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* * * Disclaimer * * *

The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Solari, Eponin, Melosa, Velasca, et. al. are the property of Renaissance Pictures and Universal Studios. Any modifications made to the characters beyond that described in the television series, Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, are strictly that of the author’s own imagination.

"Prelude to Eternity," is subtext-friendly, contains emotions related to death, some profanity and several scenes of lovemaking. If any of this is offensive to you or is illegal where you reside, please select another piece of fanfiction to enjoy.

"Prelude to Eternity" contains some references to my prior work, the "Worlds in Collision," trilogy involving a war between the Amazon Nation and the god of wine and revelry, Bacchus. It, however, is not necessary to have read the trilogy in order to understand the events contained within this novella. This novella is meant to be a celebration of the lives of Ephiny and, to a lesser degree, Solari. At times it will be happy, at times sad and at times distressing to various degrees. After all, a life fully led is never completely happy, nor completely sad, but a mixture of every emotion imaginable.

"Prelude to Eternity," is set after the fourth season X:WP episode, "A Good Day," but contains flashbacks further back in time — all the way back to Ephiny’s birth.

This story is written from heart, from a fan who identifies with the Amazon Nation and the principles it stood for. It’s only a suggestion, but it might add an air of "otherworldliness" to the story if you pop in some New Age music while reading the final section of this story. If tha’ts not an option, "Dancing in Heaven (Orbital Bebop)," by Q-Feel also adds a rousing beat. After all, death need not be a sad affair. Please, if you have any constructive comments or suggestions, feel free to drop me, M. Keck, a line at:

* * * Disclaimer * * *

Prelude To Eternity
by M. Keck

Time stood still for Ephiny. One moment she had been battling her way through the ranks of Roman soldiers, alternately knocking them unconscious or killing them, depending on their own actions. The next moment she had seen Amarice go down beneath the sustained attack of a Roman commander whose own swordfighting skills simply overpowered the young Amazon warrior. In an instant, the Queen of the Amazon Nation made her decision — and crossed blades with the Roman just as his own blade was descending towards Amarice. Startled at her Queen’s unexpected appearance, the young warrior scuttled back and stared in awe as her Queen brought the entirety of her years of training and combat tactics to bear on the Roman.

The battle between the two leaders was furious. Strike and counterstrike, each blow parried off the other’s weapon. A tactical move here, a tactical leap skyward there. The battle was even — until Ephiny stumbled coming down from a small jump. The ankle that had given out had been the same one she had injured on the rope bridge while assisting Hercules in his efforts to put a volcano out of action. Ephiny tumbled to the ground, grimaced and raised her blade defensively, but it was to no avail as the Roman knocked it from her hand. The Roman leader raised his sword and brought it down ...

"MY QUEEN!" Amarice screamed.

... Ephiny never felt the blade as it entered her belly. She was staring up, slack-jawed and glassy-eyed, at the Roman leader. She stared into his eyes and he looked back, surprise and disbelief growing more evident by the second as he realized who he had just skewered. Then, with a sick slick sound, he withdrew the blade and backed away from Ephiny as she fell to the ground, her lifeforce streaming from her gutted belly.

"Pull back! Pull back!" the Roman leader ordered as he saw more Amazon warriors streaming in to back up the ones already in the meadow. "We have to re-group!"

Ephiny barely heard the commotion as Roman centurions — those that still stood — scampered by her prone form, quickly followed by enraged Amazon warriors. Amarice fell to her knees next to her fallen Queen and leaned over the limp form ... Ephiny didn’t say anything. Her eyes were vacant, staring upward into looming Eternity. Her vision began to tunnel as her eyes focused one last time on Amarice’s distraught face. In the next instant, time moved again and Ephiny found herself above her body, slowing drawing away further into the sky. **No! Not now! There’s so much left to do!** Ephiny cried out silently. **Please, Artemis, please ... ,** suddenly her entire life began to flash in front of her — slowly at first, but then quickly gathering speed ...

*   *   *

The Amazon archer screamed mightily as she gave one last push. A young Captain of the Guard squeezed the archer’s hand reassuringly as she whispered into her ear. "Any moment now ... ,"

"Ephiny, firstborn daughter of Alluria," the Amazon midwife proclaimed a minute later as she lifted a tiny, dripping newborn baby girl in her hands. The young archer lay in the birthing hut, her swollen belly still heaving from the contractions of childbirth. Ephiny let out her first, tiny cry as the midwife slipped the baby into her mother’s sweat-slicked, trembling arms. Alluria grinned tremulously and brought her tiny daughter’s grasping pink mouth up to her milk-swollen breasts.

"Drink, my daughter, and be strong," Alluria whispered as Ephiny took a nipple into her mouth.

"She’s beautiful, isn’t she?" Melosa spoke at last, after a minute of watching mother and daughter begin the bonding process.

Alluria looked into her best friend’s eyes and nodded silently. "Artemis, how times flies," Alluria sighed. "Wasn’t it just yesterday that we were all inexperienced warriors, gung-ho and ready to take the world on? And now here I am, giving birth, and you — well, you’re the Captain of the Guard now, Melosa. Third in line to lead our nation!"

"Enough about advancement and passing time, Alluria," Melosa chided. "And don’t even mention the on-going war with the Centaur Nation and the skirmishes with the Greeks and warlord armies. This time is for you, Ephiny and me."

Alluria smiled. "You’ve always been a friend," she told Melosa.

"Hey ... I’m just continuing a tradition started by our great-great-great-great-great-great grandmothers," Melosa replied. "That’s what happens when one saves the other at the walls of Athens from certain death."

Just then, Alluria’s nipple slipped from Ephiny’s mouth and the little girl let out a hungry cry. Alluria carefully repositioned herself and fed Ephiny the nipple again, which they little girl suckled on contentedly. "She’s a vigorous eater, isn’t she?" Alluria commented.

Melosa laughed. "That’s already obvious," she said. "Most Amazon babies are tough little cookies from day one."

*   *   *

"Hey! Watch it!" Ephiny grumbled as she dodged an errant flying staff on the practice field. "That could hurt someone!"

A dark-haired girl walked by Ephiny and retrieved the staff. "I’m sorry," she offered meekly. "It’s not like I was purposely trying to hit you .. ,"

"You mean, it was an accident?" Ephiny interrupted. She retrieved her own staff and followed the girl to a log, where they both sat down next to each other.

"Of course, silly!" the girl shot back. "We’re supposed to be learning the basics in order to protect our nation, not to go at each other’s throats. At least that’s what my mother tells me everyday before I head out to classes and weapon practice."

"What’s your name?" Ephiny found herself growing curious about this girl. Eight-year-olds had a habit of that. Always curious and asking questions, rather than just accepting that some things couldn’t, or wouldn’t be answered for.

"Solari. Why?"

"Because I want to challenge you to a staff match," Ephiny said shortly. "I want to see if you’re as good deliberately trying to take down an opponent as you are trying not to."

Solari smiled, her big, new, adult teeth intermixed with the remaining baby ones. "It’s a deal. When do we start?"

"Now," Ephiny said. She stood and brought her staff up, its proud eagle head gleaming in the sunlight.

A candlemark later, a new friendship had been forged, never to be broken. Both girls were sweating profusely at the end of their session — neither having bested the other, at least the first time around. "I’ll get you next time," Ephiny promised Solari.

"You can always try," the youngster shot back, grinning toothily.

**She’s quite proud of her big teeth,** Ephiny thought. **Hmphf. Mine will begin to show up any day now!**

*   *   *

"Alluria, mother of Ephiny," Queen Tiflis announced solemnly as the funeral pyre lit up the brilliant blue noon sky. "Alluria, daughter of Esteboa, has returned to Eternity, from whence she came."

In the square surrounding the pyre, dozens of tribal leaders danced and beat drums as other warriors and archers stood in silent, grieving ranks. Today’s pyre had been the last of too many over the past week — the war against the Centaurs had taken a decidedly terrible turn and the Amazon Nation now had two less tribes than it had had two moons earlier. Where once one-hundred Amazon tribal leaders had stood at the Nation’s height of power in the distant past, now only twenty-eight leaders stood. A terrible testament to the passage of time and the changing world.

Ephiny stood near her mother’s burning pyre, tears welling up in her eyes, but not spilling. **I can’t cry. Not here — not now!** she thought furiously. **I’ll do my grieving later, in private.** She clutched her staff hard and stared at the eagle head through tear-streaked vision. **It’s not fair! We had a cease-fire ... **

Solari and Melosa joined the subdued twelve-year-old Ephiny near the pyre. Solari’s mother had been killed six moons earlier and she still sobbed at night — Melosa knew, because the older woman overheard the youngster’s muffled cries. **And now Ephiny is experiencing what Solari has known for moons ... grief,** Melosa thought. She experienced a pang of her own; after all, she and Alluria had been close to each other for years. **I, however, *cannot* grieve now. Too much to do ... too much to learn too quickly.**

Melosa was no longer Captain of the Guard. She had been promoted to Amazon Princess upon the death of Belami in the same battle that had taken Alluria’s life. All three Amazons were in grief ... one acknowledging it openly, another not, and one somewhere in-between.

*   *   *

"Ephiny, a warrior of the Amazon Nation," the Captain of the Guard, Eponin, announced somberly. She handed a humbled Ephiny a scabbard, which contained a brand-new sword forged by the Nation’s best weapons-masters. The warrior slipped it onto her back and stood proudly before Eponin.

"I’m ready to take up my position within the Nation," Ephiny intoned formally. Her voice had grown more womanly and her body had filled out in the four years since her mother’s death. Ample, firm breasts jutted out from her chest, accentuated by tanned skin, and a toned body — all courtesy of puberty and continual training, both of the mind and the body. At sixteen summers of age, Ephiny had completed her basic training and was in the process of being initiated into the ways of the warrior. Today was the moment she had waited for since she and Solari had started schooling so long ago — Initiation Day. Solari stood beside Ephiny, beginning a long line of two hundred warriors, archers and scouts who would also join the ranks of the Nation’s protectors. The new initiates came from all over the nation, all of the tribes, gathered together in Themiscrya for this joyous time.

A candlemark later, the ceremonies — which occurred three times per year — were at an end. Ephiny and Solari moved away from the village square out toward the practice fields. Once there, they sought out a very familiar log and sat down on it. The young women had grown closer over the years and to the village it was obvious that a lifebond was gradually developing between them. Once alone, they began to talk about the day’s events and about life in general.

"What do you think about Terreis?" Solari asked unexpectedly.

"Melosa’s youngest sister?" Ephiny queried.

"Well, is there another Terreis we don’t know about?"

Ephiny laughed. "She makes a pretty good right-hand woman to Eponin. She’s got some potential."

"But she’s so young," Solari continued, slightly petulant. "I think her connections got her where she is today."

Ephiny turned serious. "Hey, she’s four summers older than us — four more summers of experience," the new warrior explained. "And, yes, her oldest sister is the Amazon Princess. But favoritism has never played a role in the Nation’s politics ... we can’t afford the distraction, what with the enemies all around us."

Their solitude was short-lived as a pair of sisters approached their log. "Come on," one of them called out. "It’s time to go on our first patrol by ourselves, with all the responsibilities on our shoulders."

"Velasca can sure be bossy at times," Ephiny muttered under her breath as she stood.

Solari tittered. "Well, Eponin did put her in charge as a trainee — apparently the bossiness is going to spill over into our *professional* lives as warriors, eh?"

*   *   *

Another milestone had occurred in Ephiny’s life. **Today was my last day in the barracks,** the twenty-year-old thought, a mixture of sadness and happiness obvious in her thoughts. **And tonight will be the first night in our own hut.** Indeed, Ephiny and Solari had spent the last moon gathering reeds, grasses and hulking timbers for their own hut. After the materials had been centralized, it had taken the two warriors a week to erect their home together. Now the two would live together ... **hopefully for the rest of our lives,** Ephiny thought.

The two had been excused from active duty for a week by Queen Tiflis, despite Eponin’s teasing threat to have them make up for the missed time afterwards. They had used to the time to put the finishes touches on their residence — adding furniture, an exquisite Persian rug that they had acquired on one of their trips into Pella, dozens of scrolls containing the stories and songs of bards and poets, and the antlers and skins of deer and bears that they had taken down while hunting. All in all, the new hut was ready to be occupied — and that night, it was.

Solari took Ephiny’s nipple in her mouth and gently suckled on it, savoring the sensation as it swelled and hardened within her loving mouth. Finished with it, she turned her attention to the other nipple as Ephiny groaned with pleasure beneath Solari’s weight. Mustering enough willpower, Ephiny probed Solari’s vaginal lips with her finger, tracing circles around her lover’s puffy, hyper-sensitive clitoris. Solari returned the favor just as Ephiny jammed her finger deep into her grotto and both warriors hissed with pleasure as they climaxed. Vaginal fluid sprayed and intermixed as it slicked their inner thighs with its sweet stickiness.

"Ar ... Artemis ... I’ve never known such pleasure," Ephiny breathed tremulously.

Solari cooed into her lover’s ear and nibbled on it briefly before replying. "Well, it was the first time we’ve made real love, Ephiny."

"Hmm ... our foreplay and petting sessions didn’t count, huh?" Ephiny asked lazily.

"Well, did they do this?" Solari slipped her finger deep into Ephiny’s slit and gently rubbed her clitoris, sending an electric charge through the young warrior.

"Ahh! Nnnooo, it wasn’t quite that ... pleasurable," Ephiny admitted.

Solari grinned seductively. "Then that’s your answer, lover."

*   *   *

Solari held her swollen, twitching belly and howled as another wave of pain hit her. Ten moons had passed since her and Ephiny had made love in their new home — since that time, Solari had fulfilled one of the greatest obligations that an Amazon could do for her Nation.

She had become pregnant. And now she was in the throes of childbirth.

"Hang in there, my friend," Ephiny urged. "Any minute now ... ,"

A tiny, squeaking cry filled the room. The Amazon midwife bent down and leaned in between Solari’s legs. A minute later, she straightened and lifted a tiny, gleaming baby into view. "It’s a girl," she said wistfully as she slipped the slick newborn into Solari’s arms.

"She shall be known as Cera," Solari breathed. Suddenly she gasped as yet another wave of pain shot through her.

"What is it?" Ephiny asked.

"Pain ... more pain ... ,"

The midwife bent back down and muttered, "Push, Solari, push! Apparently you have more than one passenger in your womb!"

And so Solari screamed and pushed with all of her might. There was an audible pop and another baby slipped from her birth canal. As soon as the midwife had cut its cord and gave it to Ephiny — it was another girl, soon be named Isis — another child emerged. It was smaller, less-developed looking and shriveled.

"Solari, I never knew you were so ... ," Ephiny’s voice trailed off as she saw the sad look on the midwife’s face. "What is it?"

"He’s stillborn," she said shortly.

Ephiny remained silent and looked waveringly down at Solari, then down at little Isis in her own arms. "We’ll, we’ll have to give him an Amazon burial ... ,"

Solari nodded mutely, her budding joy at the birth of her daughters tempered by the stillborn male. Her eyes, which had sparkled with tears of joy, were now clouding over with tears of barely restrained grief.

*   *   *

A year later. The entire nation was once again gathered in Themiscrya — this time to say goodbye to Queen Tiflis. The great Amazon Queen hadn’t died in battle ... a stomach illness had taken her life. It had been a terribly slow, lingering death as the illness slowly spread from her belly into other parts of her body. Finally, after three moons of agony, Artemis had allowed Queen Tiflis to finally leave her life behind and join her ancestors and other sisters in Eternity.

**I don’t ever want to go out that way,** Ephiny thought stoically. She shed no tears at this funeral, and nor did any of the other Amazons who formed the ritual circle around the burning pyre. They had been emotionally drained by the Queen’s long ordeal and simply had no more tears to shed. It was a relief when Tiflis’ time had finally come. **Her suffering is over — and now the Nation has another Queen.**

"ALL HAIL QUEEN MELOSA!" came the thunderous cry from Eponin, who remained as Captain of the Guard.

"ALL HAIL PRINCESS TERREIS!" another voice heralded, this one coming from an Amazon who was part of a neighboring tribe.

Ephiny poked Solari and motioned at the newest addition to the warrior ranks of the Amazon Nation — Chilapa. "Tell her not to slouch so much," Ephiny told Solari. "I know it’s only been a moon since her Initiation Day, but there’s no slack allowed for a professional warrior."

Solari did as she was told and then whispered, "Is it just me, or have you gotten more rigid since our own Initiation Day ceremony?"

Ephiny snorted. "It’s hard not to with skilled sisters like Eponin and Velasca and ... ,"

"You’re jealous!" Solari whispered excitedly, trying not to draw attention to herself.

"No, I’m not ... ," Ephiny’s voice trailed off as she saw the I-know-you-better look in Solari’s eyes. "Oh, okay! I want to be as good — if not better — than the best warrior in the Nation. And if that means becoming more like them, then so be it."

Solari’s eyes danced. "You’re so *driven,* my friend!"

Ephiny smiled tentatively. "Yes, I guess I am," she admitted slowly.

*   *   *

"Ephiny, esteemed warrior of the Amazon Nation," Eponin began, "you have earned this mask — a sign of rank and experience — through your sacrifices for the Nation since sixteen summers of age. May it soon blossom with feathers and paint."

The warrior accepted the pro-offered, unadorned, black leather mask and slipped it on her head. She bowed before Eponin, who stood in front of Queen Melosa and Princess Terreis, and then straightened. Ephiny reached up and grabbed the front of the mask and pulled it down over her face. The ceremony completed, Ephiny stepped back into the line of fifty other sisters who had also earned masks this day — the Masking Day, which occurred only once per year. Eponin turned to the next warrior in the line — and Solari stepped forward.

*   *   *

**I don’t like her,** Ephiny thought as she stared imperiously at the warrior’s back as she led her horse ahead of the Amazon patrol. **Thinks she’s a know-it-all and ... ,**

"Is there something you find interesting about me?" Xena snapped suddenly, returning Ephiny’s icy gaze.

"No," Ephiny sneered.

"Then stop staring at me before I rip your eyes out!"

**Ohh. Witty repartee,** Ephiny thought silently. **The Warrior Princess’ reputation precedes her.**

*   *   *

"Only an Amazon would do what you just did," Terreis whispered weakly into Gabrielle’s ear. "Take my Right of Caste, please!"

"Terreis!" Ephiny interjected. She was ignored.

"I ... I accept," Gabrielle said waveringly.

And then Princess Terreis died in the bard’s arms. Gabrielle looked up into Ephiny’s face, and that of the two other Amazon warriors who flanked Ephiny. Just then Xena came back into the clearing ...

*   *   *

"I know it’s hard, Solari, but the tradition is as old as the Nation itself," Ephiny tried to explain as she bounced Cera and Isis on her knee.

Solari paced around the hut. "Then let’s do away with tradition! We can raise our daughters by ourselves — they’ll know all about the Nation without ever having to leave home."

"That’s impossible, and you know it," Ephiny said firmly. "You and I — we all were *farmed* out to other tribes of the Nation for several years ... it’s part of how we learn about the world beyond our tribe’s lands." She paused, thinking. "Besides, without that experience of interacting with all of our Nation’s members, we’d be that much less enlightened."

Just then, the flap to their hut was thrown open by Eponin. "Are Cera and Isis ready yet?" she asked. "The tribal representatives from Ereboa are here to fulfill their part of tradition."

Ephiny put down the toddlers and looked expectantly at Solari. The latter sighed and — as all mothers do — held her fraternal twin daughters one more time. "I’ll see you again, little ones, every two moons or so," Solari told her babes. "You two behave yourselves now."

The girls nodded sadly and followed their mother out of the hut. **It’s never easy,** Ephiny thought as she stood and followed the trio from the hut. **I missed my mother for weeks at first — but it slowly got better.** Eponin scanned the empty home and then followed the rest of the group out into the brilliant sunshine.

*   *   *

"We have to leave, Phantes. They don’t understand our relationship," Ephiny sobbed, clutching her swollen belly. "A peace treaty between our peoples is one thing, but acceptance apparently is quite another."

The pair were by themselves beneath an ancient oak tree. Phantes pranced about nervously. "What about Solari and Eponin? Queen Melosa?" he finally asked.

Ephiny hadn’t thought that far into the future. "Queen Melosa has to keep the Nation together — that’s her top priority," she finally said. "If I have to leave to preserve that unity, then so be it." Another pause. "As for Solari, well, she’ll understand ... ,"

*   *   *

Phantes reared into the air and came down hard on the Mitoan soldier. He lashed out with his sword, carving a crimson slash through two other Mitoans — Ephiny laid off to the side, up against a tree, a massive welt on her head. "Phantes! No! Get out of here ... we’ll link up again in a safer place!" she shouted.

Distracted momentarily by Ephiny’s cries, Phantes let his guard down — and five Mitoan soldiers took advantage of the fleeting opening and closed in. Two nearby archers also took advantage of the confusion and sent their shafts zinging in towards the centaur, who was stumbling beneath the savage attack of the swordsmen. Blood gushed from his wounds and Phantes rose one more time, kicking wildly ... and an arrow slammed into his heart. He came down, a glazed look in his eyes as they widened in shock — and then death.

"NOOOOOOO!!!!" Ephiny screamed.

*   *   *

Ephiny watched in wonderment as her newborn son, Xenon, pranced about carefully on the heavy, oaken table. All of her life she had seen her sisters give birth, but had never felt the desire to do so herself — despite the Nation’s approval of such activity. Life was hard, and the more daughters who were born into the Nation meant that the survival was greater. She turned her gaze over to Xena and Gabrielle — the latter having just recovered from her close encounter with death — and allowed a small smile to play across her face.

"He’ll do his mother and father proud," Xena stated matter-of-factly.

Being the child’s mother, Ephiny could do nothing but agree wholeheartedly. "The potential is within him," she told Xena. "But that’s all it is now — potential."

Ephiny watched the warrior princess and the bard as they went about finishing up their business in the damaged temple. Then she gathered up her son in her arms and slowly got to her feet. She had two stops to make — the first was Tyldus’ tribe, to leave with them Phantes’ newborn son. **My sisters will never accept Xenon for what he really is, and that’s hope for an eventual permanent peace between my Nation and the Centaurs,** Ephiny thought wistfully. The second stop was, of course, home. Back in Themiscrya **Here’s to hoping Queen Melosa and, perhaps more importantly, Solari will accept me again as a full Amazon.**

Unknowing of the future, Ephiny left the temple and returned to her old life, satisfied that this one experimental foray out of the Amazon world would be her last.

*   *   *

As the metallic clash of swords echoed through Themiscrya’s village square, Ephiny forced herself to remain rigidly in position, along with Solari, Eponin and twenty-one other warriors, surrounding the two combatants as they battled for dominance over the Nation’s affairs. Velasca — who had been exiled from the Nation shortly before Ephiny met Xena and Gabrielle for the first time — had returned with a vengeance.

Ephiny was still in shock at how quickly things had deteriorated. Velasca had been back barely for a week before she issued a Challenge of Succession to Queen Melosa. **The timing couldn’t have been worse,** Ephiny thought. She winced as Velasca slashed through Melosa’s defenses and scored. **The High Council of the Amazon Nation was in session — I can’t believe Velasca stormed into one of the sessions when she heard about Melosa’s plan to cement the peace treaty with Tyldus.**

Shortly thereafter, the challenge had been issued and now Ephiny was among the witnesses to history. Although no one spoke of Melosa’s fall at the hands of Xena nearly a year earlier, it *had* played a significant role in the loss of respect that many across the Nation had held for Queen Melosa. **She broke tradition and survived the first Challenge,** Ephiny thought tiredly. **She should have fought to the death — no, it wouldn’t have been the logical choice, but it would have fulfilled the demand of tradition.**

Just then a collective gasp went through the on-lookers and warriors as Melosa had her prized chobos knocked from her grasp by the whirlwind that the younger Velasca had turned into. A flurry of blows pummeled her across the chest, neck and head — Melosa landed hard on the ground and glared up at a gloating Velasca. Melosa tried to rise ... **She knows there will be no mercy from Velasca,** Ephiny thought in horror ... but was quickly pinned to the ground — literally — by Velasca’s sword. Queen Melosa snarled in desperation and then began to choke on gouts of blood that leaked from her mortally-wounded lungs. Bright red streaks of red caked her lips and leaked from her lips as her snarl turned into a choking, gasping wheeze. Queen Melosa’s eyes began to glaze over, but she refused to look away from the triumphant Velasca.

A moment later, Queen Melosa was no more. She died, pinned to the ground like a bug.

And then the unexpected happened. Eponin let out a battle scream and broke ranks as she leaped into the combat arena. Ephiny’s eyes bulged at the blatant disregard for tradition, but she held her position, as did Solari. One would have thought Velasca would have been shocked at the intrusion, but she wasn’t.

Without even retrieving her sword from Melosa’s pinned body, she withdrew a pair of daggers from her uniform and sent them arcing toward Eponin. The latter, not suspecting that her enemy had hidden armaments — after all, one went into the Challenge with one weapon — didn’t have to time react as a blade buried itself into her throat. Eponin gasped and began clawing at the mortal wound just as the second dagger hurtled into her chest. Before the battle could even begin, Eponin — Captain of the Guard and among the most experienced warriors in the Nation — was breathing her last, lying on the blood-stained ground mere feet from her dead Queen.

"Are there any other interlopers?" Velasca asked icily. No one stepped forward, although anger burned in several of the faces that stared back at her. "Good. I’d hate to have to kill more of my sisters — after all, with the deaths of the Queen and the *esteemed* Captain of the Guard, we’ve lost some good talent today."

*   *   *

"Ephiny, Captain of the Guard," Queen Velasca pronounced two days later, at high noon, in Themiscrya’s village square. "You have proven yourself worthy of this honor — already your war mask is among the most decorated in the Nation. And you are still young."

Ephiny hadn’t wanted the position after seeing the way Eponin was cut down, but apparently Queen Velasca — **as she likes to be called now,** Ephiny thought miserably — had seen something in her and disregarded the fact that Ephiny remained loyal to the principles that Queen Melosa — and Queen Tiflis before her — had educated into their people.

"You have proven yourself worthy," Velasca repeated as she saw a flicker of doubt cross Ephiny’s features. "And I’m quite sure your sisters-in-arms would agree with that assessment." She paused briefly, then continued, "Tonight, we will send Melosa and Eponin to Eternity — until then, eat, drink and be merry. Today is for celebration!"

As the crowd dispersed, Ephiny removed her mask and trudged slowly home. **There will be no celebrating for this warrior,** she thought sadly. **I didn’t always agree with Queen Melosa and sometimes I hated Eponin the Taskmaster — but not to the point of death.** Ephiny sighed. **And Eponin and I grew closer as my experience and skill grew nearer to that and now, according to Velasca, surpassed Eponin’s own abilities.**

Ephiny spent a candlemark or so moping around the hut before her thoughts were interrupted by Solari, who had been called away briefly by Queen Velasca after her appointment as Ephiny’s right-hand woman. She saw her friend and sometime lover sitting idly by a window, soaking up the sun and a gentle breeze and sighed. **She’s not going to like what I’m about to tell her,** Solari thought.

"Many of the tribal leaders have accepted Velasca’s leadership of the Nation," Solari began.

"So what?" Ephiny snapped — her anger wasn’t directed at Solari, but at the course of events over the past several days. "She wouldn’t have given herself the Queen’s Mask if she hadn’t felt the support wasn’t there!"

"No, not that way," Solari replied. "They’ve accepted her views on our current relationship with neighboring Centaur tribes and villages. The tribal leaders have already agreed to table the final peace treaty that had been inked by Queen Melosa — so now we’re stuck with the cease-fire forged when Xena and Princess Gabrielle were here."

Ephiny snorted. "First the Tribunal agrees that Velasca bested Queen Melosa in fair combat, then the tribal leaders go off the deep end and agree to table the final peace treaty," she hissed. "It’s almost as if ... ,"

"Velasca has ordered the severing of relations with Tyldus’ tribe," Solari interrupted. "We’re not fighting yet ... ,"

" ... but that could change in a heartbeat," Ephiny finished glumly.

Solari knew what Ephiny was really thinking about. She took a seat and said it in one word. "Xenon. You’re worried about him, aren’t you?"

Ephiny shrugged, then finally nodded. "Of course I am. He’s my son. I sent him to Tyldus because I thought he’d be safer there. If war blossoms again between us and the Centaurs ... I, well, I ... would have to follow through on my vows as an Amazon warrior — and, of course, as Captain of the Guard."

"Well, we can see to it that any provocations on our part aren’t enough to tip the Centaurs into a frenzy," Solari said slyly. "And I’m sure Tyldus has an idea of who the *real* driving force is behind our new adversarial stance."

"Yeah, well, something’s going to have to be done about Velasca before too long," Ephiny muttered. "She’s going to have to see the error of her ways before the entire Nation is marches off to its death, flags waving and bands playing the patriotic songs."

Solari sighed. "Well, if it’s any consolation, one of the younger warriors in the village went to Artemis’ temple today and had herself renamed Eponin," she said quietly. "Usually that’s something allowed only for newborn daughters — being named in memory of someone who pre-deceased them — but the temple priestesses apparently acquiesced."

"Perhaps it’s their way of telling Velasca what *they* really think about her," Ephiny said, a bit of a smile upturning her mouth. "And since the name change was allowed ... perhaps Artemis herself knows of Velasca’s selfishness."

Solari didn’t reply. The two women — Amazon warriors, friends and sometime lovers — merely regarded their sisters as they passed to and fro in front of the window. Both weren’t scheduled for any duty today and neither was in the partying mood, so to speak. Tonight — when Queen Melosa and Eponin would be formally sent to Eternity — couldn’t come fast enough for either one.

*   *   *

Three moons later the terrible news had arrived via the grapevine — the great Warrior Princess was no more. Queen Velasca saw an opportunity — nothing more — to cement her grip on the Queenhood. Ephiny, Solari and some others saw a potential opportunity to bring their beloved Princess Gabrielle — and rightful Queen — back to the Nation’s lands. Only this time, she would remain for good. At least that was how it was supposed to work. Needless to say, Murphy’s Law was also present in the ancient world and its dictum — if something can go wrong, it will — played a role in the events as they unfolded.

**I have no regrets,** Ephiny thought as the memory washed over her like a raging river. **Our Princess came back, albeit for only a short time, a sad and heartbroken woman. When she left, it was with a very much alive Xena and she was happy.**

Ephiny watched silently as the memories of that event continued to speed by her mind’s eye. Velasca’s increasing anger at Gabrielle’s presence. The latter’s masterful stroke when she offered the former the Queen’s Mask or the dagger — and Velasca ... **not Queen anymore,** Ephiny thought happily ... had accepted the dagger. She watched again as Autolycus made his move at Xena’s funeral pyre and succeeded at escaping via horse with the coffin containing Xena’s body in tow.

Her face scrunched up as Velasca forcefully took the Queen’s Mask as her own again. The time in prison with Solari and the others — eventually joined by Gabrielle and Autolycus. Ephiny laughed at the memory of tricking the guards and escaping. **That’s what Velasca deserves for assigning two in-training warriors to keep watch over some of the Nation’s best warriors,** Ephiny thought.

*   *   *

The moment arrived when Ephiny was crowned Regent Queen of the Amazon Nation. Solari was at her side, now promoted to Captain of the Guard, beaming as Queen Gabrielle — accompanied by a vivacious Xena — presented Ephiny with the ornate Queen’s Mask. She told a joke and Gabrielle looked momentarily befuddled as Solari and the other Amazon tribal leaders and women broke out in laughter. **It was something about Amazons not having parades,** Ephiny thought wistfully.

That happy time had been preceded and succeeded by dark periods — both because of Velasca. Not long before the final coronation ceremony had taken place, Velasca had allied herself with Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry, after failing to prevent Xena’s resurrection. She had gone on to subvert the majority of the Amazon Nation — transforming her sisters into vampirish Bacchae. Even Gabrielle and Xena had been unable to escape the taint of the Bacchae as they did in their first encounter with Bacchus. The resulting conflict and its aftermath, while not lasting much more than two moons, had devastated Macedonia, parts of Thrace and put the Amazon Nation on the blacklist (again) of the Greek city-states. The conflict had also given Imperial Rome a window to expand even further into the Greek world as their legions marched by land and sea into Illyria, a Greek province to the northwest of Athens.

Ephiny continued to remember the coronation scene — the laughing and happiness which would, once again, be shattered by Velasca’s unexpected re-appearance. **She didn’t die on the spikes the first time around while trying to keep Xena from being resurrected and she didn’t die the second time on the spikes during the war with Bacchus,** Ephiny thought tiredly. **She just kept coming back for more!**

Xena had finally defeated the fledgling goddess, with some delaying help provided by the Amazon Nation. Ephiny remembered two encounters with Velasca, who had gone insane after ingesting the ambrosia. One had been in the village — **or what was left of it after Velasca’s fiery attack,** Ephiny thought — and the other deep in the forest at night, when Solari had tricked Velasca into believing that she had given Ephiny up. It had worked, but the delaying tactics took more than one Amazon’s life that night in the forest.

"She had so much potential," Solari mumbled absently as she cradled the fallen warrior’s head. "And she was three moons pregnant — I should have never brought her out on this expedition."

Ephiny squatted down next to her friend and lover. "Don’t start second-guessing yourself," she stated flatly. "Gemini knew the risk and gladly accepted it. She knew that taking on an embryonic goddess would be no easy task." A brief pause. "Besides, would you have denied Gemini’s request to come along, especially after Velasca’s role in turning her into a Bacchae — and nearly killing her fetus? A Baccha body is barely suitable for an unborn child."

Solari sighed. "I suppose not — it would be against the Way of the Warrior," she replied sadly. "It’s just that I haven’t been Captain of the Guard that long, and I’ve already had to watch sisters die under my leadership."

"It’s different, I know, going from following orders to giving orders," Ephiny said soothingly. "Leadership isn’t for everyone ... but Artemis selected us for whatever reason to play our roles within the Nation. If we had been meant to live out our lives as hunters, food-gatherers, dancers or weavers ... well, I’m sure it would have come to pass. But it didn’t — we are Amazon warriors, protectors of all our sisters."

"Do you believe in destiny?" Solari asked abruptly.

Ephiny thought about it for a moment, and then said, "Yes. To a certain degree — destiny isn’t all encompassing, but the choices one makes in life do affect that life’s ultimate outcome. Why do you ask?"

Solari looked down into Gemini’s unseeing eyes and then into Ephiny’s life-filled face. "Because I’m hoping there’s a method to the madness. That in the end, all of the suffering and pain will have been worth it."

*   *   *

"What in Tartarus is Mayem trying to accomplish?!" Ephiny blazed. The Regent Queen stood in front of a large bonfire, facing dozens of tribal leaders — who stared back with varying degrees of emotions plastered on their own faces. "Her small tribe won’t make any headway into reclaiming the disputed valleys — it’s just another black eye for the Amazon Nation!"

"Mayem is only doing what we would all like to do, and that’s to reclaim land that was taken away from us by those who don’t honor their treaties," one of the leaders offered.

Ephiny rolled her eyes. "I would like that land back, too. But a supermajority of the Nation has agreed to use diplomatic pressure to bring about the return," she explained. "My sisters — we’re outnumbered now in this increasingly hostile world. We can’t just march in with our warriors, like we used to be able to do, to right the wrongs committed against us. *I* don’t like it ... but that’s the way things have turned out for now."

"Nobody would have dared to abrogate treaties with the Amazon Nation in the past, even as recently as twenty years ago," another leader muttered angrily. "We’ve grown soft ... ,"

"No, we haven’t," Solari interjected, no longer able to contain her silence at Ephiny side. "We are the same Amazons as we were twenty years ago, a century ago, two centuries ago and even three centuries ago. The Amazons here today are the same ones, spiritually and physically, as those who rode into battle alongside the great Queen Hippolyta."

"Her legendary victory over the Greeks was expensive," a third leader mused. "I mark that as the beginning of the decline of the Amazons — we took horrendous losses, watched helplessly as a number of our tribes were vanquished. For the first time in history, the world saw that the mighty Amazon Nation was capable of being bloodied."

Ephiny waved for silence and got it. "Enough about the past — our sisters back then didn’t have to worry about an Imperial Rome either. Which is just another reason we should pursue peace whenever possible ... the Greeks may no longer be interested in crushing us — simply because they’re too weakened, too, over the centuries — but the Romans would love to acquire our lands and take us as slaves ... as icing on the cake after conquering Greece."

The debate continued deep in the night. A consensus was reached that the Nation would have to do something quickly to rein in bands and tribes of sisters who shared similar worldviews as Mayem and her small tribe. Amazons didn’t relish the idea of killing their sisters ... but if the Nation’s survival was at stake, then it would be done.

A candlemark later, Ephiny and Solari were naked and entwined in each other’s arms — making slow, passionate, love in their hut. The day, evening and night had been long and arduous for both of them ... and so they released their passions upon each other in the early morning candlemarks. Solari — as usual — was in the superior position and taking full advantage of it, her probing tongue deep in Ephiny’s mouth, her fingers tracing light circles around her lover’s swollen, trembling nipples. Another hand was gently tickling Ephiny’s clitoris ... and the Regent Queen trembled with sheer pleasure from the entirety of the experience.

**One of these days, Solari’s going to have to allow me to fully reciprocate her generosity,** Ephiny thought happily as wave after wave of pleasure spread over her body.

Sexually satiated, the lovers pulled apart and stared into each other’s eyes. Solari smiled slyly and reached into a nearby bowl. She pulled out a long, slim white tube of packed herbs and slipped it between her lips and then lit it up with a nearby candlestick. Solari sucked on the tube and held the smoke in her lungs for a moment before exhaling it in a pale blue stream of sweet-smelling herbal smoke into Ephiny’s slack face. Solari offered the long, slim tube to her lover who accepted it and took her own drag, immensely enjoying the slight buzz offered by the herbal cigarette.

"Have you considered taking Xenon to visit other Centaur tribes?" Solari asked gently. "He is of age now to experience the entirety of the Centaur Nation, rather than just Tyldus’ tribe."

Ephiny let another stream of smoke pass from her full lips, and then sighed. "It’s time, yes, but I dare not take a trip away from the Nation — Mayem’s actions are endangering the whole and I would look very foolish if I left to deal with my Centaur son."

"I can handle any affairs of state while you’re gone," Solari declared. "Besides ... the Centaur Nation is only a quarter of the size of our own — having suffered even more so at the hands of outsiders than us — so a journey wouldn’t take that long."

"That’s an intriguing offer," Ephiny replied cryptically. "But there’ll be a price for that ... ,"

" ... which is?" Solari quipped.

"I get to be in the superior position!" Ephiny hissed as she pushed Solari back to the floor and clambered on top of her. She contorted herself into a 69 position and dipped her tongue into Solari’s reservoir of love ... the herbal cigarette ignored as it burned away in a metal bowl nearby.

Solari gasped with tingling shock and managed to gurgle, "Well, it’s a price I’m willing to pay!"

*   *   *

Months later, Ephiny found herself in a position that few ever did: Accepting a heartfelt apology from Xena for her role in the abduction of Queen Gabrielle and last — but certainly not least — for breaking the Regent’s arm.

"Have you two really made up?" Ephiny asked unexpectedly, the torches and candles in the Royal Hut flickering around the small group of women. "I believe your apology to be sincere, Xena, but it’s just hard to comprehend that you and Gabrielle have let go of your mutual anger towards each other."

Solari added her own two bits. "You’ve both lost children — Solan and Hope — to the machinations of this Dahak god," she said. "You both blamed each other for the loss ... and that’s something that doesn’t just go away because of some trip to Illusia."

"Well, you’re both certainly plain-spoken, aren’t you?" Xena replied neutrally.

"We’ve *seen* too much to be soft-spoken," Ephiny stated unequivocally.

"Your curiousness is understandable," Gabrielle interjected. "Please, allow me to explain how such a rift — as you rightly described it — could be healed so effectively by a short stay in Illusia."

Candlemarks later, Xena and Gabrielle left the village escorted by the newly-masked Chilapa. The pair left behind a thoroughly bewildered, yet happy, Ephiny and — to a slightly lesser degree — Solari. The stories they had heard from Xena and Gabrielle had validated some of the rumors that had spread across the Nation and, of course, put others to rest.

"Leave it up to the Warrior Princess to single-handedly put a stop to a massive Persian incursion into southern Greece," Ephiny sighed as she and Solari made their way through the village to their private hut.

"One less potential enemy that the Amazon Nation might have had to contend with one day," Solari replied pragmatically. "But we still have our usual array of not-so-friendly neighbors — Romans, Greeks and Artemis knows how many barbarian warlords." She paused, then added, "And this demon Dahak that has apparently been trying to claw its way into our world."

Ephiny looked quizzically at Solari. "Are you worried about it?" she asked. "Nothing seems unusual within the Amazon Nation — Artemis still answers many of our prayers, the crops grow by leaps and bounds and the rains still fall with regular precision."

Solari tapped her head. "It’s just a feeling, Ephiny. Nothing more."

Ephiny came to an abrupt halt. "Have you had visions?!" she demanded, all Regent Queen and all business.

"I don’t have that ability and you know it," Solari retorted. "But if Xena and Gabrielle’s accounts of his stubbornness are even close to being true, this dark creature won’t stop until he’s gained access to our world."

"Let’s hope your logic doesn’t come to fruition," Ephiny replied softly as both women resumed walking. "At least not this time around."

*   *   *

Peace had finally returned to the Amazon Nation with the death of Mayem and the succession of Siri to the leadership of the former’s tribe. But with peace also came the titanic battle of the gods — although not directly involved with the drama and action surrounding Dahak’s incursion into Greece via Iolaus’ body, the Amazons had to survive the side-effects of the war that had seen the defeat of the Olympians. Now, moons into Dahak’s rule, the Amazons had had several murderous encounters with his followers, who were growing in number by the week. On top of that, the rains had ceased and the crops quickly grew blunted and blighted.

"We’re only hanging on because of our bountiful reserves," Ephiny muttered, glancing over the tally scrolls of what the Nation maintained for foodstocks. "One can’t help but wonder if Artemis saw this godly conflict coming, and tried to prepare her Nation for the trials it would produce."

Solari lit a herbal cigarette up and sucked on it. Exhaling a rich cloud of bluish smoke, she sighed, "Who can say with the gods? If Artemis was so considerate of our past crops, why doesn’t she step in and do something about our warriors?"

"What? Are there more reports of dereliction of duty?" Ephiny asked, alarm in her voice.

"That, plus the fact that many have taken to drink and smoke to drown the helplessness they feel," Solari replied grimly. She took another nervous drag from her cigarette.

"I can see that," Ephiny replied, waving her hand at Solari. "You’re not looking so good yourself — as Captain of the Guard, what you do makes an impression on the others. And a chain-smoking Captain probably isn’t having a positive impact on the rank-and-file warriors, not to mention the Nation as a whole."

Solari knew Ephiny was right and quickly crushed the herbal cigarette out. "I agree. Many others have probably taken up their habits because of cues from their leaders," she replied. "This is a dark time, Ephiny! We *can’t* do anything to halt the poison that’s spreading through the world because of Dahak. It’s far too easy to sit back, light up and drink ... drown our sorrows in hopelessness and ignorance."

Ephiny stood and began to pace. "Then Dahak has won. His victory doesn’t have to be completely physical — not if the spiritual side is crushed as well by mere mention of his name and what he does," she explained. "And there *is* good news ... we are *stopping* Dahak, to a certain degree!"

"What? By barely holding his minions at bay?"

Ephiny nodded. "That’s part of it. But our efforts are allowing the refugees on our land — and their *children* — to maintain a faint hope that someday they’ll be able to return home." A brief pause. "And, pragmatically speaking, our harboring of Greek refugees can only make us look better in the long run. If the Greek city-states see us in a better light, they’ll leave us alone completely. We can survive in a world where buffers exist between the Romans and us."

"We just have to get that good news out to our sisters more effectively," Solari mused, picking up where Ephiny had left off. "If they know their efforts aren’t for naught ..."

" ... then things will get better," Ephiny resumed. "The Nation will see that even in this dark candlemark, we have a purpose. Besides, Artemis doesn’t throw anything our way that she knows we can’t handle."

"My faith has been strained lately," Solari replied honestly. "But I hope you’re right."

*   *   *

"Hey. Careful on that leg of yours!" the healer cautioned emphatically. "It hasn’t been much over a moon since your adventure with Hercules brought about the bad sprained ankle."

Ephiny grinned gamely and then left the healer’s hut, her limp hardly noticeable. **I swear, she’s such a mother hen sometimes,** she thought, overhearing the healer’s clucking in the background. Several minutes later, Ephiny was back in her quarters, sharing a passionate kiss with Solari.

"So what’s the diagnosis?" Solari asked, pointing at Ephiny’s ankle. "Is it going to completely healed in time for our Joining Ceremony?"

"You wouldn’t think so, judging from the healer’s attitude," Ephiny replied.

"Sounds like Ordahlia," Solari beamed. "Always the perfectionist at what she does best."

Ephiny sat down and rubbed her nearly-healed ankle gently. "Yeah, well, not everyone can say they went on a wild adventure with Hercules. Especially ascending an active volcano. Hard to believe that a trip to visit the centaurs and, of course, Xenon, would end up being so exciting."

"Rope bridges just aren’t your forte, are they lover?" Solari teased as she sat next to Ephiny.

Ephiny didn’t reply, but merely looked longingly into Solari’s captivating, dancing eyes. Since childhood, the two had been good friends. Over time, the friendship had developed into something deeper and far more personal. They had fallen in love — not right away, and not without the ups and downs that accompanied life in general — despite everything that had threatened to tear them apart. **Internecine strife. Bacchus and his lecherous ways. Roman incursions. Dahak. Artemis knows so much more than words are capable of forming,** Ephiny thought. **And here we are, finally planning our Joining Ceremony ... time sure flies.** Although the event was still a moon off, anticipation between the lovers and the Nation as a whole was becoming more evident with each passing day. The Regent Queen was about to exchange vows with her longtime lover — finally, something that the *entire* Amazon Nation could rejoice in.

Solari, sensing Ephiny’s thought, spoke. "Do you think Queen Gabrielle and her Champion, Xena, will be able to attend the festivities?"

"Only time will tell," Ephiny replied. "I’ve sent word to Cyrene ... but apparently her daughter and our Queen are still traveling somewhere in India."

"India. A mysterious land," Solari began. "We don’t know much about, other than for what Alexander the Great’s soldiers brought back with them centuries ago."

"And that doesn’t help our insight much, either," Ephiny picked up. "Considering the fact that most of Alexander’s men made a point of bypassing Amazon territory. We were still strong then."

Solari sighed wistfully. "I heard they set out that way after what unfolded near Illyria. Suppose they needed some time away after that terrible battle between Caesar and Pompey."

Ephiny grimaced, remembering the tales passed on about the mighty Roman war machines that had slammed into each other outside Illyria, a former Greek province — but Roman for years now — and how their battle had come to a head far sooner than imagined because of the Warrior Princess’ tactical maneuvers. Both sides in the civil war had been devastated, but it hadn’t done much to stop Roman imperialism ... **No, it merely put it on hold for a few moons,** Ephiny thought, recalling the tactical reports from the outlying tribes of the Nation. **That and Dahak’s presence so soon after the battle.**

"Yes, well, our Queen has missed out on all of the fun," Ephiny spoke somberly. "I wouldn’t be surprised if she and Xena aren’t even aware of Dahak’s final defeat by Hercules and Iolaus. We could have used our Queen’s presence during that dark time, even if it was for nothing more than *being* here."

"Is that a hint of bitterness I detect?"

Ephiny rubbed her ankle again — the adventure with Hercules hadn’t taken place too long after Dahak’s defeat — and shook her head. "No, just wistfulness. What-could-have-beens, you understand."

"Second-guessing your actions, my Regent Queen?" Solari chided gently. "Don’t. You *are* the leader of the Nation in Gabrielle’s rather extensive absence."

"I know that," Ephiny replied lamely. "And, speaking as your Regent Queen, I demand that we find something more exciting to talk about than our in absentia Queen."

Solari grinned wolfishly and unhooked her feather-bedecked leather chest armor. "Your wish is my command."

*   *   *

The young warrior dragged herself to the timber wall surrounding Themiscrya, blood oozing from a dozen wounds. On the stockade, guards began scurrying about upon seeing their fallen sister. Within minutes, she had been carried within Themiscrya to the healer’s quarters. Delirious, the warrior kept muttering, "Patrol attacked. Heavy casualties. Roma ..."

A quarter candlemark later, Ephiny was in the healer’s quarters, listening to the words repeated constantly by the delirious warrior. Turning to Ordahlia, she asked, "Has Timas said anything else about the attack? Anything?!"

"No. She just keeps repeating ‘Patrol attacked. Heavy casualties. Roma’," Ordahlia said. "And I doubt we’ll get much more from Timas. She’s dying ... and there’s nothing my knowledge can do to save her. The damage is too extensive."

It was enough for Ephiny. She nodded mutely and left the healer’s presence, a thousand thoughts flying through her mind. **How did the Romans penetrate so far so quickly?** she asked over and over, knowing what the word ‘Roma’ meant. **Intelligence reports indicated nothing like this!**

It had been a strange war, if one could even call it that. The Nation’s lands had been violated by several Roman legions for the past moon or so. Strange because the legions were apparently hunting one another, and didn’t make any special effort to annihilate any Amazon settlements. That had been then, though. Now it was different. At least one, possibly two Amazon tribes had been destroyed by the Roman legions ... **Amarice can attest to that,** Ephiny thought sourly, reaching the nearest barracks ... as they continued to hunt each other down. Caught in the cross-fire, Amazons had died needlessly, and the Nation had since been fighting an on-again, off-again, war against the intruders. The losses had mounted in a short time ... **We weren’t equipped to fight the Romans head-on,** Ephiny thought. **Too many of them, too few of us. Not like the old days at all, when our power was feared.** ... but *nothing* had indicated that the Romans had neared Themiscrya itself.

Two candlemarks later, Regent Queen Ephiny led a force of Amazons out of Themiscrya. A half-candlemark after Ephiny’s departure, a second force of Amazons from the capital set out. One way or another, the groups would find the intruding Romans and deal with them once and for all.

And discover the fate of Solari, who had been leading the attacked patrol group. And who had been bonded to Ephiny for less than two weeks.

*   *   *

Ephiny tentatively turned the still body over. She took one look at the face and turned her eyes skyward and grimaced.


Her face looked peaceful, eyes closed in the embrace of Eternity. Her feathered war mask still caressed her head, although it was knocked askew and lay partially in the dirt and leaves. Her beautiful body lay still in death, the shafts of two arrows poking out — one from her chest, the other from her belly. Only two smears of blood stained Solari’s body. Grasping her lover’s dead hand, Ephiny suppressed an anguished cry of grief as she rubbed the gold Joining ring, inset with two diamonds. Oblivious to her Queen’s feelings, Amarice came to her side, all business ...

*   *   *

Time stood still for Ephiny. One moment she had been battling her way through the ranks of Roman soldiers, alternately knocking them unconscious or killing them, depending on their own actions. The next moment she had seen Amarice go down beneath the sustained attack of a Roman commander whose own swordfighting skills simply overpowered the young Amazon warrior. In an instant, the Queen of the Amazon Nation made her decision — and crossed blades with the Roman just as his own blade was descending towards Amarice. Startled at her Queen’s unexpected appearance, the young warrior scuttled back and stared in awe as her Queen brought the entirety of her years of training and combat tactics to bear on the Roman.

The battle between the two leaders was furious. Strike and counterstrike, each blow parried off the other’s weapon. A tactical move here, a tactical leap skyward there. The battle was even — until Ephiny stumbled coming down from a small jump. The ankle that had given out had been the same one she had injured on the rope bridge while assisting Hercules in his efforts to put a volcano out of action. Ephiny tumbled to the ground, grimaced and raised her blade defensively, but it was to no avail as the Roman knocked it from her hand. The Roman leader raised his sword and brought it down ...

"MY QUEEN!" Amarice screamed.

... Ephiny never felt the blade as it entered her belly. She was staring up, slack-jawed and glassy-eyed, at the Roman leader. She stared into his eyes and he looked back, surprise and disbelief growing more evident by the second as he realized who he had just skewered. Then, with a sick slick sound, he withdrew the blade and backed away from Ephiny as she fell to the ground, her lifeforce streaming from her gutted belly.

"Pull back! Pull back!" the Roman leader ordered as he saw more Amazon warriors streaming in to back up the ones already in the meadow. "We have to re-group!"

Ephiny barely heard the commotion as Roman centurions — those that still stood — scampered by her prone form, quickly followed by enraged Amazon warriors. Amarice fell to her knees next to her fallen Queen and leaned over the limp form ... Ephiny didn’t say anything. Her eyes were vacant, staring upward into looming Eternity. Her vision began to tunnel as her eyes focused one last time on Amarice’s distraught face. In the next instant, time moved again and Ephiny found herself above her body, slowing drawing away further into the sky. **No! Not now! There’s so much left to do!** Ephiny cried out silently. **Please, Artemis, please ... ,**

*   *   *

Ephiny felt a sense of detachment as the images flashed in front of her eyes. Images of Themiscrya being sacked by Pompey’s legions. Images of countless sisters being carried off for the slave markets. **Our darkest candlemark is at hand,** she thought. **And here I am, unable to do anything about it.** Images of Queen Gabrielle and Xena finally returning to the burning capital. A tear slipped from Ephiny’s eyes as Gabrielle kissed her body’s forehead, as Xena leaned over her, her ghostly words echoing, "This shall not go unpunished, Ephiny."

Her vision shimmered, then came back. Xena was busy freeing the enslaved Amazons, with Amarice at her side. More images — this time, of the entire tribe gathering together for a showdown with the Romans under Pompey’s command. Xena charging forward into battle, preceded and followed by Amazon warriors. Ephiny watched as her sisters killed and were, in turn, maimed and killed. Tears flowed freely from the Regent’s eyes ... **Where am I?! Why am I forced to watch this happen?!**

Another shimmer. Chilapa was accepting the Queen’s Mask from Gabrielle. Behind Chilapa, burning funeral pyres came into view, stretching away into the horizon. Instinctively, Ephiny gravitated toward one at the beginning of the somber parade. Amazon leaders were dancing, singing and wailing around it. Gabrielle began sobbing. Xena herself was near tears. Ephiny felt herself being drawn away, unable to comfort those who grieved over her and the many fallen warriors of the Nation.

*   *   *

Ephiny’s vision shimmered again ... she felt herself losing consciousness and form ... of falling toward the earth. When she opened her eyes again, she found herself staring into a small, babbling brook. The air around her contained a chilly bite to it. Ephiny looked around — and found herself in a frost-rimmed gray land, studded with boulders and cold, gray mountains capped with snow. Overhead, a brilliant blue sky arced ... the only real color in an otherwise colorless land. Focusing further, Ephiny realized that she wasn’t the only soul here — in the distance, figures moved aimlessly.

"The Amazon Land of the Dead," Ephiny whispered to herself. Rising to her feet, she looked around ...

... and saw Solari.

"Solari!" Ephiny yelled joyously. She rushed toward her lover and wrapped her in a bear hug.

Smiling wanly, Solari disengaged herself from Ephiny and chided, "We can’t celebrate yet. We’re not in Eternity. This is merely the prelude ... ,"

"You’re so right about that, my sisters," a voice boomed.

Ephiny and Solari looked around, but didn’t see anything at first. Then a light shimmered and coalesced into a very familiar form near a stunted, gray tree. They smiled, not believing their eyes.

"I was wondering how long it’d take two gung-ho warriors like you to get to this side of Eternity," Terreis beamed her arm extending in a warrior’s handshake. "We’ve been waiting ... after all, no good deed goes unrewarded."

"We?" Ephiny asked, anticipation building.

"Come," Terreis offered. "And I’ll show you ... and *all* of your memories will return."

The trio set off in the direction of a looming volcano. They weren’t the only ones, as the apparently aimless wandering of so many other dead Amazons was actually a beeline for the same destination. Eternity. Ever-lasting life.

*   *   *

Ephiny wasn’t quite sure where the Amazon Land of the Dead ended and where Eternity began. There was no transition. One instant, it was gray and chilly ... the next instant they had burst into a meadow bursting with color and life. The same brook which gurgled in the Land of the Dead also gurgled into the meadow ... **A symbolic pathway?** ... and, in the distance, a settlement loomed. All around Ephiny, Solari and Terreis Amazons roamed, some hunting, others talking amongst themselves, yet others meditating. The cry of birds filled the air and wild game was thick and plentiful in the woods, streams and hills which lay all around the river valley which contained this meadow and, undoubtedly, many other similar meadows as well.

Recognizing the figures, Ephiny shed tears of happiness and joy. Her mother approached her, grinning from ear to ear. Off to the side, Solari’s mother hugged her daughter as well. Falling into Alluria’s arms, Ephiny felt a sense of peace and contentment settling over her.

"It’s been too long, my beloved Ephiny," Alluria whispered. "My only daughter has finally returned to whence she came ... ,"

"I died before my time, mother," Ephiny whispered sadly, remembering her skewered body lying at Brutus’ feet.

"Nothing happens by accident," Alluria reassured her child.

Other figures gathered around the homecoming. Eponin was nearby, smiling enigmatically. Queen Melosa stood next to Alluria. In the distance, Queen Tiflis stood in conversation with the great Queen Hippolyta. Warriors, archers, scouts and other members of Amazon society were nearby as well. All had died, and yet they lived on in Eternity. Countless thousands of other Amazon souls went about their business all over the valley, and throughout Imperial Themiscrya, as it had appeared during the greatest days of the Amazon Empire.

"I’m ... I’m really home, aren’t I?" Ephiny wondered aloud. "This truly is Eternity ...,"

"And the never-ending journey — the Circle of Life — we’re all on continues," Alluria replied. "Come, we have much to catch up on ... ,"

Ephiny looked back at Solari, who was hugging her mother.

"We have Eternity now, my daughter," Alluria said reassuringly, seeing Ephiny’s longing gaze at her lover. "And Solari is definitely a part of it."

*   *   *

That concludes the short story, "Prelude to Eternity." If you have any constructive comments or suggestions, please feel free to drop me, M. Keck, an e-mail at: I appreciate any and all correspondence from readers.

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