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Copyright Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle, and Ephiny all belong to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. I am merely inhabiting their personas temporarily.

Sex/Violence Disclaimers: There is implied sexual violence.

Timeline: For our purposes here-- although this story is essentially a flashback [think Evil Warlord Xena]-- the contemporary framework of this story takes place during the Amazon celebration described in "Time of Grace." It really isn't necessary to read that story to enjoy this one, but it does play off some elements. Are you confused yet?

General Disclaimers: This story is a response to a question that someone asked me about a line in "Innamorata" and sets up a couple of issues I hope to explore a little later down the line. It is not the conclusion to "Chiaroscuro." I'm still working on that. *meek grin.* Think of this merely as an interlude... or, as the title says, a small...



Ephiny stared at the unlikely couple in the dancing area. Xena and Gabrielle... They looked so... complete... together. And the small Amazon Queen fit so snugly in those long arms. You knew this was coming... she chastised herself. True, but she didn't expect it this quickly. Or this publicly. Judging from the surprised faces around her, neither did anyone else. Okay, Eph, let's pull it together here. She took a deep breath to steady herself. They're only dancing... glancing again at the couple ...gods, are they dancing... another deep breath ...this is not working...

Deciding a tactical retreat was best, Ephiny eased away from the center of camp and into one of the back barns unseen by the other Amazons celebrating around the fires. This was a place she had come to ever since she was a child, whenever things got tough or she just needed someplace to think things through. More and more, she had been slipping away here to ponder decisions about the Amazon Nation. The mantle of Royalty was something new to Ephiny. She had not been born to the mask, and only served as Regent at Gabrielle's request. Often, the Amazon felt like she were flying by the seat of her skirt, being far more accustomed to executing orders rather than issuing them. But she took her responsibilities seriously and knew most of her fellow Amazons-- the warriors especially-- considered her to be a good ruler-- if unorthodox at times.

However, one of the major drawbacks of being Regent was that it left her almost no time for a personal life. It was bad enough that her son was being raised by the centaurs and her visits were far too short, but she was also no longer "one of the girls," so to speak. Women she had once gotten drunk with around the campfire, or had even been intimate with-- like Solari-- now treated her with the solemn courtesy demanded by eons of Amazon tradition.

All in all, it made for one very frustrated Amazon Regent.

Not so our Queen-- she thought with not a little irritation and, she realized with surprise, jealousy-- who seemed to have fallen hard for the Warrior Princess. Ephiny had been closer than most in witnessing the ever-evolving relationship between the warrior and the bard-queen... and certainly she had firsthand knowledge of the warrior's quest for redemption. Neither she nor her son would be alive today if it weren't for Xena's efforts. Despite this, she still viewed the warrior with ambivalence. Perhaps her judgment was unfairly clouded... she couldn't help but remember her first encounter with the woman they called the Warrior Princess... Her confusion had begun then, when she met a warlord who was cruel and ruthless to a young Amazon, but at the same time, kind and surprisingly open. The temple at Thessaly was not the first time Xena had saved Ephiny's life. But for some reason, the dark woman seemed to have no memory of their earlier encounter, over five summers ago...

Then Ephiny had been merely one of a new batch of Amazon warriors-- barely past her nineteenth summer-- under the tutelage and leadership of Queen Melosa. She, Melosa's daughter Terreis, and two other Amazons had been given leave for a short journey to pick up supplies that the Nation could not make for themselves. It was also a good excuse to blow off some steam and see a little of the outside world.

Ephiny was thoroughly enjoying herself at the tavern with her friends. True, they had been the subject of some stares, but a few meaningful touches to their swords had convinced most people to leave them alone. Terreis and the others had gone to bed shortly before, but Ephiny had demurred, not wanting her adventure to end, and knowing that in the morning she would have to return to the Nation.

And then she walked in...

Six feet tall, raven hair tumbling about her shoulders, lean and muscled, with blue eyes that didn't miss a thing.

Especially the young Amazon sitting near the back of the tavern.

"'Keep!" the dark warlord called imperiously. She was with four of her men, who-- despite being imposing in their own right-- seemed somehow... diminished... by their commander.

The cowering tavernkeeper hurried over. Practically bowing before her, he asked what he could do for her.

"Do you know who I am?" She asked, a malevolent gleam in her eye.

"Of course, Warrior Princess, everyone knows who you are." He replied, fervently hoping that was the right answer.

"Veerrryy good," she purred. "Then I'm sure you have a room for me. Your best one, of course." She  glanced around the room, negligently appraising the local talent. Xena looked bored. Bored of her army, bored of the men-- like this one-- who bowed and scraped before her, bored of the conquests that usually came without her even drawing a sword-- courtesy of her reputation. The restless gleam in her eye clamored for a challenge... one she wasn't finding in the babbling man before her.

"....rooms for you and your men. Right away." The man turned to get them ready when he was jerked back abruptly by Xena's hand on his collar.

"Did I say rooms for me and my men?" She asked in a low voice.

"Well, Princess... I..."

"What did I say?" She repeated patiently.

"You said 'a room for me,' Princess."

"Good, then you can hear. 'A room for me,' does not mean 'Rooms for me and my men.' Understand?"

"But Xena--" One of the lieutenants spoke, only to be cut off by a piercing stare.

"Trachis, I don't recall giving you permission to breathe, let alone speak," she growled. "After your performance in the field today, you're lucky I don't cut your balls off and offer them to the 'keep here for the evening stew." She shot a glance at her companions. "That goes for all of you." She glanced back at the tremulous 'keep. "They're sleeping in the barn." Not a question. "Now get my room ready and bring us some port and whatever you have around here that's edible. We'll be at that--" Gesturing to a table near the fireplace and the small gaming area in the tavern. "Table over there. Got it?"

The tavernkeeper scurried off, apparently glad he was only having to give away one room, four dinners and the gods knew how much port. Ephiny's ears had pricked up at the mention of  Xena's name, and her eyes narrowed. The Warrior Princess' reputation had spread all over Greece. She had first come to the attention of the Amazons when she had fought the centaurs to a stand still-- although some said if she had pressed her advantage she would have wiped them out-- but more lately tales of the dark warrior had reached Queen Melosa from her sister Amazon city, Meroda, about some of the atrocities committed by the Warrior Princess and her army.

Quickly the young Amazon assessed her chances. Xena was rumored to be the best fighter in Greece, gifted by Ares and her own relentless ambition. But she was here with only four of her men, obviously not expecting trouble. Ephiny herself had a bit of a reputation as an up-and-coming warrior, perhaps the best the Nation had seen in generations. Bringing back the Warrior Princess as either a captive or a corpse would secure her place among the elite, not to mention avenging a particularly heinous wrong done to her sister Amazons. It was perfect, but for one thing...

All the stories, all the songs, all the rumors... never mentioned how incredibly, magnificently beautiful the Warrior Princess was. And what an effect she had on anyone who looked upon her. Her hair was an ebony mass falling down her back-- Ephiny had never seen a female warrior who either didn't cut her hair or bind it tightly. Even now, in the dead of winter, her skin was deeply bronzed and her eyes glittered jewel-like from her tanned face. Her only concession to the elements were her long leggings of black leather, but she also wore a matching sleeveless black vest in defiance of those same elements. She could be the female incarnation of Ares himself, Ephiny realized with a start and a small shudder. There were those who said that was exactly what Xena was. No one she had faced had ever seen her injured or in pain. Yes, the Amazon decided, it was possible to gaze upon this woman-- who seemed to command the room merely by sprawling in a chair, long legs easily resting on the table's surface -- and believe she was something more than mortal.

During her entire inspection of the Warrior Princess, Xena had seemed oblivious to the young Amazon's study of her. As a matter of fact, every eye in the tavern was on her, so Ephiny really didn't see how two more could matter. So when the tall woman tipped her head back and addressed the Amazon, Ephiny  spilled her drink in surprise.

"Do I have something on my face?" She asked quietly, but still loud enough for her men and the tables surrounding them, to hear.

"I-- I'm sorry?" Ephiny spluttered, trying to swallow her ale without choking.

"I said, do I have something on my face?" With preternatural grace, she rose from her seat and stalked over to Ephiny's table. "I only ask because you seem to be staring at me, Amazon." Half an evil smile flickered over her sharp features  "Or perhaps you think you fancy me?" She glanced back at her men who were watching with leering interest.

Ephiny felt her face flame hotly at the jeering attentions from the beautiful woman. Truthfully, she did find herself responding to the warrior. How could anyone not? Just look at her. But Xena was not the kind of woman to trifle with. Her mind ran the things she had heard Melosa say about Meroda and what had happened there.

The young woman's anger was not lost on Xena, who grinned at the new warrior. "Or... maybe you heard about my little adventure in Meroda." As if she could read the Amazon's mind.

Snickers from her soldiers.

Reflexively, Ephiny's hand went for the hilt of her sword, only to be intercepted by the vice-like grip of the taller woman in front of her. "Ah ah ah," she cautioned, drawing Ephiny's hand away from her weapon. "I wouldn't want you to do anything you'll regret. I don't take lightly to someone drawing their sword on me. Even--" Bringing the Amazon's hand to her lips, "Someone as enticing as yourself." The kiss grazed Ephiny's fingers, the dark warrior emphasizing the point by parting her mouth slightly against the Amazon's knuckles.

Ephiny was shocked to feel her pulse rise at the unexpected contact. How can her lips be so soft... This woman had done horrible things... was still doing... and here she was, mocking her, mocking the Amazons...

She snatched her hand away, backhanding-- quite by accident-- the warlord who stood before her.

A silence heavier than death loomed over the tavern.

Before Ephiny could blink, four drawn swords were pointed at her neck, yet the Warrior Princess stood calmly in front of her-- having neither drawn her own weapon nor made a move towards the Amazon. If anything, she looked totally unconcerned, and amusement sparked in the hard gems of the eyes.

Ephiny was trying to control the violent tremors that were shooting through her body. She was certain death was imminent, whether at this woman's hands or those of her men. Casting a frantic prayer to Artemis to keep her friends safe, she took a deep breath and prepared to meet whatever end the Fates had decreed for her.

Xena glanced irritably at her lieutenants. "You four put your toys away. Go get another round of drinks and sit down." Absently she wiped a trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth and focused her gaze back on the Amazon. "So young. And so full of righteous indignation." She strolled behind Ephiny, who was rooted to the spot. She leaned in close. "Aren't you?"

The young Amazon quickly glanced around the room. Everyone's attention was riveted to the unfolding drama in which she was now a principal player. No one looked inclined to interfere. Would I? she asked herself briefly. Would I think I could save someone like me from someone like her? Because I know just as surely as I'm standing here, she's going to kill me.

Xena circled her quarry once again, studying her in the silence. Ephiny wondered what was behind the appraising glance. But the Warrior Princess had no answers for her, only other questions. "What's the matter, Amazon? Don't you have a tongue in that pretty little head of yours?"

Ephiny heard several rude comments from the soldiers about where they would like to see her tongue, but she kept her gaze focused on the woman and remained silent.

"You gonna bring my head home to your Queen?" A sneering grin on her features, Xena stepped back from Ephiny and spread her arms wide, playing to the crowd. "Are you--" She paused. "-- Warrior?" She blinked and leveled an even stare at the young woman. "I know you want to." She crossed her arms and tapped one booted foot, looking thoughtful. "But I really don't fancy killing you." A feral gleam crept into her eyes. "At least not... yet." Glancing about the room, her eyes landed on the two dart boards hanging on the back wall. "I know--" Snapping her fingers with a start, she took a swift step towards Ephiny, who couldn't keep from flinching. The slight movement was not lost on the warrior. "Let's play a game."

A puzzled murmur ran through the crowd, reflected in Ephiny's eyes. "A game?" she managed hoarsely.

"Yes. A game." The Warrior Princess repeated. "You know-- like cards, darts, arm wrestling-- a game. You can pick." That feral grin again. "Only let's make it a little more... interesting."

"A wager!" Someone shouted.

"A wager!" Xena shouted back, pointing like a festival barker in the direction of the one who shouted. "Yes indeed." Returning her stare to the Amazon. "Let's see... hmmm... If you win... you get to take my head-- and any other body parts you deem important-- back to your Queen. My men will allow you to walk out of here unmolested with my corpse."

An astonished current jolted the room.

"And what do you get if you win?" Ephiny asked through clenched teeth, knowing there was no way she could refuse.

Xena smiled smugly down at her prey. "I get to do whatever I want with you. All night long." Her voice was a velvet touch calculated to reach right down into the depths of Ephiny's loins and stroke the nerves there. The Amazon trembled again, unwilling to admit this time it was in fear and pleasure.

The warlord closed the small gap remaining between them and leaned down so no one else could hear them, her lips brushing the delicate lobe of Ephiny's ear. "Don't worry, you'll keep your life." Stepping back and regarding her solemnly, she spoke once more for the crowd, "Now, do we have a deal?"

Ephiny knew her suddenly dry throat couldn't speak, so she merely nodded. And found her arm clasped in a warrior's handshake. She was startled by the warm smoothness of the woman's arm and the strength of the muscles she felt rippling just under the surface.

"So, what's your pleasure?" Xena asked quietly, smiling at the scarlet burn that seared across the little one's face. "That's later..." she purred silkily in response to the laughter of her men. "What game are we wagering on?"

Ephiny thought of her options quickly. She could hit a rabbit with a crossbow quarrel at over 100 paces. "Darts," she said.

Xena nodded her approval. "A game of skill. Not going to trust your fortune to chance in cards or to brute strength in wrestling. I'm impressed. Darts it is."

The tables in front of the boards were quickly cleared and the rules established. Three rounds of three darts each. The tavernkeeper became the unlucky final arbiter.

"What if there's a tie?!" A man shouted from the back of the tavern.

Xena thought for a moment, then answered. "Then the match is a draw. And we both walk away. If that's acceptable to you?" She asked her competition.

They agreed to alternate throws. Xena beginning-- Ephiny finishing. Best two out of three rounds.

In the meantime, Xena's lieutenants stood around uneasily. They were used to their commander's reckless courage... but this was something else. She rarely gambled, saying it was a pastime for drunken fools. Now here she was wagering her life on a dart game with an Amazon warrior who was undoubtedly a good shot. Trachis shook his head slowly. He knew better than to question Lord Xena. In the mood she was currently in, he was likely to end up as the dart board. Of course, if things went badly they might all end up skewered-- Amazons rarely traveled alone, and he wondered where this one's companions were.

Ephiny won the first round, and the Amazon could sense the crowd tensing, certainly Xena's men looked ready to explode. But the dark woman herself remained insouciant, casually throwing three bullseyes to Ephiny's one in the second round.

Now it all came down to three throws.

Xena's first throw was a bullseye.

As was Ephiny's.

Xena's second throw again split the middle of the target.

The slim Amazon's dart landed in the same place.

Everyone seemed to hold their breath as the tension sucked the remaining air out of the room. Ephiny's heart was hammering so hard she felt the beats pounding behind her eyes. Briefly she wondered if she could take a life-- even one as despicable as the Warrior Princess'-- in cold blood. She had no doubt that she could-- and would-- kill the warrior in combat, but like this? As the payoff to some bizarre wager?

A rumble rolled through the crowd as Xena's third dart slammed home to the board's tiny center.

Ephiny needed a perfect throw to tie her opponent. She could win if she not only hit the bullseye, but in doing so, dislodged Xena's dart from its place. She flicked a glance over to the tall woman lounging comfortably in her chair, a mug of port in her hand. In fact, she looked bored, seemingly oblivious to price she would pay if she lost.

And if she didn't? Ephiny could pretty much guess what was in store for her at Xena's hands. Covertly, the lithe woman studied those hands. They were well-shaped, with long tapering fingers and short trimmed nails. The Amazon shuddered with an odd combination of revulsion and desire-- for it was undeniable that the woman beside her was hypnotically attractive, but she was also a butcher of the worst kind. It was a stunning contradiction, so much rage bottled within such an exquisite package. The gods on Olympus must have laughed themselves sick at the irony. All she needed was a perfect throw, and she could walk away from the mad dichotomy that was embodied in the Warrior Princess.

Closing her eyes, she visualized the target before her. Taking a deep breath to steady herself and relax her frantic heart, with a graceful movement, she released the dart.

A startled murmur ran through the crowd.

Ephiny refocused her eyes on the board. Her dart had landed just to the left of the target's center. The young Amazon's mind went blank as she realized she had forfeited herself to the dark one for the night. Oh gods... what have I done? She could see sympathy in the faces of a few patrons and-- she noted with surprise-- envy in a few other faces. The crowd quickly dispersed once the contest was decided, talking among themselves about what they had seen and what they had won or lost on the wager. No one approached her.

Resolved to not let her fear show, she straightened her shoulders and brought her eyes to meet the Warrior Princess. The tall woman was speaking quietly with her men, dismissing them for the night. They all stared at the young Amazon with undisguised lust, and Ephiny heard a few lewd suggestions offered to the warlord. To which Xena curtly replied, "I hardly think you're in a position to be giving me tips, Trachis. When was the last time you had a willing distraction other than you hand?" The lieutenant had only scowled in reply before leading his comrades out to the barn. "Keep!" she called. "Send a flagon of port up to my room. And some bath water. Be quick about it too." The man hustled away, just happy that there was no blood shed on his floorboards this evening. Then the warlord turned to face her prize.

Expecting to see smug satisfaction or even leering assessment, the Amazon was shocked when those hard eyes reached hers and somehow seem to imperceptibly soften in ...sympathy? The warlord strolled over to where Ephiny remained rooted to her spot.

"Shall we?" She asked quietly, gesturing to the stairs.

The room was indeed the tavern's best one, with a roaring fire, a large bed, and ample room for the wash tub and two chairs. The keeper was finishing filling the tub with hot water as the two came in. "Is there anything else you require, Princess?" He asked, anxious to be gone before the warrior began her night's... play... with the young woman.

She glanced at Ephiny. "You want anything?"

The Amazon remained silent.

Xena arched a brow and pursed her lips, turning to the man. "What was she drinking?"

"Ale, Princess."

"Send up a flagon of ale too."

"Right away," he bobbed his head and scurried away.

"Sit, please." The warlord offered Ephiny one of the two chairs and then seated herself in the other one, leaning down and starting to unlace her boots.

"Look," Ephiny snarled, finally finding her courage and her voice. "Let's get this over with. Just do whatever you're going to do and either kill me or let me go." Her blue-grey eyes sparked with anger. She had had enough of trying to figure out the woman in front of her.

Xena merely leaned back in her chair and cast a disinterested glance at the Amazon. "I'm not going to kill you. I told you that already." Sighing as if in resignation.

"So I guess I should be grateful that you're just going to rape me? I'd rather be dead than violated at the hands of an animal like you," she spat back.

"Enough!!" The warrior roared and stalked over to Ephiny. Even in her bare feet she towered over the slight Amazon. "Now sit down." Pushing the blond woman into the chair she had earlier offered. "I just saved your life down there. I don't expect you to be grateful, but I do expect you to have enough sense to sit down and shut up. My army considers Amazons to be fair game because you're a Warrior Nation-- and believe me, you wouldn't have wanted to end up as their sport for the night."

"So I'm to be yours." Calmer now, Ephiny studied the woman sitting across from her. The dramatic lines of her face seemed to have softened, and she no longer pulsed with the inhuman energy that had possessed her in the barroom.

"I'm not going to force you to do anything, Amazon."

"I'm to believe you?" Ephiny asked skeptically, but was oddly reassured by the woman's gruff reply.

"I've been called many things-- butcher, rapist, thief-- but no one's ever called me a liar. If I guarantee your safety-- and your virtue-- then it's guaranteed."

But the warlord's unexpected calm only gave Ephiny a moment to remember the wrongs that had compelled her to take the challenge in the first place. "Did you guarantee Seara's virtue too?" She flung the name at Xena, referring to the Queen's daughter who was violated in Meroda. "Was that before or after you turned her over to your men? Or did your 'guarantee' not mean anything because we're a 'Warrior Nation?'"

The warlord closed her eyes, absorbing the Amazon's words with a quiet flinch that didn't go unnoticed by the Amazon.

"Did your men enjoy her?" Ephiny, furious now, prodded again.

Pale eyes studied the young Amazon dully from their depths. Gods she looks tired... Ephiny thought with a start... Almost like she's tired of leading an army, tired of being the Warrior Princess. No... it couldn't be... She pushed the thought away, and focused on the warlord, who had finally decided to answer.

"My men didn't rape--" Xena stumbled over the name of her victim. "--Seara. I did."

A cry of rage tore from Ephiny as she threw herself against the warlord. Heedless of the fact that this woman could snap her in two with her bare hands, she grasped Xena by the throat, determined that if she had to die, then she was at least going to take this godsdamned figure in black with her.

Xena's reflexes instinctively took over when the Amazon reached for her neck, but she held herself in check, simply taking her by the wrists and holding the struggling woman at arm's length. "I promised you I wouldn't hurt you," she said through gritted teeth. "But I'm not going to stand here and let myself be killed. Now stop it." Forcefully she hurled the Amazon away, sending her into the wall in a tumbling heap.

Ephiny realized that charging the warrior again would be a bad idea, so she remained where she was, rage coursing through her veins. She was stunned when the woman sat heavily back down in her chair, as though all her strength had deserted her. She watched Xena duck her head and run her hands through the long tresses, releasing a deep, shuddering breath. And then this Warrior Princess-- this Destroyer of Nations-- began to speak.

"I deserve your vengeance. I know that," she began, to Ephiny's shock. She paused for a moment. "But would you have rather had your entire sister city butchered?" The dark warrior looked at the Amazon as though she were genuinely expecting an answer. When none was forthcoming, she continued. "We took Seara intending to ransom her back to her mother... but Magda wouldn't negotiate. I told her that for each day she delayed... her daughter would spend the night with a different one of my men. I-- I was to be the first." She spoke in the flat tones of a story learned by rote, the litany of horror a routine to her by now. "I made sure that some of the other Amazons we captured were close enough to my tent... to hear... and then... I made her scream. I set them free to report back to Magda. She capitulated that morning. If she hadn't, we would have attacked the city. I wouldn't have rested until everyone in it had been slaughtered. So you tell me... was Seara's sacrifice worth the lives of everyone else in her city?" She glanced at the woman opposite, who was staring at her with undisguised horror.

A heaviness fell on the room, the ghosts of ten thousand dead filling the room. The Amazon could almost hear them calling out to warlord with faceless voices, the weight of their silent cries dropping heavily on her broad shoulders.

Ephiny could see her own feelings reflected in the lifeless stare of those compelling eyes-- and she realized with a start that the Warrior Princess shared the revulsion at the actions that had been committed in her name. I don't understand... "Why?" she finally asked. You're not a monster, you're not a god... I see that now... but... "Why?" she repeated.

The eyes regained a bit of their fire at the implicit challenge in the Amazon's quiet words. She lifted her chin, and with an air that was a bit resigned, yet still defiant, she replied... "Because I have no choice, Amazon... it is my destiny..."

That had been five summers ago... Ephiny sometimes wondered if Xena remembered the faceless Amazon with whom she had shared a bit of her ragged soul. On the surface, their exchange had not been much... but still, Ephiny held it close to her heart. Indeed it had been what had kept from killing the Warrior Princess when she first returned to Amazon lands. Gabrielle had been a helpless peasant girl then, determined to learn the ways of life on the road. The Amazons had looked upon the unlikely pairing with cynicism then, thinking the reformed warlord had just taken up with the girl for... obvious reasons... But the last few summers had shown them all that there was nothing obvious about the relationship between the warrior and the bard.

The ghosts that still haunted the warrior were still very much in evidence. Looking back, Ephiny realized that Xena's confrontation with Hercules had not happened long after their encounter. It made her wonder now, what the Warrior Princess had truly been looking for when she had wagered her life on an Amazon's dart throw...

I should get back to the celebration... the Regent prodded herself. But there's really no hurry... her mind countered. No doubt Xena and Gabrielle had retired for the night, and everyone else was probably... otherwise engaged. So she remained, nestled quietly in the soft hay... and in the memories of pale blue eyes glowing softly in the dimness.

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