This tale is the second part of a story started in Who Has the Right? The two stories stand alone, but are part of a much larger story.
The standard disclaimer. The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Solari, and Epinon belong to Universal. No copyright infringement is intended, and this all came from my brain, it is not taken from any literary source or any other source whatsoever. No one gets the blame for my stories except me.
The Lost Warrior Princess
Gabrielle stepped carefully as she walked along the small wooded path. She drew in a deep breath. She couldn't decide if she loved or hated these games Xena made her play. In one way it was exhilarating in another it was very scary. Knowing the purpose was to save her own life by learning to move more silently and to hear better didn't always help. Yet for some reason she always felt more alive after playing one of these games. Today's game was actually one of the easiest ones. Which was surprising in lieu of the events that had recently taken place. She was still surprised that Xena had listened to her and not chased after the man that had held her captive. Surprised, but happy. And now I better get back to the game. She frowned. The faster I solve this game the faster I can get back to camp. Camp...where Xena was watching the meat and vegetables I set to cooking before leaving. I better hurry if I want to eat tonight.
What's that? She paused and tilted her head listening to the noises carried by the wind. She frowned. That last noise didn't sound like it was part of nature. Something was out of step. Yup. Something was out of sync...the birds have shut up. She drew a silent breath and cautiously walked toward the sound. Slipping in and out of the tree coverage like a true Amazon. Carefully she pulled aside the branches of a bush to get a look at what was making the noise, and gasped in surprise. A little girl! Alone in the forest.
The girl whirled in surprise at the sound behind her. She stood defiantly. "Come out!" She snarled. "I heard you." She aimed a crude spear at the bushes. "Don't make me throw this at you!"
Gabrielle bit back a smile. What ferocity! She lifted her staff over her head similar to the Amazon peace. "Don't hurt me." She said earnestly. "I'm friendly. Really I am." She said the last words smiling as she stepped into the small clearing and looked into the face of a young girl.
The young girl was glaring angrily back at her. "Who are you? And what are you doing in my woods?"
Gabrielle laughed, placing a hand over her mouth. "I'm sorry. I truly didn't mean to laugh at you. Why do you claim these woods as yours?" She looked around the clearing, noting the lack of supplies.
"Because they are mine." The young girl replied. "I live here, no one else."
Gabrielle fought to maintain a neutral look. "That may be the case," she spoke slowly. "But the woods do not belong to anyone person. They are for all of us." She looked sadly at the girl. "Why do you live here? Where is your family?"
The girl glared at Gabrielle but refused to speak.
"Okay." Gabrielle stared back at the youngster trying to figure out her next move. Even through the dirt she could tell the girl was a handsome child, dark-haired and dark-eyed. A little too thin, but then again if she had been on her own for a while...maybe...Gabrielle smiled. "Well if we are going to be neighbors for a few nights how about you coming to my campsite for dinner?" She posed the question casually.
The dark-haired girl curled her lip angrily, "I don't need no handouts."
"No!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "Of course not...it's just as you are the local resident and I the visitor it's only fair that I offer you food in return for my using your land."
Gabrielle watched quietly as emotions flittered across the child's face hunger, fear, desire, hope...hunger.
"When you put it that way," The girl motioned with her spear. "Let's go."
Gabrielle nodded gravely, bit back a smile and turned to go. Wait until Xena got a look at this catch I've made. "I think you will like my friend."
The girl scowled, but hunger caused her to want to stay with this strange blond woman and it was fear that caused her to ask. "Is your friend a man?"
Gabrielle grinned. "Oh no. She's all woman."
Xena sat on a log half facing the woods. Gabrielle should have been back by now. Five more minutes and I go looking for her. She forced herself to remain calm and fed another log to the fire. The water was hot, time to make the tea. The potatoes were cooking and the meat was nearly ready.
A slight rustling in the brush alerted Xena to the incoming people. Two, so it wasn't Gabrielle. Snakelike she rose and facing the noise drew her sword, ready to greet her visitors. "Gabrielle?" She questioned as her friend's head poked out of the brush, quickly followed by the rest of her body.
"Hi!" Gabrielle smiled. "Is supper ready? I'm starved and look I brought a friend." She turned to look back the way she'd come. "Come on out." She called. "It's okay...honest." Gabrielle glanced at Xena. "Oh? Xena put away your sword. She won't come out of the woods as long as you are threatening her." She huffed impatiently.
The stunned warrior complied warily, eyes peering into the dark. Surprise quickly masked as the young girl emerged from the shadows. Quickly she turned to Gabrielle with one brow raised questioningly.
Gabrielle smiled and shrugged her shoulders, spreading her arms in an expressive gesture. "She doesn't talk much." Biting back her laughter...Xena's expression of surprise had been priceless. "Now can we eat? I really am hungry."
Xena glanced from the girl to her friend and back again, before heading back to the fire. "Ya, come on in. Tea should be ready."
The little girl stood uncertainly at the edge of the campsite. The warrior was big. Her eyes took in the scene before her and she desperately wanted to be a part of it. But after so long alone she was uncertain if she could be.
Xena glanced sideways at the young child standing scared by the edge of the light. She sighed. This story was going to be an interesting one. The child reminded her of another campfire many moons ago. She looked at Gabrielle and grinned. That time it had been the young woman who had become her best friend, standing at the edge wanting to feel the warmth of the fire, but too frightened to come in...Gaia but I am glad she found the courage.
She pointed to the fire. "Come in child. There is plenty of food. Gabrielle always plans for an army."
"I'm not a child." She scowled. "I am a warrior."
Xena lifted one eyebrow. "My mistake." She spoke graciously. "Please accept my apology." She nodded her head. "Warrior won't you please join me and my comrade at our fire. We would be pleased to share and to learn from you."
The girl stepped forward. "You mock me?"
"No." Xena spoke softly. "I have seen warriors of all ages. If indeed you claim the title I am willing to accept it."
The girl took two more steps. She now stood in front of Xena. She looked into her eyes without speaking. Finally she nodded. "I would learn from you." She made it a statement.
"No." Xena gestured to her to sit. "I am not a teacher."
The girl scowled. "I say you are."
"Wha..at?" Xena couldn't believe her ears. She stared at the youngster, taking in her features. Dark hair, brown eyes, fine bones, small, no more than eight or nine years of age. She brought her eyes back to the girls face. Fierce brown eyes held her own. Xena continued to look, letting time flow past while she tried to think. The girl held still, in an expectant posture that let the warrior realize that the child was truly anxious about the whole situation. She leaned forward. The girl remained still. "I do not teach children to fight. Understand?"
"Yes." Brown eyes flashed angrily. "But I am not a child. I haven't been a child for a long time."
"I can see that." Xena looked toward Gabrielle. Her friend was being unusually silent. She looked back at the child and sighed. Rubbing her teeth with her cheek and biting her lip she sighed again. "How about the three of us eat and we talk after. Okay?"
The girl nodded. Her stomach was howling for food and the longer she could stay the more likely this warrior would teach her all she needed to find those men and kill them.
Gabrielle finally smiled. "Here." She handed the girl some meat and potato wrapped in a leaf basket and a cup of the tea Xena had made. After you eat the food eat the leaf."
She nodded and crossing her legs sank to the ground. Slowly, carefully she lifted the meat to her mouth and bit off a small chunk, chewing until there was no flavor in her mouth before swallowing. In this way she savored every bite.
Xena watched the youngster eat. She glanced over at her partner and smiled. Gabrielle too was watching their new companion. Inwardly she winced. What was the child's story? If any one could get the girl to tell it, it would be her bard. She lifted her head and clearing her throat brought the attention to herself. "Gabrielle, it's a warm night care for a swim after we finish?"
Gabrielle half smiled. Leave it to her warrior to find a polite way to get their new friend cleaned up. "I'd like that. It's been a while." She glanced at the girl "Hey...ah what is your name anyway? "
The girl froze. Her name? It had been so long since anyone had cared...since anyone had called her by name she was no longer certain if her name was hers.
"I," she looked into the fire, "I don't have a name."
"Oh!" Gabrielle gasped and her hand rose to her face. "I'm sorry. We will find you a name." She bit into her meat and chewed quietly.
Xena waited, but the bard refused to speak. She let out a breath. "Would you like to join us for a swim?"
The girl licked her lips worriedly. If she said no would they leave her alone? Make her leave? Better to say yes. "Yes."
Xena paused as Gabrielle's words penetrated her head. "You want me to what?" She looked in surprised shock at her friend. "No." She shook her head violently. "The child does not belong on the road with us." She practically hissed the words, not wanting to wake said child from her nap on Argo's back.
Gabrielle sighed. "Xena whatever happened to her made her want to be a Warrior Princess...her words not mine...she needs you to change that mind set. She needs you to teach her so that doesn't happen."
"Why?" Gabrielle was truly puzzled. Xena had taught others, she teaches me. Why not the young girl? What was so different about teaching the girl. It wasnt like they could just leave her here in the woods.
Xena took her by the shoulders, looked coldly into her eyes. "It's none of your business. Just leave it alone." She let go of her with a little shove. Gabrielle staggered backward, bumping up against Argo. She watched with shocked expression and a new fear as Xena strode off into the woods. She waited a minute or two and then followed slowly. Knowing that whatever was bothering her warrior she needed to get it straightened out before it overtook their relationship. Argo followed the bard's gentle tugging obediently and the young girl slept on unaware.
She trembled as she walked. It bothered her. Why did Gabrielle expect so much from her? Why should she accept responsibility for the child. It frightened her that one so young identified so closely with her and Gabrielle wanted me to teach her how to fight...why? How do I get out of this one?
Xena stopped and leaned her head against a big old oak tree. I am a fool.
I pushed Gabrielle. She swallowed and made a bitter face as she tasted the fear of the damage done to her friendship. How to I get out of this one? She let her feet fold under her body and slid down to rest against the tree.
Gabrielle paused at the edge of the small clearing. Dropping Argo's reins she pulled a blanket out of the saddlebags and laid it at the warsteed's feet. Gently she reached up and lowered the sleeping girl to the ground. She looked Argo in the eye and spoke a quiet command. "Protect." Argo looked on quietly and lowering her head nipped at the grass by the girl. Gabrielle smiled, before straightening her shoulders and heading to Xena.
"Hi." She sat down facing the warrior.
"Leave me alone."
"Because I care."
"I can't do what you want."
Xena pulled at the grass, never looking at her young friend. Silence fell over the clearing.
Finally Gabrielle spoke. "I'm not leaving without an explanation."
"I don't want you to go anywhere." Came the quiet admission.
"What do you want?"
Xena swallowed. What do I want? Her mind shouted. 'You!' But silence was all she offered the bard.
"Xena?" A hand rested softly on her arm. Gentle green eyes searched her face worriedly. "Please talk to me."
It was her undoing. She lifted her eyes to stare into the face of her beloved. "I know you want to keep the girl. You want to pretend we are a family and have her share all with us. I know you so well...you want a child...and my lifestyle won't allow that. I won't teach her, because if I agreed to teach her she would need to stay with us. She would win our hearts. She would become a target to be used against me. I would be unable to protect both of you and one of you would die. I can't risk that...I can't risk your life for your death would be mine."
Tears came to Gabrielle's eyes. "Oh Xena." She whispered her sorrow. Her grip on the warrior's arm tightened briefly before she let go and stood up. She looked at the sleeping girl at Argo's feet before moving closer. She knelt by the warrior's side and lifted her arms. Xena looked sadly up into her face, sagging gratefully against the younger woman who promptly wrapped Xena in her arms.
Xena rested comfortably in Gabrielle's embrace. When did I become so weak?
She let her mind wander over the past few years and realized that she couldn't pin point the moment...it had been a gradual thing...so gradual that the bard had slipped in and taken possession of her heart before she was aware of it.
Finally Gabrielle pulled back and Xena kissed her lips lightly. "Thanks." She pulled the bard back onto her lap and leaned against the tree. "The girl still sleeps."
Gabrielle snuggled into the warmth of Xena. She nodded her head. "We need to find her a name. I'm really getting sick of hey you or the girl." She peeked a look at Xena. Satisfied that the warrior was okay, she continued. "Any ideas?"
"Huh?" Xena blinked. "I'm sorry Gabrielle I was thinking. Ideas about what?"
"The girl " Gabrielle gestured, "we need to find something to call her."
Xena smiled. As if in response to Gabrielle's demand for a name the girl moved. She was awake. "Girl come HERE." Xena called. Gabrielle struggled to move but Xena held her still. "No, stay here I have an idea."
The youngster in question sat up slowly. The warrior both fascinated and scared her. She was so much like and yet unlike the men that had killed her family and destroyed her home. The other woman made her feel good. Like her momma used to make her feel. But it was the warrior that made them safe. The warrior I want to be like. She rose to her feet and walked sullenly to the couple. Aware now that they were a couple like momma and papa had been. It was the way they were sitting that told her. She said not a word, just stopped in front of them and looked at the warrior expectantly. She steeled herself for the dismissal she was sure would come. Before she had fallen asleep the night before the two had argued. She knew it had been over her. She assumed the warrior wanted to send her away and the other had objected and now the warrior had finally won her way. She would make no sound. Just walk quietly away.
Xena smiled, trying to ease the girl's fear and let out a soft breath as the girl trembled. "Will you tell us your name?" Names were important. They could ground you. A part of who you were who you would become rested in your name.
The girl bit her lip and glanced fearfully at Gabrielle. Afraid that the she'd be angry with her if she admitted that she knew her name.
Gabrielle saw the look and smiled reassuringly. "Sometimes it's good to keep our names to ourselves, but once a stranger becomes a proven friend it makes sense to share names."
The girl smiled. Gabrielle didn't mind and if the warrior wanted her name she wasn't being dismissed. "I am Acacia and I will be a warrior princess."
Xena bit her lip to stop herself from flinching at the words. The child didn't know what she was saying. "Acacia where is your family?"
"Dead." Her voice trembled but she bit the inside of her mouth to stop the tears from falling. "Killed by a madman and his friends. I will kill them one day."
Gabrielle let the tears fall from her eyes.
Xena soothed her bard by rubbing her back. "Child it won't bring them back."
"No, but it will stop them from harming another family." She looked with dry eyes at the two before her. "Someone has to see to it, make it right. I will be like a thorn and I will kill warlords. I will gather an army and protect everyone. My family was destroyed. I have the right."
Xena looked away and Gabrielle's heart sank. Her fear for the child palpable to Gabrielle. Her self disgust evident. She had followed the path this child wanted to follow and it led only to destruction. How then to stop the girl from following the path of hate. "Acacia." Her voice was full of regret. "Revenge is not the answer." She shook her head sadly leaning forward. "It's up to us to stop the hatred. To heal the wrongs by helping those left alive, not by seeking someone else's death."
Acacia's eyes grew hard and cold, but she moved not a muscle. "You weren't there. You didn't watch as everyone you knew was killed." Tears streamed down her face, yet she spoke calmly. The words poured out dispassionately and Xena grew colder with each word. "You didn't hide in the hay and listen as your mother screamed in pain and watch as your sister was raped and killed in front of you. How can you say I am wrong?" She ignored the tears and stood waiting to see what these two would do with her now.
Xena lifted Gabrielle off her lap and rose silently. Gabrielle was the bard let her deal with the child. She walked toward Argo. It was too much...too similar to Gabrielle's unknown assailant, too similar to Callisto...where would it end? Were they right to seek vengeance? Should she have let Callisto live and let herself be killed? The words of Gabrielles assailant drifted in to haunt her. Who has the right? She leaned her head on Argo's neck and sighed. It was too much. She didn't know what to do.
Gabrielle rubbed her mouth worriedly and watched Xena walk away. Biting her lower lip she reached her arms out to the little girl. And pulled the resisting child into the warmth of her embrace. "I'm sorry child." She whispered into her ear. "So very sorry." She held her close and prayed for the tears to cleanse her little friend's soul.
The warmth of Gabrielle's love enveloped Acacia and for the first time since her home was attacked she felt safe. Instead of stopping the tears came faster, harder and soon Gabrielle's shirt was wet. The bard never loosened her hold. She just held tighter and murmured lovingly to the child who was now clinging to her in desperation.
Time seemed to move slowly. Xena realized that they would be traveling no farther today and unsaddled Argo. Setting up the camp stopped her brain from working and she needed to concentrate on not thinking right now. Thank the gods that they weren't far from the stream. She grabbed the water bags and headed for the stream.
Gabrielle watched Xena leave with a growing unease. She knew the older woman took the full blame for all her past deeds and those of her army on her shoulders and knowing Xena she'd find a way to turn Acacia's pain into her guilt too.
Acacia's tears slowed and then stopped as she fell into an exhaustive sleep. Gabrielle smoothed the girl's hair back and gently laid her down to rest. Rising she brushed her hands off and went in search of Xena.
Gabrielle smiled as she spotted Xena returning from the stream. "Hi." She smiled softly at her friend and reached for one of the bags.
"It's okay." Xena flashed a half smile at her. "It's not that heavy."
"I know." Gabrielle flashed as smile of her own at the warrior, and tugged at the water bag. "But I want your arm around me."
"Oh?" Xena relinquished the bag and lifted her arm up for Gabrielle to scoot under. She relished the warmth of the younger woman against her side. Smiling down at the blond head snuggled close, she matched her step to the smaller stride of her companion.
"Are you okay?" Came the quiet question.
"Ya." She replied sadly. "It hurts though...she's so young...so bitter. At least I was older. Callisto was probably her age when..." her voice trailed off.
Gabrielle squeezed her friend's waist. "I know. It's too late for Callisto," Came the gentle reply. "but Acacia we can still save."
"Yes." Xena tightened her grasp on Gabrielle. "How would you like to visit the Amazons?"
"Oh! Xena that's a wonderful idea!" Gabrielle jumped up and down. Hugging her friend with one arm and kissing her on the cheek.
Xena smiled indulgently. "Hey, if this is going to be your response whenever I suggest going to visit the Amazons I'm going to have to suggest it more often."
Gabrielle laughed. "It's the perfect solution." She let go of the warrior as they entered the campsite and hurried to check on their new friend. "She's still asleep. Poor tyke is all worn out."
"Good." Xena grinned. "That gives us a little time." She raised one brow and lifted her arms. Gabrielle ran into them. Xena bent down and kissed her.
The bard grinned as they parted. "You taste so good."
"As do you." The warrior lifted her into her arms and carried her to their bed. Laying her down she bent over her and gently kissed the lips offered to her. Gabrielle placed her arms behind Xena's neck and pulled the warrior down onto her.
Xena made a show of sharpening her sword as Gabrielle and Acacia cleaned the campsite...something she normally did, but the bard thought it would help Acacia feel more accepted if they had her do some of the chores. The girl was a quick study. She'd be an asset to the Amazons if she agreed to stay with them.
The campsite clean and bags repacked for morning Gabrielle sat down across from Xena. She smiled at her warrior and waited for Acacia to sit down next to her.
Xena lifted her eyes from her sword to smile at the two across from her. When Acacia had sat down Gabrielle had automatically adjusted to the young girl, moving her legs and pulling the child up against her in a loving embrace. "So do we get a story tonight?"
Gabrielle grinned back. Her eyes sparkling in the firelight. "Any requests?" Laughing as Acacia asked for one about the warrior princess. She rubbed her hair lovingly. "She's my favorite subject." Her eyes twinkled suggestively to the woman in question. Xena growled.
"Did you ever hear the tale of the Amazon and Centaur war and how the Warrior Princess put an end to it? No? It all started on a spring day a little over a year and a half ago..."
Xena paused at the forest and slid off Argo. "Time to walk Acacia." She lifted the girl down. "Remember do exactly as Gabrielle and I do."
The young girl nodded and looked into the woods. If not for the two women at her side she would have been too scared to go forward. She wanted to run back to her forest. She missed the comfort of the known even if she no longer lay to sleep in bushes still hungry. She shrugged off her fear by repeating to herself, I am a warrior princess. I have no fear. With each step she took she repeated her mantra and the fear diminished.
Suddenly her friends where throwing down their weapons and standing hands over their heads. She instantly did the same gasping as monsters slid down ropes and fell from trees to surround them. Her heart pounded its fear.
"My Queen." One of the monsters spoke and they all fell to their knees.
Acacias eyes widened in surprise. Queen? Who are they talking to.
Gabrielle spoke. "Rise my sisters. She stepped toward the one that had spoken. "It is good to be home."
Acacias mouth fell open. Home? Gabrielle the Queen? The monsters took off their masks and she realized they werent monsters they were women! Inside she shook with excitement. These were the warriors that Gabrielle had spoken of in the stories at night. She looked to Xena surprised to see her smiling broadly and watching Gabrielle with pride.
Gabrielle reached back and pulled Acacia forward. "Epinon I want you to meet a very good friend of mine. Acacia this is the warrior Epinon. It was she that taught me to use a staff."
"Im not a child. Im a warrior."
Epinon raised an eyebrow at Xena who stood to one side a small smirk on her face. She shrugged, "Not my doing." She mouthed.
Epinon acknowledged it without breaking stride. "I apologize." She dipped her head. "It is not often I meet a warrior so young as yourself. Perhaps well you are visiting our village you would giver me the opportunity to spar with you?"
Acacia looked at the strange warrior with narrowed eyes. Was the strange one teasing? She glanced sideways to her two friends. It appeared not. They were waiting for her to answer the warrior. She swallowed her fear. "Id like that."
"Good its settled then." She turned back to her Queen. "Your regular hut is waiting for you, but we werent expecting you to bring a guest should I find accommodations for her?"
Gabrielle wet her lips anxiously and looked to Xena for guidance. Xena appeared lost in conversation with Solari. Gabrielle stomped her foot impatiently exasperated as Xena left the decision to her. She looked sideways at the child and realized that her dependence on them was already too high. "I think maybe Acacia would like to experience life in the warriors dorm." She knelt by the childs side. "Would you like that?" She looked into the serious brown eyes. "Its your decision. You can stay in my hut with Xena and I, or you can join the other warriors in the dorm."
Acacia stared somberly into Gabrielles eyes. Was she trying to get rid of me? Or did she really mean I can choose? "Who sleeps in the dorm?"
Gabrielle glanced at Eponin. Who answered for the young Queen. "Women of all ages that come from various villages sleep in the dorm. The dorm is divided into segments for ease of training. You would be with others in your age group."
"Can I think about it while we walk to the village?" Acacia didnt know what to do and breathed a sigh of relief when Gabrielle nodded and they all began walking again.
Xena relaxed with a drink in her hand and her lover leaning comfortably against her side. It was nice to be able to let their guard down and just be for a few days. She watched Acacia playing with a group of the Amazon children and allowed a small smile to play along her lips.
"Shes good." Eponin settled herself next to Xena and lifted a mug of the sweet strawberry wine to her lips.
"Yes." Ephiny agreed. "Are you ready to tell us her story?"
Xena nudged Gabrielle. "Hey sleepyhead, I think thats your cue."
"Huh?" Gabrielle struggled to open her eyes. "What? What is?" She looked in bleary-eyed confusion at the small group of women surrounding her.
Xena leaned down and bestowed a kiss on her lips. "Your cue." She smiled into green eyes. They want to know about our young friend." She explained.
"Oh." Gabrielle kissed Xena before snagging the mug from her lover. Drinking deeply she proceeded to enlighten her amazonian family.
"So really you have no idea who she is or where she came from?" Ephiny said slowly.
"True." Gabrielle nodded. "But I think she belongs here." Her eyes followed the girl they were discussing. "Shes afraid of men."
Xena raised one brow questioningly. "How did you discover that?"
"When I found her she agreed to come back to the campsite, but when I mentioned my companion she hesitated...asked if it was a man."
"She also mentioned watching what they did to her family."
Solari spoke. "So you want to leave her here?" She glanced at her partner. "For us to raise?"
Xenas eyes narrowed sharply. Would they object? She hadnt thought of that possibility. Shed just assumed they would want the girl. "If she wishes to stay...we wont force her but we thought it would be the best place for her to be raised."
Gabrielle took over for her warrior. She spoke slowly weighing each word. "We believe that only in a village free of men and run by warriors will she feel safe. Where she will be free to be herself and learn how to protect herself and those she loves without warping her mind like others that we have known."
"If the child were to be adopted by a member of the tribe there would be no problem." Ephiny spoke quietly her eyes taking in the moves the girl was making. Aware that this child would be an asset if she were allowed to grow unhindered by the horrors of her short life. "The problem arises in her age and lack of sponsorship."
"But well sponsor her!" Gabrielle blurted out before Xena could hold her back.
"I hardly think that possible my Queen." Ephiny smiled at her friends impetuous behavior. "In order to sponsor her you must seize your travels, stay in the village, and undertake her schooling."
"Bu..." Gabrielle sputtered and fell silent. Her head hung in shame.
Xena squeezed her beloved reassuringly and cocked her head at Solari. "Any suggestions?" She asked quietly.
Solari started. "Huh?" And turned bright red as he realized all eyes at the table had turned her way.
Ah...well..." She wet her lip and looked helplessly toward her partner.
Shade took pity on her lover and came to her rescue. "We were thinking of having a child of our own." She smiled shyly at the gathering. "But neither of us were thrilled with what that would entail. I think it safe to say we would both love to take over the responsibility of Acacia." She clasped Solaris hand to her. "In fact between us we can teach her all the ways of the warrior and that of a scout."
Xena smiled. So she had read the two women correctly. This was working out just right. Now if they could get Acacia to play into the game all would be well and her and Gabrielle could get on with their life.
Just then the proceedings were interrupted by the topic of discussion. "Gabrielle?" Acacia rushed up breathlessly. "Can I go with the girls to the dorm, the bell was called and its time."
"You want to sleep in the dorm?" Gabrielle looked at the young girl laughter in her eyes. Smiling at the quick nod. "Okay." She leaned forward and kissed the girl on the top of her head. "Obey the teachers." She admonished the girl and with a light spank on her backside sent her on her way.
The young girl slipped silently out of the darkened cabin. She paused in the doorway to assess her situation. Quietly she glided through the now silent village. She slipped past the guard an easy task when the guard wasnt watching for someone leaving the village. She walked sure footed down a dark path that led to the water. She needed to think. Water helped her think. She climbed the rock at the edge of the small pool where earlier she had swam and played with children children her age, but so much younger than herself. Reaching the top she sat and pulled her knees up, wrapping her arms around them and leaning her head on her arms. She stared out over the water. So much had happened and in only three days. Her life had again been turned upside down. She shivered. From the cold outside or in she couldnt say. She rubbed her arms and a silent tear fell from one eye.
She liked the night. She listened to the night birds and wondered what their names were. Funny alone in the woods she had practiced talking to the animals and the birds she thought she was quite good at it, but she had no idea what the names were to go with the sounds. Maybe Xena can teach me? The name brought a bittersweet smile to her lips. Xena wanted to leave her behind. She didnt know why the warrior hated her, but she must maybe it was because shed let her family be killed. If the stories about Xena were all true she had stopped the bad men from killing her family. She nodded to herself. That was it. Xena didnt want her because she was a failure. She was a disgrace. Another tear fell from her eye and this time a second one followed it. Angrily she brushed her hand across her eyes.
A sound! She looked up. Her heart beat louder. She stood ready to defend herself if need be. Eyes peered intently into the dark. "Who goes there?" She cried out in a trembling voice, trying to be brave.
"Such a heavy heart for one so young." A voice called out and a shadow separated from a tree. "Have no fear." The woman walked nearer, and now Acacia could see it was the one she was to spar with in the morning. "Why are you so far from the village?" She climbed up to sit next to the girl. "It is dangerous that is why we have guards."
"I know but I am used to the night air." She sat back down. "It has been a long time since I slept under a roof."
Eponin nodded but said little. She leaned back, cocking her head at a bird call. "Do you hear that?" She turned toward the girl. "Do you know who made that noise?"
Acacia shook her head. Was this warrior going to teach her about the birds? Her eyes opened wide and she listened carefully to hear what her companion would say.
"A hawk." Eponin grinned. "Or maybe an Amazon."
Acacias mouth dropped open. "Amazons can talk like the birds?"
"Yup." Her smile widened.
"But I can do that!" She exclaimed in awe. "I practiced talking to the animals cause there was no one else to talk to...its fun."
Eponin raised an eyebrow. "Really? Can you say something to me?"
Acacias shyness returned. She ducked her head. "But I dont know the names of the birds or what it means..." Her voice trailed off sadly.
Eponin impulsively hugged the girl to her. "Thats okay. If youre really good at it I can tell you what kind of animal makes it and even why they make it."
Eponin nodded her head.
Acacia made a soft trilling noise and Eponin smiled. The child was talented. She hoped she would stay with them. "That my dear was a Scops owl and that particular call is an all clear call for its young. It was very good. Now listen to this one." The two traded back and forth for awhile until Epinon noticed Acacia yawning. "Child thats enough for now. Its long past bedtime."
"Acacia smiled. "Thanks. I had fun will you teach me more sounds tomorrow?"
"How about if I set it up tomorrow for you to join our girls in their lessons? I think youd enjoy it."
"What else do they do?"
"Our girls learn our history, how to fight, how to track, the lay of the land, all about animals and plants, and all about other people that live near us." She glanced sideways at Acacia. How she would love to have this child be hers. "When one of our girls makes decision as to what she wants to be she is adopted by a member of that profession and although she is taught a little bit about all trades she concentrates most of her learning on her chosen profession and her adopted parent teaches her."
"Come." Eponin stood and jumped off the rock. Acacia followed her and they headed silently up the trail.
Epinon made a whistling noise and they glided unchallenged into the village.
Acacia stopped in front of the dorm and turned to look at Epinon who smiled quietly. "Go to sleep child. Ill arrange for you to have classes during your stay in our village...give you a chance to see how I grew up." She pushed the girl toward the door and turned towards her own small cabin. Perhaps this evening would help the girl make up her own mind.
Xena rose early. Kissed the sleeping bard and headed for the practice field. If she got an early start she should be able to avoid most of the amazons. Ever since her first visit here she had been slightly embarrassed to be seen practicing. So many of the younger ones obvious admiration at both her skill and her body set her on edge. Yet she needed to continue her practice. If she started to let it slip shed never keep her edge.
Phew. She wiped the imagined sweat from her brow and set about doing warm up exercises. Before settling for staff practice. Her concentration not so intense that she failed to her the footsteps of another person entering the field. She slowed her dance coming to a halt in front of Eponin. And smiled evilly at the young woman. "Care to dance?"
Epinon smiled. "I thought youd never ask." She held up her own staff and the two faced off.
Xena stood at ease waiting for Epinon to begin their dance.
Epinon begins the dance standing in an erect relaxed position, holding the staff with her left hand and using a reverse grip points her thumb downward Taking a step back with her right foot, she turned her body to face toward her right side, and raising her stick she slid her left hand toward the tip as she swung the staff upward.
Xena stayed still and merely raised her staff to block the swing. It was the signal that battle had begun and she felt a thrill of anticipation run through her body. Here was a woman who enjoyed the dance as much as she. Together they would have fun.
Epinon grinned back at her opponent. She held the staff lightly in the Y of her hands, before she attacked with a thrust, which Xena blocked with ease. She raised the staff into a high guard, and parried outward.
Xena slipped to the side and returned the outward thrust.
Epinon pivoted on her left foot and strike downward spinning to the right and jumping high avoided Xenas left thrust. Then a quick turn and she whipped the staff towards Xenas stomach to be stopped by an upward push from Xena. A quick downward swing.
Staffs clash as Xena manages to catch the downward swing and push Epinon back. The two battled for long minutes each giving and receiving in near equal fashion until finally Xena caught Epinons staff in the middle and with a powerful upward push pulled it out of her hands and sent it flying into the air. She did a flying leap and somersaulted to land with her hand reaching out to grasp the amazons staff in her left hand, her own still gripped loosely in her right and grinned evilly at the younger woman.
Both women startled, whirling in amazement at the unexpected clapping from the side of the field. Xena gave Epinon a lopsided smile and the other woman laughed outloud.
"Good workout." Xena said.
"Thanks." Epinon had a hard time biting back the grin that threatened to over take her face. Coming from Xena that was a great compliment.
"Care to practice again tomorrow?" Xena raised an eyebrow.
"Sh...s...sure." Epinon managed to stutter the reply. What an honor! Xena actually asking to partner her in combat practice.
Xena smiled and walked toward the small crowd. Her eyebrow rising in astonishment as she spotted her bard in among the watchers. She stopped in front of her. "And to what do we owe this honor?" She asked half laughing.
Gabrielle grinned her eyes sparkling in delight at the warriors teasing. "Just how was I supposed to stay in bed and get my beauty rest when a small bundle of energy threw herself onto my bed and informed me that my love was in a battle for her life to come quick."
Both Xenas eyes nearly popped out of her head. That was not the comment she was expecting. "Wh...What?"
Gabrielle pulled a little bundle from behind her. There stood Acacia head lowered fearfully. "Im sorry." She whispered. "I didnt know...I thought you were fighting."
Xena smiled and knelt down. She pulled the young girl away from Gabrielle. "And you did the right thing." She lifted Acacias chin up and looked into the frightened brown eyes. "You went and got someone to help."
"I was scared." She admitted. Her eyes moving over Xenas face. "I tho...thought maybe you were mad at each other, an...and I like both of you." Briefly her eyes touched on Epinon, who had come up behind Xena.
"Child." Xena spoke softly. "We both like you too. This is the practice yard. Its where warriors of the amazons come to practice their skills."
Tears filled Acacias eyes. "I did wrong. Do you want me to leave now?"
Tears sprang to Xenas eyes. "For caring about us? No child. I will never send you away."
Epinon knelt down next to Xena and clasped Acacia by the shoulder. "Acacia, what you did was right. If we had been trying to harm one another Gabrielle and the others would have stopped the fight." She smiled at the youngster. "Now didnt I tell you I would arrange for you to attend classes with our girls?" She tipped her head. "Come. I can introduce you over breakfast."
Xena stood and Gabrielle moved into her arms as together they watched the two walk away.
"You okay." Gabrielle asked in a whisper.
Xena buried her head in her lovers strawberry blond hair. "Umm...I am" She tightened her grip. "Im just a little surprised...I mean after all I havent been exactly overly friendly...just I guess Im not used to anyone caring." A slight smile graced her face. "Other than you that is." She ducked her head and kissed Gabrielles lips. "And that has been tough enough to get used to."
Gabrielles light laughter filled the air as she responded. "I think you better get used to it Lady...I have a feeling there are a lot more people hanging out here that care about you then you realize."
"I know." Gabrielle pulled out of the embrace and clasping Xenas hand to her walked in the direction of the dining hall. "Come on. All this excitement has made me hungry."
Xena laughed allowing herself to be pulled along. "Gabrielle, youre always hungry."
Xena paused by the fence to watch Acacia. The young girl had talent. She smiled in appreciation as Acacia practiced staffs against a girl taller than herself but just as slightly built. "Hi Dap." She greeted the woman instructing the girls. "Hows it going?"
"See for yourself." She nodded her head as another child moved up to battle Acacia. "Your foundling is going to be a real asset to us."
The two women continued watching the girls as first one and then another took on the winner...Acacia managed to stay winner for two rounds...extremely good for a child who until early the morning before had never touched a staff.
"Wheres Gabrielle?" Acacia asked slightly out of breath.
"Doing her Queenly thing." Xena replied, smiling. "Are you finished with your schooling?"
"Yes." Acacia nodded. "Some of the girls have other chores, but Im only a visitor so I dont."
Xena cocked her head at the girl. "Want to go for a ride on Argo?"
A smile lit Acacias face as she eagerly nodded.
"Come on." Xena whistled and Argo came trotting into view. Xena tossed Acacia onto the saddle and leaped up behind her. Argo trotted quickly out of the village.
Solari watched the warrior take the girl and leave, before turning into her hut. Her heart was heavy. "I dont think theyll leave her behind." She said to her lover.
Eponin glanced up from sharpening her sword. "What makes you think that?" She asked puzzled. She knew how hard life on the road could be and didnt think Xena would risk taking the girl with her.
"Everytime I turn around, I see her watching Acacia...taking the time to correct her errors," She looked toward the door. "Just now she took her with her for a ride."
Epinon put her sword aside. "Came here love." She opened her arms and waited until Solari rested comfortably in them before speaking. "Xena and Gabrielle are the types that take pride in doing what is right. Xena wont leave the child here unless she can convince herself that not only will she be safe, but that she will be happy...we must ensure that the warrior knows without a doubt that she will be." She kissed the dark hair, before resting her chin among the soft curly locks. "Dont worry...she will be ours to raise."
"I hope you are right." Solari turned in her lovers arms and offered her mouth to her all thought of the child stopped as the kiss deepened into a reaffirmation of their love.
Argo alternated between galloping along the wooded path to slow walking while Xena tried to figure out how best to approach Acacias education. Finally they stopped by a river to let Argo rest and stretch their legs. A tree hung over the water offering shade and a place to sit in comfort and the two sat in silence enjoying the sounds of nature and listening to the trickling of the water over the rocks.
"Solari and Eponin want to be my teachers what does that mean?"
Blue eyes regarded the child with warmth and affection. "It means they think you are very special and they want to teach you everything they know and help you learn whats right and whats wrong, like your mom and dad would have if they lived." She gave the girl a sideways smile. "It also means they think you are very special."
"It does?" her eyes went wide.
"Yup." She let her smile take over her face. "They couldve asked for any child or even had one of their own, but hey waited until they met you."
"What if I said yes?"
"Gabrielle and I would be very happy for all three of you. Epinon is the warrior that taught Gabrielle how to fight."
Silence fell and the two went back to watching and listening to the world content with the moment. The wind blew softly and leaves fell into the calm water to drift lazily down the stream and out of sight. Acacia sighed. The leaves made her think...everything always changed. People left...her stomach suddenly ached...they would tire of her...theyd go away too. Everybody did. Xena noticed the moment Acacia tensed and waited patiently trying to project an air of calm assurance.
"Are you going to leave me?" Acacia asked bluntly.
"Yes." Xena answered just as bluntly. She watched as the youngster fought against her tears. "In my line of work there is no place for a child as young as you." She reached out her hand and placed it gently on Acacias shoulder. "I will come back and visit as often as I can if you choose to stay here."
"Yes." Xena raised one eyebrow. "I think youd like it here. And Gabrielle and I would like you to stay and grow up an Amazon."
"Oh." Acacia rose and looked out over the water. "Its not what I want." She walked away kicking at the dead leaves and wishing shed never met Xena and Gabrielle she wanted to cry but not in front of Xena.
Xena sighed, got up and followed behind, making sure the youngster arrived in the village. Watching from a distance as Acacia sought out Epinon. A smile creased her face and she went in search of Gabrielle.
"Hi." Gabrielle looked up as Xena entered the hut. "Ephiny and I were just going over the treaty with the villagers to the north."
Xena nodded a hello to Ephiny and crossed to stqnd behind Gabrielle. Scanning the document her partner held. "Looks pretty fair."
Ephiny grinned. "Thats what we thought. We were just double-checking before signing."
"Good." Xena cocked her head. "Any more unsigned treaties?"
"No." Ephiny shook her head.
Gabrielle frowned. "Why?" Xena didnt normally take an interest in this part of her life.
"I think its time we left."
"Itll be hard." Xena admitted. "But shell stay."
"Are you sure?"
Xena nodded watching Gabrielles face.
Gabrielle grinned. "Thats great." She turned to Ephiny. "I know Solari and Epinon want to parent her, but youll keep a close eye on her for me wont you?"
"Yes, my queen." Ephiny smiled.
"In the morning?" Gabrielle asked her warrior.
"I don't want to stay with them." Acacia stood arms folded angrily across her chest.
"You have to." Gabrielle said pleadingly. "The road isn't a safe place for you."
"No." She pouted. "And you can't make me."
Xena watched the argument taking place and sighed. She had known it wasn't going to be easy, but she had thought that Gabrielle would be able to convince the child of the wisdom of her staying in the Amazon village. Tired of the argument Xena strode forward, reaching the two, Xena sighed and raised one eyebrow at her bard. Kneeling to bring herself down to Acacia's level she reached over and gently grasped the young girl by her shoulders. "Acacia listen to me." She looked into the girls somber brown eyes. "Do you remember what I told you at the river?"
Acacia swallowed her fear and nodded.
Xena repeated herself. "The road is very hard for adults never mind for children and in my line of work there is no room for a child."
"You just don't want me."
Xena sighed. "That's not true. If there was room for a child I would choose you."
"Really?" Her eyes lifted to look into Xena's warm blue ones in surprise. Shed thought the warrior only put up with her because Gabrielle liked her.
Xena smiled. "Really." She insisted, before continuing. "Do you think we chose this village randomly?" She waved her arm "The Amazons in this village are mine and Gabrielle's family. That's why we chose to bring you here. You want to be a warrior. The women here can teach you everything you need to know to not only be a warrior, but to be an honorable warrior. And here you would have lots of family."
Acacia looked around the village. She had enjoyed the last few days here. She swallowed and looked at Xena and then over the warrior's shoulder at Gabrielle. "I'm afraid." She whispered.
Xena gathered the child into her arms. "It's okay to be afraid. Even I get afraid sometimes."
Xena nodded. "Ya, I do." She admitted softly.
"Xena." Acacia pushed against the warrior's chest.
Xena promptly let the child go. Acacia stepped back and raised one hand to rest on Xena's arm. "I will stay, I will study hard, and I will become a good warrior."
She bit back tears, proud of the girl. She squeezed the youngster's shoulders. "There is one more thing you should know." She smiled at the raised eyebrow. Already the child was mimicking her. "Whenever Gabrielle and I are in the neighborhood we will stop in and visit."
Acacia looked toward Gabrielle, "Do you?"
"Oh yes! Little one." Gabrielle laughed. "I promise." She glanced to her regent. "Ephiny take extra care with this one won't you?"
"Of course my Queen." Ephiny smiled as Gabrielle swirled the child in her arms. "I will treat her as my own." She placed her arm around the child and together they watched the warrior and bard leave the village. As Gabrielle and Xena turned at the bend to wave a final goodbye, Epinon and Solari stepped up to stand one on either side of the Queen Regent and her small charge.
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