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(These characters belong to MCA Universal and Reniassance Pictures. I'll give them back, but I'm pulling rank as a Xenite after seeing Endgame. Ephiny's thirty-second death generated a great episode, but she was seriously short-changed. Stirring funeral dirge, but no dramatic death-bed scene. Bathos is called for, dammit! Disclaimers for mild violence and foul language.)
Xena heard the familiar voice outside first, but Ephiny turned her head toward the sound only a moment later. She was still lucid and alert.
The Amazon regent reclined on a wooden pallet piled high with furs that couldn't keep her warm enough, except when fever scorched through her. Xena had helped her sit up, because she would breathe more easily that way, for awhile.
Xena straightened, her hollow blue eyes pinned on the doorway. She'd just measured Ephiny's pulse again, and at the moment she looked as ill as the Amazon. Two nights without sleep accounted for the warrior's pallor, but the lost, blasted light in her gaze was simple grief.
They both heard Gabrielle again, yelling for them. She was going to find them eventually. Stiffly, Xena moved around in front of the bed, trying to brace herself for the coming unpleasantness. Gabrielle might never forgive her for this.
"Xena, stand down." Ephiny's melodious voice was still rich, just softer than usual. "I'm not so far gone that I can't handle five feet of pissed-off blonde bard, even if she is my queen. What's she going to do, threaten to mendhi my butt?"
Ephiny struggled to sit higher as the footsteps ouside finally targeted on the log steps leading to the queen's hut. Xena helped her settle, then moved quickly and into the shadows of the dusty room.
"Good luck," the warrior murmured.
"Stay close," Ephiny snapped, her nerve failing.
Callisto made less harrowing entrances.
Gabrielle of Potadeia was angry, tired, and three days from her moons. Her feet were killing her. And oh, she was pissed. And admirably calm, she thought, as she stepped down into the hut, her left eyebrow arching so high it almost squeaked.
"Ephiny?" Gabrielle's eyes adjusted to the dimmer light. She crossed the room, planted herself beside the bed, and looked down at her regent with a patience prudently regarded as fragile. "All right. Tell me what happened, I'm listening."
"Good." Ephiny regarded the younger woman fondly. "If I could only get your attention, Gabrielle, you learned faster than anyone I ever taught. Gods, you were a handful. This virginal little milkmaid, with the temper of a viper if you took her too lightly. Which we all did, at first, including me." Ephiny's eyes twinkled. "Sorry about the hard time I gave you, when you first joined us, but you have to admit you were -- "
"Ephiny, stand up in my presence, please." Gabrielle's voice was ominously low, and she wasn't falling for flattery. "You are still conscious only by the grace of the eastern gods, who compel my bloody pacifism. Why did you send me on a wild boar chase after a non-existent treaty, right after the bloodiest battle we've seen since my masking?"
"Because there was an assassin after you, and we knew you wouldn't take the threat seriously while we were at war." Gabrielle's obvious ire didn't seem to bother Ephiny. The regent's smile broadened, and she looked more vigorous than she had in hours. "Xena, you poor schmuck! Does she get this mad at you, very often? By the gods, she's glorious. I don't think I can make a fist."
Gabrielle was still trying to digest that last sentence, but her eyes darted around the room and found Xena. "An assassin? Xena, you didn't think that should be brought to my attention?"
Gabrielle trailed off as she reached Xena, and looked up into her face. She took the warrior's arm and pulled her over a step, so the torchlight revealed her features. "Xena, what's the matter with you? You look terrible." She still sounded angry, but anger and worry sometimes sounded the same with Gabrielle. "Are you sick? You weren't injured in the -- "
"I'm all right, Gabrielle." Xena shook the bard's hand off. "Don't worry, we found the -- "
"Hold it." The young queen looked from her lover to her regent, and her sharp green eyes grew watchful. "You're not telling me everything."
"No," Ephiny agreed. She shifted on the bed, and sighed. "I got a bad break, Gabrielle. I took a Tolmane dart during the battle. I'm not going to live very long. Maybe another hour."
"An hour." Gabrielle studied the wall for a moment, then came to the wooden bed and sat on its side, her hands loose in her lap. "Ephiny, make sense."
"It's true. Believe me, the only reason I'm this calm is that foul weed-juice your bully over there forced down my throat." Ephiny's doe-brown eyes closed, wearily.
"A sedative," Xena clarified quietly. "She's in no pain, Gabrielle."
"But an adult woman can survive a Tolmane dart! Xena did." Gabrielle looked over her shoulder for Xena, and the warrior's throat ached at her dazed expression.
"Only just, Gabrielle." The warrior's alto was hoarse with sadness. "And Ephiny's constitution is simply not as strong as mine."
"I'd make you prove that, if I could get up," Ephiny murmured. "She's right, Gabrielle, I don't have much time. Listen to me. You need to fish or cut bait."
"Your tribe needs a queen. I know them, every woman, and they deserve a queen, not a figurehead who drops by every few seasons. You owe it to them to decide, now, whether to commit to your rule, or pass the mask to a new leader." The long speech tired her, and she rested her head back against the bed.
She was obviously way ahead of Gabrielle, who was still grappling with the first part of her regent's report. "Wait a minute. Ephiny, stop -- dictating your epitaph, here, it's gruesome. You're telling me there is nothing in this entire village's store of herbs that can save you? Xena?" She twisted around again to see her lover, and the anger was coming back. "Have you even tried?"
"Consider Sarah, if you decline the mask," Ephiny continued. "She's older, she can't fight much since her hip injury, but she's as smart as we come. Eponin will fill in the military knowledge she lacks." The regent's face softened. "Eponin. . . "
Gabrielle was still focused on Xena. "Why aren't you doing something? It was your blood feud that called this battle, Xena, you can't just stand there looking at me like a damn ghost while our best friend -- "
Ephiny's hand streaked out and caught Gabrielle's wrist. She had never, not even in her scornful first days with the bard, touched her in anger. Now her fingers were briefly strong and ice cold, and so was her voice, when Gabrielle turned stunned eyes back to her.
"Gabrielle, are you possessed? Xena didn't cause that battle! This warrior has risked her life for your tribe, time and again, and she isn't even Amazon! You love her too well, and you owe her far too much, to rail at her like a fishwife!"
Ephiny released her queen abruptly, her face paler now. "Now, listen to me, because you owe me, too, Gabrielle. I taught you to fight with a staff, which you first wielded about as gracefully as a bull ox. I can't believe you flushed that staff down a river, incidentally, I made it for you myself. I hand-carried you through ceremonies and rituals, and that putrid Velasca uprising, and now you owe me a little deference at my gods-be-damned deathbed."
Xena stirred uneasily. "Ephiny, don't tire yourself."
The beautiful regent just looked at her. "Why, so I'll be well-rested for the funeral?"
Gabrielle grit her teeth. "Ephiny, stop that -- "
"Gabrielle, forgive me," Ephiny interrupted, "but I have watched you change from a confident, loving, wonderful young woman, with a true potential for leadership, into a self-satisfied little harpy in one season! I never got to hear what happened, and now I don't have time, but damn it! Keep on this way, and you're going to damage the most beautiful relationship I've ever witnessed, let alone had the luck to experience. And you're going to get Xena killed, if you don't get off this kick, and probably yourself as well."
Gabrielle's mouth had fallen open sometime around the harpy reference. The young queen honestly had never even considered Ephiny's charges, but she had no room in her mind or heart to do so now. She stared at her old friend in shocked silence.
Something in her expression touched the older woman, and she relented. Ephiny pulled in a slow, painful breath, and her tone lightened. "Amazons aren't afraid to die, Gabrielle, you know that."
"That's a myth," Gabrielle whispered. She lifted Ephiny's cold hand into her lap and played with her fingers.
"Well, this Amazon isn't." Ephiny closed her eyes, dreading this. "Neither was Solari. Honey, we lost her, too."
That did it. Gabrielle detonated in tears -- not seemly, hand-to-eyes sniffing, but salt water and snorting. She wept, bereft, as she gripped Ephiny's hand. Solari had been their friend, too, and yet another unexpected bolt of loss completely unraveled the bard. Xena looked away, swallowing hard, so as not to join her.
A second, deeper loss was coming soon. Xena accepted it again as she looked at Ephiny, and almost saw the weakening waves of energy rising out of her and fading in the air. Ephiny met her eyes over Gabrielle's bent head, and warrior and regent studied each other silently.
"Go on." The dying Amazon pressed Gabrielle's hand, once, then released it. "I need to get ready. Xena says I'll just go to sleep. I've got a life to remember, before that happens, and I need privacy."
No one moved at first. Finally Xena peeled herself off the wall. She lifted Ephiny's scabbard from it's place on a bench, and drew out the battered, beautiful sword inside. Xena rested it carefully on the bed beside Ephiny, and fit her weakening fingers around its hilt. Then she straightened, and looked down at Gabrielle.
"Give her Queen's Blessing, Bri."
Ephiny frowned, and turned her head on the pillow. "Come on, Xena. She's taken some hard hits today, leave her alone." She rested her scarred hand on the soft blond hair, gently. "Besides, she's already blessed my life."
But Gabrielle knelt by the bed, and wrapped Ephiny's hand in both of her own. She looked at her friend for a long time, memorizing the lines of her face, before she spoke.
"Ephiny of Adesia, daughter of Elen." Gabrielle's voice was strained, but calm and sweet. "You leave behind five hundred Amazons, who are stronger for knowing you, and who love you dearly. They'll sing your songs to the new daughters of our tribe. For them all, I thank you -- for your fierceness, and bravery, and your kind heart. For dedicating your life to the survival of the women of Artemis." Gabrielle smiled, and tears spilled from her eyes. "You're my queen, Ephiny. You're my sister, and my heart is breaking."
Xena waited, and then bent over Ephiny and rested her lips against hers for a long moment. "Go gently," she whispered.
Gabrielle met the warrior's eyes. She couldn't really see her, because her vision had trebled, but still she felt Xena's compassionate gaze like the touch of silk on her face. She watched her turn and walk quietly out of the hut.
"Go on," Ephiny whispered, her eyes closing. "I'll still look out for you guys, both of you, if I can."
The queen held Ephiny's hand to her cheek. Then she kissed her palm, and lay her hand tenderly on the blanket.
Ephiny watched the redness behind her eyelids as Gabrielle's steps faded. She figured she had a few minutes, but oddly, she felt ready now.
Ephiny relaxed, and listened for the voices of her mothers.
-- End --
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