It was Gabrielle who now stalked across the compound towards Ephinys hut, Solari following in her wake. Not pausing at the door, the bard surprised the Regent as she brushed aside the curtain and entered.
Ephiny had been sitting at her table, going over the preparations for the five-day trip she and eight of her warriors would be leaving on in the morning. They would join the Princess, the General and their entourage on the journey north.
The Regent jerked her head up reflexively as she heard the noise, the smile frozen before starting as she observed the look on the faces of the two women. She let out a weary sigh as she put down the scroll she'd been reading, and indicated the seats around the table.
"Why do I think Im not going to like this?"
Gabrielle ignored Ephinys gesture and walked around the scroll covered surface to stand in front of her friend. She didnt try to hide the anger in her voice, or the accusation in her eyes. "Did you know that someone threw a knife at Xena the first night we got here?"
Caught by surprise, Ephinys bewildered glance left the bards face and searched Solaris for confirmation.
Gray eyes met angry brown ones as Solari threw herself into one of the chairs. "We just had a talk with Xenas guards. It seems they didnt find it important enough to report that someone tried a little vigilante justice in Sarans hut."
It took a moment for Ephinys mind to absorb the information before it began racing at the implications. She turned back to the bard and met her glare with an apologetic look of her own. The Amazon tried to hide the hurt she felt at the distrust in the bards eyes.
"Gabrielle, Im sorry. And no, I didnt know." She let her eyes stay locked on the bards until she noticed the muscles in Gabrielles face begin to relax. Then she shifted her attention to her lieutenant. She leaned closer to the table, spreading her hands across the rough surface. "Did they find out who threw it?"
Solari ignored Gabrielles snort as she straightened her back, looking very uncomfortable. "No. They didnt pursue it."
Ephiny knew something was going on, and she didnt have the patience to play games. She threw up her hands, as she leaned back in her chair. Crossing her arms, she glared at her lieutenant. "Okay, out with it, Solari. What arent you telling me?"
The brown eyes were examining fingers, which were picking the corner of a scroll on the table in front of her. "It was my fault, Eph. I should have realized what would happen. It was my responsibility..."
Ephiny couldnt keep the frustration out of her voice as she straightened and slapped the palm of her hand down on the table, startling everyone there including herself. "I want details, Solari. Well figure out the rest later."
Angry and embarrassed eyes met the Regents but Solari managed to keep her personal feelings in check as she relayed the conversation she and Gabrielle had with Xenas guards. By the time the stocky Amazon had finished, Ephiny was up and pacing.
The Regent swung around after running out of floor once again. Returning to the center of the hut, she stopped and glared at her second-in-command. "Do you mean to tell me that they did nothing to find out who threw that knife?"
Solari gave a derisive snort, not meeting the angry gray eyes. "We should consider ourselves lucky they even bothered to check on Xena at all."
Ephiny stood lost in thought for a minute before beginning to walk slowly back to the table. "Wheres the knife now?"
Solari had wondered the same thing. "Good question. Ill find out."
They had both almost forgotten Gabrielle until a soft voice interrupted.
"I want to talk to them."
The bard had taken a seat at the table while Solari relayed their interchange with the guards. Now, she turned determined green eyes on the Amazons across from her.
Ephiny looked a little puzzled as she exchanged glances with Solari before turning her attention to the bard. "To who?"
Gabrielle had been following the conversation around her, but shed also been sitting there trying to figure out the motivations of the young Amazons who had attacked Xena. At least the incident in the practice field had started out as a face-to-face challenge. The knife had been just the opposite. She found it hard to believe any Amazon would have acted in such a cowardly way. Even Faline seemed to show more honor than that on the field this morning, no matter how wrongly directed.
What was bothering her most, however, was the rising fear in her gut. The others could pretend all they wanted, but she was under no illusions. Shed felt the first shudder pass through her as shed listened to the guards story and realized that the knife hadnt been meant as a warning. She knew that if it had been anyone else asleep on that pallet, the assassin would have been successful.
She set her face in a grim mask. "Those girls. I want to talk to Faline and the others."
Ephiny thought for a moment. She wanted to ask them some questions of her own, but they might reach the truth quicker if they split the young Amazon warriors up. "All right. But, I want to talk to Jess, Philana and Amara first; before we talk to Faline. Okay?"
Gabrielle gave a curt nod and Ephiny turned to face her lieutenant, one eyebrow raised in question. Solari got wearily to her feet and headed for the door, calling over her shoulder. "Back shortly." The two women watched as the tall Amazon left the hut, easing back in their chairs as the curtain swung into place behind her.
Gabrielle now focused on Ephiny, having wanted to ask the question since shed entered the hut, but afraid of the answer. She tried to keep her voice casual. "Any word from the scouts?"
The Regent turned to face her friend, a look of apology beneath the blond curls. "Im sorry Gabrielle, not yet. Last report was that theyd picked up her trail leaving the boundary and were following it; but we havent heard back yet."
Gabrielle studied her hands for a few minutes before looking up, a note of confusion in her soft voice. "Ephiny, I dont understand. Why didnt Xena tell me about the knife?"
Ephiny had been quietly watching the young woman. Now she took a moment to shift the chair she was sitting on closer to the bards before leaning her elbows on her knees and looking up into her friends troubled face.
She was the last one to try to second-guess Xena. As far as she knew, Gabrielle was the only one whod even begun to figure out the complex woman behind all that leather and brass, and if Gabrielle didnt know...
But the Regent did know what she herself would have done under the same circumstances.
"Gabrielle, what would you have done if youd known about it?"
The bard looked surprised as she hesitated before answering. "What do you mean?"
Ephiny shrugged as she straightened. "What would you have done differently than what you did? Stay by Xenas side every minute, day and night?" She turned her head to one side as she regarded the bard, her eyebrows rising in a question. "Order her guards flogged?"
Annoyed, Gabrielle threw herself back in her chair and shot the Regent a dirty look. "Dont be ridiculous, Eph., of course I wouldnt." She paused for a moment and thought. "I would have...well, if Id known..." her voice trailed off as she pondered what her options would have been.
The Regent let the silence stretch for a minute as she watched Gabrielle struggle for an answer. She leaned forward and put a gentle hand on the bards arm.
"Exactly. There wasnt much you could do. Almost anyone in the village was angry enough to take a shot at Xena when you first returned. She may have figured it wasnt worth upsetting you over. After all, there was no harm done." She squeezed the bards arm and let a smile lift the corner of her mouth but quickly dropped it again as she noticed the hurt reflected in Gabrielles pale eyes.
"You know Eph., thats what everybodys saying."
The Regent flinched at the undercurrent of disappointment in her friends voice as Gabrielles eyes locked with hers.
"But Im willing to bet Xenas fever the next day had a lot to do with that attack. So, no, I dont agree with you. Xena was harmed, even if no one wants to admit it."
Gabrielle let out an explosive sigh as her gaze returned to the floor, her shoulders slumping. "I really hate it when she keeps things like this from me."
The Regent began to move her arm around the young womans shoulders, but stopped at the return of Solari, who was ushering in three very nervous Amazons.
Ephiny and Gabrielle stood up, and the Regent indicated the girls were to take the now empty chairs. She and Gabrielle shifted to stand in front of them as Solari took a seat near the back of the hut. The three young warriors exchanged glances before taking their seats.
Ephiny studied the girls in front of her.
Jess was the oldest of the three. Born in the village sixteen summers ago, her birth mother was an experienced warrior currently doing a month of border duty at one of their remote posts. Ephiny had been keeping an eye on the young girl as one of the more promising Amazon warriors coming up through the ranks. The girl was bright and already skilled with many weapons. She did tend to keep her own council, which some mistook for a superior attitude. Combined with the seeming ease at which she mastered the various Amazon weapons, Ephiny wasnt surprised to hear from the girls teachers and trainers that many of the younger warriors resented her.
Ephiny watched out of the corner of her eye as the young girl absently moved her right hand up to tuck a strand of her straight, shoulder-length brown hair behind her ear as she let her eyes drift around the Regents hut.
Beside her, Philana was unaware that she'd now become the object of the Regents attention. Both Philana and Amara had been rescued two winters earlier, along with several other villagers, when a hunting party had come across a slaver operating out of their western territory. Both girls had elected to stay with the Amazons when it had turned out that their families had been killed in the raids.
Philana was a year younger than Jess. Her tightly cropped black hair was a mass of curls that defied both comb and brush. A short, stocky frame combined with a lack of any physical skills that anyone could find, made her a danger to both herself and others when she had any sort of weapon in her hand. But, she also had a quick mind and an ability to handle numbers that had brought her to the Regents attention early on in her formal training. Ephiny knew the girl took a lot of teasing about her poor skills as a warrior and suspected, despite the efforts of her teachers, that she suffered because of it.
Amara was the youngest of the group. Thirteen summers old now, she'd been a frightened child, almost totally withdrawn when rescued from the slavers. It had taken the Amazon counselors several months efforts before the haunted look left the young girls face and she began to speak in more than one or two word sentences. She'd stuck close to Philana since first arriving at the village but her friend didnt seem to mind the almost constant shadow.
Ephiny cleared her throat, waiting for the girls to focus their attention on her. "You warriors know why youre here?"
The three girls exchanged glances before Jess met the Regents eyes. "Yes."
The older Amazon focused her attention on the girl before her. She didnt try to hide the frown as she crossed her arms across her chest. "Okay, Jess. Why dont you tell me what happened in the practice field this morning. And I want the truth." Ephiny let her gaze sweep over all three girls. "Youre in very serious trouble. Dont make it any worse."
Jess swallowed a couple of times before finding her voice. She met the Regents stare with a defiant one of her own. "Faline wanted to take Xena on in a fair fight. When Xena ignored her, Faline challenged her. We went to help."
Ephiny decided to tackle one thing at a time. "Why did she want to take on Xena?"
The Regent was surprised when Philana spoke up, her voice sullen, eyes never leaving the floor in front of her. "Because nobody else seems to be willing to protect our Queen from Xena."
Gabrielle put a hand on Ephinys arm, stopping the Regents next question, as she spoke up now. "What makes you think I need protecting?"
Philanas eyes lifted to meet Gabrielles, reflecting a moments hesitation before she straightened and replied with a passion that surprised the bard. "Faline says that people like Xena dont ever stop beating on others. We saw what she did to you. Its an Amazon warriors duty to protect her Queen." She looked at her companions for confirmation and took courage from the encouraging looks they were giving her.
She turned back, her gaze now firm.
Ephiny shot right back. "And what about an Amazon warriors duty to follow orders?" Ephiny noticed all three girls flinch. "Didnt I tell you to stay away from her?"
She had to admit that these girls showed a lot of courage and loyalty. It was unfortunate it was so badly misdirected. The question was, were any of them also capable of attempting cold-blooded murder?
Well, shed never know unless she asked. "Was this morning the first time you acted against Xena?" Ephiny noticed a round of uncomfortable looks. She pressed the point. "Speak up. I want you to tell me everything."
Jess exchanged glances with her two friends. She seemed to nod in agreement with both of them before facing the Regent and Gabrielle again. "We tried to scare her off the night of the feast."
Ephiny tried to hide her surprise as she exchanged a quick glance with Gabrielle, confirming this was news to the bard as well, before turning back to the girls. "Scare her off? How?"
Jess nervously related the ambush in the Queens hut. As she got to Amaras part in it, the young Amazon began to weep softly.
When Jess finished, the only sounds in the hut were the young Amazons quiet sobs. Both Ephiny and Gabrielle just stood and stared at the girls. This whole thing was becoming more unbelievable by the minute.
"Is there anything else you should be telling me?" Ephiny tried to keep the anger and frustration out of her voice.
The three girls left off examining their boots and raised their heads to face the Regent. Jess spoke up. "Thats all. Honest! Listen, were sorry about this morning. We didnt know what Faline had planned. If we had, we would have stopped her. But were not sorry for the other stuff; for trying to protect our Queen."
Now three pairs of eyes stared defiantly back.
Ephiny tried to figure out what to say next. How could she get these girls to see how wrong they were? Hmm. Maybe there was a way.
She pulled up a chair and sat down facing them, using the time to figure out the best way to proceed. She returned their expectant looks.
"You know about Falines father and mother, right?" She waited 'til all three girls nodded their heads. "Then you know that her father beat them both, more than once." She noticed the anger on the girls faces and knew that they were familiar with the story. "In fact, if youve seen the scars on Falines back, then you know he made a regular habit of it."
Turning to Gabrielle, Ephiny paused before proceeding, willing the bard to pick up on and go along with this. "How many times has Xena beat you?"
Gabrielle felt the hot flash of anger, and was about to spit out her answer when her mind suddenly registered the pleading look in the Regents eyes. She quickly shifted tacks as she figured out where Ephiny was going with this. She turned, instead, to face the seated Amazons.
"In the four years weve been travelling together, except for that one day, shes only ever hit me once before and thats when she was under the influence of the Gods."
Ephiny paused to let the words sink in before asking again. "Are you saying that Xena doesnt make a habit of hitting you?"
"No! I would never allow it and Xena would rather cut off her sword arm than raise it against me." Gabrielle noticed the look of skepticism on the Amazons faces. She let a weary smile play across her mouth. "You know, its funny. Ive probably hit Xena more times over the years than she has ever raised her voice to me. I know her as a gentle, kind and loving friend who is always risking her life to protect me. You three are dead wrong about her."
The girls looked uncomfortable as they shifted in their seats. Philana spoke up this time, her gaze fixing on Ephiny. "Whats going to happen to us?"
Ephiny exchanged a look with the bard before turning back to the girls. "I dont know. Gabrielle and I will decide. For right now, I want you to return to your huts and stay there 'til I send for you. Do you understand?"
As the three girls stood and began to shuffle out, Jess met Gabrielles eyes, regret and embarrassment evident in her own. "Im sorry. I think we may have been wrong."
Gabrielle let her expression soften a little. "You were wrong, Jess. But its not me you owe the apology to."
Solari followed them out, before heading in the direction of Falines hut.
Gabrielle was getting very frustrated. "Ephiny?!?"
The Regent held up her hands. "Gabrielle, I dont know why Xena didnt tell you about the incident in your hut. Maybe she forgot?"
Gabrielle snorted. "Yeah, thats it. She forgot that she was jumped by three girls and slugged over the head." The bard started to pace. "Ephiny, whats going on here? And if those girls didnt throw the knife, who did?"
"Hang on, Gabrielle. We still have to talk to Faline. She may have acted on her own."
An uneasy silence descended as they waited for Solari to return with Faline. They both started as the curtain was flung aside and a defiant Faline strode into the hut, an angry Solari storming in behind her.
Ephiny indicated one of the chairs. "Have a seat, Faline."
Faline remained where she was. "I prefer to stand."
As Solari clenched her fists and began to move in closer, Ephiny shot her a warning glance before turning back and locking eyes with the young woman. "And I want you to sit. So do it!"
A sullen one quickly replaced the startled look as the young girl slowly moved over to one of the chairs and threw herself down on it.
Ephiny and Gabrielle assumed their positions in front of the Amazon. The Regent stared at her for a few minutes until Faline began to shift uncomfortably in her chair then Ephiny cleared her throat and growled. "You want to tell me what happened on the practice field this morning?"
The young woman was aware that all eyes in the hut were focused on her. Shed shown these older women how a real Amazon warrior acted. She was eager to claim the honor. "I challenged Xena: we fought. I showed her that some of us still know how to act like Amazons."
Ephiny didnt hide the contempt in her voice. "How, Faline? By deliberately disobeying my orders? By sneaking up behind her and striking when she wasnt looking? Is that how you think an Amazon warrior acts?"
Faline dropped her eyes as her voice took on a belligerent note. "I challenged Xena to a fair fight. It wasnt my fault she is too much of a coward to face me."
The Regent was incredulous. She fixed her stare on the girl seated before her, trying to keep her voice neutral but failing badly. "Do you honestly believe that?"
Blazing eyes met the Regents and Ephiny took a step back as the depth of the hate reflected there struck her. Faline couldnt believe these women couldnt see what Xena was.
"Do I honestly believe that Xena is a coward, and a bully and doesnt deserve to live for what shes done to our Queen. Yes! Do I think its only a matter of time before she kills her? Yes! And if you cant see that, then youre all blind."
Gabrielle didnt know how to reach out to this angry young woman. She could empathize with all that she'd obviously gone through. But that wasnt an excuse to go off halfcocked, trying to kill people. Especially her partner. She knew she'd come to feel some sympathy for this young Amazon in time, but right now, she was just trying to keep her anger in check.
"What else have you been involved in?"
Faline smiled, sitting back in the chair and crossing her arms as she met the bards glare. "We sent Xena a warning. If shes so smart, she would have left the night of the feast, and saved us all a lot of trouble."
Ephiny instinctively stepped between the angry bard and the smirking girl as Gabrielle leaned forward. "And how did you send this warning?"
A frown crossed the young Amazons face as she remembered watching from the window of her hut while Solari escort her so-called friends from the earlier interrogation. She dropped her gaze to the floor, the sullen note returning. "Im sure the others have told you. I knew I never should have trusted them."
Ephinys voice reflected a mixture of suggestion and command. "Why dont you tell us your side of the story, Faline?"
The young girl shrugged, her eyes never leaving the floor. "We waited for Xena in the Queens hut and roughed her up a little."
The Regent persisted, unable to keep the note of scorn out of her voice. "I see. Any other examples of Amazon justice youd like to share with us?"
Falines head shot up and she locked eyes with the Regent, her knuckles turning white as she gripped the arms of the chair. Her voice was an angry hiss. "What would have been justice was if the council had the guts to stick by their original decision. Its only a matter of time before Xena kills our Queen. And its going to be on your heads."
Ephiny exchanged an inquiring glance with Gabrielle. When the bard just shook her head, the Regent signaled Solari. As her lieutenant moved to stand beside the hunched form in the chair, she spoke. "Wait in your hut, Faline. Well let you know what happens next."
For a long moment the girl just sat there. It was only when Solari reached down and wrapped her strong hand around the thin arm that Faline reacted. Jerking violently out of the Amazons grip she stood and glared at all three women before turning on her heels and stalking out of the hut. Solari rolled her eyes and followed her out.
Gabrielle turned to Ephiny and let out the breath shed been holding. "That is one very disturbed young woman."
Ephiny looked puzzled. "Disturbed, yes. But either she is a very good liar, or she wasnt the one who threw the knife."
Gabrielle had already begun to come to that conclusion and she didnt like it one bit. "Eph., if none of them thew it, then who did?"
Ephiny stood for a moment thinking before coming to a decision. She held out her arm, indicating the doorway to the hut. "I dont know. But, Im going to find out. Why dont we pay a call on Saran?"
Gabrielle preceded her out of the hut, a determined look on her face. "I thought youd never ask!"
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