The Birth of Solan by Eva Allen--Part 6
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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 near Thebes, 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--"

"About what?"

"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 looked 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!"

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