Disclaimers MCA owns Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Eponin and Argo. I make no money from writing about them but I sure would like to. All the other characters and the plot of this story belong to me. If you want to put this story up on a site of your own, please ask me first. The Amazon Nation and my portrayal of its rituals and village life are products of my own imagination and should not be taken as fact.
Warning There are some non-graphic descriptions of women in love. If for some reason these are offensive, illegal, or you are underage in your state or country, please read no further. The writer of this story nor the creators of this wonderful site take no responsibility if you choose to break the law. There is also a mention of suicide in this story. Though it reflects this writers own beliefs, I choose not to get into long-winded e-mail arguments about what is and isn't right for every person on this earth.
Thanks Many thanks to my test readers, Deb and Danielle, for wading through this in its raw form night after night and giving me their insights and encouragement which helped to get it finished. And a huge thank you to my editor and proofer from heaven who loves me again now that I know where to put that comma at last. A thank you also to Queen Katherine and Prince Brian for giving me a fabulous list where nervous writers like myself can present our work for a test run.J. August 97.
It is highly recommended that you read "Anger Is My Shield" before reading this story, otherwise it just won't make a lot of sense to you.
Comments always welcomed. Flames always cheerfully ignored.
The Valley of Hidden Fears
A sequel to
Anger Is My Shield
Xena opened her eyes slowly against the bright light pouring into the room through the windows near the bed. Stretching slightly, not wanting to disturb the woman against her side, she glanced around the room. The sounds of a waking village drifted through the open window telling the dark-haired woman it was well past the time she would have normally been out of bed herself. Smiling a little, she figured she had a good reason to sleep in this morning. Though she and Gabrielle had left the celebrations early the night before, it was well past moonset before they had finally fallen into the arms of Morpheus.
I wonder if Ephiny and Jadax ever got back to the palace, she thought briefly to herself. Not that it really mattered. The Royal Guard would have stood watch over the Amazon Queen regardless of where she had chosen to spend the night. Making love in the stable's hayloft would not have been Xena's first choice of location, but even the Queen deserved a little privacy now and then, something Ephiny might have found a little difficult to get inside the palace where even the walls had ears occasionally.
The tall warrior looked down lovingly at the woman stretched out along her side. Xena knew it would be candlemarks before the bard woke, especially after staying up so late the night before. Wishing she could have dozed off again herself, something she rarely did, the warrior eased gently from the bed and the embrace of her bard lover. Dressing quickly and quietly in the Amazon clothing she had been given until her leathers could be repaired, Xena hoped she was not too late to find something in the mess building to break her fast. Dropping a soft kiss on Gabrielle's forehead, she left the room, silent as a shadow in the morning light.
Standing in the dim light just back from the palace entrance, Xena took a few heartbeats to look around the compound. It was habit more than any sense of danger that had her carefully appraising her surroundings before stepping into the full light of day. The big leather-covered drums the Amazon women had used the night before were still out but had been covered against the morning dew, and the fire in the centre had burned down to a few softly glowing embers. Warriors and other women cheerfully went about their business, though a few looked decidedly worse for wear after a night of drinking the Amazons rather potent wine. Xena knew better than to drink more than a mug or two of it herself, and Gabrielle had stayed well away from it altogether. She spotted the Royal Guard still standing watch over the stables, but the sight of a well-grown girl-child balancing a heavy tray of food and drink, rapidly headed in that direction, told her that Ephiny and Jadax were awake, or soon would be. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, Xena stepped out into the compound, heading for the mess and a chance to quiet the rumblings in her own stomach.
She was a little surprised at the number of people still in the mess as she walked through the door but realised she had not been the only one to have a late start that morning. Quickly putting together a bowl of hot, softly cooked grains, flatbread and some fruit, she sat down at the first open space she could find where her back would be against the wall and she could watch the rest of the room. If Gabrielle had been with her, she would have had to sit at the head table as was befitting an Amazon Princess and her lover. Being alone meant the tall warrior could sit were she pleased and no one would raise an eye. Resisting the urge to ladle more sweetening on the hot grain than she knew was good for her, Xena began to eat her own breakfast as she listened to the various conversations going on around her. There was the occasional ribald comment about Gabrielle's boldness in her dance with Xena the night before, but as none were directed at her, Xena continued to eat as though she had not heard.
Finishing her grain and bread, Xena decided to take a walk around the village to help settle her meal and wait for Gabrielle to wake. Stepping through the doorway into the compound, biting deeply into the pear she had taken for breakfast, she spotted Eponin striding in her direction.
"Morning, Xena," Eponin said quietly. It was obvious from her red eyes and slightly pale look that she had over-indulged in the wine along with quite a few others. "Enjoy the celebrations last night?"
"Um hmm," Xena mumbled around a mouthful of fruit.
"Rumour has it that you and Gabrielle are thinking of moving on in a day or so," the other warrior said.
"Problem with that?" Xena queried.
"No. Well, yes. Ummm, I'm not really sure," Eponin answered, looking a little flustered.
"Why don't you get to the point and then we can see if there is a problem with Gabrielle and I leaving," Xena said. Walking with the other warrior, they sat down on one of the many benches spaced around the edge of the compound.
Eponin sat, looking at the tops of her boots for a moment before speaking. "We have a trade delegation coming up sometime in the next seven-day."
"You've had those before, Eponin. Ephiny is more than able to handle them," Xena said.
"This one is hoping to change the agreement to include passage rights across our western border," Eponin explained. "There are five villages along there, all sheep herders, and they want to cut a day or so from their journey to the markets a seven-day from our southern boundaries. Normally, they go around, but you know yourself how rocky it is there and they are tired of losing beasts to the ravines and canyons."
"And what are they offering in return?" Xena asked, already seeing some of the potential problems this could bring the Amazon Nation.
"To be honest, not much," Eponin replied. She sighed deeply. "It's not like they are losing a lot of sheep to the canyons, but for every one they do lose, it is that much less profit for them at the markets. I can sympathise with them on that, but not enough to allow them passage rights across our hunting grounds."
"And you would like us to stay on for a few extra days so Gabrielle can help with the negotiations?" the dark-haired warrior asked.
Eponin nodded. "There isn't a better negotiator around as far as I am concerned. She could charm the birds right out of the trees."
Xena smiled to herself. She managed to charm a grumpy ex-warlord into letting her tag along to start with and then to fall in love with her. I'd say that was pretty good, she thought. "I'll ask her how she feels about staying when she wakes up," Xena said, already knowing what the bard's answer would be. "In the mean time, I need a sparring partner. Care to join me?"
"Gabrielle's right. You do have a wicked streak in you," Eponin laughed as she climbed back to her feet. "But I need the practise, I suppose, pounding head or not. Race you there!" she shouted taking off a heartbeat before the taller warrior.
Gabrielle stretched slowly, rolling onto her back. She knew, without even having to look, that Xena was long gone from their mutual bed. Flipping over onto her stomach, she ran her hand over the indentation where Xena had slept the night before. Though the linen was cool to her touch, she could still smell the wonderful combination of cinnamon and hyacinth that made up her lovers unique body scent. She breathed in deeply. I never could get enough of that, she thought. Gabrielle grinned secretly to herself, remembering the other, more personal and intimate odours Xena had presented her with the night before.
Lifting her head, the bard realised it was quite late in the morning just from the sound of activity around the village. What had woken her was the faint but clear reverberation of Xena's war cry coming from the training ground on the far side of the compound. "And she can never get enough of that," Gabrielle said aloud. "Thank the gods Xena is the only one who dares to wake a Princess in the morning." She couldn't help giggling at some of the awakenings she had gotten from the tall warrior over the past two summers. Some had been very abrupt indeed. The bard clambered quickly from the bed and thought a proper wash in the hot springs might be more enjoyable that a lonely bath in her rooms. Throwing a plain shift over her head, she gathered everything she would need and headed off to the hot springs.
All along the way to the springs, people waved and said hello to her but no one tried to engage her in conversation, as it was obvious where she was headed and why. The day was starting to feel increasingly pleasant to the bard, and she was looking forward to chatting with the other women who were sure to be at the springs as well. Gabrielle had found it to be one of the few places where the other Amazons treated her as their equal and not their Princess or their former Queen. It made her feel closer to them and was a good way of finding out about their concerns and desires without those needs and worries having been filtered through several guards and advisers first. Usually it was just little things, needing nothing more from her than a listening ear and sometimes a few kinds words, but it all helped make the other women feel their wishes were important too.
The hot springs were a little more crowded than she was used to seeing because several warriors were seated in the hottest of the pools trying to sweat out some of the alcohol they had consumed the night before. Judging from the greenish expression of their faces, they had managed to drink a great deal more than usual. Quickly lifting the shift over her head, Gabrielle climbed into one of the warm pools where several other women and children were already bathing and soon found herself deep in conversation with them.
Most of the discussions seemed to centre around the up-coming arrival of the trade delegation and the changes being sought in the agreement with the villages on their western border. None of the women were comfortable with the idea of anyone having passage rights across their hunting grounds, and several were quite irate that the villagers would even dare ask such a thing. Gabrielle noted their objections and concerns and promised to speak to the Amazon Queen about them.
Eventually, the women departed, children in tow, to attend to their chores or other matters, and Gabrielle was left alone to soak in the warm water. She found herself letting her mind drift back over the past few seven-days and all the things that had happened since their arrival at the village. Though things between Xena and herself seemed more normal now, Gabrielle was still having trouble dealing with the fact she had deliberately set out to kill the tall warrior.
Even though Xena had said, over and over, Gabrielle had done what she thought was right considering the situation, the bard still couldn't shake the guilty ache in her chest. Every time she closed her eyes she could see Xena standing there in the compound, hair in disarray, leathers torn and dirty, her face pulled into a snarl of unthinking rage. The look of wild insanity in the warrior's darting eyes had shocked Gabrielle at the time. The bard had hoped the sight of her standing in dawn's early light would have been enough to pull the warrior from that dark place she had retreated to, but to no avail. Xena had not even recognised Gabrielle. The sound of Xena's cry as the arrow had pierced her chest still haunted the bard. She didn't know Xena was carrying an eyebolt in her bodice, and it had snapped the arrowhead from its shaft just before it reached her skin. Gabrielle's most vivid memory, and the most painful, was of Xena lying, supposedly dead, on the ground. The bard had fainted at the sight, only finding out some time later Xena was still alive.
A single slow tear found its way down her face. At the time the decision had seemed so right. Gabrielle had honestly felt it was the only one she could make. Yet, thinking back on it now, she was sure she could have come up with some other way of dealing with the crazed warrior, if only she had thought longer about what to do. There had been time, plenty of time, a whole night before Xena had found her way back the Amazon village. Why had the decision seemed so right then and so wrong now? The bard kept mulling it over in her mind. What if something happens to Xena in the future and I make another wrong decision? she wondered, shuddering at the thought. I could end up killing her without meaning to.
The bard sat with her eyes closed in the warm water of the spring. She thought she was long past the days of feeling she was a liability and a danger to the warrior, but after the events of the past seven-day, she was left wondering all over again. Gabrielle knew she was safe with Xena, but was Xena safe with her?
Gabrielle started from the water for a moment as two warm, callused hands dropped unexpectedly onto her shoulders, gently massaging the unconscious tension from them. Xena had moved into the hot springs so silently and Gabrielle had been so deep in thought, the bard had never heard her coming. Glancing over her shoulder at the tall warrior behind her, she asked, "Finished for the day?"
"Yea. I think I've worn out enough Amazons this morning," Xena replied, her hands starting to work their magic down Gabrielle's back, easing the knots along her spine.
Smiling wickedly, "How many did you send to the healers this time?" Gabrielle questioned. She knew Xena tried to be careful, but sometimes the Amazons felt they needed to prove themselves in some way against the raven-haired woman and often managed to be hurt in the process.
"None. Today," Xena answered, chuckling a little. The tall warrior stood again, quickly stripping the sweat-stained clothing from her body and climbing into the warm water with Gabrielle. Sliding behind the bard, she wrapped her strong arms around the other woman's slighter frame. "What were you thinking about so deeply just as I came in?" she asked.
Gabrielle knew better than to try to hide the truth from Xena. Somehow she always seemed to know when the bard wasn't being completely honest. "I was thinking about that day," the blonde said softly.
"Gabrielle, you did what you thought was right. I keep telling you that," Xena replied, gently kissing the other woman's ear.
"But I made the wrong decision," Gabrielle stated firmly. "What if I keep making wrong decisions?" she asked. "I could get one of us killed, especially you." The bard bit down on her bottom lip to stop herself from bursting into tears.
Tightening the embrace around Gabrielle, Xena tried to find a way of explaining things to her that would allow the younger woman to find some peace with herself. "We do the best we can with what we know, Gabrielle. You made a decision that was right at the time. If you keep beating up on yourself afterwards, just because it might have been wrong when you think about it later, you're going to end up never making another decision again. You'll stop trusting yourself." Xena sighed a little to herself. She knew all about not trusting because she no longer trusted her own emotions. The only emotional anchor she had to hang on to right now was her love for the smaller blonde bard in her arms.
"If you say so, Xena," Gabrielle said quietly, not feeling any better.
"I say so. Now, how does the idea of a few extra days here sound to you?" the warrior asked.
The bard turned within the safety of Xena's arms so she could look the other woman in the face. "You mean that?" she questioned. "I thought you wanted to get moving again."
"Yes, I mean it. And there is no rush to move on just yet. A few more days in all this luxury will do us both some good," Xena replied. She loved making the bard smile like she was right at that moment. Kissing Gabrielle gently on the end of her wet nose, the warrior continued. "Don't think it's a holiday of some sort though. You, at least, will be working."
"Ahhh, the trade delegation," Gabrielle said, enjoying the look of momentary confusion in Xena's eyes.
Xena stared down at the blonde. "How did you know about that?" she asked, one eyebrow rising.
"It was the talk of the hot springs this morning. You really should come here more often, you know, Xena. This is the one place where everyone comes to gossip," Gabrielle laughed in reply.
"And you were right in the thick of it, as usual," Xena said, smiling. "Now come here so I can scrub that pretty blonde head of yours and make you look presentable for the Queen today." The taller woman gripped her arms more firmly around Gabrielle and ducked them both under the water.
Eponin stood at the bottom of the ladder leading up into the hayloft. She had been hoping Ephiny and Jadax would have returned to the palace long before she had finished training with Xena. The idea of waking the Amazon Queen was not one she had been looking forward to, but Ephiny did have duties to perform, especially today. Sharpening her ears, Eponin listened for any sound coming from the loft above. All she could hear was the gentle rustle of hay around the horses hooves and the slow crunching as they ate their measures of grain and oats. Eponin knew she was just avoiding the inevitable and rapidly climbed the ladder. However much she may have wanted to give Ephiny some privacy to be with her lover, there was a village to look after and duties to be attended to.
The loft was dim and warm, filled with the scents of summer hay and the horses below. Moving slowly around the bales, Eponin tried to find where Ephiny and Jadax had made their little nest the night before. Jadax often came up here to be away from the other women or when she simply needed some space to think. Bringing the Amazon Queen up here had caused Eponin to smile when she saw them quietly making their way towards the stables and the loft above. That had been some time before the warrior had gotten herself too drunk to even see straight. Thankfully, the worst of the hangover had lifted, though she had swapped an aching head for aching muscles after working out with the dark-haired warrior woman. She wonder what Ephiny had thought when she realised where Jadax had been leading her.
Peering over several small bales stacked on top of each other, she spotted the end of a blanket and two sets of toes poking out from under it. "Ephiny?" she called softly.
"Go away, Eponin. I'm not here, and you never saw me," Ephiny growled back by way of reply.
"I'm sorry, Ephiny. I'd like to leave you alone up here for the rest of the day," the warrior said.
"Try the rest of my life," the Queen interrupted, raising a giggle from the slight warrior lying by her side.
Eponin sighed in exasperation. Why were all new couplings like this, she wondered. It's not like Jadaxious is going anywhere. "Okay, for the rest of your life. But there are several duties that need seeing to and you're the only one who can do it."
"Gabrielle's still here. Let her attend to them. She should get a taste of what being Queen is all about anyway," Ephiny snarled. She really wanted to be left alone with Jadax and to simply be another warrior in the village for a while. Being Queen could be a royal pain sometimes and this was one of them.
Stepping around the bales, Eponin saw her Queen and Jadax snuggled up together as tightly as two women could be. Although the sight brought a smile to her face, she squatted down and began to gently tug at the blanket. "One of those duties is the judgement on Kaliope. Gabrielle was one of her victims and can't make a judgement on her. You know that, Ephiny," Eponin said, still tugging.
Pulling the blanket more firmly about them, Ephiny replied, "You may be my closest friend, Eponin, but there are days when it would be really, really easy to dislike you." The twinkling in the Queen's eyes and the slow smile on her face took any sting out of her words. Kissing Jadax on the top of her head, Ephiny began to untangle herself to face the day ahead, even though it was half over. Reaching out her hand, she quickly pulled Jadax to her feet as well. "Look, give us a candlemark to get washed up and then we can get on with all the things you have planned to keep me busy today," Ephiny said, glancing about for her clothes. How they got so spread out was a little beyond her but then again, she had been otherwise occupied at the time and wasn't paying all that much attention to where anything had landed.
Eponin grinned back in relief. It had been easier than she thought it would be to get the Queen up and going for the day. "I'll get the women together then. See you in a candlemark or so," Eponin said as she stood to leave.
Ephiny wasn't even aware of the other warrior's words, her eyes firmly fixed on Jadax's, a smile of desire pulling at the corners of her mouth.
"I'll make that two candlemarks," Eponin muttered to herself as she started the climb back down the ladder into the stable. "New love! Hera's tits. Slow insanity, you mean," she grumbled to herself, getting a very odd look from one of the Royal Guards still on watch.
The guard watched Eponin as she headed back into the village, a look of tenderness in her brown eyes, sighing with her own private thoughts about love.
The deep bass sound of the thundering drums called Amazon women from all parts of the village to gather at the main compound. Ephiny stood on her platform, the mask of Queen covering her face. Jadaxious was also standing, a little shyly, on the platform as well. The last place she had ever expected to find herself would be standing just behind the Amazon Queen as her consort and lover. She couldn't stop herself from fidgeting with nerves until she felt a reassuring touch on the small of her back from the tall, dark-haired woman beside her. Xena was also on the platform because she was seen as Princess Gabrielle's lover, but the bard herself was gathered with the small group of women on the ground who were seen as the most direct victims of Kaliope's treachery against the Amazon nation. Jadax glanced up at the incredibly tall woman by her side and received a slow wink from her. The little warrior tried to relax after that. There was nothing she had to do at this point other than simply be there.
As the last echoes of the drums died in the distance, Ephiny stepped forward and nodded at Eponin standing near the small caves they used as holding cells. The woman briefly disappeared, returning with Kaliope held between two of the biggest warriors of the Amazon village. Yet even they were dwarfed by the sheer size and bulk of the woman they were escorting. Her Amazon clothing had been swapped for a simple homespun skirt and blouse, similar to those worn by most non-Amazon women outside of the hunting grounds, her wrists bound with a length of rawhide thong. Angrily shaking off the hands holding her, Kaliope strode proudly into the compound, stopping just in front of the platform where Ephiny was waiting. Staring up at the Amazon Queen, she waited for Ephiny to pass judgement.
Jadax still couldn't quite get over just how big this woman was. She had legs like tree trunks and arms as thick as most other warriors thighs. Estimating her height, Jadax thought she would probably tower over even the tall warrior standing by her side on the platform. The little forest scout could see Kaliope's massive muscles bunching and relaxing as she held her anger in check. Her hands were clenched into tight fists, bigger than a small child's head. Kaliope's hard gaze never faltered from the Queen, the rage burning clearly beneath her low brows.
Lifting the mask from her face so Kaliope could see it really was the Queen passing sentence on her, Ephiny looked around at the women gathered in the compound and then down at the woman before her. She hated having to do this but the laws of the Nation were clear and she knew it was her duty as Queen.
"Kaliope, you have been charged with treason against the Amazon Nation. You willingly allowed men to camp upon our hunting grounds. You kidnapped and held against their will women of the Amazon Nation. You aided in the theft of Amazon property, namely gold dust, and misrepresented yourself to us as a true Amazon warrior. Do you have anything to say in your own defence?" Ephiny said sadly.
The huge woman glared up at Ephiny but if there were any words in her heart, they died waiting to be spoken. Even though the Queen was standing on the platform, Kaliope's eyes were almost level with hers and the unvoiced anger in them was unnerving. Ephiny waited patiently, hoping the other woman would say something, if only by way of explanation. Kaliope growled softly and briefly dropped her eyes.
Ephiny realised the massive woman had chosen to say nothing in her own defence and sighing a little, handed down the only sentence she could under Amazon law. "Kaliope, from this day forth, you are stripped of all rights and privileges of an Amazon warrior. You will be escorted to a point a half days walk from the last boundary marker of the Amazon Nation. If you try to return, you will be killed on sight. If you misrepresent yourself as an honourable Amazon warrior outside of the Nation, you will be hunted down and executed. This is my judgement as Queen of the Amazon Nation," Ephiny said, never letting her eyes leave those of the woman before her. Turning to the small group of women who were Kaliope's kidnapping victims, she asked, "Is this judgement sufficient for you? Does it satisfy your need for justice?"
The group of women quickly looked around themselves and finally Gabrielle stepped forward and said, "Yes, the judgement is sufficient." The bard was no happier than Ephiny but she knew Amazon law and there was little choice. Only the fact that Kaliope had not really hurt or killed anyone saved her from an immediate death sentence. It had been bad enough that the men in the clearing had lost their own lives to their greed and Xena's madness.
Turning back to Kaliope, Ephiny started to raise her hand to signal a party of warriors to come forward and escort the woman from the hunting grounds of the Amazon Nation. Her arm had barely left her side when Kaliope abruptly snapped the rawhide bonds around her wrists and leapt towards the Amazon Queen. Ephiny threw herself back as the other woman's hands reached out to grab her throat, stumbling against Xena's side for a moment. Jadax moved in a blur, faster even than Xena, placing her own slight body between that of her lover and the enraged woman. Kaliope simply picked her up with one hand and tossed Jadax brutally to one side. The scout landed head first into the hard ground of the compound, tumbling limply, coming to rest at the feet of several warriors. She tried to rise again but her legs were numb and she flopped back helplessly.
Xena jumped between the two women and snapped a hard front kick to Kaliope's face that staggered her a little, forcing her to take several steps away from the platform and into the centre of the compound. The dark-haired warrior leapt gracefully from the platform, landing in front of the huge woman. Kaliope's right eye was already starting to blacken and swell from the kick she had received. The warrior drew her sword from its back sheath and spun the hilt in her hand so the blade lay along the length of her forearm. Circling around the other woman, Xena looked for an opening.
Kaliope circled as well, her good eye darting in all directions trying to see a way of escaping. Though she was a very large and physically powerful woman, in her heart Kaliope was a coward. The rest of the Amazons had become a tight group, several deep, around the two circling women and there were no gaps through which Kaliope could duck.
"You know I can kill you, Kaliope. Stop this now and you won't be hurt," Xena said reasonably. She didn't want to have to fight this mountain of a woman, but more importantly, she wanted to see the sentence the Queen had handed down be carried out. In the warrior's mind, it was the better of the two options. She carried enough blood on her hands and didn't want to have this woman's as well, regardless of the fact she was fighting to protect Ephiny.
Swinging her head from side to side, the larger woman saw she was not getting any other options. Even if she could have killed or disabled the warrior woman, something she knew in the depths of her soul she didn't have the stomach to do, there were now dozens of Amazons around her, all with their arrows trained directly at her heart. There would be no escape. All the fight suddenly went out of Kaliope and she deflated like a pricked bladder. "You've made an enemy today, Xena," she snarled, as several warriors came forward to bind her again.
Xena simply stared back, the ice in her eyes never melting for a moment.
"What's the healer doing in there?" Eponin asked for the tenth time since they had gently carried Jadax into the palace. She was pacing back and forth in front of the closed door to Ephiny's bedchamber, angry at herself for not thinking to use chains or stronger bindings on Kaliope. Her closest friend had been attacked and the little scout hurt all because she didn't think. Berating herself, she knew she had to hand back her status as primary warrior simply because she couldn't do the job. It would be a small price to pay if only Jadax got well again.
Gabrielle silently entered the room from the hallway outside. She had found herself suddenly acting as the Queen because Ephiny was still too shocked from the attack and completely distraught at the possible injury Jadax had taken in defending her. Standing next to Xena, a gentle arm surrounded her shoulders and she allowed herself to nestle into the comfort the tall warrior was offering. "Kaliope is back in the holding cells and a party will escort her from the hunting grounds at dawn tomorrow," she said tiredly. "The rest of the women seem okay now, though a lot of the children are still frightened. Some of the other healers are talking with them now and getting them calmed down again. Any news about Jadax?"
Xena was about to speak when the door to Ephiny's bedchamber opened and the healer stepped out quietly. Eponin almost grabbed the healer to find out if both women were okay.
Shrugging the warrior's hands from her, the healer saw she was not going to be allowed to leave until she had given some kind of report, at least to Princess Gabrielle, as acting Queen anyway. "I've given the Queen a light sedative to help her rest. She'll be fine by morning," she explained.
"And what about Jadaxious?" Eponin asked, a little too loudly. She blushed, embarrassed at her lack of control.
"Jadaxious has seriously bruised the nerves in her back. She may heal if she can simply be left flat for a few days. The feeling in her legs was returning already and that is always a good sign," the healer said.
"May heal?" Xena questioned. She had picked up on the slight hesitation in the healers voice when she had spoken those two words.
The woman looked at Xena and shrugged her shoulders. "She is a warrior. I was the one who dealt with her when she broke her ankle and trying to get her to stay in bed was a battle unto itself. She is not going to like having to stay flat for a seven-day or more to allow her back to heal properly. I don't want to have to sedate her for that long because it just isn't healthy."
"It's too easy to get addicted to the herbs," Xena added.
The healer gave the dark-haired woman a long look. "You know something of healing, warrior?" she asked.
"Something," Xena replied, not giving any further information.
"Then see what you, all of you, can do about getting that little scout to stay flat and still for a while. It really is the only hope she has of ever healing completely. I'll be by again in the morning to check on her," the healer said. "Looking at you lot, I might suggest you get some rest too. It has been rather a traumatic day for all of us." The healer stepped around Eponin and quickly left the room. There was little more she could do for the Queen and Jadax right now and there were still frightened children to attend to.
Xena leaned down and briefly whispered into Gabrielle's ear. The bard smiled and left the room herself.
"I'm staying here tonight," Eponin stated firmly, as though she was expecting Xena to disagree with her.
"No argument from me," Xena said. "I've sent Gabrielle off to get us something to drink. I think we could both do with a little relaxation after the excitement of this afternoon." The tall warrior quickly pulled up a couple of comfortable chairs and placed them around the small table near the window. Through the shrouding darkness outside, Xena could hear the sound of Gabrielle's footfall as she returned with several small bottles of the potent Amazon wine the warrior knew Eponin liked so much. The other woman needed to stop beating up on herself and simply relax for a while. Xena knew there was nothing more relaxing than the wine the Amazons made for themselves. It was strong, but Xena thought she could handle a few mugs of it, at the same time getting Eponin a little tipsy as well.
"How is she?" Gabrielle asked quite some considerable time later as Xena made her unsteady way into the rooms they shared.
"Sounnd asheep 'nd in her own bed," Xena slurred back. "She's go' an amashing capashity for that 'uff." She stood blinking owlishly in the candlelight, gently swaying in time with her heartbeat. Fumbling with the buckles on her back sheath, she managed to undo them and simply let her sword drop to the floor behind her, something she would never have done if she had been any less drunk.
"I think I might have to put you to bed myself," Gabrielle giggled. The bard had hardly ever seen the warrior this inebriated before, and it was rather endearing in its own way.
"I'm jusht fine," Xena said, trying to pull herself together. She took several exaggerated and very careful steps towards the bed, only to trip over her own shadow and land face first on the mattress. Rolling onto her back, she said, "Maybe a little help, 'kay."
"Just a little, my drunken warrior," Gabrielle replied as she began to efficiently unbuckle Xena's armour and strip her Amazon clothing from her. By the time the bard had Xena down to bare skin, the warrior had fallen asleep. Carefully rearranging the warrior's heavy weight, Gabrielle managed to get her under the covers, and more or less comfortable, not that Xena would have noticed. "Remind me to be well away from here by the time you wake up tomorrow. You are going to have such a hangover then," she whispered as she kissed Xena goodnight.
Before Xena even opened her eyes the next morning, she was aware of several unpleasant things all happening at once. Her head was pounding very loudly in time with her heart, her mouth tasting so horrible she wondered what she had been forced to eat, the sour smell of sweat and alcohol wafting up from her own body and her stomach roiling and complaining about whatever was left in it. Opening her eyes a bare slit, the light slammed into them like a pair of needle-sharp daggers. This made her head thump even harder and for a moment, Xena didn't want to move. Finally forcing her eyes open completely, she remembered what she had been doing the night before to feel so close to death this morning. "By the gods, you owe me big time for this, Eponin," she muttered to herself. Any thoughts she may have had about dozing off again were quickly quashed by the increasing spasms from her mid-section. "Better get this over with," she said to herself.
Rising gingerly in respect to her head, which she was sure was about to part company from her neck and roll under the bed, she slowly walked into the bathing room and the privy beyond. Leaning over the open hole, one hand braced against the back wall, she winced against the agony in her head. Not hesitating, she stuck two fingers down her throat and brought up whatever was causing the nausea and cramping. She had to do this several times but eventually she felt as though she had gotten rid of the last of the wine she had consumed the night before. Moving a little weakly into the bathing room, Xena sat on the side of the empty tub. Her mouth tasted even worse than it had before, if such a thing was possible, but at least her stomach had settled somewhat and she was no longer in fear of embarrassing herself in front of anyone.
She was just starting to wonder if she had the strength to get back to the bed when she heard someone open the door and enter the room. Xena listened to the footfall and knew it was Gabrielle who had come in. Maybe no one else was brave enough, she thought to herself. The bard stepped through the doorway into the bathing room. Xena could see she was fighting to keep the smile from her face and the warrior scowled back in response.
"If it's any consolation, Eponin looked even worse than you do," Gabrielle said as she offered a helping shoulder to the seated warrior.
Taking the offered help, Xena allowed the bard to assist her back into the other room and lower her into a chair. "The next time I drink that much wine with an Amazon warrior, especially Eponin, just slit my throat before I get a chance to sober up again, will you, Gabrielle," Xena snarled. Holding her hand to her head, the warrior tried to remember everything that had happened the night before. "What time did I get back here?" she asked.
"Well after moonset, Xena. Do you recall what you got up to?" the bard queried. It was fairly obvious the blonde had some secret she was dying to share and Xena was not going to like hearing.
"Some. I lost track about the fourth bottle, I think," Xena answered.
"Hmmm, I counted eight. Five in the Queen's room, mostly on the floor. One bobbing around in the hot springs. One in the middle of the compound and one more at the training grounds. Eponin's sword was still there, as was your chakram. Stuck in one of the targets they use for bow practise, by the way. Oh, and your breast dagger and Eponin's knife are jammed between the stonework outside the temple door. Wanna hear the rest?" Gabrielle asked. She was enjoying this far too much, but the warrior had rarely, if ever, gotten as drunk as she was the night before and it was fun to tease her about it.
"Might as well kill me. I'm close to death as it is," Xena replied a little dramatically. It was true, though; she might as well hear about what she and Eponin did together while she was feeling too hung over to die of humiliation.
Gabrielle keeping talking as she put together some willowbark tea and added several herbs to the hot water to help settle Xena's still rebellious stomach. She knew exactly which herbs to use, having gone through this same experience with Eponin not two candlemarks before, and she really had looked a lot worse than Xena did this morning. "The guards said they saw you and Eponin come stumbling out of the palace, giggling away merrily, bottles in hand. You both headed over to the training ground and played about there for a while then you decided to turn the door of the temple into a practise target and started throwing your knives at it. The priestess had a complete fit this morning when she saw the gouge marks in the door and around the frame. Never seen you so bad with a knife before, Xena," Gabrielle giggled as she handed the hot medicinal tea to the warrior.
"I'm surprised I found the door at all, there or here for that matter," Xena answered, sipping at the tea and enjoying the way it cleared the foul taste from her mouth. The scowl was still on her face but so far she hadn't done anything the night before to be really embarrassed about. She had simply enjoyed a little drunken fun with the other warrior.
"From the temple, you must have decided to have a wash or something because one of the guards saw you both headed for the springs. I'm surprised you didn't drown over there, to be honest," Gabrielle said, a little worried.
"I don't think I got into the water, judging from the way I smell this morning," Xena replied. The herbs were starting to have an effect and she no longer felt like she wanted to be sick again. Her head was still pounding, though, and it might be a while before that stopped. "What did we do after that, as if you aren't going to tell me."
"The guard told me " Gabrielle started to say.
"No, wait. I remember this. Eponin wanted to run naked through the forest, said it would be good for her soul or some such thing," Xena said, blushing a little. Did I do it too? she wondered.
"Well, Eponin got her wish and set a new Amazon record for the fifty pace nude dash, tripped over you -- though what you were doing sitting in the middle of the compound is beyond me -- and then passed out. You carried her back to her own hut and then somehow found your way back here." Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the embarrassed warrior. "You were fully dressed when you finally staggered in, just in case you are wondering."
Xena breathed a sigh of relief. She didn't mind being seen naked, it simply wasn't something that ever bothered her, but the thought of running naked and drunk through the forest with every Amazon guard in the village seeing her was not a pleasant thought. They could have assumed she had lost her senses again. The warriors were just starting to relax around her as it was.
As though she was reading Xena's mind, Gabrielle said, "If nothing else, you've done your reputation wonders."
"How?" the tall woman grumbled back.
"You're human again," Gabrielle replied simply. "Now, if you feel up to it, I think a hot bath and a small bite to eat will do you more good than anything I else I can come up with right now. What do you say?" The bard was loving the chance to pamper the warrior a little, even if it was just the aftermath of too much Amazon wine. Usually it was the other way around.
"Sounds fine. But can I bathe in here, please? I'm not quite ready to face the world just yet," Xena asked. Her head was still pounding so hard she felt she might accidentally break someone in two if they bumped into her. "Oh, and please. No food just yet. I think I just want a few waterbags around today."
"What, my big, scary warrior afraid she might shrivel in the light of day?" Gabrielle laughed back, dancing away from the playful slap Xena headed in the direction of her butt. "Give me a minute and I'll get some hot water organised. If you're real nice to me, I might even let you wash my back too."
Xena smiled. She intended to wash far more than Gabrielle's back, hangover or no hangover.
Jadax stared at the ceiling, wondering if the gods had it in for her. Just lately, she always seemed to be laid up in a bed for one reason or another. First she breaks her ankle fighting raiders in the western border then she hurts it again, the very day she gets the splints taken off, when she did her marathon run from the mountain pass lookout, and now she had hurt her back and was in bed once more. Sighing, she turned her head and watched the patch of sky she could see through the open window next to the bed. From where she was lying, she could just make out the top of a Royal guard's head at the bottom of the window frame.
The healer had come by again earlier in the day with one of her apprentices to gently massage her back so she wouldn't get any pressure sores from lying so still, but it had been a rather painful experience to say the least. Not that lying on the board the woman had slid under the mattress was any more comfortable. She wasn't even allowed to have a pillow because the healer wanted Jadax to lie as flat as possible so her back would heal properly. Jadax never doubted for a heartbeat she would get better again; she just wished she didn't have to lie in bed to do it.
Gabrielle had stayed with her for a while earlier in the morning, telling her a few stories and of course, regaling her with the tale of Xena and Eponin's drunken night together. "Wish I could have seen that for myself," she muttered. The bard had left around mid-morning to deal with the aftermath of all that wine. Eponin had been the first awake, apparently, and had been calling pitifully for someone to put her out of her misery. The blonde had gone over to Eponin's hut to attend to her because she said she needed to practise for when Xena woke. "Xena with a hangover. Now there is something else I would have liked to have seen with my own eyes," she mumbled grumpily.
Then there was Ephiny. The Queen had slept on a pallet on the floor so she wouldn't jiggle Jadax's back in the night. The little scout would have much preferred if she had slept next to her but could see the sense in Ephiny sleeping where she did. Jadax wanted to feel her arms around her lover just to reassure herself that she was all right. The sight of Kaliope leaping towards the Queen had almost stopped her heart, but she had been expecting the big woman to do something to express her anger at the judgement Ephiny had handed down. "Didn't know I could move that fast, though," she said aloud. "Even faster than Xena." That had really surprised her, but Jadax assumed Xena's attention had probably been on her own lover, Gabrielle.
From the corner of her eye, Jadax saw the door slowly open and Ephiny back into the room with a tray in her hands. "I still think you have the best behind in the Amazon Nation," she said wickedly as the Queen turned around carefully.
Blushing, Ephiny shot back, "And you have the smoothest tongue." Realising what she had just said, the Amazon Queen turned an even brighter shade of red. "Oh, sometimes," she started.
"I know. I know. I am supposed to be hurt but I gotta have some fun or I'll go mad just lying here," Jadax said, her eyes twinkling with laughter.
Ephiny settled the tray on a small stand beside the bed and pulled a chair over so she could sit facing Jadax. "Thought you might like something for nooning," she offered.
"You're not going to feed me again, are you?" the scout asked.
"Yep. After watching you pour half your breakfast up your nose this morning, I think I'd rather know you are getting something into you by a more conventional route," Ephiny answered, tucking a cloth under Jadax's chin and picking up a bowl from the tray.
"If you stayed away from the soups, stews and broths, I might do a little better," the small woman grumbled to Ephiny. "I just can't see where the blasted spoon is going lying here flat on my back."
"Well, I can. So quit the moaning and open your mouth," the other woman replied as she started spooning a rich, meaty broth into Jadax. "I did bring some flatbread and your favourite cheese as well. I figure you can handle those without getting too much into your ears this time."
For the next several minutes, Ephiny chatted away happily as she feed the broth to Jadax. She was pleased the healer felt the scout would recover given enough time, but only if the Queen could keep her still. It was not an easy task -- Jadax was used to being very active as a forest scout -- but a task Ephiny was more than pleased to perform. She still couldn't get over how the small woman had thrown herself at Kaliope the day before. She had spent a quiet candlemark locked in the bathing room at dawn crying out her fears and now felt much better as a result. Jadax was alive and would be back on her feet in a seven-day or so, and that was all that mattered to the Queen right now.
"Oh, and the trade delegation will be arriving sometime tomorrow afternoon," Ephiny said, not really thinking about what she was telling the other woman. She was simply making conversation to help take Jadax's mind off having to be fed like an infant.
The scout coughed up her last mouthful of broth. "What?" she spluttered. "That's days earlier than we expected them. I won't be fit to stand with you by then."
"Oops," Ephiny exclaimed. "I hadn't thought of that." The Queen realised she didn't want to be away from her lover right now and even if she was, she wouldn't be able to give her full concentration to the negotiations anyway. She was more concerned with keeping the other woman still and flat so she could heal. Ephiny hadn't really thought about what to do with the delegation coming from the five villages on their western border. "No, wait. I think it will be all right. Gabrielle was going to help me with the negotiations. I think if I ask her, she might be willing to take my place. She does have the authority to make the arrangements, and she probably knows more about what the other women want than I do at the moment."
"So, ask. I know I am simply being selfish by saying this but I really would rather have you here with me for a while," Jadax said, feeling a little ashamed.
"Hush, my love," Ephiny replied, leaning forward to place a gentle kiss on the other woman's forehead. "You're not being selfish. You're hurt and a little afraid, that's all. I'm just glad Gabrielle and Xena decided to stay for a few extra days. I'll ask them this afternoon. The worst they can do is say no, after all." She doubted they would, but Ephiny didn't want to make any assumptions when it came to the bard and the warrior woman.
Eponin lay stretched out on her bed, wearing a baggy, long shirt, wondering what was wrong with her lately. The hangover she had woken with that morning was one of the worst she had ever experienced, and she had been through quite a few of those over the past couple of moons. Gently touching the cool, damp cloth Gabrielle had placed over her eyes, the warrior knew she had been doing far more drinking of late than was really healthy for her. Though, she did have to admit, the past two nights had been something else again. Generally, she would stop after one small bottle of wine. Enough to numb her to sleep but not enough to make her too slow to react to trouble. She hadn't really meant to get quite as drunk as she did the night before, but Xena had been right. She did need to relax now and then. And it was fun to simply let go and enjoy the company of another warrior for the evening.
"Oh, admit it, you drunken Amazon. You miss the company of a loving woman more than that of another warrior," she mumbled quietly. Eponin tried to remember how long it had been since she last shared her covers with anyone. "Hrumph, since before Ephiny accepted the mask of Queen," she decided aloud. She was so busy with her duties as primary warrior that the thought of being with someone had not really crossed her mind in quite some time. If she was being completely honest, Eponin would have admitted it was not her duties that kept her so alone but the simple fear of being hurt again.
On the one occasion Eponin had given her heart to another, the woman had turned on her savagely. The things she had said to the warrior still hurt even now, and she tried not to think about them. It had not been her fault that woman's best friend had been killed. She had been leading a scouting party and there was an unexpected attack. Eponin had done her best to get everyone into the trees and to safety but her lover's best friend had been killed by a well-placed arrow. In her grief, her lover blamed Eponin for the death and the warrior had accepted the guilt. The woman had left not long after, the memories being just to painful for her to stay, and moved to another village, but Eponin still carried the wounds created by her vicious words.
Since then, she had not shared her soul with another, and once Ephiny became the Queen, the warrior found herself more and more reluctant to share her covers with just anyone. Now, she had taken to drinking most nights to try to ease the loneliness she felt eating away inside her. When there was a crisis, she didn't drink, though. She didn't need to. Eponin simply channelled all her energies into solving the problem, and that somehow stopped the empty feelings, for a time.
Fumbling around for the waterbag she knew Gabrielle had left on the bed, Eponin took several long swallows to ease the dryness in her throat. It did nothing to take the lump away. She lifted the compress from her eyes, wondering when Gabrielle was going to return again. The bard had promised to give the warrior a wash to remove the smells of sweat and wine from her body. Finding the light was still too bright, she replaced the cloth and settled her head back onto the pillow, slipping away into a doze without even realising it.
Sometime later, Eponin woke to a soft hand on her shoulder. Lifting the now dry compress from her eyes, she looked up, expecting to see the bard. Instead she was presented with one of the Royal guards, the one who had given her such an odd look when she came out of the stables the day before. In the woman's other hand was a large bowl full of water, a cloth draped over its side.
"Hi. I'm Amaran. Princess Gabrielle sent me over because she is still busy with Xena," the guard said quietly. "I didn't think you would be up to walking over to the springs yet, so I brought a bowl with me instead."
The Royal guard was gently stripping the shirt from Eponin's body as she spoke. Soaking the cloth and rubbing the ball of herb soap over it, she began to wash the other woman's body tenderly, as though Eponin was her own child, or perhaps, her lover.
Eponin lay back, a little surprised, and allowed the woman to continue her ministrations. Looking into her face, she noticed the expression Amaran had as her hands washed over Eponin's skin. Something was burning in the guard's eyes, but the fear in Eponin tied a knot in her tongue. She simply allowed the other woman to bathe her, a part of her wishing it would never end. The warrior tried very hard not to listen to that still, small voice she could hear inside.
Continued - Part 2