostly empty bag of water, held it to Ephiny's lips. Ephiny eyed it dubiously, about to ask if that was the bag with the backwash before she decided she just didn't care and drank from it, anyway.
“You okay, Eph?” Eponin asked.
“Kill me now, Pony. Just kill me now.”
Gabrielle turned back around in her seat. Touching Xena's forearm to garner her attention, she said, “Ephiny's got motion sickness. Can we pull over until her stomach has a chance to settle?”
Xena flicked an irritated glance at the back of the wagon.
“Whoa,” she instructed the horse, pulling firmly on the reins.
Climbing down out of the driver's seat, she walked around the wagon to the passenger's side. Peering in, looking long and hard at the regent that looked like death warmed over, she leaned in and asked, in a voice so low that only the regent could hear, “Eph, if you know you get sick traveling, why did you have eggs and goat's milk for breakfast?”
“I – I don't usually get motion sickness.”
Xena folded her arms over her chest, “So, this is just my lucky day?”
Soaked in perspiration, breathing heavily, it took all the regent's strength just to prop herself up on her elbows. Only through sheer determination was she able to tumble out of the wagon. Standing on shaking legs, she managed to take several steps in the direction they'd traveled from.
Gabrielle leapt from the wagon, chasing after Ephiny and catching her. “Where are you going, Ephiny?” she asked, looking from regent to warrior and back again, “What's going on?”
“Xena's made it clear she doesn't want us along.” Tossing a look at a curious Pony and Solari peering out from the bed of the wagon, she said, “Come on, we're walking home.”
Without another word, the two Amazons began climbing out of the wagon.
“Eph!” Gabrielle reached out, grabbing her regent's arm, twirling her back around. “Wait.”
“Let her go, Gabrielle.” Xena fixed Ephiny with an icy glare. “If the Amazons don't want to be here, then I'm not gonna force them to be.”
Gabrielle motioned for Xena to follow her. As they stepped to the side of the road, Gabrielle lowered her voice, hissing out between clenched teeth, “You've got an attitude? We're supposed to be on vacation and you've already got an attitude?” Exhaling loudly, brushing her hair back from her face, Gabrielle declared, “Fine. If this is the way you're going to act this entire trip, take me back to the village.”
“You heard me. Like it or not, I'm an Amazon. And, you saying you don't want the Amazons to be here, well, that's saying you don't want me here, either. Take me back.”
“Gabrielle.” The Amazon Queen gave the warrior a deadly look. “Gabrielle.” She pushed past Xena, storming down the road, passing Ephiny standing in the middle of the trail. “Fine!” Xena stomped over to Ephiny, begrudgingly applying pressure points to the regent's wrist to ward off the motion sickness. “Fine, Gabrielle, the Amazons can come along!”
“You stop it.”
“Will you stop it?”
Xena let loose at the top of her lungs, “Both of you stop it!”
Gabrielle's eyes flew open as Xena's shout startled her awake. Looking around, she tried to figure out what had caused her warrior to yell. Checking the back of the wagon, she saw the perturbed looks on the faces of both Solari and Eponin. Ephiny was still dead to the world, having passed out from exhaustion the instant she'd climbed back into the wagon.
“What's going on back there?”
Eponin held up a damp cloth in one hand. “I'm trying to take care of Ephiny and Solari won't get out of my way.”
“I was trying to take care of her first.” Solari held up a wet cloth of her own in evidence.
“Gods help me,” Xena turned around, glaring at the squabbling Amazons, “Don't make me pull this wagon over.”
“Where are we gonna eat?”
Gabrielle patted Xena's thigh as she saw her warrior's teeth grind as the question was raised. Calmly, she turned around in her seat, addressing her chief scout.
“Solari, there's lots of extra food back there I packed so we could eat without stopping. You know, maybe just snack on along the way? Why don't you dig around and see what you can find?”
“Sure thing, Gabrielle.”
Solari rummaged around for a long time, looking in this pack and that, moving around as best she could with her injured leg. Occasionally, Xena would hit a bump in the road, sending the scout sprawling across the back of the wagon. This went while, finally prompting Xena to bite her to tongue to keep from yelling at the scout to just park it!
Finally, crackers and cheese were passed around, each of the wagon's occupants getting a small portion. Xena was just starting to relax again when she heard, “Gabrielle, Pony's sitting on the grapes.”
Gabrielle had changed positions with Eponin, moving into the back of the wagon in an effort to keep her from bickering with Solari. That, of course, had only prompted the line of questioning as to why Pony was the one that got to sit up front. Gabrielle and Ephiny endured the endless whining and cajoling from Solari and the smug looks and gloating from Eponin.
Within a candlemark's time, it was Solari in the front seat with Xena and Eponin riding in the back with Ephiny and Gabrielle.
In light of the full-length bandage encompassing her leg, Solari found sitting upright to be very uncomfortable. On top of that, she kept looking back over her shoulder in annoyance. It seemed that Ephiny and Gabrielle had finally found comfortable positions. No longer were they precariously riding on top of the packs piled in the wagon. Eponin had rearranged the load, moving bags around until she had burrowed out what looked like a rodent's nest.
A very large rodent, Solari groused, as Eponin was now leaning back on the packs as if she were lounging in luxury. Even worse, Gabrielle and Ephiny had joined her in her nest, one on each side, snuggling down. Eponin looked from side to side at the two blondes with their heads cradled on her shoulders. Then, looking directly at Solari, she broadly grinned – then stuck out her tongue.
“Will you settle down?” Xena's hand clamped over Solari's thigh.
“I can't get comfortable,” Solari complained, squirming on her seat.
“Well, I'm not pulling this wagon over so you can switch with Ep again. We're already far enough behind schedule.”
They rode along in silence, listening to the birds chirping in the trees and the other sounds of the open road. Solari surreptitiously shifted again.
Xena sniffed. “Solari, was that you?”
“Sorry. Was hoping you'd think it was a skunk.”
“Don't think I've ever smelled a skunk that bad.”
Not another word was said for several more miles until a sound echoed along the wooden boards of the seat.
“Sorry.” Solari tried to fan the odor away. “I think the cheese must have gone bad.”
“Would you stop it, already?” an exasperated Eponin turned around in the front seat and glared at Solari.
“It's not her fault,” Ephiny defended the scout.
“Hey, Xena. Could you back up?” asked Solari through gritted teeth. “I think you might have missed a rut back there.”
“Sorry. Trying to be as gentle as possible,” responded Xena.
“Ah, quit bein' such a wimp and warrior up!” Eponin tossed back over her shoulder.
“Pony, stop it.” Gabrielle chimed in. She was sitting cross-legged in the back of the wagon, holding Solari's injured leg on her lap in an effort to keep down the jarring sensations. “I still don't understand how two such fine warriors as yourself and Xena let us be robbed by common highwaymen.”
“Well, if someone hadn't insisted we keep our weapons in the back of the wagon, because after all, we are on vacation . . .” was grumbled beneath a warrior's breath.
“Look, given how things have been going this trip,” Ephiny said, “We're just lucky no one got hurt. All the things they took can be replaced. Lives can't.”
Everyone sat silently, mulling over Ephiny's words of wisdom. Then, as a particularly foul odor filled the air, Solari said, “Hey, maybe it's a good thing they stole the cheese.”
The tavern was smoky, loud and hot. But, Gabrielle and Ephiny were grateful beyond words to sit on a bench that didn't move beneath them. Finishing off the last of their dinner, they lingered over a pitcher of mead and conversation.
“So, Gabrielle, you never finished telling me.” Ephiny cautiously checked over both shoulders before leaning in and asking, “What did Xena do to Herodotus?”
“Xena did – ” Ephiny's face scrunched up “ – absolutely nothing? She just let him hit her?”
“Exactly. Ephiny, I've never seen anything like it before. He hit her as hard as she could and she just popped her neck and shrugged it off. Then, she told me she wouldn't stand between me and family.” There was a bittersweet smile as Gabrielle confessed, “I think she'd barely gotten five paces out the door before I was running after her.”
“And your mother, your sister; Have you seen them, heard from them?”
“No. They won't go against father.” Gabrielle morosely shook her head, took another swig of mead. “Besides, life on the road makes it kind of hard to find us sometimes.”
“Don't I know it? But, I'm sure you miss them?”
“Well, yeah. But, I've been gone from home a long time now, Eph. Sometimes, I can't even remember what it was like to really live there. Bits and pieces are clear, but mostly, I just remember my life starting when I met Xena.”
“Wow. That's some kind of powerful love, Gabrielle.” There was a wistful look, then Ephiny whispered, “Wish I had a love like that.”
“Ah, but I think you can, Eph.” Ephiny warily eyed her friend. She knew of Gabrielle's reputation of matchmaking. “You can. I've seen the way a certain weapons master looks at you.”
“Eponin?” Ephiny shook her head in disbelief. “She only has eyes for her sword and her staff.”
“And, a certain curly-haired regent.” Gabrielle reached out, twirling a finger about one of Ephiny's corkscrew curls. “You ever think there might be a reason she's on the practice fields all the time? Why she always asks you to spar with her?”
Blonde eyebrows rose in surprise, nearly touching the leather braiding of Ephiny's crown, “You're telling me the reason Pony's constantly whacking me with a staff is because she likes me?”
“That, too. Calling her Pony. You started that. And, she let you get away with it because it's you. Trust me, Eph, she wants you bad.”
“I don't know.”
Gabrielle sat back, smiling behind her mug of mead as she realized that Ephiny had gone from firm rejection of Eponin to actually considering the idea.
“Just keep an open mind, Eph, that's all I ask. Just watch. You'll see what I'm talking about.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Eponin as she and Xena approached the table and slid onto the benches.
“Oh, um, nothing,” Ephiny stammered.
Xena and Eponin gave each other wary looks. Then, with a shrug of their shoulders, they reported in. “Got the Valerian root for Solari and already made her drink it. She's passed out in the back of the wagon and ready to go.” Xena snatched Gabrielle's mug, taking a healthy drink. “How about you two? Ready?”
“Yeah. Just waiting for you to settle the bill so we can get out of here.” There was a stony look from the warrior. “What?” Gabrielle asked.
“I – uh – the Valerian root was more than I thought it would be.”
“You didn't haggle, did you? You never haggle. See; this is why I should've gone with you.” Folding her arms over her chest, glaring at the warrior, she accused, “You spent all our dinars, didn't you?”
“Hang on, Gabrielle. I've got money.” Ephiny reached for the coin purse she usually kept tied about her waist. Her face fell as she realized, “In my pack that was in the wagon when it was robbed.”
“Great.” Gabrielle leveled a look at Xena. “How are we going to pay for lunch?”
“They've got a Bard Wanted sign posted.”
“Hey, Gabrielle,” Eponin leaned over the back of the wagon seat as she addressed her queen, “That was a really great tale you told about Theseus and the Minotaur.”
“Thanks, Pony. It's been a while since I told that story, but any tale under pressure, right?”
“So, the people of Crete really kept the string Theseus used?”
“As far as I know, Ep. Legend is that it's the known world's largest ball of twine.”
“Huh.” Pony sat back on her haunches, mulling that one over for a while. “Think if I was them, I would've kept the Minotaur.”
“I think they ate it, Pony,” Xena deadpanned.
“Still, that had to be a lot of twine that Theseus used to find his way back out of the labyrinth. I think I'd like to see that.”
“We're not lost.”
“Xena, generally when someone doesn't know where they are, that means they're lost.”
“Gabrielle, I've already told you, we're not lost. I know this terrain like the back of my hand. My army passed through here ten years ago.”
Eponin braced herself on her forearm, leaned across the wagon seat, head bouncing back and forth between Xena and Gabrielle. “You know, Xena, it just occurred to me. You did an awful lot of stuff ten years ago. I mean, every time you tell a story, you say it was ten years ago.”
Gabrielle wisely chose to interrupt Eponin's observations. “Xena, no offense, but landscape can change a lot in ten years.”
“Look, we'll be fine.” Xena cast a wary gaze overhead at the thickening storm clouds. “We're just temporarily separated from the road.”
“In other words, lost.”
“Fine. But, we wouldn't be lost if someone,” a look was directed at Gabrielle, “hadn't told this one, “ a jerk of the head in Pony's direction, “that the web Arachne spun when Athena turned her into the known world's largest spider was around here.”
“That was really great.” Eponin grinned at the memory. Then cringing, she tossed back over her shoulder, “Really sorry about getting you all tangled up there, Eph.”
“Yeah, Pony, no problem,” Ephiny winced as she used a fine-toothed comb to rake the tangled mess out of her hair.
“Maybe we could just burn the Amazons' grass skirts as a signal fire,” suggested Xena, “Someone will see the smoke and come investigating.”
“Half naked Amazons wandering around the countryside?” Gabrielle pretended to mull that one over. “Might actually start a riot.”
“Hey, I'm willing to give it a try if you are.”
“Xena,” Gabrielle commanded, “Pull the wagon over and ask for directions.”
Perspiration rolled down Gabrielle's body, liberally coating her in sticky wetness. Glistening in the soft glow from the candlelight, casting a slick sheen over bare arms and legs. Gathering at the back of her bent knees, soaking into the lightweight bedsheets. Pooling beneath her breasts, causing the thin shift to provocatively cling to her frame.
Shifting the scroll she was reading to one hand, Gabrielle distractedly repositioned the down-filled pillow at her back. The scroll was one of those steamy romance parchments they sold in the lobbies of select inns. She'd thought long and hard about it, but finally decided that since it was her bardly skills that had earned the dinars that was funding this trip, she deserved to buy a little something for herself. Judging from the little bit she'd read so far, it had been more than worth the price she'd paid.
The scroll was, without a doubt, steamy. But, it wasn't just a sultry sex scroll that had Gabrielle sweating. The scroll was hot. The weather, though, was sweltering.
Without taking her eyes from the parchment, Gabrielle reached for the bedside stand, retrieving the pitcher of water and refilling the contents of her wooden tumbler. She drank heartily, wetting her parched throat. Better, but she still wasn't sated. Even the water was warm . . . unbearably warm.
Think cool, Gabrielle. Don't let the heat beat you. Winter cool. Snow blizzard cool.
Gabrielle took another drink, placing the edge of the tumbler against her lips, allowing the cool liquid to spill from her mouth and down her chin. The water wasn't enough to sate her thirst, but it did at least bring some relief to her overheated flesh. Tilting her head back, the water languidly ran down her chin, her throat, soaking into the neckline of her shift and between her breasts.
Green eyes a deeper hue than Artemis' forest blinked open. Xena was leaning against the doorframe, arms folded across her chest. She'd obviously just returned from the baths and hadn't taken the time to dry off before donning her leathers. Water still streamed from her ebony locks and droplets beaded up on her long, lean body.
Seeing the hunger in Gabrielle's eyes, feeling the need emanating from her stare, Xena crossed the room with a smirk and a confident swagger. One knee upon the bed, Xena leaned in, her lips just grazing those of her bard. As Gabrielle arched to pursue the kiss, Xena dipped her head, her mouth closing instead upon a supple neck. Her tongue worked quickly, licking up every last droplet of water from Gabrielle's exposed throat.
“Mmmm, Xena.” Gabrielle gasped as skilled fingers worked their way beneath her shift. “You're certainly -. Her breath hitched and the bard had to uncharacteristically search for a suitable word. “enthusiastic . . .”
“Gabrielle, even the waters from the coldest sea couldn't cool my passion for you.”
“And bad prose, too.” Gabrielle pushed against Xena's shoulders, putting some space between their bodies and eyeing her suspiciously. “You and Eponin go on a bender again?”
“No.” There was a subtle brow arch at Gabrielle's look of disbelief. “What; can't I just be in a good mood?”
“The way you've been acting on this trip; no. So give, warrior princess, what's going on?”
“Well, I was just figuring,” Xena placed another kiss on Gabrielle's collarbone, “Even with all the delays; if we get an early enough start tomorrow, we can make up some time and get back on schedule.”
Xena nudged the neckline of Gabrielle's shift out of the way, laved an elongated nipple.
“Xena? How early?”
The warrior never got a chance to answer as the door to their room was flung open and two Amazons marched inside, followed by one on crutches. Flinging some borrowed bedding down on the floor, Ephiny shot Xena a defiant look. “What? There's a Sappho convention in town. All the other rooms are taken.”
“So, go bed down in the stables,” growled out Xena.
“With the way Solari's been making Pony-and-horse cracks? No way.”
Xena let out a frustrated groan and let her head fall against Gabrielle's shoulder.
Gabrielle emerged from a trip to the bushes to find Ephiny and Xena squared off in the middle of the road, each of them with a hand upon the horse's bridle, their voices raised in anger. Adjusting her skirt, walking up to the two warriors, she asked, “What's going on?”
“She says she won't go back,” Ephiny accused, glaring at Xena and openly spitting at the warrior princess' boot.
“Whoa, easy there, Eph.” Gabrielle caught the murderous look in Xena's eye and tugged Ephiny out of the way before the infamous pinch could be applied. “Go back where?”
“To the inn.”
“The inn's half a day away. Why would we -.” Gabrielle looked back at the wagon to see Solari hanging over the side, waggling her fingers at her in greeting. Distractedly, Gabrielle returned the wave. “ – Wait. Where's Pony?”
“Back at the inn.” Ephiny pointed an accusing finger at Xena. “Where you left her.”
“If you knew she wasn't with us, Amazon Regent, why didn't you say something before we were twenty miles down the road?” asked Xena, smugly.
“Because – ” Ephiny's face reddened as she admitted, “Because we were up late last night talking and . . . .kissing . . .:”
“Oh, Eph!” Gabrielle pulled the regent into a hug. “That's so great!”
“Yeah, it was. But, I was so tired this morning. I just climbed into the bed of the wagon and went to sleep. I didn't know until we stopped and I woke up and – Oh, Gods, Gabrielle, she probably hates me!”
Gabrielle shot Xena the look. “You wouldn't go back for my underwear because of your precious schedule. I can understand that. But, are you seriously going to stand here and tell me you wouldn't go back for my weapons master?”
Xena stubbed the toe of her boot in the dust. “I offered to stop and pick her up on the way back.”
“Xena,” Ephiny managed through body-wracking sobs. “There's a saying in my tribe: No Amazon left behind.”
“Yeah, well,” Xena grinned, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet as she said, “Maybe this Amazon should be, ya know what I'm saying?”
Xena's ill-humored joke only caused the regent to cry that much harder.
“Shush. It's okay, Ephiny.” Gabrielle hugged the distraught Amazon, guiding her into the wagon. Glowering at Xena, she commanded, “Turn this wagon around. Now.”
“Damn it!” Xena cursed, kicking at a wagon wheel. “We already lost enough time going back for Pony.”
“It's no use.” Ephiny released the stallion's foreleg with a note of resignation. “Horse has gone lame.”
“Are you sure, Eph?” asked Gabrielle, wrapping her arms about herself in helpless frustration.
“If there's one thing Ephiny knows about, it's horses,” Solari's voice drifted up from the back of the wagon where she was laying sprawled out atop their packs, “Phantes. Pony.”
“Why, you – ”
Before Eponin could clobber the scout, she felt Xena's hand clamp down around her fist. “Valerian root,” she coolly reminded the weapons master. “Kills the pain, but makes you wackier than Gabrielle on henbane. Just ignore her.”
“Xena, what are we going to do?” Gabrielle forlornly looked around at their desolate surroundings. “We're in the middle of nowhere. We haven't seen so much as a single farmhouse since I don't know when.”
Blue eyes swept the horizon. Of course, having passed this way before, she already knew Gabrielle was right. “We'll have to walk.”
“Solari can't walk in the condition she's in. Hades, Xena, I don't think she can even stand.”
“Hey,” protested the chief scout. “I can so, too.” Bracing her hands on the side of the wagon, her injured leg stretched out behind her, she pushed herself upright. Then, toppled right over the side, landing face first in the dirt. Solari rolled herself over until she was on her back. She turned her head this way and that, dark brown eyes rapidly blinking in confusion as looked up at the underbelly of the horse. Boldly staring, she pronounced with a wide grin, “Phantes! We were just talking about you.”
Wordlessly, Xena walked up to Solari. Bending down, she grabbed the scout by the front of her belt and her halter. Tossing her over her shoulder, she carried the brunette to the rear of the wagon and threw her in. Using a rope, she tied the scout's wrist to the tailgate so she wouldn't be able to fall out again.
By this time, Ephiny had the horse unhitched from the wagon and led it away to graze on some grass.
“Come on, Ep, I guess there's nothing else for it.”
Stepping into position, Xena took up the horse's place and picked up the yoke of the wagon. With a resigned sigh, Eponin joined her. Ephiny and Gabrielle quickly climbed into the front seat of the wagon. Working together, the two warriors pulled in tandem, tugging the wagon and its cargo along behind them with each step they took.
As they got up a pretty good speed, a neighing sound followed by Solari shouting, “Giddy-up Pony!” rang in their ears.
“Xena, please stop,” Gabrielle pleaded, latching onto one of the warrior's princess' hands and firmly tugging, “Please.”
With a long-suffering sigh, Xena abruptly halted. Gabrielle was so caught off-guard that she plowed into Xena's backside before stopping.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, rubbing her aching nose as she took two paces back.
“What is it this time, Gabrielle?” There was a coldness to Xena's voice as she asked, “Someone have to go potty? Diarrhea? Upset stomach? Fighting over the last slice of nutbread?” Pinching the bridge of her nose to ward off the looming explosion, she asked, “What could it possibly be now?”
“You're walking too fast.”
Xena just stared.
“You've got legs as long as Mt. Olympus is tall and you've been setting a boot-burning pace ever since the axle on the wagon broke.”
“I've already told you, Gabrielle, I couldn't fix the axle. We've got no choice but to walk.”
“Walking, I understand, Xena. Fine.” Gabrielle placed a hand on a jutted hip. “But, walking went out the window leagues ago. I've been steadily jogging just to maintain your pace. And, poor Solari can't keep up at all.”
Xena glanced back the way they'd come. Barely visible in the distance, she could just make out the silhouettes of two Amazons walking side by side. And, another trailing behind them, obviously struggling, hobbling along on a set of crutches.
“Could always leave her.”
Xena's tone belied the fact that she wasn't entirely joking.
“That way, she could travel at her own pace. She can meet up with us at the gambling tables once she gets there.” At Gabrielle's disgruntled look, there was a pronounced batting of innocent eyes. “What? We're on a - ”
“ – Schedule. I know.” Gabrielle glanced back down the road. The Amazons were gaining ground, but they still had some time for a private discussion before they caught up. “Xena, you've been obsessing over this vacation since the start. What is it about this trip that is so important?”
Xena chewed her bottom lip, mumbling something incoherent.
“What?” Gabrielle cocked her head to one side. “Xena, I can't hear your words if you won't open your mouth.”
There was a loud sigh, then a grumble before Xena answered with, “I just wanted to make you happy, Gabrielle. Ever since we went to see your family and they turned their backs on you -”
“You've been feeling guilty, haven't you?” Gabrielle guessed.
“I know what it's like for your family to turn against you, Gabrielle.” Xena stared down at her feet as she admitted, “I don't want you to hate me for coming between you and your family.”
“Xena, that's sweet.” Gabrielle came to her, using her fingers to cup Xena's chin and lift it until their eyes met. “But, you didn't come between us. I chose you over them.” There was a half-smile before she asked in a gentle voice, “Is that why you've been so fanatical about this vacation? You've been trying to take my mind off what happened in Potadeia?”
“Well, yeah.” Xena picked at some imaginary lint on her battledress. “I just wanted us to get away for a while, you know, just you and me, someplace special. I wanted you to have some – fun.”
“Oh, Xena, this vacation stopped being fun days ago.” Gabrielle looked back down the trail. The three Amazons were still plodding along as best they could. “Look, Xena, we're all exhausted. What say we just call it quits and skip the happiest place in the known world this time, huh? We passed through a cute little port town about a day's travel back the other direction. I've got some dinars left. We could get a room at an inn near the beach.”
“Gabrielle, that little port town was a day's travel when we still had the wagon – before the horse went lame. Look, I promise it's not that much further. Let's just push ahead, okay?”
“That's what you said when the axle broke, Xena. That it wasn't that much further.”
“Well, we're closer now than we were then.” Xena looked ahead at the path they were on. It meandered over several hills and valleys, disappearing into the far horizon. “It's only another hillock or so.”
Gabrielle had also heard that particular phrase before. Dubiously, she eyed the same path Xena had been checking out. It seemed to her that it traveled up one hill, then down another before climbing at a slightly steeper incline with each new hill they came to. She was already bone-weary, her feet throbbing, pleading with her to refuse to take so much as another step. But then, saw the look in those blue eyes and the well-executed pout and before she knew what she was saying the words came tumbling out of her mouth, “Lead on, Xena.”
“This is it.” Xena whispered in awe, realization settling in as she trudged the last few steps up the steep incline.
Feeling a renewed sense of vigor coursing through her, she caught Gabrielle's hand in hers and firmly squeezed. Gabrielle patted her warrior's bicep in support. Clearly elated, Xena turned, looking at the bedraggled, exhausted trio of Amazons trailing along behind them.
“This is it, featherheads. We're here! Come on, let's go.” Even as Xena herded on the Amazons, she continued to walk backwards up the incline, Gabrielle's hand firmly wrapped in hers, guiding her. As they crested the ridge, Xena swept out her arms, proudly proclaiming, “Welcome to the happiest place in the known world!”
The three Amazons trudged the last few steps up the steep slope, unable to summon up any more reserves of energy even as the warrior princess impatiently waited for them. As they at last crested the ridge and got their first sight of the valley below, their jaws dropped open in shock.
“Xena?” Gabrielle tugged on Xena's hand.
“I know, isn't it great?” Xena asked, a big grin on her face as she turned around.
Time slowed as the warrior's eyes went wide and her face fell. The entire valley was shrouded in darkness. There were no trees, no grass, no sprawling fields of grapes, nothing. Only a thick, suffocating blackness covering everything. A stale wind swept through, blowing layers of ash about like grisly snowdrifts.
“Xena?” Ephiny stepped up beside her. “What are we supposed to be looking at?”
“The city.” Xena helplessly gestured. “There was a city there.”
Solari rolled her head on her shoulders, readjusted her crutches beneath her arms. “Xena, there's nothing down there. You sure we're not . . . “ A withering glare had Solari censoring her suggestion into “temporarily misplaced again?”
“No, no, this is the right place.” Xena spun around checking her surroundings. “I remember that gnarled tree over there. And, there on the horizon, that's the coastline. No, we're definitely in the right place.”
“We can't be, Xena.” Pony protested, subtly squeezing Ephiny's hand in reassurance.
Ephiny swallowed harshly against the lump swelling in her throat. She, too, wanted to believe they'd taken another wrong turn, but something inside her knew differently. She leaned into Eponin, seeking the support of her weapons master's sturdier frame. In a trembling voice, she said, “Whole cities don't just disappear.”
Gabrielle's voice was just as unsteady as she turned to her warrior for answers. “By the Gods, what happened here, Xena?”
“I don't know the answer, Gabrielle.” Then, spying an elderly man coming along the path, dragging a mule behind him, she said, “But I think I know who might.”
She waited until the man drew even with them before stepping into his way. “Hey,” she stopped him with a well-placed handclasp on his shoulder. “What happened to the city, old man?”
“You don't know?” The man looked startled by the question. “Mount Vesuvius erupted. The lava blew the top right off the volcano and completely buried Pompeii.” As Xena and the Amazons open-mouthed gaped at him, the man extracted himself from Xena's grasp and continued on his way down the path. As he walked away, he was shaking his head and mumbling, “Tourists.”
Xena sat at the top of the ridge, staring down at the valley below. Idly, she picked up pebbles from the path and one by one, chunked them at the sea of ash. The Amazons wisely kept their distance, choosing to give Xena her space. Only Gabrielle approached the brooding warrior, nudging her with her shoulder as she sat down beside her.
“Hey, keep that up, there won't be any path left.” When that didn't elicit a response, or even stop Xena from chunking more pebbles, Gabrielle reached out, capturing Xena's hand. Smoothly, she removed the pebble, tossing it aside before interweaving their fingers. “Hey, you okay?”
Xena morosely shook her head. “I let you down.”
“Xena, it's not your fault. Family vacations rarely go according to plan.” Gabrielle paused, thinking back. “You know, I can't remember as a child a single one not having some sort of mishap.”
“Gabrielle, I took us on a vacation to nowhere.”
“Excuse me, Miss Warrior Princess, is one of your many skills the ability to predict volcanic eruptions? I didn't think so.” Then, seeing that Xena wasn't yet at the place where she could joke, she added, “Your carefully planned vacation didn't pan out. And, that's okay. It's not the destination that's important, Xena, it's the journey. And, I wouldn't want to take this journey with anyone else but you.”
As Gabrielle leaned in and kissed her on the cheek, a chorus of smooching sounds and awww 's went up from the Amazons. Xena ducked her head, blushing a bit, a goofy smile on her face. A look over her shoulder at Ephiny, Solari and Eponin soon had the trio pointing at the sky and innocently commenting over the cloud patterns and whether it looked like rain.
“Damn Amazons,” Xena grumbled, “Should've left them at home.”
“You know, warrior, if we hadn't brought the kids along, we would've kept to your schedule.”
“Damn right we would have,” Xena proudly declared, “I know how to make a good traveling schedule.”
“Yep, you certainly do.” Gabrielle sagely nodded her head, turned to look out over the ruined valley again. “Course if we had, we would've been here when the volcano erupted. We would've been buried in all that ash covering Pompeii.” Glancing back at Xena, she pointed out, “Bringing my damn Amazons along probably saved our lives.”
“Damn.” Xena huffed beneath her breath. “Damn.”
They sat in silence for several heartbeats, both contemplating their journey, all that they had endured, how lucky they each were. Xena pulled Gabrielle into her embrace, contentedly holding onto her bard. Her soulmate; the woman that continually pulled her back from the brink by seeing the good in everything, even in her.
“You've grown wise beyond your years, bard.”
Gabrielle leaned back into Xena, languidly stretching out in her embrace. Looking up into a relaxed face, realizing she could at last tease, she said, “And, you've gotten smart enough to appreciate that, warrior.”
A commotion down the hill disrupted the romantic moment. Solari was hopping on one foot, holding one of her crutches out in front of her in defense. Eponin was holding the other, twirling it like a staff, threatening to clobber the scout. Ephiny rushed to step between them, hands held up as she pleaded with them to stop. She was too late to stop Eponin's initial swing, though, and the regent went down as the crutch clipped her on the chin. Instantly, Eponin and Solari were on their knees beside Ephiny, both profusely apologizing to the unconscious regent.
Seeing the troubled look on her partner's face, Xena nudged her, asking, “What are you thinking, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle let out an exasperated sigh. “That we're gonna have to take them back with us.”
That elicited a bawdy laugh from Xena. Until, having overheard the conversation, she was bombarded by suggestions from the Amazons.
“Hey, since we're not on a schedule anymore, I know a great brothel house we can stop back by.”
“I've always wanted to visit Lesbos.”
“What about a pilgrimage to the Temple of Hestia? There's supposed to be over thirty virgins living there. I've never seen that many virgins all in one place.”
“What about the training academy in Athens?”
“Crete. I still want to see the known world's biggest ball of twine.”
“Oh, Gods.” Xena dropped her head into her hands, “It's gonna be a long trip.”