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THE BIRTH OF SOLAN by Eva Allen
DISCLAIMER: Characters which have appeared in the TV series Xena: Warrior Princess or Hercules: The Legendary Journeys are the sole property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. Their use in this story does not represent the intent to make a profit or otherwise infringe on the existing copyright. All other characters are the clever invention of the author.
Continues from here
She dreamed a memory -- a peaceful memory in which her body felt light and warm, suspended languorously in the fragrant water of the bath in Lao Ma's palace. It was not that first day she was remembering -- not that terrifying space of time when she had hidden from Ming Tzu, her heart pounding and lungs bursting, in this same bath. No, it was a day or so later, early evening, and Xena lounged alone in the soothing water amid the glow of candlelight. But she paid scant attention to her surroundings, her mind being occupied instead with thoughts of what she had witnessed that afternoon. She had seen Lao Ma shatter a vase without touching it -- using only the power of her mind. It had been an amazing performance, done apparently without effort, yet when Xena herself had tried it, concentrating all her willpower on the task, nothing at all had happened. In fact, Lao Ma had laughed at her.
The warrior sighed and moved a few steps forward through the water, then let herself sink down so that she was totally submerged. She stayed under for a few moments, breathing out slowly through her nose. Then, drifting back to the surface, she emerged face-first, her dark hair swirling around her. The whole world was driven by a will, Lao Ma had told her, but in order to transcend the world's limitations, it was necessary to conquer one's own will. Xena didn't understand it. She didn't understand how she could stop willing or why doing so would give her the kind of power Lao Ma had. The concept seemed radically opposed to everything she had lived and believed up until now.
Moving to the edge of the bath, she sat on an underwater ledge with only her head and shoulders out of the water. Soft tendrils of hair floated in front of her and reaching out, she wrapped one loosely around her fingers. Then, hearing the sound of a door, she looked up to see Lao Ma crossing the room. Her bare feet whispered softly across the smooth stone floor until she came to a stop near the bath. She was wearing only a simple blue robe, and her unbound hair cascaded down over her shoulders.
"May I join you," Lao Ma asked with a quiet smile, "or would you rather be alone to do some thinking?"
"No, get in," Xena said, gesturing awkwardly.
Slipping out of her robe, Lao Ma let the garment fall to the floor, then stepped to the edge of the bath and sat down. It was the first time Xena had seen the other woman unclothed, and she found herself strangely moved by the sight -- the golden skin of her breasts and stomach, the dark triangle of hair below. But realizing that she was staring, Xena quickly looked down, watching the water lap gently at her own breasts as Lao Ma entered it.
"The water feels nice, doesn't it?" Lao Ma said after a moment. "It's warm and soft, yet strong enough to bear our weight. Do you know what Ming Tzu said to me that day while you were hiding here?"
Xena shook her head.
"He said I was a strange woman -- that I was soft and hard at the same time. I told him I was like water, which can be very soft, and yet hard as a raging flood. I think it's a good image, don't you?"
"Yes. It fits you," said Xena.
Lao Ma smiled and then ducked herself under the water. When she came up, glistening droplets of water clung to her eyelashes and slid down the smooth almond skin of her face. Looking at her, Xena felt a distinct sense of pleasure, and this time she did not avert her eyes. Far from appearing to mind the warrior's interest, Lao Ma returned her gaze frankly. Then, after a few moments, she seated herself on the stone ledge near Xena.
The warrior shifted her position self-consciously and began to play with a floating lotus petal. Even after spending several days in the palace, she still had no idea what to say to this mysterious woman to whom she felt so strangely attracted. She could not understand why Lao Ma had befriended her nor what she would demand in exchange for having saved her life. And the fact that she was so distinctly clueless made Xena very nervous.
After a short time, Lao Ma broke the silence. "Does the water make your legs feel better?" she asked.
Xena looked at her. "Yeah, it does," she said.
"Do they hurt all the time, or only when you walk?"
"Mostly when I stand or walk, but sometimes they ache in the night and I can't sleep."
"What happened to them?"
"They were broken."
"Both of them at once?"
"How did it happen?"
Xena turned her attention to the lotus petal, plucking it out of the water and then tearing it slowly in half. "I was crucified," she said.
"Crucified? By whom?"
"By the Romans," Xena said in a flat, bitter tone of voice. "By a man I thought cared for me. He ordered my legs to be broken."
Lao Ma did not respond, and after a moment, Xena looked up to see her reaction. The depth of sympathy in the other woman's dark eyes surprised her and she quickly turned her gaze back to the lotus petal. "So you see," she added, "there's a good reason why I'm so full of hate and anger."
"Yes, of course there is," Lao Ma said, laying a hand on the warrior's arm. "You've known a great deal of suffering, for one so young. But Xena," she continued, "hate and anger are emotions that can only lead to death -- if not to physical death, then to death of the spirit. That is what I was trying to tell you earlier." She rose and moved to stand in front of the warrior. "Let me see your legs," she said.
Xena hesitated, then lifted one of her legs to the surface of the water. Lao Ma supported it with one hand while running the fingers of her other hand carefully along the shinbone. "Is this where the break was?" she asked after a moment.
Glancing at the spot indicated by the other woman, Xena nodded. Lao Ma probed the site with gentle fingers for a short time and then made a similar examination of the other leg. When she had finished, she sat down again beside Xena.
"It's puzzling," she said. "The bones appear to have been set well and to have healed strong and straight. All I can figure out is that a great deal of anger was trapped inside the bones when they healed, and that's what is causing you the pain. We will have to find a way to release that anger."
Xena stared at her. She had never heard such a strange diagnosis. Anger trapped inside her bones? It sounded preposterous.
Rising again, Lao Ma made her way to the other side of the bath and picked up a sponge and dish of soap. Turning back to Xena, she said, "Would you like me to wash your back?"
"You don't have to. I can do it myself."
"Yes, of course you can do it yourself," Lao Ma said, "but I would like to do it for you, if you'll let me."
"All right," Xena said, a bit uncertainly. Standing up, she turned her back toward the other woman and pulled her hair out of the way. The soapy sponge began to make gentle circles across her shoulders and back. "Is this part of that thing about serving someone you hate?" she asked.
The movement of the sponge stopped. "Xena, I don't hate you," Lao Ma said quietly. "Did you think that I do?"
"I tried to kill you. You have every right to hate me."
"Well, that's a right I choose not to exercise." The sponge began to move again.
"I still don't understand why you did it," Xena said. "I don't understand why you saved my life."
"That's because the types of motivation you understand best are anger, greed, and fear. But there are other reasons why people act the way they do."
Xena considered this for a few moments as Lao Ma squeezed water over her shoulders to rinse them and then began to soap her lower back.
"What did you mean by saying I was capable of greatness?" Xena asked. "Were you talking about achieving power?"
"No, at least not the kind of brute power you're thinking of."
The warrior was silent as Lao Ma began to move the soapy sponge over her arms. "The man I told you about," she said, with an edge of bitter sarcasm, "the man who had me crucified -- he believed he was destined for greatness." She stopped as she felt rage rising like a red flood within her, choking off her words.
"Yes, and what about this man?" asked Lao Ma.
Xena took a deep breath and let it out again, fighting to push the rage back down. "He said that greatness meant doing what other men thought was impossible. Is that what you think greatness is?" she asked, turning to face the other woman.
"I think that's one possible definition," Lao Ma said slowly, "but mostly I think you need to find your own path -- a path that is not dictated by anger and hate. There is so much that is good in you, Xena," Lao Ma went on, moving closer and putting her hands on the warrior's shoulders. "When you have learned to let go of the bad, the good can come out."
"I don't know how to let go!" Xena said, roughly shrugging Lao Ma's hands away. "You have no idea how much bad there is in me. You can't possibly understand me that well. And I can't understand you, either. I can't understand your way of thinking, and I don't know what you want from me!" Then, turning abruptly, she moved across the bath and stood leaning stiffly against the side, her back to Lao Ma.
There were several long moments of silence and then the gentle slushing of the water as Lao Ma came to stand behind her. "Forgive me, Xena," she said softly. "I've been expecting you to learn in just a few days what I've spent many years learning." She moved closer and laid her hand on the warrior's back. "It's just that I see so much potential in you and I want so many things for you. That's why I'm pushing you to learn everything at once. I forget that we have plenty of time. We'll take things slower from now on, and you will soon come to understand. I really believe you will."
The warrior let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding and turned to face the other woman. Was it true what Lao Ma was saying? Would she understand, eventually? The calmness of her teacher's gaze reassured her and without expecting to, Xena smiled.
Lao Ma smiled in return. Then, reaching out to touch Xena's cheek for a moment, she let her fingers trail lightly down over the warrior's chest and one breast. "You're a beautiful woman, Xena," she said quietly.
And quick as a shooting star, a thought flashed through Xena's mind. Maybe this was it. Maybe she had finally found the key to understanding this strange woman. Sex. Maybe it was sex Lao Ma wanted. What else could this intimate gesture mean? Well, sex was a game Xena definitely knew how to play. She had played it often enough with men. How different could it be with a woman? Returning Lao Ma's steady gaze, Xena let her smile widen seductively. "You're very beautiful, too," she said.
"You do me great honor," Lao Ma responded, her eyes carefully searching the warrior's face, "but my looks are really very ordinary. You, though, with those blue eyes and high cheekbones -- you have quite an exotic sort of beauty."
"Exotic? Me?" Xena asked in surprise. "You're the one who's exotic-looking."
Lao Ma laughed. "Maybe I would be in your land of Greece," she said, "but here I look much like everyone else." For a moment, there was silence, then Lao Ma asked, "Have you ever made love, Xena?"
"Well, of course," Xena said, laughing. "I'm not a child, you know."
"I'm not talking about simply having sex," Lao Ma returned. "Anyone can do that."
Xena frowned. "What's the difference?" she asked.
"The sexual act doesn't necessarily have anything to do with love," Lao Ma said. "It may end up being political or even warlike. It can be a way to conquer and control someone. But when you make love to another person, it is a pure, unselfish act. You do it because you wish to honor the other person with the gift of pleasure. It is a way of serving someone you care about."
Xena stared at her, unable either to look away or to think of a response.
"Just now, when I touched your breast," Lao Ma went on, "I'm guessing that you thought I desired you sexually and that my desire would offer you a way to control me, at least to some extent. Am I right? Did you think something like that?"
The warrior nodded mutely.
Lao Ma smiled. "I do have a desire, Xena," she said quietly, "but it's not the kind of desire you're imagining. My desire is to give you a gift from my heart -- the gift of pleasure. Can you do me the honor of accepting my gift?"
Xena swallowed hard. "I-- I guess so," she stammered.
"Thank you," Lao Ma said with a smile. "We will begin soon. But first we need to finish your bath. Come back over here." She turned and waded across the bath.
Xena followed her slowly. Damn this woman, she thought. She was so full of surprises and bizarre twists of thought. There was just no way to guess what she would do next.
Dipping her hands into the soft soap, Lao Ma turned to meet Xena. "Pull your hair out of the way," she said. Then she ran her hands over the warrior's shoulders, reaching around to massage the back of her neck. "Xena, your muscles are as tight as a bowstring," she said softly. "Are you afraid?"
"No!" Xena said quickly. "I just-- I don't know. I just feel--"
"You just feel what?"
"I don't know. Confused, I guess."
"Stop trying so hard to figure everything out," Lao Ma said. "You can't make understanding come by sheer force of will, any more than you can break a bottle using your will. When it's time for understanding to come, it will come. Until then, just relax. There's nothing to be afraid of."
The voice of her teacher was soothing, and Xena could feel the warmth of the small hands on her shoulders and neck, skillfully releasing the tension. She closed her eyes and began to relax, as Lao Ma scooped handfuls of sweet-smelling water over her shoulders. Then she heard the other woman lathering her hands again and soon felt gentle fingers caressing her breasts, lifting them, and sensuously massaging the nipples. With a slight gasp, she opened her eyes. Lao Ma was watching her, and for a moment Xena thought she might drown in the depths of those dark eyes. She reached out to touch Lao Ma's face and was surprised to find that her hand was trembling. In fact, her whole body was trembling with what she now recognized as desire. How had it happened? She had never desired a woman before. Lao Ma must be some kind of enchantress. There was no other way to explain it.
She pulled Lao Ma toward her, suddenly wanting nothing more than to feel the softness of the other woman's lips against her own. But Lao Ma resisted. "No, Xena," she said, easing herself free from the warrior's hold, "not like this. It's not about conquest -- try to remember that. Do you want me to wash your hair?"
Xena stared at her without answering.
Lao Ma dipped her hand in the soap again. "Bend down," she said, then lathered the warrior's thick, black hair and gently massaged the scalp. "Now rinse," she instructed, and Xena ducked under the water.
As she came back up, she stumbled a little, and felt the other woman's hand steadying her. Xena wiped the water away from her eyes and cautiously opened them. Lao Ma smiled at her. "Go dry off," she said. "I'll be out in a few minutes. There's a big pile of soft furs over there," she added, nodding toward the spot. "I've told the servants not to disturb us."
Xena climbed the steps in the corner of the bath, then wrapped herself in a thick linen towel and stood watching Lao Ma bathe herself. This whole thing had been planned, she now realized. It had been planned as carefully as she had once planned her own seduction of Caesar. The bath had been prepared, the pile of furs laid out nearby, the servants ordered away. If that didn't mean Lao Ma wanted to have sex with her, then just what did it mean? Making love. A gift of pleasure. Why couldn't the woman just call things by their rightful names?
Sighing, Xena carefully toweled her hair and body until her skin glowed rosy. She kept an eye on Lao Ma meanwhile, and the warrior soon discovered that there was a wetness between her legs which she could not seem to dry. When she had finished with the towel, she hobbled over to the furs and sat down. Lao Ma climbed out of the water, her body streaming and glistening golden in the candlelight. Xena's breath caught in her throat and she became aware that her heart was thudding in her chest. Something told her this was going to be very different from any sex she had ever had before. She wasn't even sure how two women went about doing this kind of thing, but Lao Ma clearly knew. Xena would have a good teacher.
Kneeling in front of her, Lao Ma smiled softly. "Are you sure you want to do this?" she asked. "You don't have to, you know."
"I want to," Xena said, her voice barely more than a whisper.
Lao Ma leaned forward and took Xena's face between her hands. Then, pulling the warrior toward her, she kissed her tenderly. Xena felt a warm current of excitement spreading through her, and she returned the kiss with growing passion, her fingers intertwining in Lao Ma's dark hair.
"Teach me," Xena murmured in the other woman's ear when the kiss ended. "Show me what to do."
Lao Ma pulled back a little to look at her. "Your job is to do nothing -- just accept my gift and enjoy it."
"That sounds easy enough."
"Yes, it sounds easy, but it means you must trust me completely and let go of your desire to be in control. That could be very difficult, even frightening for you."
Xena looked at her without speaking.
Lao Ma smiled and cupped the warrior's breast in one hand, then bent to gently suck the nipple. Xena felt a delicious shiver of anticipation deep in her gut. "Lie down," Lao Ma said after a few moments. "Let me make love to you."
Xena stretched out on her back and Lao Ma began to work her magic. With skillful fingers and soft lips, she soon brought forth a response from parts of Xena's body which the warrior had never even thought of as sensitive. Gradually, the sweet sensation of arousal grew within her, but with it came the fear Lao Ma had predicted -- a stark, cold terror which crept in each time Xena felt herself losing control.
And when the fear came, Lao Ma would wait, stroking Xena's face and talking softly to her. "It's all right," she murmured. "There's nothing to be afraid of. Just trust me enough to surrender your will. Nothing will harm you if you let go. Just allow yourself to feel the pleasure."
Then the terror would fade and the beautiful sensations Lao Ma was creating in her body would return, lifting Xena to even higher levels of ecstasy than before. Moaning and trembling beneath the other's woman's touch, she began to lose all sense of time and place, surrendering herself at last to the wonder of the crescendo building within her. Again and again, Lao Ma brought her close to the edge and then drew her back. And finally, when Xena thought she could endure no more, she began to beg for release. "Please, Lao Ma!" she panted. "Please!" And with a fond smile, her beautiful tormentor slid down between the warrior's legs, and used her lips and tongue bring about the climax -- a glorious explosion of sensation unlike any Xena had never known before.
* * *
She woke with a soft moan, as the orgasm surged through her body. Reaching between her legs, she kept the sweetness of it alive as long as possible, then lay basking in its afterglow. The child within her moved and kicked against her ribcage. Xena patted her belly and absently wondered how an orgasm felt from inside the womb. Then, easing herself onto her side, she saw that Calandra was curled up fast asleep on the other side of the fire. Xena sighed and closed her eyes, wanting to recapture the beauty of her dream. She floated back again in time, remembering how she had lain with Lao Ma's arms around her as the tingling glow of her climax had gradually faded.
"Do you want to do it again?" Lao Ma had asked.
"No. I mean yes, but this time I want to make love to you," she had replied. Then, when Lao Ma looked at her a bit quizzically, Xena had added, "I want to give you the gift of pleasure. Will you do me the honor of accepting my gift?"
Lao Ma had laughed softly, with a sound like music. "Yes," she said, brushing back the hair from Xena's face, "I will do you that honor -- as long as you remember that you are giving a gift and not making a conquest."
"I'll try to remember," Xena said, "but you may have to help me."
Then, carefully and a little hesitantly, she had made love to the woman who had saved her life and become her teacher. Lao Ma coached and encouraged her, chiding the warrior a few times when she became too aggressive. And Xena marveled at the other woman's responsiveness and at how good it made her feel to give joy to someone she had come to care so much about. "I think I could really get into this serving stuff," she said afterwards, with a sly grin.
But Lao Ma did not share her amusement. "We'll see how you feel tomorrow, after you have served Ming Tzu," she said.
Xena scowled. "I still don't see the point in serving that old pig," she grumbled. "I'd rather just serve you."
"You will learn much more by serving Ming Tzu than you ever could serving me," Lao Ma said quietly.
But the serving of Ming Tzu had not gone well. He had sat at Lao Ma's table, blithely spewing insults until Xena's rage had reached the boiling point. Only the look in Lao Ma's eyes and the most stringent exercise of will had kept Xena from slitting the bastard's throat then and there. Lao Ma claimed that Xena had learned something from the experience, but Xena was not so sure.
The evening had held other lessons, though. Xena had learned how, in a land where women had no power, Lao Ma had come to rule her husband's kingdom. Lao Ma spoke of it as her "gift" to a brutal tyrant, and had shown Xena the book of wisdom she was writing in Lao Tzu's name. But most important, and most surprising of all, Xena had learned that Ming T'ien, the boy she had kidnapped and corrupted, was Lao Ma's son.
Later on, the two women had lain on the cool silk sheets of Lao Ma's bed and talked through the long, dark hours of the night. Lao Ma had told a little of her childhood -- how she had grown up the daughter of her father's fourth wife. And how an uncle, her mother's childless brother, had taken an interest in teaching her to read and write, to use pressure points, and to understand how the will which drives the world can sometimes be transcended.
Because of her low rank in the family, there had been no thought of finding Lao Ma a husband. Instead, her father had sold her as a courtesan into the court of Ming Tzu. There she had found favor with Ming himself, and had borne him the son that neither of his wives had been able to give him. Overjoyed, Ming had acknowledged the boy and proclaimed him his heir, but having done so, he had sold the boy's mother to the tyrant Lao Tzu. Hoping for an heir of his own, Lao had made her his wife number two. No conception had taken place, however, and when wife number one died, Lao Ma had begun using the secret of pressure points to disable her husband and rule benevolently in his name.
Xena opened her eyes, brought back to the present by the start of a contraction. She stared into the fire, welcoming the returning pain as it moved through her body. When it was over, she pushed herself to a sitting position. She laid her hands on her swollen belly, feeling the slight movement of the child within. "It's all right," she whispered. "It's safe to come out now."
Struggling to her feet, she wrapped her cloak around her and walked to the opening of the cavern. The sky was glowing a pure light blue, except in the east, where vivid orange streaks proclaimed the imminent arrival of the sun. The air was chilly and crisp, and the rocks felt cold and damp beneath her bare feet. She had loved Lao Ma -- at least, she had loved her as much as her fear of betrayal would let her love anyone. But Lao Ma had not betrayed her. She had betrayed Lao Ma instead. Xena had allowed her rage to shatter the trust that Lao Ma had placed in her. The thought of it slashed like a knife through her heart, but even so, she wasn't certain that she could have acted in any other way. The evil within her was clearly too strong to be conquered -- even by Lao Ma's love.
Another contraction came -- this one much stronger. Closing her eyes, Xena leaned against the stone that hid the doorway. When the pain was gone, she looked at the sky once more and saw the first rays of the sun glinting through the winter trees. This was the day her child would be born -- a day which promised to be clear and bright. If she were a person who believed in signs, she would surely see this as a good one.
Hearing a noise behind her, she turned and saw Calandra.
"Did you get any sleep?" Calandra asked.
"Yeah, a little."
"So I noticed," Xena commented.
"The pains have started again, haven't they?"
"See? I told you they would," the girl said. Then she added, "Come inside. You'll catch your death of cold out here barefooted."
Xena turned and followed her back into the cave. Then, as another contraction gripped her, she gave a small cry and put her hand on Calandra's shoulder for support. "They're closer together now," she gasped.
"That's good," Calandra said. "Let's check and see how far along you are."
The opening was at four fingers, and within half an hour it had reached five. After that, Xena measured time only by the pain -- wave after wave of pain that seemed determined to rip her body apart.
"You can scream all you want to," Calandra said. "There's no one around to hear you."
So Xena screamed and moaned and paced the cavern, frantically seeking some kind of relief or escape. But after a time, the contractions grew too strong, and she could no longer walk. She had already taken off her cloak, and now she took off the tunic, too. Sweating with the effort of enduring the pain, she no longer cared a fig about modesty.
She sat on a boulder while Calandra massaged her shoulders, urging her to relax.
"Why should I relax?" she asked irritably. "Shouldn't I be trying to push the baby out?"
"No, don't push yet," Calandra said. "I'll tell you when it's time. For now, you need to try to relax. It will help make the pain easier to bear."
So Xena tried to relax, but the pains just kept coming, each one seeming worse than the one before. Finally, grabbing Calandra's arm, she said urgently, "If I die, you must go to my army and tell them to come get my body."
"You're not going to die," Calandra assured her. "I know it hurts, but everything's going well. You're a big, strong woman with wide hips, and the baby's in the right position. Everything will be fine."
Xena nodded, hoping desperately that the girl knew what she was talking about. A few minutes later, she grabbed the midwife's arm again. "I think I feel it moving down!" she panted.
"You need to squat down," Calandra said, "right here is fine. You can hold onto me, if you like." And then when Xena had eased herself into position, the girl did a quick check. "I can see the head -- it won't be long now!" she said excitedly.
"Should I push?"
"Yes, go ahead and push."
And so, wanting only for her ordeal to be over, Xena gritted her teeth and bore down hard.
"That's it," Calandra encouraged her. "The head's coming out! Keep pushing!" Then, a few moments later, she said, "Okay, now stop pushing. The baby has to turn so that the shoulders can come out. They'll come out one at a time."
Breathing hard and perspiring heavily, Xena crouched there, clutching the girl's shoulders for support.
"All right, push again!" called Calandra, and Xena obeyed, screaming out in pain, even while she knew the pain was almost over at last. And then, peering down between her legs, she saw the baby slide out into Calandra's waiting hands.
"It's a boy!" the girl exclaimed, as the infant let out a hearty wail.
"A boy," Xena murmured, realizing that she had never really considered which sex the child would be.
"Yes! A strong, healthy boy, from the sound of that cry!" Calandra said as she quickly wiped his nose and eyes clean and then counted his fingers and toes. "Sit down and I'll let you hold him."
"Aren't you going to cut the cord?" Xena asked as she carefully lowered herself into a sitting position and leaned back against a rock.
"In a minute," Calandra said. "We'll wait until the blood stops pulsing through it." Then she handed the crying child to Xena. "Be careful to support his head," she warned.
"He's so little," the warrior said, taking the baby awkwardly in her arms. "And red. And why does he keep crying like that?"
"You'd be red, too, if you'd just been squeezed through such a tiny opening," Calandra said. "See if you can get him to nurse. Nursing helps the afterbirth come out."
Nurse? Xena had never pictured herself nursing this child, and she wasn't really sure how to go about it. Hesitantly, she moved the baby close to her breast and pushed the nipple into his mouth. To her surprise, his crying stopped abruptly as his lips closed around the nipple. Then, after a few hesitant tries, he began to suck rhythmically and with apparent success.
"He's doing it!" Xena said in amazement.
Calandra knelt at her side. "Yeah, looks like he's a natural," she said with a grin. Then she began tying off the umbilical cord. "Xena," she said, looking at the warrior, "don't kill this child. Please. If you don't want to keep him, then let me find a home for him. I know of a couple of families in the village who would be more than happy to have a fine, healthy boy like this. No one will need to know whose son he is. Just tell me you won't kill him."
Xena looked at the child and then at Calandra. "I won't kill him," she said quietly.
"Thank you," Calandra said with relief. And then she cut the cord.
Xena returned her gaze to the baby. So this was what had been growing inside her all these months -- not the monster she had imagined, but this tiny little person with such perfectly formed fingers and toes. And the sensation of his mouth drawing nourishment from her breast -- it was a unique sensation, and it felt sensuous in a way that she could never have imagined. She smiled a tired smile and then gasped slightly as she felt a new contraction.
"It's the afterbirth," Calandra said. "Don't worry. This will be much easier than delivering the baby was."
The girl was right, and within a few minutes, it was over. "Well, that's it," Calandra said cheerfully. You're all done with contractions. How do you feel?"
"Yeah, I'm sure you are. You had a long labor."
"What time is it?" Xena asked, glancing at the patch of light that marked the opening to the cave.
"I don't know. Midday, I guess. Do you want something to eat?"
"No, I want to sleep."
"Okay. I'll just get you cleaned up and then you can go to sleep." She brought a pot of warm water over from the fire, dipped a cloth into it, and began to gently cleanse between the warrior's legs. "This looks good," she said. "There was hardly any tearing. Sometimes we have to sew people up afterwards." When she finished, she folded a clean, dry piece of linen to make a thick pad and then fashioned a belt to hold it in place.
The baby was no longer nursing, Xena noted. In fact, he seemed to be mostly asleep. She wondered if he felt as tired as she did.
"Here, let me take him and I'll clean him up, too," Calandra said. "You go ahead and lie down."
Xena moved to her bedroll and eased herself down, stretching out on her back. She closed her eyes and was only half aware when Calandra brought the sleepy baby and laid him in the soft hollow between her breasts. And by the time the girl got a blanket spread over them, Xena was sound asleep.
She was awakened a few hours later by a whimpering sound which she could not at first identify. She was lying under a blanket, and there was a weight on her chest. Then, suddenly, a hot wetness ran over her stomach and down her side. Throwing the blanket off, she snatched up the baby and held him away from her.
"Xena! What is it? What's wrong?" called Calandra, scrambling to her feet.
"He's peeing on me!" Xena exclaimed.
Calandra began to laugh as she grabbed some rags and hurried around the fire.
"It's really not that funny," grumbled the warrior.
"Sorry. It just struck me that way," Calandra said, still grinning. She dropped a clean rag beside Xena and reached for the child. "I'll take care of him," she said. The baby began to cry and the girl held him close to her, rocking him gently. "You didn't want to leave your mommy, did you?" she crooned. "Well, you can go back in just a minute. We need to get you cleaned up first."
Xena sat up, stared at the girl briefly, and then began using the rag to dry herself off.
"Did you bring any kind of swaddling clothes to wrap him in?" Calandra asked, speaking loudly, so she could be heard above the wailing.
Xena looked up. "Uh, no, I-- I didn't. But maybe I've got something that will work." She reached for the bundle she had brought with her from the camp. "I've got this old piece of a blanket," she said.
"Is it wool?"
"Too scratchy for his skin. Have you got anything softer, like linen?"
Xena opened the bundle, pulled out the chiton, and laid it aside. "How about this old tunic?" she said, holding it up. "It's nice and soft. I don't know why I brought it, anyway."
"That'll be fine. I'll tear it into strips."
The crying died down as Calandra fussed over the baby, washing him, talking to him, and tickling his tummy. Xena watched for a few moments, then pulled the chiton over her head and belted it loosely. She hoped her stomach would flatten out soon, so she could wear her battle dress. Glancing around, she noticed the trousers lying in a damp heap near the cave wall. "I've got these you can use for swaddling bands, too," she said, holding them up for the girl to see. "But they need to be washed first."
"Okay, good. I'll wash them."
"He'll be wearing his father's clothes," Xena mused, as she got to her feet.
Calandra looked at her. "The son of Xena and Borias," she said. "I guess with blood like that, he'll grow up to be a great warrior someday."
Xena stood still for a moment, the thought striking a strange chill into her heart. Then she walked out of the cave and stood in the late afternoon sun. She had slept for about three hours, she estimated, and she had expected to feel better by now than she did. There was a certain soreness which was to be expected, of course, but her legs felt surprisingly weak, and her head ached dully. Crossing to the stream, she knelt and splashed cold water on her face, then drank from her cupped hands. When she got up, she had to wait for a slight wave of dizziness to pass before she could return to the cave.
The baby was crying again. "I think he's hungry," Calandra said, with an apologetic grin.
Xena settled herself on the bedroll and pulled her chiton down to expose one breast. Then she reached out to take the still-naked infant.
"I made some stew while you were asleep," said the girl. "It's pretty good, if I do say so myself. I'll give you a bowl as soon as you're finished there."
The warrior nodded and watched dully as Calandra moved to the woodpile and picked up several sticks. "Don't," Xena said. "Don't feed the fire. It's so hot in here already."
"Hot?" Calandra asked in surprise. "Are you hot?"
"Yes, I'm hot," Xena answered in an irritated tone of voice. "Why do you think I'm telling you not to build up the fire?"
Calandra returned the sticks to the woodpile, crouched down beside the warrior, and laid a hand on her forehead. "You feel feverish," she said after a moment. "As soon as you've eaten, I'll make you some tea to bring the fever down." Then, moving back to her own bedroll, she sat down and began to tear Borias' tunic into strips. "You need to burp him," she said, with a nod toward the baby. "Do you know how?"
"Yeah, I think so," Xena said, remembering now that this was something she had seen nursing mothers do.
"Here, use this," said Calandra, and tossed her one of the sleeves of the tunic.
Xena laid the cloth over her shoulder and held the child there, patting him tentatively on the back. After a few minutes, she went back to nursing him, using the other breast this time. She looked down at the tiny figure sucking so vigorously now, pushing his small fists against her. With gentle fingers, she reached out to touch the soft, downy hair on his head. "How could two people with dark hair produce such a blond baby?" she wondered aloud.
Calandra looked up and smiled. "That's one of the mysteries of babies," she said. "You never know how they will turn out. Do you think Borias would have been happy to have a son?" she asked.
"I don't know," Xena said slowly. "Most men are happy to have sons, I guess." She tried to imagine him, bouncing the small boy on his knee or tossing him into the air the way fathers liked to do with their children. But Borias didn't fit the picture somehow. He had been no more cut out to be a father than she was to be a mother. What would he have wanted her to do with this child, the unwanted product of their passion? Calandra was right -- the baby had inherited a double portion of warrior's blood. If Xena kept him, she could teach him to fight with the best . . . and to be as warlike and ruthless as she or Borias had ever been. But was that what she wanted for him? Was that what Borias would have wanted?
The young boy, Ming T'ien -- the boy she had kidnapped, Lao Ma's son -- Xena had terrorized him, had twisted his mind in terrible ways. The same thing would happen to her own son if she kept him around. He would either end up a monster or he would be killed by those who considered themselves enemies of the Warrior Princess. No, it couldn't be allowed to happen. She would have to find him a new home, a new identity. Some nice family in the village would adopt him, as Calandra had suggested. He would grow up the son of a cobbler or a merchant or a farmer. He would live a simple life, a safe life, surrounded by people who loved him.
But could she really control his destiny? "Just because we give birth to them," she remembered Lao Ma saying, "doesn't mean we own them." In spite of all her powers, Lao Ma had been unable to control her own son's life. But Xena had to believe she could somehow determine the fate of this child she now held in her arms. If she couldn't, then she would have been wiser to kill him as soon as he emerged from her womb.
She sighed and used her free hand to wipe the perspiration off her face. It was getting hard to think. Her head felt hot and full, almost to the point of bursting. She leaned back against the rock wall and closed her eyes for a few minutes. Then, hearing footsteps, she looked up to see Calandra holding a bowl of stew and some bread.
"I'll burp him," the girl said. "You eat this."
Xena accepted the food and chewed slowly, feeling no hunger, but knowing she should eat.
Calandra walked up and down the length of the cavern, holding the baby and talking softly to him. Then she wrapped him in the strips of linen and laid him in a little bed of furs she had made beside her own bed. "I'll just keep him over here with me, so you can get some rest," she said.
"Okay," Xena murmured. It seemed to be taking forever to eat her dinner. Tearing off another piece of bread, she stuck it in her mouth, but then abruptly stopped chewing and listened intently. "Who's that?" she asked.
"I heard a voice outside -- someone calling your name." She frowned. "Did you tell anyone where the cave was?"
"Just my mother," Calandra said, scrambling to her feet. "She said she might come to check on us." She hurried outside and returned a few minutes later with Petra.
Standing just inside the entrance, the older woman waited for her eyes to adjust to the dimmer light. "Hello, Xena," she said, somewhat coolly. "Calandra tells me you have a baby boy. He'll make a nice addition to your army, I suppose."
Xena gave her a hard look but said nothing.
"Do you want to see him, Mother?" asked Calandra eagerly. "He's right here. Xena's just fed him and I think he's gone to sleep."
Petra knelt beside the baby and picked him up with gentle hands, holding him up in the firelight to examine him. Waking, he gave a half-hearted wail of protest, followed by a few whimpers, and then he was quiet. Petra smiled. "He looks like a fine, healthy one, all right," she said. "But where did these ragged-looking swaddling bands come from?"
"Oh, those," Calandra said, with a quick glance at the warrior. "I made those by tearing up an old tunic Xena brought. It belonged to Borias. He was the baby's father," she added.
"Borias," said Petra as she laid the baby back on the furs. "Well, we might have guessed as much." Then she looked at Xena. "But didn't you prepare any proper swaddling clothes for your baby?" she asked. "Or were you too busy killing centaurs to have time for such things?"
Xena stared at her, knowing she should feel the sharp heat of anger at this insult, but instead feeling only the tired heat of her fever. "You're right," she said flatly, "I was too busy killing centaurs."
"Mother," Calandra interjected, "we've just discovered that Xena's running a fever, so she doesn't feel very good right now. I'm going to make her some tea to try to bring the fever down."
Petra got up and moved around the fire to sit near the warrior. "You have a fever?" she asked, in a gentler tone of voice. Then she laid her hands on Xena's forehead, temples, and cheeks. "Yes, you do seem feverish. When did it start?"
"I don't know. When I woke up, I think."
"She slept for two or three hours after the birth," Calandra said, "and when she woke up, she said she felt hot."
Petra nodded. "Do you mind if I just take a look at you?" she asked, gesturing toward the warrior's thighs.
"Go ahead," Xena said in a resigned tone. She pulled up her chiton and loosened the belt that held the pad in place, then spread her legs apart.
"I guess your army did a little fighting this morning," Petra said as she bent down to make a quick examination. "At least that's what I've heard."
Xena sat up straight and grabbed Petra's arm. "Fighting? What do you mean? What happened?"
"Well, I got the news second-hand, from the blacksmith, but he said a couple of your warriors were in town this afternoon to get some supplies. They were talking about how the centaurs broke out of their fortification early this morning. Evidently, the fighting was pretty fierce for a while, but then your army drove the centaurs back again. At least, that's how I heard it."
"I've got to go!" Xena exclaimed as she struggled to get up. "I've got to get back to my army!"
"No, you're not going anywhere," Petra told her in a firm voice. And putting her hands on Xena's shoulders, she pushed her back down. "You're still weak from giving birth, and now you've got a fever. I don't see any outward signs of infection, but there might be some inside. At any rate, you need to take care of yourself -- for the baby's sake, if not for your army's. You have no business going anywhere until you're stronger."
Xena looked at the midwife for a long moment. Then she sighed and leaned back against the wall again. Petra was right. She was in no shape to go anywhere. If she showed up now in the camp, looking weak and sick, her army would never respect her. Whatever damage the centaurs had done was already done, and there was nothing she could do to change it. "I'll stay here," she said dully.
"Good," Petra said as she tied the pad back in place. "I don't think your fever is too serious, and the tea Calandra is making you will help break it. In another day or so, you should be fine." She was silent for a few moments, studying the warrior, then said, "Did Calandra do a good job delivering the baby?"
"Yes, she did a good job," Xena said, looking up at the girl, who smiled.
"I told you she would," said Petra. She got to her feet and stood looking down at Xena. "Hera has seen fit to give you a strong, healthy son," she said. "I hope you'll try to be deserving of her favor."
* * *
Xena sat staring at the midwife, lacking the energy to think up the sharp rejoinder she felt the woman's last remark deserved. Petra stood still for a moment, then turned and walked to the cave entrance, motioning for Calandra to follow her.
The warrior could hear the low murmur of their voices outside for a time, and then Calandra came back into the cave. Stooping to pick up the cooking pot, the girl peered into it and said, "There's a little stew left. Do you want it?"
"Are you sure?"
"How about some figs?"
"I'm not hungry."
"Okay," said Calandra, giving the warrior a concerned look. Then she picked up a spoon and quickly ate the rest of the stew. "I'll just go wash the pot out and get some water for your tea," she said and left the cave. A few minutes later, she was back, and after setting the pot on the fire, she dug through her pack and soon pulled out several packets of herbs.
"Your mother doesn't like me much, does she?" Xena asked.
Calandra looked up, hesitated, and then said, "No, I guess she doesn't. But all she knows about you is what she's heard. She hasn't had a chance to get to know you, like I have."
Xena laughed a harsh little laugh. "Oh, you think you know me, do you? Well, let me tell you, there are things I've done that would make your hair stand on end. Things that would make you want to puke your guts out."
Calandra was silent for a moment, not looking at the warrior, looking instead at the dried herbs as she crushed them between her fingers and then dropped them into the pot. "Maybe you're right," she said then, meeting Xena's gaze, "but I think there is more goodness in you than you realize. There's more to you than the ruthless, wanton killer that most people think you are."
Xena sniffed. "Think whatever you like," she said, "but that won't change who I am." She started to look away, but something about Calandra's dark eyes held her. Who else had looked at her like that, as if she could somehow see into the depths of her warrior soul? Lao Ma. And Lao Ma had talked like that, too, using words about goodness -- insane words that made no sense.
With a great effort, Xena tore her gaze away from the girl's, wiped the perspiration from her forehead again, and leaned back, closing her eyes. What was it Lao Ma had said to Borias that day? "Xena's capable of profound loyalty. She just doesn't know it." Loyalty? What in Tartarus had the woman been talking about? Loyalty to what? To whom? Xena certainly hadn't shown any loyalty that day. She had thrown away everything Lao Ma had taught her about making love in a wild, frenzied act of sexual reunion with Borias.
She sighed and shifted her position, seeking relief from the discomfort of the fever. Had Borias known that she and Lao Ma made love? He had never asked, but he must have had his suspicions. Once, after they had left Lao Ma far behind them, Xena had, without thinking, used one of her new love-making techniques with Borias. And he had said, "Where did you learn that little trick? In Chin?" "No, I just thought it up," she had lied. "Sure you did," he said, laughing, but then, to her relief, he had let the matter drop.
Had Borias loved her? Had she loved him? These questions now began to prick at her consciousness, demanding answers. Xena opened her eyes and stared across the firelight at Calandra. The girl was bent over her needlework, sewing strips of linen together to make swaddling clothes for the son of Xena and Borias. What kind of union had produced this child? A union of convenience, surely -- two warriors with the common goals of wealth and conquest. But there had been an attraction, too -- a sexual attraction which threw off sparks of fiery passion whenever they came together. But what about love? Had there been love? She had never really considered the matter before.
Closing her eyes again, Xena pictured Borias on the boat, as they sailed back from Chin. She saw his grinning face, heard his easy laughter and the bawdy songs he liked to sing. She had loved his sharp wit and his bizarre sense of humor. She had loved his wildness and the crushing fierceness of his embrace. And she had loved his songs -- the funny songs and the crude ones, the ballads of love and war that he had sung at night in their yurt by the flickering light of the fire.
So perhaps, in some crazy, primitive way, she had indeed loved him. But had he loved her? It was her lustful quest for vengeance that had first attracted him to her, she knew. Yet there had been times when he found her uncontrolled rage repugnant -- even frightening. It was partly out of fear that he had betrayed her in Chin -- fear of the Ming-Lao alliance that Xena's kidnapping of Ming T'ien had brought about. And perhaps it was fear, also, that had made him betray her to the centaurs. He had been afraid of the power that the Ixion stone would have in her undisciplined hands.
Attraction, repulsion -- clearly Borias had felt both of those. But had he also felt love? He had been fierce and wild, conniving and controlling, yes, but there had been gentle moments, too. What about those nights when Xena had awakened, trembling, from nightmares about Caesar and crucifixion, and Borias had held her until she could fall asleep again? And once, when she had been wounded in some skirmish or other, she remembered how he had carried her to safety in his arms. And she remembered, too, how she had caught a glimpse of his face just before she passed out, surprised to see how afraid he was for her.
"Xena, here's your tea."
She opened her eyes to see Calandra holding out a steaming mug. "Thanks," she murmured, taking it from her.
"How do you feel?" the girl asked.
"The tea will help," Calandra said, squatting down and putting her hand on the warrior's forehead. "I'll go get a cool, wet cloth for you. That should help, too."
Xena drank the tea and then lay on her bedroll, staring up at the dark shadows on the cavern ceiling. Her bones ached with weariness, yet the fire burning in her body made it hard to lie still. Calandra sat beside her, bathing her face with a cool cloth and talking softly, but her words were only sounds which could not seem to penetrate Xena's consciousness. She closed her eyes, longing for sleep, but for some time it would not come to her, refusing to take pity on her restless, feverish body.
Then, quite unexpectedly, Dagnine appeared, leering at her from the shadows near the cave's entrance. "When are we going to get up enough nerve to attack those stinking centaurs?" he asked, his tone even more insolent than before. "Soon," she told him, but her voice sounded nervous and uncertain. "Very soon," she repeated, striving for more authority. "Just as soon as I've found a home for my baby."
She gasped, and cold fingers of dread ran along her spine. Sitting halfway up, she searched the shadows of the cave, looking for Dagnine. Had she really revealed her secret? Had she told him about her baby? But Dagnine wasn't there. In fact, no one was there -- not even Calandra. With great relief, Xena realized she had been dreaming, and slowly sank back down on the blankets.
Calandra came into the cave, carrying a wet cloth. "You're awake," she said as she resumed her seat beside the warrior. "I thought you were finally going to get some sleep." She folded the cloth and laid it on Xena's forehead.
With a sigh, Xena closed her eyes, then almost at once opened them again. "The baby!" she said, pushing herself up again. "Is the baby all right?"
"He's fine," Calandra said reassuringly, as she glanced over at the infant. "He's sound asleep, which is what you should be. Now lie down and try to relax."
Xena eased herself back down and once more closed her eyes. The cool cloth felt good, and her head seemed less likely to explode than it had before. Within a few minutes, she drifted into a dreamland forest, where the trees stood tall and brooding all around her. She heard no sound and saw no other person, but somehow she knew that she was not alone. "Who's there?" she called out, drawing her sword. "Show yourself!"
Then, turning, she saw Borias step out from behind one of the trees. There was a bloody hole in his chest where the sword had passed through, and seeing it, she slowly lowered her own weapon. "What do you want?" she asked. "Why have you come back?"
"Xena, give up your quest for the Ixion stone," he said. "For the sake of our child and also for the sake of your soul."
Her soul? Borias had never talked about souls before. Xena narrowed her gaze and tightened her grip on the sword hilt. Perhaps this was not the ghost of Borias at all, but some fiendish trap set to snare her.
"The power of the stone is evil," he went on, speaking as if he were explaining something to a child. "Ixion was right to trap that power in the stone, and the centaurs are right to keep the stone hidden. That much evil power doesn't belong in the hands of someone like you."
"Why should I listen to you?" she asked, moving cautiously toward the figure. "You betrayed me. You left me alone and pregnant. You ran off to the centaurs and then you couldn't even stay alive long enough to get the stone for yourself. That's what you wanted, wasn't it? To get the stone yourself, so you wouldn't have to share its power with me!"
"No, Xena," he said, and his voice sounded sadder than she had ever heard it. "I was trying to save the world from a Warrior Princess gone mad with evil power. And now I'm trying to save you from yourself. Since I've crossed over, I can see things you can't see. Give it up, Xena. If you find the stone, it will only destroy you!"
Then, as she watched, he faded slowly from view. "Borias?" she whispered, but there was no answer, and she stood staring at the place where he had been. Suddenly, from behind her came another voice, a woman's voice, and she whirled, once more raising her sword. But when she saw the slender, dark-haired figure among the trees, Xena relaxed and returned the weapon to its sheath. Lao Ma was wearing the blue robe she had worn on the day they had first made love. Her hair hung loose and blew softly in the wind.
"Xena," she said quietly, "when are you going to stop trying to conquer the world with your will? Let go of your desire for power." She moved forward a few steps and then spoke again, her tone becoming more urgent. "Choose life, not death," she said. "Let go of your anger and hatred."
"I don't know how to let go," the warrior said. "I can't let go. What would I have left?"
"Live for others, Xena. Serve others. Do it one step at a time. Start by serving someone you hate."
"I tried that already," Xena said bitterly. "I served Ming Tzu, but what did it get me? Nothing! I just ended up killing him anyway!"
"There are others," Lao Ma said, her voice still quiet and steady. "There are others whom you should serve."
"Who? Who are they?"
"You'll know who they are. Find them, Xena. Serve them." And with those words, Lao Ma faded from her sight, just as Borias had done.
"Wait!" cried Xena. "Don't go! Lao Ma!" But there was no answer. The trees, too, began to disappear into darkness, and soon there was nothing left -- only the sound of a fire softly snapping. She opened her eyes and knew that she was awake again, still lying, feverish, in the cavern. There was a cloth on her forehead, no longer cold and wet, but now merely warm and damp. She tossed it aside and sat up. The doorway was dark now, and Calandra lay on her own bedroll on the other side of the fire.
"Xena?" the girl murmured sleepily.
"I'm all right. Go back to sleep," Xena said. She reached for the waterskin and took a long drink, then lay down on her side and stared into the embers. Why were all these people appearing in her dreams, telling her what to do? Did they think she couldn't figure it out for herself? She had been making her own decisions for years now. She didn't need help from Borias or Lao Ma or anyone else. She just needed time to think, that was all. And she needed to get back to her army . . . and to defeat the centaurs . . . and to get the Ixion stone . . . and . . . There was just too much to do and she was too tired to do it right now. Too tired and too hot. And with that thought, she fell asleep again.
* * *
She dreamed that she was riding at the head of her army, going out to meet the centaurs. Except that, instead of a big battle, there would be only two combatants -- she against Kaleipus. At the edge of a broad field, she pulled her horse to a stop and surveyed the scene. A hundred paces away, the centaurs stood waiting. She dismounted and handed her reins to Darphus.
"What are you doing?" he asked. "Aren't you going to fight on horseback?"
"No. I'll fight on foot."
"That's crazy! That will give Kaleipus the advantage. You'd better reconsider."
She shook her head. "I can beat him," she said firmly. "I can maneuver better on foot, and my victory will look more spectacular that way."
"All right, it's your decision," he said, "but be careful."
She turned and strode across the field, drawing her sword as she neared the enemy lines. Kaleipus stepped out of the ranks and moved forward to meet her, but when she saw him, she stopped in amazement. Instead of a weapon, he carried a woman's body in his arms. The slender form and pale face bore a striking resemblance to Calandra, but suffering had left the features looking gaunt and the eyes shadowed with dark circles. And in the dead woman's swollen belly, Xena could see the shape of the centaur baby who would never be born.
"What do you think you're doing?" Xena demanded. "I can't fight you like this!"
"No, of course you can't," he answered with a slight sneer. "It's much easier to kill people when you believe them incapable of feelings or ideals." He smiled grimly and then said, "All right, let me make it easier for you." And turning to the side, he dropped awkwardly to his knees and laid the woman gently on the grass. Then, lurching to his feet, he drew his sword, and in that moment the body disappeared from sight.
Xena stared in surprise for an instant, but then, remembering the task at hand, she twirled her blade in a grand flourish and held it pointed at Kaleipus. "I hope you've made your peace with the gods," she said, "because today I am sending you to Tartarus!" Then she moved forward, eyes locked on her opponent's.
Kaleipus met her gaze fiercely, swishing his tail and stamping his hooves. The sun glinted off his sword and Xena could see dark patches of sweat on his shiny coat.
Darting forward, she made a quick, low thrust at him, but he parried and then swung his sword at her in a swift arc. She ducked and thrust again, only to have that move blocked, as well. Taking a step back, she grinned in enjoyment of the fight and in anticipation of the victory which she felt certain would soon be hers. They circled slowly, each watching for an opening, and she was just preparing to strike again when her eye caught a movement off to one side.
It was red -- someone dressed in red, she thought. But she dared not break eye contact with Kaleipus, dared not risk looking to see what fool had ventured into their combat zone. Leaping forward, she feinted to the centaur's left, then thrust right. His hooves thudded on the hard earth and his sword clanged loudly against her own as he quickly parried. She leapt back. The red figure was still there, just at the edge of her vision. It did not seem threatening, but now she felt she must know who or what it was. Slowly, she backed out of the range of Kaleipus' blade, then cast a quick glance in the direction of the figure.
It was the last person Xena would have expected to see on this battlefield. It was Lao Ma. She was dressed as she had been when Xena first saw her, in the silk brocade robe and fur-trimmed hat. And now she gave the warrior princess a look of loving reproach. "Stop it, Xena!" she said, moving closer to Kaleipus. "Stop willing! Stop desiring! Stop hating!"
Frozen in time for a few brief instants, Xena stared at her teacher, considering the possibility of obeying. Then she noticed that Kaleipus, too, was watching Lao Ma, and with a warlike cry, Xena sprang forward, her sword aimed straight at the centaur's heart. But in that same moment, Lao Ma stepped in front of Kaleipus and Xena watched in horror as her blade plunged deep into the other woman's breast.
Lao Ma stared down at the sword and at the dark stain spreading across the red silk. Then she looked at Xena, her eyes full of pain. "You've killed me," she gasped. "Your hate and anger have killed me."
"No!" screamed Xena. "Lao Ma!" The sound of her cry jolted her awake, and she opened her eyes to see a dark-haired woman bending over her. "I never meant to kill you!" she cried, clutching at the woman's arms. "I love you! Please forgive me!"
"Shh, it's all right. You didn't kill me. You were having a nightmare."
Xena stared up at the young woman for several moments, her breath coming in short gasps and her body trembling. "Calandra?" she said, and the girl nodded. "I'm sorry," she murmured and then slowly loosened her grasp and sank back onto the blankets. Only then did she become aware that the baby was crying -- not just crying, but screaming. Why hadn't she heard it before? Why hadn't it awakened her before she had that horrible dream? Pushing herself up to a sitting position, she looked across the fire at the tiny red face and flailing arms. "How long has he been crying like that?" she asked.
"Not too long," said Calandra, scrambling to her feet. "He was wet, so I changed him, but I think he's hungry, too."
"Bring him here," Xena said in a tired voice. She settled herself with her back against the cave wall and took a couple of deep breaths. Her heart was still pounding and her mouth felt dry. Her chiton was damp with sweat. Seeing the waterskin lying nearby, she picked it up and quickly drained it.
"Is that empty?" asked Calandra, as she squatted down and handed the wailing child to Xena.
"Yeah. Could you fill it?"
"Sure. I'll make you some more tea, too. How's your fever?" She reached out to feel the warrior's forehead.
"It's still there, but I don't feel as hot as before."
"Good," Calandra said as she stood up. Then, taking the waterskin and cooking pot, she left the cave.
The baby was still screaming, the shrillness of it hurting Xena's ears. "Hey," she said softly, as she moved him into position and exposed her breast, "I think I've got just what you want right here." He began suckling immediately, vigorously. His eyes were cloudy blue in color and now they seemed to regard her with grave curiosity. Maybe they would someday be the same color as her own eyes, she mused, but maybe not. It was much too early to tell. There was something about the shape of his mouth, though, that reminded her of Borias. She touched the incredibly soft skin of his cheek. He seemed so helpless, so totally dependent on her -- on her, his mother, the ruthless warlord. Would he ever understand the irony of it?
Calandra came back into the cave and put the pot on the fire. "I think you've made him happy," she said, smiling at Xena.
"Yeah, you would think he hadn't eaten in days."
"He's got a healthy appetite. That's good." She poked at the fire, added more wood, and dropped some herbs into the pot. Then she came over and sat cross-legged on Xena's bedroll. "Tell me about your dream," she said, "and maybe we can figure out what it means."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Really? Why not? Because it scared you?"
"I'm not scared."
"No, not now, but you were when you first woke up. Sometimes it helps to talk about things that scare you."
Xena stared at the fire, seeing again the image of her sword plunging into Lao Ma's heart. How could she talk about a thing like that? How could she possibly describe the gut-wrenching anguish of such a dream?
The silence stretched between them for a time, and then Calandra said, "You were dreaming about that woman again, weren't you? That woman from the land of Chin. What was her name? I keep forgetting it."
"Lao Ma," Calandra repeated thoughtfully. "It's such a strange name. No wonder I can't remember it. Was she your friend?"
"Did you kill her?"
Xena looked at the girl, and saw that her eyes were bright with curiosity. "In the dream I did," she said dully.
"But did you, in real life?"
"No. I didn't kill her. But I tried to one time." She looked around. "Where's that cloth? I need to burp the baby."
"Oh, here it is. I'm sitting on it." Calandra laid the cloth over Xena's shoulder. "Why did you try to kill her?"
Xena sighed. "I don't know. I thought she was my enemy, I guess. It had to do with Borias and the influence she seemed to have over him. I was confused about a lot of things in those days." And still am, she thought wryly.
"Why didn't you kill her?" Calandra asked.
"Because she defended herself quite well," Xena said with a grim smile.
"Was she a warrior?"
"No, not a warrior, but she had amazing powers."
"Powers? What kind of powers?"
"She could break a bottle without even touching it. She could fling you across the room without laying a hand on you."
"Wow," Calandra said softly. "I've never heard of anything like that." She was quiet for a few moments, then asked, "So how did you become friends?"
"She saved my life."
"How? How did she save it?"
Xena gave the girl a tired look. "Did I ever tell you that you ask too many questions?" she said.
"Yeah, but how else can I get you to talk about yourself?"
"Maybe I don't want to talk about myself," Xena said, and lowered the baby to her other breast.
Calandra fell silent, watching the warrior. Then she said, "Will you at least tell me how she saved your life?"
Xena drew in a deep breath and let it out. "It's a long story and I don't want to tell it all," she said, "but there was this man, Ming Tzu, and he was having me hunted by his dogs. Lao Ma found me and hid me in her palace. That's how she saved me."
"Oh," Calandra said. Then, after a moment, she got up and moved to the fire. She peered into the cooking pot and then poured its contents into a mug. "Why was that man having you hunted by his dogs?" she asked as she brought the mug to Xena.
"I think I've answered enough questions for one night," Xena said, glancing up at the girl. "You look tired. Why don't you go ahead and get some sleep? Set the tea down and I'll drink it when it's cooler."
"Don't you want the baby to sleep with me so he won't bother you?"
"No. I'll keep him with me. I really am feeling better."
Calandra hesitated and then said, "All right, if you're sure you don't need help. I don't mind staying up--"
"Go to sleep, Calandra. That's an order," Xena said with a small grin.
The girl grinned back and then went and sat on her bedroll. "I'm not one of your soldiers, you know," she said. "You can't just order me around."
"Yeah, I know, but I thought it was worth a try."
Calandra lay down on her stomach and pulled a blanket over herself. Then she pillowed her head on her arms and lay watching the warrior and baby for few minutes until her eyes drifted shut. "Wake me up if you need anything," she mumbled.
* * *
Xena looked down at the baby. His eyes were closed, and the firelight cast the delicate shadows of his eyelashes across his cheeks. He still held the nipple in his mouth, but only sucked occasionally now, and Xena suspected that he was falling asleep. She lifted him to her shoulder again and he whimpered a protest. Humming softly, she patted his back and smiled a little when he burped.
She had thought it was all figured out -- Calandra would find the baby a home in the village, and Xena would lead her army to victory over the centaurs, capturing the coveted Ixion stone. But now it seemed that Lao Ma was trying to tell her something. And apparently Borias was, too. There was no denying the urgency of her dreams. They must have been sent to her for a reason. She would have to re-think her plans.
The baby yawned and curled his fingers in her hair. Gently freeing him, she laid him lengthwise on her thighs. He blinked sleepily and yawned again. Xena reached for the mug of tea and took a couple of sips. Lao Ma had said for her to serve someone she hated. Xena shivered slightly, remembering how much she had hated serving Ming Tzu. She still did not see the point in that little exercise, and did not relish the thought of repeating it, but the Lao Ma dream-figure had seemed insistent.
It was so hard to know where to start, though. What her teacher had said in the dream was true -- there were many people Xena hated. How would she know which of them to serve? She looked down at the child now sleeping in her lap. He was one of those she had hated. She had hated him through all the months she had carried him inside her body, and had tried more than once to kill him. But now she was finding it impossible to hate something so small and helpless. She had served him already by not killing him, and she would serve him further by finding a home where he would be safe -- a home far away from her own wicked influence.
She set the mug aside and slipped her hands under the baby, lifting him carefully from her lap to the bedroll. Turning him over onto his stomach, she covered him with a corner of the blanket. Then she picked up the tea mug, stood, and walked to the entrance of the cave. It was chilly outside, but the cool air felt good on her still-feverish skin. The night was dark, with neither moon nor stars, and to the west, Xena heard a low murmur of thunder. Her legs felt weak, and her body somewhat achy from the fever. Leaning against the boulder, she sipped her tea, content to enjoy the freshness of the night air. But the image of Lao Ma reappeared in her mind's eye, reminding her that she still needed to do some thinking.
All right, then. Who else did she hate? Who else should she serve? Well, there was Borias, for one. She had hated him ever since he had betrayed her to the centaurs. But he was dead now. How could she serve a dead person? She had carried his child for nine long months and had given birth in great pain. And now she was trying to find the baby a good home. Wasn't that service enough? But Borias had appeared in her dream, asking her to give up her quest for the Ixion stone. To do so would be to serve him, she supposed, but could she really give up that power? She needed it -- or so she firmly believed. And what was more, she wanted it. She had been wanting it for a very long time now.
One thing she knew for certain, though -- Lao Ma would never approve of her desire for the stone's power. Lao Ma would say that Xena's desire was causing her to see only illusion. Was that true? Was it only an illusion to think that she so desperately needed the power contained in the stone? Borias had said that the stone would destroy her. What did he mean by that? She shook her head and drank some more tea. Maybe Borias was just jealous that he had missed his own chance at getting the stone. He had made one good point, though -- had made it that last night they were together. Even if she killed all the centaurs, she still might not be able to find the Ixion stone.
Lightning danced across the sky and thunder rumbled again. The centaurs. Now there was a group she hated. Was she expected to serve them, too? Well, she wouldn't do it. It was out of the question. Surely Lao Ma was not asking her to serve such horrible, less-than-human creatures. But the sinking feeling in her stomach told her that that was exactly what Lao Ma had in mind.
Xena sighed deeply and watched another flicker of light cross the sky. All right, supposing for a moment that she were going to serve the centaurs, how would she do it? The obvious answer was to let them live -- to throw over the battle and retreat without the Ixion stone. But how could she do such a thing? If she pulled her army back now, she would lose the respect of her men. They would call her a fool, a traitor, and the worst kind of coward. They might even give thought to mutiny -- although she liked to think they were more loyal than that.
But maybe she didn't need to serve all the centaurs. Maybe she could serve just one. Kaleipus, for example. How could she serve Kaleipus? She pictured him again as she had seen him in her dream -- holding his dead wife, his eyes filled with grief -- and suddenly Xena found herself wishing she could somehow give him back his wife and child. But that was a bizarre notion. Only the gods could do such a thing.
She started as lightning flashed close by and was followed almost immediately by a sharp crack of thunder. And in that moment when the whole hillside was starkly lit, an idea flashed into her mind, the audacity of it making her catch her breath. She would give her baby to Kaleipus! Yes, it was a brilliant plan -- the strategist in her could easily see that. Even if her enemies discovered that she had a son, they would never expect her to hide him among the centaurs. And assuming Calandra was right in describing Kaleipus as gentle and peace-loving, then he would raise the boy to be the same. He would teach the child to honor his father, and thus Borias would also be served.
Xena drank the last swallow of tea from her mug just as the first big drops of rain began to fall. Tomorrow she would arrange a meeting with Kaleipus. If he agreed to take the baby, she would withdraw her troops. At least this way she would not come out of the situation a total loser. She would tell her army that Kaleipus had agreed to her terms, declare a victory of sorts, then move quickly to find another village they could sack. They needed supplies, and more than that, the men needed an easy conquest to boost both their morale and their confidence in her leadership. It was a plan that would work. She would make it work.
The rain was falling harder now and she turned her face up to meet the cold, wet drops. She felt, suddenly, as if an enormous weight had been lifted from her shoulders, and peace as sweet as honey flowed into her soul. She had made the right decision -- she was certain of that. Borias would approve and so would Lao Ma. Even giving up her desire for the Ixion stone seemed to bring a sense of relief, and the risk of displeasing her army -- well, that was a risk she would simply have to take. Smiling, Xena turned and went back into the cave. She sat on her bedroll and used the rough wool blanket to dry herself off. Then, lying down beside her infant son, she curled her body protectively around his tiny form. He murmured a soft sigh and nestled against her. She smiled again, closed her eyes, and almost instantly fell asleep.
She woke, several hours later, to the sound of the baby's whimpering and offered him a nipple, which he accepted. But he only nursed for a short time before falling asleep again. Xena reached behind her for a blanket and covered herself and the baby with it. The fact that she felt cold rather than feverish was good, she thought drowsily, then quickly dozed off once more.
When she opened her eyes next, she saw the dim gray light of early morning outlining the cave entrance. She sat up carefully, trying not to wake the sleeping infant. The fire had burned down to white ashes, and Calandra lay in a huddle with even her face tucked under her blanket. Moving to the dwindling woodpile, Xena selected a few small sticks and poked around in the ashes until she found some hot embers. These she blew into a flame which she fed until it seemed likely to go on burning without her aid.
Sitting on the bedroll again, she pulled on her boots and laced them, then wrapped her cloak around her and went out into the gray morning. There was still some rainwater lingering in small puddles along the trail, but most of the rocky surfaces were dry. A high, solid cloud cover hid the sun, but Xena judged the time to be shortly past sunrise. She crossed to the stream and knelt, splashing the icy water on her face and drinking from cupped hands. Then, as she stood up, she caught the sound of the baby crying, and hurried back into the cave. Calandra was in the process of extricating herself from her blanket.
"Sit still. I'll get him," the warrior said as she bent to scoop up the wailing child. Her nose had already told her that he needed to be changed. "Do we have any clean swaddling clothes?" she asked.
"Yeah, right here," Calandra said, indicating a pile of fabric strips. "And I also washed some out last night, but I don't know if they're dry yet." She glanced over at the bands of cloth draped over the stones in the back of the cavern.
Xena sat down next to the girl, laid the infant across her knees, and began to unwrap the soiled pieces of fabric.
"I must have really been asleep," Calandra said. "I didn't even hear you get up or anything. How's your fever?"
"I think it's all gone."
"Good. Did you sleep well?"
"Yeah, after that last nightmare, I slept really well. Did you know that it rained?"
"No," Calandra said as she slid her feet into her sandals. "Is it raining now?"
"No, it's just cloudy."
The girl picked up her cloak and the cooking pot, then headed out of the cave. She was back before Xena had finished cleaning up the baby. Kneeling by her pack, she rummaged in it for a moment and then handed Xena a small bottle. "Here's some olive oil," she said.
"What's that for?"
"It will help keep him from getting a rash." She took off her cloak again and then examined the contents of the food basket. "We have some fish left and a few dried vegetables. Shall I make us some stew?"
"Good idea. I actually feel hungry this morning," Xena said as she spread oil over her son's small bottom. He fussed and fidgeted, kicking against her stomach. "Yeah, I already know you can kick," she said, bending over to grin at him. "You've been doing it for months now."
Calandra laughed and dumped the fish and vegetables into a pot of water. "What name will you give him?" she asked as she set the pot in the coals.
Xena looked at her and the grin faded from her face. "I guess whoever adopts him will choose his name," she said.
"Then you want me to talk to a family I know about taking him?"
"No. I think I know who to give him to."
Calandra looked at her in surprise. "I didn't think you knew anybody in the village," she said.
"I don't," Xena said as she began to wrap the swaddling bands around the baby.
"Oh. Well, is it someone in your home town?"
"Who is it, then?"
Xena looked up and smiled at the girl's persistent curiosity. "I'll tell you if you promise to keep it a secret. Only your mother can know."
"Okay," Calandra said, with an eager nod.
Xena took a deep breath. "I'm going to give the baby to Kaleipus," she said.
The girl's mouth dropped open and she stared at the warrior. "To Kaleipus," she murmured. But her look of surprise rapidly changed to one of anger. "You're going to give your child to Kaleipus and then kill all the centaurs? What kind of sick joke is that?"
"Oh," Xena said quickly. "I forgot to mention that there's been a change of plans. I've decided not to kill the centaurs after all."
"You're not going to kill them?"
"No. If Kaleipus will agree to take the child, I will withdraw my army." She tucked in the end of the swaddling cloth and then cradled the baby against her breast so that he could nurse. "Do you think he'll agree?" she asked, looking hopefully at Calandra.
"Oh yes, Xena! Of course, he'll agree! Kaleipus has always wanted a son, and now, to be given the son of Borias--"
"Yes, I was hoping that for the sake of Borias he would adopt the boy," Xena said quietly.
"Well, and with you as his mother--"
Xena shook her head. "I don't want him to be like me, or even like Borias. I don't want him to be a warrior. I want him to have a peaceful life . . . a long and happy life."
"I'm sure Kaleipus will want that for him, too," Calandra said. She regarded the warrior for a moment and then bent forward to stir the stew.
Xena nodded and looked down at her son, watching the movement of his mouth as it tugged at her nipple. The sensation of the life-giving fluid moving down through her breasts was pleasant, even sensuous. She was beginning to understand why some women actually claimed to like having babies. Glancing up at Calandra, she said, "How will Kaleipus feed the baby?"
"Oh. Well, there are at least two or three women in the centaur village who are nursing right now, so probably one of them could help out. And if not, he can use goat's milk. Don't worry. The child won't go hungry."
The warrior smiled and looked at the baby again, touching his feathery blond hair with gentle fingers. "I need to get back to camp and check on my army," she said, "and then arrange a meeting with Kaleipus. Can you stay here with the baby until I get back?"
"Of course," Calandra said with a smile. "I'll stay as long as you need me. That was our deal, remember?"
"Yeah," Xena said as she held the baby against her shoulder and patted his back.
For a few minutes, neither of them spoke. Xena lowered the infant from her shoulder and let him nurse from her other breast. When she glanced up at Calandra, she found the girl watching her and smiling.
"I still can't believe it," Calandra said, shaking her head. "I can't believe you're going to give the baby to Kaleipus. How did you ever come to that decision?"
"I did a lot of thinking last night."
"Yeah, you must have. Is that when you decided not to kill the centaurs?"
"See? I told you that you weren't such a terrible person. And the fact that you made a decision like this shows that there's good in you."
"I'm not doing this to be good," Xena said bluntly. "It's strategy, nothing else. If my enemies ever find out that I have a child, they will never think to look for him among the centaurs. He'll be safe that way, and he'll also be safe from my influence."
"But you'll come back and visit sometimes, won't you? You'll want to see how he's growing up."
"No. I'll never come back," Xena said. "It's best if he never knows who his mother is. Kaleipus can make up some kind of story. I don't care what he tells him. It would be much too dangerous for the boy if I ever came back."
Calandra regarded her sadly for a moment and then said, "Well, I'll go vi sit the baby often, and I'll play with him and make sure Kaleipus is raising him properly. I can be kind of like an aunt to him."
Xena looked at her and tried to smile. "Thank you," she said, her voice breaking a little. "I'd like it if you could do that."
"I'd be glad to," Calandra replied softly. Then she turned away quickly, peering into the cooking pot and then lifting it off the fire. "I think this is ready," she added.
"Okay," Xena said. She burped the baby again, then laid him down beside her and covered him with a soft fur.
They ate without talking, each of them seemingly occupied with her own thoughts. When she had finished her stew, Xena handed the bowl to Calandra and said, "Have we got anything else? I'm still hungry."
"We've got one dried apple left," the girl said, offering the fruit to the warrior, "but we've eaten everything else."
Xena took the fruit without comment.
"If you want to have another meal here," Calandra went on, "you'll have to bring back some food from your camp."
"I'll see what I can find," Xena said, "but we were running low on food when I left, and the situation may be worse now." She swallowed a bite of apple and bit off another piece. "Your village," she said, leveling her gaze at Calandra, "hasn't been supplying us with as much food as you promised you would."
"Well, that's because we ran out!" the girl retorted. "Who knew your army would be here for a month, eating up all our winter stores and leaving us with nothing!"
Xena shrugged. "An army has to eat, you know."
"Oh, and villagers don't?"
The warrior stared at the girl for a moment without answering and then got up and moved to the other side of the fire. "I'm pulling my men out first thing in the morning," she said. "We'll find another village to supply us." She knelt down and began rolling up her bedding.
"What are you doing?" asked Calandra, somewhat sullenly.
"I'm going to take as much stuff back as possible right now," Xena answered. "You can help me carry the rest of it back later."
"What are you going to do when you get there?"
"Talk to my lieutenant and find out what happened yesterday, send a messenger to the centaur camp, figure out where to go when we move out tomorrow, and do anything else that needs to be done." Xena unfolded the old piece of blanket that had formed her original bundle and found her hairbrush inside. Picking it up, she began to use it, grimacing as she yanked it through her tangled hair. "I think I'll keep this old piece of blanket to wrap the baby in later, when we take him out in the cold," she said.
"Good idea," Calandra said.
"Oh, and here's the tunic I was wearing before," she added, reaching for the crumpled garment that was lying against the cave wall. "Do you want to make swaddling bands out of it?"
"Yeah, give it here."
"You might need to wash it first."
"Okay. I'm going to wash out the other dirty swaddling clothes, too. It will give me something to do while you're gone."
With a few quick swipes, Xena finished brushing her hair and slipped the brush into her bedroll. Then she slung her sword over her back, picked up the bedroll and waterskin, stood up and looked around. "What else can I take?" she said.
"How about this basket? I'll put the bowls and spoons in it," Calandra said. She quickly wiped off the eating utensils, dropped them into the basket, then handed it to Xena. "How long will you be gone?" she asked.
"I don't know. Not too long, I hope."
"Okay. Just remember that a certain person might get hungry and I have no way to feed him."
"I'll remember," Xena said with a wry smile. Then she walked out of the cave.
* * *
She started down the trail at a fairly brisk pace, but was forced to slow down when she noticed herself tiring. The birthing and fever had left her weaker than she realized, and there was still a tenderness between her legs which grew more intense as she walked. Pausing to rest at the bottom of the hill, she saw that the clouds were beginning to break up. Perhaps it would be a nice day after all.
As she made her way through the woods, a light breeze blowing toward her brought a scent she knew well -- the scent of death. She stopped at the edge of the field to study the dark forms that lay in the dead grass just beyond the trees. Horses, she thought. They must have been killed in the fighting yesterday. But as she started forward again, she suddenly realized that they were not horses, but centaurs.
There were three of them -- three bodies lying in stiff, awkward positions at the end of a trail of flattened grass that led from the camp. They must have been killed in the camp itself, she surmised, and dragged out here afterwards by some of her men. Approaching the bodies, she circled them slowly, crouching down to look into the dead faces, feeling relief when she saw that none of them belonged to Kaleipus.
As she straightened up again, she noticed a blackened area of grass across the field, near the perimeter of the army camp. She walked in that direction and then stopped to stare at the dark ashes which were strewn with charred bits of wood, fabric, and bone fragments. This was where the funeral pyre had been, but it was impossible to know how many of her men's bodies had been committed to the flames. With a sigh, she turned and continued on toward the camp.
The sentry on duty nodded a greeting, and she returned his nod without stopping to speak. The atmosphere of the camp seemed subdued. Small clusters of men warmed themselves at smoky campfires, talking quietly while they ate a breakfast of bread and cheese. They paid scant attention to Xena as she walked quickly to her tent and then slipped inside.
Dropping the things she carried on the bed, she took off her cloak and threw it on top of them. Then she stood there for a few moments just looking around. Everything looked different somehow, even though it was exactly the same as she had left it. The difference was in her. She had given birth to a baby. She was a mother now -- whether she wanted to admit it or not -- and somehow that experience had changed her.
But she didn't have time to philosophize. There was too much to do. First of all, she needed something clean to wear. Her chiton smelled of perspiration, baby spit, and worse. Going to the wicker chest, she knelt down and opened it. Pulling out her leathers, she studied them for a moment and then ran a hand over her belly. Not only was her stomach a long ways from being flat again, but her breasts were swollen larger now, too. She could not fit into the leathers yet, she concluded, even if she laced them loosely. With a sigh, she laid the warrior garb aside and looked into the chest again. Taking out a soft, wool chiton, she replaced the leathers and closed the lid.
Working quickly, she stripped off the dirty garment and bathed herself as best she could, using cold water from the waterskin. She fashioned a new pad for herself from an old piece of linen, then rinsed out the one she'd been wearing and hung it up to dry. Pulling the chiton on over her head, she buckled her sword belt around her waist, and put her cloak back on. Moving to the tent flap, she peered out and saw Deros standing in front of Darphus' tent as if he were on guard duty there. The situation struck her as odd, since she had never known her lieutenant to post a guard outside his tent before. Frowning slightly, she headed in that direction.
"Commander! You're back!" Deros greeted her.
"You're very observant, Deros," Xena said dryly.
He grinned. "Well, you sure missed out on some excitement yesterday morning," he said.
"So I've heard. What happened?"
"The centaurs -- they broke out of their camp and attacked our guard. It wasn't even daylight yet and the rest of us were still asleep." He hesitated, looking away for a moment and then meeting her gaze again. "I-- I hadn't given Darphus your message yet. You said to do it at first light, but--"
She laid a hand on his arm. "It's not your fault," she said. "I should have told Darphus myself."
"I'm really sorry, Xena. I was going to tell him, b ut the attack came right at dawn."
"I understand. Just tell me what happened."
"Well, some of the guards ran back into the camp yelling for people to wake up, but the centaurs were right behind them, and they started attacking our men as they came out of their tents, still half asleep. I ran straight over here to tell Darphus that you were gone and that he was in charge. He was already up and had his sword strapped on, but the troops were so panicked that it took a while to get a defense organized."
"How long did the battle last?" Xena asked.
"I don't know. It seemed like a long time, but I guess it was only an hour or so. Once we got going, we did a pretty good job of driving those bastards back."
Good," Xena said, nodding, then gestured toward the tent. "Is Darphus in there?"
"Tell him I need to talk to him."
"Uh, well, he said he didn't want to be disturbed," Deros said uncertainly. "He was wounded yesterday and he's resting."
"Wounded?" Xena asked in surprise. "Is it serious?"
"It's nothing that's likely to kill him, I guess, but he got his face slashed up pretty bad. Estragon and I sewed him up the best we could, but we really wished you were here. I think you would have done a better job."
"I'm sure you did the best you could," Xena said. "Now, tell Darphus I need to see him. It won't take long."
Deros ducked into the tent and returned a couple of minutes later, stepping outside and holding the flap open for Xena. The dimness of the tent's interior was lessened somewhat by two candles burning near the bed where Darphus sat propped up with pillows. She crossed to the bed and stood looking down at the jagged lines of stitches that ran down his forehead and across both cheeks. The skin near the wounds was reddish and puffy, and the total effect was one of gross disfigurement.
"You don't look so good, Darphus," she commented.
"Maybe not," he said stiffly, "but I think I gave as good as I got. You should see Kaleipus."
"Kaleipus?" she said as a cold chill gripped her gut. "Is he the one who did this to you?"
"And what did you do to him?"
"I put the bastard's eye out -- that's what I did!"
"You put his eye out," Xena repeated, keeping her voice as casual as possible. "I train you to be a top-notch warrior and the best you can do is put your opponent's eye out?"
"Well, I would have done a lot more than that if it hadn't been for all the blood running in my eyes and mouth," he said. "If I could have, I would have followed those sons of bitches right on into their camp and killed every last one of them!"
"You didn't have the authority to do that," Xena said coldly. "Your orders were to maintain the siege, and that was all."
"My orders," he said sarcastically. "My orders which were not delivered until we were already under attack."
"I'm sorry," Xena said. "I thought you would appreciate not being awakened in the middle of the night, but if I had known what was going to happen, I would have told you myself when I left the camp."
He was silent, staring at her with angry eyes out of that grotesquely swollen face. Xena met his gaze steadily for some moments, then deliberately broke from it. Glancing around, she saw a short stool nearby, moved it to the bedside, and sat down. "How many casualties?" she asked.
"We lost five men, and I'm told that a sixth is dying," he said. "I'm not sure how many wounded -- eight or ten, I think."
"And the centaurs? I saw the three bodies out in the field."
"We think there was a fourth one killed near their camp but they retrieved the body. There's no way to know for sure how many were wounded." He paused and shifted uncomfortably, then focused his gaze on her. "Xena, when are we going to end this thing? It's gone on much too long already. The men are getting restless and demoralized. We could have done it yesterday if I hadn't been wounded, and now that you're back, there's no reason to wait any longer."
"I've decided to negotiate," Xena said.
"Negotiate!" Darphus exclaimed. "Are you out of your mind? There's no reason to negotiate! We have them at our mercy. All we have to do is get in there and kill them."
"No. I've decided not to kill them. If Kaleipus will agree to my terms, we will withdraw our forces tomorrow morning."
"Your terms? What in Hades are you talking about? What could Kaleipus have that we could possibly want?" Darphus demanded.
"That's between Kaleipus and me," Xena said. "I can't discuss it with anyone else."
Darphus stared at her for several moments, then slowly shook his head. "What is going on with you, Xena?" he asked. "You've been acting very strange lately -- keeping to yourself, running off at all hours of the day and night without explanation, and now you're coming up with bizarre ideas like negotiating with the centaurs. Where were you yesterday? You should have been here. A commander should be with her troops."
"I wish I could have been here," Xena said quietly. "I would have given anything to be here fighting rather than doing what I was doing, but I had no choice. I'm sorry I can't explain it to you, but I just can't. What I can tell you is that after tonight, it will all be over with and I will be here with the army at all times."
"Come on, Xena," Darphus coaxed, "I'm your lieutenant, you can tell me. I need to know what's going on." He paused, but when she did not answer, he went on. "Are you getting cozy with the enemy, like Borias did? Maybe having an affair? Are you sleeping with Kaleipus?"
Xena laughed a short, harsh laugh. "Sleeping with Kaleipus? You've got to be kidding! I would never share my bed with one of those disgusting animals, and if you believe I would, then you don't know me as well as you think you do!"
She stood abruptly, using her full height to lend authority to her words. "I can't tell you any more than I have already," she said, "so stop asking questions. Right now I'm going to send Deros to arrange a meeting with Kaleipus. After that--"
Darphus leaned forward and gripped her arm. "Don't do this, Xena," he said in a low voice. "This is madness. If we pull back now, we'll look like cowards. The men won't respect you anymore. They'll desert, or worse. Think about what you're doing!"
"I have thought about it," she said, jerking her arm loose. "I'm the commander of this army and I've made my decision. You'll have to accept it and so will the rest of the men. I'm sorry I can't explain my reasons, but I have good ones. You'll simply have to have faith in me and in my authority."
He sank back slowly against the pillows, keeping his eyes locked on hers, but saying nothing. His breathing had become shallow and rapid, she noticed, and he was perspiring. She sat down on the stool again and spoke in a quiet voice. "I figure that if we can find a village near here to attack tomorrow or the next day, we can get a quick victory and also some supplies. It will go a long way towards cheering the men up and helping them forget about this business with the centaurs."
"If you let the men take whatever they want from the village, that would help even more," he said.
She considered this for a few moments. "I don't usually like to do that," she said, "but-- No, it's not a good idea. I don't want to set a bad precedent. The men know what the rules are and I don't want to change them on a whim. We'll give them a double ration of whatever food we take and divide the other spoils up as we always do."
Darphus shrugged. All the fight seemed to have gone out of him. "All right," he said listlessly. "Do whatever you want."
Xena picked up one of the candles and leaned forward. "Let me get a better look at those wounds," she said. With gentle fingers, she touched the hot, swollen flesh, then laid her hand on his forehead and temples. "It looks like you've got a pretty bad infection setting in," she said. "I'm going to make a poultice to see if I can draw it out. We wouldn't want your ugly mug to fall off, now would we?" She grinned at him and he offered a tired smile in return. "How's the pain?" she asked.
"I can deal with it," he said.
"Did you get any sleep last night?"
"Not much," he admitted.
"That's what I thought," she said. "Why don't you lie down now? You need to rest. I'm going to send Deros to the centaurs and then go get some herbs for the poultice. I need to be gone for a while this afternoon, but I'll put Estragon in charge, so you won't have to be bothered with anything."
Darphus nodded and began rearranging the pillows so that he could lie down.
Xena got up and went outside to speak to Deros. "I want you to go under a white flag to the centaur camp with a message for Kaleipus," she said. "Tell him I want to negotiate, and--"
"Negotiate!" said Deros in surprise. "But I thought--"
"Deros, your job is to deliver the message, not to question it," Xena broke in sternly.
"Yes, Commander," he said quickly. "I'm sorry."
"Good. Now tell Kaleipus that I will meet him at moonrise in that grove of trees just north of the centaur camp. We will allow him safe passage to and from his camp. Tell him that I will come alone and I expect him to do the same, but he may bring a weapon, if he likes."
Deros gave her a questioning look, but said nothing.
"Don't worry," she assured him. "I have reason to believe I can trust Kaleipus."
"Okay, if you say so, but I wouldn't trust any centaur as far as I could throw him."
Xena ignored this comment and went on. "When you've delivered the message, bring Kaleipus' answer back to me. I'm going to make a poultice for Darphus, so I'll probably still be here when you return, but if not, I'll be somewhere in the camp."
"I'll find you."
"Oh, and Deros, before you go, could you ask Estragon to report to me here at Darphus' tent?"
"Sure thing, Xena," Deros said. "Is that all?"
"Yes. You may go."
She watched as he left at a half-run, then turning, she headed back to her own tent to get the herbs she needed.
* * *
Estragon didn't like her plan to negotiate any better than Darphus had. Fuming, he paced the confines of the lieutenant's tent while she prepared the poultice, offering all the same arguments Darphus had used, plus a few of his own. Darphus, too, chimed in from time to time, although once the poultice was in place, it became more difficult for him to talk. But through it all, Xena held firm to her decision, and finally ended the discussion by saying, "I'm the commander, and this is what we're going to do."
After that, they turned their attention to selecting a village to attack. Xena and Estragon unrolled the heavy parchment map and studied it for a time, at last settling on two likely targets. Either village could be reached in a day's march, but they lay in opposite directions from their present position.
Hearing a sound, Xena looked up to see Deros at the doorway. "I'm back," he said. "Do you want me to wait outside?"
"No, come in," Xena said. Then she turned to Estragon. "Send out two scouts," she instructed, "one to each village. If they ride all night, they can be back here by morning. We'll make our decision based on their reports."
"Xena," said Deros eagerly, "do you think I could--"
She held up her hand to silence him. "I've promised Deros that he can start training as a scout," she said to Estragon and Darphus.
"Okay," said Estragon. "Do you want him to go along to one of the villages?"
"No," Xena said, then turned to Deros. "I'm sorry, but right now I need you to stay here and take care of Darphus."
"I'm all right," muttered Darphus from under the poultice.
"No, you're not all right," she retorted. "You're sick and you need someone here to prepare poultices for you. I'll show Deros how to do that, and next time we send out scouts, he can go with them."
"I'll do whatever you need me to do," Deros said.
"Fine. Now, tell me what Kaleipus said."
"He said he would meet you, but he seemed kind of suspicious, like he thought it was a trick or something."
"It's not a trick," Xena said, "but I don't blame him for being suspicious."
"How did he look?" asked Darphus. "Did I cut him up pretty bad?"
"Well, he had a bandage over one eye, if that's what you mean," Deros said. "But otherwise, he looked fine."
"That dirty, stinking bastard!" growled the lieutenant. "I sure thought I did more damage than that! It was all that blood running in my eyes -- I couldn't even see to piss!"
"Well, you gave him something to remember you by, at least," said Xena. "Losing an eye is no small matter -- it will put him at a disadvantage in battle." Then she turned to Estragon. "Get those scouts sent out right away and then go tell the guards that Kaleipus will be leaving the centaur camp just before moonrise. They are to give him free passage coming and going. I don't want anyone to detain him or even speak to him. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Xena. I'll see to it right now," said Estragon, then quickly left the tent.
With a small sigh, Xena sat down again on the stool beside Darphus' bed. She was tired and knew she should get back to the cave soon to feed the baby, but there were still some things she needed to do here first. Lifting the poultice off her lieutenant's face, she studied the wounds. "How are you doing?" she asked. "Did that willow bark I gave you help ease the pain any?"
Darphus opened his eyes. "I'm feeling a little better," he said. "I think maybe I can sleep now."
"That's good. If you can get some sleep, it will really help."
"Xena," Darphus said in a puzzled tone of voice, "there's something different about you."
She stiffened, glancing down involuntarily. She had taken her cloak off earlier. Had Darphus noticed her still-somewhat-swollen belly? Were her breasts leaking milk onto her chiton? No, she didn't see any stains. Returning her gaze to his, she said cautiously, "What do you mean?"
"Well, just that you seem -- I don't know, softer -- or something."
"Softer!" scoffed Xena. "I think your fever is making you delirious. I'm still the same blood-thirsty Warrior Princess I've always been. Aren't I, Deros?" She turned and beckoned for the messenger to come closer.
"Uh, yeah. Sure you are," he said uncertainly, as he approached.
"Of course I am! Now, come here and let me show you how to make this poultice." She gave the instructions carefully, taking care that he understood everything. By the time they finished, Darphus had fallen asleep. "I'll come back tonight to check on him," she said, "after I meet with Kaleipus."
"Okay. I'll take good care of him, Xena."
"Thanks. Which tent are the other wounded men in?"
"I'll show you," Deros said, then stepped outside with her and pointed out the tent.
Few clouds remained in the sky now, and squinting up at the sun, Xena noted that it was midday. She had hoped to be back to the cave by this time, or at least to be on her way up the trail. Well, there wasn't much left to do here, so maybe she wouldn't be delayed much longer.
She hurried toward the other tent, but even before she reached it, she heard the distinct sound of someone moaning in pain. Then, as she ducked inside, her nose was assaulted by the smell of blood, vomit, and urine. Letting the tent flap fall behind her, she stood waiting for her eyes to readjust to the dimness. A man looked up from where he sat on the ground beside one of the pallets, applying salve to a wound. "Xena? Is that you?" he asked, then rose and came toward her.
"Cretus," she said, when she saw who it was. "Are you the only one taking care of the wounded?"
"No. Quintas has been helping, too, but he's taking a break."
She nodded. "How many are here? Five?"
"Yeah, these are the ones with the worst wounds. The others have gone back to their own tents. We think all of these men will pull through -- except for Niko." He glanced back over his shoulder toward the pallet at the far end of the tent.
She followed his gaze and realized that the moaning was coming from there.
"Niko," she said, frowning. "I can't remember--"
"Young guy. Just joined up about six months ago when we were in Thebes. Kind of shy and soft-spoken, but he's a damned good archer. Or was."
"Yes, I remember him now. What kind of wound does he have?"
"He caught an arrow in the gut. Seems to be bleeding inside. Nothing we give him helps the pain much."
"All right. I'll look at him in a minute. How about the others?"
Cretus led her from pallet to pallet. She knelt and examined each man in turn, giving a few suggestions about their care, but satisfied, for the most part, with what had already been done for them.
Then, kneeling beside Niko, she examined his wound, felt his pulse, and listened to his labored breathing. He looked up at her with pain-crazed eyes, and clutched her left hand with his own. "When will Celesta come for me?" he asked.
"I don't know," Xena said softly. "You may have to wait a while."
"But she will come, won't she?"
"Yes." She gently smoothed the hair back from his forehead. He was blond, like Lyceus, and probably about the same age her brother had been when he was killed. "How old are you?" she asked. "I think you must have lied to me when you joined up."
"Fifteen," he murmured. "I told you I was eighteen."
Her throat tightened. Somewhere this boy had a mother who had cried when her son ran off to be a warrior. Xena shook her head slightly. What strange thoughts she was having today. She must be getting soft, just like Darphus said.
Niko's grip on her hand tightened. "Xena," he pleaded, "help me! Help me die! Please! I've tried to be brave, but the pain--" He drew a ragged breath and then went on. "Wouldn't you want someone to do it for you, if you were in my place?"
She looked at him and then at Cretus, who crouched on the other side of Niko's pallet.
"He's been begging us to kill him," Cretus said, "but we didn't think we should do it without orders from you."
She turned her eyes to the boy again, noting the gray pallor of his skin, the slight rattle in his breathing, and his pleading look. There was no doubt in her mind that he was dying, but it might be many hours -- even a day or two -- before he crossed over. And tomorrow morning they would be moving camp. Such a move would only cause the boy more agony.
"Are you sure this is what you want?" she asked him.
"Yes, Commander. Please," he gasped.
"You won't hate me once you get to the other side?"
"No, never! I'll bless you as the goddess of mercy."
She held out her free hand to Cretus. "Let me use your dagger," she said. He quickly pulled it from the sheath and handed it to her.
Niko was watching her. His eyes were still full of pain, but he seemed calmer now, even hopeful. "Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a warrior," he said, speaking with some effort. "I'm so glad I got to be in your army, Xena. You're the best. I only wish--" He stopped as his face twisted with pain.
"You only wish what?" Xena asked gently.
"I only wish I had killed more centaurs for you," he said. "I only got one yesterday before--" He gestured vaguely toward his wound.
"You killed one of those centaurs yesterday?" Xena asked.
"You're a fine warrior, Niko," she said quietly. "You've served me well."
He smiled weakly. "Go ahead and do it," he whispered. "I'm not afraid."
She squeezed his hand and kept it firmly clasped in her own. Then, taking a deep breath to steady herself, she gripped the dagger with her other hand, positioned the blade over his heart and, in one quick movement, thrust it in.
An hour later, Xena sat down to rest halfway up the trail to the cave. She felt exhausted, her legs were shaky, and she carried the image of Niko's face with her like a heavy burden she could not put down. This had not been her first mercy killing -- far from it -- but it had affected her more than most. Perhaps it was the boy's youth, or the fact that he reminded her of Lyceus. One thing was certain -- she was more determined than ever that her own son not grow up to be a warrior.
With a sigh, Xena rose and started up the trail again. A few more minutes of steady climbing brought her to the cave, where Calandra sat in the sun near the entrance doing needlework of some sort.
"Hi," the girl said, smiling a greeting to the warrior.
"Hi," Xena responded dully, and tossed her a small packet she'd been carrying. "Bread and cheese," she said. "It's all I could get."
"That's fine," Calandra said. "Bread and cheese are fine."
Xena turned and crossed to the stream. Kneeling beside it, she splashed cold water on her face and then took a long drink. As she clambered to her feet, she dried her face and hands on the rough wool of her cloak.
"Are you all right, Xena? Did your fever come back?" Calandra asked.
"No, I'm just tired. Everything took much longer than I thought it would."
"Are you going to meet with Kaleipus?"
"Yes. At moonrise tonight," Xena said, moving back toward the cave. "Where's the baby? Did he get hungry?"
"He's inside. He woke up a while ago and just cried and cried. I tried letting him suck on my fingers and then on the corner of a wet rag, but nothing worked. He must have cried for an hour before he finally wore himself out and went back to sleep."
Xena pressed her lips together. "I'm sorry. I wanted to get back sooner, but I just couldn't. I'll go get him."
It was dark in the cave. The fire had burned almost all the way down, but sunlight from the entrance helped her find her way. She could just make out the small bed of furs where the infant lay sleeping on his stomach, his thumb in his mouth. She smiled at the sight and crouched down beside him. When she laid a hand on his back, he sighed a little, but did not waken. "Did you think your mom forgot about you?" she asked softly. "Well, I didn't. I thought about you the whole time I was gone."
As soon as she picked him up, he began to wail loudly. She stood up, making soothing sounds and jiggling him gently in her arms. Then she opened her cloak and pulled down her chiton. He began to nurse immediately and vigorously, the strength of his sucking causing her to flinch a little. "Hey, take it easy," she told him. "There's plenty of milk there. I saved it all for you."
He looked at her gravely and she smiled, touching his cheek softly. Then, covering him with her cloak, she made her way back outside and sat down in the sun next to Calandra.
"It's nice out here, isn't it?" the girl said, holding a needle up in the sunlight and poking thread through its eye.
Calandra looked at her, then at the baby, smiling as she watched him nurse. "So what did you find out?" she asked, after a few moments of silence. "About the battle and everything."
"Well, it was pretty much like your mother said. The centaurs attacked around dawn while most of my men were still asleep. But once everybody got awake and organized, we managed to drive them back again."
"Did anyone get killed?"
"Four centaurs. Five of my men. No, six," she amended. Xena looked over at Calandra, but the girl seemed preoccupied with the small, even stitches she was making. "Kaleipus was wounded, by the way," Xena said.
Calandra's head jerked up. "Wounded? Is it bad?"
"Not too bad. Apparently, he lost an eye. He fought my lieutenant, Darphus. I'd say Darphus got the worst of it, though. His face was all sliced up and the wounds were getting infected, so I had to make a poultice for him. That's one reason why it took me so long." She laid a hand on the baby's stomach and found that it was growing tight with air. But when she pulled him away from her nipple, he let out a howl of protest. "You're eating too fast," she told him as she held him against her shoulder and patted his back.
"Kaleipus with only one eye," mused Calandra. "It's hard to imagine. I guess he'll have to wear a patch over it or something."
"Yes, I guess so." Xena lowered the child to her breast again and he happily resumed suckling. Fifteen years ago, a mother in Thebes had nursed her infant son like this, and today Xena had put a dagger through that boy's heart. She closed her eyes and bit her lip. She couldn't go on thinking like this. It was no good, either for her or her army. But maybe, next time they were nearThebes, she would try to send word to Niko's mother. The woman at least had a right to know that her son would not be coming home again.
"Xena, are you sure you're all right?" asked Calandra. "You seem so . . . sad . . . or something."
"Yeah. I'm fine," Xena said, glancing at the girl and then away again. "I was just thinking about--"
"Nothing. You wouldn't understand."
"I might. You never know until you try."
Xena regarded her for a few moments in silence. The dark eyes were full of curiosity, but also revealed a great depth of sympathy. The warrior turned her gaze away and stared at the stream. "I had to kill one of my soldiers today," she said in a flat tone of voice. "He was young -- only fifteen. If I had known he was that young, I would never have let him join my army." She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them and went on. "He was badly wounded -- in a lot of pain. I knew he would die anyway, and he begged me to kill him, but--" She drew in a shaky breath and looked down at the baby, then pulled him a little closer to her as she realized that the woman in Thebes was not the only mother who would lose her son this day.
Calandra reached out to touch the warrior's shoulder. "Xena, anyone would feel sad about something like that. It's a terrible thing to have to do."
"I can't afford the luxury of feeling sad about every soldier who dies," the warrior said grimly. "Darphus has already accused me of getting soft. If all the men start thinking like that, I'll soon be without an army."
"Would that be so terrible? Losing your army? Maybe you could start a different kind of life. You could just keep the baby and--"
"No," Xena said bluntly. "I'm a warrior. I command an army. That's my life and there's no place in that life for a child. I chose to follow the sword, and I've gone much too far down that path to be able to turn back now."
Calandra stared at her in silence for several moments. Her sewing lay forgotten in her lap. "What did your men say about the baby?" she asked finally. "Were they surprised that you're giving him to Kaleipus?"
"They don't know about the baby."
"You didn't tell any of them? But they knew you were pregnant, didn't they?"
"You kept your pregnancy a secret from your entire army?" the girl asked in surprise.
"I hope so," Xena said fervently.
"But don't you have any friends there? Don't you trust your own soldiers?"
"Yes, I trust them -- for the moment, anyway. But I've learned you can't really trust anyone completely. One minute people say they care and the next minute they betray you." She shifted the baby to her shoulder again. "That's why it's not safe for this child to stay with me," she went on. "He's better off with the centaurs. They'll protect him if he's in danger, and they're tough fighters."
Calandra regarded Xena without speaking for a few moments, then looked down at her needlework and slowly picked it up.
"What are you sewing?" Xena asked.
"It's a chiton for my mother. I want it to be a surprise, but it's hard to find a time to work on it when she's not around."
"You're a good daughter," Xena said as she cradled the baby at her breast again.
"You know," said Calandra, "after the baby . . . stops nursing . . . you'll still be producing milk for several days. Your breasts could get pretty sore."
"Is there anything I can do about it?"
"You can try squeezing out some of the milk. And sometimes hot compresses help."
Xena nodded. The baby didn't seem to want to eat any more just then, so she pulled her chiton back up. "I think he's finished, and I need to get some sleep," she said.
"I'll take him," Calandra said, holding out her arms.
Xena handed him over and stood up. "Wake me up about an hour before sunset," she said. Then she turned and went into the cave.
* * *
She nursed the baby again while they ate the bread and cheese. Then they doused the fire and gathered up the remaining gear. Pulling out a small leather purse, Xena selected some coins and handed them to Calandra. "I guess I'd better pay you, while I'm thinking about it," she said.
The girl looke d at the coins, frowning as she counted them. "Xena," she said, "this is quite a bit more than we agreed on."
"I know, but you earned it. I want you to have it," the warrior said.
"No, really, I can't accept this much."
"Yes, you will accept it," Xena said firmly, "because if you don't, I'll be insulted and you know what happens when I get insulted," she finished with a grin.
Calandra grinned back at her. "Well, when you put it that way--" she said. "Thanks!"
Xena gave a little wave of dismissal and stooped to tie up the roll of furs and blankets. "You carry this," she said, handing the bundle to Calandra, "and if you can take the cooking pot, too, I'll carry your pack and the baby."
"Okay," the girl said, nodding.
The warrior crouched down again to tuck the old blanket around the infant, then picked him up and slung Calandra's pack over her shoulder. "Did we get everything?" she asked as she glanced around. "All right, then, let's go."
They picked their way carefully down the stony trail. The sun, glowing large and orange in the western sky, cast a warm glow that seemed to contradict the growing chill in the air. It was darker among the trees at the bottom of the hill, but there was still enough light so that they could easily find their way. Xena stopped when they came to a low stone ledge, just out of sight of the field. "Put the pot and bedding under there," she told Calandra. "I can come back and get them after I meet with Kaleipus. There are some centaur bodies in the field, and I don't think you'll want to see them."
"You're right," Calandra said, grimacing, and then stooped down to stow the bedroll and pot under the ledge. When she straightened up, Xena handed her the pack. "You can get to the village by just going west through the trees here," she said.
The girl was silent for a moment, then took hold of the warrior's arm. "Xena," she said, "let me go with you to meet with Kaleipus. If he sees me there, he'll be more at ease and in case he has any doubts about taking the baby--"
"No, Calandra," Xena broke in. "This isn't a social visit -- it's a council of war. It might not be safe. I can't let you go."
The girl withdrew her hand and looked away, but not before Xena saw the disappointment in her eyes.
"Assuming everything goes well, I'll be pulling my army out tomorrow morning," Xena said in a gentler tone of voice. "Once we're gone, I'd like it if you could visit Kaleipus and check on the baby. I don't know how much I'll have a chance to tell him tonight, but he'll probably have some questions. You can tell him what you know."
"Okay," Calandra said, "I'll do that."
"Thanks," Xena said softly. "Thanks for everything. You've done more for me than you know."
The girl smiled and then reached out to open the blanket and peek at the baby. He was awake, and seemed to regard his two companions with quiet curiosity. Calandra bent down and kissed him on the forehead. "Goodbye, Little Man," she said. "I'll come see you and your new daddy tomorrow." Then, with another smile, she added, "Goodbye, Xena. May the gods go with you." And turning quickly, she walked away through the trees.
Xena stood for a moment watching her go and then turned her own steps in the opposite direction. Skirting the field under cover of the trees, she made her way slowly around to the grove north of the centaur camp. By the time she reached her destination, the sun had dipped below the horizon, and the sky had darkened to a deep shade of blue. It would still be another hour or so until the moon rose, Xena estimated.
There was a clearing in the center of the grove and this was where she planned to meet Kaleipus. For now, though, she chose to stay out of sight, seating herself on a log where the trees cast ever-deepening shadows. The baby began to whimper, and opening the blanket, Xena offered him a nipple. "Last chance for Mom's milk," she said as he began to nurse. "I want you all fed and dry and sound asleep when Kaleipus gets here."
What kind of mother would do what she was about to do, she wondered grimly. What kind of mother would walk away from her son, never to come back again, never even to know what kind of person he had grown up to be? How could she be contemplating doing such a thing? The thought of it suddenly made her feel sick, and the gorge rose in her throat. Taking a deep breath, she forced it resolutely down again.
She listened to the baby's soft sucking sounds for a time, then touched his head with tender fingers. "If it were up to me," she told him, "I would name you Lyceus. I would want you to grow up like my brother, brave and loving and full of laughter. But I wouldn't want you to die young, like he did. No, I want you to die of old age, quietly, in your bed, with your children and grandchildren around you."
She sighed as she lifted him to let the air escape from his stomach, then let him nurse again. "I know you will never understand why your mother left you, but it was the only thing I could do. Please believe me," she finished in a choked voice. "And please try to forgive me." Then, lifting one of his hands to her mouth, she kissed the tiny fingers that curled around her own.
This was crazy, she thought. She couldn't let herself get morbidly sentimental about this thing. She had to think about something else. Let's see. What did she need to do when she got finished here? Go back and pick up the bedding and cooking pot, pull her guards off the centaur village, give orders to prepare to move camp, and check on Darphus and the other wounded men. After that, she needed to make sure her own belongings were packed so that the aides could take down her tent in the morning, and hopefully she could also get some sleep. It was going to be a long, tiring night.
When the baby was finished nursing, she changed his swaddling clothes, stuffing the soiled ones under the log. The rest of the clean bands had been tucked into the blanket with him for Kaleipus to use. Then, pacing slowly back and forth beside the log, she sang softly to her son until she was sure he was asleep.
The moon's big, yellow disk was just clearing the tops of the trees to the east when Xena heard a noise in the clearing. Peering out through the branches, she saw Kaleipus move cautiously into the open, his sword held at the ready. He wore a bloody bandage over his left eye, and he turned his head somewhat nervously in that direction, as he tried to compensate for his new blindness.
Hiding the baby under her cloak, Xena stepped out of the trees and walked toward the centaur. She had come within two paces of him when he spoke.
"Stop right there," he said in a commanding tone. "You won't get the Ixion stone. All of us are willing to die to keep you from that power. And Borias, the man who betrayed Xena to become the greatest friend of the centaurs, told us everything. He may have died at your command," Kaleipus went on, pointing a finger at her, "but he will live forever in our legends."
The Ixion stone. So that was what Kaleipus thought this meeting was about. Strange, but since making her decision the night before, Xena had almost forgotten about the stone.
"I'm willing to withdraw my army," she said bluntly.
The centaur laughed and then said in a cynical tone, "Xena, Destroyer of Nations, isn't known to bargain."
She did not answer immediately, but glanced down, opening her cloak to reveal the sleeping baby. Kaleipus was surprised. She could see it in his face, although he tried to hide it. "Take this child," she said, moving closer. "He's my son and the son of Borias. If he stays with me, he'll become a target for all those who hate me, and he'll learn things a child should never know." She paused, waiting for her words to take effect, hoping Kaleipus would understand the urgency of her pleas. "He'll become like me," she finished grimly.
Kaleipus looked at her as if he were somehow trying to see through to her soul, then he gazed down at the child in wonder. After a moment, he reached out and took the baby gently from her arms and cradled him against his chest. "The son of Borias will be raised as my own," he said quietly.
She stared at him for a long moment. There was so much more to say, and yet there was nothing more to say. Her body trembled and she did not trust herself to speak again. She had given away her child, and the thought of it brought the sick feeling on her again, like a cold hand clamped around her gut. Turning, she walked quickly away, trying not to stumble, longing only for the shadows of the trees to hide her. And when she reached them, when she knew she was out of sight, she dropped to her knees, leaned over, and began to vomit.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The idea for the ending of this story was suggested to me by Lucy Lawless' comments in Robert Weisbrot's OFFICIAL GUIDE TO THE XENAVERSE regarding the "Orphan of War" episode: "I got the idea she should go off to throw up [after giving away her child]. I had the idea she was going to go there and just vomit, she's so sick at what she just did. So if you ever see it again you know that's what she's going to do!"