DISCLAIMER: Story mine/characters not.
Please feed the bard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"I mean, I've hit smaller targets dead center on the first try, so I figured I wasn't really risking anything."
"Except my virtue," said Solari.
"Exactly. I wasn't risking anything of value. Anyway, we agreed - "
" - you agreed."
Eponin shot Solari a pointed look that said further interruptions would be neither appreciated nor tolerated. Spying the sharp knife that Ep was waggling back and forth, Solari discreetly hid both hands beneath her thighs. Ep gave a satisfied smirk before continuing her story.
"They set the target to swinging back and forth. I'd already had a few mugs and I wasn't sure I could hit it, but I stepped to the line and drew back my knife and - "
" - and?" Xena gestured impatiently when the weapons master's voice trailed off midsentence.
Hairs on the back of her neck standing on end, Xena slowly turned her head and looked behind her. Then, up. Gabrielle and Ephiny were standing side by side, arms folded over their chests as they glared at the three women sitting cross-legged on the grass.
Xena knew that look. She'd seen it more than once. A dark brow furrowed, trying to figure out what she'd done wrong this time. Blue eyes drifted to the sky and the rapidly setting sun.
"Uh-oh. Guess we lost track of time."
Hands were on bardly hips, but there was no real anger in Gabrielle's eyes. After all, she'd been the one to suggest to Xena that she spend time bonding with the Amazons while she and Eph were stuck in council meetings all day. She could hardly fault Xena for having friends. Still, would it have killed her to remember we were supposed to meet for dinner?
"Looks like the whole armory is out here." Ephiny sat down on the grass beside the weapons master. "You expecting just one legion or the entire Roman army, Pony?"
"There's not that much out here, Eph. Only - " Ep looked around the practice field as she took a mental inventory " - three - "
" - of every weapon we own," finished Ephiny."Seriously, Pony? When was the last time anyone was able to actually heft Artemis' golden double-edged labrys, much less use it as a weapon?"
"Oh," Ep looked to the darkening horizon, "I'd say about two candlemarks ago now."
"I take it that was you?" Gabrielle asked, bracing a hand upon Xena's shoulder as she lowered herself to the ground to sit beside her warrior.
"I have - "
" - many skills," the Amazons said in unison.
Xena shot dirty looks all around but didn't say anything. Spying the wineskin, she leaned forward to take it from Eponin. Ephiny intercepted it and took a long draw before passing it to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle took the skin, shook the half-empty contents and took a tentative sip. No sooner had it passed her lips than she began coughing.
Gabrielle wheezed and turned a brilliant shade of red as she suffered beneath Xena's double efforts of patting her on the back and relieving her of the wineskin at the same time. In the end, Xena won out, lifting the skin away and tilting her head back and pouring a steady stream of burgundy liquid down her throat.
"Wow, that's strong," Gabrielle said, a hand to her chest, tears streaming down her cheeks. "You've been drinking this all afternoon?"
"Sparring's thirsty work. Besides, we weren't just drinking." If it was possible for a six-foot-tall warrior to pull off a toddler's pout, that was exactly what Xena was doing. "We were swapping old war stories, too."
"Uh-huh. More like old drinking stories, you mean."
Deciding she better get rid of the skin before she got in anymore trouble, Xena gave it an underhanded pitch at the chief scout. Solari hadn't expected the move and reflexively put both hands up, knocking the catapulted projectile to the ground.
"Nice catch, Solari."
"Yeah? A little warning next time, huh?"
Solari leaned forward to retrieve the wineskin. As she did, both regent and queen saw the long gash across her hand.
"That's a bad cut, Solari."
"Just a flesh wound," Xena and Eponin said in unison.
"It needs at least five stitches." Shooting suspicious looks at the two warriors, Gabrielle asked, "I suppose she got this while you were swapping those old war stories?"
Xena shrugged. "Scene reenactment?"
"This one, I gotta hear."
"Okay." Eponin quickly warmed to the idea of telling her story again. "We were in this little bar outside of Corinth when this Athenian captain came in with his patrol. There were only a handful of us Amazons, so we were trying to be as inconspicuous as possible."
"Inconspicuous Amazons." Xena snorted. "Yeah, right."
"Anyway, we didn't want any trouble. But this captain, he took a liking to Solari. I mean, he really took a liking to Solari."
"I tried to politely tell him that most Amazons don't go in for what he was suggesting," said Solari.
"Yeah." This time, it was Eponin's turn to snort. "As I recall, you made a comment about the hilt of your knife being bigger than anything he had between his legs."
"It's a very nice hilt," Solari pouted, her hand going to her waist, her palm caressing the polished onyx handle.
"So, after Solari's bout of politeness, the only way to get our tailfeathers out of there without getting plucked was to make a sporting wager with the captain. Our best knife-thrower against his. I won, we all got to walk out of there. He won, he got Solari for the night."
"Oh!" Gabrielle's voice rose with excitement. "That reminds me of this time there was a bounty out on Xena's head. This warlord kidnapped me and held me in his castle. To lure Xena in, he held this archery contest."
Eponin's brows furrowed. "Okay, but - "
"He was a real big shot with the bow and arrow, you see. But, he knew if there was one person that could possibly outshoot him, it would be Xena."
"That's great, Gabrielle, but - "
Eponin's voice trailed off as she realized Solari and Ephiny and even Xena were all seemingly mesmerized by Gabrielle. Sensing she had an audience on the edge of their seats, Gabrielle leaned forward, her voice taking on the quality of a bard with a story to tell.
"Nottinghamus was smart. He made the prize for this contest the one thing in the known world that Xena couldn't pass up. Me. Well, Xena knew she couldn't just stroll in there. So, she disguised herself and entered the competition, not knowing that was just what Nottinghamus expected her to do..."
"Fine." The note of suspicion in Eponin's tone rivaled the size of Mount Olympus as she asked, "Why?"
"You're quiet." Seeing the look, Ephiny added, "Even for you."
Eponin stifled a yawn as she pulled off her leathers. She climbed into bed, the lightweight summer sheet draped about her hips. Stretched out, fingers interlaced behind her head, warm breeze from the open window whispering across her bare torso, Eponin's eyes drifted closed.
"Just tired I guess."
Ephiny stripped off her own clothes, hanging the regent's crown off the bedpost and got into bed. She naturally fit into the space created by Eponin's raised arm. Propped up on one elbow, she stared down at her warrior.
"I can tell when something's bothering you," Ephiny said as one elongated finger tried to smooth away the deep crease between Eponin's eyes. "What's wrong?"
There was an unpleasant pinch to a nipple. Both eyes snapped open and Eponin found herself inexplicably nose to nose with a fire-breathing regent.
"Fine." Eponin released a heavy sigh. "But, it's not gonna make me look good."
"Let me be the judge of that."
"Okay. You know tonight when we were all at the practice fields?"
"Uh-huh." Ephiny was idly toying with the nipple she'd just abused.
"I was telling my story."
"The one about Solari and the Athenian captain. I remember."
"Oh, Gods. Don't tell me you really lost Solari in that wager?"
"Ow! What?" Eponin was as startled by the question as she was by her nipple being unexpectedly pinched again. "No, of course not. You know that story; why would you even ask that?"
"I don't know." Blonde curls fell about Ephiny's shoulders as she shrugged. "I just - never mind. Go on."
Eponin took Ephiny's fingers and removed them from her breast. Interlacing them with hers, she rested their clasped hands on her ridged abdomen. "Anyway, I was telling the story and Gabrielle...she just started telling that one about Xena and the archery contest instead."
"I hadn't heard it before. Had you?"
"No, but I was in the middle of a story."
"You don't enjoy Gabrielle's stories?"
"No, of course I do. I just wish she'd tell 'em about someone else once in a while."
"Well, Gabrielle told me the first thing she learned at The Royal Academy of Bards was to write about what you know. And let's face it, Xena is what Gabrielle knows."
"Don't I know it," Eponin snorted, "I've heard some of the sounds coming from the Queen's hut. Anyway, that's my point. For Gabrielle, it's all about Xena. No one else ever gets to be the hero."
"Are you sure you aren't just jealous of Xena and her many - "
Ephiny found a hand suddenly clamped over her mouth.
"Don't say it." Feeling the lick against her skin, followed by the sharp nip of teeth, Eponin removed her hand. "I'm so tired of hearing about Xena's many skills. Morning, noon and night, that's all I hear about."
"I thought you liked Xena; that she was your friend."
"I do. She is." Eponin huffed in frustration. "Told you it wouldn't make me look good."
"Stop worrying about how you look and finish telling me."
Ep shrugged, not entirely sure how to explain what she herself wasn't sure she understood. "Okay, look. If you follow Gabrielle's stories; Ten winters ago, Xena led an army in battle against Bacchus, waged war against the Centaurs, captained an army with Boadicea, led a band of pirates that captured Julius Caesar and survived being crucified. She did more in one winter than I've done in a lifetime. I mean, how are the rest of us common warriors supposed to measure up?"
Ephiny leaned over her lover, her chin resting upon her hand as she gave serious thought to Eponin's question.
"Sounds like you've got a serious case of warrior envy there, Pony." Seeing the rolling of the eyes, Ephiny said, "Seriously, though. I'm not sure if anyone can measure up. She is Xena, after all."
"Yeah. And don't get me wrong, Eph. I like her. I really do. And, I know part of that's because she's such a great warrior." There was a heavy sigh. "It's just that sometimes her being so great at everything can be kinda demoralizing."
They lay there in silence, just holding each other for long heartbeats before Eponin shook her head as if to snap herself out of her doldrums. "Ah, I'm just being overly sensitive. Comes from hanging out with you civilized royals too much."
"Watch it, Ep." Ephiny teased back. "Gabrielle may have tried to civilize me by naming me regent, but I'm still warrior enough to take you out with one good whack of my staff."
"And don't I know it? Seriously though, don't give it another thought. I'm not." Eponin looked at her regent and smiled. Reaching up with her free hand, she traced the back of her knuckles over one of Ephiny's smooth cheeks. "In bed with you, I'm sure there's lots more to think about other than the warrior princess' many skills."
"I should certainly hope so." Ephiny's hand disentangled itself from Eponin's and traveled lower. "I have a few skills of my own, you know."
Eponin fairly purred beneath her Ephiny's touch. She closed her eyes, becoming lost in the sensations. Until she felt Ephiny's fingers close upon that rigid bundle of flesh between her legs. Her eyes flew open and she stiffened.
"Eph, please don't pinch that..."
Afterwards, cradled in each others' arms, they each whispered their silent thanks to Artemis for blessing their union. Soon, Pony slipped off to the realm of Morpheus, her soft snores filling the quiet hut. Even long candlemarks later, sleep eluded Ephiny as she continued to dwell on their conversation of earlier.
Ephiny yawned, still wiping the sleep from her eyes as she stumbled into the dining hut. The head cook saw her coming and placed a plate of eggs and a steaming cup of tea in her hands before steering her in the direction of the Queen's table.
Apparently, the Queen was holding court this morning. The regent found herself dodging little Amazonettes as she picked her way through the field of youngsters sitting cross-legged on the ground at Gabrielle's feet. Never missing a beat, Gabrielle nodded her head in greeting as Ephiny took her seat at the long table.
"Geez, Eph. You look like Celesta warmed over," said Solari.
"Like you look any better?" Eph shot back, eyeing the huge bandage that encompassed the scout's entire hand.
"Looks worse than it is. Healer's assistant got a little panicky when she saw all the blood." She shot Xena and Eponin dark looks as both warriors snickered. "Anyway, that doesn't explain why you look like something the cat refused to drag in."
"Yeah," said Xena. "You know it's a bad day when Gabrielle beats you out of bed."
"Just didn't get much rest last night."
"Re-ally?" Xena waggled her eyebrows. "'Little one-on-one staffwork with the weapons master?"
Ephiny chose to ignore the warrior princess' not-so-subtle hint at innuendo. "Which one is it this morning?" she asked, nodding towards Gabrielle.
Both Xena and Eponin shrugged, but Solari answered with, "The one where Xena has to save not one, but two villages in the same day from a rampaging warlord and the biggest giant in the known world."
Ephiny proceeded to eat her eggs and sip her tea, all the while half-listening to both the ongoing conversation between Xena, Eponin and Solari and the story that Gabrielle was telling. All too soon, she heard the conclusion of the bard's tale. There was a round of applause and then Gabrielle was trying to shoo the youngsters off to their mothers.
Xena had been trying to convince Solari to go with her and Ep to the nearby river for some fishing when she became aware of someone watching her. More like some ones. She turned rapidly, catching three sets of eyes staring at her.
"Yeeessss?" Xena drawled the word out. "You want something?"
"We - " The first of three girls staring up at her in awe nudged the others until one of them took over the role of spokesperson for the group.
"We just wanted to - to say hi."
A smile played over Xena's lips. "Hi."
"That was amazing what you did, using the giant to defeat the warlord's army and then harnessing the power of Zeus to kill the giant."
"Ah, wasn't anything any warrior with many skills couldn't have done."
"We - we think you're great."
"Yeah," added the third Amazonette, finally finding her words. "Is there anything you can't do?"
"Cook," came Gabrielle's quick reply.
A chorus of laughter erupted. Ephiny noted that neither Eponin nor Solari laughed. The regent rubbed a speculative hand over her jaw as she noticed that there was at least one other table of warriors that weren't sharing in the merriment.
Ephiny blinked as she heard her name being repeatedly called.
"Sparring?" Gabrielle asked again.
"Um, no. I've got some stuff I need to attend to."
"Oh." Gabrielle looked puzzled. "Do we have a council meeting this morning that I forgot about?"
"Huh? Oh, no. Nothing that requires the Queen. Just some, um, parchment work I've been putting off doing. You know how it is. If I don't force myself to do it, it'll never get done."
Gabrielle reluctantly looked to Xena and then back to her regent. "I guess I could help you..."
"No. Go. Have fun."
"If you're sure..." wheedled Gabrielle, already edging towards her waiting warrior.
"Get out of here. I'll catch up with you later." Seeing the weapons master and the chief scout flanking their Queen, intent on escorting her to the practice field, she called out to them. "Ep. Soli. My office. Now."
"Yes, my regent." Both Amazons responded in unison with formal salute.
As Ephiny led the way, they trailed along behind.
Solari mumbled beneath her breath, "Damn it."
"Told you she'd want those reports," chided Ep. "You shouldn't have put off doing 'em."
"Hellllooo! Wounded here." Solari waved her heavily bandaged hand in the air for emphasis. "Can't hold a quill, much less write an entire report."
"That's why I did mine before we went sparring with Xena yesterday."
Solari glared at the smug weapons master. "Regent's pet."
The midday meal found them all back in the dining hut.
"Hey, Ephiny," Gabrielle greeted her regent as they sat down next to each other. "You get everything taken care of?"
"You know, that work you had to do this morning instead of sparring with your queen."
"Oh. Yeah. Thanks for asking."
A puzzled look flitted across Gabrielle's face at her regent's response, but she quickly forgot about it as Xena, Eponin and Solari joined them at the Queen's table. Xena was balancing four plates while Eponin was carrying four mugs. The two warriors sat down at the table, passing queen and regent their respective plates and mugs. Solari trailed along at a slower pace, trying to balance her plate and mug in the same hand. As she sat down, she jostled the table, sending the contents of her mug sloshing over into her plate.
Having worked up an appetite from sparring, Gabrielle dug into her fare in earnest, hardly chewing the venison before swallowing. She had already finished her portion and was spearing pieces off of Xena's plate when she saw Solari. The poor scout's bandaged hand was curled in as she tried holding her fork pressed between her forearm and her body. Her cutting knife was clutched firmly in her good hand as she repeatedly tried sawing through the meat.
"Xena," Gabrielle pointed at the hapless scout. "Help her."
Xena rolled her eyes, but dutifully did as commanded, even knowing that while her back was turned, Gabrielle would take the opportunity to finish cleaning off her plate.
"Reminds me of this time these raiders captured me, tortured me and left me to die," said Xena as she neatly cut apart Solari's meat for her. "They broke both my arms and one of my legs. Not only did I cut it up myself, but I also hunted down and killed the deer that provided all my meals while I was healing."
"Probably ripped the heart out with your bare hands and ate it raw, too," Eponin muttered under her breath.
Ephiny kicked her beneath the table.
"What was that, Ep?" Blue eyes speared the weapons master.
"I said," Eponin spoke in a much louder voice than necessary, "That maybe we could get some hunting in this afternoon. I saw this big buck across the east river."
That immediately had Xena's interest. Gabrielle, however, was a little more reserved.
"Careful there, Pony. That's near Centaur hunting grounds."
Xena's smile fell. "Yeah. Don't want to get caught poaching."
Eponin snorted. "Like they don't cross into our territory all the time."
"She's right," Solari confirmed. "Every time I go on border patrol, I run into a herd of them. It's like those territory markers don't mean anything." Seeing the concerned looks passing between Xena and Gabrielle, Solari hastily amended, "Most of them seem real nice, though. Polite and well-mannered, friendly even. Like us, they're really giving the peace between our tribes a chance."
"So then, the Centaurs won't mind if get in some hunting on their side of the river?" Xena asked with renewed pep.
"Oh, no." Ephiny suddenly dropped her fork and covered her mouth with her hand.
"Ephiny?" Gabrielle asked as they all looked at the regent with concern.
"Bit your tongue?" Xena guessed.
"No." Ephiny shook her head.
"Then what?" Gabrielle stroked a hand down the clearly distraught Amazon's arm. "What's wrong?"
"I can't believe I forgot."
"Forgot what? Ephiny, you're starting to worry me. Please, tell us what's wrong."
"No one knows what today is?" Ephiny asked, looking about the table at the blank faces staring back at her. She drew in a shuddering breath and proclaimed, "It's Centaur Tipping Day."
"Centaur Tipping Day. Are you kidding me, Eph?"
"I'm serious, Xena. This is no laughing matter."
"I don't get what the big deal is. You what; go around and give dinars to random Centaurs?" Gabrielle tapped her chin as she tried to picture it. "Guess it could catch on. I mean, I've heard in big cities like Athens, it's customary to tip the barmaids. Tipping a bard is always appreciated. Of course, both of those are done in appreciation of good service."
"Is that what this is?" Xena asked with a leer. "Amazons paying Centaurs for services rendered?"
"What?!? Why I oughta - "
Eponin looked like she was going to throttle Xena. Ephiny and Solari each had a hold of one of her arms and were holding her back. Gabrielle stood looking back and forth between a hysterically laughing Xena and a bunch of ruffled feathered Amazons, wondering exactly what she'd missed.
"I still don't get it."
"Not the type of tipping with coin, my Queen. You grew up on a farm, right? Did you ever hear stories about country boys going cow tipping?"
"My brothers used to sneak out of the house during the middle of the night to go sheep tipping all the time," Xena said.
"Amazons tip Centaurs."
Gabrielle wrinkled up her nose. "For what purpose?"
"Tradition," shrugged Ephiny. "Back in the ancient days, it was a rite of passage. At dusk, the Head Priestess of Artemis would recite the incantation that would infuse the goddess of the hunt's prowess into the ceremonial wine. The warriors would drink from the sacred goblet until Artemis' moon was high in the sky. Then, they would set out from the village in search of a herd of Centaurs to claim their trophy."
"Amazons were hunting Centaurs?" Gabrielle asked, enthralled by the tale. "No wonder your two tribes didn't get along."
"It's not like they were trying to harm the Centaurs," Ephiny explained. "Like all horses, Centaurs sleep standing up. The warrior that could tip one over and cut the braided hair from a Centaur's head and make it back to the village by true dawn was considered to have been blessed by Artemis, earning her the favors of the Queen and a feast held in her honor."
"Well, I can certainly see the appeal for the warrior," said Gabrielle.
"The warrior? What about the Queen?" asked Xena. "Remember Melosa? Think of all those young buff warriors competing for a chance for her to bed them."
Ep and Solari exchanged grimaces as dual shivers shot down their spines.
"Actually," Ephiny said, "I think the motivation was the feast and the honor itself."
"Bragging rights, ya mean," Eponin quipped.
"Anyway," Ephiny shot Eponin a look. "It's not a feat easily accomplished. The last recorded successful tipping occurred during the reign of Queen Penthesilea. Not only did the warrior Dirce manage to tip a Centaur, she succeeded in toppling the King of the Centaurs. It's said that Artemis was so impressed by the victory, that she bestowed upon Dirce her own double-edged labrys."
"That's the one you were hoisting about the practice field yesterday, Xena."
Xena whistled low in appreciation. "That wasn't light. But, I guess she must have had some muscles going to be able to tip the king."
"She had a reputation none of the warriors that followed could live up to. Didn't stop them from trying, though. Then, came the great Amazon/Centaur wars and the practice stopped. Now, it's mostly just a ceremonial feast to observe the occasion and honor the memories of the warriors that came before."
"Wow. That's interesting." Gabrielle's voice was full of awe. "I don't think I recall reading about that in the Hall of Scrolls."
"Many of the records from Queen Penthesilea's reign were destroyed during a rebellion. The few surviving scrolls were moved to the catacombs beneath the Temple of Artemis."
"I don't believe it." Xena snorted, crossing her arms over her breastplate. "You Amazons have finally run out of legitimate reasons to party and are now just making 'em up."
"What's wrong, Xena?" Eponin's eyes narrowed. "Centaur tipping not one of your many skills?"
One lone, dark eyebrow arched. "Is that a challenge, weapons master?"
"What if it is?" Eponin stepped forward until she was toe to toe with the warrior. "You up for it?"
Xena looked down her nose at the short Amazon. "You heard your regent. It's not a feat easily accomplished."
"That mean you're too afraid to try, princess?"
"Oh, those are fighting words, Ep."
The legendary warrior princess and the weapons master to the Amazons folded their arms over their impressive chests and coldly stared at each other. The heartbeats ticked by with neither willing to be the first to back down. At last, Xena broke the stare.
"Ephiny, have your priestess prepare the ceremony." Xena's gaze flicked to the regent and back to Eponin again. "Just like in ancient days, first warrior back wins."
Gabrielle paled. "Hold on now, Xena - "
Xena stood leaning against the stone doorway, arms crossed and a bored expression on her face.
"Would you mind telling me what we're doing here, Gabrielle? I have a challenge to prepare for."
"Which is exactly what we're doing."
"By rummaging through a bunch of dusty old scrolls in a dark catacomb?"
"Precisely. Here, hold this." Gabrielle passed her candlestick to the warrior princess. Gabrielle reached her hand into a stone shelf. Something scampered across her fingers and she screamed, jerking her hand back in reflex.
Xena calmly reached out and picked the mouse up by its tail. She held it up so they were looking at each other eye to eye. The mouse chattered in defiance. A dark brow arched and lips curved in amusement. With a negligent flick of her wrist, the mouse was sent flying over her shoulder. He landed with a thump in a pile of dust. With an obviously disgruntled chitter and a flick of his tail, he scurried off towards the nearest hidey-hole.
"A-ha! I think this one's it. Bring the light closer."
Xena stepped up behind Gabrielle, peering over the bard's shoulder as she studied the insignia on a rolled scroll.
"Is that - ?"
"The scroll that Ephiny described? You bet your leathers it is." Gabrielle gave a fist pump in the air and thumped the scroll against her warrior's breastplate in triumph. "Who taught me to always go into battle prepared?"
"Um - me, I guess?" Xena stared dubiously at the scroll. "You think this will help me prep for the challenge?"
"Well, forewarned is forearmed."
"You don't think Eponin would cheat, do you?"
"Cheat? No. She's much too honorable for that. I just don't want her having a leg up on you. She is an Amazon by birth as well as Ephiny's mate. And Ephiny knew all about this scroll..."
"You're right. Come on," she grabbed Gabrielle by the hand and pulled her back through the labyrinth of catacombs running beneath the Temple of Artemis. "We're taking that thing back to our hut and opening it up."
Xena sat on the floor at the foot of the bed, her head lolling back on the straw mattress, both hands cupped over her face, her fingers gripping her hair. Gabrielle was on her stomach on the bed, propped up on her elbows, her head nearest the end where Xena sat. She had the scroll unfurled and she'd been reading for what seemed like forever.
"Centaur Tipping Day is set squarely between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, a fortnight before the Masking of the Warriors and three moons past the Ritual Planting of the Crops..."
"Gods," Xena's fingers tightened in her hair as she groaned. "How much more is there?"
"Not much." Gabrielle scanned the length of the scroll. "It's just more about the background of the ceremony as well as the story about Dirce and the double-edged labrys. Did you know that according to legend, Centaurs are the direct descendants of Zeus?"
"That's one of the basics, Gabrielle. Every kid in Greece knows that one."
"Well, did you also know that from the time of their birth, a lock of their hair is braided? As the Centaur grows, so does his hair. Centaurs believe that if that braid of hair is never cut, they can harness the strength of Zeus. The longer the braid, the greater their strength."
"That's great, Gabrielle, but is there anything in that scroll that I can actually use?"
"Helpful tips on Centaur tipping?" Gabrielle couldn't help but grin. "Not exactly. Just basics like waiting until full dark and carefully sneaking up on the Centaur. Tip it over, cut the braid and run like Hades."
"Oh, yeah." Xena snorted. "Like that thought hadn't occurred to me."
"At least we know Eponin doesn't have an unfair advantage."
"Yeah, there is that."
Xena stretched her arms back, capturing Gabrielle in an awkward upside down embrace. Gabrielle leaned in, placing a tender kiss on her warrior's lips.
Warrior and bard drifted into companionable silence until Xena looked out the window at the brilliant orange hues created by a rapidly setting sun.
"Guess we've burned enough daylight." Xena climbed to her feet, held out a hand to help her bard up. "Come on, we've got a Centaur Tipping Day celebration to get to."
"Xena." Gabrielle's hand tightened about her warrior's. "You don't have to do this. Let's just enjoy observing it in a ceremonial context."
"Eponin challenged me, Gabrielle. Am I just supposed to let that go?"
"You don't have anything to prove, Xena. To me or the Amazons."
Xena looked askance at her bard. "Gabrielle, are you worried?"
"I know I shouldn't be. I mean, you are Xena, right?" Gabrielle ruffled a hand through her hair. "But, I can't help thinking that any scroll that actually gives the advice to run like Hades can't be good. You yourself told me the Centaurs are no friends of yours and I'd imagine actually tipping one over won't earn you any goodwill, either."
"Nothing to worry about, my love." Xena gripped both of Gabrielle's arms in her calloused hands and kissed the top of her head. "Tyldus and I buried the battleaxe when the Amazons and the Centaurs made peace."
"Still sounds dangerous," Gabrielle pouted. "What if can't be done? You heard what Eph said. No one's succeeded at it since the time of Dirce and Queen Penthesilea."
"For which Dirce won the labrys of Artemis and the favors of the Queen. I remember the story, Gabrielle." A wicked thought suddenly raced through Xena's mind. "You sure that's not what you're worried about, Gabrielle? That Ep will win and she'll have earned the blessing of Artemis and the favors of her Queen?"
"What? No!" Gabrielle swatted Xena on the arm. "No!"
"I think the Queen doth protest too much. I remember the way you used to look at Ep during your training lessons."
"She was instructing me, Xena. I had to look at her."
"Mm-hmm. Except you used to look at her like she was a loaf of nutbread fresh from the oven," teased Xena. "It's okay, Gabrielle. I know you had a crush on her."
Gabrielle blushed beet red. "That was seasons ago. Besides, I'm hopelessly in love with you and she's with Ephiny. But since you brought it up; what if Eponin does win?"
"Gabrielle, are you forgetting I have many skills? I can do anything an Amazon can do. And, I can do it better and faster." Seeing Gabrielle chewing her bottom lip, she added, "If it'll set your mind at ease, though, I'll speak with Eph before the ceremony."
Solari had just managed to lift the full mug of wine to her lips without spilling when it was snatched out of her grasp.
"Hey!" The chief scout complained as she swiped at the burgundy liquid staining her halter and running in rivulets between her breasts. "I was drinking that, you feathered - "
Solari's words died in her throat as she found herself face to face with her regent. Her very irritated regent, from the looks of it.
"Don't 'Hey, Eph' me, Solari. Where are you supposed to be?"
Solari's mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water as she helplessly searched for an answer. Ephiny glanced over her shoulder as Gabrielle walked up.
"Not here, is where. You're supposed to be working on that report, remember?"
"Re - oh. Yeah. I'll get right on it."
"See that you do. I'd better not see your tailfeathers in my sight again until its taken care of."
"Yes, Regent." Solari performed an awkward salute with her bandaged hand.
"Solari, wait." Gabrielle turned to Ephiny. "Can't you let her off the hook just for tonight, Eph? I mean, it is a celebration and everyone else is enjoying themselves."
Solari stopped in her tracks, hesitating, looking back over her shoulder, unsure of whether she should go forward or go back. Who do you listen to when they're both your Queen?
"Absolutely not, Gabrielle. She has a job to do. If she'd gone earlier, she wouldn't be missing anything now. Quite frankly, Gabrielle, given your profession as a bard, I'm surprised you're not supporting me on this issue."
"Wow. You're more disciplined than me, Ephiny." Seeing Solari still unsure of what to do, Gabrielle called out to her, "Go on, Solari. Sooner you get your work done, the sooner you can get back to your drinking." Gabrielle turned to Ephiny. "Speaking of which, do you think the warriors have had enough, yet?"
Ephiny stole a look at the altar. Xena and Eponin were alternating taking turns at downing goblet after goblet of the ceremonial wine. Xena had a smirk on her face and Eponin was starting to list to one side.
"I'd say they're both sauced enough to actually try this." Ephiny looked towards the night sky. Artemis' moon was full and heavy. "It's time."
"Before we start, is everyone clear on the rules?"
"Crystal," said Eponin.
"Polished crystal," Xena said, one-upping the Amazon.
Eponin and Xena stood inches apart from each other, both bristling and giving the other her most intimidating warrior scowl. They were dressed in their normal gear, with the exception of Eponin's sword and Xena's sword and chakram. They each carried one hunting knife for the sole purpose of cutting the Centaur's braid. All other weapons were to be left at the village.
"Then, repeat them to me so I'm certain you've both got it," commanded Gabrielle.
Xena and Eponin rolled their eyes in sync, but repeated the directions nonetheless.
"We start off at the same time, taking opposite paths towards Centaur land," said Xena.
"That way no one gets a head start or sets obstacles in the other's path," countered Eponin. "First one to tip a Centaur and come back with the braid wins."
"It has to be hair from a Centaur's head, too." Xena pointedly looked at Eponin. "Not just horse hair or hair from a Centaur's tail."
"Just to make sure no one gets hurt and everyone stays honest - "
" - No bribing a Centaur for his braid - "
"The Queens are coming along as witnesses."
"And so there's no temptation to interfere or help each other's mate through either trickery or sabotage," Xena said in an exaggerated whisper as she leaned towards Ephiny, "Gabrielle is going with me and you're going with Eponin."
"If that's the way you want it, Xena," agreed Ephiny.
"That's the way I want it." Xena nodded. Then she said, "Oh, yeah. While I'm thinking about it. If I win, I get her favors." She pointed at Gabrielle. "If she wins," She pointed at Eponin, "she gets yours." Here, she pointed at Ephiny for good measure. "That way everyone ends up with the right Queen."
"O - of course."
"It's all about bragging rights and the feast," Xena said, territorially draping an arm over Gabrielle's shoulders and looking at Eponin. "We don't want no kinky stuff."
Eponin's eyes widened and her jaw came unhinged as she looked to Gabrielle. Gabrielle blushed a fiery red beneath the weapons master's scrutiny and buried her face in her hands. Both Ephiny's brows shot up in tandem as if any other possible outcome hadn't occurred to her.
Both Eponin and Ephiny were still staring at the duo with wide eyes and open mouths when the priestess gave the signal to begin. Xena immediately took off, her long legs giving her a ground-eating stride. Gabrielle was right on her heels, embarrassment giving her the fleetness of Hermes. As they passed beyond the light of the village torches and were swallowed by the darkness, Eponin and Ephiny at last shook off their daze and scrambled for the path.
Xena saw him right away. Just like Solari had said, the Centaur was well within Amazon territory. He was still in sight of the water and hadn't intruded into the Amazon forest, but there was no doubt that this Centaur was on the wrong side of the river. His eyes were closed and it appeared as if he'd just gone to sleep wherever he was standing when Morpheus overtook him.
"Just like I said, Gabrielle," Xena smirked, "Better and faster than the average Amazon."
Gabrielle watched from the path as Xena bold as brass walked right up to the Centaur. The warrior princess was within reach and was extending her hand towards the Centaur when he suddenly opened his eyes and turned and looked at her.
"Hello," he said.
"Um - hi." Xena quickly covered by pulling her hand back and placing it behind her head like she was working out a kink in her neck. "Nice night for a walk."
The Centaur looked past Xena, spotting the young Amazon on the path directly behind her. "Cute," he said, giving Xena a broad grin and a bold wink. "I'll give you some privacy."
He smiled and waved at Gabrielle, who gave a hesitant wave back. There was a hard slap of his hand against Xena's shoulder and back that had her nearly stumbling forward. Then, with a flick of his tail, he bolted, taking off down the path that led towards the river and Centaur land.
Xena motioned for her to hurry up. Gabrielle rolled her eyes. Giving her halter one last wring to rid it of the excess water, she tugged it back on over her head. Seeing Xena's impatient hand signal, Gabrielle rushed towards her.
The warrior's head cocked to the side at the noise. Turning, she looked behind her and down. With every step Gabrielle took, she heard the sloshing of water.
"Well, what do you expect?" Gabrielle asked, "Half the river's in my boots."
"Then dump them out. You want him to hear us coming a mile away?"
"Don't get huffy with me." An imperial hand went to a queenly hip. "I'm not the one that scared off all the Centaurs on our side of the river."
They'd had to cross the river and it'd taken them nearly a full candlemark to find one, but Xena could clearly see a Centaur in the open field ahead. She gave the hand signal that she was going in. Xena moved forward, then abruptly stopped. She blew out a long puff of air as behind her, she heard Gabrielle pouring the water out of her boots.
A breeze blew in from the river, brushing through the thigh-high wheat grass like a lover's caress. The wind caused the cloud cover to shift, exposing Artemis' full moon. Bright moonlight washed over the open field, reflecting off the buckle that secured the sheath about his torso and the hilt of the sword riding high on the Centaur's shoulder.
Xena paused, looking down at her own attire. As per the Amazon rules, she'd foregone her usual accessories of sword and chakram. She was still wearing her armor, though.
"Maybe the problem is that the moonlight is reflecting off my breastplate." She quickly unfastened the buckles and divested herself of the armor. "Here, hold this," she said, thrusting it at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle instinctively reached out both hands to take the armor. As Xena released her hold, Gabrielle's arms went down beneath the full weight of the ample breastplate. Xena rolled her eyes at the bard on the ground at her feet.
"Stay here," she ordered, "and be quiet."
Xena swiftly traveled through the thigh-high grass, making sure to avoid approaching from the front. It was something she should have thought of earlier. Being taller, Centaurs had a much larger field of vision than that of a human. Therefore, the best approach was to stay out of his sight completely.
She had just reached the Centaur's backside when his tail lifted and a small toot broke the stillness. It was quickly followed up by a much louder noise.
Xena grimaced and tried to wave the smell away with her hands. Face red and gasping for breath, she stumbled away from the Centaur and back towards a hysterically laughing Gabrielle.
Hearing the laughter, the Centaur opened one eye and looked around. Not seeing anyone, he gave a shrug. "Must be hearing things." Giving a firm stamp of his back hoof, he let off another potent round of gas. Giving a satisfied sigh, he closed his eyes again.
Xena clutched a hand to her aching chest. She should have seen that one coming. She really should have. Argo hated to have someone come up behind her and would reflexively kick with both hooves. It only stood to reason that a Centaur would have the same reaction.
"Xena, maybe you should give - " censoring herself at the hostile glare she was receiving, Gabrielle amended her sentence to " - yourself a bit longer to catch your breath."
"I'm fine, Gabrielle," Xena wheezed, "Just got the wind knocked out of me."
Gabrielle studiously avoided looking at the bright red horseshoe marks clearly visible above her low-cut leather bodice.
"Are you sure? That was a nasty kick you took."
Xena shooed off Gabrielle's concern with a wave of her hand. She crouched down in the bushes, eyes intently watching her latest prey. It had been a stroke of luck that they'd found another one in a field so close to where she'd seen the last one. Centaurs ran in herds, but they were known to like to sleep apart from each other.
"Centaurs have acute senses of hearing and smell. They aren't easy to sneak up on. The trick is to stay low and downwind of them so they don't know you're coming."
"And don't stand directly behind them," Gabrielle snickered.
Xena gave her the look. "And to be quiet."
Gabrielle held up her hands in surrender. Lips pressed firmly together, she tried to hold in her laughter as ice-blue eyes glared at her. Gabrielle got herself under control, then gave the universal signal that she was placing a lock on her lips and throwing away the key.
From the cover of the darkness and the bushes, Gabrielle watched the field. The Centaur was easy to spot, like a landmark in a sea of grass. She couldn't see Xena at all, but she could mark her progress by the moving of the blades of grass.
A head popped up, eyes scanning the sea of wheat grass before quickly ducking back down again. Satisfied that she was heading in the right direction, Xena resumed her fast-paced crawl. Twice more, she checked her bearings to make sure she hadn't veered off course.
Xena paused. She was near now. She had to be. This close in though, she couldn't risk raising her head and checking. Blue eyes peering through the blades, Xena could just make out the dark fur of the Centaur's hindquarters and flank.
She crawled forward.
And stopped when she felt something squish beneath her hand.
"Aww, Centaur crap."
Xena almost gave a victory shout, but clamped a hand over her mouth to stop herself. Nostrils flared as she caught a lingering whiff of something foul and she quickly tore her hand away, habitually wiping her palm on her leathers.
Still, not even the fragrant odor of Centaur crap was going to dampen this moment. Shooting Gabrielle the thumbs-up signal, Xena stood beside the Centaur, placed both hands on his warm fur and pushed.
She stepped back in surprise when the Centaur didn't tip over. Giving a shrug, she tried again. A quick look confirmed the Centaur was still sleeping, but he hadn't toppled. Planting both feet an equal distance apart, palms buried in soft fur, Xena squatted and lifted.
Teeth gritted, face turning bright red, Xena pushed for all she was worth. Gasping for breath, she turned around and hunched over. Back and shoulders against the Centaur's body, Xena lifted with her legs. Feet slid on the ground, the toes of her boots digging into soft earth. Sweat pouring off her face, she strained until she thought something inside might bust.
She thought she felt the Centaur shift.
She looked up at the Centaur.
His head lolled back on his shoulders, his mouth opened and he snored loudly.
"Xena, I'm not sure about this. I thought I was just supposed to be a witness."
"You are. An up close and personal eyewitness to seeing the biggest Centaur in the known world tipped."
"I don't think I'm supposed to help, though."
"It's not really helping. I just need some extra leverage to lift him. Besides, you think Ephiny isn't helping Eponin?" Xena snorted. "Believe me, your regent's up to her feathers in whatever Ep's doing."
Gabrielle looked hesitantly at the Centaur still sleeping in the field. He was quite big. Huge, in fact. Xena was right, she didn't think she'd ever seen such a large Centaur. Not that she was an expert or anything. But, she'd certainly seen her fair share this night and he was certainly the largest of the lot.
"Maybe you should try again on a different one?"
"No. No freakin' way in Tartarus."
There was a wild look in Xena's eyes as she thrust a finger in Gabrielle's face. Gabrielle wrinkled her nose and took a step back. Xena abruptly dropped her hand. But not the look.
"I didn't successfully traverse that field, making sure to stay low and downwind and not approach from either the front or the back just so I could be beaten by the size of the Centaur. Matter of fact, that's just one more reason to tip it. Because Eponin will never be able to find another one that big, let alone budge it."
Gabrielle looked unmoved by Xena's passionate speech.
"Besides," the warrior princess looked towards the lightening grey of a predawn sky, "This'll be our last chance before first light."
Warrior and bard stood beside each other in an open field along with the biggest Centaur they'd ever seen. They'd followed all of Xena's methods, approaching from downwind, staying low and creeping in on his flank so as not to be seen. They hadn't spoken since Gabrielle had finally agreed to help, using only hand signals to communicate with each other.
Xena looked at Gabrielle. Gabrielle blinked back at Xena. Xena used her hands to indicate that the bard should place her hands at his side and beneath his belly while she placed both her hands against his upper back. She indicated that they would count to three and then she would push.
Gabrielle nodded, showing that she understood the plan. Taking a deep breath, she placed both hands palm up beneath the Centaur's belly. The Centaur snorted and his snoring stopped, but he didn't awaken.
Fingers buried up to her knuckles in the fur of a Centaur's underbelly, Gabrielle patiently waited. She was secretly surprised that it was so warm and soft and she experimentally flexed her hand. She looked to Xena, motioning with her eyes that the warrior should get on with it.
Xena wasn't one to be rushed in her finest moment, though. She waited, wanting to make certain the Centaur really was still asleep. She looked towards the lightening sky, knew she wouldn't get another shot at it. Taking several shallow breaths, she eyed the Centaur's length, debating on the best place to put her hands.
Giving a low exhale, looking Gabrielle in the eyes, she planted both hands on the Centaur's back. There was a momentary wave of panic as the Centaur's tail flicked up over his hindquarters. Heartbeat returned to normal as he shifted on his hoofs and then stilled.
Xena mouthed out a silent One-Two-Three and nodded at Gabrielle. Gabrielle's hands flexed. Xena's biceps bulged. After several heartbeats, she took her palms away and gave the signal for Gabrielle to stop gripping. She took a deep breath, spat on both her palms and planted them in the Centaur's fur again. She gave a nod to Gabrielle and began counting again.
"If you're going to touch me there, Amazon," echoed a deep baritone voice, "Do it a little harder."
Two sets of eyes looked up to see the Centaur looking back at them, his lips curved into a smirk.
Xena looked to Gabrielle, her eyes narrowing. Gabrielle's widened in response as she suddenly realized what she'd been gripping beneath the Centaur's underbelly. Gasping aloud, her face flaming a brilliant red despite the dim lighting, she jerked her hands back.
The torches had burned to their lowest point. The last oyster shell pink hues of a lightening sky were fading, soon to be replaced by the richer blues of a beautiful day. The first rays of the sun were inching on the ground and into the village in the wake of Xena's and Gabrielle's footsteps.
"Xena, I'm sorry. Maybe Centaur tipping's just one of those feats that can't be done." Gabrielle said, trying to convince herself as much as Xena. "Or, maybe it's a myth. Like the legendary labors of Hercules. I mean, have you heard that one about him supposedly mucking out the Aegean stables? Really, who has a thousand horses? A hundred maybe, but not a thousand."
"Actually Gabrielle, that one's true. Saw it for myself."
"There's still a kernel of wisdom in your story, though." Gabrielle's face brightened as Xena said that. Then, she added, "If I couldn't tip a Centaur, at least I can take satisfaction in the knowledge that no Amazon could, either."
Their pace slowed as they rounded a curve that would take them to the ceremonial fields. As expected, the Amazons had spent the night celebrating Centaur Tipping Day, many of them drinking themselves into a drunken stupor and bedding down on the grass to sleep it off. There were a few diehards still standing, determined to not call it quits until Apollo's chariot was firmly in the sky and the ceremony was officially done.
"Um - Xena?"
Xena stopped dead in her tracks. Ephiny's distinctive dirty blonde corkscrew locks were easily visible in the assembled group.
"It's okay, Gabrielle. Just means they called it quits before we did."
As they drew nearer, Xena caught sight of Eponin. The weapons master was standing tall and proud, Artemis' golden double-edged labrys braced against her frame. A thick braid of hair hung from a cord secured about the labrys just below the blade.
Eponin had been regaling the assembled crowd with the tale of her hunt when her voice suddenly trailed off. All heads turned to see a very irate looking warrior princess. A sea of Amazons parted, creating a wide berth for Xena to pass.
"Xena, no." Gabrielle tried to rush after the warrior, but found her legs unwilling to follow her commands.
Solari had been standing nearly shoulder to shoulder with the weapons master, as was Ephiny. At Xena's approach, Solari took three very pronounced steps away from Eponin. Ephiny stood her ground, her chin tilted in that defiant way she had mastered.
"Xena." Eponin steeled herself for the blow.
Xena reached out, snatching the golden labrys out of Ep's loose, one-handed grip. Blue eyes narrowed as she closely examined the braided hair hanging from the weapon. Then, that same intense stare locked on the weapons master's face. Eponin swallowed harshly.
Xena drew her arm back.
There were several gasps as she opened her hand and clasped Eponin's arm in a warriors' greeting.
"Congratulations," Xena said, her smile made that much wider by the knowledge that she'd caused the fearless Amazon to visibly flinch.
"So, no hard feelings then, Xena?"
"For the fifth time, Eponin; no hard feelings."
Xena scowled behind the rim of her mug. Eponin may have won, the feast and the honors to be held in her name, yet she was being very humble in her victory. Xena thought she would have much better preferred it if Eponin had bragged. Instead, this graciousness was very quickly going to get on her nerves.
"Are you sure?" Ep asked.
"Sure." Xena ground out through gritted teeth. "I gave it my best. I feel no shame in conceding that this day your skills were better."
Eponin frowned. Somehow, Xena had managed to make her great victory sound like nothing more than an ordinary win during a typical sparring match.
"Solari, I see you're doing better," said Gabrielle.
The chief scout was sitting on a low bench, her arm draped about the waist of a cute healer's assistant. She was perched on Solari's lap and was assisting by holding Solari's mug to her lips as she drank.
"Finally saw the wisdom in completing your reports so you could join the celebration?"
"Huh? What re - Ow." She shot a look at the regent that had kicked her beneath the table. "I mean, Oh. Yeah." Solari raised her mug to her Queens. "Yep. Soon as I buckled down and got to it, didn't take all that long to get done and get back."
Gabrielle looked askance at the scout.
"Gabrielle." Ephiny clasped an arm about the bard's shoulders and directed her gaze towards their respective warriors. She leaned in, whispering low in the shell of Gabrielle's ear. "Gabrielle, are those horseshoe prints on Xena's chest?"
Extraordinary hearing being just one of Xena's skills, she overheard the regent's question. Excusing herself from Eponin and the other warriors, she sauntered over to where Gabrielle was sitting with Solari and Ephiny.
"As a matter of fact, Ephiny," Xena winced as she gingerly lowered herself down onto the bench beside her bard, "they are."
"Ouch." Ephiny grimaced in sympathy. "That's gonna leave a mark."
"A rather colorful bruise, anyway," Xena smirked. "Let's just say I now know why the warriors are required to partake of the ceremonial wine before the contest. You'd have to be freakin' nuts to try this sober."
"Ah, yes. Amazon wine." Ephiny clinked her mug against Xena's. "The earmark of any great Amazon celebration."
Xena and Gabrielle leaned against each other, enjoying each other's company as well as that of the Amazons. Xena had to admit, even if only to herself, that she was really beginning to enjoy these trips home to visit Gabrielle's adopted family. Ephiny. Eponin. Solari. When Gabrielle had inherited Terreis' caste, they'd all become her sisters. And since Xena considered Gabrielle to be her family, she figured the Amazons were her sisters, too.
Sisters-in-law, maybe, she thought. Feeling herself getting mushy and sentimental, Xena put her mug of wine down on the table and discreetly pushed it away. Sensitive warrior; last thing anyone wants to see.
Xena stretched, causing several vertebra in her back to pop. "Damn. I could really use a soak in the springs. You coming, Gabrielle?"
"I'll be there in a bit, Xena." Gabrielle kissed her warrior on the cheek before turning to address her regent. "Ephiny, a word?"
"What gave me away?" Ephiny asked.
Gabrielle surveyed the interior of the regent's office, specifically the desk piled high with rolled scrolls.
"You voluntarily doing parchment work instead of sparring, starters," Gabrielle said. "Guess you needed time to create that 'ancient scroll', though. I would've recognized your handwriting. So, I suppose you had someone else, the priestess maybe, create it for you?"
"And, I guess those reports you were hassling Solari over were really a cover so she could make contact with the Centaurs and let them know what was up."
"Yeah. First time was to see if they'd be open to the idea. Second time was to let them know that the plan was a go."
"In case one of them confronted us. Couldn't have them debunking your myth about Centaur tipping, could you? It was a very elaborate plan, Eph."
"Had to be to pull one over on Xena, didn't it?"
"Gotta hand it to you, that tale was worthy of a bard. Nice touch including Artemis' legendary labrys."
Ephiny shrugged. "I learned from the best. You always told me that every bard's tale has some kernel of truth to it. Queen Penthesilea and Dirce were real. Obviously, so is the labrys. Only the part about tipping Centaurs wasn't."
"That's another thing that ultimately gave you away." Gabrielle pointed a finger in the air. "That someone so firmly rooted in Amazon tradition and protocol would forget a ceremony; even one as absurd as Centaur Tipping Day? No way."
"Hey, it could happen."
"To anyone except you, maybe. Don't take this wrong, Ephiny, but you're so uptight and controlling that you make Athena look like a party gal by comparison. No offense."
Blonde eyebrows rose so high they nearly touched the regent's crown. "Um - none taken. I think. But if you knew it was a trick, why didn't you confront me before now?"
"Honestly, Ephiny. I didn't figure it out until after Xena had tried tipping her fourth Centaur of the night. Then, I spent the next three asking myself why you'd make something like that up. The answer I came up with was that you wouldn't do it for yourself. You would for someone else, though, wouldn't you? Eponin and the other warriors?"
"It's just that they've been feeling a little - inadequate. Xena's this bigger than life hero and none of them can live up to that. They needed a chance to feel important again."
Ephiny ducked her head. When she dared to look up at Gabrielle through thick lashes, she saw the bard looking back at her with appraising eyes.
"Ephiny, the truth. Did Eponin really tip a Centaur?"
"Absolutely," Ephiny nodded. Then added with a wry smirk, "Course the part we didn't mention was that it was a little Centaur, just a colt, really."
"Ephiny! She didn't!"
"Well, the rules said nothing about the size of the Centaur."
Gabrielle swallowed and discreetly wiped both palms against the cloth of her Amazon skirt.
"Gabrielle? Are you okay?"
Ephiny rushed to pour a pitcher of water into a mug and pass it to her friend. Gabrielle drank down the contents in three swallows.
"Are you okay?" Ephiny asked. "You look overheated. Maybe too much wine?"
"Yeah. The wine." Gabrielle poured herself another mug of water.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry if I upset you, but - " Ephiny looked genuinely apologetic and miserable.
"No. No. I'm fine." She reached out, clasping both of Ephiny's hands. "It's okay, Eph. I know Xena can get cocky about her many skills sometimes. And, my tales about her certainly don't do anything to deflate her ego any. I can see how that might get on people's nerves."
"So, you understand?"
"Yeah. You just wanted to show the other warriors, and maybe remind Xena and myself, that she's human, too. I understand." There was a pause before Gabrielle said in a serious voice, "Just don't do it again. Next time you think either us have gotten too big for her breastplate, come and talk to us first. Got it?"
"Got it, my Queen." In a hesitant tone, Ephiny asked, "Friends?"
"Friends," agreed Gabrielle. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got an exhausted, naked warrior waiting for me in a hot spring somewhere."
Ephiny breathed a sigh of relief, glad that things had worked out well. She and Gabrielle were still friends. Xena and Eponin were still friends. And Xena was more or less on equal footing with the rest of the warriors again. Well, as equal as a legendary warrior like Xena could ever really be.
Xena's got her bard to soothe her aches and pains and I've got a conquering warrior to honor with the favors of the regent.
All in all, things in the Amazon village were - good.
Until Gabrielle called back over her shoulder.
"Oh, Eph? You better mark today on the calendar." At the regent's look of confusion, Gabrielle said, "Do you really think Xena isn't going to try again next year?"
"Aww, Centaur crap."
Green eyes twinkled. "That, too."
No Amazons, Centaurs or warrior's reps were seriously harmed during the writing of this story.