After the Game's End
Disclaimers: The characters Cyane and Ephiny, and whoever else that sounds familiar, don't belong to me, but to those nice people at Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal Studios. Who aren't so nice after getting rid of all my favourite Amazons. Since they won't be using them anymore, I thought I might borrow them for a little bit. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction.
Love/Sex Warning: Yeppers. This is an alternative fanfic. Nothing explicit though.
Spoilers: This contains spoilers for both 'Endgame' and 'Adventures in the Sin Trade.' Come to think of it, spoilers for any episodes that mention Amazons.
Annd a-way we go...
This was her day to die.
She had known it when she had first cleared the hill and sighted her Amazons doing battle with the Romans. She had known it when she ordered her lieutenant and the rest of her patrol to fall back and retake the flank. She should have gone with them, if she had wanted to live. Or she could have remained in the village, away from the fighting, the danger. But that wasn't her way, it had never been. Her sisters needed her - now - she was the best fighter in her tribe, and she knew that her presence alone on a battlefield would inspire them. And if her death would buy time for her sisters to get away, then she would die. It would be as she had lived, according to the Amazon way of a life for others.
It was suicidal, she knew that. But she threw herself into the battle regardless. The Roman foot soldiers fell before her; it was almost too easy. She swung her sword with skill and experience, experience that had seen more battles than she could remember, seen more deaths than she could ever forget. These soldiers who fought for brass coins were mere boys when compared to her, who had lived and fought for the survival of a once great nation. Who had lived every day of her life for the Amazons.
Out of the corner of her eye, she sighted a Roman lifting his sword, about to drive it into the body of the youngest member of her tribe. 'We must think of the children...'
It was her sword that stopped him.
He looked up in surprise, and she immediately pressed home her advantage, driving him back, her strength matching his. He quickly regained his equilibrium, their swords clashing as he met her strokes. She recognised the regimentals of a high-ranking Roman officer, and even in a fair fight, she wasn't sure if her skills could match his. And it wasn't a fair fight. The Fates had decided to conspire against her on this day.
As she attempted to sweep his legs out from under him, she felt a faint twinge of pain from the injury she had suffered recently at Mt. Pelion that had not had the time to fully heal. A flicker of panic shone in her hazel eyes then was gone in an instant. But her opponent had seen it too. He swung his sword at her feet, and she leapt the blow. But she landed awkwardly, her leg twisting painfully under her. He took the advantage, and knocked her sword from her grasp, far out of her reach.
She looked up, and saw her death in his eyes.
His sword slid into her lung.
"My Queen!" To her ears, the cry sounded faint, far away in the distance. But she could see that the man who had killed her had heard it too. Recognition dawned in his eyes, and a sudden admiration. He saluted her silently, and she accepted. She had died a warrior's death, and as one who had lived her life as a warrior, there was nothing more she could ask for.
But she wasn't just a warrior. She was also the Regent Queen of the Greek Amazons. A life not lived flashed through her mind, and bitterness stung at her heart. As the darkness fell, her last thought was of her son, and of her sisters. 'Please Artemis, look after my Amazons...'
Ephiny awoke with a start. The dream was still vivid in her memory, the gloom, the colours, the smell of blood and death. She shook her head to clear it from her mind, but her thoughts were immediately assailed by sensations equally as intense. A harsh wind whipped back her hair, bitterly cold against her bare skin as she shrugged off the furs that covered her.
"You're awake," greeted a voice.
She spun around at the sound, her hand immediately flying to the dagger that she wore at her hip. "Who are you?"
The speaker was sitting at the edge of the river that ran close by, with her back to her. She watched warily as the woman calmly drew in her fishing line, studying the slim form and the sword strapped to her back with a martial eye. The woman turned around. And Ephiny blinked. 'Wow, she's beautiful.'
She didn't ease her grip on her dagger though. Surprisingly, the woman smiled. She nodded at the weapon. "Take it easy, I'm here to help you." When she saw that Ephiny's suspicious look didn't abate, she sighed, and extended her hand. "My name's Cyane."
The Regent's hazel eyes widened. "Cyane?"
The woman nodded. "Queen of the Amazons of the Eurasian Steppes." She grasped her arm in a warrior's handshake, and intoned formally, "Well met Ephiny, Regent Queen to the Greek Amazons."
"Cyane?" The surprised Regent tried to regroup her thoughts. "But you... you're..."
"A legend?" There was a wry quirk to the Amazon Queen's lips that Ephiny found herself warming to. Her humour appeared to be self-deprecating rather than cocky, and that too appealed to the Regent. "For some reason, I often get that whenever I introduce myself."
Ephiny found herself smiling back. "The stories about you are becoming some of the greatest legends in Amazon history, Cyane."
Cyane ducked her head, and gave her a shy smile. "It's just that, stories, and none of them true, I'm afraid."
"I may want to get to know you better before I make my mind up on that one," replied the Regent lightly. She smiled at the slight blush that coloured the Queen's cheeks. But then her thoughts suddenly clicked into place as she looked around her; seeing for the first time the snow-capped mountains in the distance, the cold desolate land she was now in. "If you're Cyane... then this is..."
Cyane sighed and shook her head. All traces of humour disappeared, as the sorrow rose in her eyes. "Ephiny... I'm sorry... but you're in the Amazon Land of the Dead."
"Dead?" Her piercing gaze met the Queen's for one brief moment, before she bowed her head. "Then it wasn't just a dream." There had never been any tears from her, not at the death of her mother, her best friend, her Queen, or her husband. And there would certainly be no tears for herself. She had lived a fruitful life, and had died a warrior's death. Many had not even the honour of that.
But Cyane didn't miss the flash of pain that had showed in the Regent's hazel eyes. She knew that Ephiny had left behind a young son, and a tribe of Amazons who had loved and respected her as their leader. And Cyane had seen for herself that many Amazons found the transition to the Land of the Dead hard enough to deal with as it was; only Artemis knows how long she herself took to adjust. Despite the brave front that she put on now, she knew that Ephiny must have been hurting.
The blonde curls had fallen forward, hiding the Regent's face from her. She reached out, and gently tucked the fine strands behind her ear. "Ephiny?" Cyane asked softly.
The Regent looked up, to see the Queen's dark eyes only inches from hers. There was compassion in them, gentleness, understanding, and a silent invitation to talk, if she felt the need. For one brief moment, she wanted to give in to the thoughts hammering at the edge of her awareness, and break down in the Queen's arms, knowing that she would find comfort there. She couldn't bear the thought of never seeing her son again, of not watching him grow up or be a part of what he was to become. She wasn't ever going to see the sun rise again, she was never again going to be in the land of the Amazons that she had ruled over and loved. It hurt, it hurt so badly... but the strength that had carried her through her years of leadership - the strength to keep smiling and give her sisters hope even when she felt like her world was falling apart - remained with her still. Letting her sadness at her own death overwhelm her would be weak and self-pitying, and she would not succumb to it, as easy as it would be. Nothing could change the fact that she was dead. She just had to accept it, and move on.
She let her usual serious mien be tempered by a slight smile. "I'm fine. Dead, but fine." Her attempt at humour surprised a laugh out of the Amazon Queen, and the smile widened, a little. She cast another look around them. "What do we do now?"
Cyane glanced up at the darkening sky. "It's getting late... come stay with me tonight." She started to pack up the makeshift camp, dousing the fire and collecting the fish that she had caught for their meal that night. Ephiny rose to help her and Cyane thanked her with a smile. Her warm gaze lingered on the Regent's face for a moment, before she turned her eyes to the west, to a mountain far out on the horizon. "Tomorrow I'll take you to the Gate to Eternity."
"That is your home?"
At Cyane's nod of confirmation, Ephiny looked again at the spacious dwelling that they were nearing, nestled amongst a grove of trees. She was surprised at the little touches, such as the well-tended garden around the hut that indicated it had been long lived in. The homely abode emanated a warm and comfortable feeling that stood in stark contrast with the harsh environment around it. It only fueled the questions that her numb mind was beginning to ask, and she turned again to the Amazon Queen. "Cyane what are you still doing here? If the myths about the Amazonian afterlife is true... you should have crossed over into Eternity long ago..."
Ephiny realised that she had made a mistake when she saw the look of pain flit across Cyane's face. Puzzled, she quickly ran through what she knew of the Amazon Queen. Ephiny had only been a girl when Cyane was the ruler of the Amazon tribe of the Eurasian Steppes. Tales of the Amazon Queen had filtered back to Greece, and Cyane had been an idol to many of the Amazons of her generation. Even in life, Cyane had been renowned as a great leader, a great warrior, a great diplomat. But she had died young, in mysterious circumstances, and her tribe had almost been wiped out because they had been bereft of a strong ruler. 'Was that it?' Ephiny tried again. "I mean, no one knew how you had died..."
This time, Cyane visibly flinched at her words. Ephiny cursed herself, it should have been obvious that the Amazon Queen was dealing with demons of her own. 'Why else would she be in the Land of the Dead?' She reached out, and closed her hand over her shoulder. "I'm sorry Cyane," she said softly.
Cyane turned to her, attempted a smile. "You didn't know..."
"Would you ever tell me?"
She shook her head. "Not now." They came to the door of her hut and she opened it, ushering the Regent in ahead of her. When she spoke again, her tone was light. "Let's not speak of this, Ephiny. I know my future, and my only concern at the moment is to help you cross over into Eternity... and what the Amazons tell of Eternity is true, it really is paradise."
Ephiny looked at her, hearing the slight tinge of regret in her voice. But she wasn't much of a talker herself, and she respected and understood Cyane's wish to not speak of her past, not to a stranger. Instead, she glanced around the interior of the hut, and then gestured to the basket of fish that Cyane was holding. "Let me help with dinner."
The Amazon Queen shook her head. "Ephiny you should sit and rest. You must be exhausted..."
"Cyane," Ephiny's forceful personality rose again to the surface. "I don't want you treating me like I'm a guest."
Cyane raised an eyebrow, though the Regent didn't miss the twinkle of gentle amusement in her dark eyes. "What should I treat you as?"
For the first time since she learnt that was in the Land of the Dead, Ephiny let a real smile cross her lips. She reached out, to touch the Queen on the arm. "As a friend."
Cyane returned the smile, closing her hand over hers. "All right, my friend... if you can get the fire going, then that'll be great. The wood-pile is just outside." She held up the fish, and pulled a face as she looked at them. "Since I caught these, I guess I also have the pleasure of cleaning them."
The night wore on.
Ephiny found herself warming to the Amazon Queen more and more, as she got to know her. Cyane was a charming and witty companion, and her reticence to talk about her past only intrigued the Regent. Her stories and anecdotes over dinner diverted her, and Ephiny found that she was enjoying herself, as unlikely as it would have seemed in such a situation. It wasn't until she was lying alone in bed, that the thoughts she had tried so hard to banish finally emerged.
Memories of her life, worried thoughts of her son and of her sisters mingled with questions about Cyane, unvoiced in her mind. She rose, not sure what she was doing, pacing for a time hoping that the rhythmic footfalls would drive away her questions.
The Regent was concerned for her tribe. She had died whilst battling the Romans, her last sight was that of the man who had killed her calling a retreat, as Chilapa and the others broke through enemy lines and entered the fray from the rear. But like Melosa had taught her, she made it a point to know her opponents - she knew the Romans - and she knew that her death would only have brought a brief respite. And if the scouts' conjectures about a second Roman army heading for the village were true...
Her thoughts turned and shifted uneasily to her son. When they had learnt of the Romans setting foot on Amazon territory, she had sent all the children to safety in the centaur village, Xenon included. And she knew he was safe, Tyldus loved his grandson and he would die before he let anything happen to him. But how could he explain to Xenon that he would never see his mother again? Damn it, no child deserved to have both of his parents lost to the ravages of war...
How was her son? How were her sisters? What could she have done so her tribe wouldn't have been attacked, so that she could have lived? Was there some other way for them so that they could have defeated the Romans without being forced to meet them in open combat? 'What other choices did I have?'
"Ephiny." A calm voice cut through the turmoil her questions was causing. She looked up, to see Cyane standing in the entrance to her room. "Can't sleep?"
The Regent shook her head. "I'm sorry Cyane, did I wake you?"
"No. I don't sleep much myself." Cyane noticed the drawn brow, and the worried look that clouded those hazel eyes. "You've been thinking."
Still reluctant to reveal her true feelings, Ephiny gave her a dry smile. "Yeah. It's a habit of mine."
Cyane laughed, but her expression was gentle. "Want to tell me about it?"
"I... yeah..." Ephiny raised her hand to massage her temples and closed her eyes, trying to collect her thoughts. She knew she could talk to Cyane, and the Queen obviously wanted to help her. Anything was better than these endless questions echoing inside her head. "I'm worried, Cyane. There's so much I don't know. I... died fighting the Romans. My sisters, my tribe, my village... what happened to them? Did they survive, did the Romans destroy our village? Are they all right?" Her frustration veered and changed suddenly to anger, anger at herself. "Damnit, if only I had been a better leader - a better negotiator, a better general - maybe we didn't have to get into this with the Romans, or I could have found some other way to defeat them... my sisters didn't have to die, the Amazons never had to be threatened... I failed them, Cyane. They put their trust in me and I failed them."
"Ephiny, Ephiny..." In a few swift strides the Queen entered the room and caught her in her arms, pulling her close. "Don't say that, don't ever say that. You can't ask these questions of yourself, not now. What's done is done and you'll only drive yourself insane. You did what you thought was best, and you have to accept that..."
"Cyane, how can I accept that if I knew what I did could have destroyed the Amazon Nation? Going against the Romans was absurd, they had too many men, we couldn't hope to win by open warfare..."
"Ephiny. Listen to me. What happened with the Romans wasn't your fault. Pompey deliberately chose to declare war against your tribe, because he wanted to capture the Amazons, and sell them into slavery. Caesar and Brutus were intent on destroying Pompey. You were caught in the middle, and you had no other choice than to do what you did."
Ephiny pulled away from the Queen's arms. "There's always other choices." She sighed, and took a deep breath, calming herself. "Cyane, I know there's nothing I can do now... I can't change the past, and even if I know what is happening to my Amazons, there's nothing I can do to help them. I can handle my own guilt, I can handle my own pain... it's just... I'm so worried about them." She shook her head. "You don't understand."
Cyane's voice was filled with sadness when she replied. "I was once Queen too, Ephiny. I understand better than you know." She bowed her head, looking as if she was lost in her thoughts. Her gaze was piercing when she finally looked up again. "Ephiny... great events are happening as we speak, many things are in the balance. But I can tell you this much... I know that the Amazon Nation is safe. Because of your sacrifice, because you were willing to give up your life to help your sisters, you became a symbol of strength, courage, and the Amazon way of living for others. With Xena and Gabrielle's help, the Amazons were able to push back the Romans. Pompey was killed, Caesar is dead, Rome is embroiled in civil war. And your sisters are now being led by Chilapa, who is doing a fine job of rebuilding the Nation. You taught her well. You left behind a great legacy."
Hope rose in her heart at her words. "How do you know?"
It was the Queen's turn to sigh, and look away. "My tribe used to practice shamanism, and only worshipped the memory of Artemis. That was our folly - and we paid the price. But up here, I retain some of my powers... I get glimpses of the future, and I can look upon the lives of the living... if I choose."
Curiosity and concern at the pain Cyane was letting show, emerged foremost in her mixture of emotions. "And you don't?"
Cyane shook her head. "What good can it do?" she asked with bitterness in her voice. "Like you said, we can't change the past, and there's nothing we can do to help." She sighed again. " I sometimes think that Artemis lets me keep my powers to teach me a lesson - I can see what is happening, but there is nothing I can do to help. The concerns of that world are ours no longer - we can either accept that we did the best that we could whilst we lived, and move on... or not."
Ephiny came to the Queen again. She took her hand, entwining her fingers in hers, and finally smiled a small, sad smile. "It's not easy, is it?"
Cyane shook her head again. "No. But you're strong Ephiny, stronger than I... you have the strength to do it." Then she smiled, and the Regent could see the smooth mask that the Queen usually wore sliding over her feelings again. "Ephiny, come on, it's late. You really should get some rest before we leave tomorrow."
Ephiny let Cyane lead her to the bed, and settle the blankets around her body. Her thoughts were still churning - her soul was quieted at hearing that her tribe was safe but there was something else that she needed to know, something for herself. "Cyane?"
The Amazon Queen looked up. She met her eyes, and in the look that they exchanged, she knew instantly what Ephiny's question was to be. She reached up, to cup the Regent's face with a soft hand, letting her warmth and nearness comfort her. "Yes, Ephiny?"
"Can I..." The Regent paused, and swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. She didn't think asking this would be so hard. "Can I ask you about my son? How... how is he doing?"
Cyane's heart went out to the suffering Amazon. She knew Ephiny was thinking about never seeing Xenon again, about missing out on most of his life, and not being a part of what he would become. "Ephiny, Xenon is fine," she reassured her, her voice gentle. "He's devastated by the death of his mother, but his friends and family are doing their best to help him get through this. Tyldus... Tyldus has promised you that he will raise Xenon, as you would want him to be raised. He is destined for greatness as the leader of the centaurs one day... you've left an indelible impression on him."
Ephiny bowed her head, the warrior in her not wanting anyone to see the tears that ran down her face. But she felt Cyane come sit on the bed beside her. She slipped her arms around the Regent in a gentle hug, drawing her close against her warmth and Ephiny was suddenly glad for the comfort in the human contact.
"I'm sorry, Ephiny," said the Queen softly.
Ephiny turned to her, burying her face in the Queen's strong shoulder. Cyane could feel the silent sobs wracking the Regent's slim body. Her arms tightened around her, and she wished that she could take the pain away, but knew that nothing that she could say or do would help.
Long after Ephiny's sobs had subsided, Cyane continued holding her, cradling her in her arms until they both slipped into sleep.
The scent of the earth was carried back to her on the edges of the wind; such was the sharpness of the senses. Every sound was heard by her, the call of the birds, the whisper of the leaves of the trees around her, the sound of the insects scratching at the bark. She was moving stealthily, with deadly grace, the epitome of a huntress.
'Huh?' Ephiny straightened and looked down at the hunting spear in her hands.
A sudden rustle in the bushes alerted her; she tensed instinctively and lifted her spear, preparing to drive it into whatever game had been flushed out.
But a droll voice stopped her. "Better put your spear down Ephiny, I don't like to be eaten."
A woman stepped into the clearing. She was tall and beautiful, with cool, classic features that looked like they were carved from marble. Her eyes were a magnificent gray, and they shone with the unmistakable light of divinity. Ephiny dropped to a knee, knowing immediately whose presence she was in. "My Queen," she greeted, her head bowed.
Artemis smiled at her daughter, a warm smile that somehow suited the coldly beautiful face. She helped the Regent up, and pressed a kiss to the headband that she wore, an informal symbol of her authority. "Rise Ephiny. I have been well pleased with you."
Ephiny blushed at the divine approval. "Thank you, my Queen." She gestured around the lush hunting grounds. "This is..."
"My doing. I needed to speak to you... and where better than the realm over where I have the most authority? Your body is still at sleep in the Land of the Dead, I've only summoned your consciousness to a dreamscape that I created."
"You have the power to do that?"
A slight smile touched the goddess' lips. "I have the power to do anything, especially up here. I have as much authority over Amazon Eternity as Hades does in the Underworld... perhaps more, because the Amazons are my chosen."
Ephiny nodded, taking in this information. She then sifted through her thoughts, wondering why the goddess needed to speak to her. Her questions and her conversation with Cyane returned to her, and she thought she found the answer. The Regent lowered her eyes. "Artemis... I must beg your forgiveness for putting the Amazons in danger..."
"No you don't Ephiny. The battle with the Romans wasn't your fault - I don't blame you, and you can't blame yourself for it. What Cyane told you was about the situation in Greece and Rome is true - most importantly, your tribe is safe, and Chilapa is leading the Amazons according to the lessons you taught." Artemis smiled at the Regent, pride in her eyes. "And the longer I watched you, the better pleased I have been with your leadership. You have always put your tribe and your sisters first, before your own desires. You were a true Queen, my daughter, and I couldn't have asked for more in a leader of my Amazons. No, I summoned you because I need your help..."
Artemis nodded. "I need you to help Cyane."
Ephiny's interest was peaked. "Cyane?"
The goddess sighed. "Cyane doesn't deserve to be here, Ephiny. She only remains in the Land of the Dead because of her guilt... and it's guilt that's not justified. She's hurting, and has been for too long. I want you to help her get over that."
The Regent nodded slowly, biting her lip in thought. "I've noticed that, my Queen... she's let slip that she's dealing with her own pain, but she doesn't seem to want to open up to me. What happened to her that hurt her so badly?"
Artemis shook her head. "That is her story, and it's not one that I can tell you Ephiny."
"So I guess asking for any tips is out, huh?"
The goddess smiled at her wry tone. "You've always been very resourceful, I'm sure you can think of something. Will you help her?"
"Of course I will, my Queen... I'd want to even if you didn't ask me."
"I just wanted to make sure." Artemis pressed another kiss to her forehead. "Thank you Ephiny. Now, what about going on with your dream and doing some hunting together?"
Ephiny awoke alone the next morning, as the pale sunrise touched her face. She laid quietly in her warm bed for a moment, the events of the past day immediately coming back to her. The melancholy and regret that she had felt at giving up her life threatened to overwhelm her, and for one moment, she let it bite painfully at her soul.
Then she let it go.
The time she spent with Cyane last night had done a great deal to calm her and put things into perspective, and her brief talk with Artemis in the dreamscape had given her purpose. She felt much more at peace with herself, and with the situation that she found herself in. The concerns of the living were hers no longer. She just had to accept that, and move on.
Ephiny looked up, to see Cyane looking in through the entrance of her room. "Can I come in?"
She smiled at her. "Sure. I'm decent."
Cyane returned the smile, as she came to sit on the edge of the bed. "How are you feeling?" she asked quietly.
"Much better." Ephiny hoisted herself up, and settled her back against the head of the bed. "Cyane... I haven't yet thanked you for everything you've done for me since I've been here..."
"Ephiny, it's not a problem. It's what I'm here for..."
The Regent raised an eyebrow. "And that includes holding me in your arms until I fell asleep?"
"No... but..." Cyane let a small grin dance over her lips. "To tell you the truth, I kinda enjoyed that."
"And I thought it was just me..."
The Queen looked up and met her smile, both knowing that neither was serious. Cyane reached over, to retrieve some clothes she had brought in and had stacked at the foot of the bed. "I brought you a change of clothes Ephiny... we've got a long journey to make to the Gate of Eternity, and it might be too cold to wear your leathers..."
"Cyane..." Ephiny reached out, and stopped her, placing her hand on her arm. "Actually, there's something I have to ask you..."
"What is it?"
"I was going to ask if I could stay in the Land of the Dead with you for awhile."
The surprise showed clearly in the Queen's dark eyes. "You want to stay?"
Ephiny nodded. "If it's not too much to ask..."
"No, of course not... well, not for me. But... why would you want to stay here, Ephiny? Why here when you have the chance to cross over into Amazon Eternity?"
The Regent paused for a moment, and debated on what she could tell her. "Cyane, I don't want to hide anything from you... Artemis came to me last night, and asked... asked if I would consider staying."
A brow edged up. "Is she playing matchmaker again?"
Ephiny laughed. "No, no... all she said was that she wanted me to help you. Then we went hunting."
Cyane smiled, but shook her head. "Ephiny... I really don't have any problem with you staying here... but honestly, I don't need your help. My duties here aren't all that strenuous... and if Artemis wants you to... help me any other way - which I suspect that she does - that's something that I need to work through on my own."
"Cyane, to tell you the truth, I'd want to stay here for awhile even if Artemis hadn't asked me to." She looked out the window, her thoughts more distant than the mountains that her eyes could see. "I've been Regent to my tribe for almost four years... don't get me wrong, I love my sisters, and I came to accept my duties as a ruler... but I almost never got a moment to myself. There was always some dispute to settle, some treaty to negotiate, and that's not to mention all the gossip around the scout's campfire at night... I suspect it'll be much the same once we're in Amazon Eternity. With everything that's happened... I'd like to spend some time alone for awhile and think things through." She looked up at the Queen uncertainly. "But I don't want to impose... if you don't want me, then I'll understand."
"No Ephiny, I do want you." She smiled, and reached up to briefly touch the golden curls. "I'll like the company. And... I understand how you feel. I've got room... you can stay here until you feel that you're ready to go."
"I will. Thank you... for everything." Her smile suddenly turned sly. "And you know... I wasn't lying yesterday, when I said I wanted to get to know you better." Cyane gave her a half-embarrassed look, surprised at the sudden change of subject. Ephiny laughed at her expression, as she stood to slip off her sleeping shift and change into the clothes that Cyane had brought in. She looked down at the simple white shirt and dark coloured trousers that she now wore, similar to what the Queen had on. "These fit perfectly."
Cyane nodded, noting how the trousers clung to the Regent's slim hips, the shirt settling on her strong shoulders. "You look good in them," she said softly.
"You'd look good in anything." The words slipped out before she could stop them. Cyane looked up, to see the amused smile dancing on the Regent's lips. She blushed, and stood up, turning around to busy herself with Ephiny's change of leathers. As she was about to put them away inside the cupboard, she stopped and looked at them curiously. "Are these comfortable?"
Ephiny smiled wryly. "Cyane, there's not really enough of it not to be comfortable." Her smile turned mischievous. "You can try them on, if you want."
Cyane laughed. "Thanks anyway, but they might be a little small for me, Ephiny."
"I won't be complaining."
Cyane's blush deepened. Ephiny smiled to herself, seeing the Queen's discomfort. Despite her reputation, despite her beauty, and despite the power and authority that Cyane emanated Ephiny could detect something appealingly innocent in her manner. The Regent found herself starting to have errant thoughts about exactly how well she wanted to get to know the Amazon Queen. With that sudden notion, her amusement turned towards herself. 'I must be adjusting if I could even contemplate something like that.' She studied the Queen's slimly muscular body. 'Then again... only a corpse wouldn't find that one attractive.' Her smile turned rueful. 'Which you are Eph, so get over it. Don't start thinking about new bed-partners now!' She sighed inwardly, 'Artemis knows that there wasn't many after Phantes... not enough to warrant thinking about that when I'm dead. No, this is not the time and place for it.' She pushed the thought firmly from her mind. Despite her slip earlier, Ephiny knew Cyane wouldn't be interested in her. Not Cyane, Queen of the Amazons.
She was brought back to the present by her companion's quiet voice. "What would you like to do today?"
Ephiny shook her head and countered with "What would you have done if I wasn't here?"
The Amazon Queen smiled. "I was going to go check the traps that I have set… if you want to come, I can tell you about the Land of the Dead, and it'll be a good opportunity for you to see more of this world."
Ephiny nodded. "Sounds good." She pulled on the coat that Cyane handed to her. "Let's go."
"The Gate to Eternity lies in the heart of that volcano."
After they had left Cyane's hut, they had located the snares that she had set fairly quickly. They skinned and dressed their catch, before stashing them in a safe cache. Cyane had suggested that they continue walking, and Ephiny had readily agreed. Cyane took them up a little used path whilst talking about the layout of the land, pointing out where she had been, what she had seen. As the sun was dropping lower in the sky, they had come to the flat lands. A lone volcano loomed up before them, prompting Cyane's comment. Ephiny looked at the Amazon Queen, hearing the pain and bitterness in her voice.
"Cyane?" she asked. "What's wrong?"
The Queen shook her head. "It's just... I remember saying the same thing to someone else... it brings back memories, that's all."
Ephiny wanted to ask what were the memories that so haunted her, that so shadowed the beautiful face. But she knew that this wasn't the time for it, it was obvious that the sight of the Gate pained her. She tugged on her arm. "Come on... let's go back to that grove we passed awhile back. We can have something to eat there." Cyane nodded, and followed her. They walked in silence until they reached the copse that Ephiny had indicated. Once there, she paused at the foot of a large tree and looked around them. "The wind's picked up. It's strange that the trees doesn't give much protection."
"It's said that the wind in the Land of the Dead is particularly harsh because it carries the sorrows that's been cleansed from the Amazons who walk here." Cyane mused, a little morosely.
"Do you believe that?"
The Amazon Queen suddenly flashed her a grin, her dark mood abruptly seeming to lift. "No."
"Then why did you tell me?"
"It seemed like an appropriate thing to say." Cyane gave her another smile, then looked up into the thick branches of the tree they were standing under. "It might be a little warmer up there, the branches look like a good buffer for the wind. Come on." The Amazon Queen leapt and grabbed a branch, gracefully swinging herself up. Ephiny followed with similar ease. Cyane was right, the branches criss-crossed to form almost a platform that was both wide and comfortable. The dense leaves sheltered them from the worst of the wind. Cyane settled back against the tree trunk, whilst Ephiny stretched out on a strong branch, her Amazonian skill helping her keep balance. Their elevated position gave her an excellent view, and she rested her chin on her folded arms, idly scanning the empty, desolate landscape below them. "Is it always so lonely out here?"
"Pretty much, yeah." Cyane admitted, pulling out the trail bread that they had brought with them and tearing off a chunk to hand to her companion.
"How often do you have to help people cross over?"
"Whenever Artemis asks me. Most Amazons can to find their way to Eternity alone. I see some of them making their way to the Gate, but they don't need my help... and it's sometimes best if I don't interfere"
Ephiny turned her head, to look at the Amazon Queen. "Have you seen Solari?" she asked quietly, her heart clenching at the thought of the brave warrior, her chief lieutenant and one of her best friends, who had also lost her life in the battle with the Romans.
Cyane shook her head. "I didn't have to help her cross over. She must be in Eternity already." Her voice softened. "You know you can see her, Ephiny."
The Regent smiled wryly. "You're not going to get rid of me that easily." She turned over onto her back, and sighed as she looked up into the leaves of the tree. "I was so stupid, Cyane. I had planned for Solari to take my place as Regent to our tribe, if anything had ever happened to me... she should have remained in the village, instead of leading the first patrol. Chilapa will do well, I know, but she's young..."
"Chilapa will do well because she has your example to follow... and you're a natural teacher Ephiny, she learnt a lot from you in the time that you spent with her. You still don't know the effect that you have on your sisters..." Cyane sighed, and leant her head back against the rough bark of the tree. "Ephiny, you can't ever question yourself. I've watched you for so long, and I cannot begin to tell you how much I admire you. You found a suitable successor and you left the Amazon Nation in a better state than before you became it's ruler. That's the mark of a great leader. No Queen can ask for more... and not many can achieve that, I know..." Her voice became softer. "I'm still paying because I didn't."
Ephiny sat up suddenly. "Cyane, why are you here? You surely can't have your own guilt to purge... you're Cyane. A whole generation of Amazon children were raised to look up to you as the ultimate Amazon... myself included..."
Cyane closed her eyes, and Ephiny could see the sudden clench of her jaw, so tightly that she could have traced every line of muscle from chin to ear. "I told you Ephiny, they are all just stories."
Ephiny reached out, touching the Queen's face gently, tilting her head up and making her look at her. "Then what is the truth, Cyane?" she asked softly.
"I... I trusted..." Cyane paused, and swallowed, not wanting to reveal the guilt that she had held secret for so long, but compelled to, by the Regent's gentle and unwavering hazel gaze. "I trusted someone that I shouldn't have. She betrayed me... she killed me, and the rest of the Amazon leaders... because my tribe didn't have anyone to rally around, they were vulnerable to attack... they were decimated..." Cyane sighed, and briefly closed her eyes again, gathering her thoughts and getting her emotions back under her usual tight control. "Ephiny, when I was Queen ten years ago, the Amazons in Greece, in Mesopotamia, on the Eurasian Steppes... together, we were a mighty nation. Men, centaurs, everyone feared us, and sought our help and alliance in their own petty wars. But once the Amazons were no longer a force on the Steppes - through a chain of events that was of my doing - our enemies were able to sweep down into Greece. The ensuing wars reduced us to scattered tribes, disadvantaged by the distance between us, unable to effectively ally with each other because we were too busy defending the territory that we held. Until you came along, Ephiny. You alone were able to see beyond your own borders, and that the Amazons were too few to survive solely as a warrior nation. You extended Amazon territory by peaceful methods, rather than using the threat of violence. Your alliance with the Centaurs, and with your neighbours improved the name of the Amazons with people all over Greece. The Amazons can become a mighty nation once more - and you set the wheels in motion for that. No Amazon could be asked to do more, and you achieved it in just one lifetime..."
"Cyane, you give me too much credit. I had to leave my sisters, fall in love with my traditional enemy and bear his child before I knew what it meant to truly be an Amazon, and what it took to be a leader. You knew what it meant from the beginning, and you lived your whole life dedicated to the Nation. The Fates do as they will... people died... things happened for a reason, you have to believe that. You can't blame yourself for what happened." Then Ephiny paused, and gave the Queen a rueful smile. "This is starting to sound familiar, isn't it?"
Cyane smiled. "It sounds like we both have things we have to work through."
"Wanna do it together?"
Cyane didn't reply at first. Instead, she reached out hesitantly, to close her fingers over hers. Her hand was strong and supple, the hands of a warrior. Ephiny looked up and met her eyes, her look gentle and understanding to meet eyes that were finally open and unguarded. Cyane's voice was soft when she spoke again. "I'd like that."
The weeks passed.
Ephiny soon settled with Cyane into her comfortable routine of daily life. They became closer, as friends, as women who had shared a similar past. They had both been great rulers in life, but it had been greatness born from different sources. Cyane had always known that she would succeed as the Amazon Queen, and had dedicated her life fully to the well being of her tribe. Ephiny, however, found her strength by going through love, grief and self-sacrifice, always being known as the Regent to Queen Gabrielle, and not Queen in her own right. And here, in this land filled with regret, both of them found solace in sharing their lives with the other.
One morning, Ephiny was sitting at the table in their dining area, finishing breakfast when Cyane came out of her room, dressed in the coat and furs that she had on when she first met her. "Where are you off to?" she greeted, with a smile.
Cyane lifted a roll from her plate, as she sat down on the bench beside her. "Some Amazons arrived and Artemis asked if I can go meet them."
"Can I come?"
"I'll be disappointed if you didn't... hey!"
Ephiny reached over to unexpectedly bite the top off the roll that Cyane was holding negligently in her hand. She looked at the Queen with an innocent grin, as she stood up. "Just marking my territory."
Cyane shrugged as she popped the rest of the bread into her mouth, and followed the Regent out the door. "I guess I have to look at the bright side. At least you didn't..."
"Don't finish that sentence." Ephiny warned, giving the Queen a look.
Cyane met the look with an insouciant grin of her own. Long after Ephiny's eyes had returned to scanning the horizon, she continued watching her friend, studying the sculpted features illuminated in the pale winter sun. She had long admired the beauty of the Regent, and now that she knew her, her admiration was truer than ever. It was more than those hazel gold eyes, and soft blonde curls; Ephiny radiated a serenity and inner strength that she had earned from her trials in life, that Cyane found herself craving to be a part of. In her time in the Land of the Dead, Cyane had watched Ephiny mature from a wilful, temperamental young woman, go through trials of blood and fire to become the true leader of the Greek Amazons. She had been saddened when she saw the Regent's sudden and untimely death, knowing that Ephiny could have become one of the greatest leaders in Amazon history if she had led a full life. For she had a hard-earned wisdom and vision, that few others had. But it was not to be, the capricious Fates had chosen another path for the Amazon Nation.
But Cyane also had to admit that she had seen a pleasant change in the Regent, ever since she had passed over into the afterlife. The lines of worry were starting to fade away, and strange as it seems, Ephiny had begun to open up, and laugh a lot more. The Queen had known that the responsibility for her tribe had sat heavily on her friend's young shoulders. And Ephiny had openly confided in her that she welcomed the respite in the constant attention and scrutiny she had suffered as a Regent. Still, Cyane understood that if given the choice, both of them would have preferred to return to pressures of ruling and continue their fight for the survival of the Amazon Nation.
She was brought back to reality by Ephiny's quiet voice. "When we find the Amazons, do we take them back to your home or go straight to the Gate?"
Cyane looked up to study the position of the sun. "Straight to the Gate, I think. We should get there before sun down. It'll be dark when we get back, but I'm not too worried. I've got you, my big tough Amazon warrior, to keep the demons away..."
Her comment caused a laugh from Ephiny. "Funny. I thought that was what you were here for."
Their good-natured banter continued as they traversed the lonely Land of the Dead; the enjoyment that they found in each other's company overcoming the sombre mood that otherwise would have been naturally induced by their surroundings. Until they crested a small hill, and spied the figures of some people in the clearing before them. Two Amazons, walking together, hand in hand.
As they went closer, Cyane heard a sharp inhalation of breath from the Regent. "Ephiny?" she asked, immediately concerned.
"Cyane, they're from my tribe."
Ephiny suddenly broke into a sprint, her strong legs eating up the ground beneath her, her booted feet disturbing the loose rocks. The two Amazons heard her approach, and turned around. She saw the surprise in their eyes. "Queen Ephiny?!" In an instant, both had dropped to their knees before their Regent. "My Queen," they intoned in unison.
Ephiny came to them, and helped them up, then caught first one then the other in unexpected hugs. "Medari, Karan... you don't have to do that anymore, not up here." Medari was dark haired, and stolid looking whilst Karan was slim and fair with a gamine, intelligent face. But this time, not even the usually taciturn Medari could hide her delight at seeing their leader again. Ephiny had made it a point to know all of the Amazons in her tribe, down to the youngest serving girl, and these two - as was typical of the warriors that she had led - repaid her by being especially loyal to her. And she was aware that Karan and Medari were especially close to each other.
Karan spoke up first. "My Queen... what are you doing here? We didn't expect to see you. We... we thought that you would have crossed over by now."
Ephiny glanced at Cyane who had caught up with her, and was standing quietly by her side. "It's a long story." Her comment had drawn the Amazon's attention to her companion, and they were both openly staring at the Siberian Queen. Ephiny smiled, steeling herself for the inevitable reaction. "Karan, Medari... this is Queen Cyane of the Steppes Amazons."
Two mouths fell open in surprise. "Cyane?!"
Ephiny nodded sagely. "Straight out of the legends, isn't she?"
Cyane gave her a long-suffering look. "You're not making this any better Eph," she complained.
"I'm feeling whimsical today, put it down to that." She offered a sweet smile to the Queen, then said more seriously, "Cyane, this is Karan and Medari, two warriors from my tribe."
With a warm smile, Cyane clasped arms with both of them. "Ephiny and I are here to help you journey to the Gate of Eternity."
"Th... th... thank you, Qu... Queen Cyane." The Amazons were both young, barely passed their eighteenth summers, and they were obviously still awestruck at meeting the famed Queen face to face.
Cyane sighed, and turned to Ephiny, who was watching them with a smile on her face. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
"Yeah." Ephiny replied lightly. She gave her Amazons a small push. "Come on, it's a long walk to the Gate, you can gawk at her on the way there." Her tone again turned serious. "Karan, what happened? How did you two get here?"
"Uh..." Karan tore her eyes away from Cyane. "I was severely injured in the final battle with the Romans... Medari... Dari was killed. I... lingered on for a few days, but my wounds were too serious. I knew I couldn't make it. Besides... I didn't have a reason to live anymore." She shared a smile with her lover. "Dari waited for me, until we could enter the spiritual plane together."
Ephiny glanced again at Cyane. "That can happen?"
Cyane smiled. "If the love is strong enough."
"I don't doubt it," murmured the Regent as she looked at the Amazons with a small, affectionate smile. She raised her voice again. "How long has it been since I died?" Cyane looked at her, surprised at the directness of her question, but she made no comment.
"It's been about a week since you passed over, my Queen."
"Only a week?"
Cyane provided the answer to her question. "Time moves differently in the spirit world. Weeks can pass here, and just a few days in normal time."
"A week..." Ephiny mused. "What's happened to the tribe since then?"
"The patrol you led was able to push back the Romans in the highlands, my Queen." Medari spoke up, and Ephiny recalled that she had picked the young Amazon as part of that patrol. "Chilapa sent Amarice to find Queen Gabrielle and tell her what happened, while the rest of us brought back the bodies of our sisters to the village."
Karan took up the tale. "But not long after they returned, a second Roman force hit the village... we were unprepared, outnumbered... but those Roman pigs were aiming to take prisoners, not to kill. After we gutted several of them, they took off with prisoners down the river on rafts... Chilapa said we wouldn't be able to track them by water, and told us to remain in the village in case we were hit again."
"That would have been best." Cyane said quietly. "Build up your defense first and determine the extent of your losses before formulating a plan of attack."
"Yes Queen Cyane," Karan said respectfully. "Xena said the same thing when she arrived."
"Xena?" Ephiny happened to be looking at Cyane at that moment, and she saw a strange look flash across her face, a look that was suddenly, unbearably anguished. But it was gone in an instant, the smooth mask sliding back into place, and she couldn't be sure if she had seen it at all.
Karan nodded, and took up her tale again. "Not long after the Romans turned tail and ran, Queen Gabrielle and Xena returned..."
Throughout their journey to the Gate to Eternity, Ephiny continued questioning the two Amazons, listening to their stories, asking for first hand details on what had occurred to her tribe. But she didn't fail to notice that Cyane became more and more withdrawn the closer that they got to the Gate. The anguished look that she had seen also reappeared several times, during Karan's retelling of how the Romans had been defeated and the Amazons saved, due mostly to plans made by Xena and Gabrielle. But her attention was monopolised with what Karan and Medari were telling her, and the implications it would have for her Amazons. Before she could ask Cyane what was wrong, the sun was setting and they had already reached the volcano that housed the Gate to Eternity.
The young Amazons fell silent as they gazed wonderingly at the peak that towered above them. Ephiny took the opportunity, and reached out to touch the Queen on the arm. "Cyane?"
Her low voice was gentle and concerned, and it moved something deep within the Amazon Queen. Cyane pulled herself out of her reverie, and smiled at her, closing her hand over hers for one brief moment, before she looked up. Her gaze met those of her companions', then lifted to take in the volcano. "Follow me."
The path to the volcano, and the way up it's slopes, was steep and treacherous. Fortunately, Cyane had made the journey many times, and she knew the best route to take. Navigating the steep paths left little breath to waste for talking, and Ephiny found her thoughts focused more and more on what was troubling the woman that she had come to respect and admire in the time that she had resided in the Land of the Dead. She followed Cyane as the Queen ducked behind several large boulders, and into a narrow cleft cut into the cliff face that the boulders had hidden. They were plunged into sudden darkness.
Ephiny heard Medari fumbling for her flint, but Cyane stopped her. "No," she said quietly. "You have to walk without light."
The tunnel that they followed was narrow, and seemingly endless, the darkness pressing from all sides. Their footfalls were muffled from some kind of flotsam that lay on the ground, and all anyone heard was only their own thoughts. The quiet and the darkness was both tormenting and inviting, and the whispers that they heard made any person who had walked this path question their sanity.
That was its purpose.
Presently though, light appeared at the end of their path, dimly at first, then stronger. Ephiny, following last, heard both Medari and Karan breathe a prayer of thanks to Artemis, and she smiled. Artemis had nothing to do with their successful passage, though she reasoned that the goddess could have been watching. The dark path was a test of what matters most, and both Karan and Medari had the strength of character to pass it.
The tunnel opened up into a vast cavern, high and airy, and the young Amazons looked up to see that they were standing in the heart of the volcano. Cyane however, continued to lead them unerringly. At the far end of the cavern, they came to an overhang of rocks, where water trickled down from some unknown source to form a small waterfall. Medari and Karan were surprised to see that a soft natural light came from beyond, golden and inviting. The path that they were following continued straight through the waterfall. They tried to look beyond the film of water, but it fell too thickly to see through.
It was here that Cyane paused, and turned to them. "Karan, Medari... we have to leave you at this point." She glanced uncertainly at the Regent. "Unless, Ephiny..." But she shook her head slightly, and resumed her instructions, gesturing at the cascade. "Amazon Eternity lies beyond that waterfall. Once you get through the Gate, you'll have to cross a chasm to reach the Fields of Artemis. If your heart is pure and you're at peace with yourself, a bridge will appear for you. But if you don't see it..." Cyane paused, and let a dry smile curve her lips. "Come back and we'll get some rope."
The Amazons laughed. Karan grasped the Queen's forearm in a warrior's handshake. "Thank you for all you've done, Queen Cyane."
"No problem at all. It's been a pleasure meeting you, both of you." She clasped arms with Medari. "May Artemis guide your steps." Cyane gave them a final smile, and walked away, giving them privacy to say their farewells to their Regent.
"Queen Ephiny, are you coming with us?" Karan asked once they were alone.
Ephiny glanced back at Cyane. "No. There's something I still have to do."
Karan looked back at the Siberian Queen slyly. "She's very beautiful, my Queen."
Ephiny laughed. "Don't you start." She hugged the both of them. "I won't cross over with you now, but I will be seeing you again soon, I promise."
"We'll hold you to that." Medari said with a smile. "Artemis be with you, my Queen."
"She is." The Regent said with a wry smile. "Artemis be with you." The two warriors gave her the Amazon salute, then looked at each other. Theirs hands came together as they turned around, and walked towards the waterfall. Ephiny felt Cyane come to stand next to her again.
"You're not going with them?" she asked, her voice quiet.
"No. Not yet."
"It's a hard decision to make, Ephiny."
The Regent smiled, and slipped an unexpected arm around the Queen's waist. "I've already made it." She watched as Karan and Medari each took in a deep breath, then walked through the waterfall.
The water parted for them.
For one brief moment, Ephiny could see the glory of the Amazon Eternity spread before her, in lush green hills and a flawless, azure sky. Voices of her family, of sisters long passed, mingled into a divine chorus, calling to her, telling her to come join them. She felt her soul soar at the vision, the beauty was beckoning her, drawing her in. Then the curtain of water dropped again, but the thought that she could be a part of the most beautiful of places, was burned deeply into her soul.
Then she looked at Cyane. There was such a naked look of self-hatred on the Queen's face that Ephiny forgot all else. The journey to the Gate of Eternity was never easy for Cyane, and all Ephiny knew was that it had to do with things that had happened in her past and with the time that she had spent in the Land of the Dead. Artemis had told her that Cyane didn't belong here, and Ephiny was sure that the goddess was right. But she also wasn't ready to cross over, not yet, and Ephiny knew that she couldn't go to Eternity without her.
With gentle fingers, Ephiny reached up and turned Cyane's eyes away from the Gate. Her hand brushed away the unshed tears and she said softly. "Come on. Let's go home."
It was late by the time they returned to Cyane's hut. They each decided to retire to their own rooms, rather than have a meal together. Now that she had the leisure to dwell on it, Ephiny's thoughts was spinning with the account that Karan and Medari had told of what had happened between her tribe and the Romans. Once again, she was indebted to Xena and Gabrielle.
Her thoughts softened, as she remembered her friends and all that they had been through together. The relationship between the three had been complex, and the last time that she had seen them, had been that traumatic day, after Solan's death. Xena had ridden half-crazed into the Amazon village, demanding to see Gabrielle... and then as if in a dream, the woman she had come to regard as a friend had turned on her, attacked the Amazons and would have killed Joxer had she not impeded the throw of the chakram. Her last sight of them had been the return of the dark warlord of the legends, dragging her own best friend away on the back of her horse. Their trail lead to the edge of a cliff, but the Amazons' search had found no other trace.
Then she had received a letter from Gabrielle. Explaining what had occurred between them, their strange trip to the land of Illusia, and many assurances that they were safe. The Amazons had been smart enough to keep out of their Regent's way for a few days after that, and once she had calmed down, Ephiny began to see things from her friend's perspective. She honestly had no idea how she would have reacted had it been her child who was killed by the person that she trusted most in the world. Or if she was forced to kill her own child, by her own hand. And ironically enough, Ephiny had known that the only way they could work through the pain was with each other.
She had hoped that she could see them, and judge for herself that they were all right. But Ephiny knew that they needed the time alone together to repair their relationship. Her letters with Gabrielle had continued, and the absent Queen had promised to stop by soon, every time she wrote. But after hearing Gabrielle's tales of all that they had been through, she knew that it wasn't likely that they could have gotten together for some rest and relaxation. She was preoccupied with her duties, and Gabrielle and Xena had their own lives to live, a life together that was seemingly cursed by the gods. Now, however, now Ephiny wished that she had insisted that they come stay in the village for a week or two. With the benefit of hindsight, she wished that they had parted on better terms. They had been through too much together for her lasting memories of them to be fixed on that day.
Her hands went unconsciously to her belly, as she touched the scar that Xena had made when she had delivered her centaur son. Xena had given life to both Xenon and her. For that alone, she would be indebted to the Warrior Princess forever.
And both the Queen and her Champion had helped the Amazons several times. Averting the war with the centaurs, saving them from a crazed Amazon turned goddess, and now in their battle with the Romans. She had hoped that Gabrielle would have taken up the Queen's mask, but deep down, she had known that their place wasn't with the Amazons. Ephiny lowered her head, and offered a small prayer to Artemis. She hoped that her friends had finally found where that place was.
Gradually, Ephiny became aware of the sounds of movement coming in through the thin walls that divided Cyane's room and hers. Her meditation turned to thoughts of the Amazon Queen. Ephiny knew that for some reason, their trip to the Gate that day had hurt Cyane more than she let on and she wondered why. Sleep that night wouldn't come easy for her, so she rose and padded noiselessly down the corridor to the entrance of the Queen's room. Cyane was also awake, sitting at a table in front of the fire, staring into the flames.
Ephiny studied her profile for a moment, bathed orange by the firelight. The dark eyes were far away, the beautiful face as cold as a marble statue. Yet, she could see the emotion that was raging beneath the surface, in the clench of the jaw muscles, the hands that restlessly toyed with a goblet she was holding. With a start, Ephiny suddenly realised just how well she had come to know the Amazon Queen in the weeks that she had spent in the Land of the Dead. She decided to speak up. "Want some company?"
Cyane smiled slightly, aware of her presence the whole time. "I could use some."
Ephiny came in, and sat down at the table across from Cyane. She gestured to the flagon of wine that sat half-empty in front of the Queen. "I've never seen you drink before."
Cyane acknowledged her comment with a brief nod. "I don't drink much. I found that I needed to keep my wits about me when I was alive. Up here... you drink either to celebrate or to drown your sorrows. There's never been any cause for the first, and there's not enough wine here for the second."
Ephiny looked at the Queen, then picked up the bottle. She uncorked it, and took a sip. The wine was deceptive; syrupy sweet at first, but then burning as the drops hit her throat. "Nice," she said. "Falernian, isn't it?"
Cyane nodded. "You know your wine," she said as she accepted the flagon again, and drank deeply.
Ephiny shrugged. "Some. I usually prefer ale."
"Ale is for the good times, good meals, good company, good friends. Sweet Falernian wine from the vineyards of Campania is for the hours of melancholy, for loneliness and funerals."
The Regent propped her left elbow up on the table. She rested her chin on her hand, and gazed at the Queen quietly. "Are you melancholy?"
Cyane smiled at the question. "Yeah. But I'm also with a good friend."
"Not enough reason to broach the ale barrel?" The room brightened with her sudden smile.
Cyane laughed. "Maybe once we're finished with this." She reached for the bottle again, but Ephiny stopped her, taking her hand in hers. The long slender fingers were pressed against her own, and Cyane was caught in that mesmerising gaze.
"What's wrong Cyane?" Ephiny asked, her low voice serious.
Cyane paused, absolutely still for the briefest moment. But when she spoke again, she didn't reply to her question directly. "Ephiny, how do you feel now that you know for sure what happened to your Amazons?"
Ephiny thought for a moment. "Like the world has been lifted off my shoulders," she admitted finally. "But the worries are still there Cyane, and they always will be. The fate of the Amazons depend on other people now."
"But you know that you did your best."
"As did you." Ephiny countered.
Cyane smiled, a small bitter smile, then she changed tack once more. "How well do you know Xena?"
The Regent shrugged. "Apart from Gabrielle, how well can anyone know Xena? We've been through a lot though, and when it comes down to it, I count her as a good friend." Her voice softened. "And she gave my son life. For that alone, she has my everlasting gratitude."
"She's always been a friend to the Amazons?"
"Always." Ephiny replied, her mind already a step ahead, wondering where this was going.
Nowhere apparently, for Cyane met her eyes briefly with a smile, then looked away again. She suddenly seemed to shake off her pensive mood. "This is starting to feel like a funeral! What shall we talk about next?"
Ephiny laughed. "Desperately searching for a topic takes away some of the appeal from a conversation, Cyane."
"I'm sure we'll cope." Cyane replied with a smile. Their hands were still lightly resting against each other; she trailed her touch down the soft skin between Ephiny's fingers, then clasped the palm against hers. Her gaze was open, almost innocent in a way, as she looked up into the Regent's eyes. "Ephiny? What is it like to be a mother?"
Ephiny was unable to help her smile, as she leant back in her chair. "It's wonderful Cyane. There's nothing like the unconditional love between a mother and her child. I... I can't begin to describe it." She was surprised to find that she no longer felt the pain that she once did when she thought about missing out on Xenon's life. Just knowing that her son was safe, and well, and would live a long, fruitful life was enough. She regarded the Amazon Queen, her expression gentle. "The stories never mentioned that you had a child."
Cyane shook her head. "No. I never did. I was young then, and I thought I had responsibility enough with my tribe. But now... I find that it's something I regret missing out on. Being a mother, I mean, having a family... but it wouldn't have been possible. I guess it's better this way." She looked up. "It's... it's also better if you find someone you wanted to share that with. You had that." It was a statement, more than a question.
Ephiny nodded. "I did. Briefly."
"Ephiny? Tell me about Phantes."
There was no judgment in the Queen's eyes, only an honest desire to know. And a willingness to listen. Ephiny was captured by the gentle brown eyes, and she found that she wanted to talk. She closed her eyes, and remembered. "I first saw Phantes, crossing the river on Amazon territory, that day that Terreis was killed. I hated him. He was a centaur, he was on our land and I thought that he had murdered my sister. I brought him down, and took him back to the village to face Amazon justice. While we prepared to execute him, Xena discovered that the real murderer was the warlord Krykus. She averted war between the Amazons and the centaurs, and we fought together against Krykus and his thugs. After Xena and Gabrielle left us, I became Melosa's second in command. The technicalities of the treaty between the centaurs and the Amazons were left mostly to Phantes and I to work out. We began spending more and more time together... and I fell in love with him. He was a good man, kind and gentle. When he asked me to marry him, I accepted. I fell pregnant soon after."
"Why did you leave the Amazons?"
The simple question cut, even though she knew that Cyane didn't mean to hurt her. It had been something that had been asked of her so often - though never verbally - it had been something she had asked of herself. Her answer to herself was simple: she had been in love. But her explanation was also vastly more complex, and to her Amazon sisters who had been brought up to accept that the Nation was everything, leaving that behind wasn't something that they easily understood. She had known that in leaving and marrying a centaur, her relationship with her sisters had been affected. It had shown in how many of them stood for Velasca, against her and Gabrielle during the uprising. Their trust in her was only won over again when she proved that as Regent she was completely dedicated to the good of the Nation. Ironically, that sort of narrow-mindedness was what she had worked hardest to eradicate in her reign, to ensure that the Amazons could develop into a new age and regain their former glory. She thought for a moment, searching for an answer to Cyane's question. "The centaurs were our ancestral enemies, Cyane. That sort of long-held hatred can be hard to overcome. There were factions on both sides that were against the treaty, just on the grounds that Amazons and centaurs had always hated each other. They were also against our marriage, and we both suffered. Once I found out that I was pregnant, we wanted to bring up our child in a world free from such hate. We decided to move to Athens, where our marriage would be more tolerated."
Cyane nodded slowly, her eyes going distant. "I had always admired the centaurs," she said, her voice soft. "They were our traditional enemies, but I knew them to have their own personal code of honour, and in a way, they were unspeakably noble. When I was Queen, Tyldus had been the leader of the centaurs on the Eurasian Steppes. We both wanted then to work out a treaty for alliance between the two tribes, but the factions within wouldn't agree. Also, the barbarians out on the Steppes were scared that we would grow too powerful if we did ally. They worked to make sure that it didn't happen." She shrugged. "After awhile, it didn't matter anymore."
Ephiny had leant forward, fascinated by this piece of the past that Cyane had revealed. She had known Cyane was by reputation a brilliant leader, but she hadn't thought that it could have been a brilliance that came from unconventional ideals. When Cyane had been Queen of the Amazons, the Nation had been in the height of its powers. The centaurs had also been a mighty force in Greece and the outlying regions. Now both had dwindled down to small tribes that were respected, but no longer feared. She had worked so hard to unite the Amazon and centaur nations as much for necessity than anything else. Cyane hadn't needed to make peace with the centaurs, yet she had been enlightened enough to try to seek an alliance with them.
Cyane hadn't been aware of the intense scrutiny. She was looking down at her hands, her fingers again toying with the stem of the glass in front of her. "Ephiny... if you want to go to the Elysian Fields instead, I'm sure that Artemis can arrange it for you. I can tell how much you loved Phantes..."
It took Ephiny a moment to adjust to what Cyane was saying. But she knew immediately what her reply was to be. "Cyane, I loved Phantes, as much as one person can love another... but it's been four years since his death. I've had to move on." She sighed, her gaze going distant. "I hated the Mitoans for killing Phantes. But I finally realised that I hated myself more for not saving him. Strange as it seems, I dealt with that by coming to realise that it's another of the gifts his love gave me." She met the Queen's eyes. "Phantes didn't only give me a son. He let me become an Amazon again. It was how I was born, how I had always lived, how I could best live. I know no other way. I can't live any other way, Cyane. I want to stay here."
A smile touched the Queen's lips. "You always have been a true Amazon, Ephiny. Everything that you've done has been for the good of the Nation."
Ephiny smiled at the compliment but didn't reply. They drifted into silence, a silence lasting so long that she began to rack her brain for a topic to talk about.
But it was the Queen who broke first. "Ephiny?"
"Do horses make you horny?"
Ephiny burst into laughter. "Gods Cyane... I'll put that one down to the wine."
Cyane propped her elbows onto the table, and leant forward, resting her chin on her hands. "Is that a yes?"
"No." The Regent replied, giving her friend a mock glare. "It depends entirely on the man or woman. Not animal."
Ephiny suddenly clapped her hand over her mouth. "I don't think I want to hear that question."
Cyane reached up, to pry the fingers loose. "I was going to ask how many had there been after Phantes," she said quietly.
Ephiny also leant forward, mirroring Cyane's earlier pose. "How many what?" she asked, starting to wonder if she was enjoying the sudden change of topic or if she was perpetuating it out of a morbid fascination to see where it would go.
"Partners, people you cared about... lovers."
"None," she admitted with a rueful smile. "It hasn't been that long since Phantes' death... and I was too busy, being a mother, and then Regent to pursue a relationship."
"Would there ever be any others?"
"I guess." Ephiny replied with a shrug. "Eternity's a long time." Her tone turned playful. "Are you offering?"
Cyane's only reply was a slight lift of her eyebrow.
Ephiny laughed. "We better continue this conversation your tongue isn't so loose from the wine." She stood up, and came round to the Queen's side of the table, helping her stand. "Come on Cyane... let's get you to bed."
She guided the Cyane to her bed, and settled her in, tucking the blankets around her. Once done, she turned to leave. But Cyane stopped her. "Ephiny... stay. Please."
The Regent hesitated for a brief moment, then nodded and smiled. As she lay down on the bed, Cyane's arm immediately tightened around her and she pulled her close under the covers, burying her face into the golden blonde curls. "I've wanted to do this ever since I met you," she murmured.
Ephiny laughed. "You're drunk Cyane."
She turned around. A light flush covered the Queen's cheeks, and her eyes were unusually bright, but her gaze was steady and unwavering, as clear as ever. "No." Ephiny was finally forced to admit. Still, she couldn't help asking somewhat mischievously "Is there anything else you wanted to do ever since you met me?"
"Well... there is this."
The warm hands resting lightly in the small of her back moved in a slow massage to rub her stomach in smooth, strong circles. Then they slid down, to trail over the skin of her thighs left exposed by the short sleeping shift that she wore. Ephiny's breath caught in her throat, and frantic warning signals started going off in her mind. But before she could speak up, the fingers stopped, and she felt Cyane collapse against her with a groan, burying her face in the hollow between her neck and shoulder.
"Don't tempt me..." she whispered. "Else I really would be too drunk to know any better."
Feeling a little relieved, Ephiny smiled and wrapped her arms around her friend in a chaste hug. "Come on... we'll get some sleep and talk in the morning." They fell silent, Ephiny listening for the deep steady breathing of her companion. Sleep didn't come to her so easily though, and her thoughts inevitably turned to the woman in her arms. There was no denying that she found Cyane attractive. And it had been a long time since she had been close to anyone that way. But this was Cyane, her childhood idol, and now her friend. She knew that without the influence of the wine, Cyane would never have acted the way that she did tonight. 'So am I relieved or regretting that she stopped?' With a sigh, she buried her nose into the sweet-smelling blonde hair, trying to not think of the warm, slender body in her arms, the intoxicating mix of hard muscle and soft skin that she could so easily reach out and touch. 'Gods, it really has been too long.' Ephiny began to entertain serious thoughts of getting up and going back to her own room when Cyane's clear voice reached her ears again.
"How exactly do you make love to a centaur?"
The sun was already high in the sky when Ephiny opened her eyes the next morning. She looked down, and smiled; Cyane had remained, nestled close against her throughout the night. Ephiny closed her eyes again, taking in the feel of the woman in her arms for a moment longer, before she sighed, and started to rise.
But the strong arms around her waist stopped her. "Don't go." Cyane's voice murmured in her ear.
After briefly debating with herself between what would have been wisest and what she really wanted, Ephiny chose to sink back onto the bed. She turned around, and greeted her friend with a smile, reaching out to brush back the tousled hair from her eyes. "How are you feeling?" she asked quietly.
"Fine." Cyane replied with a puzzled look. Then she suddenly smiled, as the reason for Ephiny's concern hit her. "I didn't drink that much, Eph."
"So you remember what happened last night?" asked Ephiny, her eyes intent.
"Every moment." Cyane returned her gaze, but her expression revealed nothing.
Neither spoke for long minutes. Ephiny realised that it was a contest of wills, and she decided to end it. She laughed. "You can be infuriating at times. What are we going to do?"
"What do you want to do?"
"Cyane, a second death by snappy rejoinders is not something I want to subject myself to."
Laughing, Cyane sat up. "Ephiny, I thought I made myself clear last night." She cast another lingering look over the Regent's slim body, her eyes drawn to the soft blonde curls and the hazel gold eyes that shone in the morning sunlight. 'Gods, she's so beautiful...' She forced herself to look up, and focus again on Ephiny's clear gaze. "But if you... I just want to leave it open between us. If you don't feel the same way, nothing has to change."
'She really wants me?' Ephiny tried to cover her surprise, by stretching lazily out on the bed, crossing arms behind her head and allowing herself a long, leisurely study of the Queen. Her eyes traced the smooth, strong lines of her face, and down, moving over the lithely muscular body and the long expanse of honey coloured skin that the short slip didn't attempt to hide. She was golden and beautiful in the sun, and Ephiny felt her desire stir just by looking at her. 'Mmmn... this should be interesting.'
But she was quiet for so long that Cyane spoke again, her voice uncertain. "Ephiny?"
Ephiny let a slow grin spread over her lips. "Are you going to make me beg for you?"
"That would be nice." Cyane kept her reply flippant, still not sure what Ephiny was saying.
"How about this..."
Soft lips were suddenly pressed against hers. Cyane responded automatically, uncertainly at first, then more hungrily as Ephiny made her intentions clear. She gently sucked on a full bottom lip, slipping inside when they parted for her. The kiss deepened, their tongues exploring, their mouths tasting each other, as they slowly sank back onto the bed together. "That's even nicer." Cyane murmured when they had to pull apart.
Ephiny smiled, as she let her fingers run through the white blonde hair. "Cyane, I find you incredibly attractive... and I am tired of adolescent flirting. I want to do something about it."
"What is it that you want to do?"
"You." The smile was suitably saucy, but it was the look of desire in the Regent's eyes that lit the fire that began in Cyane's womb. Ephiny drew those sculpted lips towards her again, as she reached down and start to lift the slip that the Queen was wearing, wanting it off.
"No." The word came out almost in a whimper, as Cyane wrenched her lips away.
The Queen had rolled over to the other side of the bed, burying her face in her hands. "I can't do this..."
"Cyane?" Concern was trying to fight through the haze of lust, and Ephiny went after her, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder, totally bewildered at the sudden change of events. "Cyane? What's wrong?"
"I thought I could separate this, and my real feelings, but I can't, I can't do this... I'm sorry Ephiny." She started to get up blindly, but Ephiny caught her in her strong arms, stopping her.
"Cyane, tell me what's wrong! If you're not ready for this, I understand..."
Cyane turned on her. "No you don't!"
She released her, surprised by the intensity blazing in her eyes. "Then why don't you tell me?"
"Damnit, I love you!"
Hazel eyes widened. "You... you... love me?"
Cyane seemed to suddenly realise what she had just said. "Gods Ephiny... I'm sorry. I'll... go..." In an instant, she had gathered up her clothes and disappeared out the door.
Ephiny knelt slowly back onto the bed, her thoughts reeling; her body still aroused, her mind utterly confused. 'What in Tartarus is happening? Cyane loves me... she loves me?! And she won't make love to me because she loves me? Gods... this doesn't make any sense.' She rose, and began to get dressed, knowing that she had to go after her.
It was peaceful out on the branch where Cyane was sitting, her knees drawn up to her chest, her back resting against the tree-trunk. She watched as the birds played in the trees above her head, wondering idly what it would be like to live the life of a bird. Concerned with nothing except for where the next meal was to come from. Trying desperately not to think of what she had told Ephiny before she had left. She rested her head against her hands, wishing that she could just close her eyes and begin the day all over again, when she heard the rustle in the branches behind her.
"Hey," said Ephiny's voice.
Cyane swallowed a sharp remark about wanting to be alone. Instead she lifted her head, and returned the greeting. "Hi." She knew it wasn't the Regent that she was angry with. No, her anger was all for herself, for not being able to hide the feelings that she had dealt with for so long. For falling in love with this woman when she had vowed that she wouldn't, knowing that she didn't deserve it. Or her.
The silence became unbearable, and Ephiny knew that she was the one who had to speak first. "Cyane, talk to me. You can't just tell me that you love me then walk away."
"What do you want me to say?" Cyane replied, her voice harsh. "That I love you, I loved you for years? That I've watched you grow and mature and went through all the pain that you went through, wishing that I could be by your side to protect from ever being hurt again? That for all this time I've tried to deny to even myself that I felt this way..?" She trailed off, and shook her head.
Ephiny was at a loss as to how to react. "I never knew..."
"I didn't want you to know."
"Cyane, why? Why didn't you tell me?"
"Because I don't deserve you! I don't deserve loving you. I don't deserve the happiness that being with you brings."
"What are you talking about?"
Cyane buried her face against her arms. "You don't understand," she muttered.
'I'm getting that.' A ridiculously wry part of her mind was telling her. But Ephiny blocked it out, her eyes gentle as she studied the woman before her. She reached out, and hesitantly touched the Queen on the shoulder. "Cyane. I would like to understand."
Cyane looked up. Ephiny was startled by the pain and emptiness she could in those dark eyes, and she instinctively moved closer, wanting to offer her comfort. And Cyane let her, closing her eyes as Ephiny slipped an arm around her shoulders, holding her close. She swallowed once, then began her story, of everything that had happened in her past. How she had met a young warlord named Xena. Trusted her. Fallen in love with her. Invited her to become an Amazon, only to have that trust betrayed. How she had to watch as Xena had murdered the rest of her leadership council in cold blood, and ultimately dying by her hands. Then the time she and the rest of her tribe was forced to spend in the Land of the Dead, ten years or more in mortal numbers, possibly hundreds in the spirit world. And she could do nothing, except watch helplessly as her sisters were killed and the Amazon Nation crumbled. Cyane was a true Amazon, and nothing was more important to her than the good of the Nation. Ephiny could tell that she felt each death, each loss personally; sure in her knowledge that it was all her fault, that she was foolish enough to trust someone, to let her emotions be taken advantage of and used against her. But there was also hope in her tale. Cyane's eyes shone as she described watching her sisters cross over into Amazon Eternity, after so many years in the Land of the Dead. She told Ephiny of how it was possible because of Xena, who had returned and redeemed herself by killing the evil shamaness Alti and giving them a new Holy Word. She described how Xena had made the decision to forsake what had been most important to her at that time. Cyane made it clear that she wasn't blaming Xena, that she admired the Warrior Princess for having the courage to do what she did, and that she knew of the times that Xena and Gabrielle had helped the Amazons, and was grateful to her. And she told of how she had first seen Ephiny when Xena and Gabrielle had come to their village. "It was I who taught Xena everything that she knew of the Amazon ways. She thought about me a lot once she rode into your territory, and I heard her. And I saw you, Ephiny. I watched as you struggled between doing what you knew was right, and obeying your Queen. You lived your whole life that way, balancing the traditional Amazonian ways with the lessons that you learnt, lessons that no Amazon had ever been through before. And the Nation was bettered because of your unorthodox approach to ruling your tribe. It's only because of women like you, who are able to see beyond the old ways, that the Amazons could survive in a new era. I don't deserve you, Ephiny. I almost destroyed the Nation... you helped to heal it."
"Cyane..." Ephiny rested her head against her back. "You've put yourself through too much. You've got to stop blaming yourself."
"How? How do I do that, Ephiny? I lived my life for the Amazons, and I had to watch as we disintegrated from a mighty nation into scattered tribes... knowing that it was all my fault. Do you know what that feels like?"
Ephiny was silent for a long while. "No," she said finally. "But I do know what it's like to blame yourself for the death of what is most important to you." She paused. "I've seen Xena - the one that they call the Destroyer of Nations - once, that day after her son was killed. I know what she is capable of, what the darkness in her can make her do. But the Xena I count as a friend is a woman who is trying to find redemption for what she did in the past. She has more good in her than evil, much more. That's the side that you saw Cyane, and trusted. There's no shame in that. You couldn't know that she had to go through all she did, meet Hercules and Gabrielle before she was able to find her light again. You did what you thought was best at the time, and it was the Fates who decided that events would turn out the way that they did. Things happen for a reason, you've got to believe that." She reached out to touch the Queen on the chin, making her look at her. "Cyane, the Amazons aren't destroyed yet. We still have choices, there are still decisions to be made - but these decisions are left to other people now. You told me that I had to accept what I did and move on. You have to do that too."
She was silenced by a kiss, a warm, gentle kiss that lasted long moments. "I'll help you." Ephiny said, her voice soft when she finally drew away.
"Let me finish, Cyane." Her gaze drifted down to the ground. "I was... confused when you told me how you felt about me. But I've had some time to think about this..." She sighed, and paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "I've only loved once, Cyane. It happened so suddenly that I didn't see it coming. It flared, briefly, then was over, and I was left with a son to devote all my love to. It wouldn't be that way with us."
Ephiny continued as if she didn't hear the interruption. "When I was young, my friends and I all said that we wanted to be like you when we grew up. You're Cyane... the greatest queen that the Nation has had in living memory. But now that I know you... it's not like that anymore. I still admire you, for who you are and how you came to be. But it's more than that, I feel... comfortable when I'm around you. Being with Phantes challenged the very core of what I am as an Amazon. You instinctively know what makes me who I am; you know all that I been through, all that I ask myself. Because you've been through all this yourself. I've never met anyone who understands me as you do. Love... is it love? I never dared think that you'll feel that way about me... but now that I know..." Ephiny looked up then. "I know I can love you, Cyane. Let me love you."
"Ephiny..." She trailed off.
"Cyane?" Ephiny prompted her, seeing that she wasn't about to go on.
Cyane met her eyes with a faintly amused look. "Now that you've let me speak, I've found that I've got nothing to say."
Ephiny laughed, feeling the tension break between them. She drew the Queen to her again, her hand warm against her neck, her eyes intent as she studied her beautiful face. "Then don't speak," she murmured, capturing her lips in another kiss.
When they parted, Cyane reached up to gently caress those full lips. "Are you sure?" she asked softly.
Ephiny smiled, pushing her back, until she was supine on the tree limb. "It's my decision, Cyane. I'm sure." She kissed her again, as her hands slipped down and under her shirt, running lightly over the warm skin that rippled with muscle. Her fingers began to undo the laces on the trousers, stretched taut over the Queen's abdomen. The kiss continued as Cyane trailed her fingers over the lines of her face, then reached down to tug at Ephiny's shirt, beginning to draw it up and over her head.
Lost in their passion for each other, neither heard the branch creak protestingly under the weight of their two bodies. It was only the first crack that brought them back to reality. Two sets of panicked hazel eyes met each other, but it was too late. The branch snapped and broke beneath them, sending them crashing in a jumble of arms and legs to the forest floor below. Laughing, they disentangled themselves, rolling apart to try and catch their breath. Cyane recovered first, and she knelt up, regarding the Regent with a smile. "Are you all right?"
Ephiny nodded, sitting up and gingerly stretching her muscles. "How about you?"
"Never better. I guess there are some benefits to being dead." She glanced up at the tree that they were so rudely dumped out of. "Is someone trying to tell us something, you think?"
"Never make love in a tree. That's all." Ephiny said firmly, as she came over to kneel before her. She rested her forearms on the Queen's shoulders, and plucked a twig from her hair, tossing it away. Ephiny drew her lips to hers for yet another kiss. "I am going to have my way with you, even if the gods themselves appear to try and stop us."
"Uh..." Cyane reluctantly broke the kiss, her eyes fixed on a point behind her shoulder. "We might get that opportunity."
Ephiny groaned, and buried her face against her neck for one moment, while Cyane greeted Artemis with a smile. The Regent finally trusted her poise enough to look up at the goddess approaching them. "My Queen."
"Hi." Artemis settled cross-legged next to them. An amused look danced over her features as she took in their slightly disheveled appearance, but she made no comment.
"Is something wrong, my Queen?" Cyane asked politely.
Ephiny and Cyane exchange a look, and Ephiny tried again. "Can we help you, my Queen?"
"Now we know where Amazons get their warped sense of humour." Ephiny muttered under her breath.
Artemis smiled, picking up the comment. "I heard someone calling my name."
The two Amazons exchanged another look. "We... we didn't... I think you came a bit early, my Queen."
The goddess shrugged. "Well, I'm here now." She laughed at the exasperation growing on both their faces, but when she spoke again, her voice took on a more serious tone. "Actually, Cyane, Ephiny, I'm here because I want to help you."
Cyane and Ephiny exchanged a third look. "Isn't that a little kin..."
"Not with that!" Artemis abruptly interrupted, cutting off that thought before it was expressed. She waved her hand around at their surroundings. "Look around."
And they did. Instead of the snowy surrounds of the Land of the Dead, they were suddenly sitting in a lush green meadow, the fertile land stretching as far as the eye could see, an beautiful cloudless summer sky overhead. "Where..." Cyane began, bewildered.
Ephiny looked around again. "We're in Amazon Eternity, aren't we Artemis?" she said quietly.
Artemis nodded. "Neither of you deserved to spend a moment longer in the Land of the Dead."
The goddess silenced Cyane with a stern look. "I know why you insisted on remaining there, Cyane. I could see inside your heart, I know you still blamed yourself for what happened to the Amazons." Her eyes softened. "You're a good queen, my daughter. It's why I chose you to rule, and I have always been pleased with what you did. I never foresaw..." She trailed off, her eyes going distant. Ephiny and Cyane both turned away, giving the goddess privacy to grieve, suddenly realising how much more keenly Artemis would have felt the destruction of her children. But the huntress cleared her throat and went on. "It was natural for you to take responsibility for what happened. But it is not your fault, Cyane. Neither I, nor your sisters blame you at all. It was only your own guilt that held you in the Land of the Dead."
"Do you really still blame yourself, Cyane?"
Cyane thought for long moments. She finally lifted her head, to meet the gaze of the goddess. "Yes. I do," she replied evenly.
"Oh." The goddess looked momentarily nonplussed.
Cyane felt a warm hand slip into hers, and she turned her head to see Ephiny's beautiful hazel gold eyes only inches from hers. "Cyane, I know that you still blame yourself. I know how hard it is to let that go," the Regent told her, her voice gentle. "But one day you will find that the guilt gets easier to bear. I had the help of my son and my friends... let me help you." She glanced around at their glorious surroundings. "We can be happy here, I know... if you want to stay. Whatever you choose to do, I'll be with you."
"Ephiny, I can't ask you..."
Again, she was silenced with a kiss. "You don't have to ask me, Cyane. I'll do it because I love you."
Ephiny was warmed by the look of happiness that diffused over the Queen's face, making her radiantly beautiful. "You do?"
Cyane smiled at her, and took her hand in hers, softly kissing her fingertips. She then lifted wry eyes to their goddess. "She's very good, isn't she?"
Artemis smiled. "I should be taking notes. So you'll be staying?"
The Siberian Queen nodded. "We're staying."
The goddess' smile widened, she leant over to bless both with her kiss. "I'd offer to show you around, but I get the feeling that I interrupted something when I first came. I'll let you get back to that." She suddenly disappeared in a shower of golden light.
Ephiny and Cyane looked at each other yet again, then began laughing. Cyane rested her head against Ephiny's shoulder, smiling as she felt her slip an arm around her waist. "Did you mean it when you said that you loved me?"
"Of course. This feels so right, Cyane. You know me better than I know myself. I began falling in love with you when I first met you, I just never realised... Cy?"
"Why were you willing to make love to me but not tell me how you feel?"
The Queen shook her head. "That was a mistake. I find you incredibly physically attractive, and I thought, we're adults, we could have that, if nothing else... I thought you felt the same way."
"I do." Ephiny assured her, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. "And it wasn't a mistake... I finally began looking at you in a different way. It made me realise that you weren't this out-of-reach Amazonian icon anymore..."
"Eph? Did you really want to be like me when you grew up?"
Ephiny gave her a humourous look, but didn't reply.
Cyane laughed, and nestled closer against her. "That's going to take some getting use to."
They remained silent for a few moments longer, enjoying the peace that they found in each other's company, until Cyane gave her another brief smile, and started to get up.
When she found that she wasn't allowed to move. "Where do you think you're going?" Ephiny asked, holding on to her shirt-tails.
"I thought you'd want to go find your tribe..."
"Well... I do." The Regent conceded. "But there's something else we need to do first, Cyane."
The sultry look she gave her was enough to make Cyane weak at the knees. Still, she had to protest. "Here?"
"Why not? I figure that the only thing that can stop us here is an earthquake..." Ephiny sighed, finally letting her frustration show. "Cyane, I'll level with you. I haven't had sex in four years. And now that I finally really want to... we've been interrupted three times. I'm about ready to explode." Her eyes were hungry as she pulled her lover down beside her. "Besides, I do believe that Artemis gave us an order to continue what we were doing..."
Cyane was helpless to resist, her hands reaching up on their own accord, her fingers running through the long gold curls, pulling her closer to take those sculpted lips with her own. "And it would never do to disobey the order of a god..."
"No." Ephiny murmured, as Cyane trailed her mouth down, pulling the laces open at the top of her shirt. "What with the... bad karma... and all..."
The talk faded away, and any other sound they made was heard only by an uncaring azure sky. A sky that nevertheless seemed to smile benevolently down at their union, as Regent and Queen finally began to live again.
(c) July 1999