A Gift for the Taking
By S Derkins
5 July, 1998

Disclaimers: The characters from the Xena: Warrior Princess series doesn't belong to me (dammit) so this is written without their consent or knowledge.

Warnings: Well, when I began this short story, I intended it to be an alternative one. As I typed 'The End' I was unsure if it could truly be labeled that at all. The ending is ambiguous and can be taken in any way in which you, the reader, wish to see it. I'll let LynKa and those who archive all the fanfiction choose where they place this.

PS: Sorry, Xena and Gabrielle aren't in this story. This is about Ephiny and the Amazons. This is also a story written in first person, which is unusual for me. It's very loosely based on a dream I had one night.

Damn Sarvo to Hades! He really did it this time. He just had to prove what a big, brave man he was and offend the women that surrounded us. No one with any common sense goes around and insults a group of women armed to the teeth. All he had to do was apologize for accidentally trespassing and get off their land. But noooo, not him. He had to go and slur the Amazons and every ancestor they had.

Now we're being dragged to their queen for her to mete out the judgment and punishment. Just my luck. I find a family that is traveling in the same direction as myself and join them for safety's sake, only to end up in some Amazonian hard labor prison somewhere. This is just great!

The women push us along roughly, though they are gentle with the children. The children. Hmph! The brood was more like it. He and Jassia managed to produce six children within eight years. They must have left a huge offering at the temple of Artemis when they first married, that's all I can say.

Anyway, we stumble along through the forest and I grit my teeth as another branch slaps me in the face. Another not-so-gentle shove from behind gets my dander up, but I manage to keep myself from spinning around and screaming into the warrior's face to keep her hands off of me. Another stinging leaf hits my cheek and I slap it away, my anger quickly reaching the boiling point.

I clench my teeth together hard and force myself to breathe through my nose. I have a horrible temper, and for years, I've worked on keeping it under control. I avoid people and places that bring out my anger. If that means being a loner, then so be it.

I keep walking, wondering how far we have to go. Suddenly, a small hand touches mine. Peda is looking up with me with frightened, puppy eyes. He took a liking to me for some strange reason and now wanted me to hold his hand. I sigh and take it, wondering for the hundredth time why he even liked me. It wasn't like I encouraged him any. I ignore the voice inside that said I liked him too and kept on walking.

Finally, we reach an area that has fewer trees and I spot a hut. We're there. My heartbeat races, unsure what was in store for us. I see women moving around and I watch. What I see surprises me. I see them doing chores; hanging clothes to dry, gardening, feeding the livestock, and fetching water. I see leather garbed women watching over children and chatting with their friends. This wasn't what I expected.

I expected a bunch of women going around carrying weapons and drilling like soldiers, not this domestic scene. They act just like other women-like mothers and wives. The Amazons seemed like ordinary people here. The only thing missing was the men. I sigh and wonder how many of my preconceived ideas about them were wrong.

One of the warriors leading the way rushes ahead and enters a hut. Probably to inform the Queen what was going on. Our escort orders us to stop and wait, their weapons held at the ready. I suppose they think we'll make a break for it. I deliberately relax my pose and assume a bored expression. I didn't want them knowing I was scared. Sarvo, of course, tries to act tough and got the butt-end of a spear for his trouble. Jassia fusses and pleads with him to keep quiet. She has a lot more sense than he does.

The hut door opens and a young woman comes out. She's blond, slim, and dressed like the others, but something tells me she's in charge. Her snapping brown eyes look over our group in annoyance.

"It was a beautiful day and I just 'knew' somebody had to go and ruin it for me today," she says dryly. Her words were unexpected and I do my best to stifle my laughter. I can't help it. In spite of our situation, I found I like this woman. I just hoped she wasn't in the mood to have us all thrown in prison.

At the sound of my laughter, her eyes turn to me. She studies me for a minute and I see a softening in her eyes. I'm hoping it's a good sign. She motions one of our guards to follow her as she stepped away from us. They speak in hushed tones and she returns.

"Alright, here's what's going to happen. You," she points at Sarvo, "are being locked up. The women and children may have the freedom of the village. We'll loan them a hut for the night. I'll deal with all of you after I get a good night's sleep." Two women grab Sarvo's elbows and lead him away. I can tell he wants to protest, but at least he's smart and keeps quiet for once.

He left our sight and the leader turns to the rest of us.

"Hungry? I was about to head over to the food hut for a meal," she says kindly. I decide I like her voice as well. It's a little husky but nice to listen to.

None of us refuses so she leads us to one of the building to our left. Peda still has hold of my hand. He looks up at Amazon leader, wide-eyed, and asks her name. She looks surprised and smiles, then kneels in front of him so she can look at him eye to eye.

"Well, that was rude of me, wasn't it? My name is Ephiny, and I am the Queen's regent. She travels around a lot, so I rule in her place when she's not here," she explains with a gentle smile. Peda smiles back at her shyly. I can tell he's going to be a charmer when he gets older. She winks at him and ruffles his hair as she stands back up.

She looks at me. "He's yours?" she asks. I shake my head and nod towards Jassia, who looks nervous. Ephiny just smiles and comments that Peda is cute. Jassia mumbles out a quiet 'thanks' and we all walk into the hut.

The smell of cooking food reminds me how hungry I really an as my stomach rumbles and complains. The women ladling up the food stand side by side, working quietly. They hand us our plates and we sit down. I take a mouthful and try it. It's nothing fancy, but not bad al all. I eat and look around the room at the people around me.

Most of the women are scantily clad, but when I think about, I realize they had to be a lot cooler than I was in this summer heat. Most of them sit in small groups, chatting. I see a few pairs sitting close together, sharing small touches. It seems at least one thing I've heard about the Amazons that was true.

I must have been staring because Ephiny nudges me lightly with her elbow and grins at me. I feel a blush stain my face and I lower my eyes and focus on eating.

"It's okay to be curious, but try and not to stare at us like we're circus freaks or something," she says softly so only I can hear. I feel the blush grow hotter.

"Sorry," I mutter.

"It's okay, really. At least you weren't looking at them with disgust on your face. Some people get all uptight about the idea of two women together. "

"I guess. I never really thought about it. It's not exactly common where I'm from." I glance at one of the couples again and watch them.

One is a honey blond, and tall with a proud carriage that seems typical of the people here. Her partner, an ashy blond, is sitting closely at her side, her arm around the other's shoulders as they eat. They speak in hushed tones so I can't hear what they say, but gentle smiles are passed between them. Something special must have been said because the honey-hair woman leans closer, raising her hand. She runs the back of her fingers along her mate's cheek who turns and tilts her face forward. They share a soft kiss.

At this point, I feel like I'm invading their privacy and turn my eyes away. A mushy smile must have been on my face. Ephiny catches my eye and grins.

"They're sweet, aren't they? Lydia and Cassia have been together for over a decade and still act like newlyweds," she comments.

* * * * *

After our meal, Jassia and her brood decide to go to the hut provided for us. I guess they're exhausted and frightened. I help her tuck the children in. Peda brazenly asks for a goodnight kiss. Yep, a charmer in the making. I grudgingly wish him a pleasant night and head out the door.

I'm too restless to just sit and do nothing, so I decide to just walk around since Ephiny did say we had the freedom of the village. I circle the area, not really looking at anything in particular. Near one end of the area, I hear a faint noise. I stop and listen intently. The sounds of striking metal and wood can be heard.

My first impulse is to look and go see what's going on but I don't want to risk the Amazons thinking I was trying to escape. I settle for listening some more.

"Our practice fields are out that way," an unknown voice says. I turn and see an older woman. She has a strong face and solid build. She introduces herself and asks if I want to take a look, offering to be my escort. I follow Eponin up a well-worn path.

When we arrive, I stop and watch in wonder. Here was where all the tales of the Amazons came to life. Women and girls were sparring in groups and pairs. I could see some standard weapons but some I have never seen before.

I watch the closest pair as they practice. They used short staffs with such skill that they seemed as graceful as dancers. I wished I could give it a try. My longing must have been evident. As I watch the two women fight, a wooden staff is thrusted in front of me. I grab it instinctively.

"Want to give it a try?" my escort asks. I say yes, it looks like fun.

"Fun? No, this is serious for us. We have to always be prepared to defend both our lands, and ourselves," she lectures. Properly contrite, I copy the way she holds her own staff. She tells me do my best to hit her. I know she has to be very good at using her weapon and I'd probably never get any real shot at hitting her, so I don't hold back using my full strength.

After a few attempts, I learn the folly of throwing all my weight behind it as she casually avoids the swings. I see an amused twinkle in her eye but I don't take offense, I decide just to swing at her from every angle. She just deflects each one with a flick of her staff. As I get ready to give up, she lands a stinging blow of her own on my posterior, a wicked smile curving her lips.

That got my attention fast. Suddenly, I was all business. My focus narrows and all I want is to land just one blow on her. It never happens. Her skill just simply outclasses me and I finally give up when I can't keep my arms up any longer.

I sit heavily at the base of a tree, my lungs burning as I gulp air into them. Sweat is pouring down my face and into my eyes, but I'm too tired to wipe it away.

Eponin sat next to me and smiled. "You have a lot of spirit," she comments. I personally thought I was too stubborn and stupid to admit defeat. After I catch my breath, she escorts me back to the village.

* * * * *

The next morning, we find ourselves in front of Ephiny as she passes her judgment on all of us. She sits down on the chair of her dais and looks down upon our ragtag group. She takes a deep breath and speaks.

"You trespassed on our lands. We can forgive that if the people doing it leave once they are ordered to do so. When my sisters asked your group to leave, you, Sarvo, offered insults of the worst kind. You not only offended our mothers, ancestors and us, but I think you even managed to slur Artemis' good name as well. However, the punishment won't be prison for you."

A hushed, angry murmur rose among the Amazons. The Queen's regent raised her hand to silence them.

"I think my punishment will be a fitting one. All of you will be free to go as soon as Sarvo fulfills his obligation to us. I have a sister that expressed a wish to have a child and mentioned that your children were exceptionally beautiful."

Sarvo and Jassia wail, thinking they will lose one or more of their children to the Amazons. Ephiny orders them to remain silent until she finishes.

"I think it's only proper that Sarvo sires a child with my sister Amazon. The child will be raised to honor our ways and Sarvo will have to live with the knowledge that one with his blood is with us. Once her pregnancy is confirmed, you are all free to leave." Guards come forward to escort us from the platform, but she motions me forward as the rest leave.

Her voice changes, becoming friendlier. She turns to me surprisingly, a smile on her face.

"I'm hoping we can convince you to stay among us. Epinon has the opinion that you'd make a good Amazon and she's willing to sponsor you. I agree with her."

I just stand there, shocked from this unexpected turn. She places a friendly hand on my shoulder. "Hey, you're gonna catch flies if you keep that up," she teases. I shut my mouth and try and compose my thoughts.

"I …er, Gods! I don't know what to say," I stammer out. "I don't know what to think."

"It's okay. We didn't exactly give you a lot of warning about this, but I understand. We won't rush you into any decisions right now, but I'd like it if you just thought about it. We have women from all walks of life that join us."

One thing pops into my mind and I blush at the very thought. "Uh, there is one thing though. Are all the women here…you know?"

Ephiny knew exactly what I was talking about. "You mean seeking only the company of other women? Actually, no, not all of us. I was married once myself, but all the women here know that men aren't allowed to live permanently on our lands. If you decide to marry, it must be with our permission and you have to live outside our boundaries. I came back after my husband died," the regent explains. I must have looked uncertain.

"Don't worry. No Amazon would dream of forcing another into anything she didn't want. There are strong punishments for those who try. We accept each other for what we are, nothing more. Epinon said you were spirited and not afraid when she challenged you to a practice bout. With training, you'd be a good addition to our Nation."

"I don't think I'd like being a warrior Ephiny," I confess. She shrugs.

"Not a problem if you have other skills you possess or wish to learn. We can apprentice you to someone if you want. We only ask that you learn how to fight for everybody's sake. I think you'd like living here. Think about it."

I nod thoughtfully. The regent smiles and walks away. I have a lot of thinking to do.

* * * * * *

Well, it's been two months and the woman Sarvo had been with announces she's with child tonight. Amazons cheered at the news, happy for their sister.

We were all free to go, but I had yet to make a decision. Do I stay or leave? I know I like it here, but is that reason enough to give up my former life? I think about that question. What do I really have waiting for me? My mother died when I was young and my father recently joined her on the other side. I'm alone in this world. I'm bound to no one and nothing. All I have is my pride and the clothes on my back.

The time I've spent here has been a learning experience. A few have offered their friendship, but I keep everyone at arm's length, afraid of becoming too attached if I leave. Dalia, the local builder, offered to apprentice me after seeing my interest in her work. I found I love working with my hands, but something in me refuses to commit to remaining here. I think it's fear. Everything I've cherished has been destroyed. Everyone I've loved has died. I was afraid of letting myself care again. So what do I do?

Peda races up to me, his face bright with excitement. He doesn't really understand everything going on, but is happy that his father has returned. He chatters away in his childish enthusiasm, often making little sense. As he speaks, he worms his way onto my lap. I let him talk and give him an occasional hmm hmm whenever necessary until he falls asleep. Jassia takes him from my arms and carries him into our hut. I notice my lap now feels cold in the places he was nestled against me. I stand, feeling restless.

I wander around the celebrating women. Epinon catches up to me, matching her pace with my own.

"Have you made up your mind? Sarvo and his family are leaving with the first light tomorrow."

"I don't know. My eyes won't meet her own, knowing I'd see disappointment there. I let my eyes wander and I spot a lone woman, sitting at the edge of the partying people. She seems oblivious to the goings on around her. The air about her seems so forlorn. She's a beautiful woman in spite of the sadness that radiates from her.

"That's Sarese. She came here a few days ago after her mother died," Epinon tells me, following my gaze. My eyes won't leave the grieving woman. Something about her calls out to me.

"Why don't you go speak with her? I'm sure she can use a friend right now." I can only nod. I walk over to the sitting Amazon and she looks up at me with soft, golden-green eyes and my heart goes out to her. Maybe I will stay after all.

The End

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