Aspen’s Child

by Culprit

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(Disclaimer: The major characters featured in this story are the copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. These events take place early in the travels of the warrior and the bard.)

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The child was alone for a very long time before the giants found her. She had aged five years and then stopped growing. She couldn’t know it was during her fifth year her mother wept for her for the last time. Five years is long mourning for an infant held but once. Boy-children soon followed to ease the mother’s grief. Forgotten, the child remained small decades after her brothers were dust.

She’d seen few living people in her century in the forest, and she didn’t realize she had once been one. The only human speech she’d heard had been her father’s gruff reproof as he took her from her mother. Then his halting, almost tender farewell as he left her beneath the leafed bower of an aspen. This same tree, the one she hid against now, watching the giants approach.

They drew closer, and the child heard their voices -- one rich as loam, the other light birdsong. She was very brave. She didn’t vanish until the giants’ shadows fell across the roots of her tree. Then she disappeared into the aspen’s trunk, and listened from that familiar, woody warmth.

"Fine, laugh. Split a gut. But the man was afraid of string, Xena, I saw it myself."

"Hey, that would make a fine tale for a bard." Xena’s blue eyes squinted in apparent thought. "The Man Who Feared Fishline. The Man Who Blanched at Bowstring. The Man - "

"Warriors have no imagination." Gabrielle slapped Xena’s shoulder playfully, and the warrior pretended to catch herself against an elderly aspen bordering their path. "There are all kinds of terrors that have nothing to do with battle, Xena. Fear of heights, fear of snakes, fire, your cooking. . . "

Xena grinned down at her companion. "My stew has sent you screaming off into the night more than once."

"Your cooking is deadlier than your chakram. Screaming is a perfectly rational response. Ow."

"So is resting when your heel is stone-bruised." Xena hooked Gabrielle’s elbow and pushed her down onto the mossy soil at the base of the aspen. "Want me to see what - "

"Do not touch me. I’ve seen you with Argo when he gets one of these things, you go after his hoof with a dagger." Gabrielle pried off her sandal, wincing. "There is absolutely nothing you can do for the stone bruise in my hoof that wouldn’t hurt worse than the stone bruise."

Xena settled beside her, the smooth muscle of her arm warm against Gabrielle’s shoulder. "If you’d let me buy you those boots back in Camden - "

"Those boots came up to my navel, practically." Gabrielle’s nose wrinkled. "Not my style, Mother."

"Mother?" Xena snorted indelicately as she pulled out her chakram for a quick polish. "Mothering ain’t my style, Gabrielle."

"I don’t know about that." The bard’s tone softened, and she leaned against Xena affectionately. "You worry about me. You try - unsuccessfully - to cook for me. You tend my bruises. All very maternal, my bloodthirsty friend."

"I would fart right now if I could." Xena scowled. "Unfortunately, you cooked last night, so my bowels are too flaccid to fart."

Gabrielle started to laugh and ended snorting a guffaw through her nose, which made both women giggle like girls.

In her tree, the child stood on tip-toe, silent as ash. She had never heard such sounds, but they didn’t scare her. She could reach out and touch the giants, if she wanted. The tops of their heads, the light and the dark. Her hand emerged and hovered over them, the small fingers fumbling and tentative.

"So, a story." Xena scrunched up against the rough bark of the aspen, trying for comfort. "Come on. A story a day, we said, or you’ll lose your bardish edge."

Gabrielle was silent long enough to draw Xena’s eyes from her chakram. Her friend looked troubled, the smooth skin around her eyes growing tight as she surveyed their surroundings.

The younger woman shivered. "Not here."

Xena looked around, puzzled. It seemed a benign enough grove. The surrounding trees were thin, so there was decent visibility. The brittle undergrowth was dry, so they would hear any intruder. But why was the back of Xena’s neck so suddenly sensitive, prickling with warning when no danger was near?

Now, in early spring, this forest was still locked in the darkness of deep winter. Half a league away it was cresting noon, but this glade held the somber shadows of evening. Its chill wasn’t born of frost, but somehow embedded in the dank soil itself; like cemetery earth. Xena frowned and forced her eyes upward, to the branches above them.

Gabrielle followed her gaze. "The crosses used in crucifixions are carved from aspen," she murmured. "That’s why these leaves are trembling -- they’re grieving."

Xena, who had more than a passing acquaintance with crucifixion, quelled a shiver of her own. She shook her thick hair from her eyes with an impatient snap. "The Glaxdons never stooped to the crudity of crosses. They were more refined, they favored beheading."

Gabrielle rubbed her upper arms for warmth. "The Glaxdons? Aren’t their ruins further south?"

"The remains of their winter encampment, yes." Xena’s voice was toneless, and Gabrielle glanced at her. "Their summer holdings were at the base of these mountains."

"Glaxdons . . ." Gabrielle murmured. "I didn’t believe in them, for the longest time. I thought my mother made them up to frighten us."

"Your mother is too gentle a soul to have imagined that lot." Xena belted her chakram. "But no doubt the tales she used to frighten you were true."

"Really?" A sudden gust of air ruffled Gabrielle’s hair, and she patted it down, intent on Xena’s words. "They were cannibals?"

Xena did a double-take and grinned. "I take back what I said about your mother. No, the Glaxdons didn’t dine on their fellows. Just enslaved them. And brutalized them in every way possible. At least the men were allowed to live. The women -- those unfit for breeding more men -- were headless by the night of their capture."

Gabrielle swallowed. "I’ll quell my Amazonian rage long enough to ask, what was so all-fired blessed about the men?"

"They could work longer. Lift more rock." Xena scratched the back of her head, annoyed by a tickling breeze. "Their misogyny wasn’t limited to their slaves. Among the Glaxdons, the birth of a son was cause for celebration. Many daughters – weren’t kept, for long."

"Xena, don’t tell me any more." Gabrielle folded her arms around her knees. "Not here. It’s too -- real, in these woods."

The corner of Xena’s mouth lifted in sympathy. "Hey, that was a century ago. There hasn’t been a Glaxdon in these hills for generations."

She started to drape one arm across Gabrielle’s shoulders -- and then used it instead to heave her mightily away from the base of the tree.

Gabrielle’s reflexes allowed her to catch herself with a neat shoulder roll. Her first task, she knew, was to distance herself from the immediate danger -- she had to give Xena room to defend them, if they were under attack. She used her momentum to carry herself further from the tree, and then jackknifed smoothly to her feet. She heard the singing of steel as Xena drew her sword from its backsheath, and she whirled to help her meet their opponent.

Who, it appeared, was a tree. Xena was fully braced, her sword gripped in both hands, blue eyes crystalline and riveted on the aspen. "Stay back, Gabrielle."

"You say the word and I’m halfway to Athens," Gabrielle stammered. "But -- Xena, there’s nothing -- "

"Something reached for you. I saw it, I saw a hand." Xena spoke quietly, and she advanced slowly on the aspen.

Gabrielle ogled the tree, then squinted, and shrugged helplessly. "Maybe a twig - "

"No twig. Five fingers, an inch from your hair." Xena’s voice rose to a commanding bark. "We know you’re there. Show yourself!"

A breeze Gabrielle didn’t feel made the aspen’s leaves tremble.

"All right, perhaps a more persuasive invitation is needed." Xena swung her sword in a wicked arc, and the blade rang against the weathered bark of the tree.

The tree convulsed.

It didn’t move, but the wood seemed to shimmer from root to branch. The browns and grays of the trunk shuddered briefly into a muddy mass, and then cleared again.

Xena’s sword snapped erect in her hands, a visual manifestation of her astonishment. She darted a look over her shoulder at Gabrielle, the straightened slowly from her combat stance. She stared at the base of the tree, dumbfounded.

"What is it?" Gabrielle asked softly.

Xena glanced back at the bard again, and her eyes narrowed. Gabrielle was looking straight at her. Her gaze hadn’t been drawn by what had emerged from the trunk of the aspen. "You don’t see that?"

"I see a tree." Gabrielle waited, trusting Xena to explain.

Which she could not. Because where Gabrielle saw a dying aspen, Xena saw the translucent figure of a small, naked child.

The giants would drive her away now. It had happened before.

One spring a wolfpack had nested beneath her tree. She had come out when she’d seen the puppies, irresistibly drawn to their furry acrobatics. But the adults of the pack had sensed her, some ancient instinct had warned them they were not alone. And their howls and furious lunges had chased her from the aspen. She’d waited, in the upper limbs of an elm far away, and tried to watch the puppies through its branches.

She looked at the bigger giant, the one who was dark like a falcon, who held the cutting stick. She scowled up at her. She wasn’t afraid.

"Xena?" Gabrielle’s voice was tense. "The madagas woodspider. It’s venom has been known to bring on hallucinations, isn’t that what you - "

"And it’s bite would put me in agony for hours before the first vision." Xena moved slowly, returning her sword to its backsheath. "I’m not poisoned, Gabrielle, you’ll have to trust me on that. There’s a child there."

"A child?" Gabrielle’s tone rose on the last word, and the girl looked at her curiously before returning her gaze to Xena.

"At the base of the tree. She’s -- not human, I don’t think."

Gabrielle cleared her throat. "What makes you say that?"

"I can see through her."

"Oh." Gabrielle sat down suddenly.

Aside from her transparency, there was nothing particularly alarming about this young girl. She seemed fierce and helpless at the same time, her nakedness revealing her bony ribcage. She was filthy, mud smeared across her face and body, her hair a tangled mass of dark snarls. But her brown eyes snapped with intelligence, and they regarded Xena with sassy belligerence. This child didn’t seem sickly, or starving -- or remotely relieved to meet her potential rescuers.

Gabrielle was squinting mightily at the base of the aspen, and she still saw an aspen. "Is she – saying anything?"

Xena shook her head. "What’s your name?" she called.

The child blanched.

"Xena, don’t yell at her," Gabrielle reproved. "How little are we talking, here?"

Xena cocked her head and studied the child, then lifted her shoulders. "Three, four, five. Maybe six. No more than six."

"There’s a difference between three and six, Xena," Gabrielle sighed. "Trust me on that. What’s she doing?"

"Glaring at me."

"Well, I’d glare too, if an ogre was towering over me like that."

Xena frowned back at Gabrielle, who motioned her down with her hand. Xena lifted an eyebrow, then nodded. She turned back to the child, and lowered herself slowly until she crouched at her eye-level.

"And don’t yell," Gabrielle whispered.

"Hey." Xena cleared her throat. "You. Little child, there."

The girl toed the moss at her feet.

"We won’t harm you," Xena went on, her voice gentle now. "We’d like to help. Can you tell me your name?"

The little girl looked at Gabrielle, and chewed thoughtfully on two fingers. That one was a dove, that light giant. She exuded the same sense of calm and peace as those gentle birds. The light one wasn’t that scary. The dark falcon giant was meaner, but she hadn’t chased her away yet.

She slurped on her fingers (it helped her think) and studied the falcon. Still wary, the girl pushed herself away from the tree. She took a side-step toward the dark one, then stopped. She scratched her belly with her free hand.

"Look," Gabrielle hissed, finally. "Is it some big secret, what she’s doing?"

"Why are you whispering?" Xena whispered back. "It’s not like she’s asleep."

Still crouching, the warrior straightened slightly. "Whoa."

"What, what?"

"She’s walking."


"Uh, toward me."

Gabrielle peered at Xena, who was staring with fascination into thin air. She felt a twinge of unease. "Xena . . . are you sure this is -- a kid, a child? Could it be some kind of vapor, one of your enemies, disguised as something helpless to catch you with your guard down? The harpies have been known -- "

She broke off in alarm as Xena squeaked. To Gabrielle’s knowledge, Xena had never in her life squeaked.

"I don’t think she’s a harpy," Xena stammered. "She’s just -- patting me."

Oooh, they were hard. The child knocked shyly on one of Xena’s breastplates, and then patted it again. She looked down at her own narrow chest and patted it too. She didn’t have those. She stared up at Xena in solemn appraisal.

"What do you think she wants?" Gabrielle ask softly.

"Well, she seems to be curious about my breasts."

Gabrielle consulted the heavens and muttered.


"Nothing," Gabrielle said. "Has she spoken yet?"

"I don’t think she’s capable of speech." Xena was trying to get used to the opaque quality of her small examiner. She wasn’t entirely transparent. Xena could see the trunk of the tree behind -- through -- her, but it was like looking at it through deep water. She put out a hand to touch the child and she flinched away, scurrying to the safety of her tree.


"What?" Gabrielle heard the shrillness in her voice and made an effort to calm herself.

"I spooked her, I think. Hey. Little kid?" Xena’s voice warmed to sing-song. "Kiddo. Here, girl." She snapped her fingers gently.

"Xena, she’s not a dog!" Gabrielle made herself sit back on her heels on the dry leaves. "She’s probably scared to death. Go to her, let her know we want to help."

Xena looked from the child to Gabrielle. "How?"

"How would you comfort any child?" Gabrielle gestured encouragingly. "Put your arms around her, help her feel safe."

Xena’s shoulders sagged. "Gabrielle, really, you’d be so much better at this -- "

"Well, I’m not the one who can see her." Gabrielle saw Xena’s honest bewilderment, and softened. "Look, neither one of us knows who this child is, or why she’s here. Or why she’s appearing to you, and not me. Except apparently she likes breasts, and yours are bigger than mine."

Xena’s eyes fell involuntarily to Gabrielle’s breasts. "Believe me, yours are just - "

"I’m glad you think so," Gabrielle broke in hastily, "But apparently she likes you better. Now, whatever she is, ghost or vapor or spider bite, she’s also a small child. And she’s scared, and alone. And whatever you are, warrior or princess, you’re also a kind woman who wouldn’t abandon a frightened child in these awful woods."

Xena stared at her, then looked at the child.

The little girl was huddled at the base of the aspen, looking from her to Gabrielle. Her fingers were back in her mouth, and her brow was furrowed. There was something she knew about the falcon giant. She was familiar. More than the dove, who was pretty and gentle, but nothing the child had ever known before. The falcon was strong, and fierce, and that sounded a faint chord of memory.

The little girl went still. The dark giant was moving toward her, slowly, on her hands and knees. Still making those rich music sounds. Smiling at her. The child shifted aside as the giant reached her tree, and watched her settle cross-legged beside her on the snarled roots.

"That’s it." Gabrielle watched Xena closely. "Okay -- now, just take her in your arms."

"I think she’s going to bolt." Wincing, Xena unwound one long arm slowly behind the child.

The little girl watched it, but didn’t move. She shrank back, just a little, as the arm lowered around her shoulders -- but she didn’t run.

Xena’s eyes widened.

"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered. "What does she feel like?"

"Real," Xena answered softly. She could feel her skinny bare shoulders. "She feels like -- a little girl. A cold one, she’s trembling."

"You’re both trembling," Gabrielle observed.

Xena gave the girl’s shoulders a gentle tug. She had no experience in holding small children, and this small child didn’t know what it was to be held, so it was an awkward embrace, at first. The girl leaned over into Xena’s lap, and then flopped into it. Xena caught her quickly, and steadied her in her arms. She gazed down at the wild, dirty little face in silence.

"Rock her," Gabrielle instructed. Her tone was mild now. She still couldn’t see the child, but she didn’t need to. The long, powerful lines of Xena’s body were softening, bending around the shape in her lap. After a moment, she began a slight rocking movement, her hand automatically stroking the child’s leg as she cradled her.

The little girl stared at Xena’s face.

So did Gabrielle. She slid quietly off her heels and sat in the leaves, studying Xena’s expression. She’d seen those features contorted with bloodlust, many times. She remembered the image of Xena’s face as she stood over her brother’s crypt, as she listened, rapt, to Gabrielle’s songs. She’d seen her enraged, relaxed, playful, joyous, tense, grieving. Never had she seen the tenderness that was gentling her eyes now. Even the ice-blue of them was warming, becoming a deep-running river washed in sun.

Gabrielle had to swallow before she spoke. "Where did she come from, Xena?"

"I’m not sure," Xena murmured. "We might never know. But if any ground can be haunted, this forest must be. The bones of more than one infant lie in this earth. More than a hundred, maybe."

A tear crested Gabrielle’s lashes, and she blinked in order to see clearly. "She’s a ghost? She died, here?"

"If she’s a daughter of the Glaxdons, she was murdered." Xena looked at Gabrielle with such sadness that the bard felt her throat tighten. "There’s no justice for this girl, Gabrielle. I can’t avenge her, to bring her peace. Her people are so long dead -- "

"The dead can crave things other than vengeance, Xena." Gabrielle swiped an arm across her eyes. "But she did choose you. You have something she needs, or she wouldn’t have come to you - "

"What do I have?" Xena cut in sharply. "I don’t have anything to offer a child -- I’m not her mother. I can’t ask the gods to return her to life -- she never had a life."

The child in Xena’s arms frowned at her tone, and squirmed. Xena looked down at her, and her expression gentled again. "Sorry about that," she murmured. "I yell a lot. Nothing personal."

She smiled, and the girl smiled back. Xena rocked her quietly for awhile, her awareness spiraling down to focus only on the small figure in her arms. She began humming tunelessly, brushing the girl’s tangled hair off her forehead.

The child’s eyes began to drift closed. She knew this. Strong arms. Warmth, comfort. The assurance of safety. A woman’s voice, her eyes above her. The child had been here before, had this before, and so she knew such refuge existed. Somewhere. She’d tried to find it again for a very long time.

The humming became a lullaby, pulled without conscious thought from Xena’s memory. It was a tune Cyrene had sung to her, a lilting melody much loved by the children of Amphipolous. Xena continued to sing, even when she heard the muted snap of a twig. She looked up, questioningly.

Gabrielle smiled and shook her head. "Just my heart." She lay the broken twig aside and cleared her throat. "Is she sleeping?"

Xena nodded, still crooning the last, low notes of the lullaby. The child lay still in her arms, her face peaceful. The song ended with a soft trill that drifted into silence.

As Gabrielle watched, Xena’s curved arms straightened, and lay loose in her lap. She sat up and stared at Gabrielle, as if awakening herself from a long, deep sleep.

Gabrielle smiled through her tears. "She’s gone, isn’t she?"

"She just faded away." Xena sat still for a moment, staring at her empty arms, and then folded them around herself. Her voice wasn’t quite steady. "She’s fine now, I think. She . . . fell asleep."

A small, round leaf drifted from the branches of the aspen and lighted in Xena’s dark hair. Then another, and another, like soft tears falling in the shadowed grove.

They sat quietly together for awhile

When the two women crested the small rise that would lead them out of the grove, they turned and looked back. They could still see the aspen, craggy and small in the distance. Its ancient limbs were bare now -- all its leaves had fallen, to cloak its roots in a blanket of rippling silver.

Gabrielle took the warrior’s hand, and Xena let her keep it as they walked on.


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