The Birth of Solan by Eva Allen--Part 4
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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?"

She nodded.

"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.

"Who's what?"

"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."

"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.

Continue to Part 5

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