Gabrielle shuddered at the thought of any of her sister Amazons being in some slaver's tent and what would definitely be happening if that were the case. Pulling her thoughts back to the here and now, she said, "With only one cage full right now, it might be a while before they try moving any of them."

The warrior thought back to the days when she led her own army of men, remembering how some warlords treated the forest women, and the sort of prices the female warriors commanded at the slave markets. The rarity of their capture and the skills they possessed usually meant a lot of dinars would change hands on those occasions there was even one Amazon for sale. A whole wagon load would represent a small fortune to whomever had captured them. "No, something tells me they will be moving them out fairly soon," the dark-haired woman replied.

"What? Are they worth that much?" Gabrielle asked.

"That, and the fact we'll help the slavers see it would be a very good idea to get that wagon on the road. The sooner those Amazons are away from the camp, the better those thugs will like it," Xena answered, a truly evil smile crossing her face.

"How many are you planning to kill then, to get them to do that before they are ready?" the bard questioned seriously.

"None," the warrior replied, a nasty edge in her voice. "But by the time we are finished with their 'manly virtues' they are going to wish they had never seen an Amazon warrior, let alone captured a whole group of them."

Gabrielle simply shook her head, not understanding what the tall woman had in mind. Standing to follow Xena and Shayna deeper still into the forest, she had to trust that the warrior knew what she was doing.

Chapter Nine

Eponin stared through the bars surrounding her and her sister Amazons, trying to make sense of the guard patterns and how often the sentries were changed. Since their capture earlier in the day, nothing had happened to them beyond their minor wounds being seen to by one of the healers and a rather nasty chat she'd had with the leader of the slaver operation, a cruel looking man who called himself Viper. After her little 'discussion' with the man, she was now sporting a large bruise along the left hand side of her face which all but closed one eye. In a way, she considered herself lucky to have gotten off so lightly. Badly marked goods did not fetch a high price at the slave markets, even if those goods were of Amazon origin.

In the gathering darkness, the woman glanced back at her fellow captives, five warriors and the ten young craft-women they had been escorting back to the Amazon Nation from Athens. Not one of the young women was more than eighteen summers old, and all had just completed some very advanced training in their various specialities. It should have been a fairly easy job to do. Go to Athens, pick up the women, escort them safely home. Shouldn't have taken more than a moon, maybe five seven-days, there and back. Eponin found herself shaking her head for what seemed the hundredth time that day.

Solari spotted the shaking head and wriggled over to sit by the other woman's side. "I'm sorry, Eponin," she started.

"It's all right, Solari. We weren't to know it was a trap," Eponin cut in, gently squeezing the upset warrior's fingers. "I'm just happy no one took anymore hurts than a few bruises and scrapes."

"But if we had left when you wanted, we could have avoided this altogether," Solari mumbled.

"It was just one extra day, and we all wanted to buy something special for people back home," the other woman explained, thinking of Amaran and the tortoise-shell combs she had bought for her lover. "For all we know that trap had been waiting for days before we arrived, so it probably wouldn’t matter if we had left on the day we originally planned." Eponin had a brief mental flash of the ground falling away under them and the thumping jolt she had received when she, and everyone else, finally hit the bottom of a very wide and surprisingly deep pit trap. It had been well concealed on a wide track leading to a popular watering hole, its cover strong enough to allow some of the lighter forest creatures to scamper across it. The sight of the small tracks criss-crossing the layer of leaves had tricked them all into thinking the path was safe and solid underfoot. Walking together as one large, clumped group, chattering and catching up on the news and events, had not helped one bit either. Sooner or later, someone was going to fall into that pit trap. It was just unfortunate that it happened to be them.

The explanation didn't ease the warrior's guilt, but she stopped trying to take the blame for their entrapment, at least out loud anyway.

Eponin could see from the look on Solari's face she still thought it was somehow her own fault they had been captured in the pit trap. Deciding to give the woman something else to think about, she asked, "What do you make of the guard pattern?"

Solari took a moment to shake the depressing thoughts from her mind before answering. "Seems pretty regular so far, and I have been watching as closely as you," she said. "But this cage might make it a bit tough to break out of here."

Eponin nodded in agreement. She had spent some time wondering how they were going to get themselves out of the blasted cage. The guards and sentries would be a breeze after that. The warrior found herself looking over the wooden cage again. It had obviously been built especially for the purpose of holding reluctant slaves until they could be transported to the markets. Heavy ironwood made up the bars, and instead of simple rawhide thongs strapping them together, they had used strong iron bands fitted every hand span or so over the entire structure. The only real way in or out was through a small door on one end and even that had been built so a person had to crawl through it. No exactly designed for mass escapes, she thought to herself. Even the wagon supporting the cage had been made of ironwood, making escape through the wagon-bed impossible.

She watched the slow movement of men around the camp as the smells of evemeal began to fill the air. The guards she had been expecting to check on them had not shown their faces around the back of the tent for some time. Eponin assumed they must be getting their own meals and couldn't be bothered looking in on the captives when it was clear escaping from the cage was going to be highly unlikely.

The warrior heard the faintest whisper of noise coming from underneath the wagon. It sounded for all the world like armour scraping quietly over dry grass. Eponin shook her head, thinking the sound was probably just rats. She had seen one or two scurrying from tent to tent as the sun had set and the shadows between them had grown longer and deeper. The warrior found herself suddenly jumping when an unexpected hand pressed firmly against the back of her shoulder through the bars. Swinging around abruptly, she was struck completely speechless, seeing Xena's face grinning evilly at her from the other side of the bars, her sky blue eyes sparkling with wicked delight at having surprised the other woman.

It took her a moment to get her bearings again. The instant her heart crawled back down her throat and into her chest where it belonged, Eponin found the breath to speak. "Xena," she whispered in a rush. "What are you doing here? How did you find us? Where's Gabrielle?"

"Came to help. Didn't know you were here until I saw you. Up on the ridge watching," the tall woman answered succinctly. As she had been speaking, the warrior was carefully untying a medium-sized sack from her waist and just as cautiously pulling out handfuls of smaller bags. "Start handing these out to everyone," she said. "Don't crush them against yourselves, though. They've got Vespas inside."

"Vespas?" one of the young women asked, holding her small bag between two fingers, a little nervous of whatever was inside.

"Small hornets, native to this area. They've got a sting like fire," Xena explained. "Should be fairly quiet at the moment, though. Gabrielle and I smoked them from the nest and took those that had fallen to the ground in shock. So long as you don't crush the bag or shake it about too much, they shouldn't start buzzing and give you away."

"What are we supposed to do with them?" the young metal-smith questioned, tucking the bag into her empty belt pouch.

"Protect yourselves," Xena replied, making sure the last little bag she wanted was still inside the sack. "Let's just say Artemis helps those who help themselves. Explain it to them, Eponin." Waiting until the other woman nodded, Xena continued. "We're going to be close by, moving about the edge of the camp. Once they have you on the road, we'll have a better chance of getting you out of this thing," she said, tapping one of the bars. "When it happens, be ready to move fast."

Xena ducked down again and slid under the wagon, disappearing from Eponin's line of sight. Listening to the scrape of the warrior's armour, she was surprised to hear Xena moving towards the large tent and not out of the camp as she expected. Peering through the bars, she watched the tall woman roll under the edge of the tent, only to re-appear a few heartbeats later. With a nod of her head, Xena crawled off into the darkness and was soon lost from view.

Turning back to other women, she began to explain how they would use the Vespas to protect themselves, getting quite a deal of muffled laughter from the young women. Eponin smiled broadly. It felt good to have a few options again.

Chapter Ten

Xena eased her way passed the last sentry before leaving the camp, making sure he was still out cold. She had taken a few moments to prop him against a tree, arranging his limbs comfortably before crossing the sentry line. Anyone stumbling across him would think he had merely fallen asleep at his post, and aside from a dull headache, he might think the same thing too; she had been very careful about not being heard as she had approached from behind.

Quickly working her way back up the ridge, she was soon by the bard's side once more. Looking down at the slave wagons she could see the Amazons clustered together as Eponin explained how they could use the hornets Xena had given them as a way to protect themselves.

"Do you think the young ones will be able to pull it off?" Gabrielle asked, feeling a little apprehensive for the women below.

"If Eponin and Solari have any say in it, the men won't want to go near the crafters," Xena replied, pulling several pieces of deer jerky from Gabrielle's bag, handing some to the bard. "Mind you," she laughed softly, a wicked light glinting in her eyes. "By the time they are finished with them, those slavers won't be able to get the Amazons on the road fast enough."

The warrior's head did a half turn as the faint sound of softly moving feet brushing through the leaf litter reached her ears. Shayna silently eased in beside the tall woman, slipping her knife back into its place under the waistband of her skirt. "Nothing, Mama," she whispered, taking the piece of jerky Xena handed to her.

Xena glared at the smug expression on the bard's face before answering. "Good girl," she said. Shayna had been determined to follow the woman into the encampment until Gabrielle had explained, in a stroke of near genius, how they needed someone to guard their backs. The child had willingly moved further away from the slavers’ camp, hiding herself in a clump of dense bushes to watch for any sign of guards or sentries. Xena knew the sentries didn't patrol that far out, and with darkness falling, any scouting parties should have long returned to base. Grateful the bard had given her one less thing to worry about, Xena had headed for the slave wagon.

"Now what?" Gabrielle asked around a mouthful of chewy meat.

"Now we watch and wait. There isn't a lot we can do until they start moving the Amazons onto the road," the warrior replied, her eyes never leaving the set-up below them.

The two women and one girl-child made themselves as comfortable as they could on top of the ridge, Shayna curled up next to the warrior, her head on Xena's strong thigh. By the time the moon rose over the horizon, the youngster was asleep, twitching occasionally as she dreamed. Xena and Gabrielle watched the camp, making quiet comments to each other now and then, the warrior's hand gently stroking the soft shoulder of the child. It was almost an unconscious gesture, but the bard noticed, never saying a word about the obvious, growing feeling developing in Xena for the small child by her side.

Chapter Eleven

Viper strode into his tent, his strong, well-muscled body moving with all the deadly grace of the creature he styled himself after. Close to his heels followed his second, a man of dubious reputation, to say the least, but someone the slave leader trusted most of the time. Reaching the small travelling desk he used, Viper pulled a rough map from its case and unfurled it on the table. Tapping the general area they were in, he said, "We might have to think about moving on before the next full moon, Artalus. We've just about picked clean everything for several days’ walk around here."

"Aye, we might at that. Though those forest women were a real bonus. Think we might get any more?" Artalus asked as he eyed the map, wondering where they would be headed next.

"Oh, I'm sure we'll get some more of them," Viper replied. Moving his finger in a north-westerly direction, he finally stopped it over a large area of forest quite some days walk from their current position. It had been newly outlined in strong, black ink. "I had a little chat with the leader of that group we captured this morning, and using some very persuasive logic, she pointed out exactly where the rest of those women live."

Artalus chuckled evilly, knowing exactly what kind of logic Viper had used against the Amazon woman. He had used the same kind himself on many occasions in the past and would probably use it again sometime in the future. "Are you sure she was telling you the truth? You know how they try to keep their lands hidden from the rest of us enterprising types," the man queried.

"I'm sure. Told her in no uncertain terms if there were no Amazons to be found in that patch of woods, I was going to throw those pretty young things she was escorting to the rest of the men," Viper replied. He suddenly burst into loud, braying laughter. Bringing himself back under control, he continued, "Can't say I think a great deal of their much talked about Amazon courage, though. She actually started shaking with fear when I told her what the men would do to them. Couldn't get to the map fast enough to show me the way." Rolling the map again and sliding it into its case, Viper looked at Artalus waiting for his orders. "Might just do it anyway. Gotta get them all broken in just right before we sell them at the markets. From what I've heard, it just isn't natural what those women do together. Never know, they would probably get to like the feel of hard man-flesh screwing them, considering they've had to make do with each other for so long." Viper stared at the canvas over his head for a moment. "Then again, it wouldn't matter if they don't, just so long as we break their spirits enough to make them biddable to their new owners."

"I'll pass the word along for tonight then," Artalus said, turning from his leader, eager with the thought of all those fresh women to try out. Most of them would probably be virgins, too. He'd heard rumours the Amazons could do things to a man he would never forget.

"No. Wait," Viper suddenly cut in. "They're going to be with us for a while. I want them close by just in case that bitch lied to me about where the Amazon lands are." Tapping his chin with one finger, thinking deeply for a moment, he said, "Just bring their leader to me tonight. Fear and anticipation can do wonders for getting people into the right frame of mind. By the time she gets back to them and they see what a real man can do, they will be that much easier to handle."

"As you wish, Viper," Artalus replied, disappointed he wasn't going to get his own hands on some of that firm young Amazon flesh right away. Oh well, there will always be another night, he thought. Sooner or later, his leader would pass one of them along to him, once Viper had violated the first fruits of their virginity. Sometimes it was good being Viper's second in command.

Turning towards the door flap, he quickly made his way down the side of the tent towards the back and the wagons parked there. Artalus could see them in the thin moonlight, sitting clustered together against the night's chill. One or two of the younger ones looked about nervously, but the five warriors simply watched his approach coldly. He smiled cruelly to himself. Those expressions would soon change once Viper had finished repeatedly raping their leader. He never doubted for a heartbeat that was what it would be, too. As slaves, they might as well get used to that simple fact now.

Turning the chunky key in the rusting iron lock, he quickly had the small door open. Pointing his finger at Eponin, he snarled at her. "You. Get out here. Viper has decided you're to grace his bedroll tonight."

The warrior woman crawled through the cage door, her eyes never leaving those of the second. She was fully expecting some kind of physical admonishment, and she was not to be disappointed. One arm was suddenly grabbed, yanked backwards and pulled up her spine until she was sure her shoulder would be broken. Relaxing into the pain, she tried to keep it from showing on her face.

"And you had better be properly grateful for his time, or the next fuck you get will be me, and I won't be half as nice about it as Viper," Artalus growled in her ear, his free hand groping crudely at her breast. "Whatcha got to say for yourself, harlot?" he asked, pulling Eponin's arm up another fraction.

"Yes. I'll be properly grateful for the time he spends with me," Eponin said quietly, hiding the pain in her voice beneath her softly spoken words.

"Good. Now march," he said, dropping the woman's arm. He did notice how the Amazon hadn't immediately clutched at her abused shoulder or shown any other sign of the wrenching her muscles had just taken. Maybe these Amazons are tougher than we realised, he wondered for a moment. Couldn't be. They're just women, after all. Nothing tough about a bunch of women all playing at being warriors. Viper will soon sort this one out and the rest will just fall into line, he thought as he walked behind Eponin.

The young craft-women and older warriors watched as Eponin disappeared around the corner of the tent. The metal-smith turned to Solari, "Do you think she will be all right?"

"She'll be fine," Solari replied, a grin already forming on her lips. "I'd be more worried about Viper surviving the experience, if I were him."

Chapter Twelve

Eponin walked ahead of Artalus, her mind racing. Gotta make this look convincing, she thought. The slave leader had bought her shaking-in-fear performance without question earlier in the day. He simply thought of her as another terrified woman and not the warrior she knew herself to be. Sometimes you really can make prejudice work for you, one of the lessons she had learned from watching Xena. She merely had to keep it up for a while longer and somehow protect the rest of the Amazons. Looks like I have something of the bard in me after all. Gabrielle would be proud, Eponin thought as she grinned secretly to herself.

She hesitated for a moment as they reached the front of the tent, appearing to be fearful of whatever may be about to take place inside the canvas structure. Artalus didn't lose the opportunity to prod the Amazon in the back, forcing her to step through the door flap. He wouldn't have minded watching Viper break this woman's spirit, but his leader rarely allowed that to happen. He liked to keep some secrets to himself. Not that she seemed to have a lot of courage to begin with. They had barely entered the tent and already he could see all the small signs of someone trying to control their fear and not doing a particularly good job of it.

"The Amazon slave you requested, Viper," Artalus said respectfully to the man's half-turned back.

"Fine. That will be all," the other man replied, flicking his fingers towards the door. He was well aware Artalus would take the guard post at the door just so he could hear everything going on inside the tent. Viper didn't mind but knew the day was coming when he would have to kill his second for simply knowing too much. It was one of the many ways he had of staying at the top of a very vicious command tree.

Viper took his time, fussing unnecessarily with some parchment on his travelling desk before slowly turning and appearing to notice the Amazon standing in the center of the tent. He could easily see the tension across her bunched shoulders and the way her hands were twitching against the leather of her short skirt. The darting manner of her eyes flicking all about the room, trying not to rest on him for more than a heartbeat, made it clear she was already very frightened. He felt the slow tightening deep in his groin. He was really going to enjoy this.

Circling behind Eponin, he noted her shallow breathing and the faint clenching and unclenching of her jaw. If this was the best the Amazons could offer by way of warriors, capturing the rest of them was going to be a walkover, he marvelled. Viper allowed one hand to gently stroke the woman's shoulder as he returned to face her, secretly delighted at the flinching response his touch received.

"I can make this easy for you or I can make it hard. The choice is entirely up to you," Viper whispered, moving his face towards the woman, brushing his unshaven cheek against hers until he could softly flick her earlobe with the tip of his tongue.

"Please," Eponin begged quietly. "Don't hurt me." If things hadn't been quite so serious, the warrior was sure she would have thrown up by now from the smell of this man's unwashed and very odorous body alone. As it was, she could almost taste the bile at the back of her throat. She swallowed several times, forcing her stomach back under control.

"Oh, I have no intention of hurting you," Viper said very, very gently, watching the tension in Eponin's shoulders relax just a fraction. "Unless you displease me in some way." The snarling tone he put into the words cranked the tension back up again and sent a small shudder through the woman's body. He stepped back several paces, the Amazon taking her first deep breath since entering the tent.

Eponin decided that now might be a good time to start another Amazon mystery. "Lord Slaver. Please. For your own safety, our patron goddess Artemis has sworn her protection to all her warriors. It is painful death to any man who dares to touch us," she explained, looking fearfully at the matting at her feet.

Lord Slaver, I like that. Might use it in future, Viper thought quietly to himself, as he let the woman's words sink in. He snorted, Artemis protecting a bunch of weak, terrified women! The gods barely shifted their lazy backsides from their domains, no matter what the prayer being offered. And the goddesses were even worse. No, there would be no intervention from the Mount in this case. He had heard all kinds of prayers and promises made to various gods over the cycles when he was molesting women, and not one had ever been answered. He very much doubted any god or goddess would start now.

"Something tells me she won't be interfering with a man at his job," Viper said nastily. Taking a moment to pull the short leather vest from his shoulders and tossing it to one side, he locked eyes with the petrified woman, snapping out a command. Might as well get the slave used to taking orders. More than anything, he was hoping she would show some kind of defiance, however small, just so he could have the pleasure of punishing her. "Remove my boots, slave."

Eponin slowly dropped to one knee and began to unlace his boots. She had to force her face to remain expressionless as the stench of his bare feet settled on the back of her tongue. Placing his boots beside her, she waited on her knees for his next command.

"Now, kiss the feet of your master, Amazon slave," Viper snarled.

As the warrior leaned forward to comply with the man's order, she closed her mind to the smell and instead concentrated on hiding what her right hand was doing.

A shiver of delight worked its way through Viper's body as he felt the soft kisses this so called warrior was placing over the tops of his feet and across the insteps. Already, he could feel himself growing hard under his trousers, their tight confines making him a little uncomfortable. "Enough," he whispered. "Get over by the pallet."

Rising from her knees, Eponin couldn't miss the obvious bulge in the man's leather pants. She kept the smile from her face at the thought of him not having that for much longer. She stood passively beside the rough bed, watching the bulge grow larger and more turgid as Viper came towards her, his eyes raking lewdly up and down her body. Still pretending at fear but allowing a small spark of something the man was sure to mistake for desire flicker over her face, Eponin slowly reached towards his trousers. "May I remove those for you, Master?" she asked, the last word almost catching in her throat.

Viper simply nodded. He might not have gotten the pleasure of breaking her spirit; it was obvious she had none to begin with, but he had heard the same stories as his second about the carnal delights an Amazon could bring a man. He stood quietly, holding himself in check, as the woman nestled against his side, her still covered breasts rubbing sensually over his bare ribs. Nimble fingers soon had the ties undone, and Eponin slowly slid his pants around his ankles. Viper stared down at his now free erection, bobbing briefly in the candlelight. The warrior seemed to almost ooze her way back up his body. He closed his eyes as Eponin's lips made contact with his own.

Eponin was concentrating fiercely to stop herself from pushing Viper's disgusting body away from her. She locked her mind on the last kiss she had shared with her lover back at the Amazon village, trying to pretend for the few moments she needed that it was Amaran she was kissing and not this slaver. She softly walked the fingers of her right hand down his abdomen, gently cupping his massive erection. Then she squeezed it, hard.

Viper had the briefest flash of pleasure as strong fingers grasped him firmly. Then something hit him full force in the crotch, tearing an agonising scream from his throat, pitched so high it was completely soundless. Thrusting the woman away violently, he clutched at his rapidly wilting man-hood, a raging fire burning its way from his groin to his brain. The last thing he saw before the overwhelming pain caused him to black out was Eponin seated on the ground, a tiny, savage smile on her face.

Eponin sat on the floor, watching with undisguised glee as Viper turned the most amazing shade of white, eyes overflowing with tears, completely slack-jawed with the shock of the Vespa sting. It was only after he had toppled to the ground unconscious that she carefully opened her hand to see the little hornet still trapped by its wings between her second and third fingers. She very cautiously returned it to the small bag in her belt pouch where she had withdrawn it while kissing Viper's noxious feet. Now to complete the mystery, she thought as she climbed back onto her feet.

Chapter Thirteen

Artalus stood at his post by the closed door flap, listening to the sounds coming from inside. He could feel his man-hood starting to rise and he hoped Viper would finish raping the Amazon quickly so he could go and find one of the camp women to fill his own need. He snorted briefly to himself. The slave leader never did anything like that quickly. He liked to take his time and violate them repeatedly just to reinforce the notion they were now truly slaves and had no more say in what happened to their bodies.

He heard Viper order the woman over to the bed and didn't think it would be long before the first pain-filled and terrified scream came rushing from the Amazon's mouth. He'd already listened to the woman begging not to be hurt. The second jealously knew the other man was very much over-endowed in that particular area. It always hurt them whether they were willing or not. The bulge in his trousers grew a little more at the thought of what Viper might be doing to the woman. Something heavy suddenly hit the ground inside the tent and Artalus assumed the slave leader had thrown the woman to the floor, impatient to get on with his pleasure.

He couldn't keep the shocked expression from his face as the woman appeared by his side, tears rolling freely down her cheeks. Muttering incoherently, she dragged at his arm to pull him into the tent with her. "All right. All right. I'm coming," he said as he followed the distraught Amazon inside.

Artalus's eyes bugged at what he saw in front of him. The woman had scurried around to the top of Viper's body, cradling his greasy head in her lap. The slaver lay on the floor next to his pallet, naked and covered in sweat, his face whiter than the first snows of winter. "What happened here?" he asked incredulously.

"I told him. I did warn him, truly I did," Eponin started saying, garbling the words a little in her distress.

"Warned him of what?" Artalus snapped, dropping to one knee beside the still unconscious man.

Eponin seemed to make some effort to get herself back under control to try to explain what had happened. "I warned him that Artemis protects all the Amazons and will kill anyone who tries to touch us. He didn't believe me and then this happened to him."

The second gulped, his own erection shrivelling back to nothing. At that instant, he was wishing there was some way of tucking his balls inside to stop Artemis from exacting the same punishment on him for his thoughts about young Amazon flesh. Pulling at Viper's hands crabbed together in his lap, he exposed the slaver's man-hood and the damage he thought the goddess had inflicted. It did not look good. The entire area was a fiery red, already swelling so badly it might be several days before the other man could possibly wear even the loosest of trousers. He was certain if his balls got any larger they would probably burst open.

Eponin, on the other hand, couldn't have been more delighted with the effect of the Vespa on Viper's only claim to fame. It must have stung him several times in quick succession for there to be so much swelling. She kept the smile from her face, though, and tried to look as pitiful as possible, but it was getting more and more difficult to stop herself from simply breaking down and laughing hysterically. "Maybe we had better put him to bed," the warrior managed to choke out, the strongly suppressed laughter bringing more tears to her eyes.

Artalus mistook the tears for concern over the health, and possible continued existence, of the slave leader. "Yea. That sounds like the right idea," he replied. Flicking the covers back, the two of them quickly lifted Viper onto the pallet. Eponin made a bit of a show tucking him in, smoothing the blankets around his shoulders. "That's enough," the second snarled. "Back to the wagon with you."

The warrior pretended reluctance at being dragged from Viper's side, though not enough that Artalus would change his mind and leave her to care for the man. As they walked back towards the wagons, he asked, "Why didn't Artemis just kill him outright?"

"Maybe because we hadn't gotten very far. I mean, all we had done was kiss a bit. If he had actually touched me, she might have just wiped him off the face of the earth completely with a lightning bolt or something," Eponin offered. Now let that grow in your superstitious little mind, she thought as the second unlocked the small door and pushed her back inside the cage. The warrior all but dove into Solari's open arms, burying her face between her breasts, her shoulders heaving in frightened tears, her cries well muffled by leather and flesh.

The other Amazons clustered around Eponin in support as the second shook his head before walking away. He couldn't wait to pass the word along about what had happened. One thing he knew for sure, though -- there was no way on this earth he was even going to look at those Amazons if this was the sort of protection they had over them.

The gathered women waited until the man was completely out of sight before trying to question Eponin. Solari hugged the obviously traumatised woman tightly, gently asking what had gone on in the tent. All the Amazons realised the Vespa plan might not work, and from the expression on Eponin's face as she came around the corner it was clear she had undergone a terrible ordeal in the short half-candlemark or so she had been away.

The warrior raised her face from the protection of Solari's breasts, the tear stains on her high cheeks reflecting the light of the overhead moon. She fell backwards, landing against the bars of the cage, her hand firmly over her mouth as she tried to muffle the sound of her laughter. But the sparkling eyes over her fingers told the other women everything they needed to know. The plan had been a complete success.

Chapter Fourteen

Xena, Gabrielle and Shayna sat quietly in a thick patch of thorny bushes, several hundred paces back from the nearest sentry post. A full candlemark before there was even a hint of colour on the horizon, they had made a wide circle of the encampment, settling into the dark shadows of the overgrown brambles. They still had a clear view of the slave wagons at the back of the main tent but the angle was much better for watching the comings and goings at the front. And there had been quite a lot of coming and going since one of the men had escorted Eponin back to her companions after her short visit to the slave leader.

Xena was guessing a bit, but she assumed the little hornets had done their part of the job and now the Amazons would be safe from molestation. She had watched with almost immoral pleasure as any man inadvertently nearing the wagon would suddenly shy away when he realised exactly where he was, as though some terrible evil was emanating from the women trapped inside. The occasional finger pointing in their general direction from various fires around the encampment also put a smile on her face. She didn't think it would take long before the entire camp had heard some version of what had befallen the slave leader. Whether it was the exact truth or not was another matter altogether.

Very shortly after Eponin had been secured inside the wagon again, the same man had scurried over to the healer's wagon, quite likely dragging one from his bed. There had been a brief but very animated discussion between the two men before the healer had hurried back to the main structure. Xena would have given anything to know what was actually said, but the hand gestures alone conveyed quite a bit of meaning to her. She had woken Gabrielle at that point so she could watch what was going on as well, adding her own impressions about what might be taking place in the camp below.

Now that the sun had fully risen, both women sat in the brambles watching various healers entering and leaving the main tent. It was fairly clear each new healer who appeared was slightly more senior than the one before. When a man with a back bowed with age entered, they both knew the most senior healer of all had been called in to tend to the sick man inside.

"It's probably driving them nuts trying to figure out what is wrong with him," Gabrielle commented in a whisper as one of the junior healers ran back to the senior man's tent, quickly returning with several small bags in one hand.

"Well, the swelling and redness would cover any sign of a sting, especially if there was more than one, possibly confusing them, but they're all operating under the premise that a goddess did the damage and not some little bug," Xena replied quietly. "So long as they continue to think it has been inflicted by a god, the Amazons will be safe. Let's just hope they don't wake up to what they are really dealing with."

Shayna cuddled up against the warrior's side, content to sit quietly with the two women once Xena had explained their need for silence. "Who has ouchie?" she asked in her usual breathless undertone. She had watched the two women smoking the hornets from their nest and knew the tall warrior had given some to the women in the cage. Neither of the adults had been sure, though, just how much Shayna had understood of the plan they'd worked out the day before.

"A bad man," Xena answered, distracted, her eyes focused on two healers entering the tent together.

The child simply nodded her head. She knew about bad men because a woman warrior in dark leather, carrying a bright, shining sword, had taught her about them when she was a very little girl. In the child's dim memories, she knew the leathered person was her mother but she could no longer remember the woman's face. Shayna was assuming now that the raven-haired woman, dressed in the heavy, dark leather and wearing the pretty, swirling armour must be her mother. The almost off-handed care Xena showed towards the youngster merely reinforced that impression. As far as Shayna was concerned, she must have been very naughty because her mother had slipped away under the water of a fast flowing stream one stormy night, leaving the child to fend for herself. Now that she had been so good, remembering all the lessons she had been taught, her mother had returned. If she kept being good, Mama wouldn't leave her alone in the forest again.

The bard leaned towards Xena to whisper another question into her ear. As much as she wanted her answer, the excuse to get close to the warrior also played its part. Gabrielle adored the scent of cinnamon and hyacinth overlaid by the strong smell of leather that was so much a part of the woman she loved. "Xena?" she said. "I can understand how using the Vespas would stop those men from touching the Amazons, but how is it going to convince them to start the wagons on the road?"

Xena remained silent for a few heartbeats, gathering her thoughts. "Slavers, thugs, raiders and warlords can be a very superstitious group sometimes. If this lot think a goddess is protecting the Amazons, they are going to want to get them as far away as possible, if only to save their own miserable hides," she explained to the bard at her side. "And I did add a little something to help nudge that impression along," Xena admitted somewhat ruefully, not letting the other woman catch the expression in her eyes.

"I thought I saw you roll under the edge of the tent. Exactly what did you do in there?" Gabrielle asked, not sure if she really wanted to hear the answer. Xena could be quite nasty about the way she did things sometimes, a fact the bard had gradually managed to come to terms with. She didn’t always agree with the way she acted, but she did accept it was part of who Xena was as a warrior and ex-warlord.

"I dropped a handful of Assassin's beetles into the slaver's pallet, between the blankets," Xena said, so quietly Gabrielle almost didn't hear it at all.

"Assassin beetles? What are they?" the bard queried. She had never heard of any beetle like that before.

"Not assassin, Gabrielle. Assassin's," the warrior corrected. "It's a mildly poisonous beetle assassins use now and then. One bite won't kill you, but the poison can quickly build up in your body if you get enough of them. It confuses the mind pretty badly, and the rash can just about drive someone mad the way it itches. Fever gets quite high as well. Assassins like using them because the bite can make their victim look as though they have some other kind of sickness altogether."

"It won't kill him, will it?" Gabrielle asked, surprised the warrior knew about the beetles at all. Then again, she seemed to know about a great many unexpected things.

"Not if they get him out of that pallet soon enough," Xena whispered back in reply.

"How soon is soon enough?"

Xena let herself look at the blonde-haired woman sitting beside her. "Three, maybe four days. Plenty of time for the rest of the camp to want those Amazons gone," she replied. What the warrior didn't explain was if he lasted four days, his mind would remain permanently confused. Xena had been careful about how many of the tiny beetles she had slipped between his covers, but everyone reacted a little differently. What would only cripple one man might actually kill another. But the gentle bard didn't need to know that much. It was sufficient that she alone knew.

Chapter Fifteen

Artalus sat at his leader's travelling desk, trying not to listen to the low moans of pain coming from the man on the pallet. For the moment they were alone, the old healer and his juniors returning to their wagon to attend the injuries and sickness's of their other patients. He tried not to look at Viper lying on the bed. The healers had been forced to tie his arms to the wooden sides of the cot to stop him from tearing at his own flesh when a strange rash had suddenly developed. It was soon clear that the rash must have been itching intensely because the slaver had managed to score deep, bloody scratches over several parts of his body trying to somehow relieve the itch. To Artalus' eyes, though, it appeared that the more the man scratched at himself, the worse the irritation became.

He certainly couldn't bring himself to even peep under the blankets at Viper's horribly swollen manhood. He had been forced to help hold the man down when the healer inserted a narrow, hollow reed so Viper could void his water. Otherwise, they all feared his bladder would burst from the pressure inside, the swelling of his member making it impossible for him to do it naturally. Every single man in the camp had heard the agonising screams of pain Viper had made when the old healer had forced the reed through the eye of his manhood. After that, there was no way Artalus could hide the fact something was very wrong with the slave leader. The camp was alive with rumours, and there was no way to stop them.

The guard on the door poked his head through the flap, pointedly not looking in the direction of Viper's pallet, and said quietly, "There are three of the Lieutenants here to see you, Artalus."

Sighing, because he knew what was coming, he replied, "Send them in." Hardening his expression, he tried to give the impression he saw Viper's unknown illness as nothing more than a passing concern.

The three men filed into the tent, the guard dropping the flap behind them to give, at least, the illusion of privacy. The slaver's second saw immediately these were the three in charge of the largest of the scouting parties. They were also the most ambitious. If there was even the faintest indication of a weakness at the top, these three in particular would always rush to try to fill the gap. The only reason one of them wasn't already in charge was because Viper had been just that much more ruthless in his climb to the leadership position. Artalus had never sought the leadership himself, being content to follow the path laid out by Viper. And as he had been following the other man for cycles, he continued to follow him now.

"What can I do for you?" Artalus asked almost pleasantly, appearing unconcerned about the sick man lying just a few paces behind him.

Before he got his answer, each of the Lieutenants took several heartbeats to have a long, long look at Viper tied to his pallet. In the time Artalus's mind had been turning over the problem, the delirious man had managed to kick the blankets from his body and now lay in full view of the three men. Viper was running with fevered sweat, the skin over his entire body blotched and reddened, several large patches weeping grotesquely from the rash. The deep scratches he had inflicted on himself stood out against his skin, making him appear as though he had been severely whipped. The thing that drew every eye, though, was Viper's distended and darkly bruised manhood, the narrow, flexible reed poking from the end and snaking it way over the side of the pallet to an open pot under the bed. Each of the men shuddered at the sight, one man's hand unconsciously moving to cover his own manhood.

"Is he going to be all right?" the tallest of the trio asked, his eyes never leaving Viper or his bloated member for a moment.

Artalus lied easily through his teeth. "Yea, the healers reckon he should be up and about in a seven-day or so. They don't think it's anything serious." There, think about that you bunch of vultures, he thought to himself. The last thing he wanted to endure was some kind of power struggle, when it wasn't even known if Viper was going to die or not. The second didn't want to put his loyalty behind some new leader if Viper somehow survived the illness. Sometimes it was a bad thing to be the slave leader's second. A very bad thing.

One of the other men, the one who had moved to protect his own balls, dragged his eyes away from the softly groaning leader to ask, "Is it true that Artemis did this to him because he wanted to, well, you know. With the Amazons." The man flicked his fingers vaguely in the direction of the wagons at the back of the tent and at the women contained in one of them.

Artalus surged to his feet in a rage, a vicious backhand throwing the man to the ground. Standing over him, the second snarled, "Where did you hear that piece of horse-shit?"

"It's all over the camp," whined the downed man in reply, gingerly wiping the blood trickling from the side of his mouth with edge of one hand. "One of the healers told me. Said you had told him that's what happened when the Amazon was in here."

Artalus stepped back to the desk, trying to control his anger at the healer for saying anything and his fear of what the rest of the men might ask of him if they thought Artemis really was on the move inside the camp. He wouldn't have minded getting those women onto the road and safely sold at the slave markets, but Viper had been clear about keeping them close by as insurance if there were no other Amazons to be found in the area marked on the map. Being a second was starting to look worse every heartbeat.

Forcing himself to settle behind the desk once more, Artalus decided to walk the thin line between prudent truth and god-fearing diplomacy. "It might have been Artemis," he said. "But can you see any goddess protecting those women just because they call themselves warriors?" He tried to put a mocking tone on the question, not sure if he had quite succeed.

The three men stood muttering together. None of them were particularly devoted to any god, but there were so many things about the Amazons they didn't know. Artemis may well have decided to protect them for reasons of her own. No one wanted to try and second-guess a goddess, especially one as clearly powerful as Artemis. The tall lieutenant finally spoke up. "Maybe it would be a good idea to get them women on the road, then. At least we might be safe from her disapproval."

"Forget it," the second snapped back. "Viper wants them here, and here they will stay." He thumped his fist on the table top in emphasis.

"But Artalus, look at him. That could be any one of us. You're not even safe. In fact, that goddess could be warming up her next surprise right now because you won't move those accursed women," one of the other men said, pointing nervously to the slaver thrashing feverishly on the pallet.

The second was well aware he might be next on Artemis's hit list, but he continued to stand by Viper's orders. If the man did recover, Artalus didn't want him thinking he had been betrayed by an ambitious second. Something like that would most definitely shorten his life-span.

The guard outside the door listened avidly as the argument raged back and forth for some time. He could hardly wait for his post to finish so he could add what he had overheard to the many rumours floating about the camp. He was not the only one with their ears straining to catch every word. Fifteen Amazons sat in complete silence waiting to see if the second would buckle under the pressure. Eponin had bet Solari fifty dinars they would be on the road by dawn the next morning. Judging from the increasing volume of the argument going on inside the tent, she was going to win that bet, hands down.

Chapter Sixteen

Eponin tried to ignore the feeling of road dust and grit working its irritating way under her clothing, but she was enjoying the smug expression on her face from having won her bet with Solari. She'd managed to pass a very pleasant first candlemark of their journey thinking of different ways of spending the money. Perhaps buying new tortoiseshell combs for Amaran to replace the ones taken from her when they had been captured. Only inlaid with something precious this time, maybe even a little silver or gold, if she could find any like that.

She glanced over towards Solari, the other woman carefully watching the forest around them as they passed. Shortly after they had rolled onto the main track to the slave markets, all the Amazons had heard the bird call coming from high in some trees. Xena knew they were on the road at last and was following, biding her time until she found a way of releasing them from the ironwood cage on top of the wagon.

"See anything, Solari?" she asked quietly, wiping a bead of sweat from the side of her face.

"Not a thing, but it wouldn't be like Xena to give herself away unless she had some plan up her bracer," the other woman replied in a cheery undertone. She was really looking forward to getting out of the close confines of the cage and back into the openness of the forest surrounding them. For the past few days, aside from blaming herself for their capture, she had felt very much like a trapped animal.

"Well, I hope it is soon. We're about as ready as we're going to be," Eponin commented. She looked over the way the women had arranged themselves on the bed of the wagon. Two warriors sat nearest the door. They were to help the young craft-women escaping through the small exit. The other three were sitting at the front, to act as a rearguard, if it became necessary. The crafters were seated on both sides of the cage between the two sets of warriors, ready to move as soon as Eponin, or Xena, gave the command. To the twenty or so guards spread around the moving wagon, it all appeared perfectly natural.

The candlemarks passed more slowly than the wagon was travelling, the summer sun moving higher into the sky, everyone growing a little tired and sleepy in the unremitting heat and humidity. Neither the men nor the wagon stopped for a nooning break, the women being fed and watered through the bars. Artalus's orders had been very clear and to the point. Take the Amazons, as swiftly as possible without killing the oxen, to the nearest slave market and then sell them for whatever price they could get. Several of the guards had heard a rumour Viper had taken another turn for the worse during the night, frightening the second into arranging for the Amazons’ sudden departure from the camp.

Not that any of them were going to breathe easy until the women were safely sold. Then Artemis's protective curse became the new owner's problem and not their own. Quite a few of the men were carrying amulets of various types tucked inside their trousers in the hope of warding the goddess's angry eye away from them and onto someone else.

The forest slowly thickened around them until the branches of the trees interlaced overhead, creating a shady avenue. The relief from the beating sun did little to sharpen the guard's watchfulness, however, the sticky humidity alone sending several into a kind of walking daze. Most of them had been on their feet since just before dawn without so much as a single rest stop, and this definitely contributed to their slackness.

Eponin felt a hard elbow gently jabbing into her ribs. Even she had lost the struggle to stay completely awake in the heat. The warrior glanced over at the crafter seated next to her, only to have her attention redirected towards Solari by a barely lifted finger. Raising an eyebrow in question, she waited as a guard drifted up to the cage to check on them after noticing the woman's abruptly lifted head, and then slowly moved back to his original position once more.

Solari turned her head slightly, looking back over the part of the road they had just travelled. "Just spotted the Queen almost completely hidden beside a tree, Eponin," she whispered. "Looks like Xena is about to make her move."

The woman nodded almost imperceptibly, wondering what the tall, dark-haired warrior was going to do. "Okay, everyone. This is it. Xena will probably make an appearance any moment," she murmured, her lips barely moving. No one actually moved but she could see the way all eyes were sweeping the surrounding woods, everyone's attention focused on the moment when the door would be forced open.

Two booted feet suddenly slammed onto the top of the cage. Eponin didn't even try to stop the chuckle that bubbled from her throat. Trust Xena to do things differently, she thought. The last thing she had expected was for the warrior to drop from the overhead branches right onto the top of the wagon, but Xena loved doing the unexpected.

The sensuous metal slither of a sword being drawn from its sheath sounded loudly in the startled silence of her landing. That utter stillness lasted only a heartbeat more before a wave of angry and confused noise rose up around the wagon. Xena quickly stepped to the back of the cage and spun the blade in her hand, connecting solidly with the rusting lock on the door. It gave way under the onslaught, wrenching one of the hinges from its housing as it snapped. Kicking at the wood, she knocked the door completely from the frame. "MOVE," she shouted at the women inside, already on their feet. The first warrior jumped from the cage, the next right on her heels. Satisfied the Amazons could look after themselves, Xena turned her cold gaze onto the men coming towards them.

A high, tight somersault had her on the ground and swinging her sword in its deadly, flashing arc, dispatching guards as fast her sword arm could move. Gabrielle came pelting into the fight from her hiding place a little way down the track, quickly downing two more of the guards before signalling to the Amazons to follow her into the forest.

Eponin found herself running beside the Amazon Queen when Gabrielle slid to a sudden halt. "What's up?" she asked. "If you're worried about Xena, she'll be fine."

"Hera's tits," the bard swore. "Where in Tartarus did Shayna get to? She was supposed to stay with me." Gabrielle was rapidly turning in all directions, obviously trying to spot someone.

"I didn't see anyone behind you," Eponin said, wondering who Shayna could possibly be and what her connection was to the bard and the warrior.

"Blast. I'll have to go back for her. Look, there is a clearing just ahead. Everyone should be meeting up there. You can't miss it; Argo is tied to one of the trees," Gabrielle explained quickly, already starting to move back in the direction they had come.

Eponin grabbed at the other woman. "I'm sure she can look after herself, Gabrielle. It's too dangerous for you to go back to the wagon," she said urgently.

"Oh, for the love of," the bard snapped, completely exasperated with Amazons and their constant need to protect her. "Shayna is a child."

That got nothing more than a dropped jaw response from the warrior.

"Now let me get" Gabrielle started to say.

"No need. She's with me," Xena said evenly, appearing through the trees holding the youngster by the hand. Both were spotted with blood, though the child had far more on her than the tall warrior striding by her side.

"Mother of Zeus. I think I am going to enjoy hearing you explain this one, Xena," Eponin said, grinning at the dark-haired woman. Not even Xena's low voiced growl wiped the smile from her face.

Chapter Seventeen

"And for some reason, she now thinks Xena is her mother?" Eponin said incredulously, watching the tall warrior standing, hip deep, in the shallows teaching the girl-child how to float.

The two women were seated on the warm rocks above a deep lake. The other Amazons were spread about the area, either washing days of grime from their own bodies or sitting around a campfire chatting together quietly. Now everyone was free, the Amazons would be moving onto the hunting grounds as soon as they could, but Eponin was hoping she could convince the two travellers to come with them and bring the child as well. There was also the small problem of the slavers to deal with. Regardless of whether Viper survived his encounter with the Assassin's beetles or not, she was sure that whoever took the leadership would head for the area of woods she had pointed out on the rough map.

"Yea, amazing, isn't it," Gabrielle replied, tugging the knots out of her freshly washed hair with a teasel. "I think Xena has given up trying to get Shayna to call her by name but she’s not really comfortable being called Mama yet, either. I try not to say anything, I know how you warrior types get sometimes." The smile on her face was cheeky but the light in Gabrielle's eyes as she watched the little scene below them was filled with nothing but gentle love for the blue-eyed woman.

Eponin lightly punched the blonde's arm, only then realising just how much more muscular the bard had become since the last time they had seen each other. "Her mother drowned? Shayna must be something pretty special, then, to have survived for so long alone in the forest. Any ideas how long she was on her own?" the Amazon asked.

"Well, we're guessing her mother drowned, Eponin. You should have seen how terrified she was of the water before Xena forced her into it," the bard replied.

"Doesn't seem to be too afraid now," Eponin commented, pointing at the child splashing about in the water with the tall warrior.

Gabrielle looked down at the pair playing in the lake, wrapping her arms around her knees. "Just so long as Xena stays with her. If it was me, or anyone else, she would be screaming her lungs out," the bard said a little sadly. "We really don't know how long she had been wandering the forest alone, but it must have been for some time. She appears to have lost a lot of her language skills, but those are slowly picking up again. Can't get her to talk about a whisper though," she observed.

The other woman turned slightly towards Gabrielle, resting one hand on the bard's shoulder. She looked down at the deep lake again just as Xena was playfully tossing the child into the air and watching her land back in the water with a giggling splash. "You know, this has brought out a whole new side in that old warlord I didn't know she had before. I don't think anyone in the village is ever going to believe Xena knows how to play."

Patting the hand on her shoulder briefly, accepting the comfort the Amazon was offering, Gabrielle said, "Oh, Xena knows how to play." She plays with me all the time, she continued the thought. "You just never see it because whenever we come to the village there is usually some kind of trouble going on."

"And Shayna never speaks above a whisper?" Eponin asked, just to be sure. A vague idea was starting to form at the back of her mind somewhere, but it wasn't ready to come forth into the light of day. The warrior wanted a little more information before she could make that happen.

"Well, other than that one time when she thought Xena was going to drown in a stream, we have never gotten her to speak any louder. Thank the gods Xena has such great hearing. I'm sure I'd miss half of what she is saying otherwise," the bard explained.

"You know, we teach our youngsters to move and speak very quietly. Not as softly as Shayna there, but they learn early to be as silent as possible when they are in the forest. Could there be a chance her mother was an Amazon?' Eponin asked.

"I have no idea, but someone must have trained her well, because she does all kinds of things I have never seen any other child do," Gabrielle said in a rush, wondering all over again about the youngster's mother.

The bard and the Amazon warrior sat on the rock until sunset, discussing all the things the child did and whether she might have learned them from an Amazon mother. They reached no real conclusion, but the idea Eponin had was starting to grow stronger in her mind.

That night around the campfire, long after the crafters, Gabrielle and Shayna had dozed into sleep, Eponin and Xena sat talking together. The other Amazon warriors were posted around the little campsite, acting as sentries. They all felt they were far enough away from the slavers to be safe, but one could never be too careful. Slavers were not the only danger to be found in the unforgiving forest.

Eponin pointed to the small pebble she was using to mark their position on a map she had scratched out on the ground in front of them. "This is about were we are now," she said. Indicating to a wood chip, "And this is where the hunting grounds are. Shouldn't take us more than a seven-day to get there from here."

"So long as you don't find another pit trap to fall into," Xena commented, a lop-sided grin twitching on her lips.

The Amazon lowered her brows at the woman sitting beside her. Xena, and probably half the other warriors in the village, were going to kid her about that for a long time to come. Oh well, might as well get used to it, she thought. Moving the stick she was using as a pointer, she brought it to rest over another pebble sitting next to a rough circle marked into the earth. "Don't give up your day job, Xena. You'll never make a comic bard," the warrior replied lightly. "Anyway, this is where I told that slaver the rest of the Nation lived," she continued.

"And what is this circle here supposed to represent?" Xena asked, dropping one finger into the centre of it.

A rich, wicked chuckle flowed from the Amazon, causing Xena to turn her head in surprise. "That, Xena, is a really large, very deep swamp. It's far too big to go around, unless you are willing to lose a couple of seven-days in the travel," Eponin explained.

A look of pleasure crossed the dark-haired woman's face. "Remind me never to ask for directions from you, okay," she said, already envisioning the trouble four hundred men and all their supplies would have trying to cross such unstable land. They'd be very lucky indeed if even half of them made it through to the other side alive.

"We can easily get from here to the village and then to the other side of the swamp long before that bunch of slavers could possibly get across it," Eponin said, the stick moving from place to place as she spoke. "I'd like to be able to take care of that little detail. After all, they do say don't leave trouble behind you. It always had a way of catching up in the end." The Amazon smiled over at the warrior beside her. "Care to join us?" she asked.

"Wouldn't miss it for the world, Eponin," Xena replied. The slavers had been too well organised for her liking, and knowing how she hated them, she knew she would have been going back anyway. At least this way, she could leave Shayna safely with the women at the village, if the child would stay, that is.

Later, as Xena stretched out on her bedroll, Gabrielle already tucking her still sleeping self around the tall woman's body, the warrior tried to think about what she was going to do about the youngster over the longer term. Her life on the road was just too dangerous and unstable to have a child tagging along all the time. But her secret heart was not ready to think about being separated from the child, even if it was for her own good, so she found herself dropping into the arms of Morpheus long before she had reached any kind of a decision.

Chapter Eighteen

"Whatcha thinking about, Xena?" the bard asked from her perch behind the warrior woman. However much the blonde hated to ride, when Xena had offered a lift, Gabrielle had grabbed at her hand eagerly. Ever since the child had arrived in their camp, they had not been able to spend as much time together as they usually did, and they certainly had not been able to make love. Gabrielle couldn't believe she was actually starting to feel a little jealous of the time Xena was spending with Shayna. So the chance to ride behind the other woman, her arms wrapped lovingly around her waist, was not something the bard was going to pass up.

"Nothing much," the warrior replied, her eyes carefully watching the path ahead and the sight of the youngster running her hands gently over Eponin's skirt, fascinated with the design and the feel of the soft buckskin.

"Don't give me that, Xena. You've barely grunted for the last two candlemarks," the bard said. Leaning sideways for a moment, Gabrielle saw the child was now examining Solaris's skirt, comparing the slightly different designs between the two. "It's something to do with Shayna, isn't it?" she questioned.

"Well, she does seem kind of taken with the rest of the Amazons. Why didn't she take to you so easily?" Xena wondered aloud, hoping to draw the bard away from the real reason she was so quiet.

Gabrielle glanced ahead again before answering. "Maybe because they look like real Amazons?" she offered.

"You look like one too," Xena snapped back hotly. A pained look crossed her face almost immediately after she had said the words. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I didn’t mean for that to sound the way it did."

"It's all right. I may dress something like an Amazon but even I know I don't look like one. Come on. You have to admit, no one ever believes I am an Amazon Queen unless I have a whole bunch of them around me at the time. Warriors just have a kind of feeling about them. Hard to make a second mistake once you have seen a true Amazon warrior," the bard said gently.

"I still don't understand how Shayna took so easily to them, when it is clear to me you are the gentlest person on two legs. Kids usually adore you," Xena said, sighing silently.

The bard had felt the rise and fall of the warrior's ribcage, even if she hadn't heard the sigh accompanying it. She reached up and softly kissed the back of Xena's neck. "Thank you," she said simply.

The tall warrior didn't reply but the shadow in her eyes lifted briefly. One of the things she had been worrying about were all the tiny signs of jealousy she had been noticing from the other woman. Xena knew she was neglecting Gabrielle a little, but the child seemed to need so much from her, and she just didn't know how to give to one without taking time from the other. The way her own mother had managed to make each of her children feel special without any of them feeling neglected was starting to look like quite an amazing feat indeed. Having to deal with the child's emotional needs was taking more out of her than she had first thought possible. Xena would much prefer to face a gang of thugs than to ever have to see tears in Shayna's eyes for any reason. If she wasn't careful with herself, Xena could see she would end up spoiling the child no end and that would not be a good thing for Shayna in the long run.

"Xena?" Gabrielle said from behind.

"Huh?"

"That's not the reason you're so quiet, is it?" the bard asked.

Pulling herself away from her thoughts and concentrating on what the blonde was asking, she replied, "No. Not really."

"So, what are you thinking about, then? I can't remember the last time I saw you this distracted by anything," Gabrielle said.

Xena sighed again, loud enough this time for the bard to hear. "I'm just wondering what to do with Shayna. It's not like we can take her with us when we are on the road all the time. Someone is bound to try to use her to get to me," she said.

"You used to think that way about me, remember," Gabrielle replied.

"But you're an adult, capable of making your own decisions, and you have learned to fight pretty well. She is just a little girl," Xena said, exasperated.

"I know it was different with me but she does think you are her mother. She has already lost one. How do you think she is going to cope with losing a second?" Gabrielle asked, knowing she was pushing her luck with the quick-tempered warrior.

"I don't know, Gabrielle. We can't keep her with us and I am not sure I can to leave her behind somewhere. It was hard enough the first time," Xena answered honestly, all the pain that decision had caused coloring her voice.

For a moment, an image of Solon waving goodbye to them the last time they had been at the centaur's village, and the look of pain and intense sadness on Xena's face as they had ridden away, passed in front of the bard's eyes. Xena's son still didn't know who his mother really was, and Gabrielle wasn't sure if the secret should be kept from him anymore. It was just getting too obvious exactly who Solon's mother was as the lad grew older and much, much taller. But that was a problem for another day; right now she had to concentrate on what was best for Shayna, and for Xena.

"How about leaving her with Cyrene?" Gabrielle asked. "We could see her whenever we passed through Amphipolis, and she would be pretty safe there with your mother and Toris."

That actually got a laugh out of the warrior. "Mother barely coped with one untamed child. Something tells me she might not do too well with a second one running all over the village causing trouble," she said, remembering all the scrapes she had gotten herself into at that age. "What about your family?" she asked in return.

Gabrielle started giggling at the thought of her quiet and staid family trying to deal with Shayna and her wildness. "Okay. Looks like our families are out," she said, seeing what Xena had been getting at. "I guess the only other option we really have is the Amazons. Do you think they might take care of her for us?" she asked.

"You'd probably know better than I do when it comes to that. You are the Amazon Queen, after all," the warrior said. The thought of leaving Shayna anywhere, even somewhere like the Amazon Nation, was tearing at her heart as painfully as leaving her son with the centaurs had done all those cycles before. Why were things never easy when it came to children, she thought to herself. Especially my own. Although the warrior was yet to consciously accept the idea of being Shayna's mother, her heart had long embraced the child as its own.

"Well, if I asked, they probably would, but Xena, it has to be something we both want. I mean," Gabrielle hesitated for a heartbeat, "I'd like to think of Shayna as ours and not, and not," she hesitated again. "And not just yours," she said in a quiet rush.

The dark-haired warrior could feel the heat of the blush covering Gabrielle's face where her cheek rested against the bare skin of her shoulder. Xena felt the tears starting to fill her eyes and she closed them tightly for a moment, willing them away. Gently catching hold of the bard's hand, she brought it to her lips, softly kissing the back of it. "I don't know what I have done to deserve you, Gabrielle," she said. "But I can't think of a better person to help me mother Shayna," she continued, her voice was thick with nameless emotions.

"We can talk to Ephiny about it when we get to the village," Gabrielle said briefly, almost as overcome with emotion as the warrior in front of her. Thinking there was more than enough mushy stuff going on, the bard quipped, "Does this make me the father?"

"Gabrielle," Xena mock-snarled back at the other woman, feeling a little happier that the bard was willing to accept a child into their lives, even if they did have to leave Shayna with someone else to keep her safe.

Chapter Nineteen

Xena wiped the sweat running down her face. For some reason, she was enjoying her practise session just a little too much today. Then again, she always enjoyed working out with the Amazon warriors. They usually gave her much more of a challenge than some of her other opponents, the thugs and raiders she and Gabrielle came up against most of the time. And it was a real change to be in a safe place, even if it was only for a little while. Almost as good as a holiday, she thought, spotting Eponin arriving on the practise grounds.

Wandering over, wiping the scrap of rag she used as a towel over her face and arms, she said, "Where's Shayna? I thought she was with you today?"

"Pack's got her. Did you think that lot would leave any youngster roaming about the village on their own for very long?" Eponin replied, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "Should be fine, though. She's a cycle or two older than some of them but I can't see that being a real problem to the rest of the children."

Xena couldn't help smiling in return. She had been a bit concerned the children of the village wouldn't accept a stranger in their midst, but if the child could make friends here, it would make leaving her to the care of the Amazons just that much easier, she hoped.

The first full day they had spent at the village, Xena had insisted on keeping Shayna close by her side, saying she was worried the child might take off into the forest again if something frightened her. Gabrielle had pointed out, with irritating logic, Shayna needed to get to know the people here if she was going to stay. Xena had somewhat reluctantly handed the child over to Eponin and Amaran the next day. Though the little bard had not said it aloud, she knew the real reason for the warrior's hesitation.

"I don't think it will be long before she makes an appearance on the practise grounds, anyway. Old Dartlus just about lit up when she saw all that raw talent working with you yesterday. She can't wait to get her hands on that youngster and start training her," Eponin said, leaning against the fence surrounding the main training area.

"I don't want her pushed into being a warrior, Eponin," Xena growled at the other woman.

"Xena," the woman said gently. "I don't think you're going to get a lot of choice in that. From the looks of it, Shayna has already made up her own mind. I think, trained like the other Amazon girls, she won't," Eponin hesitated for a moment. Not sure if she should be saying this to the tall warrior, she continued anyway. "I don't think she'll lose her way like ..." the woman stopped there, leaving the rest of the sentence hanging uncertainly in the air between them.

"Like I did," Xena finished for her, hanging her head a little shamefully. "It's all right. You can say something like that to me and not get kicked into the next moon. I just worry, that's all."

The silence thickened between the two women for several heartbeats, Xena struggling to cope with what it was like to really be a mother for the first time and Eponin simply offering quiet support. Having Solon had never prepared the dark-haired woman for any of this. She'd had nothing to do with her son's day-to-day care, having handed him over as a new-born babe, still in his swaddling clothes. She knew then it was the best thing she could have done for him, even though the pain of separation had almost driven her insane. Leaving Shayna with the Amazons was also the best thing for the girl, but the pain was far worse this time.

"How do you cope with Amaran's girl?" Xena asked, unshed tears making her voice sound a little strangled.

"One day at a time, Xena. Just one day at a time. I honestly never saw myself as a mother, heart, guard or womb, but loving Amaran meant accepting her daughter as well. I won't say it's perfect. We have some really bad days but, well, what I get back in return more than makes up for the effort I put into her," Eponin said.

"And if you had to leave her with someone else?" Xena asked, her voice so soft Eponin had to strain to catch all the words.

"It would be hard, but I would hope that I found someone to care for her as much as I do," the warrior said. Turning her eyes to look at the woman standing beside her, she queried, "You're not thinking about leaving her here with us, are you? Not that we wouldn't love it, but she really does need a mother. And whether you like it or not, she has decided you're to be her heart-mother."

Continued - Part 3


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