Please read the Disclaimer in Part One!
Spoilers: "Apotheosis," Necessary Evil, Hooves & Harlots, The Furies
Xenite Disclaimer for Part Five: Despite the infliction of numerous cuts and bruises, no Amazons were seriously harmed in the production of this fanfic, although one or two are going to have bad headaches tomorrow morning.
At the mess hall, dinner was already in full swing as at least fifty Amazons were gathered, eating, talking, and laughing. In one corner of the currently deserted clearing beside the eating area, two women were beating a complex rhythm on their drums, apparently engaged in a contest of some sort. Gabrielle's guard left her at the edge of the mess hall, and she helped herself to some food before making her way to the Queens' table, where Ephiny and Anaira were already seated. Xena was also there, concentrating on her food, as was Solari, her arm bandaged, rolling her eyes tolerantly as Eponin hovered solicitously over her.
"Gabrielle," Ephiny greeted, and the Amazons at the table -- as well as several others in the vicinity -- stood up respectfully. Gabrielle shook her head at all of them, taking her seat between Anaira and Xena. She looked ruefully across the table at Ephiny.
"Isn't there some way to make them stop doing that? And if they all keep calling me 'my Queen' I'm going to go nuts. I haven't done anything to earn their respect. I don't want them treating me like some kind of demigod." At the last word, she felt both Xena and Anaira tense beside her. Gabrielle grimaced to herself.
"You're the chosen of Artemis," Ephiny replied with a small shrug. "They respect you for that, and for trying to save Tereis. And you defeated Velasca. You're the Queen."
"I didn't defeat Velasca," Gabrielle objected in surprise. "Xena did."
"Not as far as they know," Xena said, her voice low and indifferent. Ephiny nodded agreement.
"Better get used to it, Gabrielle. But I'll see if I can get them to start calling you by name, okay?"
Gabrielle dug into her plateful of food, and the conversation turned to more innocuous topics. Xena remained silent and dark, looking mostly at the table or the inside of her cup. She didn't miss much, so she knew Gabrielle had spent a long time in the baths with Ephiny and Anaira, and she surmised the bard had probably told them everything -- or close to it -- although the two Amazons were doing an excellent job of maintaining neutral expressions.
Xena was uncomfortable, feeling slightly trapped. Now that she had committed herself to staying in the Amazon village -- although she had managed to convince herself it was out of a determination to see the conflict through, rather than because of anything Anaira had said -- she was uncertain what her role here should be. Pride kept her from asking Ephiny for instructions, and her natural urge to remain inconspicuous kept her from simply forcing herself on any facet of the Amazon war effort. So she brooded, trying not to react to the warmth of Gabrielle's body next to her, the unexpected feelings of renewed tenderness that this closeness was kindling.
To the relief of both Gabrielle and Xena, it wasn't long before the crowd, sensing a subtle signal, began to hush, and a small group of younger Amazons gathered in the clearing beside the dining area. Talk died down, and the only sounds for a moment were clinks of plates and cups on tables, and soft scrapes of wood on wood as the Amazon audience shifted their chairs so everyone could see.
A stoutly built woman with short blonde hair in tight curls stepped forward and saluted. "Queen Gabrielle, Queen Ephiny. The students have prepared a demonstration."
"That's Kyana, the weapons instructor," Anaira stage-whispered for Xena and Gabrielle's benefit. Now Kyana stepped aside and gestured, and the first pair of students stepped out, each carrying a staff. They were tall and lithe, both in the final stages of adolescence, and although nervous in the presence of the Queen, they both exuded a youthful confidence.
Nodding to each other, they braced themselves and began a drill, sweeping the staves gracefully through the air, thrust, parry, feint, and as the moves became more complicated they added footwork to it, circling each other, breathing evenly through slightly open mouths, intensifying their attacks until at last one girl's staff poked underneath and tugged the other's staff from her hands. The lost staff clattered to the earth, the winner touched the end of hers to her opponent's chest, and they both turned, panting slightly, to bow to the audience. The gathered Amazons applauded and made noises of appreciation.
"They're quite good," Gabrielle said, impressed, leaning over the table to speak to Ephiny. The Queen-Regent smiled over her shoulder.
"Yes, Kyana is an excellent teacher. Part of her strength is that she only needs one lesson to decide which weapon is best suited to a particular fighter -- or whether she's not really a fighter at all." Ephiny seemed about to say more, but she broke off as the second pair of students came forward, this time carrying swords. The drill began again, and again Gabrielle was enraptured and impressed by the skill, grace and confidence of the young warriors.
After the swords came the chobos, and then the last pair of students sparred in hand-to-hand combat. When they had finished, all eight gathered in a line, flushed and sweaty but smiling, to take another bow under the appreciative applause of their seniors. Ephiny glanced back at Gabrielle again, and rose to make a brief speech.
"It's good to see your talents progressing so nicely," she praised. "Both Gabrielle and I are very impressed and pleased. You're all fine warriors, and you honor Artemis with your skills." The girls beamed and blushed. "And now," Ephiny continued, "how about a little show from some of our best?" She looked to her side. "Eponin? Anaira?" She named a few others as well, and those named got up from their tables and straggled onto the fighting floor, amid general joking and friendly jibes. The young students, with the air of children allowed to watch the grownups' entertainment, moved to the edge of the clearing and watched eagerly. A few of the fighters sparred desultorily at each other, warming up and stretching their muscles, but most gathered by the side to take turns.
It was clear from the demeanor of the other warriors that they all accepted Anaira as the best among them. She stood in the middle of the arena, casually twirling her sword and ignoring the genial catcalls and taunts from her peers, many of whom were loudly taking bets. Gabrielle, infected with the sense of goodwill and camaraderie, was smiling and bouncing slightly in her seat. Even Xena seemed to be almost enjoying herself.
Without warning, Eponin drew her own sword and charged Anaira. The dark warrior spun around to meet the attack, and they launched into a heated battle, punctuated by grunts and muttered curses, and always the silvery clashing of the swords. Eponin was good, and she gave Anaira a challenge, but the taller woman eventually won out, knocking Eponin's sword from her hand. Grinning good-naturedly in defeat, Eponin retrived her sword and scurried out of the way as another warrior leapt into the fray. Anaira didn't seem at all winded, and moved gamely to defend herself against the new attack. Almost immediately, a third Amazon joined the battle as well, and now it was two against one. Anaira was undaunted. She defended herself skillfully, fighting off both attacks and finally ducking out so that both warriors, had they not pulled up in time, would have ended up skewering each other. The crowd roared its appreciation. Anaira grinned, then whirled as Eponin came in again, this time rushing her with a staff. The tall warrior fended it off with her sword, then dropped the sword as someone on the sidelines tossed her a staff. The battle began anew, and Gabrielle, who considered herself reasonably proficient with her own staff, was left breathless as she watched the two experienced warriors beat at each other.
Eponin, not surprisingly, went down again, and another warrior joined the fray, and another, until all the best warriors of the village had gone against Anaira and been defeated. Then the dark women, smiling in self-deprecation, stepped back to let the others showcase their skills against each other while she caught her breath.
The demonstration continued, and when at last Anaira moved back onto the floor, there was a pause as the other fighters, all breathing heavily, glanced at each other to see who would take the first offensive. As the air briefly stilled, Anaira looked back over at the dining area. Gabrielle thought she was just glancing at her lover, but then the bard felt Xena stiffen slightly beside her, and realized that Anaira's gaze stretched past Ephiny. The two dark warriors met each other's eyes, and Gabrielle turned her head to say quietly, "Xena, you don't have to. It's just a show...."
"I know what it is," Xena replied just as quietly. By now everyone else had followed Anaira's gaze, and several dozen pairs of eyes watched Xena -- and Gabrielle -- as they conferred in muted tones.
Slowly, Xena rose to her feet. The gathered Amazons gasped, held their breaths, nudged each other, sat forward in their chairs ... but all eyes remained locked on the Warrior Princess. For her part, Xena had not taken her eyes from Anaira. The Amazons to her left shifted, beginning to clear a path so that Xena could get by, but a sudden smirk twinkled in her eye and she bent her knees, tensing. Gabrielle saw it coming and grinned, almost chuckling to herself.
Suddenly, Xena straightened her legs and launched herself into the air, letting loose with her war cry, flipping over in a smooth arc and coming to land on the playing field, directly in front of Anaira. The audience gasped and shrieked and exclaimed. Anaira returned Xena's smirk, her expression sarcastic.
Swiftly, Xena drew her sword and held it out. Anaira already held hers, and now she brought it up to clash against Xena's. The two dark, lithe warriors narrowed their eyes and fell into a fight whose rhythm quickly became dizzying. The swords seemed to strike and stroke at each other faster than the eye could react, four legs and four arms moving more smoothly than any dance, almost as if each warrior knew what the other would do before it was done -- and knew how she would react, and knew that the other knew, and.... Gabrielle shook her head. It was eerie.
Now the fight intensified even further, both warriors scowling in concentration as sweat beaded their foreheads. Gabrielle was mesmerized by the strong play of supple muscle under Xena's skin, arms and legs the bard knew so well moving in their familiar patterns and making her stomach clench with an electrifying emotion which she realized, in a sudden burst of clarity, *was* love. Hot, painful, uncomfortable love, just as Ephiny and Anaira had known. Gabrielle frowned slightly, seeing the shift in her dangerous friend's attack pattern, realizing too that Xena was not just showing off; she was using the exhibition as a chance to express some bottled-up anger ... at Anaira? Puzzled, Gabrielle leaned forward, wondering what she had missed between the two dark warriors.
The fight was nearing its climax, Xena lunging with barely controlled hostility, Anaira panting as the Warrior Princess clearly had her stretching her abilities to their limit. But both stopped, so abruptly that several observers let out small exclamations of startlement, as a sentinel raced into the clearing shouting Ephiny's name.
The battle abandoned, the two warriors turned to the sentinel, the combined force of their hot gazes making her quail slightly. But now Ephiny was on her feet, and several other warriors as well, and everyone was tensing, the amiable atmosphere quickly dissipating.
"What is it?" Ephiny's voice carried clearly through the sudden hush. The sentinel looked across at her.
"A messenger from the village of Minisis, my Queen!" She gestured behind her, and an exhausted-looking Amazon emerged, eyes searching somewhat wildly across the gathered faces until they settled on Ephiny, who beckoned.
"Come, sit down before you collapse," the Queen-Regent urged. "Someone get some wine and food for the messenger! The rest of you, finish your dinner ... and get to battle stations."
Their exhibition abandoned, Xena and Anaira sheathed their swords and came over to the Queens' table. The messenger was helped into a chair, where she slumped wearily, slurping gratefully at the cup of wine pressed into her hand.
"My Queen," she said when she had drained the glass and Gabrielle was refilling it, "the village of Minisis is-"
"Under attack by renegades," Ephiny finished grimly, and the messenger nodded.
"They attacked this morning while we slept. I didn't want to leave, but Harisa insisted that you should be notified."
"She was right," Ephiny said. "Minisis is the closest village to us. If they've turned from their path toward Centaur land, it probably means they're heading here." She looked at Solari. "How likely is it that they realized you were bringing Gabrielle here?"
"Very likely, I'd say," Solari replied gravely. "They attacked us on the road leading here, and once they saw me with Gabrielle and saw which way we were heading...."
"So they may well have changed their plans to include coming here," Ephiny concluded. "How was the battle going when you left?"
"Our people were holding their own," the messenger replied, "but if you could send any assistance-"
"Take the second squadron," Ephiny ordered, looking up at Anaira. "They've been off this shift, so they're rested." Anaira nodded and whirled around, barking orders. Ephiny continued, looking again at Solari. "Solari, send a scout to the villages on the other side of the mountain. If the renegades take Minisis they may decide to take the rest of the mountain as well. Eponin, take the messenger to a guest house and get her cleaned up. Have the healer take a look at her too."
"I'm going with the squadron," Xena announced, reaching for her chakram, which she had left on the table when she went to spar with Anaira. Ephiny looked at her, but didn't object.
"I'm going as well," Gabrielle said grimly, turning to her erstwhile guardian. "Get me my staff from the Queen's quarters."
"Yes, my Queen," the Amazon replied, and dashed off. Ephiny was on her feet, putting out a hand to stop Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, no. It's too dangerous. *If* the renegades don't know you're here, that's an advantage we need to keep as long as possible. And the fighting could get ugly."
"I can handle myself in a fight," Gabrielle insisted. "I want to see these renegades in action myself. I have a responsibility to know what we're up against."
"It's too dangerous," Ephiny repeated. "I can't let you-"
"I'm the Queen," Gabrielle reminded her sharply. "You can't *let* me do anything."
"By the Gods, Gabrielle," Xena broke in, sounding angrier than she had in a long time. Gabrielle and Ephiny looked at her in surprise. "Think of the godsdamned Amazons for once instead of yourself, will you? You're staying here." Before Gabrielle could give voice to a furious retort, Xena lowered her voice to a menacing growl and added, "Don't make me force you!"
Remembering how Xena had tied her up rather than risk her following, Gabrielle subsided, although anger and battle-lust still simmered in her gut. Xena watched her for a moment, making sure her protestations were finished, and then spun around and raced off to saddle Argo. Ephiny, breathing an unseen sigh of relief, turned to shout some more orders. The dining area had cleared out, Amazons rushing every which way as they prepared for battle.
Gabrielle's bodyguard had returned with her staff, which she snatched irritably out of the woman's hands. "Well, come on then," she muttered, and stalked off in the direction of Ephiny's cabin, her thoughts racing.
"There are good fighters in second squadron, right?" she demanded of the guard as they wove their way between the tents. "They'll stand a good chance?"
"Oh, yes, my Queen," the Amazon replied confidently, and so caught up in the desperation of the moment was Gabrielle that she didn't even flinch at the hated appellation. "Our best fighters are distributed evenly among all four squadrons, so that each is an effective fighting force on its own as well as in tandem with the others."
"I see. And assuming the Amazons at Minisis have held out this long, our extra people should be able to sway the odds in our favor," Gabrielle went on, thinking out loud. "Listen, I want you to know I'm sorry."
"Sorry, my Queen? For what?" the guard asked in confusion, frowning over her shoulder at Gabrielle. The bard nodded toward the cabin they were about to enter.
"For that." When the other woman turned back around to look, Gabrielle hit her sharply in the back of the head with her staff. The guard gave a grunt, and by the time she had collapsed to the ground, Gabrielle was already dashing back the way they had come.
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